A Review of William H. Kotke's:

The Final Empire

by Dan Armstrong

Civilization is the environmental crisis and the loss of topsoil is our measure of the etiology of the disease.
William Kotke, The Final Empire.

Any honest appraisal of the way modern society enters the twenty-first century must indeed be glum. So dark is the human stain upon the planet, one must wonder if some retrograde virus has invaded our consciousness. Certainly brilliance has shown through periodically in the ten thousand years of human civilization, but voracious urban expansion and unconscionable waste have ravaged the living surface of the planet. There seems no heed in the harvest of our forests. Industrial and automobile emissions have entirely altered the chemistry of the atmosphere and the air we breath. We must soon expect a great die-off of sea life in our polluted oceans. All genetic material is seriously scorched with toxins and irradiation. No sudden mutation, no global epidemic, no catastrophic earth event would be a surprise. We have erred. We have lost our way. The Empire has failed. Critical psychic, socio-economic and biological breakdowns threaten. Mother Nature demands that we change our society. So does William H. Kotke in his book The Final Empire (401 pages; Arrow Point Press, {unavailable, out of print}).

All of us have to struggle to throw off the mind conditioning that we have received in civilization. Our reality molding would have us believe that there are environmental problems such as toxic chemicals, radiation and acid rain. The fact is that our life crisis began with empire/civilization. The environmental crisis began thousands of years ago, when the Han Chinese began to destroy the vast forests of China and when the Indo-Europeans began to overgraze the vegetation and exhaust the soils of central Asia. For two to three million years humans lived on the planet in a stable condition then suddenly with the cultural inversion to civilization, the earth began to die.

The judgement is directly against what we name progress. The central paradigm of our society is challenged. The split is Daniel Quinn's "leavers" and "takers." That is what the title of Mr. Kotke's self-published book means. The environmental problem is deeply systemic and, for that reason, desperately political. Before the planet can be healed, civilization or the colonizing machine of Empire must stop.

We might also as readers stop here--if we can't bear an assault on the way we live. If we can't let go of our conditioned bias long enough to give this "apocalyptic approach" proper court. The bottom line represents a deep questioning of the value system that sustains our electronic global culture. Too often we knee-jerk to criticism of our materialism or our neglect of the fuller living community. We deny our increasing psychic malaise. We react before we think. Don't you feel it though? Is there not something wrong with the way we live? Does this society seem healthy to you?

In spite of its tough message, there is much compassion and humanity in The Final Empire. Right away as you begin to read this work, you sense increasingly the grand perspective in Kotke's words. He is not speaking of anarchy. He is offering vital common sense. It's just that his meaning is so unavoidably political. And so much against what we have been taught all our lives:

The materialistic values of civilization teach us that the accumulation of wealth is progress. The mater-ial wealth of the civilization is derived from the death of the earth, the soils, the forests, the fish stocks, the 'free resources' of flora and fauna. The ultimate end of this is for all human species to live in giant parasitical cities of cement and metal while surrounded by deserts of exhausted soils. The simple polar opposites are: the richness and wealth of the natural life of earth versus the material wealth of people living out their lives in artificial environments.

This amounts to a direct challenge to humankind. A demand for radical change. A re-envisioning of our part in the community of life and the precepts of individuality. And Mr. Kotke provides a strong argument for this case. He traces the environmental scars of civilization through the ages. Empire after empire, desertification of the top soil winds its way around the globe in an erosive helix from China to India to Mesopotamia to Italy to North America. Agriculture, the first wave of Empire, with its dam building and irrigation ensures the steady nutritional diminution of the soil. Deforestation, chemical fertilizing, over-grazing, all of these lead to the erosion and sterilization of the planet's womb of micro-organisms, the top soil:

The soil depth and its richness is a basic standard of health of the living planet...The nourishment of the soil depends upon the photosynthetic production of the vegetative cover that it carries. There are wide differences in the Net Photosynthetic Production of many possible vegetative covers. As a rule it is the climax ecosystem of any particular region of the earth that is the most productive in translating the energy of the sun into the growth of plants and in turn into organic debris which vitalizes the soil.

