The thin ice of civilization.

Author:Bowden, Brett


It is widely accepted that as time passes, the more we progress as both a species and as individual human beings; the more we progress, the more civilized we become individually and collectively; the more civilized we become, the further we are removed from the vestiges of savagery and barbarism. But is this really the case? It is also generally accepted that civilization is a good thing, both in terms of a process and as a destination. The markers and trappings of civilization--social organization, urbanization, competent government, the rule of law, the arts, material well-being, and so on--are seen as desirable and much preferred to the absence thereof. But what is the cost of this progress? And is civilization sustainable? Some years ago it was also suggested that there is a direct relationship between civilization (both the process and the state of being) and the proliferation of increasingly lethal armed conflict. This article takes a closer look at these troubling issues in light of the current state of affairs of our world and wonders whether it might not be time to rethink and reframe what is meant by civilization.


civilization, progress, war, environment, security


As a tertiary educated, car-driving, Internet-surfing, frequent-flying, connected-yet-wireless, twenty-first-century human being who lives high above the tar-sealed earth in one of the world's great cities, I supposedly sit atop the peak of human evolution. (This city does happen to be in an economically developed Western country where I get to have an occasional say in how I am misgoverned--or perhaps more accurately, which party gets to misgovern me--through the casting of a vote, but I am not sure that it is particularly relevant to the situation; I could live in any number of countries, north or south, east or west.) Not only do I lord it over the animal world, the plant world, and any other world that comes to mind, I am also regarded as the most developed and advanced version of my species and its forebears. In short, not only am I civilized, but I am widely considered to be at the very forefront of civilization. To assume that I represent the "Last Man," however, as some have done, (1) requires a good deal of arrogance. Moreover, it arbitrarily seeks to bring down the curtain on the process of humankind's social and political evolution.

Naturally, I am not alone in this state of civilization--that would be impossible. One cannot be part of civilization and be alone; it is necessarily a collective quality or state of affairs. Joining me in my celebrated state of civilization are a good many of my fellow humans with whom I share this increasingly crowded and fragile planet; all told there are currently around six to seven billion of us and counting. I say many and not all of my fellow humans because it has always been the case that some of us---individuals, peoples, societies, states, civilizations--are thought of as more or less advanced, more or less civilized than others. I for one have not always been quite so close to the top of the pile; not so long ago I was merely a rural, earth-bound being with a not so good public school secondary education and solely reliant on dial-up Internet access. I know that my educated urban brethren looked down their noses at me. Similarly, the ancient Greeks thought themselves superior to their barbarous neighbors, likewise the Romans, the imperial Chinese insulated themselves from the vulgarities beyond, the English looked down upon the Celts, Europeans conquered indigenous savages wherever they found them, and so on and so forth through the ages.

Central to my present discussion about the nature of civilization is its symbiotic relationship with the idea of progress; and not just any sort of progress, but progress with a purpose, progress that is going somewhere in particular--progress toward perfection, or as close as we can get to it. In theory, as time passes and the further we get away from the Big Bang and the primordial soup, the more we progress as both a species and as individual human beings; the more we progress, the more civilized we become individually and collectively; the more civilized we become, the further we are removed from the vestiges of savagery and barbarism. Having long left behind the vagaries and insecurities of some rudimentary state of nature, we might reasonably expect to be ever more deeply entrenched in our relatively blissful state of civilization. Is this really the case? Have we really come that far?

In his recent lecture series, "Guilt about the Past," Bernard Schlink observes, "What is both historically unique and persistently disturbing about the Holocaust is that Germany, with its cultural heritage and place among civilized nations, was capable of those kinds of atrocities." As he poignantly notes, this "elicits troubling questions: if the ice of a culturally-advanced civilization upon which one fancied oneself safely standing was in fact so thin at that time, then how safe is the ice we live upon today? What protects us from falling through it? Individual morality? Societal and state institutions? Has the ice grown thicker with time or has the passage of time only allowed us to forget how thin it really is?"(2) Schlink is right to stress that these "questions concern the very foundation of our individual moral existence and our ability to live together in our society and its institutions. They are questions that are unsettling and challenging even after decades of relative safety within the political, economic, and cultural realms of civil society."(3)

Another reason that gives cause to pause and reconsider just how far we have progressed as human beings in civilized society is the suggestion that the gap between the supposed Last Man and the first, or at least one of the first, Neanderthal Man, might not be as significant as we might think or expect, perhaps even hope. Neanderthals, who walked the earth for a few hundred thousand years or so until dying out in Europe around thirty thousand years ago are varyingly classified as a subspecies of humans (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis), or as a distinct species (Homo ne under thalensis). Despite their somewhat ape-like appearance, paleoanthropologist Trenton Holliday is "convinced that if one were to raise a Neanderthal in a modem human family he would function just like everybody else." Holliday contends that there is "no reason to doubt he could speak and do all the things that modern humans do."(4) Setting aside the many ethical questions surrounding the cloning of Neanderthals, should it one day become possible, if Holliday is correct, then this raises questions about what makes modern humans so special or deserving of self-praise for the evolutionary position that we find ourselves in. What, if anything, is so special about our venerated state of civilization? And is it anywhere near as secure as we might hope and believe?

While we might be more socially, politically, technologically, and culturally advanced than Neanderthals, are we really that much more civilized? In order to get an idea of just how thick or thin the ice of civilization that so many of us are skating on is, this article explores the nature of civilization and the less-than-straightforward relationship between civilization and some of the perceived threats to it. I begin by briefly outlining and defining the concept of civilization and its relationship to the idea of progress and human perfectibility. I then discuss the nature of the relationship between civilization and war, an assumed ever-persistent threat to civilization. Following this I consider the relationship between civilization and the environment, including the ironies of the threat posed to civilization by anthropomorphic climate change. The article concludes with some thoughts on the growing necessity to rethink how we conceive of civilization.

Civilization and Progress

I have discussed at considerable length elsewhere the sociopolitical characteristics of the ideal of civilization, particularly its normative qualities. (5) In a nutshell, the capacity for reasonably complex sociopolitical organization and self-government according to prevailing standards has long been regarded as a key requirement of civilization. One of the primary reasons why sociopolitics is central to considerations of civilization is evident in the following oft-quoted passage from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.(6) One of the important lessons that is generally drawn from this passage is that life lived outside of society in a state of nature is constantly under threat; there is little to no chance of peace among humans without society. A related point is that some degree of sociopolitical cooperation and organization is a basic necessity for the foundation of civilization. As Hobbes went on to explain, the "procuring of the necessities of life ... was impossible, till the erecting of great Common-wealths," which are "the mother of Peace, and Leasure" which is, in turn, "the mother of Philosophy ... Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy"(7) Thus, it is...

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