The Madness of Civilization

How Civilization Has Gone Awry and How We Can Cope with It

photo by Marcus Spiske on Unsplash

Jarred awake by an alarm clock, I scramble through my morning routine then get out the door. I have to be at work in forty minutes and the commute takes thirty-five. That’s assuming there aren’t any traffic jams on the highway. If there are, well, I’ll be late. I fight back a tinge of guilt as I pull out of the driveway. I burn through a lot of fossil fuel going back and forth to work, kicking a lot of greenhouse gases into the environment in the process. But job opportunities are mostly in the city where I can’t afford to buy a house, and electric cars are still too expensive. Oh well.

On the way to work, a driver drifts into my lane while talking on the phone. I slam on my breaks. Another driver shoots past me going at least twenty miles over the speed limit. Still another tailgates while I’m passing an overloaded truck. I turn on the radio to take my mind off these antics. The news is full of terrorist threats, bickering politicians, economic woes, murders and mayhem across the country and abroad. So I switch to music instead. That helps. I roll off the highway with four minutes to spare. I lay my finger on a biometric time clock and wave to the cameras as I walk the long corridor to my station. My besieged co-workers, already deep into their shifts and frazzled, greet me with sardonic humor. We’re all living the dream.

As soon as I reach my station, I sign into the computer using a password, pretending that this thing called security really does exist. Then I make a list of all the problems that those on the earlier shift haven’t been able to resolve. Sometimes the list is long; sometimes it’s short. Always there is a disgruntled client/customer/guest to deal with, and always something is wrong with the system — a major malfunction, a simple glitch, whatever. And there’s another important memo from Corporate, of course. Some high-level manager in an office far, far away has been studying spreadsheets for days on end and has struck upon some ingenious way to improve the bottom line. Unfortunately, the change mandated by Corporate has no basis in reality. We’ll do it anyhow. In other words, it’s business as usual.

I muddle through my shift in something of a daze, multi-tasking away the hours, rarely focusing on any one thing long enough to do it properly. I ingest a lot of junk food because, well, that’s what is readily available. I often work through lunch as most dutiful workers do, and stay as long as necessary before handing over a cluster of problems to the next shift. On the way down that long corridor to the time clock, I feel a strange mix of relief and emptiness. These halfhearted feelings give way to exhaustion during the drive home. I grab something to eat while flopping into a chair in front of the television. Then I channel surf into oblivion, dodging obnoxious advertisements, inane dramas and absurd reality shows until I’ve decompressed enough to fall asleep. I sleep fitfully, dreaming about the worst parts of the day.

During my free time, I chink away at a things-to-do list, addressing the most pressing tasks first: housework, bills, doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, car maintenance and so on. There’s at least one form on my desk that needs to be filled out right away for the bank, insurance company, local government, state, feds, or some other imposing institution. There’s at least one thing around the house that needs to be fixed or replaced as soon as possible. Odds are good that there’s a computer chip in it. All these things take time, of course — time that I’d rather spend on art, literature or pondering philosophical matters. But those are luxuries.

Just before coming apart at the seams, I drop everything and go into the woods for a few days. The hour or two that I steal during the week for a long walk gets me by, but it isn’t quite enough to repair my frayed nerves. A day hike in the mountains also helps, but the effects of that don’t last long either. It takes at least three days in the woods to get all the toxic thoughts out of my head. Yeah, three days of deep woods solitude is enough to regain perspective, to remind myself that there’s more to life more than the endless succession of petty annoyances.

Food security is the essence of civilization. Art, literature, music, and all other aspects of high culture are good to have but first there has to be a steady supply of food. That’s how it all began. When we were hunter/gatherers, our lives were precarious. It was either feast or famine back then, and the latter took its toll. So we planted the seeds of edible plants close to camp. That way we weren’t completely at the mercy of wild nature. Over time we worked those seeds into cultivated fields and soon we were rolling in dough, literally. Then the odds were better that we’d live to the ripe old age of forty, and that most of our children would make it to adulthood. Agriculture — what a great idea.

The first towns grew up around temples, and the first temples had granaries in them. That gave us good reason to stay put. The division of labor followed: artisans, merchants, soldiers, priests, and a ruling class came into being, in addition to those who worked the fields. In the cosmic blink of an eye, there were suddenly lots of us living very close together. That led to all the problems that close proximity creates. To address these problems, a complex social order arose: water reservoirs, sewerage systems, lawmakers and law enforcers, and everything else it takes to make a city. And it worked for the most part. That is, until some people figured out ways to take advantage of the situation.

Tyrants, thieves, slavers and invaders. Not everyone wants to play by the rules. Some people want more than their fair share. They take whatever they can get, by whatever means possible. These folks create problems for the rest of us — lots and lots of problems. We have been dealing with these troublemakers since the dawn of civilization. Sometimes we deal with them better than we do other times. That is why whole civilizations fade away, others emerge, and still others languish in Byzantine inefficiency for centuries on end. That is why the Dark Ages were so dark. When enough people become greedy, cruel and selfish, the fabric of civilization unravels. And when it collapses, excrement starts flowing into the streets. Burning and pillaging soon follow. Then come the warlords. Every socioeconomic and political structure is based upon cooperation, which is another way of saying trust. Once that trust is gone, all hell breaks loose.

Homo faber. We are the makers of things. We are toolmakers above all else. Our tool-making habits go back hundreds of thousands of years. They practically define us. And it is precisely these tools — these technological advances over the millennia — that have kept our kind going despite our lack of swift feet, large fangs, or sharp claws. We think; we plan; we innovate. Innovation is the key to our success. Without it we’d still be living in caves. Now we are eight billion strong, living in great cities scattered across the planet. Now we are the masters of the earth, manipulating it in ways that other creatures can’t even fathom. Yet our tools themselves are fast becoming our masters, dictating to us what we can and cannot do. They have become as much a source of misery as they are a source of well being.

