Why is Our Civilization Dying?

Each week I take the top voted question from readers and answer it.  With 49 votes, this week’s winner was “Why is Our Civilization Dying?”:

Why is Our Civilization Dying? Why are we not moving science forward anymore, but instead get fascinated by ridiculous things like new iPhone model or Facebook or Instagram or 3D printers for that matter? Why no one cares about space exploration, biological research, prolonging human life?

Why one would see things of medieval stupidity now, in the XXI century? Like adult people believing in ghosts, angels, fairies, vampires, what not? Why “rights” of all kinds of morons and perverts are becoming more important than the common good of the human kind? Is this just a natural decline of a civilization, or someone is driving us there?

Before I answer this entertainingly overloaded question directly, I need to set the stage with some supporting arguments.

1. We suffer from projecting false uniformity to support theories. It’s hard to measure trends on the scale of entire civilizations and we sloppily assume uniformity when it’s convenient for our arguments. This isn’t to say there aren’t trends or that we’re incapable of spotting them, it’s just we’re bad at objectively evaluating wide measures in the past, much less the present. Broad strokes are a magnet for the worst acts of confirmation bias and oversimplification. In this case the planet is big enough to support many different civilizations simultaneously, yet the question assumes there is only one and that it’s shared, an assumption challenged by the number of wars and conflicts around the globe.

2. Progress can happen inside regress. It’s possible for a small group of people in one generation to make great progress despite the majority of people at that time being backward, confused, uncivilized or a thousand other disappointing things. There is a reasonable claim that sometimes progress only happens when things are the worst: only then is there enough motivation for people to act. Stated another way, as bad as thing are sometimes they must get worse before they can get better.

3. Progress is led by minorities. All progress is change and only a minority of people have all three of the necessary qualities:  1) being willing to make sacrifices to make change happen 2) having the superior ideas to pursue and 3) the execution skills required to deliver the idea to the masses.

4. There is an illusion of golden times in the past. When judging the present we often fall victim to comparing it against a mythological golden era that never existed.  Before even trying to answer the original question, it’s helpful to ask another question first: When was our civilization most alive? In America we romanticize the Romans and the Greeks, but both civilizations, despite their achievements, had systematic brutality and inequality. As critical as I am of our species, I agree with Penn Jillette:

Two things have always been true about human beings. One, the world is always getting better. Two, the people living at that time think it`s getting worse.

Given #1 it’s hard to prove this since so much of these observations is subjective, but whenever I step back from my complaints about modern times to carefully review the grand scale of human history, the present always looks far better.

civilization and its discontentsThe question, as written, has some easily refutable claims. To say “Why no one cares about space exploration, biological research, prolonging human life?” is at best sloppy thinking. Clearly some people in the world seriously care about all of those things. And given #3 above, I bet the % of people who care about those things is as high or higher than in the past. I’m certain most people have serious interest in living longer, the question is how much of their or their government’s time are invested in pursuing those ideas, which is a different problem (fee free to ask me a follow up question: Why are our governments dying?)

The general fascination with ridiculous and trivial things is hardly new. We have a long and well documented history with being easily obsessed by worthless things. As much as I criticize our technological consumerism, it might also be an indicator of the general health of a civilization. If people are mostly worried about trivial things it means the fundamentals of civilization aren’t daily concerns (food, shelter, employment, etc). Of course when the focus on the trivial could be a denial of real problems that need attention, but interest in Instagram and Angry Birds alone says little.

Freud’s answer to this entire question was to doubt the utility of civilization in the first place. He argued that we traded our sanity for safety on the day we took up permanent shelter with each other, pointing to how our natural psychologies struggle in the systems required to make large scale civilizations work . Some of Jared Diamond’s ideas in The World Until Yesterday run on a similar theme of doubting that civilization itself has progressed us in all the ways we assume it has.

To summarize my answer:

  • I don’t think civilization is dying.
  • In many important ways this is the best time to be alive.
  • I agree there are major problems. We can learn much from the 18th century and other centuries too.
  • Things will have to get worse before they get better.

11 Responses to “Why is Our Civilization Dying?”

  1. MarkS

    I agree with SB. No progress? In London in the late 18th century, approx 40 people *per week* died of starvation, even though the population was much smaller than today.

    On a similar note, though it may not seem so, the world has become more peaceful. See this article:
    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/08/15/think_again_war?page=full

    “In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years”

    “If the world feels like a more violent place than it actually is, that’s because there’s more information about wars — not more wars themselves.”

    Reply
  2. Deepak

    I agree.. People often suggest that things are getting worse but I think its really the other way round. It was probably a lot worse before, but we didn’t know. Now that the awareness is spreading and we are starting to realize what’s truly important, it seems as if things are getting worse. This is good because with awareness comes hope that we’ll take action to set things right.

