Critique of Civilization FAQ

by Ran Prieur

April 8, 2005

Creative Commons License
[December 7, 2012. Going through my old essays, I've come to feel that arguing a position is the lowest form of writing. I'm tempted to just delete this whole thing, but it has some good stuff, so instead I'll break the framing story. The critique of civilization rests on a fallacy: first, take all the worst things in the history of large complex societies, and use them to define the word "civilization"; then use the word "civilization" to define the class of all possible large complex societies. One thing John Zerzan got right is that the main use of symbolic language is for lying. If we view every society, whatever its size, whatever its level of social or technological complexity, as a unique case, and not as part of a value-loaded class, the picture becomes less simple, less ideological, and ultimately more interesting. For my later thoughts on some of these issues, see Beyond Civilized and Primitive.]

What do you mean, "critique of civilization"?

Mostly I mean putting human civilization in context, seeing it from the perspective of the world that surrounds it, instead of through the lens of its own mythology. For example, we're taught to think of human prehistory as a temporary, transitional stage destined to "improve" into a world like our own. In fact, we have lived as forager-hunters for at least 100 times as long as we've been tilling the soil, and it's our own age that shows every sign of being temporary, unstable, and short. The critique of civilization is a reframing, after which "primitive" people seem like the human norm, and civilization seems like a brief failed experiment.

Another example: suppose I broke into your house, killed your family, locked you in a cage, threw out all your stuff, redecorated according to my tastes, and called it "growth" because I used to have one house and now have two, or called it "development" because I replaced your stuff with my own. That's exactly what civilization does, to nature, to nonhumans, to nature-based humans, even to humans in other branches of civilization.

It's not really that bad, is it?

The deserts of central and southwest Asia and the Mediterranean used to be forests. Ancient empires cut them down to burn the wood to smelt metal for weapons, and to build ships, which they used to conquer their neighbors. This has been the pattern of every "successful" civilization in history: to transform the life of the Earth into larger human populations that must conquer and deplete more land to survive, spreading like a cancer over thousands of miles, destroying every habitat and culture in their path, until they go totally mad, exhaust their landbase, and crash.

Can you define "civilization"?

I don't think it's necessary or even helpful to make an airtight definition. I follow William Kötke in using "civilization" interchangeably with "empire." I define it loosely as a self-reinforcing societal pattern of depletion of the land, accumulation of wealth, conquest, repression, central control, and insulation and disconnection from life, with all of these habits allied to mental, cultural, and physical artifacts.

For example, the plow is a physical artifact that enables the cultural habit of grain farming to take biomass from the soil and convert it into more humans and into stores of grain, which enable the cultural artifact of "wealth," which enables some people to tell others what to do and build the cultural artifact of "command," backed up by physical artifacts like swords and guns and cultural roles like soldiers and police, who reinforce the whole pattern by conquering and holding more land for the plow and more people for the roles of farmer and owner and soldier. Also, farming enables people to lose their awareness of wild nature and still survive -- in fact, it links their survival to viewing wild nature as an enemy, which feeds back and supports their habit of exterminating nature.

Or, the car is a physical artifact whose manufacture and use require the land to be torn up for mining (after being conquered), polluted with industrial waste products, and covered with pavement, and the car feeds back into this system by insulating and disconnecting people behind its metal walls and blurring speeds, so they lose touch with their neighbors and with the world they're destroying. Also cars enable us to put more distance between the places we have to go, forcing us to have cars to get there, and thus to do thousands of hours of commanded labor to be permitted to own them.

Sure, everyone knows cars are bad. But what about all the good stuff in civilization, like our medical advances?

Most of industrial medicine exists to treat diseases and injuries that are caused by industrial civilization in the first place, like heart disease and cancer and car crashes, which are rare or nonexistent in nature. And mostly it fails to treat them, and only succeeds in prolonging sickness to increase the power of the medical system and allow it to more completely colonize our lives.

Didn't primitive people live only 30 years, and have lots of health problems?

