Space: The final frontier?

So much great media today, it’s a real difficulty to choose, but I have to say the idea that’s stuck with me most today is Ian Morris’ talk to the Long Now Foundation ‘Why the West Rules – For Now.’

The Long Now Foundation puts on regular seminars called Seminars About Long-term Thinking (SALT), which is one of many reasons I’m looking forward to my upcoming move to San Francisco. They’ve had notables like Neil Ferguson, J Craig Venter, Ray Kurzweil and others in the business of creating great ideas come and speak their piece, all under the hospitality of Stuart Brandt, 10,000 year planner.

Ian Morris focused his talk on his theory of why certain civilizations have become dominant and later fallen away. He starts the talk by contrasting the two primary camps in history: the ‘accident’ group, which believes that it is only random chance that moves some societies into and out of prominence; and the ‘determinism’ group, which believes the West has dominated due to the superiority of our ancestors, the ancient Greeks. As is standard these days, Morris tosses aside both ideas as wrong and suggests that it is geography that picks the winners, and then the winners that reshape meaningful geography thus restarting the cycle.

His examples do well to prove his point. Forgive me for paraphrasing here but…

Initial geography led to an ease of domestication by some cultures, while others like Mesopotamia were unable to take advantage of steady rains. Eventually though, Mesopotamians and Egyptians figured out irrigation which led to even greater growth and sophistication. As the world focused on these regions, the fringes of the world were able to leverage the transport possibility of rivers and later seas like the Mediterranean to create greater prosperity. As the Greeks and then Romans rose, power became focused on the Med and Europe, leaving obscure Britain and Spain out. But studies to improve sea travel continued until ocean-travel was possible, and being least-invested in status quo and most able to take advantage of the ocean, these powers found greater wealth in expanding trade. But as their manufacturing was being supplanted by slaves in other countries, Britain focused on improving productivity leading to the Industrial Revolution. As America adopted these new technologies with its natural wealth, they became able to take advantage of the Pacific Ocean’s potential for trade, surpassing the European powers in trade abilities. This opening of the Pacific has pulled the East back into the equation, allowing them to adopt the best commercial and industrial practices of the world with none of the associated baggage, to begin its move to eclipse the West.

In short, at every stage, it is the group at the fringe, with the least invested in the current power-generating strategy, that turns a geographical barrier into a bonus (often a trade route). Whether it be learning to navigate open waters or using rivers as highways, these fringe societies quickly become the new centers of the world.

In my opinion, he does a poor job contrasting the parallel evolution of East and West. Why did China reach a zenith during the river/sea navigation and not increase scientific study to create ocean travel? Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel did a much better job of both explaining the origin of these societies but explaining the importance of small barriers that allow trade but prevent united societies. Further along this criticism, why did Britain and not Spain remain committed to its ocean empire, is that just random? Why did Germany upgrade their industry to surpass the British instead of Italy or the Ottoman Empire? All of three were out of the spotlight, what barrier favored German ingenuity?

This is not to say that I did not enjoy or do not agree with Morris’ thesis, merely that I find it wanting for answering the very questions he asks. In one sense, he is correct that technology rapidly spreads and creates a destabilizing force, allowing forgotten groups to turn obstacle into stepping stone. His prediction that the East’s ability to adopt the good parts of Western capitalism/industrialization and surge ahead seem realistic as most nations when left with nothing but the will to modernize make staggering leaps given the lack of established interests (witness Germany and Japan’s triumphs after WWII devastated the countries).

I was sad nobody brought up the internet, an astonishing new mode of commerce and idea exchange! America’s dominance of this information frontier surely was driven by the same forces that drove British industrialization: a need for greater productivity in light of cheaper, outside entities.

It all leads me to wonder what’s really next. There are no more physical oceans. In the Q&A of the talk Morris responds to thoughts on adjusting to climate change and dodges a space question. It is my opinion that space is our next ocean in this context. The forgotten nation with no interest in defending the status quo will ultimately take advantage of the great resources. The resources are everything from mining rights on asteroids to technological advances that come with increased experience navigating this realm. Five or ten years ago I would’ve thought China the leading candidate, but increasingly they are seeking not to redefine the world but merely to claw their way to the top of the status quo. Perhaps an energy-rich and resource-conscious power like Brazil or Australia will start reaching out to mine the closest asteroids. An offer of a tax-free yield to the first company that mines ore from a near earth object within X years would certainly be a huge incentive as many of these asteroids contain more gold than currently in circulation (as well as other minerals).

Media type: Podcast
From: Seminars About Long-term Thinking
Title: “Why the West Rules – For Now”
Hear it at: http://longnow.org/seminars/02011/apr/13/why-west-rules-now/

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