Civilized to Death

A fresh perspective on the price of progress and primal ideas for how to live better

Every past civilisation that has ever existed collapsed. The humans that lived in them may well have thought, like many of us do today, that they had discovered the right (only?) way of living. Right up until the last moments, citizens may still have been clinging to the paradigms upon which the crumbling edifice was built. Fantasies like: “economic growth is essential,” “greed is good” and “humans are a superior animal.”

However apocalyptic the collapse of the Roman, Mayan or Easter Island civilisations may have felt to those people these were relatively minor events from a planetary perspective. These societies contained relatively few people and influenced a small fraction of the global ecosystem. Things are different today. Advanced capitalist society envelopes the entire planet in its fiendish and fevered grasp. By weight, 99% of wild animals have been removed from the biosphere. The Amazon rainforest, California and many other places are engulfed in extreme wildfires, the polar ice caps, our last great hope for maintaining thermal balance in our world are slipping away and yet still, denial, short sightedness and stupidity govern collective human behaviour. Vain, sociopathic tyrants sit atop our largest institutions and grimly pour more fuel onto the flames. Emperor Nero may have fiddled while Rome burns but no music will emerge from the ashes of our inferno. It threatens to be total.

A NASA image of Californian wildfires

Against this hellish backdrop many of us are seeking fresh intelligence - anything to help make sense of the relentless impending doom. Definitely read Christopher Ryan’s excellent book Civilized to Death. He doesn’t so much critique the modern world as upend the whole shit show. The myth of our time assumes something called “progress” is reshaping our lives and world into something better. Ryan systematically and irresistibly eviscerates the emperor's new clothes. He demonstrates repeatedly that the idea that our lives today are better than that of our prehistoric ancestors is the fundamental delusion upon which our species extinction is being built.

The human animal is sickened by the disconnect between the nutrition it evolved to expect and the sugary nonsense it encounters.

Perhaps we are all worked too hard to realize how bad things things in the mainstream have become. We crawl into uniforms of some description and clock into jobs we don’t enjoy that take us away from the communities and families we actually want to spend time with. Many of us live polluted, alienated lives subservient to an economic system that delivers grotesque wealth to a minute elite whilst handing our children the scorched earth of a dying world. Even the most basic assumptions about modernity turn out to be inaccurate. “Thank god for modern medicine” we may mumble as if that is some recompense for gross inequality, structural oppression and ecocide. It turns out the modern maladies causing the most suffering are all caused by modernity itself -

“Most of the infectious diseases vaccines protect us from, for example, were never a problem until humans began living with domesticated animals from which pathogens jumped over to our species. Influenza, chicken pox, tuberculosis, cholera, heart disease, depression, malaria, tooth decay, most types of cancer, and just about every other major ailment responsible for causing massive suffering to our species derive their lethality from some aspect of civilization: domesticated animals, densely populated towns and cities, open sewers, food contaminated with pesticides, disruptions to our microbiome, and so on.”

The Kogi culture_ predates colonisation. They warn modern actions of exploitation, devastation, and plundering for resources is leading to our destruction_

A standard assumption is that big brained humans took around 100,000 years to become farmers, city dwellers and workers because there was some inevitable time delay in the intellectual breakthroughs required to make the leap. Ryan proposes that instead it was because our prehistoric ancestors were happy. Like some of the indigenous groups clinging to survival today their lives had deep meaning embedded in the extraordinary abundance of a thriving natural world. Multiple painfully poignant accounts in the book describe how difficult it is to force a free person into civilisation and how keenly they will yearn to return to their “uncivilized” people. As Black Lives Matter protests rumble on and more of us start to engage with the horrors of what was done in the name of forcing Western civilisation upon the rest of the world these disruptive ideas have heightened relevance. Who is actually benefiting from the total subjugation of our world into the neoliberal death cult?

History only flows in one direction. There is no going back. The challenge now is how to -

seek future guidance in our past. How our species lived in the wild tells us how best to design our modern zoo.

Can we redesign our world to better meet our evolved needs?

In his first book The Dawn of Sex, Ryan showed how modern humans suffer by denying their evolved sexual urges. Monogamy and patriarchal control of female sexuality were born out of the emergence of agriculture and resource hoarding. In Civilized to Death, Ryan paints with a broader brush but the same principles apply. For tens of thousands of years our ancestors lived close to nature in tribal groups being just as spontaneous, creative and free as any other living creature. No surprise then that modern economies with their violent separations and rigid work and time demands drive an extraordinary list of modern maladies from chronic back pain and obesity to addictions, depression and suicide. Some of the statistics quoted are mind blowing. For example,

In 2017, more Americans died from drug overdose than died from any cause in the entire Vietnam War (sixty-four thousand versus fifty-eight thousand). The vast majority of those overdoses are from opioids— pain medications we overprescribe because we insist on treating superficial symptoms rather than underlying structural problems in how we live our lives.

This brave and brilliant book may cleave a tomahawk through many of the ideas modern people orientate themselves by but it is not depressing. A fundamental recipe for how we can live happier and healthier lives exists and it is written in our genes and into the natural world around us. In part 4 - a prehistoric path into the future - Ryan gives us practical examples of how our ancient ways of being can be lived in our world of machines and computers so that we can return to a (different kind) of utopia. Dying better, psychedelic drugs and even egalitarian online networks all offer routes out of this malfunctioning malaise -

To the extent that these hypermodern, technology-enabled networks replicate and unleash the primordial human impulses of our ancestors toward trust, faith, and mutual compassion, we may be entering a future that’s a worthy reflection of our past.

The cri de cœur of this book is not luddite. The invitation is not to tear off our clothes and return to the forest - although perhaps for many of us this could be a welcome intervention. The idea is to keep the aspects of modern life that work for us whilst not starving ourselves of the primal nourishments of life that our ancestors dined on every day. We are evolved to enjoy and fit perfectly into this edenic paradise of a planet we were blessed with. Slowing down, working and consuming less and remembering how to coexist with the wild world around us is a pathway to profound contentment and the only sure fire way we know of to reduce the imminent risk of the extinction of our species.

What starts as a savaging critique of the status quo turns into the kind invitation we have always been waiting for. Our destiny may not be following Elon Musk to Mars. We can stop industrialising our planet and learn to live again. We can remember to be happy with what we’ve got.

But I think there’s still a path that leads toward home. The future I imagine (on a good day) looks a lot like the world inhabited by our ancestors—which makes a certain kind of sense, as many journeys end with a return to where they began.


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Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter