In this age of war and terrorism, torture, mistrust, wiretapping and the institutionalisation of conspiracy, it can be difficult to believe in anything except the inevitability that the machinery of government will divide, turn brother against brother and nation against nation. From the schoolyard to the boardroom, the impulse to distrust and despise the Other is a familiar and comfortable garment that never stays in the wardrobe long.
Though the polity are not foreign to fear as foreign policy, it is not the only thread running through our experience of international affairs. When hurricane strikes Burma, leaving thousands dead, the whole human race recognises the disaster, and the whole human race joins together to help the stranger from an incomprehensible culture and distant land. To give up some of your own comfort for your family is normal, even expected. To help a neighbour in trouble, it’s normative, to help those from your own country unknown to you is praiseworthy, but to help those on the other side of the world can only mean a recognition of the humanity, value and similarity of those our political machineries are devised to keep us separate from, to teach us how different they are.
And though this empathy is not universal, it gives me hope. No international cooperation in war is like the cooperation in aid, spreading so wide, taking in such diverse people, creating new links directly between individuals.
The hope is not just for the people suffering disaster, it is a hope for the future of the human race.
4000 years ago, the bronze age changed the face of humanity. It brought tools so far beyond the best that stone could produce that it created the possibility for empires, for organisation and life that looked beyond the local.
But it is a simple fact that inspires me most about Bronze. Its ingredients, tin and copper are almost never found together in nature. Stone, wood and bone, the raw materials for the tools in common use before the dawn of the bronze age were picked up and scavenged from the local environment of the individual. Cooperation was helpful, but not necessary. But no one man can mine both the copper and the tin he needs to cast a simple bronze blade. For the bronze age to come about, there had to be trade and sharing of knowledge between diverse and separated cultures. The key innovation was not the bronze itself, it was the social organisation that made bronze possible, indeed inevitable. Without the Neolithic social network of links between people spreading beyond the horizons of any one of them, there could have been no bronze, and no bronze age.
I hope that the forces that limit our empathy, our horizons will not remain strong for long, that the impulse to link will beat the impulse to fear. When our horizons grow, so grows our potential. And who knows what technology can emerge and is now emerging from a world where individuals link across boundaries of race and wealth and age and geography. Technologies that can define an age.
I’m a stone age trader, hoping for the next bronze age.