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Civilization is commonly defined as a type of human society with permanent settlements, high social and technological complexity, and agriculture, in contrast to primitive societies, which are nomadic, have lower complexity, and get their food through foraging and hunting. This definition can be value-neutral, but popularly it is usually slanted in favor of civilization: living in towns and cities, adding complexity, and growing our own food are seen as improvements. At the same time, in the popular story, human intelligence, knowledge, wealth, power, health, lifespan, morality, and quality of life are also improving. All of these improvements are tied to increasing technological complexity and economic growth. In the most extreme story, these changes are built into history itself and destined to continue.

The idea of history as a climb from savagery is fairly new. Most indigenous cultures have seen history as circular, and most preindustrial civilized cultures saw it as a decline from a golden age. Even among civilized people there have been critics of almost every aspect of civilization as we know it, from industrialization to agriculture. Jared Diamond has looked at archaeological evidence and argued that the switch from wild foods to grains ravaged human health, and the ability to store grains led to class divisions and hierarchy.[1] Marshall Sahlins has looked at hunter-gatherers observed recently and argued that they enjoy abundant food and leisure time, and a higher subjective quality of life than most civilized people.[2] And it is now becoming clear that the spread of the western industrial lifestyle is causing ecological catastrophe.


The most extreme critique of civilization is primitivism, which declares that repression, conquest, and ecological destruction are inseparable from cities and high complexity and agriculture, and the only tolerable path for humanity is to return to living in forager-hunter tribes. Although primitivists differ from techno-utopians in which aspects of civilization they focus on, their definition is the same in that it draws a clear line between civilized and primitive. This is challenged by societies in the grey area, like the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, who had towns, farms, wars of conquest, and representative government, but also sustained their local ecosystems, and lacked both written language and the wheel.

Also, both the common pro- and anti-civilization positions focus on civilization as we know it. There is another definition that keeps the positive value of the word, but does not apply it to the present society. You can see this in statements like "We have never been civilized," or in Gandhi's remark, when asked about western civilization, that he thought it would be a good idea. This is a speculative definition, a vision of a society that has not yet existed, but that if it ever does exist, will have most of the features we like about past and present civilizations, and few of the features we dislike.

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Author: Ran Prieur