Saturday


Settled agriculturalism in the European Middle Ages.

Settled agriculturalism in the European Middle Ages.

It was until recently uncontroversial that civilization begins with settled agriculturalism. The excavations at Göbekli Tepe have shown an unexpected light on some of the earliest human communities. The structures at Göbekli Tepe seem to have been been ritual spaces — perhaps the world’s earliest example of monumental architecture, one of the sure markers of civilization — but evidence suggests that the peoples who gathered at Göbekli Tepe neither cultivated grains nor actively engaged in pastoralism. If Göbekli Tepe provides an alternative to the agricultural model of what civilization might have been, it was not a model that was widely adopted; indeed, the site seems to have been not only abandoned, but purposefully covered over, and does not seem to have served as a social model for any other society except for the other hills in the immediate area that probably contain similar remains. An obvious alternative hypothesis is that Göbekli Tepe represents a transitional stage on the way to the development of settled agricultural civilization.

Göbekli Tepe, where large-scale social organization may have preceded both agriculturalism and pastoralism.

Göbekli Tepe, where large-scale social organization may have preceded both agriculturalism and pastoralism.

Thus while settled agriculturalism might not be the earliest or only model for the origins of civilization, it is unquestionably the most pervasive and the most successful. Independently in widely separated geographical regions peoples settled in communities and engaged in the production of staple crops. From these communities cities grew, and a network of such cities has meant civilization. Just as there were likely alternative paths to civilization that were abandoned in favor of the most robust path, so there have been alternative forms of the development of civilization. Several thousand years after the breakthrough to settled agriculturalism as a form of large-scale social organization, an alternative form emerged in Central Asia: pastoralism, in which the large-scale domestication and herding of animals substituted for the large-scale domestication of staple crops. This is not commonly recognized as a distinct form of civilization, because nomadic herders have rarely developed written languages, whereas settled agriculturalists did invent written languages, wrote histories, and called the nomadic pastoralists “barbarians” — a cultural slander that has endured to the present day.

Nomadic pastoralism: “The Qashqai of Iran use a system of opportunistic management that has evolved over centuries of dependence on a varied and unpredictable environment.” (from http://www.fao.org/nr/giahs/candidate-system/candidate/qashqai/en/)

Nomadic pastoralism: “The Qashqai of Iran use a system of opportunistic management that has evolved over centuries of dependence on a varied and unpredictable environment.” (from http://www.fao.org/nr/giahs/candidate-system/candidate/qashqai/en/)

Common to both settled agriculturalism and nomadic pastoralism as large-scale forms of social organization is the coupling of the fate of other species with human beings. Domestication, whether of plants or animals, lies at the basis of civilization as we know it. This suggests what I call the biological conception of civilization. I first explicitly formulated the biological conception of civilization in my Centauri Dreams post Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation:

“Each biome into which human beings inserted themselves during our planetary diaspora out of our African origins has made available a unique cohort of species, some of which have been domesticated and the fates of which have thus become tied to human beings and their civilization (no less than our fate is joined to theirs). Terrestrial food production involves this tightly-coupled cohort of co-evolving species dependent upon one another as a consequence of domestication (which latter formulation would constitute a biologically minimalist conception of civilization). This species cohort varies according to endemic species, topography, and climatic conditions… Thus each region of Earth not only possesses a cultural diversity of civilizations, but also a biological diversity of civilizations, each of which may be defined in terms of the unique cohort of tightly-coupled co-evolving species. To date, this process has been an exclusively terrestrial one, but when cohorts of species representative of terrestrial civilizations leave Earth and establish themselves in other environments, the same principles will be iterated at higher orders of magnitude.”

Occasionally I refer to civilizations as “biocentric” (as, for example, in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization). Biocentric civilization can defined in terms of the biological conception of civilization: a biocentric civilization is a civilization that can be exhaustively described by the biological conception of civilization. As a civilization begins to transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization becomes less adequate for the description of that civilization. If a civilization were ever to wholly transcend its biocentric origins, the biological conception of civilization would be wholly inadequate and would at that point fail to capture the meaning of civilization. Yet as long as civilization continues to be associated with the biological beings from which it originated, it will continue to have recognizably biocentric features.

