Consultant Tony O’Connor looks back 10,000 years and then to the heavens as he contemplates travel’s role in human civilization.
Humanity may need travel to survive. That’s a big claim. Here’s my thinking.
Every now and then you come across a set of ideas that make things click better into place. The 2011 book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Dr. Yuval Harari was a breakthrough read for me. A central idea was that humans advanced and took off as a species above and beyond all others because of our unique ability to cooperate in larger groups. We developed the capacity to form larger, socially cohesive collectives — beyond the size of the family, the pack and the tribe. This served us well for the first million or so years.
According to Harari, cooperation becomes much more difficult when the group exceeds about 150 individuals. Up to that point, natural hierarchies and normal social interplay suffice to maintain reasonable harmony. Beyond that, network efficiency breaks down. To remain cohesive, larger human groups need some invented ism or belief; an agreed, higher central purpose to unify the many lesser connected.
Civilization exploded 10,000 years ago when agriculture created a strong, competitive advantage for ever larger cooperative groups. Compelling social doctrines then developed because they delivered positive feedback loops. Larger groups that maintained unity through some invented common purpose or belief were more productive and more successful, and so dominated. And so off we went, with kings and religions, dominions and dogmas, ceremonies and symbols, and sacred rites and traditions to bind us to a consensus.
(Warning: We’re now leaving Harari and entering my own dubious speculations!)
Throughout history, the fusion of different social groups has always been bloody and slow. Another group with a different belief system could challenge your own unity idea. Antagonism towards those outside has always been a good way to increase the group’s faith and cohesion.
In modern times, group sizes grew from thousands to millions, heading towards billions. A belief system that can unite a group of this size needs to be highly compelling. Religion served as a very effective unifier for thousands of years. But it is now being slowly desiccated by science. Nationalism, despite the recent uptick, is in overall good moral decline.
Our effective group size is now at a level where common ideas and shared purposes — those that we can muster anyway — are just not able to do the job. There’s too much accumulated knowledge around for any manufactured, subjective belief system to unify the billions. Liberal democracy based on science and humanism is our best bet, but it could sure do with some help.
And that’s my point. Without the unlikely advent of a successful “one world” unifying idea, to keep things together this century we might need the assistance of the old small group dynamics again, writ large, writ global.
Religions and isms can no longer unify the groups we now have. In the face of exploding education and knowledge, they just don’t have absolute group binding power. Look at America. We need a heavy dose of personal contact to keep our natural antagonisms at bay. We need to meet. We need to empathize. We need to travel. It might not get us there, but it sure would help.
Michio Kaku, the charismatic physicist and cosmologist, notes that humanity is now at about 0.7 on the Kardashev scale of civilizations. A Type 1.0 civilization controls its entire planet and all the energy that falls upon it. It needs to be a well-functioning, single planetary society to get to this level. A Type 2.0 controls its star and all its energy. Type 3.0 does this at the scale of the galaxy.
The professor and many others wonder whether it is usual for intelligent life in the universe to not survive technological adolescence. It’s in that stage where a civilization has the capacity to destroy itself — quickly or slowly — but not yet the social and intellectual capabilities to prevent itself from doing so. Perhaps billions of civilizations get to stage 0.6 or 0.8, but no further. Once safely past this self-destructive danger zone, the foreverness of Type 3.0 glory might only be a few millennia away. There’s a lot at stake.
Back to planet Earth. If sustainable travel amongst humans can help energize our natural empathies enough to get us through the technological danger zone of the 21st Century, we should do it. If so, I’ll see you at the airport in the morning.