Geography & resources
But how can the interplay of the abstract historical forces of social organization and energy consumption be seen to play out more precisely in the historical record. What other forces are at work?
In examining the reasons for the current Western pre-eminence in the world, archaeologist and Professor of Classics and History at Stanford University, Ian Morris, suggests that large-scale and long-term human history is, in the final analysis, most effectively interpreted in geographic, rather than cultural terms. It is the interaction between geography (resource availability) and social organization (ultimate causes) that is of greater consequence than cultural factors, religion, science, political institutions, or the actions and ideas of great people (proximal causes) . . . it is a matter of ‘latitudes not attitudes’.
Across the broad sweep of human history, as societies became more complex and technology more efficient, the challenges and limitations imposed by geography were progressively overcome. With each geographic barrier broken down came new geographic challenges, which he calls the ‘paradox of development’. The process then repeats itself in a kind of dialectic.
An early example of the geography-social development interaction occurs with the independent emergence of settled agrarian communities in about six major regions after the last Ice Age. These communities arose about 9,500 BCE in latitudes and places where both animal and plant resources were rich, varied, and amenable to domestication. The first and most dense arose in the Hilly Flanks of Mesopotamia. Ecology and climate were juxtaposed in a way that made settled communities more likely to occur here than elsewhere. Here there were naturally-occurring and domesticable cereals (barley, wheat) as well as animals (?pigs, oxen, chickens) amenable to domestication.
Much later, in about 5,000 BCE, communities moved to the exceptionally fertile soils between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that facilitated the transport of resources. Here, by building elaborate irrigation systems for their crops (an emergent social development), a much greater control was gained over the food supply. As this region became more productive than the former sites around the Hilly Flanks (which depended on natural rainfall for irrigation) the centre of human distribution changed. This pattern was to be followed in the Nile delta, Indus Valley, and the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. At around 3100 BCE the Nile valley was united into the largest kingdom the world had ever seen, and around 2230 BCE the Western cores in Sumer and Egypt had totally eclipsed other settlements. But this was about to change with the collapse of Egypt and Mesopotamia as the former geographic paradigm of an irrigated river valley was about to change.
By 1500 BCE a new ‘International Age’ had arrived with an exchange of people, royal marriage, trade, and ideas between Egypt, Babylon and the new states of Assyria, Mittani, and Hittites. The Mediterranean was now becoming a new geographic challenge as trade developed along its shores. Increase in social complexity (large ships, advanced weaponry, early machinery, cities) was at a peak at this time. Morris’s social development index indicates that between 1000 and 100 BCE social organization doubled in both East and West, but it was not to last as it actually decreased in the medieval period. In Morris’s terms it was ‘greater when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon than it would be when Columbus crossed the Atlantic’.
At the time of the Roman empire in the West, and the Han dynasty in the East, social complexity had never been greater, but both declined, followed by Eastern ascendancy from 550 to 1800 CE, the surge of social organization since 1800 a result of the Industrial Revolution which exceeded this former high point sixfold, and it is still accelerating. Inevitably this trend correlates strongly with population growth and energy use per capita. By 200 BCE the world was divided into single empires in East and West linked by the Silk Roads and highways across the steppes of Central Asia.
In summary, Morris attributes the Western ascendancy to its greater capacity for ‘getting things done’, its ability to shape the physical, economic, social, and intellectual environment. In Morris’s view domestication occurred when the situation presented itself and conditions were conducive: it was not just a matter of chance. Though many cultural factors could have influenced the time and place of its occurrence (or its occurrence at all) in retrospect we can see that it was a highly probable eventuality given the bioclimatic conditions of the time. Even the sequence of events by which domestication was achieved in the Eastern and Western cores was similar, though lagging by about 2,000 years in the East.
The interplay of geography and social development is repeated throughout history. Social organization through the phases of city, state, and empire is constrained by trade which depends on trade routes over land, along rivers, and across the sea. With increasing social complexity ships became more seaworthy, and the geographic boundaries of the larger empires were extended. In the West, the boundary is, at first, the Mediterranean, and then in the European Age of Discovery the Americas. These open up to Europe but especially Britain, a developing sea power, and the closest nation to the Americas on the European Atlantic coast. This results in an Atlantic economy stimulating further social development.
Although China at this time scores higher than the West on the social development index, access to the Americas from the Asian Pacific would have entailed a journey of Atlantic access from Europe 3000 km, Pacific access from Asia 6,000 km. Britain with ready access to coal deposits, and collective learning that assisted the development of appropriate technology, engaged in an Industrial Revolution using fossil fuels. As America assumed the mantle of global power in the late twentieth century the Pacific, like the Mediterranean and Atlantic, was no longer a geographic barrier.
So, societies can only develop or become more complex when they have the necessary resources (beginning with energy sources) which, in turn, depend ultimately on geography. This geographic dependency was most pronounced in early human history.
The limitations and boundaries set by geography were overcome by the improved technology of transport and communication systems (increasingly complex social organization). Historically, as the search for resources widened, new lands were drawn into the ambit of ambitious societies. Today’s global economy is still constrained, though less than ever before, by the spatial distribution of the resources it can process.
The selected emphasis here on factors of social organization, energy, geography, resources, and technology does not exclude the presence of many other influences on long-term human history, but it provides some focus for the myriad ideas that can quickly cloud our vision of the past.