“Civilization.” You think you know what it means. Civilization. Your eyes skate right through it. No problem. Civilization. You got this. It means “everything.”
Well, maybe not everything. Just people. Humans. Civilization means humans.
Maybe just “humanity.” You know, everybody, ever.
Wrong, sucka. Wrong.
Fact is, civilization is a very specific term. It is in no way interchangable with humans or humanity. You can’t use civilization to mean history, sociology, ethics, manners, aesthetics, or whatever shit I’m talking about at the moment. It is mostly interchangeable with the word agriculture, but let’s not get ahead of me.
Are you ready to get responsible with your use of the word civilization? I hope so, because we can’t really talk about jack squat without first coming to some general agreement on at least a loose definition of the word. And that is exactly how I will define it—loosely. There’s no sense in getting lost in the details. You just need to understand a little about what the word means in the context of shit that I say. Because I like to talk about civilization.
The Beginning of Civilization
Civilization began with agriculture. Uh-oh. Agriculture. Another word you think you understand. Fine. I’ll back it up to agriculture.
The Beginning of Agriculture
Agriculture is the intentional human cultivation of land. Say you’re running around in tribes of people, hunting and gathering, getting by, living and getting sick and using plants as medicine and fucking and raising families and playing games and talking your language and painting your pictures and honking on your didgeridoo. Life is fucked up, but it’s also beautiful, and that’s life.
But then one day, you sit around in the same place for a little longer, because, check this out, I can grow some rice from this other rice if I just stop moving all over Bumfuck, Egypt for long enough to let it happen. Hell, I can grow a whole metric shitte tonne of rice if I clear out a bigger garden plot. And hell, why don’t we just stop moving altogether, as long as I can keep these fucking tigers from eating my sitting-duck family. Poky sticks or something. Whatever, we got this. By the year 6,000 BCE (give or take a few millennia), gardening is big business. The larger the garden plot is, the more efficient the harvest is. You now can produce huge surpluses.
And that was the beginning of agriculture. Agriculture allowed thousands upon thousands of people to gather in one place and mooch off the producers in exchange for letting the producers use their labor. And everyone could just stay there. Like, forever.
The Beginning of Civilization, er, Again
Obviously, when you’re all stuck together in one place, you have all kinds of free time due to the advent of efficient food production. You’re not hunting and gathering anymore. You are producing food via the miracle of agriculture. This is magical. This is a brand-new thing, when you consider humanity is somewhere between 100,000 years and a few million years old, depending on where you wanna draw the taxonomy lines. I really don’t care where you draw the line, or whether you think a Neanderthal is a person, or whatever. Doesn’t matter. No matter how you slice it, agriculture is brand-spanking-fucking new in the context of humanity as a whole.
So you have all this free time all of a sudden. Well, let’s figure some shit out to fill it up with! Standardized written symbols, portable across hundreds of miles. The manipulation of those words. Money. Vast social heirarchies. Stone monuments to the boredom of fast-talkers and their offspring. Beautiful glass cathedrals carving the sky into awesome geometries. Motorized transportation. Telecommunications. Twitter. The Super Bowl. Cheese in a spray can. Complex industries requiring the lockstep cooperation of millions of communities all contributing their tiny, specialized widget to the iPhone. Gotye’s “Someone That I Used to Know” music video.
That’s civilization. You see? It’s new. And it’s a passing fad. Someone should create a graphic just to demonstrate what proportion of the history of humanity civilization takes up, and post it in the comments. Just to make it crystal clear for everyone.
The distinction between civilization and humanity isn’t just some frivolous technicality. It’s important. It’s as important as knowing the United States wasn’t always here, or that the semen stain on Monica’s dress wasn’t always there. It has a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Civilization has an origin in Time, roughly pinpointable through archaeology, geology, and other historical sciences.
This Is the End, My Friend. The Sad, Sad End (Not Really.)
I’m just reporting the facts, not saying whether civilization is a good or a bad thing. I just want you to understand what I mean when I say things like “Civilization is doomed.” I’m not being negative. I’m being positive. I have such great faith in humanity that I can look at civilization’s dependence on oil and, without batting an eyelash, say, “That thar’s obviously a house of cards, pardner.”
That’s another thing I say. “That thar’s a house of cards, pardner.” Another: “When the oil runs out, it’s Mad Max time.” And: “It’s gonna be fine, dudes and dudettes. This shit takes hundreds of years to go down.”
Civilization. I’ll see you on the other side.
Author’s note: this article was “dashed off.” (That’s writerspeak for “I have an alibi for my sucky writing.”) I dashed it off after a brilliant, educated, passionate, moral, ethical, funny, charitable friend of mine digitally slapped me for saying civilization is doomed. She was one of many such people who seem to think I am being negative when I talk smack about civilization. I figured if she’s misinterpreting me, everyone must be misinterpreting me. Thus the necessity for this article. I hope you found it tolerable. If you loved it, hated it, or are passionately apathetic about it, tweet at me. - Will Conley