Seven Lies About Civilization

by Ran Prieur

November 24, 2003

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[Edited and annotated December 4, 2012. I see now that I was caught in a deeper lie myself, using a slip in the definition of the word "civilization", where I defined it in terms of the worst behaviors of large complex societies of the past, and then used that definition to declare the necessary behavior of all large complex societies at any time.]

1. Progress. The lie about "progress" is not just that it is good, or inevitable, but that it exists, that we have ever experienced such a thing as straight-line, single-direction, open-ended, positive-valued change. We might think we have, because progress is the central lie of our culture and there are illusions and fantasies of it everywhere:

There's the schooling system, where we go from lower to higher grades -- but this rising is just a story, and the change is just to make us fit better in the dominant system, as we trade intuition for intellect, independence for obedience, spontaneity for predictability, and diverse experience for uniform facts. Then there's the wage labor system, where we're supposed to go from lower to higher positions, but few of us do, and anyway "higher" just means the dominant system has a tighter grip on our attention, our values, our souls. Then there's the history of technology, where the changes are declared "better" when their effects are to increase our forceful transformative power over the world while also increasing our emotional distance, or to make us more dependent on specialists, or to surround humans more and more with things humans have created, a process that Jerry Mander has identified as psychic inbreeding. The deepest place yet in our inbreeding is the world of computer games, which are usually built on the myth of progress, training us to self-administer dopamine for visions of ever increasing power, and then letting us off with a win instead of showing us how this kind of story really ends.

In reality, nothing gets absolutely better but just changes its relationships, and a change in relationships that trades awareness and collaboration for disconnection and domination is not irreversible but unsustainable, not open-ended but self-limiting, not positive but destructive.

[This is true, but as a generalization about how civilization has changed human consciousness, it's unfair. 21st century humans have a broader perspective, an awareness of a wider range of perspectives and possibilites, than any humans in history or prehistory. We are also more sensitive to the interests of other creatures with whom we don't have a personal relationship, which has enabled global-scale ecological consciousness and more urban living with less per-capita violence. If some of these changes stick, while some unsustainable changes are reversed, the future will resemble neither the recent past nor the distant past.]

2. Evolution. There is no disputing the fossil record, in which life on Earth has changed many times. The lie is to project the myth of progress onto these changes, to declare that they go in a simple straight line, in one direction, and always getting "better." This is a circular argument, where our collective insanity slaps a mask of itself on the biological world to justify itself.

In reality biological changes go in all kinds of directions, with populations falling and rising, organisms getting bigger and smaller, and moving from water to land to water. And nothing gets better except that species get better adapted to their environments, and in the absence of catastrophes the totality of life gets more diverse and complex.

But in both these ways, civilized humans have done the opposite! We do not adapt to the wider world but twist it to fit ourselves, and even twist ourselves to fit our narrow cultural fantasies. And we do not increase but decrease the diversity and complexity of the whole, by driving species to extinction and exterminating or assimilating human societies into a uniform global monoculture. So whatever you call the biological history of the Earth, civilization is not an extension of it but a denial of it, a catastrophe.

[What we've been adapting to, over the last several thousand years, is our own nature, our evolutionarily novel ability to form large complex societies. This has been catastrophic because we had a lot of mistakes to make. We are not finished making mistakes, but our understanding of our situation is getting better. And while many modern people remain narrow-minded, we at least have the option for a much greater expansion of consciousness than was available to our ancestors.]

3. Everything is natural. This is a crass semantic argument, designed to exclude the word "natural" as a test of value, and used by people who don't like the values that the word normally suggests. There is a definition of "natural" that includes absolutely everything in the universe, but there are narrower definitions that are valuable for expressing that we prefer rivers without industrial toxins, that we like meadows better than parking lots, that we would rather eat food that we can harvest with our own hands and use medicine that has been tested for thousands of years, and generally that we would like to live more intimately and more in balance with wild biological life on Earth.

[Without changing the basic meaning, the above section was shortened and completely rewritten, December 4, 2012.]

4. Technology is neutral. This one is challenging. It's such a huge lie that it's hard to get a grip on it, so self-referential that it's hard to get outside it. Getting outside it is not a matter of learning a simple argument but learning a whole different and more complex way of thinking.

The lie has two forms that are usually blurred together. One says that technology as a whole is neutral, where "technology" may be subtly defined as modern industrial technology. The other form says that every particular technology is neutral. My strategy is to attack the second and make the first look silly by declaring that no particular technology is neutral, that every technique, technology, and tool has its own set of motives and relationships.

First, I want to expose the lie's strange internal definition of "neutral," which is that a thing is "neutral" if you can tell a story about how it can do good and another story about how it can do bad. When do we ever use this definition in real life? Do we say a serial killer is neutral because in addition to raping and killing women he pays taxes and is sometimes nice to people? If you work in a factory by day to learn how to sabotage it by night, are you neutral to that factory because you both help and hurt it? If my nation sells weapons to two other nations that are at war, so they will destroy each other and my nation will come out on top, does that count as neutral? Of course not! But these are the same kinds of arguments that declare technologies neutral: Television is neutral because it not only makes us passive consumers of a uniform culture subject to central control, but it can also transmit useful information. Dams are neutral because while they submerge ecosystems and block fish runs, they also make electricity. Even atomic bombs are neutral if we can think of a science fiction story about doing good with them.

The next level of deception is to say that it's the "way we use" a technology that's important. For example, cars are neutral because you can use one to go from place to place, or to intentionally run someone over. But as Jacques Ellul pointed out, the latter is not a use -- it is a crime. Calling it a use tricks us into placing our evaluating perspective in an artificial space between the normal use of cars and a crime, instead of where it belongs -- right in the middle of the extreme biases in the normal use of cars.

