Bite the Hand that Claims to Feed You - Don't Defend Civilization!
...but dare instead look beyond it --- [Estimated reading time: 30 min.]
"Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts."
— Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist
“I know we've all been forced to make difficult decisions to save our human civilization. But to be human means to care for each other, and civilization means to work together to create a better life!“
— Dr. Adrian Helmsley (fictional character), 2012 (2009 movie)
"Civilization is about investing, together, in things that raise living standards for all."
— Umair Haque, It’s Not a Supply Chain Crisis – It’s a Failing Economy (November 2021)
“The cavemen, they were all nomads. And they all died. Then we evolved into this and we lived. Civilization starts when we stop running. When we live together. When we stop sending people away from the world and from each other.”
— Reg Monroe (fictional character), The Walking Dead (Season 5)
Again and again, I hear and read euphemistic, self-congratulatory definitions of the term civilization, by scholars, journalists, authors and in popular culture, that paint a bright picture of civilization as some kind of magical place, a benevolent force that keeps evil and darkness at bay and brings out our better angels. Historically, this has basically never been true. Civilizations have always limited personal freedom, raised inequality to obscene levels, committed atrocities, exploited both subjects and surroundings, depleted resources, and waged war against other cultures and the Natural World. Sure, there was the Harappan civilization in the Indus River Valley, large settlements like Nebelivka and Taljanky in Eastern Europe, and Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica - all of which don't appear to have had the same high levels of inequality and violence that characterized other early cities and civilizations. But this doesn't change the fact that, generally speaking, civilizations have been an absolute disaster for the humans who inhabit them and the environments they build them in. A few exceptions don't change the overall trend, they merely show that nothing is black and white, and that exceptions are, albeit rare, always a possibility. But I will not talk about a handful of exceptions here.
People might ask what the big deal is, why I constantly have to belabor the use of the term "civilization". The reason is, civilizations are an abomination. They simply don't work. It might seem for a while like they do, but ultimately, they don't. They are a terrible way to live for all but a tiny elite, and even this elite is usually a far cry from being free, satisfied, content or happy. They always destroy, and they always collapse. They always devastate their environment. After a few thousand years of various civilizations rising and falling, our world lies in tatters, mutilated and battered beyond recognition. So why do people still defend it? Can't they see beyond the bars of their prison cell?
The somewhat myopic obsession with civilization as the one and only right way to live for humans is by no means normal, historically speaking. It is highly exceptional, actually, and it is part of the reason why so many problems that overburden global society seem to be unsolvable. Problems caused by civilization itself as the preferred mode of social organization will not and cannot be solved by a slightly altered version of the same flawed concept. Building a "new civilization" (this time it will be sustainable!), as leading thinkers keep advocating, will at the very best prolong the inevitable. "The inevitable", for civilizations, means collapse.
Environmentalist Derrick Jensen has written about how people are willing to defend to the death the system that brings them food and water, and "if your experience is that your food comes from the grocery store and your water comes from a tap", this is the system that you will defend by all means, since your very life depends on it. Civilization keeps people alive (barely, that is, and it often poisons them at the same time), and therefore they can't imagine a life without it. They believe that without it they would starve, die of infections or parasites, or get killed in the lawless "anarchy" that must surely ensue were civilization ever to collapse. But if, on the other hand, as Jensen points out, "your food comes from a landbase and your water comes from a river, you will defend to the death the landbase and the river, because your life depends on them. One of the things that happened is that we've had our allegiance, our loyalty, and our life-dependance transferred away from the living planet and over to this capitalist [or, including this insight into the bigger picture, this civilizational] system."
It is not civilization that feeds you. It is living beings, plants and animals, that would still be here even if civilization would vanish. It is not Nestlé that waters you, it is the rivers and aquifers that humans and all other animals have drunk from since time immemorial. People ate and drank without relying on supermarkets for millions of years, and they were healthier than most people alive today. And even today there are people living outside of global civilization, and they have the healthiest hearts, the most diverse gut microbiome, and near-perfect eyesight until old age. Obviously we don't need civilization, which is merely a certain combination of social organization, subsistence mode and mythology, to keep us alive?
