By: Alton C. Thompson
The word “civilization” has acquired positive connotations over time, tricking us into believing that civilization is, in fact, a “good thing.” The position taken here, however, is that the development of civilization—in most of its manifestations, at least—has had pathological consequences, both for its various individual “inmates” (but in different ways—depending, e.g., on one’s “position” in the society), and for our species. How it has been pathological is a matter that I have touched on in many previous essays on this site, and will comment on further in future essays. In this essay, however, my focus is on identifying what I regard as key “events” in civilization’s development.
In fulfilling that goal my aim is to not be “merely” academic but, rather, to produce a “picture” that might prove useful as a “lever”—for effectuating change in a direction more truly positive. Contrary to what the title of Chellis Glendinning’s book  suggests, my interest is not in “recovering” from Western Civilization but, rather, doing what I can to contribute to the continued survival of our species, all of whose members having the highest possible level of well-being consistent with what is ecologically possible.
What specifically prompted the current essay is my recent discovery of the Dark Mountain Project, and the “Manifesto” that it produced in 2009. Their “Uncivilization 2013” festival began in Hampshire, England, on August 15 and concludes tomorrow (August 19), but I did not attend—in part because of my learning about it too late, but primarily because flying to England is not in my budget. I have, however, had an opportunity to read their “Manifesto,” and the current essay can be perceived as an acceptance, on my part, of their invitation in that work:
Uncivilisation, like civilisation, is not something that can be created alone. Climbing the Dark Mountain cannot be a solitary exercise. We need bearers, sherpas, guides, fellow adventurers. We need to rope ourselves together for safety. At present, our form is loose and nebulous. It will firm itself up as we climb. Like the best writing, we need to be shaped by the ground beneath our feet, and what we become will be shaped, at least in part, by what we find on our journey.
If you would like to climb at least some of the way with us, we would like to hear from you. We feel sure there are others out there who would relish joining us on this expedition.
In identifying “key ‘events’ in civilization’s development” in an essay rather than an eBook, my presentation will, of necessity, be both brief and superficial—and even tentative. Because my primary interest here is in identifying possible “levers” for bringing about societal system change, and I can accomplish that goal (to my current satisfaction, at least) by writing an essay rather than an eBook, that’s what I have chosen to do. It goes without saying that I am not attempting to provide any definitive discussion of civilization’s development, my goal being only to identify and briefly discuss the “high points” of that development—by which I mean those developments that seem to have played a critical role in civilization’s development, my orientation being solely to Western civilization.
My starting point here is the specietal claim that we humans are “children of the Ice Age” . The modern Ice Age altered conditions in Africa to the point that our ancestor, Australopithecus, was forced out of the trees, with those members of that genus who were best adapted—physically and sociologically—to the new environment being the ones who survived, produced progeny, and eventuated in us modern humans. Given that descent from the trees resulted in exposure to dangerous predators, adapting to the presence of predators was one—and an important —“dimension” of this adaptation.
Although “natural selection,” as defined by Charles Darwin , played no role whatsoever in human evolution (!), “sexual selection” did. Given the presence of “harems” (and “plural marriage” ) in some parts of the world, at various times, it may be difficult for many to believe that female-dominated groups were important in our evolution as humans—but they were (so get over it!).
Our direct ancestors were foragers—or gatherer-hunters —whose biology had developed with reference to the activities that were necessary for their survival. The development of the human brain, however, was such that—in conjunction with certain physical developments—permitted humans to develop means of communication one with another—signals initially, actual (oral) languages later. And as the brain had developed in the first place as an aid in survival, it is not surprising that the brain’s development also aided this process of language development—and also had implications for the development of “innovations” that would make foraging activity more efficient. Presumably, such innovations occurred with both hunting and gathering, but it was an innovation that occurred with (female) gatherers that was to prove especially significant.
That innovation was the development of agriculture—which likely began with the harvesting of wild grains, with the sprouting of a few seeds inadvertently dropped being noticed by these gatherers, it being concluded by them that the plants in question had grown from seeds dropped accidentally—with that conclusion leading to the idea of deliberately “planting” seeds. What was beginning to happen, then, was the birth of the Agricultural Revolution.
This was not a “revolution” in the sense that it involved a rapid change in way of living—for it developed over a period of several centuries. It was, however, a “revolution” in the sense that it (a) eventuated in a rather different way of life, and (b) the “seeds were sown” for continual changes in way of life—changes that initially were so small as to be perceptible only to historians, but changes which began accelerating with the Industrial Revolution much later (beginning around 1750 CE).
