The Pacific Rim: The Fourth Cultural Ecology

The Pacific Rim The Fourth Cultural Ecology

After 1970 a popular prediction among economists and futurologists was that if the nineteenth century belonged to the British and the twentieth, to the Americans, the twenty-first would belong to the Japanese. This is now less evident than it was. While Japan’s economy is still twice that of Germany, the current rate of growth of China and other East Asian countries, as well as the continued technological and productive resilience of California (itself eighth in the world in GDP), suggests that an important center of gravity in the twenty-first century will lie somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Rim, as we now like to call it, is lined not only by China, Japan, Korea, the ASEAN countries, and Siberian Russia on the one side but also by such high-ranking economic powerhouses on the other as the United States and Canada, not to mention Australia, Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, and half a dozen other countries with potential for growth and trade.

If a Pacific culture or civilization were to achieve economic, scientific, or even political preeminence in the next century, it would, in a sense, demonstrate a certain consistency with the direction or flow of those human civilizations of which we have some record—in short, they have succeeded each other in a westerly direction or progression.

Transcending national boundaries and ethnic groupings and taking a sweeping bird’s-eye view of the great historical civilizations up to the end of the twentieth century, we can identify three great, sequential cultural ecologies: the ancient riverine (Yellow, Indus, Tigris, Euphrates, Nile), the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic. All these, like the probable fourth (the Pacific), are water- based and derive their character, drive, and potential from a critical set of circumstances at a given point in the historical spacetime continuum.

Humans’ territorial instinct inclines them to covet land, usually for the purpose of aggrandizement. It should, however, come as no surprise that large bodies of water are the major catalysts in our drive toward progress and acquisition. Water not only makes up most of our bodies, it also dominates all forms of existence on the planet. Of all the worlds we know of, only the earth is wet. Seven-tenths of the globe is covered by oceans and seas. If the earth were smoothed out, we would all lie under two-and-a-half kilometers of water.

The earth’s layer of water is four billion years old. By means of its endless cycling, the water of the seas and oceans rules climate and life on this planet. Vast areas of surface water evaporate and form clouds, which send us rain and snow. This nourishes and irrigates the land and forms rivers along which we live. The oceans receive two-thirds of the solar heat that reaches the earth; this “heat sink” drives wind and weather systems. Ocean currents transport entire heat systems great distances: the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, for example, carries one hundred times as much water as all the planet’s rivers, and it determines the climate of Europe.

Oceans will determine our fate in ways other than climatological. Vast tracts of ocean depths remain unexplored, and it is estimated that 90 percent of life-supporting space on the planet is ocean-held. Our food supply will depend more and more on our oceans, as land-based agriculture gradually approaches its limit. The world catch of fish already amounts to 18 kilograms per person per year. There is an untold number of species that we have not yet tried to eat.

The Pacific Ocean, which covers almost one-third of the globe and which contains the areas richest in phytoplankton (reservoirs of life and the base of the marine food chain), looms large as the strongest candidate for the world’s fourth cultural ecology. Before delving into the possibilities of this fourth great center of civilization, however, let us first take a look at the foundations, characteristics, and ultimate destiny of the preceding three.

Riverine Cultural Ecology

Our knowledge of the cultures of the early Chinese Yellow River and Indian Indus valley civilizations is scanty in terms of their links with Mediterranean and Atlantic cultures; we do know, however, enough about the later riverine ecologies of the Tigris, Euphrates, and the Nile civilizations to ascertain to what extent the features of these centers heralded the development of those that followed. The Sumerians in 3000 B.C. had invented writing and the wheel. The Babylonian cultures, like the ancient Egyptian, were concerned with architecture and construction on a grand scale—the epoch of the Pyramids and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Powerful kingdoms were created on the basis of slave labor. Gods and ancient religions and magnificent ceremonial occasions occupied the front of the stage and pervaded the minds of men and women. Agriculture had put an end to wide- ranging nomadic activity, with its opportunities for freedoms and territorial advancement. Instead there was a strictly layered, static society, which heralded systems of societal structure that would prevail for four thousand years.

