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Overture: A Meditation Upon a Lake
§ 1. Why Should I Return to the City?
I've cycled seven kilometers through the forested hills, which begin near my front door and continue northwards for what looks like forever. The story in my tourist's map says my destination is a lookout platform above Pink Lake, in Gatineau Hills national park: a lake with no oxygen in its lowest depths, and therefore home to a unique and fragile ecosystem. The story in my mind, however, says that my destination is the climax of a hero's quest: a tower in the midst of a deep dark wood, near a magical lake. The treasure I hope to find at the end of this adventure is the answer to a question: why, if at all, should I go back to the city?
This question is, of course, a symbol for a deeper one. Let me attempt to convey what it stands for. Behind me on this bicycle path is the route back to my house. Were I to return there, I could take up again my share of the gains of civilization. There's clean water in my kitchen and bathroom. Electricity in the walls to power my computer and other machines. Libraries and museums to enrich my mind. Food that is safe and healthy to eat. Telephones and computer networks to keep me in touch with the rest of the human world. Hospitals to care for me if I am ill or injured. Police to protect me from criminals, armies to protect me from other armies. Every few years there's an invitation to vote for the people who will take charge of all these things.
With these gains come debts and responsibilities. I must find a job, and pay my bills, and respect the law. Outstanding among my responsibilities is the unwritten requirement to ignore, or sometimes to participate in, something I know to be entirely absurd. For instance, when I vote, I might find that all the candidates are incompetent or corrupt. Maybe their talents lie – so to speak – in their ability to hide their true intentions. The laws I'm bound to obey might prevent me from doing something that harms no one, or they might oblige me to do something that harms myself and others. They might punish people who don't deserve punishment, or reward people who didn't earn their reward. The books I read or the films I watch might stupefy me, instead of enlighten me. When I spend money, I might be indirectly helping to exploit or enslave the worker who made what I just bought. Or, my money might help to destroy an irreplaceable natural environment, from which the raw materials came. I might find that other people whom I depend on, be they business people, administrators, or even my friends and lovers, regularly deceive and manipulate me in order to protect their reputations or assert their influence. In the course of professing commitment to religion or politics, I might attack people who profess different religions or different politics, and I might call that violence my demonstration of piety, loyalty, and integrity.
I arrive at the lookout platform. I lock my bike to a fence post and search for a quiet place to breathe. Suddenly I discover I'm sitting on the threshold of three immensities: the city behind me, the lake before me, the sky above me. Here in this liminal place, the question, Why should I go back to the city?, becomes the question of why, if at all, I should put up with these absurdities. Why, if at all, I should turn around and rejoin civilization?
Civilization! A word like no other, in any language. It announces every society's highest and deepest values: it's the name we give for the most enduring and most glorious of humanity's monuments and cultural achievements. It speaks of that which a nation may share in common with other nations. In a previous study, I said the sacred is, 'That which acts as your partner in your search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.' Civilization is a name for the sum of all those partnerships; perhaps it follows that civilization is the sum of all that is sacred; or to put it another way, it is the most sacred of all sacred things. Or, so it might be for those who live in a 'civilized' society.
Yet the word also speaks of the conquests, colonizations, and oppressions which make that enduring glory possible. It lifts up one society by putting down another; it demands the capture and taming of wild lands and animals; it summons flag-waving believers to war. An informant of mine described her impression of Strasbourg Cathedral, in France, one of the finest examples of high Gothic architecture, as, 'Pure terror ... reflecting in its beauty a thousand years of war and horrors.' (A. Valkyrie, activist) Yet without civilization, there would be no Beethoven, no Shakespeare, no Einstein. Without it, we would not drink wine, nor read books after dark by electric light, nor would anyone have walked on the moon. How can civilization be all these things, both wonderful and terrible, at the same time? What is the essence of civilization – if it has one, at all? This book is about one possible answer to those questions, and it's the story of how I found it.
An essence, we philosophers sometimes say, is 'that which something ultimately is' – or, to make the concept easier to grasp, an essence is 'the statement which expresses that which something ultimately is'. As we shall soon see, the quest shall take us not only through the usual halls of economics and politics, but also to some of the muddiest fields of ecology, the highest hills of metaphysics, and the deepest caves of human nature. I find such questions inherently interesting, and for me that's reason enough to ask them. But the absurdities may lead me to some dark conclusions. What if civilization is a machine for crushing people? What if it's a machine that must inevitably break down? To consider these things is to consider metaphysical perils to human life. For it's not only the destruction of individual people's lives at stake. It's also the destruction of everything we point to as proof of the significance of our existence: art, literature, architecture, music, knowledge, the whole inheritance of history, and the very possibility of a legacy for the future. Without the sense of significance that comes from those things, life seems unbearable. The question, Why should I go back to the city?, is also the question, Why, if at all, should I have hope for the future of humanity?
