Between Priests, Kings & Bosses: An Unflinching Exploration Of The Best & Worst Of Civilisation
Artwork by Arrow Bow
Our species appears highly adept at engineering fantastical new ways to wipe itself out. So far we’ve managed to collectively dodge the bullet of all out nuclear war but we’re yet to face up to the full brunt of radical climate change and widespread ecological degradation. And there’s the possibility of either a rogue A.I or genetically modified viruses cutting short the human story.
And yet despite the fact that our socioeconomic systems are directly responsible for generating such a wide range of existential risks it still remains highly taboo to question whether or not the project of civilisation (which I'm defining here as any large centralised society in which you've paid tax since 5000 BC, although complex sedentary culture goes back much further) has all been worth it. In fact even posing such a question can often trigger cultural defence mechanisms that seem fiercely protective of the belief that civilisation is an inherently good thing and that no matter what kind of challenges we face the march of progress will roll steadily along.
Two other often unexamined assumptions that tend to go hand in hand with these beliefs are that the long arc of human civilisation will always bend slowly but surely towards justice and that for the majority of humans now is clearly the best time to be alive. Considering how completely dependent most of us are upon the global web of fossil fuelled supply chains it’s no surprise that parts of us have a kind of knee jerk reaction against any sustained critique of the whole concept of civilisation. After all it takes a very particular type of person to brazenly question the hand that feeds it.
I still recognise large parts of myself that hold on to the idea that those in the tech elite will somehow rush in at the last minute with new kinds of futuristic technology and whisk us all out of the frying pan and into a more beautiful tomorrow. Such deeply seated cornucopian hopes and dreams make perfect sense in light of the fact that like many of us in modern world I was raised on a steady diet of superhero stories and science fiction movies. Consuming these narratives have conditioned me to believe that while things will likely get very close to falling apart a few brilliant individuals and their technological superpowers will somehow see us through the breach.
But more recently I’ve begun deconstructing some of these techno-utopian convictions and have arrived at the conclusion that if I could choose to live at any time in human history it likely wouldn’t be in the 21st century. Instead I’d reluctantly forgo the joys of modern plumbing and return to the Paleolithic in order to live out life in an immediate return hunter gatherer society in what I imagine would be an experience of living in deep and sustained animistic communion with the world around me.
Essentially I would take the risk of infant mortality, starvation and sabre tooth tiger attack over the alienated, traumatised and existentially void malaise that appears to pervade much of the modern world. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for all the freedoms and luxuries I enjoy here in the present day but I get the sense we are missing something in our modern culture that might be worth trading all our shiny technology longer lifespans and endless entertainment for.
Better yet, I’d be born 100 years from now into a Solarpunk future and experience a world where the best of civilisation and organic society were merged into one. But more on this in the next and final article in this series, for now lets return to the present moment where I remain firmly ensconced in my suburban home in an epoch largely synonymous with globalised consumer capitalism, ever more Promethean technology and increasingly dire ecological predictions. A period some geologists are now referring to as the Anthroprocene or the ‘recent age of man’ in reference to the fact that human activity is now the major driving force behind environmental change on the planet.
What follows is a succinct analysis of the pros and cons of civilisation intended to help us explore whether or not we’re on some kind of terminal trajectory. We’ll zoom out to take a birds eye view of the entire civilisational project starting with the ‘good bits’ then moving onto the ‘ugly parts’ before weighing up both sides in conclusion.
Civilisational Scorecard: The Good Bits
Before I begin trumpeting the praises of civilisation it’s worth noting that each of the following ‘best things’ has a distinct and sometimes intensely destructive shadow side. It might be argued that many of these developments are actually only solving problems that were created by civilisation in the first place, an idea perfectly encapsulated in Rousseau’s 18th Century claim that ‘civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.’ So with that caveat in mind let’s now put on our rose tinted glasses and take a tour of the brighter side of the civilisational project. If you look from a certain vantage point it can be a truly glorious thing to behold.
