The defining characteristic of civilization is waste. Pyramids, temples, and art are all wastes of resources and labor that could have gone to agriculture or just been left alone. Tombs full of jade or gold or servants waste those resources on dead people. It’s not that civilizations make waste, they are waste. That’s how we recognize them. If I civilization lived perfectly sustainably, we wouldn’t even notice it at all.
A civilization is an identity, a name, a lifeform. We define life as the first cell walls in the ocean and civilization by the first city walls in the ground. Living is defined by gathering resources inside and hoarding them against the entropy without. The minute you die you start decomposing into the elements. Life is the defiant act of remaining composed.
Understood this way, the ancient Egyptians were bang-on to mummify their bodies, keep their organs where they could find them, and surround themselves with stuff. Their daily activities are done, but their identity, their name, their general life form live on. Their quest of an afterlife actually worked. We’re still talking about them, thousands of years later. We’ll probably resurrect them as some ungodly AI. And for all we know their afterlife was real, just as they imagined it (I’m sorry about the awful people that robbed your tombs).
Those tombs are ostensibly enormous ‘wastes’ of labor and material which serve no material purpose. They are for the afterlife, not this one. They project the life-force of a human to literally absurd heights in the pursuit of immortality. They rise like a mountain and point to the stars. Besides the mummified human inside, pyramids contain a literal mountain of human labor and natural resources on top. These resources were not used for living but were instead ‘wasted’ on the dead, in the hope of living forever, which they kinda do. They endure. They live on.
Pyramids defiantly remain composed while the desert sands blow willy-nilly all around. And through them the pharaohs and, most importantly, the civilization live on. But it’s not defined by its daily activities or population or all the useful things those people did. It’s defined by what they buried, set aside, and precisely did not use. As Zhuangzi said, out of context, “the usefulness of the useless should be quite obvious.”
As great as we think humans are (and we’re biased) we can recognize that dinosaurs are awesome. They lived for much longer than us, were much stronger, and yet we don’t recognize them as civilized. Why not? They left traces galore, but those traces were useful. They were the bones they used on a daily basis, which just happened to get fossilized in freak incidents. If the dinosaurs had instead done something useless and obliterated themselves in a few millennia we’d call them advanced, but instead they lived in relative, recycled balance for hundreds of millions and we call them dumb.
The calling card of civilization seems to be that you must do something so completely useless that it sticks out from what every animal has been doing forever. This is not to say that animals don’t do useless shit. I see peacocks all the time in Sri Lanka and I feel like I could catch them with their dumbass plumage. Peacocks are also dinosaurs btw, they’re still kicking around. Sexual reproduction has led to animals doing all kinds of dumb shit to live on (through their progeny), but humans just take it to another level, usually in trying to live forever (through what we call progress). It’s honestly the same motivation, just taken to another level.
The more useless (and phallic) a monument a civilization leaves, the more impressed we are. As the immortal Willie Dixon sang, “Must be the same old thing, That makes the tom cats fight all night.”
The baffling and brilliant Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi talked extensively about the power of uselessness. You should read him yourself because the main experience should be confusion, but I’ll quote him out of context to make my own point. Zhuangzi describe the power of a useless tree. In this story, a carpenter walking through a forest talks shit to a tree, and the tree haunts the carpenter’s dream to scold him.
“Back home, Carpenter Shi saw the tree in a dream. It said to him, “What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs — when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult. Their large branches are bent; their small branches are pruned. Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That is why they die young, failing to fully live out their natural life spans. They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world — and all other creatures do the same. As for me, I’ve been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it — and it is of great use to me! If I were useful, do you think I could have grown to be so great?”
I’ll diverge from Zhuangzi, however, by calling this property waste instead of uselessness. Waste, as a biological term, is non-judgemental. One species’ waste is another species’ treasure. Oxygen is a waste product, for example. It’s actually the wildly toxic farts of photosynths, it caused catastrophic climate change 2.5 billion years ago (never forget). Oxygen is a waste product from other lifeforms, but it makes our life possible. That’s how waste goes. That’s why the Eyptians were right on about worshiping the dung beetle.
Biologically, the waste products of one species can kill their parents and feed the next species. It happens all the time. The concept of waste is really relative term. I know I’ve mixed up ‘uselessness’ and ‘waste’ in the paragraphs below and I don’t want to edit, so let me just explain. Waste isn’t useless, it’s just not useful to you. Pyramids and stupas and stuff are useless in an objective sense, but not a subjective one. Objectively, you could have sustained perhaps larger populations and longer-lasting empire if pharaohs had spent that big pyramid energy on agricultural works or armies. But subjectively, pyramids (and ziggurats, etc) communicated across space and time very powerfully.
