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Relationships between individuals are the core units of human cultural transmission. All of the information we learn about what it means to be a person and how to live in the world originate from relationships between and among us. All of our media and technology infrastructure have been built by people. All of the messages, ideas, images, and other information transmitted through that infrastructure are created and disseminated by people. Religions have been started and propagated by people.
The worldview that we hold as right and true has been created through our relationships with people and the products people have created. Though our society today is often characterized as being more disconnected and polarized than any other time in human history, there are more similarities than differences in how people live now and how we’ve lived since the onset of civilization. Stratification based on wealth and status has been present since the first human decisions to store food and control its distribution.
I imagine that the tribal folks seeking to continue their way of life found it very polarizing when the land they’d always lived on was suddenly taken over by those who sought to increase the amount of land under cultivation in order to hoard more food. Large-scale conflict only became the norm when more and more of what had been tribal territory became farmland for the enrichment of those who sought to expand civilization at the expense of traditional, indigenous ways of life. Early civilizations often grew too fast, used too many resources, or otherwise abused the power created through their newly formed hierarchies. Masses of indigenous people were forced to labor in fields, build cities and monuments, and otherwise serve masters- masters they had no say in choosing- in a form of social life they had no interest in perpetuating. Rebellion became a thing. How could it not?
It is not surprising that so many ruins of formerly great cities or settlements have been found with evidence of mass destruction and abandonment. Despite efforts by the masters to convince the masses that some sort of supernatural or supreme power had been conferred upon the few to rule the many, inevitably the many became disillusioned and decided to stop supporting a system that enslaved and exploited them. Once critical mass was reached, the civilizational model would collapse. At its inception, the concept of civilization was difficult to impose on tribal people because they were not discontented with their traditional way of living. Why would one choose to live in crowded, filthy, insecure conditions when one could continue to subsist with a minimum of effort and stress with one’s kin, having a guarantee of lifetime security and continuity of purpose?
As more and more land was cultivated for cash crops and the population subsequently grew, social structures were created to compel, coerce, and otherwise convince the growing masses that they must take their place in this new world. The alternatives? Be enslaved, killed by newly formed armies, or be forced to find territory somewhere else. Many chose to find new places and continued to live as hunter-gatherers, nomadic herders, or subsistence farmers for millennia until the population grew to the point that virtually every possible square foot of arable land was “conquered” by the civilized (colonizers) who took what they wanted by force and claimed divine right to do so.
Today, approximately 370 million of over 7.7 billion people in the world, around 5%, are considered indigenous people- living in traditionally tribal ways or attempting to maintain some traditions, while segregated from the rest of society in reservations or outposts on the edge of the “real world.” It took approximately 12,000 years to explode our population from just 4 million people to the nearly 8 billion living on Earth today. The vast majority of that growth has occurred in the last 600 years as the chart below illustrates.
The explosion of global population has had predictable impacts including natural resource depletion, extensive pollution, famine, poverty, homelessness, pandemic diseases, unending wars, genocides, the climate crisis, and a growing sense among the masses that our collective future will not be comfortable but full of human suffering. Many of our cultural narratives, especially those from religious sources, feed the idea that we, as humans, deserve to suffer because we are sinners- flawed to the core and destined to destroy ourselves. This narrative is clearly counterproductive to our collective ability to imagine alternatives to driving ourselves to extinction. We need new stories that not only imagine alternative ways of living but also reframe our understanding of humanity as worthy of meaningful lives and relationships that promote well-being for ourselves and future generations.