A Brief History of Civilisation

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Early societies were not much more than extended families but sometime after man had settled down to become farmers rather than hunter gatherers, something happened and from society sprung civilisation.

The first civilisations appeared around 5,500 years ago, around 90,000 years after modern humans are believed to walked out of Africa to begin the colonisation of the world. Focused on the basins of major rivers, civilisations (by which we mean societies with writing) comprising of cities, large public buildings and a recognisable political apparatus of state appeared more or less simultaneously in Eurasia (the Tigris/Euphrates rivers), Africa (the Nile), China (Yellow River) and India (Indus).

To supply the cities, local production needed to be organised and trade emerged between the great centres. From these cities, empires began and by 100 AD there was a chain of empires stretching from Rome via Parthia (modern day Iran) to the Kushan Empire (modern day Afghanistan and north India) to China, forming a continuous belt of civilisations that reached from the Atlantic to the Pacific. These areas provided not only a zone for the development of trade but also for the transfer of ideas, technologies and institutions, especially religions. They were, in many ways, enormously developed and much of the thinking that still impacts upon us today, like the thinking of the Greek philosophers or the basis of religion.

Much of the early history of the world concerns the struggles of these civilisations to repel nomadic ‘barbarians’, a struggle they eventually lost around the fifth century. The “barbarians” essentially still lived a “hunter gatherer” style of life with moveable tented encampments. They were not under any form of central control but were capable of forming strong alliances with others who shared their lifestyle and were accomplished, well-armed warriors. The period between the fall of the ‘classical’ civilisations and the rise of the kind of society we live in today is generally referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’, a period in which interaction between Europe and Asia, and even within the continents themselves, became much less frequent. Although the advances of the classical civilisation weren’t lost completely, life was very different.

Europe stagnated in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire but great civilisations rose in other parts of the world. Islam was truly dynamic at this time, while the Maya, Inca and Aztec in the Americas and Srivijaya in South East Asia were all vibrant. Europe was not entirely cut off from these civilisations and there was once piece of knowledge transferred from the Hindu culture that revolutionised the world; their numbering system. It was the Crusaders that brought back the Hindu numbering system and it contained a concept that had hitherto being missing; the number zero. That such a change should cause a revolution is a tribute to the way that knowledge once gained cannot be removed. The enormous impact that knowledge has on the way we think about things today makes it virtually impossible for us to imagine how thought was before it. The development in mathematics and accounting that were made following the introduction of the number zero made possible the European Renaissance that formed the world we recognise now. This was a period of learning, investigation into the physical world and advance in the arts that remains unparalleled in human history to date. It was shortly followed by the Industrial Revolution and the ascendance of the city-powered European civilisation, an ascendance that continued until its transmutation into the global, interdependent, city-powered civilisation that we live in.

Great civilisations have come and gone but none has had the reach and power of the one in which we now live. When, exactly, global civilisation arose is debatable. Some historians place it at the end of the 19th century, other the start of the 20th: what is undeniable though is that in the past 60 years it has flourished. Built on knowledge, trade and communication, the world has seen more change in those 60 years than, probably, the last 6,000. But there is one piece of knowledge embedded in it that is beginning to bite: the foundations are unstable.

The rules of accounting for the commerce on which global civilisation is based upon owe their origins to 15th century Italy where double-entry boo-keeping was invented. Just like the introduction of the number zero, the introduction of this system changed the way people were able to think, particularly about business. It is a system that is based on the concept of balance and even today, if you want to know the health of an enterprise, it is the balance sheet that you turn to. But there is one glaring omission to the system that that puts this civilisation under a greater threat than any other since history began. A threat greater than that of marauding nomads and land-greedy neighbours, a threat that is contained within the foundations themselves: the assumption that the use of the Earth’s resources and services carries no economic cost.

The idea that the Earth is man’s to use as he pleases is an old one and occurs in the book of Genesis. 15th century accountants certainly would not have had any interest in disputing the idea. But, over the years, science has mostly replaced religion as the driver of progress.  And, when it comes to looking at the impact of our economic activity, the science is deeply worrying:

  • Carbon pollution from the belief that fossil fuels are the “cheapest” way to generate energy,
  • loss of biodiversity from the idea that a forest is more valuable cut down for its lumber or burnt to clear land for crops,
  • acidification of the oceans that threatens to eradicate one of the great building blocks of the food chain itself.

The failure to put a cost on the Earth’s resources and services has led us to developing an economy where everyday people in everyday jobs are destroying the future. What’s worse, they are assured that it is “rational” behaviour as that is the “cheapest” way to do things. It is time for a fundamental re-think. We need to correct that original error and develop an economy where we are rewarded for nourishing natural systems, not destroying them: a system that sees mineral resources themselves as something to be borrowed and reused as “food” for not just one process but a whole host of them; a system that encourages us to live with the planet, not on it.

If there is a single solution to climate change and an opportunity to preserve global civilisation, this is it.

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