The Simple Story of Civilization

December 20, 2022

The stories we fashion about ourselves are heavily influenced by our short life spans during an age of unprecedented complexity. We humans, it would seem, are unfathomably complicated creatures who defy simple “just-so” characterizations. Animals, or humans tens of thousands of years ago are fair game for simple stories, but not so for transcendent modern humans.

Two major problems I have with this attitude are that 1) we are animals, and 2) we have exactly the same hardware (albeit with slightly smaller brains) as we had 100,000 years ago.

So allow me to pull back from our present age of baffling complexity to outline a simple story covering the broad sweep of the human saga. The result may be a little startling, and, for a number of readers, sure to be rejected by cultural antibodies as “not applicable” (see also my views of our civilization as a cult).

Story Timeline

In order to make comprehensible the vast tract of human time on this planet—itself 5,000 times shorter than the age of the universe—I will compare the 2.5–3 million year presence of humans (genus Homo) on Earth to a 75 year human lifespan: a span that we can grasp intuitively. On this scale, we get the following analogous periods:

  1. First 70 years: various species of humans evolve and coexist (sustainably) on the planet;
  2. Last 5 years: the age of Homo Sapiens (about 200,000 yr; mostly sustainably);
  3. Last 15 weeks: the age of civilization (agriculture; then cities) (10,000 yr);
  4. Last 4 days: the age of science (400 yr);
  5. Last 36 hours: the age of fossil fuels (150 yr of increasingly significant use);
  6. Last 12 hours: the age of rapid global ecological devastation (50 yr).

On this lifetime scale, agriculture is a recent, unexpected hobby we picked up, and one that is still pretty new to us in the scheme of tings. Or maybe we can compare it to a gateway drug that radically changed our behavior, values, attitudes, and expectations (gave us the munchies?). Or maybe it’s like the rapid onset of a mental disorder. In any case, our friends and relatives would be pretty alarmed by this uncharacteristic change toward the end of a long life.

In the last four days, we took our hobby to a whole new level. Agriculture is about control of at least part of nature. Science put that control on steroids. Maybe it’s like cocaine following the gateway drug. It gave us a mechanism by which to learn from controlled experiments and then exercise (imperfect, problematic) control over an expanding set of domains. It “amped” things up.

In the last day or so, we found an even more potent enabler. Let’s see…I’ve already used steroids for the previous step, so what would steroids on steroids be? Fossil fuels equipped us with superpowers to carry out our scientifically-guided ambitions to previously-unimaginable new levels. I seem to recall from the “scare” films in my youth that drugs like PCP can make us think we have superpowers so we’re prone to jump out of a window, convinced we can fly. Similarly, the superpowers granted by this short-lived finite resource have tricked us into thinking that these powers are an intrinsic human quality: owing to our big brains, not the substance.  Beguiled by this false flattery, we tell ourselves that nothing can stop our boundless juggernaut of innovation!

Slide Anything shortcode error: A valid ID has not been provided

In this altered state, we find ourselves on a destructive rampage, as evidenced by the severe toll on habitats and biodiversity: about 85% of primary forest is gonevertebrate populations have declined by about 70% on average since 1970; and now 96% of mammal mass on the planet is embodied in humans and our livestock. The dots are not difficult to connect. The combination of methods and substances available to us have allowed explosive exploitation of resources on a global scale. A paltry and decreasing amount of habitat—increasingly fragmented—remains.  The healthy, biodiverse regions are disappearing fast.

So, reflect on how you would react to a 75-year-old relative who went on a euphoric bender as extreme and damaging as the one in this story. It’s as if this otherwise stable and (mostly) harmless person spiraled into manic behavior so quickly as to leave us stunned. It’s as jarring as a crash; like slamming into a brick wall. We might even suspect an alien baby gestating in our relative’s stomach cavity, so outlandish is their behavior.  For the safety of your relative and all those around them, you’d probably want them sedated and strapped to a bed in a hospital for observation. Ironically, our recent “hobby” obsession with control has left us spiraling out of control.

