Hints of the fourth era

Man’s predominance on the face of the earth has expanded and contracted three times. Each time, at maximum expansion, one way of life existed everywhere. When man left Africa 60,000 years ago and paddled his way along every coastline and up every major river, he sought out and discovered almost every savannah-like region that was available for hunting-gathering unless it was protected by impenetrable mountain chains or jungle. There were no pockets of agriculture, never mind permanent habitations, anywhere while the hunting-gathering bonanza was going on.

However, once man had devastated large numbers of prey species everywhere that he was able to with his sprung-javelin and bow-and-arrow (and causing the extinction of many species), man had to invent a new, more productive food technology to replace his relatively inefficient ballistic skills. Almost simultaneously, the selective breeding of grain, root crops and domesticated animals appeared independently in at least half-a-dozen regions around the world. Within a relatively short period, there was not a square yard of soil anywhere in the world, capable of being exploited by manual labour — by terraces up mountain sides or pastoralism on the plains, that was not exploited. There were also villages, towns and cities (particularly sea ports) where hand-made goods could be exchanged, but there were no manufacturing cities as we know them today.

The third wave, industrialization, started in England at around the seventeenth century mainly due to two concurrent developments. One occurred quite widely in northern Europe, the other only in England. One was independence of thought (thus innovation), newly released from the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church, and the other was a well-connected network between the merchant banks of the major ports and those of the provinces, the so-called “country banks”. The latter existed nowhere else in the world due to incessant warlord plunderings on all continents.

The principal phenomenon of the third era — industrialization — is the gargantuan hoovering-up of countryside populations everywhere and the growth of super-metropolises where the bulk of the wealth (apart from food) is now created. The process is something like three-quarters complete in the advanced countries while still accelerating in the remainder. However, well within 50 years, the result is likely to be a world in which the bulk of its population lives and works in, or near to, maybe no more than 100 to 150 super-metropolises. It is these, rather than nation-states as we know them today, that will be fiercely competing against one another. They’ll be mainly competing by a device that is already being used between London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and a few more — corporation tax levels. Those super-metropolises which choose the more profitable industries, or the best mix of them, and give them the most enticing tax levels, will be the ones that will fare best at any one time while others, with less astute city-managements, will sink into various levels of poverty.

The individual in each of the three eras so far has had his own typical way of life and stock of personal goods (portable in the case of the first era). This applies today for most people in the advanced countries. We all have a largely similar way of life and an almost identical stock of personal goods — house, car, television, personal computer, lounge furniture, etc. and there don’t seem to be any more that we have the time, energy or space to enjoy. Also, our family size is now substantially less than replacement. Also, the evidence (so far, anecdotal) from even the poorest who live in shanty housing in the newly-growing super-metropolises is that they would rather have our stock of gewgaws than too many children or too fancy food because the latter are expensive.

As the third era fast congeals into 100-150 super-metropolises with a declining total world population, might we have a hint or two as to how the fourth era will shape up? Increasingly savage corporation tax competition will no doubt produce a few clear winners, but how will they fare if even their own populations continue to sink? How will they stabilize in sufficient numbers to keep their basic city infrastructure going? How will they ensure their own survival with enough of those scientific specialists who are increasingly required in the modern world?

My guess is that the super-metropolises which succeed will be those that give early tax preferences to biological industries, such as neuroscience and evolutionary genetics. From what we know already, both of these are already giving clear pointers as to how to vastly improve educational efficiency (better early childhood experience mainly) and health (particularly the elimination of harmful genetic and epigenetic variations).

As to better health, this will require, more than anything else, the preliminary screening of millions of individual DNA sequences (better still, tens of millions) before clear causations can be arrived at. It is obviously far too premature to even remotely guess which might be the super-metropolis winners in 50 or 100 years’ time. But it might be salutary to us to remark that, while mass-sequencing remains controversial to us in the West, one research institute in Beijing last year took delivery of the largest single order of the latest Illumina DNA-sequencers ever made so far.

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