Becoming a Girl-Shaped Tiger

Vivan has been musing about adulthood recently, resulting in some wonderful writings that she has shared with me. She asked me what adulthood means to me and I gave her my stock answer; that adulthood is when you face dire situations wherein you are entirely responsible for your actions and cannot turn to anyone else for help. She then went and posted an amazing summation of what becoming an adult means to her which made me realize that my stock formation is out of date. I’ll re-post her list here for sake of reference (found originally at:

A woman:

  • Is a chameleon, equally at home on the dusty streets of Nairobi, the dining rooms of French millionaires, the cold mountain passes of Switzerland or the cramped heat of the Cambodian jungle. She can talk to anyone, anywhere.
  • Has knowledge of her fears, inner demons and weaknesses, and has worked to overcome at least some of them. She knows the ways in which she doesn’t have her shit together.
  • Has walked in many worlds: the dream state, the psychic realm, the spirit realm etc. Knows how to deal with energy/ghosts/spirits/gods etc.
  • Has ventured into the dark sides of herself.
  • Understands that some things in this world can destroy her, and has an understanding of those things. 
  • Has a well-developed spirituality.
  • Has a life purpose or at least well-developed ideas about what she is trying to achieve.
  • Is capable of defending herself. She knows how to fight with a knife, gouge out eyes, throw a punch and use a gun. She knows the various ways to kill someone.
  • Is useful in an emergency. She can perform CPR, carry someone out of a burning house, rig a pulley system, hot-wire a car, break open a door and pick someone’s pocket.
  • Can keep herself alive. She knows how to shoot and butcher animals, build shelter, find water, catch fish, start a fire and navigate.
  • Can transport herself. She can run, swim, climb, bike and operate a range of vehicles. She can perform basic maintenance and repairs on motorcycles, cars and bicycles. 
  • Can maintain herself. She has knowledge of wound care, nutrition, fitness and cooking. She knows that her body is the only real home she has.
  • Understands her seductive power, and wields her sexuality like a tool.
  • Understands the psychological and mystical aspects of sex. Knows how to pleasure all kinds of bodies. Knows how to pleasure herself.
  • Understands her privilege.
  • Can effectively navigate the neuroses, shame, mind traps and social conditioning of whatever bullshit culture she finds herself in. (Note: they are all bullshit.)

What I realized after reading the above is that they all add up to a certain type of person. I think part of what adulthood means to her is a person, as Daniel Quinn would say, with a very high survival value i.e. the ability to survive outside of our cultural context. Questions of survival value are in fact what proved the initial insight that got DQ started on his unearthing of the Taker-memetic complex. At the height of the Cold War someone mentioned to him that if nuclear war occurred “we would all be bombed back to the Stone Age”. He realized that that is an odd and patently false statement. It is false because we would in fact be far worse off than if we were bombed back to the Stone Age. If that were literally true we (the survivors) would wake up on The Day After with the ability to forage for ourselves, support our loved ones, and with the skills necessary to live fulfilled lives. In actuality what would happen is that far more people would die in the immediate aftermath of nuclear war than would be killed in the initial blasts. Why? We are so dependent on objects, ideology, and other humans that most of us cannot exist outside of our industrialized culture.

I am not ready yet to make a coherent argument that this is unsustainable. I think it is, and I have my reasons, they just aren’t ready for prime-time yet. I would point you to the works of Willem Larsen, Daniel Quinn, and Derrick Jensen for far far better arguments that I can muster at this time. So assuming that for a while let me proceed.

So what can we do about transitioning to a sustainable culture? We can’t all become survivalists or hunter-gatherers. No matter how bad the consequences I have a hard time imagining a world where EVERYONE decides to stop fighting for the ability to take regular showers. Even if the emotional arguments sound unconvincing there are practical reasons why a mass return to hunter-gathererism would be too difficult. The world might be able to cope with 1 billion hunter gatherers, more is unlikely to work. So how then do people become more sustainable?

First I will briefly touch on what makes our culture unsustainable (an issue I will return to in future posts). The most basic way to phrase the answer to that is that we assume that we should have knowledge and control of life and death. From the fruit of this basic assumption forests of ideas spring. This assumption allows us to justify oppression (which leads to despair, which contributes to consumerism), wars of annihilation (which lead to genocide of our fellow humans and of non-human species and habitats), and the commoditization of effectively everything.

So  what does a sustainable society look like? Thankfully we have some answers in the form of existing non-industrialized cultures that have existed for tens of thousands of years. I quickly want to note that I am not saying that these cultures are better or that their lives are easier. I am simply saying that they have models of society which work and have managed not to destroy the entire world’s ecosystem. What lessons can we learn from these cultures that can be applied (although most of them won’t be able to be) to us? Vivian and I have had many conversations about this and I more impressed than I say when I see how penetrating her insight into this has been. She has realized some of the most important capabilities of a person transitioning from our culture to living sustainably.

1. The ability to form intense relationships
One of the hallmarks of sustainable cultures is a facility and context to quickly form intense relationships. Economies are not commercial, they are often gift based. Gift economies require intense bonds in the way that market based ones do not. They would find the idea of a superficial commercial relationships (like between you and your pizza delivery person) profoundly odd. In many economies like this one must be able to give anything you own to a comrade. Among other effects this promotes a lack of attachment to “stuff”. You might think this sounds very 70s hippie-dippy and you would be right, that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to apply it. In addition an ability to form intense relationships with anything can help connect one with the non-human world. Not just in a “so I can love the tree” way but in a “I can track and hunt well” kind of way.

2. They have a high survival value
In our culture the ability of an adult to survive independent of their culture is almost zero. If industrial society vanished overnight there are very few 18 year olds (our technical definition of adulthood) that would be able to survive. In addition the DNA of our society is far to complicated to fit into one individual (or even a thousand individuals) so the survival value of our culture approaches zero as time goes on. If living sustainably means living outside an industrialized culture one goal to consider is improving your survival value. For some that might mean learning how to hunt, forage, and be a survivalist. For others it might be decreasing your dependence on objects and processes that could only exist in an industrialized culture. It might even mean streamlining our memetic heritage down to the point where it could fit in an individual or a small group of individuals.

3. Ideological adaptability
A third factor that even sustainability advocates rarely mention is the ability to easily move into and out of different cultures. In the event of a stress on industrialized culture the ability to quickly identify, travel to, and sincerely join a sustainable culture affords resilience.

I am not advocating that everyone should look to this as “the right way” or that industrialized cultures are bad. Simply that they are maladaptive and the above tools are useful when thinking about how one might become more resilient. Oh, and that I love the way Vivian thinks.