Can Civilization be Regenerated?

Mt. Shasta, near Weed, California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In its simplest meaning, regeneration is about recreating something useful and vital, including civilization, that humans or unknown forces have diminished or destroyed.

The Atlantis

Plato, 427 – 347 BCE, lived at a time of peril. He grew up in Athens during the last twenty-three years of the Peloponnesian War. Things did not look good. He tried to find out why Athens was part of a Greek fratricide. He studied why civilizations often decline, even disappear. His fertile mind examined historical experience, seeking clues and examples of regeneration. Book 7 of his Republic and his dialogues, Timaios and Kritias, offer valuable insights into how humans can sometimes dig in the rubble in order to reinvent civilization. His story of the lost world of the Atlantis has mesmerized countless people throughout the ages. The dialogues Timaios and Kritias explain the rise and fall of the giant island empire of Atlantis.

Atlantis was inhabited by people of extraordinary versatility and intelligence. The excavated region of the Greek Aegean island of Thera reveals a very sophisticated civilization resembling the dominant Minoan culture of the large Greek island of Crete in the second millennium BCE. In 1650 BCE, a volcano exploded in Thera, destroying most of the island and Crete. Could Thera have been at the center of Atlantis?

Satellite image of Thera, NASA. Public Domain.                                                                 

It’s possible, but we don’t know. Plato said Atlantis came to an end because of anthropogenic causes. The citizens of Atlantis embarked on a campaign of conquest. They attacked Athens and Hellas. Athenians led a united Greek force and defeated the Atlantis invaders. But during the war cataclysmic fires and earthquakes swallowed the island empire, including the Athenian-led Greek army — 9,000 years before Plato’s time.

After Plato, civilization was driven to near extinction, this time by the fanaticism of the new masters of the Mediterranean: Christian and Islamic monotheists.

By some extraordinary reason, the Baghdad califs embraced Hellenic philosophy and science in order to build Moslem culture. Centuries eighth to tenth date the Moslem Renaissance. Greek learning leaked to Europe from Moslem Spain. But, eventually, the wars between Christianity and Islam turned Islam to its monotheistic roots. Moslem Turks captured Christian and Greek Constantinople and Greece in 1453.

The Regeneration of the Renaissance

It took the fifteenth-century Renaissance to revive civilization. That unprecedented experiment in the regeneration of civilization was the  concerted effort of Greek and Latin scholars and politicians. Greek scholars brought to the Italian city states most of the surviving works of science and civilization of their ancient ancestors. These included the immortal poetry of Homer, Hesiod, Aischylos, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes; the histories of Herodotos and Thucydides; and the philosophy and science of Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Demokritos, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Apollonios of Perga, Aristarchos of Samos, Ktesibios,  Archimedes and Hipparchos.

However, starting in mid-nineteenth century, those who had benefitted from the Renaissance, Europeans and Americans, were caught in a frenzy of mechanizing their societies and civilization.

This machine-mania made people less human, more violent, and less respectful of the natural world, the fountainhead of all life.

Factory agriculture

A century-and-a-half later, our time of the third decade of the twenty-first century, we are observing an anthropogenic decline of civilization, not much different from the decline Plato decried nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago.

Our decline includes the loss of too many species and the beginnings of the breakdown of ecosystems. We seem to be oblivious to the corruption that allows, for instance, large farmers of California to use tremendous amounts of drinking water for the growing of almonds, which are primarily exported. In addition, the Democratic administration of Joe Bidden and the Democratic politicians of California are giving so much water to the Republican growers of the Central Valley that is catastrophic to the Salmon.

Salmon and steelhead used to connect the mountains of California to its coast, being a mirror of a healthy ecosystem and society. “Now Southern California’s steelhead are almost entirely gone, and our salmon populations are collapsing with astonishing speed.”

This shameful political negligence and undemocratic practice is taking place at a time of severe drought, itself a sign of an angry natural world. Knowledge and interests crucial to the survival of democratic and ecological institutions seem to be waning. Yet those institutions have been pillars of human and natural survival and flourishing.

Agriculture is one of those institutions. It has been the very foundation of civilization and life, nearly forever. But like other important forms of human culture, agriculture has been drenched of its ancient core mission of being part of nature, while nailed with machines and flooded with chemicals. The result is a factory in the fields that is divorced from its original purpose, raising healthy food and working with nature.

This civilization subversion has raised anxieties about the quality and purity of food, drinking water, air, and the integrity and health of the natural world. All these worries have been manifesting themselves with clear signs depicting humans erring to the point of promoting their own decline and destruction.

Heatwaves, hunger and drought

As if these human woes were not dangerous enough, climate change becomes the icing on the mechanical and poison cake. It engulfs humans, good and bad, and the natural world in a dance of a potential catastrophe.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been informing policy makers the world over of the existing and worsening climate conditions of the planet. In a leaked draft report this group of international climate experts “paints the starkest picture yet of the accelerating danger caused by human use of coal, oil, and gas. It warns of coming unlivable heat waves, widespread hunger and drought, rising sea levels and extinction.”

