Civilization: Worth the Trouble?
Has civilization been our greatest accomplishment or our biggest mistake?
I’m taking a little break from writing original stuff while I’m busy plastering, painting, laying tile, and trying to get a toilet installed before the end of this month, when we have to be out of our current rental and into our new place — which remains a monument to dust and uninstalled bathroom fixtures. So in the meantime, I’m posting some of my favorite excerpts from Sex at Dawn and Civilized to Death.
In most books, there is a page or two that sums up the argument that’s fleshed out in the rest of the book — kind of like how a composer introduces a theme in the first movement of a symphony, and then explores variations for another three or four movements. If Civilized to Death were anything like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (it’s not), this passage would be the famous four notes.
When you’re going in the wrong direction, progress is the last thing you need. Maybe the progress that defines our age resembles the progression of a disease more than its cure. Sorry to be such a buzz-kill, but things aren’t looking good and show no signs of improving any time soon. In fact, from where I’m standing, it looks like western civilization is picking up speed the way things do when they’re circling the drain. Could it be that the fiercely-held belief in progress is a sort of pain-killer — a faith-in-the-future antidote to a terrifying present? Does our belief in progress function the same way assurances of eternal heaven have been used to calm the despairing for centuries? Or the way imported spices were used to cover the stench of the rotting food on the tables of wealthy Europeans?
Every civilization that’s ever existed has ended in chaos, tumult, and collapse—and there never was any good reason to think ours would be the first to break the pattern.
I know, there’s always been some lunatic warning that the end is nigh and we always say, “But this time it’s different!” But seriously, this time it’s different. The planetary climate is shifting like cargo on a sinking ship. A recent report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that at the end of 2014, the number of people forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million in 2004.