In Defense of Civilization

By (about the author)

In recent times I have found there to be a profound sense of disillusionment with civilization among a small but growing cohort of the educated population. I do not mean that this group is disaffected with WESTERN civilization, or any other specific form of civilization. Rather, I mean that they are disaffected with the very idea of human civilization at all.

The single most prominent advocate of this view is writer Derrick Jensen. In his recent books Endgame Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization and its follow-up Endgame Volume 2: Resistance, Jensen lays out the argument that civilization, any and all civilizations, are inherently destructive of the biosphere and dehumanizing to boot. He goes on to call for the deliberate "taking down" of global civilization. I find these ideas to be both muddled, and potentially quite dangerous. I actually read through all 500 pages of his first book. I declined to read the 430 page second volume.

In a nutshell, Jensen observes, correctly, that our present oil-fueled civilization is rapaciously destroying our planet's ecosystem while inflicting vast misery upon much of the world's human population. However, his is not just a critique of our present civilizational order; rather it is a much deeper polemic about civilization itself.

All civilizations are inherently destructive and self-limiting, Jensen writes. This is because concentrated human populations living in cities--an essential feature of civilization--exploits surrounding lands for agriculture and for resources. Eventually both the soil and the resource base are exhausted, leading to environmental devastation and civilizational collapse. In the meantime, while civilization endures, it inherently produces inequalities of wealth among humans: many poor subjugated by a few of the rich. For most persons civilized life is unpleasant and dehumanizing. Everything humanity has done, from the agrarian revolution around 10 millennia ago and onwards, has been a mistake according to Jensen. We need to go back to our "natural" condition of being bands of contented, relatively equal, free, hunter-gatherers, spread very thinly upon the land, according to Jensen's view.

What is wrong with this viewpoint? Well nearly everything, in my estimation. Anthropological research has shown that hunter gathers in New Guinea, Southern Africa or elsewhere, engage in continuous low-intensity warfare. The probability of violent death for any individual hunter-gatherer, in any given year, is about two percent. If these figures were to be applied to the human population of Earth throughout the entire 20th century, they would result in SIX BILLION violent deaths during the century. [i] The 20th century was indeed violent; however it was nowhere near that violent. Why? Civilization is why. Civilized humans are much less violent per capita than non-civilized humans. Jensen is simply wrong if he truly believes that hunter-gatherers are somehow better off than civilized humans. They are not.

Civilization actually exploits one of the fundamental properties of our universe: emergence. Emergence occurs when a group of elements are combined together into an interacting system whose properties and behaviors are different from, and not reducible to, the properties of its constituent parts. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its constituent parts. For example, water has the property of wetness that is not reducible to its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms, but is an emergent property of that molecular system. Similarly, conscious awareness is not reducible to any individual neurons in a human brain, but is a collective property of the brain as a whole. Emergence is one of the great miracles of nature.

Humans were not the first creatures on Earth to discover and exploit emergence. The social insects, the ants, bees and wasps did so beginning perhaps 130 million years ago. For example, an individual ant is nearly brainless and has little individual capacity to survive. A colony of ants however, behaves like an eerily intelligent super-organism. These sophisticated, seemingly intelligent and purposive, diversified behaviors arise from interactions among many essentially mindless individual ants. To exploit emergence ants naturally had to come together in "cities" which is effectively what an ant nest is. Certain ant species farm crops (fungi), raise livestock (aphids), exploit all available resources in their territory. They fight wars over control of resources with other ant "cities." Ants are highly stratified into occupational classes and castes. In summary, their organization closely parallels human civilization.

Humans, of course, are not ants. Unlike an ant, an individual human is self-conscious, possessing a sense of individuality. Having individuality as well as collectivity, humans living in dense urban settlements--cities--obtained the serendipitous effect of emergence. By doing so, humans have been able to produce much greaterwealth than could be produced individually. Culture, the arts, sciences, music, etc. exploded, once civilization began. Like the ants, specialized roles are essential to maximize the net emergence of the group: Weavers, metal smiths, warriors, farmers, etc. Occupational specialization is an essential prerequisite for maximizing emergence. It's not a "bug" as Jensen would have us believe, it's a feature. Complexity requires diversity.

Does this need for occupational specialization inevitably lead to inequality? Does it inherently doom most humans to poverty and subjugation? Jensen argues that it does. I answer: Certainly not! Our culture, in conjunction with our own level of consciousness, determines this. These variables are, well, variable. Change towards greater equality is indeed possible among humans.

For any successful society it is necessary for the needs of individuals to be balanced with the needs of the group. No individuals should be left destitute, nor be deprived of critical opportunities for education, health care, etc.

Incentive and support for artists, scholars, inventors, and entrepreneurs who productively innovate is socially useful. Rewarding innovators does result in inequality of wealth and social status. Incentive--including financial reward--is a powerful force, and potentially, a powerful force for the good of all.

At the same time, accumulated gross inequalities of wealth are inherently destabilizing to the social order and must be prevented. This is a hard problem to work out but that does not make it impossible. One way of looking at the entire six thousand year history of civilization is to see it as a painful, slow, incremental learning process. The rapidly approaching crises of our civilization--energy depletion, climate change, overpopulation, vast inequality within and between nations, are going to provide us with enormous selection pressure to innovate towards sustainability, and away from selfishness, in the context of social, material, environmentaland energy parameters of civilization, or to perish in self-inflicted flames. Existential crisis, while not to be wished for, does provide us with a great learning opportunity.

Ants have emergently exploited their landscape since the dinosaurs were newly evolved. They are still here, as is their environment. Their total weight exceeds that of all humans. They, like us, must eat, yet they do so sustainably. Their "cities" are environmentally sustainable. There is nothing inherently impossible in an environmental sense, about organized complexity, whether that of ants or of humans.

Sustainable agriculture is possible. Permaculture is an alternative to traditional agriculture. For example, my wife and I now have created about 1,000 square feet of terra preta gardens. These need much less fertilizer than normal gardens do. They are significantly more productive as well. [ii]

Human civilization has continuously existed and intensified over time across the millennia. Areas such as China have maintained continuous civilizations for many thousands of years, despite invasions and other disruptions. Civilization is resilient. It should be, since it taps into one of nature's most fundamental principles--emergence. Consider that the dinosaurs, sort of early "hunter gatherers" are long extinct. However, the ants, the first to exploit emergence, are not only still around, they are thriving all around the world.

Human civilization is indeed self-threatened, but it is capable of getting its act together. If it doesn't, then Jensen will get his wish. Global civilization will collapse and the few survivors will

Civilization is NOT inherently doomed as a mode of human organization. At least it is not if, in this impending age of existential crisis, we can change ourselves to become more, well, more civilized.

You and I hold the future of civilization in our collective hands. Let's get to work!