Civilisational Pruning

How To Cheat The Cycle

Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”


In order to maintain a tree in a healthy state, it is necessary at times to prune it, to remove certain branches that are diseased, damaged, dead, or otherwise deranged (remembered as the four Ds) so that it may grow in a healthy and desirable way.

This need is not unique to trees. Everything that grows – plants, animals, organisations, our own lives – all accumulate stuff over time that is at best useless and at worst actively harmful. We can alter the four Ds here to three in our attempt to generalise the principle of pruning – that which is dead (sucks resources from the rest of the system), that which is diseased (damages other parts of the system), and that which is degenerate (twists the system around its own needs). Please note here that this is not a fully developed idea I am presenting, but rather my initial thoughts; it may be that different terms are more appropriate.

Self-pruning In Humans

We can see this pruning at work in humans, both in our bodies and in our lives. The immune system is responsible for removing diseased cells and foreign invaders alike that hijack the body for their own survival. Damaged cells commit suicide in order to avoid becoming degenerate cells that reproduce out of control. Without a system of pruning, we would not survive.

In our lifestyles, too, it is necessary to occasionally clear out junk through targeted removal, to weigh up our possessions and ask, as Marie Kondo puts it, “does this spark joy?”. Without removing the old and no longer helpful, the new cannot come in. There is only so much attention we can pay to things, only so much time we have, only so much room in our houses. The weeds and dead growth of yesteryear choke new growth, and we stagnate.

How Civilisations Die

Civilisations, too, are organisms – and as organisms, they too grow. Over time, they accumulate an ever increasing level of complexity, of possessions, of infrastructure. All of these things demand resources – attention, labour, energy, materials – to maintain, but not all of these things offer a positive return. Those which don’t need to be paid for by those which do. For a while, a wealthy civilisation can handle this, but eventually the weight of the unproductive becomes to great to bear and, after a period of stagnation, the civilisation dies.

Joseph Tainter holds that civilisations collapse when the returns on increases in complexity are no longer enough to justify them. Problems are solved by an increase in complexity (e.g. the construction of irrigation canals to deal with drought). This works for a while, until new problems crop up and the system requires a further increase in complexity to solve them. Eventually, however, it can no longer bear this (there is only so much human administrators can get their heads around), and the system undergoes a collapse until it reaches a state simple enough to sustain.

John Michael Greer draws attention to the costs required to maintain a societies wealth. As societies accumulate wealth, the costs to maintain that wealth also increases. If the society reaches a point at which the maintenance costs can no longer be met, it will undergo a catabolic collapse, burning its wealth to maintain what it can until it reaches a sustainable level. Greer does mention a form of pruning in his essay: bronze age societies throwing metalwork into bodies of water to keep their wealth at a manageable size, thus lowering their maintenance costs and reducing the risk of a catabolic collapse.

The Flush Toilet And Its Consequences...

Our own civilisation is no exception to the rules governing those which have come before us. We also grow, and we also accumulate certain things which are, as far as long term survival is concerned, unhelpful at best and actively damaging at worst.

It’s an unpopular take perhaps, but these three Ds – dead, diseased, degenerate – can be seen at work in the way we deal with the problem faced by every society involving humans living close to each other: what to do with our poop. Right now, the way we handle it is insane. Were one to design a waste disposal system from first principles, the Rube Goldberg machine we use today would not make it onto the drawing board.

Not because we don’t need to deal with our waste – no-one wants cholera – but because the way we do it at present takes vast quantities of resources compared to the alternative of composting it. We take water, purify it, pipe it through hundreds of kilometres of piping to our homes… only to mix it with our excrement, pipe it back through hundreds of kilometres of piping, and have to purify it again before discharging it back into nature.

Contrast this with the resource requirement of composting toilets. You put the waste in a bucket, making sure to not mix excrement and urine. The bucket is regularly emptied into a larger tank, where it is broken down by a natural process into fertiliser. Urine is diluted and applied directly to plants. Little human intervention is required. It is so simple that you can implement it as one person living alone in a woods with no contact with the outside world.

Compared to the alternatives, the flush toilet is a resource sink. It is dead. Nutrient rich waste is discharged into rivers and seas, causing algal blooms that damage the ecosystem. It is diseased. In doing all this, we disrupt the natural flow of nutrients such as phosphorus back to the soil they came from. It is degenerate. It has been a disaster for the human race.

We Need To Prune

Civilisations are organisms, and like all organisms, they must undergo pruning if they are to continue to grow in a healthy way. If they are not pruned, then the accumulation of dead, diseased, and deranged parts will eventually cause them to perish. When this happens to a civilisation, we call it collapse. Can it be avoided? Perhaps not, but definitely not if we aren’t willing to tackle the cause.

I do not have faith in the larger system to do what needs to be done. But it may not be necessary to rely on most people coming along for the ride. Greer is fond of the saying, in the context of individual preparedness, “collapse early and avoid the rush”. Reach the collapse stage quickly and deliberately, before everyone else, so that you don’t have to participate in it along with billions of other terrified and confused and angry people. Perhaps “prune aggressively and avoid the collapse” can also work on the small scale, creating communities that can be scaled up rapidly once everyone else accepts what is going on. It helps here that much of what we would be pruning involves long supply chains anyway, so not relying on them would be part of the process, rather than an obstacle.

The choice lies before us – prune our civilisation, or watch it fall. If we prune away all that is dead, diseased, and degenerate in our civilisation – if we take an active approach at determining what is worth keeping, and what should be discarded – we may (I do not feel confident in saying will) be able to resume growing in a more healthy way. If we don’t, if we continue to let history take its course as it has with those who came before, the only way left to take is the natural pruning of collapse.