The World as it Once Was

We are all weirdos, and it makes us vulnerable.

“We accept the reality with which we’re presented—it’s as simple as that.”
—Christof, The Truman Show, 1999

Humans are amazingly plastic creatures—more than any other animal, we fit our mental map of reality to the peculiar circumstances in which we find ourselves. A tremendous survival mechanism, but it does have a fairly sizable drawback:

We have a great deal of difficulty mapping an alien view of the world to our own. Instead, we each tend to think “What I am accustomed to is normal.” Normal is a concept we put a great deal of stock in, as it can refer either to “that which I am accustomed to” or “that which is good and proper,” and we tend to switch back and forth between the two meanings seamlessly—handy for things like moral self-justification and reinforcing tribal identities.

[Note: For the purposes of this article series, I will always use the word “normal” to mean “that to which x is accustomed,” while I will use “normative” to indicate “that which is good and proper.” Hopefully that will reduce confusion.]

If it’s natural to think that “what I’ve always known” is the human default, then we who live in the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) world might be forgiven for thinking that it’s normal to view the world as something along the following lines:

The world is a confusing, bewildering place full of creature comforts and frustrations and injustices, but nonetheless, things will get better—indeed, that they must get better. Progress is, after all, built into the fabric of life. Things always improve, ratchet-wise, from intelligence to evolutionary fitness to technology to morality to social contracts. Sure, there’s a lot left to be done, and sure, there are big problems still to be solved (like environmental destruction, social injustice, poverty, and familial decohesion), but we will solve them. If the forces of progress can’t be stopped by even the most reactionary, regressive forces of the twentieth century, progress itself is unstoppable. In fact, if things don’t get better, it’s because someone is working against us.

It’s normal for us to view the world in something like the above terms, but that view of the world is neither normative (i.e. those who do not hold it are not deviant in a moral sense), nor is it normal, either contemporaneously or historically. It is a very very peculiar worldview that, until the latter part of the 20th century, was limited to the Western European populations in general and the English Imperial (or formerly imperial) world in particular. Every component of it is a result of a single event that happened several centuries ago, when the world looked very different indeed.

A World Without Progress

In the great feudal before-time, life was simple. Not because it was easy, but because it was uncomplicated. If you were a serf, you spent your life raising your food, tending to your children, and paying your taxes. If you were a merchant, you kept your shop, tended to your family, and paid your taxes. If you were a troubadour, you traveled from place to place spreading the news, kept your family fed, and paid your...

Well, you get the idea.

And that was just the latest version of a simple, uncomplicated, but very unsympathetic world that stretched back before the dawn of writing. Yes, once upon a time Alexander’s empire had spread Hellenism (and, thus, classical thought and philosophy) throughout the world, laying the foundation for much that would come after—including science, Christianity, Rome, republicanism, etc.—but it took another event to make those component pieces begin to gel into the start of our technological civilization. That event—and the peculiar way that we understand the world—wouldn’t arrive for another seventeen hundred years.

The medieval world of the before-time followed the Fall of Rome, kind of. Rome never actually fell (the Roman empire continued with its seat in Constantinople, in one form or another, until 1453), but when it slumped in the west there wasn’t really any point to building a new empire. Prosperous localities stayed relatively prosperous, remote areas returned to being poor—but not that much poorer than they had been under Rome, at least not in the long run. Rome’s tremendous marshaling of imperial resources across Europe enabled the mixing of goods and people and encouraged the growth of universalizing religions (i.e. mystery cults and Christianity), but, at bottom, there wasn’t much that Rome did to the world that changed the way the world operated.

Even in the cultural jewels of medieval Europe—Constantinople, Venice, Florence, and Vienna—where life was good and commerce was rich, the world moved in cycles, had a rhythm, and was, above all, dependable. From the God above the heavens, to the heavens themselves, to the power structures that held it all together (the Church, the feudal system, etc.), to the rules that governed the lives of the hoi polloi, everything a body needed to know could be readily apprehended from a visit to the local church (for cosmogony, news, and community ritual) and the local tavern (for news, gossip, and community bonding). And, comfortingly, not much really ever changed. You always knew what to expect, and you didn’t expect a whole hell of a lot.

Yes, you might look back to the golden age of Rome and the other great ancient civilizations where prosperity and greatness reigned, as we moderns are often tempted to do. But, in terms of worldview, the peasant in a mud hut in eighth century Germany had more in common with the Emperor Constantine than either of them would have with you or me. The ancients were certainly more forward-looking than the medievals, perhaps even more forward looking than we tend to be in some cases, but their definition of forward was very different. They viewed the universe as essentially cyclical, and it’s hard to blame them. How else could you view the universe if you spent your life tied to the agricultural cycle, surrounded by civilizations that stood tall built upon the ruins of civilizations that had fallen within cultural memory, all while looking across the water to Egypt in its stately decline.

But back to the medieval world, which immediately preceded ours. Life in that world was intensely local, and it was, above all, stable. Not a lot changed from day to day. Occasionally (perhaps once per generation) you’d get conscripted, either to invade a neighboring country or defend your home soil against invasion by the warlord that lived on the other side of the river. Most people were effectively enslaved, but (plot devices in Mel Gibson films to one side) it wasn’t chattel slavery, nor was it even as onerous in its terms as Roman slavery, except that you couldn’t buy your way to freedom (the only dependable road to freedom was to join the church and go away to a monastery).

