Human Civilization: Destroying as We Create?
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Anthropogenic impacts affecting our environment can be summarized as follows:
- Loss of biodiversity in flora and fauna.
- Strong indications of complete extinction of life on the planet.
- Climate urgency.
- Excessive population growth and overconsumption.
Many attribute the existing risk of humanity destroying itself by causing an environmental crisis to the fact that we were unaware of our civilization’s adverse impact on the biosphere for a long time and that, having gained such awareness, we continuously failed to resist the “purely human” temptation to consume more than we needed.
How can proponents of innovation win the support of the masses in the existing ideological vacuum? Can they do this by calling on people to reduce their consumption and all-inclusive travel, help others, litter less and maintain cleanliness? Initially, this would be rather costly and have little appeal for the majority of people.
It is at this point of equilibrium representing an “intellectual sinkhole” that humanity will inevitably have to choose either of the two available options for escaping it. As mentioned above, what drove people to join their efforts up until the inception of the Fifth Cycle was new political ideas and technological breakthroughs, which helped us overcome our natural rigidity and the influence of those who benefitted from the “old order of things.” Today, the situation is different as the conflict does not involve social strata or political ideologies. The tension we are experiencing is internal.
Our times call for a new idea that would unite people, replace conventional and outdated ideologies and bring together as many individual “divine sparks” as possible to create the source of energy we need for acceleration and take off. It is hard to say what this idea will be, who will come up with it and, most importantly, who will have the energy and the courage to make it “dominate the masses and turn into a tangible force.” Everyone knows the stories of Socrates, who was poisoned, Diogenes, who was captured by pirates, Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, and many others.
The sad reality is that humanity has so far been doing the exact opposite, which is stomping out society’s sprouting intellectual potential that could have yielded us the crops we so desperately need.
It is not solely the development and integration of the much-discussed and relevant “green” energy-saving technology but also the issue of preserving and developing humanity’s intellectual potential and innovation skills that is crucial for the transition to the Sixth Civilization Cycle.
Biological evolution on the planet and human civilization
Humanity is part in two simultaneous processes of planetary dimensions: the global biological evolution, which has been going on for approximately 3 to 4 billion years, and the social and cultural development of human civilization set in motion about 50,000 years ago [1,3].
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There are certain commonalities as well as substantial differences between biological evolution and the advancement of civilization. Both processes are conducive to the emergence of more sophisticated individual species and groups of species capable of competing in a constantly changing environment. Both processes build on the enhanced adaptability of younger generations, on inheritance of the greatest achievements made by previous generations, and on adequate selection of best possible options.
The main difference between the two is in the manner of transferring relevant information to new generations as well as in the modalities of storing and processing such information. Biological evolution relies on unidirectional transfer (inheritance) of various genetic combinations from ancestors to descendants. Descendants best adapted to new environments continue to reproduce, which is something Charles Darwin encapsulated in his natural selection.
Human civilization relies on faster and more diverse ways of transferring and sharing information—not only from ancestors to descendants but also in the opposite direction, as well as within each generation. To that end, there emerged a number of information storage and processing methods, largely owing to the willingness and ability of humans, who are social creatures, to communicate with one another. According to Professor Noah Harari, rudimentary language communication may have emerged when women from the same tribe got a chance to gossip while their men were out hunting . It was human ingenuity and man’s creative and flexible mind that became the main driving forces of civilization.
As an example, let us consider the growth and influence of the moderately populous Celtic civilization. The Celts were one of the many tribal groups in pre-Christian Europe. Over several centuries (late BC to early AD), their ingenuity turned them into one of the most influential peoples, who conquered most of Europe as far as the British Isles, even posing a threat to Rome (where they were known as the Gauls). Their power of invention equipped them for a variety of pursuits, from mining high quality salt deep underground in Hallstatt (a small town in Northern Austria thought to be the place where the Celts originated, a place renowned for its rock salt deposits to this day) to developing iron ore smelting and steel making technology. This invention put the Celts at a military advantage over their neighbors, who used bronze armor. The Celts’ greatest invention, however, was their original Ogham alphabet  (Fig. 1). Their ability to use it for communicating information to other members of their tribal group and their descendants was of equal importance.
