#5 The Central Challenge Facing Any Civilization-Creating Species

From such seemingly inevitable implications of a creature taking the step onto the path of civilization (shown in #2, “What Rules This World?”), it is possible to “derive” (as the mathematicians say) what is – ultimately – the Central Challenge facing any species that takes that step:

Will our species be able to order our civilization well enough – and soon enough – to prevent our civilization’s destroying itself?

Here’s why:

1. Civilization Inevitably Creates Two Dangerous Kinds of Disorder.

“Order our civilization…” It is evident why the issue of “Order vs. Disorder” will be central to understanding the challenge facing any creature’s civilization, the reason being that:

  • Order is central to all of Life’s systems—from the intricacy of the arrangement of molecules in the cell, to the structure of the organism, to the overall flows of the biosphere. Good order is central to the Wholeness that Life manifestly depends on.

And because

  • Disorder is an inevitable consequence of the breakthrough to civilization. Indeed, there are two kinds of disorder that the emergence of Civilization would inevitably generate, each of them introducing Brokenness into the overarching systems of any creature’s civilization.

First, there’s the Disorder already discussed in “What Rules This World?” — i.e. the inevitable absence of any order in the intersocietal system to regulate the interactions among civilized societies. That’s the disorder of Anarchy, which inevitably generates the problem of war.

Second — and a nearly equally problematic consequence of the civilization-creating creature “extricating itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically and inventing its own way of life” — there’s the breakout from the ecological order. (I.e. the order to which I pointed with a line in that earlier piece: “The lion and the zebra and the grass work together to operate a perpetual motion machine, even as they devour each other.”) 

This second Disorder — resulting from absence of biologically evolved constraints on how these “invented” life-forms (civilized societies) interact with the surrounding ecological order– opens the door to the problem of environmental destruction.

Civilization emerges inevitably beset by both kinds of disorder. Achieving good order of either sort – throughout the planetary civilization – inevitably takes time. Much time.

2. It would seem to be more or less inevitable that the destructive powers of any such species’ civilization will keep growing, and thus in time will reach a level that threatens the survival of that civilization.

That the emergence of civilization unleashes Forces of Disorder means that the powers of civilized societies are potentially wielded in destructive ways.

Meanwhile, those powers are pretty well sure to grow over time. They will grow because:

  1. A creature that starts to invent its own way of life, and that thereby breaks out of the bounds that had previously limited its range of cultural possibilities (regarding, for example, the size, social organization, and means of subsistence of its societies), will have open-ended possibilities for cultural innovation. And
  2. Not only will the innovative breakthroughs presumably keep coming, but also – because, as a cultural animal, the creature necessarily has the ability to transmit cultural innovations through the generations – the process of cultural development will tend to be cumulative.

Those two factors combine to dictate that, over the course of its history, the powers being wielded by that civilization – which includes the civilization’s destructive capabilities — will tend continually to increase.

Although the history of that species civilization will likely have its ups and downs — its rises and falls — the overall direction will be toward greater (potentially destructive) power. (Rome may have fallen, but the resulting retrogression of civilization — in Europe — was only temporary.)

Therefore, it seems a reasonably safe bet that any creature, on any planet, that accomplishes the breakthrough into civilization will eventually come to possess powers great enough – if wielded destructively – to potentially bring its story to a catastrophic ending.

3. Therefore, meeting that central challenge is inevitably a race against time.

The inclusion of “soon enough” in the articulation of civilization’s inevitable Central Challenge —  “order our civilization well enough – soon enough – to prevent our civilization’s destroying itself” — follows from those points made above:

  • From the inevitability that any creature’s venture into civilization will start off beset by destructive disorder, which generates a Force of Brokenness;
  • And from the near inevitability that — as that civilization develops over time – that civilization’s power will overall keep growing until – eventually — the possibility of self-destruction emerges;
  • It follows that there is some uncertainty which will come first: whether the Force of Brokenness that arises out of civilization’s inevitable disorder will wield those mighty powers to bring that civilization down; or whether, before that catastrophe happens, that creature will be able to establish the necessary good order to enable its civilization to survive and thrive for the long haul.

4. All this, accordingly, applies to the case of the civilization that’s emerged out of Life on planet earth, where the powers of human civilization have grown — in both those two areas of inevitable disorder — to a level that jeopardizes our civilization’s survival.

