I just discovered a book – Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress. Full disclosure – I’m waiting for it to come from the library and love the book’s cover. I did see the author, Christopher Ryan, on a “Useful Idiots” podcast https://usefulidiots.substack.com/ and thought I’d share some of what Ryan had to say. And note: a few thinkers (especially the Hobbesian guys like Steven Pinker) aren’t wild about his ideas. And some readers wish Ryan had provided more How-To ideas at the end. The podcast helps with that but are these reasons not to read a well-researched book? I don’t think so.
Hunter – Gatherers
Ryan’s well-researched contention is that “Well over 95 percent of the time that our species has existed we’ve lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers moving about in small bands of 150 people or fewer.” These bands were egalitarian, mobile, social, and generous. Power was fluid rather than hierarchical, based more on social value than status and property. Women were given the same opportunities as men. If a person wanted power, they were never chosen as a leader.
Ryan’s take on today is this: “Multinational corporations routinely expropriate land in poor countries [or states] or ‘buy’ it from corrupt politicians, force the local populations off the land (so they cannot grow or hunt their own food), and offer the ‘luckiest’ among them jobs cutting down the forest, mining minerals, or harvesting fruit in exchange for slave wages often paid in company currency that can only be used to buy unhealthful, industrially produced food at inflated prices at a company-owned store. These victims of market incursion are then often celebrated as having been saved from ‘abject poverty.’ With their gardens, animals, fishing, and hunting, they had been living on less than a dollar a day. Now, as slave laborers, they’re participating in the economy. This, we’re told, is progress.”
Of course, there’s no going back 10,000 years and starting over. But there are ideas that Ryan puts forth as better than our “keep on truckin’ no matter the cost” modus operandi. Or as Arthur Miller said, “An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted.” Are we there yet?
What Can We Do?
Here are a few of the suggestions Ryan makes on the podcast:
- Helping someone – preferably a stranger – is important to our psychological health. The reason being as a specie we survived 300,000 years by “having each other’s backs.”
- Do the very thing you don’t want to do because when you’ve done it, you’ll feel better. This goes for a daily walk or whatever moves your body or mind; a cold shower to short-circuit mild depression. Who hasn’t felt better after taking that walk? It wakes up the part (from our ancient forebearers) that helps us want to live, to not give up.
- Think about what you’re consuming and whether it’s really of value or just a response to endless advertising. Is your life being enriched or are you enriching some CEO and his shareholders’ lives? There are more reasons to simplify our lives than there are to complicate them.
- 25% of Americans live alone. Ryan suggests not a commune but a way for small groups of people to live near each other, committed to share skills, interests – a return to smaller communities.
Ryan says, “Our species went from living in the world to living in a zoo of our own making. Without understanding what was happening, our ancestors were being domesticated as surely as were their plants and animals. We’re going to live in a zoo but let’s create one for ourselves that replicates as much as possible the world that created us.”
I’m looking forward to reading his book and checking out his podcast at https://chrisryanphd.com/category/tangentially-speaking/. And do check out his website’s About section https://chrisryanphd.com/about-chris/ – what an interesting, fun, thoughtful guy who likes to wear orange pants!
Photo credits: World map – Christine Roy, Stonehenge – k-mitch-hodge, Ancient Wall – Jeremy-benzager. All others from the author.
I just finished The Upswing and found it very interesting. Minda Rae is right – Putnam does offer a history of community and caring that could be a model for rebuilding. He also documents how it came to be and then was lost. Amazing though – published in 2020 (probably completed in 2019) – Theodore Roosevelt’s quote that ends the book “…on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together” sounds more like irony rather than wisdom.
On Ryan’s last point, about 25% of Americans living alone, I note that collectives, cooperatives, communes and intentional communities have existed since our beginning. The problem is that they are often misunderstood and demonized as cults, sects, anti-establishment drop-outs and dangerous radicals. Americans like to think of this country as a land of individual freedom—fine, on your own, you can be as off-track as you like. But those who band together in common cause must struggle against rejection from the rest of society.
So well said, Robert. With any luck, the pendulum might be swinging back to it’s okay to know your neighbors, share resources, and look out for each other. Here’s hoping. And, thanks so much for your comment, Robert.
It seems sadly true that the benefits of civilization (literacy, complex music and other arts, effective medicine and surgery, swift transportation, and much more) have come at a terrible cost. But the remedies Ryan apparently suggests are grossly disproportionate to the evils he describes, by Barbara’s account. We need concerted political action to restrain the evils of capitalism and to create an equitable society. The book “The Upswing” by Robert Putnam (author of “Bowling Alone”) shows that we made a good stab once at doing this, and could do it again.
Thanks so much Minda Rae. Just put your book rec on my reading list. What I really liked about Ryan’s book is his defense of the best part of human beings and how we haven’t entirely lost it after all these thousands of years.