Cultures and conflicts of human societies



Nature and civilization

Nature is pre-existing to culture, which manifests itself only with the appearance of the first human societies. Today we live in a heavily anthropized planet, but we can still imagine how the world could be three or four million years ago, before the ancestors of man appeared. That planet existed and hosted a wide variety of living forms. Today there are very few areas on Earth that are not influenced by human presence, apart from inhospitable sites such as deserts and Antarctica: by observing what happens in those areas, we can have an idea of the appearance of the natural world and of the behavior of the living forms in the absence of man and civilization. We use the term civilization to indicate an advanced culture that involves a significant number of humans for a long historical period. Moreover, we associate to it the creation of a set of buildings and works, a complex and differentiated social organization, and a form of transmission of information by writing or by other means. We are then inclined to think that the civilization par excellence is our present western civilization, strengthened by the achievements of scientific knowledge, by technology and by the processing activities carried on through industry and work. But in the world there are, even today, different cultures, and so many others have existed in the past: each of them had and has a meaning and a huge value for those who are part of it. 

A culture establishes itself first of all through the transmission of an ensemble of knowledge and rules – concerning the world, the human life and the social behavior – to the new members (the children), brought up by those who are already integrated into that culture, that is parents, teachers, authorities and others belonging to the social entourage to which the new member is part. The childrens' psyche is thus programmed: information about the world is given to the new members, as well as the instructions necessary to grow and live within the culture that raised them, in relation to the environment in which that culture developed. Within a culture, every human being experiences an inner life that can be very different from one individual to another and that determines, among other things, the degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with which life is experienced. Thus every culture can have a twofold aspect: in relation to its objective and evident manifestations there are the technological achievements, buildings, works, documents, ceremonies, rituals, in addition to the power to subdue and expand, whilst within the interior life of its members there is a range of feelings and emotions that goes from enthusiasm towards life, happily lived, to dissatisfaction, depression and suffering. And not infrequently in the temporal development of a person's life these dynamics of the psyche manifest themselves in alternating phases, in relation to the vicissitudes experienced.

Human cultures arise from the psyche

Today, we humans are so accustomed and integrated into our social and cultural life to even feel as natural the human need to join in cultural societies. It is not so: the human need to associate and create culture exists, of course, but originates from the psyche, not from nature. At present, over eight billion human beings live on this planet. To feed such a large number of people, it is necessary to transform a good part of the Earth's land into a soil that can be used for farming and animal husbandry. This transformation has always been felt by the cultures based on the respect for nature and its sacredness as a desecration, and in fact the natural balance must be altered to ensure the reproduction and maintenance of an ever increasing number of human beings. The American Indians, for example, were shocked by the incredible amount of white men pouring into their territories.

We Westerners are fascinated by the conquests of our civilization and the dominant role that has allowed us to prevail almost on the whole planet. We do not believe that ours is a culture among others, with the same level of dignity, but the culture par excellence, the one who has won – with its strength, its energy, and the commitment and intelligence of its members – the right to rule the whole human race, and to use and control all the resources of the planet. Those living in different cultures, however, did not always look at ours with a benevolent eye, although their criticisms were often interpreted (not without some reason) as a symptom of their cultural inferiority. Certainly our civilization has endowed us with enormous technological power and a lot of knowledge that allows us to make the most of the natural resources. This is the purpose for which our culture educates and trains its members, and, on the other hand, history seems to be on its side, at least until now. However, there are other needs, also important for a human being, that are not properly met. First of all, there is no freedom in our choice of joining or not a culture: for the fact that we have been bred and educated in it, we have to commit ourselves to respecting a contract whose clauses we have not been consulted on. It is very difficult to escape the dominion of the culture of origin, either because we have been brought up and conditioned according to its rules, or because non-adaptation involves marginalization in the urban or extra-urban wilderness, a condition that is not quite enticing.

