Tom: Some of the most fascinating ways in which civilization steamrolls nature are far more subtle than the worldly, visual ones we usually attribute to it (e.g. the deforestation, species extinction, soil loss etc.). Increasingly written about, thankfully, are the human psychological and biological traumas which have been wrought particularly over the last 10,000-12,000 years.
Daniel Quinn, to take just one example, touched on this in “Beyond Civilization” when he maintained that millions of years of evolution contributed to selecting our ideal, but now almost non-existent, social structure of the tribe, in the same way as the honeybee has evolved its colony, and wolves evolved packs. Indeed, the modern world has taken this disowning of an ideal social structure to an extreme, often polarizing humans between a lonely rural existence and an over-crowded (and equally lonely) urban one. For example, how does Calcutta’s 29,650 people per square kilometre compare to our ideal tribe size of 150?
So it was with great interest that I readthis article by Oxford University’s Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, Russell Foster. In it, he discusses the harm which our artificial time-keeping systems and time schedules, intensifying to an extreme in the modern world, have wrought on our physical and mental health by railroading over our internal “circadian” body clocks. He concludes:
“Humans have embraced the freedom to do what we want, when we want. Our 24/7 society has invaded and subjugated the night, an apparent victory of civilisation over nature. But the reality is that our society is replacing a biological order, honed by millions of years of evolution, with an illusion.
Disrupting sleep and circadian rhythm impairs our brains and that drives many of us to substitute the rhythm normally imposed by internal time with day-time stimulants such as coffee, and night-time sedatives such as alcohol – or worse. Such agents provide only the crudest mimic of the natural cycle of activity and rest.
We have not achieved liberty, we have created a 24/7 tyrant”
Of course, his critique of this aspect of modernity is shallow until you look at the foundations of our modern timekeeping systems, and the 9-5 job, an analysis which has been central to the primitivist line of thought. Artificial and linear time is a necessary cog in the machine of civilised mass society, with its absolute need and lust for conformity, obedience and accumulation.
Indeed, modern conceptions of time are extremely new to the human mind, being traced historically to just after the establishment of the first sedentary societies. Timekeeping moved from the cyclical planting calendars of early Neolithic farmers to the linear labelling of years in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Central America and other places, to facilitate commerce and accounting. The phrase “time is money” has been a maxim of civilization since its inception, it seems.
The ascendancy of time over freedom intensified with the necessity for co-ordinated factory work in the industrial revolution and this intensification continues to the present day. See, for example, how the delivery systems of goods in “advanced” nation economies run to the ultimate precision with Just-In-Time technologies, or how nearly every human in an economy can only function if they have a watch or other time-keeping apparatus strapped to their body, an unprecedented arrangement historically. This precision is indeed the very life-blood of complex economies but, as is increasingly seen, entirely inimical to freedom.