Civilization Vs. Rewilding

This has felt like the most difficult chapter for me to write. I’ve tried several times and deleted everything. You would assume that writing “Civilization Vs Rewilding” would come very easy, since civilization means the exact opposite of rewilding. Than I got to thinking. Most people don’t know what civilization means. They use the word “civilization” synonymously with “culture” and “society” and even, “humanity.”

Websters dictionary defines civilization thusly:

civ·i·li·za·tion (sv-l-zshn) An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutionza·tion (sv-l-zshn) 2. The type of culture and society developed by a particular nation or region or in a particular epoch: Mayan civilization; the civilization of ancient Rome. 3. The act or process of civilizing or reaching a civilized state. 4. Cultural or intellectual refinement; good taste 5. Modern society with its conveniences: returned to civilization after camping in the mountains.

This definition reeks of a culture with a superiority complex. In order to fully grasp what Civilization means, lets go on a little definition journey. The first path we will take will lead us to redefine many of the words commonly found among mythologists and anthropologists. As we explore these concepts, they will become tools, not static objects. Take this definition of a hammer:

1. A hand tool that has a handle with a perpendicularly attached head of metal or other heavy rigid material, and is used for striking or pounding.

Notice how the definition describes what a makes a hammer; a handle with a perpendicularly attached head of metal or other heavy rigid material. Notice also that this definition includes the use of a hammer: for striking or pounding. This shows us an example of a dynamic definition. Most of the words I use do not include usage in their definitions. The more we begin to perceive them as tools for rewilding, the greater the need to include their purpose or use, within their definition. So that we can communicate on the same page, we’ll start by redefining and refining definitions of words in the vocabulary of those-who-rewild.

Okay, this may sound strange, but let’s start with the definition of art. How do we define art? My American Heritage Dictionary gives me this definition:

1.Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.
a.The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.
b.The study of these activities.
c.The product of these activities; human works of beauty considered as a group.

These definitions describe art physically but leaves us with no understanding of why. Why do humans produce conscious arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements? Why do humans make stuff? Something as seemingly instinctual as art must have a purpose. Humans have a complex language and live as storytellers; Art gives us a way of telling a story. Whether we use one image or a thousand, a piece of art contains a story. So the purpose of making art works to tell a story. Maybe we don’t see this in the dictionary because it serves a subconscious function? Regardless, this leads to another question. Why do we tell stories?

sto·ry (stôr, str) n. pl. sto·ries
1.An account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious, as:
a.An account or report regarding the facts of an event or group of events: The witness changed her story under questioning.
b.An anecdote: came back from the trip with some good stories.
c.A lie: told us a story about the dog eating the cookies.
2.a.A usually fictional prose or verse narrative intended to interest or amuse the hearer or reader; a tale.
b.A short story.
3.The plot of a narrative or dramatic work.
4.A news article or broadcast.
5.Something viewed as or providing material for a literary or journalistic treatment: “He was colorful, he was charismatic, he was controversial, he was a good story” (Terry Ann Knopf).
6.The background information regarding something: What’s the story on these unpaid bills?
7.Romantic legend or tradition: a hero known to us in story.

Blah blah blah. But why? We use a hammer for “striking or pounding.” What do we use story for? Why do we tell stories? I have asked many groups this question, and have heard several answers like, “So someone won’t make the same mistakes.” “So we can learn from the past.” These don’t satisfy me. Maybe we should look at, where story telling come from? The word “myth” has many connotations, mainly bad ones. Some people hear the word and equate it to a lie. Others conjure images of ancient Greek or Roman Gods. When I use the word myth I mean something very different. In order to understand civilization and its functions, we need to give the word myth and how we perceive it a makeover. Let’s take a look at the definition.

1. a. A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society: the myth of Eros and Psyche; a creation myth.
b. Such stories considered as a group: the realm of myth.
2. A popular belief or story that has become associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal: a star whose fame turned her into a myth; the pioneer myth of suburbia.
3. A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology.
4. A fictitious story, person, or thing: “German artillery superiority on the Western Front was a myth” (Leon Wolff).

Did you notice no mention of what people use myths for? I did. Three definitions above say that a myth means a story. Three include ideology. Lets redefine a myth as a story that holds a cultures ideology. So then, what purpose do we have in telling a story that holds a cultural ideology? In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said,

“The ancient myths were designed to harmonize the mind and the body. The mind can ramble off in strange ways and want things that the body does not want. The myths and rites were a means of putting the mind in accord with the body, and the way of life in accord with the way Nature dictates.”

