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The Civilization – Fourth important transformation

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Civilization is a notoriously vague term that for the purposes of this paper can be defined as the “complex of cultural phenomena which tends to occur with the particular form of socio-political organization known as the state”. Important features distinguishing the state from other forms of socio-political organization include – among others – cities and social stratification. The former also means that sedentary lifestyle – not always necessary for agriculture – was essential for civilization. Writing, the use of metals, mechanical devices amplifying the power of muscles, agricultural practices intensifying food production (particularly irrigation and the plow) and the use of new energy sources (particularly the muscle power of domesticated animals) are frequent (but not essential) further ingredients of states (civilizations) playing a significant role in the transformation of the biosphere.

Early Urbanization

The appearance of the first cities in Mesopotamia – symptoms of population growth – meant the birth of the first civilization about 5,500 years ago. The beginning of the use of animal traction helped urbanization significantly. The detachment from agriculture by moving to cities has resulted in further separation from nature: when living in cities the environmental effects of our various actions and our dependence on natural processes are experienced to a lesser degree.

Social Stratification/Increased Centralization

Fulltime, non-food-producing specialists (e.g., kings, soldiers, scribes, etc.) were virtually absent from human societies until the rise of civilization. Then, however, their appearance became possible due mainly to enough storable food surplus. Societies began to stratify, for instance, occupational castes or classes of craft specialists appeared. Full-time specialists dealing with technology (e.g., craftspeople) triggered the increase of technological complexity. With increasing stratification, which also means greater social inequalities, both competition among individuals or groups and centralization have usually become more pronounced, which has led to the accentuation of their previously-discussed consequences.


Although the most ancient civilizations of the world evolved before the appearance of writing (first in Eurasia about 5,000 years ago), it can be found in most civilizations. Writing has made easier the passing of information within a generation. Furthermore, it has made possible a more efficient long-term, intergenerational preservation of information and the preservation of more information as well. Accordingly, writing has significantly helped centralization. Because of the above-mentioned reasons – though only indirectly, for example through the better organization of economic activities – writing has contributed to the extension of the human transformation of the biosphere.


The use of metals started with copper about 6,000-8,000 years ago, before the rise of civilization. However, “classic” metallurgy involving smelting and casting began contemporaneously with civilization, about 5,500 years ago in the Near East, also with copper. Pronounced social stratification was likely to be an important condition for the appearance of more complex metallurgy, since metalworkers have nearly always been full-time specialists.

Metals have been very significant concerning human transformation of the biosphere. The mining of ores – especially open mining – has often caused serious environmental damages. Metallurgy has consumed a considerable amount of energy, initially gained mainly from the burning of charcoal, which resulted in the acceleration of deforestation. In addition, several polluters have found their ways to the environment during this process. Furthermore, metal tools have made environmental transformation easier. Certain metals – in particular heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, and mercury – polluting the air, soil, and water are toxic for almost every living organism.

However, transformation of the biosphere due to the use of metals increased only gradually over millennia in three steps (the second and the third are related to the next two transitions). First, the extent of transformation of the biosphere increased due to the widespread use of iron from the 1st millennium B.C. For instance, iron tools have made deforestation easier and iron horseshoes and plowshares have increased agricultural yields, thereby triggering population growth. Second, metals reached new continents due to the European conquests (they were known by some societies in America, but were not used for practical purposes, and were completely unknown in Australia). Third, due to the changes in metallurgic technologies, beginning already in the 16th century, and the enormous amount of energy becoming available by the spread of fossil fuels, a greater amount of metals have become worked and spread widely. Moreover, the mass production of more kinds of metals and alloys has become possible.

New Mechanical Devices

New mechanical devices amplifying the power of muscles also appeared. The three simplest of these – levers, pulleys, and inclined plains – have been used in virtually every civilization and their variations and combinations (e.g., wedges, screws, and gearwheels) have also become widespread.

New Agricultural Technologies

Population growth and the interests of power elites led to the intensification of food production involving new agricultural technologies. The use of some of these has resulted in detrimental ecological effects, afflicting human societies again and again ever since.

Irrigation – first applied in Egypt about 5,000 years ago – has often resulted in the salinization of soils, a virtually irreversible change on human time scale, since it takes a very long time for these soils to be suitable for cultivation again. The use of the plow – first appearing in Mesopotamia also about 5,000 years ago – has increased erosion by pulverizing the soil and weakening its cover of plants. Despite these drawbacks, the new agricultural technologies increased yields, making possible the further growth of population, and therefore leading to further specialization within the society. This in turn created new possibilities for the increase of technological complexity.

New Energy Sources: Animal Muscles, Water, and Wind

A new extrasomatic energy source, the muscle power of domesticated animals has been used since about 5,000-6,000 years ago, first in the Near East. Horses and bovines played an especially important role in extending human transformation of the biosphere. They increased mobility and made transportation easier, whereby distant resources became more easily accessible, resulting in the growth of both the economic output and the population. Domestic animals also rendered agricultural work easier and thus helped agricultural intensification. Although there are a few examples of the existence of civilizations without the use of animal traction (particularly in the New World before the European conquests), the muscle power of animals greatly eased the birth and maintenance of civilizations. It was mainly because animals made much easier the transport of goods from adjacent areas necessary for supporting dense urban populations.


Further extrasomatic energy sources appeared a few millennia after the rise of the first civilizations. Due to the increase in technological complexity, the energies of water (from about the 1st century B.C.) and wind (from about the 10th  century A.D.) have become available to people. However, in most societies these two energy sources have never become dominant.

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