Suboptimal Civilizations

While we probably tend to think about the origins of civilization or civilizations as they flourish, thinking about civilization also entails thinking about compromised forms of civilization as well as the end of civilization. Ideally, a comprehensive theory of civilization would be able to account for both civilizations that flourish and prosper as well as those that fail to flourish, and which stagnate, decline, or disappear, or which develop in an undesirable direction (the existential risk of flawed realization). One can think of stagnation and decline as selective or partial collapse; contrariwise, civilizational collapse can be understood as the totality of stagnation or decline (the fulfillment of decline, if you will, which shows that not only progress but also decay can be formulated in teleological terms).

In what follows I will adopt the term “suboptimal civilizations” to indicate those civilizations that have weathered existential threats and which have not gone extinct, but have continued in existence, albeit in a flawed, damaged, deformed, or otherwise compromised form due to being subject to stresses beyond that civilization’s level of resilience. A suboptimal civilization, then, is a civilization that has fallen prey to existential risk or risks, but is still extant.

First, some conceptual clarification: a civilization may become extinct even when the species that produced that civilization has not gone extinct. Thus the extinction of civilizations is a separate and distinct question from that of the extinction of species, including the extinction of an intelligent species that is the progenitor of a civilization or civilizations. However, the extinction of a species is likely to be much more tightly coupled to the extinction of a civilization, though we could construct scenarios in which a civilization is continued by some species, or some agent (which may not be a biological species), other than that which originated a given civilization. Generally speaking, those existential risks that lead to the extinction of a civilization are extinction and subsequent ruination; those existential risks that lead to suboptimal civilizations are stagnation and flawed realization. (A complete account would need to revise this in light of the expected longevity of civilizations, which is something we do not yet know.)

There is a philosophical problem when it comes to judging civilizations of the past that have transitioned into contemporary forms of civilization, losing their identity in the process, but leaving a legacy in the form of a continuing influence. One way to deal with this problem is to distinguish between civilizations that attained maturity and those that did not. Is a civilization that failed to attain maturity because it was preempted by another form of civilization now to be considered extinct? The obvious example that I have in mind, and which I have cited numerous times, is that of early modern European civilization, which I have called modernism without industrialism, which rapidly was transformed by the industrial revolution, which latter preempted the “natural” development of modernity before that modernity had achieved maturity. As yet we have no answers for questions like this; we have to formulate our conceptual framework as we go.

Non-preempted civilizations reach maturity, perhaps by realizing their central project, but there could be many ways to define the maturity of a civilization. I will not attempt at present to define maturity for civilization, but my assumption will be that the maturity of a civilization will have something to do with the bringing to fulfillment of the essential idea or central project of a civilization. I am not prepared to say how the essential idea of a civilization is to be identified, or how it is to be judged to have come to fulfillment, but this should be sufficient to give the reader an intuitive sense of what I have in mind.

The range of suboptimal civilizations, including those trapped in the social equivalent of neurotic misery, might be quite considerable. Toynbee formulated a range of concepts to understand suboptimal civilizations, including abortive civilizations, arrested civilizations, and fossil civilizations. Extrapolating from Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations, I formulated the idea of submerged civilizations in my post In the Shadow of Civilization, and I often refer to stagnant civilizations (which might be considered roughly equivalent to Toynbee’s arrested civilizations, or perhaps a civilization that is both arrested and a fossil). Another category of suboptimal civilizations would be those exemplifying flawed realization.

Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations are imaginative and poetic, but more qualitative than quantitative conceptions. In order to pursue this in the spirit of science, we would want our comprehensive theory of civilization to incorporate quantifiable metrics for the success or failure of a civilization. At our present stage of social development, it is controversial to compare civilizational traditions and to rate any one tradition as “higher” or “more advanced” than any other tradition (an idea I discussed in Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization), as representatives of those civilizations that rate lower on any proposed scale are offended by the metric employed, and they will usually suggest alternative metrics by which their preferred civilizational tradition fares much better, while the civilizational tradition that fared better under the other metric would not come off as well by this alternative metric. The attempt by the nation-state of Bhutan to measure “gross national happiness,” may be taken as an example of this, although I am not sure that this is a helpful measure.

