Civilization, Technology, and Money: The Challenge of a Human Fit


  • Michael Charles Kalton University of Washington, Tacoma (emeritus)


civilization, evolution, technology, money, motivation, agriculture, control.


Civilization in its science-enabled industrial form highlights and gives exponential growth to forms of agency and motivation so removed from the dynamics of eco-systemic mutual constraint that the troubled culture-nature interface has finally assumed the proportions of a sustainability crisis.  With the emergence about 12,000 years ago of agriculture and the subsequent rise of the complex, settled societies we refer to as “civilization,” our models of ourselves and of the world transformed in ways that decisively separated the character of human agency and motivation from the behaviours by which other forms of life make a living. The science-enabled Industrial Revolution made central and self-aware the long-nurtured civilized thrust to control and shape the world to our purposes, refining that mindset into what Jacques Ellul has described as the “technological mind,” the probing seach for an improved way of doing whatever we turn our minds to. With this mentality technology has moved to center stage both as our first resort in approaching any kind of problem and as our chief lever for economic growth. We have collapsed the constraints of space and time and the world of nature is quite outflanked by the speed and power with which thoughts and plans in the human mind can reshape and modify environments from the expectations structured into the way other species make a living.

This puts a new and critical weight on the thoughts, feelings, and motivation of the human mind-and-heart. All living beings are motivated to act in order to achieve and maintain well-being. But human motivation is far from the direct response to needs and dangers common to other forms of life. Our motivation as action is mediated by technology, and our technology loops back to shape our motivation. As a well-being guided response our motivation is mediated by money, which offers none of the inherent guidance of actual well-being.  The “better” achievement of whatever,   the animating thrust of technology, promises an open-ended more: more productivity, more speed, more convenience, more ease. And at the heart of money is another more, the profit motive that guides us to proud achievements and likewise to humiliating dysfunction. We market the promise of the technological “more” for profit, and the drive for more profit powerfully fuels the technological drive for all sorts of innovation. Thus the incremental thrusts embedded in technology and money work in synergy to bring us to the exponential burst of transformation in culture and the natural world. In the process guidance of real well-being becomes hit or miss, distorted by a thirst for and expectation of novelty stoked by endless advertising or overshadowed in the anxious pursuit of profit.

Seeing the deep structures that have brought civilization so rapidly to such an innovative and world-transforming peak reveals no easy answers: we cannot simply change ourselves without the difficult and uncertain process of reconfiguring elements structured into civilization that make us the kind of unpredictable and uncontrollable species we are at present. But it helps to know there are other ways available, perhaps even other ways of doing a civilization. If those alternatives are in any way open to our deliberate contrivance, that deliberation will have to include serious reflection on how the way we maintain our well-being has come to fit so ill with the well-being as pursued in the rest of the community of life. For humans, understanding is the guide to moving into a better future.

Author Biography

Michael Charles Kalton, University of Washington, Tacoma (emeritus)

Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies (Emeritus)

School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences

University of Washington, Tacoma