The backdrop, or fabric of your entire existence—the few hours for which you’ve been alive on our scale—seems entirely normal to you, but the whole point of this post is that it’s really just not.

No Facile Solution

This condition seems unlikely to be solved by technology. Wouldn’t we say that technology is a primary ingredient of the illness? Cleverness and an illusion of control got us here, and they are not our best tools for extracting ourselves from the mess.

I have written other pieces about the foundational flaws in our growth trajectory on a finite planet; about the idiotically narrow construct of money (Box 19.1 in textbook), and how decisions based on money will be bad ones (if it makes economic sense, it almost certainly batters the ecosystem). I have posted about the cognitive distortion produced by fossil fuels, and the tragic fallacy of building an enormous human population on the back of a finite resource that threatens a devastating population crash when its availability inevitably declines. The real, ultimate value is in biodiversity and ecosystem health, which suggests de-emphasizing the primacy of humans and becoming subordinate partners on the planet rather than its self-appointed and ultimately inept overlords presiding over the demise of our transitory empire.

But stepping back and using our temporal framework as a mental guide, we are justified in asking whether our path of civilization is wrong at its very roots.  That might seem extreme, but we are indeed at an extreme nexus in the history of our planet.  I didn’t start out thinking this way (as the long evolution of this blog series attests).  I mean, I knew our growth path could not last, and that fossil fuel substitution would be harder than many appreciated, but I never entertained the idea that civilization itself was a bad idea.  It is not eagerly that I tread these waters.

The surprisingly recent gateway experiment of agriculture led—in a causally-connected way—to surplus, storage, permanent settlements, accumulation of material possessions, hierarchy, standing armies, property rights (the laughable conceit that we own the land!), patriarchy and monotheism, subjugation of humans and animals,, soil degradation, habitat destruction, extinction rates far above normal, and all the rest. A bad trip—all for the sake of controlled food production and storage, the lack of which did not prevent humans from living sustainably for millions of years. Likewise, wild animals in healthy ecosystems don’t appear to live in constant misery: they’ve got it figured out in a way that works and is stable. We don’t look at a bird chirping and flitting through the trees and react in horror at the pitiful state it must find itself in, lacking the means to control its environment. Why should we look at pre-agricultural humans and imagine horrific misery, as many are inclined to do?

Since our civilization is not built on a foundation of sustainable principles, it is no surprise that we find it now to be utterly unsustainable. Unsustainable means certain failure, by the way. Thus, our civilization was custom-built for failure. Congratulations. The unfolding story just transpires over enough life spans that it all seems gradual to us as individuals, and therefore does not feel pressing or inevitable based on our narrow direct experience. In hindsight, I suspect it will be forehead-slapping obvious—to the point of making us look rather dull-witted.

I like flight analogies here. A rock is not designed on the aerodynamic principles of sustainable (indefinite, level) flight. A rock can nonetheless become airborne, follow a graceful and exhilarating arc through the air, but then certainly plummet back to Earth. Likewise, our civilization—also not founded on principles of sustainability—can soar upward for a time (during our inheritance spending spree) and seem like great fun—giving its paying passengers tremendous satisfaction for a time. Patiently waiting for us is Earth and planetary limits.

An important aside is that this condition is not intrinsic to the human animal. Most of our life on this planet has not been characterized by a smash-and-grab rampage. That’s our new trick for the last 15 weeks, recently perfected and at fever pitch. Dazzling!  We can learn other tricks—take up new hobbies that don’t wreck our lives and those of our loved ones (i.e., other species): slow, thoughtful hobbies rather than this frenetic one.

Can’t We Just…?

You might be thinking: well okay, maybe we’ve overshot a bit and need to dial things back…but surely (Shirley?) we can hold on to something we would recognize as civilization—I mean, come-on!  Well, truthfully, I don’t know if it’s possible to preserve civilization—and neither does anyone else! To state the obvious: wanting civilization to continue is not enough without biophysical backing. I suspect that for most people who assume a continuation and even expansion into space, their examination is paper thin—not based on a careful consideration of biophysical limits, but more a matter of uncritical and fantastical extrapolation based on an admittedly head-spinning recent binge…I mean history.

My reasonable doubt is semi-quantitative.  We have consumed a sizable fraction of our non-renewable inheritance (mineral concentrations, fossil fuels, etc.) on the time scale of a century.  Even at a tenth the current scale (itself a terrifying prospect to many), we might slow the draw-down to give us another 1,000 years or so—another few weeks in our life span analogy.  Aggressive recycling and more resources than I credit might stretch things for 10,000 years (translating to a few months).  Keep in mind, this is already in the context of a substantially and deliberately dialed-down human footprint, lacking any precedent. Note that 10,000 years is still very short in the scheme of things and signals that we may well be nearer the end of civilization than the beginning.  The doctor is saying: we have—at best—a few weeks or months to live unless we make a radical change in our lifestyle and practices. At this rate, it’s more likely mere days. If we heed the advice and make a major course correction, be prepared for the detox experience to be unpleasant, but necessary.

I’m not interested in fantastical or magical thinking. The suggestion—against mounting evidence to the contrary—that we could (or should) maintain the architecture for this ecologically devastating mode of living for any significant duration strikes me as simply wishful and also heartbreaking.  I’d like to get beyond that and be hard-nosed about what can really happen, subject to planetary limits: most importantly, preserving habitat and biodiversity.

But Big Brains?

A common reaction is: can’t we use our big brains to solve this problem?  Extending civilization for even another 1,000 years will surely give us time to think of something, our faith tells us.  What if that “something” is the realization that civilization is inherently unsustainable and must be replaced with alternate, simpler (but richly meaningful) approaches to life on Earth?  Maybe we can use our brains to save ourselves some time, agony, and further devastation by reaching this conclusion sooner.

Implicit in the leading question above is usually the notion of a technological solution. My viewpoint has become that technology is not the right tool to solve a predicament caused by a technological approach. But yes, we can (and should) use our big brains. It’s just that the task at hand is to figure out how to adopt a whole new way of living on this planet and how to dismantle civilization in a way that is least destructive to biodiversity and to humans. We need to relinquish our hubristic (and illusory) grip on control and our naive ambition of total mastery. We fall into the trap of thinking: “if we just learn a little more, we’ll finally have it.”  But it’s never enough, and never can be.  We have barely scratched the surface of understanding the machinery of Earth’s ecosystems, and it’s a fool’s quest to imagine we can achieve the requisite omniscience to maintain a successful reign—especially as the biophysical clock ticks more and more urgently.

What we need to learn instead is how to live with the long-term constraints of the natural world as it is presented to us—not take it upon ourselves to shape it to our unrealistic wants and whims, which is a proposition certain to fail. It’s about responding and adapting in an attitude of humility, not solving, mastering, exerting, defining, and dictating. Our brains are nowhere near big enough to pull off complete wizardry over nature, but maybe they are big enough to make this leap of intentional humility. We’ve been there before. I hope we still have what it takes.

Priorities for Success

It is in this context that the push to transition to renewable energy is misguided, in my view. The implicit aim is to preserve civilization in essentially its current glorious state by keeping it fueled to carry on in the least disruptive way. Disruptive to what? Economic concerns? Civilization is proving to be frighteningly disruptive to the natural world. In prioritizing a preservation of civilization, we are elevating this ephemeral, artificial construct above biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem: a prescription for certain failure. It’s doubling down on the wrong thing: propping up and accelerating the machine that’s eating the planet alive.  Barreling forward on renewable energy is the last thing Earth’s critters would vote for, and would be considered one of the more disruptive decisions we could make.

