MuseLetter #107 / December 2000
by Richard Heinberg

This Winter Solstice issue of MuseLetter comes at a season that is naturally one of quiet and reflection, but that in this instance cannot help but be one of outrage.

Following some obligatory comments on current events, the bulk of this issue will be devoted to an appreciation of two anthropologists who have helped me in my efforts to understand human culture, its history, and its relation to the natural world. I also include some responses from readers to last month’s issue.


The U.S. Supreme Court’s blatantly partisan resolution to the presidential election has left many losers and only one clear winner. The losers include:

GEORGE W BUSH: It is now clear to anyone who’s paying attention that this candidate received fewer votes in the nation as a whole, and in Florida, than did his opponent. But he’ll get to be president anyway; doesn’t that make him the “winner”? For the moment. However, as an individual of modest talents who will widely and correctly be regarded as an illegitimate ruler, and who will be attempting to govern a country that is beginning to come apart at the seams as a result of tightening energy constraints, Bush will find himself in way over his head. He probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to be president, or a worse way to achieve that office. My guess is that the day will soon come when president-select Bush will bitterly regret ever lusting after the highest office in the land.

AL GORE: It’s easier to see what the Democratic candidate loses as a result of the Court decision: he is stripped of his rightful victory in the election. He will no doubt lose even further in the next year or two, as fierce Republican partisans in Congress pursue noisy investigations of his fund-raising improprieties in order to foreclose any possibility of a Gore victory in 2004. Don’t expect similar investigations of Bush’s past illegal dealings in the oil industry. Of course, to a large extent Gore has only himself to blame for his predicament – after all, he voted to give Antonin Scalia a seat on the Supreme Court, and he as done little or nothing to call attention to the plight of African American voters, who came to the polls in record numbers and voted for him overwhelmingly – only to be turned away from voting booths, or to have their votes invalidated.

THE SUPREME COURT: Whoever thought that the Court was “above” politics has now been relieved of that illusion. Those who follow the news have recently been reminded that Chief Justice William Rehnquist, while a Republican political operative in Arizona in the 1960s, was in charge of a campaign to deter African Americans from voting, and had to be removed physically from one voting station in order to prevent him from further intimidating black voters. Meanwhile, Antonin Scalia’s lawyer son works for a firm that represented candidate George W. Bush in his argument before the Court, and Clarence Thomas’s wife is part of Bush’s transition team. If the Supreme Court derives any of its authority from its perceived impartiality, the Bush vs. Gore decision leaves the Court itself a major loser.

THE AMERICAN PEOPLE: Bill Clinton had the luxury of presiding over the last major economic boom of industrial civilization. During the 1990s, cheap oil, internet stocks, and globalization enabled the elites in a few wealthy countries to prosper as never before, even as the majority populations of many other nations suffered mild (Japan) to severe (Russia, most of Africa) setbacks. With the end of cheap oil and natural gas in sight, the party is nearly over. Economic and social turmoil are virtually inevitable globally, and in the U.S., beginning in the next few years. If ever a nation needed a leader of the caliber of Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, or Gandhi, this is that nation and now is the time. Instead, we have a pampered and not-too-bright opportunist with fascist tendencies who can’t even claim to have been elected fairly. The omens are not favorable.

If there is a winner to the proceedings, it is the Republican strategists, who have achieved what they sought: power. They now control all three branches of the U.S. government.

If there is an upside, it is that the veil of legitimacy has stripped from the decrepit U.S. “democratic” process, which compares poorly to that of many Third-World nations. This could be helpful if large numbers of outraged citizens insist on fundamental reforms, which could include public funding of campaigns, open debates, proportional representation, instant-runoff elections, uniform voting methods and standards, instant voter registration, and the setting up of nonpartisan (not bipartisan) electoral arbitration commissions. There could also be beneficial fallout if more people become aware of – and demand an end to – the racist practices that have long kept African American and Latino voters out of the system. However, these benefits will only be realized if many thousands of activists decide to make electoral reform a top priority.

Stay tuned for the inauguration.


