Civilized to Death (book review)
“An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.”
— Arthur Miller
Modern civilization is seen as necessary for “progress.” With every breakthrough in technology, science, medicine, and so on, with every new comfort and convenience, advancement and novelty, what is the cost?
People often assume that progress is steadily increasing, and at a linear pace, believing that the livelihoods of the hunter-gatherers were primitive, dangerous, and simple, despite their survival for most of human history.
Since the domestication of animals and move into agriculture from small bands of roaming hunter-gatherers, civilizations have both developed and fallen from a depletion of natural resources, conflict, famine, and disease. Populations have become denser and temperatures have risen to new global extremes every year.
Humanity, overcome with dissatisfaction and anxiety, has rushed into a shadow future. They have chased after novelty without knowledge, or concern, for the consequences of their desires.
Americans, for example, generally work longer hours than in past decades while the global competition rises and wages stagnate. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Rates of people who struggle with starvation, who earn ten dollars a day, who can’t afford to deal with a medical emergency, increases steadily.
Civilization doesn’t necessarily imply progress. Hunter-gatherers are not inherently miserable. One must ask always when speaking of progress, “progress for whom?”
What seems like progress for one person, group, community, or civilization, may be contextually a benefit, but not absolutely. Furthermore, what is normalized for one group may not necessarily be “good” for that group or another group, but rather, an adaptation overtime of that group to an advantageous environment. Those who do not gain any benefits from that environment would suffer, die, or merely not flourish enough to gain much from it.
In our modern age of progress, millions of people have been displaced from their homelands due to war, conflict, famine, persecution, and climate change. More species are increasingly going extinct while the ocean currents have slowed down.
While every unstoppable civilization such as Rome, Sumer, and Ancient Egypt, have all crumbled in the past, they have done so regionally. If our civilization falls, it will happen at a global scale.
Hunter-gatherers may not have been idealistically perfect but those who survived and succeeded through reproduction did so from trust, cooperation, and generosity. They would’ve perished under brutal environments if not for their interdependence and mutual interests.
The days of the hunter-gatherer are over, however. It is too late to turn back to the prehistoric world. Population densities have swelled beyond small bands of undomesticated hominids.
“We’ve lost too much of the knowledge and physical conditioning necessary to live comfortably under the stars. If our ancestors were wolves or coyotes, most of us are closer to pugs or poodles.”
Even though no one can return back to prehistory, it’s possible to learn from the past to create better conditions for the future. If stories of the past are misused, misunderstood, or abused, however, then the accepted narrative of civilization can imprison just as much as free.
There’s an assumption of prehistory as being a Hobbesian nightmare where people brutalized each other in harsh environments to survive and reproduce, where primitive peoples lived lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short.”
While precivilization is condemned, civilization is often seen as perpetually improving, all despite human nature’s competitive, aggressive, and bloody history. This view of humankind is routinely used in the justification of slavery and war and colonialism. Rather than connecting more intimately with one another, civilized people are conditioned to not trust each other, to compete, to feel shameful over their bodies and instincts.
There may be a more accurate story than the Hobbesian one. When studying modern foragers, who have similar relationships with their environments as peoples did thousand of years ago, from how they settled conflict and had children to how they hunted and built their homes, structural insights into their groups can help researchers see the past.
Looking deeply at the anatomical/physiological functions of the human body, especially since human beings have evolved for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers (longer than as agriculturalists), provides a glimpse into the past as well.
“Well over 95 percent of the time that our species has existed we’ve lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers moving about in small bands of 150 people or fewer.”
These bands, despite how long ago they lived or where they had come from, were egalitarian, mobile, social, and generous. Power was fluid rather than hierarchical, based more on social value than status and property. Women were given similar opportunities to men, gaining respect for their intelligence, skill, and integrity, while being able to make decisions that would profoundly impact the rest of the group.
With these universal traits displayed among the hunter-gatherers, however, there are still no absolutes. Exceptions of child abuse, unequal treatment between the sexes, disproportionate power, and so on, can exist and have before, but never on the scale of hierarchical, agriculture-based societies.
While hunter-gatherers, traveling with minimal shared supplies, relied on each other for reciprocal generosity, treating each other as extended families, giving and receiving in order to survive and to grow, when the State first arose, people became inferiors, subservient to kings, priests and dictators, being taxed and controlled by those with unequal power.
For hunter-gatherer tribes, an individual is prized for their intelligence, hunting skills, and so on. When they exceed their skills through arrogance, selfishness, pride, or an unequal amount of power, they are laughed at, socially exiled or eventually killed. As long as they provide social benefit to the group, they are mutually benefited themselves. In agricultural societies, however, there is a conflict regarding the messages of promoting generosity and support and sharing, competition and survival and private ownership. Large populations with complex civilizations are prone to conflicting value systems.
Nevertheless, humans have complex moralities based on social values that were deeply woven into their biological makeup for thousands of years to ensure their survival.
