From John Michael Greer
Let’s take a moment to recap the argument of the last two posts here on The Archdruid Report before we follow it through to its conclusion. There are any number of ways to sort out the diversity of human social forms, but one significant division lies between those societies that don’t concentrate population, wealth, and power in urban centers, and those that do. One important difference between the societies that fall into these two categories is that urbanized societies—we may as well call these by the time-honored term “civilizations”—reliably crash and burn after a lifespan of roughly a thousand years, while societies that lack cities have no such fixed lifespans and can last for much longer without going through the cycle of rise and fall, punctuated by dark ages, that defines the history of civilizations.
It’s probably necessary to pause here and clear up what seems to be a common misunderstanding. To say that societies in the first category can last for much more than a thousand years doesn’t mean that all of them do this. I mention this because I fielded a flurry of comments from people who pointed to a few examples of societies without cities that collapsed in less than a millennium, and insisted that this somehow disproved my hypothesis. Not so; if everyone who takes a certain diet pill, let’s say, suffers from heart damage, the fact that some people who don’t take the diet pill suffer heart damage from other causes doesn’t absolve the diet pill of responsibility. In the same way, the fact that civilizations such as Egypt and China have managed to pull themselves together after a dark age and rebuild a new version of their former civilization doesn’t erase the fact of the collapse and the dark age that followed it.
The question is why civilizations crash and burn so reliably. There are plenty of good reasons why this might happen, and it’s entirely possible that several of them are responsible; the collapse of civilization could be an overdetermined process. Like the victim in the cheap mystery novel who was shot, stabbed, strangled, clubbed over the head, and then chucked out a twentieth floor window, that is, civilizations that fall may have more causes of death than were actually necessary. The ecological costs of building and maintaining cities, for example, place much greater strains on the local environment than the less costly and concentrated settlement patterns of nonurban societies, and the rising maintenance costs of capital—the driving force behind the theory of catabolic collapse I’ve proposed elsewhere—can spin out of control much more easily in an urban setting than elsewhere. Other examples of the vulnerability of urbanized societies can easily be worked out by those who wish to do so.
That said, there’s at least one other factor at work. As noted in last week’s post, civilizations by and large don’t have to be dragged down the slope of decline and fall; instead, they take that route with yells of triumph, convinced that the road to ruin will infallibly lead them to heaven on earth, and attempts to turn them aside from that trajectory typically get reactions ranging from blank incomprehension to furious anger. It’s not just the elites who fall into this sort of self-destructive groupthink, either: it’s not hard to find, in a falling civilization, people who claim to disagree with the ideology that’s driving the collapse, but people who take their disagreement to the point of making choices that differ from those of their more orthodox neighbors are much scarcer. They do exist; every civilization breeds them, but they make up a very small fraction of the population, and they generally exist on the fringes of society, despised and condemned by all those right-thinking people whose words and actions help drive the accelerating process of decline and fall.
The next question, then, is how civilizations get caught in that sort of groupthink. My proposal, as sketched out last week, is that the culprit is a rarely noticed side effect of urban life. People who live in a mostly natural environment—and by this I mean merely an environment in which most things are put there by nonhuman processes rather than by human action—have to deal constantly with the inevitable mismatches between the mental models of the universe they carry in their heads and the universe that actually surrounds them. People who live in a mostly artificial environment—an environment in which most things were made and arranged by human action—don’t have to deal with this anything like so often, because an artificial environment embodies the ideas of the people who constructed and arranged it. A natural environment therefore applies negative or, as it’s also called, corrective feedback to human models of the way things are, while an artificial environment applies positive feedback—the sort of thing people usually mean when they talk about a feedback loop.
This explains, incidentally, one of the other common differences between civilizations and other kinds of human society: the pace of change. Anthropologists not so long ago used to insist that what they liked to call “primitive societies”—that is, societies that have relatively simple technologies and no cities—were stuck in some kind of changeless stasis. That was nonsense, but the thin basis in fact that was used to justify the nonsense was simply that the pace of change in low-tech, non-urban societies, when they’re left to their own devices, tends to be fairly sedate, and usually happens over a time scale of generations. Urban societies, on the other hand, change quickly, and the pace of change tends to accelerate over time: a dead giveaway that a positive feedback loop is at work.
Notice that what’s fed back to the minds of civilized people by their artificial environment isn’t simply human thinking in general. It’s whatever particular set of mental models and habits of thought happen to be most popular in their civilization. Modern industrial civilization, for example, is obsessed with simplicity; our mental models and habits of thought value straight lines, simple geometrical shapes, hard boundaries, and clear distinctions. That obsession, and the models and mental habits that unfold from it, have given us an urban environment full of straight lines, simple geometrical shapes, hard boundaries, and clear distinctions—and thus reinforce our unthinking assumption that these things are normal and natural, which by and large they aren’t.
