Journeying Home

Latent within each of us lies a knowledge of what home feels like.

Of being at home on this planet. Within a human culture. Inside a body.

To build a viable human future on earth, we need to remember how to become at home in it again.

Rules for Living Here -- A Preamble

I lived for a while in Cameroon. I was there ostensibly to do development work. Mostly I think I was just learning how to be a white person in the world with a bit more humility and devouring a random yoga philosophy library I found.

Over my Christmas break, I travelled with a couple of friends to the south-east of the country, where the Central African jungle begins. We stopped in the capital city of Yaoundé for a night on the way. We went out in the afternoon to visit a primate sanctuary, a sprawling, thick forest enclosure a little ways outside of town. It’s a rescue site for baby gorillas and chimps and baboons found scared and alone in the wild when their parents have been killed or kidnapped by poachers. The goal is to raise them in an environment as similar to their wild habitat as possible, until they can be released back into the forest in a safe location. There aren’t any safe locations yet. They have no idea how long it might be until there are. 

Jeo, my dear friend, my travel companion, and my supervisor at the NGO I was working at, had been on staff at this sanctuary for many years. He had worked with the chimpanzees. When we went to visit the chimps, Jeo started legit communicating with one of them, a troubled sweetheart named Max. Max had been Jeo’s personal charge from the time Max was small. It was years since they’d seen each other. One night before we left Kumbo for our trip, Jeo showed me old pictures of Max as we ate dinner together in his living room. I referred at one point to Max as a 'monkey.' Jeo recoiled in real offence: Max is not a monkey! Max is an ape! I snickered a little inside. What was the difference? I would find out.

After visiting the chimps, we strolled over to the gorilla enclosure. The gorillas were in smallish cages while the staff fixed up something in their large enclosure, so we came easily face-to-face. There was a serenity about them that was loud, and profound.

I picked up a bamboo-like twig from the ground. I poked it through the cage bars, waving it at one of the apes. He looked at it for a moment, bemused. And then he grabbed it. Waited a moment. And yanked it, hard, pulling me toward the cage and off balance.

He let go. I stepped back, and waved it near him again. Again he grabbed it, and pulled it hard enough this time that it slipped from my hand. Now he had the twig. Nothing happened. And then slowly, he put the stick back through the cage bars, and waved it at me. I played along. I took the end of the twig in my hand. He pulled me right up to the bars of the cage with it, and then he put out his other hand to me through the bars. I had been playing with a gorilla. And now the gorilla was playing with me.

In a little while, we left to walk back through the park. And at the exit to the gorilla area, we saw a painted sign on a post: with gorilla gone, it read, will there be hope for man?

My jaw dropped physically open. I had traveled halfway around the world to come halfway around a circle that I started tracing in my high school bedroom in Thornhill. It was a line from my favourite book. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. I read it at 16, when Matt Zarek gave it to me in high school. I read it again every few years, and my life is still unspooling partly under its influence. As I scanned the haunting sign in the primate sanctuary, just after my close encounter, I remembered in a flash where the line appeared in the plot of the book, and then remembered what came next.

Hope for Gorilla, Hope for Humans

Ishmael unfolds through a series of conversations between a young man and a super-intelligent gorilla named Ishmael. Ishmael observes Western culture from inside an enclosure, and he teaches people from what he sees. In the room where the two have their sessions, there hangs a framed sign upon which is inscribed that passage that I came upon in the wildlife sanctuary: with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla? As the sanctuary staff would be well aware, gorillas are perilously close to extinction. Reading the book, I had understood that passage as a depressing suggestion that the only way for gorillas to escape extinction might be if human beings make ourselves extinct first. If man were gone, the gorillas might have a chance.

Near the book's end, Ishmael inexplicably disappears. The young man arrives in the usual room to find it empty. Heartbroken, he takes down the sign on the wall to bring it home with him as a memento. As he turns it over in his hands, he finds a second inscription on the back: with gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?

What would it mean for humans, the reverse inscription asks us, if, rather, gorillas went extinct first? Standing at the intersection of paths in the primate sanctuary in Cameroon, I was starkly aware of the fact that gorillas are basically family to us. After bonobos and chimps, they are our third-closest cousins. They are emotional; they are intelligent. I knew this deeply now in my body. I can still feel that gorilla's tug, and how sweetly heavy my heart became. And so I thought, maybe the reverse side of Ishmael's poster is really asking this: if we can’t find a way of life that lets our next of kin survive here, then what are we? Is there any hope for us if we are able to let our close family go? 

With Power, Responsibility

Through Ishmael's voice, Quinn returns over and over to the Bible, that grand repository of Western cultural myth. He questions our common reading of the passage in Genesis in which God gives humankind dominion over the Earth. Quinn says that we’ve taken this to mean the Earth is ours to rule over, and to do with what we will. He suggests (demands) a different reading: instead of control over, Quinn wants to read dominion as responsibility for.

We are the only species on Earth, so far as we know, to enjoy the power of conscious thought. And we take this to be proof of our right to rule over the planet. We understand the Biblical creation story, Quinn thinks, as a process in which everything leads up to the arrival of humankind, the crowning achievement. But we could re-read this part of our mythology too. The creation story roughly summarizes what we now call evolution. And we know now that evolution isn't complete. We could read the founding story of our culture as telling us not that we should rule the Earth because we are its final product, but rather that we need to use our powers to take good care of it, because everyone else is coming up behind us.

If life goes on after the sixth and seventh days of the creation myth, then we are not the only species to evolve into consciousness. We are just the first. If everyone else is evolving along behind us, then the world is not ours to rule. It is ours to guard. Our gift and our curse is to be the first species with enough sophistication that we could choose to lay waste to the world. Our responsibility, Quinn insists, is to use our power to hold space for everyone else coming up behind us.

They are right behind us. They are right behind us. Across the bars of that cage -- a short expanse of metal that spans an enormous gap in power -- I felt I was communicating with a peer. Aren’t we better than this? Some days, when I look at the way of life we’ve chosen, it hurts because of its injustice. Today, it hurts because it’s just so dumb. You don’t eliminate the conditions that make life possible for family. And everything here is family.

We are better than this. We are better than this. Why can't we stop doing this? On one level, this is a searing, imponderable, metaphysical question. But on another level, it is an answerable anthropological one: what cultural factors condition us to understand this as the only choice? And on a third level, more practical still, it is an economic question, now rhetorical again: well, so then why don't we just stop? The third way invites us to set out in search, with boy-scout eagerness, of other ways of organizing ourselves here on this planet. Over the next two posts, we are going to ask and answer the question in both the anthropological and the economic way. We’re going to identify some basic planks of our Western worldview that pit us against the possibility of life here, and we'll see what it might look like to change them.

In the first of them, we'll dip deeper into the well of Quinn’s Ishmael. In the second, we'll draw from the ecological thought of the great urban theorist, Jane Jacobs. We’re going to see how eminently possible it is to build an economy that co-operates with the rest of life, and we'll unearth some of the mostly-unseen beliefs we have chosen to hold that make it seem impossible. Because it is not impossible. This is a thing we can do, and all of us who live here on Earth will be better off for it if we do it.

It is time for us to grow up a little further, and to accept the responsibilities that come with the great gift we have been given. When we grow into the better version of ourselves, there will be hope for gorilla. And once there is hope for gorilla, there will be hope again for us.

Rules for Living Here #1 -- Economics as if It Mattered at All

"On the basis of my history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?"

I blinked and told him I didn’t know.

“Of course you do. My subject is: captivity.”


“That’s correct.”

I sat there for a minute, then I said, “I’m trying to figure out what that has to do with saving the world.”

Ishmael thought for a moment. “Among the people of your culture, which want to destroy the world?”

“Which want to destroy it? As far as I know, no one specifically wants to destroy the world.”

“And yet you do destroy it, each of you. Each of you contributes daily to the destruction of the world.”

“Yes, that’s so.”

“Why don’t you stop?”

I shrugged. “Frankly, we don’t know how.”

“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”

“Yes, that’s the way it seems.”

“So. You are captives -- and you have made a captive of the world itself. That’s what’s at stake, isn’t it? -- your captivity and the captivity of the world.

“Yes, that’s so. I’ve just never thought of it that way.”

“And you yourself are a captive in a personal way, are you not?”

“How so?”


I said: “I have an impression of being a captive, but I can’t explain why I have this impression.”

“A few years ago — you must have been a child at the time, so you may not remember it — many young people of this country had the same impression. They made an ingenious and disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately failed, because they were unable to find the bars of the cage. If you can’t discover what’s keeping you in, the will to get out soon becomes confused and ineffectual.”

“Yes, that’s the sense I have of it.”

Ishmael nodded.

“But again, how does this relate to saving the world?”

“The world is not going to survive for very much longer as humanity’s captive. Does that need explication?”

“No. At least not to me.”

“I think there are many among you who would be glad to release the world from captivity.”

“I agree.”

“What prevents them from doing this?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is what prevents them: They’re unable to find the bars of the cage.”[1]

-- excerpted from Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

Deep ecologist Daniel Quinn tells us that the Western cultural experience includes three pivotal moments of paradigm-shifting shock. Moments when what we thought we knew about life turned out to be very, very wrong. He calls them the dirty tricks the gods played on us.

The first shock occurred when we found out that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Instead, it was a regular hunk of rock -- if perhaps a biologically blessed one -- hurtling around the sun with the rest of them. The second shock came when we learned that our species did not emerge fully-formed from nothingness, standing in upright glory. Rather, our ancestors were monkeys, and before that, slime.

The theories of heliocentrism and evolution, respectively, were bitterly resisted in their time. But we had the choice, as anyone who goes through a traumatic moment, to find our way eventually to an empowered relationship with hard newfound truths. For many of us, these two insights are now sources of wonderment and delight. Heliocentrism was a step in our understanding that we are a small part of a vast universe. Evolution gave us the elegant notion that life was self-organizing, and the inspiring one that we could transform for the better.

Today, in our lifetime, the third and final dirty trick of the gods is being revealed. We have believed, Quinn argues, that the world was made for humans, and that we were made to rule it. He traces this belief back to our Biblical mythology, as he does for the first two. The Genesis creation story culminates in the arrival of humanity. And then the Bible promises us dominion over the Earth.

It's an old notion, but the presumption of human dominance has a place in our ideas still. Free-market economic theory is shot through with it, and it shows up in our more dogmatic moments in science as well. The third great lesson, Quinn explains, is this: we are not sovereign upon this Earth. There are laws of living here, to which we are bound like everyone else.

Climate change reveals the new truth to us most starkly. Facing it, we now know that the planet that hosts us is not a docile sandbox for us to play in. It has its own demands and its own agenda. If crossed, it will resist, rise up, and be rid of us, and then go on for billions of years beyond us without a second thought. If we are to survive here, Quinn argues, our notion of dominion over this planet has got to go.

As with the earlier paradigm shifts Quinn describes, the current revelation is bitterly resisted in certain quarters. Identities and livelihoods have been built upon the premise of human omnipotence and exceptionalism. But just as before, we can emerge with strength and power from this little cultural death. We can embrace a world that is reaching out to embrace us, that wants us to be a part of it (again). 

If we do choose to jettison our faith in a unique status for ourselves, we will be able to delight instead in the experience of being an integrated part of something greater. Indeed, haven't our ancient myths always promised us that it is so? Only now we find out that the greater thing is visible, and palpable, and everywhere right here before us. It is the whole living world. This third truth is an invitation to re-join the living community, for the most miraculous collaboration we will ever know.

But in order to participate in this community, we have to start to obey the rules. The rules of living here. That’s the ticket, and the catch.

The Rules of Living Here

Quinn boils down the rules of life on Earth to a single precept, which he calls the law of limited competition. In essence, it says that you cannot to take more than you need to live well. You cannot aggrandize your species at the expense of others. Everything that lives here must place a premium on the success of the whole community. Everything that lives here must operate equally as an individual and as part of a whole. The law may seem simple, but it is fundamental. As is our practice in the ecology thread, we'll begin with this basic ecological observation, and build the wider social world back up atop it.

In Quinn's view, we humans don't obey the law. We don't limit our competition: we wage war unrestrained. He shows us three ways. First, when there is something we want to eat, we deny our competitors access to all of it. The lion may fend off hyenas from a gazelle it is eating, but when we want beef, we will fence off an entire herd.[1.1]

Second, Quinn says, when another living thing wants to eat our food, we take active steps to exterminate it. Before planting crops, for instance, we spray poison onto the soil to kill everything that lives inside it. There is a genocide in the subsoil every spring. In the forest, plants eat from a paradisiacal subterranean buffet, laid out by the presence and processes of teeming billions of living things. But our food crops subsist on the meagre rations of fertilizer we put down after having cleared the whole table. In fealty to the law, the lion hunts for gazelles whenever it is hungry, but it will not chase down a cheetah to try to save itself more gazelles.

Third, when a competitor wants to take our food, we not only fence off or exterminate that competitor, but we proceed to exterminate its food too. This practice usually goes by the anodyne epithet of habitat destruction. But viewed through the lens of limited competition, it looks like juvenile sandbox politics of the gravest kind. We will raze the homes and harvest of everything alive in an area where we want to grow our food. We will clear-cut a swath of forest to reveal a patch of soil, and then clear-cut another just to get our trucks to and from it.

The law of limited competition is not pacifism. Everything that lives here lives off of something else that dies. But always within limits. The lion takes a gazelle for its dinner, but it does not lay claim to all gazelles. Nor does the law demand self-sacrifice. Everything that lives here protects itself from harm. Plants absorb nutrients from air and sun and soil, but then chemically re-combine them to make poison in their veins. When bitten, they bite back. But they do not secrete gases far and wide. They do not hunt and exterminate predators en masse.

The law states that you may compete to the best of your abilities, but that you may not interfere with the efforts of other species to obtain their food as well. It ensures the health of the community as a whole.  You may compete, Quinn says, “but you may not wage war.”[2]


If everyone contravened the law as we do, the natural world would turn into the nightmarish vision we've sometimes projected onto it: a constant, brutal war of all against all. In time, Quinn says, that war would resolve itself, with one species remaining at each level of the food chain. Only the strongest would survive.

But that's not what it's like, because that would be a terribly perilous situation. A small number of species means a small pool of options for adapting to change. Each species remaining might be strong, but they stand a lesser chance of surviving as a community. Diversity is nature's rule because it breeds resilience, or the ability to withstand shocks. The law of limited competition maintains balance between the strength of the individual and the strength of the whole ecosystem.

Biodiversity is why the planet will outlast us if we kill ourselves off. Biodiversity is why Nature, the personification of this system entire, is stronger than humankind. When humans take more than we need, it is a selfish act, but on a much grander scale than the interpersonal. Breaking the law of limited competition, we are sucking out the basis of strength of the community entire. This is why, unless we change, we have to go.

If we seem to have made it pretty far in contravention of the law, Quinn insists that it's a fallacy, premised upon the long delays of geological time. He explains by analogy to the laws of aerodynamics. If you jump off a cliff, for a while, you could be sure that you’re flying. But all along, the ground was really rushing up to meet you. Sooner or later, you look down, and it registers. Now, at long last, Western culture is  close enough to the ground that large numbers of people are noticing. The question is not whether this is so. It is whether we will dither until we splatter on the ground, or try to sprout wings and fly.

Limited Competition in Social Life

As we consider our options, we should remember that it's not only a question of our species versus the rest of life. What we began doing to the earth to obtain our daily bread, we eventually started doing to one another as well. We have competition within our species, and there, too, we break the limited-competition law.  

We do not simply seek food and defend ourselves. For thousands of years, some human cultures have tried to force their way of life upon others. In some cultures, we build long-term systems of daily violence to craft and enforce hierarchies of value. And when our hierarchies are challenged by people demanding justice, we respond to one another just as we have to microscopic bugs in search of food: we wage war. 

In so doing, we have criminally reduced the diversity of cultural ideas. Now, as the one most forcefully competitive lifestyle -- Western culture -- runs into trouble, we find ourselves lacking resilience. With a great crash coming, we can scarcely conceive of other ways to be.

Out of the Cage

Some of those who build these hierarchies and mete out the attacks have had their methods of moral validation. They see a world ungoverned, open for the taking by the strongest. Last year, economic theorist Yanis Varoufakis came face-to-face with this logic, and he wrote a book about his encounter.

