Monday, January 25, 2016

The Cycle of Civilization

Chapter 30 of Tumbling Tide

From a Darwinian perspective, civilizations are rather brief interludes in the story of mankind. Homo sapiens and other members of our genus have walked the Earth at various times over the course of about 2 million years, but civilizations have existed for only about 5,000 years. Humanity's "uncivilized" past, therefore, is greater than its "civilized" phase by the enormous ratio of 400 to 1. Considering the brevity of the latter, it might almost be said that civilization is merely an experiment, the results of which are not entirely clear.

All civilizations grow too large to support themselves, and their leaders have little foresight. These civilizations then collapse and are buried in the mud. The fall of the Roman Empire, for example, has been ascribed to various factors, from laziness to lead poisoning. The impoverishment of the soil, and the consequent lack of food, may have played a large part. No doubt it was also a combined military and economic problem: there wasn't enough money to pay for all the soldiers guarding the frontiers. Pestilence may have been another significant factor. Perhaps a more correct answer would actually be a more general one: the empire was too big, and it was poorly led.

The main difference between the past and the future is that the cycle of "civilization" can no longer be repeated. Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the twenty-first century. Industrial civilization has always been dependent on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common, and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be processed only with modern machinery. In fact most metals are globally now either declining or heading in that direction.

The technology of one century built the technology of the next. The technology of the past -- the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith -- made it possible for later generations to extract the lowgrade ores of the present. Very low-grade iron ores, for example, can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This "mechanical evolution" is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, and technology. Eventually that knowledge was recovered, though, because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.

In the future, however, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for that gradual rebuilding of advanced technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of civilizations.

By the year 2100 there will not be many humans left, and those who hope to stay alive will have to approach the matter of their survival as if planning the colonization of a distant planet. But the collapse of industrial society may have a happy ending of some sort, or at least a semblance of redemption. The somewhat upbeat ending to the story is that there will be, so to speak, a "return to Nature."

In many ways the most important event in the development of mankind was not the transition from the Stone Age to civilization, but rather from the Paleolithic (the Old Stone Age) to the Neolithic (the New Stone Age). Specifically, the major event was the shift from foraging (hunting and gathering) to agriculture. Ultimately this event was a bad choice. Even at the present time, among surviving primitive societies, one can see that foraging has advantages over agriculture.

As Richard Lee (1968) and Brian Ferguson (2003, July/August) have both explained, there are many disadvantages to agricultural life. In the first place, agriculture does not generally lead to leisure and the consequent opportunity for intellectual refinement, contrary to popular belief. If there is any leisure, it is only for those at the top, whose easy life is dependent on the less-easy life of those at the bottom. Foragers, on the other hand, spend only about 20 hours a week on actual work.

Secondly, with agriculture and permanent settlements come the woes of social inequity: foragers are nomadic because of the cycle of the seasons, so they have little means of storing and transporting food, and in any case little need to do so, whereas the settled life of agriculture allows the rulers to accumulate food and hence other forms of wealth produced by the workers.

Thirdly, agricultural societies generally include violence in all its forms, because the wealth of the elite provides a motive for robbery within the state, and for warfare between one state and another.

Fourthly, agriculture is destructive to the environment: it causes soil depletion and desertification.

Finally, agriculture leads to poor health, at least in the sense that people who live mainly on grains are less healthy than those who live on a highly varied diet of wild plants and the flesh of wild animals.

The theory that the Paleolithic was better than the Neolithic is far from proven, of course. If we look at various societies, past and present, it may not be the case that they can all be divided into "happy foragers" and "unhappy farmers." Nor does it seem absolutely clear that foragers always work less than farmers: part of the problem there is that in any society the dividing line between (food-related) work and non-work is not always easily defined, so measurements are uncertain. Some of these controversies might be a matter of over-generalization: it may well be, for example, that foraging requires less work but that some foraging societies are nevertheless violent.

Also in favour of the theory of the "happy forager," however, is the matter of our present ideological fallacies. Nowadays it is largely assumed, without any real evidence, that human life gets better from one century to the next. The belief in "progress," however, has not always been a common assumption. In fact it really dates only from the eighteenth century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the birth of industrialism.

Nevertheless the belief in progress now has a great hold on many people, and to a large extent it acts as a substitute for religion. The basic tenet is that humanity has gone from an unhappy world of savagery to a happy world of industrialism.

