When We Grow Up

We humans don’t yet know what we’re going to be when we grow up.

In my morning senryu, which I call zentao, I often close with the last line “not civilized yet.” Here’s an example:

We can do better.
We have the tools and knowledge.
Not civilized yet.

A lot of those senryu are written in anger. If we were civilized, this thing wouldn’t happen. Or we know better than this; we could be civilized.

This is rooted in an idea I’ve had for many years that every established group of people – particularly the wealthy ones – thinks they are civilized. We are civilized, unlike the people from a thousand, a hundred, fifty years ago.

Or, more dangerously, we are more civilized than those people over there, which often becomes an excuse to kill them.

This is not a popular theory. Once on a science fiction convention panel I suggested we humans weren’t even close to civilized, and got a lot of pushback from everyone else.

Of course, it depends on what you mean by civilized. My own conception of that is long and complex, but the gist of it is a world in which we use what we know and can learn to make good lives for all in sustainable ways.

As we were driving across the country this past week, my sweetheart, having gone down a rabbit hole online based on something we’d noticed, told me that the horse was first domesticated by humans maybe 6,000 years ago.

(My sweetheart also suggests that teenage girls first domesticated the horse. It’s an interesting theory.)

And it suddenly dawned on me – because my mind goes down its own rabbit holes – that human beings are a very young species.

Of course we aren’t civilized. We haven’t been around long enough.

Now we’ve had many glimpses of civilization over the years, many peoples (and individual people) who have showed or suggested how we can live in harmony with our planet and each other.

We have also come up with the idea that human nature is flawed, even terrible, something I don’t accept. Based on my experience of other people, I think most of us are naturally kind and good. Circumstances cause a lot of the evil we blame on human nature.

I’m getting a lot of glimpses these days of how we can work toward a real civilization. My view doesn’t look anything like the AI tech bro “we’re all going to be digital beings” world. It also doesn’t include poverty or destruction of the planet we evolved on.

But I’m also starting to think that, destructive as we humans can be, we need to stop thinking that we’re going to destroy it all. That’s part of the idea that human nature is bad.

It’s a kind of human exceptionalism, if you will. “We have all the power and are so terrible that we will destroy it all.”

(It occurs to me that we’ve invented a lot of gods like that. Another place where attitudes should shift.)

Most people are just trying to get by and deal with the world as they find it. That makes some of us do terrible things, some drink too much and take drugs (both legal and illegal), some just do whatever it takes, some try to fix things. Those trying to fix things keep trying to inspire others, not always successfully.

Some of us have a vision about what civilized human beings might be.

But what I want to suggest here is that we give ourselves a break, that we stop beating up on ourselves so much. I don’t mean quit trying to fix things, but I do mean having more love and respect for ourselves as human beings.

Of course we’re not civilized. We’re a young species.

We might still make it.

3 thoughts on “When We Grow Up

    1. Yeah. I suspect I thought in, oh, 1969, that our generation was going to civilize the world. Now I think it would be great if we became civilized in the next couple of hundred years, but I expect that’s too optimistic. We’re a young species.

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