Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Great Transition

by Kenneth E Boulding

Chapter One of

The Meaning of the Twentieth Century (1964)

THE twentieth century marks the middle period of a great transition in the state of the human race. It may properly be called the second great transition in the history of mankind.

The first transition was that from precivilized to civilized society which began to take place about five (or ten) thousand years ago {1}. This is a transition that is still going on in some parts of the world, although it can be regarded as almost complete. Precivilized society can now be found only in small and rapidly diminishing pockets in remote areas. It is doubtful whether more than five per cent of the world's population could now be classified as living in a genuinely precivilized society.

Even as the first great transition is approaching completion, however, a second great transition is treading on its heels. It may be called the transition from civilized to postcivilized society. We are so accustomed to giving the word civilization a favorable overtone that the words postcivilized or postcivilization may strike us as implying something unfavorable. If, therefore, the word "technological" or the term "developed society" is preferred I would have no objection. The word postcivilized, however, does bring out the fact that civilization is an intermediate state of man dividing the million or so years of precivilized society from an equally long or longer period which we may expect to extend into the future postcivilization. It is furthermore a rather disagreeable state for most people living in it, and its disappearance need occasion few tears.

The origins of the first great transition from precivilized society are lost in the mists of prehistory except in so far as they can be reconstructed with the aid of archeology. The more we know the further these origins seem to recede in time, and it now seems clear that the beginning of agriculture and the domestication of animals can be traced back at least ten thousand years. Agriculture is a precondition of the development of civilization because it is not until man settles down and begins to cultivate crops and domesticate livestock that he is able to develop a surplus of food from the food producer above and beyond what the food producer and his family require themselves for their own maintenance. In hunting, fishing, and pastoral societies it seems to have been hard for the food producer to produce much more than the immediate requirements of himself and his family. In these circumstances it is clear that no urban culture can possibly exist. If persons who do not produce food are to be fed, there must be surplus food available from the food producer. Some precivilized societies seem to have enjoyed such a surplus, but it was always precarious and temporary. There must be a continuous and reasonably stable excess of food production above the requirements of the food producer if civilization is to be established.

The mere existence of surplus food, while it is a prerequisite for the existence of civilization, does not necessarily produce it, for surplus may be "wasted" in leisure or unproductive activities. In order for towns and cities to exist there must be some machinery whereby the food surplus of the food producer is extracted from him and collected in one place so that the kings, priests, soldiers, builders, and artisans of civilization can subsist. I am assuming here that the prime mark of civilization is the city. This is indeed what the derivation of the word civilization suggests. In its earliest form the city seems to have been a product of some system of coercion. Agriculture provides the opportunity, but in the early stages at least it seems to take some form of coercion to take advantage of it. The earliest forms of coercion may well have been spiritual, for there is some evidence that the earliest cities were organized as theocracies. A priesthood arises which claims a monopoly on the supposedly supernatural forces which govern the affairs of man and the fertility of crops and livestock. The priest then is able to extract food from the food producer by threatening to deprive him of the assistance of these supernatural forces. The coercive system of the priest, however, is based to a large extent on bluff, for the priest does not really control the forces that make the crops grow. When the priest ceases to inspire belief in his imaginary powers the spiritual coercive system usually seems to be replaced by a more physical coercive system in the shape of a king and army. In isolation this is a fairly stable system because when the king has sufficient means of violence at his disposal he can threaten the food producer enough to make him give up his surplus. With this food surplus the king can feed his army and so reinforce the threat if necessary. With what is left over from feeding the army, the king can feed architects, builders, priests, philosophers, and other adornments of civilization. In this stage an alliance is frequently made between the king and the priest, and physical and spiritual threats reinforce each other. The economic basis on which classical civilization has been built, however, has universally been meager. Whether it was Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Ancient China, the Incas, or the Mayans, all these were societies based on a food surplus from the food producer that rarely exceeded twenty or 25 per cent of the total product. In these circumstances three quarters to four fifths of the population must be in agriculture or other food production, and these people barely produce enough to feed the remaining quarter or fifth of the population in the towns and in the army. Almost all the cities of classical civilization were within a few weeks of starvation at any time, and a relatively small worsening in general conditions, in the means of transportation or in conditions of peace and war, was frequently enough to undermine the precarious foundation of civilized life. I have never seen any figure for the expectation of life of the city itself under conditions of classical civilization, but I would be surprised if this turned out to be more than about three hundred years.

