"The Birth of Global Civilization"

The following passage is excerpted from Chapter 10 of:

UNBOUND: How Eight Technologies Made Us Human, 

Transformed Society, and Brought Our World to the Brink

   The seeds of global civilization are many, and some of them are very old. The Romans practiced their own secular version of cultural acceptance and human equality. They granted the privileges of Roman citizenship to favored allies, and they built roads, public baths, and elaborate fresh water systems not only for their own comfort and safety but also for the well-being of their subject peoples. They filled the granaries of their colonies to keep their subject populations from starvation; they erected grand stadiums and coliseums for the entertainment of all; and for the most part they granted the people they conquered the freedom to pursue their own cultural traditions and worship their own religions. In fact, it was the tolerance of the Romans toward other cultural traditions, combined with their sense of responsibility for the well-being of everyone living under their dominion, that was largely responsible for the stability of Roman society and the longevity of Roman rule throughout the ancient world.

    In the centuries that followed the fall of Rome, the religions of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam spread far and wide among diverse cultures and across immense geographical areas. These faiths were all built on the principle of cultural inclusion, and it was their inclusionary philosophies that enabled them to absorb new populations and new ethnicities, transcend cultural boundaries, and become true world religions.

   We should not forget that these great inclusionary religions arose and prospered at a time when writing was practiced only by a few members of the elite, when riding horseback was the fastest means of transportation, when roads between cities were few and far between, and when the sailing ship was a small wooden vessel that was as likely to be propelled by oars as by the wind. This alone is an eloquent testament to the power of their philosophies and to the magnetism of their founders, all of whom preached the doctrine of multicultural fusion. The great success of these ancient religions suggests that a similar process of cultural fusion will probably be our species’ ultimate destiny.

    Two conditions that have emerged in recent decades are now driving humanity toward this ultimate fusion. The first is the rapidly growing threat to the planetary environment and to all human societies. This global threat cannot be resolved by any single nation or regional group of nations. Instead, all nations must work together to resolve it. The second condition is the means—made possible by digital technologies—for rapid, efficient, and affordable interaction among the inhabitants of all the various societies and cultures scattered across the globe. The potential synergies between these two conditions should not be underestimated.

    In fact, evidence that this ultimate process of fusion is already under way is revealed by the emergence of key social and cultural elements of humanity’s first global civilization. The customs and traditions surrounding the preparation of food—considered by anthropologists to be one of the most distinctive expressions of ethnic and cultural identity—have been undergoing an unprecedented process of fusion. Culinary traditions from Europe, the Americas, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Far East have spread far and wide from their cultures of origin and have become popular favorites throughout the world.

    Music, another distinctive expression of ethnic and cultural identity, is undergoing a process of globalization that began with the worldwide diffusion of European classical music and that has now been joined by the spread of musical traditions from all over the globe. Musical harmonies, rhythms, and instrumental styles from a myriad of ethnicities have migrated far from their cultures of origin and have developed their own robust global audiences. In fact, both food and music have begun to merge the traditions of different cultures into new forms of “fusion food” and “fusion music.”

    The cultural fusion that is taking place in the spheres of food and the arts is equally apparent in the material spheres of science, commerce, and industry. Consumer brands from numerous industries— including foods, beverages, automobiles, jewelry, perfumes, watches, clothing, and electronics—have achieved global recognition and now enjoy the fierce loyalty of hundreds of millions of customers all over the world. And the rise of multinational corporations—some of which have larger economies than most nations—has knitted the global economy together more tightly than ever before.

   The pursuit of research and development in science and technology had an international character from its earliest beginnings and has long since become a global enterprise. More than half of the Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine awarded during the last fifty years were bestowed upon collaborating scientists based in different nations.25 In fact, our contemporary culture of science and technology is one of the strongest and most vibrant elements of this emerging global civilization. At the same time, the world’s institutions of higher learning are slowly becoming global entities, with both faculties and student bodies increasingly composed of international and multicultural populations. Finally, the number of international organizations has multiplied exponentially during the modern era. In 1910, there were approximately two hundred non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were international in character. By 2010, this number had grown to nearly sixty thousand. And the growth of international governmental organizations (IGOs) has been equally as great.

    Yet even as humanity has fused into about two hundred nation-states, all of the traditional human groups that were created in former transformations— the countless thousands of tribes, villages, towns, cities, and regions that constitute the fabric of human society—have continued to maintain their separate identities and to govern their appropriate spheres of human life. This alone should reassure us that the nation-states of the world are in no danger of disappearing. The rise of global civilization is destined not to replace the world’s nations but rather to facilitate a sense of common purpose among them. Global institutions are, in the final analysis, networks of people, and among the most extraordinary of human behaviors is the ease with which human beings can simultaneously identify with multiple groups on multiple levels.

    Finally, history has repeatedly shown that nothing brings people together so much as a common enemy. Nearly every instance of social and cultural fusion, in which smaller social units have successfully merged into larger ones, has been driven, at least in part, by confrontations with a hostile adversary. When the world’s forests and primeval habitats have been reduced to a fraction of their original size, when the ocean’s resources have been largely depleted, and when even the miracles of scientific agriculture are no longer able to feed the expanding population of humans, the “enemy” of human civilization will be nothing more nor less than the existential threats to the earth’s biosphere produced by human technologies.

    As these threats continue to multiply, humanity will be forced to choose between continuing on the pathways that lead ultimately to depletion, extinction, and annihilation or—by cooperating on a global scale—turn to new pathways that lead to restoration, reconciliation, and a sustainable relationship between ourselves and the biosphere. We should not expect this transformation into a global civilization to be realized either quickly or easily. The effects of information technology did not begin to be felt until the middle of the twentieth century, and the deep integration of digital technologies into the processes of contemporary finance, trade, communication, and transportation did not take place until even later.

    Since we are now at the very beginning of this latest transformation, we cannot truly anticipate the changes in human life and society that it is destined to produce. But the history of past metamorphoses suggests two conclusions. First, that human life and society will be transformed no less by information technology than it has been by the key technologies of former ages. And second, that another great fusion of human society lies ahead.

Copyright © 2021 Richard L. Currier, PhD. All Rights Reserved.