There was an article I came across some time ago by NewScientist that really struck a cord with me. As a science fiction writer, I spend a great deal of time doing though experiments and engaging in creative speculation. To put this another way, I wonder a great deal of the future looks like.
In some respect, trying to predict the future is really a futile endeavor. To make predictions about the future, often we resort to historical analogy or the extrapolation of current trends. There are big problems with both of these approaches, which makes me question how useful they really are. For historical analogy, the big problem is historical particularity. At no time in history did our civilization look exactly like it does today, we have industry, computers, and a far bit of other things that don’t have precedents in things like the Roman Empire or Ancient Egypt. That means, after a point, historical analogies fail.
The problem with extrapolation of current trends is the inherent assumption that current trends will continue. For example, I could speculate that our hunger for oil will destroy the planet. There is plenty of good sci-fi out there that does just that. The problem of course arises, when we assume our habit of oil consumption will continue. It may, or it may not. I cannot say for sure.
As another example, I could write a story about a prosperous and brighter future, based on the current trends in science and the gains we have made in environmental protection. That assumes these trends will continue. In real life, we may just get an administration that destroys all those glimmers of hope. Not only does that make the future a lot dimmer, but it also breaks my future predictions.
At the same time, I find creative speculation to be a lot of fun, if not all that productive. No, it is unlikely that I can make sound predictions about the future (though some author’s certainly have been real close), I find the process behind it to be a lot of fun. In other words, it is really fun to imagine what the future might look like.
As such, when I came across End of Nations: Is there an Alternative to Countries? Over at NewScientist, it got my imaginative circuits firing. I hope you indulge me while I talk a little about the article.
Begins with this little number;
“Nation states cause some of our biggest problems, from civil war to climate inaction. Science suggests there are better ways to run a planet “
The world is a pretty complex place these days, and the major players on the world state are in fact nation-states. As the article points out, there are about 193 of them these days. However, it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of a nation-state is actually fairly new on a relative time scale. Civilization as we think about it, mostly centered on cities, has been around at least 10,000 years. Nation-states have generally only been around for the last 500. A lot of people have started to wonder if nation-states are the best way to organize our world and confront the challenges ahead.
“Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.
How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?”
At this point, the article asks us to imagine what another way of organization. But before we can approach that question, the article launches into a little bit of the history behind nation-states. It details how the nation-state is really a recent invention, and that this method of structuring our societies didn’t really exist before circa the 18th century.
The article rightly points out that for a long span of human history, we did not organize ourselves in this way;
“That goes back to the anthropology, and psychology, of humanity’s earliest politics. We started as wandering, extended families, then formed larger bands of hunter-gatherers, and then, around 10,000 years ago, settled in farming villages. Such alliances had adaptive advantages, as people cooperated to feed and defend themselves.”
Yet, there were limits to what people could do as roaming bands, or even larger organizations such as villages. According to the article, Robin Dunbar suggests that an individual person can keep track of their relationship’s with about 150 people or so. That means, say in a world of 7 billion some odd people, individually most of us are going to be able to have decent social relationships with a very small number of people. Call it your “inner circle” if you like.
But, aside from cooperation for food supplies, there was also another important reason for a lot of friends.
“But there was one important reason to have more friends than that: war. “In small-scale societies, between 10 and 60 per cent of male deaths are attributable to warfare,” says Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut at Storrs. More allies meant a higher chance of survival.”
As long as there has been humans, there have been human deaths because of violence. I really wish I could feed the quint romance that there was some mythical “peaceful” time in our past, but there wasn’t. Some societies and tribes were more peaceful than others, sure, but as long as we have been around we can point to evidence of violence. But there is another thing that needs to be said here. Humans are also social by nature, our best chances of survival are when we work together, not when we are alone. So we found ways to organize ourselves, and these larger alliances helped us to survive. This in turn, gave rise to hierarchies.
“How did they get past Dunbar’s number? Humanity’s universal answer was the invention of hierarchy. Several villages allied themselves under a chief; several chiefdoms banded together under a higher chief. To grow, these alliances added more villages, and if necessary more layers of hierarchy.
Larger hierarchies not only won more wars but also fed more people through economies of scale, which enabled technical and social innovations such as irrigation, food storage, record-keeping and a unifying religion. Cities, kingdoms and empires followed.”
As I have already pointed out, this was hardly a linear process. The transition from hunter-gatherers to empires and monarchies was an up-down-and all around process. Cities rose and fell, empires did the same. What was the reason for this? There are several factors involved to be sure, but one of the keep points, as pointed out in the article, was that most pre-industrial societies were relatively not all that complex.
“One key point is that agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. “
As such, even the largest empires such as Rome, didn’t have to do very much in terms of governing. The individual communities did most of that themselves, though Rome itself provided the organizing structure behind the society, which granted them with a fairly consistent supply of manpower and food production. Back to the article to expand on this point.
“Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. Some, like the Roman Empire, did this on a very large scale. But complexity – the different actions society could collectively perform – was relatively low.
We are getting towards what I think is the real heart of the matter. In the case of most pre-industrial societies, the relative complexity was pretty low. The article here defines complexity as the “different actions a society could preform”, and as has already been pointed out, most of these activities were either food production, war or keeping order. But then the question that follows is why was that relative complexity so low?
We will explore that question more in the next part of this series.
Thanks for reading!
NewScientist – “The End of Nations”