Cultural cheerleaders constantly shout about how lucky we are to live in an age of miracles, a utopia of technology and progress. Everything is just great (if you cram most of reality under the bed).
But the folks who rip off their blinders know better. They can perceive huge and growing crises that cannot be well addressed via the pursuit of shopping and entertainment. They can see that it’s time to learn, to think, and to change. Understanding how we got into this bog of predicaments requires learning, lots of learning. For this, we need our superheroes, the historians.
William McNeill, and his son John, heard the calls for help, and came to the rescue. William once tried to boil the human journey down to one book, but it was 829 pages, too big for general readers. John’s vision was human history in 200 pages, and he teamed up with his father to write it. The finished product was 350 pages, and titled The Human Web.
The book slices human history into time blocks, and provides snapshots of the world during each period. It’s not a sleep-inducing recital of kings, empires, wars, and dates. It’s about trends — in technology, weaponry, religion, worldviews, and environmental impacts. The McNeills framed their discussion based on a model of webs, which are networks of communication and trade. Throughout the book, they take readers on an interesting promenade through the ages. Let’s take a peek at a few of their topics.
For most of the human journey, our hunter-gatherer phase, webs were small nomadic clans. They weren’t completely isolated. For example, the freakishly powerful new technology of bows and arrows made it much easier to deplete game and enemies. It managed to gradually spread from web to web until it was used everywhere except Australia. This was version 1.0 of the worldwide web. Technology that expands food production or kill-power has always been popular and highly contagious. Webs that don’t adopt the latest technology have an increased risk of extinction.
As humans migrated out of Mother Africa, into non-tropical ecosystems, new challenges and opportunities forced many changes. Survival depended on flexibility and innovation, and we got quite slick at this. By 40,000 years ago, we had become a potent “weed species” of invasive exotics, like dandelions, rats, and houseflies. Nothing could stop our spread.
With the emergence of agriculture 12,000 years ago, webs got bigger, and interacted more with neighboring webs. Around 6,000 years ago, the emergence of cities led to metropolitan webs. Things and ideas spread faster and farther. Strong webs frequently expanded by absorbing weaker webs. By 2,000 years ago, the highly successful Old World web included most of Eurasia and North Africa. Finally, by 500 years ago, most of the world’s webs merged into the cosmopolitan web, which spanned the entire globe.
We began domesticating animals about 6,000 years ago. Along the way, we learned a new trick, milking them. “Herdsmen, in effect, substituted themselves for kids and lambs as consumers of milk — an extraordinary perversion of natural biological relationships.” By going into the dairy business, a herder could extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply eating them.
Salvation religions, like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam grew in popularity because they made life tolerable for the oppressed majority. Everyone, including women and slaves, had souls, so nobody was worthless. Those who obeyed the divine rules while alive were promised eternal life in paradise.
Trading by barter was often clumsy. I might not want to trade my wheat for your rutabagas. The invention of money made trading much easier. This greatly increased the exchange of goods, and the injuries caused to ecosystems. Emperors also loved money, because taxes paid in rutabagas were a hassle. When peasants were required to pay taxes with money, they had to acquire money by selling stuff, forcing them to produce commodities.
In A.D. 1000, most of Western Europe was largely forest, and lightly populated. Then the moldboard plow came into use. It enabled farmers to till heavy soils. Cropland rapidly expanded as forests shrank. A similar explosion occurred in India and China, as rice farming spread between A.D. 200 and 1000, spurred by irrigation, iron tools, and the use of oxen. Population growth accelerated.
In the good old days, communities were not diverse. Members of small webs shared the same worldview, so there was far less friction. With the invention of the printing press, cities were flooded with information from many cultures, and many of the new ideas conflicted with traditional beliefs. Both the Pope and Luther howled, and tried to block the rising tide of science and other heresies. Today, science is working to standardize the global mind, at the expense of multinational religions and animist traditions.
Civilization is addicted to agriculture. Soil mining and water mining are unsustainable. We know this, but it’s impossible for us to go cold turkey and quit the habit. Similarly, we have become extremely addicted to the unsustainable use of fossil fuels, and our modern way of life would be impossible without them. Non-renewable resources do not last forever. Our super-sized global society is lurching toward its expiration date.
The most disturbing trend in this book is a non-stop, ever-growing arms race, driven by an obsession with perpetual growth. It seems to be impossible for unsustainable societies to stop pursuing more and better ways of smashing each other. During the industrial era there has been explosive growth in death technology. In the twenty-first century, we are now capable of wiping out most of humankind in a single day, with the push of a button.
The last chapter provides two summaries. John, the son, writes first. He sees history as an ongoing race for complexity, requiring ever-increasing flows of energy and information. In remote areas, simple cultures still work, but when complex cultures thrust into their sacred home, the days of wildness and freedom are soon over. Complexity provides immense competitive advantages, as long as the inflow of extracted resources continues. But the inflow is beginning to sputter. Consequently, “the chances of cataclysmic violence seem depressingly good.”
Then William, the father, writes. The path that led us to having one worldwide web was driven by a collective pursuit of wealth and power. He wondered how long this web could survive on our current energy flows. William thought that for long-term survival, we needed to return to small face-to-face communities, “within which shared meanings, shared values, and shared goals made life worth living for everyone, even the humblest and least fortunate.” He concluded, “My personal hunch is that catastrophes — great and small — are sure to come and human resilience will prove more than we can imagine.”
This book is part of a significant watershed in the modern perception of reality. It is pushing aside the magical thinking that assured us that technology and wise leaders could be trusted to smooth the path before us. Very late in the game, it’s finally acceptable for respected scholars like the McNeills to state the obvious. They point to big storms ahead, ready or not.
Constantly wishing away the swarms of contradictions makes us crazy. When we stop wishing, and open our eyes, the world suddenly snaps into sharp focus, and makes perfect sense — we are not in utopia; we are lost. Finally, we have a call to action. How can we get home? It’s time to pursue understanding, and stir in generous amounts of imagination. Our experiment in controlling and exploiting ecosystems has been a disaster. On the path forward, adapting to ecosystems is likely to work far better. It’s worth a try.
McNeill, J. R. and McNeill, William H., The Human Web — A Bird’s-eye View of World History, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003.