By Frank-Jürgen Richter
From the very earliest time man has waged war on his fellows – most often for resources. At that early time the conflict would have been over meat and women as many prehistoric tribes scavenged an existence at the edges of ice cliffs hunting mammoth and other large animals to fend off winter starvation. Yet, as I don’t wish to push my guessing too far – since the human time-line runs from 7 million years ago – it would be better to jump to the cradle of civilisations: to the ‘Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia’ within the river basins of the Tigris and Euphrates. In its time it saw battles enacted between city states, often for the control of water as their increasingly town-centred agricultural society needed more cereals for food. By 3000 BC civilizations were developing round the world, not just in the Middle East, but in Europe, India, China and the Americas. As usual, while they developed they disseminated war and refined the tools of war – culminating now in very terrible weapons of mass destruction. Sadly, as many have found, the methods and materials of peace like laser systems or nuclear power may be turned into weapons.
A British historian, Arnold Toynbee, argued that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment or attacks from outside – rather, ironically, societies that have developed expertise in problem solving become incapable of solving new problems having overdeveloped their structures for solving old problems. In these societies (even while society disintegrates under the massive control by a dominant minority) it forces its creative minorities to deteriorate due to the worship of their former self.
Rather more recently Naill Ferguson shows how a combination of economic volatility, decaying empires, psychopathic dictators, and racially/ethnically motivated (and institutionalized) violence has resulted in wars and genocides. He calls this the ‘History’s Age of Hatred’ – running through the past bloody century. Ferguson does reveal that, though the 20th century was so bloody, it was also a time of unparalleled (economic) progress. He says, quite correctly, great forces don’t make history but individuals do, and nothing is predetermined. Hence, as the world is neither progressing nor regressing only the actions of individuals will determine whether we live in a better or worse world.
Meanwhile Thomas Homer-Dixon opines the world’s converging energy, environmental, and political stresses could cause a breakdown of national and global order. Yet some kinds of breakdown may open up extraordinary opportunities for the creative, bold reform of our societies – if we are prepared to exploit these opportunities when they arise. But that refers us back to Toynbee – how may we rise to the occasion while revering the glory of the past?
Let us return to a consideration of a primitive society. The group would have many people who are (relatively) happy to go about their tasks. Their work brings them returns through the sales or barter of the goods they make or the services they provide; they thus garner the subsistence needed for their nuclear family’s survival. Possibly they may live within the physical boundary of their chief – as in a castle or its nearby dwellings; so in offering obedience, these people are given food. As we are not born equal – some are stronger than others, faster, or more intelligent we find specializations have occurred. This would offer a natural progression in the old societies as each may give their excess to the others – it did not need a communist creed to tell us that only by working for the common good could we expect to be sustained. But specialization offers privileges which may be seen by lesser mortals as excessive: too much food, too many servants… too large a salary or year-end bonus as with our present leaders and especially our bankers. Little changes! And just as revolutions took place in the past, they continue to do so today. I hinted above that we might envy the other – their lifestyle glamour perhaps. We may note the many magazines or Internet chat that offer insight into the lives of the famous – who in turn angrily react against personal intrusion. Their symbiosis is an intense but brief requirement as a young girls’ beauty or style will fall out of fashion in just a few years, perhaps even months as the media moves on to create another ‘star’ for us to gaze upon. But while we envy we do not understand the hard life the ‘stars’ lead: for the films they rise at an early hour to attend hours of make-up preparations even after hours of learning the script. Business and government leaders fly round the globe, staying in ‘posh’ hotels. Yes we envy that – but we do not have to cope with their upset metabolisms as they constantly cross and re-cross time-lines losing sleep as they fly from continent to continent, moving from meeting to meeting and eating different types of food when they have the chance: often they have to be polite to the camera for its media presentation to ‘the people back home’.
We have never quite understood the carousing of the winners and their supporters. When battles have been won often the subjugated are further violated by the winners. Sometimes these are just drunken brawls as good humor descends into misunderstandings of local attitudes and thus more fighting breaks out. Sometimes such battles are genteel… I recall the subdued anger expressed a few years ago by the well-dressed retired people in one elegant sea-side town expressed against the rough clothing of some others at dinner. The ‘old-guard’ had changed for dinner, correctly attired in evening clothes (men and women appropriately) – but the youngsters had also dressed for dinner. The latter were the consultants who had been working hard all day wearing their formal day-time attire in client’s offices who now wished to relax over dinner, dressed-down, with good food and a chat with their friends. The two groups were quite intolerant of each other so now in these elegant hotels the managements are more careful to offer advice about an ‘appropriate’ dress code.
