Suboptimal Civilizations

25 April 2015



When Thinking about civilization this also entails thinking about compromised forms of civilization as well as the end of civilization. Ideally, a comprehensive theory of civilization would be able to account for both civilizations that flourish and prosper as well as those that fail to flourish, and which stagnate, decline, or disappear, or which develop in an undesirable direction (flawed realization). One can think of stagnation and decline as selective or partial collapse; contrariwise, civilizational collapse can be understood as the totality of stagnation or decline (the fulfillment of decline, if you will, which shows that not only progress but also decay can be formulated in teleological terms).


In what follows I will adopt the term “suboptimal civilizations” to indicate those civilizations that have weathered existential threats and which have not gone extinct, but have continued in existence, albeit in a damaged, deformed, or otherwise compromised form due to being subject to stresses beyond that civilization’s level of resilience. A suboptimal civilization, then, is a civilization that has fallen prey to existential risk or risks, but is still extant.


A civilization may become extinct even when the species that produced that civilization has not gone extinct. Thus the extinction of civilizations is a separate and distinct question from that of the extinction of species. However, the extinction of a species is likely to be much more tightly coupled to the extinction of a civilization, though we could construct scenarios in which a civilization is continued by some other species, or some other agent, than that which originated a given civilization. Generally speaking, those existential risks that lead to the extinction of a civilization are extinction and subsequent ruination; those existential risks that lead to suboptimal civilizations are stagnation and flawed realization.

Temple of Heaven

There is a philosophical problem when it comes to judging civilizations of the past that have transitioned into contemporary forms of civilization, losing their identity in the process, but leaving a legacy in the form of a continuing influence. One way to deal with this problem is to distinguish between civilizations that attained maturity and those that did not. Is a civilization that failed to attain maturity because it was preempted by another form of civilization now to be considered extinct? The obvious example that I have in mind, and which I have cited numerous times, is that of early modern European civilization, which I have called modernism without industrialism, which rapidly was transformed by the industrial revolution, which latter preempted the “natural” development of modernity before that modernity had achieved maturity.

India postcard

I will not attempt at present to define maturity for civilization, but my assumption will be that the maturity of a civilization will have something to do with the bringing to fulfillment of the essential idea of a civilization. I am not prepared to say how the essential idea of a civilization is to be identified, or how it is to be judged to have come to fulfillment, but this should be sufficient to give the reader an intuitive sense of what I have in mind.


The range of suboptimal civilizations, including those trapped in the social equivalent of neurotic misery, might be quite considerable. Toynbee formulated a range of concepts to understand suboptimal civilizations, including abortive civilizations, arrested civilizations, and fossil civilizations. Extrapolating from Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations, I formulated the idea of submerged civilizations in my post In the Shadow of Civilization.


Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations are imaginative and poetic, but more qualitative than quantitative conceptions. In order to do this in the spirit of science, we would want our comprehensive theory of civilization to incorporate quantifiable metrics for the success or failure of a civilization. At our present stage of social development, it is controversial to compare civilizational traditions and to rate any one tradition as “higher” or “more advanced” than any other tradition (an idea I discussed in Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization), as representatives of those civilizations that rate lower on any proposed scale are offended by the metric employed, and they will usually suggest alternative metrics by which their preferred civilizational metric fares much better, while the civilizational tradition that fared better under the other metric would not come off as well by this alternative metric. The attempt by the nation-state of Bhutan to measure “gross national happiness,” may be taken as an example of this, although I am not sure that this is a helpful measure.


It would also be desirable in a comprehensive theory of civilization to formulate metrics for the viability or sustainability of a given civilization. In some cases, metrics for the success of civilization might coincide with metrics for the viability of civilization, but the possibility of very long lived civilizations that are less than ideal — suboptimal civilizations — points out the limitations of defining civilizational success in terms of civilizational survival. In some cases viability and optimality will coincide, while in some cases they will not coincide, and suboptimal civilizations that survive existential risks in a compromised form will be an example of such non-coincidence. The survival of a stagnant civilization can be a matter of mere cosmic good fortune, whereby a particular planet enjoys an uncommonly clement cosmic climate for an uncharacteristically long period of time (while other contingent factors may mean that the climate for civilizational development to maturity is not equally clement).


