Just as the old model of civilization became available to us as we changed, we are changing again and new doors are opening.
— Ran Prieur

Generic attributes of any civilization

  • Shared culture, idiom, and knowledge base
  • Relatively dense population in the region
  • Some division of labor
  • Some shared large-scale projects
  • Enough surplus of food and labor to support the projects
  • Inspiring leadership to encourage and guide the projects and their logistics
  • Linked economy
  • Long-distance exchange
  • Shared style of art and/or architecture
  • Common regional foods
  • Experimental attitude with openness to novel ways of living

I have taken the liberty to assemble here an informal list of generic civilizational attributes. None of these seems to present a problem in itself, or depend for its existence on domination, stratification and the rest of the nasties. At the same time, it must be admitted that such a list is not enough to flesh out the necessary and sufficient characteristics of an autonomous, power-sharing, and nature-adaptive civilization.

Hazards and pitfalls face intrepid humane civilization builders. Civilizations tend to have a large overhead and are eventually faced with a decreasing marginal utility of complexity. Can a civilization accept limits on its expansion? Can it flourish without encouraging the transgression of the needs of life in the interest of growth? Can it restrain self-aggrandizement and power abuse? Can it acquire a parsimonious attitude to waste? And finally, civilizations have traditionally provided attractive targets for looting or conquest; can the problem of power be solved so that the cycles of inter-societal depredations never get off the ground? The ancients came close in some respects, but did not deal with other issues that have since become acute.

I am well aware that such an experiment carries risks. The record of the past cannot tell us if a civilization bound by limits is possible or practical, or whether the danger of spinning out into yet another incarnation of Babylon can be contained. Nevertheless, cautiously, I conclude that it’s worth trying. I think libraries and modern dentistry alone make it alluring! And our newly acquired ability to communicate with far-flung human beings without mediation may hold the key to vanquishing domination. The example of Amazonia in particular gives me hope that perhaps it really is possible to build a civilized society that is earth- and human nature-friendly, would not try to overrun anyone who would prefer to live a more wild, primitive existence, and would not trample on the limits that sustain life in the long run.

Some have argued that humans had been destructive and belligerent far before any civilization came around, and therefore they remain skeptical regarding a truly civilized future. They have a valid point – we are clever and dangerous predators, and have done damage to the planet and to each other conceivably since the early stone age 2 million years ago. Occasionally, that damage was pronounced; most of the time it was localized and fleeting. But the creation of a humane civilization does not depend on turning people into angels; neither does it require that all violence or harm cease. My argument builds on the historical evidence that crass, brutal domination of some people over others is a newcomer on the human scene. It emerged for very particular reasons, and can fade equally readily when the situation changes. And it is this domination system that is vastly amplifying the shadow side of human nature and sowing devastation in its wake. What have we got to lose by ditching domination and attempting the transition to a civilized civilization?

I can see in my mind’s eye a modest, sane civilization of small towns, villages and semi-nomadic tribes coexisting with each other and the ecosystem in stable symbiosis. The economy perhaps oscillates between expansion and contraction. Or it matures into a steady state, rather like a forest. Without the ability to expropriate and skim wealth off the hinterlands, cities do not exist. But small towns and large villages remain viable as clusters of sustainable neighborhoods each with direct access to food and necessities. Some regions have adopted the Beni model: population-limited interconnected human settlements amidst the natural world, with only a fraction of it tamed for human purposes; nature-unto-itself and wildlife corridors dominate the landscape. Many ways of playing the human social game coexist side by side.

Such a society makes for a dynamic yet cautious and slow pace of life. After all, what’s the hurry? If everyone has good food to eat, enough basics to keep them in modest comfort, and access to land and other needed goods, when communities work well, people are safe, the water is clean and fresh and the soil is healthy and giving… what need is there for pyramids and triumphal arches? Carefully-considered surpluses are allocated for exploring and inventing new and, with some luck, better ways of doing things. Confederations of smaller polities accomplish much by joining into networks of scaled-up collaboration of the sort that lends civilization its best rationale. Nor do I mean to suggest that only low-level improvements come about. Is there any reason why all the modern knowledge, understanding and know-how cannot be utilized to create far subtler, life-enhancing marvels when this sophisticated expertise is no longer summoned in subservience to coercive power?

