Civilisation: the oldest confidence trick in history?

Remains of the Roman Road at Egnazia by Steve JayResearchers at universities in Portugal and Belgium discovered earlier in the year that the way to less selfish societies is to give individuals the freedom to behave as they wish. Their research gives scientific weight to the idea that, left to their own devices, people tend naturally to cooperation.

Though perhaps not a huge surprise to most of us, it offers another important challenge to the traditional line that our default priority behaviour is to compete – a line that has determined the rules of our economic and social systems for centuries.

In support of this is a real-life, on-the-ground survey of recently laid-off Wall Street workers conducted by sociologist Richard Sennett, who explained on BBC Radio 4 that despite the financial constraints on these newly unemployed people the majority are determined not to go back to working as they were. They are, he said, keen to find more collaborative and cooperative ways of working that sidestep the stress of individual competition. Sennett, author of several books on the effects of modern capitalism on quality of life, suggests the economic downturn gives us an opportunity to rethink how we want to work.

I suggest that whether or not we grasp this opportunity will, at some point, determine much more than how we work – for reasons I’ll come to. First though, what do these all-too-fleeting news items remind us?

Uh-oh, you’re thinking: here comes another diatribe about how the industrial growth economy prevents us from fulfilling our true potential and how our culture of consumption and competition is destroying our mental health, all topped with a bit of mournful analysis about our disconnect from nature.

But stay with it – this time we’re going a bit deeper.

A simple step back can give us an intriguing vantage point on the situation. Let’s look in from the outside on that bastion of human social structures, that system that represents and embodies the pinnacle of human achievement: civilisation. Not just modern civilisation – the very concept of civilisation itself.

Our unwavering belief that civilisation forms primary evidence for the superiority and sophistication of the human species, and that to become civilised is to improve oneself, prevents all but the most marginal discussion of the possibility that civilisation as we understand it could in fact be the problem – or a big part of it. Which is a shame, because the possibility is an instructive one.

It’s impossible to do this thesis justice in a few lines: it needs to be a personal journey of exploration. But I hope at least to find the lines that might tempt further reading. They are none of them original thinking, but compiled from years of ad-hoc reading.

Outgrowing our ecosystems

What’s self-evident is that the social systems that underpin civilisation are fantastically efficient at harnessing human energy and, within privileged circles at least, creativity. This has its upsides, for sure. But on the downside, it has enabled us to become so successful as a species that we have repeatedly outgrown the ecosystems in which we have lived. A quick look back at the courses other civilisations have taken reveals that exploitation of natural resources, pride, a sense of invincibility, and overshoot leading to systemic crisis are common to most if not all that have ever existed.

Not only that, the areas of land spreading out from the high-density population areas that characterise civilisations – cities – become denuded of life in direct proportion to the size and power of the civilisation in question. Sometimes they are so badly affected that they never regenerate. Civilisation has always exported its costs, both social and ecological, and the majority of the people working within its structures have invariably been sheltered from this fact.

Even now, it’s barely acknowledged that many of the deserts on our planet – think the Meditteranean and North Africa, Greece, Northern India – came about as a result of the actions of earlier civilisations (think Roman, Greek, Indus River Valley). Much of these areas were once forested and bursting with a rich variety of plant and animal species. Shocking though that is, we turn a blind eye to the ecological devastation such grand civilisations left in their wake, preferring instead to concentrate on their legacies of literature, mathematics, architecture and philosophy.

It is perhaps not surprising that we persist in our unquestioning admiration of past civilisations – even if it requires us to fall for the oldest con trick in history. AcknowleGlory of the Roman Empire?dging their dark side is just a step away from admitting our own, which is not part of the political programme. While we may recognise that modern, industrial culture is extractive and exploitative, the full extent to which the familiar and comfortable centres of our recent and current empires owe their success to the brutality, poverty, pollution and starvation we have exported abroad is rarely considered. George Monbiot reminds us what we’re missing in his article Outsourcing unrest, which details some of the plunders wrought by the British Empire, global capitalism and the IMF.

To admit that traditional cultures – those we like to dismiss as ‘primitive’ – have found ways of living without such a distasteful requirement for ecological plunder and devastation is to put ourselves in an equally uncomfortable position.