This is the sort of question that every social or political activist, every politician, every captain of industry and finance, every human being who loves another human being, must ask. Along the way to an answer, I'll consider many theories of civilization, and I'll discuss their logical merits and flaws. But I don't want to produce a mere technical report, of interest only to other technicians. I want to build a foundation for optimism, for everyone – if one can be built at all. And if it should turn out that there is no hope for the future: well that, too, would be a discovery, even if an unhappy one. Then I should find some way to hold on to my soul while I immerse myself in the absurdity.
§ 2. How Deep do the Absurdities Go?
Practical examples of the absurdities of modern society are easy to find. I asked a few of my friends to name their favorites. Here are some of their replies:
Wealthy people who praise the value of the 'rustic' and 'simple' life, and who claim to want such a life, but without replicating the real toils and burdens of such a life. Marie Antoinette running her own hobby farm at Chateau Versailles, for example.
Precocious displays of social status and prominence: rich teenagers photographing themselves in bathtubs full of Perrier water.
Dozens of people sharing a city bus, but none of them sharing a conversation with each other.
Religions whose doctrines promote peace, charity, and neighborly love, but whose practitioners' behavior involves violence, racism, and unquestioning obedience.
Consumer products that save no one any time or work, which create no new possibilities for human life and action, and which are designed to be thrown out after very few uses. Shaving cream, for example: a totally pointless product; all you need is hot water.
Food that is saturated with processed sugar, but does not actually taste sweet; sugar being added to give the food a superficial texture, a 'weight'.
The huge variety of pre-packaged or frozen food available in grocery stores, which are not in fact a variety of real food choices, but are only a variety of brand names, packaging graphics, and minor differences among the additives.
The entire 'war on terror', in which the United States and its allies fight an enemy they accidentally and perhaps indirectly created.
Plentiful government money for war-fighting and for monuments to commemorate past wars, but not enough to care for wounded, dismembered, or psychologically traumatized soldiers returning from the wars.
Political slogans or jargon words that mean the very opposite of what a first-glance, plain-language impression would suggest. 'Right to life', for instance, is not a blanket obligation on all persons to abstain from murder. It actually means government regulation of a woman's use of her own reproductive organs. 'Right to work', as another example, doesn't oblige employers to hire anyone, but does prevent workers from going on strike to protest their badly-paid, insecure, health-destroying, and mind-numbing jobs.
The anarchist punk rock band, The Sex Pistols, licensed artwork and graphics related to their brand for use by a line of credit cards.
Bherlin Gildo, a Swedish man standing trial in Britain for terrorism, had the charges against him dropped when it was revealed that British intelligence agencies were supporting the same force Mr. Gildo was accused of joining. In the words of his defense lawyer: 'If it is the case that HM government was actively involved in supporting armed resistance to the Assad regime [in Syria] at a time when the defendant was present in Syria and himself participating in such resistance it would be unconscionable to allow the prosecution to continue.'
In June of 2015 a terrorist, bearing the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa stitched on his clothing, entered a church in South Carolina and murdered nine black people. Nevertheless the governor of the state, Nikki Haley, declared that, 'We'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.'
Investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson discovered that the United States FBI, an agency responsible for domestic counter-terrorism, is in fact 'the organization responsible for more terror plots over the last decade than any other'. The FBI uses sting operations to equip individuals they suspect might commit terrorist crimes, in order to arrest them in the act. But, as Aaronson told a CBC reporter: 'The FBI provided everything these men needed. They provided the weapons, the transportation and in some cases even the idea itself.'
Modern society offers a great abundance of opportunity, wealth, comfort, political freedom, widely available education and medicine and (let us admit it) distraction. Yet many people find that suicide is a preferable alternative. In the year 2011, 2,728 Canadians took their own lives. By contrast in low-tech, pre-industrial societies, suicide is less common, and more 'altruistic'; for instance elderly persons might take their lives to spare others the burden of caring for them.
These examples perhaps say as much about the priorities of the people I polled, as they do about modern society. But I'm sure you see the point. Life in an urban, organized, technologically-intensive society involves accepting and even making private peace with seemingly incoherent, unintentionally comic, and self-contradicting situations like these. I might accept them if I imagine I will benefit from them, or if I fear that others who benefit from them will retaliate against their critics. Or, perhaps people accept them using a kind of personal cost-benefit analysis. They're willing to put up with a city mayor who regularly gets drunk in public, utters racist slurs, and who ignores a police investigation against himself, so long as he cuts taxes.
