LXXVII – The Life and Death of Civilizations

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In
my view, most Americans could qualify as collective recipients of
a Darwin Award: the recognition given to those "who improve
our gene pool by removing themselves from it in a spectacularly
stupid manner." While the awards are given to those who perish
through some "astonishing misapplications of judgment,"
it may be the American branch of Western civilization that will
cease to exist as a consequence of the combined judgments and practices
of most of us.

Only
the most vacuous minds — whose opinions are grounded in conventional
delusions rather than empirical evidence and rational analysis —
can fail to recognize that modern civilization, as we have known
it, has reached a terminal state. No amount of public opinion polling
can reinspire its former greatness. The only question is whether
its remnants can be transmuted into fundamentally new forms and
practices making for a more free and productive society, or whether
it shall continue its downward spiral.

Western
civilization appears to be at a bifurcation point; one of those
conditions that eventually confronts systems. The study of "complexity,"
or "chaos," informs us that a complex system can be thrown
into turbulent states to which it might respond either by actions
(or inaction) that hasten its collapse into total entropy; or by
the development of practices that allow it to adapt to the complexities
it encounters. Such processes are seen in the efforts of biological
systems to sustain themselves; in the mind's debate between learning
and ignorance; in the competitive success or failure of businesses;
or in the life and death of entire civilizations.

It
is the nature of complex systems to be subject to both unforeseen
and unknowable influences and irregularities. As a consequence,
the factors contributing to either the emergence or decline of civilizations
are too incomprehensible to allow for precision in predicting or
accounting for the occurrence of either. Why did the industrial
revolution blossom in England and America, and not in France or
Sweden? Why did the Roman empire decline in its western region,
but continue to prosper in its eastern domain? Why did the Renaissance
find its greatest expression in Italy rather than Germany?

The
history of civilizations has always involved a struggle between
the forces of life and death. To become a vibrant
system, a civilization must generate practices allowing for the
production of the life-sustaining values that define itself. Our
modern, industrialized civilization arose — and has managed to maintain
itself — through practices conducive to the creation of new technologies,
methods of production and distribution, and the free exchange of
material and intellectual resources. By remaining resilient and
adaptive to the inconstancies that define life, marketplace systems
have placed human action in harmony with life itself.

But
once such vibrant social systems began producing their life-sustaining
values, the forces of death began to ooze up from the depths of
humanity's "dark side." People who were incapable of creative
acts themselves, or were envious of the successes and rewards enjoyed
by others, resorted to violence to despoil others. From simple acts
of piracy and pillaging, clever minds developed formal systems (i.e.,
governments) and intellectual rationales (i.e., political philosophies)
that would institutionalize theft and the violent methods
upon which thievery depends.

It
should come as no great news to report that when "dark side"
forces begin to prevail — whether within an individual or a society
— life-promoting qualities and values go into a decline. When incentives
for creativity subside in favor of schemes for plundering others
— i.e., when wealth is increasingly transferred not by voluntary
exchange, but by coercion — the civilization exhibiting such traits
has begun its entropic decline. The benefits of innovation — particularly
when financed with one's own resources — become less attractive
than the rewards to be reaped from street-smart maneuverings for
a government subsidy, legislative restraints on a competitor, or
a multimillion-dollar lawsuit engineered by shallow lawyers against
corporate "deep-pockets." Whether such a course can be
reversed depends upon whether the thinking of those who comprise
that civilization can be transformed.

Western
civilization was spurred by an admittedly uneven embrace of life-enhancing
values and practices. The Renaissance, in rediscovering classical
Greece, helped shift the focus of thinking and behavior to human
well-being. The arts, scientific inquiries, the enlightenment —
with its emphasis on individualism and reason — and the industrial
revolution, were the more significant life-sustaining influences
of modern civilization.

The
creative richness of a civilization derives from the behavior of
individuals, not from some imagined collective genius. The creative
process depends upon men and women being free to experiment; to
generate and pursue any of a variety of options; to be mistaken;
and to offend the habits, tastes, sensibilities, or established
interests of others. Individuals may combine their efforts with
others but, as one experiences in brainstorming sessions, it is
the interplay of individual insights and responses that gives birth
to the new.

Individuals
have produced the art, music, literature, philosophies, scientific
discoveries, inventions, engineering and technological innovation
that underlie great civilizations. The statue of David was conceived
and sculpted by Michelangelo, not by an artists' guild. The Mona
Lisa derived from the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, not from some
corporate "paint-by-the-numbers" kit. The writings of
Shakespeare and Milton were the products of individual minds, not
a writers' workshop. It was Thomas Edison, not a local labor union,
who worked in his simple workshop for long hours — often at subsistence
levels – to invent many of the technological underpinnings
of modern civilization.