If ancient Myths mean to put the human way of life in accord with the way nature dictates, then how to we know the “way Nature dictates?” If that shows us the purpose of the ancient myths, then what of the purpose of current myths? Do we have a general purpose of mythology that spans both ancient and current?

1. a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
c. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture; oral culture.
d. The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.

Again, no description of the purpose or use or function of Culture. To learn the purpose of an opposable thumb, you would study the physical evolution of the human, similarly to understand the purpose of culture, you must study the social evolution of humans. In the preface to Iron John, Robert Bly writes;

“The knowledge of how to build a nest in a bare tree, how to fly to the wintering place, how to perform the mating dance- all of this information is stored in the reservoirs of the bird’s instinctual brain. But Human beings, sensing how much flexibility they might need in meeting new situations, decided to store this sort of knowledge outside the instinctual system; they stored it in stories.”

If you have ever gone out tracking you’ll find it easy to see how the human brain developed. The brain takes in information from the senses, links it together and forms a story. Say you were to come across a set of footprints in the ground. You can consider a million things when reading it. Who made it? When? Where did they plan to go? Consider the terrain. A track in the sand ages completely differently then one in mud, clay, snow, debris, grass, then any other kind of environment. Once you have considered the terrain, you must think about weather. Has it felt sunny? Rainy? Windy? All these factors will age the track in different ways, and of course, each terrain acts differently too. Each animals tracks age differently depending on weather, terrain. How can you tell that seven days and three hours ago a hungry fox traveled east in a hunting style trot? And what other information will this tell you about the local environment? Does the fox hunt here often? If so, what does that tell you about the environment?

To get to the root of what it means to live as humans, we must look at this question. What happened here? This question separates us from other animals. We have the ability to question and tell stories in a way other animals don’t. Though, other animals tell each other stories, too. A wolf out on a scout mission finds something interesting. It rubs its body onto the scent and travels back to the pack, where they greet it and smell it. The wolf has carried this story in the form of a scent. The scent can only tell the wolves what lies there, but it cannot give them anymore insight into the ecology or awareness beyond their senses. This shows us where humans function differently. We evolved to ask the question “What happened here?” We can carry the story beyond the moment. The second part of tracking requires the ability to communicate the story to others in order to lead us to shelter, water, fire, and food. The better the storyteller, the better the chance of survival. Tracking works as the art of questioning and the telling of the story. Like the hammer, storytelling functions as a survival tool.

Human culture formed by two simultaneous evolutionary transformations. The formation into a social organization reveals the first transformation. Animals evolve into social organizations because cooperation proves advantageous for the group of cooperators as a whole. Therefore the purpose of culture becomes obvious: ease of survival. The second process, that Robert Bly spoke of, the externalization of instinctual survival into stories or myths. So you could say that language and art and storytelling and myths all function as a means of survival. But, wait. Because every culture differs and varies in survival ideology, myth would not function as a means for human survival as a species but for a specific culture. This means that a myth works as a story that holds an ideology of a specific culture for the purpose of survival. These ideologies work like blueprints for a culture. These ideologies come to life through mythological enactment, or ritual.

1. a. The prescribed order of a religious ceremony.
b. The body of ceremonies or rites used in a place of worship.
2. a. The prescribed form of conducting a formal secular ceremony: the ritual of an inauguration.
b. The body of ceremonies used by a fraternal organization.
3. A book of rites or ceremonial forms.
4. Rituals
a. A ceremonial act or a series of such acts.
b. The performance of such acts.
5. a. A detailed method of procedure faithfully or regularly followed: My household chores have become a morning ritual.
b. A state or condition characterized by the presence of established procedure or routine: “Prison was a ritual reenacted daily, year in, year out. Prisoners came and went; generations came and went; and yet the ritual endured” (William H. Hallahan).

Because myths hold a “detailed method” of survival, we find ourselves instinctually programmed to “faithfully or regularly” follow them. When humans make choices they enact the mythology of their culture. This means that every choice we make works as a ritual and that ritual, again, serves as a function of survival. This brings up a discussion of free will, and if such a thing really exists. If all your choices come conditioned by a mythology, then we make no choices without external influence. I watched a movie about fast cars. I made the unconscious choice to drive fast. I had enough awareness to consciously realize this, and make the choice to slow down from another mythology called Johnny Law. Both choices I made came from mythology. The story of fun: driving real fast, and the story of consequence: getting a ticket.

