Proxy War in Yemen

17 May 2015


yemen on the map

When we hear “proxy war” we think of the Cold War, but the idea of a proxy war can be extrapolated beyond the particular circumstances of the Cold War to apply to any war fought between two or more nation-states that is not fought on the territory of the nation-states in question. Yemen has become a battleground, a proxy war, within the larger de facto war taking place within Islamic civilization (which I have touched upon in The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization and The Problem of Islamic Terrorism). Yemen is, one might say (with a certain ruefulness), the “perfect” venue for a proxy war in the region. On the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, directly bordering on Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government is not strong enough to enforce an internal security regime, and is routinely referred to as a “failed state” (cf. Yemen and Warfare in Failed States).


In a couple of posts on the developments in Yemen during the events following the Arab SpringDefinitive Ambiguity in Yemen and Saleh gives the Saudis the Slip — I discussed the murkiness of Yemeni politics. As we now see, the definitive ambiguity in Yemen has given way to civil war and proxy war. The situation in Yemen has calmed down for the moment, but it is the nature of proxy wars to pass through cycles of relative calm punctuated by flareups of spectacular violence. We should expect to see further such flareups.

Yemen has long been a primarily tribal society, and as such it has been an easy mark for outside powers, who can usually find a willing client among the many tribes. The country was split in two during the Cold War between North Yemen and South Yemen in an earlier proxy war. In more recent events, after the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the installation of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi during the turbulence of the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels, Shia backed by Iran, established control over a considerable portion of the country, sending Hadi packing, and Saudi Arabia responded by bombing Yemen to push back against Houthi gains. Interestingly, former president Saleh has sided with the Houthis (cf. Eyeing return, Yemen’s ousted Saleh aids Houthis).


There is a backstory to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s proclamation of support for the Houthi rebels making progress in Yemen. During the Arab Spring (seems like a long time ago now, right?), when autocrats who expected (and attempted to enforce) a life tenure in office were falling left and right, the Saudis pressured Saleh into giving up power. Saleh, apparently a wily character, tried his best to hang on, and even slipped out of Saudi Arabia after receiving medical treatment in the Kingdom. One suspects that this current ploy is (among other things) an opportunity for Saleh to poke Saudi Arabia in the eye with a stick after they were instrumental in his ouster from power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

So Yemen finds itself between a rock and a hard place, with Iran backing proxies and Saudi Arabia bombing the country. Iran, the contemporary representative of an ancient civilization derived from the west Asia cluster, Persia, possesses a dimension of prestige that extends to before the the advent of Islamic civilization. This might seem a bit recondite to enter into contemporary geopolitical hardball, but it is not far below the surface. The Financial Times quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, as saying, “Yemen is an independent country with an old civilisation, much older than Saudi Arabia.” The subtext of this message is that Iran is an independent country with an old civilzation, much older than Saudi Arabia.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

It has been argued that the conflicts among Islamic nation-states are not religious conflicts per se, assimilating conflict within Islamic civilization to conflict within the nation-state paradigm, and doing so where that paradigm is at its weakest, even as groups like ISIS seek to score ideological points by flaunting conventions of the nation-state, as in their pointed abrogation of territorial boundaries (cf. ISIS and Sykes-Picot).

It has also been argued that Iran and groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been for decades contesting for the title of vanguard of revolutionary Islam, with the idea being whichever can prove itself the more radical and ruthless will win the acclaim of the Islamic masses, and that this rivalry transcends the split between Sunni and Shia because it pits the Ummah against Dar al-Harb, and presumably unifies the Islamic masses against a common enemy. (One then wonders why ISIS, most recent representative of radical Islam, makes a point of mass executions of those they regard as infidels, most of whom are fellow Muslims, although not sharing the exact beliefs of ISIS.)

If both of these arguments are taken seriously, then we could safely ignore the Sunni/Shia split in Islamic civilization and proceed to predict the actions of agents in current regional conflicts in purely secular terms, without reference to Islam. At this point, we realize that this is a familiar argument and that we have seen it before. This is exactly the sort of thing that Sam Harris has criticized in his many books on the role of religion in public life: the moderate views of the many come to facilitate the radical views of the few, as the radicals are dismissed as not “really” representing the religious views of the community, therefore they can safely be ignored and treated as criminals, terrorists, insurgents, or whatever. All the while, unquestioned moderate religious beliefs are the backdrop that gives plausibility and prestige to radical views disclaimed by moderates. (In Hearts and Minds and Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind I called this the principle of facilitating moderation.) The Sunni/Shia split is embedded in the moderate representatives of Islam, and cannot be disentangled from regional diplomacy without falsifying events on the ground.

The illusion of a secular conflict in MENA, in so far as this illusion is perpetuated, will turn diplomacy into a sideshow unrelated to the reality on the ground, and ineffectual for that reason. The most recent message from Al-Khalifah Ibrahim, Ameer Al-Mu’mineen, Al-Sheikh Al-Mujaahid Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi, “March Forth Whether Light or Heavy,” takes pains to disavow any secular interpretation of the actions of ISIS:

O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (peace be upon him) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation. He was ordered with war until Allah is worshiped alone. He (peace be upon him) said to the polytheists of his people, “I came to you with slaughter.” He fought both the Arabs and non-Arabs in all their various colors. He himself left to fight and took part in dozens of battles. He never for a day grew tired of war.

In the public discourse of the US, the recent nuclear agreement with Iran was primarily about delaying the eventual Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons in order to ameliorate the perception of an existential threat to Israel. Here in the west we have our own problems with mainstream religious moderates making excuses for religious extremists, who use their extremist credentials to establish their bona fides with the Christian masses. Thus the Israeli-Iran conflict plays well in the US press, and is uncontroversial because all political parties in the US support Israel. But the recent U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David (cf. More than Keeping Up the Facade: The U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David by Anthony H. Cordesman) reveals that there is much more going on in the deal with Iran than is part of the public discourse of ensuring Israeli security.

The US has long-standing security relationships with Sunni Arab states, and especially with Saudi Arabia (which spends six times more on its military than does Iran). The Gulf Sunni Arab states are worried that a US-Iranian rapprochement will mean that long-frozen Iranian assets will be made available to Iran, and, with the reintegration of Iran in the global financial community, Iran will have even more money to back its regional proxies, which have long been Iran’s most effective foreign policy tool. This is a legitimate concern on the part of the Gulf Arab states (Saudi Arabia itself knows all too well the soft power it buys with the money is spreads around; Iran does the same thing with far less money, but with hard power assets thrown into the deal), but this is not a concern that plays well in the US press, and no Saudi prince is going to receive an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, especially over White House objections. Moreover, there is an ideological overlap between the Salafist extremism actively supported by Saudi Arabia and the extremism of ISIS (an overlap that goes beyond their common Sunni beliefs), and, if this were to be widely discussed in the US press, Iran would look good by comparison.

The nuclear deal with Iran is as relevant, if not more relevant, to Saudi Arabia than it is to Israel. It is widely understood that Saudi Arabia partially funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the understanding that, if Saudi Arabia wants nuclear weapons, then they will be made available. Thus Saudi Arabia has access to nuclear weapons without having to host the industrial infrastructure of the nuclear fuel cycle on its own soil — a triumph of plausible deniability. The Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, while primarily about regime survivability, must also be seen in the light of Saudi Arabia’s deniable nuclear capability (which can be understood as an instance of nuclear ambiguity).

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .



Recent news items have related that a couple of staples of late Soviet-era military technology may be returned to production and deployment, specifically the Mil Mi-14 (cf. Re-commissioned? Soviet nuke-capable sub-killing copter comeback slated) and the Tu-160 “Blackjack” bomber (cf. ‘Blackjack’ comeback: Russia to renew production of its most powerful strategic bomber).

Mil Mi-14

In many earlier posts I have noted the surprisingly vigorous afterlife of Soviet-era military technology, as the Moskit P-270 “sunburn” anti-ship missile and the VA-111 Shkval supercavitating torpedo remain formidable weapons systems. Much of this Soviet-era weaponry can be retro-fitted with contemporary electronics, turning previously “dumb” weapons into “smart” weapons, i.e., precision guided munitions, making them even more formidable, and, as such, they can fulfill combat roles they could not previously fulfill, and in some cases they can fulfill combat roles that did not previously exist.

The T-14 Armata (industrial designation 'Object 148') is a Russian advanced next generation main battle tank based on the Armata Universal Combat Platform. It was first seen in public (initially with its turret and cannon shrouded) during rehearsals for the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade. (from Wikipedia)

The T-14 Armata (industrial designation ‘Object 148′) is a Russian advanced next generation main battle tank based on the Armata Universal Combat Platform. It was first seen in public (initially with its turret and cannon shrouded) during rehearsals for the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade. (from Wikipedia)

Russia has, in addition, continued to produce new weapons systems that are the evolutionary descendents of Soviet-era systems, as with the latest air defense system, the S-400 Triumf, recently in the news because Russia has sold or considered selling these systems to China, India, Iran, and Syria, and the newest Russian tank, the T-14 Armata, which was in the news because one stalled in the rehearsal for the May Day parade in Moscow. The resurrection of Soviet-era weapons systems is distinct from these weapons systems in continual production and regularly updated with improvements in technology.

The S-400 Triumf (Russian: C-400 «Триумф»; NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler), previously known as S-300PMU-3, is a new generation anti-aircraft weapon system developed by Russia's Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 family. (from Wikipedia)

The S-400 Triumf (Russian: C-400 «Триумф»; NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler), previously known as S-300PMU-3, is a new generation anti-aircraft weapon system developed by Russia’s Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 family. (from Wikipedia)

There is an obvious narrative to account for the return to service of Soviet-era military technology, and that obvious narrative is that Vladimir Putin wants to return Russia to the international stature it enjoyed while the Soviet Union was perceived as a superpower equal to the US. For reasons of national prestige and Russian national pride, Russia is dusting off old weapons systems and at times even returning to former methods of military patrols dating to the Cold War. The most obvious examples of this have been Russian long-range bomber patrols using Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” bombers, which, with their turboprop engines, are virtually flying antiques. I discussed a particularly striking example of Russian air patrols in Sweden and Finland in NATO?

Russian made P-270 Moskit, AKA 'Sunburn' supersonic anti-ship missile.

Russian made P-270 Moskit, AKA ‘Sunburn’ supersonic anti-ship missile.

There is also an obvious economic rationale for the resurrection of Soviet-era weapons systems, which is that the design and testing of major weapons systems has become so expensive that many of these weapons systems have entered a “death spiral,” such that even if a nation-state could afford the R&D costs, the finished product would be too expensive to produce in sufficient numbers to be combat effective. Updating known weapons platforms can be a much more cost effective way to approach this problem than starting from scratch. Enormous savings can be realized on the testing, training, and deployment phases of a weapons system.