Modern industrial civilization is also obsessed with the frankly rather weird belief that growth for its own sake is a good thing. (Outside of a few specific cases, that is. I’ve wondered at times whether the deeply neurotic American attitude toward body weight comes from the conflict between current fashions in body shape and the growth-is-good mania of the rest of our culture; if bigger is better, why isn’t a big belly better than a small one?) In a modern urban American environment, it’s easy to believe that growth is good, since that claim is endlessly rehashed whenever some new megawhatsit replaces something of merely human scale, and since so many of the costs of malignant growth get hauled out of sight and dumped on somebody else. In settlement patterns that haven’t been pounded into their present shape by true believers in industrial society’s growth-for-its-own-sake ideology, people are rather more likely to grasp the meaning of the words “too much.”
I’ve used examples from our own civilization because they’re familiar, but every civilization reshapes its urban environment in the shape of its own mental models, which then reinforce those models in the minds of the people who live in that environment. As these people in turn shape that environment, the result is positive feedback: the mental models in question become more and more deeply entrenched in the built environment and thus also the collective conversation of the culture, and in both cases, they also become more elaborate and more extreme. The history of architecture in the western world over the last few centuries is a great example of this latter: over that time, buildings became ever more completely defined by straight lines, flat surfaces, simple geometries, and hard boundaries between one space and another—and it’s hardly an accident that popular culture in urban communities has simplified in much the same way over that same timespan.
One way to understand this is to see a civilization as the working out in detail of some specific set of ideas about the world. At first those ideas are as inchoate as dream-images, barely grasped even by the keenest thinkers of the time. Gradually, though, the ideas get worked out explicitly; conflicts among them are resolved or papered over in standardized ways; the original set of ideas becomes the core of a vast, ramifying architecture of thought which defines the universe to the inhabitants of that civilization. Eventually, everything in the world of human experience is assigned some place in that architecture of thought; everything that can be hammered into harmony with the core set of ideas has its place in the system, while everything that can’t gets assigned the status of superstitious nonsense, or whatever other label the civilization likes to use for the realities it denies.
The further the civilization develops, though, the less it questions the validity of the basic ideas themselves, and the urban environment is a critical factor in making this happen. By limiting, as far as possible, the experiences available to influential members of society to those that fit the established architecture of thought, urban living makes it much easier to confuse mental models with the universe those models claim to describe, and that confusion is essential if enough effort, enthusiasm, and passion are to be directed toward the process of elaborating those models to their furthest possible extent.
A branch of knowledge that has to keep on going back to revisit its first principles, after all, will never get far beyond them. This is why philosophy, which is the science of first principles, doesn’t “progress” in the simpleminded sense of that word—Aristotle didn’t disprove Plato, nor did Nietzsche refute Schopenhauer, because each of these philosophers, like all others in that challenging field, returned to the realm of first principles from a different starting point and so offered a different account of the landscape. Original philosophical inquiry thus plays a very large role in the intellectual life of every civilization early in the process of urbanization, since this helps elaborate the core ideas on which the civilization builds its vision of reality; once that process is more or less complete, though, philosophy turns into a recherché intellectual specialty or gets transformed into intellectual dogma.
Cities are thus the Petri dishes in which civilizations ripen their ideas to maturity—and like Petri dishes, they do this by excluding contaminating influences. It’s easy, from the perspective of a falling civilization like ours, to see this as a dreadful mistake, a withdrawal from contact with the real world in order to pursue an abstract vision of things increasingly detached from everything else. That’s certainly one way to look at the matter, but there’s another side to it as well.
Civilizations are far and away the most spectacularly creative form of human society. Over the course of its thousand-year lifespan, the inhabitants of a civilization will create many orders of magnitude more of the products of culture—philosophical, scientific, and religious traditions, works of art and the traditions that produce and sustain them, and so on—than an equal number of people living in non-urban societies and experiencing the very sedate pace of cultural change already mentioned. To borrow a metaphor from the plant world, non-urban societies are perennials, and civilizations are showy annuals that throw all their energy into the flowering process. Having flowered, civilizations then go to seed and die, while the perennial societies flower less spectacularly and remain green thereafter.
The feedback loop described above explains both the explosive creativity of civilizations and their equally explosive downfall. It’s precisely because civilizations free themselves from the corrective feedback of nature, and divert an ever larger portion of their inhabitants’ brainpower from the uses for which human brains were originally adapted by evolution, that they generate such torrents of creativity. Equally, it’s precisely because they do these things that civilizations run off the rails into self-feeding delusion, lose the capacity to learn the lessons of failure or even notice that failure is taking place, and are destroyed by threats they’ve lost the capacity to notice, let alone overcome. Meanwhile, other kinds of human societies move sedately along their own life cycles, and their creativity and their craziness—and they have both of these, of course, just as civilizations do—are kept within bounds by the enduring negative feedback loops of nature.
Which of these two options is better? That’s a question of value, not of fact, and so it has no one answer. Facts, to return to a point made in these posts several times, belong to the senses and the intellect, and they’re objective, at least to the extent that others can say, “yes, I see it too.” Values, by contrast, are a matter of the heart and the will, and they’re subjective; to call something good or bad doesn’t state an objective fact about the thing being discussed. It always expresses a value judgment from some individual point of view. You can’t say “x is better than y,” and mean anything by it, unless you’re willing to field such questions as “better by what criteria?” and “better for whom?”
