Where's my jetpack?

In 1928, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” in which he imagined the world a century later. By 2028, he predicted, things would be so good that no one would need to worry about making money. In fact, the principal problem people were going to face, according to Keynes, would be what to do with all their free time: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.” 

In fact, the average American works as many hours today as he or she did in 1970 and is lucky to get a couple of weeks off in a year. Overall, wealth has increased, but in America, almost all the increase has gone to the richest 1%. European countries have been more equitable, as least in the distribution of free time. According to Elizabeth Kolbert, “The average employed American works about one hundred and forty hours more per year than the average Englishman and three hundred hours more than the average Frenchman. (Current French law mandates that workers get thirty paid vacation days per year, British law twenty-eight; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero.)”[1] 

Ah, the glorious, leisurely future! Always just around the corner, but never quite arriving. Think I'm being harsh about progress? Get a taste of evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote that “Progress is a noxious, culturally embedded, untestable, nonoperational, intractable idea that must be replaced if we wish to understand the patterns of history.”[2] Jared Diamond isn’t convinced by the pro-progress propaganda either, though he’s a bit more diplomatic in his doubts:

“Don’t words such as ‘civilization,’ and phrases such as ‘rise of civilization,’ convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, and history for the past 13,000 years has involved progress toward greater human happiness? In fact, I do not assume that industrialized states are ‘better’ than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress,’ or that it has led to an increase in human happiness. My own impression, from having divided my life between United States cities and New Guinea villages, is that the so-called blessings of civilization are mixed.”[3]

[1] (The New Yorker, 5/26/14, p. 74) by Elizabeth Kolbert
[2] Gould (1988) “On Replacing the Idea of Progress with an Operational Notion of Directionality,” in M.H. Nitecki (ed.), Evolutionary Progress. p. 319.
[3] Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 18.

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

Progress? What Progress?

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.)

Civilization: A package Deal

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] http://chronicle.com/article/SlaveryCapitalism/150787/ (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.)