There are many ways to explore the idea of suboptimal civilization, as was observed above there are many ways for a civilization to languish in suboptimality. Indeed, it may be the case that the essential idea of a civilization has a much smaller class of circumstances in which that idea comes to full fruition and maturity, and a much larger class of circumstances in which that idea fails to mature for any number of distinct reasons, so that suboptimal civilizations are likely to outnumber civilizations that have attained optimality.


There is another philosophical problem, related to the problem noted above, in identifying the continuity of a civilization, so that a later stage of development can be considered the fulfillment, or failure of fulfillment, of some earlier civilizational idea, and not the emergence of a new idea not yet brought to fulfillment. I have previously considered this problem in several posts on the invariant properties of civilization. If a civilization emerges that seems to lack heretofore invariant properties of civilization, is to identified as a new form of civilization, or as non-civilization? Another way to formulate the problem is to ask whether civilization is an open-textured concept. The problem is posed every time an unprecedented development occurs in the history of civilization, so that the problem re-emerges at every stage in the history of a tradition, since the unprecedented is always occurring in one form or another. Let me provide an example of what I mean by this claim.


Imagine, if you will (as a thought experiment), that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose that despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived (that is, the world of modernism without industrialism).

Venice from the early 20th Century

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition. I implied as much recently when I wrote that, “It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.” (cf. Is society existentially dependent upon religion?)


The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity and even have made use of its intellectual gifts without having passed through any stage of large-scale settlement. This is an especially interesting thought experiment when we reflect that the paradigmatically human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization, and might have developed separately from civilization. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology, though this would have taken an order of magnitude longer than it took as a result of the industrial revolution. Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human society that had not adopted large-scale settlement and consequently the institutions of settled civilization.


This ancient human society that had never crossed the threshold of civilization proper — at least in some senses a suboptimal form of social organization, even if not a suboptimal civilization — suggests yet another thought experiment: an ancient civilization that, despite its antiquity, never passes the threshold to become a Kardashevian supercivilization. The motif of a million-year-old civilization is a common one, Kardashev called them “supercivilizations” and Sagan often speculated on their histories, but what about the possibility of a million-year-old civilization that never develops technologically and never experiences an industrial revolution?


If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. This is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past.

Downtown Hartford early 1900s

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachonic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution, given climatological conditions that allow for continual development, would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there is a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. The human condition need not change appreciably even over very long periods of time.


A million year old agricultural civilization would probably look much like a 2,000 year old civilization, except that it would have a very long history, which means either a massive archive if continuity is maintained, or a lot of ruins and buried artifacts of the past if continuity has not been maintained. Would we have anything to learn from a million-year-old civilization that was not a supercivilization? Consider the possibility of art and literature a million years in development — the steady rate at which civilization prior to the industrial revolution produced masterpieces of art suggests that civilization without industrialization would be a very old agrarian civilization that was laden with a million years’ worth of art treasures. In this case a suboptimal civilization would be productive of values that would not and could not be achieved under an optimal civilization, which ought to make us question the optimality of optimal civilization where our presuppositions of optimality are drawn from industrialization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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QWERTY Healthcare

18 August 2009


P. G. Wodehouse with a favorite Royal typewriter.

P. G. Wodehouse with a favorite Royal typewriter.

Throughout the industrialized world we rely daily on the QWERTY keyboard to enter information about our technically complex and information-saturated lives. As automation and computerization penetrate every aspect of life, the QWERTY keyboard is not far behind as the default data entry device. And I am, of course, at present, typing on just such a QWERTY keyboard.


