I am a child of the city. Not only have I lived in large cities all my life; I have made them a central focus of my teaching and writing
Cities are fascinating. At their best, they are celebrations of human diversity, ingenuity, and creativity. We can learn much about ourselves by exploring our own built environments and our behaviour in them.
Recently, however, it has become painfully clear that the way in which we have been building our cities is making a mess of our ecosystems, to say nothing about these cities’ undesirable effects on ourselves. Part of the problem – and the reasoning here becomes a bit circular and difficult to disentangle – is that we seem to be constructing environments for ourselves that desensitize us to our surroundings, both natural and manmade.
Most of us spend a large portion of our days cocooned in buildings, or in cars, or inside some other human construction. We have organized our lives so that we experience only excruciatingly tiny fragments of non-human nature, and those fragments have themselves been manipulated and shaped by us – landscaping, house plants and cut flowers, zoos, and species imported by us from other continents (such as sparrows, apple trees, and dandelions). We are, as Jerry Mander has said, literally living inside our own heads.
In such an environment, we forget that we are part of an ecosystem, a community of plants and animals and micro-organisms, that our cities are inextricably linked to their surrounding country, that humans and even concrete all came from the soil. Until we start seeing ourselves as part of this larger community, studies of the city, however fascinating, will be incomplete. We shall all continue to be children of the city, because we shall never have grown up.
Growing up, as John Livingston makes clear in Rogue Primate, must involve intelligent bonding with the rest of the natural world. Humans sought to even out the feast or famine cycles of hunter gatherer existence by domesticating plants, other animals, and ourselves. In doing so, Livingston argues, we lost our unselfconscious belongingness to the rest of Nature and thus the ability to become mature adults.
Livingston’s definition of domestication relies mostly on descriptions of animals that we – the only evolved domesticates – have ourselves domesticated:
The domesticated mammal … is docile, tractable, predictable, and controllable. Initially it may be smaller, but may become somewhat larger than its wild antecedents. It grows very rapidly, but even into maturity retains many infantile characteristics both physical and behavioural. It is dependent on us. It is sexually precocious and promiscuous. There may be great variety in appearance, but behavioural individuality is low. There is pronounced reduction in sensory acuity and the ability to communicate both intra- and interspecifically. Dogs excepted, social behaviour is much simplified and low in subtlety. Dogs excepted again, there is no attachment to physical place, and no awareness of social place. No domesticate has an ecologic place.
Humans have most of these characteristics, with a couple of exceptions. One is that our intra-species communication and social behaviour are quite complex. The second is that our dependency is on other humans, and on technology.
Technology becomes an important theme in the book, and figures in Livingston’s tentative answer to the obvious question, why did we enter domesticity on our own? He suspects it had something to do with fire. Many animals used fire, but humans were the first to control it. The method of control became a peculiarly human technology, he argues, because it depended on “storable, retrievable, transmissable technique.”
Thus, while the animals we domesticated depend on us, their owners, our dependence is on technology. Our culture became a culture of how-to-do-it – at first more sophisticated weapons and tools, then shelters and agriculture, and, most important, social organization for the purpose of control. That is, other animals have cultures; they also have technologies. Only humans have a culture dependent on technology, one that includes the storing, retrieving, and transmitting of technique itself. This technology-dependent culture seems to be at the core of what he calls domestication.
The opening thesis of Rogue Primate contains some other elements. One is that the control of fire began our separation from the rest of the natural world: Livingston paints the image of early humans huddled around a fire at night, with a growing apprehension about the Otherness at their backs. Control of fire also seems connected to our willingness to tolerate what he calls unnatural crowding, which is probably the most intolerable situation for any wild animal. Furthermore, the culture of technology, as the defining feature of our domestication, became a substitute for the direct experience of Nature – a prosthesis.
Devoting our lives to How inescapably condemns us to vicarious experience. This perspective provides a number of insights into humanity’s current problems. I shall return to this point later.
The book contains a convincing demonstration that it is the domestic nature of our culture which is at the root of our trashing of the Earth’s ecosystem. This demonstration includes documentation of the awesome impact of the introduction of plants, animals, and diseases into new habitats; and determined, ruthless extirpation of certain species, such as large flightless birds, the woolly mammoth, and the passenger pigeon. Livingston then shows how, starting in the 16th century or so, Europeans exported not only diseases and domesticated animals, but also their ideologies. As in the case of physical diseases, European ideologies met with no immune system. (One does wonder about Europeans’ immunity from ideologies in the lands that were colonized.)