The VA-111 Shkval (Russian: шквал) torpedo and its descendants are supercavitating torpedoes developed by the Soviet Union. They are capable of speeds in excess of 200 knots (370 km/h). (from Wikipedia)

The VA-111 Shkval (fRussian: шквал) torpedo and its descendants are supercavitating torpedoes developed by the Soviet Union. They are capable of speeds in excess of 200 knots (370 km/h). (from Wikipedia)

There is, however, much more going on here than any attempt on the part of Putin to compensate for perceived personal or national failures. The world has changed in its political structure since the post-WWII settlement that shaped the second half of the twentieth century and the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. The political (and technological) changes have changed how wars are fought. I have mentioned in many posts that the paradigm of peer-to-peer conventional engagements between mass conscript armies has effectively fallen out of contemporary history. The Cold War was based on this paradigm, with NATO and the Warsaw Pact roughly equally matched, although sufficiently different in detail that no one could predict with confidence the outcome of a conventional war in Europe, and whether or how a conventional war in Europe would escalate into a nuclear war (and, again, whether a nuclear war in Europe would escalate into globally mutually assured destruction).

Vladimir Putin: compensating for Russian geopolitical weakness?

Vladimir Putin: compensating for Russian geopolitical weakness?

In a post some time ago I discussed what I called the devolution of warfare (followed by Constraint and Devolution and Addendum on Constraint and Devolution). In that post I wrote:

“…war under the nuclear umbrella involved a devolution of war from total and absolute war, including the use of nuclear weapons, to conventional war, using all means short of nuclear weapons, and exercising restraint with these means in order to avoid triggering a nuclear strike. Next, war under the ‘no fly’ umbrella of imposed air superiority involved a devolution of war from everything that has happened since Douhet’s The Command of the Air was published, to a state of combat prior to Douhet’s deadly vision. War under the ‘no fly’ umbrella means war limited to ground combat, almost as though the age of air power had never been known.”

Having just finished listening to the book Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan I realized that expectations of warfighting in the twenty-first century have driven the development of rules of engagement (ROE) to the point of negating the overwhelming air superiority of the most technologically advanced nation-states. When each individual decision to drop a bomb in combat is run through a political infrastructure that includes individuals with mixed motives, combat is driven down to a level at which the only actions that can be approved are those taken by individual soldiers with the weapons they carry. This has the effect of giving plausible deniability to a nation-state, as individual soldiers are considered expendable and can be prosecuted if they make decisions in combat that fail to conform with the ideological justifications given for a military engagement.

A remarkable weapon -- if you can get permission to use it.

A remarkable weapon — if you can get permission to use it.

Strategic weapons systems have always been primarily political. The devolution of warfare has meant that the most sophisticated weapons systems are being politicized from the top down, which has the practical consequence that even a superpower like the US engages primarily only in close-quarters small arms skirmishes. The big ticket, expensive, and technologically sophisticated weapons systems are frequently used only for a “show of force” (SOF) in order to intimidate, using the sound of a jet’s engines to obtain a temporary advantage in a combat environment in which a political decision has been made not to make full use of the air assets available.

Devolution of war

There are several possible explanations for the devolution of warfare, and I have discussed some of them previously. One obvious explanation is that war has become too destructive, but human beings love war so much they must find a way of limiting the destructiveness of war if they are going to continue enjoying it, so the devolution of war serves the purposes of limiting war to a survivable level. I have made this argument several times, so I think that it has some merit, but that it is not the whole story. (I recently made a variation of this argument in Existential Threat Narratives.)

Aztec flower battle

Aztec flower battle

There is another approach to this problem that has just occurred to me today as I was formulating the above thoughts, and this is that the history of warfare has exhibited a pattern of settling into a culturally determined routine (such as I described in Civilization and War as Social Technologies in regard to the ritualized violence of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance) which is then interrupted when a geographically isolated region comes into contact with a peer or near-peer civilization, with which it has no established customs of limiting violence to a survivable level. The example that comes to mind is the nearly continual warfare in the Italian peninsula among mercenary armies fighting for individual city-states in the late medieval period, which was, however, not very destructive. At this time, Italy was mostly cut off from Europe by the Alps, but this changed when the French marched into Italy under Charles VIII with 25,000 men in 1494-1498, which brought a new and much less forgiving form of war to the Italian peninsula.

French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence, 17 November 1494, by Francesco Granacci.

French troops under Charles VIII entering Florence, 17 November 1494, by Francesco Granacci.

Human civilization is now effectively global, and that means that no nation-state is truly isolated from any other nation-state. We are not only aware of the activities of our neighbors, we are often (painfully) aware of events occurring in distant parts of the world, which are not so distant any more. No one today could say of any quarter of the world what Neville Chamberlain said of Czechslovakia, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

Warfare has become a commons, and if we want to preserve this commons, we must manage it. Hence the world entire may evolve toward global ritualized, symbolic violence of the sort previously only seen in geographically isolated regions. There are no more geographically isolated regions, and with the planet as a single region warfare may tend to evolve in the direction in which it previously evolved in widely separated societies when all enemies were known and conflict was primarily a matter of prestige requirements. Globalization may now be expressed through the unification of warfare under a common set of customs intended to limit and control violence.

There is a sense in which this is a profoundly sad realization, for what it says about human nature, but there is another sense in which this is a hopeful realization, as it points to a human nature that implicitly recognizes an existential threat and modifies its behavior accordingly. If all violence could be transformed into something ritualized, symbolic, and sustainable, we would have a chance to devote our economy and industry toward the long term survivability of our species and our planet with some confidence that destructiveness will be limited from here on out.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


pew poll graph

A story on the BBC, US Christians numbers ‘decline sharply’, poll finds, made me aware of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, reported in America’s Changing Religious Landscape. It is unusual for such a poll result to be reported so bluntly. Some time ago in Appearance and Reality in Demographics I noted that the WIN/GIP “Religiosity and Atheism Index” poll that I discussed in American Religious Individualism, had been reported under the headline WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, which seems to have been purposefully contrived to give the reader the wrong impression of what the poll revealed. This newest headline is another matter entirely. It is becoming more difficult to conceal the fact the traditional religious belief is on the decline.

While religious observance appears to be one of the most pervasive features of civilization from its inception, the example of Europe demonstrates that religious belief can pretty much vanish once conditions change. The US remains an anomaly as an industrialized nation-state with unusually high popular identification with religious faith, but the US may yet experience the kind of catastrophic collapse of religious observance that occurred in Europe from the middle of the twentieth century onward. In other worlds, secularization may yet come to America. Of course, if widespread secularism comes to the US, it will not play out as it played out in Europe, because these societies are so profoundly different.

The secularization thesis was widely believed in the middle of the twentieth century (when secularization was transforming European society), and then was widely abandoned at the end of the twentieth century as surging religious fundamentalism and religiously-inspired terrorism grabbed headlines and appeared to some (as strange as this may sound) as a sign of religious vitality. I discussed the secularization thesis in Secularization (which I characterized in terms of confirmation and disconfirmation in history) and more recently in The Existential Precarity of Civilization.

It is important to understand the religious backlash against modernity that became apparent in the later twentieth century in the context of traditionalism, as the role of a narrowly conceived religious belief is often made central in the debates over secularization, but this can be deceptive. In this context, “traditionalism” means any ideology or belief system dating from before the industrial revolution (which marked the advent of a new form of civilization), and so is a much wider concept than religion simpliciter, which is the most common exemplar of traditionalism.

Beliefs and practices associated with the pre-industrial form of our culture of origin persisted for ten thousand years (from the origins of civilization to the industrial revolution) and so they have left an enormous cultural legacy, and they are still very powerful elements of the human imagination. Almost every famous work of art which is a cultural point of reference for westerners (think of the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s David, or the Mona Lisa), dates to this pre-industrialized period. The industrial revolution meant the dissolution of these ancient institutions and practices, sometimes within the life span of a single individual. The entire economic basis of civilization changed.

Even though civilization was forced to change, the cultural legacy of the past remains, and its hold upon the human mind remains. Although we live in modern industrialized societies, we don’t grow our own food, and we live alone in cities and not in multi-generational households, we continue to honor traditions that have become disconnected from our daily lives. Eventually the disconnect leads to cognitive dissonance as traditional attitudes come face-to-face with modern realities. There are two ways to attempt to address the cognitive dissonance: 1) a return to traditionalism, or 2) the abandonment of traditionalism.

It is impossible to return to a traditional (pre-industrial) way of life in an industrialized nation-state because you can’t just start farming in the middle of a city or create a multi-generational household out of thin air. So the return to traditionalism simply means the aggressive assertion of traditionalist claims, however empty these claims are. The most familiar form that the aggressive assertion of traditional claims can take is that of religious fundamentalism. This is not the only form of traditionalism, but it has become symbolic of traditionalism, and, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have noted in their paper Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, “…residual and symbolic elements often remain, such as formal adherence to religious identities and beliefs, even when their substantive meaning has faded away.”

If industrial-technological civilization endures (i.e., if it does not succumb to existential risk), all traditionalism is doomed to extinction. However, that does not mean that religion is doomed to extinction. Although I have defended the secularization hypothesis, secularization is only a stage in the transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization. The idea that the extinction of tradition (given the gradual lapse of a now-defunct form of civilization) is the same as the extinction of religion is only possible through a conflation of traditionalism and religion. This conflation is as invidious to the understanding of history as is the misinterpretation (at times a willful misinterpretation) of the secularization hypothesis.

Religion can and often does take non-traditional forms, but the (historically recent) experience of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, in which all social organization was subordinate to theological principles, has distorted our perception of the role of religion and civilization, and led to the conflation of religion and tradition.

In Europe Returns to its Roots I discussed the tentative return to pre-Christian forms of religion in Europe in the wake of secularization. Such cultural movements will, of course, be influenced by subsequent developments of civilization. No more than we can return to traditionalism now that traditional agrarian ways of life have disappeared can we return to Neolithic religious practices, but whatever religious practices there are must be consonant with the life of the people.

On my other blog I produced a series of posts concerned with the relation of religion to civilization, extending from the Paleolithic past to into the future. These posts include:

Settled and Nomadic Religious Experience

Religious Experience in Industrial-Technological Civilization

Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Addendum on Religious Experience and the Future of Civilization

Responding to the World we Find

These were a mere sketch, of course, and one might well invest an entire lifetime in attempting to describe the relation between civilization and religion. The take-away lesson is that religion is a perennial aspect of human experience, and so it will be a perennial part of civilization, but it is a mistake to conflate religion and traditionalism. After the extinction of traditionalism, once terrestrial industrialization achieves totality (not only eliminating traditional ways of life, but also greatly reducing existential precarity), religion will remain, but it will not be the religions of the Axial Age that defined agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

When secularization comes to America, then, we should be surprised neither by the rear-guard action of traditionalism to defend the claims of a now-vanished civilization, nor by the inevitable emergence and rise of religious beliefs and practices independent of traditionalism. Expect popular accounts to conflate the two, but a developmental understanding of the relationship of civilization and religion reveals how starkly different they are.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


General Jodl signs the instrument for the unconditional surrender of Germany; Jodl would later hang at Nuremberg.

