The world in a blade of grass

Grass Ronda.jpg

A one-minute two-stroke history of humanity:

Modern humans emerged in Africa about 100,000 years ago, skilled hunter-gatherers like their hominid predecessors. In the expansion phase, we spread over six continents, while our culture differentiated into around 10,000 language communities. About 10,000 years ago, roughly when humans were reaching Patagonia, women gatherers in the Fertile Crescent domesticated grasses into cereal crops, and male hunters tamed sheep and goats. This revolution triggered population growth, specialisation and social stratification, organised religion, science, writing, and states. The interaction of states by trade, cultural exchange, migration, warfare, genocide, empire and law drives the contraction phase of human history, with steadily decreasing cultural diversity. We are now in the final phase, nearing a global unity – of peace or self-destruction.

(117 words)

The domestication of grass is the central event of secular history.

This drastically simplified account is drawn impressionistically from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and the moral from his Collapse.

At such a heroic (or heroically foolish) scale, the persistence of claims to sovereign independence by states at this late stage of the big crunch is a striking anomaly. We are now down to two genuinely autonomous powers, the USA and China, and neither is capable of establishing a global imperium. So I’m afraid it’s a choice between a global technocracy (foreshadowed by the IMF, the WTO, the EU, the Internet governance system, and the IPCC) and Diamondian collapse. In what sense can a global polity of 6 billioo be a democracy?

Fundamentalists can console themselves with the thought that Genesis is right: it’s all the fault of those Neolithic Eves that ate in Eden the seeds of the real “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”, grass.

Update: empire and migration added to the list of drivers of the contraction. (Migration includes the slave trades). You can write your own one-minute history, but the arbitrary rule of the game is to stay under 120 words.

Update 2: Dogs removed; their domestication was earlier and by hunters in several places, so they are not really part of the Neolithic revolution in the Near East..

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

7 thoughts on “The world in a blade of grass”

  1. "Hold a puppy in the palm of your hand"?
    I had kinda thought the point about wheat was it came pre-domesticated, practically, and that wolves pretty much turned themselves into dogs – but yeah.
    Oh, and is India so far behind China?

  2. 6 billion? Try 10 billion. At the present rate of speed, human population will top out at 10 billion, and then . . . crash?
    Technocracy?
    For the first time in human history, control is cheap. Potentially, as significant as grass, the revolution in computing and communication mean that key informational elements of control — observation and modeling for feedback — are cheap for the first time in history.
    Do we really want to limit speed on the highway? We could, you know. Monitor every vehicle's speed, and intervene to penalize every deviation from standard.
    A database of every phone call? Feasible. A database of every's human's DNA, medical history and current health status? Maybe not so far away.
    The challenge for governance is not just the gargantuan problems of global warming and peak oil, but also the novel problem of having at hand the means of governing with pervasive control of people and things.
    Historically, we have had the dubious advantage in our attempts at government, that no government was all that effective at controlling anything. Leviathan was a big fish with tiny fins and tinier eyes. Law and policy had ineffectiveness as a feature. We could ban marijuana as a strategy for dampening its use; now we may have the means of monitoring everyone's drug use; do we really want a policy of absolutely banning all recreational drug use?
    Immigration: the policy, which used to be ineffective, because we did not the resources or the means of controlling immigration, has evolved without changing into a corrupt policy, instead of merely ineffective, because we have technical means, but choose not to use them.

  3. Jared Diamond is very good on the preselection of both plant and animal species for domestication: why these and why there?
    India's economic growth, and population that will become larger than China's, are admittedly striking. But lack of domestic energy sources, the ongoing rivalry with Pakistan on the subcontinent, and its huge internal diversity are severe constraints on its international ambitions. I don't see a go-it-alone assertiveness developing any time soon. But as the British Raj showed, you could easily recruit hundreds of thousands of good Indian soldiers to your standing UN army.

  4. What if it was grass that domesticated man?
    Take golf courses. I mean how else was grass going to get established in the Arizona desert?
    And didn' the astronaut bring a golf club to the moon-what's next?

  5. Is it really a choice of technocracy or collapse? Call me a crazy dreamer, but I kind of think there's still hope for a system of independent states committed to solving collective problems collectively. The current situation, where the world's natural hegemon is led by fools who equate unilateralism with freedom of action, is an anomaly. It arose from the peculiar circumstances of the later stages of the Cold War, when it seemed to some that the USSR was getting ahead because it was less constrained by self-imposed duties than was the US. That was the wrong interpretation at the time, but it informed a generation of right-wing ideologues in the US, and through an unfortunate set of circumstances (not least the Republican party's discovery of cultural warfare), they're now in power. But not for long.
    The next US administration, or at worst the one after that, will again realise that US interests are better served in a world where states discuss and agree on common courses of action (as the biggest dog, the US view naturally holds predominant weight in these discussions; these views are then leveraged through global consensus). Every US administration from FDR's up until the present one, even Reagan's, came to this conclusion sooner or later.
    Bureaucracies like the IMF, WTO or WHO are delegated by the world community to handle narrow technical issues. That's more or less how the EU operates, despite the superstate image. But real questions are solved by grown-up states working together. Some successes: eradication of smallpox and polio, the (mostly) peaceful end of the USSR, a global financial system that has tamed inflation and fostered an explosion of international trade and investment. I believe (or just hope?) that when the grown-ups are again in charge, the system will work again.

  6. BTW, I've read "Guns Germs & Steel", but not "collapse", so I'm probably missing some of Diamond's points here.

  7. BC: you need to think about the Jean Monnet argument – cooperation between states is OK for business as usual, but inadequate for dealing with crises, for which you need small executive agencies enjoying real delegated authority. I spent my working life in a cooperation organisation, and I don't underrate what can be achieved this way, but Monnet was still right. Global warming and nuclear proliferation look like crises to me.

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