Fundamental flaw

But we would do well to consider these perspectives for they offer much of relevance to our future. What comes from reading the works of those prepared to challenge the apparent virtues of civilisation – Daniel Quinn, John Zerzan, Ivan Illich, Derrick Jensen – is an awareness that civilisation has at its heart a dark and immutable truth, a fundamental error in its operating system. It is a system that is inherently unsustainable and in fact antithetical to life itself. If you doubt this, read Derrick Jensen’s two-volume book Endgame, William Kotke’s The Final Empire (available for free online) or Time’s Up! An Uncivilized Solution To A Global Crisis by Keith Farnish (available online for free as A Matter of Scale).

Jensen’s tome is based on twenty premises. A small selection follows. Each is deeper than it first seems: stop and test each one and see if you can refute it. I could not.

“Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.”

“The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.”

“Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.”

On his site Jensen quotes an equally pertinent observation from Stanley Diamond: “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.”

Doesn’t this make sense of everything troublesome in our society?

Once the problem of civilisation has been identified it becomes possible, in time, to spot the propaganda put out by the power points within our own civilisation to preserve and protect their interests. Then the true context of clashes at the frontier with those outside it becomes clear (think of the dozens of Amazon Indians, shot dead in Peru last month when peacefully protesting the decimation of their forest homes by Western corporations for oil). Just refer back to Jensen’s premises above. The importance of speaking up for these cultures on the ‘outside’, so that we may recognise and correct our treatment of them as well as help preserve and learn from their wisdom and worldviews – becomes clear; it is required for truth and healing on both sides of the frontier.

Wisdom, magic and ingenuity

The expansion and contraction cycles of civilisations have of course been understood for centuries. What has been less well documented is the beauty, wisdom and value of the cultures and natural communities they so often wiped out or assimilated. History is written by the conquerors, so we had no reason to appreciate the sophisticated trading, mathematical and social know-how of the Celts until Roman propaganda about their barbaric nature was debunked – which it still is being now; we still belittle what some call ‘backward’ cultures on the periphery of modern society, like the Native Americans, rather than acknowledge the intelligence of some of their social and governing structures and the fact that – where all the educated minds in all the governments of the capitalist world seem to have failed – some of them have had sustainability cracked for a very long time.

We in Britain don’t even have the sense to celebrate the wisdom, magic, craftmanship and ingenuity of our own, post-Roman predecessors, which survived long into the period before the Normans arrived, known pejoratively as the dark ages (lacking as it was the illumination of that tool of empire, religion). In his book The Real Middle Earth, Brian Bates, professor at Brighton University, says “seen from the viewpoint of what they offer us today, the best of their ancient culture represents a millennium of knowledge and insight in areas of life in which we might be relative paupers today” – an observation echoed by archeologist Francis Pryor.

In The Final Empire, Kotke proposes that civilised culture is not an improvement on traditional culture but rather an inversion of it, in which society changed from one of sharing to one of deliberate material inequality; from social equality to hierarchies of authority and despotism; from emphasis on fecundity, mother nature and matrilocal culture to emphasis on scarcity and patriarchy; and from an emphasis on cooperation in clan society to an emphasis on the cult of the warrior and violence – coercion.

I should say now that I am not recommending a return to hunter-gatherer or subsistence living, nor the fetishisation of primitivism or anarchy. What these observations are meant to offer is simply an alternative perspective, which can lift the veils on some of the more confusing aspects of the world we experience and revive our motivations to create something better.

The civilisation filter makes sense not only of the violence at its frontiers but also of the pitiful flailings of those of us caught inside the system; confused, blaming the politicians, the economic structures, schools, corporations; baffled by the overwhelming cultural and bureaucratic barriers to building cooperative, nature-respecting, prosperous, self-directing communities, mystified as to how democracy led to a choice that was no choice at all.

Now we can see these are all inevitable facets of a system that survives by concentrating and funnelling power upwards, exploiting natural resources, and relying on domination and the threat of violence to keep its lower levels subdued. We are all participating in the system, born and bred in captivity, held by bars we cannot see, complicit in maintaining the structure because we have no idea how to survive outside it.