But first, let me answer this crucial question: what is civilization? The easiest and most obvious definition, one that most people, scholars and lay(wo)men alike, can agree upon, is that civilization is characterized by the rise of cities. Urbanism in turn dictates culture, mythology, spirituality, subsistence mode, social organization, vision, and self-image.
This definition is defensible both historically and etymologically – the term civilization derives from the Latin word stem that includes the words 'civis', meaning "inhabitant of a city", and 'civitas', "city".
A city, in turn, is any permanent settlement large enough to require the regular import of crucial resources (including food, most of which is monocropped grain produced by agriculture) which it ensures by aggressively exploiting its immediate surroundings, necessitate a form of representative governance, and that has distinct divisions of labor categorized into specific crafts, as well as a populace divided into different ranks or castes. The surplus they produce (or, better, appropriate) and hoard, and the general concentration of wealth creates the need for standing armies and fortifications to defend those riches against opportunistic raiders and other cities’ envious rulers. Together with the invention of organized warfare, cities led to an unprecedented boom in the business of slavery. One city goes to war with another, and the winner carries off the remaining populace in chains, to make them work the fields, households and workshops. Once a city gains control over a large enough territory for a long enough time, we call it a civilization.
Rome was a civilization, as was Greece, Egypt, Carthage, Nubia, Mali, Assyria, Akkad, Babylonia, Sumer, the Qin, Han, and all following dynasties in China, Angkor, Ava, Ayutthaya, and the Olmec, Aztec, Inca, Maya, Anasazi, and Hohokam in the Americas. What are typically not considered civilizations are smaller, often mobile or semi-sedentary cultures of pastoralists, horticulturalists, fisher(wo)men, hunter-gatherers, or any combination of those. This is why you won't hear of a Yanomami civilization, a Hadza civilization, a Nuer civilization, or a Penan civilization. There are plenty of ways to live for humans that don't involve building civilizations and empires. The terms "civilization" and "empire" are actually synonymous, which is why it makes sense to speak of the Roman Empire, the Aztec Empire or the Akkadian Empire - but nobody would think of using terms like the !Kung San Empire, the Batek Empire or the Huaorani Empire.
In the same vein, while nobody today (except white supremacists, ultranationalists, and fascists) would defend imperialism, people defend civilization all the time, presumably unaware of the oxymoron of condemning one but endorsing the other side of the same coin.
The concept of "civilization" arises from a dualism, the perceived polar opposite being indigenous folks who don't build cities, formerly called savages, barbarians, brutes, beasts, or subhumans. The concept is meaningless without this external "Other", pretty much like there is no light without darkness (an actual metaphor employed to justify colonialism, imperialism, missionization, exploitation and genocide – "Bringing the Light of Civilization to Savages trapped in the Dark Ways of the Wild", you’ll hear missionaries say), and civilization always defined itself against those on its outer borders: the diverse mosaic of human cultures inhabiting the jungles, steppes, forests, savannas, marshlands, deserts, mountains and archipelagos on the fringes of the empires' influence. There is a supremacism inherent to the concept of "civilization" that we ought not to ignore. We, the civilized, versus them, the savages.
But don't take my word for it - here is what National Geographic writes on the matter:
The word “civilization” relates to the Latin word “civitas” or “city.” This is why the most basic definition of the word “civilization” is “a society made up of cities.” But early in the development of the term, anthropologists and others used “civilization” and “civilized society” to differentiate between societies they found culturally superior (which they were often a part of), and those they found culturally inferior (which they referred to as “savage” or “barbaric” cultures). The term “civilization” was often applied in an ethnocentric way, with “civilizations” being considered morally good and culturally advanced, and other societies being morally wrong and “backward.”
Yet people continue to view civilization as an "advanced" and generally not only "good" but "the best" way of life. They continue to insist that it's not civilization that's to blame for the many predicaments we face; it's capitalism, greed, industry, or technology. Allow me to follow each of those exemplary problems to its root: capitalism is only the latest and most extreme manifestation of the basic premises that all civilizations are build upon (convert natural resources into capital – development, and ecosystems into more humans – agriculture), greed has always been present but has never been actively encouraged and rewarded (as civilizations do, where the most ruthless easily gains the most power and wealth), industry merely accelerated the conversion of wild ecosystems into grain fields and commodities to be sold for profit, and technology would have never started its exponential acceleration if it wouldn't have been for organized warfare and division of labor perpetuated by the earliest city-states, empires, and proto-civilizations.
