BOOK REVIEW:  The Final Empire (William Kotke) - Part 1

Carolyn Baker

Posted Feb 6, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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BOOK REVIEW:  The Final Empire (William Kotke)

by Carolyn Baker

My intention in reviewing this stunning book is to share how it has illumined my understanding that collapse and vision are not separate, but that in fact, they travel together and need each other. That is to say that collapse makes vision possible, and vision makes collapse the most desirable option of all as we confront the earth community’s current dilemma.


Disaster is not approaching,

It has arrived.

It is happening now.

Blessings and Grace are not approaching

They have arrived.

They are here now

I say I believe in Grace

But I think, feel and move as though

Only Damnation is real.

Or if Grace does exist,

It is for someone else.


I close my heart to pain

But it doesn’t help,

I cannot circumvent disaster.

But in closing my heart to disaster

perhaps I can circumvent Grace.


Can I bear the burden

Of knowing disaster and Grace,

Each in its own awful fullness?


James Hillman says our problem

Comes down to a failure of imagination.

I need an image, a picture…

Who would I be

If I were willing to risk believing

That Grace is real?

~By Paul Tierney~


It has repeatedly been my experience that when a book is supposed to enter my life, it does. Often it falls off the shelf into my lap, and at other times a friend suggests it, or the author him/herself sends me a copy for review. William Kotke has written articles for this website, and his Final Empire has been reviewed elsewhere, most notably by Dan Armstrong. However, the timing of my requesting a review copy of the book from him could not have been more momentous. As a result, I am not only reviewing the book, but using the review as an opportunity for sharing a recent shift in my perspective that may make this the most important article I’ve ever written in my life. It is written in two parts: The first contains Kotke’s extraordinary analysis of why civilization is collapsing and must collapse, and the second offers his vision of what is possible when empire has been eliminated.

My intention in reviewing this stunning book is to share how it has illumined my understanding that collapse and vision are not separate, but that in fact, they travel together and need each other. That is to say that collapse makes vision possible, and vision makes collapse the most desirable option of all as we confront the earth community’s current dilemma.

For at least the past two years I have been writing and speaking about the collapse of empire/ civilization, along with a chorus of other voices such as Matt Savinar, Mike Ruppert, Dmitry Orlov, Catherine Austin Fitts, Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler, and Tim Bennett and Sally Erickson. I name only a few of us, mindful that ours are not the only voices speaking from the depths of exhaustive research and personal experience. And now in the first month of 2008, the world is beginning to witness a dramatic unraveling of civilization. The spectacle has begun with the convergence of what I have been naming for years as the “Terminal Triangle”: Peak Oil, climate change, and global economic meltdown. A number of related issues such as population overshoot, species extinction, and global pandemics, abide in the mix, but the “Big Three” are now juxtaposed in what appears to be the beginning of the end of life as we have known it on planet earth.

William Kotke has brilliantly articulated what I would not only describe as an “encyclopedia of collapse” but has skillfully depicted a vision of possibility imbedded within the core of apocalypse. The introduction and first chapter of this masterpiece can be read online, but they do not include what I believe are the book’s fundamental underpinnings consisting of Chapter 9, “The Cultural Dynamics Of Empire” and Chapter 10, “The Psychology Of Empire”, nor do they contain Kotke’s elaboration of the exquisite vision he holds for the earth community.

The author painstakingly describes the history of the disintegration and the collapse of the ecosystems in such a manner that the reader cannot escape the reality that all of this is inherent in the very nature of civilization itself. In fact, he thoroughly convinces us that no project in the history of the human race has been so unequivocally doomed from its inception as civilization, its ultimate destiny being its demise and the obliteration of everyone and everything in its wake.  Had I had the slightest doubt that civilization must and will collapse in order to spare what it has not yet annihilated on this planet, my uncertainty would have been expunged by Kotke long before arriving at Chapters 9 and 10.

The Cultural Dynamics of Empire

Kotke takes on the linear concept of cultural evolution which assumes that natural cultures of ancient times were “in much worse condition than we are today” and that “we are at the forefront of social evolution.” Contained within this notion is the delusion that humans invented agriculture as an escape from unsatisfactory conditions. (197) This myth presumes that “there has been a qualitative advancement with the change from forager/hunter culture to civilization.” On the contrary, Kotke notes, compared with natural culture, civilization has brought forth a lowering of living standards and a world in which starvation is increasing—where “progress” is defined primarily by the technological objects that we have invented.