The Industrial Revolution led to a population explosion. By the end of the 19th century, humankind as a whole was better fed, dressed and housed than it had ever been before. Suddenly we had better sanitation and more effective medical practices. Not everyone was physically better off, but most were. Yet the tools of our success have also been used in evil ways. Soldiers and civilians alike were slaughtered wholesale during the World Wars. It turns out that killing and destroying tools are just as potent as civilization-building ones. It’s the same technology for the most part. The tools themselves are neither good nor evil. It’s all a matter of how they are used. Household cleaners can be turned into deadly poisons. Fertilizers can be turned into bombs. As Chet Raymo put it so succinctly: “Technology is a mixed blessing.”

Mass murderers, suicide bombers, and loners gone postal. How much of the evening news is hype and how much of it exposes a fundamental problem in our rapidly emerging global culture? Closer to home, at what point does the aggravation that we all feel while driving in heavy traffic suddenly become road rage? Who hasn’t cursed another driver doing something really stupid and dangerous, and where does this impulse lead us? To a dark place, certainly. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the pleasure that so many people derive from violent video games, crime shows on the television, or revenge movies. Our frustrations have to find an outlet somewhere.

Life in these modern times is life inside a pressure cooker. The big question is this: How do we respond? Clearly the interface of personal frustration with ideology or religion can lead to some pretty awful things — especially if any kind of technology is involved. Yet there are other outlets that do no harm. Recreation, community service and the arts are all good ways to decompress. On a more personal level there’s spirituality. People do find ways to cope. But that doesn’t change the fact that most of us are operating under increasing stress these days, that something as inconsequential as filling out a form or being cut off in traffic can send any one of us over the edge.

I feel the pressure inside me release the moment I step into the woods. A walk in the park is pleasant enough, but it takes a significant patch of wild country to really do the trick. Why? Because the moment I enter it, I’m off the grid. I disconnect from the madness of civilization. Whenever I stand face-to-face with the simple reality of wild nature, the perverse logic of society melts away. All the half-truths generated by governments, corporations, clerics and ideologues are exposed for what they are. In the wild, I am able to think clearly, and the terror of being removed from the social safety net fast becomes the joy of having control over my life again. Getting off the grid, if only for a day or two, is good for the soul.

In the annals of natural history, humankind is an incredible success story. At several points during our prehistoric past, we came dangerously close to vanishing altogether. Every other kind of hominid has gone extinct over the millennia, but we have prospered thanks to our wits and tools. We hit the billion mark in the 19th century and the six billion mark towards the close of the 20th. And we’re still going strong. People are living longer, healthier lives, and our cities are still growing. But at what point does all this growth become a liability? How many people are too many? How many people can our planet reasonably sustain?

There are those among us who believe that the great environmental challenges we are now facing can be resolved by greater urbanization, that “smart growth” is the solution to suburban sprawl. On the face of it, this makes sense. A greater concentration of resources makes better use of them. Done properly, it could relieve car dependency among other things. But this solution still begs the question: Are our numbers going to grow indefinitely? Will we eventually urbanize the entire planet? If so then how will future generations be able to gain perspective? How will they escape the madness of civilization?

The paradox of urban planning is that nothing can exist beyond it. Not really. Land on the fringes of a town or a city must be earmarked for agriculture, mining, recreation or something else. It can’t just be there. It has to be allocated. The green space controlled within the city presumes the management of the green space beyond it. Either that or cities — all of them — must reach a limit, a point beyond which they cannot expand.

The madness of civilization is driven by the natural tendency of all complex systems to continue growing and becoming increasingly more complex until they break down or become obsolete. Our world is so sophisticated now that no one can fully understand all of its working parts. Hence any kind of plan that a task force of politicians and their experts put together to significantly improve our lot is doomed to failure. Civilization, now global, has become too complex. Our human world is destined to become dysfunctional to the point of absurdity. It is close to that now. No one really expects our fearless leaders to devise workable solutions to really big problems like climate change, gross economic disparity, or the constant menace of war. All they do is bicker with each other then make shady deals. The idea of human progress, apart from the creation of new technologies, has become a bad joke.

During my brief sojourn in the Alaskan bush, I made a surprising discovery. Total immersion in wildness made me feel more human, not less. But this doesn’t square up with the prevailing belief in developed places that civilization itself is the source of all things good. By the civilized way of thinking, civilization is the polar opposite of barbarism, savagery and the like. Leave an individual to his/her own devices and the worst happens, or so the clerics and ideologues will tell you. But I don’t buy it. I know the madness of civilization too well from personal experience. Consequently, I refuse to blame the nefarious deeds of corporate raiders, propagandists, grand inquisitors, scam artists, computer hackers, and self-serving people of all stripes on our wild urges. Civilization spawns its own kind of evil, no less cruel or dehumanizing than the worst acts of utter brutes.

Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone else, I greatly benefit from civilization and wouldn’t want to be without it. I am especially fond of indoor plumbing, central heating, grocery stores and antibiotics. I also enjoy the exchange of ideas that civilization enables, and the high arts. But I get something from wild nature that I can’t get from the best of cities. Only while wandering aimlessly through the forest, while grooving on all of its sights, sounds and smells, do I feel truly at home in the world. Only in the wild do I feel completely at ease with myself, connected to the earth in a way that can’t be replicated on a computer screen or in a laboratory. And that connection is what humanity needs more than anything else right now. It’s the only thing that can defuse the madness.

This piece first appeared in my essay collection, Cultivating the Wildness Within, published by Red Dragonfly Press.

Philosopher of wildness, writing about the divine in nature, being human, and backcountry excursions.

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