21 Stories About Civilization

by Ran Prieur

May 3, 2003

Creative Commons License
[Edited and annotated December 2012 and November 2011. Parts of this essay were based on a framing story that I no longer believe: large complex societies are brutal conquerors, while small simple societies live in harmony. This is often true, but there are also many exceptions. I've since integrated these exceptions into a different framing story: A society of any level of complexity can be anywhere on the spectrum from violent and controlling to peaceful and permissive. There are nice tribes and nasty tribes, and civilization began as a giant nasty tribe, but later absorbed elements of both. We have the potential to become a global nice tribe, but it's still up in the air what this might look like.]

I saw a bumper sticker once that said "Pavement Is Forever," and I wondered... is that true? If pavement is forever, who will be maintaining the pavement in one million years, and what will they park on it? If pavement is not forever, will we be living in grass huts? Or will we be extinct? These stories about where we're going are rooted in deeper stories about where we are now, about the place or meaning of what we call civilization.

I define civilization, loosely, as the way humans have become unnatural over the past several thousand years. By natural, I mean in symbiosis with nature. By nature, I mean the totality of symbiotic life on earth. By symbiotic, I mean: related in ways that are mutually beneficial and beneficial to the whole, where wider benefit takes precedence. And by beneficial, I mean: generating aliveness and diversity. (And if you don't know what aliveness means, look harder.)

So the excuse that "everything is natural" is just a semantic distortion, a cheap attempt to deny important differences. Even in what we normally call "nature," not everything is natural. A lion that eats an antelope is natural, because only one antelope dies, while the antelope species and the lion species and the whole of nature benefit. But deer that overgraze and kill grasslands, or a non-native species that devastates an ecosystem, are being unnatural.

Humans have become unnatural by domesticating nonhuman species, dulling their aliveness and pulling them out of symbiosis with the whole; by exterminating nonhuman species; by conquering and exterminating natural humans, again pulling them out of symbiosis with the whole and also decreasing diversity by destroying or assimilating their cultures; and by repressing civilized humans, punishing our natural instincts, crushing our diversity to fit us in manageable categories, squeezing our aliveness down to simmering anger and sadness, and separating us from nature by making us dependent on layers of numbing technological mediation.

Is it really that bad? Is it possible we're just working the bugs out and then we'll be fine? Did we make a key mistake, maybe not too long ago, that we can straighten out? Or was the mistake a very long time ago? Can we learn from it? Is history circling or going somewhere? What's really going to happen?

With the stories that follow, I'm trying to expand the range of such questions and their answers. These stories are like lines on a rough map: They describe different levels, they overlap and run together, they have biases I haven't noticed and biases I've carefully chosen, they do not make a complete picture, and we're not all going to choose the "right" one, but continue to explore.

1. Eternal Growth. Until recently this was the dominant story in Western civilization. The idea is that natural societies are inadequate or obsolete because they don't increase in size, or create financial wealth, or radically transform the world, or develop increasingly more powerful tools, and now that we've learned to do these things, we will do them forever. Our mistake is in failing to notice that what we're really doing is killing and robbing from the wider world without giving back to it. Economics as we know it is a pyramid scheme that can keep going only by finding new frontiers to take from. But the earth is running out of oil, coal, trees, fish, fresh water, and arable land, and humans are learning to resist, staying only a step behind every advance in the systems that control us. Also we're starting to wonder where our "progress" is going. So Eternal Growth has been dying as people move to other stories...

2. The Galactic Empire. This one has turned out to be only science fiction, but for a few years we imagined we could keep civilization going by sending space ships and colonists to use up the resources on other planets and expand forever into the galaxy, just devouring and making a wasteland of world after world like the evil aliens in the film Independence Day. Of course, people who like this story see us becoming a good space empire like on Star Trek, but if we didn't learn to live in balance when we were locked on the earth, we'll never learn it with planets to burn. Fortunately for the rest of the universe, we seem to be stuck here, where one way or another our rampage will end. Unless...

3. The Terminator. If civilization is really better than nature, let's stop holding back! We don't have to learn to live in balance with the biological world, because we will learn to survive without it: gathering energy from orbiting solar panels, mining minerals from asteroids, feeding ourselves with the products of chemistry labs, we can keep going forever, even if nature is destroyed. With no rational reason to preserve the biosphere, we will let it die, or kill it, and if possible we will even replace our human forms with machines.

