The Real Path Through History: An Arrow of Progress

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The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, is an example of how humanity’s path through history is marked with forward progress and periods of decline.
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In “The Age of Consequences,” author Courtney White provides an engaging and informative look at our current environmental predicament.

The Earth is approaching a critical environmental juncture. In The Age of Consequences(Counterpoint Press, 2015), author Courtney White explores how the depletion of the five pools of carbon—soil, wood, coal, oil and natural gas—is affecting Earth and its modern-day inhabitants. When these resources go into decline, society will follow. This excerpt, which discusses how civilizations progress forward from simple to complex civilizations, is from Chapter 7, “To Complexity and Beyond.”

A Video Game’s Virtual Path Through History

My son plays a popular civilization-building computer game that fascinates me. Not only is it exciting—going toe-to-toe with Genghis Khan or Napoleon is never dull—it appeals to the archaeologist in me. Build a civilization from scratch? Cool! But there’s another reason I find the game intriguing: it illuminates an important lesson about the Age of Consequences.

You begin the game by selecting a famous empire to command— Babylonian, Greek, Chinese, Roman, Russian, among others. Then you are plopped down in the middle of a vast wilderness circa 4000 B.C. and given the mission to build a mighty civilization. You’d better do it quick too, because as many as a dozen not-so-benevolent computer-generated empire- builders soon will be competing against you. To start, you are given a Settler, a Warrior, and, if you’re lucky, a Scout—and the race through history is on. As you fend off wild animals and barbarians, your villages grow into hamlets which grow into towns and eventually cities. You gain new technologies over time, beginning with mining, agriculture, hunting, animal husbandry, religion, music, and so forth. Eventually, you discover bronze, iron, math, philosophy, oil, steel, capitalism, environmentalism, and computer technology, becoming in the process a great and enduring civilization.

Of course, the real goal of the game is to wage near constant warfare. New technologies mean new weapons and players spend most of their time invading, or repelling, other civilizations. Archers kill enemy spearmen; chariots duke it out with war elephants; knights fight off cavalry; musketmen mow down macemen, and are, in turn, bombed by flying dirigibles, and on and on. Meanwhile, you scramble to keep the burgeoning populace happy by building stadiums, libraries, markets, banks, monuments, courthouses, castles, and theaters in your cities as quickly as possible—while praying that you don’t run out of gold before the peasantry becomes riotous.

Personally, I like the odd quirks of history that take place during a game. While instructing Queen Victoria to build the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for example, don’t be surprised if a machine gun-toting Mayan chief declares war on you. Sometimes, however, the quirks go too far and give the wrong impression to youngsters. It’s disturbing, for instance, when Gandhi declares war on you and invades your territory with his armies, intent on your violent annihilation (seriously, what were the game-makers thinking?). Fortunately, Martin Luther King, Jr. isn’t among the American choices for warlord!

Ultimately, players discover uranium and develop nuclear physics. Soon, they’re shooting nuclear missiles at each other while trying to contain the radioactive fallout from missiles shot at them. All civilizations eventually pass into the future, if they survive nuclear holocaust, and a player wins when he or she is the first to land a colonizing party on a planet near the star Alpha Centauri.


I’ve never made it that far, though my son has. I usually bow out around 1800 AD. This is partly due to my consistently poor performance—I never seem to discover gunpowder before Caesar does or monotheism before Mao—but mostly I quit because I’m dismayed by what’s happened to the virtual planet I share with my fellow civilizations. The place is a mess. The wilderness has been nuked. The cities are cesspools. All the resources have been exploited. And all I do is fight and fight.

Everything has become bewilderingly complex as well.

This isn’t a problem for my son, who has no trouble at all navigating the cascade of new technologies, aggrieved neighbors, sprawling cities, endless trade deals, diverse military units, marauding raiders, sneaky spies, and the occasional natural disaster. I, on the other hand, begin to have trouble distinguishing cannon-wielding Mongolians from grenade-throwing Babylonians from rice-growing Englishmen. As the variables, and the casualties, mount, my brain begins to close its shutters one-by-one, until it finally sends a signal to my finger to click the ‘Play Again’ button. Presto! A crowded, dreary, and war-weary world is suddenly wilderness again.

And all is quiet and simple.

The Arrow of Progress in History

I bring this up because I think this game sends two important messages to young people: first, “Progress” is benevolent and unstoppable, despite occasional setbacks; and second, decline never happens—technologies never have dark sides and civilizations never collapse, despite what actually happened in history.

On the first point, the game’s message is straightforward: Progress is good. History is linear and sequential. Barbarism gives way to sedentism, hunting leads to rocket science, simplicity becomes complexity, wooden clubs become, well, nuclear bombs. There is a rational sequence to history, suggest the game’s designers, and woe to the civilization that doesn’t keep up. If you don’t develop engineering or chemistry before a rival does, you might be invaded by an army of tank-driving Zulu warriors. And don’t forget, the final frontier is space exploration. The race to Alpha Centauri is on!