But the fundamental question that must be asked is: “What is it about the culture of empire that has produced the prospect of planetary suicide for the earth community?” Most of us know the standard answers to this question: Human culture changed from cooperation to competition; from social equality to hierarchy; from matrilocal consciousness to patriarchy and an emphasis on the warrior. (199)

Yet even more specifically, natural culture understood that each living thing is a spiritually conscious entity as well as understanding that “everything in material reality was spiritually vivified.” The hallmark of that culture was a “continuing and direct spiritual contact with the cosmos” and one in which decisions were made with their repercussions on subsequent generations in mind. (200-201)

The culture of empire is characterized by a rejection of adaptation and insistence on control. It may be argued that as a result of natural culture’s intimacy with the cosmos, its most remarkable asset was a willingness to adapt; whereas a culture immersed in materialism can only manage, manipulate, and dominate. Natural culture is one informed and guided by something greater than itself, but the culture of empire is a culture where the ego reigns supreme. Civilization inculcates the belief that bigger is better in every realm, and especially with respect to population. Increase in numbers of citizens offers the hope of physical safety, and economic growth delivers the false promise of immunity to scarcity. In summary, “a profound change takes place in the psyche of the culture when this change from forager/hunter to civilized, imperial energy systems occurs.” (203)

Imperial culture, Kotke emphasizes, in contrast to natural culture, is shortsighted and accumulative. No longer is value found in preserving soil, water, forests, or other resources. Thus he argues that:

No one in the empire advocates long-term gain in soil fertility when the short-term gain of profit margins or production quotas are the whole point of the effort. This is the reason that nothing real will be done to avoid the final collapse of civilization. The structure of empire is to enrich the emperor/elite at the expense of the earth and society, not to manage affairs for the benefit of the whole life of the earth. (205)

Therefore, the culture of empire is one in which the earth is a “resource” to be used for the benefit and gratification of empire. Another word for this is quite simply, fascism.

Kotke’s brilliant analysis of the cultural dynamics of empire confirms nothing if not the desirability, indeed the absolute necessity, of the collapse of civilization.

In “The Psychology of Empire” we are offered an intimate exploration of empire’s impact on our hearts, souls, and bodies with a daring statement by Kotke that “We live in a culture that conditions us toward psychological disintegration” and the admonition that “the examination of these disintegrative factors will aid us in creating a new culture that is pointed toward healing and wholeness.” (216) He then presents the analogy of malignancy, stating that “empire feeds on the earth like a tumor” because humans do not depend on the life of the earth for their sustenance but on what human society produces by way of using and exploiting the earth.

When one considers the cancer epidemic of recent decades in the light of the above assertion, one can only wonder to what extent our collective “feeding on the earth like a tumor” is influencing the incidence of this fatal disease. Kotke quotes cell biologist, L. L. Larison Cudmore, who states that “Cancer cells do not respect the territorial rights of other cells and refuse to obey the two rules obeyed by all other cells: they neither stop growing nor stop moving when they encounter another cell, and they do not stick to their own kind. Quite simply, they are cells that have decided on autonomy and independent growth, rather than cooperation….Cancer will not stop its hideous course of uncontrolled growth and invasion until it or its victim is dead.” (218)

In other words, the cancer dynamic is without limits, inherently colonizing, omnipotent, and anti-dependent. Can we find a more apt description of empire consciousness?

Enculturation to empire begins in the birthing process itself which is not given the proper reverence it deserves, often complicated by or intruded upon by medication, technology, or both. Equally sacred is the bonding process, so frequently minimized, thwarted, or non-existent in the culture of empire. Yet another characteristic of civilization is its stilted relationship with erotic pleasure and the “anguish, shame, guilt, and automatic negative response to sexual love.” (237) Thus the “civilized” child frequently enters adulthood carrying massive anxiety and little sense of connectedness with other humans or the earth. One of the most common outcomes is addiction, which empire feeds and perpetuates endlessly with a plethora of substances, things, activities, and people. Unlike growing up in natural culture, the child of empire “Not knowing the security of life and the earth and not knowing the security of a natural clan providing the learning of human sociability, the industrial human becomes a victim of all the forces of society that tend to make the person powerless and dependent, the perfect subject of addictive dependencies.” (248)

Therefore, Kotke wisely concludes: “The logical extrapolation of civilization is the mental institution.” (249) Neurosis, schizophrenia, and catatonic states, politically defined as insanity, are simply “logical extensions of the already existing social isolation of the individual in the culture of empire. It is also the logical end of the culture itself in the cosmos, lost in space and surrounded by life but talking only to itself.” (250)