I recently received news of the passing of a good friend, Roger Williams Wescott. Roger was a mentor to me. He wrote the Foreword to my first book, and I was fortunate to be able to return the favor by writing a Foreword to his last, Predicting the Past: An Exploration of Myth, Science, and Prehistory (Kronos Press, 2000). Here’s part of what I said:

Wescott achieved full academic honors-he is a former Rhodes scholar and was Professor and Chairman of the Anthropology Department at Drew University; his views are radical; yet he expresses them with neither apology nor impudence. His intellectual stance is never defensive or aggressive, but instead always confident and playful.

Roger was a young seventy-five, still active in several academic organizations, and the most erudite individual I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Strictly on the basis of his impressive credentials one might have assumed him to be a crusty academic establishment insider, yet instead he was the epitome of a free thinker. He championed the ideas of individuals who were on or past the fringes of academic respectability – including Wilhelm Reich and Immanuel Velikovsky – and ideas that are still ahead of their time – such as Elaine Morgan’s “aquatic ape” theory of human evolution. To him, civilization was a symptom of deep psychic wounds resulting from ancient catastrophes.

Roger Wescott authored or co-authored over forty books and hundreds of journal articles. He was also a poet. But perhaps his favorite form of literary expression was the apothegm. Here are several of my favorites:

EDUCATION: Education involves making sporadically explicit what is continually implicit.

EGO-DEVELOPMENT: Ego is psychic scar-tissue.

INSTITUTIONALISM: Institutions are insurance against our – falling apart.” But the reimbursement is unreliable and the premiums exorbitant.

KNOWLEDGE: What anyone knows consciously, everyone knows unconsciously.

NATURE AND CULTURE: In an unnatural world, natural behavior is always shocking.

WEAPONS: All tools are weapons in the war on nature.

WORSHIP: All worship is nostalgia. When godliness is recovered, worship ceases.

Roger Wescott represented an interdisciplinary, humanistic intellectual tradition that is fast becoming extinct. His generous and courageous spirit was a shining example to me and others, and will be sorely missed.


In my intellectual journey over the past fifteen years – largely an attempt to understand human culture, how and why we’ve come to be the way we are – every step along the way has been taken in recognition that someone else has trod the same path before me. Each new signpost is surrounded by someone else’s footprints. They’re not always the same person’s footprints, of course, but surprisingly often I recognize those of Marvin Harris, one America’s foremost anthropologists and professor of anthropology at the University of Florida since 1980.

Several years ago I coined the term “cultural ecology” to name a perspective that I had arrived at on why human societies evolve the way they do. I was beginning to see that most of the characteristics of cultures are reflections of people’s adaptations to their environments. It took me a while to realize that Harris had, long before, reconnoitered this intellectual territory, which he called “cultural materialism” (I still like my phrase better).

Cultural Materialism has been called one of the most important ideas of the twentieth century, even though few people have ever heard of it. Its fundamental premise – that all human culture is shaped mostly by the environment in which humans live – is elegant, parsimonious, and clearly superior to competing paradigms.

Throughout his books, Marvin Harris has used cultural materialist theories to explain a wide variety of cultural phenomena including food taboos, messianic movements, male supremacy, and warfare. A good example is this discussion, in Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures (1977), of the phenomenon of the sacred cow in India:

The tabooing of beef was the cumulative result of the individual decisions of millions and millions of farmers, some of whom were better able than others to resist the temptation of slaughtering their livestock because they strongly believed that the life of a cow or an ox was a holy thing. Those who held such beliefs were much more likely to hold onto their farms, and to pass them on to their children, than those who believed differently. . . . Under the periodic duress of droughts caused by failures of the monsoon rains, the individual farmer’s love of cattle translated directly into love of human life, not by symbol but by practice. Cattle had to be treated like human beings because human beings who ate their cattle were one step away from eating each other. To this day, monsoon farmers who yield to temptation and slaughter their cattle seal their doom. They can never plow again even when the rains fall. They must sell their farms and migrate to the cities. Only those who would starve rather than eat an ox or cow can survive a season of scanty rains.

A comprehensive discussion of cultural materialism can be found in Harris’ Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture, published in 1979. The book both explains the theory, and critiques competing ideas.

According to Harris, all societies have three basic levels of organization: infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. Infrastructure consists of the production of goods and services, as well as the reproduction and maintenance of the population. Structure includes the society’s domestic and political relations. Superstructure consists of thoughts, ideas, values, beliefs, art, and religion.

