by Afterparty Jones from Occupy Vacant Lots of Philadelphia
The Movement Grows like the Forests: Cultural Succession
You may have read about – or if yer a seasoned OG (Original Gardener) you may have witnessed – the pattern that emerges over time as forests regrow themselves after a major disturbance such as a fire, landslide, or a clear-cut.
Dynamics of Forest Succession
First Weeds and Pioneer species move in to settle an area, providing the important role of holding down the soil from erosion, and as they establish themselves, they create a very small micro-climate along the ground under their cover. Next in the succession, Shrubs can sprout in this slightly more amenable micro-climate and grow to 6 – 15 feet tall, providing a shadier, less windy, and more stable micro-climate. Over time, a late-succession Young Forest Community of fast-growing trees and nitrogen fixers grows up between the shrubs to eventually become a canopy over the Shrub layer. The Young Forest Community forms a very stable and nurturing micro-climate, with the ground nearly completely “mulched” with leaf-litter teeming with a diverse blend of bacteria and fungi to create topsoil. Lastly, in this burgeoning fertility, large and slow-growing trees can sprout in this veritable nursery environment provided by the herbs, shrubs, and fast-growing trees. Since the Mature Forest Community species are often tender when young, and need a stable, sheltered environment for the first handful of years to establish themselves, the Young Forest Community does an excellent job supporting these long-lived, wise species until they eventually grow up and over their successional layer to become a broad over-arching canopy.
The way I see it, this same model can provide a context for changes observed in human culture. Putting human history into this ecological context can serve to heal misplaced grief over past cultural dynamics. The prior linear model framed culture change as a serial “conquest” with clear losers and winners, leaving the current generation with either unnecessary inherited guilt or blame depending on the side of history you identify with.
In this model, we all inherit the benefits and challenges involved with the entire cycle of cultural changes. This model can also help us to define the era we’re in now, determine and set achievable goals for necessary cultural change in our time, and relinquish some longer-term cultural goals and desires to be achieved in collaboration with those in the next phase of cultural evolution.
Dynamics of Macro-Cultural Succession
For this philosophical exercise, we associate different cultural arrangements with each level of forest succession. In this metaphor, the Old Growth or First Forests represent the First Peoples, Native Peoples, Indigenous Peoples, and the Anciently-Rewilded Peoples. You likely feel the first three titles are all the same, and they are, but the Anciently-Rewilded Peoples? These are the folks who abandoned ancient agricultural civilizations as those inherently unsustainable cultures declined. The Anciently-Rewilded Peoples returned to hunter-gatherer tribal ways, which was easier in earlier times, as both unpolluted, fertile, wild ecosystems spanned the planet along with wild and free tribal peoples with which to join up. For example, take the “lost” American colony of Roanoke, Virginia, who “mysteriously disappeared” and only left a sign that read, “Croatan” – the name of a nearby island populated with friendly natives. A cracked.com article notes that the sign might have well read, “We left to go have sex with the nice natives on that other island. Be back never.”
When speaking of Cultural Dynamics, Disturbances that result in massive shifts look more like war or invasion, but could also be natural disasters or plagues that devastate a “Mature Forest Community” and leave it vulnerable to successional forces. This latter scenario is what unfolded with the founding of early American colonies, as disease from early explorers wiped out 90% of the Native population, nearly 80 million people by some accounts, leaving a post-apocalypse size struggling population to defend their still well-tended, fertile land.
So in the Cultural Succession Model, after such a disturbance, systemic vulnerabilities allow some form of Agricultural Civilization to crop up, so to speak. Agricultural civilizations generally plant annual grasses (corn, wheat, rye) and herbs that prefer rich, disturbed soil (tilled garden vegetables). These happen to be the same type of plants that occur in the Pioneer Successional Phase. For all of human history up until the mid-1700s, despite achieving various scientific and artistic successes, cultural dynamics followed these two basic forms, with agricultural civilization inevitably collapsing back into tribal ways after exhausting natural resources and/or failing to inspire the imaginations of it’s civilians.