The origins of the second great transition are perhaps not so obscure as the origins of the first but there are many puzzling and unresolved questions connected with them. All through the history of civilization, indeed, one can detect a slowly rising stream of knowledge and organization that has a different quality from that of the civilized society around it. The astronomy of Babylonia, the geometry of the Greeks, and the algebra of the Arabs represent as it were foretastes of the great flood of knowledge and technological change to come. Some of the ancient empires, even the Roman Empire, seem to have been technologically stagnant and scientifically backward. If one is looking for the beginning of a continuous process of scientific and technological development this might be traced to the monastic movement in the West of the sixth century AD, especially the Benedictines. Here for almost the first time in history we had intellectuals who worked with their hands, and who belonged to a religion which regarded the physical world as in some sense sacred and capable of enshrining goodness. It is not surprising therefore that an interest in the economizing of labor and in extending its productive powers began in the monasteries, however slowly. From the sixth century on we can trace a slowly expanding technology. The water wheel comes in the sixth century, the stirrup in the eighth, the horse collar and the rudder in the ninth, the windmill in the twelfth, and so on. For Europe the invention of printing in the fifteenth century represents an irreversible take-off, because from this point on the dissemination of information increased with great rapidity. The seventeenth century saw the beginning of science, the eighteenth century an acceleration of technological change so great that it has been called, perhaps rather misleadingly, the Industrial Revolution. The nineteenth century saw the development of science as an ongoing social organization, and the twentieth century has seen research and development heavily institutionalized with an enormous increase in the rate of change both of knowledge and of technology as a result. It must be emphasized that the rate of change still seems to be accelerating. We may not even have reached the middle of whatever process we are passing through, and there are certainly no signs that the rate of change is slowing down. It seems clear for instance that we are now on the edge of a biological revolution which may have results for mankind just as dramatic as the nuclear revolution of a generation ago.

A few symptoms will indicate the magnitude of the change through which we are now passing. Consider for instance the position of agriculture in the most developed societies today. In all societies of classical civilizaton, as we have seen, at least 75 per cent of the population, and often a larger percentage, were engaged in agriculture and would merely produce enough to support themselves and the remaining urban 25 per cent. Even in the United States at the time of the American Revolution, it has been estimated that about ninety per cent of the people were in agriculture. Today in the United States only about ten per cent of the population are so engaged, and if present trends continue it will not be long before we can produce all the food that we need with five per cent, or even less, of the population. This is because with modern techniques, a single farmer and his family can produce enough food to feed ten, twenty, or even thirty families. This releases more than ninety per cent of the population to work on other things, and to produce automobiles, houses, clothing, all the luxuries and conveniences of life as well as missiles and nuclear weapons.

Another indication of the magnitude of the present transition is the fact that, as far as many statistical series related to activities of mankind are concerned, the date that divides human history into two equal parts is well within living memory. For the volume and number of chemical publications, for instance, this date is now (that is 1964) about 1950. For many statistical series of quantities of metal or other materials extracted, this date is about 1910. That is, man took about as much out of mines before 1910 as he did after 1910. Another startling fact is that about 25 per cent of the human beings who have ever lived are now alive, and what is even more astonishing, something like ninety per cent of all the scientists who have ever lived are now alive. My eight-year-old son asked me the other day, "Daddy, were you born in the olden days?" It is the sort of question that makes a parent feel suddenly middle-aged. There is perhaps more truth in his remark than he knew. In a very real sense the changes in the state of mankind since the date of my birth have been greater than the changes that took place in many thousands of years before this date.

Another indication of the magnitude of the transition is the extraordinary ability of modern societies to recover from disaster. In 1945, for instance, many of the cities of Germany and Japan lay in almost total ruin. Today it is hard to tell that they were ever destroyed, for they have been completely rebuilt in a space of less than twenty years. It took Western Europe almost three hundred years to recover from the fall of the Roman Empire, and it took Germany decades to recover from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). It is perhaps an optimistic feature of the present time that as well as great powers of destruction, we also have greatly increased powers of recuperation and recovery.