Let us take this question a step further. For the absurdities of modern society might go deeper. Instead of threatening one group or another, be they large or small, they may appear to threaten all of civilization itself. That could not possibly happen, could it? Despite all its problems and contradictions, civilization is 'too big to fail', isn't it?
No, it's not. There are many ways that civilization could falter or collapse entirely, and we have plenty of examples from history.
A civilization could be threatened by the growing economic power of a rival society. The Economist magazine, that intellectual vanguard of Western capitalism, predicted in 2015 that Western corporations would lose their position of global dominance within only ten years. But a conquered society is only the most theatrical example; it is not nearly the most interesting.
A very popular, but often very poorly expressed, belief holds that civilization may collapse due to overpopulation. In 2015 The United Nations reported that the human population grew to 7.3 billion people, and predicted that there will be 9.7 billion of us around the year 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. India will be more populous than China, and Nigeria will be more populous than the United States. The potential danger of overpopulation is, in my view, rather exaggerated; I also dislike how it is also regularly used as a basis for punishing poor people for having children. But a civilization certainly can damage itself through its habits of planetary resource consumption. A growth period, for instance, could prompt unrestrained consumption of the resources of the earth, to the point where we become dependent on a certain natural resource at precisely the moment that resource runs out. Scientists estimate that the world will run out of readily-accessible petroleum on or about the year 2048. And two-thirds of the human race has not enough fresh water, or no water at all. A report by the World Economic Forum rated water scarcity as one of the top three biggest risks to people and economies, alongside failure to adapt to climate change, and weapons of mass destruction. Economists at the University of Maryland and University of Minnesota created a mathematical model of a civilization's 'through-put' from nature's regeneration rate to different kinds of human consumers, in search of a general theory for why societies collapse, independent of particular circumstances like history, technology, or natural disaster. They discovered that collapse is inevitable when there is excessive resource depletion and excessive class inequality. In the summary of their findings, they wrote:
... either one of the two features apparent in historical societal collapses – over-exploitation of natural resources and strong economic stratification – can independently result in a complete collapse. Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates. Even in the absence of economic stratification, collapse can still occur if depletion per capita is too high.
Economic inequality in contemporary Western civilization is very severe right now, and getting worse. In Canada, the wealth of the richest 10 per cent of Canadians grew by 42 per cent in the past ten years; at the same time the wealth of the poorest 10 per cent of Canadians shrank by 150 per cent. A study by Oxfam, the international charity organization, found that half of the entire world's wealth is owned by only 62 individuals. Economics, then, may be civilization's best friend and its worst enemy: it could lift a people up only to throw them down again.
Excerpted from "Reclaiming Civilization"
Copyright © 2016 Brendan Myers.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface, Acknowledgements, and Dedication 1
Overture: A Meditation Upon a Lake 4
§ 1 Why Should I Return to the City? 4
§ 2 How Deep do the Absurdities Go? 7
§ 3 What Questions to Ask? 19
First Movement: What is Civilization? 22
§ 4 Some Academic Views 22
§ 5 The Big Picture: Cities and Monuments 35
§ 6 The Small Picture: Etiquette, Manners, and Excellence 38
§ 7 The First House 43
§ 8 The Ancient Great Wall 49
§ 9 Thinking Shall Replace Killing 59
§ 10 Walls and Circles 69
§ 11 Plans for the Rational City 73
§ 12 Dreams of the Celestial City 79
§ 13 Tales of the State of Nature 86
§ 14 Civilization Without Cities 98
§ 15 Gathering the Fragments 106
§ 16 The Essence of Civilization 108
An Interlude 117
§ 17 Far From the City, and Far From Home 117
§ 18 Prague and Empire 121
§ 19 Three Temples, Three Shrines 125
Second Movement: What's Wrong With Civilization? 129
§ 20 Models of the Civilized Man 129
§ 21 A Thought Experiment 140
§ 22 Facing the People 144
§ 23 Facing the Earth and Sky 150
§ 24 Facing the Darkness 160
§ 25 Planting the Fields 167
§ 26 Crowning the King 176
§ 27 Building the Wall 181
§ 28 The Illusion that Exalts Us 183
§ 29 Two Views of the Noble Lie 191
§ 30 Rationality And Despair 199
§ 31 The Illusion of No Alternative 205
Another Interlude 216
§ 32 Pastoralia 216
§ 33 New Horizons 222
§ 34 This is What Love Looks Like 226
Third Movement: What Shall We Do About It? 234
§ 35 Dance Macabre 234
§ 36 Progressive Negations 240
§ 37 Pacing the Immensities 249
§ 38 Songs from the Wood 253
§ 39 Responding to the Immensities 265
§ 40 The Deliberate Civilization 273
End Notes 287