The Cancer of Western Civilization (originally published in indymedia.ie, January 2012)
At the present time western
style civilization or what is more commonly called western culture seems to
be sweeping into every corner of the globe. Since the demise of Communism, as
the main ideological alternative to western Capitalism, it has become increasingly
pervasive to the point that it appears to be unstoppable.
Despite its increasing prevalence, there is great dissatisfaction with this mode of living and it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is a system that is doomed to fail. One must wonder then why such an obviously flawed system has become almost omnipresent? One must also wonder what, if any, are the viable alternatives that could offer humanity a more equitable and sustainable existence?
To really understand how we have got to where we are, we need to understand something of human history... It is generally understood by historians and archaeologists that the first transitions from agrarian societies to the formation of city (civilized) states occurred at least 5000 years ago, perhaps much earlier.
The earliest proven civilization (by which I mean an urban society) is that of Sumeria, out of which developed the Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations. The Sumerian society, like most empires and city states, eventually collapsed supposedly due to lack of available resources – viable agricultural land in particular. The later Babylonian civilization also ended, with Baghdad become the main middle-eastern cultural centre in the 7th century CE. However, the cultural legacy of Babylon spread to Greece, Rome and throughout the Arab world and indeed its influence is still with us today.
The monetary system that exists within modern Capitalism is not so different from that of the Babylonians. However, the Babylonians recognized the inherent weakness of a system of debt and credit and ‘wiped the slate clean’ whenever their ruler died. This was probably deeply unpopular with the moneylenders of the time, but it did save huge swathes of the population from debt slavery and enabled the system to continue through periodic ‘reboots’.
At the time of Babylon’s greatest power it only affected a very small area of the world. Subsequent cultures such as Greece and Rome had a far greater cultural reach, not least because of their greater success in subduing and invading other lands. Even so, the influence of western (Babylonian/Greek/Roman) thought extended only from Europe, into north Africa and as far east as Persia, up until the late middle ages.
Of course other dominating, militaristic and urban societies existed elsewhere in the world (e.g. the Aztecs of South America) however, their influence was generally highly localized. It is from the European Renaissance onwards that the western cultural model began to be exported all over the world, initially by the Spaniards but later by most of the coastal European nations.
In recent centuries British, French and American influence has been most pervasive, although for a relatively short time period the USSR’s influence was equally powerful in many parts of the world. Modern society has brought massive technological changes, a gradual move from rural to urban living, a move away from agrarian skills and the creation of a consumer society. Unfortunately modern urban society has not really progressed much from that of the ancient Babylonians, Greeks or Romans despite all of the advantages of advanced technology.
Western style culture is still plagued with poverty, crime, inequality, religious conflict, wars, poor health and social unrest just as the annals of previous civilizations attest to. Just like a virus or cancer, western culture needs to spread in order to survive. The modern lifestyle being adopted in almost all parts of the planet are perhaps even more unsustainable and prone to eventual failure than those of our antecedents. The only way that a modern town or city can survive is by constantly draining resources from the surrounding area, like a parasite.
Cities are so full of people and our artificial creations that there is no room for agriculture or for much wildlife. In more advanced and prosperous cities there is often little or no industry as residents object to the close proximity of noisy, polluting and unsightly factories, even though most cities and towns remain polluted, ugly and noisy without it. So, it would appear that many urban centres produce little other than intangibles such as services or finance; little or no physical resources are created, except from use of outside resources.
In order for these urban societies to function they rely entirely on food, energy and physical materials that are grown, generated, collected or created in the rural or non-urban areas that surround them. Unfortunately, as our human population continues to expand so do our cities, so that now more than 50% of the world’s humans live in urban centres, mostly living in a western style (if not western) culture.
This means that these people have to be sustained by a dwindling number of people who live outside of the urban centres, on an ever-shrinking land mass which has to provide more and more of its resources to keep urban societies functional. It seems obvious really that eventually a point will be reached when there just is not enough land, not enough rural inhabitants and not enough resources left to keep the urban centres of the world running in the fashion that they expect and have become accustomed to.
I would liken western consumer society to a serpent eating its own tail – eventually it will devour itself. There is an acknowledgement that the western (Capitalist) model is imperfect but attempts to tinker around the edges are merely indications that humanity is collectively in denial regarding the inevitable collapse from continuing with an ultimately unsustainable system.
We have almost reached the point where there are no new territories to exploit – the world’s forests are disappearing, aquatic life is gradually disappearing from the oceans, non-consumable animals on land are decreasing, oil and mineral resources are becoming harder to extract and non-farmed, safe landmass to occupy is in increasingly short supply.
Clearly, after over 5000 years of expanding basically the same system of urbanized living, it is time to realize that this model of living is unsustainable, unfair and self-destructive. If we cannot make it work efficiently now, with all our technological insights and the lessons of previous small-scale failures in history, then perhaps it is time to adopt a different model.
The only human societies that have managed to sustain themselves in-situ for very long periods of time are the most simple ones – such as those of the native North Americans, the Australian Aborigines, the Arctic peoples and African Bushmen. Most of these societies are, or are becoming westernized and abandoning their sustainable, subsistence lifestyles that have worked effectively for many thousands of years.
Obviously it would be impossible for the whole world to instantly return to a subsistence, agrarian lifestyle, however it is clear that there are many lessons that need to be learned (and quickly) with regard to finding a model for living that is not akin to cancer. Cancer eventually kills the host organism if it remains unchecked by intervention. Likewise, our planet will be killed if our reckless western civilization continues to expand unchecked.
We do not have all of the answers to this problem, but the first step in solving any problem is to acknowledge the problem and gain a realistic understanding of it’s nature. Continued denial of the extent of the flaws in human society will only guarantee its failure. If precipitating a global change seems an immense and infeasible task then perhaps we do best to start with ourselves. Obviously the system needs to be changed, at the behest of all its citizens, but in the meantime we all need to reflect on our own individual compliance and contribution to a system that is almost defunct.
The time has come to look beyond the empty platitudes of the guardians of the status quo, piped to the masses via TV and radio. Now is the time to challenge the social mores and every-day behaviours we have all become used to. Now is the time to honestly look at our own lives and begin genuine and progressive change so that future generations will one day have a chance to make decisions about how they wish to live.