General Jodl signs the instrument for the unconditional surrender of Germany; Jodl would later hang at Nuremberg.

In Seventy Years, posted on 01 September 2009, I acknowledged the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of open armed conflict that began the Second World War. In that post I wrote:

During the middle of the twentieth century civilization experienced a convulsion of apocalyptic proportions. The sky was filled with airplanes, the sea was filled with ships above and below, great cities were destroyed in a single night, entire populations were displaced, and millions upon millions of people were killed.

Now, more than five years later, it is time to commemorate the termination of that apocalyptic conflict, in so far as the war came to an end in Europe on VE Day (Victory Europe), Tuesday, 08 May 1945. A week earlier Hitler had committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. Most German cities had been reduced to rubble long before. In the week between Hitler’s suicide and VE Day, Joseph Goebbels, appointed Reich Chancellor by Hitler just before his suicide, committed suicide with his wife after killing their six children, Tito had triumphed in what would become Yugoslavia, the Soviets took Berlin, Rangoon was liberated from the Japanese, and Mauthausen concentration camp was liberated.

Nazi Germany formally surrendered unconditionally at the Western Allied Headquarters in Rheims, France, on Monday 07 May 1945, but the ceasefire took effect one minute after midnight on Tuesday 08 May 1945. Reich President Karl Dönitz ordered the surrender, and General Alfred Jodl signed for Germany. Later at Nuremberg where both were tried as major war criminals, Jodl was sentenced to death; Dönitz spent ten years in Spandau prison.

As though a portent of what was to come, on the same day, Tuesday, 08 May 1945, the Sétif massacre occurred, when a victory parade turned ugly. French police attempted to seize anti-colonial banners held by the crowd of about 5,000 Muslim marchers in Sétif and the scuffle turned into a firefight. (Similar events occurred in Guelma and Kherrata.) In the ensuing days, both sides took reprisals on the other. Thousands died (how many thousands is still in dispute).

The French held out in Algeria and Indochina even has the British surrendered control of India, the Jewel in the Crown, in 1947. Colonial conflicts and the consequent de-colonialization struggles became a proxy battleground of the Cold War, played out in the lives of impoverished peoples in Africa, Asia, and South America. Struggles for national liberation were transmuted into ideological conflicts in which Russia and China supplied arms to those who would self-identify as communists, and the US and Europe supplied arms to those who would identify as anti-communists. It is arguable that the legacy of this struggle has shaped the contemporary world more profoundly that the apocalyptic proportions of the Second World War, which, considered only in terms of open armed conflict, endured for less than six years.

The end of a catastrophic conventional war, in which regular armies numbering in the millions of soldiers, airmen, and sailors met in pitched battle on the ground, in the air, and on the sea, ending in definitive defeat and unconditional surrender for the Axis powers, marked the beginning of protracted, seemingly interminable unconventional conflicts between small numbers of irregular combatants who rarely met in battle, and whose wars almost never ended in definitive defeat or surrender. Thus the end of the Second World War was as much of a turning point as the war itself.

It remains an open question at the present time if our planet will ever return to the WWII paradigm of armed conflict, in which the planet entire is convulsed by a short, sharp, and definitive war (and, if so, if anyone would survive), or if the development of civilization has permanently rendered such conflicts antiquated. War, like civilization, may not disappear, but it does evolve, and the existential viability of war (if one can speak of such) is predicated upon the possibility of the essential nature of warfare changing.

It is possible that we have witnessed such a change with the change in armed conflict that followed the end of the Second World War. However, a further change in the essential nature of the civilizations engaging in warfare would drive further changes in the essential nature of war. This could take the form of returning to an earlier paradigm of armed conflict, or issuing in unprecedented forms of armed conflict. As I pointed out some years ago, civilization and war are locked in a co-evolutionary relationship.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Euro sign

An introduction to brinkmanship

The emerging consensus in the financial press is that Greece must default on its debt obligations. No longer is the question, “Will Greece default?” but rather then question is, “When will Greece default?” After a pause, another question comes up: “How exactly will Greece default?” Will a Greek default mean Greece leaves the Eurozone (or, rather, the EMU, the European Monetary Union), or will Greece default and a way will be found to keep the country in the EMU? The more these questions are followed by further questions the more obvious it becomes that those asking the questions are seeking justifications and rationalizations to retain Greece within the Eurozone even as it defaults.

During the last episode of Greek default brinkmanship it became increasingly obvious that the powers that be would find a way to avoid Greek default and exit from the EMU (known by the ugly coinage “Grexit”). How do we know this? There was no significant shorting of the Euro in currency markets. Greek bonds took a hit, but they didn’t collapse. In the final analysis, no one really believed that anything dire would happen. Financial markets remained calm. Now that we are once again approaching the brink, and the drumbeat in the financial press is that Greece must default this time, again financial markets are mostly calm. The Euro is not plunging in value (the Euro is lower in value, but not at historic lows), and Greek bonds recently rallied on the assumption that the sidelining of Yanis Varoufakis would make negotiations easier. It seems, once again, that the conventional wisdom is that the worst will be avoided. In other words, a way will be found for Greece to default on its debt and to remain within the EMU so as to create the fewest waves in the markets.

There are at least two interesting things to notice about this process. The first is how far an institution (or institutions) can be pushed in a desired direction in order to obtain a desired result. The Eurozone is today a rather different entity than when the Eurozone treaties were drafted in the late 1990s and the Eurozone was only imagined. Today the Eurozone is at a crossroads, but as important as the crossroads is the long road behind it — a road of repeated and flagrant violations of the Maastricht criteria that were to govern the Eurozone, in which no nation-state has been held to account for its violations. In this context, the further violations required to keep Greece after default in the EMU do not seem particularly outrageous, as they would have seemed to those drafting the Maastricht criteria.

The “convergence” that didn’t happen

Here a little history is in order, and not the history that you are likely to get from those tying themselves in knots to try to find ways not to put the Eurozone asunder. The conditions for accession to the EMU (also known as “convergence criteria”) are known as the “Maastricht criteria” (cf. Who can join and when?):

Price stability, to show inflation is controlled;

Soundness and sustainability of public finances, through limits on government borrowing and national debt to avoid excessive deficit;

Exchange-rate stability, through participation in the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM II) for at least two years without strong deviations from the ERM II central rate;

Long-term interest rates, to assess the durability of the convergence achieved by fulfilling the other criteria.

Of course, these are statements of general principle and not quantifiable economic measures, but the Eurozone also has stipulated quantifiable economic measures, and there is a lot of fine print involved in these stipulations.

It is now known and generally acknowledged that Greece did not meet the convergence criteria when it was admitted into the EMU. It doesn’t take much research to find the documentation on this, but you do have to have a memory that goes back more than ten years. Also cf. The politics of the Maastricht convergence criteria by Paul De Grauwe.

Plausible deniability for the Eurozone

To understand why Greece failed to meet accession criteria but was admitted anyway one must enter into the mindset of those laying the groundwork for the EMU. The Eurozone’s monetary union was viewed as a shoe-in for success, and getting in on the ground floor was seen as something as a coup for a marginal economy like Greece, which had hitched its wagon to a star. The people of Greece had only to sit back and watch their economy soar into the stratosphere, pulled along by German and French economies. By allowing Greece into the EMU with a wink and a nod, the EU has plausible deniability when it comes to Greek entry into the Eurozone — their papers were in order, if falsified — but no one at the time really believed the Greece met the Maastricht criteria.

In all fairness, while the Eurozone did not enforce its own accession conditions for the entrance of Greece into the EMU, other nation-states within the Eurozone have repeatedly and routinely failed to meet Eurozone convergence criteria, and they have not been held to account. No consequences follow from having too large of a budge deficit or allowing inflation to get out of hand. The individual economies within the Eurozone appear to enjoy complete impunity in regard to the convergence criteria. This is how the Eurozone has arrived at its present position, which is that of trying to find excuses to allow Greece to default while remaining within the institutional structure of the Eurozone and the EMU.

Cognitive bias as a guide to political economy

To return to the two things I said above deserve to be noted in the present situation, the second thing to notice is that, however far an institution (or institutions) can be pushed, there eventually comes a breaking point — the straw that breaks the camel’s back, as it were — and the real brinkmanship going on is not whether Greece will default or whether Greece will leave the Eurozone, but whether the Eurozone will push its institutions to the breaking point. I want to pause over this ancient problem of brinkmanship and breaking points, because recent scholarship can shed light on this in an unexpected way.

A good portion of Daniel Kahneman’s book about cognitive biases, Thinking, Fast and Slow (especially Part I, section 9, “Answering an Easier Question”), is devoted to cognitive biases in which we substitute an answer for a difficult question with an easier question that we know how to answer and to which we can give a definitive answer. I don’t think that we can stress strongly enough how important (and how under-appreciated) this insight is in relation to economics and politics. All you have to do is to read the reasoning of traders in volatile commodities, and review their elaborate justifications for investments that miss the point of the biggest questions, in order to see how profoundly this affects our world today. Because it is relatively easy to talk about quantitative measures of the economy, and what these have predicted in the past, but it is very difficult to say exactly when public discontent is rising to the point that an unprecedented disruption (or a revolution) is about to occur, it is not surprising that economists and politicians alike prefer to answer the easy question, and sometimes they even convince themselves that the easy question is the only question.

The theology of the insurance adjustor

Not to worry. Insurance companies are ready for such unprecedented events. I have often reflected on the theology of the insurance adjustor who must adjudicate between events anticipated by the language of a policy and those events not anticipated or predicted, and so come under the all-embracing umbrella of “Acts of God.” Wikipedia says that, “An act of God is a legal term for events outside human control, such as sudden natural disasters, for which no one can be held responsible.” This term of art from the insurance industry can paper over a multitude of sins and cognitive biases: deal with the easy problem you’ve substituted for the difficult problem, and then when the difficult problem asserts itself, call it an “Act of God” (or the political equivalent thereof).

If we are honest, we must admit that we do not know what will become of the Eurozone and the EMU. Trying to predict the future of an enterprise so large and so complex is like trying to predict the weather: we can say pretty well what will happen tomorrow, within certain parameters, but the farther we go into the future the more our models for predicting the future diverge, until at some point different models are making inconsistent if not antithetical predictions. This is the essence of a chaotic system, and financial markets and political communities are chaotic systems.