One consequence of the biocentric origins of civilization as we know it (which I recently formulated in Another Way to Think about Civilization), is that the human control of the reproduction of plants and animals has led to a radical change in the biology of our homeworld. One way to understand this radical change in the terrestrial biosphere due to civilization would be to identify the advent of civilization with initiating the process of creating an artificial biosphere in which naturally occurring ecosystems are progressively supplanted by artificial ecosystems constructed for the purpose of meeting the needs of civilization.

The interpolation of artificially maintained ecosystems within a wild ecosystem would simply disappear if it were not sustained by the agents who originated it. But as the artificial ecosystem of civilization expands and supplants the wild ecosystem of the planet, its expansion becomes a selection event that selects for domesticated species (as well as a range of parasitical species) and selects against non-domesticated species. As civilization has expanded, wild ecosystems have been pushed to the margins of the civilized world and the greater part of the planet has become dominated by human activities that have shaped the biosphere in a distinctive way. Non-agricultural peoples have also been pushed to the margins. When artificial ecosystems were first introduced by human beings, almost all of the world was the province of nomadic hunter-gathers who wandered freely through a wild landscape. Now the entire surface of our homeworld has been meticulously divided up among nation-states that all have their origins in the states or empires of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

On Earth, the artificial biosphere created and maintained by biocentric civilization supplants a wild biosphere, but biocentric civilization could continue its development, facilitated by the resources of emergent technocentric civilization, through the extension of civilization’s artificial biospheres to other worlds or to artificial habitats. If the artificial biosphere of civilization is transitioned into artificial habitats, artificial ecosystems can be expanded without limit under controlled conditions that will allow for an even greater precision in the management artificial ecosystems. In so far as the initial creation of artificial ecosystems has aimed at greater human control over agricultural outcomes, we can regard this as the telos of agriculture, evident since the earliest stirrings of civilization, and the only context in which the implications of artificial ecosystems can be fully explored. Thus the departures from a strictly biological conception of civilization that point to a nascent technocentric civilization becomes another form of exaptation of coevolution, in which technology coevolves with biology by providing new scope to biocentric civilization.

The biological conception of civilization outlined above is neither anthropocentric nor necessarily tied to terrestrial forms of life, although we must express the concept by means of life as we know it; the biological conception of civilization is generalizable to any biota. Any biosphere that is sufficiently complex for the emergence of intelligent life will embody a high degree of biodiversity, i.e., a large number of distinct species forming complex biological communities, and we can furthermore expect that species will be grouped in the biomes to which they are endemic. Thus the same conditions as are found on Earth, and which have been exapted by human intelligence to produce civilization in the form of a cohort of coevolving species, will likely be present on any world with an intelligent species, and equally available for exaptation in the civilizing process.

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Sunday


Tamerlane enjoying a feast near Samarkand after a victory in battle.

Tamerlane enjoying a feast near Samarkand after a victory in battle.

The great age of horse nomads

In discussions of the large-scale historical structure of civilization I often have recourse to a tripartite distinction between pre-civilized nomadic foragers, settled agriculturalism (which I also call agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization), and settled industrialism (which I usually call industrial-technological civilization). I did not originate this tripartite distinction, and I cannot remember where I first encountered an exposition of human history in these terms, but this decomposition of human history serves the purposes of large-scale historiography — call it the “big picture” if you like, or Big History — so I continue to employ it.

In this model of the descent with modification of civilization, agriculturalism proved to be so successful a way of life that it eventually (after a period of several thousand years of transition) displaced nomadic hunter-gatherers, who became a minority and a marginalized population while agriculturalism came to literally dominate the landscape. Agriculturalism in turn has been and is being supplanted by industrialism, which holds such potential for economic and military expansion that no agricultural people can hope to stand against an industrialized people. As a result, agriculturalism in its turn is becoming a minority and marginalized activity, while the world continues its industrialization — a process which has been underway a little more than two hundred years (or, say, five hundred years, if we date from the scientific revolution that made this new civilization possible).

Agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization persisted for more than ten thousand years, but these ten thousand or more years were in no sense static and unchanging. Agricultural civilization, especially pure agriculturalism, is an intensely local form of civilization, and as it is subject to the variability of local climatic conditions, it is subject to periodic famine. Thus agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization repeatedly fell into dark ages, sometimes triggered by climatic events. Socioeconomic stress is often manifested in armed conflict, so these low points in the history of civilization, besides being wracked by famine and pandemics, were also frequently made all the more miserable by pervasive, persistent violence. But agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization not only rebounded from its dark ages, but also seemed to gain in strength and extent, so that subsequent dark ages were shorter and less severe (thus perhaps making civilization itself an example of what Nassim Taleb calls antifragility).

What is missing in this narrative is, that prior to the industrial revolution, settled agricultural civilization underwent a great challenge — a challenge to its socioeconomic institutions almost as wrenching as that of the industrial revolution, although this challenge came in a very different form than machines. It came in the form of horses, that is to say, mounted horse warriors from the steppes of Eurasia, who brutally plundered the vast inland empires of the medieval and early modern periods as the Vikings had earlier brutally plundered the coastal areas of early medieval Europe. History mostly remembers these peoples as barbarians, but that is because histories are mostly written by settled agricultural peoples. The miseries and sufferings of settled agricultural peoples at the hands of these barbarians was at the same time the great age of nomadic pastoralists, when the latter came close to seizing the momentum of history.

A distinct form of civilization

As western civilization stumbled with the collapse of Roman power in the west, and was repeatedly prevented from full recovery due to famine, plague, and violence, a very different form of socioeconomic organization was consolidated in the steppes of Central Asia: nomadic horse warriors. Whether one wishes to call this a distinct form of civilization — say, nomadic-pastoralist civilization — or a non-civilization, if civilization is understood to consist, by definition, of settled peoples, the form of social organization that emerged in Eurasia represented by nomadic pastoralists was both distinct and unique. It was also, for a time, highly successful, especially in armed conflict.

The nomadic pastoralists were not without precedent. In my post The Nature of Viking Power Projection, I wrote, “Ships came out of Scandinavia like horses came out of Mongolia.” I have elsewhere argued that Viking civilization represented a unique form of civilization not often recognized in histories of civilization. Here I would like to argue that nomadic pastoralists also represent a unique form of civilization; like the Vikings, this civilization is not based on settlement, but unlike the Vikings, it is a way of life based on the land and not the sea.

Nomadic pastoralists often adopt a semi-settled way of life called transhumance, which involves an annual migration between winter and summer pastures, ascending to higher elevations for summer pasture and descending into the valleys for winter pasture. Thus they may be considered to exemplify a transitional way of life between pure nomadism and settled life. But this is not the only difference between horse nomads and foragers. One important feature of life that distinguishes nomadic pastoralists from nomadic foragers is that the economy of the former is based on domesticated animals (generally, the horse) while that of the latter involves following herds of non-domesticated animals (generally, reindeer). The nomadic pastoralist exercises a far greater control over the landscape in which he makes his life, and a much greater control over the animals upon which he is dependent. It is in this sense that the nomadic pastoralists deserve to be called a civilization, because the relationship between these peoples and their horses was as central to their way of life as the relationship between settled peoples and their crops — only it was a different relationship of dependence.

An unparalleled weapons system

The military accomplishment of the Mongols and the other horse nomads of Eurasia was remarkable. To train, equip, and maintain a fighting force capable of defeating any other force in the world would be a challenge even for the greatest land empires, but that this was accomplished without the established infrastructure of a settled civilization producing agricultural surpluses, which was what equipped and maintained the armies of settled agricultural peoples. John Keegan, famous for his The Face of Battle, also wrote A History of Warfare, in which he includes much interesting material on what he calls the “horse peoples” (especially Chapter 3, “Flesh”).

The most successful of the nomadic pastoralists from the Asian steppe were unquestionably the Mongols, sometimes called the Devil’s Horsemen. From the historical accounts of Mongol depredations upon Europe and the European periphery, the the attacks of the Mongols sound like a natural disaster, like a plague of locusts, but the Mongols were in fact highly disciplined and employed battlefield tactics that the European armies of the period could not effectively counter for hundreds of years. This is an important point, and it is what accounts for the Mongols’ success: although predicated upon a profoundly different socioeconomic organization than that of the agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization of Europe and the European periphery, the Mongols created a land-based fighting force that for several centuries out-matched every military competitor in Eurasia.