The time is long overdue for honest, liberating conversations about our time and where we are heading. Let’s also revisit the idea of civilised behaviour. If civilisation is preventing us from being as cooperative as we’d like, from taking part in collaborative work within our communities as we’d like, it’s not breeding behaviour I (for one) aspire to.

Instead it encourages the niceties that keep us in line and our mouths shut; it makes sure that we keep a stiff upper lip, defer passively to authority figures, and don’t speak out of turn. It keeps us pacified and obedient by perpetuating blind aspirations to the absurd material values held by those at the top of the structure. Being civilised might be a pre-requisite for getting by in this culture, but it is also the means by which we repress and deceive ourselves, for it so often precludes passion, compassion and honest debate, and redefines acts of complicity with the system as ‘doing the right thing’.

Perhaps the economic downturn is changing some of this; and even if the rush towards community and self-sufficiency is fuelled as much by financial privations as by human nature: let’s go for it and become uncivilised!

Be exuberant

Let’s quietly withdraw; behave as cooperatively as we wish; redirect our aspirations away from what’s ‘above’ us and towards our communities; speak freely; commit unexpected acts of kindness; form alliances with those normally considered our competitors; decouple from the global economy; start local currencies; tell children the truth; be exuberant; stop thinking in terms of self and other; learn for ourselves the real meaning of anarchy and read the compassionate, intelligent writings of its proponents; make our own music and art; do guerilla gardening; fight for the oppressed and pull our investments from those structures that prop up, for now, the machinery of civilisation.

I say ‘for now’ because, like the others, this civilisation can only go in one direction from here: down. There are endless discussions underway about this – when it might happen – or when it started – whether it will take all of the natural world with it or leave some to regenerate. I’ll add some links to the most enlightening essays I’ve come across at the end. Take what you will from them but don’t lose sight of the fact it will happen and is probably beginning to happen already; it may proceed slowly, perhaps quickly, perhaps causing big changes in your lifetime, perhaps in those of the children in your family, but it is going to happen. We cannot grow in numbers and rapacity at the top of a dwindling food-chain and expect to do anything other than crash, at some point or other.

Which means that taking advantage of any periods of underemployment now to re-educate and reskill ourselves, or the children in our families, or the people in our communities is a damned good idea. At the very least we will have something of genuine worth to pass down to those forging their way in the aftermath – even if it’s only a better understanding.

As Jared Diamond points out so compellingly and chillingly in his book Collapse, when it does fall, this civilisation will collapse like no other, for it is the first to have encircled the globe. We’ll have nowhere to go but home.

Further reading

  • I don’t deny civilisation has brought some wonderful things. For an interesting critique of the pure ‘anti-civilisation’ line taken by Jensen, Zerzan et al, try this essay.
  • That doesn’t take away from the inevitability of collapse: see this wry, informative analysis from Dmitry Orlov (who has seen it all before in the Soviet Union).


[I realise that how and why civilisations and the civilised mind came about is the obvious next question. This will be considered, tentatively, in a future article.]


  1. Hi Vanessa,
    I just read “Affluenza” Oliver James, he interviews individuals from various countries to see to what extent they have “The virus” of affluenza. It’s about intrinsic versus money grabbing motives in people, helps simplify some of the mess. Quite free range in content and his observations, all the more real and interesting for that.
    Probably told you this already, I joined the Green Gym (voluntary conservation group) I liked your words “Guerilla Gardening”!

  2. …it would be great to have a poster with your “be exuberant ” paragraph! I like the idea of just doing rather than talking or analysing, one action at a time…

  3. Vanessa, that was very well argued and extremely thought provoking. I have long sought a believable definition of ‘civilisation’and also realise ‘it’ is a very thin veneer (over?)

    Have you read ‘The Fear of Freedom’ by Eric Fromm? It now forms part of the Routledge Classics list and is, I believe, available from Amazon. Fromm discusses and develops many ideas that you have highlighted and his book is considered to be at the forefront of post-war psychological and sociological analysis. Definitely worth the read, as a pioneering classic.

  4. Thank you Chris – really pleased to hear that. Yes, I do know Fromm’s ‘The Fear of Freedom’ although have not read it all the way through. He inspired many of the people that still inspire me (in fact I quote something from his ‘The Sane Society’ in an earlier article here on depression). A good reminder to read him properly – thanks!

