Is the World Coming Apart?

It’s hard not to look at the news of the day and feel like world is coming apart. But that may be exactly what’s happening . . . quite literally.

More than anything else, the challenges of climate change we are imposing on the planet will surely drive a reorientation of global civilization. For better or worse, we seem to be living at a time when the “world-system” is slipping from one long-term, stable and well-defined state into . . . what? Well, that is the question isn’t it?

But if we keep our fear at bay for just a while, we can also take a step back and ask, “What does it mean for a world-system to change? What’s involved? What are the mechanisms and processes?”

But first, what do we mean by a “world-system”? Wikipedia defines it like this:

A world-system is a socioeconomic system, under systems theory, that encompasses part or all of the globe, detailing the aggregate structural result of the sum of the interactions between polities. . . . The Westphalian System is the preeminent world-system operating in the contemporary world, denoting the system of sovereign states and nation-states produced by the Westphalian Treaties in 1648. . . . Through the process of globalization, the modern world has reached the state of one dominant world-system, but in human history there have been periods where separate world-systems existed simultaneously, according to Janet Abu-Lughod.

Which brings me to a book that’s been blowing my mind lately: Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System AD 1250-1350. The book, written in 1989, includes a detailed analysis of Europe’s entry into the networks of global trade that already existed between the Middle Eastern Islamic empires, India, South East Asia and China.

Abu-Lughod was an American sociologist who had lived in Cairo. Through painstaking research, she describes a detailed view of a planet-spanning “international” system of trade that spanned much of the planet—more than half a millennium before container ships and air traffic would create our modern version of a global society.

The focus of Abu-Lughod’s work was to show that there was nothing inherently privileged about European culture that eventually allowed it to reshape the world-system in its images. Instead, according to the book, it was simply that by the time Europe emerged from its dark ages and arrived at the global circuits of trade and influence, the other players were already starting their decline. This was particularly true of China whose emperor would, just a few centuries hence, infamously call back and burn its powerful naval fleet in the late 1400s because the outside world of “barbarians” held nothing of interest.

But what is most startling for me is not the contention that Europe was just in the right place at the right time (though that is a fascinating idea in itself). I have thought a lot about the trajectories of civilizations and their planets. For me, Earth—and its various human civilizations—may be just one example of something cosmically generic. I don’t think we are the first technological civilization in the universe. And all civilizations and their trajectories, from a planetary perspective, can be seen as evolutionary innovations that have certain kinds of similarities in how they appear, flourish, and then decline. As an astronomer, I see what happens here on Earth in a broader perspective in terms of what might happen on any planet where a technological civilization emerges.

From that perspective, it’s Abu-Lughod’s depiction of a “world-system” that is most compelling. Such a system is composed of overlapping circuits of economic connection in the form of trade, trade agreements, currencies, currency conversations, contracts, and contract enforcement—familiar parts of our modern, global project of civilization. But seeing them in place, in entirely different forms and with entirely different players, 700 years ago gave me a new perspective on what’s happening now as our own world-systems begins to feel the weight of climate change.

It’s not just the economy

If the world-system Abu-Lughod describes was merely economic, it would hold little potency for me in thinking about planets and civilizations. But world-systems include the planetary systems in which they exist. In the 13th century, the state of rivers, oceans, deserts were a given—unchanging, but they still determined the nature of the world-system of trade and interacting cultures. Overland trade routes would be set by the realities of mountain passes and desert climates. Ocean routes would be set by currents and prevailing winds. Technology played its own role in setting the nature of the world-system in the form of ships and caravans (as well as the manufacture of the goods exchanged in trade).

Today we have a new set of technologies that allow a new set of trade circuits, alliances, etc., that, together, define the world-system we’re familiar with. But that world system now seems poised for change in ways that rise above the last great shift mapped out by Abu-Lughod. On the one hand, there is what appears to be frightening shift away from the institutions set up after the Second World War to maintain peace in a nuclear age. But that shift seems more in line with what has come before in history.

Even more potent, however, is the change in climate and all that will come with it. The current world-system was built with assumptions about where the rains fall and where they do not, about where the sea ice flows and where it does not. But these and a thousand other assumptions will soon be put to the test. That means the current world-system will be stressed in ways far greater than befell Abu-Lughod’s.

So the world—meaning our planet—is changing. It’s changing in ways not seen in 10,000 years. It’s changing in ways no incarnation of post-agricultural human civilization has dealt with before–which raises questions about what’s generic in the trajectories of civilizations in a planetary context. From Abu-Lughod’s book, I can see that even though world systems on Earth come and go, they have similarities. But what about world-systems that change the world? What happens when a civilization becomes so pervasive and “successful” that its world-system begins to change its host planet?

Just as there are common features between the world-system of the 12th century and ours today, maybe any civilization—on this planet or any another—that becomes truly global faces problems not unlike climate change. If we are not the first time a civilization has arisen in the universe, then perhaps we are not the first ones to reach this state. This was the subject of my new book Light of the Stars, and Abu-Lughod’s extraordinary study threw new light on the idea for me.

They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  When it comes to world-systems and climate, perhaps that exhortation extends all the way to the stars.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester.