CIVILIZED TO DEATH by Christopher Ryan


The Price of Progress
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Hunter-gatherers were happier, wiser, and healthier than we are.

Journalist Ryan (co-author: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, 2010), host of the podcast Tangentially Speaking, is convinced that the idea of progress is insidious propaganda propelling the world to economic, ecological, and political collapse. “Every day,” he asserts, in one of his many broad generalizations, “more people conclude that the approach to life promoted by the central myths of civilization are generating loneliness, confusion, anxiety, and despair for many of us.” Most people, he claims, are unhappy, working in jobs they hate, eating food that has been leached of nutrition, living in overcrowded cities where they are cut off from nature and from one another, and suffering from diseases that “are by-products of civilization itself”—not only scourges such as tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, and influenza, but also tooth decay, constipation, hemorrhoids, depression, gout, “coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer, autoimmune disease, and osteoporosis.” To counter what the author sees as the mistaken Narrative of “Perpetual Progress,” he recommends looking closely at how our distant ancestors lived. Drawing on a diverse mix of academic and popular science, Ryan concludes that all hunter-gatherers lived “in strikingly similar ways.” They were “fiercely egalitarian,” had free mobility to “easily walk away from uncomfortable situations,” and saw themselves “as the fortunate recipients of a generous environment and benevolent spirit world.” They happily shared property, had access to all they needed, did not discriminate on the basis of gender, and eased their way to death by imbibing psychedelics. Their downfall came from farming. Once they adopted agriculture, their social structure changed, becoming hierarchical, competitive, and overpopulated. “Measures of health, longevity, security, and leisure all declined for almost everyone,” writes the author, including the elites. Ryan’s solution to the chaos of contemporary life is simple and simplistic: to bring “hunter-gatherer thinking into our modern lives” by forming “horizontally organized collectives,” using “nonpolluting locally generated energy,” and offering “a global guaranteed basic income that incentivizes not having children.”

A nostalgic portrayal of the prehistoric world with little relevance for our current era.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-4516-5910-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Avid Reader Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2019