The trouble with civilization.

Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.-The Matrix

Another book I grabbed from the library during one of my brief visits was Ronald Wright’s 2005 book A Short History of Progress. It reminded me of an extended essay, much like those found in publications such as The Atlantic, Harper’s or Wilson Quarterly.  Taking the same approach as a Jared Diamond with his recent book Collapse, the British historian and novelist Wright after examining the historical and archeological record of Easter Island, the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states and ancient Sumer concludes that human civilization, much like capitalism in the minds of Marxist theorists, carries the seeds of its own destruction. As population increases, society itself grows both in size and complexity, eventually taking the form of a pyramid:  rigid and hierarchical in nature with a massive plebian or peasant base serving the needs of upper crust warriors, priests and rulers. Eventually, the ever-increasing demand for resources destroys the environment, denying the ruling classes the means to rule the ruled. As a result chaos, strife and instability reign as society collapses. Your civilization has its brief day in the sun and another kingdom or empire somewhere in the world takes over as top dog.

But there’s a bigger problem. Places like Easter Island and the Mayan constellation of city states were rather small and isolated areas. Sumer was small and was easily absorbed and reabsorbed into any number of ancient empires common to the Fertile Crescent. The Roman Empire, while at its zenith was spread out over much of the Mediterranean littoral, much like Sumer was eventually absorbed into empires barbarian or Islamic, or its peripheral portions spun-off into kingdoms of their own. But 500 years after those Roman successor kingdoms broke out of Europe and conquered the Americas, Africa and much of Asia. Thanks to modern technology and mass communications, what we call civilization is now global and no longer just regional. So if this pattern of resource exhaustion and societal collapse happens again, it will happen on a planet-wide scale. And that’s a BIG problem.

Like most theories of history, Wright’s is a construct of his creation and should be treated as such. While it’s risky to make long-range predictions based on past historical evidence without the gift of clairvoyance, Wright’s arguments based on his interpretation of that historical and scientific evidence seem reasonable and compelling. It might not be a bad idea to heed the warnings in A Short History of Progress. After all, as the anonymous graffiti artist quoted in Wright’s book so sagely put it “each time history repeats itself, the price goes up.”

2 thoughts on “The trouble with civilization.

  1. I’ve heard quite a bit about this book and it sounds quite intriguing. I seem to have moved away from books like this recently, but I might have to find my way back sometime soon!


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