Of course this is insane. But it's perfectly logical, and some of the brainiest people in the world really believe in it and are working toward it every day. It would be nice to think it's impossible, or that even a world of dead machines could go wild and come to life, but I'm not counting on either. This story is dangerous. With luck, it will be smothered by the next one:

4. Sustainability. This is the new dominant, already taken for granted by liberal and moderate educated people. Of course all kinds of societies can be imagined as sustainable, but when people talk about "sustainability," they intend to sustain something particular: a society as much as possible like the one they already know, which usually means late 20th century industrialized middle class life.

The story might go that our ancestors were able to fit fire and stone tools into a healthy balanced society, so now we can do the same with more powerful tools like electricity and mass transit, and still give back to the biosphere as much as we take, and keep going indefinitely.

I won't stop people from trying it, but I think they're going to fail. Even if particular machines like refrigerators and computers can be made physically sustainable, our whole way of being that includes these machines is grounded in a culture of domination and deprivation and greed. Who will do the numbing labor of manufacturing and moving and installing and repairing our machines, if no one is threatened with starvation for refusing, if no one is forcibly blocked from opting out of this system and moving to a self-sufficient lower-tech community, and if no one is led on by the promise of ever-expanding wealth?

[Computers and machines could do much more labor than they're doing now. Of course we have to pass through the bottleneck of conversion from nonrenewable to renewable resources, and there will be great suffering and loss, but I now expect the core of the tech system to make it through. Even now, with the resource crunch beginning, automation is increasing because it's more efficient. Future discontent might be caused not by forced work, but by lack of opportunity to do work that feels useful.]

Sustainable civilization is philosophically bankrupt. If you look at it closely it says that civilization is better than primitive living, except that we did it badly, and now what we're doing it right it's ideal -- but wait: Why are we better than primitives? The original justifications, that we create wealth and have progress, have now been abandoned. Now that we've stabilized, we can no longer point to our holy direction of motion or our future golden age -- we have to justify ourselves by how we live right now. It comes down to insulation: Is seeing a picture of a wolf better than seeing a wolf? Is central heating better than a fire? Is a light bulb better than the moon? Is feeding animals in a pen better than letting them run wild and tracking and hunting them? Is predictability better than surprise? Some will say yes but many will say no.

[People in large complex cultures typically have wider perspectives and more options than people in small simple cultures. Someone who has seen both wide and narrow will sacrifice a lot to stay wide. So a fire is not as good as the option to choose between central heating and a fire at any time. Letting go of progress will be more difficult, because hunger for a better future is so deeply ingrained in our culture. Even if we build heaven on earth, we will destroy it if we have not outgrown our urge to always seek something better.]

Actually we've been saying no for decades, with our depression and apathy and suicide, which increase the more our "standard of living" conforms to the civilized ideal. [Again, this is true if the "civilized ideal" means central control and forced alienation, but not if it means a wider perspective and more options.] We're all so negative because we can't see what we would say yes to, because it's been blocked from our view. And people in half-"developed" countries want more "development" because they've been set up to want it -- they see it as the only path because the other paths have been blocked, through force and through the power of the next story:

5. We Can't Go Back. This big story overlaps many of the others, and it's the silliest superstition I've ever heard. Another thing they say is "You can't put the genie back in the bottle," but they've forgotten that the genie is a fictional creature, and they haven't noticed that civilized consciousness, by insulating us from living reality, is like going into a bottle. "Going back," in this case, would be like a long-time prison inmate going back to the outside world, or a drug addict going back to being straight. We don't want to do it, and it takes discipline, but we can.

[Again, if you view this issue in terms of a wider perspective and more options, vs a narrower perspective and fewer options, then going primitive is like going into a bottle, which might explain why so few people have done it. It is possible to go back, but we don't want to.]

Part of the confusion here is that we aren't clear on who "we" are. For individual humans raised in captivity, going all the way to hunting and gathering is too much. But we can each go in that direction, and our kids can go farther, and for the human species as a whole, living like Indians again is the one thing we know that we can do, because it's in our blood and our bones. That's why European explorers found so many consensual natural societies living next to ancient stone ruins built by slaves. In school they told us that the Mayans mysteriously "disappeared." They didn't go anywhere! They just stopped cutting down forests and enslaving each other to build cold dead artifacts.