The historical record shows that all civilizations flourish, decline and fade. Even autonomy civilizations. Still, wouldn’t it be quite amazing to be able to continue and take to new heights and depths the ancient experiments interrupted by the long domination period? Before moving on to the crucial question of “how”, let me digress briefly to say that I am finding myself tired of the word ‘civilization.’ Try as I have to rescue it with adjectives like ‘civilized,’ ‘autonomous’ and ‘power-sharing,’ it nevertheless retains the bitter flavor of its later history. Civilization as we know it today is centered on and controlled from cities; “city” is at the root of the word itself. And cities and their elites are part of the problem. So perhaps we need another term for societies that are undomesticated, autonomous, yet subtly sophisticated and with surprising levels of comfort and well-being. I am going to rescue the old and honorable word ‘commonwealth.’ It has been hijacked for modern political uses, but it still clearly conveys the old-fashioned sense of commonweal; that is, the good of all.

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3 Responses to “Hazards and pitfalls”

  1. mike k Says:

    In dealing with the value of human adaptations of the distant past, maybe Ken Wilber’s concept of “transcend and include” would be helpful. As consciousness evolves, changes, grows, unfolds to more complex levels and deeper understandings there is both a need to transcend or go beyond previous limitations, and a corresponding need to carry forward and include the useful capacities and values of previous levels. This involves sorting out what was truly useful from things that are better left behind.

    As much as we might like the closeness to nature indigenous cultures had, we probably would not wish to bring into our present time human sacrifice or cannibalism. A romantic idealism about ancient lifeways would be as big a mistake as denigrating them as brutish or violent. The reality, as modern archaeology is revealing, is not a simple monotone, but a richly varied tapestry of possibilities.

    The hope that peoples of a former age had found the ideal way of being humans on earth is a perennial feature in the thinking of those who are aware of the many shortcomings of our present culture. Shangrila, Eden, the Golden Age, are symbols of this archetype. However consoling, these dreams are more revealing of our deep need for a better world than a realistic appraisal of the difficult journey we have traversed on this terrible and beautiful planet. And we are not done in our journeying…

  2. gkayb Says:

    Once, while idly surfing on the topic of what life was like before the alphabet I came upon a reference to a culture that was not literate but was noted for its expertise in cooking, massage, music, dance, pottery, and astronomy. Sez I to myself, “Self! Don’t that sound like a home girl’s paradise?”

    Pre-Babylonan? pre-Assyrian? Proto-Sumerian? I don’t remember. Pre-Phoenician for sure. Anyway, it was trashed by dominator cultures.

    Back on topic, I think two or three hard-won cultural-structural elements and a couple of plant-based soul-medicines have been included in well-regulated commonwealths. Perhaps you have already subsumed them under another heading, but I saw no overt mention of such things as:

    1) Psycho-spiritual ritual for the whole group annually or seasonally performed, usually with a mind-blowing plant-drug
    2) Male initiation that has the effect of cementing wild and destructive young male energies in place fostering service and loyalty to the clan-group
    3) Rules and regs surrounding mating and toilet-training
    4) Birth control almost solely in the power of women
    5) Trade lingos and inter-group protocols for peaceful communication
    6) Shaman/Chief/Council methods of intra-group dispute resolution
    7) Culture-enforced habits of not taking all; setting aside some for others.

    In general, some loosely-binding but effective constraints on hormonal drives seems critical. I dunno what hormone drives the acquisitive behavior, but in smaller groups, the mating and dominating drives seem always to be governed by cultural expectations. Bride-theft and child-taking seem to be expressions of dominator cultures, not the earlier modes of life in which children appear to be a more communal concern.

  3. leavergirl Says:

    Good points all, gkayb. I was at the time putting together generic attributes that may be enough to call a region a civilization. But were I to construct the attributes of a good, highly functional, durable civilization, then all the stuff you mention would surely be included. Hard to garner them from archeo-remains, though, so we don’t know what sort of customs were used in Catal Huyuk, for example, to keep the place peaceful and functional for some 1200 years.

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