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The Cycle of Civilization

By Peter Goodchild

10 February, 2012

From a Darwinian perspective, civilizations are rather brief interludes in the story of mankind. Humans and human-like beings have existed for about a million years, but civilizations have existed for only about 5,000 years. Humanity's “uncivilized” past, therefore, is greater than its “civilized” phase by the enormous ratio of two hundred to one. Considering the brevity of the latter, it might almost be said that civilization is merely an experiment, the results of which are still uncertain.

All civilizations grow too large to support themselves, and their leaders have little foresight. These civilizations then collapse and are buried in the mud. The same will happen to the United States, but human shortsightedness prevents us from seeing the United States as only one among many civilizations. The United States, in other words, is seen as “civilization” in a generic sense, not as merely one civilization in a quantifiable sense.

Ancient Rome serves to a large extent as a mirror of modern times. The fall of the Roman Empire has been ascribed to various factors, from laziness to lead poisoning. The impoverishment of the soil, and the consequent lack of food, may have played a large part. No doubt it was also a combined military and economic problem: there wasn't enough money to pay for all the soldiers guarding the frontiers. Pestilence may have been another significant factor. Perhaps a more correct answer would actually be a more general one: the empire was too big, and it was poorly led.

The main difference between the United States and previous civilizations is that, from now on, the cycle of “civilization” cannot be repeated. Oil is not the only mineral that will be in short supply in the coming years. Industrial civilization has always been dependent on metals, but hematite, for example, is no longer sufficiently common, and mining companies now look for other sources of iron, which can be processed only with modern machinery. In fact most metals are globally now in decline.

The technology of one century built the technology of the next. The technology of the past -- the hammer, anvil, forge, and bellows of the ancient blacksmith -- made it possible for later generations to extract the low grade ores of the present. Very low grade iron ores, for example, can now be worked, but only because there were once better, more accessible ores. This “mechanical evolution” is, of course, liable to collapse: when Rome fell, so did literacy, education, technology. But after many centuries, the Classical world returned. The western world experienced its Renaissance, its rebirth, after the Dark Ages because the natural world was fundamentally unchanged.

In the future, after the collapse of the present civilization, the necessary fuels and ores will not be available for that gradual rebuilding of advanced technology. The loss of both petroleum and accessible ores means that history will no longer be a cycle of empires, contrary to the descriptions of many historians.

There will no doubt be successful communities arising over the next few decades or centuries, but they will have to be highly isolated and self sufficient if they are not to be affected by the general die off to which the rest of humanity will succumb. To a large extent the technology of the future will be quite primitive, since present day technology is highly dependent on the long tentacles of international commerce, as well as on the enormous manpower that sustains the industrial division of labor. Nevertheless, the knowledge acquired in more recent times could be combed for appropriate inventions.

The memory of civilization might even result in a "Dreamtime," with a philosophical or religious stratum, like the mysterious confluence of Indian, Greek, and Middle-Eastern wisdom in the 6th to 4th centuries B.C. The elders will be reciting cautionary tales that the children will try to unravel, even if nobody really believes that airplanes ever existed. Like the Australian aborigines, we will be naked on the outside, but with a rich interior life.


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Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is prjgoodchild[at] gmail.com




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