Machine agriculture is a major contributor to this life and death climate threat. It exists primarily because of petroleum, natural gas, and coal, key ingredients fueling climate change.

It is this dire condition of nearly total human dependence on fossil fuels warming the Earth that is tearing societies apart. Those who profit from fossil fuels have purchased policy makers, businesses, many scientists and the mass media.

But keeping secret or ignoring climate change does not make any difference to the fury of a perpetually warmer planet. The longer presidents and Congress do nothing to end the reign of these heat trapping fuels, the worse the outcome. The leaked UN report is not exaggerating. Heatwaves, massive forest fires, droughts, hunger – and migration wars are already with us.

Those who see or study the degeneration of agriculture and civilization are often polite and politically correct to the point of becoming irrelevant.

Where’s ecology?

During the Clinton administration in the 1990s, there was talk among senior government officials of making agriculture “sustainable.” I thought this was a cause for celebration. However, officials of the US Department of Agriculture were concerned. They torpedoed the idea and nothing really happened.

Nevertheless, a few decades ago, a handful of Americans warned us of our abandonment of civilization. Ecology has been the voice of regeneration and the defining science for that metamorphosis.

The course of rising ecological consciousness in the United States has been painful and slow. The failure of the country to take adequate measures to protect its unparalleled natural riches did not make matters easier. Physicians and scientists have largely failed to take the carcinogenic and neurotoxic poisons of farmers seriously. Their silence adds legitimacy to the perpetuation of a catastrophic practice.

The integrity of land

However, the thought of the American visionary Aldo Leopold broke the silence. In an original essay he wrote in 1933 in volume 31 of the Journal of Forestry, Leopold connected policy and the survival of America to an abiding respect to nature, especially to the integrity of the land.

Leopold was professor at the University of Wisconsin. He was disturbed by America’s careless use and misuse of its forests, land, and wildlife. He drew an intimate connection between land and civilization, insisting that civilization “is a state of mutual and interdependent cooperation between human animals, other animals, plants, and soils, which may be disrupted at any moment by the failure of any of them.”

Disruption on a huge scale did take place in the United States in the 1930s, in Leopold’s time, just like he predicted. He likened the United States to “a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” In fact, Leopold saw the American obsession spreading throughout the world. In his Sand County Almanac, he lamented: “The whole world is so greedy for more bathtubs that it has lost the stability necessary to build them, or even to turn off the tap.”

Regeneration and goodness

The other American who warned the country of its self-defeating machine and chemical agriculture was a gardener named J. I. Rodale in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. He spoke ceaselessly about farming with nature, by which he meant no pesticides and lots of biodiversity to complement and enrich the raising of food.

He coined the word “organic” for farming, to differentiate farming with nature from the industrialized agriculture that lived or died from the presence or absence of pesticides, dope drugs of the giant growers / agribusinesses.

In his Our Poisoned Earth and Sky, he borrowed from Aristotle the concept of the golden mean in order to illustrate that organic farming is the golden mean, avoiding the two extremes of excess and deficiency of industrialized agriculture. He said the idea of the organic “means that we must be kind to the soil, to ourselves and to our fellow man. Organic means goodness.”

Leopold and Rodale addressed regeneration. Leopold meant changes in our way of life, our civilization. Rodale, too, was practical and philosophical. He started organic gardens, magazines, and research institutes to find out. In a sense, Rodale’s experiments in soil health and the growing of healthy food added another layer of scientific credibility to millennial-old traditional farming.

Organic farming was the antithesis of machine agriculture. It was applied regeneration. It sparked the science of agroecology. It gave Americans a taste of what good food was all about, its taste, aroma, and satisfaction. At the same time, organic farming revealed the poisons behind the science façade of agribusiness and government regulatory agencies and departments. It was a dream of bringing back to life the family farming traditions and practices of rural America, while confirming the bad intent and deleterious effects of the agricultural chemistry of the land grant universities and large farmers.

Regeneration works. In fact, at a time of climate emergency, it may turn out to be our most valuable asset for restoring agriculture, and, in so many other ways, helping us to revive our civilization.

Regeneration is like the Greek manuscripts in the fifteenth century Venice and Padua. In either way, we are discovering wisdom. Like Plato, we all see another potential Atlantis in the horizon. Political, corporate, and scientific corruption in 2021 matches the corruption at the end of the Atlantis. Now we have climate change instead of tyrants and angry gods.

Regeneration is an inspiration and a solution for no more fossil fuels, the expansion of organic farming, the replacement of fossil fuels electricity with solar energy, and the abandonment of petroleum transportation for electric transport.  In other words, regeneration is a key to a solar America and world.

Regeneration should become an organizing principle and policy for fighting climate change and recovering our Western civilization.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.