Daniel Quinn wrote that we are "captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels [us] to go on destroying the world in order to live."
Civilizations destroy and devastate. Greece used to be covered in forests, as were large parts of Italy. They were razed for the agricultural expansion to feed the people, and to make charcoal for metallurgy to feed the machine. The "Fertile Crescent", nowadays Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Turkey, used to be fertile. That's what civilization does, if it isn't stopped or abandoned. Yet all we hear is that we need a "new" civilization, a "better" and more "sustainable" one. We hear euphemistic and, in the face of the historical facts, nonsensical definitions of civilization, like Umar Haque's euphorical conclusion that civilization is about "raising the standard of living" - whatever that means. People like Haque agree that civilization provides a "high standard of living", yet the logic is circular. As Theodore Kaczynski has pointed out, civilization simply defines the term "high standard of living" to mean exactly the kind of living that this system provides, and then "discovers" that the standard of living is high and increasing. "But," Kaczynski continues, "to me and to many, many other people a high standard of living consists not in cars, television sets, computers, or fancy houses, but in open spaces, forests, wild plants and animals, and clear-flowing streams. As measured by that criterion our standard of living is falling rapidly."
To make matters even worse, presumably no attention is paid to the drastically dwindling standard of living of all non-human animals and plants, because for those that defend civilization only humans matter. The rest of the living world, with all its mysteries, its breathtaking beauty, its diversity and its myriad wondrous inhabitants, are simply means to an end - the end being "raising the standard of living" for one single species at the cost of all others (and ultimately our species itself). Not exactly what I'd call an "advanced" way of life, if it ends in Mass Extinction, lethal levels of pollution, and runaway climate breakdown.
Speaking of which, we have to consider one crucial factor that first enabled the emergence of cities and civilizations (and will ultimately be their undoing), one that is often overlooked: climate, or, to be more precise, the unique environmental and climatic conditions in which they first arose. What allowed humans to settle down in the first place was the era of unusually stable climate that followed the last glacial period, the so-called Holocene (a controversial term among geologists, since it is more like an interglacial period that never ended, and defining it as a new epoch initially had more to do with the politically-motivated anthropocentric notion that the foundations of civilization were laid in this period, so it needs to be clearly differentiated from the “Stone Age” to attest to civilization’s superiority).
Without this drastic reduction of climate variability, we would still be semi-nomadic foragers roaming an ever-changing but intimate landscape, moving between seasonal camps, tracking the movement of herds of large animals and gathering wild foods. Without a stable climate it makes little sense to clear fields, plant crops and erect permanent settlements as a long-term survival strategy. It was not human ingenuity and creativity per se that led to civilization, but a stable climate that allowed human ingenuity and creativity to run unchecked in all directions for many millennia, branching off into a large variety of new subsistence modes and social organizations. Without a stable climate, there is no civilization.
A second change that made cities possible (and without which civilizations would simply not exist, at least not in the form and magnitude we know) was a change in the flood regimes of major rivers, starting around 7,000 years ago, which to that point still flowed wildly and unpredictably. This led to the creation of wide and highly fertile floodplains that led in many cases (such as the Yellow River, the Indus, and the Tigris) directly to the establishment of large cities along its banks that later became the first civilizations. At the same time, the melting of the polar ice caps slowed down as well, and the decrease of meltwater led to a hitherto unprecedented stabilization of global sea levels. Both the settling of river courses and the stabilizing of sea levels in turn led to the creation of massive, fan-like river deltas (like the Nile, the Mississippi, and the Euphrates), where enormous amounts of fertile silt were deposited and diverse habitats overlapped to create superabundant ecosystems, merging forests, swamps, marsh- and grasslands, riparian and coastal habitats, all teeming with life. The soils were well-watered and seasonal floods deposited a new layer of nutrient-rich silt annually, making the planting of crops on larger scales easier than ever before (or after). The sheer abundance of those super-ecosystems was an irresistible motivation for humans to settle there, and the ease with which one could obtain food made relatively large settlements and population growth possible. Rivers made the transport of bulk materials from upstream sources feasible and facilitated trade, and the abundance of game animals and other wild food sources buffered the risks of occasional harvest failures and diversified the diet. Organic materials for construction and manufacturing (timber, reeds, fibers, clay, silt, shells) were readily available from a number of sources, which inspired artisanship and different crafts.