The great transition is not only something that takes place in science, technology, the physical machinery of society, and in the utilization of physical energy. It is also a transition in social institutions. Changes in technology produce change in social institutions, and changes in institutions produce change in technology. In the enormously complex world of social interrelations we cannot say in any simple way that one change produces the other, only that they are enormously interrelated and both aspects of human life change together. For instance, it has been argued that the invention of the rudder and the improvement in the arts of navigation and shipbuilding which took place in Europe in the fifteenth century led inevitably to the discovery of America by Europeans. As a schoolboy is reported to have said, "How could Columbus miss it?" Once it was possible to navigate a course of three thousand miles in a straight line, the discovery of America by the Europeans was virtually inevitable, and of course this discovery enormously expanded the horizon and the opportunities of these European societies.

On the other hand, the societies which pioneered in the discovery of America did not ultimately profit very much from it. Spain and Portugal obtained a great empire and a sizable inflation but stagnated as a result, because of the failure of their social institutions to adapt.

It has likewise been argued that the discovery of the horse collar eventually led to the abolition of slavery, at least in its more extreme forms, because of the fact that with a horse collar the horse became a much more efficient source of mere animal power than a human, and the slave as a simple source of power could not compete with him. A horse collar seems to be such an obvious invention that one can hardly believe that it took until the ninth century for mankind to think of it. However, it seems to be clear that the Romans did not use it, and that the Roman horse pulled on rope that was something like a noose around its neck, which greatly reduced its efficiency. The horse collar, coupled with the development of the three-field system, led to a substantial improvement in the techniques of agriculture in Europe in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries which was the foundation on which the cultural and architectural achievements of the later Middle Ages were built. Here again, however, the social institutions of its feudal and authoritarian societies led to a freezing of the technological situation, and further advance in agriculture did not come until the institutions of the Middle Ages had largely disintegrated or at least were weakened through the inflation which followed on the inflow of the Spanish gold from the New World. The rise of Protestantism and the breakup of the old transitional society produced a situation in Holland and in England in which innovation was once more possible, and the agricultural revolution of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries grew out of the developing of root crops, the use of intertilled crops on previously fallow ground, and the sowing of artificial grasses. This improvement in agriculture, at least in England and the Low Countries in the early eighteenth century, laid the foundation for a growing food surplus for the industrial cities to come.

The social invention of parliamentary democracy permitted societies to develop with much greater diversity and wider distribution of power that in the earlier absolute monarchies, and the rise of modern science is quite closely associated with the development of democratic and pluralistic institutions of this kind. It could not arise, for instance, in imperial China or feudal Japan. It is no accident that an acceleration in the growth of science took place in Western Europe following the French Revolution. It is clear that we must look at pure science, technological change, and social invention as parts of a single pattern of development in which each element supports the other. It may be argued indeed that social institutions play more of a negative than a positive role, in that they can inhibit scientific and technological change but cannot initiate it. Even this proposition, however, must now be called in question. Organized research and development is essentially a social invention which has resulted in an enormous increase in the pace of technological change.

As another example of the interrelation of technical and political change it can be argued, for instance, that it is the progress of technology, especially under the stimulus of organized research and development, that has effectively abolished imperialism. Ancient civilization, as we have seen, rested firmly on a basis of coercion. The food producer had to be coerced into giving up the surplus to king or priest because there was nothing much that either of them produced that could be exchanged for it. The ancient city is to a large extent an instrument of exploitation and must be regarded as parasitic on the food producer. In the modern world things are different. Since the development of industrial society, exchange has replaced coercion as the principal means of social organization even though coercion and the threat of violence still retain a great importance in the relations of national states. But with the coming of science and technology, it is fair to say that we can get ten dollars out of nature for every dollar that we can squeeze out of man. Under these circumstances imperial adventure or political coercion is simply an investment with a much lower rate of return than investment in applied science and technological progress at home. We see this very clearly, for instance, in the case of Portugal, which now has probably the largest per capita empire and the lowest per capita income in Europe. By contrast, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, which have refrained from imperial adventures, have, probably done better economically than their more imperial counterparts. The progressive abandonment of empire by the British, the French, the Dutch, and the Belgians reflects not so much a power shift on the part of these countries as their recognition that in terms of the values of a modern society, empire simply does not pay.

