The Costs of Civilization

History is not a collection of threads that connect individual people and ideas across time; history is a web in which all ideas and all lives are entangled. Civilization is a package deal. These ostensibly positive things don’t suddenly appear without context or cost. They come wrapped in the antecedent conditions and cruelties of their creation: no blues without slavery; no moon landing without NAZI rocket scientists; no Slaughterhouse-Five without Vonnegut cowering in an underground meat locker while Dresden burned above him.

A dozen socks for $3.99 at Walmart seems like a bargain until you include the Cambodian sweatshops and cotton pesticides in your calculations. A bottle of “natural spring water” in your backpack is a great idea until you give some thought to the estimated 5 trillion pieces of plastic polluting the world’s oceans—amounting to some 269,000 tons of plastic crap on the surface of the deep, blue sea.[1] There's no doubt that the political stability resulting from the Mongol empire allowed significant advances in science, trade, and agricultural technology. Some historians even argue that the European Renaissance was a rebirth—not of Greece or Rome—but of concepts spread by the rampaging Mongol hoards. (For an example of a positive spin on the Genghis Khan and the Mongols, see Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 2005, by Jack Weatherford.) Could be. But were those advances worth the suffering of the estimated 50 million people the Mongols raped and slaughtered? Are the achievements of world capitalism worth the widespread exploitation and destruction essential to its success? I guess it depends on whom you ask—and when.[2]

Just as there’s never any mention of PTSD, lost limbs, or brain trauma in “Be All You Can Be” recruitment commercials for the U.S. Army, and the slaughterhouse goes unmentioned in burger ads, most of civilization’s costs are conspicuously missing from polite conversation. Did you know, for example, that foragers rarely work more than a few hours per day? Kids in school don’t learn that hunter-gatherers were, on average, about six or seven inches taller than the farmers who displaced them and had far better health overall, or that fewer than one percent of foragers experienced tooth decay or gum disease, painful conditions that skyrocketed to rates 20 times that with the adoption of agriculture. They don’t hear that the Iroquois confederation had a profound influence on the framing of the U.S. Constitution.[3] Despite overwhelming evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors who survived childhood had lives that typically stretched into their 60s, 70s, and sometimes beyond, we’re still surrounded by “experts” who insist on repeating the inane disinformation that they only lived into their 30s. Ignoring decades of careful research by anthropologists and ethnologists that demonstrate low stress and infrequent conflict, the public is repeatedly assured that our prehistoric ancestors faced lives of constant war and teetered on the brink of starvation.

Our insistence on considering only the upside of civilization while ignoring many of its costs—and, conversely, demonizing prehistory with repeated misinformation—is as misguided (and dangerous) as only paying attention to the visible part of the iceberg. In the end, it’s the massive, submerged churning that will determine our fate, on both the individual and planetary levels.

[1] Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea
Published: December 10, 2014DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111913
[2] (link is external)
 On slavery as a necessary antecedent to capitalism, see: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, 2014, by Edward E. Baptist, or Empire of Cotton: A Global History, 2014, by Sven Beckert.
[3] Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy 1982
by Bruce E. Johansen

(Excerpted from Civilized to Death, coming in 2016 from Simon and Schuster.)