    Reply
  3. Eric Martin Schmidt

    It seems to me sectors of the world’s population are definitely taking the basics of food and shelter for granted. One would like to think countries or communities that get to an established level of comfort would look around and make an attempt to bring everyone else to that level. But, it seems that some sort of “nothing is ever enough” mentality kicks in and we turn in to hoarders on some level. Why isn’t there more talk about “global citizenry” from the leaders around the world? I see the ease of avoiding language that speaks of taking care of our brothers and sisters today or a year from now, but what do they fear in using language that sets a ten year goal, “We shall work toward a world where in 10 years, no one dies or suffers from lack of food or water.” This is generational language that could come not only from NGO’s (as it does now), but also the president and media.

    Reply
    • Scott

      It seems it’s natural in all life forms to eventually take things for granted. For most of history survival has been a struggle and the creatures that survive are the ones that look for every advantage they can get. The comforts and securities of modern times in the western world are, on the scale of history, incredibly rare. It will take a long time for life to catch up with abundance, if we ever do at all. America’s problems with obesity and avoidable health issues exemplifies this challenge.

      I agree we’d be well served by taking less for granted, but I also recognize how wired we are to look past what we already have.

      Reply
  4. Sean Crawford

    I get a kick out of point three, and the three skills.

    I just groan when I see people trying to, in Mao’s words, “punch with both hands” as in fight two wars at once.

    Did you know that Canadians were going to end child poverty? In (I think) ten years? But wait, it wasn’t The People (no big trumpet sounded, no commotion) it was the government. But no, it was the liberal party then in power. And they stayed in power… but I bet, on the topic of children, they hadn’t the grace to even cringe and mumble—they just hope everyone’s forgotten. And we have. The People knew better all along.

    “Good execution skills” includes focus and commitment.

    Reply
    • Scott

      The penchant to proclaim an end to things seems a compromise – no one in their right mind believes these chronic problems can be 100% eliminated, but you need a bold statement to attract the attention required to minimize them at all. Few people will rally under a banner than says “we will somewhat improve this problem, probably not as much as we all hope but much more than we would if we did nothing”.

      For attempts at large social change I find the targets of blame are generally oversimplified: there are so many players and factors in play simultaneously that it’s inaccurate to land the blame so heavily on one cause or failure. The older I get the more impressed I am with people willing to sincerely try at all.

      Reply
  5. Sean Crawford

    What frustrates me, if I let myself think about it, is that there are cases of big projects, embedded in a motivated society, that successfully worked with many factors and players and solved many little problems on the way to success, enough to know that success is not a pipe-dream.

    I am thinking of the moon program, the Manhattan project and the invasion of Normandy. Granted, people were very motivated.

    I would have hoped that since the 1973 oil crises we would have been motivated for an energy program.

    SF novelist and Wired writer Neal Stephenson explores this knotty problem towards the end of his collection of works called Some Remarks (2012) in two essays with the evocative titles Locked In and Innovation Starvation.

    Social change organizer Saul Alinsky said people won’t explore/think about a problem if they feel no hope. He said it takes hope to transform a “bad scene” into a (solvable) problem… I am chagrined to say that this morning when I re-read Stephenson’s essays it was almost as if reading them for the first time. I guess I don’t have much hope.

    But I will try to support those who have hope enough to try.

    Reply
    • Scott

      I’m intensely skeptical and optimistic at the same time. It would take a separate post to explain this, or prove I’m not mad, but I don’t struggle with simultaneously finding our species tremendously disappointing while also behaving in a way that believes the best is possible, even if unlikely, and my duty is to try and make that happen.

      My view is we can do great things if we’re convinced the personal sacrifices are worth it. In the positive examples you mention we (America) were convinced. In the case of the oil crisis, we haven’t been. The oil crisis has had minimal direct impact on society and no one has taken up the charge to change this.

      As I wrote in the post I look at our environmental policy and other disappointments as examples of things needing to get worse before they’ll get better. This creates the risk that by the time everyone is willing to sacrifice to make change happen, it’s too late.

      But I have plenty of hope. Most of the depressing things in the universe, from American social failures, to the imminent death of the sun, and well beyond the ability of any person to influence, much less control. There’s plenty to be happy, excited, and hopeful about as long as one is free and alive.

      Reply
  6. Sam

    Who is to say that facebook and instagram are any less important than space exploration anyway? It’s a bold claim that technology that allows people across the world to communicate relatively effortlessly isn’t important.

    If you would have told people in the 1950s that within their lifetime humans would be able to share pictures, movies, articles and audio, as well as their location, mood and activities, wirelessly, across the world, this would have sounded like science fiction. It may have sounded more fictional than the moon landing: the moon was there, for everyone to see, and you could imagine how you could get there. Wireless highspeed internet on handheld devices would be beyond the grasp of many.

    Ofcourse, it’s still beyond the grasp of me that we have this amazing technology and what we seem to use it for is mostly to look at funny pictures of kittens…

    Reply
  7. Dan Sutton

    It’s in the nature of a person to be dissatisfied with any given present; part of this is what makes the human race achieve progress and all of it is part of what it means to be a predator…

    Reply

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