Cultural materialists assume that, in general, important changes in a culture originate at the level of the infrastructure. These changes are then reflected in the structure, and finally in the superstructure. Harris argues that even the most abstract aspects of the superstructure should be understood in relation to the basic forces at work in the infrastructure. In Cultural Materialism, Harris explains how population growth, resource depletion, and the availability of protein in people’s diets cause changes in human behavior and culture.

The cultural materialist perspective permeates every page of the classic book Plagues and Peoples, by historian William H. McNeill (1977), and of the more recent Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond (1998). However, neither book mentions either cultural materialism or Harris.

One of the current competing ideas to cultural materialism is sociobiology, which seeks to explain human social life in terms of neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology. According to Harris, “Cultural materialists of course accept neo-Darwinist principles when applied to the explanation of social life of infrahuman species, but we insist that the same principles are capable of explaining only an insignificant proportion of human sociocultural differences and similarities.” Sociobiology is currently popular in the American mass media, and is sometimes cited as proof that that men are “naturally” polygamous and women are “naturally” monogamous. But, as Harris notes,

The idea that males naturally desire a plurality of sexual experiences while women are satisfied by one mate at a time is entirely a product of the political-economic domination males have exerted over women as part of the culturally created, warfare-related male supremacy complex. Sexually adventurous women are severely punished in male-dominated cultures. Wherever women have enjoyed independent wealth and power, however, they have sought to fulfill themselves with multiple mates with no less vigor than males in comparable situations. I cannot image a weaker instance of genetic programming than the polygyny of Homo sapiens. Sexuality is something people can be socialized out of only at great cost. But people can be socialized into and out of promiscuity, polygyny, polyandry, and monogamy with conspicuous ease, once the appropriate infrastructural conditions are present.

As we begin to grapple with the arguments, however, we might recall the many myths that warn about uninformed human interference in the business of the gods – Icarus, Pandora, Prometheus, the sorcerer’s apprentice. . . .

Another alternative to cultural materialism is psychological or cognitive idealism – the notion that it is primarily ideas that shape culture. Harris: “An adversary situation exists between cultural materialism and cognitivist and psychological strategies only when cognitivists and psychological anthropologists claim that the mental, emic, and personality aspects of sociocultural systems determine the etic and behavior aspects.” Harris puts the difference this way: “War is not caused by the Oedipus complex” (as psychological/cognitive theories have it); “rather, the Oedipus complex is caused by war.”

Harris’ stance has led him to make some general observations on contemporary culture that strike me as wise and prescient. From the Epilogue to Cannibals and Kings:

The fuel revolution has opened up the possibility for a more direct form of energy despotism. Energy is now being collected and distributed under the supervision of a small number of bureaus and corporations. It comes from a relatively small number of mines and wells. Hundreds of millions of people can technically be shut off from these mines and wells, starved, frozen, plunged into darkness, rendered immobile by the turn of a few valves and the flick of a few switches. . . . Only decentralizing our basic mode of energy production – by breaking the cartels that monopolize the present system of energy production and by creating new decentralized forms of energy technology – can we restore the ecological and cultural configuration that led to the emergence of political democracy in Europe. . . .

Since evolutionary changes are not completely predictable, it is obvious that there is room in the world for what we call free will. Each individual decision to accept, resist, or change the current order alters the probability that a particular evolutionary outcome will occur. While the course of cultural evolution is never free of systemic influence, some moments are probably more – open” than others. The most open moments, it appears to me, are those at which a mode of production reaches its limits of growth and a new mode of production must soon be adopted. We are rapidly moving toward such an opening. When we have passed through it, only then, looking backwards, shall we know why human beings chose one option rather than another. In the meantime, people with deep personal commitments to a particular vision of the future are perfectly justified in struggling toward their goal, even if the outcome seems remote and improbable. In life, as in any game whose outcome depends on both luck and skill, the rational response to bad odds is to try harder.


My raft metaphor and discussion of whether the folks in charge know what they’re doing inspired the following comments from readers:

Don MacQueen:

What do I think? I think you are right. You say what I’ve been saying for the past three years, to the unwilling ears of family and friends. My take is based chiefly on the inertia of population growth, with its attendant draw-down of energy and other planetary resources, plus “the nature of the beast,” which we don’t have the luxury of enough time to tame before it commits speciescide. Well, so what, then? My default position is: Do what you can where you are because that will at least keep your conscience at rest. Otherwise – have fun!

