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Who needs civilization, anyway?

Image of a city

I was reading a review of some works by Paul Kingsworth, and it got me thinking about the idea of civilization. I haven't read any of his work, so all I have to go on here is what's covered in the review. He is part of the "Dark Mountain Project," a loose collection of writers and thinkers trying to grapple with the impending "ecocide," as industrial civilization consumes and destroys itself in a cataclysm of greed and consumption. Their manifesto claims that they aim to promote thinking about living in a way that's closer to earth and home, rather than glorifying the "advance of civilization." They are questioning the idea that civilization, as we think about it anyway, is an advance at all. That maybe in agreeing to live in crowded cities surrounded by machines, the price we're all paying is our souls.

Or something. I could also be reading their manifesto wrong. I do that with manifestoes sometimes.

I don't disagree with the idea, at least not with all of it. I do think a global, connected society, where deep ties to a particular place are withering, where the local diner is being replaced by Applebee's, where the farm or the forest are being turned into another parking lot, it's understandable to feel some nostalgia for a simpler time, for a feeling of belonging and being part of something bigger, and also, paradoxically, something smaller. I get it. I have those feelings too. And at some level, I would expect so do a lot of locavores, and non-GMO-food people, and anti-vaxxers, and environmentalists. I don't agree with some of those folks, and I think some of them are actively dangerous to society, but I can understand the feeling that (I assume) motivates some of their actions.


As we say in the design business, there's no perfect solution. Everything has a tradeoff.

I'm always wary of idealizing ways of life in the past, because as humans, we always see greener grass everywhere else but where we are. Sure, maybe the yeoman farmer in 12th-century England was living on the same patch of land that his great-great-grandfather farmed, and maybe he knew every rock and tree of the four square miles around his farm. But he also likely watched half his children die in infancy, faced starvation in the event of a drought, was likely to die before age 40, and never got to eat a taco. Think about that. An entire life without a taco.

Along with the soul-crushing spiritual ennui, global, urban civilization comes with a couple of neat benefits. We don't have to spend all our time farming, which means we have time to write, and go to the beach, and binge-watch Arrested Development if that's what we want to do. We can eat pineapple, even if we don't live in a place that grows pineapple. We can experience art and music and food and stories from dozens of different cultures, and contribute to them blending together in new forms that didn't exist before. We have hospitals and libraries and museums and theaters and stadiums and tacos. Did I mention you can get tacos in, like, Pittsburgh?

So that's the tradeoff. Less connection with land and nature. More opportunities to share with and learn from a dizzying variety of people. I'm all for exploring ideas and doing whatever we can do keep the good parts of one without throwing away the other. But that's not always an option. Everything has a price.

And the grass is always greener. Even if it's genetically modified.


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