Most of us have heard the story of human civilization, which goes something like this: About 10,000 years ago, humans invented agriculture, which allowed us to settle and for the first time to have spare time to invent new technologies that allowed far better and healthier lives. Prehistoric humans lived as savages and died young. Their lives were miserable and violent. Today, life is the best it has ever been.
In “Civilized to Death,” author Christopher Ryan makes the argument that the opposite is true, that our modern way of living is much more difficult, violent and unhealthy, and that we’re heading off a cliff. Ryan stresses that “when you’re heading in the wrong direction, progress is the last thing you need.” Instead, Ryan believes we need to revert back to the cultural norms that existed before we got “civilized.”
Ryan raves about lifestyles in foraging societies, including being fiercely egalitarian, where an individual’s autonomy is non-negotiable and reciprocity was expected. Foragers tended to view themselves as very fortunate, living in a generous environment and benevolent spirit world. Wealth was measured by freedom and autonomy, not by materialistic standards. The forager’s society was based on cooperation, not competition. Property was held in common. Women were not subordinate to men. All work was accorded a certain dignity. We like to believe that prehistory included much starvation; Ryan claims the opposite is true. Foragers faced occasional hunger but not extended starvation.
But hasn’t life expectancy greatly expanded? Ryan argues that the main driver of our longer expected lifespans is that we’ve significantly lowered infant mortality, which is a good thing. Prehistorically, expected lifespan was around 40 years, but a forager who made it to adulthood could expect to live into their 70s.
OK, if things were so great, why did humans make the big change to agriculture? Ryan tells an interesting story around that question. Ryan reports that 15,000 years ago, the climate was extremely fertile for an extended period, allowing foragers to effectively “stay put” while still foraging. Many gathered in what is known as the “fertile crescent” in the Middle East. Then, around 13,000 years ago, there was a horrific ecological event. A massive lake near today’s Great Lakes suddenly emptied into the sea, causing extreme climate change and a thousand-year drought. Ryan calls agriculture a “panic-stricken response.” People didn’t pursue it; agriculture was forced on them and a more difficult way of life. With agriculture, the human population exploded, demanding more agriculture. New concepts developed, such as the idea of ownership and property, including slavery. Quality of life collapsed. People now lived in overcrowded, disease-ridden communities. This change happened over a couple thousand years, and soon people had forgotten the old way of life; there was no going back. Obviously, Ryan holds a pretty dim view of today’s society, perhaps because it seems like we are always working. In contrast, prehistoric foragers used to spend about 20 hours per week hunting and gathering. The rest was leisure time, spent communally, with a focus on family and community. Our culture has led to the sixth great extinction on planet Earth, and accelerating environmental catastrophe is all around us, no matter where one lives. Ryan writes that overpopulation and crushing poverty have always been part of our “civilized” culture and warns that overpopulation will destroy human value and dignity.
Ryan provides many other examples of where our culture has gone wrong, and he believes things will get worse before they get better. He fears we are facing economic collapse. But he still claims he has hope, if not optimism. Ryan writes that today’s so-called progressive agenda often aligns with forager values: egalitarianism, assistance for the vulnerable, respect and autonomy for women, funding for health care and education and other measures to benefit society as a whole. Ryan contrasts these with common conservative values that didn’t exist before agriculture, such as individual rights over community, men controlling women and the worship of wealth.
Ryan says we are at a crossroads, facing three possible futures. In one, we get angry and deny all this, and end up collapsing, as has every previous civilization. Or instead, we strive for innovation and creativity to fix things, but Ryan states this is just more of what got us here: temporary fixes, then back to crisis. So, what does Ryan advise we do? Accept where we are and how we got here, then change direction and go back toward bringing hunter-gatherer values into our modern lives, dumping corporate structure and replacing it with progressive policies and networks. Ryan vows that every step down this road would lead us closer to a future that recognizes the origins and nature of our species. How likely is it that we will take this path? Ryan admits, not very.
Although a bit of a bummer, I do feel I gained insights from “Civilized to Death.” If, as Ryan writes, agriculture was a panic response to a crisis, today we need a new panic-driven response. But who will lead it? As I see Generation Z rising up against the selfishness and shortsightedness of previous generations, it gives me hope that today’s young people may possess the courage and determination to turn us in a new direction and lead us to the more just, caring and healthy society that Ryan describes. “When you are lost, a step back may be a step in the right direction.”
As we approach 10 billion humans on the planet, obviously we can’t go back to hunting and gathering food, but can we hunt down and gather needed changes toward a sustainable human lifestyle on Earth?
We can hope.
Read more of the Aug. 5-11, 2020 issue.