The QWERTY keyboard has proved itself a robust technology, but it is not an optimal technology. We have the QWERTY keyboard because we have a history, because the QWERTY keyboard has a history, and because these two histories are intertwined. The QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow down typing speeds. The earliest mechanical typewriters were quickly overwhelmed by the speeds that typists were capable of typing, so a keyboard was designed for the purpose of awkwardness and inefficiency. As mechanical and electronic technologies caught up to human manual dexterity, the QWERTY keyboard was retained because everyone who learned to type knew it, and almost all business machines with a keyboard used the QWERTY keyboard.

In short, the QWERTY keyboard is nothing less than an absurdity, but it is our absurdity, a human-all-too-human absurdity, and we are insufficiently motivated to change it. It is easier to accept the all-too-common absurdities of life than to attempt to change them.

As the health care debate moves through the Congress, it struck me today that we can count on a political deal that will deliver QWERTY health care. That is to say, we will have an absurd system that is a product of our history.

The Agnew Clinic, Phialdelphia

This is not a partisan rant. I do not support the Democrats or the Republicans or any of the interest groups or anyone else on this issue. And it is pointless to throw mud over the issue as all sides have impugned themselves. It would be difficult to imagine anything more absurd than the previous attempt to create a universal health care system under the Clinton administration. It is worth recalling why it was absurd. The Clinton plan was going to create “managed competition.” The health care delivery network was to remain intact, the insurance companies were to remain intact, and the relations between delivery, insurance, and the consumer were to be managed in the attempt to keep it all afloat. The whole thing was so ridiculously ungainly, so obviously a Rube Goldberg construction, that it is difficult to understand how anyone could have taken it seriously.

rube goldberg

It would be interesting to consider the ability of a society of rid itself of poor institutions and to create new institutions from scratch as a measure of the strength and intelligence of that society. There are few societies that by this measure possess strength and intelligence. The only example from history that I can think of that possibly applies is when the citizens of Knidos (or Cnidos, or Cnidus) abandoned their old city for a beautifully built new city some distance from the old.

surfing nurse

It seems clear that our society is insufficiently strong and intelligent to scrap our present non-functional health care system and to craft a new health care system de novo. This is a shame. We are intelligent enough to conceive a better system, but we simply don’t have what it takes to put it into place because an intelligently designed health care system for three hundred million people would be wrenching change, and, perhaps more importantly, it would mean doing away with powerful vested interests.


It is apparent that the politicians are approaching the health care mess in the US by way of reform and not revolution. To scrap the old and to begin again de novo would be revolutionary, and that is not happening. Yet it would still be possible through reform to arrive at a radically distinct system, though this would perhaps require even greater political will and even more intelligent institutions than an attempt at revolutionary health care change. A revolution can begin spontaneously, and, once started, can be difficult to stop: it is a form of Freudian discharge and obeys a psychodynamic rather than a rational model. This is not true of reform.


If one were to design an optimal health care system for a large and diverse nation-state such as the US, really aiming at something as close to perfect as is humanly possible, and then find a way to incrementally implement the plan over a long period of time — and I do mean a long period of time, as in decades, and not what politicians mean when they talk about a long period of time — the change would be sufficiently gradual that it would not have the wrenching social consequences of a revolution. Many people in affected industries would retire before the change was complete, and new individuals and businesses entering the industry would know what they were getting into. Such a plan would create a history, would create a history of change and reform with which our lives would become entwined, and this would give the program a feeling of familiarity and thus reduce the fear and anxiety associated with change.


This is not likely to happen. Reform remains a theoretical possibility at present. Given time, it might someday become a political possibility, but by that time the pressure to change the system might have built until only revolutionary change rather than mere reform can satisfy the felt need for change. This is as absurd and as human as anything else in the health care calculation — easily as absurd as pop culture nurse novels — and we cannot afford to dismiss it. Fear-mongering militates against change — even rationally planned reform — until desire for change simply overwhelms entrenched and escalating fear, and at this unpredictable tipping point just about anything can happen.

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