The Problem With…Civilization


Civilization or civilisation n. an advanced stage or system of human social development

(Concise Oxford English Dictionary)

Something BETTER than civilization is awaiting us.

(Daniel Quinn, Beyond Civilization)

How is that possible? One must be wrong, and it must be the second one because we know that civilization is all; we know that to be civilized is the pinnacle of human achievement; we know that we are better than what has come before us.

And that’s why Daniel Quinn is right.

I’m not certain you understand what I’m saying. For sure, you probably get the meaning of the words and the sense of the syntax, but if the rest of this society is anything to go by, the chances are that you don’t understand – yet. Forgive me if you do: if you truly understand, and you agree that something better than civilization is awaiting us, get on and start finding it; help others to find their better future too; hasten the end of the thing that so many of us are enamoured with. Stop reading.

Where are we now?

Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a second. About half the wetlands and a third of the mangroves are gone. An estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75 percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity…Species are disappearing at rates about a thousand times faster than normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in sixty-five million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared…Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens in essentially each and every one of us.

This summary, written by one of the most eminent living environmental analysts, James Speth tells the tale of awful side effects, the kind that only became possible – imaginable, even – with the rise of Industrial Civilization. Civilizations have come and gone, like the flooding and ebbing of tides across the globe and throughout time: they appear, they take from the Earth, they grow, they become exhausted and they, invariably, collapse spectacularly. Civilizations are all different to a certain extent, but all of them leave their imprint in some way.

How To Be Civilized

It’s such a grand term: Civilization. But it is really just a word, like “leaf”, “stone” or “baby”, that has defined itself in the highest sense possible – “civilization” speaks to us with such importance because it demands to be heard, and hear we do, by defining ourselves in its image…


They all mean the same thing, in truth: City Dweller. The most obvious physical manifestation of civilization is the city, something totally alien to any uncivilized* culture. Cities are one manifestation; there are others that are less physical, but no less integral for all that. According to the influential but now sadly defunct Anthropik Network there are five key features that are common to all civilizations:

1. Settlement of cities of 5,000 or more people.
2. Full-time labour specialization.
3. Concentration of surplus.
4. Class structure.
5. State-level political organization.

The four other features all require structures and systems in order to operate as effectively as possible so, for instance, in order to concentrate surplus food (so it can be given out, or rather sold, on demand) you must, as a civilization, have storage and distribution systems, the means to generate that surplus in the first place (i.e. mass agriculture), accounting processes and, of course, a means of asserting authority over that surplus. This feature and, in fact, all of the five features listed, point to the primary function of civilization: a tool through which power and wealth can be accumulated by a select few.

If you don’t believe me, then look at the history of all civilizations, past and present, long and short-lived, large and small: they all begin in the same way – a small group of people wish to obtain more of something they haven’t got, but cannot do this within a communal or tribal culture; they therefore, through a combination of force, propaganda and corruption, create something over which they have authority. The city becomes the realisation of civilization because within a city – as opposed to a sparsely populated series of small settlements – it is far easier to control the activities of the population. The city also acts as a symbol of the power of the civilization, can be easily defended, and can provide the highest-ranking members of the society a base from which their activities may be conducted.

State level political organization and class structure exist to provide an easy means through which power can be exerted, from top to bottom, as a continuation of the desires of the “founding fathers” (it’s always fathers and not mothers, notice). Any kind of freedom in these areas, such as the opportunity to move up the career ladder, to educationally better oneself or to have a bigger say in your local decision making process, are always conditional – step out of line and threaten the system in any way, and down you go, with the ladders being drawn up faster than you can blink.

The seemingly most innocuous of the five features – full time labour specialization – is potentially the most damaging of all in terms of social fragmentation and environmental damage. We all understand specialization; as employees we have set roles (clerk, builder, miner), and set positions (junior, manager, director) within an industry that itself is likely to only be part of a larger system. This specialization serves a most important purpose in any civilization – it ensures that those employed know their place, and once availed of that information are kept in that place wherever possible. You may move jobs, you may be promoted, but you still have your set place in employment. A side effect of this, and it is most definitely intentional in most cases, is the distance it creates between the job you carry out and the harm you may be doing.

