The word civilization evokes powerful images and understandings. We in the United States have been taught, from elementary school onward that a few ancient peoples— like the Egyptians or Greeks— were “civilized” and that civilization achieved its highest level of development here and in other Western countries. Civilization, we are told, is beneficial, desirable—and definitely preferable to being uncivilized. The idea of civilization thus always implicitly involves a comparison: the existence of civilized people implies that there are uncivilized folk who are inferior because they are not civilized. Uncivilized peoples, for their part, have either been told that they can never become civilized or that they should become civilized as soon as possible; many of those who have tried or been forced to do so—such as the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll who were displaced from their homes so the United States could explode atom bombs in their lagoon after World War II—have suffered greatly as a result of the advance of civilization.
Civilization is an idea that we learned in school. Further, it is an elitist idea, one that is defined by creating hierarchies—of societies, of classes, of cultures, or of races. For the elites that coined the idea, civilizations are always class-stratified, state-based societies, and civilized peoples always belong to those classes whose privileged existences are guaranteed by the institutions and practices of the state. Uncivilized peoples, in this view, do not belong to those classes, or else they live on the margins of civilization, where the ability of the state to control their lives is weak or episodic.
—Thomas C. Patterson, Inventing Western Civilization (1997).
The September 2017 edition of the The New Yorker included an article entitled "The Case Against Civilization"; a rare event for such a mainstream high brow magazine.
This article is based on two recently published books : Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, written byJames C. Scott, a self-proclaimed anarchist,anthropologist and Yale professor , and Affluence Without Abundance: The disappearing world of the Bushmen written by James Suzman, a British anthropologist.
Withthese two books as references, the journalist for The New Yorkerpainted a very brief portrait of the problems inherent with the rise of civilization, problems which are still to this day, current. The article focuses mainly on social inequalities and harmful cultural values.
Any criticism of civilization causes widespread reactions of incomprehension. Civilization? Problematic? How could “leaving a primitive condition (a state of nature) and progressingtowardsthe realm of morals, knowledge, ideas”present a problem (CNRT definition)?
Have you ever noticed the inherent racism and supremacism that characterises this definition of civilization? What is explicitly stated is that peoples (whom civilized people call "primitive") are somehow lagging behind, or backward, "in the realm of morals, knowledge, ideas" compared to civilized peoples, or people living within a civilization.
The French popular dictionary Larousse is no better: civilization is a "state of economic, social, political, cultural development that some societies have achieved and which is considered as an ideal to be achieved by others." I highly doubt it. Native Americansdid not regard the invadingcivilization that massacred them as an ideal to be attained, neither do all the other peoples around the world who were and are oppressed, decimated or suppressed by its global expansion and colonialism.
It goes without saying that dictionary writers are "civilized" people, which helps us understand why they define themselves in such glowing terms. Derrick Jensen, an American environmental activist and writer, ironically points out: "Can you imagine writers of dictionaries willingly classifying themselves as members of “a low, undeveloped, or backward state of human society”?
19th-century bookshops were full of book titles that clearly showed the imperialism, racism and supremacism inherent in the concept of civilization, such as Progrès de la civilisation en Afrique (The progress of civilization in Africa) by Louis Desgrand, or Plan de colonisation des possessions françaises dans l’Afrique occidentale au moyen de la civilisation des nègres indigènes (Plan of colonisation of French possessions in West Africa by means of the civilization of the native negroes) by Laurent Basile Hautefeuille. The first page of the Petit Journal’s November 19th 1911newspaperdeclares: "France will bring civilization, wealth and peace to Morocco." On the 28th of July, 1885, Jules Ferry, “one of the founding fathers of the French republican identity”, delivered a speech in which he affirmed the following: “It must be openly said that the superior races have a right with regard to the inferior races. […] The superior races have a right, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilise the inferior races.”
The term civilization appeared in France in the 18th century in Mirabeau’s L’ami des Hommes (The Friend of Man) , and was originally used “to describe peoples, [...] who were governed according to certain political forms, whose arts and letters exhibited a certain degree of sophistication, and whose manners and morality were considered superior to those of other members of their own societies or the members of other societies. […] Civilization, in other words, was state-based, class-stratified, and ruled by law; its literate fraction either belonged to the ruling class or held important positions in the state apparatus.” (Thomas C. Patterson, an anthropologist at the University of Berkeley in the United States, in his book Inventing Western Civilization). That is, civilization opposed, and opposes itself, for example, to savagery, and the civilized to the wild (wild being etymologically relating to wood, or to the forest, while civilization comes from the Latin civitas, which means state, city, urban centre, town). The idea of civilizationwas and is also linked to the concept of magnitude: people have often spoken of and still speak of "great civilizations" (as opposed to primitive, wild small indigenous peoples). That is to say, civilization is a society that defines itself, among other things, by its excesses - including, therefore, by an excessive size.