Six Of The Best Things That Either Began With Or Significantly Flourished Soon After Civilisation Emerged
Complex architecture & robust public infrastructure (i.e roads, sewerage systems, energy grids etc.)
The breadth and depth of artistic expression, literature, music & philosophy.
Codified legal frameworks.
Ever widening circles of discourse, trade and exchange (ie. the shift from purely local to now global conversations).
Increasingly rapid technological advancement.
A wide diversity of mythology and wisdom traditions within single societies.
A Chronological List Of Ten Of The Best Things That Appeared A Little Later Along The Way
Mathematics (6th Century BC as a ‘demonstrative discipline’)
Public schools & universities (1600’s)
The scientific method (Had been around a while in little pockets but really seemed to catch on widely in the 1600’s)
Progressive social movements (1700’s) (ie. The abolition of slavery, the minimum wage and the weekend, women’s suffrage, civil rights, environmentalism, LGBTQ+ rights etc)
Modern medicine & dentistry (1800’s)
You and everyone you’ve ever loved (1903 - Age of the oldest person currently living - 116 - Kane Tanaka)
The World Cup (1930) - I happen to be a fan, but it’s still pretty amazing that 210 countries come together and peacefully compete every 4 years)
The United Nations & The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights (1945-1948)
Organisational structures that can synchronise very large groups of people towards a shared goal (Modern Companies, Governments, NGO’s, Cooperatives Etc.) (1950’s)
An increase in material wealth and consumer choice for certain segments of the population (and in the last 50 years a large amount of people brought out of poverty) (1960’s)
5 Noteworthy Things That Civilisation Is Currently Getting Done
Over 7 billion people get fed each day. (1)
1.9 billion children get educated every year (2)
17.8 Trillion dollars worth of trade is taking place each year (3)
5 Billion hours of leisure time is being enjoyed by those in the developed word each day. (4)
2.3 Million scientific & technical journal articles are being published each year. (5)
Civilisations Scorecard: The Not So Good Bits
I often marvel at the fact that in its own splutteringly brazen way civilisation has continued to hold itself together for over seven thousands years. That despite its many flaws it has persisted and even continues to grow. And yet its very means of propagating itself has created a host of problems that now threaten its survival. Problems that require a kind of complex, dynamic and globally synchronised response that has rarely occurred through out human history. Perhaps the best example so far of such sustained and successful wide-ranging international cooperation was the Montreal Protocol of 1987 which was an agreement around how to universally phase out substances that were leading to the depletion of the Ozone layer. But unfortunately such examples of international treaties accomplishing what they originally intended to are few and far between. More often than not we end up with a tragedy of the commons where it’s in no ones direct interest to step in and protect what isn’t directly under their responsibility. This is just one of the many shadow sides of civilisation, let’s now take off our rose tinted shades and take a look at the rest.
In the interest of brevity I’m going to leave out a detailed critique of the history of civilisation and focus instead on the present day. However merely pointing towards the existence of The Khmer Rouge, The Spanish Inquisition, the multitude of child soldiers in The Congo, The Great Chinese Famine, The Transatlantic Slave Trade, The Holocaust and The Rape Of Nanjing should be sufficient to remind us that there is long tradition of brutal domination and untold cruelty woven through its history and that we still carry the intergenerational trauma from these and many other equally horrific events.
But for now let’s take a deep breath and an honest look at the more contemporary problems that civilisation has produced. As a wise friend once said ‘all change starts with the truth’.
