In the Star Trek universe, humans have already made the transition from national to global. When Captain Kirk references his home, he talks of Earth first, and Iowa second. Kirk, while unapologetically American, never feels the need to talk about his nationality. This is a future I want to live in. Yes, interstellar travel might be hundreds of years away (if ever), but there’s good reason to start living as a global society now, and we’re already moving in that direction.
I think humans have a natural tendency to believe the era they live in is in some way special. For some of the more primitive out there, they might believe we are currently living through the biblical “End Times” (and have collectively held this belief for the last several thousand years). While fully conceding this fact, and despite being a firm believer in the Copernican Principle, there is reason to believe that this era is actually very special indeed.
In centuries past, the world would have been considered anything but small. The Pale Blue Dot did not exist, and borders were hard, fast, and deadly to cross. Any hiker will tell you how big the world is on foot, and that was the norm for most of human history and prehistory. Now, we have planes to take us to any corner of the globe, no matter how remote, within a few days at the most. We have the Internet to virtually take us to almost anywhere on Earth at the speed of light. And we have rocket ships and telescopes to take our exploration to other planets, and bring the cosmos into our living rooms. Suddenly, these hard and fast lines on a map have blurred, and when viewed from space, they become non-existent.
Advances have made our world both smaller and more fragile. As discussed in my previous post, we must be cognizant of the world we are creating, and take steps ensure that our technological prowess (but not mastery) will not bring about our untimely end. Certain threats such as nuclear proliferation and global climate change, and perhaps someday soon the creation of Artificial Super Intelligence, need strong international governmental intervention.
The three above threats to our existence are interesting given each are at a different stage of progression–largely in the past (though not entirely), present, and a possible future. Nuclear war has been a threat since the late 40s, when the Soviet Union developed nukes of their own. After coming breathtakingly close to all out nuclear war in the early 60’s, nations have cooperated to reduce nuclear stockpiles consistently for the last several decades. Although still a threat, nuclear war is not nearly as likely as it once was, thanks to global recognition and transnational cooperation to deal with the problem. There are positive and negative takeaways from this existential crisis. The positive is that we can work together as a species to ensure long-term survival. The negative is that we had to first walk right up to the edge of the cliff and look over the side before we finally decided to slowly back away and change our path.
Global warming represents the middle timescale. By the late 80’s or early 90’s, the science was pretty much settled on the issue, and since then some countries have come a long way in reducing their carbon footprint, and utilizing renewable energy. The threat of global climate change–while not as drastic as nuclear war–is real. Unlike the former example, political will is not nearly as strong, and we have yet to reach a “tipping point” (like the Cuban Missile Crisis) which would force more drastic changes. Judging by the way we have collectively shrugged off record setting years, record setting decades, terrible floods, terrible droughts, terrible tropical storms, terrible blizzards, etc, I’m not sure what that tipping point will be, but it’s certain to be disastrous. Here’s to hoping such an event will not be caused by irreversible damage.
The last threat, Artificial Super Intelligence, recently came to my attention through the excellent blog, waitbutwhy.com. It might seem like laughable science fiction, but such luminaries as Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk are taking the threat very seriously. And unlike the previous two, we probably won’t have decades to adjust, nor will we have the luxury of waiting for a “tipping point.” It’s something we really need to get right through concerted international effort and regulation the first time. Again, here’s to hoping we get it right before irreversible damage (which in this case includes extinction of the human race).
There are a great number of threats, past, present, and future, that are not mentioned here, but that is irrelevant to the larger point. Without well-orchestrated international attention involving most (if not all) states, none of these potential threats can be dealt with in a suitable manner. And for better or worse, we’re all in this together.
Existential crisis is as good of a reason as any to start living as a global society. But what would that global society look like? Furthermore, what can we do to bring us closer together as a species, break down the cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious barriers to better recognize the shared bonds we all have as humans? A big part of that rides on creating a global language to easily communicate ideas and concerns without potentially offending or mistranslating.
Going back to the Star Trek example, the galaxy chose to utilize English as its lingua franca, which is clearly the direction our planet is going. This fact of the Star Trek universe, and many sci-fi universes beyond, has been the source of many jokes over the years, but that has not stopped life from imitating art. Although I am decidedly biased as a native English speaker, the language has become the most used in the world. It has become the language of the global business community, of multinational NGOs, academia, and global politics. And it is widely recognized as the most important language to learn (a fact which has handsomely funded my globetrotting ways so far).
