Lords of Western Civilisation

RouenCathedralEvidently Tony Abbott and John Howard feel western civilisation is under threat. Actually they’d be right about that, at least regarding the image of it they seem to hold.

They wanted to set up a big new teaching program at the Australian National University, funded by the Ramsay Centre, even though ANU already has many courses on the topic. As Tony Abbott wrote in Quadrant magazine, the program was to be not so much about western civilisation as in favour it.

Ultimately the ANU withdrew from negotiations because of the unprecedented level of micromanagement demanded by the Ramsay Centre, a level the ANU saw as inconsistent with its core value of academic freedom. This has triggered another fierce round of culture wars.

We live in an era of big change. Some aspects of western civilisation may fall by the way, others may not. A bit of historical perspective can help to clarify the issue, and shed some light on the current rather vicious state of our politics as well.

What is western civilisation? What is civilisation? At the core, civilised people are people who live in cities. Civil, civic, city, it’s embedded in the word, and also in history. What we think of as civilisation began when some people in the Middle East started living in cities. It was that step that led to all the architecture, art, science, empires and so on that civilisation has come to refer to.

It turns out living in cities was not all that obvious a thing to do. Although agriculture in Mesopotamia started about 10,000 years ago, and although there were villages and towns using some agriculture as part of their support base, cities as we know them did not get going for another four thousand years, according to James C. Scott in his book Against the Grain.

Even when they did get going they were fragile things that failed repeatedly. They would have been vulnerable to crop failure, to raids and especially to diseases old and new, because of the crowding of people and animals.

Scott says not only the plants and animals but people also needed to be ‘domesticated’. People’s diet was much more limited and their health suffered. They had to work a lot harder than hunters and foragers. Mortality rates were higher.

Because of the high mortality there was a need for faster breeding, of animals and people. Women’s subordinate role in western culture may derive from this circumstance.

Soldiers were needed, to defend, to conduct raids to capture serfs and slaves, and presumably to retain and encourage reluctant labourers. The command hierarchies of written history came into being.

Not only violence but also belief was used to encourage people to stay. Wild nature and alien barbarians were to be feared, as is recorded in the epic of Gilgamesh. City walls and priests would have played their roles in keeping people in as well as out.

Despite all these difficulties cities gradually took hold. Evidently the package worked well enough, if enough organisation and coercion could be brought to bear. Traditional foragers and herders looked askance at these new-fangled cities. They said, and still say, why ever would we want to live like that?

It’s still a good question. The low opinion most of us have of human nature is based on our experience in this crowded, conformist, unhealthy and often violent artificial lifestyle. Traditional societies often have much more positive views, though they are given a bad press in our society.

So our great art, great science and so on have been bought at a rather heavy price. It could serve us well to check the balance sheet. Not that we should knock down the cathedrals and burn the paintings and books, but that we might use our current knowledge and power to shift to a less harmful way of life.

That early imperative, to dominate and control wild nature ‘out there’, is still with us, and it has now become an existential threat to our vaunted civilisation.

Tony Abbott doesn’t want anything to change. Why would he? He’s done rather well, being fairly well up our society’s hierarchy. The pharaohs and their hangers-on were always in favour of civilisation. So he wants his coal, his church and, evidently, a command hierarchy.

But demands for change arise from the oppressed, the dispossessed, from those displaced by climate disasters and, increasingly, from the abused planet itself. We are facing a very fundamental reckoning of this strange citified way of life.

We can examine, criticise, debate and collectively choose, or we can close our eyes and our minds. We can adapt, or we can be be swept away by the coming armageddon of floods, droughts, plagues and pandemics.

2 thoughts on “Lords of Western Civilisation

  1. Dick England

    A scientist’s brief musings on civilisations

    Perhaps the chief property of civilisations is order, organisation. Civilisations are, in the broadest sense, organisms. They are also dynamic systems, just as people are. When biological organisms die, the organisation decays, and much of them ends up as H2O and CO2 in the atmosphere, oceanic water, and some finally graphite, calcite, and apatite deep in the earth, altogether a much higher entropy state. The same applies to civilisations, not least because they support many more people than the less organised systems of hunter-gatherers. Both individuals and civilisations are dynamic systems with low entropy. Their making and maintenance increases the entropy of the environment, making it less habitable. The costs to our environment, in J/K, of our American way of organisation, are unsustainable. We are stuffing up the semipermiable membrane between the biosphere and the sun, and variables are changing out of the Goldilocks zone many creatures have adapted to. The boundaries of the various classes of organisms with the environment are semi-permeable membranes whose basic job is pushing entropy out that is always trying to get in. Keeping-up doing this against the odds is what the Darwinist concept of “survival” means in more fundamental scientific terms.

    One reason that civilisations all seem to eventually fail (and entropy rushes in) is that people’s genes, which have changed little in a million years, are more suited to higher-entropy social systems. Social systems more suited to their genes are more probable.

    The answer to doubters is, “The whole universe obeys the laws of thermodynamics. The mistakes will be in defining the system one is talking about, in the choice of units, and in the details of the system’s openness to (communication with) the environment.”

    Conservatism is an attempt to stop any planning of the course of a civilisation’s evolution, citing risk, but mostly for selfish reasons. Mistakes will be made, whether the inevitable changes are planned or unplanned, but the more we know about the system, and the more we care about its long-term survival, the better planning will be than the alternative, which is gambling with the future against the odds.


    1. Geoff Davies Post author

      Thanks Dick. Basically correct I think. My own version of this has been to identify economies (and human societies) as far-from-equlibrium complex systems – as are living systems. The neoclassical claim economies are near-equilibrium is to identify them as dead systems. No wonder so may things are dying.

      Good to get our fundamental ideas clear, even though most people don’t identify much with entropy. 🙂



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