Culture means more than just the “totality of socially transmitted behaviors.” It refers to a working system of two parts: mythology and ritual. Kept alive by transmitting its survival ideologies through mythology. This transmission leads to ritual enactment. Cyclical ideals and actions.

Recap of my definitions thus far:

Mythology: A story that holds cultural ideology for the purpose of survival.

Ritual: Choices made for the purpose of survival.

Culture: socially organized humans enacting an ideology, for the purpose of survival.

But now we have a problem. To define a myth as story that contains survival ideology would mean to ignore that all stories contain fragments of a cultures survival ideology. Therefore, all stories would appear as myths. Since all art worked as a a form of telling a story, since all human interaction means telling stories, you could just define a myth as “human communication.” But this dilutes the definition quite a bit now. How about that word “meme?”

A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that we transmit verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

I fucking hate this word. Many people do. It simply works as an analogy to gene, but does not mimic the genetic process in any other way. Many people argue this and spend their waking hours taking it to the extreme trying to match it perfectly. But mostly I hate how dry it feels, how scientific it sounds and it doesn’t separate idea from action. I hate the word meme and don’t use it, I just wanted to let you know that people have used these other words: myth and ritual to describe memes for a long long time and the word meme, other than a cool analogy to gene, appears useless. But for all you memetic freaks out there, this just shows another way of looking at this. Lets break down the definition of meme: A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea (Ideologies or world view) that we transmit verbally (story) or by repeated action (ritual) from one mind to another. Okay, still no usage in that definition though, but more of an assumed understanding as it correlates to “gene” and we all know that genes appear the way in which heredity is passed on.

So where do myths come from? How do we form them? In the Power of Myth, Campbell and Moyers discuss how myths come from people responding to their environment. Because myths form a detailed method of survival, I think we can take this one step further and say that myths (or memes) come from a cultures relationship to the environment. The way a culture interacts with its environment. It makes sense to say that ancient survival ideologies evolved to work in accord with the “way nature dictates,” or we wouldn’t stand here today.

In Never Cry Wolf, Farley Mowhat discovered this way when studying the wolves hunting style and the health of the deer population. He found that wolves will only hunt the sick or the weak members of a heard. This promotes healthy genetics for the deer herds, which in turn benefits the wolves by providing a constant food supply. They give back to the deer by the method in which they kill them. The better an animal can fit into its environment, the more success it will have as well as the health of the entire ecosystem. Author Derrick Jensen calls this, “survival of the fit.” Jospeh Campbell called it the way “nature dictates.” Daniel Quinn calls it, “The Law of Life.”

This behavior in other animals, we call instinct. The instinctual knowledge of “how human culture fits into the environment” describes what we originally exported into a story. Humans mythologized this relationship and understanding into a worldwide religion known as animism. Anthropologists of our culture studying the indigenous cultures throughout the world created the term animism. Every culture they came across in their studies believed the following:

1. The belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena.
2. The belief in the existence of spiritual beings that are separable or separate from bodies.
3. The hypothesis holding that an immaterial force animates the universe.

Coined hundreds of years ago by pretentious, culture-eating anthropologists, no doubt this definition appears very superficial. It lacks an understanding of the relationship to the environment that created the belief system to begin with. It lacks purpose, function. Why did (do) all of the cultures of the world (except civilization) share the same basic fundamental religion? How did thousands of cultures across the world share the same relationship to their particular environments? You should know the answer to this question by now: how does civilization differ? The first chapters of this book covered it pretty well; full-time agriculture. Let’s looks at good ol’ websters dictionary def again:

civ·i·li·za·tion (sv-l-zshn) An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of record-keeping, including writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutionza·tion (sv-l-zshn) 2. The type of culture and society developed by a particular nation or region or in a particular epoch: Mayan civilization; the civilization of ancient Rome. 3. The act or process of civilizing or reaching a civilized state. 4. Cultural or intellectual refinement; good taste 5. Modern society with its conveniences: returned to civilization after camping in the mountains.

