“God created man. Man created religion. Man destroyed God. Religion killed man”.
For some reason, these words from Steven Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park film come to mind. The film was pure fiction, and it was about dinosaurs, but who would have guessed that such a simple paraphrase could sketch out the very real, non-fictitious scenario of a present time that churns out one blockbuster after another: Paris I, Paris II, Brussels I etc.
When Huntington presented his “Clash of Civilizations” scenario a few years following the end of the Cold War, nobody imagined that the dawn of the 21st century would be heralded by hordes of neo-crusaders seeking to ransack the West, either through suicide bombings in train stations and airports, or chasing people down the streets, machete in hand, all the while invoking God’s name….in Arabic.
Was it in the name of religion that the ancient city of Palmyra was destroyed, an event which I believe is morally tantamount to a second burning of the Library of Alexandria? What’s with all these “black blemishes” (according to Romanian Academy Member Prof. Mircea Malița) that taint the human mind after thousands of years of ongoing evolution of human society, just when globalization seemed to impress on us that we are part of one Civilization? We thus stumble upon the notion that we are, as it appears, still in the childhood phase of the human species. Sitting atop 14 billion years of evolution, from the very first atoms that make up all that exists, from our very cells and tissues, to the gold spawned from the deepest cores of dying stars that our wedding rings were forged from, to the iron in our blood, and to the carbon that came to life, being part of the human species is our first mark of identification, even if some states are doing away with biological determinism in identifying individuals. Let us say then that Western society has probably reached the pinnacle of development as a civilization and is now seeking ways to alleviate its boredom.
The identity matrix
Aside from species, our identity as individuals, as a social group, and as part of a culture comes into play as well. “Ten Thousand Cultures, One Civilization” is the title of a book written by Mircea Malița. The God whose name is invoked in a certain language is part of that aspect, of a small “package” identifiable through a unique combination of ethnicity, language, religion and geographic territory. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we bear within us a matrix defined by a way of life, a mentality that entails certain behaviours and attitudes.
There are a great many ethnicities on Earth, every one of them bound to a unique geographical territory. There are as many ethnicities as there are such areas on Earth. There is not a single ethnicity that cannot be identified with an ethno-geographic space in which it grew and matured. The constraints and advantages of a certain place, the occupations and social arrangements that its characteristics allowed for, which were then dictated by one generation to the next under the impetus of survival, gave rise to a way of life. When, for any given reason, the activities and occupations from which this way of life originated disappeared in relevance for survival, the mental anchors they created remained intact, and thus, by way of symbols, customs and traditions, those activities and occupations endured. When an individual migrated, the space in which they developed would imprint itself on their psyche (“home sweet home”). The language spoken – a particular system of articulated sounds that members of a community would use to identify each other as being part of the same ethno-genetic space, creating the same experiences that shaped their way of life – likewise became the instrument people used in order to carry on this evolutionary line. When the geographic location changed, and people left, a third paradigm emerged to preserve throughout time the ways of life and mentalities that had been created; that paradigm was religion.
There may well be universal religions, but any combination of territory, ethnicity, language and religion is unique. These are the fundamental pillars of any culture. For any given culture to claim superiority – either absolute or in relation to others – is patently absurd. Au contraire, it is precisely this uniqueness that gives Earth its worth as a planet: it presents a successful evolutionary model that confirms the unity of matter, information and energy across the Universe. On Earth, nature cannot create “superior” and “inferior” territories or space. The same elementary building blocks of existence are present everywhere.
The hyphenated man of globalization
So, why do those individuals reach for their cultural identity before committing the crimes we see? What are they trying to say? What is it that they want to convey? In news reports, they are often defined through constructs such as “French Algerians” or “Belgian Moroccans” etc. These constructs lend themselves to nuances. The first part of the construct references citizenship, i.e. the administrative profile of an individual, their civitas – the state they pay their taxes to, the place they work and live in. In a way, it references civilization. It brings a certain contribution to the technical evolution and modernization of human society. They were born in France or Belgium, speak French as a native would, and hold French or Belgian citizenship from birth. Yet deep down, they are neither French nor Belgian. This is illustrated by the second part of the construct. They belong to another culture that is neither French nor Belgian. They have a different way of life, and hold different socio-spatial attitudes and behavioural patterns; a different code, a different “key” required. Something frightens them, however… They dress themselves in dynamite sticks or pick up a knife. They feel they lose their cultural identity, and are cut off from their roots; they grow confused, and the deeply ingrained survival instinct is activated.