Social inventions often take place so softly and imperceptibly that they are hardly noticed, and the history of social invention as a result still largely remains to be written. Who for instance invented the handshake? How did we change from a society in which almost every man went armed to a society in which we have achieved almost complete personal disarmament, and in which human relations are governed by conventions of politeness, by disarming methods of communication, and by largely nonviolent techniques of conflict? Most of all, how do changes take place in child rearing? These perhaps are the most fundamental social inventions of all, for the personality structure of one generation depends mainly on the way children were brought up in the previous generation.

As part of the ongoing process of social invention the great transition involves changes in moral, religious, and aesthetic aspects of life just as much as it involves changes in our knowledge and use of the physical world. It involves, for instance, change in the nature of the family and in the patterns of child rearing. Civilized society on the whole is characterized by the extended family, and by strong loyalty to kinfolk and by methods of child rearing which generally involve a rough transition from an extremely permissive and protective early childhood to an authoritarian and unpleasant regime in later childhood. As we move to postcivilized society, we find an extension of loyalty from the kinship group to larger areas such as the national state, or even to the world as a whole. The family structure and living arrangement tend to shift from the extended family group and large household to the small nuclear family of parents and children, and we find that the child-rearing practices which may be well adapted to a society in which the threat systems are important and aggression pays off, have become poorly adapted to a society in which the subtler arts of personal manipulation replace the more violent forms of aggression. We therefore find a shift in the methods of child rearing from those which produce the authoritarian personalities which are characteristic of civilized societies to those which produce more flexible, adaptable, and manipulative persons.

Drastic changes in the nature and behavior of the family are also implied by the health revolution which is also a part of the transition. In civilized society, mortality is high and there is a necessity therefore for a high birth rate. Civilized society can be in equilibrium with birth and death rates between thirty and forty per thousand and a corresponding expectation of life between thirty-three and twenty-five. It is a matter of simple arithmetic that in an equilibrium population in which birth rate and death rate are equal, the level of the birth and death rates is the simple reciprocal of the average age at death. In the advanced societies today the average age at death is about seventy, and for such a population to be in equilibrium the birth and death rate must be about fourteen. To put the matter in somewhat different terms, if all children live to maturity and if the whole population marries, then the average number of children in one family cannot exceed two, if population is to be stable. This also implies no more than an average of two births per family. This involves an enormous shift in attitude toward children and even perhaps toward sex. Yet this is an essential part of the transition. If this part of the transition is not made, all the rest cannot be made either, except as a temporary and unstable condition.

The great transition likewise involves a profound change in the nature of religion and ideology. In a society in which religion is associated with animistic views of the universe and with a belief in magic, the behavior changes which are necessary to the great transition can hardly take place. If man believes that natural objects like stones, wind, water, and crops are moved by essentially arbitrary wills, either he will despair of manipulating nature to his own advantage or he will attempt to do this in the same way that he would attempt to manipulate his fellow man - that is, by attempts at verbal or symbolic communication, in the form of incantation and ritual. It is not until animism is replaced by an attitude which regards will as essentially and solely a property of the minds and souls of men, rather than of inanimate natural objects, that a scientific and technological attitude toward the material world becomes possible. It is no accident therefore that the scientific transition originated in Western Europe, where the prevailing religion was an ethical monotheism, which either tended to concentrate the whole animistic enterprise in a single sacramental act of the Mass, as in Catholic Christianity, or which denied even this apparent remnant of animism by stressing that the operation of the will of God takes place principally in the souls of men, as in Protestant Christianity.