Why do we have to wear such a uniform? What does it offer from us unknown people to whom? Or was this some form of obeisance, a throw-back to colonial days? It highlights an important reaction – that of intolerance: just like envy it is a basic human reaction to a perceived difference between one and another. But when groups hold such views their reactions can quickly become violent. Always we feel, primitively, that those from the next village are stupid or gross and somehow ‘do not deserve to live’! That may seem extreme but football violence can explode like this – the recent battles between rival supporters in Italy resulted not only in damage to cafes and vehicles, but also to people– some of whom died. Political demonstrations also have a high potential for accidental physical damage to property and to lives.
Intolerance has given rise to the most abominable of actions when different religious groups fight each other. It is crazy really as their creeds speak of peace and the tolerance of differences. I guess this was always so from the earliest times when the clans were forming their specialisms of hunters, farmers, medical people as well as the chiefs who probable were the strongest and who could attract the most women (as an aside I might allude to the theory that it is our genes who control our actions as it is they who look to their survival and we are just their hosts). In the clan’s development we may imagine the religious man who would point to the magic of the stars, the moon and the changing of the seasons being brought about by some ‘higher being’ – and that ‘being’ could bring death upon the unbeliever through natural events like earthquakes or plagues. I am appalled by the religious wars that have occurred through the century’s as one group is whipped into a frenzy by its religious leader ‘in the name of God’ thereby releasing the mobs on others no matter that their revered texts suggest they come from the same human stock. Wars create odd logics “… most whites thought that blacks would not make effective soldiers, seeing them as cannon fodder at best (US Civil War sentiment circa 1863)”; and we note an initial contract between the UK and Chinese authorities to supply 50,000 Chinese laborers to support the war against Germany on 1916… their number rose to 140,000 with many dying ‘innocently’ on the Western Front. No group religious or otherwise may be exempt from scorn – as we observe battles each day in many nations. It is alarming to find whenever a religious group meets to worship or to gather at a shrine we find opposition groups gathering to silently oppress until some spark ignites the historical hatred of the other, bringing out once more ‘the other village’ syndrome whereupon it is allowable to kill those to whom we are intolerant. Wars are based on this supremacy premise, and so is terrorism; and all their actions are justified ‘in the name of God’ by religious leaders.
Yet perhaps there is some slight sign that the world is changing. The 2012 Global Peace Index shows there is a small decrease in conflicts over the past year. Its key findings are that Iceland is the most peaceful country for the second successive year and that Syria tumbled by the largest margin. Sadly, Somalia remains the world’s least peaceful nation. All these finding may be translated into cash – if the world had been completely peaceful in 2011, the economic benefit would have been an estimated US $9 trillion – equal to the size of Germany and Japan’s economies combined.
Of course this $9 trillion cannot be realised as cash at once, but it indicates that if we were minded we might divert expenditure on arms and open conflict into ways of peace and to benefit mankind. Just think of the costs of the Syrian offensive – not only of the many dead and the grieving families, but the total disruption of the life of a nation, while neighbour nations have to cope with the fleeing masses; and consider too the many global meetings of Security Councils that really will not be able exert pressures on the opposition leaders until it is too late.
Instead of conflicts we can attempt to educate. We could offer an open education to boys and girls from an early age, and offer similar education to older people teaching the skills of communication: of reading and writing so they may better judge the diatribes of zealots and to resist them by more rational and argued discourse. The benefits will not come immediately – children take years to grow up. But in offering adult education, and in parallel by increasing the beneficial infrastructures, we will see quick results. One of which will be a reduction of corruption whose oppression thrives disproportionately upon the uneducated. The poor have no means of answering back, and no means by which to judge false arguments – all they can do is pay up, or die, or in some cases resist: but they will be beaten and will die.
We must take hope that the Global Peace Index is showing a true trend towards less conflict. We may enhance its progress in every nation by building up our infrastructures – the physical, social and political. By positively increasing these assets we will open our societies towards tolerance and trusting and thus be better able to increase our wealth. This will be measured not just as cash, but also via the intangibles of health and happiness. Development will not be an easy task. Making the initial changes demands a strong government and an understanding opposition party able to agree to long-range benefits. As I have stressed – we must raise our levels of tolerance.
Frank-Jurgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global business community