Is civilization good for us? Has it made us any happier?
The takeaway from a new book by James Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University, is that the answer to the first question is yes but it’s complicated, while the answer to the second question is, well, even more complicated.
In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Scott explores why human beings decided to shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more sedentary, agrarian lifestyle roughly 12,000 years ago. The accepted narrative is that humans abandoned hunting and gathering as soon they discovered agricultural technology, because it made life easier and safer.
But Scott argues that this is not quite right. Humans, he says, spent thousands of years trying to preserve their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Sure, settling down in agrarian societies provided the basis for the modern state by allowing large numbers of people to live in one place for extended periods of time, but it also led to the spread of diseases and forced people to give up the freedom of an itinerant lifestyle for the affluence of a modern one.
The story we tell ourselves about human history is one of linear progress, fueled in large part by moral and technological development. There is some truth to this, and on a long enough timeline it makes sense, but Scott says the sacrifices made along the way are rarely understood.
I spoke to him recently about those sacrifices, and what we tend to get wrong about early civilizations. For Scott, the price of civilization — for the individual and the environment — has been higher than we think.