“What Is Civilization?” by Aric McBay


If some people hear that people want to “end civilization” they automatically respond in various negative ways because of their positive associations with the word “civilization.” This piece is an attempt to clarify, define and describe what I (and many others) mean by “civilization..”

The source: http://www.sodahead.com/living/what-is-civilization-by-aric-mcbay/blog-282673/

If I look in the dictionary to find out what the commonly used definition of civilization is, here’s what it says:


1: a society in an advanced state of social development (e.g.,
with complex legal and political and religious organizations); “the
people slowly progressed from barbarism to civilization” [syn:

2: the social process whereby societies achieve civilization [syn: civilization]

3: a particular society at a particular time and place; “early Mayan civilization” [syn: culture, civilization]

4: the quality of excellence in thought and manners and taste;
“a man of intellectual refinement”; “he is remembered for his
generosity and civilization” [syn: refinement, civilisation] [i]

The synonyms include “advancement, breeding, civility, cultivation,
culture, development, edification, education, elevation, enlightenment,
illumination, polish, progress” and “refinement..”

It goes without saying that the writers of dictionaries are “civilized”
people – it certainly helps explain why they define themselves in such
glowing terms. As Derrick Jensen asks, “can you imagine writers of
dictionaries willingly classifying themselves as members of ‘a low,
undeveloped, or backward state of human society’?” [1]

In contrast, the antonyms of “civilization” include: “barbarism,
savagery, wilderness, wildness.” These are the words that civilized
people use to refer to those they view as being outside of civilization
– in particular, indigenous peoples. “Barbarous”, as in “barbarian”,
comes from a Greek word, meaning “non-Greek, foreign.” The word
“savage” comes from the Latin “silvaticus” meaning “of the woods.” The
origins seem harmless enough, but it’s very instructive to see how
civilized people have used these words:


1: the quality of being shockingly cruel and inhumane [syn: atrocity, atrociousness, barbarousness, heinousness]

2: a brutal barbarous savage act [syn: brutality, barbarism, savagery] [ii]


1. The quality or condition of being savage.

2. An act of violent cruelty.

3. Savage behavior or nature; barbarity.. [iii]

These associations of cruelty with the uncivilized are, however, in
glaring opposition to the historical record of interactions between
civilized and indigenous peoples..

For example, let us take one of the most famous examples of “contact”
between civilized and indigenous peoples. When Christopher Columbus
first arrived in the “Americas” he noted that he was impressed by the
indigenous peoples, writing in his journal that they had a “naked
innocence. … They are very gentle without knowing what evil is,
without killing, without stealing..”

And so he decided “they will make excellent servants..”

In 1493, with the permission of the Spanish Crown, he appointed himself
“viceroy and governor” of the Caribbean and the Americas. He installed
himself on the island now divided between Haiti and the Dominican
republic and began to systematically enslave and exterminate the
indigenous population. (The Taino population of the island was not
civilized, in contrast to the civilized Inca who the conquistadors also
invaded in Central America.) Within three years he had managed to
reduce the indigenous population from 8 million to 3 million. By 1514
only 22,000 of the indigenous population remained, and after 1542 they
were considered extinct.. [2]

The tribute system, instituted by [Columbus] sometime in 1495, was a
simple and brutal way of fulfilling the Spanish lust for gold while
acknowledging the Spanish distaste for labor. Every Taino over the age
of fourteen had to supply the rulers with a hawk’s bell of gold every
three months (or, in gold-deficient areas, twenty-five pounds of spun
cotton; those who did were given a token to wear around their necks as
proof that they had made their payment; those did not were . “punished”
– by having their hands cut off . and [being] left to bleed to death.. [3]

More than 10,000 people were killed this way during Columbus’ time as
governor. On countless occasions, these civilized invaders engaged in
torture, rape, and massacres. The Spaniards made bets as to who would slit a man in two, or cut off his head at one blow; or they opened up his bowels. They tore the babes from their mother’s breast by their feet and dashed their heads against the rocks . . . They spitted the bodies of other babes, together with their mothers and all who were before them, on their swords.. [4]

On another occasion:

A Spaniard . . . suddenly drew his sword. Then the whole hundred
drew theirs and began to rip open the bellies, to cut and kill – men,
women, children and old folk, all of whom were seated off guard and
frightened . . . And within two credos, not a man of them there remains
alive. The Spaniards enter the large house nearby, for this was
happening at its door, and in the same way, with cuts and stabs, began
to kill as many as were found there, so that a stream of blood was
running, as if a number of cows had perished.. [5]

This pattern of one-way, unprovoked, inexcusable cruelty and
viciousness occurred in countless interactions between civilized and
indigenous people through history..