Mediterranean Cultural Ecology

The succeeding Mediterranean cultural ecology, with its roots in Crete, ancient Greece, and Rome, had different fish to fry. Grandiloquent architecture, from new schools of design, remained important and highly visible (particularly Greek), but political systems rapidly acquired sophistication, especially in the Greek city- states and later during the creation of the Roman Empire. Major catalytic features of this ecology were, in addition to politics, the modern religions of Christianity and Judaism, the beginnings of Western art and mathematics, the refinement of food and wine, and the exploitation of the Mediterranean Sea for ever busier trade routes. Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Arabs, and those at the far reaches of the Roman Empire elevated trade to the preeminent form of human activity, although it was often disturbed by wars (over empires, religion, and trade itself). It was an era of limited (inland) discovery, of the beginnings of science, of certain ethnic supremacies, and of consolidation of assets in the known world (of which the Mediterranean Sea was the undisputed center).

The Arabs had a shining role in the later centuries of this cultural ecology. As the first millennium ended, Muslim Cordoba was the most cultured city in Western Europe and actually the largest city in the world outside China. The Arab/Berber army that crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 soon reached France, but if the Arabs’ stay there was brief, it was durable in Spain.

Al-Andalus, as Muslim Iberia was known, inspired the Western world from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries in the fields of science, astronomy, agriculture, textiles, mathematics, medicine, and personal hygiene. The unparalleled magnificence of Arab architecture in Granada survives to this day. Both Granada and Cordoba swarmed with physicians, poets, and scholars of various disciplines. Religious tolerance held sway until 1499, ended not by the Muslims but by Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella. Cordoba fell to the Christians in 1250, but Granada survived, and indeed flourished, until 1492—coincidentally the year that ushered in the next cultural ecology, courageously initiated by a gentleman from Genoa known as Cristbal Coln (Christopher Columbus).

Atlantic Cultural Ecology

The third cultural ecology had an immeasurably vaster stage on which to play out its schemes and fantasies. The foundations of the Atlantic culture, particularly those lands bordering the part of the ocean that lay between Europe and North and Central America, were the activities of humankind striving to structure society— communal endeavors that were to develop not only more sophisticated forms of government but also to take giant strides in science, shipbuilding, astronomy, cartography, and ultimately global exploration. The Atlantic body of water was a challenge in itself. Columbus, Magellan, and others took up that challenge; the cultural ecology soon embraced both sides of the ocean. Vasco da Gama, sailing round Africa and on to India, also created a communications system between Europe and the Far East, the first information highway! This was the era of the Renaissance— the hour of Italy’s glory; of enlightened monarchs such as Louis XIV, Catherine the Great, and Frederick the Great of Prussia; and of intellectuals such as Descartes, Milton, Locke, Jefferson, Franklin, and Darwin. Acquisitions of this period were largely material—land and colonies, wealth, substance, and global exploration and conquest. Marx, late in the era, saw history as historicism—fixed laws of evolution, a process humanity cannot change. But water obeys no man-made boundaries. Wars in this period were often about colonies, trade routes, harbors, and eventually oil. England’s moment of dominance came toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, soon followed by the burgeoning power of the young United States.

Pacific Rim Cultural Ecology

The Pacific Rim cultural ecology will be based not on industrial or political development but on telecommunications, electronics, aerospace engineering, and biotechnology. The silicon chip has rendered most industrial processes obsolete, and its unstoppable advance—along with that of genetic engineering, medicine, and nutrient sciences—will dictate the way we live and work and how we are governed. Large conglomerates, many of them electronics-based, command assets and powers far exceeding those of half the governments in the world. The Information Technology (IT) Revolution and the unbelievable speed at which it operates enable certain groups to bypass national decision makers at a multitude of levels.

We are at what Andy Grove (the former head of Intel) calls a “strategic inflection point” in human history. The course of human destiny has been radically and suddenly changed on numerous occasions. This may be because of an invention (agriculture or Gutenberg’s printing press), an idea (individual liberty in the eighteenth century), a technology (electricity), or a process (the twentieth-century assembly line).