More than what was bargained for
Globalization shrank the world. We tampered with the low entropy reserves of the planet (per Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen), we accessed previously unimagined quantities of fossil fuels that dramatically increased the speed at which information and resources travel in the global system. Globalization gave us one great advantage and two great disadvantages. Its advantage: it made us feel, and see for ourselves, in real time, that we are all part of a single human Civilization, with a capital “C” and in singular form. For as long as globalization was confined to the realms of economics and civilization, and for as long as it gathered together and synergized the sharpest minds of the planet, and ensured that the latest technological breakthroughs became accessible to and accessed by anyone, it fulfilled its purpose and meaning. Nevertheless, it did something more than that: it encouraged uniformity over diversity, and penetrated the most intimate layers of the fabrics of cultures. The entire planet now wears jeans, eats French fries at a fast-food restaurant and takes selfies. It’s not an appealing picture. It’s first of all a matter of meaning: globalization is supposed to function as a framework to maintain cultural diversity, and not for assimilation, integration and uniformity. Swiss cantons united together to stay the way they were and maintain their uniqueness instead of losing it either via Latin (of French or Italian variety), or German assimilation. The people that inhabit those valleys in the Alps understood that it was the only way to maintain their identity – working together, to avoid assimilation. The Muslim does not shun mobile communication, satellite TV, the Internet or Facebook (which belong to the civilization). Or the plastic explosive. It is not modernization he shies away from, but rather Westernization, namely a way of life he doesn’t identify with. Cultures (with a lower case “c”, in plural form) cannot be integrated, neither by laws, nor through statements endorsing “multiculturalism” or “political correctness”. Each culture, which can be likened to a piano key – each with its own musical note and sound – is or was once part of the “music” played by the “piano” at different points in history, this music being the Civilization (with a capital “C”, in singular form) and its universal nature.
Reigning inequalities among teeming humanity
Today, there are over 7 billion people on the planet and, as the title of the previously cited book went, “ten thousand cultures, yet only one civilization”. Of these 7 billion people, 4 billion are located in Asia, and 1 billion in Africa. Of the billion people in Africa, half were born after the year 1990, never having heard of the USSR or Hitler. That’s more than 500 million people today, just about as much as all of Europe, minus Russia. When I saw photos of a Somali pirate holding a city-sized oiler at bay with nothing but a rowboat and a Kalashnikov, I started to understand: it was a 12-year old kid, wearing shorts and slippers, who had never been to school in his life. The world is changing. China, the rising economic giant, has “bought” almost the entire African continent. The resources haven’t left Africa; only the colonial masters have changed. The Chinese have invested and developed entire industries here, but they did so using Chinese workforce only, while the locals continued to scrape through garbage bins, seeking to find some rare metals in the pile of junk that would end up being recycled and incorporated in a new generation of phones and gadgets in the West. Or, maybe, they simply choose to cross the Mediterranean and come to Europe, which they only know from pictures on Facebook, never having heard, as was once common, the tales of merchants that accompanied caravans throughout the African or Arabian Desert.
Similarly, there’s more oil today than there was 20 years ago (today’s oil reserves are estimated at 240 billion tones, compared to 133 billion tones back in 1995), and the price plummeted from over 100 dollars per barrel (5 years ago) to 35 dollars today. The Middle East is no longer the world’s foremost owner of reserves, dropping from a share of 60% ten years ago to 47% today. The so-called “Second Gulf” – the Gulf of Guinea – and other regions now enter the limelight, while Saudi Arabia has been overtaken by Venezuela. In spite of all of this, an infinitesimally small number of people own more wealth than all the billions combined. Just 62 people, as much as one can fit in a small bus, account for more wealth than half the world’s population (about 3.5 billion people) and 1% of the population equals the other 99% in terms of wealth.
The mayfly conclusion
What does all of this mean, however, at the scale of the Universe itself? Let’s imagine we can compress its 14 billion years of age in a single calendar year on Earth. Let’s assume the Big Bang took place on January 1st – that would mean the Earth appeared somewhere towards the end of August, the dinosaurs went extinct at about noon on December 30, while the human species would have evolved on the last day of the year, at 22:45; the foundation of Rome would have occurred at the last minute, at 23:59, and man would have walked on the Moon about 6-7 seconds before the fireworks celebrating the cosmic New Year. “Day-old flies frolicking on a world no greater than a cubit”, wrote Eminescu. We know what happened to the dinosaurs and to the Roman Empire; what shall become of the West and the advocates of the Euro-intifada, we’ll probably live to see. We know one thing for certain, though, and again, I recall a line from Spielberg’s scenario: “nature will always find a way”.