In 1750 though, a new successional phase began. Our Cultural Shrub Phase is expressed as Industrial Civilization, into which all of our elders were born. This hard-working cultural phase set humans to labor alongside machines to transform natural resources into massive amounts of human-centered goods. In this never-before-seen factory arrangement of human lives, the use of iron, the steam-engine, and applying reductive science to innovation created a whole new era that grew out of the prior phase. This led to the mechanization of farming and the growth of large cities. The mindset of this glorious “Industrial Revolution” still dominates the worldview of many elder Americans, and indeed underpins the laws and cultural arrangements of most Western institutions. Because of the massive success of this system, its paradigm maintains a longevity that we still operate within.
While Industrial Civilization has been wildly successful, it also quickly created the nurturing conditions necessary for the next cultural succession to sprout. While the prior phases lasted millenia, the seeds the next cultural phase germinated just 200 years later in the 1950s and 60s with the Beats, and Hippies. Both saw that there must be a better way to live beyond civilization. The adventuring of the Beats and the Hippies’ belief in discovering new and ancient ways to live, gathering memes from their own inherited cultures and hunting them around the world. This brave and artful cultural imperative defines the “Young Forest Community” phase who revere wisdom not just from their local elders, but from the collective wisdom.
Our Successional model refers to this phase as “Cultural Creatives.” This term was coined by sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson. From the wikipedia article, “These are individuals who can meld the best of Traditionalism and Modernism to create a new synthesis, having a cognitive style based on synthesizing varied information from many sources into a big picture.” Ray and Anderson note that this cultural worldview has come to be defined by a love of nature, a global outlook, and a commitment to spirituality and activism. If you are reading this article, you likely fall into this successional phase
Whereas the Industrial Civ worldview drives most global institutional thinking, Cultural Creatives have only been able to manifest their cultural norms in select communities, such as eco-villages, intentional communities, urban collectives, and very progressives towns such as Curitaba, Brazil. One could note that the largest domain of the Cultural Creatives thus far has been virtual. Many in the online social world commit to the free sharing of ideas, are open to exploring new ideas (even if just to watch a short video on a new topic), and support green ideals, if not currently living them out.
Even if you feel you don’t quite agree with this model, with the advent of the internet, all of us have been “digital immigrants,” those who had to learn – and create – a digital culture. Since there was no direct model from elders to learn how to best utilize this technology for our daily lives, we each have had to experiment to find what works for us and our communities. All of us have had to draw lines where we’ve felt it was inappropriate for ourselves, friends, and family to accept a mobile phone call, or check email on a smart-phone, or text in various social situations, just going on our gut-feelings as opposed to a predetermined set system of what constitutes good manners.
We’ve also grappled with the notion of becoming personally and collectively more sustainable, and we’re faced with not only learning what that means, but then after taking in a myriad of information about the Industrial system that supports our everyday lives, we then have had to make choices on how to live to the best of our abilities by our morals and ideals. One of the best ways to tackle this issue has been through the motto, “Think Global, Act Local.” Similar to our “digital immigration” we’ve had a “local immigration,” too. We follow the “Buy Local” creed as a way to rebuild our hometown economies on strong values and combat the parasitism of transnational corporations at the same time.
Additionally, we have come up with novel ways to reconnect with our local community outside of the conventional church system, which by and large seems too parochial and unable to jive with our modern scientific thinking and our more accepting sexual and gender identities. The arts are a huge focal point for us, as are community work days at local gardens and non-profits. One example of this can be found in a group called Philly Stake. Philly Stake is a recurring community dinner that raises funds to give micro-grants to creative projects that further local art, ecology, and community. Similar dinners occur in other locals such as the Brooklyn Feast, and Feast Mass in Boston.
Furthermore, we’re on the path of relearning the traditional skills of our great grandparents, like baking, fermenting foods, woodwork, and countless DIY projects to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover. Raised with suburban fears of polluted waterways, we’re researching what riverways have recovered enough to be safe for fishing again. Additionally, we’re rediscovering the forgotten value of local wildlife, these beautiful birds, insects, mammals, plants, and fungi whose families have lived on this land long before ours and have been gracious and strong enough to survive in our midst.
