Civilized to Death (book review)
“An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.”
— Arthur Miller
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
doesn’t necessarily imply progress. Hunter-gatherers are not inherently
miserable. One must ask always when speaking of progress, “progress for
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
humans have complex moralities based on social values that were deeply
woven into their biological makeup for thousands of years to ensure
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.
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
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.
civilizations encountered foraging societies, they often brutalized
them through the theft of land, enslavement, human sacrifice, rape,
wanton murder, exploitation, torture, spread of disease.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
restriction, which occurs at periods with hunter-gatherers, may
actually be healthful, preventing some neurodegenerative diseases,
cancer, diabetes, while supporting a longer lifespan.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
population exponentially increases in modern civilization, humanity is
further devalued. “Endless growth is the ideology of conventional
economics and the cancer cell.”
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.
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.
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.