0562 – modern civilization, pt 1

To be born into modern human civilization is both a great privilege (for the safety and opportunities it provides) and a rather absurd thing (because of the sheer volume of bullshit you’re fed, for a range of reasons both intentional and otherwise).

Consider first the life of most humans for most of time, before schools and supermarkets and 9-5 jobs. It was nasty, brutish, short. Violent. The main concerns were food, sex and physical safety. People typically lived in small groups and had no concept of government, bills and so on. Groups must’ve had leaders- usually fathers, patriarchs, chief hunters, etc. Physical strength would’ve mattered a lot more then than it does now. Violence would’ve been a natural way of settling disputes.

Violence is still a tremendous feature of our everyday lives, but it’s not so obvious any more. Force itself isn’t necessary- what we have instead is the threat of force, typically monopolized by States. Before states we had tribes and villages, which consolidated into kingdoms. I’m not a historian, so my understanding of this stuff is a little vague– there were hunter-gatherers up until about 4000BC, then there were pastoral nomads (“barbarians”) and sedentary folk (“civilised”). There’s a bunch of interesting details (and complexity) about how civilisations basically formed around resource-rich areas– typically rivers, where they could grow food. There’s some bickering about how exactly that happened, but that’s not what I’m interested in here. The fact is that people started settling down one way or another– and when people were born into settlements, that would become the world they knew. When you grow up farming or practicing some trade within a settlement, it becomes a lot harder to make an exit decision– to pack up and leave town because you hate the place. [1]
At this point I think it makes sense to talk more about my context. I’m a Singaporean born in 1990 – which means that I was born into a miracle story, and I have no personal experience of how miraculous the story is. I was just born into a world that was clean, neat, tidy, orderly, where there a reliable rule of law, where things get done, bad guys get apprehended, people in charge are generally honourable and good. My parents’ generation experienced one of the greatest improvements/increases in quality of human life in the history of our species– sometimes called ‘from third world to first’. Some people here would start talking a lot about Lee Kuan Yew and his achievements, or about colonialism, and so on. That’s been covered pretty extensively so I’ll skip that.
Suppose we ignore things like the Roman Empire (which is probably a bad idea), and say that for the purpose of this essay, modern civilisation began with the industrial revolution and printing press and so on. Let’s talk about say, the birth of America. America had a very violent beginning. It involved a lot of guns. It’s very difficult for me as a young Singaporean to appreciate the American love of guns, but I suppose it’s closely woven into their history. Singapore used to be basically an opium den in the 1800s, and we have some sense about how China was brought to its knees by the British with opium, so it would make sense that the inverse would also be true– that Americans wouldn’t intuitively understand why Singapore is so viciously anti-drug. (Personally I think we could do with some relaxing, but I’m not representative of the average Singaporean.)
Between 1776 and now– America had slaves, where humans literally owned other humans by force, bought and sold them like cattle, raped them, all sorts of horrible things. And then there was a civil war, and 620,000 people died. In contrast, about 6000+ Americans died in Iraq (more would’ve committed suicide, and gone home maimed and wounded), but consider the order-of-magnitude difference there. By the way– about 400,000+ Americans died in WW2, and 27,000,000 Russians died. Can you imagine 27 million dead bodies? About 3-6m of them died from famine and disease, which is basically all of Singapore. It’s hard to imagine.)
I guess the point I’m trying to make is– it’s easy for a young Singaporean born into peace and prosperity to overlook the fact that our species is violent and destructive.  There have been so many atrocities even in fairly recent times– WW2, Vietnam, Korea, the killing fields in Cambodia. The situation in Syria right now. People say things like “Oh, it’s never been better!” and that’s a good thing, but it’s hard to be too paranoid about the state of our species. It still sucks to be a black person in America, the aftershocks of slavery aren’t done yet. And kids are still getting shot every day. And people die in car accidents every day. And we have crappy diets and sedentary lifestyles (that we feel guilty and ashamed about, which seems to make it worse), and it’s just a whole lot of death and suffering.
I suppose I’m trying to build up a sort of case here. I can’t say “civilisation is more bad than good”, or “civilisation is worse than the alternative”, because obviously we have a whole bunch of great things. Fewer people die in childbirth and from early childhood diseases and stuff than ever before. Life expectancies are going up.
But I think the point I’m trying to make is that the world we’re living in isn’t quite good enough. We can and should do better, for ourselves and our children and so on because life is precious and fleeting. And every day when I go to work I sit in a comfortable office surrounded by colleagues I enjoy– I do go through a shitty commute to get there, suffering along with thousands of other people who’re subjected to the same thing– but it’s probably better than anything my parents or grandparents endured. And every day I get to look out the window and see many instances of my grandfather toiling in the sun and rain, working hard in difficult conditions so that his grandchildren might someday enjoy the privilege of middle-class guilt and maybe write blogposts about it to make sense of his thoughts and feelings.
[1] This has changed more in our globalised era– while there’s more paperwork, I could theoretically leave Singapore, my hometown, and go live somewhere else. But that doesn’t feel like a very real possibility to me, and probably because I grew up never having entertained that prospect seriously. I was born pledging allegiance to a flag, singing a national anthem, doing involuntary military service… and grew up eating the food, speaking the language– to migrate somewhere else permanently would be rather tedious, and I think people from sedentary cultures are generally uncultured to be tedium-averse, or novelty-averse. I not sure.

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