Conflict between nature and civilization

Our culture maintains that emancipating human beings from the state of nature represents a great advantage for them, as natural life entails a number of discomforts and dangers that produce nothing but suffering and pain. There is no doubt that in nature the fate of so many individuals is subject to suffering, which is caused by traumatic incidents, lack of vital resources, illnesses, struggles and conflicts between one species and the other, or even inside the same species. As we have seen, the creative forces at work on Earth do not reflect a harmonious order, a choral scheme in which every individual agrees with the whole, but rather conflicting and competitive dynamics where, apparently, there is room for everyone, but the success of one involves a price to pay for someone else. It is also true that often the wild or primitive populations have opposed a strenuous resistance to the prospect of changing their condition with ours. One can say that this depends on the difficulty, for people brought up in a culture (whatever it is), to adapt to a culture different from their own. However, the fact remains that many of those people who lived in a condition of balance with nature did not show a level of suffering and pain higher than ours. Christopher Columbus, in a letter sent to the king and queen of Spain, so described the Tainos, natives of the island of San Salvador: «These people are so docile and so peaceful that I swear to your Majesties that there is no better nation in the world. They love their neighbors as themselves, and their speeches are always gentle and kind, and accompanied by a smile; and though it is true that they are naked, their behavior is decent and praiseworthy». Tainos, a population of hundreds of thousands of individuals at the time of the discovery of America, were very hospitable and friendly with Europeans: as a result, in the next ten years they were completely exterminated or reduced to slavery.

Conflicts between different cultures

If someone were to argue that the need to expand and dominate is intrinsic to any form of human culture, we might answer that dominant cultures have always overwhelmed by force the milder ones. We have a recent historical example of overwhelming in the conquest by settlers of European ancestry of the vast territory inhabited by the American Indians. Of the various populations and tribes, some were warlike, others more mild and peaceful, but the concept of conquest and territorial property was unknown to the prairie Indians of North America, who considered the earth as the common mother of all living beings. Instead, the expansive European culture of the American colonists pushed them to take control of the Indian territories, relegating the natives to increasingly limited and resource-free reserves. Indians' population density was much lower than that of the American settlers, as their model of life was based on the recognition of the importance of balance between the resources offered by Nature and the number of human beings that can use them.

The limits of our civilization

For what concerns health, inner equilibrium of the psyche and serenity, we can not say that our culture is able to fully meet our needs. It is true that the number of inhabitants of this planet in the last century has increased sixfold, and that our organization and our tools allow us to meet – with considerable drainage of natural resources – the needs of food of a great number of human beings. But all these people are increasingly dependent on the social structures they live in, and less and less in relationship and in balance with nature: from human beings, they are progressively transforming into masses of human material. A product of our not so distant past are also wars and mass exterminations, forced labor and other forms of slavery and exploitation, more or less disguised, while even today the necessary commitment to technological development and the economic competition require a lot of human energies: our smart consciousness can perceive with sufficient clarity that the purpose of this cultural process is not the personal evolution of the human being, nor its inner equilibrium, nor its happiness.

As for social harmony, justice and love for our fellow men, one can not say that our civilization presents a positive balance. Representatives of the institutions and those who determine and condition the cultural trends make constant statements of principle, full of good intentions, whose implementation is made difficult (if not impossible) by the same contradictions that our human condition and the cultural programs impose upon us, and the poor disposition of those who, based on social rules, conquer and hold power. The failures of these good intentions can be attributed to the unreliability and the conflict of the human psyche – with reference also to that part of our animal heritage that opposes resistance to be governed by the rules of civilization – due to the fact that, if life is represented as competition and struggle for success, it will inevitably enhance those resources that allow an individual to compete and win, regardless of the means used. We then see how our culture presents some very disconcerting aspects: on the one hand, it limits our freedom and promotes competition through the growth of human material; on the other hand, it is unable to satisfy the deepest aspirations of the human being, and attributes this failure to the world of nature and to our animal heritage. The main leverage by which our culture influences us is the worry: we are constantly concerned about the consequences of our choices and about our lack of personal resources, and in this way we are more and more indissolubly bound to social interactions.

As we have already noted, we human beings bred in Western culture are proud of our knowledge and technological achievements, through which we can fulfill our desires with the abundance of consumer goods and food resources. For this reason, cultures and knowledge such as those of the American Indians are often regarded by our psyche as beautiful and poetic, but also – in a sense – childish and naive, and therefore loser, because they are not adequate to the needs of a technological civilization. Never ever, in fact, those populations would have been able to produce the machines, buildings, and instruments we have. This can not be denied, but even if we wanted to mark it on the assets of our civilization, the drawback would be a long list of misdeeds, and even massacres, through which other different cultures were decimated. Then there is the harshness of the competition with which the various strategies to fight for success are imposed. So everyone can subscribe the contract with which they declare their satisfaction with being a member of a certain civilization or a certain social system, provided they are clear about the terms of the contract and what the price to pay is, and they are aware that they have been programmed to comply with these conditions.

