I’ve written and said, the existence of Buddhist monks indicates we can power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks. And I keep referring to this line, mostly because I’ve had damned few memorable lines that make any sense. My money, though, is on more human, less humane, behavior. Thus, my choice to stake my picket-pin in defense of the landbase and the community near the mud hut.
Positive reinforcement for my thoughts about our lack of civility as civilization unwinds comes from recent comments on this blog and, more scientifically, from Lyall Watson’s 1995 book, Dark Nature: A Natural History of Evil. The title of the current entry, along with most of the content, comes from chapter 4, “The Evil That Men Do: The Anthropology of Evil.”
Tellingly, the book was a going-away present from an honors student fleeing the empire. He came to us with perfect SAT scores. And he had only a year before graduation, but he wasn’t getting anything he wanted from this university and he knows the industrial economy is taking its last gasps, so he is leaving the country. But, I digress.
If you’re keeping score at home, I quote from the 1997 HarperPerennial paperback issue of Dark Nature. In this entry, I restrict my quotes to chapter 4, with the exception of a familiar quote from Shakespeare’s MacBeth that opens the book: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” As this line illustrates, Watson is hardly the first to recognize the human potential for bad deeds.
I’m reminded of a seminar I attended recently in which the presenter claimed he could take any group of humans and turn them against any “outside” group within 15 minutes. A regular consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense [sic], he said he could take any group of 15 or so people, with any mix of ethnicity, race, creed, age, and gender, and within 15 minutes could make them turn upon any group that entered the room. There wasn’t much doubt in my mind about a competent person’s ability to turn humans against other humans, but reading Dark Nature made a firm believer out of me (pp.141-142): “This tendency to classify, to divide the world into ‘us’ and them,’ into members versus nonmembers, friend or foe, is one of the few true human universals.Something common to all people everywhere.”
Watson takes on the issue at a larger scale, too: “The recorded history of eleven European countries during the last 1,025 years shows that they were engaged on average in some kind of military action forty-seven percent of the time, or about one year in every two. The lowest scorer has been Germany with twenty-eight percent, and the highest Spain with a massive sixty-seven percent, waging war in two our of every three years throughout the last millennium.” A quick turn with Gore Vidal’s Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace indicates the U.S. has been the aggressor at a breathtaking rate of nearly four military misadventures each year between 1945 and 2000. The actions of the most civilized countries make the claims in Dark Nature seem, well, pale.
Watson takes us back in time, too, to illustrate the human capacity — perhaps penchant is a better word — for violence long before Shakespeare (pp. 165-166): “A man shot to death by arrows lies buried at the main entrance of Stonehenge. And just a few miles away, in the center of the Bronze Age circle known as Woodhenge, archaeologists found the body of a three-year-old girl with a split skull. The Greek historian Pausanias tells of the dismemberment and communal eating of a child sacrificed in the sanctuary of Zeus on top of Mount Lykaion …. the Judeo-Christian tradition began with the sacrifice of Abel by his brother Cain, the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, and the death of the son of God himself at Golgotha.”
The Judeo-Christian tradition approximately coincides with the birth of civilization: We got serious about agriculture some 6,000 years ago. I am not suggesting evil arose with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Only the most evil of structures, agriculture. On the other hand, according to Genesis, Eden was a garden, not a farm. So maybe I’m misinterpreting the whole tradition.
For a more recent assessment of the human capacity for cruelty, check out today’s essay by Chris Hedges, “Man is a Cruel Animal.” And for a reminder where we’re headed, view George Monbiot’s interview with Fatih Birol, the International Energy Authority’s chief economist.
And if you still think technology can save us, be sure to view this video. Just for fun, turn the volume up. Way up.