Communication includes exchange . . . of people, organisms, objects, and ideas.
Historically there are a number of factors that stand out as being both important and open to effective management: population numbers, transport, communication, trade, and technology but these cannot be harnessed without effective governance.
However, without several critical environmental factors socio-economic activity would not be possible and in this sense environmental factors are prior to social and economic ones.
The reason why this fact receives so little attention is because it is taken for granted – it is a given. But these factors can never be ignored.
Principle 1 – Environmental factors are prior to social and economic factors.
underpinning any group activity First, in such a list must be a stable and sustainable global system of governance
If we are to build stable and sustainable flourishing societies then we need to understand those factors that are crucial to the achievement of this end.
an overall understanding of the factors that might make this possible. We all understand intuitively that this requires cooperation, tolerance and hard work but we need a better understanding of the social factors at work here. We have also determined that our approach must entail the integration of social, economic and environmental considerations but all this is still very abstract and general.
It is argued elsewhere on this web site that if we are to understand human history then we need to understand social organization, recognizing that in the course of history the form of social organization has been determined by the limitations of energy use. But what are the most informative conceptual categories we might use in trying to understand the effective use of energy sources.
This is a difficult and complex question with no simple answer and insufficient space to justify here, but there are at least four key factors worth considering in relation to the management of social activity – of ‘getting things done’ : values (constraining what should be done); governance (constraining how it is done); scale (constraining what can be done); technology (constraining the rate at which it is done).
Such a goal demands the careful management of life’s basic physical resources, understood in everyday simple terms as energy, food, water, materials, and biodiversity.
Assessing the degree of success with which resources have been harnessed to create harmonious social organization, or indeed how this might best be done, is a tall order. Isn’t this what we are all aiming for anyway?
Analysis of resources critical for the community of life
The interrelated environmental factors on which all life depends (energy, water, food, materials, and biodiversity. Indofar as these resources and their combination with other factors, support life, then they are known as ecosystem services. These resources do not figure in history books (until they become scarce) as important factors in human history because they are taken as ‘given’ necessities for life to continue at all. Their absence from human narratives belies their importance.
Principle 2 – The environmental factors critical to the community of life are: energy, water, food, materials and other organisms
The temptation to rank these elements can be misleading. For example, no life would be possible without water. However all activity, of whatever kind, depends on the expenditure of energy and there is a strong relationship between human energy use (as wild plants and animals (natura), domesticated plants and animals (agraria), fossil fuels (industria) – and social organization.
Major factors influencing human resource use
In very general terms the larger the number of people (population) the greater the impact on the environment (consider the consumption of the above-listed resources by one person over a lifetime).
Whether resource-use has a detrimental effect on humans or other members of the community of life will depend on the context.
In general, as societies increase in complexity so their capacity to harvest resources becomes more efficient. This is achieved in several major ways. Firstly, by improvements in transport and communication it becomes possible to gather a greater variety of resources, more efficiently, in greater quantities, more rapidly, trading across a wider geographic range. This can be simply understood in terms of the transition from walking, to the use of horse and camel, sailing ship, motor car, steamship and aircraft, and the transition from spoken word, to letter, to telegraph, telephone, fax, and internet. The evolution of these factors depend in turn for their increase efficiency on the application of science to the development of new technology.
Empires & civilizations
The synopsis given above is a (over)simplification of a highly complex situation. However, we need as many ways as possible of understanding the way our activities of today can affect the planet, the community of life, and the humans of tomorrow.
The following discussion of empires and civilizations provides an example of the way the interplay of these factors might be addressed.
Decline & fall
Empires are like giant organisms, they grow and expand. To extend their sovereignty over external territories they require energy in the form of food and resources. For the empire to flourish, each part must be reliable, integrating harmoniously with the whole. Achieving this requires astute governance which, historically, has been achieved through an unambiguous and rigidly applied system of social rules (the law), a generally accepted code of behaviour, and hierarchical chain of command. The imposition of this discipline and conformity was compensated by the benefits of scale – the safety, food security and material benefits that could be enjoyed by the collective that were not available to individuals. Armies had the potential to capture vast territories, ocean-going ships could source goods from distant lands, manufacturers could improve their technologies. Manufacturing a car or computer today requires sourcing materials and skills from around the world: the division of labour accelerated the kind of social diversification and flexibility at scales that could be used to dominate other civilizations.
But, also like organisms, empires might grow and flourish until social, economic or environmental factors fracture the social organization: critical resources may become depleted; a war might result in invasion; internal political strife like failures in leadership or breakdown in other social institutions as uncertainty erodes the sense of common purpose and direction that are evident in buoyant societies. Nineteenth century European nationalism, however ill-founded, helped bind communities together; there may be a natural or man-made disaster, like a famine, flood, fire, a disease epidemic, earthquake etc.
Empires are ephemeral, they wax and wane – some lasting longer than others but eventually they die. Their apparently inevitable demise warns us of the fragility of social organization and the crucial dependence we have on resources, both renewable and unrenewable – but it also alerts us to the beneficial consequences of human ingenuity, commerce, enterprise, and peaceful coexistence.
They depend on the security and harmony of their social organization and historically those civilizations with the largest populations, armies, navies and access to resources (including intellectual resources) through trade and communication have tended to outcompete others.