  5. Thanks Kerry for this, and yes I know Affluenza (though haven’t read it all the way through). Realising that the profit compulsion does neither the planet nor even the vast majority of its human inhabitants any good should definitely be a neat way of simplifying the argument … yet it still fails to release us from the bonds (and bondage) of the system. It seems that individual actions are all we have, in the shameful absence of any coordinated moral direction from the wealthy and powerful.

    The Green Gym sounds like a great outlet. As is guerrilla gardening, which is quite an established practice now – see

  6. Hello Vanessa. Sorry it’s taken me so long to comment on this, another very welcome article on a subject – the ‘C word’ – that even some of our best minds (in the UK) have trouble addressing without shutting down for fear that just talking about it might make it seem like they want to ‘bring on the apocalypse’ (oops! that’s only the title of one of his books!).

    I think you’ve written an important ‘gateway’ piece here that could open more minds (which might translate to ‘save more lives’ during the coming times), if it gets the readership it deserves, than a hundred angry articles by anarcho-primitivist ideologues. The danger with the latter, it seems to me (pleading guilty to many of the same failings), comes with a lack of care in making their work accessible to John Everyman, and an assumption that everybody is up to speed and already vibrating on the same intellectual, emotional and perceptual levels. I’m starting to consider the gentle, empathic approach essential when it comes to introducing these ideas to the frame of reference of the uninitiated – the importance of relating to their immediate experience. Not that I’ve gotten any better at doing this 😀

    Anyway, putting my ideologue hat (back) on, I just have a little quibble. You write:

    I should say now that I am not recommending a return to hunter-gatherer or subsistence living, nor the fetishisation of primitivism or anarchy. What these observations are meant to offer is simply an alternative perspective, which can lift the veils on some of the more confusing aspects of the world we experience and revive our motivations to create something better.

    You aren’t? How disappointing! Where else do these observations, alternative perspectives and motivations lead if not to the ruthless implementation of sustainable modes of life as epitomised by hunter-gatherering and subsistence practices? I’m curious what you make of the George Draffan quote that ‘the only sustainable level of technology is the stone age’ (source). See if you can refute that statement 😉

    People throw out the line of ‘Are you suggesting we all go back to living in caves??’ as a reductio ad absurdum to avoid dealing with fundamentally rational concerns, but lately I’ve been thinking that the shorthand answer (not taking account of the fact that most of our ancestors never did live in caves – just that’s where evidence of their activity was most likely to get preserved) is ‘Yes!’ (or ‘Duh [::look of exasperation::]!’). As Tim Bennett put it in the film, ‘What A Way To Go‘:

    The American lifestyle is unsustainable- that means it cannot be sustained. (link)


  7. Hey Ian,
    Sorry for the delay in responding here: delighted to see your comment and I greatly value your sensitive, pertinent and stimulating observations.

    First of all, thanks for the phrase ‘gateway piece’ – it sums up nicely what I was trying to produce and reassures me that I went some way to achieving that. I’m confident that many readers of Vivid would be alienated by a more didactic approach along the lines of those favoured by dogmatically anarcho-primitivist writers; I’m also increasingly aware that attempts to persuade others of an argument are often (and often rightly) less effective and less productive than invitations to consider it from all angles for themselves.

    As for your quibble: well spotted. This was the one paragraph where I struggled to find the right thing to say. Right in terms of what I felt, and also in terms of the appropriate phrasing for an invitation such as the above. Fact is, I do believe that the only sustainable way of life for humans appears to be at the hunter-gatherer or small-scale subsistence level. I’ve come to this as a result of reading or watching many of the same things you have (including ‘What a way to go’ and material at ‘In the wake’ as well as bits and pieces about tribal and indigenous cultures, past and present) – and have neither the inclination nor the evidence to refute any points made there: as far as I can tell, they are watertight.