[The Mayans suffered involuntary collapse, and then other empires rose. Many primitive tribes found by Europeans were descendants of large complex societies recently destroyed by smallpox. As Charles Mann shows in the book 1491, western hemisphere humans had the same drive as eastern hemisphere humans to increase social complexity. I think this has become a permanent part of the human potential, so while it is physically possible for us to return to forager-hunter tribes, it is not culturally possible, because we will always have other options and we will always choose them.]

You can see the same trick, using the image of nonexistence to block the image of change, in the next group of stories:

6. Pure Extinction. Once humans fell into civilization, the only possible outcome was our extinction, so let's hurry it up and limit the damage we do to the earth.

7. Up Or Out. This peculiar story, popular among technophiles, says we have exactly one chance to become evil robots or a galaxy-eating empire, and the only alternative is extinction.

8. Steady Or Out. In the ecologists' version of Up Or Out, what we're trying to do is make civilization sustainable, and again, we have only one shot and if we fail we all die.

It takes a lot of wishful thinking to be this pessimistic. Why only one chance? Did these people have mean parents or teachers who never let them try again? And was their punishment for failure so painful that they think human failure must exterminate the species? It almost certainly won't. We're the most adaptable animal that ever lived and we're likely to survive anything we can throw at ourselves -- except a bioengineered physical change that makes us unsuitable for natural living, in which case we're doomed.

Usually they don't even make extinction explicit, because that would require an impossible argument, that cancer and famines and coastal flooding will somehow kill every last human being. Instead they mention catastrophes in the context of a vague statement like "We have only 50 years left," and carelessly flip-flop between the end of civilization and the end of humans.

As with the vanishing Mayans story and the "We can't go back" story, people are confused about identity. Their false consciousness that "we" equal civilization is so overpowering that they can't move their sense of "self" beyond the edge of the TV screen: To exist without cars and supermarkets is to not even exist.

Fine, we won't exist. But we will live! The scenario that all of the above stories exclude, and most of the following stories embrace, is overwhelmingly likely: that modern civilization will crash but humans and nature will survive...

[The word "crash" suggests a global catastrophe, which becomes less plausible with every year that governments and businesses muddle through economic crises and increasing costs of resources, with only slow change in daily human life. Using the above definition of civilization, "the way humans have fallen out of symbiosis with nature over the past several thousand years", it is possible for ecologial destruction and consumption of nonrenewable resources to level out and decline, thus ending "civilization", while merely temporarily shrinking the range and power of large complex systems.]

9. The Mistake. All of civilization is a big wrong turn we made, and when it's over we're going to pick up living primitively again, give or take a few fads. Some say we could never make this transition, but they misunderstand. It's like the transition from pavement to grass. We don't need the cement to turn green and put down roots, just to give way. All we need is for those of us who want to keep moving closer to nature to not be killed or forced off our land or have our nonhuman allies exterminated, and we will thrive, and people in unnatural societies will join us or learn from us, and together we will restore the earth.

[Again, this is trumped by the observation that people in complex societies have wider perspectives and more options. We can move closer to nature by growing fruit trees in our yards and switching to part time employment, without giving up hot tap water and bicycles and internet. Abandoning these benefits makes a good story, and it's fun for a few days, but as a permanent change it will decrease our quality of life and hardly anyone will do it if they don't have to.]

But what if they don't join us? What if they only leave us alone for a few generations after the crash, and come to conquer us again? The problem with The Mistake is not how to end one instance of it, but how to end it in general, how to avoid the next story:

10. No Exit. Here there's no human extinction, no transformation, no balance, and no learning. The physical part of civilization crashes, but the emotional part stays, or comes back, and as soon as the forests grow back we start again -- and again and again, contracting into spasms of devastation and relaxing into "dark" ages, like a never-ending case of painful hiccups. There are a few ways around this:

[Historical changes are not so apocalpytic. It's true that as the western Roman Empire fell, forests grew back, there was less war and slavery, and the average person had a higher quality of life. But the changes were so slow that nobody said, "hey, civilization just crashed." And while overall social complexity might have declined, there were new social forms and new technologies appearing all the time.]

11. The Fluke. Here civilization is a bizarre one-time event that will never happen again. This one might be true, but I don't think it is. I think it's dangerous wishful thinking, and by believing it we are asking for the No Exit scenario. We need to see this disaster as part of our potential, and guard against it.

