The Cruel Arc Of 'Progress': The Story Of Civilisation In Under 700 Words
'You cannot take away someones story without giving them a new one. It is not enough to challenge an old narrative, however discredited and outdated it may be. Change happens only when you replace it with another. When we develop the right story and learn how to tell it, it will infect the minds of people across the political spectrum. Those who tell the stories run the world.' George Monbiot - Out Of The Wreckage
We are currently experiencing what may be the broadest spectrum of human lifestyles that will ever co-exist on planet Earth. Some of us live like Electronic Mages, constantly connected to one another through pocket sized computer boxes, furiously burning through fossilised plant remains in the search for new experiences. While others live much more closely to the land, tilling the soil day in, day out, in agricultural holding patterns that unfold largely within walking distance of where they were born. And in even wilder habitats a select few still live like Neolithic foragers, keenly in tune with the subtlest cycles of nature and completely immersed in animistic communion with their surrounds.
And yet as the twin engines of technology and globalisation propel us all towards a more homogenised version of reality, this breathtaking diversity of human cosmology shrinks ever smaller. And ironically the same process which led to such a varied selection of coexistent ontologies in the first place is now the very force actively merging them together. We call it civilisation and in the seven thousand years or so since it first emerged it has almost completely saturated the planet. After having spread far and wide across the surface of the Earth it now begins to reach outwards to the emerging frontiers of space. And with each passing generation it could also be said to reach further inward as well, weaving itself a little deeper into the core of the human condition.
The term civilisation has come to encompass much more than just a simple description of socio-economic and political processes, it now also encapsulates the entire architecture of our collectively held beliefs. Civilisation is a way of being and a state of mind, a signifier that points that towards the very essence of our disembodied, frenetic and wholly unsustainable modern culture. But for the sake of simplicity, I will make use of a much more straightforward interpretation, defining civilisation as anywhere in the world where you are required to pay tax. And while perhaps a little crude it is a surprisingly effective way of grouping together all those parts of the world which make use of civilisation as their major operating system, which these days accounts for over 99% of the global population.
So now that we have shared definition of the word we can begin to establish a shared narrative around it as well. As once we can succinctly tell the underlying story of our disjointed modern world, then we'll be that much more effective in our efforts to replace it with an altogether more egalitarian, empathic and regenerative tale. So without further ado, in under 700 words I present to you a playful, abridged, cynical and western centric version of the story of civilisation...
Once upon a time after millions of years of hunting and gathering the human story changed forever when a few curious Mesopotamians decided to settle down and grow some grain. It’s still not exactly clear why they chose to do this, but it likely had something to do to with the recent end of the Ice Age. But no matter the reason, this appears to be that critical moment in human history when we stopped identifying as a part of nature and started viewing ourselves as something altogether more 'civilised'. Little did we know that we were about to step into a much more disease ridden, physically arduous and grossly inequitable chapter of our human journey. As Rianne Eisler frames it, the shift from a widespread culture of partnership towards one of domination had well and truly begun.
Soon enough the first city of Sumer emerged and before long civilisations were sprouting up all over the world, seemingly of their own accord. This new habit of staying put meant that we could now store large amounts of food and breed like rabbits, as we no longer had to carry everything we owned on our backs. This was the beginning of 'stuff'. But this wasn’t the only major change, as all that planting, harvesting and storing of grains required a much more structured and predictable way of living. This was the beginning of 'work' and unfortunately, also of 'bosses'. Soon enough we needed extra muscle on side to help us protect all our loot and procure more land to feed our growing populations. And so armies were born, a new human grouping structure whose primary aim was to kill and maim other people. Hooray for 'progress'!
As the cart wheels of time kept turning, power continued to centralise in and around cities, which had the habit of expanding into vast empires before overextending and collapsing again. This imperial boom and bust cycle continued on for a few thousand years, with whoever had the most advanced weapons making use of them to conquer everyone else. Early on we were firmly encouraged to stop worshipping the forces of nature and start believing in God, though he went by a different name (or series of them) depending on where you lived. This proved to be a very effective means of structuring society, as it both forcefully imbued peoples lives with a shared sense of meaning and kept the masses under the thumb of the ruling elite. That is until modern science came along and started asking some rather difficult questions.
Meanwhile a new colonial hegemony had taken shape after a number of European states decided to use their fancy new boats and explosive weapons to ruthlessly plunder large parts of the world. This intense concentration of wealth coupled with the invention of the steam engine led to a rapid burst of industrialisation, which soon saw technology begin to advance at breakneck speeds. The newly minted bankers and merchants at the helm of this emergent economy gradually continued to usurp power from those with more noble blood lines. Monarchy was on the way out and after a bloody revolution modern democracy was born. After a series of world wars corporations rose up along side nation states as the most powerful institutions on Earth. The world was globalising and after a few bursts of meaningful moral progress around the edges of it all, networked computing arrived on the scene forever changing our way of life and setting us on a path towards the Singularity.
So there you have it, the whole 7000 year story of civilisation in just four bite sized paragraphs. But how much has civilisation really evolved over all that time? While at the surface level our society has changed beyond recognition, it appears to me that at the heart of it our modern day civilisation remains strikingly similar to those initial river valley experiments. After all, those with the most advanced weapons are still calling the shots and every year there are more people working harder for more stuff and requiring bigger armies to keep increasing their spheres of influence. It leads me to wonder if Rousseau had it right when he proclaimed that 'civilisation is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evil it produces.'
Perhaps the moral of this whole story is that despite its many marvels and conveniences, in its totality, our civilisation is ultimately not something to be proud of. Rather it appears to be a blight upon the biosphere, rapidly destroying the earths ecosystems and propelling us all towards the increasing likelihood of a tragic and bitter end. I've personally arrived at the conclusion that it's high time we finally ditch our obsession with growth at all costs and start actively cultivating a Metamodern and Solarpunk future. To do this it seems we'll need to learn how to mix the wisdom of forager society with the intelligence of the modern world. Let's tell a new story. Let's do Rousseau proud.
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 & Twitter.