We
ought to have learned from basic biology that the individual is
not only the carrier of DNA (hence, life itself) from one generation
to the next, but also the carrier of the values upon which a civilization
depends if it is to retain its vigor. A moment's reflection should
suggest that there is more than an allegorical relationship here.
But what are the conditions that are conducive to individual creativity
and productiveness?

Our
inquiry ought to begin with a clear assessment of the nature of
life itself. We need to strip away a lot of foolish thinking and
recognize that the pursuit of self-interest goes to the very essence
of all living things. As such, we need to become aware that spontaneity
and autonomy are vital to life processes. Coercion is thus anti-life,
for it forces life to go in directions it doesn't want to go. Neither
can the creative process be commanded or directed by others, but
must arise within individuals who are disposed to inventiveness.
I once visited a government school classroom and saw a primary grade
teacher clap her hands and announce to her conscripts: "all
right, it is time for self-directed learning!" The idea that
one's creative motivation can be mandated by another is as absurd
as ordering another to "be spontaneous!"

A
civilization cannot remain creative unless its members are free
to control their own energies and to convert some portion of the
material world to their self-interested purposes. This fact of existence
— which various ideologies have managed to distort but not refute
— gives rise to a need for the private ownership of property. One
would have thought that the utter failure of Marxist systems to
provide for mankind's material well-being would have been sufficient
to disabuse gullible souls of the fallacy — woven into the social
fabric by socialist obscurants — that "human rights are more
important than property rights." This notion continues to erode
the conditions essential to the well-being of societies.

State
regulatory systems are the most pervasive means by which coercion
restrains the creative process. Government mandates and restraints
are always directed against the property interests of persons. They
function as imposed, nonproductive costs — a form of entropy — to
the efforts of actors to pursue their interests. To the extent of
their imposition, they provide disincentives to creativity.

A
current example illustrates the point. The costs of state regulation
have been a major factor in the decisions of many businesses to
relocate some of their operations to foreign countries. It is illusory
to believe that the self-interest pursuits of some people can be
hindered by others without consequences. To the degree state policies
increase the costs or reduce the benefits of a course of action
desired by someone, the actor will try to circumvent such restraints
in the least costly manner. In the same way, a dammed-up river may
eventually burst the constraints humans have designed for it; but
rather than condemn the river — or, as an exaggeration of our hubris,
build a bigger dam! — we ought to make ourselves aware of the anti-life
implications of interfering with irresistible flows of energy. Our
failure to respect the autonomous processes by which life creates
its well-being, will prove as destructive to our civilization as
it was to those that preceded it.

Because
life processes involve continuing transactions with nature — which,
contrary to the biases of many, includes human beings — the viability
of a civilization depends on its having a healthy working relationship
with reality. It is no coincidence that the enlightenment and the
scientific revolution were central influences in the emergence of
Western civilization. The "age of reason" helped us appreciate
that, while "truth" had an ephemeral and amorphous quality
to it, its pursuit was critical to the health of a society. From
such a perspective, freedom of speech and religion can be seen not
as sops conferred upon dissidents in order to confirm the liberal
sentiments of the established order, but qualities upon which the
vibrancy of a system depends. Freedom of inquiry and expression
are not so much to be tolerated as to be actively encouraged.

But
the relevance of truth to a civilization has a much broader reach
than this. Because the outcomes of complex systems are shrouded
in unpredictability – yet we must act in the present in anticipation
of future events – we need all the truth we can get. Lies,
deceptions, inaccuracies, and other errors, compound the difficulties
associated with the pursuit of efficacious behavior in an inherently
uncertain world. The well-being of both individuals and societies
are restrained by incorrect information, a fact that can be quickly
confirmed by any physician.

While
the health of individuals and civilizations depends upon the value
of truth, all political systems are firmly grounded in lies, illusions,
and false promises. Almost all who support the state do so out of
a conditioned belief that it will protect our lives and property;
and yet it is the essence of the state to coerce with threats of
punishment or death, and plunder through taxation, its alleged beneficiaries.
Unlike a productive civilization, a healthy state cannot coexist
with truthfulness.