The Mongols perfected a weapons system of mobile fire, which latter I have argued has always been the most potent instruments of warfare in any age. If the Mongols had achieved a level of political organization commensurate with its military organization, their socioeconomic system might have ultimately triumphed in Eurasia, and agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization would have been supplanted by nomadic-pastoralist civilization instead of later being supplanted by industrial-technological civilization.

A uniquely brutal conquest

The Mongols militarily defeated both China and Russia, two of the largest land empires on the planet, and would have permanently subjugated these peoples had they the political structures capable of administering the territories they conquered. Instead of the brutality of horsemen, the Chinese were ultimately subject to the brutality of Chinese emperors and the Russians to the brutalities of their Tsars, which despite being horrific, was less horrific than the depredations of horse nomads.

The conquests of the Mongols were destructive beyond the level of destruction typical of that inflicted by the armies of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and this brutality possibly reached its peak with the depredations of Tamerlane, also called Timur the Lame, who is estimated to have been responsible for the death of about five percent of total global population of the time (the Wikipedia article cites two sources for this claim). In this sense, Tamerlane had much in common with a natural disaster (I noted above the the depredations of horse nomads were often treated like natural disasters by the settled civilizations who suffered from them), as such mortality levels are usually confined to pandemics.

It may have been this brutality and destruction as much as the lack of higher order political organization that ultimately limited the ability of pastoral nomads to rule the peoples they defeated. Notorious leaders of horse nomads such as Attila the Hun, Ghengiz Khan, and Tamerlane seemed to be blind to the most basic forms of enlightened self-interest, as they could have extended their own rule, and had more wealth to plunder, if they have been less destructive in their conquests. This is part of the reason that the peoples that they led are commonly called barbarians, and their way of life is denied the honorific of being called a civilization.

The end of horse nomads as an historical force

If we think of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia as the inheritors of the traditions of horse nomads, the period of the pastoralist challenge to settled agriculturalism continues into the early modern period of European history, up to the two sieges of Vienna, Siege of Vienna in 1529 by the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, and the Battle of Vienna in 1683, when in both cases Turkish forces sought to take Vienna and were repulsed.

Western history remembers the turning back of the Turks at the Gates of Vienna as the turning point in the depredations of the Turkish Ottomans on Europe. In the following years, the Turks would be pushed back further, and lands would be recovered for Europe from the Turks. But we might also remember this as the last rally of the tradition of conquest that began with the horse nomads of Eurasia. By this time, the Turks had transformed themselves into an empire — the Ottoman Empire — and had adopted the ways of settled peoples. At this point, horse nomads dropped out of history and ceased to be a force shaping civilization.

The future of nomadic pastoralism

In several posts — Three Futures, Pastoralization, and The Argument for Pastoralization, inter alia — I formulated a kind of pastoralism that could define a future pathway of development for human civilization (note that “development” does not here mean “progress”). If this idea of a future for pastoralism is integrated with the realization I have attempted to describe above — viz. that nomadic pastoralism was the greatest challenge to settled agricultural civilization until industrialization — it is easy to see the possibility of a neo-pastoralist future in which industrial-technological civilization itself is challenged by technologically sophisticated pastoral nomads.

While this scenario of technologically sophisticated nomads sounds more like a script for a science fiction film than a likely scenario for the future, it describes possible forms of existential risk, such as permanent stagnation and flawed realization — the former if such a development took us below the level of technological progress necessary to maintain the momentum of industrial-technological civilization, and the latter if this technological progress continues but issues in a society (or, more likely, two or more distinct societies in conflict, i.e., settled and nomadic) that channels this progress into a new dark age, made the more protracted by the lights of a perverted science.

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The Battle of Vienna in 1683, when the Turks were turned back from further penetration into Europe.

The Battle of Vienna in 1683, when the Turks were turned back from further penetration into Europe.

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Friday


More than a year ago I formulated the idea of pastoralization as a possible development of macro-historical significance, and as a possible successor form of civilization to present-day industrial-technological civilization. In that first formulation I wrote:

If humanity withdrew into sustainable cities with their own ability to grow produce, the gradually depopulated countryside would be free to be returned to wilderness or to be at the disposal of pastoralists, or both. Wild game would be available in the wilderness for those who wanted to hunt, thus satisfying both a social need and dietary need, while nomadic pastoralists cold drive their herds seasonally from one self-sustaining city to another, selling a portion of their animals for slaughter in return for goods that they could not produce given their nomadic way of life.