Today’s urban world in which more than 50% of the population live in cities, evolved out of the first centres of plant and animal domestication. Complex systems of social organization and governance would develop independently from three major world centres arising in latitudes amenable to agricultural domestication and human living. From the Western Mesopotamian core arose the Eurasian civilization of the Nile and Indus valleys and their urban progeny that, from their inception, maintained some trade connections. In the East, Asian communities grew out of the core arising in the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys. Contact between eastern and western cores was most firmly established between the Roman and Han empires. Much later came the third, American, urban centres of Mesoamerica, the Aztecs and Incas, whose contact with Eurasia began in earnest with the arrival of western Europeans in the 15th century.
In the West there was the Mesopotamian core around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where, after the last Ice Age, soils and climate together with animals and plants that were amenable to domestication, all converged to produced conditions suitable for agriculture. Founder crops of Mesopotamia then passed to Egypt’s Nile Valley in the west and Indus valley in the east. By about 4000 BCE when the first Bronze age cites were emerging in and Mesopotamia farming had extended around the Mediterranean and Europe to arrive in the British Isles.
aton had become more elaborato as a consequence of the exchange of trade and ideas that
t along the majo river valleys bul subsecuently expanding into maritime trade within the
he Near East to
Mediterranean Sea, the centre of civilization, as eccnomic and social power, moving out of t
Mediterranean coastal cities like Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Athens, Carthage, Rome, and Marseilles.
A further phase of grcwth occurred during the European Age of Discovery wtien cultural exchange covelopcd
across oceans -first the Allantic, then the Indian ard Pacific Oceans. This gave cities on the At
of Western Europe access to the overseas resources of the Americas – first the plundered çold and sive
the Now World and subsequently goods that lay beyond, like spices, tea, coffee, cocoa, sugarcane, cotton, a
rubber. Cites like Lisbon, Amstordam, Paris, and Loncon prospered as Spain. Pcrtugal, Britain, anc France
constructed a truly global economy through empires whose arms embraced the word
In retrospect we can see a historical pattern of increasing and accelerating socio-economic complexity among certain peoples. Though we must be cautious in designating this pattern as ‘progress’, or ‘improvement’ and equally cautious in interring the inevitability of its path, we can nevertheless see how urbanization, and itsperspective on the world, brought about social transformation. How the benefits of scale can multiply the impacts of science and technology in a transition from hunter-gatherer to Bronze Age urban centres. How following the European Renaissance, scientific and technological development in the West would overtake that
of the East, and how the ‘guns, germs, and steel of European nation-states-become-empires, made possible the international maritime capacity to break out of the Mediterranean Sea into the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans to initiate international trade and accelerate the process of globalization.
Historians are still divided over the factors that have determined global power structures demonstrates their complexity. One problem is that the factors regarded as important will depend on the time scale being considered (see History in 10,000 words and Social crganization).
According to one historian there are seven dimensions of state power: geography, population, econcmy, resources, military, diplomacy and national identity. Major polities have been categorised in varlous ways, the mcst popular being civilizations and empires. At an even wider scale hyperpowers are those that. historically, have dominated contemporary states in major spheres of activity – political, economic, technological, military, and cultural – often associated with vast areas of occupied land. Hyperpowers are sometimes contrasted with superpowers that have exerted global power but together with other nations examples being Britain and America at the time of the Cold War when the Soviet Union also wielded substantial international power. It seems most hyperpowers have achieved this combination by tolerating and accessing the world’s greatest talent in these and other spheres. Empires that
have achieved this include the Persians, Tang dynasty in China, Romans, Mongols, and the United States (the first nation of immigrants to become a hyperpower, also with ethnic and religious neutrality and universal suffrage). Accessing world human capital involves tolerance-acceptance of cultural diversity in law, customs cultures and religions. Citizens are more cooperative and compliant when they feel valued, when they return pride, and loyalty to their polity. Remove this respect and allegiances are quickly changed as occurs in periods of decline. Rome was one of the few empires that commanded this kind of respect. Hyperpowers are necessarily outward-looking and confident in their governance and social structures, cultural introspection and intolerance being symptomatic of decline.
Historically, with the Age of Discovery and Great Divergence dominance was achieved by commanding trace routes rather than land masses and that meant control of the oceans, a consequence of commerce rather than conquest, democracy rather than autocratic rule, and immigration rather than invasion. With the Enlightenment the strategic expediency of tolerance became matters of principle, equality, human rights and mutual respect. Rome assimilated subjugated people through the inducements of citizenship, participation in the empire, and the appeal of Roman culture. Even emperors could have mixed ancestry. For example, at its height, Roman education was strongly influenced by the culture of the ancient Greeks and the state absorbed and the religious practices of its subjects.
A glimpse into the future
Historian Morris offers us a glimpse into the world future of social organization:
‘‘As I see it, we should expect the United States to remain an indispensable nation for another generation, perhaps even two, but probably not three. But the rise of the East is not the only dynamic we need to consider when projecting future power structures. As social development rises ever higher, revolutions in genetics, computing, robotics and nanotechnology are beginning to feed back into our biology, transforming what it means to be human. As these changes accelerate, old-fashioned debates about whether America is number one may become increasingly irrelevant.’