It would also be desirable in a comprehensive theory of civilization to formulate metrics for the viability or sustainability of a given civilization. In some cases, metrics for the success of civilization might coincide with metrics for the viability of civilization, but the possibility of very long lived civilizations that are less than ideal — suboptimal civilizations — points out the limitations of defining civilizational success in terms of civilizational survival. In some cases viability and optimality will coincide, while in some cases they will not coincide, and suboptimal civilizations that survive existential risks in a compromised form will be an example of such non-coincidence. The survival of a stagnant civilization can be a matter of mere cosmic good fortune, whereby a particular planet enjoys an uncommonly clement cosmic climate for an uncharacteristically long period of time (while other contingent factors may mean that the climate for civilizational development to maturity is not equally clement).

There are many ways to explore the idea of suboptimal civilization; as was observed above, there are many ways for a civilization to languish in suboptimality. Indeed, it may be the case that the essential idea or central project of a civilization has a much smaller class of circumstances in which that idea comes to full fruition and maturity, and a much larger class of circumstances in which that idea fails to mature for any number of distinct reasons, so that suboptimal civilizations are likely to outnumber civilizations that have attained optimality. Straight is the gate and narrow is the way the leadth unto civilizational success, and few there be that find it; failure, on the other hand, is manifold.

There is another philosophical problem, related to the problem noted above, in identifying the continuity of a civilization, so that a later stage of development can be considered the fulfillment, or failure of fulfillment, of some earlier civilizational idea, and not the emergence of a new idea or project not yet brought to fulfillment. I have previously considered this problem in several posts on the invariant properties of civilization. If a civilization emerges that seems to lack heretofore invariant properties of civilization, is it to be identified as a new form of civilization, or as non-civilization? Another way to formulate the problem is to ask whether civilization is an open-textured concept. The problem is posed anew every time an unprecedented development occurs in the history of civilization, so that the problem re-emerges at every stage in the history of a tradition, since the unprecedented is always occurring in one form or another. Let me provide an example of what I mean by this claim.

Imagine, if you will (as a thought experiment), that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose that despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived (that is, the world of modernism without industrialism).

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really part of this tradition. I implied as much recently when I wrote that, “It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.” (cf. Is society existentially dependent upon religion?)

The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity and even have made use of its intellectual gifts without having passed through any stage of large-scale settlement. This is an especially interesting thought experiment when we reflect that the paradigmatically human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization, and might have developed separately from civilization. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology, though this would have taken an order of magnitude longer than it took as a result of the industrial revolution. Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human society that had not adopted large-scale settlement and consequently the institutions of settled civilization.

This ancient human society that had never crossed the threshold of civilization proper — at least in some senses a suboptimal form of social organization, even if not a suboptimal civilization — suggests yet another thought experiment: an ancient civilization that, despite its antiquity, never passes the threshold to become a Kardashevian supercivilization. The motif of a million-year-old civilization is a common one, Kardashev called them “supercivilizations” and Sagan often speculated on their histories, but what about the possibility of a million-year-old civilization that never develops technologically and never experiences an industrial revolution?

If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. This is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past.

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachonic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution, given climatological conditions that allow for continual development, would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there is a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. The human condition need not change appreciably even over very long periods of time. (I have also discussed the possibility of very old non-industrialized civilizations in The Globular Cluster Opportunity and Another Counterfactual Civilization with Science as its Central Project.) One possible outcome of the diachronic extrapolation of very low-growth, slow to change social organization could be that familiar motif of a supercivilization — Sagan’s million-year-old civilizations — but limited to agriculturalism, and never making the breakthrough to industrialization.

A million year old agricultural civilization would probably look much like a 2,000 year old civilization, except that it would have a very long history, which means either a massive archive, if continuity were to be maintained, or a lot of ruins and buried artifacts of the past, if continuity has not been maintained. Would we have anything to learn from a million-year-old civilization that was not a supercivilization? Consider the possibility of art and literature a million years in development — the steady rate at which civilization prior to the industrial revolution produced masterpieces of art suggests that civilization without industrialization would be a very old agrarian civilization that was laden with a million years’ worth of art treasures. In this case a suboptimal civilization would be productive of values that would not and could not be achieved under an optimal civilization, which ought to make us question the optimality of optimal civilization where our presuppositions of optimality are drawn from industrialization.

