Work in Progress: The Basic Unit of Civilization

Gerard K. O’Neill’s adaptation of J. D. Bernal’s conception of an artificial orbiting habitat.

In last week’s Work in Progress: Observational and Theoretical Terms, I wrote the following:

“…the civilization of early medieval Europe was a very different kind of civilization from the epochs of Western civilization that preceded and that followed it, so that the substitution of manorial estates and monasteries for cities was not without consequence, and the basic unit of civilization being different meant that the civilization itself was different, though still within the boundaries of the concept of civilization.”

This came up in a discussion of the city as the basic unit of the study of civilization. If we substitute the manorial estate and the monastery for the city, we get a somewhat different civilization than a civilization in which the basic unit is the city, but it is still recognizable as a civilization. However, we certainly could insist upon a narrower conception of civilization that disallowed early medieval Europe as a civilization proper, only recovering the status of a civilization with the recovery of towns in the tenth century that was the particular concern of the work of Henri Pirenne.

Another view of a Bernal sphere artificial habitat in space.

A couple of years ago in newsletter 96 (04 September 2020), in a big picture discussion of urbanization in human history, I suggested that artificial habitats in space could substitute for cities, much as manorial estates and monasteries substituted for cities in the early middle ages:

“If someone lives on an artificial settlement in space with 10,000 others, or even with 100,000 others, is this a city? What if one built such an artificial structure, and made it a ‘wilderness,’ and placed all human housing and industry below decks, as it were? Would this be a city? I like this example because it brings us to the point at which we can radically question our definitions and typologies of cities by presenting us with something unprecedented in previous human history.”

An artificial habitat in space would be radically different from a terrestrial city, but it would continue many of the same functions of the city, much as estates and monasteries continued many of the functions of Roman cities after these cities failed to remain viable under changed conditions. In some respects an artificial habitat in space would or could exceed the functions of cities. In theory, such a habitat could be entirely self-sufficient in terms of food and energy, assuming a set up like O’Neill colonies, and the information resources would be as complete as possible, assuming an Earth orbit internet that updates a copy of everything on all orbiting platforms that have the space and energy for this. By this latter qualification I mean that I expect there would continue to be small satellites that have no need for a complete internet backup, but that large artificial settlements would want to have a complete copy of the internet. Monasteries, too, were repositories of knowledge, but that knowledge was fragmentary, and mastery of it was rare.

Gerard K. O’Neill also designed a cylindrical artificial habitat.

The fact of self-sufficiency would make an artificial habitat something like the monasteries and manorial estates of the early middle ages, whereas earlier and later forms of civilization were predicated upon commerce and trade networks. The economies of cities on Earth are dependent upon food from the countryside, upon raw materials from mines and quarries and forests and wells, upon trade in specialized goods and luxuries only produced in other cities, and so on. While an artificial habitat would not be perfectly self-sufficient, it would be much more so than a typical city on Earth, and this higher degree of self-sufficiency would probably translate into different attitudes on the part of the residents, or citizens, or crews, or however they will understand themselves.

Artificial habitats as cities in space — like cities, but not exactly the same as terrestrial cities — is a favorite theme of mine, and I should spend more time on it and write something more substantial on this, both for the intrinsic interest of the idea and its potential to elucidate the institutional structure of cities, by way of a counterfactual counterexample. And this suggests the open-ended question of what other institutions — institutions other than cities, monasteries, manorial estates, and artificial habitats in space — could be substituted as the basic unit of civilization. How much can the basic unit of civilization change without changing civilization, without a post-civilizational institution emerging from the womb of civilization? To what extent can the basic unit of civilization be iterated before that iteration produces something other than civilization? (This is civilization re-cast as a sorites paradox.)

Another space settlement habitat design is the Stanford torus.

Presumably the ongoing activities of human beings, or even of other species or artificial agents, could continue to innovate new basic units of civilization based on extrapolating known institutions in unknown environments, which forces a process of adaptation of the known institutions to the novel conditions. Moreover, in some composite civilization in the future, these distinct basic units of civilization might come together in novel ways, such that a civilization composed of cities based on planets together with city-like artificial habitats might be a different kind of civilization than one composed exclusively of cities on planetary surfaces, or exclusively of city-like artificial habitats.

In several contexts I have discussed the possibility of post-civilizational institutions, and if we adopt a narrow conception of civilization as supervening upon cities, and any other social institution that supervenes upon a basic unit other than the city is not a civilization, sensu stricto, that leaves us with a lot of institutions that are like civilization but which are not exactly civilization. A taxonomy of civilization could be sufficiently varied in order to include all these alternatives, or it could be more restrictive, but also supplemented by a taxonomy of non-civilizations. Either approach would be fine, it is simply a matter of establishing the appropriate conventions.

Human settlements on moons and other planets would be different, again, both from terrestrial cities and from artificial habitats in space.

The problem of a “basic unit” of a science can be found in other sciences, though I am not aware of any sustained investigation in the philosophy of science into this problem. The idea of a “basic unit” of a science isn’t formalized and codified to the extent that, for example, the scientific method is codified, even though basic units are widely recognized (Toynbee maintained the civilizations were the basic unit of historical study). It is a situation somewhat like the problem of scientific abstraction, which is pervasive but under-theorized.

One could argue that, after the “end of cosmology,” i.e., when all other local galaxy groups and clusters have passed beyond the cosmological horizon, and all the galaxies of one’s own gravitationally bound local group are agglomerated into a single mass of stars, that the galaxy will cease to be the basic unit of cosmology. Krauss and Sherrer chose to call this the “end of cosmology,” which has a nicely dramatic ring to it, but which also implies a narrowly defined cosmology in terms of galaxies; in a narrowly defined cosmology, there is no cosmology before the existence of galaxies and no cosmology after the end of galaxies (as we know them). In a more broadly defined cosmology, the cosmos takes different forms before and after the epoch of galaxies, but it does not cease to be the cosmos without galaxies as the basic unit.

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