In 1899, Edward Carpenter wrote a book called Civilization: its cause and cure, in which he argued that civilization is a disease no society has ever survived.

Civilization is a disease

Carpenter (1844-1929) was a social theorist, an early vegetarian and gay rights advocate. In the Edwardian world of increasing specialisation, he was a great synthesiser of disciplines and ideas. He wrote:

“The development of human society has never yet (that we know of) passed beyond a certain definite and apparently final stage in the process we call Civilization; at that stage it has always succumbed or been arrested.”

As the second wave of Covid-19 ravages the planet, it’s hard to deny that current global civilization is in the grip of a deadly disease. With daily cases passing 600,000, the economic effects are hitting home.

The psychological impact—possibly Covid’s greatest legacy—is as yet difficult to assess.

“The dreadful has already happened”

Yet, in a way, the impact of Covid-19 is simply reality catching up with us. It’s the final, fatal spasm of a disease that civilization caught a long time ago. In the words of philosopher Martin Heidegger, “The dreadful has already happened”.

In a way, the impact of Covid-19 is simply reality catching up with us. It’s the final, fatal spasm of a disease that civilization caught a long time ago.

In fact, this ancient disease created what we call civilization.

Climate change over an extended period around 4000 BC caused drought, desertification and famine. For the first time in history, humans fought over food and water.

This caused a psychological shift to violent, masculine-dominant patriarchies. As I describe in A brief history of shame, the feminine aspects of humanity became a source of trauma, anxiety and shame.

The mother wound

Six thousand years later, we have barely begun to register the presence of this unconscious shame and grasp its mammoth implications.

For, underlying the trauma, anxiety and shame each of us has inherited from antiquity, lurks what I call the mother wound.

At its heart, the mother wound is an inability to pass emotionally healthy nurturing from one generation to another—what’s termed the first circuit in psychology.


Lacking emotionally healthy nurturing, we feel an absence at the core of our being—a hole—that we try to fill through consumption.

Money, power, status, food, sex, love, attention: they’re all grist to the mill of consumption. We’ve been conditioned to chase after them to the detriment of balance, sustainability, wisdom, and wellbeing.

The mother wound created the psychological basis for patriarchy and for the heedless exploitation of both nature and people. What we call ‘civilization’ is based on these deeply traumatised aspects of our collective psyche:

  • Rampant, heedless environmental destruction for the senseless accumulation of profit
  • No respect for the environment it depends on for its survival
  • Disconnection from the feminine values of community, co-operation, wellbeing and wisdom
  • An emotionally immature civilization reluctant to take emotional responsibility for healing itself and its planet

‘Consumption’ is an old term for tuberculosis. Covid-19 has delivered the invoice for six millennia of runaway human consumption.

Surviving civilization

Our society is the last in line. We will either prove Carpenter wrong, or there will be no further societies to make the attempt.

Carpenter lays out a three-point schema to survive the disease of civilization:

“Thus three things, (1) the realisation of a new order of Society, in closest touch with Nature, and in which the diseases of class-domination and Parasitism will have finally ceased; (2) the realisation of a Science which will no longer be a mere thing of the brain, but a part of Actual Life; and (3) the realisation of a Morality which will signalise and express the vital organic unity of man with his fellows—these three things will become the heralds of a new era of humanity—an era which will possibly prefer not to call itself by the name of Civilisation.”

To do this, we must heal our collective mother wound. Each one of us must come to terms with the fact that this wound is inside us. We are each responsible for healing it.

Photo: Edward Carpenter in 1905 on Wikimedia (public domain)

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