A political and not an economic union

The Eurozone is not fundamentally economic, but political. It is a political project masquerading as an economic project, and while diplomacy often requires masquerades, when the music stops and the ball comes to an end, the masks must come off. Because the Eurozone is a political project, the glosses on its presumed political meaning are legion. I have read accounts in reputable media claiming that it was the intention of the Eurozone that, once economic unification had started, member states would lurch from crisis to crisis, and these crises would force member states to surrender political sovereignty, thus slowly transforming the Eurozone into a political union — perhaps the political union it should have been from its inception. I wouldn’t go quite this far, but such an account at least understands that only political union would make possible the wealth transfers within the Eurozone that would make the EMU workable in the longer term.

Since these is no clear idea of what the Eurozone stands for, one cannot convict the Eurozone of hypocrisy or contradiction. And there is no question that the Eurozone can find some way for Greece to default and to remain within the Eurozone, but any such arrangement will have to accept that Greece will in no sense be an equal member of the Eurozone and EMU. What, then, will Greece be?

What will become of Greece?

Quite some time ago I noted the possibility of “Euroization,” that is to say, the adoption of the Euro as a currency by a nation-state (or other political entity) not part of the EU, much less the EMU. There is precedent for this in dollarization — the use of the US dollar outside US territories. The Ecuadorian economy dollarized, and the Argentinian economy is partially dollarized, with real estate purchases traditionally transacted in US dollars and its many dollar-denominated financial instruments.

If Greece defaults but remains within the EMU, it will become a de facto “Euroized” economy that employs the Euro as its currency, but which has little real participation in the European economy. The Greek economy is not large enough, even in its presumed implosion, to seriously threaten the economies of the other EMU nation-states. If Greece defaults and exits the EMU, both Greece and the remaining nation-states of the EMU will pass through a painful adjustment, but Greece would probably be better off than languishing in the perpetual twilight of Euroized poor cousin to the EMU.

Some consequences of a Greek exit form the EMU are quite easy to guess. Tourism has been a major component of the Greek economy for some decades, and it is likely that most of the upmarket hotels patronized by foreign visitors will price their rooms in dollars or Euros, and in so doing a major sector of the Greek economy will take in hard, convertible foreign currencies. This alone will keep a substantial portion of the Greek economy in operation, even if no one wants to think of their country as nothing but a tourist destination. This is not at all unusual. Many hotels I have stayed at in South America price their rooms in dollars, and some will only take dollars. I especially noticed this in Argentina when I was there in 2010. Even as the Argentine economy stumbles under mismanagement, those who have a hotel that attracts foreign guests capable of paying in hard convertible currencies can do quite well in such an economy desperate for dollars. But while the Greek economy can subsist, after a fashion, on tourism, agriculture was always the strength of the Argentinian economy, and tourism does not represent a substantial contribution to the overall economy.

. . . . .

Euro coin

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


What might Byzantine civilization have been like if it had endured for a million years instead of a thousand years?

What might Byzantine civilization have been like if it had endured for a million years instead of a thousand years?

Carl Sagan often discussed the possibility of very old civilizations in the cosmos, hidden from us by distance or by our ignorance, but which we might someday hope to find by way of SETI initiatives. Here is a passage from Cosmos where he mentions the possibility of a million-year-old civilization:

“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight?”

Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”

While Sagan focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very old, Kardashev focused on the possibility of civilizations that are very large. Kardashev explicitly argued for the existence of civilizations that he called “supercivilizations” that had quite literally grown to astronomical dimensions. Kardashev wrote:

“The scales of activity of any civilization are restricted only by natural and scientific factors… Civilizations have no inner, inherent limitations on the scales of their activities.”

“On the inevitability and the possible structures of supercivilizations,” Nikolai S. Kardashev, in The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: Recent Developments, edited by M. D. Papagiannis, International Astronomical Union, 1985, pp. 497-504.

These themes occur throughout Kardashev’s writings on supercivilizations, which Kardashev asserted to probably exist and to be detectable by the methods of SETI, if only a SETI project were to focus on supercivilizations:

“Astrophysical research, data from biology and cybernetics, and from other sciences, point to a high probability for the detectability of extraterrestrial civilizations. Currently, what is needed is a fundamental review of our preliminary notions about the possible nature of these civilizations and of the particular method which must be used in the search for them. In my opinion, the only useful concept is the assumption that supercivilizations exist (in particular, also, that our civilization may eventually become a supercivilization).”

“Strategy for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” N. S. KARDASHEV, Institute for Space Research, Academy of Sciences, U.S.S.R., Acta Astronautica, Vol. 6, pp. 33-46, Pergamon Press, 1979

Ray Norris raises the stakes in his calculation of the age of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations and argues that any exocivilization we might hope to find would be on the order of a billion years old:

“Conventional models imply that supernovae and gamma-ray-bursters will extinguish life on planets at intervals of about 200 Myr. Since this has not happened on Earth, either these conventional models are wrong, or else life on Earth is probably unique in the Galaxy. The first case predicts a median age of ET as being of the order of 1 billion years. The second case predicts that we will never detect ET. Thus, if we do detect ET, the median age is of order 1 billion years. Note that, in this case, the probability of ET being less than one million years older than us is less than 1 part in 1000.”

“HOW OLD IS ET?” Ray P. Norris, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, Acta Astronautica 47:731, 1999.

For Norris, the idea of a million-year-old supercivilization is a minimum threshold, while the median age for a detectable civilization would be closer to being a billion years old.

The idea of a million- or billion-year-old supercivilization would seem to be the antithesis of a suboptimal civilization, but the consideration of each can help us to refine our conception of the other. If a supercivilization is very old or very large, does this entail that any suboptimal civilization is very young or very small? Given the habitable lifespan of a planet around a stable star, it is possible that even a civilization confined to the surface of a planet (and therefore very small in astronomical terms) could grow very old, perhaps attaining Sagan’s threshold of being a million-year-old civilization. Could we call such a civilization a supercivilization?

A distinction I failed to make in Suboptimal Civilizations is that between civilizational longevity with and without attaining civilizational maturity. Under conditions of planetary constraint, a sequence of civilizations might arise, come to maturity, and disappear, each in turn fulfilling the essential idea of that particular civilization. This cyclical or sequential vision of civilization is distinct from a million-year-old civilization that is not a supercivilization merely in virtue or remaining “small” (confined to a planetary surface).

Furthermore, a million-year-old civilization might either attain its maturity, establishing itself at a plateau (a high level equilibrium, if you will) at or just past its mature plateau in a state of extended senescence (I can imagine this case being made for Byzantine civilization, so imagine, if you will, a million-year-old Byzantium), or a million-year-old civilization might continue indefinitely in the pursuit of some telos that indefinitely eludes it.

If no catastrophic event brings terrestrial civilization to an end (this does not include predictable change that may well be seen by human beings as catastrophic, but which must be expected over a million year horizon — I am thinking of climate change, inter alia), terrestrial civilization could go on to become a million-year-old civilization (that is not a supercivilization) if it fails to cross the threshold of becoming a demographically significant spacefaring civilization.

If we understand civilization of the third order (see below) to extend from the earliest origins of civilization on Earth to galaxy-spanning Kardashevian supercivilizations, than any civilization we know of occupies a point along this civilizational continuum, and the telos of civilization (and therefore the measure of whether civilization has reached maturity) is a supercivilization. In this sense, any civilization that has not evolved into a supercivilization is a suboptimal civilization.

However, given my definition of civilization of the third order, no individual civilization would thus attain supercivilization status; only the whole structure of intertwined civilizations (going back ten thousand years to the origins of civilization on our planet) could be said to be a supercivilization (and indeed not only in Kardashev’s sense of the term, but also a “supercivilization” in the sense of being a meta-conception of civilization distinct from any particular civilization). In the case of a supercivilziation of the third order, no individual civilization within that continuum of civilization could be judged as a suboptimal civilization in so far as each contributory civilization is part of a third order supercivilization.

If, on the other hand, we require that a supercivilization be a single, continuously extant individual civilization of great antiquity and achievement, then a supercivilization is a concept of civilization of the second order. In this case, even if an individual civilization were incorporated into a network of related civilizations (just as the civilizations of Earth manifest a reticulate organization) that eventually lasted a million years and attained supercivilization status, that individual civilization that itself failed to ultimately develop into a supercivilization could be said to be a suboptimal civilization. Thus a civilization’s attaining maturity could be a function of its development or of its place within the larger structure of civilizations. Distinctions need to be made to avoid confusion.

We could define the maturity of civilization in terms of any of the orders of civilization. In Thinking about Civilization I introduced the idea of orders of civilization as follows:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense. Civilization of the zeroth order may involve socioeconomic communities that do not rise to the threshold of civilization.

● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.

● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire life cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole.

● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. In other words, civilization of the third order is the life cycle of many civilizations as they overlap and intersect in one grand narrative of civilization.

Based on these orders of civilization, the maturity of each conception of civilization can be distinctly defined:

● Zeroth Order Maturity Mature institutions of hunter-gatherer nomadism.

● First Order Maturity Mature institutions of large-scale socioeconomic organization, without reference to the stage of development of that civilization on the whole.

● Second Order Maturity A civilization that has completed its life cycle, including having passed through a stage of fulfillment of its essential idea.

● Third Order Maturity The maturity of the overall structure of civilization, including diachronic and synchronic relations between distinct civilizations, sufficiently developed that all of the essential features of this conception are present.

It is in this final sense of maturity, the maturity of civilization of the third order, that we can speak of all non-supercivilizations as suboptimal civilizations. However, we may wish to make further distinctions. In cases in which a planetary civilization never passes the threshold to a demographically significant spacefaring civilization, and the entirety of civilization originating on such a planet plays itself out on the same planet, there may be predictable patterns of such planetary civilization of the third order, and patterns distinct from spacefaring civilizations of graduated degrees of gravitational thresholds. Thus we might speak of planetary civilizations of the third order, stellar civilizations of the third order, galactic civilizations of the third order, and so on. This clearly implies all of these distinctions also being made for each order of civilization.

We will also want to formulate the orders of supercivilization:

● Supercivilization of the Zeroth Order I am not yet prepared to say what corresponds to this concept, but I leave it here as a placeholder.

● Supercivilization of the First Order This is essentially Kardashev’s conception of Type II and Type III civilizations from his 1964 paper, which are judged to be supercivilizations on the basis of a single technological capacity, which is a snapshot of their technology in time, divorced from any conception of civilizational development or evolution.

