In fact, I am beginning to realize that Civilization is only now just being born.
Last summer, my young daughter and I sat on the steps of a local community pool, resting in the shallow water following a rigorous swim. Nearby were several young adults, a man and two women. They were tan and fit—seemingly invincible specimens of our species. Exemplars of Evolution. Soaking in the rays of the modest star that nurtures life on our world.
A honeybee alighted upon the rim of an empty soda can at the pool edge. Apis mellifera. A most innocent winged creature—for millennia, a pollinating friend of human harvest. And at that particular moment, fatefully tempted by the wafting scent of high fructose corn syrup.
One of the female hominids in our company spotted the insect and shrieked. The adult male toolmaker grabbed the can, flipped it over and unthinkingly severed the honeybee’s abdomen from its thorax.
For months, I had been teaching my daughter about the plight of the honeybee, of the global epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder that has caused the sudden death of 60% of domestic bee populations in some sections of the U.S. My daughter may be too young to know what a neonicotinoid is, but she knows a Neanderthal when she sees one.
She let loose a teary-eyed, “you-poopy-pants!” invective streak against this senseless act of invertebrate murder and made clear to the young man that his carelessness belonged to the lowest order or barbarianism.
Finally, one of his bikini-clad companions responded, “Yo, kid, chill. It’s just a bug.”
Sigh. There are moments when Civilization seems as far away as Betelgeuse.
At its core, the Problem of Civilization is several steps removed from the ping-pong partisan patter of conservative and progressive politics that occupies so much of our daily attention.
Homo sapiens might have large braincases, opposable thumbs and just-so-angled larynxes, but humans of all political persuasions tend to fail miserably at social order without prekindergarten teachers (and police officers in Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) constantly steering them back to the path of commonsense goodness with smiley face rewards (and rocket launchers). (For what it’s worth, prekindergarten teachers seem much more effective at maintaining productive order than militarized police. They also tend to murder fewer civilians.)
Take for instance your typical, 21st-century daily commute. The next time an on-call emergency vehicle crosses your path, watch how many drivers actually slow down and pull over to the side. Heck, it’s not uncommon to see drivers race ambulances these days—including drivers sporting Obama and Hillary bumper stickers. (Though I have yet to witness a car with a Bernie sticker tailgating a fire truck.)
And that’s just a drop in the anti-Civilization bucket. It’s probably not necessary for me to unfurl the scroll and start reciting from the Annals of Unspeakable Human Horrors. All to say, it’s not really a hopeful sign when the “List of Genocides by Death Toll” article on Wikipedia is so long that it has a built-in ‘alphabetize’ function. Also, consider that it takes almost a full minute to scroll through Wikipedia’s “List of Serial Killers by Number of Victims.” And whatever you do, do not conduct a Google Images search of “mistreated animals.” (I repeat, do not.)
Of course, our Little Blue Planet is also home to many wonderful displays of human kindness and care and warmth, and even the occasional grandiose demonstration of democratic socialized sharing (beyond the borders of our Mammon-guarded Fruited Plains, of course). Heck, there are people who dive into the ocean to save drowning bears, ethical superheroes like Malala and Sister Angelique Namaika, not to mention humanitarian brainiacs with surnames like Einstein.
While a few human beings are clearly primed for Civilization, and millions more are ready to give Civilization a gung-ho go, far too many are interested in harming one another on the way to material success, in controlling the thoughts and bodies of their neighbors, to protect well the common interests of all. Beyond that, human systems remain tilted in favor of Ayn Randean objectivist demons; the tentacles of the Enemy-Making Machine and the Global Military Industrial Complex stretch near-terminally across our globe like a glioblastoma tumor.
In short, ape hate still reigns inside us. And despite the fact that our species has managed to send two spacecrafts into orbit beyond the solar system, 1 in 4 Americans still believe that the Sun revolves around the Earth.
I’m just not convinced there are enough critical thinkers, enough trained psychotherapists, enough priests of humane faith creeds to save us at present.
Holy crap, what a downer. Hope you’re not reading this article too close to an open window.
But before you defenestrate yourself, let us consider that the purpose of this opening article in the series is to remind readers there is a reason you won’t be able to just lope into a polling station on Tuesday, November 8, 2016, and punch a ticket that causes the lion to lay down with the lamb and that turns all swords into ploughshares.
Again, humanity is only just taking baby steps toward Civilization. True Civilization requires that Reverence for Life become a foundation for ethical being across all global communities. And no human being on the Election Day ticket will be political and social messiah enough to accomplish this feat.
Instead, we all have a part to play in establishing the foundation of Civilization. Every act of kindness, every thoughtful gesture, every advancement of human knowledge, is significant. And it will in fact take tens of billions of such actions for us to finish laying that foundation.
We must work deliberately to uproot the underlying causes of greed and senseless destruction that ravage human society. We must get beyond “otherism.” We must let go of hate. We must strive to put ourselves in the shoes of others; to empathize; to sympathize. To follow The Golden Rule. To find solutions that do not end in the taking of human life—that do not end in the destruction of environments, in the mountaintop mining of communities.
We must collectively agree that God is neither a vengeful jackass nor Queen Victoria—and that it’s perfectly fine for our neighbor not to believe in God at all.
We must learn how to live peacefully with our ex-spouses and crazy bosses. With the next-door neighbor whose car idles too loudly. With the paperboy who consistently tosses our morning Washington Post or Washington Times onto our shingled roof.
And we just absolutely must find a way for every single human being to attain the bear minimum Civilized Existence as envisioned by Martin Luther King Jr. in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.
Humanity needs to adopt these words as a Global Mission Statement.
By the way, those who insist on quoting MLK with respect to the Baltimore protests and similar demonstrations should ask themselves whether they’re also willing to stand with Dr. King on the immediate cessation of U.S. military violent intervention around the world. And, yes, the general demilitarization of our world is another “must.”
We must, in short, Civilize.
But this will require a massive, pan-global effort which humanity isn’t even close to ready to attempt—let alone attain. I have a theory of what it will take for us to get there, which I’ll cover in Part II of the series. In the meantime, we must do the best we can. Ever gradually, the world emerges from darkness.
For now, let’s make fewer memes and give more hugs. Let’s strive for peace, for promoting education and critical thinking and exploration over destruction. And if the Global Military Industrial Complex gets dismantled just a bit along the way, so be it.
Most of all, let us be kind to bees wherever we find them. Unless you’d like to live in a world without flowers or apples or mangos or plumbs or peaches or onions or cashews or lima beans or cherries or walnuts of coffee or carrots or watermelon or coconut or beets or tangerines or vanilla or tomatoes or grapes or eggplant or—well, you get my point.
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