In a lot of doomer & primitivist literature, “civilization” and “empire” are used interchangeably, as if these are the same thing. I think they are not. As far as I can see, there isn’t any overriding reason why social complexity — e.g., civilization — must necessarily result in armies, wars, and conquest. I think empire is a subset of civilization, a particular type of civilization that demonstrates a particular type of pathology.
Nate Hagens supplied a really useful metaphor for this in (what I believe was) his 2010 presentation at ASPO USA, although he used the metaphor for a different purpose.
Hagens began his talk with a short history of the Irish Elk. The Irish Elk grew antlers that measured up to 12 feet across and weighed as much as 88 pounds. It died out when the climate got warmer at the end of the last ice age because the new vegetation could not supply both the animal’s body and its antlers with the nutrition both required. The antlers essentially depleted nutrients from the elk’s body as they were growing, much like a parasite.
However, the Irish Elk’s antlers are only one type of antler. Lots of other deer species have antlers; in addition to these, there are also numerous species with horns. The Irish Elk’s antlers were out of control and eventually led to its demise, but this does not mean that all antlers and horns develop in the same way or are necessarily doomed to the same fate.
I think empire is like this. Empire grows and grows until it cannot be sustained, especially in light of environmental change and/or devastation. But that doesn’t mean all civilizations must grow until they crash.
Ancient Japan provides a good example of this, at least if I’ve got the history correct. The Japanese neolithic period began around the same time as did our Mesopotamian neolithic, approximately 15,000 years ago. It was characterized by a semi-sedentary lifestyle, horticulture, hunting and foraging; over time, dwelling places and household items grew in complexity, as did the period’s pottery, which is some of the most astonishing pottery ever created in my humble opinion.
Now here’s the kicker: Japan’s neolithic “revolution” wasn’t a revolution so much as it was an evolution. It lasted 14,000 years. 14,000 years! This, without any major wars of conquest, national armies and the like. For 14,000 years, the Japanese people lived in comparative peace without ever sprouting the imperial memes that have driven our own Western civilizations.
The major difference I can see, here from my amateur anthropological armchair, is that ancient Japanese peoples never experienced a “Fall” event. That is, they did not experience a cognitive shift that separated them from nature in the same way our cultural forebears did. Indeed, to this day Japanese culture is still very much imbued with animism, which harkens back to pre-civilized peoples’ liminal cognition.
Alas, Japan’s neolithic came to an end in 400 BC, when outsiders introduced rice agriculture, metallurgy and the like. The cultures that came afterward were very taken with military arts and Japan eventually became an imperial civilization.
I interpret these things to mean that civilization is a cultural-evolutionary adaptation. Empire, however, is a maladaptation, like the Irish Elk’s enormous antlers. This maladaptation springs from the misperception that we are separate from nature, and must cover our nakedness from it. Empire is the ongoing project of covering our nakedness. Moreover, because empire is a maladaptation, it is an evolutionary dead-end for our species. It will die out while other types of civilizations continue to adapt and flourish.