Characteristics of an Unhealthy Culture


Photo credits, clockwise from upper left:  1. China pollution — Damir Sagoli for Reuters; 2. Trump stormtroopers in Portland — Noah Berger for AP: 3. Garbage-pickers in Lagos — Samantha Appleton, in The New Yorker;  4. Refugees in Greece — Daniel Etter/New York Times/Redux /eyevine:  5. Child labourers in Pennsylvania — Lewis Hine in the National Archives

A while back, Tema Okun published (and continues to curate) a fascinating list of the qualities of a White Supremacist Culture. When I read it, I realized that she was at the same time identifying the characteristics of an unhealthy culture.

If you study past collapsed cultures, they had many of these attributes. Drawing on Tema’s list, here’s my list of the qualities of an unhealthy culture headed for inevitable collapse:

  1. chronic and pervasive physical and emotional stress and anxiety
  2. widespread malnutrition (notably in ‘affluent’ nations), chronic and pervasive physical and emotional illness, and lack of resilience and fitness
  3. prevalence of casteism — control and hoarding of wealth and power by a patriarchy, hierarchy, oligarchy or other unrepresentative, privileged, ‘qualified’, ‘exclusive’ group disconnected from and not responsive or responsible to the rest
  4. widespread use of fear to oppress and suppress people and ideas
  5. prevalence of exceptionalism, arrogance, and failure to appreciate the lessons of history
  6. large-scale infighting and divisiveness among and between groups
  7. extreme disconnection from the land and the more-than-human world
  8. rabid individualism — belief that our success or failure is up to us, not dependent on others, and that the individual, not the community, bears ultimate responsibility
  9. a mentality of scarcity, and creating scarcity artificially through inequality to enforce obedience
  10. prevalence of simplistic, absolutist, binary, “one-right-way” thinking
  11. high level of change resistance, and nostalgia for what never was
  12. belief that more is always better, and growth is always good, regardless of cost
  13. intolerance for conflicting or uncomfortable ideas and beliefs
  14. perfectionism — criticizing rather than learning from mistakes, averseness to risk-taking, experimentation and innovation in favour of conservatism and incrementalism
  15. predominant short-termism, prioritizing the urgent, and never allowing time for reflection, listening and true dialogue before decision-making
  16. defensiveness and/or denial of the truth in the face of a compelling preponderance of evidence
  17. a competitive, adversarial zero-sum game mentality rather than one of collaboration and sharing
  18. lack of coherent values — a preoccupation with what is easily measurable over what is actually important
  19. lack of a cohesive, articulate and inclusive story of the culture, employing instead an ideology, a false myth, or an antagonism (what the culture is against rather than what it is for)
  20. rampant and unrealistic future-oriented idealism (eg about space travel, perpetual life, techno-utopias, ‘perfect’ markets, or infinite growth)
  21. endless civil, cultural, genocidal, resource- and land-driven wars
  22. reliance on propaganda, censorship, and disinformation to suppress civil disobedience

Looking at our current civilization culture, the diagnosis would appear to be grim.

How did we get to this stage? My sense is that our collective conditioning over the past few millennia has inevitably led to this, the result of billions of people doing their best to make things better for themselves and those they love. We can rant and rave all we want about all of these emergent, unhealthy qualities of our civilization, but it’s sheer hubris to think we can ‘reform’ it.

This hasn’t happened because we were stupid, or evil, or allowed evil people to come into power. The human experiment on this planet has been a fascinating one, but we didn’t do anything wrong. The way it, and we, have evolved couldn’t have taken any other course. All systems, and all civilizations, do and must eventually crash, despite what those espousing the myth of progress would like us to believe.

This — the way we live now — isn’t how humans, or any creatures, are meant to live. When I say ‘meant’ I’m referring to how we are biologically made up. Like our cousins the bonobos, we emerged as a species suited to a slow, peaceful, low-stress, uncrowded existence. For whatever reason, probably involuntarily, we migrated to very different, hostile environments, and used our large mental capacity to try to control and manage in these new environments. But the systems we created to do this controlling and managing were maladaptive and unnatural, and they have been continually and inevitably coming apart since we created them. And now, as David Ehrenfeld predicted, they are collapsing on a massive scale.

These systems, and this civilization culture, no longer serve us. We are right to be fearful of the struggle and hardship that collapse is already starting to impose on many of us, but we should not mourn this culture’s collapse.

We cannot know whether there will be any human survivors as this collapse accelerates through the rest of the century. But just as our species’ emergence came about as an accident — the aftermath of the fifth great extinction 65 million years ago — we cannot even guess what will emerge from the current sixth great extinction, the one our species, in its ‘wisdom’, unleashed a mere blink in time ago. All we can know is that, if future cultures have many of the characteristics of the list above, nature will not allow them to continue for long.


Thanks to Kavana Tree Bressen for pointing me to Tema’s site.

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4 Responses to Characteristics of an Unhealthy Culture

  1. Ray says:

    Things indeed are what they are.
    Nobody in control.
    Just evolved structures for dissipation of energy. Human industrial civilization is a one-way ticket, just like anything else, when energy is running low and/or system constraints become too severe.

  2. Joe Clarkson says:

    I think the key word in your post is “maladaptive”, which makes sense when viewing “unhealthy” through an evolutionary lens. Survival is also a fairly objective criterion for evaluating a culture’s success.

    But that means that many of your listed criteria aren’t really culture killers. I can see how malnutrition, stress and war can lead to cultural collapse, but many of your listings have many historical precidents in long-lived cultures.

    “Caste” has been around forever and despite its repugnant nature to modern sensibilities, it hasn’t done much to undermine the cultures in which its found.

    “Perfectionism” has been a pervasive component of many long-lived cultures, particularly in Asia. Your recent post even talked about the fine line between too little striving for perfection and too much.

    Many indigenous cultures have persisted for milennia despite having numerous attributes that you list, including 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13.

    I think it’s important not to conflate “what I find distasteful” with “unhealthy” and to appreciate the importance of cultural relativism. Lack of food or lack of energy can indeed kill a culture. Lack of enlightened attitudes never has. A culture can be internally and externally brutal and still last a long, long time.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Ray.

    Joe, yes, thanks, I think that’s a fair assessment. Since reading The Dawn of Everything I’ve shifted my views of how indigenous cultures might have lived and thrived, but we weren’t there, so you may be right. My benchmark is more the bonobos than any ‘recent’ (past ten millennia) human cultures. We tend to anthropomorphize things like hierarchy and caste in non-human species, and there’s some evidence that our toxic caste system is unique and emerged out of chronic scarcity and an attempt to scale things that just don’t scale.

    I’ve been reading about the ‘perfectionism’ of the Japanese, and their capacity to balance it with an enormous appreciation for the imperfection and ephemerality of all things. Seems not to translate well to western cultures though.

  4. What would be a list of characteristics of a healthy culture?

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