12. The Forest Fire. If we can remember our mistake and avoid making it again (until we forget), or if the earth remembers, or if the earth is a desert for a while, then we might go a very long time between episodes of destruction, so long that they are like forest fires, a day out of fifty years when everything burns that's not strong or deep. These "fires" might even serve to keep the larger system in balance, but this is no way to think when you're in a fire.

13. The Tempering. Another way out is through human transformation or transcendence. The story is that through civilization, human nature, not just human culture, will permanently change. There is a strong basis for this on the frontiers of biology, where evidence suggests ways of remembering and transmitting behavior other than DNA and social learning. (link)

In the simplest transformation, the only change is that our instincts are much more resistant to going out of balance, so we never fall again -- even if we're pushed -- and we live like Indians indefinitely. But if we can sustain that, it's only one more step to sustaining something more unstable. There's a gray area all the way from here to Sustainability, and the next story is a bit more ambitious:

14. Global Primitives. Our consciousness expands to cover the best of the natural and the civilized, the ways that each are broad-minded. So we're hunting and gathering again, intensely aware of the land and our deep relation to it, and we're also aware of a whole planet of different human cultures and perspectives. If this includes an understanding of surviving or re-emerging anti-natural cultures, then this time we'll know how to deal with them: Instead of saying "We do not understand why you murder the earth," we'll say "Oh yes, we know all about that, and here's how to get through it."

15. Middle Ground. The idea here is that civilization didn't get bad until recently, and the best world is halfway between mud huts and office cubicles. Suppose we hold ourselves to tools that serve autonomy and diversity, windmills and wood stoves but not electric grids, telescopes but not television, bicycles and sailing ships instead of cars and jet planes, and we arrange ourselves into small independent cities surrounded by small independent farms. It sounds good, but can we do it?

[This vision is much too Utopian, and the objections below apply to the Utopian character and not to a more realistic middle ground. We don't need discipline, because we will continue to have technologies that are bad for us as long as we want them and can get away with them. And when we can't get away with them, they won't magically destroy everything. "Piano on a life raft" is a fun image, but complex society is more like millions of interconnected life rafts, where one that's sinking a little can be held up by the others, and one that's sinking too hard will be cut loose to sink alone.]

One problem is how to get there from here. Normal civilized humans have nowhere near the mindfulness to carefully examine the societal effects of their technologies, or the discipline to willingly give them up. In practice almost everyone will try to keep everything and we will sink like a piano on a life raft. But if the pavement-grass transition works for primitive living, it might work here too: We can build the new world through the cracks of the old.

Another problem is how to sustain a level of technology that only ever existed as a brief stage in a process of escalating domination. If even one city puts its energy not into beauty and culture, but industry and weapons and conquest, the other cities will have to do the same or be conquered, and we're right back where we are now. This is the core problem of human existence, and the more nature-based visions have to deal with it too. But here it seems more dangerous because the temptations are so much closer.

[Domination has spread geographically but become less intense, and I think military conquest is becoming obsolete. Now the nations with the strongest militaries want global stability. I still think technological stasis is unrealistic. It's not that high tech is unsustainable, but that we'll continue coming up with new destabilizing inventions.]

Finally, as with Sustainability, it's not clear that this way of living is preferable to something more primitive. If people are blocked from moving closer to nature, we'll get a ratcheting effect moving us farther and farther from nature. And if we're not blocked, we might just go "back" there. The only way to know is to try it.

[Again, this is too black and white. We can permanently stay a long way from the stone age, while going through cycles of ratcheting alienation and collapse, all of which will happen so slowly that it will be clearly visible only from hundreds of years in the future.]

16. Land Dolphins. If the point of civilization was to teach us how to recover from insulating technologies, how to move through fear and pain back toward nature, then once we have learned this skill, we don't have to stop at the stone age. We can keep going!

We know it's possible to go farther, because we have records of lost or abandoned children raised by wolves or bears or apes, who actually adapted physically, growing hair all over their bodies and learning to move with incredible speed. (link) Also they were emotionally simple and humorless. But suppose we don't take the shortcut, just giving unwanted infants to our nonhuman cousins, but make the journey ourselves, deliberately and patiently, slowly shedding layer after layer of tools, generation by generation, but keeping our intelligence and spirituality and complexity, until we're down to no physical tools at all.

This is not absurd -- it's normal. Why do we think we can become cyborgs and colonize space, but we can't live like every other known organism in the universe? We accept that dolphins, whales, and elephants live happily without physical tools, though all three might be smarter than us. If they can do it, so can we.

