Civilisation and its Discontents
Staterooms and border patrols
Civilisation has many virtues bringing manifold advantages. Some inventions of the last two centuries have made life so much easier and changed things fundamentally.
Civilisation also charges a price. We're accustomed and addicted to gizmos and complex systems. We fail to see their full range of merits and benefits and demerits and costs. Are we are using them or are they using us?
To evaluate civilisation's benefits we need to find out what life would be like without them and to see through the claims that are made for 'advances' we have little power to influence, since they are driven largely by profit, not wisdom.
Civilisation is a mixed bag. When we think of 'civilisation', we visualise edifices, laws, inventions and comforts, forgetting the flipside - dreary, unsightly, sterile and stressful conditions, hardly fit for human life.
We no longer draw water from the well. We have lost the community relationships conducted at the well-head.
The world has become a worrying place and, at moments of acute public consternation, a disturbing thought snakes through the collective mind: where is all this going and what is it all for?
Civilisation is a process of substitution. Substitution of the costs and benefits of a simpler life for those of an elaborate, sophisticated life. Labour-saving technologies make life bearable, yet little labour is saved - it is redistributed to a complex range of activities, sub-routines and contractors, mainly via the agency of money.
Some civilised activities are distinctly burdensome, no matter how we rationalise them - tax, pollution and war. We are addicted to civilised self-punishment. Even many of our pleasures involve self-abuse.
This doesn't mean nothing can be done.
Civilisation has not been fully thought through. Our civilisation benefits some and harms others. Our technologies, social structures and mindsets are not the best available. There could be greater happiness.
A high price is being paid. During the 21st Century, we get the bill. Profit was made by some though the price is paid by all - in particular those who profited least.
Keeping the show on the road
To maintain a civilisation like ours demands a sectioned-up psychology amongst its population, with large buried and dormant parts and lots of underactive linkages.
To tolerate having so little time, joy, love and fellowship, we shut down those parts of ourselves that wish we had them, or we engage in substitute activities - stroking the cat, making money, eating or shedding tears over soppy movies. We have become psychological mutants, more controlled than we care to admit.
This creates complications. The shut-down parts don't just go to sleep: they engage in subversive psychological strategies to force the issue and bring things to our attention. In response, we fight harder to keep our full selves down. Result: unhappiness, depression, alcohol, drugs, medication, isolation, workaholism, violence...
Our lives and societies are hopelessly inefficient and under-fulfilling. Ever more energy and investment go into offsetting the situation, trying to make civilisation appear to work.
We stand today in a historic transition time, discovering what being civilised really means. Civilisation is an emotional, behavioural and human thing, not just technological.
We need to look at the roots of our problems as well as their branches. This is difficult because everything is interrelated, we've left it all very late and we fear an avalanche of consequences from what we might discover. Problems get shifted around or set aside rather than being properly resolved.
In the 21st Century, civilisation needs to find a shape and texture that fits well with nature and human nature - for individuals, communities, society and the world. It involves a reproportioning of human life, a change in the landscape, a transformation of towns and cities...
We all know the situation. Current events draw our attention to the key issues before us. They press our collective buttons, awakening strong feelings, sometimes crowd actions.
Civilisation is not as advanced as we believe. Our technologies are clunky and fragile. We're caught in a vortex of complexification and diminishing returns. Things can change by choice or by force of circumstance. But the change needed is fundamental.
It starts with a shift in our minds, hearts and spirits. This is the main story of our time.
It is necessary to embark on a process of intense transition. Economic, environmental and social pressures point this way. Many formerly idealistic visions are now becoming pragmatic answers. New generations see and accept this more than older generations, and this change will come from those countries with majorities of younger people.
We could have started a big re-evaluation in the 1960-70s, when major global, human and ecological issues first came to light.
We might have devoted the 1970s to research, experimentation and tackling the most urgent issues. In the 1980s we might have invested in clean-up, technological change and reconstruction.
In the 1990s we might have started redesigning infrastructure and organisational systems, starting to address larger social, cultural, environmental, climatic and economic issues.
In the early 2000s we might have been reaping rewards from earlier projects that needed development time, and making further progress on fundamentals that take decades to change.
By now we would be starting a second phase of longterm correction, getting down toward the root causes.
This transition might conceivably have continued to the 2050s. The extent of the damage is so deep that much more emerges to be dealt with than first was understood. It would take time - decades - before the world could be regarded as truly safe.
We have not followed this timetable. We've delayed a long time. We haven't accepted the extent of our problem.
This implies that we are likely to hit a crisis, launching us into 'fast-track' change, whether or not we like it. Change through encountering emergencies and having to crisis-manage them. Perhaps like a war effort, hopefully without the shooting.
We have the skills, ingenuity and wherewithal to pull off this change process. But the worldview informing us today doesn't help. We want change as long as nothing really changes, and as long as it doesn't affect us. We're stuck.
We have a dilemma, deep down inside. It causes frustration, overconsumption, addiction, pollution, war, indifference - all of these are diversionary tactics. Something holds us back...