Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The city planet

"But the history book of recent Homo sapiens...should begin and end with one narrative line: We became city dwellers."

~Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map

Sometime around 2008 we quietly tripped over a major transition line. For the first time in human existence more of us lived within urban areas rather than the countryside.

Welcome to our city-planet: a world of urban hives, sprawling edge cities, wired hinterlands, and shrinking wildernesses.

This transition has had me thinking about other major tipping points and under-appreciated shifts in human development. The story of our species looks quite different when focusing in on geographic regions, or long-duration trade networks, or biological and information exchanges as topics of historical inquiry rather than the traditional study of nation-states. Entirely new patterns of interactions and casual dynamics appear when examining these systems.

Some of the major transitions and events might be:

•The emergence of symbolic thought as indicated by art, grave goods, and burial of the dead. This may have marked the emergence of animistic religious worldviews.

•The adoption of syntactical language and its organizing effects on the brain, which may be a key component of advanced abstract reasoning.

•The first successful emigration out of Africa

•The extinction of the Neanderthals, the last of our fellow homini species. Or possibly the extinction of Homo floresiensis, the Indonesian “hobbits,” who may have existed up until 12,000-years ago.

•The settlement of the Americas, making Homo sapiens a global-spanning species.

•The start of the Holocene and the retreat of glaciers in the northern hemisphere.

•The transition from family bands to multi-family tribes in regions with highly productive ecologies.

•The neolithic revolution. The adoption of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent and subsequently in other locations. This marks the beginning of the displacement of hunter-gathers by agricultural societies.

•The emergence of multi-generational family households, with several generations of extended family under one roof. This often included hired help or slaves.

•The domestication of livestock and emergence of pastoralists

•The domestication of transport animals in Eurasia

•The emergence of chieftainship societies with specialized labor and economic social classes, distinct from the hierarchically flat generalist hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. Chieftainships also created organized warfare as well as corvĂ©e and slave labor that enabled the building of public works to increase agriculture and trade productivity.

•The first cities in Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and in what is now Northern China and Mesoamerica.

•The emergence of mythology-based anthropomorphic deities and belief systems.  This change replaced earlier animal totems and spirits of nature with entities who often embodied the abstract dynamics of the human world.

•The adoption of written language, which enabled a leap in the organizational complexity of large undertakings as well as the durability and clarity of information stored in external memory systems.

•The emergence of currencies, which allowed for new forms of large-scale market-driven economic organization without the necessity of having a chieftain. Political power then became more diffuse in city-states

•The emergence of continent-spanning trade networks such as the Silk Roads of Eurasia, the Gold Roads of Africa, and the Turquoise Road that linked portions of North and Central America.

•The emergence of early nations in the form of empires. By the year 0 BCE multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empires in Rome, Persia, India, and China nearly spanned the entire length of Eurasia from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

•The suppression of polygamy in empires and city states to maintain social stability. Prior to this, polygamy had been a common practice in tribal and chiefdom societies, but served as a frequent motivator for destabilizing violence among low-status males who were unable to find female partners or wives within their own society.

•The emergence of early humanism in India, China, and Classical Greece. While not widely held at the time, these human-centered worldviews were built around concepts that would later give rise to secular paradigms. Of particular note in Greece were the ideas of empirical observation and discourse on its discoveries, leading to truths that clashed with cultural descriptions of reality.

•The emergence of monotheism and religious paradigms based universal truths

•The adoption of wind and water wheels across Eurasia, which greatly increased the amount energy available for manufacturing goods such as textiles as well as processing foodstuffs in mills.

•The Vikings’ contact with native North Americas. For the first time humanity completely encircled the Earth.

•The Columbian biological exchange of foodstuffs, fauna, and pathogens between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

•The colonization of the Americas

•The gradual emergence of a modern Humanist worldview in which the lives of humans are the primary and the divine is secondary.

•The decision of Song China to adopt silver as its national currency during the early 1400s. The subsequent exploitation of extensive silver deposits in the Americas by Europeans gave the Spanish and Portuguese greatly expanded access to East Asian markets. This lead to the creation of the first globe-circling trade networks and the finial eclipse of the Silk Roads by maritime shipping. It also served to drive much of the Western European powers’ imperial expansion.

•The creation of the formalized scientific method

•The Industrial Revolution and the switch from wind- and water-based power for industry and transportation to hydrocarbon power.

•The beginning of the decline in the use of animal power for manufacture and transportation

•The emergence of Rationalist paradigms

•The creation of the first atheist state in revolutionary France. All previous human societies had incorporated religions as central cultural institutions.

•The emergence of Romantic paradigms as a backlash against Rationalism.

•European colonialism in East Asia and Africa

•The emergence of centralized, bureaucratic nation-states


•The rise of national identities, which subsume the regional, local, and kin-based group identities that had been humanity's primary group identifiers.


•The decline of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empires when faced with rising nationalism in subject states and peoples.

•The use of petroleum product to created easily transportable energy sources of unprecedented power and reliability. This also allowed for the creation of nitrogen-based fertilizers which greatly reduced human dependence of solar power in agriculture, which in turn freed much of humankind from famine or food scarcity as a repeated lifetime experiences.

•Urbanization. Large scale migrations into cities accelerates dramatically. This places urban dwellers in the historically unusual position of dealing with dozens of strangers each day.

•The emergence of nuclear families as with parents and their children living in households separate  from grandparents and other extended kin.

•As the industrial revolution proceeds, many urban dwellers shift to consumer- rather than producer-based individual identities.

•The theory of Natural Selection and the Big Bang theory provided secular frameworks for explanations of the origin of the universe and the origin of biological life.

•The mapping of the world and the end of the age of exploration bring an end to the worldview of Earth as a place of mysteries. At the same time the discovery of a universe outside the Milky Way galaxy during the early 20th century shifts the realm of the unknown to the newly expanded heavens.

•The emergence of religious fundamentalist worldviews as a reaction to modernity

•The emergence of secular totalitarian ideologies as reactions or adaptations to modernity. In less than one century these systems kill more people than religion in all of previous human history.

•Using industrial hydrocarbon power, Homo sapiens become the largest transporter of earth, moving more tons of it than any geological process aside from the continental drift.

•The devolution of power. Political power continues an uneven trend of diffusing from elites to the public within democratic nation-states.  An advance that is generally associated with the rise of innovative industrial economies.

•The acceleration of global trade and communications

•The acceleration of scientific and engineering knowledge as well as technological breakthroughs.

•Technology continues to place ever-greater physical power into the hands of individuals.

2 comments:

Q. said...

An interesting list, as much for what you left out of it as for what you put into it.

Alex Black said...

Yeah, I was going for the broadest possible ones. I ended up leaving out major geological and climatic events like the Toba eruption and the 1300-year Younger Dryas freeze.

I'm curious as to what you would chose to include.