It is easy to see a major point where civilization and environment interact:
To get the great works of art and architecture, the philosophical, religious and/or scientific advances, and the social stratification and separation of labor we typically see as symbolic of civilization, there must be a surplus. After all, if everyone’s time and effort has to be put into the production of just enough food to get by, there simply is no time for much more cultural life than a little bit of storytelling or music and dance.
It is only since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, however, that humanity has been drawing ever stronger on fossil fuels, and gained immensely in productivity. The little time an employee in a “developed” country has to work to be able to afford a product made cheaply thanks to the subsidies provided to us, by petrochemical and fossil fuel-enabled productivity gains, by drawing on the still-existing riches of the entire ecosphere, and through economic mechanisms, leaves time and money to expend on other things.
Too bad only that the “civilization” that has been built on this foundation is the consumer society.
After all, it still expands, merrily follows the ideology of happiness through shopping and progress through a rise in GDP – even as we can see that the happiness it produces is vapid at best, the rise in GDP called “economic growth” is actually uneconomic as it causes more costs and destruction overall than it brings benefits. And, in the only real difference to earlier civilizations that were based only on (local) ecosystem productivity, this entire current system is also based on fossil fuels that aren’t endless. It still gains major input from ecological capital (natural resources, and more), that is being drawn down.
Interestingly, strong parallels have emerged between the social/individual and the ‘system’ approach:
The entire system is based on discounting the future in favor of the present, seeing the greatest value in using up whatever is out there in order to profit right now. However many “debts” are incurred in terms of ecosystems – the capital of life – being destroyed, even in terms of the very climate and physical composition of the Earth system – our essential life-support system – being changed in troubling ways, everyone is just to stay calm and keep consuming, adding to the destruction, because “the economy” has to grow and “be healthy.”
On the individual level, it has come to the point of people – us, you and me – hardly being seen as humans anymore, but only as labor (and often enough, cost) factors measured in nothing but their contribution to corporate profits.
Of course, a company needs a profit if it is not to fold – but if there is no other value than ever-higher monetary profit, and the easiest way to raise it, even in a world full of a rising number of people all looking for work, is to throw out more people and let the rest work harder, something is wrong.
If national economics and politics knows nothing but the size of “the economy,” forgetting that there is no economy without people and that people’s producing and trading should, in fact, be the economy, it is the philosophical foundation for a hell on Earth, not a human civilization even slightly worthy of such a label.
Sure, there are fewer (direct) human sacrifices for religious reasons than their used to be, but the indirect cost in terms of life and dignity is great and all the more insidious. More and more, we are told to make sacrifices for the sake of the economy…
Add to this how individual happiness is, just like “the healthy economy,” seen to come with an ever-growing collection of stuff, no matter that it is purchased with the destruction of individual health through overwork, the lack of time for anything much besides working and consuming, and even through the taking-on of debts, just for the sake of immediate gratification.
Well, “civilizations” have overused their resources and destroyed the ecosystems they depended on before, and they have fallen.
The measures of a civilization, in fact, might better not be the grand feats remembered in stories and the great works remaining as ruins, but rather the lives made better and the resilience and durability achieved. Lasting greatness, after all – as much as we have liked stories of conquest, to date – cannot lie in destruction and the supposed dominion over others and the natural world. Real and lasting greatness would be much better served by a conquest of our own selves, a rule over our worse tendencies and in support of our better sides.
And no, this does not mean conquering or ruling over human nature, for we are loving, cooperative, rational creatures just as much as we can be violent and parochial.
“Civilization” and “culture” – not to forget, “cultivatedness” – used to mean just that. The terms still carry a connotation of it, as much as they meant empire and control, too; and it is not without reason that it used to be not just “farming,” let alone the growing of “cash crops,” but “agri-culture.”
Ways of living and ways of being civilized – cultivated and cultivating – have been in alignment for a reason: Living in ways that change the environment so that it keeps on producing enough for its human inhabitants, and more, over longer periods of time, without breakdowns, requires knowledge of that environment, careful creativity in how it is adapted for human use and fertility, as well as ways of living adapted to what it can thus produce.
In the case of the Maya or Inka, we see great civilizations that fell or were felled, but also great cultures – peoples and ways of life – that still continue to provide a living. Looking at Europe or China, as well as many other places, we find cultures that have changed their environments a lot, encountered problems for it, but also continued to exist and develop – and not all that badly, along with functioning and biodiverse ecosystems.
Yes, the majority of people were poor, and ecosystems have been changed.
Looking at all the Alpine valleys were people have been living for centuries, the age-old Chinese villages built up as agricultural communities and trading stations in the midst of paddy rice terraces, we find that people have been able to live there and produce enough of a surplus for many a great construction project, though – from farmsteads to castles and religious structures – even in places where we’d be hard-pressed to imagine making a living nowadays, without commuting or outright moving into the cities for the easier life and money there. Something must be wrong with our expectations and our creativity about the ways we live and make a living…
Here lies the great civilizational challenge for the future, whether we want just a simple life of contentment or generation ships that move life into the cosmos:
We have always seen civilization as a mainly human affair and “the environment” as merely a stage and canvas which to arrange as we wished. We have, however, learned that we can destroy this stage, which is a living thing in its own right, to the point where we cannot stand on it anymore – and we have also been learning that there are ways of co-creating a richer canvas of civilization-with(in)-ecology which will provide us with enough, and more, basically forever, as long as we work in and with it, as a part of it.
It’s high time we changed from having civilizations fall and leaving deserts where forests used to be, to truly growing as cultures, cultivating the really better lives and the fields and forests that provide for them, in synergy.