Of course, conquerers write history. “Advanced state of intellectual” blah blah blah. No one ever looks at what makes all this back-slapping and hi-fiveing possible; the devouring of the world. The conquerers spend so much time thinking so highly of themselves they have little time to notice how they fuck up ecosystems. Civilization does not listen to “the way nature dictates” at all. In fact, in order to have these “advanced” systems, they not only try to ignore nature, they breed hate of it. Derrick Jensen has defined civilization as “a way of life characterized by the growth of cities,” and a city as “a group of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources.” If we look at all previous civilizations, we know that full-time agriculture gave rise to their insane population growth, and ultimately their death as the soil eroded underneath them.

I define civilization thusly:

Civilization: an unnatural catastrophe created when a human culture practices full time agriculture causing their population to spiral into a positive feedback loop of growth, social hierarchy, soil depletion and genocidal expansion that leads to an eventual collapse of ecosystems, biological diversity and culture.

Indigenous peoples did not live in a culture of civilization because they did not practice full-time agriculture, nor grow to live in such density that they required imported agriculturally produced grains from a distant country. I hate it so much when I say, “The native peoples didn’t have a civilization,” and a civilized drone says, “Yes they did! Your comment sounds so racist! They did too have a civilization, it just looked different than ours!” I have to calmly say, “Eh hem. You have no fucking idea what civilization means! They had cultures, sure. Sustainable, beautiful cultures that worked better than civilization.” I call these cultures, “wild cultures” or “rewilding cultures.” And yes, they have art and music and language and fashion and everything civilization tries to claim a monopoly on.

Civilization continues because its cultural blueprints (mythos) and infrastructure (dams, tanks, buildings, soldiers, consumers, etc.) go unchallenged (even in the face of collapse). It exists both in the ethereal realm of mythology and manifests itself in the physical through mono-cropped fields, concrete buildings and bulldozers. Rewilding presents us with a challenge to civilized mythology, providing us with a new set of cultural blueprints based on the ancient, sustainable ones, but with a better understanding of civilization’s inherent unsustainability. Though I have to admit, I still return to civilization after camping in the mountains.

14 Comments on “Civilization Vs. Rewilding”

  1. Civilization and the consequences of it shouldn’t be kept separate. Yet there is an oversight here, Human like Civilization [with a capital C]. The big C equals comfort from nature and has given us to free time to create culture. I agree that our society, Civilization, is turning on itself, but that doesn’t mean that culture itself is bad. Humans have a drive to tell their stories [myths] and to create [rituals]. A complete post-apocalyptic breakdown of Civilization could only temporarily halt that need. What you are auguring is semantics.
    I do agree that “we” need to change, desperately, but as a person who appreciates cultures, you interpretation falls short for me. But I do respect what you are saying.

  2. You’ve read me wrong. I never said “culture” is the problem. In fact, it’s implied that it isn’t since all I ever do is talk about how indigenous cultures lived sustainably. The culture of civilization is unsustainable and not humanity. Humanity has had culture for millions of years, and lived sustainably, so I’m not “against” culture at all and never said I was. I’m against the culture of civilization, which is only made possible through agriculture: see Agriculture Vs. Rewilding.

  3. Wow. My head is spinning, Scout—As I’ll bet yours was, to write this. I’m still reading it, and I’m enjoying that! I’m enjoying it because it so thoroughly deals with that experience so common to so many of us who try to talk to people about industrial / civilization (and its inherent unsustainability)–That common experience of people immediately reacting with their eyes glazing over, or people getting defensive (taking it personally), or people immediately disagreeing without truly understanding what civilization is… It’s maddening, and what you’re doing here peels a lot of that away, and is giving me ideas for how to address it… And so, while reading it, I took a break and scrolled down to read comments, and I saw that the very first comment does exactly what you’re trying to address!!!!!!!! (confuses culture with civilization!!!) Aaaargh!!! *holds shaking head in hands*

  4. Sorry for the additional comment, but I realized it would be good to say right away, to “Jonny be good” (since you are the first commentor to whom I am referring) that I don’t mean my comment personally. I’m just commenting on how __we all and each__, as members of this culture of civilization, are participants in the mythic definition of this culture of civilization. As such, to be able to define our participation (in other words to freely own our lives by defining who we are, what we doing, and what our purpose is, as Scout so painstakingly works to do here), we have to start to see how __we all and each__ are infected / impacted / held captive by this culture. So, my comment about the first comment is just astonishment about the difficulty of that task, whether one writes about it, and / or one reads about it, and / or one rewilds it….