Plaza de Armas, Lima, Peru

In contradistinction to the idea of a very old non-industrialized civilization, let us also consider the possibility of an industrialized civilization that grows into a Kardashevian supercivilization, and only then stagnates, so that it constitutes a stagnant supercivilization. Suppose, then, that a civilization reached “technological maturity” — however it might be defined — and continued to exist beyond that technological plateau. (Nick Bostrom uses the term “technological maturity” in his definitions of existential risk. For example, in “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” he wrote, “Permanent stagnation is instantiated if humanity survives but never reaches technological maturity.”) In other words, a supercivilization would be technologically stagnant and might remain technologically stagnant for millions of years or billions of years if it survives beyond attaining technological maturity. Is such a civilization even conceivable?

We know nothing about the develolpmental processes of very old or very large civilizations, so that when we attempt to understand supercivilizations it is through extrapolation and analogy (which we know to be imperfect). In regard to the present question of stagnant supercivilizations, the important unknown is the temporal scale of the development of science and technology to maturity in comparison to the temporal scale of the civilization itself. If technological maturity occurs early in the development of a million-year-old supercivilization, then stagnant supercivilizations would be the rule rather than the exception. If technological maturity occurs at about the same time at civilizational maturity, then there is a kind of developmental parallelism that leads to a predictable lifecycle of supercivilizations. If the temporal scale of technological maturity is longer than the the time scale of a supercivilization, then technological maturity does not occur and supercivilization stagnation becomes irrevelant.

Luxor Temple with statues of Ramses in the 1870s.

There is an argument that suggests technological maturity may not be attainable. In so far as a mature technology is predicated upon a mature science, we would assume that a technologically mature civilization would also be a scientifically mature civilization (one of the possible ways of defining a scientific civilization that I formulated in On the Reflexive Self-Awareness of Civilizations). But there is a problem. Science and technology are both implicated in the STEM cycle, along with mathematics and engineering. Would a scientifically mature civilization necessarily be predicated upon a mathematically mature civilization? The problem here is that we know mathematics to be inexhaustible (this is a corollary of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems). Mature technology predicated upon mature science predicated upon mature mathematics cannot occur given that mathematics is inexhaustible. But there are many steps in this argument, and it might break down at any one of these steps. Technological maturity may be attainable without mathematical maturity, in the sense of mathematics being an exhaustive totality of mathematical truths.

So, returning to our supposition that technological maturity may be attainable, and that a civilization could survive post-maturity, would such a civilization find other forms of activity in which accomplishments could continue so that the stagnancy was not total, i.e., so that some form of progress remained, or would this necessarily be John Stuart Mill’s “stationary state” extrapolated to cosmological dimensions?

The Borobudur or Barabudur temple (Java, Indonesia). Ca. 1880.

I have referred to Mill’s “stationary state” in several posts, including The Human Future in Space and Addendum on Technological Unemployment. Here is a passage from Mill on the stationary state:

“I cannot… regard the stationary state of capital and wealth with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by political economists of the old school. I am inclined to believe that it would be, on the whole, a very considerable improvement on our present condition. I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind, or anything but the disagreeable symptoms of one of the phases of industrial progress.” (John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, Chapter VI, “Of the Stationary State”)

I also wrote about Mill’s “stationary state” at some extent in my Political Economy of Globalization, but going back to re-read Mill now I see it in a slightly different light. I will have to come back to this eventually to develop more fully the idea of a stagnant supercivilization as exemplifying Mill’s stationary state extrapolated to cosmological scale. For the moment, let us consider the stationary state as a possibility.