In other words, the game reinforces our culture’s long-standing paradigmatic belief in the inevitability of “Progress.” In the computer game, the arrow of growth and development always points upward. New technology follows new technology, allowing cities to grow, empires to expand, and the rabble to be quieted with sports and art. While the arrow of Progress might falter once in a while, due to a shortage of gold, say, or an invading army, sooner or later Progress returns to its relentless upward path. Order is restored. The next new weapon or technology is only a turn or two away. History marches on, we are taught. Corporatism is as inevitable as bronze-making, the alphabet as inevitable as nuclear weapons.

Speaking of which, my son and I have talked a bit about nuclear war. In the abstract, he understands that the nuclear annihilation of a populous city is normally a bad thing. But, he asks logically, what is he supposed to do when another civilization begins to fire missiles at him? For my son, nuclear weapons are ‘just’ another technology, to be discarded when something bigger and badder comes along. We have also talked about what appears to be the game’s core message: that history is the sum of new technologies, with a lot of fighting in between. He doesn’t see this as a problem, of course. As he views it, the next step up the ladder of Progress takes his civilization to a higher, better place. If Progress has a down side, it isn’t obvious to him, unless it means getting defeated by a nuclear-armed Gandhi.

I have tried to explain to him that in the non-virtual universe—i.e., the real world—Progress isn’t so simple or benign (or fun). Progress has consequences, some good, some bad. The invention of the light bulb was a good thing, but not radioactive fallout. Or slavery. Or colonialism. Or famine. Or climate change. Or global financial meltdown.

He gets it. However, this conversation doesn’t last very long, as you can imagine. No wonder the virtual universe has such appeal to kids these days.

Still, this game isn’t helping. While it teaches some useful history lessons and encourages kids to think about the process by which cultures evolve over time, it sidesteps the darker costs of growth and development. This isn’t a surprise, of course, because it mirrors a general trend in our society. We adults don’t like to contemplate the downside of Progress much either—an avoidance reflex aided immensely by Industry (including the computer game industry) which likes to distract us from the negative consequences of their actions. Pollution? Biodiversity loss? Resource depletion? Haves vs. Have Nots? Come on, forget that stuff! Let’s play a game instead—but watch out for Greeks bearing Gatling guns!

Which leads to my second point: there is no such thing as ‘decline’ in these virtual civilizations. There are no limits to their growth, for example. Natural resources are never exhausted, soil never erodes, climate never changes, corruption never happens, revolutions never take down governments, the social order never breaks up, and so on. Civilizations, in other words, never collapse, despite what actually happened to the Babylonians, Persians, Mayans, Romans, and Mongolians. Empires never really decline either—unless they are beaten in battle. Take the actual English empire, for instance. Except for those rebellious Americans, it won every major war. But its empire dissolved anyway, causing England to decline precipitously as a world power. I know this makes depressing material for a software game—who, after all, would want to play a game called Collapse? Well, some would, I suppose. In the real world, however, it is something to think about.

The Rise and Fall of Civilizations

We need to consider the role of complexity in the rise and fall of civilizations. In my son’s game, every civilization becomes increasingly diverse and complicated over time, so much so that I usually bail out soon after the development of ‘Interchangeable Parts’ or ‘Bureaucracy’ or after my medieval knights have all been cut down by a squad of steel-plated tanks. With each turn, the world adds a new layer of complexity—but without the downsides, as I noted. I can’t even imagine that level of complexity. What would players do if they had to contend with toxic waste, child labor laws, droughts, unemployment lines, lawsuits, epidemics, bad television, banker greed, and so forth? Of course, these conditions are exactly what non-virtual civilizations have to confront on a regular basis. The light and dark aspects of complexity—light bulbs and radioactive fallout—with all of their consequences are what can make or break a real civilization.

Including ours.

However, one difference that I see between us and, say, the Romans is the pile of technological choices we have. Thanks to the Scientific Method—one of the game’s stages of development—we have the possibility of ‘high-teching’ our way out of serious trouble that previous civilizations lacked. Science also enables us to see the trouble coming in the first place, such as climate change. Whether we act on this foresight by changing our behavior or developing effective high-tech strategies remains to be seen, however. Either way, the future promises to become even more complex, whether we like it or not.

This isn’t a problem for my son, or for his friends. A pile of new technologies doesn’t bother them at all—in fact, they see it as normal. Perhaps this is a hopeful sign. Increased complexity requires increased skills; if we’re going to ‘high-tech’ our way out of our problems, then we’ll need young people versed in the mysterious ways of Progress. In this way, I suppose, my son’s game is useful. What it teaches him about rising levels of complexity and their consequences (pro and con) can be seen as part of a training program for the future. He’ll have a skill set that I can’t even imagine, which is a good thing.

However, the real world is not a game. We can’t hit the ‘Play Again’ button if events take a nasty turn. We can’t “save” this moment in time and come back to it later if things don’t turn out the way we like. We don’t get “extra” lives or “free” energy sources to use when we want. Instead, we have history lessons that we can choose to heed or ignore as we please. We have human ingenuity at our disposal, to use wisely or not. We have music, art, muscles, compassion, ethics, and faith—in addition to technology—to solve problems and give us hope. But will we use them?

That is the question.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope, by Courtney White and published by Counterpoint Press, 2015.

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