Trappings of Civilisation

There may come a point in an organism’s development where it becomes able to extensively control its own environment to the degree that external threats are pretty much nonexistent.  At this point the question arises: ‘What to do?’

Taking most individuals as a case-by-case example of this in modern society, the answer is quite varied and usually centers on some traditional past-time such as eating, drinking, fucking, sleeping, exercising with room for curiosity.  If we take a step back and look at the combined directions of all these accumulated bumps and grinds, we see a lot less movement.  When encapsulated within our own personal consumer spaces where our needs are satisfied with minimal effort, what motivations remain?

1. External threats: Fear can motivate out of self preservation, but war can potentially become more appealing.

2. Ideals: Since entering the modern era, most ideals have fallen into disrepute or argument as their religious enshrining bodies have dome.

3. Hedonism: Some variation of pleasure hunt.

4. Resources:  We need to reconcile our needs with our resources.

So, given the top assumption about technological control of the environment, let’s consider the above with respect to a global civilisation.

1. External threats would be things like aliens, asteroid impacts, stellar cataclysms.  As the timescales and probability for these seem pretty small, most of our conflicts are actually internal.  If some threat were to emerge or be fabricated, as per Watchmen – the Ozymandius solution, convincing the world they were under extra-terrestrial attack; then a global unity might be expected to arise proportionate with the threat.

2. Global idealism has entered muddy waters, and largely fallen out of favour as many religious institutions with a denial of absolute truth.  The focus on relative truths has not been fruitless as civilisations seek to construct group ideals from the ground up, but these seem to be based around traditional consumerism and unsurprisingly includes concepts which strengthen the social fabric. For example, multicuturalism, inclusion, communication, as well as working to consume more.  As personal validation or satisfaction is marketed as a product, we witness a tension arising between the satisfaction of needs and the consumer premise that there are needs to be satisfied.  We end up with apathy when needs are satisifed, or sociopathy where society fails to cater for the needs.  If we see a unified ideal arising from the sociopathic corner, potentially some reactionary anarchism or more, it is likely to threaten the current social fabric in a destructive manner first.  Also, it seems difficult for counter-consumer movements to gain much headway in the fierce pro-consumer environment we are raised in, to the point where questioning consumer based ideals such as capitalism is greeted with great hostility as it is so entrenched and underpins everything.

3. Hedonism is greatly woven into the consumer fabric of modern society, and as such is largely defused by it.  Curiosity seems to be the most likely to instill a global and outward looking sense of purpose into civilisation, but even then the prevalence of virtual worlds, MMO games and global communication seems to satisfy most people’s desires to interact.  As civilisation becomes narcissistic and inward looking, our gaze becomes fixed in the mirror of our own creation.

4. Resource depletion is a very real issue and seems most likely to unify and motivate given the current climate of oil depletion in conjunction with increasing energy consumption.  Renewable energy sources are a great idea, but given we are accelerating as a civilisation towards the cliff edge of our resource production, not decelerating, there is a real danger that we will not adjust the books in time for the crash, and the resulting conflicts over resources and shocks to the infrastructure of civilisation are likely to promote confusion and fragmentation rather than unity and progression.  No surprise then that the former bogeyman of nuclear power is seeming increasingly acceptable as a solution.

So, where next? What to do? What does the future hold?  As mentioned above, as a global community most of our concerns and motivations are inwards facing. The strongest prospects for extending our efforts beyond our current planet are the threat of an external agency and resource depletion.  The nature of resource depletion is such that if we fail to balance the books in time we are likely to enter a period of potentially disastrous disruption.  Sadly, the notion of balance and self-restraint in our consumption is a threatening one to any consumer culture, which is part of the reason why balancing the resource needs with consumption looks increasingly difficult without a deus-ex-machina energy source being unearthed.  Nuclear energy seems like a strong contender, but what a toxic plaster for the wound, and last time I checked we are quite behind on any unified plans to renew and rebuild national interest in such schemes.  Travelling outwards to the stars seems increasingly unlikely unless we can jump these immediate resource hurdles of our civilisation trap, and to be honest, viewing them as hurdles is disingenuous.  In reality, the consumeristic plague is only going to travel with us and arise again and again unless we can redress the resource balance.

Now, considering the threats of an external agency, we haven’t got a prayer.  In fact, that’s actually all we have, as a terminal asteroid hit is not something we are remotely ready to deal with.  The inward focus of our efforts makes us increasingly vulnerable, and we rely on chance providence to save us. Please understand, I don’t think we are wrong to turn our gaze inwards and ignore the rest of the galaxy at present as that does seem to make sense right now, but it does make me wonder how difficult it might be for other civilisations to similarly expand beyond their native planets unless they are able to similarly balance their own problems at home first.

There is a problem with the unfettered consumer model of society resulting from its very success. As it seeks to satisfy essential needs and our hedonistic impulses it is like a machine that seeks to wrap around and nurture us from womb to tomb.  Our technological developments have strengthened this machine, but it does not necessarily seek to educate or change us.  Such changes might arise from the satisfaction of our desires to discuss, cogitate and thus challenge the system, but until such desires for change become mainstream they seem unlikely to be implemented over and above the status quo.  Now, the consumer model does not actively restrain the demands of the consumer, but rather seeks to satisfy them, which is why we have our current accelerating resource consumption.  Population explosion exacerbates this.  Unless we find and cherish a guiding principle that incorporates the notion of balance and symbiosis with our environment (and indeed each other) into our civilisation we are going to carry our problems with us if we don’t implode first.  As observed above, the consumer society is self-reinforcing by its very nature, as it promotes and encourages us to buy, buy, buy.

This is such a major trap facing our civilisation right now – if we deem the current limits of our desires to be a trap.  We have been given the license to consume what we want.  Who is going to say, ‘stop, enough’ when we don’t have an alternative?  For a common ground to be reached, and for us to re-establish some ideal as a guiding force to span our inter-generational development we would have to accept that there is some greater purpose for us, worth dying for, as it might not be realised in our individual lifetimes.

Perhaps we should be looking at a broader collection of ideals, manifesting our varied human aspirations and endeavours.  As our consumer model has brought us to the pluralist buffet of ideals, maybe we just need to pay attention to the infrastructure that facilitates this, and understand that if we (as a civilisation) want to have our cake and eat it, we might need to award ourselves smaller slices lest we lose the lot.  The big problem here is, who will sacrifice their ‘now’ for another’s ‘future’?  If we do not care about the fate of humanity, who will? As we are encouraged to enjoy the here and now, this prospect seems increasingly unlikely.

The game here seems to be, convince everyone else to pay for the future, while you enjoy the present.  Good luck with that.  Perhaps Ozy was right – if we don’t care about the truth, maybe a suitable lie will serve!