The term civilization entered the English language sometime during the mid-18th century and originally meant “the process of bringing people out of their savage and uneducated states.” In the preimperialistic age of exploration, it was common to think of people living in less developed lands as barbarians. But 18th-century social theory held that civilization was the optimum condition for mankind, and only civilized people could know what it means to be civilized.
While a common term in this context, “civilization” implies a certain level of sophistication, Sen argues that a civilization’s degree of development is not enough to define it. The term has become overused today as a narrow-minded way to describe a civilization’s characteristics. In its modern context, however, it can be a useful term, as it helps us better understand civilization. However, the concept of civilization has its drawbacks.
The development of agriculture required dependable water supplies. In early civilizations, this water supply came from rivers or streams. And the rulers claimed to be gods. As a result, societies grew along rivers. Later communities developed by taking advantage of rainy seasons. As these societies became more advanced, they developed their own religions. They replaced animal-skin gourds with heavy pottery and began to make cloth from wool. The construction of permanent structures was made possible through the use of wood.
Ancient societies first developed in the Middle East and the Indus valley region in the current countries of India and Pakistan. Other civilizations developed in the Aegean Sea, Central America, and the Huang He Valley in China. They developed complex social structures, built cities, invented writing, used metals, and domesticated animals. Eventually, they developed complex structures and class systems. The concept of civilization also became widely accepted in Western thought. The definition of civilization has become so broad and complex that scholars have even started to debate its true meaning.
The development of a civilization is based on the amount of energy that it consumes, and the density of its population. If human populations continue to grow beyond the resources available to sustain a civilization, it will soon reach its saturation point. Further complexity would produce negative returns and the state would eventually devolve. Furthermore, civilizations that advanced beyond this limit would be in danger of being extinct. In addition, many societies developed in ways that affected the environment or threatened their very existence.
Western civilization was originally intended to serve as a social operating system, with individual states having the power to absorb and concentrate other societies’ wealth. As civilization-states developed, social life became more complex, myths developed, and the arts thrived. The process of civilization had to be painful for European politicians, who continue to claim that Europe is the best place to live. Increasingly, European politics has become a contest between winners and losers. By this measure, the United States is close to becoming a civilization-state.
In addition to the decline of civilizations, technological advances have also contributed to their decline. A study of civilizations by the cultural critic Arnold J. Toynbee suggested that war-making was one of the key elements of civilization making, and that more technological advances had only increased the risk of war. The relationship between war and civilization is highly complex and can be destructive, as any of these factors can degrade the human race. If wars continue, the human race can face a very challenging future.