There’s an idea (not quite a theory) within evolution called the handicap principle. This is the idea that if a peacock can survive with this giant ‘eat me’ sign on his butt, he must be really strong and have really good genes. Because he’s running away from predators with weights on. I also refer to this as the ‘why are slowly suicidal drug addicts sexy’ theory. The corollary is that ‘if I can function this fucked up, imagine how strong I am underneath it all’. As mentioned this is an idea, not an established theory, but it’s an interesting one. While we’re dipping into un-established theory, Joseph Tainter has a general theory on why civilizations collapse, and part of that is explaining why they flex so hard.
Speaking about the Maya, Joe theorizes that the temples and the ‘gruesomeness’ were ways of communicating ‘don’t tread on me’ to other kingdoms. Like the exaggerated horns of elk or huge canines of gorillas. On most days useless and at worst a liability, but effective communication within a species. As he wrote:
“The best strategy for any Mayan polity, once the competitive system was established, was deterrence. Without large standing armies (Adams and Hammond 1982: 508), some signaling system was needed to communicate relative strengths, to deter aggressors, and to facilitate conflict resolution without violence. While (again) not suggesting that this was the sole reason for their development, monumental architecture, painting, and sculptural art would have served as such a system.
Massive, labor-consuming investments in public display would communicate quite effectively the relative strength of political centers. By engaging in architectural display, a center could signal to potential competitors the relative population numbers that it could mobilize. It could also, in effect, convey the message that a polity which could squander so much wealth and labor on something as inconsequential as architecture could certainly mobilize vast resources to cope with an external threat.
Indeed, Mayan architecture conveys these subtle messages even to this day, centuries after the builders departed the scene, for architectural investment is a major criterion used by archaeologists to assess the relative political strengths of Mayan centers.”
As Tainter says, the same communication that Maya states made to each other still communicates to us today. As spacetime is one thing, they communicated across both space and time. The point is that we’re still talking about them, as distant competitors would have at the time. And we still use monument size and complexity (ie waste) as the broad measure for how advanced a ‘civilization’ was. Objectively we’re like ‘what are these giant rocks doing?’ but subjectively we’re like ‘WOW’.
Tainter’s over-arching theory is that ‘diminishing marginal returns’ on the complexity of a civilization eventually cause it to literally ‘brick’. I call the first part of this theory the ecstasy effect, wherein the first pill you take gets you really high, the next gets you less high, and by the end the pills make you miserable.
Tainter’s idea is that civilizations, while times are good, invest in a whole bunch of scribes and monuments and hangers-on and general uselessness. They can support this dead weight while they’re growing, but when growth stops and when elites won’t give up their privileges, the whole thing just crashes (instead of degrading gracefully). Basically the idea is that civilization is a pyramid scheme which leaves pyramids.
The indigenous Australian philosopher Tyson Yunckaporta has his own take on it, which is nuanced, read his book. He says:
Civilisations are cultures that create cities, communities that consume everything around them and then themselves.
A city is a community on the arrow of time, an upward-trending arrow demanding perpetual growth. Growth is the engine of the city — if the increase stops, the city falls. Because of this, the local resources are used up quickly and the lands around the city die. The biota is stripped, then the topsoil goes, then the water. It is no accident that the ruins of the world’s oldest civilisations are mostly in deserts now. It wasn’t desert before that. A city tells itself it is a closed system that must decay in order for time to run straight, while simultaneously demanding eternal growth. This means it must outsource its decay for as long as possible.” (Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta)
These are theories which to me get at the eternal truth. Everything that lives must die. I don’t know why, that’s just the price tag and you cannot speak to the manager. This seems a general perceptual phenomenon. Anything we perceive or measure seems to fade. I think it’s close to what scientists call entropy and you can observe it for yourself. Tea goes cold, spilt milk doesn’t pick itself up, shit falls apart. You can have all the theories you want, or just look at the back of your eyelids for a while. All is transient and impermanent. This is the highest law.
Civilizations, by definition, must die. Like the border around a picture, ending is what gives them shape, gives them life. In fact, the more glorious the waste products — the more defiantly they scorn death — the more glorious the civilization is. For example, the Indus Valley civilizations aren’t talked about much because they seemed to invest in ‘useful’ public sanitation more than anything else. Meanwhile the civilizations that built the most objectively useless stuff are remembered all over the world.
Today we think ourselves the best civilization ever, and in the wasteful sense we are. We don’t build great monuments (they’re not ‘economic’) but do we waste the entire planet, leaving skid marks of carbon and radioactivity across the fossil record. That in, its macabre way, is our message in stone. Our tombstone. Given that the definition of civilization is waste, we shouldn’t be surprised that the largest, ‘greatest’ civilization is wasting it all.