The changeover to a way of life based on agriculture (with crop growing preceding animal tending) involved, for everyone in a society:
- Changes in the stimuli to which one was exposed.
- Changes in the kinds of behaviors in which one engaged, and the amount of time spent engaging in different behaviors.
- Changes in how one used one’s brain. As a gatherer or hunter one’s mind tended to be absorbed in one’s surround, with particularistic knowledge, and low-level generalizations, being gained/formulated with reference to the “touchable” surround, and mythological thinking developing with reference to the observable, but non-touchable, surround (e.g., sun, moon, stars, lightning). As a member of a society that was becoming an agriculturally-based one, the fact that social differentiation was occurring in such societies meant, however, that how one used one’s brain depended on one’s “placement” in the new Social Order that was developing.
(I argue in my What Are Churches For? (Chapters 2 – 4) that during the gatherer-hunter phase of Western history, humans developed certain “design specifications” relative to stimuli, behaviors, etc., and that the shift to an agriculture-based—and now sedentary—existence represented a violation of those “specifications,” the ultimate result being virtually all of the problems we humans have faced through history, and now face. Such an assertion is, of course, a rather abstract one that needs to be “fleshed out”—which I do to some extent in the ensuing discussion.)
As social differentiation was occurring, so was the geographical distribution of the population changing, with urban centers arising, and members of the “upper” class becoming associated, residentially, with those urban centers. In addition, the small gatherer-hunter band was increasingly becoming a “civilized” society with a relatively much larger population. What those of us who now live in such societies have been taught to believe about them is that they represent the apex of human development—with the various “goodies” present in a civilized society being offered as proof in support of this claim. And although it is virtually impossible to conclude that civilized existence offers nothing of value (such as the computer that I’m using to type this!), this fact should not blind us into accepting the belief that civilization only offers “goodies.”
I agree with geographer Warren Johnson, who has stated: “The Biblical legend of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden seems clearly to describe the invention of agriculture.”  That is, the garden in the story alludes to gather-hunter existence (or perhaps to pastoral nomadism, a way of life that also developed during this Revolution), and the expulsion from that garden was the “Fall” into agriculture—this “Fall” being utterly misinterpreted by the theologically-minded.
The growing physical separation of members of the “elite” from the physical environment (as a result of their urban living, attention given to ruling, entertainment, etc.) caused them to be increasingly intellectually separated from that environment—i.e., they were increasingly thinking of themselves as separate from—somehow “above”—the ecosystem. And the fact that they were developing a control mentality with reference to their subjects had as a corollary the development of such a mentality with reference to the physical environment. Increasingly, for them, was the earth not appreciated for esthetic or spiritual reasons, and regarded with a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery; rather, increasingly was it thought of by them in purely utilitarian terms.
Put another way, increasingly did the “elite” become parasitic—both with reference to their subjects (who, virtually by definition, were becoming “hosts” for these parasites), and to the physical environment itself. Although the elite’s developing (parasitic) stance, relative to the physical environment did not begin to have significant implications until much later (although “significant” itself is subject to varying interpretations ), that stance relative to subjects did—both in terms everyday exploitation and “recruitment” for its “war games.”
Because I don’t want to get “bogged down” in a lengthy essay here, I will next identify very briefly a series of developments, all of which have had pathological implications—for either particular individuals, for our species, or for both—although I will not be detailing here those pathological implications. What’s ironic in the ensuing presentation is the role that I give to religion as a negative force (!):
- The development (with the early Hebrews) of monotheism  involved not just thinking of “god” in singular rather than plural terms (i.e., polytheism), but involved thinking of “god” as transcendent—i.e., “out there”—rather than immanent. This fact brings to mind a statement by Gregory Bateson (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972 p. 468):
- If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and the vegetables.
- If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or simply, of overpopulation and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.
- The following has been said of one of the books authored by the late (died 1980) Marshall McLuhan:
- McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (written in 1961, first published in Canada by University of Toronto Press in 1962) is a pioneering study in the fields of oral culture, print culture, cultural studies, and media ecology.
- Throughout the book, McLuhan takes pains to reveal how communication technology (alphabetic writing, the printing press, and the electronic media) affects cognitive organization, which in turn has profound ramifications for social organization:
- That is, the technology that has been developed related to communication has had implications for thought processes and, in turn, social organization.
- Related to this, Eugene Linden  has asserted that the “development of Western civilization was the product of a linguistic accident, an accident that Chinese culture, with its strong, integrated, and successful relationship to the world, did not find useful.” Linden explains:
- The language of the West permits the description of a world having enduring qualities separate from the act of perception, while the world of the Chinese ideogram does not. For [Ezra] Pound and [Ernest] Fenollosa [in their The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry], this property of Romance and Germanic languages, which abstracted the locator from the world, weakened poetic effect. It shifted the focus of communication from the undifferentiated appreciation and evocation of a particular event to the presentation of a denatured scheme of the event, organized by this abstract filter.
