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Wondering aloud

May 28, 2008

What does China, Iraq, Cambodia and India have in common?

They have all at one time or another been centers of great civilizations. Their forefathers invented great systems and things, developed great knowledge and became great spiritual teachers.

They are also, today, the biggest centers of human suffering. Many (not all) of their urban centers are dirty and filled with mean spirited people. I get vastly different feelings as I walk the streets of San Francisco and the streets of Mumbai. SF – the so-called city of sin – is clean, fresh, and relaxing. Smiles are plentiful and people are generally courteous to one other. Mumbai was, well, traumatic for me. Seeing how they treated beggars and poor people spoilt my whole trip.

So you have one place proud of its 5,000 years of civilization and being the center of morality. Yet its streets are strewn with garbage, the environment thoroughly raped and the people commit atrocities on oner another.

Then you have a 200 year old city by the Pacific with its red light districts but the streets are clean, the people treating each other respectfully and the environment kept religiously fresh and invigourating.


I travel a lot and I tell you, its really hard not to conclude that the more peaceful spots on earth are the ones filled with ‘uncivilized’ people. If you want to find human suffering, go look at the ‘bedrocks’ of civilization. As I said, China, Burma, India, Cambodia, Iraq, all proud heirs of their thousand year old traditions and spiritually and culturally advanced forefathers, are today populated with people who are the most selfish, uncivic minded and most violent people on earth. Just look at Indo china. The land of a thousand spiritual temples is also the biggest exporter of terrified refugees and the most backwards in everything from technology to human rights.

And I thought the more civilized or spiritual your lineage is, the better you get.

So my question is, why? Am I the only one that’s seeing the disconnect?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. LC Teh permalink
    May 28, 2008 12:40 pm

    Look into old towns or cities. These have long-standing social problems that breed and grow together with the inhabitants. Both the darkside and the brightside normally try to outdo each other’s influence over the ‘normal’ inhabitants or to keep each other in check . This kind of environment produces philosophers, heroes, holy people and also scums and their victims. The older the establishment, the worse the situation the more colorful the ‘civilisation’.

    Take a new housing estate. Away from the established old towns. New inhabitants move in. These are mostly young families from elsewhere. Starting afresh and from different environments, they tend to be more accommodating to new neighbors. They behave civilly. The pecking order has yet to be fully established. They try hard to keep the place as it is.

    That’s like between a bunch of old folks and a gang of school kids.

  2. Damien permalink*
    May 29, 2008 9:26 am

    When I went to visit the longhouses in Sarawak, and many of them are generations old, I found peaceful people. In fact, I dare say most of the indegenous tribes (savages I think they’re called) from Papua to Africa live more peaceful lives than their ‘civilized’ brothers. Actually they’re not much different than us. They’re spiritual, they invent things, and they have their social order. Only their groups are much smaller in size.

    I don’t know but I’ve always felt that size matters. Do civilizations self-destruct when they go beyond a certain tipping point in size? Is it technology? economy? or a conflated social structure that triggers social decay? I think civilization’s demise has a lot to do with human greed but greed arises in reaction to something. And that something is more prevalent and compelling in larger social structures than smaller ones. What that thing is is my $64,000 question.

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