Michael Andregg:

What I think is that it is our responsibility to do the best we can regardless of whether the big powers (legitimate or illegitimate) are wise or dumb, evil or kind, well-informed or ignorant, etc.

As you know, I’ve worked on “human survival” full-time and more for twenty-two years. If we waited for the senior leadership, we would wait forever. Press on. Optimism in the face of adversity is a survival trait. We see this often in the save-the-world business.

Finally, yes, while your vision of an energy-poor, environmentally stressed dystopia is very accurate, and collapse as adjustment very possible, I suggest you never forget that we fortunate in America today enjoy a quality of food, medicine, and information resources that kings could not command just a generation ago. And yes, the Third World suffers more, but no, it is not all suffering nor so awful as that nostalgic past when life expectancies were 35 to 45. So life is tough, but not nearly so rough as it has been for 99.99% of human history.

Coyd Walker:

I agree with your alarming precast, unfortunately, but maybe it’s worse. Your raft metaphor suggests the Bible’s Flood. There is no shore to swim to. Also, “being in charge” is different from rank, privilege, or prestige. Nobody is in charge (unless it be an understandably angry divinity.

Richard Strong:

Your issue #106 is thought provoking. Two thoughts:

First, regarding collapse: You envision the raft swamping and going down. It is an event. It doesn’t need to be an event, although that seems to be needed to compete with a thirty-second attention span. The disasters that didn’t happen are more easily discounted. I think most of your readers would agree that labor conditions, education, shelter, health care, and personal safety peaked twenty years ago. The ecosphere is damaged. It is happening all the time. The frog in a pan of water that is slowly being brought to a boil [doesn’t leap out]. . . . I imagine that the failure of Mesopotamia or the Mayan Empire took place over decades.

Second, regarding force: I think getting the people out of the rowboats is 30% force and 70% attraction to consumer goods and the whole technological miracle of the post-industrial age. The indigenous fisher folk lose sight of the values of their simpler life in the rowboats.

I love the raft metaphor. I have a similar view of the enormity of bad choices that are happening every day. I think that I can be most effective by specializing in soil health. In the time left to me I hope to make that contribution. Your MuseLetter helps me endure the frustration of reading the morning paper.

Anthony Cecil:

After reading your latest MuseLetter (#106) and reaching your question at the end, I decided I had to answer.

I think that each of the four scenarios you outline has an element of truth to it. Yes, I am often surprised at how they do”think of something” – I was pessimistic about Y2K. Although I am one to tend to assume the worst, I have come to have a nagging respect for unexpected technological solutions. Does that mean that I think everything is okay? Not remotely, although I am up to telling people the raft has almost an hour to float (rather than seconds as before).

I think scenario two has elements of truth as well. Although I tend to agree with your assessment of three and four, where nobody knows what they are doing, I believe that some segments of the industrial ruling system are probably intelligent enough to be making emergency plans to retain power in a collapsing economy. This is not a complete belief in an effective “conspiracy,” however, as I think the overall system is beyond mitigation and the collapse will bring both scenarios three and four: opportunity for a better world and opportunity for the worst nightmare we have ever seen-probably both, in varying measures in different areas.

I can entirely relate to your parable of the raft. I have been reading more Daniel Quinn (The Story of B, My Ishmael, Beyond Civilization) recently and, although he doesn’t offer complete solutions, I like his ability to frame the issues in simple and direct ways – “is everything here for humans?” Despite the lip service that our culture (particularly on the west coast) has been giving to “ecologically sustainable” approaches, as long as the underlying assumptions are that the world is here just for humans, and that civilization is the crowning invention of man, it will not matter what better energy alternatives become available-we will continue to destroy ourselves.

My practical work these days is in the world of forestry. At first I was a reluctant denizen in the BC timber industry but, as our family manages 1500 acres of government forest land, I became intensely interested in what alternatives were available to the destruction I saw in the province. Although this may seem like a big area of forest, compared to the industrial operations this is “small-scale forestry”

We operate this “Woodlot License” under the regulations of the Government forest service. Although practices are changing a bit toward the better (protecting streams, recognizing sensitive animal habitat), the dominant theme has continued to be “it is all here for us.” If we can capture every last inch of yearly growth in the whole of the forest province-wide, it is our right and responsibility to do so.

