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Entries in civilization (1)

Thursday
Feb122009

World

It dawned on me that a number of DVDs that I have seen in the last year tell a great story when viewed in series, and all of which is fascinating to behold. I didn't particularly see them in the order I am about to propose, but when seen together, it is an interesting look at history from the formation of the earth through geologic history, and a wide sweeping look at human history and possible destiny, topped with a cherry on top in the form of Jesus as the model human to put right what has gone wrong.

All this stuff I got from Netflix, so the links will be to the pages where you can find these videos. Watch in this order for maximum narrative impact.

  • Miracle Planet (five part series). This one takes a look at the long history of the planet Earth and is built on an argument that life is seemingly a stroke of luck that has somehow lasted for billions of years despite radical shifts in climate and terrain and so forth. It ends with the advent of the homo sapien and its edge over Neanderthals due to the former's power of articulate speech as its defining feature, something that paved the way for communication of increasingly complex and abstract information and ideas. Which is a good set up for:
  • Guns, Germs and Steel (three part series). A National Geographic series built on the themes in Jared Diamond's book of the same name. Diamond asks how it was that the Eurasian branch of humankind was able to thrive, innovate, and spread its kind to all manner of places, and to dominate human history. He credits geographical advantage of fertile lands as the basis for early civilization that surged ahead of other hunting and gathering peoples, and innovation that arose out of that advantageous circumstance. Such things as exposure to domesticated animals secured our resilience to diseases that later were fatal to vulnerable New World populations. High technology and well developed use of horses helped the history of domination wherever Eurasian peoples went. It is all a great look at how domination is essentially foundational to civilization and violence is a major tool by which it spreads. Other civilizations had not the advantages of such successful agricultural effort, and perhaps lacked the resources or literacy that Eurasian peoples had, and so never progressed in the same way.
  • What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire This comes out of the Peak Oil "doomer" camp from which I sort of consider myself. This takes a brutally honest look at the world situation (peak oil, global warming, food shortages in the face of overpopulation, etc.) and its foundations in our mythologies of progress and love of technology. Consider it the extended tale of what Guns, Germs and Steel is talking about. (Diamond is well known for a book called Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.) It too reaches back into the roots of civilization and shows how the whole system is set to somehow succeed to the point of failure eventually. It concludes wondering how life would look if exploitation, domination and violence was not the leading paradigm, and if life were lived more reverently and in tune with what the Earth is able to provide.
  • A Crisis of Faith: The Series (four part series). This covers a few different bases in each of the different films but it comes back to the role of how we've lost touch with the mythic universe that keeps us as characters within a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The first one is somewhat like Life At The End of Empire in that it takes a look at our present situation and its roots in the myths of progress, and Enlightenment materialistic thought. It asks why in the age of moon landings and nuclear technology we are losing our way as people with a sense of meaning. The second one examines economic injustice in America, particularly how it affects blacks here. The third looks to the story Percival and the Holy Grail and how it narrates development into a fully human being. The fourth episode is a great "portrait of a radical" and shows how Jesus of Nazareth was the ideal human who lived a remarkable life of service to fellow humans and how he exposed the systemic injustice of his time and place—something not at all too different than today. The last two videos of the series are meant to illustrate how domination-rooted human mess can be pushed aside by lifting up our compassionate humanity in the face of the devastation the world brings. The emphatic message is that we need to turn inward and downward for our wisdom and not outward for external gratification and acceptance. That would pave the way for more genuine enlightenment ala what Jesus demonstrated.

The theme that comes up repeatedly is that our problems are rooted in the very civilization we wish to save with all our valiant efforts. Technology heaped upon earlier technology has done a lot to forestall the problems associated with earlier strides in civilized life. Social arrangements such as division of labor have allowed us to fall into traps of some being better than others, some working like dogs, and others living as kings. In some ways, one might say that Jesus was an anarcho-primitivist with his talk about the Kingdom of God and the notion that everyone was equal in the eyes of God. It seems that there hasn't been a time during the civilized world that has been adequate for the coming of the Kingdom; a lot of what Jesus was talking about was trusting that life would go on just as well if we didn't set up shelter, hoard food, or have fancy clothing. He spoke of relinquishing the trappings of the material world so that we could get down to the business of living. Well, perhaps his words and civilization would clash forever until one or the other falls to nothing, but which would fall to nothing first? If you subscribe to the thesis of What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, then maybe we're seeing the fall of not just another civilization but the fall of the most advanced one we've known, back to something simpler and more in touch with reality. Maybe the overly complex arrangements need to fall apart so we might discover why we wanted to get civilized in the first place: to put to use our elevated thinking and speech to better ourselves. As Crisis of Faith says, we're awash in information, but not so in wisdom. We're in love with quantification, but we don't know what it means or what to do with it. That's because we move too fast and don't know where we want to go.