Why global civilization?
June 18, 2002
When someone asked Mahatma Gandhi what do you think of Western Civilization, he promptly
replied, "It is a good idea!"
Having traveled on the ancient Silk and Spice Roads and beyond, I am dubious of distinctions
between Eastern and Western cvilizations. It is much more realistic to think of
civilization in the singular rather than plural. There are many cultures but only
one global civilization.
Globalization is not a new phenomenon. Cultural exchange has been going on for centuries.
We can find few cultures in the world that have not borrowed from others. The first
globalization took place along the ancient spice and silk roads. The second globalization
occurred when Columbus "discovered" the New World. The European colonization
of Africa, Asia, and Americas forcibly brought East and West into intimate contact.
The third globalization is now in progress through global communication and markets.
Discerning students of history cannot fail but note an overwhelming fact. We may
loosely speak of Western, Chinese, or Islamic civilizations, but in reality there
is only one civilization to which we all belong.
In every major city, we can now witness its mixed blessings, including Coca Cola,
Pizza parlors, Sushi bars, Sony, IBM, CNN, and BBC. All these products are clearly
gifts of the industrial world to the rest. But who invented fire? Probably the Africans.
The wheel? Probably the Central Asian nomads. Decimal numbers? The Indians and
Arabs. Writing? The Egyptians, Sumerians, and Greeks. Postal system? The Persians.
Gunpowder, paper money, silk, and compass? The Chinese. Printing? The Chinese,
Koreans, and Germans. I can go on and on.
Like a torch in a relay marathon, civilization has been passed on from hand to hand.
Paleontologists tell us that the African nomads led the way. The latest ancestor
of homo sapiens has been found in Chad in a skeleton dating back 7 million years
The agriculturalists of major river basins then followed. The traders of the Silk
and Spice Roads then accumulated huge fortunes in such commercial cities as Xian,
Samarkand, Bokhara, Isfahan, Baghdad, Aleppo, Athens, Venice, and Rome.
With the introduction of manufacturing and rise of industrial societies, it was then
the turn of Western Europe. The industrial civilization was subsequently exported
to the New World. Ever since the rise of informatics, the United States has been
on the forefront.
Human civilization has thus developed from its nomadic phase (99% of human history)
to the agrarian, commercial, industrial, and informatic stages. Two facts of history
stand out in this process: Domination and Resistance. Those peoples who have technologically
and economically led the way have also militarily dominated the rest of the world.
In empire after empire, those who have fallen behind have resisted the dominant.
It is foolishly human for those who are temporarily ahead to claim some kind of
moral superiority. But technological, economic, and military advance do not automatically
confer moral superiority.
The litmus test in moral achievement is to reach the golden rule:
"In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you." This
is a paramount Christian ethical imperative that has perennially resonated in the
Judaic, Greek, Confucian, and Islamic philosophies. On that test, most of
our civilization is failing today.
Civilization is a journey, not a destination. Like democracy, it is an unfinished
project. We are deluding ourselves if we claim to have arrived at a civilized or
democratic state. Civilization and democracy are ideals worth striving for. A democratic
government of the people, by the people, and for the people has not yet been achieved
anywhere in the world.
As the current global terrorism and counter-terrorism demonstrate, a civilized society
is devoutly to be wished. The price of a democratic civilization is eternal vigilance.
We may perish in the big bang of a nuclear holocaust or the whimper of ecological
disasters if we fail to build a truly global civilization.
Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the University
of Hawaii and director of the Toda Institute
for Global Peace and Policy Research.