Tag Archives: civilization

Thinking about Civilization

I’m currently reading ‘Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age’ by Richard Rudgely, and it’s got me thinking a lot about how we define civilization and how problematic it is. Like me, the author isn’t a fan of the narrative of human progress, and that’s certainly a story that has coloured how we think about the past.

As a child, I had one of those illustrated history books, in which the tens of thousands of years of human prehistory were summed up by a single image of some people wearing skins and using stone tools. That the Stone Age was barbarous, superstitious, and lacking in all the qualities of proper civilization is something that we used to take for granted as an idea, and many people probably still do.

History, as we understand it begins with writing, so any culture that doesn’t have writing is assumed not to have history and to be rather primitive. This ignores the ancient nature of stories in oral traditions – that Australian Aboriginal stories record ancient events and creatures is thus easily overlooked. To be a civilization, we moderns think there have to be cities. This means our nomadic ancient ancestors were not civilized, and nor are any modern people who live as hunter gatherers or are otherwise nomadic – this is a view that breeds racism, undervaluing, and intolerance. We only think cities are important because we have cities.

We look to the past for things that validate our stories about the present. Where we see things that fit in a narrative of progress to the present, we tend to focus our attention. There are other stories we might want to explore – that hunter gatherer societies had more leisure time than we do. That so-called primitive people have to develop a very rational, observation based understanding of reality to survive, hunt and gather. That we see civilization in terms of material culture, and that people who live lightly leave little evidence of themselves.

To survive as a nomadic people at the end of the Ice Age, must have meant cooperation. It’s not ‘survival of the fittest’ that will have got our ancestors through those incredibly cold and challenging times when they were first coming back into the UK. It will have been care for the young, and for pregnant women. It must have meant sharing skills and resources, knowledge and experience. It must have meant people working together. And when you can only own what you carry, or what another person is happy to carry for you, the place of material goods in your life is going to be very different.

If we can re-imagine the past, and consider different ways in which civilizations can exist, we might do a much better job of organising ourselves for the future.


Wildness and culture

Often, the wilderness is represented as the enemy of, or the opposite of human civilization and culture.  This is, I think, one of the notions that underpins our dysfunctional western cultures and that can be blamed for a lot of our destructive thinking.

All too often, the desire for human civilization becomes the desire for power over the natural world. That in turn becomes an inclination to make everything unnatural – straighten out the rivers, plant the trees in rows, grow vast monocultures, and so forth. We cut the grass at the side of the road because we tell ourselves it looks tidier. What we’ve decided is ‘neat’ and therefore desirable, is stale and predictable.

When we make environments based on the desire to be tidy and in control, we make places that are harmful to humans. We don’t thrive in our austere urban spaces. Our mental health is improved by the presence of trees. We find solace in flowing water and flourishing plants.

Culture doesn’t thrive on sterility either. The best that we do as humans is more complex, and does not grow naturally in straight lines either. Poetry and art, music and extreme maths, philosophy and ethics, science and technology – our most creative thinking is not best served by our most sterile and limited impulses.

So, why do we do it? Why do we force our cities and lives into rigid forms that hurt us? Who benefits from having both people and the landscape under this kind of control? Most of us do not benefit. Most of us are made poorer by this process that has been with us for some hundreds of years.

Straight lines are efficient.  Tidy minds are less likely to have the inspiration for a revolution.

Our environments shape who we are. There is plenty of evidence now to make it clear that we are better, happier and healthier people when we live with trees. And yet we make tree-less environments that bring out the worst in us. And as those environments shape us we become the kind of people who live in empty, lifeless spaces and make straight lines out of our lives.

The wilderness was never the enemy of culture. Wildness is the rich soil in which human civilizations grow and flourish. I wonder how much our collective obsession with tidiness and control is a symptom of a dying civilization. We’ve been harming ourselves in this way for a long time now. Little wonder that so many of us have no idea how to live, and little desire to act in ways that would make life more viable.


Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.


Social contracts

Social contracts underpin our lives, but we don’t talk about them much. To participate in civilization and to benefit from it, we have to agree to contribute what we can or at the very least, not go round ruining things for other people. We benefit from all manner of things that belong to, or are funded by everyone – as do private companies, who often use the idea of their private-ness to suggest they shouldn’t have to contribute as much. They use the road networks, the police, the fire services, the education of their employees and so forth.