Varoufakis served as Finance Minister of Greece during a critical stretch of the Greek debt crisis. He received a strong referendum mandate from the Greek people to reject the European Union austerity programs that he felt were strangling the Greek economy. Varoufakis relates how top International Monetary Fund officials told him in high-stakes meetings that they agreed with his analysis -- that the austerity programs would not help the Greek people -- but that he would be forced to accept them anyway. The IMF and the Eurozone had their own political imperatives, and Greece would be sacrificed for more powerful states' competitive success.[3]

Varoufakis' book is entitled, The Weak Suffer What They Must? As he explains, the title comes from a passage of Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, in The Peloponnesian War.  In the passage, the Athenian army arrives onto the shores of the small island of Melos. The Melians had chosen to remain neutral in the great war between Athens and Sparta. The Athenians were not pleased. They wanted total control, and they had arrived to destroy the Melians. Thucydides writes that the Melians presented the generals with an argument in their defence: humans should not be used as a means to an end, but rather, are an end in themselves. And the Athenian generals responded, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. Melos was not spared.[4]

To the end of his book title, Varoufakis appends a question mark not found in the original. The purpose of the question mark, he explains, is to underscore what he believes was Thucydides' intent in telling the Melian story. Thucydides was an Athenian. He recounts this story of his own generals' ruthlessness. He does this, Varoufakis believes, in order to invite the reader to question the generals' actions and motives. Varoufakis references this story in his title because wants his own readers to do the same.[5]

We have a choice, Varoufakis is insisting. The weak, as he tried to show through his time in office, have a choice to rise up. And the strong, as he discovered in the corridors of power, are not compelled in their actions. They make their choice as well. Today, in the West and in all cultures that accept our economic model, we are making the choice of Athens. It can feel, as the Athenian generals assert in their defence, that this is just "as the world goes."[6] The strong take what they can. But maybe, Varoufakis tells us, it isn't just how the world goes. Maybe it's a belief that Western culture has chosen. Something we can choose to lay down, before the screaming, undeniable evidence arriving now, in climate change, to contradict it.

We have a choice, Daniel Quinn insists. We are not fated by our nature to destroy this world.  Any species that chose to contravene the law of limited competition, he says, would end up just as our culture has. We are only the first species, so far as we know, that has even had the choice to go against the laws of living here.

Numberless human cultures have made different choices in the past 10,000 years and prior. Some of them are hunter-gatherers, some are agriculturists; some are nomadic, some settled. There is no one right way of life. Nature revels in diversity. The only rule, Quinn tells us, is that our actions preserve the diversity and integrity of the whole community of life. Within the boundaries of limited competition, the options for human life remain enormous.

If we feel trapped, as though we really couldn't choose another way, then Quinn tells us we need to find the bars of the cage. The fallacy of our sovereignty over other forms of life, he tells us, is one of them, and perhaps the final one.

Into the Woods

So let's go and explore some other options. In our next post, we'll be guided by the brilliant theorist Jane Jacobs. She'll give us our most grounded answer yet to the question posed by the split title of this thread -- how can ecology and economics be one? We'll unpack Jane's radical assertion that an economy is a natural thing. That it can live well within the laws of nature, that in fact it thrives when it does so. As she teaches us a whole new kind of economics, Jane Jacobs show us what it means to think like a forest.

Will her ideas be practical for the madness of modern life, or only for a fantasy mass return to tents and log cabins? They are absolutely functional for modern life. Jacobs was not a forester, or an ecologist. Her field was urban planning.


[1]  Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam Books, 1992, pp. 25-26.

[2] We might protest that the herd is meant to feed many people who live far away, and so it is reasonable to protect a large number of animals from competition at once. But that reasoning doesn't not help the fox and the wolf that live beside the ranch. Unlike our highly centralized economic systems, natural systems seek equilibrium at every scale. They tend not to create imbalances in any one place for the sake of balance on a higher plane.

[3] Quinn, Ishmael, p. 129.

[4] New York Public Library. “Live from the NYPL: Yanis Varoufakis | Noam Chomsky.” New York Public Library. Online video clip. New York Public Library. 26 April 2016. Accessed 10 August 2016. Link.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Trans. Strassler (1996), 352/5.89.

Rules for Living Here #2 -- Thinking like a Forest

What is an economy? Is it something to do with money and bond markets? Is it that abstract national machine that just hopefully gives you a job somehow?  Is it something impossibly complex, something that condescending experts struggle to dumb down on the nightly news?

Here, we take a different view, one that you’ll hopefully find to be as accessible as it is heretical. Here, the economy is not just about money and jobs. It is the collection of our productive relationships with the natural world. Everything we eat, drink, work on, play with, or transform has its origin in natural resources. Here, the economy is the web of relationships through which we sustain ourselves in nature, and hopefully, when it’s working well, the economy is how we play a part in sustaining the rest of nature too.

Here, the economy might be complex, but it needn’t be complicated. Here, we're going to try to bring economic theory back into contact with its real-world base. As we do, we'll be able to study it in the same way that the early scientists marvelled at nature: we will make sense of it by finding patterns. Here, with some luck, economics might start to feel poetic. 

Let’s hear it from Jane Jacobs, the urban theorist who will guide us through this next step of our exploration: “lots of things that seem impossible to comprehend become more understandable if we identify the basic pattern and watch what it produces through repetition."[1] 

We can study economics in this way because an economy, as Jacobs proudly and counter-intuitively insists, is a natural system. It is every bit as natural, she attests, as how a spider spins its web. We are animals, and economy is just a word for how we relate in daily life with our physical world. 

If it seems hard to believe, that might be because, as Jacobs tells us, it's been a long time since economists have presented their field of study in this way. She praises Adam Smith, the very first economist, as an astute observer of human patterns. But she laments that “[t]he theorists after Smith retreated into their own heads instead of engaging ever more deeply with the real world.”[2] As a result, economic principles have grown abstract, hard to relate to, and out of touch with the way that everything else alive works.

That's kind of a problem. Because, as we've seen in the last two posts in this series, there are ultimate rules and limits in the natural world. We aren't exempt from them. If economies are natural systems, as Jacobs insists they are, then our economies are subject to those rules, too. That means that when an economy contravenes those rules, it sets itself up for failure. It also means that when it follows them, it sets itself up to flourish.

In a brilliant book, entitled The Nature of Economies, Jane Jacobs lays out her understanding of how our modern Western economies depart from nature’s logic, to their detriment and to ours. And she explains how we might get back: by observing the economy of a forest, or how a forest thinks. 

Here, we'll learn from her approach. We'll take three principles of conventional economics. We'll see how Jacobs traces them through ecological systems. And we'll watch her compare them to the way our own modern economies express them instead. By the end, with luck, we'll have a starting sense of what it would look like to have a whole other kind of economy, one more in line with the rest of life. In fact, if we're successful, it ought to feel quite natural.

Forest Logic


An economy, principally, makes things. It turns one thing into another, and then passes them back and forth among us. A farmer turns soil and seeds and water -- three natural resources -- into wheat. He sells some of that wheat to a baker, who combines it with salt and water, and turns it into bread. And so on. Production is the basis of economic development. We develop one thing we are given, into something else we need.

When we watch a whole bunch of these interactions unfolding together, Jane tells us, a natural pattern is seen: generalities differentiate into particulars. A tree trunk divides into branches. Each of those branches divide into smaller branches, and each of those into smaller branches still. Human lungs work this way. Blood vessels and veins run this way. Once created, each particular then becomes a new generality, and differentiates itself into new particulars in turn. It’s a basic fractal pattern, and you can see it everywhere. 

Every development also mixes and merges with other separate but parallel developments. The growth of tree branches is fed by the production of UV light in the sun, and by the production of carbon dioxide in animals' lungs, and so on. Jacobs calls these parallel tracks co-developments. Each of us is dependent for daily life upon an enormous web of co-developments. This web, Jacobs says, is a habitat. A living, breathing, evolving, overlapping web. This is how nature produces.

In economies, you can observe the principle of differentiation at work as well. Iron is mined from the earth, and filtered to become solid iron ore. That iron ore is developed into steel. Steel is melted down and re-formed into car panels and kitchen sinks. Co-developments produce rear view mirrors, cushions, and tail lights, and a car is produced. It is, Jacobs tells us, “an open-ended process, generating complexity and diversity.”[3]

Except for one catch. In our economies, it isn’t all that open-ended. Almost invariably, after three or four transformations, it stops. What new generality does a car become? Sometimes the steel is salvaged. The mirror, the seats, and the tail light are likely destined for landfill. But nature doesn’t have any landfills. There are no dead ends. Each differentiation, without fail, becomes a new generality. What our culture calls garbage and pollution are simply those things that cannot be recycled back into the system in a practical way. From nature’s view, that’s uneconomic. Our landfills are monuments to the dysfunction of our economies -- at least by comparison with the efficiency of everything else alive.

There’s an even deeper inefficiency in our culture's dead-end economics than the fact of pollution. (Deeper, that is, than the obvious fact that given enough time we will literally suffocate in our own garbage.) Let's recall how each process of development relies upon and blends with parallel co-developments, each of which in turn comes from an enormously complex, distinct line of development of its own stretching back through time. Multiply this by millions. This is what development in an ecosystem looks like. Our single-use, disposable products, by contrast, constrain the creative process. When something is thrown into a landfill, its line of development ends. The enormous genetic or mechanical differentiation that produced it is lost to the system forever.

When nothing is lost from the system, though, the resulting complexity and diversity are staggering. Open-ended development permits the maximum possible number of relationships and interactions -- the most complex and diverse possible economy. A diverse economy, like a diverse ecosystem, is resilient. It is capable of weathering shocks. A diverse and integrated system is creative, responsive, and strong.


When many things are produced, and the total size of the system expands, we can say that it has grown. We talk about growth in our economies constantly. But the conversation sits atop a fundamental problem: as we rush to keep growing, we are using up our basic inputs for growth -- our natural resources -- far faster than they can replenish themselves. And yet growth is a fundamental feature of life on Earth. Are there other ways we could do it?

Any economic or ecological system, Jacobs writes, is a kind of energy conduit. It takes in a certain amount of energy at the beginning, transforms it into new things, and then sends energy out the other end. A lot of growth can happen from relatively few resources if, inside the conduit, those resources are efficiently used.

In our usual economic theory, she tells us, we try to grow by increasing our outputs from the system. We want to sell exports in large quantities all around the world. We celebrate large-scale industries, like food processors, or car manufacturers, or tech giants. When we try to grow through increasing our exports, we're focusing on transforming inputs and sending them out the other end of the system as quickly as possible. It's a short trip through the energy conduit.

Natural systems work in the opposite way. Jacobs gives us the example of the tropical rainforest, home to some of the most explosive growth on Earth. You might expect that the rainforest grows as it does because it's blessed with abundant inputs -- lots of rain, rich soils. That's the way we'd see it in our usual economic thinking -- a short, straight path from input to output. But Jacobs tells us that the rainforest works entirely differently.

The rainforest, in fact, gets so much rain that its soils are made terribly poor. All the rain leaches minerals from the soil, making it hard and dry. If a patch is cleared for agriculture, crop yields dwindle after just a couple of years. What rainforests do, Jacobs says, is extend their use of inputs for as long as possible before they leave the system. They build a very long conduit.

Following rainstorms, they generate short bursts of growth. As emerging plants proceed through their life cycles, they drop dying leaves onto the forest floor. Those leaves start to decay, laying down a longer-term, slow-release source of nutrients for larger trees. After the next big rainfall, the enriched soil can support an even bigger burst of growth. As the cycle continues, the ground cover thickens. Small bugs and mushrooms make their homes among the fallen leaves, attracting animals, whose manure adds to the compost pile. Soil bacteria thrive on the decaying matter, and they create more soil nutrients in their wake. As the  ground cover grows and grows, it stretches out the value of the starting stock of nutrients in the soil. 

The rainforest grows so well not because it is blessed with abundant inputs, but because it makes efficient use of the inputs it has. Every bit of soil nutrition is gathered up and distributed multiple times through the network before it has a chance to leach out through the ground. Instead of short, direct conduits from input to output, it builds long ones, stretched out over many overlapping processes of co-development. Most of the value is contained in the conduit itself. Cut down the rainforest, and you've got very little left. The rainforest places its focus on retaining inputs, and it grows both explosively and sustainably.

Could we do the same in our economies? If we're drawn to those large-scale exporters because they provide a lot of jobs, could we create jobs by increasing the number of connections inside each of our systems instead? Could we build a long conduit? Could we pass the same resources back and forth to one another, each adding a little bit as we go?

Indeed, we could. In standard economics, it's called adding value, and it's highly prized. But we don't prioritize it. It always just seems easier to pull more inputs out of the ground and funnel them through a short conduit than it does to build a real local web of activity. If that's so, it's just because we don't place any inherent or formal value on our natural resources. We treat them as though they were unlimited. But they aren't, and we're shooting them through short conduits at a foolish rate. Meanwhile, those dense, local webs we're neglecting are what make an economy resilient, creative, and more equitable and fair.

So what might it look like if a town grew like a forest? Imagine a fertile plot of land somewhere in Southern Ontario. In our conventional thinking, the best way to use that piece of land would be to plop an export plant down on top of it. Import a bunch of materials, and make one product in large quantities. Turn the inputs into outputs, and send them on their way. If it does well, it could attract a few thousand jobs. Through those workers' salaries, we could support a few hundred others in home construction, haircuts, restaurants, and more. That's one option.

If we thought like a forest, we'd start out by asking how many different uses we could draw from this single plot of land instead. We'd be looking for the maximum number of interactions and co-developments, to keep the value that's present in that land cycling through the system as long as possible before it leaves. For starters, we could grow food on it -- but not just one single crop of wheat to cut and put on a train to somewhere else. That's short-conduit thinking. We could start out growing corn and beans and squash, all together in a single row. They work in tandem to feed each other, making maximum use of soil nutrients and water.[4] The corn and beans could supply a Mexican restaurant in town. The squash could be saved for the winter, to help the farmers' market run year-round. Another row could be used to grow flowers, supporting a local florist's shop, and feeding in to wedding and funeral services.

Another part of the field could go to cattle grazing. That would generate a new input of manure for enhancing the outputs of rest of the field. Dairy cows could produce milk, providing work for a local cheesemaker, and supplying a pizza shop. The whey, a by-product of cheesemaking, could be sold off to a pig farmer down the way to supplement the diet of her pigs. Still another part of the field could be used for windmills, generating repair work for a local mechanic. If enough other people did the same, a small regional plant could go up to supply spare parts for the windmills, or even build them from scratch. The web can keep growing, thickening, and developing from there. If other local people start to take the same approach, the potential for co-development grows exponentially.

Both the car plant and the mixed-use farm generate a large number of jobs from the same plot of land. But one of them -- the car plant -- does so through a short conduit, rapidly cycling materials through. The other -- the mixed-use farm -- accomplishes it by multiplying the number of uses for each material, generating a complex, diversified local web.

Would it work, we must ask, for a modern high-tech city too? Absolutely. Cities are shining examples of dense, local webs of co-development. A single busy restaurant might contract the services of a local accountant, lawyer, interior designer, and marketing specialist, on top of their own staff and suppliers. When governments try to encourage further growth in cities, oftentimes they try to entice a large multinational corporation, like a technology firm or a pharmaceutical company, to set up a local office or plant. Instead, they could choose to support the growth and development of what already exists in the system.

To attract a large exporter, governments might spend revenue on subsidies and tax breaks. To encourage interconnections instead, that revenue could be spent on local infrastructure: building transit to help citizens quickly reach each other, providing affordable child care to facilitate working life for parents, or supporting public parks and the arts to help everyone feel energized and refreshed. Just like in the rural example, it's a choice between investing in one large set of outputs, or priming the whole ecosystem to make maximum use of the inputs that it already has.

With a focus on attracting exporters, a city or town might have the potential to grow richer in less time. But with the diversified, input-stretching approach, the city or town's economy will be more reliable, durable, sustainable, and creative. Forests opt for stability and for balance. And they think for the long term. They'll always choose the second way. Given the choice, I think most people would too.


All organisms need to re-fuel themselves in order to survive. When you eat, you generate at least enough energy to acquire your next meal. This is self-refueling. In a business, you need to make enough money selling a product to purchase the materials for the next one. And in a whole economy, money is made to import goods by exporting goods to other places. In order to stay in balance, it tries to earn enough through exports to be able to purchase all the imports it needs. 

As we’ve seen, in our conventional economies, we tend to focus on the export side of the equation. There's a certain logic to it. But when it comes to self-refueling, by forest standards, that's a pretty risky approach. Because if the big exporter moves away, the city runs out of fuel.