While civilization has definite benefits, what is the long term cost of perpetual expansion? Civilization has solved many problems while simultaneously being the reason for those problems to exist in the first place. Everything from gum disease to obesity, depression to anxiety, overly medicated children to heart attacks, rose since the advent of civilization rather than before it.
Agricultural societies may have developed independently from each other, thousands of years ago, due to extremes in climate. As the hoarding of resources began, complex social hierarchies did as well. These hierarchies may have led to more conflict among groups, artistic creation, nuanced relationships with the dead, ritualistic practices, warfare, and enslavement.
While hunter-gatherers revered the flow of nature and relied on it with their lives, the agriculture-based civilizations dominated and controlled it. Rather than mobility and sharing, humans became sedentary and owned more possessions. They became conditioned by the institutions that had arisen with their settlement. As humans domesticated plants and animals, they too became domesticated.
When civilizations encountered foraging societies, they often brutalized them through the theft of land, enslavement, human sacrifice, rape, wanton murder, exploitation, torture, spread of disease.
The stronger the civilization, the greater the need for using up natural resources while expanding to conquer other places and peoples. Those apart from civilization were seen as less human and treated as such. And within powerful civilizations, the disparity between wealth and freedom grew between the powerful and the powerless.
Rather than living as an egalitarian web of relationships in a band of intimates, rather than as an extended family caring for one another’s benefit, people were treated like property in civilization. These forced participants, who were enslaved and worked until death, who procreated out of necessity for survival, for the labor of the system, who were manipulated by their rulers to keep civilization from collapsing, were not treated as humans anymore. Those who tried to break away from the confines of civilization were severely punished or manipulated into returning out of desperation and systematic coercion.
This practice continues today: “Multinational corporations routinely expropriate land in poor countries (or ‘buy’ it from corrupt politicians), force the local populations off the land (so they cannot grow or hunt their own food), and offer the ‘luckiest’ among them jobs cutting down the forest, mining minerals, or harvesting fruit in exchange for slave wages often paid in company currency that can only be used to buy unhealthful, industrially produced food at inflated prices at a company-owned store. These victims of market incursion are then often celebrated as having been saved from ‘abject poverty.’ With their gardens, animals, fishing, and hunting, they had been living on less than a dollar a day. Now, as slave laborers, they’re participating in the economy. This, we’re told, is progress.”
While civilized people are systematically forced to remain in civilization, they are conditioned to fear any alternative. They are routinely propagandized with fear of death, fear of old age, fear of outsiders, fear of a dangerous environment, fear of disobeying the structure of society, fear of being different, and fear of questioning.
While fear is being mass communicated to those who serve the system, messages of self-interest are justified as natural for a species that is interpreted as inherently competitive and selfish.
While the social hierarchical system, built upon control and expansion, rationalizes itself under these premises, messages of altruism, generosity, and sharing, which are prominent in foraging groups, are conflicted with and misrepresented.
Foragers nevertheless have some form of social hierarchy, except their structure is in support of social autonomy. People can gain more power in these groups, except at the expense of the group. Those who violate the rules of the group, benefiting themselves at the expense of others, are shamed, excluded, or eventually killed, depending on the person’s effect upon others. Foragers are often quite aware of the social hierarchy in their groups and have ways of keeping a check on power, maintaining egalitarian principles with tradition, stories, humor, and so on.
Another way that foragers have often maintained social harmony is through group fluidity. Members of small bands can leave the group, join other groups, based on climatic conditions, the hunt, and so on. In many tribes, once women are old enough, they leave their families for another tribe. Rather than based on biological necessity, many foragers come together out of a mutual practicality and show attitudes of abundance rather than scarcity.
These behaviors may be influenced from their evolutionary past. Humans share a common genetic ancestor with bonobos and chimpanzees. Those who argue the progress myth often cite chimpanzee behavior as the source for human aggression, conflict, and war, but conveniently ignore the deep human relationship to bonobos. Bonobos are mostly peaceful, resolving conflict with sex and bonding, rather than with war. While chimps do show some organized group violence, bonobos are different.
Whereas hunter-gatherers are highly mobile in small groups, adapting to changing environmental conditions, experiencing occasional food shortages while still being mostly well nourished, millions of people in modern societies, dependent on certain crops or water sources, are often undernourished.
Caloric restriction, which occurs at periods with hunter-gatherers, may actually be healthful, preventing some neurodegenerative diseases, cancer, diabetes, while supporting a longer lifespan.
Foragers don’t necessarily die at an earlier age than those born in agricultural societies. There may be a higher mortality rate among infants and children, which statistically, brings the average of life expectancy down, but those who live usually do so into a healthy old age, similar to those in agricultural societies. Except the children who grow up in the foraging communities had better quality of life in regards to childcare, clean air and water, communal support, etc.