Non-civilized people observed in historical times tend to be healthier than civilized people, and quite long-lived. As for prehistoric people, we can only look at their skeletons. Here's what Jared Diamond wrote in "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race":

At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around AD 1150... Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 percent increase in [tooth] enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a threefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor.

Still, on the whole, don't we live better than primitive people? Didn't they constantly struggle for existence and fight each other a lot?

It's true that people in emotionally healthy subcultures in elite nations have it better in many ways than people in the nastiest tribes. But some observed nature-based societies look like utopia compared to civilization -- the political structure is egalitarian and non-coercive, fighting is rarely deadly, the people are strong and happy, and they spend only a few hours a day in the meaningful activities of survival, and the rest of their time playing and slacking off.

What about the Aztecs or the Mayans or the Incas, who had strict hierarchy and human sacrifice and military conquest to support increasing populations?

I classify them as civilizations because they had repressive centralized systems linked to "growth" economies. It's true that there's not a clear division between civilized and primitive. I suspect that some North American tribes were well on their way to complex top-down government and depletion of the land. But the point is, humans are capable of the whole range, from killing nature to supporting it, from runaway increase to balance, from repression to peaceful anarchy. Even if only one tribe lived at the nice end of all those scales, it would be evidence that something like that is possible for all of us. In fact many did, and could again.

What about the really nasty tribes that are clearly primitive?

The orthodox primitivist position is that we have to live with it, that despite the flaws, forager-hunter tribes are the best humans can do. Personally I think we can do better. But even if we can't, if you consider everyone from best-off to worst-off, primitive life is still preferable to industrial civilization.

I read that murder rates are higher among primitive people.

Sure, if you only count it as murder when one person hits another person with an axe! Highly complex societies have the luxury of more powerful and subtle murders. I consider all cancer deaths to be homicides -- or suicides if the victims are also willing participants in the crimes. Cancer was rare in pre-industrial times and even rarer in pre-civilized times. You get it from a combination of emotional distress and exposure to toxic environmental factors, and the people who make and enable the decisions to create those factors are the murderers. Heart disease is suicide-homicide by the corporations that profit from trans fats and other heart-disease-causing foods, and their stockholders. Lung cancer is suicide-homicide by tobacco companies that standardize the nicotine dose and add even more addictive substances to increase their profits. Every car crash death is a homicide by the various interests that set us up to have no choice but to drive around in cars all day.

If there are going to be murders, I'd rather have them out in the open and honest. If you get killed in a tribal war, you're probably suffering less at your moment of death than industrialized people suffer every day, because you can see the story that you're part of.

Aren't you romanticizing primitive people? They're not perfect, you know.

There's no such thing as "perfection." That's a fantasy of increase-based society that makes us think the world in front of us is never good enough, so that we have to keep reaching for more wealth and control. The nonexistent techno-utopia is "perfect." I'm just observing what's been documented by civilization's own anthropologists, and noticing that, while imperfect, it's preferable to "civilized" life.

But you seem happy to me. You should be thankful you live in America.

That's like telling a serial killer he should be thankful he gets to drink the blood of his victims, instead of telling him to quit killing. People in elite nations are rewarded with cheap pleasures in exchange for consenting to a system that kills and robs people in poorer nations and nonhumans everywhere. And they're still not satisfied. They chase status and money and distract themselves with hedonism and toys to try to cover up the emptiness of their existence. The only reason my existence feels meaningful is I've begun to see through the whole sham and I'm exploring ways to do something about it. I'll feel thankful I live in America when the American Empire has broken down into thousands of autonomous nature-based communities and we can ride horses on the ruined freeways.

So you want us all to go back to the stone age?

The word "back" is a trick. It implies a magical absolute direction of change. Suppose you go to your job, and when you get ready to leave, your boss says, "So you want to go back to your house? Don't you know you can never go back? You can only go forward, to working for me even more, ha ha ha!" Really, all motion is forward, and forward motion can go in any direction we choose, including to places we've been before.

So you want us all to go forward to the stone age?

