10 Feb 2020

As I read the daily papers--amidst stories of political and economic developments, reports on wars and violence, and more rarely, uplifting tales of human ingenuity and generosity--I pause and ask myself:  where is our current civilisation headed? 

Are we moving towards more utopian societies? Through great advances in science and technology, we are conquering many diseases, and this in turn will give us much longer life spans. Or conceivably, we could in the near future be united in a global effort towards abolishing poverty and installing a more equitable distribution of our resources. Bill Gates predicts that by 2035, there will no longer be poor countries, if we use the World Bank definition of "poor."

Or, as often portrayed in many futuristic films, are we leading ourselves to a more dystopian world, perhaps brought about by the next war—this time one fought with nuclear weapons? Or possibly through a complete degradation of our ecosystem brought about by climate change, one abetted by our disregard of our environment?

Pundits say that all past civilisations were born, and past civilisations have died, with an average age of some 350 years from their rise to their fall.

What is “civilisation”? We can define it as societies with advanced agriculture, developed cities, and complex political, social, and religious institutions. These are marked by a high level of culture, science and industry, with an extensive use of record keeping, especially writing, and the rise of monumental architecture--from temples to churches to the buildings of today.

The first modern humans appeared some 300,000 years ago. It took another couple of hundred thousand years before the societies of these now “homo sapiens” attained a lifestyle that we might call “civilisation.” Heretofore, our forefathers spent all their waking time hunting and foraging for food, moving from place to place in search of their next meal, carrying their primitive weapons and tools with them.

Then, about 10,000 years ago, sedentary settlements suddenly arose. This was the period of the so-called Neolithic Revolution. We were no longer ancient nomads because now, our food could come to us, instead of us going to them. We learned how to convert for domestic uses formerly wild plants and animals, e.g., to grow wheat and tame goats raising them for food. With the domestication of plants came the development of agriculture, irrigated through ever more complex systems, brought about by the ingenuity of our ancestors.

Over time, this led to a surplus in food production, freeing many from activities geared towards mere subsistence, in order to specialise in occupations not directly related to their next meal. Many became artisans, or priests, or chieftains, or merchants. Further, some of these occupations were valued more than others, and so these societies became stratified as well.

Trading of goods and services then came, first with neighbours through perhaps a barter system, later with more distant lands through coinage. Alternatively, these lands could be conquered through organised warfare. Human tools and weapons, which started with the use of stones, were transformed into bronze, and later into the much stronger and more durable iron. Thus, within another 5,000 years came the flowering of advanced societies: we grew from settlements to communities, then to cities, states, and empires.

The birth of the first civilisations was in Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq, along the banks of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris. This was closely followed by the other great river civilisations: the Egyptian civilisation along the River Nile, the Chinese along the Yangzi and Yellow Rivers, and the Indus River Valley by the Ganges and Indus Rivers.

Great rivers afforded the surrounding settlements with easy means of transport, fertile soil on their banks, and abundance of raw materials by which technologies could flourish. This period was marked by great inventions that improved our living conditions, including the plow, the wheel, then chariots, canals, boats, map making, compass, calendars, gun powder, paper and all forms of writing: cuneiform, hieroglyphics, linear B, ancient Greek, and Latin, to mention only some. Monumental architecture was represented by obelisks, pyramids, temples, aqueducts. Philosophies and organised religion likewise flowered, starting with the so-called Axial Age: Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, and later, Christianity. Islam came in the 7th century.

One would think that such highly evolved societies would last indefinitely, but both archeology and history tell us that a great number decline and finally collapse after only tens to several hundred years, i.e., all civilisations have a "sell-by" date.  (Some exceptions include the Roman Empire which lasted well over a thousand years). What is meant by “collapse” is a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity, and socio-economic complexity so that public services crumble, disorder ensues, and government loses control. Today, we call declining societies “failed states.”

This dramatic loss of population was exemplified again by the ancient Roman civilization. In 100AD, Rome had a population of 1.5 million inhabitants; by 800AD, its population had shrunk to only about 15,000. (Historians usually date the fall of the Western Rome Empire during the latter part of the 5th Century). Societies became simpler with de-specialisation, de-stratification, and de-centralisation of power. Sometimes they were totally obliterated as to what happened to the Trojans and the Carthaginians. Other times, they were absorbed by a more powerful civilisation as the Macedonians were absorbed by the Romans. Still other times, their settlements were simply abandoned--the Mayans and the Khmers of Angkor simply left when their environment became so degraded through deforestration and soil depletion that it could no longer support them.

It seems that each civilisation carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, and that the rise and fall of civilisations were determined by their inhabitants’ response to challenge. Their rise was mediated by favourable environments: near bodies of water, stable climates, friendly neighbours, good leaderships, technological inventions and/or diffusions, etc. The critical factor, however, remained the industry and creativity of their people. Conversely, over time, populations became decadent and indulgent, and with this, psychological exhaustion and self-destruction. In Rome, excessive concentration of wealth was coupled with faulty leadership, which caused the fatal over-expansion of the empire.

Thus, societies were already oftentimes in decline when catastrophe struck: an invasion from hostile neighbours, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, plagues, droughts, famine, and other natural disasters would thrust them finally towards their collapse.

It is said that history repeats itself, but not if we can learn from our past.

Today, we have risk factors, not unlike those faced by our ancestors. But we have so far enjoyed a long road of success, despite dips here and there. China has at least continued its history, and the West remains the inheritors of ancient Greek and Roman thought.

However, if we read through the narrative above, we see that we are suffering from some of the same problems encountered by past civilisations. These include not only external elements such as rising temperatures associated with climate change, but internal elements as well, including great income inequality, faulty leadership, and as important, over-concentration on the myopic present at the cost of planning for the distant future.

Our short-termism is dis-enfranchising the future generations. We are overshooting the carrying capacity of our environment. What happens to our civilization, whether we stabilise and move forward, or decline and decay, is dependent on what we do today and whether or not our past has taught us a lesson.