Thursday 13th January saw the start of a new 8-part TV documentary series called Human Planet, ostensibly about how the human species has adapted to some of the most challenging habitats on Earth. I would like to think that the idea behind this series is to explore the positive aspects of the only really free humans on this planet, those last remaining communities that still live in harmony with their natural environment, untouched by the insidious and deadly tentacles of civilisation. The reality is, however, that it was a little too much like the usual glossy travelogue through some quaint and colourful cultures. It could have been worse. I have seen similar documentaries in which the audience is being asked to observe these cultures with feigned interest, polite tolerance and a vague sympathy for their assumed primitiveness.
At least this was not happening here, although I soon became irritated by the drama-laden voice-over, making us look judgementally at these people through our own frame of reference, rather than trying to gain inspiration from how they conduct their lives. But that’s TV for you – stained with the varnish of sensationalism, and becoming less and less able to treat its audience as intelligent.
The tone of the programme was just about acceptable, and the subject matter was certainly well presented. Yet it seemed to miss the point about the cultures it was exploring. The fact is that the ‘indigenous’ people in the film looked happy, well-nourished and at one with nature. Prior to 10,000 years ago, all human beings on this planet might well have looked like this, because they were at one with nature. It is not so much that the people in this documentary deliberately choose to live in extreme habitats, it is that these habitats and cultures are all that is left. Civilisation has driven them right out on the fringes of the world with which we are more familiar. They survive there because, even in the 21st century, they are effectively beyond the reach of the shock troops of our culture, and have thus become the last outposts of sanity in a world gone mad.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the continents of Africa and the Americas, to say nothing of other regions of the world, were also populated by human beings with the same compassionate and spiritual outlook on life as the few remaining indigenous communities left on Earth. However, a few hundred years of uncontrolled greed, insatiable exploitation and unmitigated savagery by heavily armed psychopaths and thugs from Europe soon put paid to these gentler peoples, in a genocidal onslaught sanctioned by an acquisitive elite waiting back at home for shiploads of booty and free slave labour.
The unpardonable atrocities of this violent culture were easily justified by a propagandist triumvirate of state control, psychotic avarice and religious mania, the latter providing divine sanction and uncontested justification to take what was wanted, destroy what was not wanted and give nothing back. Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war . . . Fight the good fight will all thy might . . . Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise. No doubt my Christian brethren will deny these militaristic overtones and point out to me that all such phrases are nothing more than an evangelical call to believe in and spread the Christian faith. Okay, but Church-sanctioned atrocity is still with us. Just a few years ago, George Bush, by his own publicly stated admissions, invaded the virtually defenceless country of Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the process, all in the name of God. I have a problem with that, as I have a problem with every other invader, conqueror, despot, inquisitor and missionary who has unleashed misery and death on those who would not bow willingly to accept the yoke of subjugation or the imposition of an alien belief system and a culture based on the rule of might.
Yes, but these are isolated incidents in history, I hear you cry. There is nothing wrong with civilisation itself, you will say – what about all of the beauty, culture, art and innovation that have come out of civilisation? What, you mean all of that incredible architecture, for instance? I cannot deny the beauty of our civilisation’s greatest architectural monuments (taking them as an example); they are indeed breathtaking in their sheer magnificence, their extraordinary craftsmanship and their astounding construction. Yet who remembers the ordinary artisans who built them? Who understands that everything that has ever been built to glorify one imperial culture or another (even the skyscrapers, road systems and shopping malls that define modern civilisation) has been built not by the rulers but by the artisan craftsmen and ordinary labourers who dedicated their lives to perfection (or simply slaved away doing the manual donkeywork) with scant reward for their efforts. Nothing is glorified except the culture itself, unless we look at the upper echelons of art, music (forgetting for a moment the humble peasant roots of these creative outlets), philosophy, academic achievements, military prowess, engineering innovation or even commercial success – only then do we celebrate named individuals. The rest are merely cogs in the machine.
At its heart, civilisation is a control system designed to keep large numbers of strangers living in close and supposedly harmonious proximity to each other. No doubt I would be challenged on that too, but this is how it looks to me. The Latin etymology of the word suggests it is rooted in the idea of ‘the city,’ itself a collection of city-dwellers or ‘civilians.’ Using very broad brushstrokes, we can say that cities came out of the first human settlements, which themselves came out of our first attempts, around 10,000 years ago, to settle down and grow our own food. Once agriculture got under way, it created food surpluses, which in turn created the opportunity for specialists, such as grain dealers, agricultural implement makers and other purely commercial ventures. No longer did we have to simply hunt for our food or gather it – the hands of some became free to dabble in other ideas. Note the continuing use of the broad brush, incidentally; this is not meant to be a detailed treatise on the implications of agriculture.
It also gave any aspiring warlord the ability to run military campaigns, because all that surplus food could be diverted to the troops. Military campaigns meant victors and vanquished, with the latter generally being put to the sword and all their assets and resources being liberated by the former. These defining principles of the process of civilisation are still extant today, with the above-mentioned foray into Iraq being a recent example.
You might think I do not have a good word to say about civilisation, but it’s not that simple. Nothing is all bad, and that includes civilisation, but also everything runs its course, and many civilisations in the past have flourished then failed. The present version is about to do the same thing. Unlike former manifestations of the concept, which were merely sick by comparison, our current culture has become cancerous, its cell structure terminally corrupted by the twin tumours of industrialisation and globalisation. It is rapidly falling apart and cannot last much longer. The end will be messy, as it always is when a culture collapses. In this case, however, it will not be a case of one city state falling to the invading hordes from a neighbouring state, as it was in ancient times. This time there is but one dominant culture that straddles the whole globe, and its cancerous condition means that it is effectively eating itself from within. My hope is that what survives this social meltdown will be scattered embryonic communities that will begin to tell each other new stories about living in harmony, and relegate to myth and saga the old story about how a whole world was subjugated by the privileged few.
Returning to the new TV series, Human Planet, the opening sentence of the article about it in the Radio Times states, “The further away you get from civilisation, the friendlier people become.” Doesn’t that tell us something about what is possible in the absence of subjugation and hierarchical dominance, and the presence of human freedom within a mutually beneficial community structure? It speaks volumes to me.