A city that leans heavily on big export industries isn't behaving like a self-refueling organism, Jacobs tells us. It's behaving like a machine, waiting to be powered by something outside itself. "Somebody has to refill its tank for it," Jacobs writes, "and if nobody does, the machine stands still.”[5] When the big U.S. auto-makers declined, Detroit fell into trouble. It couldn't refuel itself when the big exporters moved away. We see this pattern, painfully, over and over again.

Jacobs takes us back to the forest model to imagine another way. Not only do forests make maximum use of their inputs, and recycle them when they're through, but the inputs that they do rely on are very simple, very few, and very dependably available. How? They make much of what they need themselves. Each plant is like a little chemical laboratory, re-organizing and synthesizing inputs to produce what else it needs. Varied species’ functions overlap to enrich the resource base for all. If you want to be less dependent on large-scale export, Jacobs tells us, you focus on the other end of the equation: you reduce your dependence on imports. You make more of what you need for yourself. And as you grow your own local ecosystem, you end up generating exports anyway from within. This is how an economy can fuel itself.

Jacobs shows us how this works through a lovely story of the early economy of San Francisco. The city began as a gold rush town. Merchants popped up to sell provisions to prospectors. As the economy matured and diversified, merchants started importing luxury goods from the cities of the East. One grocer, named Cutting, started bringing in jams and preserves from a Boston warehouse. He realized he could reap a bigger profit if he made the jams and preserves himself instead. So he went out to some of the farms on the outskirts of town and persuaded a handful of cattle ranchers to plant peach, pear, cherry, plum and apricot trees. Today, of course, the area is a hugely successful fruit-producing region. But that’s a co-development story for another day.

Cutting’s preserve-making initiative was a hit. Other merchants started to follow his lead. Some started canning beans and peas, which before then had been imported from the East as well. The little industry grew, and as it did, the balance of San Francisco's imports shifted. Fewer jams were brought in, but a lot more sugar and empty glass jars. And so someone started up a glass jar-making factory in town. A few others started bringing in sheets of tin to make cans. By the 1930s, canned and dried fruits and vegetables were the second-largest industry in the city, and tin cans and other tin goods were the fifth-largest. Other import replacements took place simultaneously in other industries -- co-developments -- and eventually demand grew large enough to justify a local glass-making factory and a tin-rolling mill.

Substituting local production for imports, San Francisco powered much of its own growth from a sleepy gold-rush town into a major metropolis. In time, it could export its home-grown products to other places, earning more money for imports. And because those exporters had grown up from within, enmeshed in co-developments with other local producers, they were rooted in a dense, interconnected web of local production. That web could function as a unit to provide San Franciscans with much of their own needs.. If one of the exporters went suddenly out of business, the economy as a whole would stand a good chance at adapting, recovering, and correcting, as would the individuals within it. As in a forest, the diversity, creativity, and resilience of the system would be its strength.

In our conventional economics, this sort of local approach is sometimes scoffed at. The rule has long been to let each area specialize in making one sort of thing, so that each thing is made most efficiently. It's called economies of scale: the higher the scale, the more economical. But viewed through the lens of self-refueling, the conventional approach is suspect. Depending on trade for much of your employment or to fulfill your basic needs sets your economy upon a shaky branch. A thoroughly globalized economy, whatever its theoretical appeal, is deeply at odds with the pattern in nature.

Against economies of scale, Jacobs argues for economies of location. Learning from forests, she says, economies should seek the maximum number of productive relationships at every single geographic node. Some trade is perfectly fine, but the more an economic system depends on export and trade for its basic health, the more it sacrifices its own resilience, and its own creativity.

Choosing Resilience

There is one way in which a human economic system differs from a forest ecology, a way in which they can't be made quite equivalent. Unlike every other life form, humans have a choice. We can choose to participate in the forms of production and exchange that have been honed through evolution, or we can choose to contradict them.

An economy, like a forest, is a self-organizing system, except for the humans who populate it. We organize one another. We organize together. We organize our systems in the ways that we choose. And so we need to make a choice. We  can choose to organize our economies so that they co-operate with the wisdom of living systems. We can choose to preserve what Jacobs calls “the double nature of fitness for survival:” the freedom to act as an individual, and the sacred responsibility of preserving the health of the habitat for everyone else.[6]

The limits such a choice would impose upon us are not so restrictive. A million forms of life are possible within them. And diversity may reign. Beautiful, insightful forms of living are cropping up all around the edges of our conventional economy, and in my own opinion, many of them promise much happier, much richer lives than we have now. Not to mention the added perk of continued human survival. We’ll start to explore some of them in future posts on this thread, partly just to share these great ideas, and partly, of course, to tease out how they exemplify and express newly emerging philosophies of human life. 

All we need to do is ensure that we begin to live once again in symbiosis with the rest of the living world. When we do, the actions of any one of us will contribute positively to the whole. It may sound utopian. But look around. See the patterns. The whole world lives this way, except for some of us. For everyone else, it is basic, commonplace, and obvious. It is how we travelled most of the way through time to where we are. We need only remember what we once knew, and build forward from there.

[U]niversal natural principles limit what we can do economically and how we can do it. Trying to evade overriding principles of development is economically futile. But those principles are solid foundations for economies.
— Jane Jacobs [7]

Audio Credits:

  1. Branches Break - Gogo Penguin (4:23)
  2. Initiate - Gogo Penguin (4:47)
  3. GBFISYSIH - Gogo Penguin (3:22)
  4. Everloving - Moby (3:26)
  5. Ce Matin La - AIR (3:39)
  6. Protest - Gogo Penguin (4:45)


[1] Jacbos, Jane. The Nature of Economies. New York: Vintage Books, 2001, pp. 22-23.

[2] Ibid., p. 107.

[3] Ibid., p. 17.

[4] This agricultural technique was developed by the Maya people, and is still used in various parts of Mexico and Central America. It is known as milpa.

[5] Jacobs, The Nature of Economies., p. 68.

[6] Ibid., pp. 119-132.

[7] Ibid., p. 8.

What is Holistic Medicine?

A cut closes. A split bone fuses. What is broken becomes whole.

What does it mean to be broken? Who is a broken person? What is a broken system? A broken home?

Questions like these are called medicine when they begin in a body. They do not end there. They do not end there, because the body does not end there. It reaches outward, always in dialogue with what is around it and beyond it.

Temperature sensors in your skin detect heat and cold; your nervous system listens to the weather, and the stove, and the radiating asphalt. Your internal body clock is entrained by light; both your eyes and your endocrine glands watch the passage of the sun. Your gut and your skin are covered in a layer of bacteria, billions. They are not, strictly speaking, you. The outside world is teeming inside us and upon us. We need this whole community in order to live. We are symbionts. We are not just in this world - we are of it.

If this feels like poetry, good. It is biology. Then things are talking to each other again.

Medicine begins by listening to this conversation. Listening, listening, for parts that have turned their backs upon each other. Inner-body rhythms that don’t speak to outer rhythms. Social systems inhospitable to living systems. Minds at war upon themselves. Just come and sit here. Let us talk. We will find a way to return. We depend upon one another. We have evolved this way. We have evolved to need each other.

This is the work of medicine: it begins in a body, and reaches out toward the whole. It re-patterns the bodies we inhabit to cohere with the world we inhabit, and re-patterns that world to cohere with these bodies in turn.  It drains lymph; it drains swamps. It reduces inflammation, and reduces inequality. Its area of expertise is the harmonious functioning of living systems. Its practice is to listen for truncated conversations, to guide disunited parts back to harmony. 

This knowledge is buried and preserved in our words for healing. The word physician comes from the Greek for knowledge of nature. The word health comes from the Proto-Germanic for whole. To say holistic medicine is nearly redundant, because medicine itself means the work of re-uniting parts with wholes. I use this term because it has become necessary to give a reminder of this old truth. This truth is old, but still good.

Somewhere along the way, we forgot it. We happened upon something new, parts previously unseen. Germs, and things. We got very excited, naturally. We squinted hard. We looked through microscopes to see them. And then, for a while, we forgot that there was anything beyond the lens. 

The world beyond the lens is still affecting us anyway. We just haven’t much wanted to listen, or talk. Squinting focus must widen again. The antibiotics will not work for much longer, yet still we cannot look away.

The rest of the living world is waiting, for dialogue. A holistic medicine is anything that re-patterns these connections. It holds everything in its gaze. The ancient Ayurvedic physicians would pray to Ganesh, god of pattern recognition. There is a whole. Brokenness is when part of us is not part of it.

Embodied Politics

Politics and ethics seem to take place on a battleground, pitched between virtue and vice. Vice pulls us toward greed, selfishness and narrowness of spirit; virtue toward generosity and altruism. When we feel drawn to vice or see others drawn there, we explain it away with a sigh. It's human nature. There’s a sense that entropy leads that way. Without effort, and maybe constant effort, we’ll slide toward our true nature and tear one another apart.

To guard against ourselves, the left says to build our ethics into social institutions; the right wants self-discipline through morals or markets. The battle entire is waged on the presumption that we will be selfish unless we regulate ourselves. To be most fully human, it would seem, is to repress human nature.

What is this nature we must work in perpetuity to keep at bay? What danger is down there? Thomas Hobbes said that we will destroy each other unless the government is violent. But then Freud says that social etiquette is repression, and Nietzsche says morality weakens us. What is it we are repressing? What source of authenticity or strength? What is going on beneath this thin, staid façade we call society? 

Are we afraid that beneath the veneer, we are animals? 

Well, of course we are animals. We evolved from animals, into another kind of animal. Genetically, we are still all but identical to the higher apes. We must know, mustn't we, that the Discovery Channel’s When Animals Attack is not what goes on out there most of the time, among the rest of the animals? That life is mostly peaceable in the forest most of the time? I wonder, how much time did Thomas Hobbes spend in the wild? 

What it would look like if we lived a little more from those animal impulses, and a little less by social imposition? Those impulses we so fear, we have evolved nearly as far as we have because of them. Our great flourishing on this planet -- achieved through brains much more than brawn -- took place because we developed impulses toward interdependence.

Indeed, Darwin seemed to think so. From The Descent of Man: "in numberless animal societies, the struggle between individuals for the means of existence disappears; struggle is replaced by co-operation."[1]. But at the time Darwin published his work, a Victorian elite was ascendent through the early capitalist markets. They latched on to survival of the fittest as a moral justification for laissez-faire economics, racial hierarchy, and their own obscene wealth.[2] Meanwhile, Darwin didn't even coin the phrase. It was written by the philosopher Herbert Spencer. Spencer transposed Darwin's theories onto the social realm, to help him explain "the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life."[3-5] Gross. It’s not clear that vicious competitiveness is any kind of human nature, nor that it ever was.

For a long time, anthropologists thought we had descended from a brutal monster ape whose bloodthirstiness still lived inside us. These theories shot streaks through our common mythology. But they've since been found to rest on little more than the projections of early-20th-century Europeans upon the fossil record, horrified as they were by their own brutal wars.[6]

From those early inspirations, we thought we were most closely related to the aggressive and hierarchical chimpanzee. But in the last few years, we've seen substantial suggestion that it may be the co-operative, orgiastic bonobo that best reflects our ancestry. Bonobos settle their disputes through love instead of war.[7,7a] We share about 99% of our DNA with each of these great apes, but the bonobo's genes seem to have changed less than the chimp's have since our evolutionary paths diverged.[8,9] Says Takayoshi Kano, Japanese primatologist who oversaw the longest ongoing field study of bonobos in the wild: "[t]hey prove that individuals can coexist without relying on competition and dominant-subordinate rank."[10]

Wellness and goodness in human life, I submit, are not a late-liberal conceit draped atop a wild and naked animal nature. For the overwhelming majority of our evolutionary history, we have lived in highly egalitarian societies.[11] Sociability is a part of our animal nature. We have out-competed every other species because of it. We have been crafted root and branch to see our own welfare as bound up with the welfare of the group.

Impulse and Culture

Even our most vivid expressions of violent instinct -- racism, war -- are simultaneously hyperactive expressions of in-group bonding. Warmongers tap deep into our psyches by calling not upon a joy of violent destruction, but the defence of the collective values and the collective home. They weaponize the us-and-them dynamic that underlies in-group cohesion. Even in war and structural violence, when we really do tear one another apart, from the perspective of their deep psyches each side is acting out its mutuality. We can only rationalize demonizing members of other tribes by an appeal to co-operation.[12] Ideologues of violence twist this nature by defining the in-group as they see fit.

We can do a better job of channeling these deepest drives. Sometimes we do. In many small, non-capitalist economies, wrote the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in a famous essay, daily trade passes through gifts freely given. It's considered impersonal to pay in exchange. Over time, each person in the group owes a web of overlapping debts to every other, never intending them to be tallied. Generosity and mutual obligation are institutionalized. Co-operation becomes a currency, and it keeps the group together.[13]

In late capitalism in the West, though, our economies are set up on the opposite orientation. We exist in competitive infrastructures, facing off against each other for access to jobs, for possession of the best goods, for the quality of education of our children. Advocates of the approach will argue that it simply unmasks our competitive natures and directs them toward national productivity. But these arguments are drawing upon Victorian-era pseudoscience still, set up to justify the obscene self-aggrandizement of the very rich.

Constant competition is not a reflection of our evolutionary nature. It perverts our nature. Epidemiologists report that status anxiety in our societies is driving pathological levels of metabolic stress.[14] Competitive economies bend back the vector of co-operative intent until it is entirely reflexive, pointing only to our own nuclear families, or even to our individual selves alone. The in-group is ever-shrinking. Such was not the case prior to capitalism.[15] Our economies aren't fueled by our violent will toward one another, but by our fear of being cold and alone. When we sense threat from the outside, our evolutionary instinct is to protect our own. 

We do our best under these counter-evolutionary conditions to express our co-operative impulses. We will form relationships in almost any set of circumstances. If there is something that we're covering up, perhaps it's not our nature, but the hole carved out inside us by the brutal logics of this system we've been placed within. It might cause us crippling cognitive dissonance to face it entirely: that the state operates always through the threat of violence, and that markets pit us against each other for access to belonging and food. If perhaps we have forgotten that we know a better way, the protestations of our bodies tell us that the memory is still buried in here somewhere.

What is dangerous about our animal impulses, then? Not the impulses themselves, but how they are twisted to serve narrow aims and ends. There is danger because they are powerful -- because we are viscerally, powerfully interdependent. It has been building for millions of years. We will fight to preserve the in-group. If there is something we should worry about, it is not the direction of our impulses, but in how and why they become re-directed. 

There is no virtue or vice. These are but things we are told to do and not to do. There is only flesh, evolving animal flesh, and its prime driving impulse: life, ever more life, expressions and protections of life. If a malevolent few want to extract or re-direct this pleasure-driven drive, for profit or conquest or self-aggrandizement, they must do so by instructing us against our own desires. They must tell us what we are to do and not to do. They must convince us to cover up the life-affirming drives of flesh. They must build a disembodying culture.

A good culture does not repress our impulses. A good culture, a living culture, revels in them, raises them, extols them. It channels them, toward our welfare.

Culture through the Flesh

In less complex animals, impulse and instinct form a total set of instructions for life. Turtles and fish lay their eggs and then go on their way. In more complex animals -- apes, dolphins, humans -- offspring are born unfit to survive. They must be taught. This is what is called culture.

Instruction in hunting takes the place of a certain measure of instinct. Emotional nourishment extends the feeding and warmth of the womb. As a species evolves into higher complexity, the work of gestation moves outside the mother's body and becomes intersubjective. We are nurtured toward viable life first by placenta and then by parenting. The process straddles a nature-culture divide. Culture is not a thing we foist upon our biology, to correct or to hide it. Culture is the extension of biology by other means.

There is a difference between our animal impulses and our cultural ideas, but it is continuum more than category change. We have higher and lower orders of functioning, the higher ones more recently evolved, but they operate as an interwoven one. Inside our skulls, the upper cortex that controls our language envelops the limbic system that oversees emotional life; the limbic coddles the brainstem that ensures we breathe.[16-18]  Our higher functions grew out of our lower ones, and then returned to wrap themselves around their ancestors. All the while that we try to separate nature from culture, our social and instinctive selves are nestled together, speaking intimately to one another, in order to make both worlds appear to us.

