Civilisation: The Greatest Con Humans Fell For

20th February 2021
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The water is clear. There is lots of food. The jungle is beautiful. We are nice people.

This was how a Piraha tribesman answered an athropologist who asked him if he knew why he had come to visit them. There was no hesitation. No consideration for even a second that an outsider would want to come for any other reason than the Piraha home was the greatest place on earth. And that tribesman was right.

It's not naive or arrogant. It's simply how it is. The Piraha, like all hunter-gatherers, are supremely confident people because for thousands of years they have lived exactly the same way and know everything they need to know. The idea of progress to a hunter-gatherer is as ridiculous as it would be to expect lions, elephants, seagulls, snails, bobcats, hummingbirds and jellyfish to make progress. Development. Move forward.

We talk about that like it is the only thing that matters. Progress is held up like people of old held up statues of gods. The news is full of forecasts of growth. We don't talk of the economy getting smaller. It's contraction. Recession. Like we're talking about muscle spasms or constipation or what happens when a piece of food goes down the wrong way. In a relationship, the words "we need to move forward" mean only one thing: you've been happy too long and it's time to become miserable. In the name of progress.

As Edward Abbey said, "an economic system that can only expand or expire must be false to all that is human". And added: "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell". Few people saw civilisation as clearly as Abbey did.

We shit on hunter-gatherers, nomads, subsistence farmers. There is no growth. They must be dullards because they do not feel the need to start online businesses, go to therapy, take food off the land and ship it to a factory before they can eat it, watch Netflix, take up expensive hobbies, live in horrible places so they can spend two weeks a year somewhere nice. Argue about whether or not they should become vegans. Their work week is a feeble 14 hours. They have sex constantly. They laugh. They take psychedelics and never go to church. What is wrong with these bastards? Don't they have any ambition? Don't they take anything seriously? No, they don't. And why should they? The land is generous. Their gods are kind. The people are nice. What does it take to put a hunter-gatherer in fear of his life? Isolation, maybe. Other than that it's going to take some major event to turn on a tribesman to existential angst. A shift in the climate. Some kind of imbalance in the environment. A civilised man turning up with a good idea.

What does it take for you? For me, home, shelter, food, resources can all be removed easily. Lose your job. Miss a couple of payments. Get ill. That's how most of us live, the whims of trivia and chance and politicians can wipe your personal little empire from the face of the planet. You cannot turn to the land. You cannot turn to the tribe. Take away your ability to earn and you cannot fend for yourself. Trivial events become terrifying.

Joni Mitchell wrote in 1970: we're caught in the devil's bargain and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden... A piece of naive, hippy whimsy but looking back she saw it right. The price of civilisation has been our souls. We see that right now: an economic system that can only expand or expire.

We gave up freedom when we were seduced by the idea of civilisation. This isn't something new. The Book of Genesis was written 3500 years ago, barely even into the dawn of civilisation and some ancient Hebrew realised he was getting fucked on the deal of progress. Adam & Eve are the original hunter-gatherers. They live in abundance. There are no kings, priests, lawyers, politicians. Nobody telling them what to do. But they get offered "knowledge" by a snake. Not much different to now except the snake works for Bechtel or Halliburton. No wonder God is pissed. He hands them everything they need to make them happy and the damn woman decides "we need to make some forward progress in our relationship" then it's a trip to Fucksville for everyone. Now you can read what happens next as God cursing Adam and Eve for their sin like these Christian nutcases would have you believe. Or He's just letting them know where the land lies. You want knowledge? Progress? Civilisation? Okay, here ya go. This is what it means. For Eve, it's marriage and painful childbirth. For Adam, it's shitty food and working in the fields to win every bit of sustenance through toil. This is what progress means, morons. You chose it, now you're fucked. I'm just letting you know.

Same down the line. Cain kills Abel out of spite. In mythology, everything is relevant. If they tell you Cain is a farmer and Abel is a sheep herder then there is a meaning behind it. The farmer, Cain, is modernity, civilisation. He's tied to the land, to toil, to the tyranny of the solar day and year. Work. The sheep herder, Abel, is the past. Freedom, out on the hills with no master. Keep the wolves away but other than that you're sitting under a tree eating figs and scratching your balls for most of the day.

Wouldn't you be pissed if you were the farmer seeing the sheep herder live like that? You're all fancy and civilised. You wear textiles and eat grain and get up at dawn and spend the autumn harvesting and the spring ploughing and every now and again a storm comes and wipes out half your field and the king wants his tithe and he's giving no fucks about any miserable weather. And here's Mister Ancient-Fucking-World out there in the hills, doing nothing but occasionally throw some rocks at a wolf. And the sheep breed and turn into more sheep all on their own. No sowing, no ploughing, nothing. And all you have to do is bring a few to market every now and then and life is golden.

Whoever dreamt up Genesis knew the score with civilisation. Progress hates the idea of the idle, happy nomad. Civilisation needs you to be dependent on it to succeed, it can't have you being able to fend for yourself off the land. Go where you want and if you don't like the current deal then you can just walk off and join the tribe across the valley. They realised it was a shitty deal for themselves and the killing of Abel is all that hatred for those who dodged getting civilised welling up in them. Spiteful little bastards. They knew exactly what had been given up to get there and where it was going and they were not happy at all. They remembered a time before kings, towns, gods, laws. They remembered Tribe. Genesis was written by the Edward Abbey of the ancient Middle East. Fucking up the hunter-gatherer life of Eden was the biggest mistake humans made. We gave up paradise for civilisation and the 5000 years of existential misery that followed.

Hunter-gatherers don't make war, keep slaves, elect presidents, be dictated to by priests, listen to blowhards, allow millionaires to not accidentally fall off cliffs. They don't wear suits, worship vacuous celebrities, apologise for taking drugs, pay tax, sell 25 years of their lives to pay for a shelter that they'd defend to the death if a stranger set foot in it.

As Joni said, we've got to get ourselves back to the garden. Only we can't. We're fucked. We can't un-eat the apple. Civilisation wins.