Local cultures had developed ideologies that in some way reflected their immediate environment. What Livingston calls the exotic ideology saw, and sees, itself as neutral and universally applicable. It grew from the conviction that humans are superior organisms, separate from Nature but able to study and control it for human purposes. Those purposes are narrowly defined in this ideology as growth in production and in material well being. The dominance of this ideology over local cultures seems to ensure, not the destruction of the biosphere, which has survived more cosmic catastrophes, but at least the systematic removal of life-support for the human species.
Undergirding the exotic ideology, writes Livingston, is the assumption that the natural world is a system of competitive struggle for survival. He spends the better part of a chapter gleefully tearing this assumption to shreds, repeating the admonition that we see what we want to: Believing is seeing.
We are unable to see what is right in front of us, because we have set ourselves apart. To address this, the book shifts gears, as the writer becomes absorbed in an attempt to put into words the subtleties and different levels of wild creatures’ belongings – to a place, to a group within their species, to other species, and to the biosphere. As he explores the many selves of animals, he shows that our species’ narrow fixation on the “problem” of the individual in society is the product of an immature and stunted psyche peculiar to a domesticate. Wild animals seem to move gracefully from awareness of self as an individual, to self-as-group, to self-as-multispecies-community, where appropriate. The instinct to bond with Nature is pounded out of us sometime between seven and twelve, when we are most curious to explore it and to connect with other species. It is in this sense that domesticated humans never grow up. Ironically, many famous scientists, from Charles Darwin to T.H. Huxley, recount how childhood experiences with the Nature created their initial interest in science; and mystical connection to Nature is frankly admitted to by many contemporary scientists.
Livingston’s position is that while such a bond is essential to adulthood, the human child’s biological impetus to seek it is denied by domestication’s socialization process and especially by what we call education. Human domesticates start training their children at an early age to use technology as the mediator between themselves and the rest of the natural world, like an artificial link. In the deepest sense, the “fully trained” human literally becomes technique. If education does go on at our institutions of teaching, then it is education of the narrowest sort, internalizing the fiction that we can only comprehend the world through our prosthetic culture.
This socialization (conditioning?) produces what Livingston calls zero-order humanism, a subconscious, unchallenged “imperative” that human well-being and human goals always come first. Anticipating the retort that every animal behaves this way, he continues:
…[A]ll living beings use themselves as points of reference in dealing with the world. … However, … (they) do not insist on being solo acts. They are in the centre of their individual spotlights, but if they are indeed possessed additionally of community and biospheric self-consciousness, … then they share their self-focused universes with all of those who comprise them. …
… The ostrich runs … at the approach of a lion. So would you or I. It seems doubtful that the ostrich would consider it wrong … to be captured and consumed by lions. But we would. Humans are too important to be wasted as cat food. (137-8)
The human enterprise, as defined in Rogue Primate, is the domestication of the planet. Since we have been trained since early childhood to be a part of this enterprise, we remain oblivious to the warped nature of our tools for this enterprise, tools that are the centrepiece of our culture: science and technology. For instance, we are blind to the hideous sufferings we impose on other creatures for purposes of our fashion industry, for our entertainment, and for research into human health – or, rather, into sickness.
This brings Livingston to the subject of animal rights. While his sympathies are clear, he dislikes the term, since it puts other species into a framework of human laws. Rights only need to be invented when there are human institutions around to violate them. More specifically, domestication requires the exercise of power-over. This is normally thought of as some humans telling others what to do; however, cultures also have, in varying degrees, internalized rules of behaviour telling us all what to do on the explicit assumption that we are stupid or too evil just to be. These internalized rules are patterned into organizations and institutions such as schools, the state, religions, and the market system.
Rights are thus an artifact of domestication, which means that there is no such thing as a natural right. As instruments of human legal and political systems, rights are irrelevant to “beings who are free, wild, and whole.”
This irrelevance stems from the fact that such beings experience none of the tension between individual and collectivity that causes such angst for humans. Rights can only be a concern of an immature being which has not yet learned to live in harmony with others of its species or, for that matter, with the rest of the world.
A debate over the granting of rights to animals, or to plants, or to anything else, we are presupposing a someone or something that does the granting. The whole concept of rights is exposed as part of the pathology of hierarchy and dependence that characterizes domestication. Rights are an artificial substitute (a prosthesis) for Rightness, which is a natural feature of the interdependent mutualism found in the wild.
Some humans are quite sensitive to this truth. Saul Alinsky devoted his life to rightness – helping people realize that they are perfectly capable of making their own, intelligent decisions about their collective affairs, at the local level. He had nothing but disgust for the quintessentially domestic process of certain people (however chosen) making decisions for others, and quoted with approval Mr. Dooley’s acerbic little speech:
Don’t ask f’r rights. Take thim. An’ don’t let anny wan give thim to ye. A right that is handed to ye fer nawthin has somethin the mather with it. It’s more thin likely it’s only a wrong turned inside out.
