Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Did Towns Civilise Humans

When we consider the recent terror attacks, the scourge of gang-related knife crime and the higher than average proportion of homelessness in major cities, one has to wonder if urbanisation did indeed civilise humans. There is a theory that the creation of towns, densely populated areas of human interaction by way of trade and skills, was the harbinger of civilisation. Where people of varied backgrounds and cultures came together, a certain liberty also emerged which encouraged the development of trade, religion, philosophy and invention. Those from different tribes found themselves living in harmony within the loosely defined structure of an evolving society.

I agree wholeheartedly with the premise that towns were fuelling demand for all sorts of goods and services and the interaction of people from outside of their micro societies allowed humans to evolve. My argument, as we watch the conflict that urbanisation has created, is if the word 'civilised' is appropriate. The other question I would like to ask is whether agriculture has had a greater impact than urbanisation on civilisation.

I live in the country and therefore am biased against towns. I often long to go to the theatre in London or  just sit at a café in Victoria Station observing all of humanity pass by. But then I go for a walk in the countryside and can think of no place better on earth. In terms of agriculture versus urbanisation, I have been fortunate to observe our village farmer in recent months. This week, for example, the lambs were sent to slaughter. The same lambs I had seen gambol with unrestrained delight in the fields where they lolled about with their mums without a care in the world. In the morning, I would hear the lambs and ewes call out to the farmer as they spied him descending the long hill in his jeep laden with their prepared feed, a supplement to the sweet-tasting Spring grass. The bleating sheep, barking collies together with the incessant sounding of the jeep horn as the farmer attempted not to run over his own animals was the morning cacophony just after my porridge and right before my coffee. As I would walk the dogs I could see in the distance the white dots against the emerald green fields, and now, suddenly, there are fewer dots.

A few weeks ago, the dairy cows were sent out from their winter stables to the open fields. Watching the cows skip along the grass, some hundred of them left me gawping in open-mouthed awe more so as the earth literally did move. One hundred cows weigh one hundred tons so imagine that bouldering past you. I've learned that the best patch of a field to play ball on with the terrier is where the cows have trodden- they helpfully munch the grass right down and flatten the ground with their hooves so the ball bounces a lot better. I'm grateful that the farmer has moved the cows out of their stables as the smell of mucking out would waft straight onto my freshly bathed, perfumed and blow-dried person leaving me with a whiff of eau-de-cow-pat. As a former townie, I have sufficiently made a fool of myself by asking the farmer if the dairy cows were girls. There is also an unwritten rule around here to wear battered clothes when dog-walking and shiny, new, expensive brands are frowned upon. In essence, people in the country don't think like people in towns. Yet the milk and lambs are destined to enter into the sophisticated system of distribution which supports those living in towns.

Is a city such as London still evolving? Is urbanisation a work in progress? Now that we have so much more than our ancestors and access to everything our hearts desire, has the apex of 'development' been reached and are we truly civilised? Our village farmer allows residents to roam on his land with their dogs. His late father on the other hand, used to lie in wait, gun in hand and threaten to shoot the offending 'trespassers'. Have times changed or is the son more civilised than his father?

When country folk think of a big city like London they almost always cringe at the noisiness, the busy-ness, the loudness of a huge mass of heaving bodies all sharing the same air. Yet the act of  writing was developed partly due to trading in a densely populated area around 3200BC as disparate groups needed to find a common way to communicate and keep track of animals and goods. If it wasn't for the growth of towns and cities, we would not have the need for numbers or for the written word. From one perspective, we owe our civilised condition, away from the loin cloth and caves, to urbanisation. From a more abstract perspective, we remain anything but civilised.

Obesity, fuelled by inactivity, is a peculiarly urban illness. It is not unusual to hear a farmer say that he has never had a holiday in his life as he cannot leave his animals. (I admit to being in complete shock at the idea.) A morbidly obese farmer would have difficulty with the dawn-to-dusk demands of the job. The idea therefore that in a city one has everything one could possibly need and then some, does not necessarily result in fulfilment or happiness in greater levels. Just as an 'embarras de richesses' can lead to a destitute spirit, when one has very little the soul is forced to soar. Perhaps the soaring soul is the true mark of being civilised. Just food for thought.

Photo copyright SvD.