12 February 2012
It’s very useful when people attack the basic positions set out in The Jolly Pilgrim.
- humanity is far better off than is generally assumed;
- technological civilisation is a natural and inevitable extension of Earth’s ecosphere, not an existential threat to it;
- the critical issues humanity now faces represent a limited window in history, while we figure out how to run a civilisation on a planet;
- our future is bright, open-ended and holds out the possibility of an ever more interesting world; and
- everyone should therefore cheer up and revel in how gloriously meaningful life is.
Based on the feedback I’ve had thus far (and bear in mind that I’m interpreting my critics thoughts), there are two basic counterarguments.
Counterargument 1: Civilisations always fall
Civilisations inevitably fall in the end. The implication is that our ‘civilisation’ will do the same. The most commonly cited example is the fall of the Roman Empire after the third century CE.
In my view, that is a false analogy, based on a limited definition of the word ‘civilisation’. I don’t accept, for example, that we’re a separate ‘civilisation’ from the Romans.
This human project, that we are all caught up in, involves sub-groups of humans going through periods of being particularly organised, self-confident, assertive, materially rich and dominant over other sub-groups. It’s happened with the Han, Ottomans, Hitites, Gupta, Aztecs and numerous others. None of those periods was, or is, perpetual.
For it to be otherwise would have involved some coherent political unit being set up at the dawn of technological civilisation (say, an unending Sumerian empire) and to be ongoing to the present day. But that’s not in keeping with the nature of the process of creative destruction and dynastic survival of the fittest which characterises progress of evolved hominids on a rock over long time frames. We are the same civilisation as the Romans (and the Han, etc.), just a different phase of a story with lots of twists and turns.
One thing I learned from history books is how relentless human progress has been for the past 5,000 years, even during apparent ‘dark ages’. ‘Civilisations’ don’t wink in and out of existence (although it may sometimes feel like that to the sub-players). They’re shaped by the achievements and experiences of the ones that came before them, leading to: a long accumulation of ideas and technologies, ever greater opportunities for non-zero-sum interactions and greater interconnectedness between peoples.
That human project is not fundamentally circular, it is linear and cumulative. The stand-out difference today is how coherently global it is becoming. Within 100 years (given the way things are going), it will be almost fully global as, for example, the regions of Sub-Saharan Africa most caught out by the imposition of the modern world carve out their niche within it.
Counterargument 2: Civilisation is too difficult to be open-ended
The second counterargument is that: the set of problems we now perceive (critically environmental degradation/the energy crisis) are such that humanity will not ultimately be able to surmount them. Or – put more widely – human civilisation is so big and complicated, and the number of issues it must confront so numerous, that something will inevitably stop it in its tracks.
I urge people to look on the bright side. To paraphrase Steven Pinker, not long ago our ancestors were infested with lice and parasites, lived above cellars piled with their own faeces, ate bland and monotonous diets, lacked serious medicine, laboured from sunrise to sunset, and spent the winter months in snowbound farmsteads racked by hunger, loneliness and gnawing hunger. They rarely travelled more than a few miles from their place of birth; were ignorant of the vastness of the cosmos, the prehistory of civilisation and the genealogy of living things; and musical recordings, affordable books, instant news of the world, reproductions of great art and filmed dramas were inconceivable.
What’s more, we face today’s challenges at a time when the world is more enlightened, more rational, more humane and less violent than it has ever been in all of its history; and the various sub-groups are talking to, understanding, and cooperating with, one another as never before. Our resources, self knowledge and analytical prowess in assessing problems are all an order of magnitude beyond where they were just a century ago.
So the question is: What more do you want?
The fact is: following three billion years of increasing intensity, Earth’s biosphere threw up some civilisation-building apes. Now we’re here, we might mess it up. But, then again, we might not. And given that we’re irrational hominids on a rock, with no guide books or magic wands, it’s difficult to envisage how civilisation might plausibly be better tooled-up to deal with the deep environmental, and other, problems it now faces.
The Long Now
I assert that a dispassionate observer assessing our civilisation’s prospects (maybe an alien scientist, via some massive intergalactic telescope) would judge humanity’s current chances for long-term continued progress as much better than they have been during any other of the last 5,000 years.
To my mind, the knife-edge near cataclysm of the Cold War represented a more harrowing bottleneck to the human project than the long haul to environmental sustainability (which was always going to take a long time, and involve a lot of arguing and the development of a host of new technologies, laws and best practices).
Taking the long view, the defining challenges of our current epoch (climate change, the elimination of absolute poverty and geopolitical stability) are not an ultimate set of challenges. They just look that way because people tend to perceive the present crisis as though it were the last, whereas really it’s just the current hump in the road.
In the developed West (where I live) most of the headline domestic news involves agonising over the fact that the current state of play compares unfavourably with one of smooth 2.5-per-cent economic growth. This is hardly the Black Death.
Sometime in the next few decades (or certainly centuries), something really nasty, unexpected and existential will come along to knock us back. Fifty-metre-diameter meteorite events (equivalent to Tunguska) hit the planet about once per millennium. Sooner or later, a major volcanic eruption will degrade world food production for a few years. In my view, we should be laying the groundwork to enable ourselves to deal with that stuff – and contextualising today’s happenings in terms of that larger civilisational narrative – rather than indulging in hyperbole over the economic instability and intergroup political struggles which increasingly supplant the struggle against nature for a better life.
‘The private bankers, politicians, global elite and mass media, are lying to, laughing at, stealing from, brainwashing and destroying you and your family.’ – Placard at Occupy St Paul’s’
‘We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement … where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passion of envy, self-importance and resentment.’ – C. S. Lewis