Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Pyramid Paradigm

Long, long ago, all of the very first nations on the face of the Earth made really big things. They made the very biggest things they could figure out how to. For a long time they raised huge stones over tombs or temples. Then they took to building a wide variety of pyramids. The one we simply know as the Great Pyramid remains the heaviest structure ever built, handily beating the Romanian Palace of the Parliament, which is the heaviest modern building and an interesting point of comparison.

The Romanian Parliament, known in Romania as Casa Poporului (the People's House) was built by the nation's soldiers, in a land at the time ruled by a brutal dictator. It took between 20,000 and 100,000 of them working under forced labor sometimes around the clock for 5 years, and the rest of Romania was deprived of basic needs in order to fund this. It is said that hundreds of workers, maybe as many as 3000, died during construction. The project stopped when the dictator and his wife were overthrown and executed in 1989. I remember the film shown on the news in Canada of the Ceausescus' dead bodies, a clip taken by the Romanian revolutionaries who wished to prove to their countrymen that they were really dead. Despite their hatred of everything the building represents, Romanians eventually decided that it only made sense to use Casa Poporului as the seat of government, the purpose for which it was built. So much was sacrificed to build it, and it is, in the end, well adapted to the task if one looks past its authoritarian feel.

The great Egyptian pyramids were not built under duress. Though this was believed for a long time, in reality unskilled workers labored as their customary duty to the king. They came to Giza for a season to satisfy this custom and received pay in loaves and beer. They may have been mostly volunteers. The many skilled workers who labored year-round lived well and had high social status. Egypt's pyramids genuinely were what Casa Poporului aped so tragically - national projects that forged a national identity. To this day most people recognize pictures of the Great pyramid and many travel from across the globe to see it. It isn't hard to imagine how proud the ancient Egyptians were of it, and how gladly they identified themselves with the culture responsible for it, and thus shed most of their loyalty to their tribes. And that was essential for the nation of Egypt to work. It minimized rivalry between the many small bands that existed along the Nile before they were unified, until people stopped saying they belonged to a certain tribe, and instead started saying they came from a certain village, in Egypt. Having a custom under which people from all the tribes came together to labor together on monumental religious projects was, therefore, the way the bonds were forged that made Egypt.

When one looks at all the many other giant constructions before the great pyramids of Egypt, and for some time after them, all over the world wherever nations were first forming, they were all religious. Many of them were tombs, but since ancient peoples universally believed in ghosts, essentially they were religious. That allowed tribal rivalries and conflicts to be set aside during labor to create them. Humans naturally regard spiritual matters as more important than that - even if in many cases it is only out of hope to be granted holy favor, or to avoid supernatural curses. At any rate if an attempt had been made to unify the same groups by getting them to build something together that served a political purpose, that would have provoked instant rebellion. The matter was neatly side-stepped by building temples and tombs for great spirits instead. And that led to a rather magical change in attitude - service to the holy would not be worthy unless it was fitting of the great power of the world's unseen forces. It was therefore critical that the monuments be things of wonder. They strived to their utmost to achieve this. This instinct was, in the end, exquisitely astute. For one, that meant it was necessary to figure out how to make detailed plans, communicate them, and then coordinate hundreds, and later thousands, of people in a very precise and highly orderly fashion. That ability was later used to build other highly complex things that were more immediately useful. What is more, their monumental efforts created the monuments that forged the identities of all the world's very first nations, which reduced the number of borders being fought over by a couple of orders of magnitude. This is known as the Neolithic Revolution.

The resources used to build those megaliths and pyramids were a much larger portion of those original nations' economies than any project in the modern world, with a very few exceptions. All of the exceptions have tones similar to that of Casa Poporului. For instance, the Palace of Versailles was possible at the peak of French power, helped by the income of its colonies, but also played an important part in the bankruptcy of the monarchy and the Revolution that followed. People have come to be very suspicious of grandiose projects. For instance, we invented the word 'grandiose'. We recognize them as a play for power on the part of an elite. They have lost all echoes of spirituality, now that there is nothing wondrous about building huge ornate things. Spiritual buildings are still often made on a larger-than-life scale, but that only goes so far. Any farther, and it becomes evident they are not there to render service to a community, but instead are there to demand service from a community. That just doesn't work any more.

