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Leviathan
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto,
Historian

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Felipe Fernandez Armesto
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In 1900
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So as far as there is a course of history, it shows that wars always get worse.
 



You can already see China sorting out the problems that have bedevilled it over the last 200 years: problems of a bad government and a backward economy. The sleeping giant is re-awakening.
 



It's contrary to human nature for us to tolerate our differences.
 



In the next century it's equally unlikely that there are going to be any new ideas. People will still be just recycling old ones.
 



The function of the prophet isn't to be right, in fact it's much more satisfying for the prophet if he's wrong, because the function of prophecy is to arm us against disaster
 



We've got copybook cases for the recurrence of totalitarianism in a lot of the world today and I'm afraid that just as people thought it was safe to go back in the water, fascism is flexing its jaws offshore.
 



It is a future which is saved in blood and over-run with germs and environmental disasters.
 
Q: This century has seen more violent deaths in warfare than probably all centuries put together. Will the next century be the same or worse?

A: Wars going to continue to get worse because it's going to continue to get better, it's going to be better equipped and therefore it's going to be more destructive and more people are going to die. War's natural to man, it's as natural to man as it is to ants. And there's never been the society without war and it would be naive to suppose that we're capable of constructing one.

So as far as there is a course of history, it shows that wars always get worse. Since nuclear weapons haven't yet been used to their full potential, it's almost certain in the inherent logic of the fact that they exist, is that they will be used at some time in the future.

Q: If there are to be wars, who will be fighting whom in the war? What do we have most to fear?

A: States will go on fighting wars in the next century, particularly because there are going to be increasing numbers of rogue states, states marginalised in the international community who can't deliver their policy objectives in any other way. Ethnic communities are going to go on making war against one another with the same kind of violence, just better equipped than we've seen in the past.

And it's quite possible that religious wars will recur. Religion's proved to be a increasingly vital part of our world against most people's predictions in the course of this century and religion's had a pretty bad record of mutual violence. I expect that will recur as well, and of course the number of states is going to increase so the likelihood of little nuclear holocausts, little local nuclear holocausts is going to get ever worse.

Q: More wars with more technology, is there a chance we won't get to 2100?

A: The likelihood that we won't get to 2100 I'd say is remote and if it does happen, it won't be because we're killing each other, it'll be because of some unforeseen cosmic eventuality. I mean at some point, almost I would think most unlikely to happen as soon as 2100, but at some point in the future we're going to have a new Ice Age. We're going to have asteroid bombardment, we're going to have major climatic shifts, because periodically in the whole course of the history of the planet these things have happened at intervals and we will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs.

In the interim, of course, civilisation as we know it might come to an end and we could precipitate the end of civilisation with surprising speed if we go on mismanaging our relationship to the environment.

Q: Who's going to be top nation in 2100?

A: I'm hoping it will be the Republic of Bloomsbury - but I think it's almost certain that it will be China because China historically nearly always is top nation. We've just been through a relatively brief period of 200 years where the normal state of the world which used to be dominated from China has given way to a different situation more plural, more competitive, where we've had a series of different top nations.

Well our normal state of the world is to be regulated by Chinese initiative. Over the whole course of the last 3,000 years the dominant initiatives in technology, in the dissemination of ideas, in the influencing and shaping of the rest of the world have tended to come from China and that's almost, that's the normal state of the world. It's almost certain to reassert itself in the next century. And you can already see the signs of that happening, because you can already see China sorting out the problems that have bedevilled it over the last 200 years, problems of a bad government and a backward economy. The sleeping giant is re-awakening.

Q: What's going to happen to the nation state?

A: The nation state is a recent and so far brief phenomenon in history which in many ways runs contrary to the logic of the way people behave and which is doomed. Some time, if not during the present new century, then pretty soon afterwards, the nation state will disappear from the political landscape. It'll be broken up into smaller fragments because we've been misled by the history of the last couple of hundred years into supposing that political units get progressively bigger.

Actually if you look at history in the very long-term, the normal trend is for political units to get smaller and for ever smaller bucketfuls of territory to isolate themselves to ever smaller human communities.

I expect this fragmentation to resume, the normal course of history to resume and for us to face a future in which the state, if you can call it that, is a matter of ever more fragmented communities.

Q: What's your view of globalisation as a concept?

