To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. — Buckminster Fuller
So here we are. After some 6,000 years, Babylon has taken over the planet. Attendant evils form a familiar litany: gross inequalities, nasty megacities, social parasitism, horrific abuse of land and waters, chronic institutionalized warfare, destruction of indigenous lifeways, growth-based predatory economy, insane amounts of stress, and stupendous waste. What good has it brought us? Over most of its written history, not much. The books on the “glorious” ancient civilizations play up the art and play down the horrors. Do the exquisite figurines of the Sumerians allow us to sweep under the rug their penchant to bury alive whole retinues of people when a “noble” person died, or their habit of raining devastation and death on their very neighbors on a regular basis? And thanks for that vast desert you left us, guys! Are the architecture and paintings of the Renaissance much balance for the plagues spread by hunger and filth, or for the widespread torture of dissenters? Not in my way of reckoning. But in the last 150 years or so, there has indeed been a change. Medicine, the reach of human knowledge and communication, technology and gadgetry, human longevity, hygiene, and certain civilized pleasantries have come into their own and brought along much that has been valued, not just by the propagandists for civilization, but by its common denizens.
And so the obvious question arises: can we keep some of the good while chucking the bad? Can we keep books and antibiotics, fine tools, computers and pressure cookers, precision glasses and bright lamps? Can we even have a benign version of a human organization able to accomplish complex coordinated tasks without the resort to cogmen and bosses with sticks? Can we have access to some nifty material benefits without devastating the world? Dammit, is a civilization worthy of its name too much to ask?
This, this misshapen glittering menace I call Babylon, is many things, some good, but it is certainly not civilized. Rather, it devalues and gets in the way of much that is cultured, humane, learned, edified, courteous, enlightened, bettered, and wise. A civilized civilization cannot be built by brutal human hands applying brutal methods. The global battering ram that drives Babylon must be stilled. A system founded on the predatory domination of one group by another cannot ever be anything but grossly uncivilized.
Those who criticize our civilization as aberrant and terminally corrupt are right, but they themselves fall into fallacious thinking. The options before us are not either/or: either this civilization or none. Either this civilization or back to the cave. Just as “we the civilized” are not “humanity,” so “this civilization” is not “civilization.” This civilization is only one type of civilization.
Jensen et al have a blind spot when it comes to their critique. And of course it is a blind spot we’ve all shared. It is part of the inheritance of living in Babylon. One of the ways dogmatic, cultish groups defend themselves is -– “but what else is there? Where else would you go?” Implying “we are the only ones worth bothering with.” Babylon functions the same way, and not only makes civilization’s champions feel unnecessarily embattled, but the critics themselves typically see no other option but giving up on civilization altogether. There is no middle/other ground. This civilization, then, is the only game worth playing, and so we must defend it with everything we’ve got. Perish the thought! I bear glad tidings. This particular civilization, stretching all the way back to Sumer and Babylon, is only one type of civilization. Once we remove our blinkers, we can look for evidence of other types of civilizations in the past, and speculate about their possibilities in the near future.
If my hypothesis has merit, then surely the archaeological record will show remains of other types of civilizations? And in fact, it does. Looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, we are privileged to see the remains of a variety of civilizations not based on domination, stratification, despoliation, and war. Lacking writing and, often, obvious monuments, they have only been noted and studied fairly recently. Much is still to be learned about them, and others yet await discovery. But we already know that these ancient civilizations were notable for their peacefulness, their longevity, and the autonomy and comfort of their inhabitants. I will describe several in the next chapter.
If other types of civilizations flourished once, they can flourish again when the global Machine no longer hovers over the world like the Shadow of Mordor. Cultural sophistication need not be forever hitched to coercion and control. I am persuaded that once our descendants are able to stand back and make comparisons, the domination civilizations from Sumer on will be recognized for what they are: ambitious and desperate detours that ran into a wall.