Nine Of The Major Environmental Catastrophes Civilisation Is Producing
1. Biodiversity Loss & Species Extinction - The animals and plants are disappearing.
It’s estimated that up to 150 species go extinct every day (6) and scientists are warning that we have entered the Sixth Mass Extinction period. (7)
The current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than the natural background rates of extinction and future rates are predicted to be 10,000 times higher again. (8)
More than 40% of insect populations are declining and a third are endangered. (9)
2. Climate Change - Our stable climate systems are breaking down.
Carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been in millions of years (10) and there is a clear consensus amongst climate scientists that human activity is the primary cause. (11)
We have already locked in at least 1.5°C of warming.(12)
Experts advise that we must avoid raising the global temperature by anything over 2°C to avoid devastating consequences. (13)
If we continue on our current trajectory then there is a higher than 90% probability that global warming will exceed 4°C (39.2F) by the end of the century (14).
3. Deforestation - The rainforests are being destroyed.
An area the size of fifty football pitches of Amazonian rainforest is cut down every minute. (15)
At current rates of deforestation rainforests will vanish altogether within the next century (16)
4. Fresh Water Scarcity - Demand is outstripping supply.
Global demand for water continues to increase at 1% per year. (17)
Two thirds of the worlds people already experience severe water scarcity for 1 month of every year (18).
By 2050 it’s predicted that 5.7 billion people will run short of drinking water (19).
5. Soil Erosion & Degradation - We’re losing our top soil.
The world has lost one third of its arable land due to erosion and pollution over the last 40 years. (20)
Only sixty years of farmable soil are left if degradation continues at current rates. (21)
6. Ocean Acidification - The reefs are dying.
Increased carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution have led to a 25% increase in ocean acidity levels which is devastating shell forming fish and coral reefs (22).
By the end of the century it’s predicted that coral reefs may disappear altogether unless there is a significant drop in CO2 emissions. (23)
7. Over Fishing - We’re killing all the fish.
Since 1950 we’ve lost 90% of all big fish in our oceans. (24)
Large ocean fish could be totally gone by 2050 (25).
8. Planetary Boundaries - We’re simply not sustainable.
We’ve already crossed three out of nine of the planets biophysical thresholds as defined by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (26).
Research suggests that we can effectively meet the basic needs of seven billion people but to provide a modern standard of living we would require between two and six times the amount of resource use that is currently deemed sustainable. (27)
9. Pollution of our Ecosystems - We’re poisoning our own well.
Over 40 different contaminants were found in a single sample of Chinook Salmon. (28)
It’s estimated that there are over five trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean weighing more than 250,000 tonnes (that’s over 60,000 African elephants worth of plastic) (29)
Air pollution is now the biggest killer in the world, causing the premature deaths of 5.5 Million every year. (30)
We dump over 2 billion tons of waste each year which is the equivalent of a single line of dump trucks wrapped around the world 24 times. (31)
Fourteen Of The Major Social & Political Crises That Civilisation Is Producing
1. Displaced Peoples, Refugees & Mass Migration
65.6 Million people were uprooted and displaced from their homes in 2016. (32)
Every day 28,300 people are forced to abandon their homes because of conflict (33)
2. Human Trafficking, Slavery & Child Labour
In 2016 it was estimated that over 40 million people are in some form of modern slavery with 4.8 million of these persons trapped in forced sexual exploitation. (34)
In the worlds poorest countries 1 in 4 children are engaged in some form of child labour.
3. Inadequate Mental Health Care
1 in 4 people are affected by a mental health condition in their lifetime. (35)
Currently, more than 40% of countries have no mental health policy. (36)
66% of countries spend only 1% or less of their health budgets on mental health issues. (37)
4. Inequality of Wealth and Opportunity.
The richest 1% of people own half of the worlds the wealth. (38)
1 in 10 people live under $1.90 a day with half of the extremely poor living in Africa. (39)
71% of the worlds population live off less than $US10 a day. (40)
Each day 29,000 children under the age of five, die from preventable causes such as malnutrition and lack of access to medicine. (41)
It is estimated there are 1.6 Billion homeless or inadequately sheltered people in the world.
During the 1960’s CEO’s earned an average of $42 for every $1 earned by wage workers. Today, that ratio is 344 to 1.