This is an exceptionally exceptional situation: would circumstances have been slightly different, it would have been impossible to build large enough settlements and experiment with plant and animal domestication for long enough times to actually invent a completely new way of life, one based on cultivating virtually all the food we eat. It must also be noted that at that time people had absolutely no idea what their (very gradual) switch in subsistence mode would eventually amount to, and there was no way they could have known that the whole endeavor was tantamount to building a giant trap that wouldn’t snap shut for another few millennia. The time it took from this paradisical early start to the misery and monotony of life in the first city states was immense, and nobody would have been able to anticipate it at the beginning. Civilization was the accidental result of random environmental and climatic changes on human behavior, not an inevitability like the history books want us to believe (history is written by the winners, remember?).
Be that as it may, now the era of climate stability is over, and this automatically and inevitably means that civilization is over. Those defending it cling to a doomed concept far beyond their control, a way of life that depends on exceptional environmental circumstances, and that, according to climate science, will simply not be possible a few decades from now. Even slight changes in weather patterns have led to (or at least played a major part in) the collapse of a number of ancient civilizations from Angkor to Anasazi, yet global civilization actively undermines the very climatic foundation on which it is build by moving tremendous amounts of carbon from underground stores, soils and forests into the atmosphere, where it warms the climate.
Despite this ineluctable connection between climate and civilization, you won’t ever hear people define civilization as the product of a certain kind of climate.
Instead, we hear definitions like the one in a widely shared quote-within-a-quote (probably mis-)attributed to 20th-century anthropologist Margaret Mead (quoted by Dr. Ira Byok), that the first sign of "civilization" is "a broken femur (thigh bone) that has healed", implying that "helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts". Byok ends the anecdote with the words: "We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized." Being civilized, for her, means caring for others. Uncivilized, on the other hand, must mean that you just leave family members and friends to starve in case of an injury.
While the entire (obviously ridiculous) statement has been rebuked in its entirety elsewhere, it goes without saying that this definition of civilization is so broad as to be essentially meaningless. Humans cared for a severely disabled child over a period of ten years deep in the Pleistocene, over 500,000 years ago to be more precise, and nobody in their right mind (especially no anthropologist) would say that simply caring for others is a hallmark of "civilization", especially since the humans in this example were not even homo sapiens but homo heidelbergensis, and an easy way to draw the wrath of any archaeologist is by suggesting that civilization started with homo heidelbergensis.
Caring for those in need is inherent to us as a species, an inevitable part of our Nature, and has nothing to do with our social organization or subsistence mode. All social animals and even many plants care for those in need, and it would be absurd to say that they are on the path to become rat civilizations or oak civilizations.
If any social organization actively discourages caring for others it is - you guessed it - civilization. In modern civilization, doctors won't even treat you if you don't pay them money (or pay money to your health insurance), the elderly are hoarded into nursing homes because people are too busy to take care of them, and children are left in the "care" of paid strangers for most of their days, who "care" for those children not out of an unconditional love, but because it's their job, their job pays them, and they need money to survive.
Civilization creates a society where everyone competes with everyone else, where you are either one of the few haves or one of the many have-nots, and where every aspect of interpersonal care is reduced to a bureaucratic dependency of impersonal services traded against money. The quest of civilizations, especially over the past few decades, has been to break up family bonds (the original social security) and replace it with a system where you rely on strangers to perform acts that used to be expressions of intimate bonds and loving care by people you know. For a successful and efficient civilization, all allegiance must be to the system first, and only then to family and friends.
Not so in indigenous societies, where you are basically cared for from cradle to grave, simply by being a member of a society build on mutual assistance, on cooperation instead of competition.
But the interesting thing here is that Byok seems to define the word civilization backwards: "being civilized" (for her) means helping others, so civilization must be a system characterized by people helping and caring for each other. For the people who shared the quote (and presumably anyone who would accept this definition without further questioning) being civilized is a good thing, a positive attribute, because it means that you care for others. If pressed, they might find it easier to define the term "civilized" than to define "civilization". Some might even say that a civilization is simply a society consisting of civilized people, and civilized people are well-behaving, law-abiding citizens who look out for each other. If you're not civilized, you must be a dirty hobo, an addict, a hippie, or maybe an "Indian". Uncivilized behavior, under this definition, includes ruthless violence, erratic behavior, lack of personal hygiene, egoism to the point of sociopathy, and disregard for all others except yourself. This sounds a lot like the old Hobbesian Myth that describes the life of primitive "man" as a state of "continual fear, danger of violent death", and generally "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Nothing about this outdated and racist nonsense is even remotely true, as anybody knows who has ever read anything about actual indigenous people. But it shows again that civilization always needs an external Other to define itself against. If you don't brush your teeth and use a knife and fork to eat your steak, that makes you uncivilized, and therefore I’m better than you.
Funny enough, all the aforementioned attributes of uncivilized behavior, from violence, over lack of personal hygiene, to a tendency to reward socio- and psychopaths and actively promoting individualism and self interest over the common good are ways in which "savages" have repeatedly described "civilized folk". Whether Spanish conquistadors or settlers in North America, again and again we find anecdotes of “uncivilized” Natives complaining about the same attributes of uncivilized behavior expressed by self-proclaimed civilized folk. And, while bad hygiene is not a hallmark of civilized folk anymore, the other attributes do hold up. Consider the following statement by indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa, about his 1991 visit to New York City to meet with the secretary general of the United Nations and various other government officials:
Yet while the houses in the center of this city are tall and beautiful, those on its edges are in ruins. The people who live in those places have no food, and their clothes are dirty and torn. When I took a walk among them, they looked at me with sad eyes. It made me feel upset. These white people who created merchandise think they are clever and brave. Yet they are greedy and do not take care of those among them who have nothing. How can they think they are great men and find themselves so smart? They do not want to know anything about these needy people, though they too are their fellows. They reject them and let them suffer alone. They do not even look at them and are satisfied to keep their distance and call them “the poor.” They even take their crumbling houses from them. They force them to camp outside, in the rain, with their children. They must tell themselves: “They live on our land, but they are other people. Let them stay far away from us, picking their food off the ground like dogs! As for us, we will pile up more goods and more weapons, all by ourselves!” It scared me to see such a thing.
It seems that while we like to think of civilization being a constellation of positive attributes and virtues, the reality is the exact opposite.
Despite all this, the dominant culture continues its propaganda campaign of blatant lies and facts-turned-upside-down. Statements like the ones critiqued above are by no means limited to scholars, “experts” and journalists, but they are, even more commonly, found in everyday cultural items – movies, books, speeches, poems, video games, lectures, and articles. Here are just four examples of this sort of propaganda that I remember having encountered in pop-culture entertainment and literature:
The first one comes from a recent pop-sci book, The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow (that I’ve critiqued in detail elsewhere). Concluding their findings and musings in the final chapters, the authors attempt to redefine “civilization” in exclusively positive terms, with non-factual statements that contradict all logical definitions of the term like the following:
“One problem [sic] is that we’ve come to assume that ‘civilization’ refers, in origin, simply to the habit of living in cities. Cities, in turn, were thought to imply states. But […] that is not the case historically, or even etymologically. The word ‘civilization’ derives from Latin civilis, which actually refers to those qualities of political wisdom and mutual aid that permit societies to organize themselves through voluntary coalition.”
Except it doesn’t. As I pointed out in the beginning of this essay, civilis derives from the Latin civis, meaning ‘citizen’ or ‘inhabitant of a city’ – from the same root that spawned the word civitas, ‘city’. Civilis is merely the adjective form of civis, so it means something like ‘city-dweller-esque’ or ‘having the attributes of a city-dweller’. That the Romans attributed only positive aspects to being a ‘civis’ doesn’t come as a surprise, given their hate of ‘barbarians’ and all other ‘uncivilized’ rabble outside the gates of their great cities. The term ‘civilization’ comes, etymologically and historically speaking, from the same word that means ‘city’. We can’t expect a language spoken by a people that prided themselves on being city-dwellers to have anything but positive meanings reserved for this term.
