The Central Challenge Facing a Civilization-Creating Species — Part II

This piece ran as an op/ed in Virginia newspaper in March, 2022.


In Part I, I defined Civilization as those societies created by a creature that “extricates itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life.” And I made the case that any creature’s civilization inevitably emerges into disorder.

  • disorder in the intersocietal system, leading to a chronic “war of all against all” among civilized societies; and
  • disorder in the ecological system, leading to the degrading of the surrounding natural world.

And I further argued that in the natural course of things, the powers wielded by any creature’s civilization will tend to grow until eventually they are so great that the civilization might destroy itself.

As a result, the Central Challenge facing any civilization-creating creature will ultimately be:

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

In the past less-than-a-century, we’ve seen how that applies to human civilization. We have seen two ways — corresponding to the two dimensions of Disorder that inevitably arise with Civilization — that our civilization might destroy itself (or at least bring about a catastrophic collapse):

  • In the realm of War – 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 growth of the powers of human civilization also threaten 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.

  1. It is uncertain whether human civilization will succeed or fail in meeting that Central Challenge.

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.”

  • 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 (as our nuclear superpowers now can).
  • The ecological destruction wrought earlier by civilization could denude the land from over-grazing, poison the rivers, strip the land of forests, etc. But it is only now that human civilization has become such a big bull in the ecological china shop that we could so disrupt the earth’s climate that our civilization might break apart into ruins (through floods and droughts, wildfires and unendurable heat, famines and pestilence, rising seas and uninhabitable lands, migrations and intersocietal conflict).

Once self-destruction has become possible, a perpetual failure to order our civilization in ways that close off those destructive scenarios renders self-destruction inevitable. It’s 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 with the combination of the glorious and the ugly we’ve shown over the millennia. Regarding the coming centuries, the options are two: put civilization in order, or have our story culminate in catastrophe.

So we can see what our species’ Central Challenge is. And it’s not clear that our civilization will successfully meet it.

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