ALL PEOPLE LIVE in a society, but fewer live in a civilization. The difference between a society and a civilization is the degree of innovation found in each. Since 1950, the West has been a civilization and not just a society. Today, I would roughly equate the West with the 35 countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development, of which Canada has been a member since the OECD was founded in 1961.
I would also argue that the civilization represented by the OECD countries is the most successful known to humankind. Put simply, there has never been a better time to be alive, largely because of the innovations that have been brought forth in the past 70 years. These have been innovations in science and technology, for sure, but there have also been important advances in social, political and cultural institutions and practices. All told, when historians a thousand years from now look back on the hundred years from 1950 to 2050, they will call it the finest Golden Age ever experienced by humankind.
Innovation Civilizations Over the Centuries
There have been other highly innovative eras over the past 5,000 years, so when I make the claim that ours is the finest I fully understand what a tall order that is. Given how revolutionary some of the great innovations of the past were, reasonable people may disagree with my claim.
For example, consider the very first communities, for which grains and livestock were domesticated and urban settlements first appeared. To move from hunter-gatherer societies to urban communities was a massive shift, facilitated by growing cereals and mastering agriculture. This activity began to produce a sufficient surplus of nutrients to sustain civilization-enhancing activities such as administration, irrigation, medicine, finance, trade, architecture, the arts and other cultural activities.
This is essentially the story of Uruk, an ancient city of Sumer, in Mesopotamia, 5,000 years ago. Uruk’s other major innovation was writing. You cannot have civilization without the ability to record facts, figures and thoughts, and writing permits the collection of data, accelerates the diffusion of knowledge, and cements the propagation of wisdom.
Other civilizations have added to the cumulative stock of innovation that we still use and profit from today. The ancient Phoenicians gave us the alphabet that we still use predominantly in the West. More than 1,000 years ago, the Song dynasty of China was the first to use banknotes and a compass (with true north). The mighty Roman Empire laid the foundations for civil engineering, with Roman aquaducts still standing today. Our principles of mathematics have been greatly enriched by concepts first articulated by the Muslim and Aztec mathematicians hundreds of years ago. And even the “dark” Middle Ages contributed vast innovation in the architecture and design of Gothic cathedrals.
Shortcomings of Earlier Innovation Civilizations
While these and other civilizations contributed materially to humankind, they all also left much to be desired. By today’s Western standards they each contained fundamental flaws.
One central defect, from our modern perspective, is that the innovations of the day largely benefited a small portion of a highly stratified society. Up until the mid- to-19th century, some 80% of the population of most nations were either slaves, serfs, indentured servants, or other underclasses. And even in ancient democratic Athens, the franchise was the exclusive preserve of a very small group of landowning men. Even in Western countries, women were not permitted to vote until well into the 20th century.
Moreover, life was precarious for the underclasses in earlier civilizations. Often the agricultural surplus was insufficient to provide a minimum number of required calories each day. Famine was a constant possibility, and hunger and malnutrition was a perpetual state of being for many. The Irish potato famine, which reduced Ireland’s population by 25% by causing the deaths of one million people and driving another million to other countries, occurred less than 200 years ago. And if malnutrition didn’t kill, disease regularly did. In 1348, at the height of the Italian Renaissance (perhaps one of the most flourishing moments of the arts ever), the plague hit Italy (and the rest of Western Europe), and killed between 20% and 60% of local populations, depending on local conditions. As recently as 100 years ago more people died in the Spanish flu pandemic between 1918 and 1920 than were killed in the First World War.
Then there was death by accident. In the days before occupational health laws and fire codes, hundreds of thousands died in industrial and general accidents each year. In the crowded cities, wood was the most common building material, and each major city had at least one “great fire” in its history. These fires were “great” indeed, often destroying 50 to 80% of all buildings, and in an age before property insurance losing a home often meant the homeowner had no way to pay for a re-build.
These earlier civilizations were also rife with war. As soon as one community produced a surplus of food and wealth, a neighbouring community would decide to exploit this by seizing its neighbour’s newfound wealth. Thousands of technical innovations over the centuries were developed to assist the warriors in this theft, and the concept of an “arms race” is not restricted to modern times. The ancient spear was bested by the long bow, and that by the cross bow, and that by the musket, then by the rifle, and by the machine gun, and by the missile.
Today’s Innovation Civilization
So, what makes today`s civilization so much better than the past ones? First, technological and scientific breakthroughs have continued apace, and indeed have accelerated beyond what anyone would have imagined even 100 years ago. Agriculture is a case in point; as recently as the 1970s, eminent thinkers predicted that as the world’s population reached 4 billion to 6 billion people, mass starvation would follow because the capacity of farmers would simply not be able to meet the demand for food. But a number of agricultural breakthroughs have allowed farmers to produce much more food per hectare, and productivity throughout the food production supply chain — including all-important logistics and delivery — have increased food consumption per person dramatically both in the OECD countries and across the globe (the world’s population has since grown to more than 7 billion people).
As for disease eradication, again it is a fantastic story, enabled by countless breakthroughs in infectious disease pharmaceuticals and vaccines, and acute care procedures; most people who had a heart attack before the Second World War died from it, while today (if an ambulance gets to them in time) they will generally live. And chronic care therapies produce a much higher quality of life for stroke victims today than a century ago.
Regrettably, most countries still spend inordinate sums of money on weapons-related innovations and procurement, but the good news is that we have also developed institutional innovations that make the use of these weapons less likely. The two largest nuclear-weapons powers, the United States and Russia, have a “hotline” and talk to each other regularly, all with a view to avoiding the kind of “accidental” war that precipitated the start of the First World War and its attendant loss of life.
More intriguing is the impressive experiment in cross-national community building exemplified by the European Union. The history of Europe prior to 1945 is one of almost constant war and cross-border conflict. Every conceivable reason why people fight vicious armed conflicts with others has reared its ugly head over several thousand years of “civilization” in Europe. There were religious wars, wars caused by dynastic succession crises, wars of empire (where colonial interests clashed), and wars caused by “accident,” to name just a few rationales.
After the Second World War, several statesmen concluded there must be a better way forward, and in 1957 the highly innovative European Union was born with six member states; it now numbers 28 (although the United Kingdom is slated to withdraw soon). Moreover, all the EU countries are also members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), formed in 1949, which defends its member states in holding that an attack on one member is an attack on all. It is therefore highly unlikely that a war between any two or more member states would occur today.
Given that between the time of the Roman Empire and 1945 there were literally hundreds of wars in Europe, the creation and growth of the EU and NATO over the past seven decades has been a magnificent innovation in social engineering and international politics.
Some critics of our innovation civilization argue that the information technology revolution of the last 20 years (now characterized by artificial intelligence and “big data”) has within it the seeds of our demise, particularly because continuing automation will cause massive unemployment and social dislocation. It is to this issue I will turn in the second part of the Innovation Civilization series.
George Takach is a senior partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and the author of Computer Law.