The second example is a segment of an inspirational speech given during a critical event by a fictional scientist in the disaster movie 2012:
“I know we've all been forced to make difficult decisions to save our human civilization. But to be human means to care for each other, and civilization means to work together to create a better life!”
You see, even when faced with the utter destruction of the entire world, “saving civilization” is the most important (and most obvious!) task, the one that always goes unquestioned. There is no other option! So if mega-droughts, mega-floods, supercharged hurricanes, supercell tornadoes, or any other superlative-laden environmental disaster threatens our techno-industrial consumer-capitalist way of life, the most important thing is to “save civilization”. And while this particular character (unlike Margaret Mead, David Graeber, and David Wengrow) has a better understanding of care being an intrinsic human attribute, for him civilization seems to mean cooperation (which is, needless to say, also intrinsically human) and, tailgaiting Haque’s definition about “raising the standard of living”, to create a better life – supposedly only for humans, and only for those in industrial societies, and only those who don’t belong to the lowest social classes. This character, despite having no obvious qualifications to do so, confidently defines civilization in exclusively positive terms. Moviegoers don’t even realize that this is propaganda, and most would probably agree with it. Children and adolescents absorb and internalize it.
The other two examples are both from the popular series The Walking Dead, in which a group of people tries to survive during a zombie apocalypse. When they encounter a fortified gated-community-like settlement in the fifth season, governed by an ex-politician intent on rebuilding civilization, the stage is ripe for some of the most obviously nonsensical advertising for the “civilized way of life”.
The community’s leader Deanna Monroe, modeled after Hilary Clinton by the filmmakers, shares her vision for the future as follows: “I see a vibrant community here with industry, commerce, civilization. Real lives.”
Great. After giving the ecosystem a few years time to recover from the horrendous amounts of industrial pollutants that saturate air, water and earth, the plan is to rebuild this exact industry as fast as possible. To be able to live real lives – not those fake ones that contemporary indigenous people live, or the false lives of prehistoric people. A few episodes later she explains to one of the main characters, Rick, that it is not okay to execute a wife-batterer living in the community by bluntly stating: “We don't kill people. This is civilization, Rick.”
Let this sink in. Civilizations don’t kill people. I wonder what the hundreds of forest- and prairie-dwelling indigenous cultures of the Americas would say to this. (Oh right, they were exterminated in the name of civilization.) Or their children interned in Canada’s boarding schools. Or the Aborigines of Australia. Or the Herero, Nama and San in Germany’s African colonies. Or the victims of Effacer le tableau in Congo. Or the indigenous inhabitants of Indonesian Papua. Or the Marsh Arabs in Iraq. Or the other thousands of forager cultures worldwide that were wiped out or enslaved by the expansion of one empire after another over the last few millennia. If there’s one thing that unites all civilizations, it is the eradication of all surrounding cultures. If you were one of the lucky few this might have happened by assimilation (using various amounts of force and coercion), but more likely you would have just been killed of in some genocidal campaign – think Manifest Destiny International. Do you want another blanket for your family? We just want to help, really – look, we’re civilized, we don’t kill people.
But my favorite piece of flat-out bullshit comes from her husband Reg, an academic-looking architect who lectures a main character about prehistory and the rise of civilization: “The cavemen, they were all nomads. And they all died. Then we evolved into this and we lived. Civilization starts when we stop running. When we live together. When we stop sending people away from the world and from each other.”
As a little exercise, I’ll let you pick this one apart. Find the error(s).
If you pay attention, you’ll find little segments like this everywhere around you, and you encounter similar bits almost daily in one form or another. It might seem like its not a big deal, but it adds up to something. It is this abhorrent subliminal brainwashing campaign that causes people to believe that whatever happens, civilization is the only right way to live, and if this civilization falters and collapses, we must instantly go about to build it anew, lest we perish. Civilization cannot, can never admit what it really is, otherwise people might start looking for alternatives and jump ship. It needs to constantly lie about itself, distort the truth and twist the narrative like an abusive spouse, and tell us again and again how good it is for us and what great benefits we reap just for being a part of it. There really is no other way, you see? So what, it’s not perfect – nothing is! It’s the best we have, the best we’ll ever have, so we stick with it.
