Sustainability, engagement and the end of empires – the big picture

Here is a first in a series of blogs offering a interpretation of human history positioning the times we are in now as the end of a long historical saga of empire building, and the dawn of a new global civilisation. In later posts I will explore the parallel shift from economies of exploitation and extraction to sustainable economies. And the agency of civilisation becomes communication, rather than conquest.

Rift valley refugees

We are all descendants of Rift Valley refugees  – our ancestors left Africa thousands of years ago and dispersed across the planet. Thus began the long migration, with humans constantly expanding into new territory. My country, New Zealand, was the end of the line, first colonised only about a thousand years ago by my wife’s Mäori ancestors, and further colonised by my European ancestors in the last 200 years.

This grand human saga has been civilisation by conquest. One group of humans would establish a foothold in a locality, but never for too long before being displaced by another, usually violently. Alternately, a sub-group, motivated by aversion to the status quo and/or the lure of new horizons would move on to establish a new colony. For years, the planet had abundant resources to fuel humanity’s relentless expansion. There were brief periods of peace and stability, but few lives were untouched by conflict.

This became the default human experience and patterned behaviours such as displays of dominance, disputes over resources, and ingrained insecurity predominated. Edgar Schein’s model of culture can be applied to this pervasive human culture. At the top level of Schein’s model are artefacts – the artefacts of the age of conquest changed over time, along with the characters in the war stories, but the essence of the stories was the same. As our ancestors replayed the stories over time they ingrained underlying assumptions of what life is all about and reinforced enduring drivers of human behaviour – “growth is good”, “extracting value” and “us and them”. Occasionally, enlightened individuals and movements would emerge but they would typically be usurped by those possibly influenced by the new, but reverting to the old patterns of behaviour.

Schein’s model and the age of empires

Schein’s classic definition of culture indicates how these patterns of behaviour are reinforced as the right way.

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (Schein, 2010 page 18)

Course correction and the end of empires

This pattern of behaviour caused great injustices, but our species thrived. As we learned to further develop our intelligence we arrived at a point in our development, 250 years ago, to use machines to further accelerate our expansion and extraction of the world’s resources. But in the last few decades the combination of this new technology and the old patterns of thinking have manifested a set of problems dwarfing any that humanity has faced before. Its time for a course correction.

We also appear to be at the end of the age of empires. The social evolution of humanity has seen us aggregate into larger and larger groups and embracing wider loyalties. What we loosely call “Western civilisation” is the last of the empires, or perhaps more correctly, a cluster of empires. The centre of power has shifted from Europe to the United States and colonisation has been more by commerce than by occupation, but it can be seen as an extension of the processes begun by Europeans for over a millennia.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, in his book Commonwealth, describes the process of convergence, whereby the United States position of a superpower is waning, and major economies head towards a state of convergence, where no single economy can dominate.

A new kind of global politics must take shape, built not on U.S. or Chinese preeminence, but on global cooperation across regions. Despite the reveries and fantasies of some, the age of empire is over, and certainly the age of a U.S. empire. We are now in the age of convergence.

Any thoughts so far. Part 2 of this series of posts looks at Civilisation by Engagement and Community Building. This blog is also published at Steps to Sustainability


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