5. Imperial & Warlike Nature of Governments.
In 2016 the US dropped over 26,000 bombs. That’s three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day. (42)
World Military spending is estimated to have been $US1686 billion dollars in 2016. (43)
6. LGBTQ+ Rights
Being queer is still illegal in 72 different countries and carries a death sentence in 8 of them. (44)
One in ten Transpeople are physically assaulted each year due to their being transgender (45)
7. Mistreatment of Animals
Every year in the US alone over 10 billion animals are factory farmed in cruel and horrendous circumstances. (46)
In 2016 Canada allowed for the killing of 400,000 Seals, many of these are pups are cruelly clubbed to death or skinned alive.
8. Over Population & Ageing Demographics
Currently there 7.6 billion people on the planet, with 353,000 new babies born every day. This is predicted to reach 11.2 billion by 2050. (47)
The number of older peoples (over 60) is expected to double by 2050, estimated to reach a total of 2.1 billion by 2050 and 3.1 billion 2100.
9. Racism & The Marginalisation Of Indigenous Peoples
Around one quarter of people in the UK self identify as being prejudiced towards people other races and around one third of people have experienced or witnessed racial harassment in their workplace.
African Americans with college degrees are twice as likely as to be unemployed than other candidates.
Life expectancy of Indigenous Peoples in Australia is 10 years below the national average. (48)
Young Native American males are more than twice as likely to commit suicide than any other demographic in the US.
10. Rising Suicide Rates
In the last 45 years suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. (49)
In 2015 suicide was the leading cause of death among all people between 15-44 years of age. (50)
11. The Rise Of Less Tolerant Belief Systems & Religious Groups
Sociologists have observed a rise in religious extremism (51) From Christian Fundamentalism to Radical Islam to Military Zionism. In recent years we have seen these types of groups becoming more active and vocal across society, including the increase in religiously motivated terrorist attacks.
12. Unchecked Corporate Influence & Corruption
Corporate influence, whose motivation is profit at all costs has been usurping power from government bodies. One example of this is the fact that f the worlds 100 largest economic entities, 69 are now corporations and only 31 are nation states. (52)
In the US alone corporations now spend over $2.6 Billion dollars a year lobbying government policy. (53)
According to the World Bank there is an estimated $1.5 trillion paid in bribes by individuals and companies each year. This is ten times the total amount spent on overseas development assistance. (54)
Facebook/SCL/impact on democracy. Amazon no tax.
13. Unfair Treatment of Women
1 in 3 women around the world experience violence against them in their lifetime.
At least 200 million girls and women alive today living in 30 countries have undergone female genital mutilation. (55)
Around the world women still face unequal access to education and a pay gap for doing the same work as their male co-workers.
14. Weapons Of Mass Destruction & Other Potentially Destructive Technologies
The world still contains over 15,000 nuclear weapons (56)
Leadings technologists, scientists and researchers have outlined A.I as a potential major threat to humanity. Open letter on AI (57)
Emerging bio-weaponry and nanotechnology both cause increasing threats, terrorist attack and unforeseen impacts upon the wider environment (58)
Where This All Leaves Us
Well done! You made it. Those statistics are a lot to take in, almost too much without triggering some degree of cognitive dissonance. But I find having the courage to look straight into the heart of our cultural darkness allows us to view civilisation as both a highly ingenious and deeply flawed human project. You could say we're all in a very complex relationship with it as we often simultaneously revere, love, despise and depend upon it. And while it has produced great genius and wondrous innovation it’s also left a trail of exploitation, domination and destruction in its wake.
It's becoming clearer and clearer that if we wish to hand on a more beautiful future to the coming generations we're going to have to radically evolve our cultural and societal operating systems. By combining the wisdom of our shared heritage as much more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable hunter gatherers with the intelligence and technical proficiency of the modern world I believe we can cultivate new kinds of culture that are both nurturing and regenerative.
The final article in this five part series Beyond Priests, Kings & Bosses: A Neotribal Declaration explores what such a future might look like and how we might get there.
Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook.