A Civilized Countryside

21 February 2013

Thursday


Tuscan countryside

When I returned from my recent trip to Tokyo my sister picked me up at the airport and on the drive she asked me about the weather. I said that it was cold and windy, but also very clear and sunny. How cold? I had to pause. I didn’t really know how cold it had been. I didn’t even know whether or not it had been below freezing. In a rural environment one would know immediately whether or not the temperature had dropped below freezing, but in the urban intensity of Tokyo there were no obvious (natural) signs of the temperature. One would only know that it was freezing if puddles in the street were frozen over; if there are no puddles, as when it is cold and clear, there are not obvious signs of the temperature. This made me think about the differences between urban and rural life, and ultimately rural and urban civilization.

In Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View the author introduces the idea of a civilized countryside, immediately after describing what he considered to be one of the high points of (urban) civilization in Urbino under Federigo and Guidobaldo Montefeltro:

“…there is such thing as civilized countryside. Looking at the Tuscan landscape with its terraces of vines and olives and the dark vertical accents of the cypresses, one has the impression of timeless order. There must have been a time when it was all forest and swamp — shapeless and formless; and to bring order out of chaos is a process of civilization. But of this ancient, rustic civilization we have no record beyond the farmhouses themselves, whose noble proportions seem to be the basis of Italian architecture; and when the men of the Renaissance looked at the countryside it was not as a place of ploughing and digging, but as a kind of earthly paradise.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, pp. 112-113, I have selectively Americanized Clark’s irritatingly British orthography

There are several themes in this passage that touch on concerns to which Clark returned repeatedly in his survey of civilization: his mention of “timeless order” invokes his earlier emphasis on permanence and the ambition to engage in monumental, multi-generational projects. Yet it is a bit odd that Clark should mention the romanticization of the countryside during the renaissance as an earthly paradise, as this points to older models of the countryside as an Arcadian paradise, as in Virgil’s Pastorals, in which shepherds play the lyre and sing poetry to each other. This is an idyllic picture of the Golden Age in which the countryside is most definitely not civilized, but rather a retreat from the corruption of civilization.

It would be easy to dismiss the whole idea of a civilized countryside both for its internal contradictions and romantic idealization of country life that has little to do with the reality of life in the country — however. However. The civilization of the European Middle Ages, which was a pervasively agrarian civilization, and especially in so far as it approximated pure agriculturalism, was essentially a rural civilization. The great manors or feudal lords were located in the countryside because this is where the food production activity that was the basis of the medieval economy was centered. In other words, the economy was centered on the rural countryside, and not on cities.

Certainly during the Middle Ages there were thriving and cosmopolitan cities engaged in sea-borne commerce with the known world, but these were at this time essentially centers of luxury commerce that touched the lives of only a very few persons. The vast majority of the population were peasants working the land; a few percent were landed nobility and a few percent were churchmen. This left only a very small fragment of bourgeoisie — people of the town, i.e., of the berg (bourg) — who were engaged in urban life year-round. This was important, but not central, to the medieval economy. What was central was agrarian production on great landed estates, which were the true measure of medieval wealth. Having money scarcely counted as “wealth.”

It is a bias of industrial-technological civilization to assume that cities are the center of civilization, because cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and the industrial city is the center of industrial production. This early paradigm of industrial cities is already changing as industrial production facilities move to industrial parks on the outskirts of cities, and we tend to identify the great cities as centers of administration, education and research, the arts and cultural opportunities, and so on. But whatever the function of the city, whether producing articles of manufacture or producing prestige requirements, the city is central to the kind of civilization we have created since the end of the Middle Ages and the end of medieval agrarian civilization.

The life of the countryside has its own complexity, but this complexity is of a different order and of a different kind than the complexity of life in the city; in the city, one finds that the primary features of the intellectual landscape are the actions of other human beings whereas in the country the primary intellectual landscape is that of the natural order of things. These differing sources of complexity structure lives differently.

A certain kind of mind is cultivated by urban life in the same way that a certain kind of mind is cultivated by life in the country, which latter of course Marx dismissed as rural idiocy. The mind and life of the country, as opposed to the city, results in its own distinctive institutions. The kind of civilization that emerges in the countryside is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by life in the country, and, contrariwise, the kind of civilization that emerges in the city is the kind of civilization that is going to emerge from the kind of mind that is cultivated by urban life.

At least for the moment, the tradition of rural civilization has been lost to us. The great demographic development of our time is the movement of mass populations into urban areas — and the corollary of rural depopulation — as though by a spontaneous agreement the world’s peoples had decided to attempt to prove Doxiadis right about ecumenopolis as the telos of the city and of human life. This demographic trend shows every sign of smoothly extrapolating into the future, so that we can expect even more urban growth and rural depopulation over time.

Nevertheless, it remains possible to consider alternative futures in which this trend is reversed or replaced by a different trend — or even a different civilization. Global networking means that anyone can live anywhere and be in touch with the world’s rapidly changing knowledge. If you have a connection to the internet, you can live in a rural village not necessarily be subject to the idiocy of rural life that Marx bemoaned. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough right now to keep people in the countryside, especially when all the economic opportunities are to be found in the world’s growing cities.

But there is nothing inevitable about the relentless expansion or indefinite continuation of industrial-technological civilization. Agrarian civilization, like the European Middle Ages with which it is identified, is a completed part of our past, which stands like a whole, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this way we can fashion a narrative of agrarian civilization, but we cannot yet fashion a narrative of industrial-technological civilization, since this is today a going concern and not a completed whole. There is a sense in which we can treat scientific civilization — what I have called modernism without industrialism — as a completed whole, a finished era of history. Although I do not regard it as likely, it is possible that our civilization may join the ranks of finished civilizations that have run their course and added themselves to the archive of human history.

I have touched on these possibilities in several posts, as when I have considered Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios and in my argument for Viking Civilization, which constituted a very different kind of civilization — neither rural nor urban, but mobile, i.e., a nomadic civilization. This latter is the possibility that seems so apparently remote but which most fascinates me. Other kinds of civilizations have existed in the past; distinct forms remain possible today, however unlikely.

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Friday


Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal: The Virgin Mary of Breezy Point, as the sculpture has come to be known after Hurricane Sandy.

Recently, the largest city in the richest country in the world was hit by a storm of considerable strength (14 Stunning Sandy Statistics). Fatalities for the storm’s entire progress, from the Caribbean to New England, numbered a little less than two hundred; property damage is being quoted in the billions of dollars. It is more difficult to measure the disruption to business and individuals lives, but this too was considerable, and will continue for some time.

Cities are the centers of industrial-technological civilization, and they are vulnerable. Of course cities have always been important in the history of civilization; civilization began with cities like Çatal Höyük in present-day Turkey. Some cities are very old. Damascus has been a city for more than four thousand years. And some cities are quite young, like Brasília, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

The city as a center of industrial production, organization, and finance is quite recent, however. Most industrial cities supervene on much older cities, and I have commented elsewhere how the tourist’s introduction to a legendary ancient city often involves a desultory bus trip through uninspiring suburbs and industrial development that seems to have nothing to do with the historical center around which this development took place. The industrial city that lies at the center of industrial-technological civilization almost always consists of those recently built portions of a city of a strictly utilitarian character, not excluding the contemporary research universities where the sciences and technologies that drive industry have their origins.

The cities of industrial-technological civilization are very recent, then, even when they supervene on much older cities, and are the result of the rapid and unprecedented urbanization that began with the industrial revolution and which continues today, even as we have recently passed the threshold of being a majority urbanized species. The oldest industrial cities are only about two hundred years old, many are less than a hundred years old, and many are less than fifty years old. In regions such as East Asia where the industrial revolution only arrived in the second half of the twentieth century, the process of urbanization is still getting underway, and the industrialized cities are very young, even as the cities upon which they supervene are very ancient.

86th Street Subway station flooded – Hurricane Sandy

The industrial revolution interpolated (and is interpolating) a radical historical discontinuity into the lives of industrialized peoples and their communities. As the industrial revolution arrives in a given region, an entire generation leaves en masse the countryside with all its ancestral memories going back to time out of mind, joining the steadily growing urban masses where they have established new lives, new homes, new traditions, and new communities. In the process of urbanization, the local knowledge of an entire people is obliterated in a single generation, and those thrust into a new and unprecedented social milieu find themselves daily discovering or inventing the knowledge of the ordinarily business of life that is necessary of industrial-technological urbanism.

In addition to the perennial human needs for food, water, waste disposal, clothing, and housing — all of which have been raised to a new order of magnitude by contemporary urbanization, and therefore in themselves pose an unprecedented challenge — there are more recent utility infrastructure developments that have become essential to contemporary industrial-technological urbanism: electricity chief among them, but also telephone lines, internet connectivity, cell phone signals, and wifi signals. few if any of these recent infrastructure additions have been robustly tested against natural disasters.

Natural disasters of the greatest scope occur infrequently, say one in one to five hundred years, and so we have a well-known phrase like, “100 year flood,” although hydrologists don’t use this terminology. Instead, hydrologists speak in statistical terms of “recurrence intervals” or “return period.” Similar considerations hold for other natural disasters besides floods: great fires, earthquakes, and the like. Pre-industrial civilization has been around long enough to have been exposed even of long recurrence intervals on the order of five hundred years, and if you see an area recently devastated by a natural disaster, you will often see that the oldest structure that pre-date industrial-technological civilization are still largely standing, even while recent construction has been leveled by the event. There is a reason for this.

Ancient cities were built, and devastated, and built again, and devastated again, and eventually people learned their lesson and figured out how to build cities that would not be leveled by likely local natural disasters. This is not true for industrial cities, as I have described industrial cities above. The whole of industrial-technological civilization has emerged in such a short period of time, and industrialized cities are so young, that many have not experienced a single natural disaster of any scope, because their entire history to date lies within a recurrence interval — just as the whole of human civilization lies within the present interglacial period.

The unparalleled opportunities brought by electricity, telecommunications, and internet connectivity come with associated risks and vulnerabilities. It is likely that at some point in history to come, a catastrophic outage of the internet could result in social unrest, or, at very least, the disruption of commerce sufficiently severe that ordinary people feel in going out the ordinary business of life. Of course, outages are restored, and cities are rebuilt, but it all comes at a cost since industrial-technological civilization is still very young, its learning curve is very steep.

It is also like that in some future war a major urban area will be subjected to an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that will destroy all but the most robust and hardened electrical appliances, and this will be an outage that will not soon be made good. But that is a subject for another post.

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The Löwenmensch or Lion Man sculpture, about 32,000 years old, is a relic of the Aurignacian culture.

Recently (in Don’t Cry for the Papers) I wrote that, “Books will be a part of human life as long as there are human beings (or some successor species engaged in civilizational activity, or whatever cultural institution is the successor to civilization).” While this was only a single line thrown out as an aside in a discussion of newspapers and magazines, I had to pause over this to think about it and make sure that I would get my phrasing right, and in doing so I realized that there are several ideas implicit in this formulation.

Map of the Aurignacian culture, approximately 47,000 to 41,000 years ago.

Since I make an effort to always think in terms of la longue durée, I have conditioned myself to note that current forms (of civilization, or whatever else is being considered) are always likely to be supplanted by changed forms in the future, so when I said that books, like the poor, will always be with us, for the sake of completeness I had to note that human forms may be supplanted by a successor species and that civilization may be supplanted by a a successor institution. Both the idea of the post-human and the post-civilizational are interesting in their own right. I have briefly considered posthumanity and human speciation in Against Natural History, Right and Left (as well as other posts such as Addendum on the Avoidance of Moral Horror), but the idea of a successor to civilization is something that begs further consideration.

Now, in the sense, everything that I have written about futurist scenarios for the successor to contemporary industrial-technological civilization (which I have described in Three Futures, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, and other posts) can be taken as attempts to outline what comes after civilization in so far as we understand civilization as contemporary industrial-technological civilization. This investigation of post-industrial civilization is an important aspect of an analytic and theoretical futurism, but we must go further in order to gain a yet more comprehensive perspective that places civilization within the longest possible historical context.

I have adopted the convention of speaking of “civilization” as comprising all settled, urbanized cultures that have emerged since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is not the use that “civilization” has in classic humanistic historiography, but I have discussed this elsewhere; for example, in Jacob Bronowski and Radical Reflection I wrote:

…Bronowski refers to “civilization as we know it” as being 12,000 years old, which means that he is identifying civilization with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution and the emergence of settled life in villages and eventually cities.

Taking this long and comprehensive view of civilization, we still must contrast civilization with its prehistoric antecedents. When one realizes that the natural sciences have been writing the history of prehistory since the methods, the technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure for this have been developed since the late nineteenth century, and that paleolithic history itself admits of cultures (the Micoquien, the Mousterian, the Châtelperronian, the Aurignacian, and the Gravettian, for example), it becomes clear that “culture” is a more comprehensive category than “civilization,” and that culture is the older category. The cultures of prehistory are the antecedent institutions to the institution of civilization. This immediately suggests, in the context of futurism, that there could be a successor institution to civilization that no longer could be strictly called “civilization” but which still constituted a human culture.

Thus the question, “What comes after civilization?” when understood in an appropriately radical philosophical sense, invites us to consider post-civilizational human cultures that will not only differ profoundly from contemporary industrial-technological civilization, but which will differ profoundly from all human civilization from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the present day.

Human speciation, if it occurs, will profoundly affect the development of post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions. I have mentioned in several posts (e.g., Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics) that Francis Fukuyama felt obligated to add the qualification to this “end of history” thesis that if biotechnology made fundamental changes to human beings, this could result in a change to human nature, and then all bets are off for the future: in this eventuality, history will not end. Changed human beings, possibly no longer human sensu stricto, may have novel conceptions of social organization and therefore also novel conceptions of social and economic justice. From these novel conceptions may arise cultural institutions that are no longer “civilization” as we here understand civilization.

Human speciation could be facilitated by biotechnology in a way not unlike the facilitation of the industrial revolution by the systematic application of science to technological development.

Above I wrote, “human speciation, if it occurs,” and I should mention that my only hesitation here is that social or technological means may be employed in the attempt to arrest human evolution at more-or-less its present stage of development, thus forestalling human speciation. Thus my qualification on human speciation in no way arises from a hesitation to acknowledge the possibility. As far as I am concerned, human being is first and foremost biological being, and biological being is always subject to natural selection. However, technological intervention might possibly overtake natural selection, in which case we will continue to experience selection as a species, but it will be social selection and technological selection rather than natural selection.

In terms of radical scenarios for the near- and middle-term future, the most familiar on offer at present (at least, the most familiar that has some traction in the public mind) is that of the technological singularity. I have recounted in several posts the detailed predictions that have been made, including several writers and futurists who have placed definite dates on the event. For example, Vernor Vinge, who proposed the idea of the technological singularity, wrote that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” (This is from his original essay on the technological singularity published in 1993, which places the date of the advent of the technological singularity at 2023 or sooner; I understand that Mr. Vinge has since revised his forecast.)

To say that “the human era will be ended,” is certainly to predict a radical development, since it postulates a post-human future within the life time of many now living today (much like the claim that, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.”). If I had to predict a radical post-human future in the near- to middle-term future I would opt not for post-human machine intelligence but for human speciation facilitated by biotechnology. This latter scenario seems to me far more likely and far more plausible than the technological singularity, since we already have the technology in its essentials; it is only a matter of refining and applying existing biotechnology.

I make no predictions and set no dates because the crowding of seven billion (and counting) human beings on a single planet militates against radical changes to our species. Social pressures to avoid speciation would make such a scenario unlikely in the near- to middle-term future. If we couple human speciation with the scenario of extraterrestrialization, however, everything changes, but this pushes the scenario further into the future because we do not yet possess the infrastructure necessary to extraterrestrialization. Again, however, as with human speciation through biotechnology, we have all the technology necessary to extraterrestrialization, and it is only a matter of refining and applying existing technologies.

From this scenario of human speciation coupled with extraterrestrialization there would unquestionably emerge post-human, post-civilizational cultural institutions that would be propagated into the distant future, possibly marginalizing, and possibly entirely supplanting, human beings and human civilization as we know it today. It is to be expected that these institutions will be directly related to the way of life adopted in view of such a scenario, and this way of life will be sufficiently different from our own that its institutions and its values and its norms would be unprecedented from our perspective.

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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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Friday


Quick... is this a western city or a non-western city? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter?

Quick… is this a western city or a non-western city? Can you tell the difference? Does it matter?

Yesterday in A Note on Quantitative Civilization I quoted from Toynbee to the effect that the present international order is based on Western economic and political principles. Toynbee explicitly acknowledges that these borrowed principles of development do not compromise the non-Western character of the societies that adopt them. While he could be faulted for his untrendy language, which is spectacularly politically incorrect, the spirit of his remarks are very much within the present tradition of recognizing diversity.

In the midst of the urban intensity of downtown Osaka, a traditional Japanese performance art exposition at a street fair.

In the midst of the urban intensity of downtown Osaka, a traditional Japanese performance art exposition at a street fair.

Not all development leads to Westernization. Contemporary Japan provides an example of modernization, industrialization, and urbanization that does not coincide with Westernization. Japan remains profoundly Japanese in the midst of its technical progress. Japan is a bellwether in this respect, but it is not a model. The rest of Asia would never model itself upon Japan, at least explicitly so. But Japan shows what is possible.

Industrialization Japanese-style: a beautiful crane motif on a sewage access cover in Himeji. (As it turns out, this is not a crane motif, but a flower motif -- Habenaria radiata; cf. the comment below.)

Industrialization Japanese-style: a beautiful crane motif on a sewage access cover in Himeji. (As it turns out, this is not a crane motif, but a flower motif -- Habenaria radiata; cf. the comment below.)