A: Globalisation's a pretty duff concept and like so many such terms it's susceptible of being abused and of being given a variety of possible conflicting meanings according to the agenda of the person who's using it. I mean for a lot of people it means remaking the world in a Western image, something which I would deplore because it would be gutting the diversity out of creation and the plurality and excitement and the cultural richness out of the world. For other people, it means you're creating a framework of co-existence in a plural world and that would be a good thing if we could achieve it but I'm afraid we probably won't be able to. It's contrary to human nature for us to tolerate our differences and we've seen how dissent from tolerance has caused bloodshed, inter-communal violence, and ethnic hatred, embodied in massacre in recent years.

Q: Is the family dead too?

A: The family is on the way back. It's on the way back in western society and the developed world because in the developed world we can no longer afford the social welfare systems that we've become accustomed to. We can no longer afford the way of life we've become accustomed to and the family, like it or love it, it's a very cheap way of delivering care for the very young, the very old and the sick. It's a cheap way of substituting for the shortcomings of the welfare system so it's going to be something that we're going to rely on increasingly in the future in the West.

Q: What might we have been through to get to 2100?

By the end of this new century we'll have been trampled into the ground by four new horsemen of the apocalypse.

We will probably have been through convulsive wars, terrible plagues, environmental disasters, unforeseen consequences for the environment that genetic manipulation of crops, duff environmental management, recurrences of religious conflict, the re-emergence of totalitarian solutions to the kind of final solutions proposed by noisy little men to the apparently intractable problems of the world. We'll have been through ghastly ethnic traumas with huge migrations of population across the world, sometimes, you know, hostile migrations, people deliberately migrating in order to grab something which historically has belonged to somebody else kind of, you know, colonialism in reverse.

All of those things at the very minimum are quite likely to happen in the course of the coming century, but once the world has been through all of these traumas, I wouldn't be surprised if we enter a period of stasis.

It's an understandable false assumption that because we've lived in interesting times, because we've seen a period of convulsive, rapid, frenetic change, because we've been through a period where the pace of change has always been increasing, well that's going to be a trend that will continue into the future.

Whereas surely it's just as likely that we'll revert to something which is much more normal in history, which is there'll be less change, more stasis, more continuity.

In particular some of the trends that one sees in recent history are quite likely to produce that result. One of the most obvious is demographic change because as we get world populations which are relatively speaking older and older, so we'll have a society made in the image of the old, a conservative society, a society of Derby and Joan rather than Beavis and Butthead.

Another change which is likely to lead to stasis is the whole relationship of man and the environment. If we establish a kind of equipoise between mankind and nature, we could be in for a long period of environmental static code in relation to the environment. We've been through a period where we worried a lot about environmental change.

We've worried a lot about climatic change but again if you look at the whole course of the history of the planet in the very long term, although climate and the environment are subject to periodic fluctuations, the long-term trend is static. Indeed you know for the last 10,000 years the world has been pretty much in the same state environmentally. And finally another example I should mention is technology. You know we've been through a period of convulsive technological innovation but normally in the course of history technology hasn't changed very much and societies have gone for hundreds and thousands of years pretty much with unmodified technology. We may get to the point where we're satiated with technological change and settle down into a sort of inertia.

Q: In 2100 will we still believe in progress?

A: It's surprising that people still believe in progress after the disillusionments of the present century. In a sense, the great unifying theme of the history of the 20th century has been the disillusionment that people have had with progress. It's failed to deliver the increase of human happiness and the improvement of human morals that people were looking to for it, from it at the beginning of the century.

Nevertheless people do go on believing in progress and again I think that's just something to do with human nature, and although I think that they'll go on being disillusioned, they'll never abandon their hope of progress.

A friend of mine said to me the other day that the new century is bound to be better than the last one because we made such a mess of the 20th century that there's now no way out but up. A lot of people think that nowadays, but that's the triumph of hope over experience, and it would be more rational to suppose that because we made a mess of the last century and indeed every other previous century in the whole history of mankind, that we'll go on making a mess. That's really a much more likely scenario for the future.

Q: How much will the world have changed in 2100?

A: People greatly overestimate the extent to which change dominates history. Because we're interested in documenting change, because we always notice when change happens, we think that's all there is to the story, to history. There are also remarkable continuities which are often overlooked. For example, it's amazing how little we've added to the resources of human thought, I mean how few new ideas we've had in the last two or even three thousand years. Most of the materials we think with, most of the assumptions we make about human nature, about the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, were all formulated in the thousand years before the birth of Christ by Plato and Aristotle, by Confucius and Buddha. We've added extraordinary little to the corpus they left us since that time. And so I guess in the next century it's equally unlikely that there are going to be any new ideas. People will still be just recycling old ones.

