2020-03-23

What is civilization?


With states closing their borders left and right, shutting down services and institutions for obsessive fear of spreading disease, the damage inflicted on the globalized economy has already reached epic proportions. The costs of one single month of partial shutdown, with no end in sight, is predicted to result in national GDP losses of min 3.5 to 4 percentage points, driving states into negative growth across the board. Stock market bubbles are ready to burst, currencies like the Euro and the Dollar teeter at the edge of major devaluation anyway, and the reduction of the aerosol masking effect, better known as global dimming, following the closing of numerous factories and reduced traffic, may increase global average atmospheric temperature by 1°C or more within weeks. Among the many pressing issues that our culture has brought about and is troubled by, these are but a few hopefuls (sic!) pointing at a near-term demise of the system of the locust, global industrial civilization. Don’t hold your breath, though; evil rarely dies that fast, but there is a slight chance that this might be my last blog posting before the lights go out.

Since civilization has become the central topic to this blog so many years ago, have we ever defined what we mean by it? The description of its origins, its workings, and its implications for the future might have done the job thoroughly already, but it may help if I summarize the essence of it all in a few sentences.
 
What is civilization characterized by?
The illusion of separation (in general), especially into Me vs. Other, and culture vs. nature, creates fear of Other which results in the Program of Control: the project to measure, name, appropriate, domesticate, manipulate, coerce, commodify and consume the natural world, and to defend it against all that is not (yet) under control.

This, in turn, leads to accumulation of all kinds, individually of e.g. stuff, power, or money, collectively to societies characterized by growth, with expanding populations, cities, economies, knowledge, regulations etc.

Civilization (consequently) manifests in the growth of settlements too large to sustain themselves (cities); this is where the word derives from, etymologically, in the first place. The dependence on a huge hinterland supplying indispensable goods to the cities creates the peculiar relationship between center and periphery, of structural violence, most obviously social hierarchies in which permanent institutions are formed, with a tendency towards ossification. Structural violence, of course, works only so long as it is backed by physical violence. Hence the permanent threat and fear of harm or death, resulting in the absence of freedom, equality, brotherhood. As these are the indispensable birth rights and everlasting conditions of the existence of all living beings (to the point where wild humans have no name for those because they are, to them, like water to fish), we elevate them to the status of divine values, but we are unable to achieve them through the system which causes their absence. Historically, mass war, mass oppression, mass famine, mass slavery, mass poverty, patriarchy, and large-scale habitat degradation, among many other issues, have been constant companions to civilization from its very beginnings.

Why have we never been able to solve those problems? From the analysis of civilizations’ origin, history, and current manifestation, regarding the logic within its workings, I cannot help but disagree with the notion that we were “not civilized yet,” because as far as the above mentioned definitions matter we have reached the ultimate apex of our culture, the maximization of separation (social distancing, anybody?), knowledge acquirement (science our religion, surveillance state), population size (8bn), energy consumption, and territorial expansion. The wild, the divine, and the mysterious have been diminished to negligible size, to marginal existence. Not much more seems possible in terms of civilizing the world – and we are suspended over a cliff. From here on, downwards.
 
[public domain]
This is true even for Auroville, a township developed to manifest the Divine within physical civilized existence. The relentless forces built into our culture’s mechanism are dragging the community-at-large along without mercy. It shows that the basic condition for joining Auroville, “to be of good will,” does suffice neither to halt nor to reverse the accelerated transformation of the world into goods and services, the spiritual impoverishment, or the psychological sliding into insanity. Attempting to swim against that powerful current, on the individual level, comes at the expense of one’s standing, livelihood, and eventually membership in this club.

So to say that all the damage done was avoidable – could be avoided in the future – means that one overlooks the nature of the project called civilization. It’s not despite our best efforts that we have reached a breaking point, but because of them. All of this does not happen because of ill-informed decisions, bad luck, or evil intentions on the side of the ruling elites but because of regularities baked into the cake. Every civilization has developed a bit differently, but every single one of them which has not been swallowed by the Western model has collapsed as a result of the same shortcomings that our culture possesses. Don’t blame it on the wild, the untamed, the un-civilized which seeks to liberate itself from the shackles of our culture; blame it on this culture which has oppressed freedom, equality and brotherhood for ten millennia in a row.

Wild peoples have always been aware of the problem with our ways; they rarely gave up their ways for city living voluntarily. Early states, as we know today, had to forcefully conscript their population into staying put, and they habitually disappeared from the map as a result of people defecting in avoidance of slavery, drudgery, repetitive work, sickness, malnourishment, famine, and oppression. Contemporary neighbouring tribals, archaeological evidence shows, fared much better; they grew stronger and larger, lived longer, had less skeletal deformations, less signs of sickness and hunger and seemed to suffer lower mortality rates at a young age. 
 
The other day I had a few conversations which indicated to me that the word civilization, despite the all-encompassing harm it does to the conditions of existence both of humans and their habitat still, in the mind of most people, is connected to positive views, values, and hopes: civilization, the guarantor of life, liberty, and harmony, as well as arts, rational science, and a thriving economy.

From the times when the term has been coined as a descriptor for our “ascending” culture – as opposed to the “primitive tribals” it has colonized – which informs today’s (mis-) understanding of what life is about within or outside of civilization, it is understandable that people feel concerned when thinking about the end of the world they have grown up with. You may regard it as a fallback into inferior ways of living, or you may look sorrowfully to the turmoil that the transition to another way of living almost certainly brings about. I do understand those concerns, yet it must also be clear that civilization is inherently unsustainable; it will collapse anyway. So what do you mean when you say we must build a better civilization? It is basically the same question as, What is it that you want to sustain when you are talking of sustainable living?

The answer might be that it is not civilization which is worth saving, but some of the above-mentioned values, and those are, as indicated, the birth right of every man, animal and plant. Not only do they not require civilization, they require its absence. In the absence of civilization, life – nature – thrives.

While every major change does indeed feel uncomfortable and bears the risk of violent outbreaks the one to blame, in this case, is civilization itself. No matter the good that you may attribute to civilization, ask yourself whether that justifies the quadrillion-fold suffering imposed on man, plant, animal, land, and sea, constantly, like that Orwellian boot in the face – forever.
 
I liken this to what my grandparents have related from their youth under the Nazi regime. Stating that not everything about Hitler had been bad they may simply have tried to convey the feeling that pervaded society at the time. It left me with the impression, though, that somehow they wanted to justify their silence in the face of surveillance, injustice, tyranny, eugenics, political murder, genocide, and war, as if economic success, autobahns, boy scout expeditions or the restoration of national pride had been worth all of that.

Seeing the world of today as it presents itself to me I cannot avoid noticing how much toward worse than back in the mid-20th century the situation has evolved. Considering the price this world pays for our food preferences, egocentric attitudes, computer obsession, mobility addiction etc., where am I standing in the overall picture? Personally, as much as I like to read a good book in my bed after dark, I would gladly give away scriptures, mattresses, pillows, electricity, lightbulbs and all the rest of civilized technology as the price for the restoration of humanity’s nature and place in the Universe. But that’s just me, one man wielding power over his own life alone.

2 comments:

Tom Pope said...

Jurgen,

I honor you your digging to see and communicate. With the possible exception of how we use the noun, we agree. I call indigenous societies civilized. Some were very in tune with their environments. I just used the past tense verb of To Be...which shows what has become of those societies. You now how I feel about the rest.

Karl Nitsch said...

Thank you for your writing Jurgen. Maybe we'll meet on the other side.