● Supercivilization of the Second Order This is the idea of a single civilization possessing a single developmental arc that leads from primitive origins to supercivilization status, in other words, Sagan’s idea of a million-year-old civilization or Norris’ idea of a billion-year-old civilization. Such a civilization might be the source of detectable civilization understood above as a supercivilization of the first order.

● Supercivilization of the Third Order This is the idea of a network of civilizations that overlap and intersect, with individual civilizations emerging and then disappearing, but with successor civilizations carrying on the tradition and eventually achieving supercivilization status.

Given this sketch of the orders of supercivilization, we would also want to formulate the orders of suboptimal civilizations:

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Zeroth Order Again (as above), I am not yet prepared to say what corresponds to this concept, but I leave it here as a placeholder.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the First Order A civilization the institutions of which fail to fulfill their intended purpose. This could be a civilization at any stage of development or evolution, and indeed it could pass on to a later developmental stage at which it ceases to be a suboptimal civilization. This could be taken as a description of every civilization on our planet today.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Second Order A civilization that has passed through an entire developmental arc and has apparently completed a life cycle (and is possibly extinct) without however having fulfilled or brought to maturity the essential idea that drove its emergence and development.

● Suboptimal Civilization of the Third Order A network of related civilizations that fails to exhibit full development of individual civilizations within the structure and which fails to exhibit any evolution of the structure of civilization on the whole. In other words, the rise and fall of a series of civilizations that accomplish nothing individually or collectively.

That is a lot to think over, and as many of these ideas are almost as new to me as they may be to the reader (if the reader has not come to them through his or her own reflections on supercivilizations and suboptimal civilizations), as I only arrived at these formulations as I was taking a walk yesterday, it will take time to assimilate this conceptual framework and to see whether or not it is useful for the analysis of civilization. But I might mention that it is a certain satisfaction for me that the idea of orders of civilization lends itself so well to this extrapolation, which implies that this idea is useful in the exposition of other ideas.

If I can continue to develop these ideas in the light of each other, as is suggested by the above exposition, they will prove themselves useful as analytical tools in the study of civilization.

. . . . .

If a Byzantine civilization had endured for a million years, would it have exhibited a regular cyclical pattern of crises and stable periods, or would it have inscribed a long arc of development? Would it be possible for a million-year-old non-technological civilization to exhibit such a long arc of development?

If a Byzantine civilization had endured for a million years, would it have exhibited a regular cyclical pattern of crises and stable periods, or would it have inscribed a long arc of development? Would it be possible for a million-year-old non-technological civilization to exhibit such a long arc of development?

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Suboptimal Civilizations

25 April 2015



When Thinking about civilization this also entails thinking about compromised forms of civilization as well as the end of civilization. Ideally, a comprehensive theory of civilization would be able to account for both civilizations that flourish and prosper as well as those that fail to flourish, and which stagnate, decline, or disappear, or which develop in an undesirable direction (flawed realization). One can think of stagnation and decline as selective or partial collapse; contrariwise, civilizational collapse can be understood as the totality of stagnation or decline (the fulfillment of decline, if you will, which shows that not only progress but also decay can be formulated in teleological terms).


In what follows I will adopt the term “suboptimal civilizations” to indicate those civilizations that have weathered existential threats and which have not gone extinct, but have continued in existence, albeit in a damaged, deformed, or otherwise compromised form due to being subject to stresses beyond that civilization’s level of resilience. A suboptimal civilization, then, is a civilization that has fallen prey to existential risk or risks, but is still extant.


A civilization may become extinct even when the species that produced that civilization has not gone extinct. Thus the extinction of civilizations is a separate and distinct question from that of the extinction of species. However, the extinction of a species is likely to be much more tightly coupled to the extinction of a civilization, though we could construct scenarios in which a civilization is continued by some other species, or some other agent, than that which originated a given civilization. Generally speaking, those existential risks that lead to the extinction of a civilization are extinction and subsequent ruination; those existential risks that lead to suboptimal civilizations are stagnation and flawed realization.

Temple of Heaven

There is a philosophical problem when it comes to judging civilizations of the past that have transitioned into contemporary forms of civilization, losing their identity in the process, but leaving a legacy in the form of a continuing influence. One way to deal with this problem is to distinguish between civilizations that attained maturity and those that did not. Is a civilization that failed to attain maturity because it was preempted by another form of civilization now to be considered extinct? The obvious example that I have in mind, and which I have cited numerous times, is that of early modern European civilization, which I have called modernism without industrialism, which rapidly was transformed by the industrial revolution, which latter preempted the “natural” development of modernity before that modernity had achieved maturity.

India postcard

I will not attempt at present to define maturity for civilization, but my assumption will be that the maturity of a civilization will have something to do with the bringing to fulfillment of the essential idea of a civilization. I am not prepared to say how the essential idea of a civilization is to be identified, or how it is to be judged to have come to fulfillment, but this should be sufficient to give the reader an intuitive sense of what I have in mind.


The range of suboptimal civilizations, including those trapped in the social equivalent of neurotic misery, might be quite considerable. Toynbee formulated a range of concepts to understand suboptimal civilizations, including abortive civilizations, arrested civilizations, and fossil civilizations. Extrapolating from Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations, I formulated the idea of submerged civilizations in my post In the Shadow of Civilization.


Toynbee’s conceptions of suboptimal civilizations are imaginative and poetic, but more qualitative than quantitative conceptions. In order to do this in the spirit of science, we would want our comprehensive theory of civilization to incorporate quantifiable metrics for the success or failure of a civilization. At our present stage of social development, it is controversial to compare civilizational traditions and to rate any one tradition as “higher” or “more advanced” than any other tradition (an idea I discussed in Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization), as representatives of those civilizations that rate lower on any proposed scale are offended by the metric employed, and they will usually suggest alternative metrics by which their preferred civilizational metric fares much better, while the civilizational tradition that fared better under the other metric would not come off as well by this alternative metric. The attempt by the nation-state of Bhutan to measure “gross national happiness,” may be taken as an example of this, although I am not sure that this is a helpful measure.


It would also be desirable in a comprehensive theory of civilization to formulate metrics for the viability or sustainability of a given civilization. In some cases, metrics for the success of civilization might coincide with metrics for the viability of civilization, but the possibility of very long lived civilizations that are less than ideal — suboptimal civilizations — points out the limitations of defining civilizational success in terms of civilizational survival. In some cases viability and optimality will coincide, while in some cases they will not coincide, and suboptimal civilizations that survive existential risks in a compromised form will be an example of such non-coincidence. The survival of a stagnant civilization can be a matter of mere cosmic good fortune, whereby a particular planet enjoys an uncommonly clement cosmic climate for an uncharacteristically long period of time (while other contingent factors may mean that the climate for civilizational development to maturity is not equally clement).


There are many ways to explore the idea of suboptimal civilization, as was observed above there are many ways for a civilization to languish in suboptimality. Indeed, it may be the case that the essential idea of a civilization has a much smaller class of circumstances in which that idea comes to full fruition and maturity, and a much larger class of circumstances in which that idea fails to mature for any number of distinct reasons, so that suboptimal civilizations are likely to outnumber civilizations that have attained optimality.


There is another philosophical problem, related to the problem noted above, in identifying the continuity of a civilization, so that a later stage of development can be considered the fulfillment, or failure of fulfillment, of some earlier civilizational idea, and not the emergence of a new idea not yet brought to fulfillment. I have previously considered this problem in several posts on the invariant properties of civilization. If a civilization emerges that seems to lack heretofore invariant properties of civilization, is to identified as a new form of civilization, or as non-civilization? Another way to formulate the problem is to ask whether civilization is an open-textured concept. The problem is posed every time an unprecedented development occurs in the history of civilization, so that the problem re-emerges at every stage in the history of a tradition, since the unprecedented is always occurring in one form or another. Let me provide an example of what I mean by this claim.


Imagine, if you will (as a thought experiment), that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose that despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived (that is, the world of modernism without industrialism).

Venice from the early 20th Century

If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition. I implied as much recently when I wrote that, “It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.” (cf. Is society existentially dependent upon religion?)


The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity and even have made use of its intellectual gifts without having passed through any stage of large-scale settlement. This is an especially interesting thought experiment when we reflect that the paradigmatically human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization, and might have developed separately from civilization. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology, though this would have taken an order of magnitude longer than it took as a result of the industrial revolution. Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human society that had not adopted large-scale settlement and consequently the institutions of settled civilization.


This ancient human society that had never crossed the threshold of civilization proper — at least in some senses a suboptimal form of social organization, even if not a suboptimal civilization — suggests yet another thought experiment: an ancient civilization that, despite its antiquity, never passes the threshold to become a Kardashevian supercivilization. The motif of a million-year-old civilization is a common one, Kardashev called them “supercivilizations” and Sagan often speculated on their histories, but what about the possibility of a million-year-old civilization that never develops technologically and never experiences an industrial revolution?


If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. This is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past.

Downtown Hartford early 1900s

The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachonic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution, given climatological conditions that allow for continual development, would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there is a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. The human condition need not change appreciably even over very long periods of time.


A million year old agricultural civilization would probably look much like a 2,000 year old civilization, except that it would have a very long history, which means either a massive archive if continuity is maintained, or a lot of ruins and buried artifacts of the past if continuity has not been maintained. Would we have anything to learn from a million-year-old civilization that was not a supercivilization? Consider the possibility of art and literature a million years in development — the steady rate at which civilization prior to the industrial revolution produced masterpieces of art suggests that civilization without industrialization would be a very old agrarian civilization that was laden with a million years’ worth of art treasures. In this case a suboptimal civilization would be productive of values that would not and could not be achieved under an optimal civilization, which ought to make us question the optimality of optimal civilization where our presuppositions of optimality are drawn from industrialization.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo small

. . . . .



This Island Earth

Some time ago (on Twitter) I observed that astrobiology is island biogeography writ large. I return to this idea regularly, but have not yet adequately fleshed it out. I touched on this again in From an Astrobiological Point of View, but it would take considerable exposition to do justice to the idea. This post is an unsatisfactory response to my return to an idea that deserves to be studied in his own right and at some length.

Chart of the Galápagos Islands

Chart of the Galápagos Islands

Island biogeography has its origins in the origins of Darwin’s Origin of Species. As we all know, Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands during the voyage of the Beagle that Darwin recounted in The Voyage of the Beagle. Decades of thought and gestation followed, but it was in part the peculiar mix of species in the Galápagos that was crucial for Darwin’s breakthrough to the idea of natural selection. I have myself visited the Galápagos Islands (I wrote about this in Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!) and it is a spectacular lesson in natural history that I cannot recommend highly enough.

theory of island biogeography

Although island biogeography begins with Darwin, it was brought to explicit formulation and theoretical maturity by E. O. Wilson and Robert H. MacArthur in The Theory of Island Biogeography. There the authors say in their opening remarks:

“By studying clusters of islands, biologists view a simpler microcosm of the seemingly infinite complexity of continental and oceanic biogeography. Islands offer an additional advantage in being more numerous than continents and oceans. By their very multiplicity, and variation in shape, size, degree of isolation, and ecology, islands provide the necessary replications in natural ‘experiments’ by which evolutionary hypotheses can be tested.”