Yet we are in a time of turbulent change. Once again the social systems that served us in the past seem worn out. Millennia ago when we'd covered the globe and become too sophisticated to continue fighting as one tribe against another, we created something new that gave us a new way to relate to each other. Our spirits rose to the occasion and thus we averted a future where burgeoning populations and advancing technologies caused us to soak the world in blood, as we fought tribe on tribe for ever scarcer resources. Instead we created nations, which enabled us to increase our resources so there was enough for all. Peace over large areas allowed the planting of crops over large areas, the storage of surplus in central grain silos, the processing into flour at central mills, the development of extensive irrigation systems. Soon we were off and running, specializing our labor ever more, trading over ever greater distances, figuring out how to keep track of all this commerce with symbolic marks. Sure, we also got organized slavery, standing armies, social classes, but it was still a lot better than what would have happened otherwise. The change we are in the midst of is no less significant. Once again we are in peril if we don't reorganize on a fundamental level.

There are striking parallels here to the Neolithic Revolution. Once again we are at risk principally because of how much more powerful we have become.

Once again war has ceased to be a sensible way to settle disputes, because there can be no real winners. Before the Neolithic Revolution thousands of ongoing disputes between tribes all over the planet were constantly draining us and solving nothing. Now the risk is that just one war can scar the whole planet if nuclear weapons become involved. Or smaller wars can be so destructive they destabilize whole regions for decades and cause ripple effects very far away. It has gotten to the point where there are wars conducted not by nations, but by multi-national groups scattered across a dozen countries.

Once again it has come to this because of our increasing wealth and technological sophistication. We have never been so wealthy, but our numbers and our wealth have strained ecosystems all over the planet and changed the climate. Our technology is changing balances of power in every organizational category we have - institutions, industries, cultures, economies, the whole world. Traditional forms are being undermined, new ones are emerging chaotically, and the void is sometimes being replaced by something dangerous.

Once again, the principal thing that prevents us from solving these problems is that we are splintered into groups that are too small. It took a series of wars of conquest to initiate the Neolithic Revolution. Well, on the time scales we are working with here we have already gone through two wars of unprecedented scope and cost in the recent past, the World Wars. The second one, especially, provoked an attempt to organize ourselves on an international level to avoid such conflicts in future and start solving the problems that affect the whole world. This was very valuable, but clearly has not gone nearly far enough. And it isn't a matter of putting more resources into the UN, or changing laws. We need something new.

Once again, we will not find that new thing until we forge the bonds necessary for it to emerge, by working together on something so grand it brings out the best in us and instills a sense of wonder. Once again, we must transfer our loyalty to something larger and we will not unless it meets that standard, and that is fitting. Once again, it has to be something we can see, something we can contemplate, a symbol around which everything else coalesces. We are still the people we were back then, when we demoted our loyalty to our tribe in favor of something larger. This is how we work.

There is only one possibility. It stares us in the face and we fear to make the commitment because it will be so hard, demand a level of commitment and coordination we have never managed before. Our ancestors surely felt the same way, but eventually it was clear there was no choice. They put their shoulders into it, and grew.

We have to settle the Moon. Mars is too far away to have the effect back home that is needed. A space station can't be built on the scale required without going to the Moon first. We have to go, and we have to go big. Only a project that is on the scale only possible if a large group of nations does it together will serve the purpose. It will only instill wonder at that scale. It will only forge bonds on that scale.

I am not even slightly joking about this. I believe this is of critical importance, and that we may not have much time before other events lead us into another conflict of extraordinary cost. We have managed to reorganize in some ways that will help, but it isn't enough. I believe the wonder people feel about space missions, and the inordinate eagerness of a small number of us to create these great works, is a sign of this instinct coming into play. In that case the instinct is only going to grow until it reaches the right critical mass. Will that happen before it is too late? The world has been surprisingly peaceful and ever wealthier for a long time now, it is easy to think there is no hurry here. On the other hand, nukes are being acquired by ever more unstable people, we have no idea what the near future of our climate is, and we have been performing a series of giant macro-economic experiments that show many signs of possible failure.

We need to make a broad call that touches the imagination of ordinary people and convinces them a big international Moon project would be exciting and transformational. If something awful happens and that idea hasn't already gotten purchase and begun to roll, that same instinct to take group action will move people to choose the dark twin of great construction projects: War.

Please help Moonwards create an exciting and realistic vision for a Moon colony. We need a strong team. There is much to do.

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