    However, since it’s all too easy to stay in the same reading zone and celebrate its arguments among a like-minded club of adherents, I have tried, now and then, to consider the possibility that such arguments are hobbled by a deconstructionist fixation, which could be precluding meaningful consideration of other, viable possibilities for the future of humanity. This has led to occasional scrutiny of analyses that might challenge my own predilections. The exercise does sometimes uncover filters (i.e. prejudices) I’d rather not have, and is useful for that. But more often it reminds me that most arguments for anything other than a hunter-gatherer/subsistence/decentralised tribal way of life are sorely lacking in some key element of logic or other. This lack is usually easily revealed using straightforward methods from physics and psychology – or should I say junior school sums and basic human understanding.

    So, despite the self-questioning, my short answer is that I’m with you: I absolutely cannot avoid the conclusion that those simple ways of life are the only ones we know that can sustain us in the long run.

    So why don’t I recommend them?

    A couple of reasons. From the more superficial, style perspective, I didn’t want to take the piece away from gentle, ‘gateway’ invitation and towards something that banged a drum for wholesale change. Truth is, I tried banging drums for a bit (both on Vivid and also in my community activities) and I’ve gone off it. I don’t even want to do any mild recommending any more. I’ve noticed that it annoys me to be on the receiving end of it, so who am I to dish it out? No-one appreciates unsolicited advice. I realise we’re not talking about personal advice here – but even lines sounding something like “we must all do this, urgently!” increasingly come over as irritating.

    Another reason is that I honestly don’t think I can recommend a return to the stone age (for which read hunter/gatherer/grower/nomadic or other sustainable, nature-based way of life) from an intellectual point of view. For one thing, I don’t really know enough about any version of the stone age and what was happening to our ancestors during it. For example, might it be that there’s an inevitable route from stone age to industrial age? That if we ‘returned’ to it, we might end up here again? What if, in fact, we’d be better off transforming to some other way of life – one that still uses resources renewably or not at all, of course – but that involves other elements or aspects that we can’t even imagine?

    For another thing, how can a recommendation to return to the stone age be reconciled with the fact that this requires some 5 billion (or more, depending on what you read) fewer humans on the planet? Don’t worry – I’m comfortable acknowledging that there are billions too many of us. I don’t even have a problem acknowledging that I am living out my life fully in the overshoot and that I and my family should be among the first to go. I just don’t know how to acknowledge the requisite severe pruning of population in any recommendation – at least not in a way that makes sense while respecting the concept of social justice. Without an opinion that covers this aspect, any suggestion that ‘we’ should do anything that takes ‘us’ to genuine sustainability feels like only half (or more like one sixth) of the picture – and therefore fatuous.

    I suppose I see our culture as a tidal wave – a deadly one like a tsunami – and us individual humans as water molecules within that wave. The wave has been coming for a long, long time; many hundreds of generations. It will crash on the beach soon enough, and most of us will be obliterated into the sand with it. I feel no more equipped to recommend we do something about this than I feel able to suggest that a few million water molecules in the wave join together and behave like the water in the calm seas behind. The new sea that follows is coming anyway; few if any of us will be a part of it and I doubt we can do much to shape it either, except by leaving behind some record of a sense of understanding of what happened, as far as we are able.

    Sorry to end on such a fatalistic note! Perhaps my views will shift in spring…

    Cheers, Vanessa

  8. Happy to chance upon this, years after it was posted, one of the advantages of ‘civilisation’ perhaps. For me, the challenge is ‘blended catagenesis’, that is a return to something simpler without losing many of the things that we have gained.

    I try to avoid antibiotics but I wouldn’t like to be in a world without them, nor some form of anaesthesia, for example. At the more questionable end the ‘tools of conviviality’ such as the web.

    But the point is well made, that we should consider everything including the Zerzan-hard-core ideas. It’s funny that debate about utopias has become unfashionable and forgotten, since the 60s really. ‘How should we live?’ is one of the most important questions for all of us.

  9. Thank you Hugh for visiting and for your comment. I’m embarrassed to see that I didn’t acknowledge it at the time. Very glad that you’ve chanced upon this as well. I agree that the question ‘how should we live?’ is of critical importance and very hard to answer! The idea of blended catagenesis is interesting and challenging even to consider; I have an unproven suspicion that every gain in comfort and convenience has an equal and opposite loss for someone or something else. I hope I am wrong!

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