We may even attribute the success of atheistic communism in promoting economic development and the movement toward postcivilized society not so much to its specific dogmas as to the fact that it is an instrument for undermining primitive animism and for replacing a belief in the arbitrary and willful nature of the material world by a belief in its stability and orderliness. Whether this view can ultimately satisfy the spiritual needs of man is another question altogether. It is clear that the scientific and technological transition is consistent with many different views about the ultimate nature of the universe, provided that they all involve a faith in the orderliness of the natural world, faith in man's ability to perceive this order and manipulate it for his own benefit, and faith in processes of learning which involve direct experience rather than mere acceptance of the received tradition from the elders.

The various civilizations which resulted from the first great transition, even though they had much in common, nevertheless exhibited great differences. One needs merely to think of Ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, medieval Europe, and China. Similarly it seems probable that the second great transition will not immediately at least result in a uniform world culture but will result in a considerable variety of cultural patterns, each of them however exhibiting very similar technologies and levels of income. But it is probable that postcivilized society, simply because of the fact that its techniques are much less bound either to geography or to past culture than are the techniques of civilized society, will turn out to be much more uniform than the civilized societies have been. We see this, for instance, in the airports of the world. Air travel is a distinct mark of postcivilized society, and airports are much the same whether we find them in Bangkok or in Chicago. Similarly, steel mills are much the same in Volta Redonda in Brazil, in Birmingham, Alabama, or in India. In so far as civilization was based on agriculture, the physical basis made for wide differences. The agriculture of the Nile delta is very different from the agriculture of wheat fields of the steppes and prairies, which again is different from that of the rice paddies of Asia. We should therefore expect that civilizations based on agriculture would exhibit markedly different technological as well as cultural forms. Professor Wittfogel {2} has suggested indeed that the political and social institutions of civilized society are closely related to the type of agriculture from which it draws its food supply, and in particular an agriculture which requires extensive public works and irrigation like that of Ancient Egypt and China is much more likely to develop hierarchical and authoritarian societies than an agriculture based on small peasant holdings in humid lands where no public organization of any great magnitude or large public works are needed in order to grow food. Even in postcivilized societies, of course, rice paddies are different from wheat fields and produce a different kind of culture. Nevertheless the tractor is much the same everywhere, just as the automobile and factories are much the same everywhere, and this imposes a uniformity at least on the technological culture of the world which it never possessed before.

Furthermore the rapid and easy transportation which postcivilization permits makes it much more difficult to maintain culture traits in isolation. Civilizations could flourish at the same time on the earth which had little or no contact one with another. The Mayan civilization certainly had no contact with Rome, and Rome had very little contact with China. The transition to civilization indeed may have been accomplished in at least three independent locations or perhaps even more, though these origins are so obscure that we cannot be sure of this. Now, however, it is as easy to go halfway around the world as it used to be to go to a neighboring town, and under these circumstances an enormous process of cultural mixture is taking place which can hardly help producing much greater uniformity even in a few hundred years. It is doubtful whether a single world language will emerge in the near future, but certainly in styles of clothing, housing, mass entertainment, and transportation it is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish one part of the world from another.

An important difference which is likely to be maintained for a considerable time is that between societies which are making the transition under democratic and capitalistic institutions and those which are making the transition under institutions of totalitarian socialism. It certainly seems possible to make the technological transition under both sets of institutions. Nevertheless the societies which will emerge as a result might be quite different not only in the political and social institutions but in the value systems and the nature and quality of human life which they support. In the short run this raises many problems and unquestionably increases the danger of war and the probability that the transition will not be made. In the long perspective of history, however, this may turn out to have been a fortunate accident, if indeed it is an accident. It might well be that one of the greatest problems of postcivilized society will be how to preserve enough differentiation of human culture and how to prevent the universal spread of a drab uniformity. Cultural change and development at all times has frequently come about as a result of the interaction of cultures which previously have developed in isolation. This is a phenomenon somewhat analogous to the development of hybrid varieties in plants and animals. If we are to have hybrid cultures, however, just as if we are to have hybrid animals, there must be pure stocks maintained to interbreed. The strength of the mule and the fertility of hybrid corn would be impossible if the pure stocks from which these hybrids are derived are not maintained. Similarly in the case of cultures if we are to have vigorous hybrid cultures, the pure cultures from which these are derived must be maintained, and in a world of easy travel and rapid communication the maintenance of the pure cultures may be difficult. It may therefore be possible that things which now we regard as unfortunate sources of conflict and separation may turn out to be blessings in disguise. If socialist culture and free-market culture can develop side by side without fatal conflict, their constant interaction may be beneficial to both parties. Similarly even the development of religious sects and subcultures which are isolated from the world by what may seem a nonrational ideology may turn out to be extremely useful devices for preserving the diversity of mankind.