I cited the emergence (actually, the re-emergence) of urban agriculture and the demographic trend toward increasing urbanization as driving forces in the scenario of pastoralization. The idea of urban agriculture is also important in another macro-historical scenario, neo-agriculturalism. Pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism are only distinct by degrees, and many of the features of each may co-exist.

Two recent books make suggestive arguments that point toward the ongoing strategic trends of urbanization and urban agriculture, which, if they become the dominant strategic trends in the future, will issue in something like pastoralization or neo-agriculturalism. These two books are $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner and Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser (which latter I wrote about in Cities: The Constructive Kluge).

Glaeser’s book isn’t “brilliant” (as some reviews said) nor is he a mere shill (as some reviews seem to suggest). It is probably sufficient to read the first and last chapters and skip the anecdote the fills most of the book; you can pick up most of his ideas this way and miss very little. Really, all you need to know is the full title, since the book is concerned to demonstrate the thesis that cities make us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier. One need not agree with every aspect of this argument to still agree with many or most of them, and to see that a clear case can be made for urbanization.

In regard to thinking in terms of “making a case for urbanization” we are clearly thinking in political terms rather than historical terms, and this seems to be Glaeser’s orientation. He is critical of policies that have had the unintended result of harming cities, and, since he thinks that cities are the best thing to come along in the human experience, harming cities is tantamount to engaging in self-harm. The limitations of thinking in terms of policy appear when we begin to think in terms of spans of time beyond that of a single human lifespan, and across which greater spans of time unintended consequences tend to swamp intended consequences. This is the difference between urbanization as a political idea and urbanization as an historical idea (conceived parallel to the distinction I made between globalization as a political idea and globalization as an historical idea).

If one is hesitant to fully subscribe to a rationally argued case for the city, there is, alternatively, the economic case for the city, and this is what Christopher Steiner argues in his book. He makes the case that steadily rising prices for gasoline will have far-reaching consequences for the structure of contemporary life, and these changes will have radical consequences for urban, suburban, and rural life. Although both Glaeser and Steiner argue that cities are environmentally and economically more sustainable than suburban, village, or rural life, Glaeser argues additionally that cities are a good thing; Steiner, on the contrary, argues that cities are the inevitable thing because they make more environmental economic sense. Again, this illustrates the difference between urbanism as political idea and urbanism as historical idea.

Steiner is at times almost apocalyptic in making his point, but, I think, justifiably so:

“There will be plenty of small towns that simply do not make the transition from a satellite living on cheap oil to a town that’s half self-sustaining and populated by people who not only prefer a small town life, but also are stringently loyal to their small town and are willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, their town, and their way of life. The hamlets that don’t survive, like the Wal-Marts who fall ahead of them, will be home only to ghosts, gusts, and a reclaiming Mother Nature.”

Christopher Steiner, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, 2010, p. 151

This is very close to what I wrote about pastoralization, although I would argue further that “reclaiming mother nature” would include those individuals who would also choose to return to Mother Nature rather than live the superfantastic urban life that Edward Glaeser praises (although does not live, since he admits in the book that he lives in the suburbs). Even while high gasoline costs could make the automobile obsolete, and that part of industrial-technical civilization based upon the automobile also obsolete, there will be other technologies (like electric cars) which can be substituted. One could also, however, substitute those robust and durable technologies that preceded the automobile. Horses could be grazed in the abandoned spaces imagined by Steiner, and used for transportation by those who opt out of urban concentrations.

One way to define the difference between my closely related scenarios of pastoralization and neo-agriculturalism is how the land freed by abandoned exurbs and rural depopulation will be put to use. If these lands are put to use in settled agriculture along a quasi-nineteenth century model, then the result will be neo-agriculturalism. If these lands are put to use (to the extent that they are “used” at all) for pastoralism, then we have the development of pastoralization. The neo-agricultural paradigm would likely converge upon (or, rather, return to) human societies exemplifying the agricultural macabre, while the pastoralization paradigm, with its mixture of extremely dense urbanism and nomadic pastoralism would produce a very different kind of society (or, rather, two societies), and it is difficult to say what this would be other than a unprecedented synthesis of urbanism and nomadism.

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