What is “civilization”? We throw that term around as if we understand it but I’m not sure we really do. A quick internet search on “civilization” results in the following definition: “the stage of human social development and organization that is considered the most advanced. Synonyms: advancement, progress, culture.”
I have a few questions already. Who defines “advanced”? What does “advanced” and “advancement” mean? Does this definition change as we advance, as we “progress”? Does that mean that people who live in ways that some of us wouldn’t consider “advanced” don’t live in “civilizations”? The synonym “progress” implies that “civilization” is always a good thing — is that really true?
A second definition says “civilization” means “the society, culture, and way of life in a particular area.” Cultures vary the world over, from the very rich, as here in the United States, to the very poor; from high consumption to living with almost nothing. The “way of life” in any particular area can be vastly different, despite the US’s attempt to homogenize the world and put a Starbucks on every corner.
Yet a third definition says “civilization” is “an advanced state of human society, in which a high level of culture, science, industry, and government has been reached. Those people or nations that have reached such a state.” What does “high level” mean, and by whose standards?
And a fourth says “civilization” is “a relatively high level of cultural and technological development” and specifically “the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained.”
It seems clear the definition of “civilization” is both vague and all over the place. When most of us use that term now, I think we here in the rich countries of the world generally tend to mean “a situation of urban comfort.” We say things like, “I really enjoyed that camping trip, but I’m ready to get back to civilization,” meaning we’re ready for a hot shower, a comfy bed, a latte from the coffee shop, and heat and air conditioning in our homes.
In other words, by “civilization” we mean a world made and powered by fossil fuels, and the “advanced” technologies those fossil fuels allow. My hot shower is hot because of the water heater running 24/7 on electricity, which is most likely generated by a coal-fired power plant, a nuclear power plant, or perhaps natural gas. Maybe some solar and wind thrown in occasionally. My comfy bed is comfy because it’s made from high-density foam core, probably made from polyurethane, which is made from crude oil. Polyurethane is also used to make the carpet in my bedroom, and the spandex in my pajamas. The latte from the coffee shop is made from coffee beans shipped from South America on boats and planes fueled by oil; and served in a paper cup lined with plastic made from oil and natural gas and topped with a plastic cover. Unless I remembered to take my reusable coffee cup made from plastic, and stainless steel, which is made from iron, chromium, silicon, nickel, and manganese, mined from the earth using oil, and manufactured using oil. My home is warm enough or cool enough because of my propane heater and my electric air conditioner.
In a recent Slate article, Genevieve Guenther writes:
Instead of thinking of climate change as something we are doing, always remember that there are millions, possibly billions, of people on this planet who would rather preserve civilization than destroy it with climate change, who would rather have the fossil-fuel economy end than continue….But remember, too, that there are others, some of them running the world, who seem to be willing to destroy civilization and let millions of people die in order that the fossil-fuel economy to continue now.
What does Ms Guenther mean by “civilization” here? I do not know. Because when I think about what we relatively rich people mean by civilization, it seems to me that Ms Guenther has this exactly backwards.
The people running the world seem intent on keeping civilization going, at all costs. These are the people who make excuses for the fossil fuel industry, who deny climate change, who claim that jobs and the economy matter more than reducing the rate at which we are pumping CO2 into our atmosphere. They don’t want to destroy civilization; they want to maintain it. The people running the world live in mansions, often more than one. You can’t have a mansion without civilization — the kind of civilization we’re talking about anyway. The people running the world fly here, there, and everywhere, and you can’t have planes without civilization. The people running the world have yachts, limos, the best food, the best clothes, the best of everything — and you can’t have any of that without civilization. The people running the world want to keep civilization going at all costs, even at the cost of the poor people of the world; even at the cost of the rainforests and the salmon and the marbled murrelets and the bees and the black rhinos and the banana frogs and the gorillas and orangutans and the hog-nosed bats and the vaquita dolphins and and and. The people running the world have proven that over and over and over again through their actions, and their lack of action on the ecological and climate crises we now face.
The people running the world either don’t understand or don’t care that eventually, our way of life here in the rich countries will end civilization because our way of life is unsustainable. Perhaps they think that inevitable conclusion is so far away it doesn’t matter. Perhaps they fully understand what they are doing and they are okay with it because they imagine themselves and their fates immune to that which plagues the regular people, the poor, the kind of people they would rather see go away anyway.
And what about the “millions, possibly billions, of people on this planet who would rather preserve civilization than destroy it with climate change”? As Ms Guenther correctly states in her article, over a billion people on this planet live on less than $10 a day, and we can hardly blame them for what has happened to our climate. But I’d guess many, if not most, of those people would gladly take a hot shower, a comfy bed, a latte from the coffee shop, and a house warmed or cooled to perfection over their current circumstances. That’s a guess and I could be very wrong; I don’t know their lives or their happiness or anything about them. But, as I write this, I see several thousand people walking a thousand miles from Central America to try to get into the United States — a place where they will be vilified and hated by our President and his base — on the whisper of a chance they could have any of those things we currently take for granted. I see NGOs working all around the world to try to help developing countries develop — to bring people electricity and clean running water and communication with the rest of the world. I hear well-meaning people talking on radio shows about how Chinese efforts to build a dam in the middle of one of the last remaining forests supporting the last remaining Sumatran orangutans is absolutely necessary for progress in poor communities in those forests, even at the cost of those orangutans.
These millions, or perhaps billions, of people don’t want to destroy civilization with climate change either. We, these millions and billions of people who are not running the world want civilization just as badly as the people who are running the world do. We may not deny climate change; we may understand that something is wrong; we may even understand that our lives will need to change in some way in order to avert the worst of climate catastrophes. But that doesn’t mean we want civilization to end. Some billions of people alive today know what it’s like to live without “civilization” (defined as the most advanced society) because they do so every day, and many are desperately trying to get “civilized” like those of us who have computers on which to read what I’m writing now.
The rest of us; the billions who live in “advanced” societies have long since forgotten what it’s like to live without “civilization” as defined by a society, a culture run on fossil fuels. We have not the faintest clue about how to live without fossil fuels. Every single thing we do in this world relies on fossil fuels. Everything we buy relies on fossil fuels. Everything we eat and drink relies on fossil fuels. We couldn’t get through a single day without fossil fuels.
So, yes, Ms Guenther is correct; we don’t want to destroy civilization because of climate change. But we should. Because it is precisely our civilization, our way of life, that is destroying ecosystems all around this planet. Our way of life is melting glaciers in Antarctica, putting microplastics in the stomachs of the tiniest of fish in the Arctic and PCBs in the blubber of every whale in every ocean on Earth and 3ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere every single year. Our “civilization”, our culture, our way of life is what is destroying life as we know it on this beautiful blue planet. We can pretend all we like that we can somehow keep this way of life if only we build enough solar panels and wind turbines, but that is delusional optimism at its best. The bottom line, the idea that none of us really wants to acknowledge and accept, is that it is our way of life, our “civilization” that is causing the sixth great extinction, causing the decimation of the world’s forests and rivers, causing this climate catastrophe, and it is only by destroying this civilization that the Earth, and all who live on this planet, have any hope of a future.
Photograph by yours truly, titled Looking Up