In the spring of 2005, my mind grappled with the intense visions I had on my first mushroom journey, and what it all meant. The experience was much like a dream, an amalgamation of many scenarios and scenes, some longer and more detailed, some just flashes of image or feeling. A prevailing theme that emerged from these visions was the total collapse of the basic systems of modern civilized life, and in my mind that night, I lived through empty shelves and closing stores, power outages and public water shutting off, riots, refugee flight, and the commandeering of a sailboat with which to sail off to a remote island.
This dramatic, vivid tale gave me much to contemplate, and in response to what I had witnessed in these visions, I searched the internet for “the collapse of civilization.” Many items came up, and I scrolled a bit before one page grabbed my eye: FINAL EMPIRE: THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION. When I clicked on it, I saw only text. I read the first few paragraphs, quickly finding myself enthralled. I was unsure what I was reading though. I discovered that it was a book, by one William Kötke, and that it appeared to be published in its entirety there on the web. I got right to reading it, a decision that would change the direction of my life completely.
Final Empire offers an in depth examination of the cultural pattern called empire or civilization, presenting it in a way that was, to me, completely novel and ground shaking. I knew a thing or two about ancient civilizations, having studied Latin, history, and philosophy, but I had never really considered the bottom line about what civilization really is. Kötke explained it quite simply:
An Empire consists of a head of state, surrounded by a group of elites and who together command the military, which they uses to subjugate land and people. Civilization occurs when such militarized societies force the land to produce certain crops and enslave all conquered populations to tend these crops and build and maintain the complex infrastructure of civilization. The purpose of all this is to extort fertility from the ecology and turn it into profits which are shared amongst the insiders who control the process. The end result of civilization never varies – the soil is eroded, the forests are cleared, the military becomes overextended, and all available resources are used up until the whole operation collapses.
The truth of these statements was obvious, yet seeing civilization in such an unapologetic way was difficult for me. Civilization had always been associated with order and progress, its methods justified as being necessary or inevitable. I could not reasonably see it this way any more, and I began to reconsider the world, starting from the assumption that civilization and the destruction it entails are neither enlightened or inevitable. I started to see that the emperor indeed wears no clothes, and that I had been the victim of an enormous con. The world was being run by ruthless gangsters, just as it has been since “history” began. Written history is really just an account of their plunders.
In obvious contrast to civilization are the indigenous tribal societies that civilization has been systematically endeavoring to eradicate for close to ten thousand years. From Final Empire, I gained a deeper understanding of native cultures as they relate to the land and live in balance with their environment. I had to face up to a lifetime of racist, myopic thinking, and I had to concede that for as tough and as cool as I may have felt when I identified with the conquering, empire culture, when you really look at it, indigenous culture was more sensible.
It was with a mix of excitement and outrage that I gradually began to piece together a more realistic appraisal of history and what I had been taught about the world. All of the sudden, many troubling and perplexing problems seemed to make perfect sense, the solution obvious. It all boils down to how we live and what kind of relationship we establish with the earth, and with each other. If we live peacefully in balance with nature and, we get paradise. If we live by a system of violent competition for the earth’s resources, we get disease, poverty, crime, and tyranny. A thought occurred to me that would later be even better clarified for me by Bill Mollison, a founder of permaculture who wrote that the problems of the world are embarrassingly simple to solve.
The problems are simple, at least, technically and pragmatically speaking. They are extremely challenging, however, for civilized humans to understand, because we live inside of the problem, as an integral part of it. Humans are like domestic animals now, completely habituated to our unnatural and destructive way of life, and while reverting to a totally indigenous (or neo-indigenous) lifestyle at a global level would certainly avert a great many pending cataclysms, it can scarcely be considered possible. The logistics and physical limitations could be worked out, but the human factor is very hard to control. Far too many people in the world are highly motivated to keep the whole scheme going for as long as possible, and they would never cooperate with efforts to effect radical change.
Kötke did an outstanding job condensing volumes of scientific and technical information pertaining to the imminent collapse of civilization into comprehensible data with obvious patterns. The many facets of environmental collapse were outlined in chapters titled the forests, the soil, the dying oceans, etc. Each chapter provided extensive data documenting the environmental devastation going on around the world, as well as abundant statistics of previous civilizations and the destruction they wrought. It was from Final Empire that I learned why North Africa and parts of the Middle East are now deserts. I knew from mainstream culture that the rainforests were being cut down, but I had never fathomed the extent or pace of deforestation until I got some of the figures. One third of the Earth’s surface, Kötke explained, were covered in forests before the culture of empire arose. Ninety plus billion acres has been reduced to under ten billion, almost 90%. And counting. The madness of this really started to sink in, and I began to wonder why I had never really contemplated the significance of this before. I wondered how it could be this bad and yet nobody was doing anything about it.
Well I wanted to do something about it, I decided. I didn’t know what, but it was clear to me that something had to change. Fortunately, the latter half of the book is devoted to presenting various solutions which emerge from studying ancient cultures who knew how to live on the land without destroying it, and combining those age-old methods with modern, scientific and ingenuity. This blend of ancient wisdom and modern systems is, perhaps, one way to characterize the concept of permaculture, a word I had never heard before reading Final Empire.
Permaculture attracted me immediately, as it appeared to be the perfect tool for righting so many systemic errors in our world. One principle of permaculture is to turn problems into solutions. A simple example of this is poop. In civilization, poop is a problem. Lots of energy and money get spent flushing it away and treating it. So rather than write off this cost, or waste, we look for another problem we have, for which poop would be the solution. Is poop ever a solution? In a world of disappearing topsoil, it is! That’s right! Turn poop into soil (instead of mixing it with water) and now you have a value, not a cost.
I read Final Empire during what was to be the final semester of my college career. I knew that a new phase of my life was upon me, and that I was going to have to relearn almost everything. Even though I would finish my fourth year of college with no degree, I had really gotten a thorough education, and yet I had been taught practically nothing about how to survive. I was going to have to learn how to grow food and build soil, and how to build structures from natural materials and make things with my hands. Aside from my philosophical passion for making a better world, I had the practical matter of surviving civilization’s collapse to deal with, and I knew that I needed a new kind of education, that I wasn’t going to get in any university.
Somewhere on his website, I found William Kötke’s mailing address, and I decided to write him a letter. I told him how his book had moved me, and how I wanted to know how I could get involved in permaculture or ecovillages. (These were terms I had never learned in the course of my sixty thousand dollar education).
William was kind enough to write me back, and we began email correspondence as well. Three years would pass before I finally heeded the advice he gave me, which was to read the Ringing Cedars books and move out to Northern California/Southern Oregon where a lot of action was happening on the front of creating a new culture. I still had some youthful adventuring to get out of my system, I suppose, and I wasn’t spiritually ready at all at that time for what would be in store for me.
I did finally move out to Oregon, where I met William in person for the first time. Eventually we became neighbors and collaborators on a great many projects, and he remains one of my dearest friends to this day.
You can find Final Empire at Arrow Point Press. Also available in paperback is Garden Planet, a much condensed presentation of the same basic thesis, also by William Kötke.
Final Empire is a book of profound significance, valuable as both a wake up call to any who don’t see the nature of the problem, and as a good overview of exactly what we might do about it. We’ve got to do all we can to provide for ourselves, and we’ve got to work together with our neighbors to create local self-sufficiency, as best we can. But we’ve also got to continue to educate ourselves, and to try to help others to see how much better of a system we could create.
Against all odds, those of us who want a thriving, garden paradise world continue to do our small piece, manning our stations dutifully, planting seeds for the future that we know will someday sprout as the long cycle winter thaws into radiant spring.