Désiré Charnay, Southern facade of the Fourth Palace, Mitla, Mexico, 1859/1863 | by The Patrick Montgomery Collection

A stagnant supercivilization exemplifying the stationary state would be one possible end state for civilization during the Stelliferous Era, and if this stationary state were stable and sustainable, civilization taking this form could persist until the last stars burned out and the Stelliferous Era came to an end. During this period of stagnancy, nothing essential would change; the only changes forced upon such a stagnant supercivilization would be extrinsic changes due to historical contingencies. As the stars winked out of existence one after the other and the last remnants of civilizations clustered around the remaining stars still burning, life refugees huddled around a campfire, the stagnant supercivilization would turn into a collapsing supercivilization in its death throes. Such a civilization would not be able to make the transition to becoming an Degenerate Era civilization.

This must be the end of all surviving supercivilizations of the Stelliferous Era eventually, except in so far as supercivilizations adapt themselves to become civilizations of the degenerate era. But this scenario as I have sketched it is a limiting case of supercivilization stagnation, and it is possible that supercivilizations stagnant in respect to technological maturity may find other avenues of development, relieving the stagnation with some essential change to the nature of civilization, i.e., some trace of the continual self-transcendence that has been the nature of civilization to date.

In such cases, the end state of a technologically mature supercivilization is, ironically, almost exactly the same as the end state of a million-year-old stagnant agricultural civilization: both possess the wherewithal to adorn themselves with artistic and architectural treasures, which would eventually be forgotten, and eventually superseded by other artistic and architectural treasures, so that there would be a deep stratigraphy of these civilizations, the only difference being the scope of these respective civilizations.

Benjamin Brecknell Turner, Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, North Transept

Another formulation of the problem of stagnant supercivilizations — whether such are possible, and, if they are possible, what they would be like — is possible: given that a civilization is a social institution with an economic infrastructure, an intellectual superstructure, and a central project that integrates infrastructure and superstructure (e.g., in my recent post Eurozone Civilization I amended my working definition of civilization to include the idea of a central project: “… a civilization is an economic infrastructure and an intellectual superstructure joined by a central project”), it follows that a stagnant supercivilization would be a supercivilization with a stagnant central project, rather than an unrealized or unrealizable essential idea or central project. In other words, a civilization might adopt a central project that is, in itself, stagnant, and gives rise to stagnancy in the civilization that adopts this central project.

What could constitute a stagnant central project? How can we differentiate stagnant central projects from central projects that are vital and living? Are central projects ipso facto progressive (or ought they to be)? Does the existence of a central project imply that a civilization has a natural teleology toward which it is converging? Or does not the very idea of a supercivilization point to a civilization that has come to full maturity, i.e., a civilization that has attained its natural teleology, and for which nothing more remains but to bear witness to this accomplishment and to stave off decline and dissolution for as long as possible? In other words, a supercivilization may be a civilization that has exhausted its possibilities and is, by definition, stagnant. With its central project realized, that central project is, at the same time, dead.

This, of course, all depends on how one defines a supercivilization. I believe it was Kardashev who introduced the term “supercivilization” (I don’t know that for certain), and we know that Kardashev defined supercivilizations in terms of their energy resources. Carl Sagan re-cast Kardashev’s civilization types, and often wrote of million-year-old and even billion-year-old civilizations, which might well be considered supercivilizations simply in virtue of their longevity. We have considered this possibility above, in regard to long-lived civilizations that are nevertheless stagnant and technologically underdeveloped.


Carl Sagan often discussed the possibility of very old civilizations in the cosmos, hidden from us by distance or by our ignorance, but which we might someday hope to find by way of SETI initiatives. Here is a passage from Cosmos where he mentions the possibility of a million-year-old civilization:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight?” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”)

While Sagan focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very old, Kardashev focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very large. Kardashev explicitly argued for the existence of civilizations that he called “supercivilizations” that had quite literally grown to astronomical dimensions. Kardashev wrote:

“The scales of activity of any civilization are restricted only by natural and scientific factors… Civilizations have no inner, inherent limitations on the scales of their activities.” (“On the inevitability and the possible structures of supercivilizations,” Nikolai S. Kardashev, in The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: Recent Developments, edited by M. D. Papagiannis, International Astronomical Union, 1985, pp. 497–504.)