Are you aware of the movement towards forest certification worldwide? It was inspired by the success of organic certification schemes. The idea is that you can buy a piece of lumber at your local store with a mark that ensures that it was harvested from a sustainably managed forest. This is a large area of discussion and has typically broken into competing schemes pushed by environmental groups (Forest Stewardship Council – FSC) and industry (many – SFI, ISO, CSA, etc.). Needless to say, the FSC certification is the only one currently that requires serious changes in how one works in the forest. Fortunately, it is becoming more of a force to be reckoned with, now that Home Depot (handling 10% of world lumber) has committed to using only FSC certified wood. Producers in BC would rather it went away, but are being forced to pay attention to the market pressure of people wanting to buy “green.” Still consumption-based, but at least it is forcing the industry to accept that there are other priorities in the forest.

My own thrust over the last year or so has been to ask myself, “is there a way we can work within the natural boundaries of the forest ecosystem so that it supports us instead of us overtaking it?” It has been difficult to merge the needs of the natural system with the needs of the artificial system (being financially viable), but I believe it is possible if we can become more realistic about our expectations of return. I have been encouraged by many people working hard in the “new” science of ecoforestry.

One of my projects is to get us into horse-logging. When the oil runs out, the market may crash, but we will still be able to work in the forest. We are still struggling to make things work (and it always takes more time than I want it to) but I see potential everywhere for things on the ground. It makes me both hopeful and sad at the same time (at how far away solutions seem).

Catherine Smedley:

Perhaps the reason collapse is taking so long is the fact that humanity has become so afraid of disintegration, of death, that it has become too adept for its own good at shoring up all the holes in the dike. The message from the grass roots is: “Have faith in compost!”

Doug Wilhite:

Anyone brave enough to take a stand and assume a visible position of leadership is likely to be attacked or denigrated by others. It’s a cultural habit of people in the United States and elsewhere-most of whom have been hurt by pseudo-authority figures in their lives-to rehearse and project our emotional distresses onto the people who are speaking up. In other words, we like to “kill the messenger,” and this understandably tends to make many messengers defensive in their posture. Your writing sometimes strikes me as having a subtle undercurrent of defensiveness, but I can sympathize. I would imagine you’ve taken a lot of heat from people for putting out your unconventional, institution-threatening point of view.

I applaud you for putting your vision out through the MuseLetters. I hope you can “hear” it when I say that I feel really enriched and blessed by your writings. Your essays fill a gaping information gap that hasn’t been filled by other publications and information sources in my life, and has gotten me thinking about and facing a whole lot of things that I wasn’t previously considering.

You have an ability to skillfully describe many of the subsurface dynamics of our culture that are destroying us collectively and individually. I truly appreciate what that skill offers me and others. You’ve said on occasion that you consider yourself to be fairly optimistic. I am genuinely curious about what the basis of your optimism is. I gather from what you’ve said that you are happily married and you really enjoy expressing yourself through teaching, writing, music, art, and gardening. But considering that our lives are contained within an overall context and expression of society as a whole, and there’s no way to completely extract ourselves from the dysfunctional outworkings of our larger community which is rapidly self-destructing, it’s a little like living on the Titanic and knowing full well that it’s sinking. Most of us would prefer not to notice the obvious facts – it’s way too painful to do so. Is there some sort of attitude or philosophy or vision that keeps you optimistic even while keenly and thoughtfully aware that our ship is going down?

What I’ve observed in my own experience is that there are always creative cycles unfolding in my personal circumstances which directly relate to the overall unfolding of the web of life in which I am contained. When I listen and observe carefully and prayerfully to what’s going on around me and honor the wisdom and direction of that creative flow, as well as “follow my bliss” and trust that the voice of my intuition is an extension of that overall flow, I experience peace, joy, and hopefulness even amidst the insanity and destructiveness which are unraveling our world. That outlook may sound like new-age psychobabble. It’s too subtle for the way most of us habitually view the world. But it’s a view that keeps me grounded in an ongoing sense of meaning and purpose most of the time.

* * *

What’s my source of optimism? It’s pretty much the same as Doug Wilhite’s – I think he articulates it beautifully. In addition, I believe that the extended process of “collapse” that will likely persist through the next generation or two – however uncomfortable, even tragic – will offer humankind the opportunity for fundamental transformation. This is, to use Marvin Harris’ term, an “open” moment.