This phenomena is well-documented in excellent books including Ward Churchill’s A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492 to the Present, Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. Farley Mowat’s books, especially Walking on the Land, The Deer People, and The Desperate People
document this as well with an emphasis on the northern and arctic
regions of North America. There is also good information in Howard
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present and Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Eduardo Galeando’s incredible Memory of Fire
trilogy covers this topic as well, with an emphasis on Latin America
(this epic trilogy as reviews numerous related injustices and revolts).
Jack D. Forbes’ book Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wétiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism is highly recommended. You can also find information in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, although I often disagree with the author’s premises and approach..

The same kind of attacks civilized people committed against indigenous
peoples were also consistently perpetrated against non-human animal and
plant species, who were wiped out (often deliberately) even when
civilized people didn’t need them for food; simply as blood-sport. For
futher readings on this, check out great books like Farley Mowat’s
extensive and crushing Sea of Slaughter, or Clive Ponting’s A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations (which also examines precivilized history and European colonialism)..

With this history of atrocity in mind, we should (if we haven’t
already) cease using the propaganda definitions of civilized as “good”
and uncivilized as “bad” and seek a more accurate and useful
definition. Anthropologists and other thinkers have come up with a
number of somewhat less biased definitions of civilization..

Nineteenth century English anthropologist E.B. Tylor defined
civilization as life in cities that is organized by government and
facilitated by scribes (which means the use of writing). In these
societies, he noted, there is a resource “surplus”, which can be traded
or taken (though war or exploitation) which allows for specialization
in the cities..

The wonderful contemporary writer and activist Derrick Jensen, having
recognized the serious flaws in the popular, dictionary definition of
civilization, writes:

“I would define a civilization much
more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture-that is, a
complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts-that both leads to and
emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis,
meaning citizen, from latin civitatis, meaning state or city), with
cities being defined-so as to distinguish them from camps, villages,
and so on-as people living more or less permanently in one place in
densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and
other necessities of life..” [6]

Jensen also observes that because cities need to import these
necessities of life and to grow, they must also create systems for the
perpetual centralization of resources, yielding “an increasing region
of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited

Contemporary anthropologist John H. Bodley writes: “The principle
function of civilization is to organize overlapping social networks of
ideological, political, economic, and military power that
differentially benefit privileged households..” [7] In other words, in
civilization institutions like churches, corporations and militaries
exist and are used to funnel resources and power to the rulers and the

The twentieth century historian and sociologist Lewis Mumford wrote one
of my favourite and most cutting and succinct definitions of
civilization. He uses the term civilization

.to denote the group of institutions
that first took form under kingship. Its chief features, constant in
varying proportions throughout history, are the centralization of
political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of
labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military
power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal
introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and
military purposes.. [8]

Taking various anthropological and historical definitions into account,
we can come up with some common properties of civilizations (as opposed
to indigenous groups)..

* People live in permanent settlements, and a significant number of them in cities..

* The society depends on large-scale agriculture (which is needed to support dense, non-food-growing urban populations)..

* The society has rulers and some form of “aristocracy” with
centralized political, economic, and military power, who exist by
exploiting the mass of people..

* The elite (and possibly others) use writing and numbers to keep track of commodities, the spoils of war, and so on..

* There is slavery and forced labour either by the direct use of
physical violence, or by economic coercion and violence (through which
people are systematically deprived of choices outside the wage

* There are large armies and institutionalized warfare..

* Production is mechanized, either through physical machines or the use
of humans as though they were machines (this point will be expanded on
in other writings here soon)..

* Large, complex institutions exist to mediate and control the
behaviour of people, through as their learning and worldview (schools
and churches), as well as their relationships with each other, with the
unknown, and with the nature world (churches and organized religion)..

Anthropologist Stanley Diamond recognized the common thread in all of
these attributes when he wrote; “Civilization originates in conquest
abroad and repression at home..” [9]

This common thread is control. Civilization is a culture of control. In
civilizations, a small group of people controls a large group of people
through the institutions of civilization. If they are beyond the
frontier of that civilization, then that control will come in the form
of armies and missionaries (be they religious or technical
specialists). If the people to be controlled are inside of the cities,
inside of civilization, then the control may come through domestic
militaries (i.e., police). However, it is likely cheaper and less
overtly violent to condition of certain types of behaviour through
religion, schools or media, and related means, than through the use of
outright force (which requires a substantial investment in weapons,
surveillance and labour)..