Of what the financial press now calls the BRIC countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — the latter two industrializing powers are clearly non-Western, while the former two are on the periphery of Western civilization, or, if you follow Samuel Huntington, belong to two distinct contemporary civilizations, Latin American and Orthodox respectively. (One wonders why the financial press does not call them the CRIB countries.) In any case, as these regional powers develop, as they modernize, urbanize, and industrialize, they will not be Westernizing. Their societies are and will be experiencing wrenching social changes and profound dislocation, but this will be the result of the transition to a fully modern economic system, not the result of “Westernization.” (Though it is to be expected that some of these wrenching social changes will be charged to “westernization.”)

With India and China it seems to be pretty clearly the case that they want to join what Toynbee called the “world-wide comity of states” but that they will do so on their own terms. Like Japan, they will modernize, industrialize, and urbanize but all without Westernizing.

Previously I have observed that the US represents the society most transformed by industrialization because its society was the least mature and established at the time of its industrialization (and perhaps also more intrinsically flexible). If other countries come to resemble the US as they develop, it is because the US is the raw product of industrial development with the least admixture of history, culture, and social tradition.

One of the great fears that seems to be prompted by globalization, that great contemporary bogeyman, is that of cultural homogenization. The ideologically motivated left likes to formulate this in terms of “cultural hegemony” and to formulate parallels between the imposition of military and economic regimes upon poorer and weaker nation-states and the “imposition” of a cultural regime upon similarly disadvantaged nation-states. I touched only briefly on this question in Evo Morales’ Ideologist, about the career of Bolivia’s Vice President, Álvaro García Linera, since García Linera has been deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci, and Gramsci’s formulations are pretty much responsible for making cultural hegemony the hot topic that it is today.

Antonio Gramsci, Marxist philosopher and big hair aficionado.

Antonio Gramsci, Marxist philosopher and big hair afficianado.

The cultural homogenization that seems to make economically developing countries approximate the US the further their development progresses is a function of convergent evolution, not cultural hegemony. Similar selection forces are at work, so similar social structures are the result. There are only so many ways to construct a city from concrete, steel, and glass, and so it happens that most contemporary conurbations look alike.

Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm's length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.

Viewed from a distance, a contemporary Japanese city and a contemporary American city are indistinguishable, like two threads, black and white, held at arm's length at twilight. But up close, profound differences are obvious. Seeing the big picture is just as important as seeing the details.

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Over the past couple of days in The End of the End of the World and Symbolic Protest I emphasized the dependence of urban populations — which now constitute the bulk of the human population, as we are now an urban species — upon current economic infrastructure.

The fact that a contemporary urban center — or a megalopolis, if you prefer — is dependent upon an economic infrastructure that far exceeds the boundaries of the city does not mean that cities of even the largest size could not be made independent of supply and service chains that extend around the world.

Buckminster Fuller has been quoted as saying, “…the entire population of the earth could live compactly on a properly designed Haiti and comfortably on the British Isles.” I am in agreement with this claim, but there are a couple important observations that need to be made in this connection:

1. it would be expensive to do so, and…

2. to do so would change the culture (if not the civilization) of a human population so domiciled.

In regard to item 1, we have the technology at present to build food production tower blocks within urban areas, which was discussed in this forum in The Future of Food. This would be a high tech way to go about it, and, if handled properly, it could be done in an aesthetically pleasing manner, retaining the feeling and density of an urban core while also producing local food for local consumption. Furthermore, intensive solar and wind power mounted on the tops of buildings could probably (perhaps with future technological improvements) supply the electrical needs of the population. In extreme circumstances, even the water could be treated and recycled.

All of this is possible, but all of it is expensive. The reason we trade — whether between city and countryside, or between nations — is because it is in everyone’s economic interest to do so. That means, to put it simply, that you get what you want at a cheaper price. It is much cheaper to produce vegetables in rural areas than in a downtown urban core. For starters, in cities land is very expensive. If that land can bring a better return on its investment as an office tower than as a vegetable patch, then the owner of that land is going to get the best return possible by building the office tower.

In regard to item 2, any change in living arrangements that affects everyone or almost everyone is by definition revolutionary. To change the way the vast majority of people live is to come full circle and to start over. Housing everyone one compactly on Haiti or comfortably in the British Islands would mean starting over for most people. That is revolutionary.

The Netherlands houses almost seventeen million people on less than 34 thousand square kilometers of land. The population density works out to about 493 persons per square kilometer. At this rate of population density, the current world population of about six billion could be similarly accommodated in the area comprised by France and the Iberian peninsula. But what would it be like for everyone to be living as people live in the Netherlands? Not everyone is fitted for a society of this kind, while others would take to it like a duck to water. Selection pressures would act, and a future society would exhibit descent with modification.

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