Myself, I’m very fond of the benefits of civilization. I like hot running water, public libraries, the rule of law, and a great many other things that you get in civilizations and generally don’t get outside of them. Of course that preference is profoundly shaped by the fact that I grew up in a civilization; if I’d happened to be the son of yak herders in central Asia or tribal horticulturalists in upland Papua New Guinea, I might well have a different opinion—and I might also have a different opinion even if I’d grown up in this civilization but had different needs and predilections. Robert E. Howard, whose fiction launched the series of posts that finishes up this week, was a child of American civilization at its early twentieth century zenith, and he loathed civilization and all it stood for.
This is one of the two reasons that I think it’s a waste of time to get into arguments over whether civilization is a good thing. The other reason is that neither my opinion nor yours, dear reader, nor the opinion of anybody else who might happen to want to fulminate on the internet about the virtues or vices of civilization, is worth two farts in an EF-5 tornado when it comes to the question of whether or not future civilizations will rise and fall on this planet after today’s industrial civilization completes the arc of its destiny. Since the basic requirements of urban life first became available not long after the end of the last ice age, civilizations have risen wherever conditions favored them, cycled through their lifespans, and fell, and new civilizations rose again in the same places if the conditions remained favorable for that process.
Until the coming of the fossil fuel age, though, civilization was a localized thing, in a double sense. On the one hand, without the revolution in transport and military technology made possible by fossil fuels, any given civilization could only maintain control over a small portion of the planet’s surface for more than a fairly short time—thus as late as 1800, when the industrial revolution was already well under way, the civilized world was still divided into separate civilizations that each pursued its own very different ideas and values. On the other hand, without the economic revolution made possible by fossil fuels, very large sections of the world were completely unsuited to civilized life, and remained outside the civilized world for all practical purposes. As late as 1800, as a result, quite a bit of the world’s land surface was still inhabited by hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists, and tribal horticulturalists who owed no allegiance to any urban power and had no interest in cities and their products at all—except for the nomadic pastoralists, that is, who occasionally liked to pillage one.
The world’s fossil fuel reserves aren’t renewable on any time scale that matters to human beings. Since we’ve burnt all the easily accessible coal, oil, and natural gas on the planet, and are working our way through the stuff that’s difficult to get even with today’s baroque and energy-intensive technologies, the world’s first fossil-fueled human civilization is guaranteed to be its last as well. That means that once the deindustrial dark age ahead of us is over, and conditions favorable for the revival of civilization recur here and there on various corners of the planet, it’s a safe bet that new civilizations will build atop the ruins we’ve left for them.
The energy resources they’ll have available to them, though, will be far less abundant and concentrated than the fossil fuels that gave industrial civilization its global reach. With luck, and some hard work on the part of people living now, they may well inherit the information they need to make use of sun, wind, and other renewable energy resources in ways that the civilizations before ours didn’t know how to do. As our present-day proponents of green energy are finding out the hard way just now, though, this doesn’t amount to the kind of energy necessary to maintain our kind of civilization.
I’ve argued elsewhere, especially in my book The Ecotechnic Future, that modern industrial society is simply the first, clumsiest, and most wasteful form of what might be called technic society, the subset of human societies that get a significant amount of their total energy from nonbiotic sources—that is, from something other than human and animal muscles fueled by the annual product of photosynthesis. If that turns out to be correct, future civilizations that learn to use energy sparingly may be able to accomplish some of the things that we currently do by throwing energy around with wild abandon, and they may also learn how to do remarkable things that are completely beyond our grasp today. Eventually there may be other global civilizations, following out their own unique sets of ideas about the world through the usual process of dramatic creativity followed by dramatic collapse.
That’s a long way off, though. As the first global civilization gives way to the first global dark age, my working guess is that civilization—that is to say, the patterns of human society necessary to support the concentration of population, wealth, and power in urban centers—is going to go away everywhere, or nearly everywhere, over the next one to three centuries. A planet hammered by climate change, strewn with chemical and radioactive poisons, and swept by mass migrations is not a safe place for cities and the other amenities of civilized life. As things calm down, say, half a millennium from now, a range of new civilizations will doubtless emerge in those parts of the planet that have suitable conditions for urban life, while human societies of other kinds will emerge everywhere else on the planet that human life is possible at all.
I realize that this is not exactly a welcome prospect for those people who’ve bought into industrial civilization’s overblown idea of its own universal importance. Those who believe devoutly that our society is the cutting edge of humanity’s future, destined to march on gloriously forever to the stars, will be as little pleased by the portrait of the future I’ve painted as their equal and opposite numbers, for whom our society is the end of history and must surely be annihilated, along with all seven billion of us, by some glorious cataclysm of the sort beloved by Hollywood scriptwriters. Still, the universe is under no obligation to cater to anybody’s fantasies, you know. That’s a lesson Robert E. Howard knew well and wove into the best of his fiction, the stories of Conan among them—and it’s a lesson worth learning now, at least for those who hope to have some influence over how the future affects them, their families, and their communities, in an age of decline and fall.