Even if we ignore the ecological destruction and political repression required to manufacture and fuel cars, even if we ignore the millions of collision deaths, and we just look at cars as consumer tools, we can still see troubling built-in effects:

By moving us faster from place to place, cars insert distance into our physical environment, and the space in this distance will be largely filled with streets and parking lots to hold all the cars. Earth-killing pavement, urban sprawl, and strip malls are practically inherent in the technology of the automobile. Also, for complex reasons, speed beyond a certain low threshold increases commuting time. Also, once this distance has been inserted, you need a car to do anything.

Take away the cars, and we don't try to walk 40 miles a day on the freeways -- we tear up the pavement and build our physical communities so that everything we need is in walking distance. We spend less time commuting, we free all the time and energy we were putting into cars, and we regain autonomy through being able to use our own legs.

Also we have better relationships. Because cars move us past everything so fast, and because they enclose us, they insulate us from the reality around us, from other people and nature, and they enable us to replace thick close relationships with thin distant ones. Without them we relate directly and frequently to what's right in front of us; we know our neighbors and we know the land.

I could make similar arguments about computers, television, electricity, even written language. But the point is not to simply reject whole categories of technology, but to learn to see the alliances and motives that are built into technologies themselves regardless of "use," and to practice including or rejecting them on the basis of this understanding.

The customary definition of "use" is itself a trick of language that subtly limits what is negotiable. Notice that it includes only use by consumers and not use by engineers, who have covertly been given permission to use anything in any way. Is the automobile a technology, or a use of the internal combustion engine? Is internal combustion a technology or a use of fire? Some ancient societies used the technology of the wheel only in pottery-making. If we judge the value of use by engineers, then universal car driving is a misuse of the wheel. If we don't judge the value of use by engineers, then a dirty bomb is a neutral use of uranium.

If you can keep the discussion going, sooner or later you will hear something like "Cars could be electric instead of gasoline-burning" or "We could use solar or wind power instead of nuclear." Then you can point out that they're choosing one technology over another for the same use, so they knew all along that technologies are not neutral.

5. We can't go back. This one is clearly refuted by the ruins of ancient civilizations all over the world from which people went "back," and by lucky or exceptional individuals all through history who have dropped out of the system and moved closer to nature. In one sense, however, it's true: exploitative societies have no reverse gear and can only escalate until they crash.

[It's true that returning to forager-hunter tribes does not violate the laws of physics, but there is no record of a population doing it voluntarily. In colonial America people frequently ran off to join the Indians, but these were Indians with towns and fields of corn, with a higher standard of living and a broader cultural perspective than the squalid, cult-like early colonies. We're all seeking a higher quality of life, but closeness to nature is only one part of it, and extreme closeness is not better than moderate closeness.

And the end of an unsustainable complex society is nothing like a car accelerating into a wall. It's exactly like a bunch of people falling into poverty and maintaining the continuity of their systems as much as they can while shifting to a new resource base.]

6. The all-or-nothing future. According to this story there are only two possibilities: continued industrial civilization, or the total end of the world. Continued civilization generally means continued use of machines to transform relationships into domination and self-absorption. For the technophiles this could mean mining other planets, or deeper virtual reality; for the liberals it might mean taking an idealized version of upper-middle class life in a wealthy country in the late 20th century, extending it to the whole world, and staying there indefinitely through central control. And if our civilization fails, that's so unthinkable that we can talk about it only in terms of what we must do to avoid it. People express this with vague pronouncements like "If we don't reduce greenhouse emissions by 50% in ten years, it will be too late." Too late for what?

The suggested reforms are both politically impossible and insufficient, and the future will be deep within the region we're not looking at. The extinction of 90% of species including humans is one possibility. A milder possibility is the "Mad Max" scenario where a few humans survive on a half-dead Earth. Milder still would be a political decentralization and ecological recovery like Europe after the fall of Rome. My point is, we can influence this! Our dreams and actions can affect what kind of world we go to, but they cannot maintain the world we're used to.

There comes a time in a fire when you stop trying to save the whole building and switch to saving what you can. The purpose of the all-or-nothing lie is to block this mental shift, to keep all our attention channeled into either saving the world as we know it, or just giving up. If we see that radically different worlds are possible and some of them are really going to happen, if we start imagining and building vigorous competitors to industrial civilization, we will hurt the money economy and hurt the feelings of people who have invested their egos in the dominant culture. Another way they protect their egos is with the next lie:

7. Civilization happens once. This peculiar idea is similar to the above, but the blind spot it enforces is not to other-than-civilized systems, but to other civilizations. The pro-civ version says this is our one and only shot to colonize space or whatever, and the anti-civ version says that if we can knock down the present civilization, nothing like it will ever happen again. But if we look at history, every particular civilization falls while civilization in general keeps chugging on.

I define civilization in general as an alliance between dominator consciousness and exploitation-enabling techniques, creating a society that systematically takes more than it gives. Yes, the oil will run out, but civilizations were rising and falling for thousands of years without oil, and I see no reason they won't do so again. The general pattern can operate, if necessary, on nothing but the muscle power of slaves and domesticated animals. And when you add on all the metal and hardware that will be lying around, and the lingering habits from our age, and whatever technical knowledge is preserved, it looks like we're going to have civilizations around -- to play with or resist -- until we go extinct or change into something different.

[Again, it's cheating to generate a definition from the past and apply it to the future. The drive that keeps civilizations rising after they fall is the drive for social complexity and expansion of consciousness. Domination and exploitation are not drives in the same way. They're more like mistakes, which have been common so far and might remain common for a long time, but are not logically necessary at any scale. So there is an eighth lie, that large complex societies must dominate and exploit, and if we see clearly, we can begin to build ones that don't.]