Robert H. MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson, The Theory of Island Biogeography, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967, Chap. 1, p. 3

Much of this remains valid when translated, mutatis mutandis, into astrobiology. The key, however, is how one goes about arriving at the mutatis mutandis. How can all other things remain equal when we are translating from terrestrial ecosystems in miniature, thus a bit easier to understand than the whole of the terrestrial biosphere, or some major division such as a biome, into worlds entire isolated in the blackness of interplanetary and interstellar space? The analogy is not perfect, but it is suggestive of parallel avenues of approach.

How do you quantify the life of an entire world? Higher biological taxa. This graph shows families rather than species.

How do you quantify the life of an entire world? Higher biological taxa. This graph shows families rather than species.

Scaling up biogeography

While the flora and fauna of islands are sufficiently restricted in scope to make it possible to do a detailed count not only of species present (already in The Voyage of the Beagle we see Darwin noting the number of genera and species present on various islands), but sometimes also of individuals. Obviously we are not going to be able to count species, much less individuals, for entire worlds. We must draw back, look at the big picture, and employ the kind of metrics we see in studies of mass extinctions. In detailing the loss of biodiversity of mass extinctions it is not merely species or even genera that go extinct; sometimes entire families, orders, and classes go extinct. These we can count; in fact, we could reasonably expect to count higher taxa for entire worlds.

taxnomic rank

The reformulation of island biogeographical ideas for astrobiology will be the labor of the production of a new science. The scaling up of our scope to higher biological taxa is only one among many scaling changes in our thought we must pursue in order to develop concepts adequate to the fate of life in the context of galactic ecology.

galactic ecology

Flight and its Technological Equivalents

Geologically young islands — as with the well-known example of the Galápagos Islands, mentioned above — are primarily populated by birds and marine animals. Birds bring with them a variety of plant life; moreover, many plants can float, and are brought to islands by ocean currents. Least common to arrive and to survive are those terrestrial species that find themselves on islands due to sweepstakes dispersal routes, i.e., somewhat unusual circumstances in which a breeding pair of terrestrial animals are able to ride a floating log or mass of vegetation to an otherwise isolated island and can there reproduce, like the marine iguanas on the Galápagos, who have learned to feed by diving into the ocean and forage on inter- and subtidal algae. That is to say, the least common colonists are life forms that cannot swim or fly; being able to traverse planetary distances is a limiting factor in the distribution of a life form.

Darwin Greenhouse

Darwin conducted a simple yet ingenious ecological experiment in island biogeography that he recounted in The Origin of Species:

“I have before mentioned that earth occasionally, though rarely, adheres in some quantity to the feet and beaks of birds. Wading birds, which frequent the muddy edges of ponds, if suddenly flushed, would be the most likely to have muddy feet. Birds of this order I can show are the greatest wanderers, and are occasionally found on the most remote and barren islands in the open ocean; they would not be likely to alight on the surface of the sea, so that the dirt would not be washed off their feet; when making land, they would be sure to fly to their natural fresh-water haunts. I do not believe that botanists are aware how charged the mud of ponds is with seeds: I have tried several little experiments, but will here give only the most striking case: I took in February three table-spoonfuls of mud from three different points, beneath water, on the edge of a little pond; this mud when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces; I kept it covered up in my study for six months, pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup! Considering these facts, I think it would be an inexplicable circumstance if water-birds did not transport the seeds of fresh-water plants to vast distances, and if consequently the range of these plants was not very great. The same agency may have come into play with the eggs of some of the smaller fresh-water animals.”

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, London: John Murray, 1st edition, 1859, GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION. CHAP. XII., pp. 386-387

Such is the power of flight to widely disperse species over the surface of Earth. Flight has a value beyond the differential survival and reproduction advantage that it confers upon those species so endowed; it also plays a co-evolutionary role at the largest scale of planetary ecology. That flight should develop within a biosphere is perhaps not inevitable, but we could say instead that a biosphere in which flight emerges is likely to achieve much higher levels of biodiversity, and hence prove a more robust ecosystem. A robust ecosystem, in turn, is more likely to survive existential threats (such as the mass extinctions that have repeatedly punctuated the evolution of life on Earth), so that planetary biospheres of a given longevity are more likely to have flight than not.

convergent flight

Natural selection found several different solutions to the problem of flight. Some small plant seeds, and some very small animals (e.g., spiders), are light enough to be carried by the wind. Some animals fly by gliding (flying squirrels), and some animals employ wings for flight. Wings have emerged separately among insects, dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. Flying fish might also be said to have wings. Given a biosphere not disrupted by the anthropocene, flying fish might eventually transition to a fully flying way of life; this may yet happen in the distant future.



The problem of flight at the level that concerns astrobiology is potentially as diverse as the solutions to the problem of flight in a planetary biosphere. We are only just beginning to understand the complexity of the universe in which we live, and we are continually discovering capacities of nature and of life that previously would have strained our credulity. Just last week on the second episode of The Unseen Podcast, host Paul Carr noted that, with all the exchange of material between the inner planets of the solar system, we would not be surprised to find that all this life comes to the same root, while we probably would be surprised, if found like the oceans of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, if it came from the same root. That far out in the solar system, we would expect a second genesis if there is any life at all.

If there is life in the subsurface ocean of Europa, we expect that life to be the result of a second genesis.

If there is life in the subsurface ocean of Europa, we expect that life to be the result of a second genesis.

That perspective on the likelihood the relations of life within the confines of a single solar system may change as we learn more about astrobiology. But so far this discussion is primarily a matter of naturally occurring dispersal vectors for species. We must consider astrobiology both before and after technologically-driven dispersal vectors, as well as in regard to terrestrial and to extraterrestrial dispersal vectors. Just as technological dispersal vectors have began to play a major role in our planetary biosphere, especially in relation to the distribution and introduction of invasive species, we would expect a mixture of both natural and technical dispersal vectors in astrobiology.


Spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography.

Given the continuity of natural history and civilization, that spaceflight is to astrobiology as flight is to biogeography follows naturally in the strict sense of “naturally.” In other words, there is a continuity from flight as the result of biology and flight as the result of technology; there is idea diffusion (or idea flow) from nature to civilization: we observe the existence proof of powered, heavier-than-air flight in nature, and we seek to reverse engineer this development and to reproduce it with technology. Thus, in a sense, technology is the pursuit of biology by other means. Thus spaceflight, as the technological equivalent of biological flight, will play a co-evolutionary role at the largest scale of galactic ecology.

flight 2

It may be worth noting in this context that the cluster of developments dependent upon human activity — intelligence, technology, language, and civilization among them — could be said to represent a solution to the problem of survival, but it is a “solution” that we find no where else in nature except in ourselves. Now, in referring to “nature” in the previous sentence I here mean “in the terrestrial biosphere.” This is significant, because a viable solution to the problem of survival (as we can see from the example of flight, or I might also use the example of vision) tends to be repeatedly emergent in nature, so that we find multiple instances of homology and convergent evolution. We do not find this in regard to the human solution to the problem of survival.

If this is a solution to the problem of survival as posed by the terrestrial environment, why did no other species exploit this strategy?

If this is a solution to the problem of survival as posed by the terrestrial environment, why did no other species exploit this strategy?

On a larger scale, a scale at which “nature” does not mean the terrestrial biosphere but rather means the whole of the universe, we may well yet see the cohort of complexities associated with human beings repeated elsewhere, though we have to scale up our perspective, just as with scaling up island biography until it coincides with astrobiology. Metrics appropriate to human activity in a terrestrial context will not be sufficient for human (or, more generally, intelligent) activity in an extraterrestrial context. Another way to understand this is that, confined to the surface of Earth, distinctions that would be significant to civilization are conflated by contingent circumstances; raised off the surface of the Earth, and given energy and resources almost without limit, previously conflated properties of civilization manifest themselves in an extraterrestrial context and eventually become obvious as spacefaring civilizations undergo rapid adaptive radiation and come to exemplify different civilizational properties.

Terrestrial civilizations from an extraterrestrial perspective appear homogenous, but this may be a function of their being subject in common to specific terrestrial selection pressures.

Terrestrial civilizations from an extraterrestrial perspective appear homogenous, but this may be a function of their being subject in common to specific terrestrial selection pressures.

But to return to the idea that technology is the pursuit of biology by other means, as I observed in my Centauri Dreams post, How We Get There Matters, existential ends are not indifferent to technological means. In the particular case of the pursuit of biological ends by technological means, this provides a context for thinking about astrobiology in an age of spacefaring civilizations.

starship classes

Many metrics have been proposed for spacefaring civilization. I mentioned some of these in my last post, Thinking about Civilization, including metrics that I have myself attempted to work out. In that post I did not mention the metric that I proposed in my Centuari Dreams post How We Get There Matters (and which I followed with SETI Under Conditions of Constraint for Spacefaring Civilization), which concerned classes of starships. This is a metric immediately relevant to the question of spaceflight understood as the development of a continuum that begins with the first wind-blown distribution of seeds and spores, and which might some day mean the greening of the galaxy.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Orders, Stages, and Waves


Theoretical Frameworks for Civilization


The problem of an adequate conceptual framework (or, if you prefer, a theoretical or analytical framework) for civilization is simply the problem of how to think about civilization. It is my ambition not merely to think about civilization, but to do so well, i.e., clearly and rigorously, and, to that end, to think about civilization scientifically and philosophically. We need a scientific body of knowledge about civilization, and then a philosophical analysis of this body of scientific knowledge, before we can say that we are capable of thinking about civilization clearly and rigorously.

In my attempt to arrive at a scientific conception of civilization I have formulated many different conceptual frameworks — many of them mere fragmentary ideas without much connection to a wider scientific context, such as in the established social sciences — that I view as something like exercises or experiments, to be tested against the historical record, and also to be extrapolated into the future. Following Carnap’s tripartite distinction of scientific concepts into the taxonomic, the comparative, and the quantitative (cf. The Future Science of Civilizations), some of these ideas are taxonomic, some are comparative, and some are quantitative.

Rudolf Carnap's account of scientific concepts from his Philosophical Foundations of Physics.

Rudolf Carnap’s account of scientific concepts from his Philosophical Foundations of Physics.

