7. Civilisation and its Discontents

Staterooms and border patrols


Civilisation has many virtues and brings manifold advantages. Some inventions of the last two centuries have made life much easier and changed things fundamentally.

Civilisation also charges its price. We're used and addicted to gizmos and systems. We fail to see their full merits and demerits. 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.

Civilisation is a mixed bag. When we think of 'civilisation', we visualise edifices, laws, inventions and comforts, forgetting the flip side - dreary, unsightly, sterile and stressful conditions, hardly fit for human life.

We no longer draw water from the well. And we have lost the community relationships conducted at the well-head.

The world has become a worrying place and, at moments of acute public awareness, 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 actually redistributed to a complex range of activities, 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.

Keeping the show on the road


To maintain a civilisation like ours demands a sectioned-up psychology, with large buried and dormant parts and lots of underactive linkages.

To tolerate having so little time, joy, love and fellowship, we shut those parts of ourselves that wish we had them, or we engage in substitute activities - stroking the cat, making money or shedding tears over soppy movies. We have become psychological mutants.

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, pills, isolation, workaholism, violence...

Our lives and societies are hopelessly inefficient and under-fulfilled. 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.

We must 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. Problems get shifted around rather than being properly resolved.

In the 21st C, 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 re-proportioning 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. They press our collective buttons, awakening strong feelings, sometimes crowd-actions.

Civilisation is not as advanced as we believe. Our technologies are clunky. 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.

Starting with a shift in our minds, hearts and spirits. This is the main story of our time.

Sustainable development


It is necessary to embark on a process of intense transition. Economic, environmental and social pressures point this way. Strangely, many formerly idealistic visions are now becoming pragmatic answers.

We could have started a big re-evaluation in the 1960s, when major global, human and ecological issues first came to light.

We might have devoted the 1970s to research, experimentation and tackling 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.


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 is understood. It would take time 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 could hit a crisis, launching into 'fast-track' change. Change through emergency and crisis-management. Perhaps like a war effort, hopefully without the shooting.

We have the skills, ingenuity and wherewithal to start the change process. But the world-view informing us today doesn't help. We want change as long as nothing really changes. 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...


Wounds and Scars of Nations

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