We may think we are separate from animal nature, but our bodies, where everything we know takes place, have not been told. When we try to arrange our lives such that our higher functions dominate our lower ones -- virtue over vice -- we are at war within ourselves.  Do we really expect we could cease being at war with one another this way? Animal nature, that thing we are fighting down, or running from, is the most basic storyline of our evolutionary success.

Let us not look to culture, then, as something used for separating out parts of our inner selves. Good culture, I think, is good when and because it interpenetrates them. Whether death rituals or gathering around a meal, literature or painting or jurisprudence, cultural practices are good practices when they integrate. When they link our higher and lower natures. Good culture reaches into the limbic system and the brainstem, where our animal impulses lie. A good cultural practice is something you can feel.

It makes your heart race, or slow. It releases muscle tension, and relaxes digestion. It translates your intellectual life through your emotions. Good culture links mind and body. Good culture isn’t what separates us from animals. It's what reminds us how to be animals well.

Embodied Politics

Good politics, then, won’t be a horse-trade between the better and worse angels of our nature. Virtue-and-vice thinking intensifies the split we feel between our higher and lower selves. If good culture helps us cross the divide, then good political practices are those that channel our impulses to inspire, to enrich and to give rise to our good ideas. A good politics doesn’t choose the ideas of our best minds over the desires of our bodies – a good politics is, itself, embodied.

Embodied politics begin once we know, innately, what is healthy. When we make use of the subconscious knowledge upon which we thrived for the millions of years before conscious thought. Conscious thought: the capacity to mentally de-link from our impulses, to re-train and reconfigure them, to try to know better. An embodied politics begins by reclaiming animal impulses as basic biological guides toward health and wholeness. It continues as it engages our conscious minds to express rather than repress those impulses. It matures when we invite logic and language and creative design to build upon them. To build a healthy society, we need to know what is healthy. This is a thing we can remember how to physically feel.

In the radical public health thread, we look backwards from widespread illness to find its roots in power relations. We look to find out who is organizing life in ways that imperil it. Here in our medicine thread, we look inward instead. We ask how and why any of us, or many of us, could have arrived at a state where we no longer knew what was good for us. Where we became so disembodied within ourselves -- our ideas split from the life-seeking impulses of our bodies -- that we could create political life that would further disembody us. In the medicine thread, we reverse-engineer the epidemiological process of studying disease to find its roots. We seek the root directly, and ask what it would mean to build life up from there.

Many of us are led to forget what will nourish us in the interests of profit for a cynical few. Marketers strive to play upon the limbic brain. But so have those who profit from disembodiment lost their inner way. Our epidemiologists tell us that an unequal society is unhealthy even for the well-off. It imposes stresses and strains that we have not evolved to process.[19]

Greed is a state of disembodiment, where the higher functions of ego-structures run ahead unbundled from the interests of the lower functions that sustain basic life. In greed, an ego seeks its own aggrandizement to the point of detriment to others around it. It has forgotten the ways in which it is functionally dependent on those others for psycho-physiological stability. And so it creates social problems that imperil its own physical life.[20,21] Greed is masochistic.

In an embodied life, ego-structures and lower structures serve one another. Part of individual embodiment is awareness of interdependence with others. So an embodied politics can rise. 

Medicine as Politics: A Work of Re-Embodiment

Good culture helps us find our way across that inner gap between high and low. But when the bridge all but collapses, medicine intervenes. Medicine is called for when mind and body are working at cross-purposes. When we drive ourselves habitually to exhaustion. When we can no longer summon the hows and whys of life to raise us from bed in the morning. When our immune systems can no longer tell self from invader. Good medicine intervenes then.

Medicine is more focused, more penetrating, than the broad brush of culture. Good medicine knits together again our mental awareness of our lives with our sensual experience of them. It returns us to relationship with our impulses, those life-seeking drives that sustained us through millions of years -- through the millions of years before we developed conscious thought, before we gained the capacity to outrun our impulses, to try to know better than them, to repress them. It teaches us how to be both conscious and animal. It re-educates us in how to be what we are. It is understandable that we should forget, or maybe never have quite understood. By evolutionary time, we are rather new at this duet.[22]

Medicine, at this depth, re-introduces conscious processes to the direction of the things we feel. It re-aligns us with the impulses that tell us how and what to eat, when to rest, how to love. If our breath and our heartbeat function like a whirring machine, re-embodying medicine reminds us how to monitor the readouts and respond, adjusting production so it corresponds with capacity, and tending to maintenance and care. It teaches us to engage our whole selves like this, rather than disconnecting from our body functions, shutting the door and walking the other way. Re-embodying medicine lowers us down upon the waiting bed of autonomic function, ready to receive us always beneath the racing panic of our disembodied minds.

Medicine like this begins in attending to the simple, quickening impulse, and it builds us all the way up to a wise determination of how to organize collective life. When we once again feel physical cravings for the things that make us healthy, we become re-acquainted with the universal life-giving urge. It is a wellspring of embodied inspiration. From it, we can re-create forms of culture that remind us how to feel. With emotions that enliven our impulses, we can generate wise ideas for organizing social life. In this way, we might imagine ways of living that are more in line with the limits and gifts of life. Like the evolutionary layers of our brains, a politic of re-embodiment begins in the most direct and basic, and flowers up through the explicit and complex.

Re-embodiment is not the whole answer to the problems of social life. We face a much more complex and variegated world than the ones we mostly evolved in. But I doubt if we are better equipped to handle the challenge without the help -- integrated, interpenetrated -- of our oldest, most field-tested tools, our impulses. If we want to create or re-create life on earth that feels like home, we may need to come home to our own bodies first.

Nature never intends the generation of a monster.
— John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, in debate with Thomas Hobbes (1645) [23]

Many thanks to dear friend and righteous performance poet Kelsey Rideout, who first introduced me to the term 'embodied politics.' She offered to let me share in its development with her. This is my latest contribution. Check out Kelsey's work here.

Deep thanks also to Matthew Remski, with whom I worked out my first concept of medicine as a process of re-integrating the conscious mind with autonomic function, while sitting in comfy old chairs in his sunlit office and drinking great coffee.

Audio Credits:

  1. Never Stop - Chilly Gonzales (4:44)
  2. Off We Go - Hakuu (2:58)
  3. Ghost - Hakuu (3:21)
  4. Sunspot - Moby (6:49


[1] Qtd. in Dubos, René. Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress and Biological Change. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959, p. 63.

[2] Dubos, pp. 62-63.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Saul, Jonathan Ralston. The Comeback. Toronto: Penguin Canada Books, 2014, p. 9.

[5] "Survival of the fittest." Wikipedia. 24 May 2016. Accessed 14 August 2016. Link. Darwin did like the phrase when he saw it, and adapted it for a later work. the phrase for a later work, but re-applied it to the biological setting.

[6] Johnson, Eric Michael (2011). "Ariel Casts out Caliban." Times Higher Education. 21 April 2011. Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[7] Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books, 2009, pp. 203-205.

[7a] Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).

[8] Wong, Kate. "Tiny Genetic Differences between Humans and Other Primates." Scientific American. 1 September 2014. Accessed 14 August 2016. Link.

[9] Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).

[10] Qtd. in Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).

[11] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, pp. 207-208.

[12] Ibid., pp. 207-210. The basic concept of competition as reflective of in-group co-operation is drawn from here.

[13] Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1972, pp. 149-18.

[14] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, pp. 164-166, 194, 201-206

[15] Parker, Stuart. "Political Geography of Community – Part 4: Dispossession, Dislocation and the Invention of the Neighbour." Stuart Parker's Blog. 13 February 2014. Accessed 14 August 2016. Link.

[16] Hanson, Rick. "Pet the Lizard." Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 11 July (Year not posted.) Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[17] Hanson, Rick. "Feed the Mouse." Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 27 July (Year not posted.) Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[18] Hanson, Rick. "Hug the Monkey." Rick Hanson, Ph.D. 29 July. (Year not posted.) Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[19] Wilkinson and Pickett, The Spirit Level, pp. 173-196.

[20] Ibid. The basic physiology linking inequality and ill health, via mental stress, is explored here.

[21] Stone, Michael (2016). Forthcoming. The basic notion of greed as self-harm is drawn from here.

[22] Cf. Jaynes, Julien. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976. Jaynes presents a theory that consciousness arose roughly 3,000 years ago. He defines consciousness as the specific ability to remove oneself by an act of will from identification with the world and into abstraction.

[23] Qtd. in Johnson, Eric Michael (2011).




Part 1: How to Tell a Story [Prehistory - 1850]

This is the first post in a four-part series, entitled Cultural Evolution as a Praxis of Public Health.

The Chiefs of the Shuswap, Okanagan and Couteau Tribes of British Columbia. "Memorial Letter for Sir Wilfrid Laurier," 1910. Excerpted.[1]

"When they first came among us there were only Indians here. They found the people of each tribe supreme in their own territory, and having tribal boundaries known and recognized by all. The country of each tribe was just the same as a very large farm or ranch (belonging to all the people of the tribe) from which they gathered their food, grass and vegetation on which their horses grazed and the game lived, and much of which furnished materials for manufactures, etc…. Thus, fire, water, food, clothing and all the necessaries of life were obtained in abundance from the lands of each tribe, and all the people had equal rights of access to everything they required. You will see the ranch of each tribe was the same as its life, and without it the people could not have lived.

Just 52 years ago the other whites [the British] came to this country. They found us just the same as the first or “real whites” [the French] had found us, only we had larger bands of horses, had some cattle, and in many places we cultivated the land. They found us happy, healthy, strong and numerous.... We were friendly and helped these whites also, for had we not learned the first whites had done us no harm? ... Some of our Chiefs said, “These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must, therefore, be the same as brothers to them, and live as one family. We will share equally in everything – half and half – in land, water and timber, etc. What is ours will be theirs, and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.”

Grand Chief John Kelly. "We Are All in the Ojibway Circle." Testimony before the Royal Commission on the Northern Environment, Kenora, Ontario, 1977. Excerpted.[2]

"Mr. Commissioner, it seems to me that the stranger from the sunrise beyond the lakes just keeps coming back. Each time he promises us perpetual repose and gluttony, and leaves us with famine and disease. It also appears that, as the years go by, the circle of the Ojibway gets bigger and bigger. Canadians of all colours and religion are entering that circle. You might feel that you have roots somewhere else, but in reality, you are right here with us. I do not know if you feel the throbbing of the land in your chest, and if you feel the bear is your brother with a spirit purer and stronger than yours, or if the elk is on a higher level of life than is man. You may not share the spiritual anguish as I see the earth ravaged by the stranger, but you can no longer escape my fate as the soil turns barren and the rivers poison. Much against my will, and probably yours, time and circumstance have put us together in the same circle. And so I come not to plead with you to save me from the monstrous stranger of capitalist greed and technology. I come to inform you that my danger is your danger too. My genocide is your genocide."

 John Ralston Saul, The Comeback, 2014.[3]

“Why did so few people see how horrible all of this was? One explanation is that it was woven seamlessly into our concepts of progress and democracy."


At first glance such overwhelming imperial power did indeed seem to be justified by Western nations' technological leadership, military prowess and cultural sophistication. But the key intellectual tool -- and the central mythological tool -- was the conviction of racial superiority. Racism. It was all about white people, pink people, at the top. This was God's team, with Darwinian determinism and the machinery of modernism on its side.

In only a few years these intellectually and politically argued myths, laid out with detail and with great self-confidence, would lead the European peoples to massacre themselves in first one world war and then a second.


Because myth sets the form of power. It gives the force of legitimacy that allows a society to function.”

Human cultures are based on myths. Myths are stories of how a culture is born, what it's done since, where it's going. They bind peoples together, and they increase their chances of survival and success. We have evolved to tell them. They exert a deep, emotional hold on us, directing and shaping our identities, outlooks, and actions, mostly unseen. In John Ralston Saul's phrase, they are what allows a society to function. We tell these stories, and then we become them. We are the music makers, wrote the British poet, Arthur O'Shaughnessey. We are the dreamers of dreams.

We may not think that Western culture has myths and stories like these. We have only histories, we say. Our stories are true. The building of the railroad. Democracy in ancient Athens. The birth of agriculture. But the founding stories of a culture are never just histories. They serve a different purpose than histories do. A history tries to tell you what happened, while a myth's job is to tell you who you are and what you should do. Once a story of the past is pressed into the service of identity-making, it has risen to the level of myth. It gains a new power, but you can no longer count on it for truth.[4]

A myth might be a beautiful creation. But it is a creation still. And so when it seems that your myth is leading you to do horrible things, you can change it. And you should.

The story that lies at the root of Western culture is a story about something we've called civilization, that forward march of discovery and technology and organization. We believe we are good because we are civilized. And so we believe that more civilization will be a good thing, even if it carries high costs.

When we stand up tall with pride in our civilizational achievements, we don't always see the long, dark shadow stretching out behind us. The whole sordid history of Western imperialism lives there. The shadow is cast, I believe, by this article of faith at the heart of our story: we do not believe that we are subject to limits.

We have believed, for example, that no ecological limits should stop us. When Europeans went abroad to colonize the rest of the world, they were driven to do so, argued Marx and Lenin, because they had over-consumed their own resources and produced beyond their needs. They went looking for new resources for their mills and new markets for their goods.[5,6] And they didn't believe that social limits should stop them from taking what they found: they soon fashioned the concept of racial superiority to justify colonial theft and control.

The First Nations Chiefs quoted above tell how this story unfolded when it arrived onto North American shores. Our forebears who settled here reduced what were, by almost any historical account, a diverse group of ostensibly healthy and successful nations to one of the lowest life expectancy rates on the planet, meanwhile building up one of the richest societies in history from their land. 

Why did so few people see how horrible this was? asks John Ralston Saul. His answer is that underneath this sense of entitlement was a story -- the story of civilization -- telling us that progress, as we defined it, was the ultimate good. We could legitimize all sorts of atrocities in its name, because our story told us that everything, in the end, would be improved by our ingenuity. More civilization -- more discovery, technology, and organization -- was our cure for any ill.

But now, as the planet warms, the logic of this story is twisting into knots so tight that it might break. We might finally decide that we are not above planetary limits; not above others. That we cannot invent ourselves out of the web of life. We may see that we are, to the end, dependent upon it. There are some high-tech schemes around for engineering the planet's climate to forestall warming. They follow the usual story of inventing our way past limits. But the general consensus on these plans is that they're bat-shit insane, and we should really (finally) find another way. [7]

What do you do when you find that your story of who you are in the world is leading you astray? That your culture's identity no longer seems to guide you toward health, toward wellness, toward good relationships with the rest of life around you, toward a sane and stable future? What to do when you doubt that your story of the world is still working?

What you do, is you recall that your story was only ever a useful fiction. You double back. You return to the facts of experience your story was built from -- the history your narrative narrates. You expose your myth for the particular and partial re-telling of your past it always was. You get humble, you get curious. You take the first steps toward narrating another way.

You look back and ask what other kinds of lessons you might be able to take from your past instead. You ask what you might have gotten wrong; you look for lessons that might respond to the world you face in a healthier and more enlivening way. This work is something we could call conscious cultural evolution. It’s something that my friend and co-conspirator Matthew Remski might call deconstruction without cynicism.[8] And it's something that, wellawshucks, let's just take a crack at it here today. It seems to me that it's about time.

It can be hard to let go of a story once well-loved -- that worked well, or seemed to. It's traumatic to release a treasured fiction. But once we loosen our grip a little, we can start to see not only that our story has started to fail us, but that it wasn't even all that true to begin with. Because it's just a story, that we created, to serve a particular goal. So we allow it to slip a little from our fingers. Little by little. And then, little by little again, there arrives the sweet, salvational succour that we really are free -- free, together, to tell another. We are storytellers. We are music-makers. We can become whomever we want to be.

Let's tell another.

The Story of Civilization

The story we have been telling ourselves goes something like this: human culture began in small tribes of hunter-gatherers. Then we discovered fire. We invented farming. From farming came surplus; from surplus, stability and wealth. From stability came more intelligent social organization; from wealth came support for dedicated craftspersons, and later, artists, doctors, philosophers, astronomers. Each innovation made us less reliant on the whims and vagaries of nature: better fed, more leisured, less violent, more resistant to disease. 