Rogue Primate constitutes one of the most unflattering assessments of our species and of its noxious effects on this planet that I have ever seen.
So where do we go from here? The last chapter of the book does not contain specific proposals or programs, which frequently are strategies to avoid real change. But Livingston is eager to awaken us to the warped nature of this culture’s received wisdom. There is an appalling enormity to such a project. Livingston has been talking about millennia of conditioning. Nevertheless, he concludes,
The experience of wildness. Like its close kin which we call freedom, wildness is perceptible only its absence. Both are forever paradoxical. Percy Shelley saw freedom as “sweet bondage.” We may see wildness similarly: a state of being in which one is an autonomous organism, yet bonded and subsidiary to the greater whole. … [O]ne is at once the end and the means, a unique expression and totality. (196)
In declaring that this state is still accessible to us, and that it is essential to redressing the crisis we now find ourselves in, Livingston surely opens himself to be easily and lightly dismissed. I can just hear people saying, “Sure, all we have to do is feel at one with Nature and all our problems will be solved. Give me a break.”
Anyone who has followed the argument this far can see how such a response trivializes Livingston’s argument. What he has done is take some specific but absolutely central contemporary issues – ecosystem breakdown, authoritarianism and lock-step followership, rights of the individual, humans’ mistreatment of other humans, the debates over free market competition – and shown how they fit together, by linking them to domestication. This is such a fundamental and ancient part of our character, though, that one could still see reason to protest. From a heuristic point of view, domestication is such a cosmic variable that it could be used to explain everything; and in explaining everything, it explains nothing. From a practical point of view, the conditioning of domestication is by now ineradicable in humans.
There is no completely satisfactory answer to these objections, since Livingston is redefining heuristics and practicality as well. He is writing in the tradition of philosophers and mystics who are challenging us to raise our awareness of our assumptions – of our presumptions – and of patterns we treat as inevitable in our daily lives. It is the very experience of a new awareness, a new understanding, that is sufficient to change our behaviour. Once that awareness and understanding is experienced, in other words, the direction of one’s life becomes changed. This need not be a so-called peak experience, but it usually involves a sudden, almost instantaneous comprehension of how many things are connected.
One example of this process is given by Doug Elliott, a North Carolina naturalist. As a boy, he had been fascinated by snakes, and as he grew up he became more and more knowledgeable about them, learning how to handle even poisonous ones. When he was in his twenties, he came across a water moccasin.
I quickly pinned the large water moccasin’s head beneath the rim of my net. Then I grasped it firmly behind the head and picked it up. …
The snake writhed and twisted as it tried to free its head and neck. I restrained the middle of its body and allowed the tail to flail about. … It would have bitten me if it could have, but my technique, rehearsed hundreds of times in my mind and with harmless snakes, was flawless. Its jaws gaped and its fangs came forward unsheathed and drops of venom, clear and glistening, dripped from their needle-sharp tips. I definitely had control of this snake. But what kind of control did I have? I had captured this snake with the skill of a professional, something I had dreamed about since childhood, but there was something less than satisfying about it. Is this the way I wanted to related to nature and to the world in general?
Sometimes afterward, he was leading a group of backpackers through the southern Appalachians, when they came across a magnificent timber rattler. Elliott borrowed a hiking stick:
I gently lifted the snake and moved it a few feet onto more open ground. Its head was raised and curled over the forward part of its body. The snake looked at (us) … with a timeless, emotionless self-assurance … . It did not rattle nor did it coil up defensively. Just its tongue flickered out, probing the highly charged atmosphere for a molecule of meaning. Could it sense that we meant no harm?
The posterior part of the snake was stretched out, its tail pointing in my direction. I slowly reached out and touched the tail. The snake did not show any sign of irritation. Gazing into its eyes, I slipped my hand underneath the tail and lifted gently. …
… Sometimes, during the normal course of a snake’s life, part of its rattle breaks off. This does not hurt the snake… .
… I carefully grasped it between my fingers and gently twisted the last four segments off the rattle. I let the tail go and looked at the section of rattle I now had in my possession. I could hardly believe what I had done. It was certainly nothing I had planned to do. Planning … would be even more foolish than actually doing it.
(Emphasis in original.)
When there is a gap between feeling and action, that is planning – carefully weighing one’s values, hopes, and fears against some future goal. Action then becomes devoid of spontaneity, of life, and indeed, of effectiveness.
