One of the most interesting aspects of writing and posting an article is reading and responding to the commentary about it submitted by readers. This was certainly true for my recent essay "In Defense of Civilization" posted on OpEdNews.com. One reader, Daniel Geary, made the very good point that to effectively discuss "civilization" it needs to be defined. What, precisely, does the author mean by "civilization?" Mr. Geary noted that this term is about as loosely defined as is, say, "God."
One web definition of the term is "Civilization is the process of civilizing or becoming civil. A civilized society is often characterized by advanced agriculture, long-distance trade, occupational specialization, and urbanism. ..."[i]
However, this is not the exact definition which I would use. My definition is as follows:
Civilization is socially organized complexity, intersubjectively negotiated among self-conscious entities, and characterized by substantial differentiation of occupational specialty. These characteristics must be sufficiently developed to allow for a significant enough degree of emergence for the social system as a whole, to grant it noticeably greater survival advantage than that possessed by groups which lack sufficient complexity for emergence to be a significant factor with respect to their individual or group survival.
The advantage of civilization, seen from this viewpoint is that it fully utilizes the scientific miracle of emergence. The properties of the whole system are greater than the sum of its constituent parts. This allows for not only more of whatever the constituent parts possess, but, more significantly, for wholly new properties to emerge at the systemic level. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms combined, allow for the property of "wetness' to emerge from their close interaction to form a molecule. Wetness is not reducible to the properties of its constituent atoms. It "emerges" from the organized complexity of its constituent parts.
In the case of human civilization, emergent properties include science, art, philosophy, mathematics, high technology, sophisticated culture in general. Such phenomena are non-existent, or exist in only rudimentary form among non-civilized humans.
True, our Upper Paleolithic ancestors created magnificent cave art. They possessed a variety of manufactured tools and undoubtedly, a complex culture as well. However, they never understood what the stars were. They knew nothing about quarks, and sub-atomic structure. Algebra, trigonometry, calculus were beyond their wildest conceptualizations. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was an impossibility for them, as were the plays of Sophocles and Shakespeare.
Complex thought requires a critical mass of human interactivity to emerge. That critical mass simply does not occur at the hunter-gatherer level of organization. I think of this stage of humanity's history as being our species' childhood. (The Lower and Middle Paleolithic, before language was fully developed, would correspond with our species' infancy.)
Spiritually, I'm sure that our long ago ancestors felt a great and wholesome sense of connectedness with nature. Since civilization arose, we've progressively lost that. It is essential for us, for our entire civilization, for our survival, to regain it.
Humans possess self-consciousness, the ability to reason and to understand the universe within which we exist. Those forms of human organization which maximize our intellectual abilities maximize our ability to be human. Civilization is that form of human organization which most greatly maximizes our intellectual potentiality. Still, something very fundamental is lacking in our present day form of civilization.
The deep problem with civilization appears to lie in its removing us from direct contact with the natural world within which we evolved, and upon which we depend for our very existence. Blinded by materialism, by desire for material affluence, surrounded by our created artifacts, we come to view nature as an externality. It becomes an infinite sink for all of our wastes, while simultaneously serving, supposedly, as an infinite cornucopia of natural wealth. Here, our hunter-gatherer ancestors knew better than us. They depended entirely upon their surrounding environment for their sustenance. If they over-hunted or over-populated, they starved.
Nature has limits. We can't take resources faster than they can be regenerated without eventually dooming ourselves.
What is essential for us, for humanity, is to re-imagine ourselves and our civilization. We must understand that our civilization and our economy are entirely nested within nature. We, no more than our distant ancestors, can take more from the Earth than it can give. Energy production, food production, industrial production, all must be reorganized to be sustainable within the carrying capacity of the Earth's biosphere.
Of course, even though many millions of people around the world realize this and are taking steps to bring the sustainable future about, it seems fairly certain that business as usual will continue until global civilization slams into inviolable environmental, energy and resource constraints. Our societal inertial is just too great. Multinational corporations, whose only goal is profit maximization in the shortest possible time, have gained nearly total control over the major national governments--including the American government--of the world.
However, there is a silver lining in all of this. Existential crisis offers an opportunity for fundamental, transformative restructuring of society. Once the old paradigm has failed and we are in a crisis of existence, a desperate struggle to survive, then a new paradigm, a new configuration for civilization can be rapidly put into place.
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