Civilization: Worth the Trouble?

When you’re going in the wrong direction, progress is the last thing you need. Maybe the “progress” that defines our age is closer to the progression of a disease than its cure. Sorry to be such a buzz-kill, but things aren’t looking good and show no signs of improving any time soon. In fact, from where I’m standing, it looks like western civilization is picking up speed the way things do when they’re circling the drain. Could it be that the fiercely-held belief in progress is a sort of pain-killer—a faith-in-the-future antidote to a sorely lacking, terrifying present? Does our belief in progress function the same way assurances of eternal heaven just around the corner have been used to calm the despairing for centuries? The way imported spices were used to cover the stench of the rotting food on the tables of wealthy Europeans?  

I know, there’s always been some lunatic warning that the end is nigh and we alway say, “But this time it’s different!” But seriously, this time it’s different. The planetary climate is shifting like cargo on a sinking ship. The most recent report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said that at the end of 2014, the number of people forcibly displaced by war, conflict and persecution had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million in 2004. Flocks of birds are falling from the sky, the buzzing of bees grows faint, and ancient butterfly migrations have ended. Species are going extinct at a rate not seen since the last time a major asteroid struck the planet. Texas-sized islands of swirling plastic suffocate oceans that are swelling as quickly as fresh-water aquifers are shrinking. Ice caps melt down as unstoppable methane bubbles up from the depths. Governments dither obediently while Wall Street tears the last bits of wealth from the carcass of the middle class.

None of this is particularly surprising. Far from it. Every civilization that’s ever existed has ended in chaos, tumult, and collapse—and there never was any good reason to think ours would break the pattern. But Rome, Sumer, the Mayans, Ancient Egypt, and the others were all regional collapses. The civilization imploding around us now is global. As Canadian historian Ronald Wright puts it, “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up. The collapse of the first civilization on earth, the Sumerian, affected only half a million people. The fall of Rome affected tens of millions. If ours were to fail, it would, of course, bring catastrophe on billions.”

But the end of the world is beside the point. Despite the previous few paragraphs, I didn’t write this book to convince you that progress is a lie and civilization is a colossal mistake. Maybe you think the sublime beauty of Mahler’s Second Symphony, those photos of Earth taken from space, or knowledge of the structure of DNA are worth any price—even the otherworldy price we’ve paid. And after all is said and done, who am I to say you’re wrong? Maybe your life, or the life of someone you love, was saved by technological medicine—which makes it both personally difficult and morally distasteful for you to be anything less than a full-throated fan of modernity. Maybe you think the shit will ultimately miss the fan because coalitions of smart, decent people find a way to use the internet to spread corrective ways of thinking and interacting that rapidly, finally, infect our species with some common fucking sense. Let’s hope so. Whether the wonders of our age are worth their exorbitant cost is a question we each must ultimately answer for ourselves, and a lot of it depends on what happens—or doesn’t—in the next decade or so.

But even if they remain unanswered, these are questions well worth asking, because our species’ only hope of a future worth living in depends on how we understand our past, and how we apply that knowledge to our present and future. We need to ask ourselves who’s more worthy of our respect and admiration? The handful of inbred, power-mad pharaohs who financed the building of the pyramids in pursuit of ego-driven immortality, or the millions of forgotten foragers who accepted without struggle the universal fate of all that lives, their bodies long-since dissolved back into the Earth without monument or complaint? If death is the monster we all face, the question we must answer is Nietzsche’s: “Is it better to out-monster the monster or to be quietly devoured?” I vote for being devoured, though I can’t promise how quiet I’ll be.

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