We have called this the history of civilization, and by civilization, we have meant the development of larger and more complex societies, with more complex economies, becoming less and less dependent upon the rhythms of the natural world. The history of civilization we tell looks like a linear and uninterrupted rise from primordial muck to science. Civilization's opposites -- the more nature-dependent ways of life that have lived before and beside it -- are called primitive.  In this telling, the primitive past was, in Thomas Hobbes' well-worn phrase, "poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and while we may look back with sympathy, pity, or even romance at those beginnings, so goes the story, we are better off for having left it behind.[9,10]

This familiar story is a lullaby we have sung ourselves for a long time. This is the story that has been leading us astray. I want to look back at our history afresh, without the romantic lens of the familiar story. We need to ask what other lessons might be hidden in that past, how else we might be able to define ourselves. It's time we rouse ourselves a little, and sing the song anew.

How to Tell

Let's meet Mark Nathan Cohen, an American archaeologist. He has devoted most of his career to the question of whether the Western mythology of civilization is true. Here is what he's come to:

Our perception of human progress relies heavily on stereotypes we have created about the ‘primitive’ and the ‘civilized.’ We build our ideas of history out of images that we have projected on our past.... If the evidence confirms some of our proud image of ourselves and our civilization, it also suggests that our progress has been bought at a higher cost than we like to believe.
— [11]

Cohen has doubts about our  common mythology: he believes we have magnified its real benefits and downplayed its costs. The evidence he consults to determine this comes from paleopathology, or the skeletal record of human health. In the past few decades, archaeologists have developed methods of learning the health status of ancient peoples from the bones they left behind. [12] There's a surprising amount of information they can glean. [13]

The skeletal record is a tool we can use to re-examine the history that our myths are based upon, and to look for new insights into how we should live. Here's how: if civilization really has been making life better, safer and healthier, then that ought to show up in the long history of our illness and health. The health archaeologists tell us that sooner or later, social issues -- problems in a way of living -- show up in the body. When bodies are unsatisfied or underserviced, they say so. Was civilization, on balance, beneficial for its members? Says Cohen: “[t]hat is an empirical question that I will address with medical evidence.” [14]

Simply put, some kinds of societies produce well-being, while others produce disease. This pattern emerges and holds when we look across all regions of the world and across long stretches of time. Cohen tells us that "most threats to health do not occur randomly, nor are they dictated solely by natural forces: most are correlated with patterns of human activity."[15] What has civilization wrought? The real story is recorded in flesh, and stored for posterity in our bones.

The Data

The evidence that Cohen delivers is striking. As we progress through the history of civilization – from our large-game-hunting days, through hunting and gathering, to early farming, to the first great cities and to the later industrial cities; from the earliest discernible reaches of our cultural past, right up very nearly until our present, and in all corners of the world – there is a downward trend in human health on average, on nearly every measure.

Nutritional quality and quantity, the frequency and severity of famines, the hours and the strenuousness of labour, susceptibility to disease, infant mortality and life expectancy – each of these metrics of wellness shows a general decline as civilization develops, new technologies arrive, and society grows more complex. On the historical journey that we presumed to have lifted us from misery to ease, it turns out we have grown less healthy instead. To give but one example, European cities may not have even matched the life expectancy rates of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers until the mid-19th or even the 20th century.[16] Civilization, to put it plainly, has not been good for us.

Most marked of all is a universal drop-off in well-being following right upon one of our culture's proudest achievements – the advent of agriculture.[17]

Our story tells us that civilization was an intelligent improvement over hardscrabble hunting and gathering, Cohen tells us that the opposite is true. Hunting and gathering was a highly successful economic structure, delivering reliably good health in exchange for little labour. Only when rising populations made wild foraging unviable was agriculture adopted. In all likelihood, the early developments of civilization were attempts to recover some of the quality of life we had lost, rather than to create it anew. [18-20]

How and why did this new way of life hurt us? For one, the nutrient profiles of the cereals and starchy crops that became agricultural staples paled in comparison to the varied, wild selections of hunter-gatherer fare, and they took more time and effort to produce. [21] The sedentary life, meanwhile, made agriculturalists much more susceptible to disease. Permanent settlements create piles of refuse and human waste, breeding grounds for disease-carrying vermin. Nomadic populations, by contrast, spread it around.

In fact, a number of the major infectious diseases that have plagued us may not have even existed as diseases until civilization began.[22] According to the data, that list likely comprises: measles, mumps, rubella, smallpox, the severe form of polio, two strains of streptococcus, diptheria, whooping cough, and cholera. Wild. Those organisms require large, dense, stable populations in order to establish themselves, and can rarely find a foothold in the small and mobile groups typical of hunter-gatherer. [23] Though sedentary peoples can develop resistance to local bugs, the data tells us that any such immunity advantage is more than offset by the effects of the breeding grounds civilization creates. [24]

Cohen points to some cases that contradict the downward health trend. It is only downward, of course, on average: some people, in some places, started doing better, some long while after the advent of farming. We might hope that these are the winning experiments -- the ones who figured out how to live farming well. We might presume these to be the ancestors of our own powerful present. 

When Cohen looks at these cases more closely, he finds that in each instance, right near these groups of well-faring humans lived others whose health was abysmal. This wasn't evidence of successful societies: it was pernicious inequality. Cohen argues that rank inequality is not only common in civilized societies, but a logical outcome of their very structure. [25] 

When populations grow larger and more dense, society becomes more complex. Divisions of labour develop, and a managerial class emerges to organize and oversee production. Members of society no longer know everyone else personally; norms and peer pressure no longer suffice to settle disputes. Formal authority develops, to be backed up by force. [26]

As the managerial and administrative class grows, it makes claims on resources to support its existence. Food producers are coerced into labour. The surplus they produce is extracted to feed, house, clothe, and often eventually to glorify the political elites. It pays for public works or public monuments or foreign wars. Cohen claims that most anthropologists might actually define  civilization as a society in which elites own the basic resources and lower classes must trade their labour in order to eat.[27] 

In hunter-gatherer society, by contrast, population size is limited by the number of people that can be fed from what's available at a reasonable distance on foot. On average, that's 50-100 folks. At this size, there's little division of labour. Every person or family shares in most of the productive tasks. Everyone knows one another, and disputes and decisions are handled through consensus and informal norms.[28]

Once agriculture begins, though, there's no limit to how many people can turn over an adjoining plot of land and join the group. And so, Cohen finds, "the very process that creates the potential of civilization simultaneously guaranteed that the potential is unlikely to be aimed equally at the welfare of all its citizens." [29] In many ways, the history of civilization is the history of criminal inequality, and cannot be told without it.

Well. This is heady stuff. Is he careful? He is patient, and careful. Each finding presented in the book is cross-referenced and checked against other methods and measures, against other places and times. He compares findings from ancient archaeology against ethnographic data of hunter-gatherers alive today. He regularly points out the holes and uncertainties in his data. He is clear about the challenges and stresses of the hunting-gathering life. He feels confident about his conclusions, he tells us, not because any one methodology that he uses is perfectly reliable, but because the findings of so many imperfect ones seem to point in the same direction. His data represents a broad synthesis of opinion, integrating the work of dozens of leading scholars in various fields. [30]

After all of his scholarly caution, the good archaeologist concludes that there just isn't evidence to support our cultural narrative that life grew vastly better, easier, or safer over the history of human civilization. The benefits we commonly associate with civilization, he determines, are offset or even superseded by the existing risks it exacerbates, and the brand new ones it creates. [31] 

How could we have told our cultural story so exactly wrong? This is the question we'll take up in our next post in this series. Answering that question will help us understand how to start imagining ourselves in a brand new way.

After that, we'll keep digging deeper: we'll try to make sense of the modern era, when it seems like civilization might have finally paid off. We'll next explore the last 40 years, when modern-era gains have slowed and reversed. Throughout, we'll keep tugging away at the big knot that hangs above us: if the story we tell ourselves is leading us toward collapse, how do we change it and replace it with something life-giving instead?

Re-telling that story of who we are is something we must find a way to do if we want to survive here, and to live with dignity and justice for everyone. Because, as John Ralston Saul told us above, "myth sets the form of power." 

And it is something we can find a way to do, because that is who we are. We tell stories, and then we become them. We are storytellers. We are meaning-makers. We are dreamers of dreams.

Everything is changing. The old models are not working: the new have not yet appeared. In fact, it is we who are even now shaping the new in the shaping of our lives. And that is the whole sense (in mythological terms) of the present challenge: we are the “ancestors” of an age to come, the unwitting generators of its supporting myths, the mythic models that will inspire its lives. In a very real sense, this is a moment of creation.
— Joseph Campbell [32]

Audio Credits:

    1    Space Maker - AIR  (4:03)

    2    Once Upon a Time - AIR  (5:02)

    3    Love - AIR  (2:43)

    4    0078h - M83  (4:02)  


[1] Qtd. in Saul, John Ralston. The Comeback. Toronto: Penguin Canada Books, 2014., pp. 201-201.

[2] Qtd. in ibid., pp. 220-221.

[3] Ibid., pp.10-11, 160.

[4] Throughout this series, I will refer to 'us' and 'our culture,' indicating Western culture. I will make a rough equation between Western culture and civilization. This is inaccurate. Other cultures have civilizations of a very similar kind. India, China, Incas, Mayas, and Haida, to name a few, all had large, complex social organization. By limiting my analysis to Western culture, I'm restricting the broad claims that I make about what 'we' should do to a group of people with which I identify. I am not interested in pronouncing upon what other cultures should think about their own histories, whether or not they share characteristics with the image of Western cultural history I describe.

[5] Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 6.

[6] Austin, Andrew. "Lenin's Theory of Imperialism." Accessed 15 February 2015. Link.

[7] Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Canada: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, pp. 256-290. 

[8] Remski, Matthew. "Seeking the Gita." matthew remski: writing, yoga, ayurveda. 1 January 2015. Accessed 13 August 2016.

[9] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 141.

[10] Civilized and primitive are loaded and fraught terms. They carry the baggage of imperialism and racism. For good reason, they are rarely used anymore. I have chosen to use them here, because I am specifically analyzing the Western ideas that gave rise to that imperialism and racism. We are right to have left those terms behind, but I want to dredge up that notion in order to critique it: I think there is more to be learned from what odious ideas are in our past. I continue to use the term civilization throughout this series, but avoid the term primitive beyond this point. I think it's worth resurrecting the nauseating smugness of civilization in order to deconstruct it further, but I don't think it's necessary or worth invoking the insult that lives in the term primitive.

[11] Ibid., pp. 1-6.

[12] Diamond, Jared. "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race." Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66.

[13] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 107-110.

[14] Ibid., p. 30.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Ibid., p. 140.

[17] Ibid., pp. 16-142, passim.

[18] Cohen, Mark Nathan. The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977, pp. 18-70.

[19] Lee and DeVore 1968:3, qtd. in Cohen, Food Crisis.

[20] Armelagos, George J. and Mark Nathan Cohen. "Preface to the 2013 Edition." Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. Eds. George J. Armelagos and Mark Nathan Cohen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013, pp. xvii-xxxi.

[21] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 58-62.

[22] Ibid., pp. 40-48.

[23] Ibid., p. 50.

[24] Ibid., pp. 38-39.

[25] Ibid., pp. 126-7, 130-42.

[26] Ibid., pp. 26-30.

[27] Ibid., pp. 28-30.

[28] Ibid., pp. 17-20.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., pp. vii-ix, 4-5.

[31] Ibid., p. 6.

[32] Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. Ed. Safron Rossi. San Francisco: New World Library, 2013, p. xiv.


Part 2: How to Tell it Wrong [Prehistory - 1850]

Cultural Evolution as a Praxis of Public Health is a series exploring the role played by Western cultural narratives in our current social problems. Over four posts, it questions our notion that the forward march of technological progress is a force of social salvation, using bodily health as a metric for success. It asks what it would take to change our cultural narrative, and what a more effective Western cultural narrative might look like.

The first post in this series took us through a shocking review of archaeological data. We saw that civilization -- that form of society marked by large, dense populations and complex organization -- has been on average a detriment to human health. For most of the last 10,000 years, in terms of basic health and wellness, a case could be made that most of us would have been better off as hunter-gatherers.[1]

The data flies in the face of our common view of Western history. Our culture has a myth, whether or not we acknowledge it as such. It tells of an audacious and inspired rise from ‘poor, nasty and brutish’ life in the jungle, toward good health and good fortune; of slow and steady improvements in tools and technology over time, each one a victory of human ingenuity over the liabilities and limitations of living here on Earth. We have improved, we say, upon the basic frailty of living here.

We assume that this progress is documented in history. But it isn't. It actually just isn't. So says the archaeologist Mark Nathan Cohen, who led us through some of the historical record in Part 1.[2] When we take a closer look, we find that the social system we call civilization doesn't in general lift us up from hardship. Rather, in the final tally, it contributes to or causes some of the most pernicious social problems we have. [3] The technological developments of the last 10,000 years may have more often been attempts to recapture lost quality of life than they have been efforts to create it anew.[4]

So how did we just fudge the numbers entirely? If the history of human civilization represents a clear downward trajectory in human health and welfare, how did we manage to tell a story of exactly the opposite? How did we take a history of relative decline and build up from it a story of nearly unmitigated success?

The answer may lie in the way we define success. Civilization hasn’t been good for most people's health and welfare. But perhaps is has been good for something else that we just haven't asked about here yet. Cohen points to three such possibilities. Let's pick them apart. They show us how we might have managed to tell our story this way, and so maybe they can show us something about how to tell it differently.

The Simple Success Story

Civilization's first success has been in feeding growing numbers of people. As we saw in Part 1, complex systems of civilization arose during transitions from hunting and gathering to agriculture. This change took place in five separate parts of the world almost simultaneously. Cohen argues that it happened when humans had spread to cover most of the land on the planet, so that once any local environment struggled to support a growing population on wild foods alone, there was nowhere else for people to go. They had to stay where they were and draw more food from the same amount of land.[5] Civilization has been good at enabling this.[6]

The catch, of course, is that while it has fed lots of people, through much of its history it hasn't fed most of them very well.[7] The overall quality of food declined, and grave inequality often affected the distribution of what food there was. Success of civilization number one, then, is as a survival strategy: worse than what came before, but better than mass starvation. That seems like a good enough reason to have gratitude for civilization, but it doesn't explain anything like the kind of swelling pride we have for it. Let's keep looking.

The Story of Some of Us

The second form of civilizational success strikes deeper. All along, civilization has significantly improved the lives of a select few of its members. Repeatedly, Cohen claims, the health data from civilized societies shows "a partitioning of stress by class and location, in which the well-to-do are progressively freed from nutritional stress... but under which the poor and urban populations, particularly the urban poor, are subjected to levels of biological stress that are rarely matched in the most primitive of human societies."[8] Where civilization has worked, then, it has been working for just a few of us.[9] Cohen believes that we have built our sense of history almost exclusively from the experiences of highly privileged groups.[10]

Think back through time, and you’ll likely alight upon images of cultured Greeks and Romans, sophisticated Indians and Chinese, or aristocratic American founding fathers. The archaeological record suggests that when we do this kind of remembering, we are calling to mind just a tiny slice of the historical population living well at the expense of thousands of slaves or peasants beneath them. We can judge civilization a success only by forgetting what life was like for everybody else. 

When Thomas Hobbes described life outside of civilization as 'poor, nasty, brutish and short,' by comparison with civilized life, Cohen opines that he was speaking at best for his own social class. For most of the people in Hobbes' own civilization, life was miserable. Cohen believes that “a good case can be made that urban European populations of that period may have been among the nutritionally most impoverished, the most disease-ridden, and the shortest-lived populations in human history." [11] When we think of how well-off we are in the modern West, Cohen says, we tend to compare ourselves to these European urban poor, and presume that life was worse and worse than that stretching back into prehistory. But that's an error, Cohen tells us, based on the assumption of an upward trajectory over time. And the medical evidence he has brought us, of course, showed us that that upward trajectory didn't exist at all. [11.1]

This answer gives us more to work with: civilization looks like a success when we remember the few people it worked for, and forget that it worked for them only by virtue of exploiting the rest.

Let's see one last answer.


The Story of Systems

There's a third and final way by which civilization has succeeded in Cohen's view. Complex civilized systems have been unambiguously 'successful' in their ability to conquer and displace less complex systems of all types. As we look back upon this history of conquest, we tend to presume it says something about the quality of complex civilization: if it can overcome all other societies, then it must be superior.

