Civilized to Death: What Was Lost on the Way to Modernity

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Progress, the basic illusion of our age, is exhausted. Kids typically no longer expect their lives to be better than their parents’ were. Dystopian scenarios loom ever larger in public consciousness as fisheries collapse, CO2 levels rise, and clouds of radioactive steam billow from “fail-safe” nuclear plants that failed. Despite the technological marvels of our age—or perhaps because of them—these are dark days.

As comedian Louis C.K. put it, “Everything’s amazing, but nobody’s happy.”
Even for the most fortunate among us, material abundance comes at a very high price. Facebook is a hollow replacement for face time. We produce more food than ever, but hunger and malnutrition are standard in most of the world while the rest of us stuff ourselves quite literally to death. Despair darkens ever more lives as rates of clinical depression and suicide continue their grim climb in the developed world. A third of all American children are obese or seriously overweight, and fifty four million of us are pre-diabetic. Pre-schoolers represent the fastest-growing market for anti-depressants, while the rate of increase of depression among children is over twenty percent, according to a recent Harvard study. Twenty four million American adults are thought to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—mostly attributable to the never-ending wars that have become part of modern life for the swelling underclass with few other employment opportunities.

It’s common to wonder how an anthropologist from Mars would view our world or what sage advice an emissary from the future would bring back. But how would a time-traveler from our prehistoric past assess the lives we lead and the future prospects for the path we’re on? Such a visitor from 200 centuries ago would no doubt be impressed by much of what she found here. But once her amazement at iPhones, air travel, and liver transplants subsided, what would she make of our daily lives? Would she ultimately be more impressed by our advances or dismayed by what we’ve lost in our always accelerating rush toward the future?

With faith in the future melting like an overheated glacier even as contentment with the present evaporates, it’s high time for a sober reassessment of the past. Ten thousand years since turning from the ancient path our ancestors trod forever, it’s time for a scientifically-informed, multidisciplinary look at the effects of this fateful divergence. It’s time to ask what may be the most subversive question of all: Are modern humans, even the most fortunate among us, living significantly better lives than our pre-civilized ancestors? Taken as a whole, is civilization a net gain for individual human beings?