Global Powers : Global Values

Anka Wilk

The major lasting impact of human mobility across borders and across cultures is the rise of the western domination and exploitation of cultures; and which now manifests itself globalization. In this essay I seek to explain the cultural values which western domination possible and the impact this culture, once globalized had on ecosystems. The supremacy was the product of cultural forces which were favorable to European domination, and on the part of conquered peoples, their biological susceptibility to European diseases. The cultural tradition of Western Europeans favored travel and exploration, the possession of technologies as well as a judgment system which based the value of a culture on it's technological capabilities. From an evolutionary perspective, Europeans harbored stronger disease strains than the cultures they came in contact with, particularly in the Americas; the resulting spread of illness and death among susceptible peoples Europeans a huge window of opportunity in which to perform their cultural imperative, which was world dominance. The ramifications of travel are a combination of cultural and environmental results. The environmental effects of travel supercede the purely ecological disruptions of forests, rivers and wildlife, and encompass the spread of cultural values and ideas about the environment and their establishment.
Motivations which drove European exploration
One question it is useful to answer in examining the effects of anything is, "Are the motivations behind events as important as the fact that something happens?" In the outcome of European exploration, motivation greatly influenced circumstances. According to Cipolla, the main motivation for travel, are the pursuit of material riches. One possible reasoning for this material greed is that the small countries of western Europe competed among each other because of their small size, and proximity to each other.
European expansion "cannot be described as the result of Malthusian pressures either. Recurrent epidemics were constantly checking population growth and no population pressure of any relevance was felt in Europe until the second half of the eighteenth century. He continues on to say that "European expansion was essentially a commercial venture." Although missionaries were the main deliverers of Western culture, religion and diseases. "But it is doubtful whether the religious element was as relevant among the motives that drove people overseas as it was among the forces that helped them once they were there"(Cipolla 132). 'Religion supplied the pretext and gold the motive"(Cipolla 136).
European missionaries were significant spreaders of cultural influence and the dominant sources of disease transmission. European Christianity was radically different from most others in that it was monotheistic and not land based. The most significant aspect of Christianity is that it is evangelical.
The case of the Americas
It was mentioned in class that travel might arise from the want or need for more resources, in general I agree with this, but someone suggested that Europeans became the most explorers because they had the densest populations. I do not think that early exploration was the product of a resource crunch. I find it difficult to believe that at the height of European exploration, limited resources were the push because the population would not have been dense enough to require this. If anything, the greater population density allowed for specialization and social stratification which made both travel and it's technologies possible.
When one explores further the reasoning that Native Americans did not explore because they had more land and resources, I think it cannot stand under scrutiny. I don't think Europeans had a 'need" to go "explore" for raw materials/ resources. I think it was a cultural reason for exploration.
The institution of European culture as global standard
Wherever the Europeans traveled, they did more than just change the geographic landscape; the cultural traditions of non western societies did not remain untouched. Environmental degradation was both the reason behind colonialism, as well as a result of it. European attitudes towards the environment created the conditions for and drove colonialism. For example, "Venice, one of the great medieval maritime powers, exhausted local timber supplies and came to rely on imports from its colonies along the Dalmatian coast"( Ponting 278)
Something that all cultures have that is particular to itself is it's own values system. For Western Europeans a culture's value was determined by the evolution of its technology (Adas 18). As Western Europeans came to influence increasing parts of the globe, this ideal of technology as the value of a culture slowly replaced other ideas of the worth of a society. The cultural and environmental changes coevolved.
Western European travel not only brought all over the world western people, religion, and technology, but the colonizers' sense of moral superiority which was the basis of the influence of the Western European value system over the foreign cultures it came in contact with.
Technologies and Travel
Over millennia, the "technologies" which made travel possible have evolved. Our methods of travel evolved from relying on our own bodies, to relying on those of other people, to the use of dogs, pack animals, and eventually the use of land and water crafts. These travel technologies have concurrently progressed from shorter to longer distance possibilities, and low environmental impact to increasing environmental impact, and more intricate sources of energy.
