Beta Culture: Bonsai Civilization and the Future of Humanity


Initial conditions show up in the final product.

I’ve often thought about bonsai trees in relation to child-rearing.

In my own case, there were many brighter possible futures I might have enjoyed. In my few years of college, I was a genetics major, aimed at medical or veterinary school. But I ended up, here and now, as a sort of junior-grade bus driver.

I was wounded from an early age by … well, call it less-than-optimal parenting. By the time I reached my senior year in high school, I was skipping about one day a week to drive around with friends, play pool, etc. This after years and years of 4.0 grades and honor student status.

I still graduated in the top 20 or so of my graduating class of about 250. The number 2 spot was occupied by a guy who cheated off me in several classes, so I know I could have been right up there if I’d just studied and come to class.

But … looking back on it, I’ve since realized I was severely depressed. It developed sometime in my teens, during my sojourn with my Wicked Stepfather, and got worse not only the entire time I was living under his roof but for several years after.

I started getting clear of it in about 1985, when I bottomed out in a really ugly place where I felt nothing, or next to nothing. I had no motivation or energy, and I had these brief periods where I simply sat and stared, slack-faced. I was masking it the whole time, putting a bright face on things. Pretty good at it too, apparently, as years later I mentioned the experience to a group of friends and not one of them was aware of it when it was happening.

I got a dog about that time, a German shepherd puppy, and I’m convinced he saved my life and sanity. He was my therapy dog, and it was an unfair burden to place on a beloved four-legger. But in 12 years of being there for me, giving me something to hold onto, loving me unconditionally, he helped pull me through.

Talking about this makes me a little edgy in this way: I’m worried you’ll think of me as “Poor Hank, who suffers from depression.”

Because I DON’T suffer from depression. I don’t have any problem at all with depression, and haven’t for more than 25 years. In relation to the stuff that happened to me in my stepfather’s house, and what happened within me in the next few years, eventually I understand there was little or nothing wrong with ME. That understanding was probably a big part of the cure.

Oh, I might have a sad moment now and then, lamenting missed opportunities or some such, but I don’t drag myself through life under a constant dark cloud. I’m actually fairly optimistic about life, and I feel content that I’m doing worthwhile work, and in an admirable way. I have friends, I have loved ones, I have satisfying aspirations and adventurous goals, I have an interesting life with pleasurable rewards.

Mainly, here, I’m relating this life path I got shunted into. Metaphorically speaking, in the forest of common human trees, I was born to be a big solid oak tree, maybe even a California redwood. With my grades and energy, physical strength, intelligence and early likeability, very few professions would have been closed to me. And if I didn’t find a profession that worked for me, I could have created my own from scratch. (I did build two successful businesses from nothing.)

But I got a stepfather who practiced the bonsai style of child-rearing. He mercilessly trimmed the growing branches and roots of any child under his care. By the time I met him, even his own grown sons – both alcoholics – had little to do with him, showing up only when they were desperate for money. I vaguely remember there was a daughter somewhere too, but I don’t recall ever seeing her. She was not a part of his life at all. Probably got away from him and never looked back.

Here’s an actual quote, typical of the sort of things he hammered into me day after day, year after year, out of his huge store of equally ignorant shit: “You ort to quit that goddam school, boy, and get-chu a job.” (Later in life, I came to understand his own childhood was a hard one, and he was mercilessly shaped by forces rougher than I can probably imagine. But still … there are limits to how much you can forgive and forget.)

Here’s the thing. If you take a giant redwood seedling, and you practice bonsai on it for a few years, so that you have this little runty thing growing in a small pot, and you then go plant it in an open forest where it has sunlight and rich soil and plentiful water and endless space to root and grow… you’re still not going to get a soaring 300-foot-tall redwood. Ever.

Initial conditions show up in the final product.

I’m THIS person now, not that one who might have been a doctor or veterinarian or genetics researcher. Coming off a sucky part-time job in a supermarket bakery, I now drive a van for an alcohol and drug treatment facility, and I rub shoulders daily with substance abusers … in all their radiant glory and misery. I’m also single and childless, and always will be.

This is not a lament. I’m HAPPY to be here writing this, and I doubt I would have been blogging or speaking about atheism and Beta Culture in any of those other possible incarnations of me. But I do see the lost possibilities. I do know I’m the smallified product of bonsai parenting.

I see the same sort of process vividly visible in our civilization. We are here, only HERE, when we might have been oh-so-fantastically THERE.

If you’ve ever thought of crying out “Why does it have to be like this??” you’re fully aware of some of what I see when I look at what we humans do, and where we are as a people and a civilization.

Those addicts and substance abusers I rub shoulders with, I see how much help they need, how much caring must go into their recovery to independence and self-control. But almost every one of them instead gets a jail record, or a prison record. Some of them are caught in a revolving door of personal pain and societal destruction – one fellow had been in rehab 17 times (!), and one woman in her early 40s had a record of 72 arrests (!!!) – and the system we have in place not only helps create addicts, but provides grudging assistance after they’re hooked only as an afterthought to our elaborate machinery of punishment and degradation.