The interconnectedness of life has escaped us. The web of living things has a natural order, a resonance. The periodicity of our solar system, the grid of geophysical dynamics, animal habitats, bacterial colonies, helical proteins, we sit enmeshed in shell within shell of the universe. Yet, it seems we wish to exit from the community of living things. We sadly strive to live outside the very fabric of life itself. It is perverse. It is a denial of our very selves. It is a mistake.

While the thrust of the life of the planet is to increase complexity (diversify) and maximize energy circulation (sharing), the thrust of Empire is to simplify. Even if the agriculturalist did nothing but clear away the climax ecosystem, the planet's life would eventually run down. Because the soil is a perpetual flow system itself, it must be fed so that it can continue to maintain. If deprived of feed it will decline. Civilized development of all types interferes with the creation of soil.

Not only our insatiable urban growth, but also our methods of agriculture, even our very sense of farming are to blame:

There are at least 5,000 plants that have been used for human consumption on the planet yet the civilized diet is made up from less than ten types of plants. The reason for this is the cultural style of using agriculture itself, dietary habit, mass production, and profits...Wheat, rice, and corn make up one half the food consumed on the planet, with barley, oats, sorghum, and millet making up the next one quarter. If we add beans and potatoes...these ten species of plants are the essential basis (95%) of world agriculture.

In direct contradiction to the most vital law of environmental stability, we are increasingly reducing variety, turning climax ecosystems into monocultures.

What Kotke is telling us, even proving to us through the course of his immaculately researched and densely footnoted text, is the unvarnished and irreverent truth about our culture. He says what can not be said: It will be our death! Our very way of life, our society, our culture, amounts to an environmental insult to the planet. "The planetary disaster is traced to one simple fact. Civilization is out of balance with the flow of planetary energy."

While capitalists promulgate the philosophy that the health of national/world economy is based on steady growth, the uncompromising reality is that until we start selling real estate on other planets, there is a finite limit to growth on Earth. There is only so much land, so much water, so much air--and it all relies heavily on the green stuff to be recycled and cleansed. Still we recklessly clear the vegetative life from the skin of the planet. We live as though there were no tomorrow. And yet, one way or another, bleak or bright, there will be a tomorrow.

It is estimated that more than one third of the earth was forested prior to the culture of empire...The most recent estimates show that only about one tenth of the forest remain...When forests are cut, the rainfall which the trees had moderated, rushes over the bare surface of the Earth, carrying off the loose soil. The silt-laden runoff swells and overflows the riverbanks, flooding the lowlands, scouring out and widening the river beds. When the living system of roots which held the soil on the hillsides is gone, landslides become increasingly frequent. When the dry season returns, no reserves of moisture remain in the ravaged soil. A worsening cycle of flooding and drought begins.

And when we replant clear-cut primeval forests, we don't plant in such a way that the damaged area can return to a climax ecosystem; again, we become monoculturist and plant one-variety tree plantations.

If the problem were simply one of ecology, it would not be so difficult to address, even solve. But the problem is deeper than that. It is in the dark soul of Empire. It is in the cultural dynamics, imbedded in the language, entangled in the psycho-logy of the modern social being. It results from the very behavioral modification of multi-raced aborigines to fit into homogenized human ghettos of asphalt, rebar, and concrete. It is in the unstoppable momentum of a material system wound up on profit at the expense of all. It is Empire.

Were William Kotke to stop here, we could accuse him of simply being a pessimistic critic. It is so much easier to find fault than come up with solutions. But The Final Empire is a two part book. The first two hundred pages, entitled "The Collapse of Civilization," details the premise, telling us how the conditions that now surround us came to be--not in the last century, not since the onset of the Industrial age, not since the origin of the East India Company, but as a result of the entire course of human civilization. This part of the work is depressing in its honesty--a grinding survey of statistics and facts that press home a rather unpleasant truth. In part II, however, entitled "The Seed of the Future," we see Kotke the pessimist transformed into visionary.