Taxonomic, comparative, and quantitative conceptions of civilization

Implicitly I have been employing a taxonomy of civilizations when I used terms such as agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization or industrial-technological civilization, and recently I have suggested that these taxa may be placed within more general taxa. For example, classical antiquity and medieval Europe were both civilizations with an agricultural base, but profoundly different in other respects. Thus if we understand that industrial-technological civilization is a scientific civilization, we can see by analogy how this civilization might be superseded by another kind of scientific civilization but which was not an industrial-technological civilization (cf. David Hume and Scientific Civilization and The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization).

In Comparative Concepts in the Study of Civilization I sketched out some of the problems of employing comparative conceptions of civilization, which are of great utility despite the moral repugnance in which such comparisons are held today. Comparative concepts remain underdeveloped because of the moral opprobrium attached to explicit comparisons among civilization, which imply explicit rankings, such as “better than” or “worse than,” “higher” or “lower,” “more advanced” or “less advanced,” “more developed” or “less developed.” Even when rankings of civilizations are carefully and tightly circumscribed so to not to judge the worth of a civilization — presumably its contribution to human history — such rankings are still routinely misconstrued, often willfully so. Even to suggest such a thing is to invite hostile criticism.

There are a number of well-known quantitative schemes for taking the measure of civilization, most especially the Kardashev rankings of Type I, Type II, and Type III (subsequently extrapolated by several authors to both higher and lower types). I wrote about Kardashev’s types at some length in What Kardashev Really Said on Centauri Dreams, so I will not repeat that analysis here. My dissatisfaction with Kardashev types led me to formulate a series of stages in the development of spacefaring civilization, which I wrote about in Beyond the Kardashev Scale and which I spoke about at the first 100YSS event 2011, and then put in essay form in The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight.

In brief, I treated the stages of spacefaring civilizations in terms of technological ability to overcome gravitational thresholds. These gravitational thresholds ascend from the surface of Earth (as, i.e., the difficulty of crossing mountain ranges) through planets, stars, and galaxies to the multiverse:

● Stage 0 spacefaring civilizations, or a planet-bound civilizations, have no capacity for spaceflight. (Pre-Sputnik civilization)

● Stage 1 spacefaring civilizations have the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. (Sputnik and after)

● Stage 2 spacefaring civilizations might be defined as those that have established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of a given civilization’s biological origin. This could also be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-planetary travel. This is the minimal level of civilization to assure long-term survivability.

● Stage 3 spacefaring civilizations would have achieved practical, durable, and routine interstellar travel.

● Stage 4 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-galactic travel.

● Stage 5 spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine travel in the multiverse, i.e., beyond the known universe defined by the consequences of the big bang and observational cosmology.

I conceived my above schema of stages in the development of spacefaring civilization in terms of transportation — whether by foot, canoe, horseback, sail, rail, aircraft, or spacecraft, because it is by such means that human beings came to inhabit the world entire, and by such means that civilizations have spread — but I now see that transportation is a special case of change, and that some similar schema, generalized to address all forms of civilizational change, might be employed. Recently I have been experimenting with several different schematic formulations of change based on a generalization of the stages of spacefaring civilization. Since civilization is, roughly, about large scale social organization, the idea of demographically significant change is central to my formulation. Here is one delineation of stages based on any change whatsoever:

● Stage 0: Equilibrium No change; equilibrium state.

● Stage 1: Firsts Symbolic firsts that are demographically insignificant but mark a possible trajectory for change.

● Stage 2: Growth Building on symbolic firsts, gradual (arithmetical) increase in demographic significance.

● Stage 3: Inflection Passing a threshold at which demographically significant change occurs exponentially (geometrically).

● Stage 4: Predominance At predominance the change is now the norm; a corner has been turned, and the completion of the change is now only a matter of time.

● Stage 5: Integration Full integration. The trajectory of change has been fulfilled, and full integration eventually becomes indistinguishable from an equilibrium state, or Stage 0. This new equilibrium is a more comprehensive state if the change involved growth, and a less comprehensive state if the change involved contraction.

In this schema I assume that growth could be arrested at any stage, and that it can be reversed. The growth of a pandemic that does not kill the host species may reach an inflection point or demographic predominance, but “integration” would mean the pandemic had achieved totality, at which point this would result in the death of the host. The first summit of Mount Everest has been followed by growth in the number of climbers, but this growth will never reach integration because there will not be a time in human history when the whole of humanity has climbed Everest. However, the growth of agricultural civilization very nearly did reach totality as almost all practicable arable land had been brought under cultivation by the time the industrial revolution occurred and a new form of civilization began to take shape.

This is an admittedly imperfect attempt to provide a structure for describing large-scale change of the kind that results in the emergence, growth, decay, or death of a civilization.


Cluster and Series

In a couple of recent posts — The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State and The Seriation of Western Civilization — I have mentioned that I think about the origins of civilization in terms of clusters and series. A cluster is a geographical (or synchronic) conception, while a series is an historical (or diachronic) conception. (Earlier in Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization I had made the synchronic/diachronic distinction without relating this to the ideas of cluster and series.)

While I conceived clusters and series of civilizations in terms of the origins of civilization, the ideas could just as well be applied later in the development of civilization, if some new cluster could emerge. Since human civilization at present, however, already covers the entire planet, there are no opportunities for civilizations to originate de novo (on Earth’s surface). One could identify clusters and series of the origins of kinds of civilization (which requires a taxonomy of civilization), so that when industrial-technological civilization begins to emerge in the late eighteenth century, western Europe is the cluster for the origin of this kind of civilization, and from this cluster several diachronic series can be traced. More interesting in my view is to pull back our perspective and to consider the large-scale structure of civilization in the universe. From this perspective, we would speak of a terrestrial cluster, and as various terrestrial civilizations achieve spacefaring status each of these civilizations deriving from the terrestrial cluster would constitute a civilizational series, from which a seriation of spacefaring civilizations would follow.

Initially separate clusters, such as those that constituted the origins of civilization, or, later, the emergence of a new kind of civilization, grow together over time (what Whitehead would have called concrescence), and the growing together of originally separate civilization arguably results in a new cluster. At the present time of planetary civilization, this cluster is the terrestrial cluster. However, we can identify earlier instances when originally separate civilizations grew together, and many of these are marked by great ages of syncretism, which have arguably created some of the greatest symbols of civilization in terms of monumental architecture.

I have not yet made any systematic effort to relate these ideas of cluster and series to taxonomic, comparative, and quantitative concepts of civilization, but have employed the ideas opportunistically as they could be used to illuminate a particular problem. There are many possible ways to bring these ideas together.


The orders of civilization

Another partial conceptual framework that I have worked out for civilization is a hierarchical structure that I call the orders of civilization. These orders are as follows:

● Civilization of the Zeroth Order is the order of prehistory and of all human life and activity and comes before civilization in the strict sense.

● Civilization of the First Order are those socioeconomic systems of large-scale organization that supply the matter upon which history works; in other words, the synchronic milieu of a given civilization, a snapshot in time.

● Civilization of the Second Order is an entire cycle of civilization, from birth through growth to maturity and senescence unto death, taken whole. (Iterated, civilization of the second order is a series, as described above.)

● Civilization of the Third Order is the whole structure of developmental stages of civilization such that any particular civilization passes through, but taken comprehensively and embracing all civilizations within this structure and their interactions with each other as the result of these structures. (Clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order.)

This framework was primarily intended to clarify exactly what we are referring to when we invoke “civilization,” and in a sense it builds upon one of the earliest problems I took up in this blog, which I originally called The Phenomenon of Civilization, i.e., the attempt to speak about civilization as such, without referring to any particular civilization.

Notice that for every order of civilization, we can talk about one and the same civilization from these several points of view, i.e., given civilization CIVx, there is CIVx of the zeroth order, before and outside this civilization, CIVx of the first order, which is some contemporaneous snapshot of its structures, CIVx of the second order, which is the entire narrative of this civilization, and CIVx of the third order, which is the same civilization taken in the context of the life cycles of all civilizations, as one thread in a tapestry of civilization. In this context civilization can be treated formally, as any civilization could be substituted for CIVx.

Again, I have not made a systematic effort to unify these various theoretical frameworks, so that orders of civilization are precisely defined in relation to stages or clusters and series, but there are interesting ways to do this. Civilization of the second order, placed end to end, constitutes a series, while clusters and series are part of the overall structure of civilization of the third order; civilization of the third order is closest to what I previously called the phenomenon of civilization.


Orders, stages, and waves

Orders of civilization as I conceived them do not stand in isolation, but are part of a series of concepts — orders, stages, and waves — intended to offer an increasingly finely-grained account of civilization as one delves into the details of the seriation of civilizations. To a certain extent, then, my conception of the stages of spacefaring civilization mentioned above was intended from the first to be integrated into this model.

When I spoke at the second 100YSS in 2012 I had progressed farther on my typology of stages of spacefaring civilization, and had subdivided stages into waves of expansion (or contraction) — cf. my contribution to 100 Year Starship 2012 Symposium Conference Proceedings, “The Large-Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilizations.” A wave of expansion that consolidates the achievement of a stage takes different forms depending on the technology available (because how we get there matters) and the strategy of implementing that technology in practice. At that time I distinguished between an incremental outward push in which the farthest regions are last to be inhabited and populations build up first closest to the center from which expansion starts and then later moves into the periphery, and a sudden “moon shot” outward jump (akin to what a biogeographist would call a “sweepstakes dispersal route”) in which the far frontier receives the brunt of the demographic impact, and it is only later with subsequent waves that the buffer between center and periphery is filled in. Needless to say, all of this can also be run backward in order to describe the collapse of civilization.

It will be obvious that these three concepts — orders, stages, and waves — were intended to be integrated into my conception of spacefaring civilizations distinguished according to gravitational thresholds attained. However, as noted above, expansion into space can be re-conceived more generally as any kind of change. Can the conceptual framework of cluster and series be fitted into the framework or orders, stages, and waves, or vice versa? I have integrated a more-or-less intuitive distinction between center and periphery into this model, as the various possibilities for civilizational expansion or retrenchment can be described in terms of the interplay between the center and the periphery of a given civilization. (Earlier I discussed the center/periphery dialectic in The Farther Reaches of Civilization.) This suggests that a place could also be made for clusters and series, which is a pretty elementary idea.

At one time I saw the analysis of civilization in terms of orders, stages, and waves to be the primary theoretical framework I would employ (I even began to assemble a PowerPoint presentation based on this framework, assuming that I would give a talk about it at some point), but I have been working on another framework that supersedes this (and hopefully resolves some of the problems with that schema) and which I hope to soon present in a systematical exposition. However, I tend to let ideas gestate for a long time before I write about them, so it may not be as soon as I hope that I write about it.