Fig.1. The Celtic Ogham alphabet
Homo sapiens emerged on the planet at the last stage of biological evolution but human civilization has been evolving thousands of times faster than the planet and its living beings, who have been evolving biologically. This disparity is primarily due to the crucial role that the mind, or intellectual potential, of the Homo sapiens has played at each stage of our civilization’s development. Human intellectual potential has become—and remains to this day—the most important source of energy and the driving force behind the advancement of civilization. Men of genius, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Nikola Tesla, pushed human civilization forward by several generations.
It was for this reason that the civilization developed at a pace far exceeding that of biological evolution. However, faster does not necessarily mean better. Until the last few hundred years, humans, being one of the newest living species, benefitted from all resources formed over billions of years of biological evolution on the planet and took advantage of its flora and fauna while, in turn, making no substantial impact on the biological evolution process through human civilization development. However, more recently things have started to change.
Adverse impact of human civilization on the planet’s biological evolution
Our planet, its biosphere and natural resources are now severely harmed by anthropogenic impacts, which are a pernicious by-product attributable to our civilization. Furthermore, people’s quality of life on certain continents (e.g. Africa) and in some megacities has considerably deteriorated.
Anthropogenic impacts affecting our environment can be summarized as follows:
- Loss of biodiversity in flora and fauna. Since the first days of human agriculture about 11,000 years ago, Earth’s total plant biomass has diminished by 50%, of which 20% is due to entire species of plants going extinct. Humans have interfered with 70% of natural biological processes occurring on Earth’s surface. The population of vertebrate species has declined by 68% in the last 50 years. Domesticated animals and humans account for 59% and 36% of our planet’s total animal biomass respectively, while wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians represent a mere 5%.
- Strong indications of complete extinction of life on the planet. A mass extinction of life is the disappearance of 75% living creatures over a geological period lasting under 3 million years, i.e. at the average rate of about 100,000 per year. The current rate exceeds this figure by an order of magnitude. Over the last 500 years, living creatures have been going extinct at the rate of 1.3 million per year.
- Climate crisis. Without listing all known manifestations of the crisis here, let us consider data on the concentration of greenhouse gases [GHG] in the atmosphere. Some previously disregarded factors, such as permafrost thaw, have caused the GHG concentration to reach 500 ppm СО2e. To limit the atmospheric temperature rise to 1.5oC, the GHG concentration must be maintained below 450 ppm. Failure to do so will inevitably result in catastrophic consequences for humans and the animal world.
- Excessive population growth and overconsumption. The replacement rate required for the global population to remain stable is 2.3 children per woman. The rate stands at 4.8 for Africa and at around 4 for many Arab countries. The world population was consuming 73% of available renewable natural resources in 1960 and 170% in 2016. This indicates that we have started robbing future generations of natural resources. Nonetheless, food scarcity in some countries has become a recurrent issue, which can provoke conflict.
As it happens, having taken advantage of all the resources the planet could offer, the ‘ruler of nature’ has gone on to behave not even like a thief but a burglar. No fox would take more than a single chicken from a coop—and even that only to feed its pups, never for pleasure. No animal consumes more natural resources than it needs to provide for itself and its family. Only humans, far from acting as caring stewards or even as thieves, operate as burglars who destroy whatever they cannot steal.
It is hard to acknowledge that this predatory attitude towards our own environment is as inherent to human civilization as ingenuity and intellect. The ability to create, much as destroy the work of our own hands, is unique to humans.
Many attribute the existing risk of humanity destroying itself by causing an environmental crisis to the fact that we were unaware of our civilization’s adverse impact on the biosphere for a long time and that, having gained such awareness, we continuously failed to resist the “purely human” temptation to consume more than we needed. In turn, politicians allowed themselves to be swayed by businesses who manufactured excessive goods and generated attractive profits, to the detriment of people’s health and environment.
Another scenario is also possible: even if it avoids self-destruction inflicted by its own actions, humanity may still collapse into a ‘civilizational sinkhole’. What does that mean? For all its pitfalls, wrong turns and crises, civilization has an inherent dynamic: it progresses from simple to complex and from cost-intensive to cost-effective rather than the other way round. Furthermore, civilization develops in cycles rather than progressively, as laid out by Kondratieff  and Schumpeter . Each cycle lasts some 50 to 65 years and has the following four attributes: means of sharing information, industrial advances, social attributes, primary sources of energy (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2 Civilization development and technical progress cycles.
