The Fifth World


We can see clearly the evidence that our ancestors left behind, but we do not agree on what it means. Some call it evidence of their folly. Others call it evidence of their greatness. Most of us regard it simply as the past, no more or less interesting than that, though few of us trust anyone who seems to take too much interest in it. Bad things seem to follow when that happens too often to make anyone comfortable.

It seems like every family has its own story about that past and what it meant. These few circulate widely, and seem to reflect the general attitudes and themes found in many others besides.

Colloquially, “civilization” often seems to mean anything good about human society: art, literature, poetry, philosophy, music, etc. However, these things not only predate the earliest civilizations known as such to historians or archaeologists, but also appear universally in all human societies today, even those rarely referred to as civilizations.

Etymologically, the word comes from the Latin civis, meaning “city,” and this seems to get closer to a workable definition: a society of cities. In any such society, the cities invariably become the centers of power, and thus can reasonably define that society.

We define civilization as a complex social organization requiring large, settled cities. Civilizations require hierarchy to function, unlike most societies in the Fifth World.

Normally, a civilization requires agriculture, but hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists with access to a hoardable food surplus (such as a particularly productive river) can sometimes develop more complex and stratified societies than other societies like them.

Civilization does not exist in the Fifth World. Some people live in settled farming villages, particularly in Antarctica and around the Arctic Circle, where the soil remained protected under glaciers and permafrost. But they are rare.