Cohen calls out the faulty logic. Civilized systems have been conquerors not because they were generally superior, but rather for their specific ability to amass and centralize resources -- through divisions of labour and coercion -- and then their tendency to spend those resources on raising militaries and monuments instead of raising social welfare. [12]

For the majority of their members, these are not positive attributes of civilization. As Cohen quips, "it is the systems, not always the people (or all of the people) that they represent, that succeed." [13] If we think back through time, we might also proudly call upon images of Roman legions, or the sprawling Nile region controlled from the Egyptian throne. Less often do we tend to remember the dignified cultures that Roman armies crushed, or the chained bodies who built up monuments to the empire's glory. In the third form of civilizational success, we have mistaken the success of a system for the success of the people governed by it. They are not the same.

Storytelling Praxis - How to Tell It Right

We have managed to celebrate what has really been a decline for at least this one broader reason: that a culture's story -- its myth -- is not a history. It is told to serve a goal. It explains who you are, and where you've come from, and what you should do. If we’ve neglected to investigate whether or not our ideas of civilization were true, maybe that was because their truth value was never the main point. A cultural story is meant to achieve something. You keep telling for as long as you think it's working.

For a long time, we've thought our story was still working. Perhaps at first it worked, if it helped us to navigate a needed transition to agriculture. Perhaps there were other options. By now, at the very least, we know that our story hasn't been working for us for some very long time. Having seen today where our story has been working all along -- in whitewashing systems of class exploitation and imperial conquest -- it's time to stop repeating it, and to find something new.

How can we change our definition of social success? How do we start telling collective stories that reflect the lives of everyone rather than a narrow few? How do we express through our myths what matters for living well, rather than abstract fantasies of might and glory? These pressing questions are what we'll take up in our next post. To explore them, we'll look to the modern era, continuing our history forward from where we left off last time. As we do, we'll come up against the question that our analysis of civilizational decline desperately begs: isn't modern civilization, at least, a great success? 

It would seem that modernity has delivered good health and welfare for large numbers of people. The way we live now might feel like a vindication of civilization at last. What we'll discover in our next post -- spoiler alert -- is that the health and welfare gains of the modern age are real, but that they don't come from an ultimate success of the story of civilization. After thousands of years of decline, the modern era's great reversals in health and welfare grew out of the seed of a new story instead.

We'll watch the history of how this great reversal of fortune arrives to the West, and we'll see social success re-defined along the way. We'll track the political strategy that made it happen. We'll learn one way to undertake a praxis of cultural storytelling. With luck, it'll bring us closer to understanding how we can tell our culture's story a new way.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower [14]

Audio Credits:

  1. Moby - Memory Gospel (6:42)
  2. Moby - Spirit (4:09)


[1] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

[2] Cohen, Health and the Rise, p. 1.

[3] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 130-142.

[4] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 57-58.

[5] Cohen, Mark Nathan. The Food Crisis, pp. 18-70.

[6] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise, p. 141.

[7] Cohen, Health and the Rise, p. 141.

[8] Ibid., p. 141.

[9] Ibid., pp. 28-30.

[10] Ibid., p. 140-141.

[11] Ibid.

[11.1] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 29-30

[13] Ibid., p. 142.

[14] Eisenhower, Dwight D. Address "The Chance for Peace. Delivered Before the American Society of Newspaper Editors." 16 April 1953. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency ProjectLink.

Part 3: Start a Story with a Seed [1850 - 1970]

Cultural Evolution as a Praxis of Public Health is a series exploring the role played by Western cultural narratives in our current social problems. Over four posts, it questions our notion that the forward march of technological progress is a force of social salvation, using bodily health as a metric for success. It asks what it would take to change our cultural narrative, and what a more effective Western cultural narrative might look like.

As the good ship Humanity chugs along toward runaway climate change, I'm feeling a heavy drag of inertia in my bones. Inertia - the physical force that keeps an object traveling along its present course. This is a big vessel, and it is hard to turn.

Now, it doesn't help that there are sociopaths and sadists actively pulling in the wrong direction. [1,2] So has it always been. But enough ballast from regular folks is the only thing that ever turns the ship, and we don't yet have enough.

Millions or even billions, I think, suspect that on our present course we're bound for trouble. But in order for that wide a swath to start rowing in the same direction, they might first need an inkling of what that direction is. Letting go of a present bearing without a new course yet in mind is hard to do. It's risky: it could leave you adrift. So I'm wondering how we might alight upon and spread the good news of a new direction, to help more well-meaning folks start rowing together.

Old Story or New?

We took a good look in Part 1 of this series at the course that Western culture has been on for the past several thousand years. We looked at the dawn of agriculture, at the start of divisions of labour and more complex forms of politics, at successive phases of technological innovation and successive waves of conquest. For so long, our cultural bearing has been dead ahead toward more of this kind of progress. With human ingenuity as our compass, we believed, we could overcome any limits.

Looking at the data, though, it's clear to see that this proud story we've told of ourselves is exactly wrong. Through most of our culture's history, we were healthier physically and socially when we lived closer to the whims and vagaries of the natural world than we've become through our efforts to overcome them. [3]

But what about today? Health and wealth have risen precipitously for the majority of Westerners in the past 150 years. In the early 19th century, life expectancy in England and Wales was a measly 40 years. By 1931, English and Welsh could expect to live to more than 60. Today, in the U.K., it's 81, and in Canada the same. [4,5] Our societies are rich beyond imagination. Shouldn't our own modern lives validate the grand narrative that civilization and technology can sustain us and save us, even if it took a little while to get here? Don't our recent gains finally vindicate the story we tell ourselves that civilization is salvation?[6]

Today, we're going to take a closer look. I'll tell you straight out: we're going to discover that that is not the case at all. Rather than the success of the old story, the rise in living standards in the modern West was brought about by the birth of a new one. As the great infectious diseases were brought to heel, and life expectancy vastly extended, a new idea of the purpose of civilized society was being planted en masse. 

Every new cultural story begins from the seed of a new idea -- a purpose, a goal, an identity to organize around. It points to a new direction, a way to turn the ship. What we'll see today is that the new direction that was set in the modern era is something we've already discussed. In fact, it's been hiding in plain sight the whole time. It is health and social welfare: the notion that societies should exist first and foremost to serve the well-being of all of their members. 

The primacy of health and social welfare was the entire basis for our challenge to the progress story. I introduced it as a yardstick in Part 1 without any explanation, as though it were self-evident to equate social welfare with social success. And if you didn’t bat an eyelash when I did so, that’s a testament to how deeply this purpose for society -- this new story seed -- has been planted in our culture. Because it wasn’t always this way. The French and American Revolutions, for example, introduced their ambitions of equality among citizens as revolutionary ideas, set against the 'glory of the kingdom' goals they sought to displace.[7] 

Of course, large gaps remained between the lived realities in those eras and the stated social goals. Some held the goals close at heart, while others resisted or ignored or subverted them. What we'll learn, as we chart the course of the rise of living standards in the West, is what it takes to make a new story seed take hold and propagate -- to bring it from ideal to action. And we'll think through what it would take to keep growing that story seed long enough to change a whole culture's course. Let's go.

The Rise in Living Standards

At the start of the 19th century, Europeans were beset by nasty diseases - smallpox, cholera, typhoid, tuberculosis, and on. The story of civilization says that medical science was born in this era, that it created antibiotics and vaccines, and that we started living long and healthy lives because of it. Meanwhile, as the powerful economic engine of the Industrial Revolution hit its stride, it brought us better nutrition, more leisure, and more stuff. But look more closely at what happened when, and the story falls apart entirely.

Of that great and historic reduction in infectious disease, most of it took place before effective antibiotics and vaccines were invented. [8] The first antibiotic drug arrived in 1935, and most of the vaccines appeared through the 1940s and '50s. By then, the Roaring Twenties had come and gone, and tuberculosis just wasn't something you thought about much anymore. Medical science delivered the knockout punches, but the fight had already been mostly won. [9-14]

And won by whom, or what? While the microbiologists were studying germs, another group of scientists was at work as well. Only instead of peering into microscopes, they were taking to the streets. They were the first epidemiologists. The word epidemiology means the study of epidemicsEpidemic, from Ancient Greek, means among the people. [15] That's where they were: they were mapping, neighbourhood by neighbourhood and town by town, where and when diseases struck and spread.

They found more disease near polluted water sources, and so they lobbied for sewer systems and filtration. They found worse health in poor urban neighbourhoods than in rich ones, so they fought for crowding regulations in factories and homes. Years later, microbiologists would explain their successes -- that cholera thrives in feces-fouled water, and tuberculosis spreads in poorly-ventilated air. [16] The epidemiologists kept going. They fought for and won the provision of public baths, paved streets, maternity services, and universal education. Backed by social science and spurred on by success, these early activists for social welfare powered a century of change.

The work fed into broader social movements for unionization and income redistribution and, alongside many new allies, paved the way for the welfare state. Their research provided a concrete point of focus for working class consciousness, while their political advocacy convinced the middle classes to embrace the first widespread progressive taxation and public investment programs. On the basis of this new story seed -- that societies exist for the benefit of all of their members -- a broad, cross-class consensus was established and maintained for stable institutions charged with equitable distribution and mass welfare. [17] It vastly reduced the burden of infectious disease, sent life expectancy rates soaring, and reversed the age-old declining trend in human health. [18]

And what of the prosperity brought by the Industrial Revolution? As archaeologist Mark Nathan Cohen made clear from cases throughout human history, having more resources in a society does not translate automatically into welfare for the majority of citizens. Resources contribute to mass welfare only when they are broadly shared. [19] In the case of the Industrial Revolution, resources were at first concentrated in very few hands, and the conditions of their production -- crowded cities, pollution, long hours of work for little pay -- bred misery for the majority. As a society, it fits the historical pattern of inequality and disease exactly. But in this era, the epidemiologists intervened, and they altered the usual outcome. 

The evidence is clear, and the academic consensus wide: this political organizing and these social reforms, and not the technologies of vaccines and antibiotics, are responsible for most of the great gains in health and welfare we associate with modern life. [20,21]

How to Choose a Story

In time, the vaccines and antibiotics -- the pride of the old progress story -- did arrive, and when they did, they drew the rates of infectious disease in the West down from relatively low to near zero. It may not have much mattered for our health whether they or the public health measures had arrived first: both, in the end, were effective.

But their separation in time offers us a chance to ask interesting questions about how we tell the story of our culture. The public health measures and the vaccines take part in very different stories of health and disease. By this random quirk in history, that the public health measures arrived so long before vaccination, we've been able to watch how a new kind of story -- the one represented by public health reforms -- performs all on its own, and it opens a window onto narrating our way of life another way. Let's watch how it happens.

Vaccines and antibiotics enact the familiar civilizational progress story. They made use of ingenuity and technology to keep us safe from dangerous, nature-based critters -- denizens of the primordial muck -- that we couldn't control or contain. The efficacy of these medical measures helped to establish a belief that the chaos of the natural world was the source of our poverty and sickness. It valourized a faith that more technological progress and more civilization would lift us over and above it.

The public health measures worked for a very different reason — not because they carried the progress of civilization forward, but precisely because they challenged it. As epidemiologists compiled their maps of disease, they discovered that the epidemics were spreading in lockstep with the Industrial Revolution. You can follow its headway in the health data, town by town, throughout England and Wales. You can track them in tandem clear across France, and later, as industrialization spread to Germany, Australia, and Japan, you can watch as the infectious diseases arrive there too. The correlation was so common and so close, in fact, that this suite of sicknesses came to be popularly known as the diseases of civilization. [22]

Epidemiologists employed their disease maps to ask pointed questions about the conditions in which people were living. They looked for social factors that were common in places of sickness and scarce where there was health. Their maps proffered real-time, scientific evidence that the causes and consequences of the 'progress' of their age was harming bodily health. Medical statistics became a cipher for unlocking the code of how and where the Industrial Revolution was making people ill, and public health policy a toolkit for rendering it habitable.

Epidemiology set up health and social welfare, then, as a check against conventional progress. Beside the Victorian story of civilizational progress, there were now the beginnings of a possible alternative: that civilization should exist not primarily for the sake of abstract progress, but for the social welfare of the majority.

How to Move Past 'Progress'

Civilization, and the progress story we tell about it, have given us a great deal of trouble. And yet, as archaeologist Mark Nathan Cohen reminds us, agriculture and civilized life came about for a reason: rising population pressures were making it hard to support everyone through hunting and gathering alone. In all likelihood, we could not go back now to the hunting and gathering life en masse if we wanted to, successful though it was then and remains now for many contemporary cultures. There are just too many of us on this planet. [23] The rise of the social-welfare story, though, points us toward another way through.

Cohen’s skeletal record tells us that our social problems come largely from how far we have distanced ourselves from the rhythms of the natural world, in diet, lifestyle, social hierarchy, and more. [24] The progress narrative has us reinforce this specific basic problem: by engendering pride in our sense of detachment from earthly limits, it encourages us to draw the gap between nature and our culture farther still. When 19th-century epidemiologists used health and disease as a barometer for what was wrong in our way of life, they introduced a method for moving in the opposite direction. The public health reforms were act of conscious adaptation. The movement showed us that it was possible to re-integrate with our environment again, and that enormous gains in welfare could result. 

A critical examination of these gains of the modern age lays waste to the notion that we must choose between headlong, self-destructive progress and cultural stasis. The problem is not progress and change, but the specific mythological insistence that progress means outsmarting and conquering natural limits. The early epidemiologists gave us a starting proof that it is possible for us to re-invent ourselves in harmony with those forms instead.

Where the old story says that more high-tech and specialized control will overcome our problems, this new story suggests that any invention that is out of step with the rhythms of life will produce a host of new problems. In the old story, our problems come from unruly nature nipping at our heels, but in the new, they more likely issue from the dust we kick up in our own footfalls. This or that high-tech whiz-bang, marvellous though it may be, will always be chasing the underlying current of social issues flowing from our disconnection from a more organic ecological state. Through the lens of this new story, the very technology, order and ingenuity we deploy as we run to defend ourselves against a dangerous world has in fact put us on a treadmill -- where each solution gives rise to a ramifying series of problems, looping back around in front of us again. The old story hums to the rhythm of Silicon Valley's techie buzz, but there is anxiety at the heart of it: we are running just to keep up.

For the whole of civilized life, we have been running to keep up. Our culture's proudest achievement -- the advent of agriculture -- was but one more patch for a pressing social problem, never getting to the root. [25] In the modern era, industrial capitalism and medical science have solved particular problems before them, but they have not addressed this more fundamental issue, which runs, and chases us, on a much longer arc: that the further our culture has split itself from the rest of life around it, and the more we have stratified our societies and subdivided the functions of work, and the more we have forgotten what it means to know the land, the less healthy and well we then have become.

The old progress story doesn't admit to this paradox at the root of civilization, and this is its crippling flaw. A new story, informed by the evidence plain in our bodies and bones, would, and must. If the old story defines progress as rising above the whims and exigencies of nature, a new story would use all the tools of technology and culture to re-integrate with them instead. 

What our ailing bodies have been trying to tell us is that there are limits. Limits to growth. Limits to understanding, and to intelligence. Limits to the distance we purport to put one person above another. Limits to the distance we put between ourselves and the bases of life. Medical statistics, as we have seen, give our bodies a collective voice. If we listen well enough, the patterns map the way toward where and what those limits are, and suggest ways to adapt our lives to thrive within them. Epidemiology does not say that there is one right way to live, but it does say is that there are wrong ways. Good epidemiology keeps score, and Mother Nature decides. First she makes you sick, and then she makes you extinct. Those are the rules of living here, and we are not exempt.

From Myth to Method

To tell a different kind of story, as we discussed in Part 1, you start by choosing a different kind of goal. But what happens from there? The welfare of the majority had been set down as a social purpose, as we discussed, in the French and American Revolutionary declarations of independence, but there was a long way left to go before realizing them. How did the 19th-century epidemiologists take that seed of a new story and make it start to take root? 

The 19th-century epidemiologists developed the story by setting up the new goal as a yardstick for social success, and measuring their societies against it. They mapped the gaps between goal and reality and argued for correcting them. In order to make this new kind of case, they perfected the political use of a new kind of method: medical statistics.[26] To take population-wide statistics was to declare that every life counted for something. It was to contend that you could better gauge the state of society by taking its average than by gazing at the images at its peak. Once upon a time, a resplendent king could carry the majesty of the people on his upright body, but medical statistics could make clear that everyone else paid the price in theirs.

It was to state further that the optimal distribution of resources in society is not a matter of opinion. Through its methods of measurement, epidemiology can take certain supposedly moral questions of how we ought to live, and settle them in biological fact.[27] In retrospect, statistics became a tool for collapsing the age-old storytelling fallacies of riches and empire that made us think we were living better than we were.