- While this change might sap some vigor from poetic discourse, it permitted the West to take a posture toward nature in which technology and science might flourish.
- A feature associated with the development of Christianity is that of a temporal distance being created between hurtful deeds and their punishment—in that the punishment for hurtful deeds committed in the present was pushed into the distant future—to a supposed afterlife. Rather than the promise of a very warm life with Satan in an (un)”sweet bye and bye” resulting in a deterrent of hurtful behavior, it tended to do the opposite, however!
- The “Protestant Reformation” helped further in breaking whatever communal bonds connected one person to another. Although the statements of Martin Luther and John Calvin may not have had this intention, the results of their statements (e.g., regarding a “calling”) were to (a) promote a self-orientation (i.e., selfishness) and (b) encourage entrepreneurial activity, with the fruits of such efforts going to the owner(s)—and with employees being exploited. Linden (op. cit., p. 106) has noted the irony of this: “The Reformation directed man’s gaze heavenward in order that he might be more effective worldly.” (!)
- The growing tendency to think of oneself as apart from Nature (rather than a part of it) encouraged the development of scientific thought, and such development made various technological developments possible, which—in conjunction with the development of an entrepreneurial spirit—resulted in the introduction of more and more different things on the “market.” Once such a process began, ideas tended to be generated as to how to “improve” a given product, so that this fact, in conjunction with the fact of a growing demand for the “new” (so that one can differentiate oneself from others who possess the “old”) meant that new items began to continually enter the “market”—with production itself becoming increasingly efficient as new technologies were introduced in the production process. As these development were occurring, societies were becoming increasingly urbanized (with rural areas being depopulated)—and the existing class system was intensified.
- The emergence of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” concept—with its assertion that selfish behavior “magically” has the effect of promoting the common good (!), because it provided a rationale for selfish behavior, enabled people to pursue selfishness with a clear conscience—tricking themselves into believing that the best way to help others (a fundamental principle of Christianity) was to help oneself. (!)
- Charles Darwin’s introduction of the concept of “natural selection” (which he used to “explain” monotypic change in a hypothetical situation [wow!]) came to be used in the “philosophy” of Social Darwinism—which abandoned Smith’s assertion that individual selfishness is good for the society in favor of the assertion that the class structure of a society reflects differential ability in the society—with “height” in the societal hierarchy being a function of “fitness” (for some defined in biological terms, with others bringing in “free will”—e.g., choosing laziness). Social Darwinism enabled members of the elite to exploit others in good conscience, and if accepted as “true” by those being exploited, helped keep them in their “place.”
- Introduction of the myth of “equality of opportunity” helped keep people in their “place” in the society by convincing them that their lack of “success” was a function of their own shortcomings. One convinced of the proposition that equality of opportunity existed in the society would tend, then, to accept his/her “place” in the society—and not be disruptive (including by accomplishing suicide).
- Diversions (e.g., sports, movies, television) introduced by the elite not only became a source of income for them, but served to turn the attention of “lowers” away from the workings of the society—so that they would tend not to notice (even though they might vaguely sense) that they were being exploited. (Ironically, the elite also developed diversions for itself—“high” culture, horse racing, polo, yachting, etc.—which enabled it to engage in activities that impact others and the environment negatively, but do so with a clear conscience.)
- “Mind control” through control of the media involved–and involves—not educating the public as to the workings of the society and/or also misinforming them—providing them with an abundance of “filler” instead. This helps in keeping members of the public but dimly aware of their being exploited.
- As the productive capacity of the society increases, and it enters a “Little King” phase, to stimulate the demand necessary to “handle” the increased productive capacity, advertising becomes a major industry, and the individual graduates to the status of “consumer”—with consumption itself now becoming a diversion, and peoples’ minds “messed with” (the probable result of the latter being that many people cannot now think clearly about anything!). Not only does consumption become a diversion, but the necessity of continual spending in one’s role as a consumer tends to put one in a position such that one is “trapped” by the system, without any clear escape route. Put another way, one is made a virtual slave of the system.
- The situation in what would become the United States was an ideal setting for the above tendencies to “flower”: Many of the early settlers were religious dissidents and other malcontents, moving into an area already occupied, but by “inferior” creatures (i.e., Native Americans); they were people who were predisposed (Linden, op. cit., p. 109) “to restlessness and experimentation and an ingrained distrust of tradition.” “Unlike the aborigines they encountered on arrival [he continued], the colonists had no conception that nature had any purpose other than to provide food and materials for man.” Because of these “qualities” (!), they were blinded from perceiving what they were doing to each other—and to Mother Earth.