[I still love this idea! But again, we will never voluntarily shift from a wider perspective with more options, to a narrower perspective with fewer options, so to give up our physical tools, we would have to add mental tools that would seem to us now like magic.]

17. The Ascension. Here we transform ourselves clear out of the physical world. This is just an extension of civilization's myth of progress, and you can find something like it in most civilized religions. Christians call it "heaven" and New Agers call it a "higher vibrational level." Usually the story goes that only the few who obey the commands of the religion will make the cut, and the rest of us will be stuck here on the filthy earth. Now that sounds like heaven -- earth without the status-climbers.

[If we could do something like this without giving up the filthy earth, I'm all for it!]

18. Chicken Pox. I've been assuming that this drama is about humans, but what if it's about the earth, and we are only supporting characters? Suppose human civilization is like a disease the earth had to go through to strengthen its immune system. This implies that nature is not merely passive, but can influence human consciousness and society in ways that individual humans seldom notice. Ivan Sanderson speculated that occult phenomena could be manifestations of Gaia, steering human development for her own protection or benefit. Maybe next time Gaia will be much more skilled at stopping humans or other species from going out of balance.

19. Yeast. Now we're even humbler than a virus. We're like the yeast in a loaf of bread, thinking we're growing by our own choice and for our own glory, when really we've been set up by an unfathomable greater intelligence that is just using us for our waste products, as part of a transformation that will make us irrelevant. We might not even be the key to that transformation, but an afterthought: Suppose the gods know there's going to be a giant volcanic eruption or asteroid impact, and since there's a big extinction coming anyway, they have nothing to lose by letting humans run amok for some secondary purpose, like using up the oil or bringing lots of metal to the surface, which will somehow help life in the next cycle. Or maybe we're being manipulated by dragons, to transform this world into one they can live in so they can come back.

This kind of thinking is terrible as a basis for action, but it's good for loosening our assumptions and deflating our pride. Also it touches on a new (or old) vision:

20. Everything Flows. Up to now I've been assuming that the world either stays the same through the ages or that its changes are part of some absolute motion. What if neither is true? Suppose the earth and the universe are in constant flux and upheaval, but are not going anywhere in particular. Suppose history is neither circling nor progressing, but just playfully shifting around. This story is consistent with the oral histories of many indigenous cultures, and with a lot of evidence excluded by dominant science. (link)

Also it's consistent with some of the previous stories, but looser. Imagine the Forest Fire story, except the "forest" grows back with different life forms every time. Imagine Global Primitives plus unicorns and pterodactyls. Or even imagine a space exploration story, where we seed other planets with life before our system collapses. Yes, civilization was an awful catastrophe, and it's not going to lead us to some new "level," but it was interesting, and it will move us to a new place, and from there we'll move to yet another place, and so on forever...

21. Metanature. In almost every metaphysics outside Western mechanistic science, mind is more fundamental than matter, and the physical world is our interface with a deeper world of "spirit" or "consciousness." Given the previous story, if we can have different interfaces one after the other, suppose we can have different interfaces at the same time!

This is a stretch, but I'm trying to give shape to the feeling, common among people who have been raised in extreme civilization and reject it, that we're going to be wild and free again, but we're not going to be living like any previous humans. We seem to have something that neither nature-based people nor tightly civilized people have: the experience of a connection to the deeper aliveness of the universe, that does not come through plants and animals. Suppose civilization, by disconnecting us from physical nature, has led us to learn to connect to the wider consciousness in new ways, not through physical nature but beside it, and now we can grow this connection into a whole new system of tools and allies, a new living interface.

This story is unlike The Terminator in that we see the universe as alive, and we love nature, and our core attitude is cooperation not control. And it's unlike Sustainability, where our new system is another layer of mediation between us and nature. Here we will still have the wolf and the moon and the chase, but we will also have something else that we gained during our time of estrangement. What?

I don't want to call it "technology" because it will be alien to the "technology" we know -- though it might include tools derived from it. I don't even want to call it a "paradigm shift," because it won't be just a little shift, like putting the sun at the center instead of the earth, or like floating to other planets with anti-gravity. We'll be walking to other planets.

These are long guesses. With this story, and with a few of the others, I'm groping toward something, and the best I can explain it is to point to popular imaginary worlds that are more raw and diverse and mutable and alive than this one. I think these are visions of where we're going, and though they're mostly getting the details wrong, they've got the feel of it just right.