As Curtis White wrote in his brilliant piece, The Ecology Of Work:

The violence that we know as environmental destruction is possible only because of a complex economic, administrative, and social machinery through which people are separated from responsibility for their misdeeds. We say, ‘I was only doing my job’ at the paper mill, the industrial incinerator, the logging camp, the coal-fired power plant, on the farm, on the stock exchange, or simply in front of the PC in the corporate carrel. The division of labour… hides from workers the real consequences of their work.

Weighing Up The Goods

You would be right in thinking that civilization has provided humanity with the kinds of things that, without it, would have never existed – civilization, after all, is extremely inventive. Some of those things are genuinely positive, such as the educational institutions that have provided valuable anatomical and medical knowledge, but they are in a desperately small minority. Most of the “positives” that we attribute to civilization are only positive at a very superficial level; dig down a little and something always seems to go wrong.

Civilization has given us the ability the save money for the future. Absolutely, but in order to obtain money you must work, and work in such a way that your earnings exceed your expenses – this means that somewhere, someone or something else has lost out; money does indeed grow on trees, and if you can arrange a way of cutting down trees cheaper than you sell them for, you can make a profit. You put your money away, kept in trust by the bank that uses that money to fund socially irresponsible projects, further funded by the debt accumulated by the people who failed to make a profit. You lose your job, and dip into your savings and, for a while you manage, until it runs out and you have to find another job in order to recoup your savings. And why did you need the money in the first place? Could you not have been living self-sufficiently, bartering and skill-sharing with others?

In a city: you’ll be lucky. Welcome to the endless cycle.

Civilization has given us the tools to communicate with others across the world. So what do we do with that communication? We do what civilization tells us to: play games in artificial worlds on global servers; watch movies, television programmes and lots of clever advertising; be told about fantastic beaches that we must visit before we die; send rude jokes and chain letters to people we barely know. Sometimes we talk to our families on the other side of the world: families that fragmented and moved apart because the promise of a “better life” was more important than being together. We waste time licking the veneer of life offered by the high-tech world; and even when we do use the ability to communicate for altruistic reasons – like telling others what is going wrong with the world – it’s only because civilization has created the reasons we have had to do it.

The global city is the ultimate dream of the empire builders.

Civilization has brought us clean air, clean water, safe food and safe lives.


Before Industrial Civilization the air was clean, the water was clean, the food was safe and lives were lived on our own terms, as safe or as dangerous as they needed to be. Civilization is trying to turn things around and, for some people, the air is cleaner, and the food is safer, but only if you live at the top of the pile. The bigger picture tells a very different story and as the influence of the industrial West merges with the desire of more and more nations to ape that sense of power and wealth, the health of the planet keeps moving towards “critical”.

The goods of civilization – if you even consider such disconnected, self-satisfied lives to be “good” – exist only for those at the top: for everyone else the dream will always remain unfulfilled. That’s the way it is meant to be.

Industrial Civilization is the most powerful and most widespread manifestation of civilized culture there has ever been. So many people across so many formerly distinct cultures and geographical areas are now part of it that it is hard to imagine there being anything else; and, for so many people having known nothing else for their entire lives, it is hard to imagine that anything could improve on it. Surely all we need to do to provide humanity with a liveable, safe and clean future is to improve Industrial Civilization in some way, through better use of technology, fairer voting systems, better labour relations and so on. But, of course, this doesn’t stop civilization being what it is – a means of maximising the power and wealth of a selected few through the continuation of the very systems that have caused so much social and environmental misery throughout the history of this gargantuan edifice; whatever it takes, and whoever and whatever has to be harmed in the process.

“Something BETTER than civilization is awaiting us.”

Now do you understand why Daniel Quinn is right?

To get to that better place you just have to stop believing that the answers lie within the most destructive thing that humanity ever had the misfortune to create.

*I use the term “uncivilized” in its literal and untainted way: “uncivilized” simply means not being part of civilization. That is a good thing.

Originally published at

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