This book is not just a environmental polemic. It is a clear-sighted critique of the human condition set upon the backdrop of the multi-tiered living organism of the Earth. When we stop to appraise our head-long rush into the future, when we take the time to evaluate the long term effects of civilization on the planet, when we finally take a long hard look at ourselves, the question occurs: What really is our place on Earth? Are we alien-virus, determined to sear the place of life and then be gone? Are we a subtle and sophisticated mass-being meant to integrate with the subtle and complex community of life on Earth? Or are we a deluded deification of consciousness, intoxicated by material magnificence, vain drunk with selfishness and greed?

Prior to their absorption by empire culture, an unimaginably rich variety of human Natural cultures circled the earth, each reflecting in its unique cultural consciousness the complexity and magic of life on Earth. The Natural cultures and divisions were cultivated over eons of time. Primal, or Natural peoples--those who exist in harmony and stability with the cycles of the Natural life--generally experience a deep subconscious sense of psychic security that is based in the Natural abundance of the earth ecologies.

Is it possible that better, wholer societies of humans existed long ago? Might there still be, in the remote corners of this earth, tribal societies that by their primitiveness do not impinge upon, but blend with their environment--and their own being? Is this the vision of Adam and Eve before the Fall? Has the burgeoning of ego in our consciousness stripped us of Paradise? Or is it just time for consciousness to recognize consciousness? How does man, full of knowledge, address the re-ecology of the failing civilization? Can non-primitives learn to live simply? Where do we start relearning how to live?

In many ways, this is the question the second half of The Final Empire, "The Seed of the Future," answers. Much of it reads like an anthropological study seen through the eyes of a environmentalist, looking for hints on how to fit in, how to impact symbiotically. In what might be the most valuable part of the book, Kotke introduces us to a variety of tribal communities, participating in a variety eco-systems: The Tukano of the Amazon Rainforest; The Essene community from the Age of Christ; The G/Wi bushman of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa; the Apache of the western plains. Pay heed. The lessons here are ones that may be useful at some time in the future!

Though one might be tempted to diminish Mr. Kotke's treatise as just another writer's return to the "noble savage" and an over-glorification of Natural cultures and tribal life, his effort is more to remind us that for all our word/book/computer/- knowledge, we lack in organic wisdom and holistic sense for the common life-spirit. At the heart of Kotke's message is the healing of a planet gone radically to desertification, a healing focused on rebuilding the topsoil through watershed restoration. It will become our chore to facilitate the orderly return of vegetation to damaged ground, beginning with weeds and other tough "first aid" plants, pioneering into the hardpack, aerating the soil, allowing the accumulation of moisture and the budding of new colonies of micro-organisms, building fertility and opening the soil to a wider variety of vegetative life, creating the opportunity for a return of the lost climax ecosystem.

As radical as it may seem at first glance, The Final Empire is a necessary and sensible primer for the recovery of the planet. It blends a critical statistical analysis of our deteriorating environment with a positivism of hope for a post-empire age and a new whole-human relation to the living community of Earth. The emphatic suggestion that we are going wrong is a difficult pill to swallow for the inculcated, but the reality screams through our intuitions, through our unnatural relationships with living things, through the vivid signs of ecological disintegration. Pride be damned. It is no time for denial. Mr. Kotke offers us a road map. It leads us back to Paradise.

We speak to our basic condition of life on earth. We have heard of many roads to salvation. We have heard that economic development will save us, solar heating will save us, technology, the return of Jesus Christ who will restore the heaven and the earth, the promulgation of land reform, the recycling of materials, the establishment of capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, Muslimism, vegetarianism, trilateralism, and even the birth of a new Aquarian Age, we have been told, will save us. But the principle of soil says that if the humans cannot maintain the soil of the planet, they cannot live here...Human society must have as its central value, a responsibility to maintain the soil.

Until then we are just counting our days. And for those who need no convincing, The Final Empire is a beautifully illustrated and thoughtful work, confidently pointing the way to a new sustainable culture.


Wm. H. Kötke

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