by Andrew Bard Schmookler
I think a lot about the fate of human civilization these days.
The subject worries me because, after a half-century of studying the destructive forces at work in the systems of civilization, my gut feeling is that it is no better than a toss-up whether, in the coming generations or centuries, humankind will get its act together well enough to prevent our civilization from destroying itself
(Or, if not destroy itself utterly, at least inflict profoundly catastrophic damage– through some catastrophic nuclear war, or through some ruinous degradation of the systems of Life-on-Earth.)
And I worry because it doesn’t seem that humankind, taken as a whole, is giving this uncertainty about the human future – which could hardly be more consequential — nearly the kind of attention it deserves.
(Deserves– when so much of what we hold sacred is under serious threat — from human well-being, to the beauties of this living planet, to our aspirations for a human world ruled by Justice and the spirit of “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill Toward Men”).
Upon reflection, that deficiency of attention is not so surprising: our history had no reason to equip us – to a depth commensurate with the stakes – with the capacity to connect our minds and our motivational core with this kind of challenge.
The Newly Visible Challenge
The history to which we are heir includes many millennia in which the possibility of our global self-destruction did not exist. By contrast, it is only within the span of living memory that humankind has come to possess powers of that magnitude. Only recently has this question of “the fate of civilization” gained some urgency.
- It was only in World War II that the breakthrough achieved by the Manhattan Project opened the door to the possibility that Life-on-Earth’s experiment with civilization might culminate in a nuclear holocaust.
(That possibility already came dangerously close to realization in 1962, with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. And we’ve been compelled lately to re-envision that potential nightmare when one man – who is an unbalanced fascist dictator, filled with resentments and a lust for empire, and in command of a massive nuclear arsenal — rattled his nuclear saber to intimidate his opponents.)
- And it is still more recently that we’ve discovered ourselves to have become such a big bull in the biospheric china shop that we might self-destruct through the disastrous damage we inflict on the systems of Life-on-Earth, out of which we emerged and on which we inevitably depend for our survival.
(The oncoming climate disruption crisis might prove to be just this kind of cataclysm.)
So the urgency with which the issue of “the fate of human civilization” needs to be addressed is only a recent thing, in the historical scale. And meanwhile, our long-established cultural ways of thinking have likely not caught up with the major change of circumstances brought about by the magnification of the powers of our civilization. (As Einstein observed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”)
The Disappearing Muddle-Through Option
Get our act together or Self-destruct. Eventually, it will be one or the other.
Our history seems to encourage people to think, or perhaps tacitly assume: “We’ve muddled through for centuries and millennia, despite all the flaws in the human world — in individuals, in societies, and in the global system — so we’ll keep on muddling through.”
But things are different now. We’ve moved beyond “more of the same” in our powers, and expecting to be able to continue to muddle through is dangerously fallacious. As the powers of human civilization have grown, counting on “Muddling Through,” as opposed to undertaking necessary transformations of civilization to block the forces of destruction, has become a recipe for disaster.
For example, leaving the international order as it has always been – which means that confrontations between great nuclear powers (like the Cuban Missile Crisis) will recur indefinitely — amounts to playing Russian Roulette.
We know for a virtual certainty what would be the outcome for a person who keeps on spinning the chamber and pulling the trigger. Eventually, what can happen will happen.
Civilization, with its persisting war system, won’t survive for the long haul if we just keep on playing this kind of Russian Roulette. The long-term survival of human civilization therefore clearly requires that we eventually achieve some re-ordering transformations of the overarching system of civilized societies.
(Humankind reached in that general direction after the two terrible World Wars of the 20th century — the League of Nations after WW I, and the United Nations after WW II. But the subsequent history has demonstrated clearly that such efforts have fallen far short of what the prevention of all-out war between major nuclear superpowers.)
And this climate crisis also demonstrates the need for important transformations – changes to harmonize civilization’s activities with the needs of the rest of Life-on-Earth. (We can only hope it is not already too late.)
As our civilization works its way into the future, the question is, Will it be the constructive forces or the destructive forces that prevail? As“Muddling Through” disappears as an option, humankind will face this stark choice: Thrive or Die.
