This City has failed you

I used to watch a lot of TV shows that I discontinued because of the amount of violence they portray. One of these shows was the Arrow. Within this show of superheros the main character (Oliver Queen aka The Arrow) has this very famous quote which he uses to justify his actions. Murder, vengeance and ‘justice’ get explained away by this simple statement:

“You have failed this city!”

Which has been a lot on my mind lately – which is quite ironic given my current perspective. Which makes me think that in truth it is very much the other way around: This City has failed you!

Within our current Western culture we tend to equate ‘city’ in our mind with concepts of ‘community’, ‘belonging’ and ‘culture’. Some would even describe cities as the apex of human evolution.

While it is true that cities have played a major role in human evolution as melting pots of culture, religion, philosophy and art that is only part of the picture. There is more to them that I think we need to look at.

Prehistoric cave wall art before the beginnings of civilizationHistorically speaking the emergence of human cities on this planet towards the end of the neolithic period (at least in Eurasia) was not really the best thing that could have happened for humanity. While the earliest city structures hint at early humans living in egalitarian communities who were intimately connected to the land they were inhabiting (and part of) that quickly changed.

Human social structure changed with the growth of agriculture which was a result of the high concentration of people in cities which needed to be fed. Traditional ways of living like small scale farming in combination with hunting and gathering were no longer a sustainable option. Instead over time grains and legumes became our primary food sources along with domesticated animals (a trend which continues today with modern mass-scale farming).

overgrown rocks with a sign saying privateThese new food sources and the huge amounts in which they could be grown made it necessary to guard and regulate them. Therefore cities not only brought forth a broader variety and bigger amount of art and things produced for entertainment. They also brought forth a ruling class and a military class (which were sometimes mixed and sometimes separated). Why? Because someone was needed to regulate (read: own) and guard the storage houses. Therefore it was also the beginning of mass scale private property (like farming lands, palaces and private hunting grounds).

Many also argue that cities brought forth patriarchy/sexism along the practice of inheriting the name and property via the father with sons becoming the primary or only heirs (patrilineality). Sons who then have to reproduce male heirs with their exclusive wife (or wives) in order to pass on that property (which is the beginning of state-regulated marriage, enforced monogamy, the concept of ‘virgin brides’ and which potentially also contributed to the formation of homophobia and transphobia in some places).

We have learned that the ancient city states were the beginning of human civilization and that is true, but we have to understand that ‘civilization’ literally just means ‘of the city’. It is not actually saying that ‘civilized’ people and cultures are ‘better’ or ‘more advanced’. It just means that people have become ‘civil’ by living in cities AND have submitted to the laws of the city.

I already described that the ‘laws of the city’ include class segregation, hierarchical power structures and private property (the shadow side of which is poverty). Very early on they also included slavery and racism.

Police and violence as enforcers of civilizationThese ‘laws of the city’ might have originated with necessity (someone needs to feed and organize all these people suddenly piling up in one place), but they were expanded and build upon by the ruling classes and then enforced by the military/warrior classes. Therefore it’s not surprising really to learn that the words ‘politician’ and ‘police’ both originate with the Greek word ‘polis’ which also translates as ‘city’.

As a sidenote:
Books have been written about how the ‘city lifestyle’ (primarily for the working class) also fundamentally reduced our health, resilience and even brain size (the most famous of which might be Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter). Which is part of the original research behind the whole Paleo diet(s) and rewilding movement.

My conclusion for this post?

Not only has living in cities been bad for our health, but it is also the origin of so many issues in our society which we face today. Sexism, racism, class segregation (the rich ruling the poor) and many more ills of humanity (including environmental destruction and climate change) have either been brought forth by cities to begin with or are heavily supported by them.

Civilization itself might actually be the root of our problems. Which I plan to expand on further in future posts.

(Wanting more right now? Check out Rhyd Wildermuth‘s insightful presentation Witches in a Crumbling Empire.)

civilization in form of a city has taken over the land with no tree in sight