Once epidemiologists were able to point toward social failings with some precision in this way, they were in a strong position to propose ways to address them. Their specificity in measurement turned an ideal into a grounded program of social policy actions, which social movements could rally around and governments could act upon. In this way, the epidemiologists moved the social-welfare narrative forward from imagination to advocacy. Through a method of measurement and a program of action, the story seed took root. 

Though statistics are no guarantee of justice, the fact is that once a national census is considered a basic tool of governance, the expected role of that government has changed. Today, as our societies veer back toward ruinous inequality, we have an established social infrastructure for blowing the old mythology’s cover. The Occupy movement, for instance, could pierce our renewed conquest-and-riches images with a statistic as its rallying cry. It could demonstrate to the public that the systems in place today do not serve the welfare of the majority. When statistics were taken away from Canadians by the Harper government, through cancelling the long-form census there was a national outcry.[28] And after Trudeau returned them -- on his second day of office -- census-takers filled them out so eagerly that they crashed the servers.[29,30] Returning the census was as much a substantive policy initiative as it was an act of applied mythology -- a praxis of storytelling. When we look at such social-welfare-oriented acts and feel that they say something about who we are, or who we aren't, or who we want to be, then the beginnings of a competing story have been born.

But let’s back up a step on the rosy devotions. Buried in the last paragraphs paean to statistics was this little clause that you might have nearly missed: we have veered back toward ruinous inequality. That's not an afterthought. That's a big deal. Things were on a decent track for 100 years, and then the channel changed. The welfare state started giving way in the 1970s to the rise of neoliberalism, and the fledgling new story slipped back into second place. How did it happen? That is something that a praxis of new storytelling needs to be able to answer for.

In our third and final post in this series, we’ll look into how and why epidemiology and its allied social movements lost their influence over the past 40 years. As we do, we’ll find out what it takes to keep a story on track, so that it can go on developing to maturity. These are vital questions, because we have unfinished business as a society.

Medicine is a social science and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale
— Rudolf Virchow, 19th-century pathologist, physician, and public health reformer [31]

Audio Credits:

  1. J'ai dormi sous l'eau - AIR (5:43)
  2. Knight Moves - Chilly Gonzales (5:12)
  3. You Can Dance - Chilly Gonzales (5:10)


[1] Hall, Shannon. "Exxon Knew about Climate Change Almost 40 Years Ago." Scientific American. 26 October 2015. Accessed 6 August 2016. Link.

[2] Bump, Philip. "Jim Inhofe's Snowball Has Disproven Climate Change Once and for All." Washington Post. 26 February 2015. Accessed 6 August 2015. Link.

[3] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

[4] Szreter, Simon (1988). The Importance of Social Intervention in Britain’s Mortality Decline c. 1850-1914: A Re-Interpretation of the Role of Public Health. Social History of Medicine (1), p. 12. Data are for England and Wales.

[5] The World Bank Group. Data: Canada. 2012. Link. Data are from 2012. Data for United Kingdom, from same source, for more accurate comparison: 82. Link.

[6] The health and welfare gains of the modern age, of course, have been deeply inequitably distributed. They were funded in part by the plunder of colonies, internationalizing the class inequality that has plagued civilization throughout its history. And a large urban underclass exists in the Global North still. I spent a long time grappling with how to make sense of these facts next to the still quite real improvements in welfare that took place among large underclasses in the West. I'm not really sure yet whether or not the modern age represents a change from the pattern of civilization. This is a large blind spot, and I don't think I yet have the information to start to see into it. For now, I decided to press on and present the modern age as a democratic success in the West because I think it can help us choose between two different discourses advanced by different groups of people who claim interest in the welfare of poor and marginalized people. The first is liberal capitalism, which believes that the greatest welfare is advanced by spreading free markets and Western values. The second is a combination of social democracy and popular social movements, and it believes that the greatest welfare is advanced by active policies to manage the distribution of resources, and that this state of affairs is best maintained through a constant presence of movements of the people themselves in the political process. In this piece, I present a historical case that is usually seen as one of the greatest triumphs of the first discourse, and demonstrate how it was actually a triumph of the second. I felt this was important to do, because it helps to clarify which strategy is most likely to extend welfare even further. 

[7] Makari, George. Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, p. xiv.

[8] There is one prominent exception: a smallpox vaccine, generally believed to have been effective, existed since the 18th century. However, this seems to be the sole instance of effective medical therapy of any kind prior to the 20th century, and excluding smallpox entirely from the data does not significantly upset the trends. See McKeown, Thomas and R. G. Record (1962). Reasons for the Decline of Mortality in England and Wales during the Nineteenth Century. Population Studies(16), 2, pp. 94-122; and Szreter (1988).

[9] Mackenbach, Johan P (1996). The Contribution of Medical Care to Mortality Decline: McKeown Revisited. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology(49), 11, pp. 1207-1213.

[10] McKeown, Thomas and R.G. Brown (1955). Medical Evidence Related to English Popluation Changes in the Eighteenth Century. Population Studies(9), 2, pp. 119-141.

[11] McKeown, Thomas and R. G. Record (1962).

[12] McKeown, Thomas et al (1972). An interpretation of the modern rise of population in Europe. Population Studies(26), 3, pp. 345-82.

[13] McKeown, Thomas et al (1975). An interpretation of the decline of mortality in England and Wales during the twentieth century. Population Studies(29), 3, pp. 391-422.

[14] Szreter (1988).

[15] Epidemiology. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2001-2014. Accessed 18 January 2015. Link.

[16] Szreter (1988).

[17] Szreter, Simon (2003). The Population Health Approach in Historical Perspective. American Journal of Public Health(93), 3, pp. 421-31.

[18] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 26-31, 141.

[19] Szreter, Simon (2003).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Colgrove, James (2002). The McKeown Thesis: A Historical Controversy and Its Enduring Influence. American Journal of Public Health: (92), 5, pp. 725-729.

[22] Szreter, Simon (2003).

[23] Cohen, Health and the Rise, pp. 130-142.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Cohen, Mark Nathan. The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

[26] Szreter, Simon (2003). The Population Health Approach in Historical Perspective. American Journal of Public Health: (93), 3, pp. 421-31.

[27] “[Anthropologists and historians] also disagree about whether the adaptive benefits of large-scale management outweigh the costs of exploitation. "That is an empirical question that I will address with medical evidence.” [Emphasis added]. Cohen, p. 30.

[28] "Statistics Canada (mandatory long-form census)." voices-voix: Defending advocacy and dissent in Canada. 8 August 2014. Accessed 13 August 2016. Link.

[29] Harris, Kathleen. "Mandatory long-form census restored by new Liberal government." CBC News. 5 Nov. 2015. Accessed 24 July 2016. Link.

[30] Winsa, Patty. "For Canucks, this census ticked all the right boxes." Toronto Star. 4 May 2016. Accessed 24 July 2016. Link.

[31] Mackenbach, JP (2009). "Politics is nothing but medicine at a larger scale: reflections on public health's biggest idea." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health: 63(3), pp. 181-184.

Part 4: How to Keep Our Focus [1970 - Present]

Cultural Evolution as a Praxis of Public Health is a series exploring the role played by Western cultural narratives in our current social problems. Over four posts, it questions our notion that the forward march of technological progress is a force of social salvation, using bodily health as a metric for success. It asks what it would take to change our cultural narrative, and what a more effective Western cultural narrative might look like.

In Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, we explored the ways in which our bodies reflect and reveal the prevailing state of our society. We have evolved as an integrated part of a living system, and our state of health reflects our relationship to it. When we live in ways harmonious with that whole, we are in the aggregate healthier; when we deviate, disease and degeneration multiply. [1-3] 

It's hard to know exactly what constitutes 'ways harmonious.' Diversity, after all, is nature's rule. One approach to discovering it is to track large-scale patterns in health and disease, and then use them as clues to what is and isn't working in our chosen way of life. Wherever illness and stress increase, they point toward living conditions that are dysfunctional for our bodies. The good news is that we can change those conditions. Health, viewed in this way, becomes an ongoing practice of adaptation to the environment, in search of harmonious ways of life. [4]

Western modernity has a good-news story to tell about this sort of adaptation. In the past 150 years, the health of the majority of Westerners skyrocketed. Life expectancy has essentially doubled. [5,6] The evidence suggests that this came as a result of comprehending and correcting some of the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution in particular and of civilization more generally. We amended our societies over the course of a little more than a century, taking steps to reduce both environmental pollution and social stratification, and reaped huge gains in well-being as a result. [7,8] 

In this final instalment of the series, we'll explore how and why, in the last 40 years, this progress seems to have stopped and turned around. That regression has begun to show up, of course, in large-scale statistics of health and disease: the United States Centers for Disease Control, for example, estimates that the current generation of children may live shorter lives than their parents. [9,10] We need to be able to take this seriously as a broad critique of our way of life.

In previous posts in this series, we tracked how our social conditions are influenced by our stories of who we are. We saw how our old narrative of progress, innovation and conquering limits led us toward the problems that we face today. We saw the birth of a new story of mass social welfare start to turn the tide. In the past 40 years, as these gains stall and reverse, myth once again has had a role to play. Beneath the events that led to this reversal, a reversion toward the old story has taken place as well. Let's look at what happened, and what it will take to turn back in a positive direction again. It may be that it has already begun.

A Mobilization of Myth

The social reforms of 19th-century public health, picked up and powered by 20th-century grassroots social activism, were crystallized and institutionalized in the welfare state. Though miles from perfect, this edifice spread high levels of health and welfare across Western societies, more broadly than any civilization on record had done before. It was an expression of what Mark Nathan Cohen -- the archaeologist we met in Part 1 -- envisaged as the singular redeeming virtue of civilization: its capacity to centralize resources, and the possibility that it could choose to direct these resources toward mitigating the social problems it creates. [11]

In the 1970s and 1980s, the welfare state began to be dismantled. Margaret Thatcher's famous declaration that "[t]here is no such thing as society" laid waste to the notion that we become healthy or ill as a group. [12] No other structure has appeared in its wake to support health and social welfare as effectively. What happened? How did such positive progress go off the rails? 

In the social progress of the '60s and '70s, the ownership class of society had reason to fear for its historic privilege. In 1971, Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court justice, wrote a classified memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging a co-ordinated strategic campaign to turn back the tide. Major corporate leaders invested large sums of capital to create a network of policy think tanks and a political lobbying infrastructure to spread their views. [12.1,12.2] 

At root, I believe, they went down to the level of myth-making. They refreshed and resurrected the old story of progress and civilization, which had for so long justified their class ownership of a disproportionate share of resources. Their mobilization of the deep psychic resources of myth, I think, accounts for the staying power of the neoliberal idea.


The father of the recourse to myth was Leo Strauss, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Chicago from 1949 through 1969. He grew famous for his faith in the importance of mythology for holding a community together, drawing inspiration from Plato’s Republic. Strauss’ interpretation was deeply cynical: he encouraged an intellectual elite to construct a ‘noble lie’ to occupy the masses, while that elite went about doing whatever it thought should be done.[13,14] 

Strauss’ work was an inspiration to a generation of regressive right-wing thought. [15] His influence can be seen in the rhetoric of a string of United States Republican presidential candidates who ran in his wake. Each resurrected the old progress story of civilization, appealing to the glory of the kingdom over the well-being of its members. Ronald Reagan ran on the slogan, Let's Make America Great Again. Donald Trump’s slogan is the same, save for the inclusionary pronoun. John McCain ran under the banner of Country First, and George W. Bush, as sitting president, sold wars of conquest under the pretext of spreading the greatness of Western civilization. Shadia Drury, a political scientist and noted expert on Strauss, writes that his work “is the key to understanding the political vision that has inspired the most powerful men in America under George W. Bush.” [16]

Strauss’ work was received in Canada by an idiosyncratic group of political scientists at the University of Calgary, who became known as the Calgary School. Shadia Drury taught for a while alongside them in the same department. Drury describes one Canadian who showed such fealty to Calgary School principles that they labelled him “their product.” He was a taciturn young man by the name of Stephen Harper. [16.1a]

Mr. Harper, turned Prime Minister of Canada, brought a focus on mythology to his reign. Under his tenure, Canada would shift away from the social-welfare mythology established by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine in the mid-1800s, and cemented under Prime Ministers Pearson and Trudeau in the 1960s and 1970s, toward an old-style narrative of the glory of the crown. [16.1b] He championed grandeur-and-conquest imagery in the military, in the frontier Arctic, in brash foreign policy rhetoric, and in pursuit of oil-soaked 'energy superpower' status. Famously, he ended the long-form census -- that enabler of social-welfare measures and central legacy of epidemiology’s methods.

Through the past 40 years, I believe, this concerted effort by wealthy elites has reversed the dominant narrative in Western society. It undercut the force of the social welfare story, and implanted a version of the old progress story -- now called neoliberalism -- in its place. With the progress myth once again dominant, appeals to social welfare have little in our deep psyches to grab hold of.

Neoliberalism tells us to make the success of the market the prime goal, and that if we do, we will benefit secondarily from its success. Social welfare is presented now as a by-product of social success, and no longer its definition. Once social success has been redefined -- from the health of individuals to the health of the stock market -- the dominant story has changed.  We may call this ideology neoliberalism, or economic globalization, and think of it as modern. But see how it calls upon our faith in the progress of technology, and asks us to subsume our own welfare to the carrying strength of an abstract ideal: it’s the same story we’ve been telling ourselves, to our disservice, for the last 10,000 years.

How to Fight Back

A political reversal of this magnitude, one would expect, would not take place without a fight. There has certainly been protest. But it seems not to have been able to slow the march of harmful social policy to any significant degree. Protest works best in support of messages that have already penetrated the collective mind. Once the ownership class had taken their campaign down to the level of narrative, proponents of the social-welfare approach seem not to have met them effectively there. Without a hook into the collective unconscious, the protestations of social movements registered much less force.

As we saw in Part 3, much of the intellectual work of advancing this sort of penetrating message was done by epidemiologists of the 19th century. They took Enlightenment ideals of equality and worked them through society, giving them practical depth and force. So mightn't epidemiology be able to do heavy lifting agian? Where has it been in these past 40 years, during the assault on its historic gains?

For a long time, radical epidemiology went to sleep. The positions for which it was justly famous had been universally accepted — such staples of contemporary common sense as public sanitation, universal education, and safe working conditions. Perhaps it lost sight of the need and the knack for narrative-level debate. The historian Simon Szreter explains that Thomas McKeown, one of the best-known 20th-century scholars of public health, simply “took for granted the protracted political and ideological battles that had been fought over the previous century or more to establish this viewpoint as the orthodoxy of his mid-20th-century generation, and he discounted the vulnerability of its victories.” [16.2]

As the economic structure of Western society changed through the middle of the 20th century, from industrialism to the mass consumer society, the nature of disease changed as well, and epidemiology was caught flat-footed. Gone were the great infectious diseases that epidemiologists had effectively tracked back to the conditions of the Industrial Age. In their place, a suite of chronic diseases had arisen -- heart disease, diabetes, and mounting rates of cancer. It failed to bring to the new epidemics of chronic disease the radical and radicalizing lens it had developed in grappling with the infectious ones.

By the middle of the 20th century, epidemiology was thoroughly integrated into the state health system. It seemed to prefer the comfort of the lab to the rough-and-tumble of the streets where it began, and where the Greek root of its name — epidemios, literally ‘among the people’ — suggests it might belong. [16.3] It borrowed heavily from the biomedical model of its new allies in medical research. It studied individuals rather than the collective, through a linear lens more than a systemic one. The field buried its nose in a search for 'individual risk factors' for individual disease (exercise, smoking, saturated fat), rather than the social and ecological factors (poverty, pollution, corporate abuses) that were its former province. [17,18]  

In the 1990s, a counter-movement in epidemiology began. [19-19.2] It has gathered momentum and moxy, and today, we can say that critical epidemiology has been re-born as eco-social epidemiology. It moves beyond sewer systems and factory floors, the sites of its 19th-century forebear, to engage a fuller range of the stresses of contemporary life. It makes use of powerful new statistical methodologies. Its data is expansive and robust. It has space in elite university departments, and sanction from the World Health Organization. [19.3, 19.4] A new epidemiological moment has arrived.