Q: How little change might have permeated down to the mass of humanity by the end of the 21st century?

A: While I don't believe in globalisation, I think it's quite likely that there'll be some degree of homogenisation of material levels of prosperity and of material culture in the coming century. I guess that in the year 2100 people will look back on our world and say that it's amazing that there was such a variety of societies, such a vast laboratory of mankind frozen at different levels of development. In the next hundred years the most primitive, the most exclusive, the most marginal communities will surely disappear.

On the other hand they will be replaced by new ones and they'll be you know new drop-outs from mainstream society, creating worlds of their own with ideas about what constitutes a proper level of material culture for people to enjoy.

Q: What do you think about the long-term past as a guide to the long-term future?

A: One prediction that you can be absolutely sure of is that most predictions will be false because prediction is a very unreliable science. Traditionally most futurologists who have gone about it in an extremely irrational way, they have based their predictions on relatively short-term statistical series and relatively short-term records of experience. The thing about short-term predictions is that they can only ever be true in the short-term. If you want long-term predictions you have to look deep back into the past of human experience and try and identify the things that have been going on for a very long time and therefore are likely to go on into the future.

I suppose that's one of the reasons why I think people should take more account of what historians say when they're predicting the future.

I think that there are a lot of very long-term trends that are discernible in human history. I mean I am the sort of historian who looks at the past thousand years at a time. If you look over that sort of period or even longer period, you do see things are inescapably going to continue in the future. You see the inescapably static state of human nature, you see the fact that China has always been and therefore will probably continue in the future to be disproportionately important in generating initiatives which shape the rest of the world. You see the relative poverty of new ideas, the way almost all ideas which are represented as new are re-hashes of very old ones.

The environment has been remarkably stable for the last 10,000 years since the last Ice Age and again that's a continuity which is going to take some unforeseen, literally unforeseen catastrophe to interrupt.

Q: What do you most fear in the century that is just starting?

A: My biggest fear is of a recurrence of totalitarianism. I think when people live in a time of bewilderingly rapid change, when they're assailed by future shock, they reach for any possible source of comfort, any solution which purports to be a final solution. These are the circumstances in which noisy little men, the demagogues and potential dictators, really come into their own.

We've got copybook cases for the recurrence of totalitarianism in a lot of the world today and I'm afraid that just as people thought it was safe to go back in the water, fascism is flexing its jaws offshore. We may re-enter a period when fascism and communism are back clawing at one another in the streets like dinosaurs cloned out of Jurassic Park. Or if it's not fascism and communism it'll be some other kind of totalitarianism like for example Christian and Muslim Fundamentalism. That's my big fear.

Q: Looking back on the 21st century in 2100 what do you think people will think will be the most primitive or surprising aspect of life back in the year 2000?

A: When our successors make a programme like this at the beginning of say 2200, they'll look back on us and say, how quaint the world, this people was. It was a human zoo full of little micro-cultures that, some of which had survived in ice worlds and jungles, without any contact with the rest of the world and without changing their way of life for thousands of years. Unfortunately all of those marginal micro-cultures are going to disappear in the near future because they are not going to be able to continue to resist assimilation into an ever-expanding dynamic of mainstream world. We're going to lose that, we're going to lose part of the richness of our own, of our own environment.

People will also be astonished that we had these naive ideas that there's some sort of conflict between science and religion. These two ways of looking at the cosmos historically are really very close to one another. Science has often emerged from out of religious background, religious debate, and it's often been kind of monks and friars, Taoist sages who have been the great scientists of the world. That's normal and people in 2100 will understand that better than we do now.

Q: What are the chances of a major conflict between Christianity and Islam?

A: The record of religions and getting on with one another peacefully is frankly not a very good one and in recent times, these inter-faith groups have embraced one another with extraordinary fervour because they've felt they needed to make cause, common cause against threats from secular society.

As those threats diminish, and we can already see them diminishing because we can already see religions strengthening their positions, their positions in the world, so correspondingly all the old rivalries and the mutual hatreds will come back out into the open and they'll start fighting each other again.

I'm a pessimist and I deplore the future which I can see. It's a future which is saved in blood and over-run with germs and environmental disasters. But when I say that, I retain some kind of kernel of hope deep inside me because the function of the prophet isn't to be right. In fact it's much more satisfying for the prophet if he's wrong, because the function of prophecy is to arm us against disaster. I shall be happy if none of the things that I predict happen because it will mean that people have anticipated the disasters and done something about them before they happen.


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Leviathan