These themes occur throughout Kardashev’s writings on supercivilizations, which Kardashev asserted to probably exist and to be detectable by the methods of SETI, if only a SETI project were to focus on supercivilizations:

“Astrophysical research, data from biology and cybernetics, and from other sciences, point to a high probability for the detectability of extraterrestrial civilizations. Currently, what is needed is a fundamental review of our preliminary notions about the possible nature of these civilizations and of the particular method which must be used in the search for them. In my opinion, the only useful concept is the assumption that supercivilizations exist (in particular, also, that our civilization may eventually become a supercivilization).” (“Strategy for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” N. S. KARDASHEV, Institute for Space Research, Academy of Sciences, U.S.S.R., Acta Astronautica, Vol. 6, pp. 33–46, Pergamon Press, 1979)

Ray Norris raises the stakes in his calculation of the age of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations and argues that any exocivilization we might hope to find would be on the order of a billion years old:

“Conventional models imply that supernovae and gamma-ray-bursters will extinguish life on planets at intervals of about 200 Myr. Since this has not happened on Earth, either these conventional models are wrong, or else life on Earth is probably unique in the Galaxy. The first case predicts a median age of ET as being of the order of 1 billion years. The second case predicts that we will never detect ET. Thus, if we do detect ET, the median age is of order 1 billion years. Note that, in this case, the probability of ET being less than one million years older than us is less than 1 part in 1000.” (“HOW OLD IS ET?” Ray P. Norris, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, Acta Astronautica 47:731, 1999.)

For Norris, the idea of a million-year-old supercivilization is a minimum threshold, while the median age for a detectable civilization would be closer to being a billion years old.

The idea of a million- or billion-year-old supercivilization would seem to be the antithesis of a suboptimal civilization, but the consideration of each can help us to refine our conception of the other. If a supercivilization is very old or very large, does this entail that any suboptimal civilization is very young or very small? Given the habitable lifespan of a planet around a stable star, it is possible that even a civilization confined to the surface of a planet (and therefore very small in astronomical terms) could grow very old, perhaps attaining Sagan’s threshold of being a million-year-old civilization. Could we call such a civilization a supercivilization? It would also be possible to define supercivilizations in terms of the volume of space that they occupy, much as we identify a terrestrial superpower in terms of its ability to project power globally. Are there other ways to define a supercivilization? Possibly so.

A supercivilization defined in terms of energy resources, longevity, or spatial extent could be defined as non-stagnant if the defining quantity were non-stagnant, presumably growing (though a declining non-stagnant quantity would presumably define a supercivilization in dissolution). Thus growing energy resources, lengthening history, or increasing spatial extent could all be taken as definitive of a non-stagnant supercivilization. Each of these scenarios constitutes a particular exemplification of the Expansion Hypothesis: expansion in energy, time, or space. But a definition of a supercivilization in terms of a central project allows for the characterization of supercivilizations without implicit reference to any expansion hypothesis. The question is not whether a supercivilization is expanding or shrinking, but whether its central project is vital or moribund, and even, in regard to the latter, in what sense a central project is moribund (essentially so, or only as a matter of historical contingency).

Whether or not the central project of a supercivilization was moribund might be a matter of interpretation. Say that we take as our terrestrial example of a stagnant civilization the Byzantine Empire, which, I have noted elsewhere, has been called, “a machine for getting people into heaven.” Thus the central project of Byzantium was soteriological, and this could be continued indefinitely as long as new souls to be saved were being produced. However, should the Millennium come, the soteriological project would turn into an eschatological project, and, once the eschatological project had come to fruition with the return of Christ, Byzantine civilization would have been over, and replaced by the something much greater, and also different. Thus the central project of Byzantium transcended measures of space, time, and energy and extended throughout a mythological reconstruction of cosmic history. We might interpret this central project either as being vital until the end of the world, or as perpetually moribund, without essential novelty, and it would be relatively easily to imagine a supercivilization parallel to Byzantine civilization.