I’m not going to say that English is the best language, or the most logical (I could write two separate posts refuting both of those points), but it is arguably the most democratic. Unlike French, for example, there is no “gold standard” or “proper” way to speak the language. Yes, there are certain grammar rules, but many of them are at least flexible, if not altogether breakable. English speakers naturally and readily adopt foreign and colloquial words into their vocabulary. Part of the reason for this is globalization, as certain words and phrases are just becoming universal, but I think English speakers are naturally more inclined to accept a wide variety of words for the same object because of how diverse the language has become through its multiple iterations on multiple continents.
Nothing quite warms my heart as when I’m traveling and I hear two non-native speakers conversing in English. This is English’s greatest gift to the world: a common language which breaks down the barriers—linguistic and cultural, instead of physical and legal–the world over. This common language allows us to connect to more humans than ever before, and to better understand our similarities and differences.
Some may be concerned about losing language and culture as English plays its part in cultural imperialism, but I think those fears are overblown. English is only the mother tongue in a handful of countries, but is spoken as a second (or third, or fourth, etc) language in just about every other country in the world. Around 100 million people speak English as an additional language in India and Pakistan each. Around 50 million Germans speak English, and a stunning 86% of Danes (4.7 of their 5.5 million citizens) speak English.
You would be hard-pressed to find a prouder, more tight-knit culture than exists in Denmark, and learning English does not seem to have diminished their culture in the slightest. Moreover, in every new country I’ve had the pleasure of setting foot (or rather, feet), I’ve never felt “Oh, this is just the same as every other place.” I believe local culture is much stronger than people give it credit for, and it’ll take much more than a few new immigrants or a second language to start chipping away at its foundations. We are still beings who have evolved to prioritize family and local connections, and as such, we learn songs, traditions, recipes, etc from an early age, most of which get passed down to future generations, as they have for thousands of years.
Globalization is often conflated with modernization, and this is as good of a place as any to differentiate between the two. What has had a bigger cultural impact? English or the Internet? American movies and TV, or the smart phone? I think it’s probably the latter in both cases. Certainly the availability of technology could not exist without globalization, so the problems are intrinsically linked. However, when I see parents and grandparents using Facebook on their smart phones, technology seems to be the real culprit driving cultural change. Globalization and English just make it easier to troll strangers on different continents.
So now we have a goal: continued existence. We have a language: English. Now we need an organization. (Brief digression: some may point to the United Nations as the logical go-to organization, but in its current form it is largely powerless to address our global needs. Of course, this is by design, but at a certain point we may need to reconsider the U.N.’s place in global politics and adjust accordingly).
Throughout our history, we have continually organized ourselves in larger and larger governmental organizations. Some would argue this is a bad thing (and indeed, for governmental efficiency, it can be), but on some level democracies the world over have chosen more inclusiveness over less.
Since the dawn of the eighteenth century, we’ve seen such disparate states as Scotland and England, all 50 United States of America, the Germanic states, and eventually the majority of Europe come together as one open, free trade zone. In his new book The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, Michael Shermer notes, “…in Europe there were about five thousand political units in the fifteenth century, five hundred in the seventeenth century, two hundred by the eighteenth century, and less than fifty in the twentieth century.” Even as individual nations seek more local autonomy (as is the case with the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the Balkans), they equally desire to be part of the larger society of nations, as shown by their desire to be included in the E.U. Such agreement between nations have led to unparalleled economic and social freedom.
Movement between even such bitter historical rivals as France and Germany is now no more difficult than a road trip between Illinois and Wisconsin. As an American, passage between two countries is a bit jarring from the fact that if you blink at the wrong time, you’ll miss it. Compare, for a moment, the Germany’s simple border sign to Wisconsin’s ostentatious marker.
With democratic elections from the local to national, and in the case of the E.U., international, we can now have both more local autonomy and more large-scale integration and freedom. We’ve come to recognize that we can run our local governments with day-to-day practical matters, while also signing off on a certain set of values and freedoms which should be applicable to all.
The idea is understandably jarring to most. Historically, opening borders to other nations has come at great cost. Further, many on the political right have an inherent–and not unreasonable–distrust of large political entities. My retort would be to simply look how far we’ve come in the last several hundred years, as indicated above. To a European in the midst of the Renaissance, the idea of an over-arching governmental organization for most of the continent would have been not just laughable, but inconceivable, as it would have been for much of the early 20th century. Although the European Union has had its share of growing pains, it has also ushered in unrivaled peace and prosperity across the continent.
There’s still a long way to go, and this post is not intended to diminish the serious qualms and complications that exist in creating a global society. The largest obstacle, as evidenced by the Middle East, is overcoming the Bronze Aged squabbles and pre-Enlightenment thinking that prevents us from attaining a set of moral principles to be applied to everyone on every corner of the globe. Instead, this piece is to illustrate that we are inexorably moving in that direction, and that fact can prove not just beneficial, but vital to our long-term survival as a species.