Civilization: Not That Great – Russ Greene

We’re all supposed to be very grateful to be alive in 2019. But why?

A civilizationist will rattle off statistics like life expectancy. Global life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900 and “is now approaching 70 years.” In the US it’s reached 78 years.

What does that mean? More time on earth is not necessarily good. For simplicity’s sake, let’s look at life in the States.

Time spent institutionalized does not count; no one is honestly thankful for it. The average time spent in a nursing home for full-time residents is 835 days. True, many people cannot afford that, but that if anything indicates that they have more need and less functional independence than the fully institutionalized.

So that’s two and a quarter years of additional life expectancy you don’t want. You’re down to 76 years of real time on earth.

Is anyone grateful for time in traffic? The average commute in the US is 52.2 minutes. That comes out to over 200 hours a year with a full-time job. If you work for 40 years, that’s over 8000 hours of commuting, or 500 days (using 16 hours of awake time per day). So you’re down to less than 75 years.

Civilization did not invent work, but it did invent “work.” Hunter-gatherers spend about 3 hours a day working outside, and some amount of work is probably necessary to be fully human. Hunter-gathers do not go to their work spot and pretend to work, though. Most time spent at work is not work. It’s pointless email, “meetings, administrative tasks, and ‘interruptions,’” and of course Youtube and social media. We are pretending to work because we have to. If we could, we would delete this time and skip ahead to the good stuff.

If the average American spends 44 hours a week at work, and they spend 60% of it pretending, that comes out to 26 total hours a week and 52,000 hours in a lifetime. So the average American will pretend to work for six and a half years of total awake time.

You’re down to less than 69 years of time to be grateful for. The vast majority of Americans go to public school, and they receive an average of 13 years of education.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that time spent in public school is not entirely wasted. Some of it must be spent building friendships and learning (though in my own case, my dad spent a summer teaching me how to read when he realized a year of public school had left me illiterate). It would be naive though to expect that public school is more efficient that the workplace. We will graciously assume that 40% of time spent at school and doing homework is useful. With 8 hours a day of school and homework, 180 days a year, for 13 years, that is 18720 total hours, 11,232 of which is wasted. That subtracts another 2 years. You’re down to 67.

Now consider time spent watching advertisements, doing paperwork, waiting in line, paying bills and compulsively checking social media. And that’s no to mention modern activities hunter-gatherers had no use for such as obsessing about nutrition and going to the gym. If we subtract from our 78 years time spend commuting, pretending to work, pretending to learn, and other modern toil, we are lucky if we have 52 years of time that we actually want.

Estimates for hunter-gatherer lifespans are skewed by infant mortality. Once they reach early childhood, the Inuit hunter-gatherers, for example, can expect to live 42.5 years.

So thank you civilization, for an extra decade of life.

Is our extra decade worth it, though? The leisure time we spend as moderns is less enjoyable due to our decayed health and fitness. Most adult Americans suffer from at least one chronic disease. Over 2/3 are overweight or obese. Would you rather spend 42.5 years lean and fit or 52 years fat and diabetic?

Man does not, however, live by bread alone. Civilizationists might argue that art and culture make modern life more meaningful than the firelight chats and cave art of hunter gatherers. I would like them to explain, then, our escalating rates of suicide, mental illness, and drug addiction, problems much rarer in less developed societies. I would find a way to appreciate cave paintings if it meant skipping out on suicidal ideation.

Modernity came at a price: the risk of self-induced extinction. There is now a significant risk that we will eventually wipe ourselves out entirely through weapons of mass destruction or environmental calamity. Hunter gatherers only had externally-imposed extinction to fear.

If you add up all the extra human hours that civilization has produced, then you have to account for the fact that it is only likely to last a few more hundred years, at best. Hunter-gatherers could have gone on for millennia more, and made up for fewer human-hours per generation with greater overall longevity. We are living longer as individuals but will live shorter as a species.

To argue for civilization is to believe that what we have gained over hunter-gathers outweighs time wasted in traffic, bullshit jobs, public school, paperwork, and suffering from chronic disease AND to believe that whatever added time remaining is worth risking the future survival of humanity over. Acknowledging civilization’s downsides does not make one anti-civilization, but pro-human. The first step to honestly justify civilization would be to reform our current economic, healthcare, and educational systems. We are unlikely to attempt meaningful reform if we persist in the delusion that our world is getting so much better all the time.

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