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.
6 thoughts on “Hurricane, Charity and the New Bronze Age”
hmmm, colour me unconvinced.
when our horizons grow through the expansion of technology, to the lengths with which we are now familiar (or immersed), it seems we become more distant from one another than ever.
to pinch a thought from Marshall Mcluhan, the medium is the message after all – TV and other broadcasting technologies, even the good ole interweb itself, serve to make us connected yet distant. So called social networking make us connected globally, but without ever having to connect, people become avatars, life becomes a mprg (right use of initials?). Situations like the Burma cyclone are made so huge that we fail to properly grasp the small scale human tragedies which club together to make a massive disaster. This overwhelms us, leaving us with a collective sense of hopelessness, and resulting in a brief rushed out guilt/sympathy offering, before we all lose interest again.
wheras your bronze age relied on the interaction of real people in real space and with something tangible to hold, all we now deal in are concepts – conceptual people, who have conceptual disasters, to whom we wire conceptual money – through conceptual relief agencies (we know they exist because… we’ve seen them on tele, visited their website, read some marketing product…)
I guess you ought to be keen on a technological approach to the future, personally sometimes I feel I’d rather go back to the stone age. At least in a tribal society (aka, before writing technology) commitment to a relationship was out of necessity long lasting and meaningful – even if it was just enmity.
I don’t think of it as a technological approach to the future, but as a social one – the technology was made possible by people who were not fooled by the difference between them and others, but chose to build relationships with them anyway.
It’s that recognition of the humanity of those very different from ourselves that gives people compassion for those on the other side of the world. You may be right that there is much imperfect in the compassion, but the fact that it is there at all when we spend so much of our time telling ourselves scary stories about foreigners is a cause for hope.
“At least in a tribal society (aka, before writing technology) commitment to a relationship was out of necessity long lasting and meaningful – even if it was just enmity.”
Much that is wrong with the modern world, as well as much that is best about it comes out of the fact that we have much more choice. Our scope for compassion and collaboration can span the entire world now, whereas in the early stone age, it would have been not much further than a few days walk for most people. It means that weirdos can find those who share their weird rather than being mistrusted and cast out from the community as wizards or for washing their clothes with nuts :-). To me, the essential difference is between small groups filled with mistrust for outsiders and the unfamiliar within the group, and groups with an experience of the world that makes them appreciate diversity. The group that appreciates diversity has so much more potential.
“all we now deal in are concepts – conceptual people”
I don’t believe in non-conceptual people.
the soap nuts thing was a low blow man, very low
This is better on the radio, but still…..
You gave me hope. Thankyou.
The phenomenon of vicarious grieving is interesting.