The Central Challenge Facing Any Civilization-Creating Animal
History may have only recently brought into clear focus this Central Challenge humankind must meet, namely:
To order our civilization well enough – and soon enough – that it can prevent the story of our species from culminating in catastrophe.
But in retrospect, it becomes clear that this Challenge has been looming in the human future from the beginnings of our species’ venture onto the path of civilization.
Civilization can be defined as: Those societies created by a creature that extricates itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life.
That definition – which calls attention to the unprecedented nature of this development in the history life’s evolution on this (or any other) planet — suggests how those two kinds of self-destructive possibilities we face today were implied from the outset.
1) The unprecedented step of the civilizing animal extricating itself from the biologically-evolved order inevitably means that the civilizing societies will emerge into a situation that lacks any order to regulate the interactions among those societies.
No order—because this unprecedented kind of life-form (unprecedented in its being invented out of the creative intelligence of the creature, rather than being shaped by the biological processes of selection) takes Life into terra incognita where no regulatory system awaits it. The inevitable result is that the overarching system of such societies will be beset by that form of disorder called Anarchy. Which is where each actor can do whatever it wants, and there’s nothing to make sure that its actions will be compatible with the good of the overall system.
The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, had a fundamental and valid insight about Anarchy: it inevitably entails a “war of all against all.” And so, with the rise of civilization, there inevitably emerges the problem of War— which plagued the ancient world (and that has persisted through history, till reaching the point in our times that it now has the potential to set the whole edifice of human civilization up in flames).
2) So, too, with our relationship with the ecological order.
The creature that extricates itself from its original place in the natural order – inventing new ways of living on this planet, as the original primate way of hunting-and-gathering gave way to people’s growing the foods they previously gathered and herding the animals they used to hunt, and onward from there to utilizing other technologies that never had to pass muster with the long-term selective processes of biological evolution – is sure, from the beginning, to generate some to be out of harmony, in some ways, with the rest of the ecological order.
And thus the historical record reveals how early agricultural societies denuded the topsoil of the once-Fertile Crescent. And how overgrazing by the herds of civilizing peoples led the Saharan desert to spread. And eventually onward– with civilization employing new and powerful technologies made possible by the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions – to the point that our industrial civilization has so changed the composition of the earth’s atmosphere, and thus so disrupted the earth’s climate system, that we are precipitating a major wave of extinctions and a rip in the fabric of Life-on-Earth.
So it is that both of those two areas which in our times visibly threaten the survival of human civilization – and where we clearly need to “order our civilization well enough – and soon enough” — appear to be inevitable areas of disorder from the time civilization first arose.
The Inevitability of the Civilization’s Eventual Ability to Destroy Itself
There’s another factor that contributes to the inevitability that a creature that embarks on the path of civilization will eventually face the challenge to reorder its civilization in time to prevent its self-destruction: over time, the powers of that creature’s civilization are pretty well sure to keep growing, and thus eventually to become so great that self-destruction is possible.
Those powers will grow because:
- A creature that starts to invent its own way of life, and that thereby breaks out of the bounds that had previously limited its range of cultural possibilities (regarding, for example, the size, social organization, and means of subsistence of its societies), will now have open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation. And,
- Not only will the innovative breakthroughs presumably keep coming, but also – because that creature is of necessity a cultural animal, which means it is adept at transmitting information through the generations – the process of cultural development will tend to be cumulative.
Those two factors combine to dictate that, over the course of its history, the powers being wielded by that civilization – which includes the civilization’s destructive capabilities — will tend continually to increase.
(“Tend” because, although the history of that species civilization will likely have its ups and downs — its rises and falls — the overall direction will be toward greater power. Rome may have fallen, but the resulting retrogression of power in European civilization was only temporary.)
And powers can be used either constructively or destructively.
Therefore, it seems a reasonably safe bet that any creature, on any planet, that accomplishes the breakthrough into civilization will eventually come to possess powers great enough that they could, if wielded destructively, bring the creature’s story to a catastrophic ending.