Yet as soon as we start to question this belief, its illogicality is obvious. Even in "developed" countries, there are the billionaires and the homeless. Warfare and general political strife are rampant, and there seems to be no such thing as honest government anywhere. The modern business world makes a mockery of our beliefs in democracy and equality: to succeed in business one must often be ruthless, unscrupulous, and devoid of a conscience. And instead of living a life of leisure, the average moderner tries desperately to find enough minutes to maintain a home, a family, and a job. Where, then, are the rewards of civilization? In an afterlife?

We must consider further implications of a belief in the Paleolithic ideal. In the first place, it is one thing to say that the Paleolithic was a happier time; it is another to say that people now living in technologically advanced societies should revert to Paleolithic ways of living. To do so, it would be necessary for the human population of Earth to drop from its present level of 7 billion to about 10 million, as it was toward the end of the Paleolithic, i.e. to shrink to much less than 1 percent of its present size. In addition, the Earth no longer has the abundance in flora and fauna that it had 10,000 years ago, so foraging would no longer be as easy as before. Finally, even if foraging is easier than farming, the average person living in industrial society nowadays has not been raised to a physically active life and by adulthood is probably permanently incapable of anything but a sedentary occupation.

A reply to this question of the logical consequences might be that if civilization in general will come to an end, the difficulties must simply be dealt with, although it will certainly take more than one generation to make the transition. A theory of a post-industrial primitive culture might require a great stretch of the imagination, but human cultures have always been capable of variation.

A further thought is that a return to the Paleolithic is, in any case, inevitable. Individual civilizations have come and gone over the last 5,000 years, but eventually civilization as we know it will come to a permanent end. Civilization destroys its own environment: already there are far too many humans, natural resources such as metals and fossil fuels are starting to decline, and arable land is crowded and less fertile. From the first civilization to the present day is a rather short time, compared to the 2 million years of hominid evolution. In the not-so-distant future, all that we now call civilization will be regarded merely as an aberration in the foraging way of life to which Homo sapiens is better suited.

When we lose our fossil fuels, we will have to go back at least as far as to an agrarian way of life. But that's just the first half of the problem. The other is that agriculture itself is just not "sustainable," if I may use a frequently misleading word ("sustainable" for a week? for a million years?). That is to say, agriculture causes the destruction of arable land: the more we farm, the more the farmland becomes eroded. "Organic" farming and similar practices can reduce the rate of loss, but only to a certain extent: elements such as phosphorus and calcium get washed away, no matter how we try to rationalize our behaviour. The result is ever-increasing famine.

The only way of life, therefore, that is in any way "sustainable" (although again there is that vague word) is foraging: hunting and gathering. But there is even more to the story, a psychological consideration, namely that walking around naked like the Australian aborigines may be simply too depressing to think about. We have been led to believe that the (foraging) life of man in a state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," as Hobbes said three centuries ago. It turned out not to be true, but nothing will stop the popular belief in the greater blessings of farming (not foraging) life.

Even then, that foraging way of life will not last for eternity, because the cave dwellers of the future are eventually going to increase their numbers. So then the whole game will start over again. But it's also true that it took hominids the long space of 2 million years to get from zero to a population of 10 million, after which it was agriculture that fostered a much greater leap in the birth rate. So perhaps, after the end of civilization, Homo sapiens can once again maintain a small population for millions of years.

Over the course of the next few decades, all that is certain is that the future of humanity will start to resemble its distant past, except that much of the natural resources will be missing. However, the planet will still have about 100 million square kilometres of wilderness, ravaged though parts of it may be, and the "economy" in the depths of that natural world will be the same one that has been there for millions of years.

The intelligent thing to do would be to take control of that transition, to enter the future with both eyes open. Finding a new world for tomorrow means finding a way of life that is more attuned to the land, the sea, and the sky. There is no way for a small group of people to prevent systemic collapse, but it may be that things will be better when the collapse is completed. At the moment, there is only one direction, and that is out. We must literally step out of the present economy -- and by "we" I mean those few who are clever enough to be saved, those few who make the effort to pack their bags. We must stop being part of "society." The details are uncertain, but the general picture is not too hard to draw. I envision a world where people can wake up each morning and greet the sunrise. I imagine a world in which people can live with nobility, dignity, and grace.


Ferguson, R. B. (2003, July/August). The birth of war. Natural History. Retrieved from

Lee, R. B. (1968). What hunters do for a living, or, How to make out on scarce resources. In R. B. Lee and I. DeVore, eds., Man the hunter. Chicago: Aldine Publishing. Retrieved from

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