Most importantly, there was no such thing as progress. Technology developed, knowledge accumulated, and living standards did gradually rise after every civilizational crash, and there were certainly places (both in the ancient and medieval worlds) that a person could go and seek their fortune and better themselves, but progress, per se, was an alien notion. The world was what it was. There was no collective sense of moving towards a more perfect union, or world, or scientific understanding—the only place, in fact, where progress had any currency was in the spiritual realm. The Christians called their version of progress “sanctification,” the mystery cultists in the ancient world called it “initiation,” and in both cases the idea was the same: the spiritual pilgrim makes a journey through obstacles toward the perfection of his spirit, according to whatever definition of “perfection” the cult had set forth.

Rise or fall, from the dawn of agriculture to the event that changed everything, civilization functioned in basically the same fashion because humans remained the same as they had always been along every axis. A basic pyramidal social structure with the bulk of the population working on farms, supplied by a small merchant class which was controlled by iron-fisted guilds that mercilessly limited competition, ruled in social matters by the clergy and in secular matters by the descendants of warlords who ran a protection racket and ran it so well that they eventually became kings. Surplus serfs became brigands and didn’t live long, or became priests and lived a life of relative material comfort at the cost of all personal freedom. Plagues and wars helped keep the population in check and provided the occasional shake-up, but generally speaking, nothing much changed—certainly not quickly enough for anyone to notice in a single human lifetime.

A World Transformed by Tragedy

Then, in 1347, a flea changed everything. Arriving from the Far East either over the silk road or on a merchant ship, it carried Yersinia pestis, the bacteria which causes the Black Death. By 1356, Europe had lost somewhere between forty-five and sixty percent of its population. One in two people were dead—a depopulation so radical that it shattered the balance of factors that had governed civilization. Land went fallow. Labor became scarce. Feudal lords didn’t have enough living knights to enforce the bond between serfs and their farms—if they wanted to keep the peasants producing food, they had to do something radical:

They had to pay for it, and pay well enough that the serfs would stay on the land instead of moving to town and joining the merchant classes who—due to the depopulation—were suddenly wide open with guild power on the wane.

Labor was so expensive, in fact, that it spurred massive technological innovations in weaving, farming, transport, and banking just to allow the people-starved civilization to get by without a complete civilizational collapse. Feudal families poured their wealth into transforming themselves from land barons into trading interests, betting they could better insure their solvency by fetching spices and exotic materials to feed the newly growing industrial plant from far-flung places that weren’t beggared by a labor shortage.

Everyone, in other words, was on the make, and material conditions improved perceptibly, measurably, year over year, and generation over generation, all of it fueled by a phenomenon that nobody had ever seen before:

Growth.

In a static civilization half-obliterated by plague, there was plenty of room to grow and no power in the world was capable of standing in the way. More than that, failing to grow wasn’t a realistic option—if your productivity and wealth didn’t grow, it was the end of your life, your family line, your town, and your country.

So grow everyone did, outwards and upwards. Sprawling across the face of the planet, creating new tools to solve new problems, learning underlying principles of physics and optics from the creation and use of those tools, using those principles to fuel theories about the nature of the universe, which in turn lead to more technological innovations, and so ad infinitum.

And finances grew as well. In a stable civilization, lending money at interest was called usury, and was illegal because it was what we’d now call predatory. There was no real reason to expect a person twenty years from now would be in a better position than they are now, so charging them interest on a debt was simply a sneaky way to extract value from them, and thus beggar thy neighbor. Big no-no.

But in a world of growth, lending money at interest is a social good (or at least, socially useful). Seed capital can mean the difference between starting a viable business and going bust before you get to market. The business of finance—with its demands for economic growth at at least the going interest rate—was born. Shortly thereafter, the joint stock company was invented to spread the risk of sea voyages across a large number of investors who collectively were willing to tolerate the risk of losing their investment in return for the chance to reap the reward of a successful shipment of spices, or sugar, or turpentine, or tea.

With more people involved in business, more people needed to know how to read and write—and especially how to think and do math—and reading (thanks to the burgeoning new business of publishing) meant access to terrific entertainments and, more importantly, subversive ideas about the sanctity of private property over/against royal authority and divine decree, or about the direct accountability of the individual to God (church authorities be damned), or the idea that political legitimacy flows only from the consent of the governed.

Over the last six hundred years, despite enduring (and inflicting) some of the most terrible wars ever to wage across the face of the planet, the general trajectory for most people who have been touched by the socio-technological feedback loops kicked off by the Black Death has been onward and upward. We have formed a civil religion to account for that phenomenon, one grounded in the notion of progress both as an inevitable force of history and as an overwhelming force for good. The faith is embedded in the very word: to progress is to move forwards towards a goal. We assume, deep down, that we progress towards a better future. The shape of that future varies with each one of us—some of us envision Star Trek, some a sprawling galactic empire, some a pastoral existence where we use our technological prowess to restore harmony with nature, some an enlightened end-state where we grow the wisdom to voluntarily limit our population growth and give every child who is born a childhood unencumbered by suffering but blessed with fantastic opportunity, some a libertarian paradise where the individual has unlimited horizons, some a communal existence where everyone is equal and nobody suffers alone—but a better future is there, just out of reach, just around the corner, and we will get there through fair means or foul, because if there is one thing we all know, it’s that progress is inevitable.

It is the single premise upon which every political arrangement, economic paradigm, social norm, geopolitical alliance, military stratagem, and moral philosophy in our civilization is built upon. We have spent several centuries building a global civilization unparalleled in history upon this single, inarguable premise. And that premise, in turn, depends upon the underlying virtuous spiral that is driven by technological improvement, which itself depends upon population growth.

Pity, then, that the global population has, in every sense relevant to growth, already peaked.

The particular flavor of all of this growth had other effects, which we will explore in the next installment: The Technological Forces of Centralization.

In the meantime, I invite you to post any corrections or arguments in the comments, or send them directly to me at feedback@jdsawyer.net.

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