Which leads me to a fantasy I’ve lately entertained. It might be titled:
“The Findings of the Cosmic Historian”
I enjoy imagining a Cosmic Historian (or Social Scientist) who is contemplating the histories of the many species who developed civilizations on various planets in the Milky Way.
(I imagine no shortage of cases to study: With an estimated six billion planets in our galaxy alone, and with billions of galaxies, it seems reasonable to assume that there will be plenty enough instances of species emerging out of the evolving systems of Life on their various planets, extricating themselves from the niche in which they evolved by inventing their own way of life, i.e. developing civilization.)
This Cosmic Historian undertakes a research project to answer the question,
“What are the factors that most differentiate those civilizations that survived and thrived from those that ended in catastrophe?”
I’m imagining two stacks of histories: those of the creatures whose civilizations rose beautifully to meet the challenge, and those who simply blew it. And I’m imagining the heights of the two stacks will be roughly of the same order of magnitude (or at least close enough for a good comparative study).
(That rough equality would follow if
- my gut feeling about the outcome in the case of homo sapiens – i.e. that it’s a toss-up – is at least in the right ballpark; and if
- my guess is correct that humankind would be more-or-less typical of the various creatures that have taken that Fateful Step onto the path of civilization elsewhere (because I see no reason to guess otherwise).
Out of a plethora of “toss-ups,” there would be roughly comparable numbers of successes and failures.
So, with ample numbers of cases of both failure and success, I imagine our investigator of civilizational dynamic doing in-depth case studies, as well as some statistical analyses, and then presenting these among the study’s main findings:
- Those civilizations were more likely to survive the more – and the sooner – its creatures recognized the nature of the challenge they faced;
- They were more likely to survive, too, the more and the sooner they made deliberate efforts to meet that big, long-term challenge;
- Conversely, the longer a civilization essentially “backed into the future” – dealing with only the immediate problems, and leaving the longer-term future to define itself – the more likely that civilization would end up in ruins.
A Starting Place
Returning from this fantasy, I am led to make these two straightforward opening proposals regarding what humankind should do now – as collectively as possible, in our still-fragmented civilization — to increase the chances that human civilization might thrive for the long haul on this planet, and not terminate itself through self-inflicted wounds.
The first task is that we should work to envision the desired destination. Focus attention on the question: What way of organizing human civilization would maximize the chances of its long-term survival?
(This should, of course, include addressing these two obvious dimensions of the challenge:
- What order would be best for precluding the possibility of self-destruction through war?
- How would civilization have to be ordered so that human activity was reliably compatible with the long-term health of the biosphere (on which, again, we remain dependent)?
Institutions and processes will presumably need to be employed to assure that the question of the “desired destination” gets addressed.
Second, we should ask, “What steps would it be wise to take now that will help us reach that destination?”
Different people will have different ways of envisioning the desired destination, and different ideas about what present steps would be best for reaching it. That is not a problem. Rather, the ongoing conversation around those differences would be an important part of the solution. Humankind needs to find its way together.
The important thing is that more attention be paid to that long-term challenge.
It is true, of course, that we – individually, nationally, globally – need to deal with our immediate problems. But with the survival of human civilization perhaps hinging on the equivalent of a coin toss, we cannot afford to spend as little time as we currently do thinking about what civilization needs to become to assure its long-term survival.
“Backing into the future” likely means having no future.
The Beneficial Effects of Knowing “What We Are Up Against”
How well such important conversations — about where we need to get to and how humankind can get from here to there – might achieve their goals depends on how well the discussants understand, as the title of my 2015 book put it, What We’re Up Against. (Subtitle, “The Destructive Force at Work in Our World and How We Can Defeat it.”)
Humankind needs to understand, in other words, the forces operating in the human world that have historically driven humankind in directions people have not wanted, and that are now visibly working to impede human civilization’s moving in those directions that would enable it to survive for the long haul.
The attempt to understand those forces has been my life’s work.
In a series of subsequent entries here on 3 Quarks Daily – each stand-alone, and each contributing a piece to an integrated picture — I will offer what I’ve come up with.