Alas, its practitioners are deeply frustrated. They know that their research is good, and their analysis revealing, but they find themselves with little access to power or influence. They have made some allegiances and substantive gains, like their partnership with urban planners to build healthier cities. [19.5] But they can boast nothing like the fame or force of their forebears a century prior.  And they can't figure out why. [20]

What allowed the first 100 years of public health to cut so deeply into the laissez-faire social fabric of its day, while today’s eco-social epidemiology can’t get neoliberal economics to budge? In the 19th century, I believe, public health worked so well for the same reason that neoliberalism stole its lunch money in the 20th: because it had penetrated to the level of myth. Today’s social epidemiology cannot shift the zeitgeist because it has not yet taken its critique to that same cultural depth.

How to Find the Source of the Fumes

What would it look like if epidemiology went down to the level of myth in our contemporary world? There are grounded and discernible differences between political practices that do and don't approach the level of myth, and distinguishing between them can teach us something about narrating our culture in a new way.

Today, eco-social epidemiology points to a list of 14 primary social determinants of health, focused on the damaging effects of poverty, racism and social exclusion. [21-23] It’s a good list. But it differs in one important way from the 19th-century approach. In 19th-century epidemiology, marginalized populations were part of the analysis but not the focus. Instead, the focus was something that affected everyone in society – the epidemics of infectious disease themselves. We might think that the approach focused explicitly on marginalized peoples would be the more politically radical, but I think that, in this case at least, the opposite is true. Let's see why.

The early epidemiologists also paid attention to who was sickest, but they did so in order to decipher the general causes of sickness. They presented the idea that there were broad-based stresses in society that made everyone susceptible to disease. For people whose social conditions were worse, exposure to those generalized stresses was greater, and more sickness would result. Leading figures like Villermé and Parent-Duchâtelet spent time with child labourers and sex workers, but saw them as canaries in the coal mine. [23.1] They wanted to move beyond empathy, and into analysis. They wanted to search for the source of the fumes.

Imagine a long line of people stream into a doctor’s office. Most of them are soaking wet. Two epidemiologists are on hand. Both are politically aware enough to notice the pattern that some people are much wetter than others. The first one takes the contemporary, marginalized-communities approach. He walks straight over to the people who are really soaking wet, notices that none of them have umbrellas or raincoats, and tries to find a way for anyone without rain gear to gain access to it.

The second epidemiologist takes the 19th-century, broad-spectrum approach. She sees the pattern of inequality, but she asks a comprehensive question: ‘Why is nearly everyone wet?’ She goes and talks to people of varying levels of wetness. She learns that all of the wet people were outside, and differed in wetness according to their rain gear only by degree. So she walks out the door to see what's outside. She looks up. And she sees that it’s raining.

We are all caught in the same storm. This was the radical realization made possible by the broad-spectrum lens. The 19th century epidemiologists discovered how the ill health of the most vulnerable people resulted not simply from their lack of access to material goods, but from their exposure to a broader pattern. Studying in this way, eventually they could name that pattern: the patterns of urban growth during the Industrial Revolution.

Using their broad-spectrum social lens, they demonstrated that even while the economic boom produced net gains in health for the wealthy, it could eventually threaten the health of the whole populace if it continued relegating others to misery. Leading epidemiologists unearthed some of the basic conditions and structures of economic growth at the root of epidemic disease. They argued that those structures that needed to be adjusted, rather than only compensating for their effects. [23.2] When the whole social problem in view, and not only its most objectionable effects, this kind of complex, unified story can emerge. With such a story in hand, general pronouncements can be made that approach the depth of myth.

Getting Back to Myth

A mythological epidemiology is something we need again today. In historian Simon Szreter’s view, there is little doubt that the rise of contemporary eco-social epidemiology has been prompted by “the epidemic-scale health problems once again unleashed by unrestrained global economic and urban growth.” [23.3] A revived mythic epidemiology would give us a broad explanation for the diseases of our day, set within the social contexts of our daily lives. It would restore a voice to our bodies, so they could once again tell their stories in the service of everyone's health.

Contemporary eco-social epidemiologists can explain with remarkable precision and skill what percentages of respiratory illness emerge from poor air quality, or how much hypertension comes from economic inequality, or how much diabetes is caused by racism. This is seriously amazing. But lacking a whole-of-society approach, they are much less able to tell you a story of why or how those stories all weave into one. They can tell you a dozen explanatory stories of diet-linked heart disease, but not the single, structural story about the industrial food system that explains them all. [23.4]

We are all caught in the same rainstorm. It is the rain that makes us wet. Only when we walk outside and look up toward the source of the water are we able to do the things that the 19th-century public health movement did. Only at that depth can we speak to the underlying narrative, build cross-class consensus, and spur paradigm-shifting social change.

Eco-social epidemiology, focusing on the vulnerable, depends for its political force upon the prior existence of benevolent empathy, or a belief that the welfare of all members of society is interconnected, or that caring for the welfare of citizens is the prime measure of social success. In short, it depends for its momentum upon the existence of the social-welfare story. Where that story is not ascendant — as in the case of the contemporary West — it has no power. It cannot at the same time depend upon a particular narrative for its power and have the power to change the narrative in which it exists.

Where the Industrial Revolution grew illness in crowded factory floors, post-industrial trade deals emptied them out. Where Industrial-era wages could purchase too little food, we have too much food of too little substance. Where the Industrial Age clogged the atmosphere with soot, making it hard to breathe, our consumer society is clogging the stratosphere with carbon, making it hard to keep ice on the poles and water in the ground. In order to be effective at the depth of changing a myth, eco-social epidemiology would need to demonstrate which features of our own era are poor biological adaptations, which structures of society worsen our health. 

Our epidemics of cancer and heart disease, of diabetes and allergies and asthma — they contain these stories. With a broader lens, epidemiology could give voice to our ailing bodies to tell them. It could pierce the contemporary myth that illness is apolitical, that visible patterns and trends have no unifying story, that epidemic-level disease is an inevitable fact of life. The evidence in our bodies is the ultimate level of proof. This is the potency of epidemiology, of an epidemiology with the courage and foresight to speak from one side of its mouth in data, and from the other side in myth.

The praxis of storytelling is to see the whole pattern at once, and to draw links between the broad pattern and all people’s daily stresses. It is to feel less sympathy for the poor and the sick, and more solidarity with them instead, for it recognizes how we are all in the same circle. And our well-being must be our goal. The stylus that scratches out the peaks and valleys of the stock market prices is the very same as the hospital stylus scratching the beats and pauses of the heart. They write different parts for different instruments playing from the same score. As the Grand Chief John Kelly said, quoted at the start of Part 1, we are all in the same circle. This insight is the heart of the social-welfare story, and without its explicit invocation, pro-social actions cannot withstand countervailing winds. [24]

Making a Story Stick

Perhaps it should surprise us that after 100 years of enormous social success, the social-welfare story was still vulnerable to a rear-guard attack. What does it take to make a story stick? What more could the social-welfare story have done to convince the public that it served them better?

Well, how did the progress story cement itself so deeply? It mythologized a solution for a basic and enduring structural problem. The problem was rising population and declining stocks of food. The solution was agriculture. The progress story, notwithstanding its problems, solved a basic social problem in a convincing way. The social-welfare story has grown up as a response to the liabilities of the progress story, and it may not arrive securely to dominance until it provides an answer to all or most of them.

It earned its place of dominance in the welfare state because it had convincingly addressed one of the problems of civilization: the epidemics of infectious disease. But it had not yet made nearly the same impacts on the others: racism and class exploitation, imperialism, and the over-use of resources. As the social-welfare narrative neared the very end of its dominance, President Lyndon Johnson was tied up between two of them, his War on Poverty derailed by the imperial expedition in Vietnam.

Bringing a story to maturity requires keeping your focus. It takes a long time to follow a new insight about organizing human life all the way to the ends of its implications. Had it continued to develop, the social-welfare narrative could have further driven down race and class stratifications, and maybe made space for deeper solutions. Jimmy Carter considered weaning the United States off of fossil fuels in response to the 1973 oil shock, and installed solar panels on the White House roof.[24.1,24.2] From its early steps in the research of bodily disease, the social-welfare story could have matured into a robust answer to the problems of civilization. It lost its focus. It thought it was more secure than it was. Until the major social problems at hand are overcome, a developing cultural story needs to keep its focus -- to clearly and explicitly make the links between actions and myth.

New Inspirations, Toward a New Story

There is at least one group in Canada prominently calling us back to narrative depth. Slowly but surely, it is making political inroads. I am talking about Canada’s indigenous peoples.

Their appeals are explicitly political and mythological at the same time. They make clear connections among their demands for stewardship of their land, their philosophies of relationship with the land, and their opposition to social policy that jeopardizes the health of the land for everyone.

Noted political analyst Naomi Klein calls the indigenous approach the last line of defence against climate change. [25] She contrasts it with the mainstream environmental movement, which long avoided voicing a competing cultural narrative. [26] Said Jay Hair, former president of the National Wildlife Federation, in 1987: “[o]ur arguments must translate into profits, earnings, productivity, and economic incentives for industry." [27] The rest of the Canadian and American environment movements, Klein tells us, are taking notice of the integrity and the efficacy of the myth-linked indigenous approach, and putting alliances with indigenous peoples at the heart of their strategies for change.

Perhaps it is perfectly fitting that indigenous peoples — who most often chose not to go down the path of control and complexity we have called civilization — would help us understand how to undo its most grievous mistakes. Perhaps, with the important inspiration of First Nations, Inuit and Métis philosophy, we can regain our focus on the mythic long arc of our evolution. Perhaps we can continue to evolve our Western story until it is comprehensive and robust enough to roll back some of the errors of 10,000 years.

We know now what to do. We set down a new vision down as a collective goal, evaluate our social success against it, and build power, in the face of elite resistance, for the explicit and much-repeated purpose of realizing that goal. And we keep going, from action to myth-linked action, until we have found a way through - at which point, we would look back and realize that we have become a new people, with a new story.

We may yet be able to realize the promise of the social-welfare narrative: that we comprehend and live out our fundamental interdependence with one another and with all of life. We could correct at last the basic mistakes of civilization, and begin to see our purpose in symbiosis with other living things rather than in dominance over them. Building an economy could be a humble work of listening and adaptation. These things are within our capability. We must tell their story.

Perhaps, in the way of this new story, we can find a manner of living here on Earth that does not compound our problems. Perhaps we can find the solutions that re-engage us with the organic whole; that take us over and beyond the paradox of civilization; that do not solve one problem only to create another. "[P]erhaps,” wrote the great agricultural philosopher Wendell Berry, “it is not until health is set down as the aim that we come in sight of the [good] kind of solution: that which causes a ramifying series of solutions... all involved in the same interested, interlocking pattern – or pattern of patterns.” [28] Crafting a new story takes a very long time. These, I think, are some of the steps.

The need is to discover and reform those aspects of the physical and social environment which have brought about an increase in the particular diseases relevant to our time.
— French microbiologist and public health theorist René Dubos [29]

[1] Why Are Some Healthy and Others Not? The Determinants of Health of Populations. Eds. Robert G. Evans, Morris L. Barer, Theodore R. Marmor. New Jersey, Transaction Publishers, 1994.

[2] Cohen, Mark Nathan. Health and the Rise of Civilization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

[3] Armelagos, George J. and Mark Nathan Cohen. "Preface to the 2013 Edition." Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture. Eds. George J. Armelagos and Mark Nathan Cohen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013, pp. xvii-xxxi.

[4] Dubos, Rene. Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress, and Biological Change. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987.

[5] Szreter, Simon (1988). The Importance of Social Intervention in Britain’s Mortality Decline c. 1850-1914: A Re-Interpretation of the Role of Public Health. Social History of Medicine (1), p. 12. Data are for England and Wales.

[6] The World Bank Group. Data: Canada. 2012. Link. Data are from 2012. Data for United Kingdom, from same source, for more accurate comparison: 82. Link.

[7] Szreter, Simon (2003). The Population Health Approach in Historical Perspective. American Journal of Public Health: (93), 3, pp. 421-31.

[8] Szreter, Simon (2002). Rethinking McKeown: The Relationship Between Public Health and Social Change. American Journal of Public Health: (92) 5, pp. 722-725.

[9] Ontario Medical Association. It’s Time to Start Taking Obesity Seriously: Ontario’s Doctors. 14 February 2012. Link. This press release is cited as support for the contention that the disease states mentioned may reduce life expectancies. I do not support the equation it makes between body fat and those disease states.

[10] The Guardian. Fat Chance. 11 September 2002. Link. Comment in [9] applies here as well.

[11] Cohen, Health and the Rise, p. 142.

[12] The Spectator. “Margaret Thatcher in Quotes.” 8 April 2013. Accessed 24 July 2016. Link.

[12.1] Scott, Peter Dale. The Road to 9/11:  Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007, pp. 28-30.

[12.2] “Lewis F. Powell Jr.” Wikipedia. Accessed 26 July 2016. Link.

[12.3] Scott, Road to 9/11, p. 30.

[13] Zuckert, Catherine and Michael Zuckert. An Excerpt from The Truth about Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy. The excerpt contains pages 1-20, and the book was published in 2006 by the University of Chicago Press. Link.

[14] Walsh, John. Lies of the Neocons: From Leo Strauss to Scooter Libby: The Philosophy of Mendacity. Counterpunch. 2 November 2005. Link.

[15] Drury, Shadia. The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Qtd. in Walsh (2005).

[16] Ibid.

[16.1a] McDonald, Marci. The Man Behind Stephen Harper. The Walrus. October 2004. Link.

[16.1b] Saul, Jonathan Ralston. Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997, passim.

[16.2] Szreter (2002).

[16.3] “Epidemiology (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed 26 July 2016. Link.

[17] McKinlay, John and Lisa D. Marceau (2000). “To Boldly Go….” American Journal of Public Health90, (1), pp. 25-33.

[18] Wing, Steve (1994). “Limits of Epidemiology.” Medicine and Global Survival1(2), pp. 74-86.

[19] Krieger, Nancy (1994). Epidemiology and the Web of Causation: Has Anyone Seen the Spider? Social Science & Medicine: (39), 7, pp. 887-903.

[19.1] Susser, Mervyn and Ezra Susser (1996). Choosing a Future for Epidemiology: I. Eras and Paradigms. American Journal of Public Health: (86), 5, pp. 668-73.

[19.2] Susser, Mervyn and Ezra Susser (1996b). Choosing a Future for Epidemiology: II. From Black Box to Chinese Boxes and Eco-Epidemiology. American Journal of Public Health: (86), 5, pp. 674-77.

[19.3] Why Are Some Healthy and Others Not?

[19.4] “Commission on Social Determinants of Health.” World Health Organization. 2016. Accessed 26 July 2016. Link.

[19.5] “Public Health and Planning 101: An Online Course for Public Health and Planning Professionals to Create Healthier Built Environments.” Ontario Professional Planners Institute. Accessed 26 July 2016. Link.

[20] Raphael, Dennis. “Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts.” 5 August 2011. Accessed 24 July 2016. Video. Link.

[21] Public Health Agency of Canada. What Determines Health? 21 November 2011. Link.

[22] Raphael, Dennis. “Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts.”

[23] Why Are Some Healthy and Others Not?

[23.1] Szreter (2003).

[23.2] Ibid.

[23.3] Ibid., p. 422.

[23.4] Exceptions, happily, do exist. See, for example:

Labonté, Ronald and David Stuckler (2015). "The rise of neoliberalism: how bad economics imperils health and what to do about it." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health70, pp. 312-318.

Teelucksingh, Cheryl and Blake Poland (2011). "Energy solutions, neo-liberalism and social diversity in Toronto, Canada." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health8(1), pp. 185-202.

[24] Kelly, John. "We Are All in the Ojibway Circle." Testimony before the Royal Commission on the Northern Environment, Kenora, Ontario, 1977. Qtd. in Saul, John Ralston. The Comeback. Toronto: Penguin Canada Books, 2014.

[24.1] "Jimmy Carter on Energy & Oil." On the Issues. 30 December 2015. Accessed 7 August 2016. Link.

[24.2] Biello, David. "Where Did the Carter White House's Solar Panels Go?" Scientific American. 6 August 2010. Accesses 7 August 2016. Link.

[25]  Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014, pp. 192-229.

[26] Ibid., pp. 367-387.

[27] Ibid., p. 192.

[28] Berry, Wendell. Solving for Pattern. The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural. North Point Press, 1981. Link.

[29] Dubos, Rene. Mirage of Health: Utopias, Progress, and Biological Change. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1987, p. 164.