In the past less-than-a-century, we’ve witnessed two ways that our civilization might destroy itself (or at least inflict upon itself a great catastrophe). These correspond to those two dimensions of Disorder that inevitably arise with Civilization:

  • In the realm of War – which emerges as an inevitable consequence of intersocietal Anarchy – the cumulative advancement of knowledge and technology has led to the development of weapons of mass destruction” (in particular, nuclear weapons) that — as we were compelled to recognize during the Cold War — could end civilization.

That such an outcome was a genuine possibility was brought home by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962: although that confrontation was resolved peacefully, it is generally recognized that it might have gone the other way. And, with respect to the intersocietal order, nothing has changed since then to eliminate the possibility that some future confrontation between major nuclear powers – might lead to our civilization’s self-incineration.

  • In the realm of Environmental Degradation, we can see in the unfolding climate crisis that the ever-growing impact of the human bull in the biospheric china shop also threatens the human future. Such has been the magnification of our species’ power to impact the biosphere that human activity has now significantly destabilized the earth’s climate system (whose stability is in the vital interests of humankind and life generally).

How profoundly destructive of human civilization this climate disruption will prove to be is uncertain. It is already having a significant destructive impact, and the crisis is clearly in its early stages and gathering momentum. But even if this ecological disordering doesn’t threaten the survival of our civilization, it at least shows clearly the necessity – if we are to thrive for the long haul – of our civilization’s re-ordering itself to be in harmony with the systems of the biosphere on which our civilization on which we inevitably depend.

5. Whether human civilization will succeed or fail in meeting that Central Challenge — and survive for the long haul — is in doubt.

So great are the threats, and so enduring still is the disorder in both those realms, that it is a serious question whether or not the human civilization will survive.

In a variety of op/ed pieces in recent times, I’ve expressed my own gut-assessment of the probabilities thus:

“It looks like a toss-up whether, over the next several centuries, human civilization will get its act together, or whether the human story will culminate in some form of self-destruction.”

(And I’ve been expressing this worrisome sense of a “toss-up” since well before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and began his nuclear saber-rattling, raising the specter of nuclear war more dramatically than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of sixty years ago.)

6. Thrive or die appear to be the options – as the growth of the civilization’s powers lead to the disappearance of the middle, “muddling through” option.

People might understandably assume that this dichotomy – civilization’s getting its act together or self-destructing – is unrealistic and unduly dramatic. That assumption would be understandable because — although civilization has remained quite broken in various ways for ten thousand years — humankind has nonetheless muddled through.

So why should it be any different in the next several centuries?

It’s different because our powers have grown to the point where self-destruction is possible.

  • The confrontation of the armies of the ancient world could kill thousands, even tens of thousands. But they could not incinerate the planet.
  • The ecological destruction wrought by pre-industrial societies – even by the generations of the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution – could denude the land from over-grazing, spread pestilence in crowded cities, strip the land of great forests, etc. But never before these times has human civilization has become such a big bull in the ecological china shop that we could so disrupt the climate on earth as to disrupt ocean currents, change precipitation patterns, render parts of the earth uninhabitable, raise sea levels, generate a major wave of extinctions, etc.
  • Once self-destruction has become possible, humankind’s failing indefinitely to order our civilization in ways that close off those destructive scenarios renders self-destruction inevitable. “Inevitable” because of the principle that, given enough time, what can happen will happen. (If one plays Russian roulette with enough repetitions, the eventual outcome is practically a certainty.)
  • The options for the human species don’t include “muddle through”– i.e. don’t include our getting by with the combination of the glorious and the ugly we’ve enacted over the millennia. Regarding the coming centuries, the options are two: put civilization in order, or have our story culminate in catastrophe.
  • All of which makes clear what is the Central Challenge our species confronts. And it’s not clear that our civilization will successfully meet it.

7. Familiar Challenges in a Larger Context [Uncertain whether to keep]

Some might say, “What’s the point of this if all it tells us is that we need to address the problem of war in an age of ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ and need to address problems like climate change? We already know that?”

To which I’d answer: We are likely to bring greater focus, greater attention, to addressing such challenges if we understand them to be an inherent and inevitable part of the responsibility we undertook (albeit unknowingly) – of what is required of us – when we became the creatures who introduced that new life-form of “Civilization” into the systems of Life-on Earth.

We need to keep before our eyes that Central Challenge that would face any creature anywhere that takes such a step. Will we – the civilization-creating creatures on this planet – pass this test?

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