We need not ask if the central project of a supercivilization, whether vital or stagnant, is anything of interest to human beings, since by the time a supercivilization derived from contemporary terrestrial civilization comes into being, if any such do come into being, humanity will have been long extinct by that time. The question, then, is whether there is any conceivable intelligent agent for which a central project holds any interest. Could a stagnant central project hold the interest of any intelligent agent into the indefinite future? For that matter, could even a vital central project capture the interest of an intelligent agent indefinitely? If a supercivilization ever comes into being, these will be relevant questions for a social order effectively made immortal by technology. It may be impossible for any civilization, whether supercivilization or not, to be anything other than stagnant over the long term, i.e., over cosmologically significant periods of time.

Under conditions of planetary constraint, a sequence of civilizations might arise, come to maturity, and disappear, each in turn fulfilling the essential idea of that particular civilization. This cyclical or sequential vision of civilization is distinct from a million-year-old civilization that is not a supercivilization merely in virtue or remaining “small” (confined to a planetary surface). This is a distinction I failed to make sufficiently clear between civilizational longevity with and without attaining civilizational maturity. Furthermore, a million-year-old civilization might either attain its maturity, establishing itself at a plateau (a high level equilibrium, if you will) at or just past its mature plateau in a state of extended senescence (I can imagine this case being made for Byzantine civilization, so imagine, if you will, a million-year-old Byzantium), or a million-year-old civilization might continue indefinitely in the pursuit of some telos that indefinitely eludes it.

If no catastrophic event brings terrestrial civilization to an end (this does not include predictable change that may well be seen by human beings as catastrophic, but which must be expected over a million year horizon — I am thinking of climate change, inter alia), terrestrial civilization could go on to become a million-year-old civilization (that is not a supercivilization) if it fails to cross the threshold of becoming a demographically significant spacefaring civilization.

If we understand civilization of the third order (see below) to extend from the earliest origins of civilization on Earth to galaxy-spanning Kardashevian supercivilizations, than any civilization we know of occupies a point along this civilizational continuum, and the telos of civilization (and therefore the measure of whether civilization has reached maturity) is a supercivilization. In this sense, any civilization that has not evolved into a supercivilization is a suboptimal civilization.

Tetouan, Morocco, 1920s

However, given my definition of civilization of the third order, no individual civilization would thus attain supercivilization status; only the whole structure of intertwined civilizations (going back ten thousand years to the origins of civilization on our planet) could be said to be a supercivilization (and indeed not only in Kardashev’s sense of the term, but also a “supercivilization” in the sense of being a meta-conception of civilization distinct from any particular civilization). In the case of a supercivilziation of the third order, no individual civilization within that continuum of civilization could be judged as a suboptimal civilization in so far as each contributory civilization is part of a third order supercivilization.

If, on the other hand, we require that a supercivilization be a single, continuously extant individual civilization of great antiquity and achievement, then a supercivilization is a concept of civilization of the second order. In this case, even if an individual civilization were incorporated into a network of related civilizations (just as the civilizations of Earth manifest a reticulate organization) that eventually lasted a million years and attained supercivilization status, that individual civilization that itself failed to ultimately develop into a supercivilization could be said to be a suboptimal civilization. Thus a civilization’s attaining maturity could be a function of its development or of its place within the larger structure of civilizations. Distinctions need to be made to avoid confusion.

Kaiserpfalz Gelnhausen, Germany

We could define the maturity of civilization, a task put off above, in terms of any of the orders of civilization. In Thinking about Civilization I introduced the idea of orders of civilization as follows:

  • Civilization of the Zeroth Order — the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense. Civilization of the zeroth order may involve socioeconomic communities that do not rise to the threshold of civilization.
  • Civilization of the First Order — those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.
  • Civilization of the Second Order — an entire life cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole.
  • Civilization of the Third Order — the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. In other words, civilization of the third order is the life cycle of many civilizations as they overlap and intersect in one grand narrative of civilization.