Living in agricultural settlements with swelling populations drastically altered human beings. Status, family dynamics, power, treatment of women and children, food quality, exposure to new diseases, relationship to death, worsened. Even the worship of friendly and nourishing gods transitioned into religions where a God dominated nature and had absolute power with His control. While foraging societies protected their young ones, having an extended family to raise a child, within agricultural societies, children were seen as property, labor, as potential heirs to wealth, as rivals.
Even in modernity, infants and children develop quite differently than those in hunter-gatherer societies. C-sections, which don’t provide the immunological advantages of natural births, less time physically touching an infant, less time breastfeeding, more separation from offspring, contribute significantly to the emotional development in people in agricultural societies. In foraging groups, infants are closely attuned to, nurtured, and emotionally responded to, by dozens of loving caregivers beyond the mother or father(s). They are breastfed longer and supported in a cooperative social world.
“When you receive no significant social support from your society and have to work two jobs just to pay for the daycare that allows you to go to work, nobody can blame you for putting your kids in front of the TV, feeding them what you can afford, and not wanting to spend the night comforting them when they’re restless. Many progressive European societies have policies that replicate hunter-gatherer parenting values by assuring community support for parents via generous maternity and paternity leave, subsidized medical and child care, and free education.”
Societies that support infant/childhood development and a healthy expression of sexuality during puberty correlated with more peace and fewer mental/behavioral problems. In societies where there was less developmental support, such as in the US, the likelihood of violence as well as mental/behavioral conditions rose.
Modern societies have often repressed play in children, healthy sexuality in teens during puberty, homosexuality, and so on, while increasingly over medicating those who show conflicting behaviors to the procedures of the controlling systems. Institutional structures, from religions to governments, have controlled, punished, repressed, misinformed, and shamed people for their natural human tendencies. This has predictably increased the rates of anti-social behavior, anxiety, and depression in young people within industrialized nations.
In hunter-gatherer groups, children and teenagers are treated with respect and autonomy. They play their social roles of hunting, foraging, and tool making, until their play becomes an essential part of the group. Rather than being infantilized, they’re free to become themselves. When they do choose to work, if they choose, it is only for a few hours a day, often in the spirit of play.
Meanwhile in modern civilization, people are working for longer hours while wealth inequality is growing. Even those who own more than 99% of the wealth are trapped within the system, desiring only to acquire more, while the poorest of the population are starving. This inequality creates more distance between people and makes their suffering an abstraction. The wealthy may seem like winners, but with money comes isolation from others, working tirelessly to compete with rich peers, ignoring natural impulses to help those in need, while still feeling unsatisfied. Having a vast amount of money/power makes people detach, have more trouble when reading social cues, feel less empathy for others, while their risk of heart disease, stroke, and depression increases.
Modern civilization deals with death differently too. While in industrialized societies, people are put on expensive machines and treatments, attempting to prolong the quantity of their lifespan (but not the quality) for a miserable length of time, doctors are discouraged from being near their dying patients or frankly giving them the truth of their conditions. Yet in foraging societies, death is present with people. Terminally ill or elderly people are neglected, given an option of committing suicide, killed by a member of the tribe, if they’re no longer able to help the group. Rather than wasting away into nothing, they’re put out of their misery.
Civilized life is no better. Deprived of nature, socially isolated, working more than 40 hours at a job that one hates, paying off debts, consuming more and more medication, pursuing happiness through materialism, people live for a mirage of successes in industrialized societies.
In these same societies, aberrations of behavior, strange thoughts, auditory hallucinations, and so on, are seen as conditions to be overcome, treated, and suppressed. In foraging, shamanistic groups, people experiencing strong hallucinations, for instance, are often integrated as healers in their cultures. They’re supported lovingly rather than repressed.
As more conditions are managed in industrialized nations with prescription medications — often leading to high rates of addiction and overdose — therapeutic psychedelic drugs with little to no toxic effects are demonized in the population. Psychedelics with a long history in tribal cultures as healing agents are penalized severely in the civilized world, despite an assortment of benefits in treating people with depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, etc. Furthermore, psychedelic medicines can lead, under the proper conditions, to enhanced awareness, profound mystical experiences, and long term well-being after an initial dose.
As population exponentially increases in modern civilization, humanity is further devalued. “Endless growth is the ideology of conventional economics and the cancer cell.”
Insight into how humans successfully lived in the past can help those in the present design a world based on inborn, natural values, which allows societies to flourish.
There can be a promotion of cooperation in egalitarian communities, a vast network of people helping each other, or there can be institutions that distort human values, preying on people’s fears, controlling their lives with propaganda and violence and social repression. In the second scenario, “progress” will inevitably lead to extreme climate change, civilizational collapses, planetary ruin.
It will take a radical shift in consciousness for people to work toward the values of environmental protection, egalitarian treatment, communal development, investing in alternative energy sources, applying effective therapeutic approaches to social deterioration, challenging long-standing institutions, and so on. It may even be too late. But there is still hope.