At the moment, our social contract obliges us to pay for participation with health – when the work demanded of us makes us ill, when the cities we live in have such bad air pollution that it kills people. Participation comes at a high price. I think government and industries alike are failing to hold up their side of the contract, because profit is put before health – especially where air pollution is concerned.

Any practice that allows a few to profit from the natural resources of the world while damaging the environment for everyone else, breaks the unwritten contract. There is no mutual good or benefit here. Why are some people allowed to profit to an obscene degree while others are exploited? Why are some people allowed to accumulate vast wealth at the cost of making others ill? The greater the distance between the richest and the poorest in society, the more strain there is on that unwritten contract that in theory binds us all together.

Poor, vulnerable and under-privileged people who seem to have broken the social contract, are punished for it. Having the resources you need to survive taken from you, being a case in point. That we have food banks feeding people who would otherwise go hungry and even starve, is itself a manifestation of the social contract, upheld by people who believe that we all have a duty to contribute to society and to help those who have less than us. There are a great many individual people trying to hold our social contracts in place despite the way those in power are ripping to shreds that which was never put on paper.

Humans have always depended on co-operation to survive. We all depend on each other. We depend on the people around us to respect us and not assault us. We depend on each other for food, for amenities, for shared resources. And yet all too often we are persuaded to think of ourselves as isolated individuals who can act alone with no consequences. If we don’t see the threads binding us together, we can do massive damage to everything we depend on. If we don’t see the importance of working for the common good, what we get is exploitation, and benefit for the few at a high cost to the many.

When we see society in terms of winners and losers, we make ourselves poorer. Most of us lose. When we see society in terms of co-operation and mutual support, more people are able to win. What would happen if we aspired to make sure that everyone was winning at life? What would happen if we started to see piles of wealth as weird, and offering assistance where needed, as normal? Why not aspire to a world in which everyone has enough and lives peacefully, rather than heading towards a world where a few powerful individuals get to be kings and queens of their own infertile piles of plastic rubbish?


Tidiness, nature, and civilization

The human urge to tidy things up has us cutting hedges into smooth edges, trimming verges so as to take out all the wildflowers and generally destroying habitats. What is this urge to be tidy and how do we get rid of it so that we stop needlessly killing wildlife?

Neatness, order, straight lines, square corners – these are not things we generally find in nature but that humans create and impose. You will likely decide at a glance whether a place is natural or human-made, and the straight lines, tidy edges and whether there are obviously dead things will inform that decision. We like to tidy away the dead things, even trees when they fall down in woods. A dead tree is an amazing source of life and habitat for many other species. We do massive damage when we remove them. But, decay, and death are considered unsightly, so aren’t civilized or tidy.

When we force a straight line, or cut back a verge, we’re asserting a human presence into the landscape. Bringing order to the chaos of nature is a project that goes with owning the land, controlling what’s around us and valuing some things more than others. We use ‘straight’ as a word both to indicate honesty, and heterosexuality and I don’t think this is a coincidence. We call things wild in a human context often to judge them. Tidiness is something we treat as a virtue and seek to install in our children.

We’ve had hundreds of years, if not longer, of telling ourselves that being tidy is an expression of being civilized. The uncut lawn doesn’t say ‘home for insects’ to us. It says ‘lazy and uncivilised and a mess’. And so we cut things back that aren’t causing us any real problems. We strim and trim, and take away the dead heads.

Unfortunately, as human influence dominates and wildness becomes ever more threatened, our urge to tidy is simply an urge to destroy. It’s not the tiny, puny humans versus the wilderness any more. We tame and train our landscapes and in the process, we kill so much that should be in them. What we make when we do this is often ugly, sterile and joyless. The cityscapes that we make as ultimate expressions of tidy civilization lack soul, and are not good habitats for humans. We need softness too. We need living green growth, and at least some element of unpredictability.

We need to stop complaining about things that look untidy, and start celebrating the beauty of nature. Nature isn’t tidy. But when you think about the mathematical elegance of the Fibonacci sequence, it’s also clear that nature has a good deal more to offer than the banality of our straight lines and tightly clipped lawns.