Source: Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York, Harper & Row, 1962.
First Cycle. Information sharing: hand-printed books, post. Industrial advance: steam engine and its use in textile mills. Source of energy: coal. Social attributes: mass recruitment of labor from the countryside to cities, establishment of so-called “working class neighborhoods.” Development hub: England.
Second Cycle. Information sharing: books and newspapers for the masses, the first telephone and telegraph. Industrial advances: steam locomotive, railways, iron and steel industry. Social attributes: emergence of industrial cities (Manchester, Liverpool). Development hub during the cycle: England.
Third Cycle. Information sharing: radio communications, telephony available to the wider public. Industrial advances: combustion engine, long-distance power transmission, chemistry, and pharmaceutical industry. Source of energy: oil. Social attributes: intensive urbanization, division of cities into business districts and residential suburbs. Road network expansion. Development hub: the United States.
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Fourth Cycle. Information sharing: television. Industrial advances: motor vehicles, electric trains. Sources of energy: oil, gas, coal. Social attributes: increased population mobility, ongoing urbanization and increasing globalization. Development hubs: the U.S., Japan, and Europe.
Fifth Cycle. Kondratieff provided no detailed description of this cycle in his works. Its attributes were laid out more recently . This cycle is associated with breakthroughs in information technology and computers and with the emergence of the Internet as a global information system. This was what allowed India, China, Taiwan among others—each previously seen as ‘developing countries’—to catch up with and sometimes even outperform European countries and the U.S. The sources of power supply remaining largely unchanged during this cycle resulted in global challenges and put extensive development at odds with finite availability of the planet’s natural resources. The world faced these challenges between the Fifth and the Sixth Cycles (see below).
As mentioned above, each Kondratieff cycle has four phases: expansion, prosperity, recession, and stagnation leading up to a new cycle. While delivering higher productivity, wealth and purchasing power for some population groups, along with an increased share of intellectual energy in new product development, and gradually diminishing the role of conventional energy sources and natural raw materials, each new cycle was compounded by ever-greater exploitation of natural resources. Moreover, as had already happened before in the course of civilization's development , civilizational accomplishments failed to improve the quality of life for the entire population. To the contrary, the socio-economic gap between the wealthy and the poor continued to increase. About 1 billion people are still living below the poverty line .
Sixth Cycle. Logic dictates that the Sixth Cycle would ideally be driven by issues related to improving the overall quality of life for the entire population, such as biotechnology, alternative sources of energy, cognitive technology, and artificial intelligence. In this context, humanity’s intellectual potential will become the primary agent of progress.
Kondratieff Waves and Warfare
It is possible that periods of stagnation in civilization’s headway somehow served to provoke outbreaks of international armed conflict. Let us consider the known war timelines in the context of the Kondratieff Wave diagram. Between the First and the Second Cycles (around mid-19th century), the world was disturbed by a number of wars across several continents (Fig. 3).
The most prominent war in Europe was the Crimean War (1853–1856), which was the first time when belligerents took advantage of innovative technologies including shelling, using railways to transport troops and ammunition, and the telegraph to facilitate rapid communications on the front line. The outcome of this three-year campaign was that Russia lost its international standing and its Black Sea Fleet, and recognized the need for reform.
Fig. 3 Timeline of Wars and Military Conflicts in the 19th Century 
World War I (1914–1919), the bloodiest war in history up until then, happened between the Second and the Third Cycles. It brought about the collapse of all empires previously existing on the continent, including the German, the Russian, and the Austro-Hungarian empires. The countries started undergoing socialist revolutions. The U.S., Japan and China saw their influence grow. Russia had lost 2 million people and almost 25% of its territories.
World War II (1939–1945) happened between the Third and the Fourth Cycles and shed even more blood, claiming 62 million lives and triggering an extreme economic recession. The tribunal at Nuremberg recognized Fascism and Nazism as criminal regimes. The United Nations was established.
While the warring parties used new lethal weapons (toxic gases, tanks and long-range artillery during World War I, and nuclear weapons during World War II), some historians tend to suggest that wars used to drive scientific and technological progress and provide testing grounds for innovative weapons and technology. If this is valid, does this prioritize the pace of technical progress over the protection of human potential? In my opinion, this is a rather cynical view.