In addition to this, civilization is defined by a number of cultural values and perspectives : our globalised industrial civilization, for example, has a supremacist perception of the place of the human being in the world, a way of conceiving other living species as inferior and as resources to be exploited and used: what Derrick Jensen calls the myth of human supremacy.
Derrick Jensen defines "civilization" as follows:
"I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artefacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.”
The problems inherent in the notion of civilization have been denounced by several historical figures. Freud was entirely right when he wrote in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents that: “Civilization is something imposed on a recalcitrant majority by a minority who have understood how to appropriate the means of power and coercion.”
Or Louis-Auguste Blanqui, a socialist revolutionary and an important figure of the Paris Commune, when he wrote: "There is in the feeling of personal liberty such a bitter taste of pleasure that no man would have exchanged it for the golden necklace of civilization. »
In 1808, Charles Fourier, an important figure in the history of socialism, wrote:
"As I had no connection with any scientific party, I resolved to apply doubt to the opinions of each of them indiscriminately, and to suspect even the provisions which had universal assent: such is the civilization which is the idol of all the philosophical parties, and in which one believes to see the expression of perfection: however, what could be more imperfect than this civilization which drags all the plagues in its wake? what could be more doubtful than its necessity and its future permanence? […] It is therefore necessary to apply doubt to civilization, to doubt its necessity, its excellence, and its permanence. These are problems that philosophers do not dare to propose, because by suspecting civilization, they would raise the suspicion of the invalidity of their theories which all relate to civilization, and which would fall with it from the moment when we realise there is a better social order which could replace it.”
France has witnessed the trend of anarchist naturists, who, towards the end of the 19th century, denounced the problems inherent with the notion of civilization.
In summary, civilization refers to urban human societies, highly hierarchical, organised via the formation of a State, and whose nutritional needs are dependent entirely on agriculture, mainly cereals (large-scale, monoculture, as opposed to, among others, the smaller scale horticulture sometimes practiced by hunter-gatherer populations).
For the vast majority (between 95 and 99%) of their existence, humans have lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers, horticulturists or nomads, without destroying the global landscape, without submerging it with millions of tons of plastic and carcinogenic chemicals, and without saturating its atmosphere with toxic gases or greenhouse gases. Their history (arrogantly defined as prehistory) was neither infected nor punctuated by war. Their way of life did not require what Lewis Mumford (American historian and sociologist) would later characterise as the core elementof all civilizations: "to denote the group of institutions that first took form under kingship. Its chief features, constant in varying proportions throughout history, are the centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes."
If we consider that the advent of civilization refers to the advent of urban dwellings and a sedentary way of life, and thus to the growth of the first citiesor city-statesinMesopotamia, we come to realise that in ecological terms it has always been a disaster. What was once a "fertile crescent" has been transformed (within a few millennia of civilization) into an infertile desert.
The expansion of urban and state cultures (or civilizations) has swept over the planet in the last millennia, have destroyed the forests of the Middle East (Lebanese Cedars are nothing more than a distant memory), the forests of North Africa, Greece, and so on.
These forests were destroyed(or managed for the welfare and the progress of humanity) for the construction of the Egyptian, Phoenician Greek and Roman fleets. These forests were destroyed by various civilizations that simply did what civilizations do: destroy biomes, exploit aquifers, contaminate soils, cut down forests, replacing the subtle equilibrium of biotopes by overexploited sacrifice zones.
These civilizations (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Khmer, etc.) all collapsed. The all collapsed for a variety of reasons but all ravaged the territories they controlled.
Their collapses have been documented and analysed in several books:Collapse by Jared Diamond, A Green History of the World: The Environment & the Collapse of Great Civilizations by Clive Ponting, and The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. How everything will collapse, written by Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stevens, documents the current collapse of our globalised industrial civilization.
Contrary to what one might think, the collapse of our civilization is a good thing. At least to those whoplace "the world before life, life before man" and those who place importance on the "respect of other beings before self-love" (Lévi-Strauss). Our civilization is now synonymous with the sixth mass extinction of species, ethnocidal with respect to human cultural diversity (as the United Nations recognizes: “Today's indigenous cultures are threatened with extinction in many parts of the world”). The ecocidal and this ethnocidal paths we are on, are not accidents, they arise from the normal functioning of civilization (other civilizations did not behave differently).
The German philosopher Max Stirner had already denounced these crimes perpetrated by civilization at the beginning of the 19th century: "The true human being, not the civilized person but the savage, was sacrificed to the glory of domination, on the altar of civilization, alongside other wild animals and the planet itself.”
However, a large part of the mainstream ecologist movement, in addition to ignoring the ongoing ethnocide, considers ecocide to only be a problem in regards to the continuation of civilization. Its main objective is to save civilization. Hence the proselytism and promotion of "green" energies, hence the multitude of green innovations, hence the unabashed use of the oxymoron “sustainable development”. So many new distractions moving us away of what is important, protecting the natural world, all while not helpingthe struggles against social inequalities inherent in any civilisation.
