Thursday, August 16, 2007

The difference between barbarism and civilization

For years now I have been taking part in a large medieval re-creation event in August. The event itself features mock medieval combat, archery, singing, dancing and partying, some of it not particularly medieval in inspiration. Most people who take part camp for a week or two at the site, and I have often found that situation inspires interesting thoughts. Living essentially outdoors for two weeks, with little communication with the outside world (though it is available if you need or like) is a fascinating and perspective-restoring exercise. Me, I'm basically illiterate for the whole period.

Since I and my friends camp together every year, we've acquired portable versions of what we consider necessities: a back-up water filter, a hot water heater scavenged from an old RV, a camp shower, and a kitchen sink with hot and cold taps. These are set up and taken down every summer.

Note that my necessities all come down to safe, easily available water? The year we got the shower setup my campmates were delirious with joy. I sure appreciated it, too, but the kitchen sink and taps meant more to me. The first time I turned on a kitchen tap and got good water I knew, instantly, that this was the difference between barbarism and civilization. Nice to have a shower. Far more important to be able to clean one's hands any time, and to be sure that kitchen utensils and dishes were always clean.

That moment of insight was a decade or so ago, and its rightness has become clearer to me as time has passed. Clean water available to everyone in a community is civilization; it means the community has certain technical capabilities, and is devoting its resources to the common good in a basic way. Furthermore, the predators and parasites who in so many places and times have prevented that allocation of resources are not in control.

We human beings of planet Earth have the capability to be civilized now. There can be no doubt that we are smart enough and rich enough. But we have yet to attain civilization.

a locked water tap in Kenya, from an Oxfam UK site.


  1. It has been argued that Civil Engineers (with support of city politicians) have done more to save lives through clean water and toilet sanitation that Doctors with their various medicines over the past few hundred years of modern medicine.
    When I built the RV heater shower arrangement in 1999 (I think that is right) the kitchen sink was a second thought. I nominally built it to make it easier for our cooks et al to more easily feed us. The real reason was so that I could wash my face and hands and brush my teeth first thing in the morning things that important to my happiness. I'm happy to read that a Man smarter than me thinks the same way.

    "Far more important to be able to clean one's hands any time, "