Michał Karzyński

Expansion of Civilizations

There is something about our and other civilizations which is easily recognized, but consistently underestimated. It is a feature so innate to civilization as such, that it is accepted without broad questioning, yet if we allow it to proceed unchecked it will drive our civilization to an end.

The issue I am referring to has come forth at the very early stages of development of human societies, so the timescale is grand. Between a million and four hundred thousand years ago the first human societies existed as hunters and gatherers. They existed on limited territories bounded by the distance one could walk within a day and come back to camp; and they occupied only environments with suitable climate and food supply. The tribes’ populations were not very large, because within the limited territory only a certain amount of food could be found. It is estimated that the populations were no more then 40 people. Where this early form of human existence endured (e.g. in remote parts of: North and South America, Africa, India, Australia) people developed a natural respect for their surroundings and a cult of the Earth, which provided a basis for sustainable existence.

Our civilization as everyone will easily observe is very different from this picture. We live in large agglomerations, cities, countries. Recently we even stated to live on a global scale. We attained a very high level of technological development, and for that reason, we consider ourselves to be the most civilized (i.e. the best) group on Earth, and all known universe. We have medical care, very high live expectancy (80 years, compared to primitive civilizations’ 40 at best), and we have weekends off.

When we think of the ancient times, we tend to think of people struggling to sustain themselves, people dying of disease and living in general discomfort. We think that our times are much better in those respects, we talk about our life being much easier. But just consider one issue… how much time do you think, tribes’ people spent producing food every day? Think of the answer before you read on. Nowadays, people spend an average of 8 hours working each day, but hunters and gatherers attained all the food they needed in less then three!

The rest of their time was devoted to rest, cultivation of customs and passing down the traditions. Of course they did not have our medical knowledge and so they died younger. We still die, however, only difference being our obsession with longevity and unhealthy compulsion to live forever. These are quite modern phenomena.

One thing which is very significant about these early societies is the fact, that if they were to survive they had to live off finite resources. They could only consume in one year as much as would be replaced naturally in the year following. Within such constraints only a limited number of children could be raised and the population sizes were relatively stable. This is contrary to our civilization, which is continually expanding. The world population has exceeded six billion and has been growing exponentially.

So when did our civilization diverge from the “natural” ways of early human existence? I would venture to claim, that the key turning point was the invention of herding and agriculture. Perhaps it was inevitable, since people had large brains and a lot of time to observe nature, that they would discover how nature’s cycles worked and learn to harness them. The advent of agriculture and herding meant, that people were able to produce more food then they needed and to consume it without worrying about the following year. This of course meant, that they were able to have more offspring than would be otherwise possible. At this moment society started expanding.

If you accept that in a suitable environment a replicator, able to utilize that environment will most likely arise, then perhaps it was inevitable that the idea, or meme [1] of expansion arose. This meme is very simple and it does not contain much information in itself. It is very covert, but it is able to incorporate itself into other ideologies, usually rendering them more successful. The expansion meme simply states: multiply!

The omnipresence of this meme is perhaps best illustrated by looking at successful religions, such as Christianity, Islam, etc. They all contain the idea of necessary expansion: “spread the good word”, “convert the infidels”, etc. Similarly the very concept ‘civilization’ contains the expansion meme. All throughout the history of colonization, the western peoples believed they were generously bringing ‘civilization to the uncivilized primitives’. Even today, United States, claims it is bringing ‘democracy to the suppressed people of Iraq’. And so our civilization expands.

The meme of expansion is also buried in the concepts of modern economy. Every company which wants to be successful, has to continually grow. It has to expand it’s customer base, product line, market share and so on. A company, which does not grow will be unable to compete with it’s expanding competition, which means death in a free market. On the stock market companies’ values only rise or fall, there is no other option. Any company, which would only like to maintain its status would soon be outcompeted by aggressive rivals, just like native North American tribes were outcompeted by the expanding European civilization.

This attitude of our civilization causes a serious problem on many levels and many of today’s conflicts can be understood if we realize that it is the expansion meme, which is their cause. Today the most aggressive form of civilization expansion is the economic expansion in which western style, liberal market economies are forced upon countries which have not yet developed them. We say that we want these people to be free and have a good standard of living, but the reasoning behind it is such: if they are free and have money, we will be able to sell them our goods and expand.

This expansion of civilizations will inevitably cause them to run into each other in various fields, because as we all know, the world is very small these days. Whether these conflicts of interests will cause a real Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, or will be resolved in a final Fukuyamian end of history is perhaps a question of diplomacy and politics. The clashes are inevitable however and have to be realized.

The intriguing thing is that the west now propagates liberal economy, while the east promotes Islam. These ideas belong to different spheres of influence, so if everyone plays their cards correctly, we should not need a conflict.

There is another fundamental question, which has to do with civilization expansion. Even if we manage to avoid conflict, our civilizations produce and consume much more then the planet is able to sustain. If every inhabitant of Earth was to consume as much as an average American, we would need the resources of four planets to produce it all.

This begs only one question: when? When shall we exceed the planet’s carrying capacity and how high the price for our ignorance will be? We have to realize that this innate quality of expansion can only be sustained for so long. We have to find ways to neutralize it, before it is too late.

[1] Memes are a concept derived from a book by Richard Dawkins (‘The Selfish Gene’). A meme is a thought or concept, which is propagated in a human population via imitation, repetition, books, finally modern mass media. Memes are mutable replicators, thus some consider them to be alive.