Homer Simpson, in an episode of The Simpsons.
Civilization is not sustainable.
Sometime last decade, as noted in various parts of this blog, I read the Ishmael books by Daniel Quinn. To summarize, Ishmael is a telepathic gorilla who critiques the ins and outs of human civilization, and his students do the same. Basically, the gorilla is a mouthpiece for the author's point of view.
I enjoyed the books; I recommend you read at least the first one, if you haven't already. I liked the sequel better, but I didn't really enjoy the one without the gorilla as much. Then there's the one with short essays, without any storyline. Attempted affiliate marketing* aside, the main point of the books is that civilization is not sustainable, and there are other ways for humans to live because there is no one right way to live -- or something like that.
As I tried to state before, I enjoyed the books, found the ideology interesting, but ultimately forgot about mostly everything -- for years. A few months ago, I read a compilation that condensed most of the books I mentioned earlier, as well as other books by Quinn. This time around, I compared what the author was saying with what was (and is) going on in the world today. I am, for the time being, convinced that civilization is not sustainable.
First, we have to define what civilization is. To paraphrase Quinn (and his telepathic gorilla), civilization is keeping food under lock and key. It's trading time and energy for money, trading money for food (and other necessities, as well as non-necessities), and repeating the process. It's the few at the top, and the many at the bottom -- whether feudalism, capitalism, or communism in practice. It is the belief that there is only one right way to live, which ironically competes with itself in defining that one right way to live. Western, eastern, northern, or southern -- civilization is mostly global in its basic sameness.
Since I'm neither at the top-top nor at the bottom-bottom of civilization, I must admit that I enjoy the comforts of existing in a civilized society. I can't very well blog bloggedy blog blog here without this history of technological advances and relative accessibility. There is a nagging thought, however, that many of civilization's achievements are merely solutions to civilization's problems. The prevalence of mental illness might be attributed to civilization. In turn, civilization has provided treatments for mental illness. The advances of civilization has caused pollution, which can be linked to health problems. In turn, civilization has provided modern medicine. Since food is under lock and key, we the civilized might as well process a lot of it, causing another set of health problems. In turn, we the civilized have created a market for fad diets and trendy exercise routines. "The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems," indeed.
And that's just the low-hanging fruit of civilization's problems and solutions.
Contrary to popular belief, and idiomatic language usage, war is civilized. Warfare usually happens because of one of civilization's central tenets: There is only one right way to live. Wars of conquest, wars of conversion, and wars of annihilation follow the basic plan of civilization. The irony is that variations of civilization want to overwrite other variations of civilization because, of course, there is only one right way to live.
Perhaps that is one way to define civilization: Never-ending conquest. It seems to me that non-civilized humans, in the past and in isolated populations in the present, don't participate in never-ending conquest. I am certain there is competition and violence between and within non-civilized populations. (Shall we call each population a tribe? But that might cause confusion between civilized tribes and non-civilized tribes. A band?) Perhaps the willingness to conquer, convert, or totally annihilate competing populations is the line between a non-civilized people and a civilized people.
I haven't yet elaborated why civilization is not sustainable; I'll do so as I stop defining words that are important to this topic.
A final thought brings me to the story in Genesis, as symbolism: Adam was a forager who became a farmer. Abel was a herder who was murdered. Cain was a farmer who murdered and built cities. Who are we, exactly?
Postscript. A potential topic for another day: "Contrary to popular belief, crime is civilized."
Post-postscript. Another potential future topic: "You don't bomb them back to the Stone Age. You teach them."
Photo from my Instagram account.
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