For better or worse, much of the next generation falls into an entirely new cultural phase of human development that looks to us as the new norm onto which they will build their own dreams and lives. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to figure out all of the intricacies of how to build a truly sustainable, egalitarian culture, like some egotistical creepy “Final Solution.” Our kids and those we raise will carry the torch further. Still, it helps to imagine what skills, perspectives, and worldviews might benefit our children, or what they’re already learning.
If raised under a Cultural Creatives’ “Buy Local” behaviors, the next generation also marks the start of the next cultural phase and is one step closer to actually Being Local. Eating with the seasons through Community Supported Agriculture, and maybe even nibbling wild edibles and fishing with dad for dinner is a completely different relationship to food than the supermarket cans and waxed vegetables shipped from who cares? that those of us who grew up in an Industrial Civilization cultural household.
The next generation won’t realize how much we’ve scrambled to figure out, as they grow up thinking that our digital society is “natural” to them and our devout commitment to localism is simply woven into the reality that we provide for them. To them, both of these once divergent realities (technological man vs. nature) are interlinked and normal, as normal as picking a blackberry or mulberry when it’s dark and plump and watching you take a picture with your smart phone of your little nephew who somehow stained half his face with dark juices. This next cultural phase is described by the term Digital Natives.
Marc Prensky coined the term in his 2001 book, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. In most usages of the term, the authors are simply referring to whether “a person was born during or after the general introduction of digital technology” and been “interacting with digital technology from an early age” so therefore “has a greater understanding of its concepts.” In this cultural successional model, I put equal weight on the Native aspect of Digital Natives.
Raising Digital Natives is one of the biggest next challenges for the Cultural Creatives. Having successfully learned a new cultural awareness, and unlearned many older, no longer sustainable concepts, we’re surprised to still be painfully aware that there’s a lot left to unlearn. Furthermore, it’s becoming clearer to us everyday that there’s a massive amount of beautiful, wonderful memes from our indigenous cousins, let alone our indigenous heritages that we have yet to discover.
Back to us Cultural Creatives for a minute. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of our culture is an awkward lack of grounding in tradition. Because we are seekers, finders, and compilers, our new creations lack the solid institutional foundation that earlier cultural phases boast. An easy target for this concept is the New Age spiritual movement. I don’t even need to make a joke, really. Just imagine a buzzcut suburban industrial society trying not to laugh at their cultural creative youth when they get upset that no one treats their spirituality as legitimate. “I mean c’mon, all we did was string together Hindu sex cult stretch moves with Tibetan Buddhist meditation, an obsession with crystals, and put it all to music comprised of drawn out synth sounds over crashing waves. Totally as legit as a 2,000 year old manboy dying on a cross and finally becoming a manGod
Don’t get me wrong, I listen to binaural beats when I need to get to sleep, I meditate every morning, and I pray before I go to bed, but what’s lovely is that Digital Natives see what we’ve done and consider it legit! They appreciate the practices we’ve harvested from around the world and what’s better, is that they will make something that can last. While Cultural Creatives have largely only been able to sample existing cultures around the world, Digital Natives, through access to global lineage research, can go back in time to follow their own indigenous root cultures to discover their own bloodline memes. Still, what’s amazing, is that through the global culture sharing of the Cultural Creatives, Digital Natives do not fear cultural appropriation, but rather see the entire wealth of human culture as every human’s birthright.
For example of one of these memes I believe is worth saving comes from traditional Mayans in Guatemala. I read about this in a book by Martin Prechtel. In this rite, when young men become interested in young women, the society gathers them up and sends them along with an Initiating Shaman to lead them on a number of rituals. These rituals – or social technology – are designed to enhance the youth’s skills in eloquence, give deeper meaning to the world around them, and mark their transition into becoming “more human” for all of the community to acknowledge and support. One of the first steps involves daring the young men to steal their mother’s largest clay feast bowl and smash it ceremoniously, keeping the broken shards to be ground up and used in new bowls.
After this act, the mothers no longer regard their young sons as innocent boys, and the young men very well may have gone against their parents’ wishes for the first time, to do what was right for their community. When natural teenage rebellion is performed without the protection and guidance of the community, it seems a rude and disgusting phase of general insubordination; however, under these conditions a teen’s natural yearnings to break free are guided in such a way as to contribute to society instead of destroying it.