Perhaps the most difficult of all these problems involving diversity and uniformity is the problem of the future of different races. The different races of mankind have a sufficient sexual attraction for each other so that in the absence of any geographical or cultural obstacles to genetic mixture it is highly probable that in the course of a few thousand years the human race would become racially uniform, and the existing differences between races will be largely eliminated. From some points of view this may be very desirable, and it will certainly eliminate certain problems of interhuman conflict, most of which however are defined culturally rather than biologically. We know so little about human genetics, however, especially on the positive side of the forces which lead to genetic excellence, that it is impossible now to prophesy what may be regarded as eugenic in the future. The eugenic movement of the nineteenth century was based on inadequate knowledge of human genetics and hence could not get very far. If we develop as we may well do more accurate knowledge of the genetic factors which make for human excellence both of mind and body, the consequences for ethics, for almost all social relations, and for political behavior might be immense. But this is a bridge which we have not yet come to, and it may be well to postpone worrying about it until we do. In the meantime knowledge of human genetics, apart from a few factors making for certain defects, is not developed enough so that from it we can justify either racial purity or racial admixture. It might well be indeed that we will end by classifying mankind genetically along quite different lines from the way in which the races are now classified by strictly superficial characteristics, and we may then be able to warn against dangerous genetic combinations, as we do already with the Rh factor, and perhaps even encourage desirable combinations. Much of this, however, is in the future, though at the rate at which the biological sciences are now developing it may not be in the very distant future.

The great question as to whether the transition from civilization to postcivilization is a "good" change is one that cannot be answered completely until we know the nature and quality of different postcivilized societies. We might well argue in contemplating the first great transition from precivilized to civilized societies that in many cases this was a transition from a better state of man to a worse. As we contemplate the innumerable wars of civilized societies, as we contemplate the hideous religion of human sacrifice and the bloody backs of innumerable slaves on which the great monuments of civilization have been built, it is sometimes hard to refrain from a certain romantic nostalgia for the "noble savage". Indeed, the philosophes of the eighteenth century indulged in this feeling at great length. Anthropologists have somewhat dispelled the romantic view of precivilized society, which was in many cases not only poor but cruel and disagreeable beyond even the excesses of civilization. Nevertheless it will not be difficult to contrast the best of precivilized societies and the worst of civilized societies and come out much in favor of the precivilized. Similarly a type of postcivilized society is possible as portrayed, for instance, in the anti-Utopias of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley in the middle of the twentieth century, in which the quality of human life and the dignity of man seem to be much inferior to that in the best of civilized societies.

There is clearly here a problem to be solved. We do not make men automatically good and virtuous by making them rich and powerful; indeed the truth frequently seems to be the opposite. Nevertheless we must not fall into the other trap of equating innocence with ignorance or of thinking that impotence is the same thing as virtue. An increase in power increases the potential both for good and for evil. A postcivilized society of unshakable tyranny, resting upon all the knowledge which we are going to gain in social sciences, and of unspeakable corruption resting on man's enormous power over nature, especially biological nature, is by no means inconceivable. On the other hand the techniques of postcivilization also offer us the possibility of a society in which the major sources of human misery have been eliminated, a society in which there will be no war, poverty, or disease, and in which a large majority of human beings will be able to live out their lives in relative freedom from most of the ills which now oppress a major part of mankind. This is a prize worth driving for even at the risk of tyranny and corruption. There is no real virtue in impotence, and the virtue to strive for is surely the combination of power with goodness.

