Assholes, baboons and collapse: The ABCs of human sustainability

Premise: Modern industrial civilization is rapidly depleting the land-base on which most animals depend, even though it has existed for a fraction of the time of past civilizations (which all similarly collapsed).  We surround ourselves with an ever-increasing imbalance of technomass (things of our own handicraft) away from biomass (things we coevolved/were cocreated with), creating an unprecedented and interlocking matrix of metaphorical mirrors.  How could that do anything except breed excessive narcissism?

Waiting for industrial civilization to bring itself down will nearly completely destroy the ecosystems on which we depend. Consider also the fact that the ability of so-called “civilized” humans to make effective, sustainable use of our local land-bases has atrophied (and I think I’m being generous here) to near-complete non-existence. Acorns? Milkweed? Cattails? These are edible? How? What about these berries — they taste sweet…what do you mean they’re poisonous?? You mean you want me to squat and poop where?

Conclusion: The decline if our land-base coupled with our relative inability to subsist directly on what little land-base remains will present us with a perfect storm of effective scarcity. This means that the human herd will need some serious thinning. In other words, the human herd will thin itself one way or another, and we can either be intentional about it or just let it happen.

Implications: If we aren’t intentional about our thinning, then the sociopathic, narcissistic assholes will divide, conquer, dominate and prey on the vulnerable, and we’ll all have a much more miserable time of it than is necessary. Massive ethnic cleansing, genocide, femicide, nerdicide, etc. The only way for us to avoid a period of complete post-collapse misery is to intentionally thin out the alpha males, the assholes, the dominant thin-skinned stress-inducing control freaks. In other words, we must swiftly and forcefully implement the No Asshole Rule:

Biologists Robert Sapolsky and Lisa Share have followed a troop of wild baboons in Kenya for over 20 years, starting in 1978. Sapolsky and Share called them “The Garbage Dump Troop” because they got much of their food from a garbage pit at a tourist lodge. But not every baboon was allowed to eat from the pit in the early 1980s: The aggressive, high status males in the troop refused to allow lower status males, or any females, to eat the garbage. Between 1983 and 1986, infected meat from the dump led to the deaths of 46% of the adult males in the troop. The biggest and meanest males died off. As in other baboon troops studied, before they died, these top-ranking males routinely bit, bullied, and chased males of similar and lower status, and occasionally directed their aggression at females.

But when the top ranking males died-off in the mid-1980s, aggression by the (new) top baboons dropped dramatically, with most aggression occurring between baboons of similar rank, and little of it directed toward lower-status males, and none at all directed at females. Troop members also spent a larger percentage of the time grooming, sat closer together than in the past, and hormone samples indicated that the lowest status males experienced less stress than underlings in other baboon troops. Most interestingly, these effects persisted at least through the late 1990’s, well after all the original “kinder” males had died-off. Not only that, when adolescent males who grew up in other troops joined the “Garbage Dump Troop,” they too engaged in less aggressive behavior than in other baboon troops. As Sapolsky put it “We don’t understand the mechanism of transmission… but the jerky new guys are obviously learning: We don’t do things like that around here.” So, at least by baboon standards, the garbage dump troop developed and enforced what I would call a “no asshole rule.”

I am not suggesting that you get rid of all the alpha males in your organization, as tempting as that may be at times. The lesson from the baboons is that when the social distance between higher and lower status mammals in a group are reduced, and steps are taken to keep the distance smaller, higher status members are less likely to act like jerks. Human leaders can use this lesson to avoid turning into mean, selfish, and insensitive jerks too. Despite all the trappings, some leaders do remain attuned to how people around them are really feeling, to what their employees really believe about how the organization is ran, and to what customers really think about their company’s products and services. As “The Garbage Dump Troop” teaches us, the key thing these leaders do is to take potent, and constant, steps that dampen rather amplify the power differences between themselves and others (both inside and outside the company).

Extension: There are three important sustainability work strategies implied in the above narrative of collapse

  1. Limit the damage industrial civilization causes through defensive actions that counter its destructiveness and hasten its demise
  2. Redevelop local, seasonal land-based subsistence cultures to heal the decimated land-base and swiftly teach the rest of the population how to really live (grow/gather/process/preserve/prepare our own food, etc)
  3. Neutralize the assholes who got us into this whole mess in the first place — who would otherwise continue to make our lives miserable to fortify their enduring sense of entitlement (see above) — and then prevent them from re-establishing themselves

A major way we can accomplish #3 above largely by raising healthy, strong, emotionally competent and compassionate men wherever possible. Wherever not possible, eliminating the problem. As stated in the emphasis in the block quote above, the basic idea is to minimize or eliminate unnecessary social stratification.

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One Response to Assholes, baboons and collapse: The ABCs of human sustainability

  1. ozob says:

    Followup: What makes an asshole an asshole?

    The above post was couched in language of “us vs them” but we all have an asshole inside of us. What do we do about that?

    I mean, God forbid someone label me an asshole and decide I’m not worth keeping around? Are assholes the people who ask difficult questions that make self-righteous, ignorant, exploitative or numb people uncomfortable?

    If I “prey on the vulnerability” of someone who preys on other people’s vulnerabilities, am I an asshole? Is someone who is an asshole to the assholes an asshole?

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