That works very effectively in combination with economic and
agricultural control. If you control the supply of food and other
essentials of life, people have to do what you say or they die. People
inside of cities inherently depend on food systems controlled by the
rulers to survive, since the (commonly accepted) definition of a city
is that the population dense enough to require the importation of food..

For a higher degree of control, rulers have combined control of food
and agriculture with conditioning that reinforces their supremacy. In
the dominant, capitalist society, the rich control the supply of food
and essentials, and the content of the media and the schools. The
schools and workplaces act as a selection process: those who
demonstrate their ability to cooperate with those in power by behaving
properly and doing what they’re told at work and school have access to
higher paying jobs involving less labour. Those who cannot or will not
do what they’re told are excluded from easy access to food and
essentials (by having access only to menial jobs), and must work very
hard to survive, or become poor and/or homeless. People higher on this
hierarchy are mostly spared the economic and physical violence imposed
on those lower on the hierarchy. A highly rationalized system of
exploitation like this helps to increase the efficiency of the system
by reducing the chance of resistance or outright rebellion of the

The media’s propaganda systems have most people convinced that this
system is somehow “natural” or “necessary” – but of course, it is both
completely artificial and a direct result of the actions of those in
power (and the inactions of those who believe that they benefit from
it, or are prevented from acting through violence or the threat of

In contradiction to the idea that the dominant culture’s way of living
is “natural”, human beings lived as small, ecological, participatory,
equitable groups for more than 99% of human history. There are a number
of excellent books and articles comparing indigenous societies to

Chellis Glendinning’s My name is Chellis and I’m in recovery from western civilization
is an amazing and readable book, and it’s one of my favourites. You can
also read an excerpt of the chapter “A Lesson in Earth Civics” online.
See http://www. eco-action. org/dt/civics. html. She has also written several related books, including When Technology Wounds: The Human Consequences of Progress..

John Zerzan’s Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections composed of excerpts from the works of a wide range of authors..

The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen chronicles the
violent hatreds that have been overwhelming our planet, tracing them
back through their sources in imperialism, slavery, the rise of global
capitalism, and the ideologies of possessiveness and consumerism..

Marshall Sahlin’s Stone Age Economics is a detailed classic in
that same vein. You can read his essay “The Original Affluent Society”
online at numerous places, including: http://www. primitivism. com/original-affluent. htm

Anthropologist Stanley Diamond’s book In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization

Richard Heinberg’s essay “The Primitivist Critique of Civilization” is
also highly readable, and available online in many places including http://www. eco-action. org/dt/critique. html. Other good reading is at http://www.primitivism.com and http://eco-action.org/

What these sources show is there were healthy, equitable and ecological communities in the past, and that they were the norm for countless generations. It is civilization that is monstrous and aberrant..

Living inside of the controlling environment of civilization is an inherently traumatic experience, although the degree of trauma varies with personal circumstance and the amounts of privilege different people have in society. Derrick Jensen makes this point very well in his incredible book A Language Older than Words, and Chellis Glendinning covers it as well in My name is Chellis..

The inherent ecological unsustainability of civilization is another

important point. That issue will be expanded on in writings here, in
particular in the writings on the city and industry..

Related: See Ran Prieur’s Critique

of Civilization FAQ for related information and critiques.

[1] Jensen, Derrick, Unpublished manuscript..

[2] I owe many of the sources in this section to the research of Ward

Churchill. The figure of 8 million is from chapter 6 of Essays in
Population History, Vol.I by Sherburn F. Cook and Woodrow Borah
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971). The figure of 3
million is from is from a survey at the time by Bartolomé de Las Casas
covered in J.B. Thatcher, Christopher Columbus, 2 vols. (New York:
Putnam’s, 1903-1904) Vol. 2, p. 384ff. They were considered extinct by
the Spanish census at the time, which is summarized in Lewis Hanke’s
The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America
(Philapelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947) p. 200ff.

[3] Sale, Kirkpatrick. The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus

and the Columbian Legacy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990) p. 155.

[4] de Las Casas, Bartolomé. The Spanish Colonie: Brevísima revacíon (New York: University Microfilms Reprint, 1966).

[5] de Las Casas, Bartolomé. Historia de las Indias, Vol. 3, (Mexico City: Fondo Cultura Económica, 1951) chapter 29.

[6] Jensen, Derrick, Unpublished manuscript.

[7] Bodley, John H., Cultural Anthropology: Tribes, States and the Global System. Mayfield, Mountain View, California, 2000.

[8] Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Human Development, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1966. p. 186.

[9] Diamond, Stanley, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of

Civilization, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 1993. p. 1.

[i] WordNet ® 2.0, 2003, Princeton University

[ii] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Company.

[iii] Ibid.