In any case there is probably no way back. The growth of knowledge is one of the most irreversible forces known to mankind. It takes a catastrophe of very large dimensions to diminish the total stock of knowledge in the possession of man. Even in the rise and fall of great civilizations surprisingly little has been permanently lost, and much that was lost for a short time was easily regained. Hence there is no hope for ignorance or for a morality based on it. Once we have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, as the Biblical story illustrates so well, Eden is closed to us. We cannot go back to the childhood of our race any more than we can go back to our own childhood without disaster. Eden has been lost to us forever and an angel with a flaming sword stands guard at its gates. Therefore either we must wander hopelessly in the world or we must press forward to Zion. We must learn to master ourselves as we are learning to master nature. There is no reason in the nature of things which says that ethical development is impossible, and indeed one would expect that the process of development, whether economic, political, or social, will go hand in hand with a similar process of ethical development which will enable us to use wisely the power that we have gained. This ethical development may take forms which will seem strange to us now, but just as we can trace development in the values and ethical standards of mankind as his economic and physical powers increased from precivilized society, so it is reasonable that new ethical standards will arise appropriate to the new technology of postcivilization.

We must emphasize that there is no inevitability and no determinism in making this great transition. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, there are a number of traps which lie along the way and which may either prevent man and his planet earth from making the transition altogether or delay it for many generations or even thousands of years. The first most obvious and immediate trap is the war trap. It is now theoretically possible for man to build a device which will eliminate all life from the earth. Even if this extreme event is highly improbable, less extreme disasters are at least within a range of probability that makes them a matter of serious concern. A major nuclear war would unquestionably set back the transition to a postcivilized world by many generations, and it might indeed eliminate the possibility of making this transition altogether. The effect of such war on the whole ecological system of the planet is so unpredictable that we cannot tell how large a disaster it will be, although we know it will be very large. It is possible that such a disaster will be irretrievable. It is also possible that even if we had a retrievable disaster we might not learn enough from it to retrieve ourselves. It is clear that what is desperately needed at the present time is to diminish the probability of such a disaster to the vanishing point.

Another possible trap which might delay the attainment of the transition for a long time is the population trap. This is perhaps the main reason for believing that the impact of a few postcivilized techniques on existing civilized societies might easily be disastrous in the next hundred years or so. One of the first impacts of postcivilized medicine and medical knowledge on civilized society is a large and immediate reduction in the death rate, especially in infant mortality. This is seldom if ever accompanied by a similar decrease in birth rate, and hence the first impact of postcivilized techniques on a previously stable civilized society is a tremendous upsurge in the rate of population increase. This increase may be so large that the society is incapable of adapting itself to it, and incapable in particular of devoting sufficient resources to the education of its unusually large cohorts of young people. We therefore have the tragic situation that the alleviation of much human misery and suffering in the short run may result in enormous insoluble problems in a longer period.

A third possible trap is the technological trap itself: that we may not be able to develop a genuinely stable high-level technology which is independent of exhaustible resources. Technology at the present time, even the highest technology, is largely dependent for its sources of energy and materials on accumulations in the earth which date from its geological past. In a few centuries, or at most a few thousand years, these are likely to be exhausted, and either man will fall back on a more primitive technology or he will have to advance to knowledge well beyond what he has now. Fortunately there are signs that this transition to a stable high-level technology may be accomplished, but we certainly cannot claim that it has been accomplished up to date.

A fourth possible trap may lie in the very nature of man itself. If the dangers and difficulties which now beset man are eliminated in postcivilized society and if he has no longer anything to fear but death itself, will not his creativity be diminished and may he not dissipate his energies in a vast ennui and boredom? This is a question which cannot be answered. But it lurks uneasily at the back of all optimistic statements about the long-run future of man.

All these traps will be discussed at greater length later in this book. In the meantime we may now go on to further consideration of the sources of this great transition both in the natural and the social sciences.


{1} The first transition falls into two parts, the transition from the paleolithic to the neolithic, following the invention of agriculture, and the subsequent transition from the neolithic village to urban civilization. I prefer to think of these two parts as parts of a single process, but some may prefer to regard them as two separate transitions, in which case the modern transition would be the "third". See page 29.

{2} Karl A Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism (Yale University Press, 1957).

Bill Totten


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