My next essay here will present the first piece of that picture: an idea about a force that inevitably arose with civilization, and independently of the nature of the civilization-creating creature. A force that has consistently warped the evolution of civilization.
Ever since that idea first came to me — in a life-changing moment in 1970 — I have believed that it could have a beneficial impact — on our ability to choose the fate we desire for the civilization our species has been developing on this planet – for that idea to gain a widespread presence in the consciousness of our civilization.
That potential “beneficial impact” is suggested by these two statements that follow necessarily from what I will claim to show:
- The ugliness we see in human history is not human nature writ large. And
- Any species, on any planet, anywhere in the cosmos, that takes the step onto the path of civilization will inevitably unleash a social evolutionary force that will make the unfolding of its civilization as destructive and tormented as ours has been.
The first statement means that we are better creatures than we have imagined ourselves to be. Expectations are powerful things, and a more favorable understanding of ourselves should fortify us for the task of creating a more viable and humane civilization. Such understanding should lighten some of the burden under which we have labored, having imbibed our image of ourselves and our species from cultures in which ideas like “original sin” and “human depravity” have played a powerful role.
The second statement points to destructive dynamics that have been operating in human civilization for millennia, the understanding of which should enable humankind to devise better strategies for the ongoing battle over “the fate of civilization.”
The Place of the Current American Crisis in the Battle Over “the Fate of Human Civilization”
Another possible beneficial impact — of that understanding of the dynamics at work in civilization — concerns America’s current ugly and dangerous political battle.
In the current unprecedented political reality regarding the struggle for power between the two major American parties, the stakes have become more fundamental than “policy.” Unprecedented – in one party being tasked to defend basic Democracy against the other, which has been transformed from a normal American party into a Force of Fascism. Unprecedented, in the degree to which the present American political battle can best be seen as part of the ongoing struggle in human civilization between those forces that consistently work to make things more broken, and those that make it more whole.
It’s all part of an integrated picture, the immediate American crisis seen as part of the larger human story:
- Seen, looking backward, as connected with the problematic force that arose with the origins of civilization. The way that force has worked in human cultural systems helps show how America could have come to this dangerous place (a place that would have seemed quite unthinkable to Americans of both parties not so long ago);
- Seen, looking forward, a crucial to the battle between constructive and destructive forces to decide whether civilization’s future will come down on the side of Life or of Death. (For it matters greatly — for humankind’s odds for survival — whether the United States is ruled by a force that sometimes was worthy of the titles of “leader of the free world” and “the world’s indispensable nation,” or by a fascistic force.)
(Fascism shows itself, historically, to be a consistently destructive force, always leaving the world more damaged. Hitler, 1939-45; Putin, 2022-?.)
I’ve been investigating, full-time since 2004, the dynamics at work in this American crisis. In this series, I will share what I’ve learned about the dynamics that led to this dangerously adverse shift in the balance of power between constructive and destructive forces in the American power system. That view, I believe, illuminates the nature of our current political battle, with important implications for how that battle must be fought.
The Showdown over the survival of American democracy, and the longer-term, global Showdown over the survival of human civilization, can be seen – in the integrated picture this series will present – as two manifestations of the same fundamental battle that inevitably arose when our species stepped onto the path of civilization.
Anyone not wishing to wait for this series to present this “integrative vision,” in increments four weeks apart, can find much of my life’s work addressing these matters on my website, A Better Human Story – Andrew Bard Schmookler. The materials there range from
- previous series I’ve put together to convey the various pieces and how they are all part of an integrated picture (“A Better Human Story” and “The Fateful Step”), to
- whole books (WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, free as a pdf) to
- podcast-interviews that I’ve lately been doing on all these themes.
- many of my weekly op/ed essays (880 words a throw), to
- a video of a speech that went viral, that I delivered — as the Democratic nominee for Congress in 2012 (in the very “red” VA-06) — describing what the once-respectable Republican Party had become.
Meanwhile, that integrated picture will be presented here, to the best of my ability, with the presentation here of some part of that picture every four weeks.