The term "stone age" is another trick, if it's interpreted as a temporary stage in a progression that logically had to lead to the age we're in now. There's no biological reason to suppose this. Sharks have barely changed in the last 100 million years, and we consider them successful for finding a place they fit and staying there. Humans fit with nature for one to two million years, and then less than ten thousand years ago some of us tried something different that's obviously not working. Ten thousand years out of a million is like 36 seconds out of an hour.

OK, OK. So you want us to go forward to hunting and gathering, using fire and stone tools and living in grass huts, and just stay there?

That would be a nice way to live, but I don't think it's going to happen, at least not soon. I'm not asking any person raised in civilization to switch to a forager-hunter lifestyle, and I'm not going to do it myself. It's too hard to learn as an adult, and right now nature is too killed back for it to be easy for anyone. If civilization crashes, and humans survive, then in a few generations it might be practical for people to start living that way. But there will be plenty of other options -- at least until the scrap metal is gone. In the near future, we're going to have to live in a way that both feeds us in a dead world, and rebuilds the life of that world. I think the permaculture movement is on the right track.

So you're against technology -- you're a technophobe.

I love technology! A fungophobe is someone who fears all mushrooms, who assumes they're all deadly poisonous and isn't interested in learning about them. A fungophile is someone who is intensely interested in mushrooms, who reads about them, samples them, and learns which ones are poisonous, which ones taste good, which ones are medicinal and for what, which ones are allied to which trees or plants or animals. This is precisely my attitude toward technology. I am a technophile!

Now, what would you call someone who runs through the woods indiscriminately eating every mushroom, because they believe "mushrooms are neutral," so there are no bad ones and it's OK to use any of them as long as it's for good uses like eating and not bad uses like conking someone over the head? You would call this person dangerously stupid. But this is almost the modern attitude toward "technology." Actually it's even worse. Because of the core values of civilization, that conquest and control and forceful transformation are good, because civilization "grows" by dominating and exploiting and killing, and by numbing its members to the perspectives of their victims, it has been choosing and developing the most poisonous technologies, and ignoring or excluding tools allied to awareness, aliveness, and equal participation in power. It's as if we're in a world where the very definition of "mushroom" has been twisted to include little other than death caps and destroying angels and deadly galerinas, and we wonder why health care is so expensive.

What are some technologies you like?

One of my favorites is the beaver dam, which could be built by humans too, but it's easier to just bring in some beaver "contractors" and let them go to work. It creates a nice pond, raises ground water, buffers runoff and prevents droughts and floods downstream, and after many years of collecting organic material that would otherwise wash away, it becomes a wetland or meadow that increases the diversity and abundance of life. And if you say "that's not a technology," you confirm my point that the definition of "technology" has been twisted to include only poisonous ones, dead machines that enable the concentration of power in an alienated detached perspective.

Another great technology is cob building, a mixture of sand, clay, and dry grass that absorbs and radiates heat and can last hundreds of years. Also, recent innovations in wood burning, like Ianto Evans's rocket stove, are almost perfectly clean and efficient while still being allied to a bottom-up social order. Permaculturists are rediscovering techniques mastered by rain forest people, arranging fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and perennial or self-seeding ground covers so that they work together harmoniously and produce abundant food with little maintenance while actually increasing soil fertility.

A good mechanical technology is the bicycle, which is cheap and simple enough to be compatible with autonomy, and moves more efficiently than any land animal, though it remains to be seen whether bicycles can be manufactured by a sustainable and non-coercive society. I don't see any problem with telescopes, stone buildings, sailing ships, unpaved roads, sophisticated ceramics, or hand tools fashioned from scavenged metal.

Of course, almost all "primitive" technologies are great, not for romantic reasons but for hard practical reasons: They keep us close to the Earth where we remain aware of the needs and perspectives of other life. They do not require the importation of energy or resources from distant places where we're not intimate with the life and would tolerate its destruction. And they are allied to non-coercive human societies: If the tools on which people depend are all within reach of everyone, if anyone can build a shelter, make a fire, weave a basket, dig up tubers, kill a deer, tan a hide and make clothing, then a dominating power has no leverage to make us obey.

But don't people in undeveloped countries want more development?

