Noah and the Advance of Civilization

I haven’t seen Noah and am not particularly inclined to, but I was struck by an essay by David Plotz in Slate, Noah’s Environmental Views Are a Disaster. In the film’s worldview, according to Plotz, the corruption mankind brings across the earth, by chopping trees and building sooty cities, is the motivation Yahweh has for wiping everything out and starting over.

It’s a strangely anti-human view of humanity, wherein mankind’s inherent desire to tame his surroundings and to build communities is painted as evil. Noah even scoffs at the very idea of labor. Tubal-Cain and his people mine, smelt, and hunt, to build towers and forge weapons. Their machine labor is contrasted unfavorably with the pastoral Noahites, who rely on a magical forest to supply trees for the ark…

In its nostalgic, unsophisticated view of the world and our place in it, Noah collaborates in the fantasy of certain parts of the environmental movement, which believe that Earth would be healed if there were fewer of us, living further apart from each other. Yet Aronofsky has it upside down. Cities are ecologically kinder than other forms of human habitation. They foster communities and human connections, they enable the advancement of science and the creation of great art. Cities reduce population growth, raise living standards, increase life expectancy, and enhance human freedom.

(I gather there’s some criticism by religious conservatives of Noah’s environmental themes, though I suspect it’s for different reasons than Plotz’s.)

Plot’s comments dovetail with an interesting essay in the Review section of the Sunday New York Times by an astrobiologist named Lewis Dartnell, called Civilization’s Starter Kit, which points out how interdependent everyone in advanced societies is on everyone else for even the basic (not to mention advanced) technological skills for producing goods they personally have no knowledge of.

Who has any real understanding of where their last meal came from or how the objects in their pockets were dug out of the earth and transformed into useful materials? What would we do if, in some science-fiction scenario, a global catastrophe collapsed civilization and we were members of a small society of survivors?

He offers some ideas for basic principles someone might need to restart civilization: germ theory, soap, agriculture. (The essay is a teaser for an upcoming book.)

So I wonder how far isolationists such as the Noahites Plotz describes would get, rebuilding civilization, retreating from communities and living on their own? Not very far I suspect. You don’t get iPhones or wide-screen TVs or the internet by sitting out in the woods suspicious of your neighbors. They’re the rewards of a global civilization, the division of labor, the specialization of skills, and the cumulative growth of knowledge beyond the ancient myths, so much of which is denied by so many, so many of whom are proud of it on the internet, which they use so unironically.

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