Adding delicious depth and richness to this rite, the stolen and smashed feast bowls were originally caste onto the pregnant mama’s belly before the son was even born. The bowl captures the form of the son’s and mother’s bond in the feast bowl and it is used on all of his birthdays. When the young men steal and break this sacred bowl, they are figuratively smashing their role as a baby to make room for the new baby they will soon be conspiring to bring into the world with their young women, who also undergo a similar rite of passage.
In a way, I, too, can see how the practices of all of Earth’s Peoples are the divine right of the Digital Natives, since the Digital Native macro-culture is a phenomenon that already spans the entire globe. Everywhere people are faced with the same challenges: we need healthy eco-systems comprised of healthy local ecologies, local communities, and local economies. We need social technology that can harmonize with “natural” human tendencies.
In many less colonized parts of the world, there still remains a strand of connection to an indigenous culture of place. I’m currently in conversation with a man from Zimbabwe who has been running an ecological farming project there for over 20 years. He encourages people to plant the native crops that their ancestors tended. Why don’t they now? Because the British showed up with their temperate crops and derided local native foods as ‘something only poor people ate.’ Since Zimbabwe is a dryland tropical climate, the temperate style farming and crops don’t produce well during most years and end up destroying the soil in the long-run.
Here in the United States, the British crops did well, since we share a similar climate. Nonetheless, we still deplete our soils with Pioneer Phase crop species, too. In Zimbabwe, the path to developing Digital Natives looks something like our own, but has unique opportunities and challenges except they are far behind the ball when it comes to digital technology. Spreading digital technology and learning what it means to be native, is one of the greatest opportunities that exist on the planet. I can’t save the Earth all at once, but I know that my future Digital Native children will be raised in the act of savoring it all, and I can’t even imagine how they will wield the digital sword with their native hearts.
Now, since we are admittedly not Digital Natives, we can use this model to help us set achievable goals to obtain a significant yield in our lifetimes. While we can envision a global permaculture, our children and theirs will live it out and maintain it, developing true Earth-wide Digital Native culture over time as the best memes for each place and time surface and are cherished. In order to give them the best shot at it, we need to follow the Permaculture ethic of setting limits to growth – and here’s the kicker – we must do this with our own personal growth, too. Also, following the Permaculture Principle of the least change for the greatest effect, we need to ease transition into Industrial Civilization and into our own Cultural Creation over time. This means making smart compromises and giving others in different phases enough time to transition as best as possible.
Some goals require a long time, if not a life-time, like un-schooling the “Lies my teacher told me”, learning and practicing effective non-violent communication, and building real community. Other goals are almost impossible for some to achieve, particularly the elders of Industrial Civilization, and can be excused and wished well. For example, expecting a Senior in a Christian Choir to develop an appreciation of Plant-Spirit Medicine might be too much to ask. Sometimes old dogs just can’t learn new tricks, even if those tricks are ancient! Still, there are some things we as a new cultural phase must stand up to our parent cultures about. One of these is the toxification of the total environment.
While beautiful legislation has passed into the United States laws of the land governing pollution decades ago attempting to keep our commons clean – clean air, water, and soils – Cultural Creatives fighting for so much got lost on ensuring that these laws continued to be upheld. Hydro-Fracking, the most irreversibly pollutive practice in the United States has been illegally exempted from our laws protecting our environment. This is an outrage! An outrageous abuse of power and abuse of the public, directly!
While many others feel the same about nuclear, there exists less of a threat from this source than others. While nuclear waste has gone unsequestered for decades, and radiation will continue at a very low rate for a very long time, there are potential solutions to these safety issues, which I suggest you look up online. However, once an entire underground watershed has been polluted with vast amounts of unknown chemicals, there exists no engineering strategy in my mind to reverse that course, ever. It may be possible to filter and treat water taken from wells on that land, but I am terrified by the idea that one must expensively filter and treat something that was once pure, for an indefinitely long period of time, and achieve no discernible abatement of pollution.