This is why it is so important to understand Livingston’s avoidance of a prescribed course of treatment. Such a prescription could only flow from our conditioning, from our past. The act of seeking prescriptions, of formulating public policy, in fact, is the essence of domestication – the culture of How. And, paradoxically, it is the essence of inaction: “We pursue the ideal because it doesn’t demand immediate action; the ideal is an accepted and respected postponement,” writes the philosopher J. Krishnamurti.
As an antidote to planning, and to the seeking of ideals, Livingston and Krishnamurti are asking us to see, without artifice, without intervening thoughts and images. For Krishnamurti, it becomes an act of love. For Livingston, it is re-experiencing wildness. Whatever one calls it, this certainty of wisdom is immensely powerful, and the only source of real change, since it is free of the past.
This is indeed a different mode of thinking; in fact, thought itself generally gets in the way. Many Westerners object that in talking about some profound change in an individual’s consciousness, mystics are navel-gazing, completely ignoring society at large. That is not the case. This objection is an example of the domesticate’s mistaken view of social reality, that the individual and the group are separate entities. We cannot conceive of an individual who is autonomous but simultaneously an integral part of a community. To a domesticate, this is an oxymoron. To a wild being, it is the definition of existence.
It is important to make the distinction, in this context, between human social organization, which is hierarchical, and the social organization of other species, which tends to be mutualistic and cooperative. As a naturalist, Livingston has some interesting perspectives on our mistaken perceptions of hierarchy among other animals. But he is also eloquent on the awful ways humans treat each other.
Domestication involves control. It is a technique of controlling the behaviour of other species, or of other humans. In the case of humans we use a conceptual trick that Livingston calls pseudo-speciation – identifying other humans as another species, which allows us to treat them as unconcernedly and brutally as we do other animals. Domestication’s control requires that the controller see himself as separate from other humans and other species, whoever is being controlled. While in the long run this can only be a false perception, humans maintain the fiction in order to perpetuate hierarchy.
Rogue Primate suggests that withdrawal from wildness started everything. This does not mean that our only focus should now be on individuals’ bonding with Nature. We withdrew from wildness socially as well as individually – it was two sides to the same coin. Besides, Livingston maintains that we shall always need some sort of cultural prosthesis, some sort of ideology, since we cannot turn back the clock. But the essential point is that he is convinced that participatory compliance and reciprocity evolved naturally among all animals, including humans. Though he dismisses the term social ecology at one point, he would have no problem with social ecologist’s advocacy of decentralized, cooperative societies.
It makes perfect sense to ask, of course, Are not cooperative communities an ideal? Are they not here being treated as a goal or a solution to strive for and thereby simply another expression of the old ways of thinking? My answer would be yes, cooperative communities could be an ideal, or a policy, if we chose to see them as such. And this would ensure our failure to create them.
Chasing after a future ideal is one of the symptoms of the prosthetic ideology, which serves to keep us from direct experiences such as participatory compliance. The ideology requires, first, that the idea is congruent with the human enterprise of domestication, and, second, that a method is developed to reach the goal, thus separating ends from means.
Congruence with domestication means that the ideal needs to be rationalized in such a way that the basic question of rightness is ignored and replaced by the question of whether the goal is good for humans. Thus, Neal Evernden has shown that most environmentalists have resorted to arguing that the destruction of ecosystems by humans is stupid, not that it is wrong.
Confronting the morality of environmental damage puts zero-order humanism itself in question, which is a no-no. By the same token, as long as we are under the spell of the prosthetic ideology, we cannot justify cooperative social behaviour unless we can prove that it benefits our domesticated institutions and values.
Second, the ideal of cooperative communities, since it is something to be achieved in the future, needs to be provided by our how-to-do-it culture with a technique for reaching it. There is, of course, no method to spontaneous cooperation, but our ideology prevents us from seeing this. And because the ideal is simply a projection from the past, our technologies are just helping us do more and more of the same thing, only faster. The Information Highway is a grand example of this phenomenon; we are now able to find out about more cooperative communities, about research into cooperation and its benefits, and about philosophical discussions on its merits, without ever having to do anything.
If we understand instinctively that cooperation is right, then we don’t have to prove that it’s smart, or to develop a method to reach it. Cooperation instantly becomes as pattern of behaviour, from which many different kinds of collective action will emerge, unplanned, but somehow right.