Granted, any sustainable future must by definition utilize renewable energy in the broadest sense, as humans did until very recently. The current practice is the anomaly. I can’t rule out the notion that photovoltaic panels might play a role in the far future. But dependence on mined materials makes this gizmo less likely to fit into a truly long-term scheme. My inclination is to not sweat projections at that level. If we get the foundation right, the rest will follow as it may.

Any path to success must start on a sound ecological foundation, whatever the field of concern: economics, politics, belief systems, human rights, science, engineering, and the rest. Is that the first chapter/lecture in any of these fields? Of course not, but it ought to be. Otherwise we are teaching a blind path to failure.  Think of it this way: what would you trade (technology, comforts, materials, even relationships) for all the (non-human) animals/life on Earth?  Probably nothing, upon realizing that we ourselves can’t live without a functioning (healthy) ecosystem, and that we are just one of ten million species.  Okay.  Then we need to act like it.  Make biodiversity and ecological health the highest priority and work within the resulting constraints.  All decisions should start with the question: “would this action help or harm the (larger, and ultimately more important) non-human world?”

Post-Script: Recent Influences

As my posting history reveals, I have been on a journey of expanded thinking about the nature of our predicament, moving beyond the initial phase of quantitative assessment of energy (during which I was still in the mindset of a tech-driven solution space), into deeper questions of what we’re all about and why we do the things we do. In the summer of 2022, after several recommendations over the years, I finally sat down to read Ishmael, a novel by Daniel Quinn. I was simultaneously impressed by how familiar the logic already was to me and by the degree to which it sharpened my ability to separate successful approaches from (ultimately) unsuccessful ones. I followed this up by the two other installments in the series (The Story of B and My Ishmael) and Quinn’s non-fiction framing work, Beyond Civilization. I have valued them all, and view them as helping to crystalize the path I was already walking down. I wouldn’t call myself a faithful adherent—accepting all arguments/premises—but a largely-resonant admirer of the worth of these important works. Check your library and give it a try!

More recently, I read An Inconvenient Apocalypse by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen. This work also deeply resonated as a careful, deliberate, sober, thoughtful, and insightful approach to how we deal with the predicament of civilization. It’s not a go-to resource for making the case that we’re in deep trouble, although it plucks some of those chords. Mostly, it reflects on our reactions and choices in this moment, and offers valuable food for thought for those who already sense that this deal is going sideways. My small-town library had a copy, to my surprise and delight.

Other voices are starting to broadcast what I think is an accurate message. I already posted  last year praising David Attenborough’s powerful conclusion. In the last few weeks, articles in The Intercept (amazing!) and New York Times made the case for biodiversity and ecosystem health above secondary concerns like climate change and the usual technological “solutions” proffered in response. Although, I have to complain that the NYT article contained one of those paragraphs almost always accompanying warnings about an animal’s endangerment: what potential benefits those animals have to humans, including the ever-present dangling of a possible key to some medical cure. It drives me crazy that we are so transactional as to require direct benefit to us to justify another animal’s existence.

To echo a provocative sentiment others have used to great effect: What good is a Honduran white bat, you ask? Well, what good are you? How have humans, or you personally, (on balance, or in net terms) helped the planet’s wild species or overall ecosystem health? Are you more valuable, or less valuable to sustaining biodiversity than the bat, the newt, or even the mosquito? Yeah, that hard truth stings me, too.


Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. An amateur astronomer in high school, physics major at Georgia Tech, and PhD student in physics at Caltech, Murphy has spent decades reveling in the study of astrophysics. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts, achieving one-millimeter range precision. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Motivated by the unprecedented challenges we face, he has applied his instrumentation skills to exploring alternative energy and associated measurement schemes. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. Note from Tom: To learn more about my personal perspective and whether you should dismiss some of my views as alarmist, read my Chicken Little page.

Tags: building resilient societies, collapse of industrial civilization