The future development of human civilization

This critical assessment of our social culture does not intend to revalue the state of nature, about which we are well aware of the limits, the dangers and the unknowns that it involves for the life of humans, nor does it want to support the possibility of a utopian and paradisiacal culture, for which in our time and in this world there are no environments, no resources and no numbers. History is a complex process that can not be changed arbitrarily, and especially not in a short time or only by good intentions. However, it is necessary to realize that human sociocultural systems do not depend on our natural heritage, but mostly on other forces that manifest themselves through the human psyche. The tensions that humankind will have to face in the future will be very strong, despite the power of our technology: the tension within large social organizations is likely to increase, both because of the migratory flows of miserable people who will seek to reach the territories of the wealthiest nations, and for the loss of prestige and authority of the institutions, which will no longer be able to present citizens with an active assesment of their government role. The wealthy will do everything to try to defend their property, but the masses of the poor and the dropouts will increase. The myth of social progress and collective well-being, on which Western culture has so far established its supremacy, is close to sunset: in its place only the fear of the worst remains.

Mechanistic evaluation of natural phenomena

Moreover, in our time there is a subtle fear that nature may awaken from a kind of long sleep, and may manifest itself to the human psyche through an autonomous reaction, no longer passively acquiescent to man's action. It is as if the human psyche considered nature as a sleeping beauty, which leaves humans to do what they want, indifferent to the consequences of their actions, so much as to doubt of the existence of her autonomous ability to react. In her unconscious state, nature does not feel responsible for the fate of the creatures she creates, and therefore we attribute an absolute fortuity to the natural events that have an influence on the life of all creatures: winds, rains, droughts, earthquakes, seem to us entirely mechanical phenomena, devoid of any form of intentional control. Although we define them as natural phenomena, our culture does not recognize any awareness to nature, nor any will, but considers what happens in the natural world as the result of purely mechanical, automatic and, in their complexity, almost chaotic laws. We are so persuaded of the absolute lack of any form of natural awareness that it seems to us to be an absurd foolish attempt to ask the Earth to make rain or bring good weather, as do certain shamans belonging to primitive cultures (sometimes successfully). Our psyche rejects this possibility, even though there are people culturally willing to pray to the saints for some miracle.

Limits of the representation of nature produced by our culture

Yet if we were able to perceive a form of consciousness in nature, if we could sense her identity as a creator and a Great Mother, would it seem culturally so absurd to try to communicate with her, to establish a tuning between our consciousness and her, also to ask for what we need? Nature seems to sleep, absent, inert, insensitive and indifferent to everything, despite every day thousands of children die of hunger, the lives of hundreds of millions of people drag on between hardship and suffering, and natural disasters destroy territories, crops and populations. And our culture, our psyche, has a good game in representing nature as hostile, and convincing us that all we can do is defend ourselves by working, putting our energies in common, using the technological resources to deforest new territories, making the ones that are already available more productive, and changing the natural balance to our advantage. Thus, despite the millions of humans who die prematurely, the total population on this planet continues to grow and the pressure on the limited resources of the planet increases more and more.

The love and sympathy that we feel toward all living creatures, and above all toward human beings, make this picture really unpleasant and disheartening, not only because each of us could be among the potential victims of this uncertain future, but also because it is hard to notice that the myth of progress, in which many generations have believed and for which they have worked, breaks against something that had not been foreseen. The most understandable reaction is to think that the picture presented here is inspired not by a lucid analysis but only by an absolute pessimism, so we prefer to believe that organizations, scientists, and rulers will be able to find remedies for solving the immediate and future problems of humankind, despite the increase in population and the drainage of natural resources. Moreover, why should nature not continue to be acquiescent, passive and mechanical, at the disposal of man's resources and will, as has happened up to now? The reason might be in the human critical mass. Earth is a vast but finite planet, so it can not bear a continuous growth of the human mass. We do not know exactly what the limit of this mass is, and we can believe that it is even greater than the present one. But, as I've already said, in the last century humanity has grown sixfold, and in the last thirty years it has doubled: maybe that the critical mass has been reached, and that the intensity of the consciousness of such a large quantity of human beings with their miseries, their tribulations, their sufferings and their activities is awakening something in the natural processes which are the basis of the very existence of our organisms. We will see what the future holds for us.


Origin of life
Evolution of life
Societies & cultures
Complex societies