We do not trust that it will be right, though. Millennia of domestication have made domination and dependence the air we breathe. This may be a difficult pill to swallow for those of us who live in what are termed representative democracies and who feel they provide us with a reasonable sense of freedom of speech and thought, despite their weaknesses. Sense of freedom, however, is like language: the other person always speaks with an accent. It is easy for us to see the constraints imposed by other cultures, not so easy to see our own constraints, our structures of dominance and dependence.
Consider, for a moment, that in our so-called democratic society, we depend on a huge entertainment industry to keep us entertained. We depend on a sickness industry if we start feeling sick. We depend on an enormous production and distribution system to feed us agricultural products of doubtful nutritional value. We depend on a massive system of compulsory schooling, not only on what to teach us, but how to teach us. In general, we do not create our own work, but look to large institutions to provide us with “jobs.” And, we look to others to plan and build our cities. These are structures reeking of domination and dependence (the two are symbiotic). No wonder that when spontaneous cooperation starts to accomplish something, we are distrustful. The chains of domestication are practically invisible, but they are tight. It is especially galling because we have forged them ourselves.
The invisibilty of these chains has been dealt with, appropriately enough, by writers on the psychology of separation from Nature. Morris Berman, Erich Fromm, Paul Sheppard, and Theodore Roszak have all explored this separation as a form of collective madness, a madness that explicitly includes feelings of separation of humans from each other, as well as from the rest of the natural world. Because it is collective, our madness appears to us as normal. Our amnesia is so complete that we treat feelings of belonging and of total awareness with skepticism and derision, since they are aberrations from our domesticated mindset.
Collective madness, however, must be collectively sustained (a perverse form of cooperation!) because we still have enough access to wildness, to use Livingston’s term, for that wildness to penetrate our consciousness from time to time. We have set up elaborate structures that serve to convince us that this is indeed an aberrant experience. One recently organized and extremely effective structure serving this purpose is compulsory schooling, which in a thousand ways teaches us to remain childish, dependent, and incomplete – in short, domesticated. I have learned, for instance, that the mark of a competent university teacher is to be knowledgeable with respect to a certain amount of accumulated information about the past and to transfer effectively some of that information to the passive minds of students. My competence, in other words, depends on storable information, and my students’ “education” depends on me. In such a system, we all remain deprived of our wholeness. Instead, like Mr. Dooley and his rights, we should be suspicious of an education that is “given” to us
Many other institutions of domestication – the market system, the legal system, the military-industrial complex – are in place and seemingly unassailable. They are not abstract, nor are their consequences, but they are intangible enough that it is difficult to be aware of how their power is supported by our habitual behaviour.
One structure, I believe, though, is more tangible and lends itself to direct personal action and therefore to change: urban development. Actually, the term “urban development” already puts it out of reach; perhaps we should just call it our buildings and our settlements.
Parts of some cities, I submit, can be considered wild because they have not been planned. (I exclude the senseless unplanned sprawl that surrounds most of our cities.) In these places, peoples’ energy and intelligence have produced, over time, an intricate web of land uses and interpersonal relationships that are definitely subversive of the domesticated ideology. These relationships cannot be neatly categorized as economic, as social, or as political (often they are all three), but they are interdependent, mutual, and caring. Such places reflect a mature trust in the harmony of participatory collective enterprise, a letting go of the childish dream of domination. They also tend to have unexpectedly large amounts of greenery, both planned and unplanned. In such places there is a chance to grow up, indeed. Some are described in other essays in this book.
User-designed settlements activate the domesticate’s fear of wildness – anarchy, we call it. “Nothing will work,” we say. “Nothing will fit together.” Wildness seems chaotic to us because our underdeveloped senses do not discern its patterns and rhythms, which are not meaningful in the abstract, only in experience.
Yet part of us still resonates with those patterns, still can feel what the architect Christopher Alexander calls the Quality Without a Name, a quality that suffuses places and spaces that feel just right to us, though we don’t know why. They are alive, and timeless, and … they fit unselfconsciously into Nature.
Thank goodness the Quality has no name. If we were able to bring it into our language, we would kill it with labels. Like wildness.
In the city, wildness happens when we aren’t looking, when we aren’t planning. Cities that do not harm the ecosystem cannot be achieved by a policy or a program; they are far more accessible when we stop doing the things we already do. Then, in the cracks in the pavement, dandelions and plantain unceremoniously push their way into our consciousness.
The pavement is a metaphor for the domesticated mind, as well. Most of the time it is cluttered with laws, rules, and plans, with domesticated chatterings. But, occasionally, exhausted, it leaves a space and the truth creeps in. John Livingston has crept through one of those spaces.
“Pavement Mentalities,” (John Livingston, Rogue Primate) in Literary Review of Canada, Nov. 1995 (4:10)