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By Dan Byrnes

Just where is the leading edge of civilization?

By Dan Byrnes (2-2-2010)

Lately I've been wondering where is the leading edge of civilization? I suspect this is a topic that too few people think about.

Civilization is much-vaunted. A charming variety of countries including Australia are taken to be "civilized", although Germany allowed Hitler to seriously blot its copybook. The idea that an entire country is civilized at any one time is utter nonsense. (Just look awhile at British Imperial History or US foreign policy.) In any country, some people are civilized and some are not, independent of any country's set of institutions. No country has a uniformly civilized population, criminals, and corruption amongst and between "the civilized", see to that. As for linkages between "civilization"and "development", visit Papua-New Guinea any year you find convenient!

Some historians angst about the rise and fall of civilizations, in a misgided way I think. The more I learn, the more it seems that civilizations fall due to usual stresses plus inability to adapt to problems arising from climate change, not moral rot, not military softness, not decadence. It's climate problems which teach civilizations their use-by dates, it's just that historians are not yet good at explaining this. But leave aside the fall of civilizations, what about the rise?

What prompted these thoughts was reading the weekend newspaper finance pages. "I never read the finance pages", my adult son tells me, "they're all lies and crap." He means, hyperbole and puffery. He is correct.

I never used to read the finance pages either, but older now, I read them out of a morbidly growing curiosity about where the mistakes creep in. (And falling for lies is a mistake, no?)

You see, in a truly civilized society, mistakes should survive only a short time. By any such criterion, few nations are well-civilized. I don't mean that mistakes will never happen in a civilized society, I mean that if mistakes are made, they'll be recognised quickly and rectified.

What propelled me into this today was yet another claim that Australia is suffering a skills shortage. Really? All my lifetime in Australia, there have been plenty of technical colleges in small cities and suburbs in the largest cities which can train tradesmen; probably underfunded. Governments in my lifetime (state and federal) have routinely failed to support traditional systems and customs of industries supporting apprentice. We hear this nonsense about a skills shortage with monotonous regularity, as we hear about the death of proper religion, proper government, serious theatre, serious poetry, rock and roll, the serious novel, all of which are signs of declining civilization, apparently.

Apparently, Australia has a mismatch between where the employers are, and where the workers prefer to be. Apparently, no one wonders if it's the employers who put themselves in the wrong place (just as a theatre company can put a good production in front of the wrong audience, or the right audience in front of the wrong production).

But the finance pages assume that the employers' opinions have the most weight. And in today's case, where the story arises in Western Australia, it might just be that the complaining employers have put themselves in inconvenient places. Like deserts.

I suspect that Australia doesn't have a skills shortage at all, it has an excess of cowboy-minded capitalists running extractive industries who want to deploy their capital in places inconvenient for families, but who don't want to bid-up wages for workers wanting to help them. It's the grandest old false problem in the histories of civilization.

The "civilized" employer wants to expand the frontier, but finds himself short of labour. Since his desire to expand frontiers is not curtailed, more likely it is encouraged, the labour has to appear from somewhere. This would be a good way to encourage the spread of the use of coerced labour, of slavery, and it was.

Here's the conundrum, societies expand their frontiers by mixing the civilized with the less-than-civilized. Whether or not the civilization in question denies that this is the methodology is a measure of how civilized it is becoming. (The classic movie, The Mission, is deeply and eloquently, unforgettably preoccupied with this conundrum.)

Any civilization has a multitude of economic drivers to be considered, extent of "development", size of population, willingness to trade, types of output (costs of production versus levels of profit), levels of education, weaving enough give in the class structure to allow upward social mobility, frequency of war, adjustments to new technology, competitiveness with rivals.

I'd observe, that a lot of people I'd regard as well-civilized are not especially adventurous. Most of them will enjoy civilized society, but will contribute relatively little to its advancement because - maybe quite properly - they refuse to mix the civilized with the uncivilized. They're scrupulous.

Whereas, my reading of history, particularly the history of European exploration and colonization since 1550, tells me that it isn't the safety-conscious who expand civilization, it's the risk takers. And risk-takers are often not especially nice, sensible, scrupulous or civilized people. (Consider the genocidal activities of Pizarro and Cortes in South America, No More Mr Nice Guy, surely.)

So what did the risk-takers of England, France, Spain, Portugal do to advance the spread of "civilization". These nations' risk-takers were not necessarily all behaving in civilized ways all the time. They included serial adventurers, pirates (on the water, but including armies of them on land), gold-seekers, get-rich quick merchants, impetuous risk-takers, plain fools, mixing in dashes of spiritual arrogance, insatiable curiosity, a deal of technological leverage, or, technological superiority. A little expertise in impressive sciences, interest in languages or travel, a love of the exotic. And very often an insufficient budget provided by their own employers, as with the English at Jamestown, Virginia, in the time of Pocahontas.

The Renaissance was propelled by risk-takers. Leonardo da Vinci, engineer, artist and corpse-dissector. Michaelangelo, another marvellous artist, also a corpse dissector, who took the theological liberty of depicting the finger of Adam touching the finger of God in The Sistine Chapel. The Medici of Florence, bankers turned politicians and sometime warmongers during Italy's long, insane and pointless period of warring city states.

The famous poet Dante, for example, took risks by insulting a good many of the notables and/or worthies of his day. (Dante had strong views on how corruption might flourish amongst and between "the civilized".)

So as I read the finance pages and watch the mistakes creep around in affairs and in the economy, both, my respect for those with excessive respect for civilization recedes because they are not vigilant enough about mistakes.

I've changed my definition of what civilization is about. It's about the safety-conscious eating the fruit of trees planted by the risk-takers. (This by the way fits deftly with Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarian philosophy, taking steps to spread the greatest good for consumption by the greatest number. It also tends to fit long-term Chinese history. The respected Chinese tradition of filial piety tended to inhibit risk-taking, especially by younger men.)

That is, civilized people are more or less continually engaged in the sin of Adam and Eve, mixing the benefits of the fruits of the knowledge of good and of evil.

I think I see now. Being civilized is being able to see where the mistakes occur. It's about the arts and sciences of the examination of the behaviour of mistakes made by human beings and then correcting them.

It's the risk-takers who make a lot of mistakes and the safety-conscious who notice. Each needs the other, but it's more the risk-takers who are the leading edge of a society, in the sense that they renew the age-old issues for each new generation.

And our civilization today? It's under threat from climate problems. This won't bother the risk-takers much at all. It may just worry the safety-conscious to death.

Dan Byrnes 2010

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