  5. Awesome writing Scout!

    Thank you for enlightening me and then some!

    Keep on pumping,


  6. i feel that maybe i should clarify the point that i was trying to make. within our society, and the teaching of this modern Civilization [and all the pious connotations attached] we are taught that the big C and culture go hand-in-hand. they are symbiotic. One group will make a form of art, or dance, or temples that feeds the need of their society and the growth or their civilization. even on a smaller scale such as a tribe or clan. these works of / or results of culture are in fact myths, stories, abstracts, and in fact are created to ease the burden of their existence.
    maybe it is the fact that we are taught that they [culture and civilization] are synonymous with each other. this could be the heart of such confusion [myself included]. But i do think that for Urban Scout the big C is only defined as the big bad word that we are currently surrounded with. Not past Civilizations, aside from tribes. in fact, do you think that any sort of civilization that comes after the destruction of ours would be a good thing? [just as a general question, as i want to understand all sides of the discussion]
    let me clarify another thing, i do not think that the work that Urban Scout is writing bull or any other such nonsense. in fact i support his principles. it was that from the feel of this specific writing that Civilization [whether myth or not] and culture are one and therefore evil. i just think that in some ways i am more pessimistic then Scout. i don’t think the big C is unnatural. in fact i think that humans love it because it surrounds them with a false security blanket. we are whores for comfort, and will always drive towards that. but when i see Scout’s definition of civilization, i realized that this viewpoint is very narrow. as some may consider mine to be.
    admittedly i should read your Agriculture Vs. Rewilding as i do want clarification of exactly what you mean by “culture of civilization”
    please do not take this as a personal attack. i just do see eye-to-eye with you on this specific subject. and Roxanne, i do feel that though Civilization isn’t the same as culture, it is intertwined. we were raised this way, millions and billions of us. scholars teach us that they rely on each other [not to bring up a dispute on the school system] humans do these create culture because they have a civilization to do it for. all im saying is that Scout sees our current Civilization as negative and concludes [or so it appears, i am assuming] that all civilizations are wrong and unnatural and so it the culture attached to it.
    i say let this world fall the shit and give the humans a wake up call to pull their heads out of their asses. and perhaps create a wonderful civilization.

  7. Hey Johnny, No offense taken. It seems you don’t understand what we’re talking about here; you seem to have an unclear understanding of what makes a civilization a civilization. No worries. Perhaps reading Jason Godesky’s 30 theses would help?

  8. Johnny:

    I agree with Scout and Roxanne – I respect your curiousity about this complex puzzle we call Civilization, and really encourage you to follow up with other resources.

    Without understanding that Civilization merely represents one (unsustainable) expression of the countless (sustainable) tens of thousands of human cultures since the emergence of culture-bearing hominids, you may find yourself mired in the exact trap that Scout warns us about. Namely, conflating Humanity with Civilization, Culture with Agriculture, Collapse with Human Nature, and so on.

    Myths, amongst every other culture that ever lived, support a sustainable and celebratory relationship between a people and their environment; Civilization stands alone in possessing Myths that encourage the enslavement of its peoples in service to the devouring of the World and every thing in it.

    The Thirty Theses certainly lay this all out pretty clearly. Check ’em out!

  9. Hi Scout.

    Interesting read. But I have one minor quibble.

    Indigenous peoples did not live in a culture of civilization because they did not practice full-time agriculture, nor grow to live in such density that they required imported agriculturally produced grains from a distant country.

    While this is true of most Indigenous peoples, there are notable exceptions – the Inca, Aztec, and Maya. All had extensive landmasses under their control which they conquered and used that land to produce food for the entire “empire.” They were also hierarchical. In all definitions of the word, these were civilizations (with minor exceptions, such as not forcing those they conquered to adopt their cultural practices – OK, maybe that’s not such a minor difference).

  10. Yes, I think once food starts traveling to distant central distribution points, you have officially abandoned “indigenousness” (by definition, “native to or occurring in a particular place”).

  11. Not only that, but the Maya civilization collapsed…as have all civilizations of the past. We can presume that the Aztec and Inca civilizations, had they not been invaded by Europeans, would eventually fall too. And we can presume that ours will fall just like any other. In fact it is falling right now. All of the indicators point to an ongoing process of collapse, when you consider the historical evidence.