It is more likely that in our perpetual pursuit of new solutions and innovative technologies, we, Homo sapiens, simply fail to evaluate the potential benefits and the adverse impacts of our discoveries quickly enough. During armed conflicts, politicians adopting an aggressive stance do not face strong opposition from people in their countries. All forces that contribute to solidarity, understanding and conflict mitigation when civilization is on the upswing subside at times of war and social resentment. It is unlikely that a nuclear bomb or toxic gases would have been tested on populations of neighboring countries during peacetime.
The challenges of transitioning to the Sixth Cycle of Civilization
This transition may prove more controversial and complex than the previous ones.
First, the climate urgency, increasingly unfolding towards the end of the 20th century, has led to a global conflict between the conventional paradigm of extensive production and rising consumption on the one hand and the need to protect the human environment and quality of life from our own anthropogenic impact on the other hand. Essentially, this is the first time that the two previously concomitant development processes—biological evolution on the planet (which affects humans as part of it) and human civilization—have come into conflict with each other. Humanity has found itself between the upper and the nether millstone, one that it is powerless to stop.
The world’s leading politicians and economists have been trying to ignore this conflict because they do not know how to resolve it, ensuring that “humanity can continue to increase production in order to meet its growing needs while protecting our biosphere from harmful impacts of such extensive growth.”
Second, alongside the global economic and environmental processes, the transition to the Sixth Cycle will need to factor in, among other things, the state of human intellectual potential. The term “intellectual potential” is relatively new and combines the concept of ‘intellect’ as a person’s individual ability to think with that of ‘potential’ as referring to a resource or an asset at the disposal of a particular society or country (the Latin “potential” means “power”). Over the last century, the notion of intellect as merely a person’s individual physiological capacity for thought, reflection and analysis has broadened to include intellectual potential, or the ability to engage every person’s intellectual capacity for the purpose of facilitating the entire society's development.
The level of intellectual potential is crucial to the successful development of civilization. During cycle upswings, advances in human knowledge became the catalyst that would mobilize and focus available labor and natural resources on society’s civilizational development. Once a cycle reached its plateau, new ideas and technological innovations would go out of date and lose some of their appeal. Having satisfied its needs to a certain extent, society would experience a reduction in its intellectual potential.
During recession phases occurring between cycles, the following social phenomena would become increasingly prominent: intellectual apathy, indifference and mistrust towards anything outside the narrow scope of one’s personal interests, resentment towards anything new including people from other countries with their distinctive cultures and way of life. Machiavelli described this social condition as follows: “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. Any innovation will have lukewarm defenders in those who are doubtful of their gains under the new order and active enemies in those who are certain of their losses.”
Such a context would always be marked by conflict between supporters and opponents of “a new order of things.” Both would appeal to the need to preserve social stability for the benefit of people. However, there are two types of stability in mechanics: static stability (a stone pedestal) and dynamic stability (balance maintained by a cyclist). Accordingly, the two opposing camps argue their case based on either how well they lived in the “good old days” or how well they will live in the “brighter future.”
History shows that up until now proponents of modernization have always won. This has been driving the civilization. Things have become more complicated at the point of transitioning into the Sixth Cycle. Historically, what played an instrumental role in consolidating society around new ideas, aside from intellectual and technology drivers, was the ability to offer one’s supporters an explanation as to how innovation will improve each future generation’s life, making people happier and nature more generous. A more dramatic situation is emerging at the point of transitioning into the Sixth Cycle. Liberal democracy, being the most recent of ideologies adopted by most of humanity, is in its last days .
How can proponents of innovation win the support of the masses in the existing ideological vacuum? Can they do this by calling on people to reduce their consumption and all-inclusive travel, help others, litter less and maintain cleanliness? Initially, this would be rather costly and have little appeal for the majority of people. Meanwhile, their opponents have their rebuttals ready: “The climate urgency was invented by Greta Thunberg; a temporary fluctuation in the tilt of the Earth’s axis and the permafrost thaw will make it possible to grow apples in Chukotka; COVID-19 is just a flu. People should get everything they deserve out of life!” They offer these and a number of other inaccurate yet simple (hence popular) slogans to those who oppose “dreary self-restraint” for the sake of survival and keep dancing on Titanic’s upper deck.