The final of these ideas above, civilization of the third order, could be further articulated, such that a distinction could be made between multiple regional civilizations on a single given planet, multiple civilizations within a single star system, and multiple civilizations across multiple star systems, and perhaps across multiple galaxies. I will not further develop this at the present time, but based on the orders of civilization as formulated above, the maturity of each conception of civilization can be distinctly defined:

  • Zeroth Order Maturity Mature institutions of hunter-gatherer nomadism.
  • First Order Maturity Mature institutions of large-scale socioeconomic organization, without reference to the stage of development of that civilization on the whole.
  • Second Order Maturity A civilization that has completed its life cycle, including having passed through a stage of fulfillment of its essential idea
  • Third Order Maturity The maturity of the overall structure of civilization, including diachronic and synchronic relations between distinct civilizations, sufficiently developed that all of the essential features of this conception are present.

It is in this final sense of maturity, the maturity of civilization of the third order, that we can speak of all non-supercivilizations as suboptimal civilizations. However, we may wish to make further distinctions. In cases in which a planetary civilization never passes the threshold to a demographically significant spacefaring civilization, and the entirety of civilization originating on such a planet plays itself out on the same planet, there may be predictable patterns of such planetary civilization of the third order, and patterns distinct from spacefaring civilizations of graduated degrees of gravitational thresholds. Thus we might speak of planetary civilizations of the third order, stellar civilizations of the third order, galactic civilizations of the third order, and so on. This clearly implies all of these distinctions also being made for each order of civilization.

Archaeological expedition at Ur of the Chaldees, third season expedition, 1924–25.

Parallel to defining orders of civilizational maturity, we will also want to formulate the orders of supercivilization:

  • Supercivilization of the Zeroth Order A nascent supercivilization, i.e., a civilization on the cusp to developing into a supercivilization. (This could be identified with a Kardashev Type I civilization, but also well beyond Type I, but short of Type II.)
  • Supercivilization of the First Order This is essentially Kardashev’s conception of Type II and Type III civilizations from his 1964 paper, which are judged to be supercivilizations on the basis of a single technological capacity, which is a snapshot of their technology in time, divorced from any conception of civilizational development or evolution.
  • Supercivilization of the Second Order This is the idea of a single civilization possessing a single developmental arc that leads from primitive origins to supercivilization status, in other words, Sagan’s idea of a million-year-old civilization or Norris’ idea of a billion-year-old civilization. Such a civilization might be the source of detectable civilization understood above as a supercivilization of the first order.
  • Supercivilization of the Third Order This is the idea of a network of civilizations that overlap and intersect, with individual civilizations emerging and then disappearing, but with successor civilizations carrying on the tradition and eventually achieving supercivilization status.

Given this sketch of the orders of supercivilization, we would also want to formulate the orders of suboptimal civilizations:

  • Suboptimal Civilization of the Zeroth Order — An intelligent species capable of building a civilization, but which for some reason or another fails to make the breakthrough to large-scale social organization.
  • Suboptimal Civilization of the First Order — A civilization the institutions of which fail to fulfill their intended purpose. This could be a civilization at any stage of development or evolution, and indeed it could pass on to a later developmental stage at which it ceases to be a suboptimal civilization. This could be taken as a description of every civilization on our planet today.
  • Suboptimal Civilization of the Second Order A civilization that has passed through an entire developmental arc and has apparently completed a life cycle (and is possibly extinct) without however having fulfilled or brought to maturity the essential idea or central project that drove its emergence and development.
  • Suboptimal Civilization of the Third Order — A network of related civilizations that fails to exhibit full development of individual civilizations within the structure and which fails to exhibit any evolution of the structure of civilization on the whole. In other words, the rise and fall of a series of civilizations that accomplish nothing individually or collectively.

That is a lot to think over, and as many of these ideas are almost as new to me as they may be to the reader (if the reader has not come to them through his or her own reflections on supercivilizations and suboptimal civilizations), it will take time to assimilate this conceptual framework and to see whether or not it is useful for the analysis of civilization. But I might mention that it is a certain satisfaction for me that the idea of orders of civilization lends itself so well to this extrapolation, which implies that this idea is useful in the exposition of other ideas.

Chicago, Michigan Avenue, 1928

If I can continue to develop these ideas in the light of each other, as is suggested by the above exposition, they will prove themselves useful as analytical tools in the study of civilization.