A
synonym for living in harmony with reality is "integrity."
To live with integrity is to live the integrated life, without contradiction
or conflict. Have we not seen enough of the pyramiding of lies,
fabricated "evidence," meaningless distinctions, and other
conscious acts of deception leading to the invasion of Iraq to lead
any decent human to question the integrity of both the state and
its leaders? How long would you have maintained a business partnership
with a person who behaved in this manner? How profitable would your
enterprise be if you had to spend half your time countering the
influence of falsehoods generated from within your organization?

The
death of civilizations is facilitated by a movement from individualized
to collective patterns of thinking. It is mass-mindedness that produces
the state's deadliest expressions: wars and genocides. The indiscriminate
slaughter of people and the massive destruction of cities, factories,
transportation systems, and other forms of material wealth are inconsistent
with the creative processes of civilizations. To bring about our
participation in such devastating activities requires the systematic
conditioning of how we view ourselves.

When
we move from a more personal sense of who we are to such collective
identities as race, religion, nationality, ideology, gender, or
other groupings, we have prepared our minds to be energized on behalf
of institutionally-defined causes. The state has long been the primary
conductor of such practices. As Carl Jung and others observed, our
willingness to identify with groups of any sort, produces a herd-mentality
that is easily mobilized on behalf of destructive, collective purposes.
Evidence of such dynamics can be seen in the sudden emergence of
American flags after 9/11, and the continued willingness of many
Americans to support their government's enraged, high-handed reaction
to this event by attacking and killing innocent Iraqis.

The
lesson to be taken from all of this is that civilizations are created
and sustained by individuals; they are destroyed by collectives.

Still,
I remain optimistic. I believe that the American civilization has
about run its course, and is collapsing into a dehumanizing destructiveness.
Nonetheless, I suspect that we may be able to extricate ourselves
from our present turbulence by rediscovering the conditions that
make for a free and productive world, and learning to walk away
from those systems and practices that are destroying us.

The
history of our language may provide us with insights for unraveling
our confused and conflict-ridden minds. While reading an etymological
dictionary a number of years ago, I discovered that the words "peace,"
"freedom," "love," and "friend" had
common ancestries. Perhaps our intuitive energies will permit us
to rediscover the more harmonious vision of society held by our
predecessors. Whether the forces of life can overcome our present
lemming-like death march is the question now confronting the mind
and soul of mankind.

A
metaphor may prove useful in making my point. For decades, the federal
government poured tens of billions of dollars into the space program,
an effort to extend the militarization of mankind beyond Earth itself.
More recently, private enterprises have arisen to conduct space
exploration for productive, life-enhancing ends. One such entrepreneur
is Burt Rutan who designed and produced the "Voyager,"
a plane that was the first to make a non-stop, non-refueling flight
around the world. A few weeks ago, Rutan successfully launched SpaceShipOne,
the first non-governmental spacecraft to leave Earth's atmosphere.

Afterwards,
Rutan observed that NASA had spent tens of billions of dollars on
a space program that was never designed to provide ordinary men
and women the opportunity of experiencing space flight; that an
individual who wanted to have such an experience had to pay the
Russian government twenty million dollars to be taken to its space
platform. For a similar twenty million dollar investment, Rutan
went on, his company is heading toward the creation of space flights
for individuals who want to experience space and, he added, at prices
that will be within the reach of most of us. When his plane landed,
Rutan held up a large sign — produced by a friend of mine, Ernie
Hancock – that read: "SpaceShipOne, Government Zero."

Burt
Rutan will not transform Western civilization, anymore than Michelangelo
created the Renaissance. Each is only representative of a vision
of mankind's capacity for a greatness that has always lain light-years
beyond the grasp of kings and emperors. But whether the exploration
of space will continue to be dominated by the militaristic and political
control premises that underlie NASA, or the humanity-serving purposes
of Rutan's undertaking, will be one, of many, indicators of the
broader direction our society will take. This is just one area of
human activity in which each of us will — whether by conscious act
or by default — channel our energies and other resources into systems
of death or of life. The best of what it means to
be human is not to be found in improving the systems of death, destruction,
coercion, and control that define political behavior. It is only
when we are free to explore, question, innovate, and cooperate with
one another that we can experience the fullest sense of what it
means to live as human beings.

That
the state must employ violence to achieve its ends is, perhaps,
the best evidence for the presence of a life force that insists
upon its expression in the world regardless of the barriers placed
in its path. The individuals and societies who are able to transcend
barriers will be the ones who will survive and prosper. Whether
Americans will continue to insist upon our civilization's freefall
into history's black hole, or whether we shall transform our practices
into life-sustaining systems, is a question that only you and I
can answer. But as I said, I remain optimistic. I am betting my
life on the Burt Rutans!

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