More points could undoubtedly be added to this list, but my purpose here is not to be exhaustive but to be suggestive—and to identify factors that might be helpful for effectuating societal system change—in the United States, at least.
What I have attempted in this essay is to attempt to identify some of (what I perceive to be) the major developments, during the past few millennia, having pathological implications—for certain types of individuals, and for our species—without, however, being very specific about the nature of those implications. In future essays I will attempt to correct this deficiency, to a degree at least. In concluding the present essay I would like to make a few comments relative to “escaping” from civilized existence in favor of a “better model.”
Just as Morris Berman, in his recent (2011) Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline, seemingly suggests that civilized societies today are on the verge of collapse, that this is inevitable, and there is little that can be done about this possibility, so did Linden, in 1979, seem to suggest the same thing. Linden claimed (p. 174) that people were searching for a leader who could justify, to the populace, the current reality or who could at least point to where people could direct their anger. But just as I see little point in simply waiting for the “inevitable,” I am certainly not looking for a leader in Linden’s sense. What I am looking for, rather, is a leader capable of “leading us out of the wilderness who proceeds to actually do so. Not that “salvation” is possible for everyone—for I agree with those climate scientists who believe that global warming will “cull” most of the world’s population before the century is out. But given my “faith” that at least some people will be able to survive the ravages that global warming is likely to be inflicting on us humans, and my belief that this will only be possible if the “right” leader appears on the scene, I have some measure of “faith” that such a leader will arise in our midst.
In a sense, Linden “redeems” himself by stating, a little later in his book, that (p. 176) “the only real threat to the American economy is self-sufficiency.” In fact, 29 years ago this insightful statement motivated me to write, and have published, “Ecotopia: A ‘Gerendipitous’ Scenario.” In that article I presented a 5-“wave” scenario/strategy for societal system change, and I continue to believe in the soundness of the “program” therein presented. The principal addition that I would make now to that article is that the eco-communities built as a part of that program should be designed—as to where they should be created, and how they should be built—with global warming and “human design specifications” (alluded to earlier in this essay) in mind.
The question that remains in my mind is: How to implement, or get implemented, such a program? I have no definitive answer to that question at present, but intend to continue to struggle with it.
- My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery From Western Civilization. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
- Steven M. Stanley, Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1996, 1998.
- Donna Hart and Robert W. Sussman, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution. New York: Westview Press, 2005.
- See Chapter 8 in my Ringing the Bell for Darwin (2012).
- See pp. 163 – 167, and 269 – 272, in Nancy Makepeace Tanner, On Becoming Human. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
- See, e.g., Jon Krackauer’s discussion of Mormonism, and the 200+ sects of “Fundamentalist Mormonism,” that have emerged from Mormonism in Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York: Double day, a division of Random House, 2003. Recently, a friend and I traveled from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Nauvoo, Illinois, where Joseph Smith and many of his followers were living at the time of Smith’s murder by a mob. After Smith’s murder, several factions developed, with the group that followed Brigham Young to Utah being the one with the most members today. After the departure of the Mormons from Nauvoo, a group of “Icarians” led by Étienne Cabet acquired the property, and became the longest-lived secular communitarian group in United States history—the Shakers being the longest-lived religious such group. (While we were living in Cincinnati, Ohio, my wife and I had an opportunity to visit the restored Pleasant Hill Shaker community in Kentucky, to the immediate south.)
- Year ago I read a book by Richard Leakey (I don’t recall the title) that pointed out that because, with our ancestors, gathering tended to be done by females, and hunting by males, with, however, women’s gathering providing the most food for our ancestors, “gather-hunter” is preferable to the (male chauvinist!) “hunter-gatherer.”
- Muddling Toward Frugality. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1979, p. 43.
- Jared Diamond’s recent Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking, 2005) evinces a concept of “significant” that is valid (i.e., societal collapse), but I prefer to think of “significant” as “that which threatens the very continuation of our species.”
- The Hebrew Bible contains numerous references to “desert,” which fact suggests that the writers and compilers of that collection of books had a pastoral nomadic past. Given that for pastoral nomads the sun is the dominant element of the environment, and the fact that such groups tend to be patriarchal, it is not surprising that monotheism would develop with such groups.
- Affluence and Discontent: The Anatomy of Consumer Societies. A Seaver Book. New York: The Viking Press, 1979, p. 92 and p. 91.
About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.