The addicts are just one of a thousand equally troubling aspects of the civilization we live in. Whoever thought it was a good idea to turn TV into a pipeline for lies and fantasy-posing-as-truth, oh boy, do you and I ever disagree. How did we get to have 7 billion people on planet Earth? We have not just overpopulation, but extremely strong social bars even to talking about limiting the rate of human reproduction.

Wars. Famine. Poverty. The solidly-established idea that people with different-colored skin are different and inferior. A justice system that sentences innocent people to death, and cops that kill innocent bystanders and walk away unscathed. Basic foods adulterated with chemicals and new genes that consumers are not even allowed to know about. Elected officials working night and day on plans to cheat citizens out of the right to vote. And so much, much, much more.

So anyway … here we are, a bonsai civilization. Other than the improbable science, there is nothing – no technical bar – that could have prevented us from developing a civilization worthy of the best scenes from the Star Trek universe. Bright, clean cities, open land, a vital environment, endless opportunities for education and advancement, and individual lives rich with possibility and fulfillment.

Instead, in most cities of any size, you can see scenes little different from the worst ones in Blade Runner – a dark, dirty bucket of crabs where the hapless residents struggle blindly against each other, pinching and stabbing and wounding, and only a few make it out.

Why is it like that? It’s like that because we had a bad start, with superstitions that grew into religions, which then began to control entire populations in the ugliest ways possible, with mental domination through enforced ignorance and threats of eternal fire, plus endless, endless disease, poverty and war. Craziness enforced and taught by churches in order to maintain power over people, stamping out the fire of human brilliance and creating instead a ash-heap of obedient, near-mindless bodies.

It’s like short selling on the stock market. If the stock plummets, the short-seller profits. Churches and religions sell civilization short in order to prosper. In times of fear and pain, they benefit most greatly.

But it’s also like that because we continue in those old, old patterns.

If you – you reading this right now – look around you, it’s likely you’ll see signs of wealth. You’re in a  clean home, steps away from a kitchen filled with food, or you’re in a library packed to the rafters with books, or a coffee shop with smartly dressed people talking and laughing and going about their successful days.

You might conclude, in any one of these bright, clean moments, “Hey, it’s not such a bad old world after all.”

The filter effect – that you happen to be one of the successful ones, in a rich country, in a successful subculture – blinds you to the fact that other people just like you, lots of them, don’t have it so good. They’re out there right now, with all your same feelings and sense of self, watching their children, whom they love every bit as much as you love yours, die of starvation or get shot to death, or condemned to scavenge in dumps, or get pregnant at 13 in a hellhole of a country, or face entire lives of mental slavery to hateful old religious farts who think joy is evil.

But even aside from that …

To quote myself, from Lifeboat of Knowledge, Dinghy of Power:

We lost the technology for building such things (the Antikythera Device) for more than 1,500 years. One thousand, five hundred years. Sixty human generations.

To put it in Steam to Space parameters – based on the span of about 300 years from the first commercial steam-powered pump to the placing of footprints on the Moon – that’s five STS generations of technological advancement missing from our history.

In modern technological terms, it represents a near-infinite amount of progress … which did not happen.

Our civilization could have been a soaring redwood, just now reaching the fullness of its power and wealth and creativity and invention. Instead, we’re a bonsai, trimmed down so much that I’m actually not convinced we will survive it.

Yes, there are big healthy leaves (needles, if we’re talking about the redwood) on the thing, and you and I are lucky enough to live up here within them. But there’s all that empty space above us, that 299 vertical feet of growth and magnificence that we AREN’T living in. Not to mention the dirt all around us, mere inches below, that we can all too easily fall into (as my rehab clients, people just like you and I, know so well).

(Not to mention the fact that we here in the U.S. had George W. Bush for a president for 8 ugly years, and that vile fatcat Mitt Romney, smug son of generational wealth, was a serious candidate for the White House. Un-frickin-believable!)

We can do better. We can be better.

Rather than continuing on this bonsai path, with religion and all that has grown out of it above and around and among us, we can deliberately and definitely abandon it, strike out on our own, and create an entire new civilization of progressive, scientific, humanist, godless goals and values.

We’re not starting with a blank slate. We can’t fix what’s been done to us over the past several thousand years. We will always be marked by it. Initial conditions show up in the final product. But we can recover at least enough to begin growing again. We can change things, chart a new course, build a new independent culture, and go somewhere emphatically different from where today’s power players — the human inertia of this massive social system — have us all headed.

We can become healthy – for the first time! – as a people, and a world.

We can envision it, plan it, and do it. As never before in history, we can become magnificently and deliberately our best possible selves.

It will take an immense amount of work.

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