By the end of “The Psychology of Empire” it is difficult to even consider arguing for “reform” or the prevention of collapse. In fact, Kotke boldly and blatantly argues for collapse!:

We are not fighting to reform a maladaptive and dying social body. There is no conflict with civilization, it is passing away. There is no battle for civilization’s power, the power to kill. There is only the open, positive and sharing sustenance of the new life. (252)

That is to say: Stop trying to fix a dying system. Rather, in Kotke’s words, “As with a physical wound, the imperial tissue that has lost integration with the body, lost coherence with the complex flows of energy, falls away. One allows the diseased and injured portions to fall away, while resisting injury to that which is still healthy. One focuses on the new growth, the area of healing….In the case of civilization, it is now poised, tipping and beginning the slide into complete disintegration.”

We must realize, says Kotke, that “the dear thing cannot be saved, even with major surgery.”

The Ramifications Of Surrender

Some may object to the use of the word “surrender”, with its spiritual undertones. However, I was greatly inspired last year by Sally Erickson’s blog piece “Catastrophe As Spiritual Practice” in which she shared how surrender to collapse can be a powerful component of our personal, as well as planetary, evolution. These past two years have been for me a cellular-level experience of comprehending more deeply than ever what that actually means. The spiritual dimension for me is non-religious and non-theistic, yet informed by something greater than myself.

From the beginning of this millennium until I encountered the topic of collapse, I had been a prisoner of ego, intent on doing battle with the darkness of empire, hopeful that enough grassroots momentum could be marshaled to affect change and return the United States to the principles of a democratic republic verbalized in the Constitution, albeit not always practiced, through political and community action. What I have learned from my willingness to descend into the abyss of collapse is that there is no return to the “Common Sense” of Thomas Paine, nor is the prevention of collapse even desirable. On the contrary, the collapse of civilization is the only “hope” humanity has of restoring sanity to its own species.

Unfortunately, as I have written profusely about the desirability of collapse, some readers have argued that embracing collapse is synonymous with “giving up.” For this reason, the second part of this review of Kotke’s Final Empire will be devoted to exploring the other half of the book, “The Seed Of The Future,” in which I will demonstrate that surrendering to collapse is anything but giving up.

What natural cultures understand that empire culture does not and cannot, is that before we can take action that makes a significant difference, we must surrender to the worst case scenario; that is, we must be willing to abandon, reject, and resist “hope” and open to abject despair. In other words, as Paul Tierney’s poem reminds us, when we circumvent pain, we also circumvent grace.

Hope Vs. Vision/Mindset

As Truth To Power readers know, I have a strong reaction to the word “hope”, and I take great pains to distinguish it from vision or mindset. For those who don’t know, I want to explain why-again. My 2007 “The End Of The World As We Know It: Hope Vs. Mindset” addressed the issue by illuminating the word “hope” as an unfortunate casualty of the language of empire. Although not quite as cynical about it as James Howard Kunstler, I agree with him when he argues that any hope we have must come from within ourselves. Empire has inculcated in us the belief that our hope lies in something external-politicians, policies, programs, or other people, and as a result, the tendency is to embrace those as our “hope” rather than journeying into the recesses of our own psyches in order to create a vision that we can manifest in relationship with our fellow humans and the entire earth community. More often than not, our “hope” is a defense against feeling despair, but until we have visited the abyss, we are ill-equipped to affect meaningful change and are more likely to engage in activities that appear to be innovative but actually perpetuate denial-our own and that of our allies.

When I abandon the ego-driven project of preventing collapse, when I surrender to utter hopelessness, a fertile space is created in my psyche and my life for giving birth to and nurturing my vision. No longer is my vision jaded by fantasy or a compulsion to circumvent upheaval. I can stand in the tracks of the non-humans struggling to avoid extinction engendered by “superior” humans and open to the possibility of sacrificing myself and my own species so that they may live. My surrender allows me to find my proper place and purpose in the earth community-one species among countless others, willing to allow those others the last word because, of course, they will have it anyway.

Part II of this review will explore “The Seed Of The Future”, creating and tending one’s vision.

Wm. H. Kötke is widely traveled and published. His most recent book, prior to Planet Garden, was the underground classic, The Final Empire: The Collapse of Civilization and the Seed of the Future. He has been a journalist, a radio script writer, a pamphleteer, a novelist, an essayist, and has had many articles published in periodicals. He lives in Geyserville, California and may be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it .

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