But the people of this culture don't want to hear the truth. They derive their sense of security, of care, and even the meaning of their lives from the supposed superiority of their lifestyle. It is, it always has been and it always must be civilization. In our myopic focus on civilization and civilization only, we limit ourselves - our imagination and our sense of what's possible. And if we limit ourselves to civilization, we will eventually always come back to the point we're at right now: impending collapse of everything we hold dear.
This limitation is what's keeping us from seeing the bigger picture, what holds at bay real solutions to our current predicament.
Civilization is not all there is, and it is most definitely not the one way of life humans are made for. The social organization that evolution came up with for us humans after millions of years of trial, error and adjustment is not civilization, it’s tribalism. Living together in small or medium sized groups spanning a few dozen to a few hundred individuals; sedentary, nomadic, or (most commonly) something in between; with relatives and close friends spread over many dozens (or, depending on the habitat and the population density it allows for, even hundreds) of square kilometers; foraging for food, gathering, hunting, fishing, and maybe supplementing this already diverse and healthy diet with some gardening or a few tamed animals kept close by.
Nobody expressed this as clearly and unmistakably as Daniel Quinn, who wrote that just as whales live in pods, baboons in troops, ants in colonies, bees in hives, geese in flocks, fish in schools, wolves in packs and bison in herds - humans live in tribes. This is our natural social organization. Nobody questions why pack life works well for wolves, or why colony life works efficiently for ants (in fact people are often eager to learn the details), but if you carefully explain why (or even suggest that) tribal life works for humans, they immediately accuse you of "romanticizing" hunter-gatherers.
Civilization as defined in the above is a relatively new form of social organization, one tested not for millions of years but for a mere few thousand, and, so far, the test results don't look very promising. Since the first civilizations started clearing large swathes of land to feed their growing populations (a growth initially caused by the increase in food availability, another thing that people often see the wrong way around), we've lost (or, better, destroyed – using the passive form here is another one of civilization’s neat tricks to shed responsibility) over one third of all forests and half the natural grasslands, doubled the concentration of atmospheric carbon, and caused the extinction of hundreds of thousands of species - and those trends are accelerating at an exponential rate.
Civilization is not the final form of human social organization, not the end product of social evolution. Societies evolve constantly, and only this society somehow developed the strange notion that civilization is the one variable that never changes, the one constant that from now on defines human life, and that it needs to be protected without further thought to what this implies. We got stuck. In their book The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that this ladder of different forms of social organization and the obviousness its progression implies are an illusion. Common knowledge holds that human societies developed from small bands of foragers to tribes, chiefdoms, villages, towns, cities, and finally civilizations and empires. It is commonly thought that this is a one-way road, and its conclusion is more or less inevitable. Yet throughout human history people have experimented not only with different subsistence modes, but with modes of social organization – some involving stricter hierarchies, some based on more egalitarian values – and humans have often freely moved between different modes (sometimes even seasonally, within the span of a single year). When ancient civilizations stopped working smoothly, were threatened by climatic changes or internal social conflict, became too oppressive or unequal, or their inhabitants simply realized they no longer liked what they created, this fluidity allowed humans to opt out and "go back" to a less complex form of social organization.
Mind the terminology here: the very way we usually talk about this speaks volumes about this quaint way of thinking - the supposedly inherent inevitability and superiority of civilization - and the self-evidence of using terms like "going back" implies that this is a step in the wrong direction, a devolution, "giving up" certain "comforts" and reverting to a "lower standard of living". This way of thinking is ultimately based on and arises from the Myth of Progress (one of the main pillars of the dominant culture's mythology) and a linear perception of time (which itself is a peculiarity of this culture). "Moving forward", "foreground", "moving on", "high standards", "upscaling", "upgrading" and "working one's way up" are all positive things, while "going back", "backwards" "reversing", "downgrading", "downsizing", "background" and "backwater" have a negative connotation. Up is good, down is bad; forwards is the right way, backwards the wrong one; the optimal way is best expressed by the stylized mathematical equation f(x)=1x drawing a diagonal arrow into the sky, the perfect middle ground between going forth and moving up. Those cultural metaphors are based on the image of a ladder leaning against a pyramid, a direct reflection of the way we perceive the nature of society, and its many manifestations: from corporations' organizational charts and family trees, over the Aristotelian scala naturae (the "Great Pyramid of Being", needless to say with us humans at the top) and other metaphors, all the way to monumental architecture and design in general.