Some of them do. It doesn't mean they're right. If I take away your food and give you a bit of heroin, you might want more heroin. People who have been separated from a nature-based way of living, and are shown no way out of their meaningless poverty except meaningless affluence, images of first-worlders enjoying their shiny toys, will tend to believe those toys will make them happy. They're wrong. This is proven by the fact that suicide rates are higher in "developed" countries.

And many of them don't want our toys -- they want equal participation in power, and land reform, and the overthrow of the colonial government that extracts wealth from their nation to send it to the imperial centers. They understand that "development" means loans on terrible terms that enrich the local elites and force people out of self-sufficient local economies into corporate enslavement.

Truly "undeveloped" people, who have not been separated from a nature-based way of living, are never envious of civilization. They think it's silly and choose it only under extreme pressure. In fact, without coercion, people go the other way. Benjamin Franklin wrote:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. And ... when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho' ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet within a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

But civilized also means polite, considerate, peaceful, broad-minded, cultured, learned, and so on. Are you against all that?

That use of the word "civilized" is a trick. To destroy life, to conquer, to imprison, to torture, are typical behaviors of civilization and less common in other societies. The Arawaks brought gifts to Columbus and he hacked up their children to feed to dogs. Which culture was "civilized"? The behavior that we call "civilized" is common only at the centers of civilization, among the sheltered elite. And even our greatest thinkers can barely match the typical forager-hunter, who has knowledge and understanding of thousands of plant and animal species, where they grow, how they interrelate, what they're good for. The native view of the spirit world behind the physical world, whether or not you think it's true, is more deep and complex than the cold doctrines and abstractions of western religion.

Every primitive human knows how to improvise a shelter and find wild edibles. Not only do civilized people lack primitive skills, we even lack civilized skills -- most of us can't even program a VCR or change the oil in a car. We are the most pathetic and powerless humans who have ever lived. This is good news! As wonderful as you think your apartment and your TV shows are, that world is a padded cell compared to the rest of the universe.

If primitive people are so much better than civilized people, why do they always lose?

That's like saying if I can beat you up I must be better than you. A nation that puts its attention into warfare and conquest will always defeat a nation that puts its energy into relaxation and play. People who have lived densely for millennia will have developed epidemic diseases, and partial immunity to them, while people who have lived in isolated tribes will have no immunity and will be killed off at contact.

Sure, but if they're so susceptible to invasion, and epidemics, and conversion by missionaries, and alcoholism, and TV addiction, then doesn't it follow that if we all lived like that again, we would just slide into civilization the first time someone invented the wrong technology and started conquering people, just like last time?

That won't happen right away, because the fuels that fed civilization -- topsoil, forests, easily extracted metal and oil -- are mostly gone. But soil and forests will come back, so in the long term, that's a strong argument against simple primitivism. Civilization is an emotional plague, and those who have been exposed to it are more resistant to it. Either we can evolve permanent resistance, in which case we will be different from any previous natural humans, or we can't, and we're doomed to keep cycling through ages of health and destructive sickness until we go extinct.

Isn't civilization part of evolution?

Biological evolution moves toward greater complexity, diversity, and abundance of life. What determines "fitness" to survive is how well a creature fits with the whole, how well it maintains the ecosystem on which its survival depends. Civilization moves in the opposite direction, toward uniformity and deadness, replacing all human cultures with one, replacing all habitats with monoculture farms and pavement. The civilized myth of "survival of the fittest" is about exterminating competitors and depleting the ecosystem to generate large numbers of identical things. The "progress" of civilization is anti-evolution. The only thing in the evolutionary process that it resembles is a catastrophe, something that wipes out all but the most adaptable species and forces evolution to start over.

But isn't human civilization at least a continuation of human evolution, in which we came down from the trees, invented fire and stone tools, developed larger brains, more sophisticated tools, and so on to where we are now?

No. This series of human changes switched, at some point, from co-evolution with other life to anti-evolution against it. The most common story goes like this: One or two million years ago we became "human" and made ourselves a niche, where we could have stayed forever, or continued our evolution on other paths that kept us in balance with the whole. But with the invention of grain agriculture, some humans made a terrible wrong turn and dragged the rest of the world with them.