The only human cultures that still live today as they lived thousands of years ago (and in some casestens of thousands of years ago),thus sustainably, are peoples that civilizationsthreatento eradicate and would qualify as "primitive" or "savage". Claude Levi-Strauss argued, for example, that indigenous peoples were the first "ecologists" because they had "managed to keep in balance with the natural environment".
It is not suggested here that savages (or all uncivilized peoples) are necessarily good and pure, or that they embody paradise on Earth. The reality is obviously more complex than that. It would be absurd to reject the critique of civilization, however, on the grounds that it simply emanates from the "myth of the good savage". Few know that this expression of the "myth of the good savage", which is used mainly to slander and defame all those who are not civilized (and so to glorify civilization), was popularised, among other things, by Charles Dickens' infamous, overtly racist and plainly misleading statements about American Indians (he spoke of "civilising" those "savages" who "only enjoy themselves when they kill each other" so that "they disappear from the surface of the planet"), and by supporters of scientific racism like John Crawfurd and James Hunt. Ter Ellingson, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, details in his bookentitled The Myth of The Noble Savage , in which he asserts that this notion of the "myth of the noble savage" was designed to support civilizing imperialism, by discrediting (and intimidating) those who opposed it. According to him, it is neither more nor less than a secular version of the Inquisition.
Among the reasons why all these horrors are tolerated, accepted, even supported, it is that it is a unavoidable price to pay for progress. Furthermore, since "progress" (as an inevitable driving force) can solve and is a solution to everything, there is no reason to worry about “collateral damage”. Regarding this link, two things must be emphasised.
The first thing is that progress, which involves technical or social improvements (both of which are in any case related to human life), is an extremely questionable notion. It is indeed quite simple to assert and expose how, on the contrary, civilization and its progress have made human beings weaker, sicker, and potentially more unhappy (increase in stress andanxiousness). I recommend reading the following short article entitled "A brief counter-history of "progress" and its effects on the health of the human being".
The second, is that the idea of progress is not new. Jules Delvaille, in his Essay on the history of the idea of progress (1977), traces its existence back to the time of ancient Greece. The Greeks believed in an idea of progress (which was certainly not exactly the same as that which emerged in the 17th century), the Romans as well, but this obviously did not prevent the collapse of their respective civilizations.
Criticism of civilization involves questioning a large part of what most people understand about the history of humanity, the idea of progress, the place of the human beings on Earth.
It reminds us of what we have been for hundreds of thousands of years, what we still are - underneath the overwhelming cultural conditioning imposed on us sincechildhood.
It offers us a perspective into realistic ecologicallysustainable ways of living, proven, tested, and still incarnatedtoday by some indigenous peoples, the few that still remain in the Amazon, New Guiney, India (the Jarawas in the Andaman Islands and whose cause is defended by two French citizens ), and elsewhere.
P.S.: There is, as you can imagine, much more to say on the topic. This text is only a brief introduction to the critique of civilization, which we invite you to extend by reading other articles on our websitewww.partage-le.com and www.deepgreenresistance.org. Deep Green Resistance (DGR) is an international environmental organisation created in the United States, founded, among others, on the criticism of civilization. DGR France’s website : www.deepgreenresistance.fr.
1. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/18/the-case-against-civilization ↑
2. You can read here: http://partage-le.com/2017/10/7962/ an excerpt from the introduction of this book, which will soon be published in France. Two other excellent James C. Scott books are available: Two Cheers for Anarchism and The art of not being governed. Two must-reads! ↑
3. See also the twenty premises of his book Endgame, which we have translated and published in an article entitled "Quel est le problème avec la civilisation ? ": http://partage-le.com/2015/03/ce-qui-ne-va-pas-avec-la-civilisation-derrick-jensen/↑
4. Charles Fourier, Theory of the Four Movements. ↑
5. François Jarrige, « Gravelle, Zisly» et les anarchistes naturiens contre la civilisation industrielle, Le Passager clandestin, 2016. ↑
6. La "civilisation", cette catastrophe (by Aric McBay/Thomas C. Patterson): http://partage-le.com/2015/02/1084/↑
7. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race (by Jared Diamond & Clive Dennis): http://partage-le.com/2016/09/lagriculture-ou-la-pire-erreur-de-lhistoire-de-lhumanite-par-jared-diamond-clive-dennis/↑
8. No, men have not always made war (by Marylène Patou-Mathis): https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2015/07/PATOU_MATHIS/53204↑
9. Lewis Mumford, The myth of the machine. ↑
10. The strange logic behind the quest for "renewable" energies: https://medium.com/@niko7882/l%C3%A9trange-logique-derri%C3%A8re-la-qu%C3%AAte-d-%C3%A9nergies-renouvelables-3b3beb53d58b↑
11. "Sustainable development" is a lie (by Derrick Jensen): http://partage-le.com/2015/12/le-developpement-durable-est-un-mensonge-par-derrick-jensen/↑
12. Racists created the Noble Savage: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2001/apr/15/socialsciences.highereducation↑