Yet in fact, as Graeber and Wengrow point out, abandoning one form of society and creating another one does not mean moving back or forth, up or down, but simply describes a transformation from one kind to another. Different, yes, but not higher or lower, backwards or progressive. Going beyond civilization was often the best and most logical thing to do, and, as James C. Scott has argued repeatedly, the so-called "Dark Ages" (here we again encounter the example for cultural propaganda along the lines of binary opposites, Light and Dark in this case) were actually times where personal freedom flourished, both humans and the ecosystems they inhabited got a fresh start, and people had the opportunity to learn from past mistakes and design social organizations that don't only benefit a tiny percentage of the population.
Unlike today's world, less dependence on technology meant that people didn't depend on the system to fulfill their basic needs, so the transition was much easier for most people. The peasant majority suddenly found itself free from taxation, corvée, conscription and the threat of pointless wars, and could enjoy the fruits of their work in their entirety. Life became more localized, more resilient, more sustainable and more plastic.
Realizing the horror civilization was, is, and always will be, it would make utter sense to allow ourselves to critique it in its entirety. We’ve reached a point where it should be so blatantly obvious that this experiment has failed that it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone anymore. We’re not healthier or happier than our distant ancestors. We’re stressed, depressed, anxious, listless, alienated and bored, and no amount of “civilization” will change that. Terence McKenna once said: "The level of unhappiness is immense. I mean, the level of unhappiness among the poor, they’ve always been miserable; but we’ve managed to create something entirely new in human history – an utterly miserable ruling class!"
We’ve exhausted and ravaged the entire biosphere to the point that its collapse is now a likely possibility. Civilization, with its unsatiable hunger for more resources, energy and people, devoured entire ecosystems and left behind a toxic wasteland.
Civilization has never worked, and it doesn’t work now. If we want a shot at survival as a species, we must be able to look beyond the monster we’ve created, Leviathan, as Fredy Perlman called it, and see that we are not innately tied to it, don’t depend on it, and that we don’t need it to live decent lives. We need to realize that there is not one but hundreds of ways for humans to live, and it is up to us and our communities to decide what version we want to live in. We need the foresight and wisdom of earlier American civilizations, like the Hohokam or the Maya, who never forgot that there are different ways to live, different ways to be human, and different ways to live together as a society.
The immutable connection between civilization and climate dwelled upon in the above recently led to the publication of an article titled “Our hunter-gatherer future: climate change, agriculture and uncivilization” in the peer-reviewed journal “Futures” which argues that it might very well be possible that, as climate change leads to decreased yields and agriculture becomes an increasingly difficult way to feed large populations, we – as a species – will have better chances to “go back” to hunting and gathering as a subsistence mode and leave civilization “behind”. Of course, we can’t all become hunter-gatherers over night, and the planet could never sustain 8 billion humans foraging for food and hunting what little wild animals remain, but the author of the article never suggests that. He simply points out that humans already survived a wildly fluctuating climate for millions of years, and that the main difference on the individual and population level was subsistence mode. One way or another, a drastic reduction in human population is inevitable. It is very common that some reduction in population size takes place whenever a civilization collapses – the only thing he suggests is that afterwards (and in the long-term) we’d be better off if we abandoned farming for foraging, or at the very least for a resilient mix of subsistence strategies. Civilization stops working the moment agriculture stops working, so we’d do well to have an alternative in place.
We must dare to look beyond civilization, into a landscape of endless opportunity to realize our potential without compromising our Nature, and without further destroying the ecosystems we depend on for our survival. We need to realize that it’s not civilization that keeps us alive, but the Living Planet, the interconnected web of thousands of different species and materials, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the tides, the heartbeat, respiration and metabolism of this Earth, our one and only home, our Mother.
To Her we must pledge our allegiance and proclaim our unwavering support, it is Her we must defend by all means necessary – not civilization.
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***If you have any examples for pro-civilization propaganda in popular entertainment, please let me know and I will include it in this text!***