Thoughts on “Civilized To Death”

From the book Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress by Christopher Ryan

If you’ve been reading my writings for the last ten years or so, you’re not a stranger to the idea that I’m not all that thrilled with the modern world. This ongoing theme is not lost on me as well. I am aware that through this whole thing called my life there’s a touch of sadness that, no matter where I am, who I am with, and what I am surrounded by, seems to hang around like a guest that doesn’t know when to leave the party. This pesky nag of an emotion that never goes away has long been something that I’ve grappled with, an endless chess match where no one can ever yell checkmate but where neither participant wants to call it a draw. There have been close calls where I’ve almost admitted defeat (2016-2019 in the USA, and then wow thanks Covid in 2020) but as a human being I’ve somehow got this wiring inside that keeps things going and here I am in 2021.

Recently I have been going through the book “Civilized To Death” by Christopher Ryan in starts and stops. There have been moments in the past month where I can’t stop thinking about a particular idea presented by Ryan. The thesis of the book circles around the idea that maybe things in our modern world are not as great as we make them out to be and that some of the stuff we left behind as we moved from a hunter-gatherer society into something industrialized are things we should think about reintroducing in the future. It is a very different take on the whole “Civilization is humankind’s greatest accomplishment” idea that so permeates our modern culture. This idea that we’re all better off being alive now than any other time in history, one that we’re fed from birth and that draws vacant stares if questioned is very much indeed questioned by Ryan through the course of the book. He calls it the Narrative of Perpetual Progress. It is this questioning by the author that brings me here today. 

Have we as people really been leaping and growing in a positive way from each generation? To me, this modern world that we’ve created isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. We live in a time where so many of us talk frequently and openly about how tired we are at all times. We know that all of the ideas and goods being sold to us are not as honest as they’re presented to be. Be it the “work hard and it will pay off” attitudes that are so often repeated in our capitalist societies or genetically modified foods, the top of the line technological consumer goods we’re told that we need, and the many other things that we’re  bombarded with on a day to day basis and it all starts to add up that maybe this modern world isn’t as honest as it seems and that maybe, just maybe we’re on a path that doesn’t exactly line up with what it means to be a human being at the core. Maybe the things we’ve all believed to be the right path forward have never been the right path forward?

I’m not calling for a reset in life, one where we’re letting go of all of the great things that progress has brought us. We can all agree here…there are some great things that the modern world has brought our way. I think about how grateful I am to be able to live in a world where literally anyone who I am connected to is just a message away. No more forever goodbyes, no more phone cards bought from some shady corner store just to stay in touch. I can send anyone a message at any time that I want to connect and share. I am thankful for advances in medicine that help so many of us stay alive. I am not saying that we get rid of those things. Nope, no way. That progress is good progress. But maybe it is time to reevaluate everything at the core. Maybe in the middle of all this…the turmoil, the pandemic, the politics, climate change, the fascism, and hate…is the time where we start to wake up and see that the path we’re on isn’t the path we should be on.

2 comments

  1. Great post Justin. Evolution and progress doesn’t always mean all things are better. A lot has gotten better or more interesting, art, literature, science, and of course medical care. But with humans it feels like we’re just doing what life does and filling our ecological niche. Since we started changing our environment our niche is anywhere and we fill up everywhere, without thinking.

    I liked Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens observation that as hunter gathers we probably had more free time and were generally healthier, dying of accidents or animals. Once we started farming grains we could produce food that kept more people alive rather than thriving. I don’t know how we get away from this, I think we are starting to question things and make sure we are where we should be as a society as a species but the answers I suspect would require too many limitations on individual freedom to ever get enacted. Perhaps as our environmental niche reacts badly to us we will have to start learning new ways of being that are more positive to the world and to us as guests upon it.

    • Thanks for reading, and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I am going to for sure check out Sapiens next. While I do wish the world would fully wake up and realize the path moving ahead, I don’t think that will happen. There’s just too much. But as an individual and within our family we can make that choice. And I think we are. And I think a lot of others are as well.

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