The Critique of Civilization

Richard Heinberg has an interesting nice essay called The critique of civilization. Some excerpts follow:


If my first reason for criticizing civilization has to do with its effects on the environment, the second has to do with its impact on human beings. As civilized people, we are also domesticated.
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We civilized people appear to act as though we were addicted to a powerful drug – a drug that comes in the forms of money, factory-made goods, oil, and electricity. We are helpless without this drug, so we have come to see any threat to its supply as a threat to our very existence.
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Therefore we are easily manipulated – by desire (for more) or fear (that what we have will be taken away) – and powerful commercial and political interests have learned to orchestrate our desires and fears in order to achieve their own purposes of profit and control.
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The image of a lost Golden Age of freedom and innocence is at the heart of all the world’s religions, is one of the most powerful themes in the history of human thought, and is the earliest and most characteristic expression of primitivism – the perennial belief in the necessity of a return to origins.
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There are many possible definitions of the word civilization. Its derivation – from civis, “town” or “city” – suggests that a minimum definition would be, “urban culture.” Civilization also seems to imply writing, division of labor, agriculture, organized warfare, growth of population, and social stratification.
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Still, for the most part the history of civilization in the Near East, the Far East, and Central America, is also the history of kingship, slavery, conquest, agriculture, overpopulation, and environmental ruin. And these traits continue in civilization’s most recent phases – the industrial state and the global market – though now the state itself takes the place of the king, and slavery becomes wage labor and de facto colonialism administered through multinational corporations.
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It is the powerful human need for transitional objects that drives individuals in their search for property and power, and that generates bureaucracies and technologies as people pool their efforts.
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Spirituality means different things to different people – humility before a higher power or powers; compassion for the suffering of others; obedience to a lineage or tradition; a felt connection with the Earth or with Nature; evolution toward “higher” states of consciousness; or the mystical experience of oneness with all life or with God.
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While some of the founders of world religions were intuitive primitivists (Jesus, Lao Tze, the Buddha), their followers have often fostered the growth of dominance hierarchies.
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As spiritual teachers have always insisted, it is the spirit (or state of consciousness) that is important, not the form (names, ideologies, and techniques).
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Civilization, in contrast, straddles two economic pillars – technological innovation and the marketplace. “Technology” here includes everything from the plow to the nuclear reactor – all are means to more efficiently extract energy and resources from nature. But efficiency implies the reification of time, and so civilization always brings with it a preoccupation with past and future; eventually the present moment nearly vanishes from view. The elevation of efficiency over other human values is epitomized in the factory – the automated workplace – in which the worker becomes merely an appendage of the machine, a slave to clocks and wages.
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The market is civilization’s means of equating dissimilar things through a medium of exchange. As we grow accustomed to valuing everything according to money, we tend to lose a sense of the uniqueness of things. What, after all, is an animal worth, or a mountain, or a redwood tree, or an hour of human life? The market gives us a numerical answer based on scarcity and demand. To the degree that we believe that such values have meaning, we live in a world that is desacralized and desensitized, without heart or spirit.
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With agriculture usually come division of labor, increased sexual inequality, and the beginnings of social hierarchy. Priests, kings, and organized, impersonal warfare all seem to come together in one package.
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Civilized people are accustomed to an anthropocentric view of the world. Our interest in the environment is utilitarian: it is of value because it is of use (or potential use) to human beings – if only as a place for camping and recreation.
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Indeed, according to the cultural materialist school of thought, articulated primarily by Marvin Harris, social change in the direction of technological innovation and social stratification is fueled not so much by some innate evolutionary urge as by crises brought on by overpopulation and resource exhaustion.
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In the view of many of its proponents, primitivism implies a direction of social change over time, as opposed to an instantaneous, all-or-nothing choice. We in the industrial world have gradually accustomed ourselves to a way of life that appears to be leading toward a universal biological holocaust. The question is, shall we choose to gradually accustom ourselves to another way of life – one that more successfully integrates human purposes with ecological imperatives – or shall we cling to our present choices to the bitter end?
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Instead of “going back,” we should think of this process as “getting back on track.”
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I would suggest that our first criterion must be ecological sustainability. What activities can be pursued across many generations with minimal environmental damage? A second criterion might be, What sorts of activities promote – rather than degrade – human dignity and freedom?
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For many centuries, civilization has been traveling in the direction of artificiality, control, and domination. Primitivism tells us that there is an inherent limit to our continued movement in that direction, and that at some point we must begin to choose to readapt ourselves to nature. The point of a primitivist critique of civilization is not necessarily to insist on an absolute rejection of every aspect of modern life, but to assist in clarifying issues so that we can better understand the tradeoffs we are making now, deepen the process of renegotiating our personal bargains with nature, and thereby contribute to the reframing of our society’s collective covenants.
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