The latest information technology gives us electronic proximity. The powerful neighbors looking at each other across the Pacific—China, Japan, and the United States (notably California) will, like the other bordering nations, draw closer because of this technology. The Pacific Ocean itself, though it is so big that all the land on earth could be dropped into it, will “shrink” in terms of cooperation in information sharing. Not only will information traverse national boundaries but the electronic proximity will increase democratization of the zone, as totalitarian nations (perhaps China or Russia) may want to participate in the major new economic force of the twenty-first century. To do so, they will have to play by the rules of engagement made by the predominantly democratic nations that are starting to establish the Information Marketplace.

The Pacific nations, though differing wildly in culture, will enthusiastically indulge in the most ancient form of exchange, that of information—now on a global scale. These developments will occur worldwide—not only in the Pacific—yet one is tempted to see the Pacific Rim as the launching pad for human endeavors and targets in the twenty-first century: cosmic exploration, ultimate information flow, ultratechnology in medicine and genetics, to mention a few. Of the six biggest countries in the world, five—China, the United States, Japan, Indonesia, and Russia— share this gigantic ocean. Not only do they represent one-third of humanity, but also a united Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines will be the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth most populated countries on earth, while Mexico, Canada, and Australia will play substantial roles in the development of the Rim. Land neighbors usually end up fighting, but nations facing each other over large stretches of water cannot attack each other as effectively; there is instead an obvious invitation to trade, and the trade routes of the ocean are multitudinous.

The Pacific has been described as a future Japanese lake, but this description overestimated Japan’s powers and grossly underestimated the influence of China and the brilliance of researchers and scientists in California and elsewhere. China will ultimately dominate more than half of the Pacific, but not solely based on the overwhelming population of the mainland Chinese. America, Japan, and Korea will be important players, but the major organizers of Pacific affluence and dominance will be the Over- seas Chinese, who already have most of their pieces in place. They now control 75 percent of listed companies in Thailand, 72 percent in Indonesia, 50 percent in the Philippines, about 60 percent in Malaysia, and 81 percent in Singapore.

The Overseas Chinese—not the Americans and the Japanese— are providing the capital for the development of industry within China (80 percent of the investment in the mainland has come from Overseas Chinese sources, mainly Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore). The major result of the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese will not be the “neutering” of Hong Kong but the admittance of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the worldwide Overseas Chinese network operating in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and all ASEAN countries, London, San Francisco, Vancouver, and to a lesser extent in most centers of world commerce as well as inside mainland China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs).

The Overseas Chinese, who are arguably the world’s best businesspeople (certainly the most wired up), will have a heyday in the Pacific, which will be their major sphere of influence in the twenty-first century. The economies of Southeast Asia are in effect “leased” to the Overseas Chinese, who run their businesses and act as agents for a large number of European and U.S. companies who are trying to penetrate the area.

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The progress and achievements of the fourth cultural ecology will be decisive in determining the future course of humanity in terms of saving or ruining the biosphere. The global ramifications of our actions take place at lightning speed, judged against natural change. The technological and demographic decisions made by the burgeoning populations of the Pacific will affect the lives of all peoples. With the world’s numbers increasing by a billion a decade, stresses mount on water supplies and on the land, through erosion and deforestation. It is comforting to note that most of the world’s top reafforesters—China, Russia, the United States, Canada, and Japan—are around the Pacific. The area is also noted for the vigor of its agricultural research and scientific husbandry in revolutionizing meat production. The Pacific Ocean itself may well be our last reserve and resort. Its incomparable vastness must be a source of great comfort to us in the twenty-first century.

Although the economic and possibly political preeminence of the Pacific area may well lead us to define this as the next great civilization, it is unlikely, however, that it will constitute a palpable cultural entity. The cultural diversity possessed by the nations on the Pacific Rim is too great for us to foresee any extensive coalescence. Reactive Asians, multi-active Mexicans and Chileans, and linear-active Canadians, Americans, and Australians will pursue their separate cultural agendas. What may well emerge, however, is a Pacific Ocean mentality which, reveling in the new world of ultratechnology, will supersede the aging Atlantic spirit. None of the three previous cultural ecologies was based on a simple culture. If anything, they were more diverse than the Pacific. What they had in common was a spirit of the age. In each case that spirit became the driving force for human progress and development. The Pacific “age,” in a time of unbelievable scientific advancement, is likely to be the most spectacular of all.

Cultural Imperative
Cultural Imperative: Global Trends in the 21st Century
ISBN: 1877864986
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 108
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