In other stories we made the wrong turn farther back, possibly with symbolic language, or division of labor, or even with the taming of fire; and at that point, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. In any case, the next question is whether we can evolve out of this hellhole, into a species that can keep itself in balance.

Are humans inherently bad?

I'd say we're inherently dangerous. Because so much of our behavior is determined by culture, we're much more malleable than any other animal -- we have the power to create very good behavior patterns or very bad ones.

Couldn't we build a good civilization, one that had a lot of modern technologies but was peaceful and environmentally sustainable?

Maybe. But our familiar "technologies" were developed in the context of conquest and central control and runaway exploitation and the numbness to make it all tolerable. We have the ones we have because they fed back into these habits, and they would continue to do so. Even if we had cars powered by fusion plants, they would still daze us with their speed and enable us to live far apart, when we need to slow to a walking pace to know nature, and live close together to know our neighbors. We need tools allied to sharing, not isolation, and energy sources that do not require central administration, and energy in small enough quantities that we have to get our hands dirty and be intimate with what we're doing.

Tom Brown once asked Stalking Wolf why the cold didn't bother him. Stalking Wolf answered, "Because it's real." The same things that make primitive life uncomfortable make it more alive. In a society that protects us from that aliveness, and that also denies us the thrill of escalating "progress," how will we enjoy life enough to keep that society going?

Civilization keeps billions of people alive. If you're against it, doesn't that mean you want all those people to die?

It's civilization that wants all those people to die, by setting them up so their lives depend on practices that must end in famine and ecological disaster. I'm just the messenger. I'm not making anyone die by believing that civilization was a mistake, just as you can't save anyone by believing that it can keep going. I'm actually trying to save lives, by breaking people out of a style of thinking that is tied to a style of living that is not sustainable, so they can learn ways of living that will get them through the crash.

You're against civilization, but what are you for? You'll never get anywhere without a positive vision of the future.

What makes you think I want to get anywhere? Only people under the spell of civilization need an exciting vision of a nonexistent future to motivate them. Cultures that live in balance feel no need for a "vision of the future" because they have a present that is acceptable. Instead, they focus on their ancestors. They would say, "You'll make terrible mistakes without being grounded in the ways of your ancestors," and they'd be right.

Our visions of the future have all turned out to be wrong. From techno-utopia to Hitler's Thousand Year Reich to the Age of Aquarius to Bush's crusade to bring "freedom" to Asia, they're a mixture of wishful thinking and lies that serve to motivate people to march toward something that turns out to be quite different.

Visions of the future are lies, and a culture that needs to be lied to cannot stand. If people will choose a comforting fantasy over a call for responsibility, as Americans did when they chose Reagan over Carter, then those people are already doomed.

But I'm a creature of civilization. I've lost touch with all my indigenous ancestors, and I do have visions of the future, plenty of them, which if I am "successful" will inspire my followers to make total asses of themselves while the world goes a direction no one expected. I envision stone age, medieval, modern, and "magical" technologies all dancing together in a world of wilderness and ruins.

Could civilization just be an awkward stage in human evolution, a necessary bridge to a higher level of humanity?

It's possible that we will emerge from civilization in a new form that is better adapted to work with the whole. But there is no reason to believe the whole thing was necessary, except that it's easier to take than the idea that it was not necessary.

And there would be no reason to call the new form "higher," to apply a vertical metaphor to harmony, other than attachment to the myth of straight-line, open-ended, absolute-value "progress," which is purely an artifact of civilization. We create fantasy sub-worlds in which it's true: going from fifth grade to sixth grade, or raising the level of a game character, or getting promoted to vice president or full professor. But nothing in reality moves like this.

In reality, things move in circles -- the seasons, the sun, the planets, the migrations of birds -- or like a coyote they wander from one place to the next, playfully, without any number line attached. If we're like the former, we're going to keep cycling through complexity and collapse, like a forest that grows for a while and then burns. If we're like the latter, then this is just an ugly place we wandered into, and soon we'll wander out of it to a new place we like better, and after that...