It is at this point of equilibrium representing an “intellectual sinkhole” that humanity will inevitably have to choose either of the two available options for escaping it. As mentioned above, what drove people to join their efforts up until the inception of the Fifth Cycle was new political ideas and technological breakthroughs, which helped us overcome our natural rigidity and the influence of those who benefitted from the “old order of things.” Today, the situation is different as the conflict does not involve social strata or political ideologies. The tension we are experiencing is internal. The drama of the situation is that it is not politicians or church leaders who will be held accountable for the direction we choose to pursue at this point of no return. It is us. We must think for ourselves rather than blindly follow opinion leaders. The more people are able to shake off intellectual apathy and find the confidence and motivation to transition into the new Civilization Cycle, the more likely the world is to wake up from its static stability bliss and stop taking advantage of vanishing natural resources. Proponents of static stability consider theirs the preferred choice since it requires little intellectual effort. This, however, is not a way out but a dead end. Like never before, our future depends on humanity’s intellectual potential more than it does on political and economic forces.
Perhaps, there is a “divine spark” in every human being that enables us, albeit not as often as we would like, to identify the most appropriate solutions to difficult problems so generously supplied by our nuanced and ever-complex life. Our times call for a new idea that would unite people, replace conventional and outdated ideologies and bring together as many individual “divine sparks” as possible to create the source of energy we need for acceleration and take off. It is hard to say what this idea will be, who will come up with it and, most importantly, who will have the energy and the courage to make it “dominate the masses and turn into a tangible force.” Everyone knows the stories of Socrates, who was poisoned, Diogenes, who was captured by pirates, Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, and many others.
The sad reality is that humanity has so far been doing the exact opposite, which is stomping out society’s sprouting intellectual potential that could have yielded us the crops we so desperately need. For instance, millennia of armed conflicts have provided us with ample material enabling us to evaluate the damage inflicted by them, including financial losses sustained by warring parties, population losses, and grave environmental damage.
Events such as the series of book burnings carried out by students, professors and leading local Nazi party members in Berlin and a number of other cities across the Reich in 1933 whereby thousands of books were burnt as part of the “Campaign Against the Un-German Spirit” (Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist), the burning of Quran by Nazis and radical groups of all stripes, destruction of Buddha statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the total annihilation of Dresden and Hiroshima demonstrate that destruction of humanity’s intellectual potential is one of the most dangerous outcomes of armed conflict and ideological rivalry.
Armed conflict goes against the laws of biological evolution on our planet, which we are also involved in. It is incompatible with humanity’s harmonious development. Nonetheless, engaging in military conflict to take over some land or an oilfield is yet another self-defeating human invention. At this perilous point, I should like to recall the words by one of the greatest inventors, the Serbian scholar, engineer and philosopher Nikola Tesla : “In the 20th century, most civilized countries of the world spend a maximum of their income on war and a minimum on education. The 21st century will reverse this order. It will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on a battlefield.” This is precisely why it is not solely the development and integration of the much-discussed and relevant “green” energy-saving technology but also the issue of preserving and developing humanity’s intellectual potential and innovation skills that is crucial for the transition to the Sixth Civilization Cycle.
1. M. Butusov, A. Jernelöv. Phosphorus. An Element that could have been called Lucifer. Springer, 2013.
2. Yu. N. Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York: Harper, 2015.
4. The Ancient City, https://www.worldhistory.org/city/
4. Ross, Anne (1972). Everyday Life of the Pagan Celts. London: Carousel. p. 168.
5. Kondratieff, N. The long waves in economic life. Review of Economic Statistics 17(6) (1935): 105–115.
6. Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York, Harper & Row, 1962.
7. Šmihula, Daniel (2009). The waves of the technological innovations of the modern age and the present crisis as the end of the wave of the informational technological revolution. Studia Politica Slovaca. 2009 (1): 32-47. ISSN 1337-8163.
8. M. Butusov, A. Fedyukhin. A Way Out or a Dead End? LAP Lambert Academic Press. 2020.
9. Chronology of the Wars in the 19th Century https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/world-conflict-deaths-various-sources?time=1800..1899
10. F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Free Press, 1992.
11. Tesla, Nikola, My Inventions, Parts I through V published in the Electrical Experimenter monthly magazine from February through June 1919. Part VI published October 1919. Reprint edition with introductory notes by Ben Johnson, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1982.
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