Any conclusions could only be provisional at best. As I noted above in the introduction, I consider all of these ideas to be experiments. Sometimes one idea fits a circumstance well, so I make use of it, while on another occasion that idea may not work, but another does. Each unique set of historical circumstances seems to call for a unique theoretical framework, but, of course, the challenge is to find a framework that works well generally to elucidate a wide variety of distinct civilizations. Such a framework could then with greater confidence be projected into the future and give us a glimpse of the shape of structure of civilization to come.

My views continue to evolve and I continue to formulate new concepts and frameworks. As I noted above, I am actively working an an alternative taxonomy that I hope will be more sophisticated and open to the degree of elaboration that would make it applicable not only to the past, but also to the future.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Thales hired olive oil presses out of season to demonstrate that disinterested scientific curiosity can be practical if one wants to bother about money.

Curiosity does not have an especially good reputation, and one often finds the word coupled with “mere” so that “mere curiosity” can be elegantly dismissed as though beneath the dignity of the speaker, who can then go about his much more grand and august pursuits without the distraction of the petty, grubbing motivation of mere curiosity. There may be some connection between this disdainful attitude toward curiosity and the prevalent anti-intellectualism of western civilization, notwithstanding the fact that most of what is unique in this tradition is derived from the scientific spirit; it is no surprise that any driving force in human affairs eventually provokes an equal and opposite reaction.

Many civilizations that publicly value intellectuals do not value the contributions of intellectuals, so that this social prestige is indistinguishable from a kind of feudal regard for special classes of persons. This is not what happened in western civilization, in which scientific knowledge bestowed real wealth and power — in our own day no less than in the past — and so provoked a reaction. One of the most famous stories from classical antiquity was how Thales, predicting an especially good olive harvest, hired all the olive presses at a low rate out of season, and then let them out at inflated rates during the peak season, proving that philosophers could earn money if they wanted to do so.

There are a great many interesting quotes that invoke curiosity, for better or worse — Thomas Hobbes: “…this hope and expectation of future knowledge from anything that happeneth new and strange, is that passion which we commonly call ADMIRATION; and the same considered as appetite, is called CURIOSITY, which is appetite of knowledge.” Edmund Burke: “The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Albert Einstein: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — which highlight both the admirable and the disreputable side of curiosity. That curiosity has both admirable and disreputable aspects suggests that one might be admirably curious or disreputably curious, and certainly all of us know individuals who are curious in the best sense of the term and others who are curious in the worst sense of the term.

Human beings are adventurers of the spirit. We must count among the attributes of human nature some basal drive toward questioning. This drive could be given an exposition in purely intellectual terms or in purely emotional terms; I think that the intellectual and emotional manifestations of human curiosity are two sides of the same coin, and that is why I suggest positing some basal drive that lies at the root of both. And it isn’t quite right to reduce this drive to curiosity, as we can formulate it in terms of curiosity or in terms of need.

Curiosity is often contrasted to a presumably more esteemed mode of interrogating the cosmos, that we may call existential need. Jacob Needleman often addressed the contrast between “mere” curiosity (which he sometimes called “low curiosity”) and present need. Here is an example:

“It has been said that any question can lead to truth if it is an aching question. For one person it may be the question of life after death, for another the problem of suffering, the causes of war and injustice. Or it may be something more personal and immediate — a profound ethical dilemma, a problem involving the whole direction of one’s life. An aching question, a question that it not just a curiosity or a fleeting burst of emotion, cannot be answered with old thought. Possessed by such a question, one is hungry for ideas of a very different order than the familiar categories that usually accompany us throughout our lives. One is both hungry and, at the same time, more discriminating, less susceptible to credulity and suggestibility. The intelligence of the heart begins to call to us in our sleep.”

Jacob Needleman, The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, pp. 3-4

I disagree with this on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to start, so instead I will simply say that the kind of existential need Needleman wants to describe is highly credulous and suggestible, and what answers to this need are almost always in the form of an old and painfully familiar form of cognitive bias. However, to try to do justice to Needleman, I will allow that, for an individual immersed in the ordinary business of life who, through some traumatic experience, suddenly comes face to face with profound and difficult questions never before posed in that individual’s experience, then, yes, ideas of a very different order are needed to address such questions.

While I do not think that aching questions are likely to lead to truth — I think it much more likely that they will lead to self-deception — I do not deny that many are gnawed by aching questions, and some few spend their lives trying to answer them. The question, then, is the best method by which an aching question might be given a clear, coherent, and satisfying (in so far as that is possible) answer. Here I am reminded of a passage from Walter Kaufmann:

“Nowhere is the disproportion between effort and result more aggravating than in the pursuit of truth: you may plow through documents or make untold experiments or think and think and think, forgo food, comfort, and distractions, lie awake nights and eat out your heart — and in the end you know what can be memorized by any idiot.”

Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, section 24

However aching our question, presumably we would want to spare ourselves the wasted effort of an inquiry that deprives us of the satisfactions of life while giving an answer that could be memorized by any idiot. Kaufmann did not go far enough here: sometimes individuals who make just such an heroic effort to get at the truth and only arrive at an idiot’s portion convince themselves that the idiot’s portion is in fact a great and profound truth.

Whether or not existential need can be satisfied, how are we to undertand it? Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and one of the founders of existential analysis, identified a condition that he called the existential vacuum, which he defined as, “the frustration of the will to meaning.” Frankl knew that of which he spoke, having lost most of his family to Nazi death camps and himself having been interned at Auschwitz and liberated only at the end of the war. Here, in a longer passage, is his exposition of existential need:

“Ever more patients complain of what they call an ‘inner void,’ and that is the reason why I have termed this condition the ‘existential vacuum.’ In contradistinction to the peak-experience so aptly described by Maslow, one could conceive of the existential vacuum in terms of an ‘abyss-experience’.”

Viktor Frankl, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, New York: Plume, 2014 (originally published in the US in 1969), Part Two, “The Existential Vacuum: A Challenge to Psychiatry”

One could readily suppose that existential need is occasioned by the existential vacuum; that the former is the condition and cause of the latter. Another and more recent approach to existential need is to be found in the work of James Giles:

“…existential needs are not the product of social construction. For in contrast to socially constructed phenomena, existential needs are an inherent and universal feature of the human condition.”

James Giles, The Nature of Sexual Desire, p. 181

This is not necessarily distinct from existential need occasioned by Frankl’s existential vacuum; one could formulate the existential vacuum so that it is either “an inherent and universal feature of the human condition” or not. And there may well be more than one form of existential need. In fact, I think it is clear that there is a plurality of existential needs, and some of these can be sublimated through scientific inquiry and can be satisfied, while some play out in the fruitless manner described in the passage above from Kaufmann.

How one approaches the mystery that is the world, by way of scientific curiosity or by way of existential need, which we might call the scientific approach and the existential approach, each reflect a valid human response to the individual’s relationship to the cosmos. Most of us, at some point in life, poignantly feel the mysteriousness of the world and the desire to give an account of our existence in relation to this mystery. Consider this from John Stuart Mill:

“Human existence is girt round with mystery: the narrow region of our experience is a small island in the midst of a boundless sea, which at once awes our feelings and stimulates our imagination by its vastness and its obscurity. To add to the mystery, the domain of our earthly existence is not only an island in infinite space, but also in infinite time. The past and the future are alike shrouded from us: we neither know the origin of anything which is, nor its final destination. If we feel deeply interested in knowing that there are myriads of worlds at an immeasurable, and to our faculties inconceivable, distance from us in space; if we are eager to discover what little we can about these worlds, and when we cannot know what they are, can never satiate ourselves with speculating on what they may be…”

Now, John Stuart Mill was an almost preternaturally rational man; he was not given to flights of fancy, though the high-flown rhetoric of this passage might suggest this. The scientific approach to mystery is a rationalistic response to the riddle of the world; answers are to be had, but the world is boundless, so that any one answered question still leaves countless other unanswered questions. The growth of knowledge is attended by a parallel growth in the unknown, as our increasing knowledge makes it possible for us to formulate previously unsuspected questions. One might find this to be invigorating or disappointing: there are real answers, but we will never have a final understanding of the world. The existential approach to mystery acknowledges that the human mind may not be capable of comprehending the mystery that is the world, but this is coupled with a fervent belief that there is a final and transcendent answer out there somewhere, even if it always remains tantalizingly out of reach. These are subtle but important differences in the conception of “ultimate” truth as it relates human beings to their world.

A distinction might be made between scientific mystery and absolute mystery, with scientific mystery being a mystery that admits of an answer, but which also admits of a further mystery. An absolute mystery admits of no answer, nor of any further mystery. The world might take on the character of scientific mystery or of absolute mystery depending on whether we approach the world from the perspective of scientific curiosity or existential need. In other words, the kind of mystery that the world is — even if we all agree that the world is girt round in mystery, as Mill says — corresponds to our attitude to the world.

One could argue that scientific curiosity is a sublimation of existential need. If this is true, there is no reason to be ashamed of this, or to attempt a return to the original existential need. The passage from existential need to scientific curiosity may be a stage in the development of intellectual maturity, as irreversible as the passage from childhood to adulthood.

One might go a step further and call scientific curiosity the secularization of existential need (or, rather, the secularization of religious mystery, which then invites a treatment in terms of the Max Scheler/Paul Tillich claim that all human beings are engaged in worship, it is only a question of whether the object of this worship is worthy or idolatrous), recalling Karl Löwith’s theory of secularization, which made much of modernity into a bastardized form of Christian eschatology. This presupposes not only that existential need precedes scientific curiosity, but that it is the only authentic form of human questioning, and that any attempt to introduce new forms of questioning the human condition is illegitimate.

We are today faced with questions that our ancestors, who first felt the disconcerting stirrings of existential need, could not have imagined. I touched on one of these questions in my post on Centauri Dreams, Cosmic Loneliness and Interstellar Travel, which drew more responses than other of my other posts to that forum. Our cosmic loneliness can now be expressed in scientific terms, and we can offer a scientific response to our attempts so far to answer the question, “Are we alone?” This is one of the great scientific questions of our time, and at the same time it speaks to a modern existential need that has been expressed in Clark’s tertium non datur.

The growth of human knowledge and the civilization created by human knowledge may have its origins in the questioning that naturally emerges from an experience of existential need. Perhaps this feeling never fully dissipates, but in so far as the dissatisfaction and discontent of existential need can be redirected into scientific curiosity, human beings can experience at least a limited satisfaction derived from definite scientific answers to questions formulated with increasing clarity and rigor. Beyond this, we may have to wait for the next stage in human evolution, when we may acquire mental faculties that take us beyond both existential need and scientific curiosity into a frame of mind incomprehensible to us in our present iteration.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 401 other followers

%d bloggers like this: