Our emerging civilization

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Among progressives few dreams are more resonant than the hope of building another, better, world. Peering into the shimmering crystal ball however does not seem to reveal much hope. The post-911 period has witnessed the deployment of large armies throughout the Middle East and Africa, appearing to confirm that peace between various "civilizations" is impossible. The end of the Cold War (1945-1989) did not signal the conclusion of international discord but seems to have simply opened the door to other suppressed storms.

In 1993 the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) claimed that the U.S. victory over the Soviet Union would not lead to an "end of history." Despite the United States having emerged victorious in the 20th century over Nazism and Soviet Communism, different societies around the world would not start looking to the United States, and its liberal, democratic capitalist system, for guidance. Huntington, adopting a perspective akin to a right-wing postmodernism or a social Darwinist "survival of the fittest," instead suggested that what we saw over the course of history was an endless battle between seven different civilizations: the Western (Christian), the Latin American, the Orthodox world (Russia, eastern Europe), the Buddhist (Japan and southeast Asia), the Chinese, the Indian, and the Islamic. These societies would not be tempted to emulate the U.S. because of its political and economic power. Their essential cultural differences were a far more profound indicator of the spirit of the time -- and of all time -- than ever-changing political events. Huntington argued that American hegemony would be challenged by the ineluctable resurgence of the "clash of civilizations."

The liberal historian Yuval Noah Harari disagrees with Huntington's thesis. He believes that we already have a world civilization in which our disagreements are less significant than our horizon of convergence. Our concord is based on numerous commonalities with the scientific method being perhaps the most significant. Take the case of health care: a thousand years ago illness was dealt with in a variety of ways depending on whether humans lived under the religious guidance of a priest, a village witch, a Middle-Eastern doctor, an expert in Indian Ayurveda, a Chinese physician, a Siberian shaman, an African witch doctor, or an Amerindian medicine man. Each would have dealt with disease in their own unique way. What they all had in common was that average life expectancy was below the age of 50. Today, whether we live in Boston, Brasilia, or Beijing we will meet doctors wearing stethoscopes who learned the same explanations in the same medical schools. They follow equivalent guidelines, use identical tests, and prescribe similar medicines created by the same international drug companies. Different countries have matching views of the body and debility. All agree that we are made up of cells, that diseases are caused by pathogens, and that antibiotics eliminate germs. This approach has been relatively successful: life expectancy across the planet is 71 years of age and is on average 80 years in the affluent countries. Despite our differences the success of the epistemology, discourse, and practice of science has created a common global approach to health.

Interestingly Harari is not able to explain why -- despite science's various achievements -- so many people today are attracted by non-modern, non-Western, cultural approaches to health, that is, methods that emulate the acupuncturist, the Ayurvedic doctor, or the village sorceress. Even if the public utilizes the modern, scientific, health-care system they continue to explore alternative therapies based on models that are less rooted in science than on a local tradition. Whether dealing with a common cold, with deadly cancer, or trying to conceive new life, many prefer combining methods rather than relying on just one approach. Harari -- despite the fact he himself practices Vipassana meditation for two hours every day and goes on a Buddhist retreat for two months of every year to clear his mind -- misunderstands what unites us. The genius of our time is that at our philosophical best we are beginning to build a form of knowledge that amalgamates numerous perspectives rather than leaning on Newtonian science alone. The conflicts between various groups and cultures, despite their vehemence, also produces the potential for unprecedented mixtures. A strange new possibility lies within us and ahead: one that experimentally combines different epistemologies, discourses, and practices, rather than falling back on essentialist descriptions or a belief in the dominance of modern science. This regenerative process, which is emerging across the world, is an initial step towards building a new global civilization.

Thomas Ponniah, PhD, is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, and the co-editor of Another World is Possible: Popular Alternatives to Globalization at the World Social Forum (Zed Books 2003), and co-editor of The Revolution in Venezuela (Harvard University Press 2011). 

Photo: Victorgrigas/Wikimedia Commons

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