Western obsession with technology which gave them the tools of domination. "science and technology were sources of both Western dominance over African and Asian peoples"(Adas 18)"The technological progress accomplished by Atlantic Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries provided the means"(Cipolla 136) for everything from commercial activity to movement and fighting.
"Sailing ships with superior maneuverability and armament permitted the Europeans to explore, trade and conquer all around the world" (Adas 2). Lastly, traveling Europeans when they came in contact with foreign cultures, tended to take an interest in the material and technological achievements of a society. Technology became the dominant factor.
Environmental effects of travel
Travel hastened the spread of cultural practices, diseases and traded goods. It seems that when it came to balancing ecological wellbeing of the local environment with extraction of resources for either trade or travel, Europeans opted for the latter. This sort of environmental practice in the European tradition of resource development became the cultural norm, especially after the rise of colonialism arose to reinforce it. The construction of boats had a huge impact on the environment, and in some cases even led to deforestation.
The Growth of Cities
Another very significant by-product of travel was the growth of cities. Cities formed along trade routes as commercial centers, and then just grew. Cities would develop to create markets on trade routes, but eventually became settled cities. The environmental impacts of early cities were by no means nonexistent.
Cities also were also conducive to the spread of disease. "If the rise of farming was thus a bonanza for microbes, the rise of cities was a greater one, as still more densely packed human populations festered under even worse sanitation conditions." these cities would be on the paths of trade routes. He continues on to write, "Another bonanza was the development of world trade routes"Adas 205). When trade routes became more expansive, they would pass through many different ecologies.
Technologies have their roots in culture, as a result, the effects of technology are not only environmental, but also have cultural aspects. Technologies made exploration possible; increased trade gave way to the rise of cities which facilitated the breeding and the spread of disease. The pattern of trade routes between cities led to crowd diseases and outbreaks. "another bonanza was the development of world trade routes which by Roman times joined the populations of Europe, Aisa, and North Africa into one giant breeding ground for microbes" (Diamond 105)
Trade routes lead to the evolution and outbreaks of disease: Some very famous examples of this are: when Pizarro introduced smallpox to Peru, Cortés in México and Columbus in North America. The main reason why such potent diseases did not develop in the Americas was that germs in Americas less advanced because dense populations developed later, the trade routes did not connect distant cities to each other, therefore preventing diseases from forming, and the domestication of animals took a different path. 205 It seems as if syphilis was the only disease passed from the Americas to Europe.
"When contact is established, diseases spread with a terrible impact on people who had acquired no natural immunity or resistance to infection"( Cipolla 228). The horrifying spread of diseases was the result of largely unaware unintentional human actions; however the ramifications go beyond individual societies. Although none of the readings discuss this at all, I think it is important to think about the long term effects of rampant disease. The most obvious and in this case relevant fact is that it caused depopulation. It was a global form of population control. This slowing down of huge population explosion slowed down the rate of "technological advancement" and also kept the strain on the environment down.
Just as today, in past times social and economic benefits (and sometimes even survival) depend on adapting to the norms of the powers that be. In modern history this has included accepting and adapting to evolving technologies. Today the pressure from western, industrialized countries is exerted upon countries which have less "advanced" technologies, the goal is to exploit the "undeveloped countries" is the "modern global slavery." The policies of the IMF and the WB require that undeveloped countries to "develop" their natural resources in a manner which, in the long run, is unsustainable. Today, the world is following the post agricultural, age old pattern of exploited and exploiter.
In history it is as important to examine the motivations behind events as it is to explore their consequences. As we know, the trajectory of human travel depends on the motivations behind it. The European exploration and it's ensuing hegemony which I discussed, is the most enduring example of this. After the age of exploration, the "industrial revolution" which was pushed by European technological advancements served to reinforce England's spot as number one colonizing global power. Europeans never really gave up this game at playing rulers of the world, and to this day Westerners play god by dominating the global culture and economy.

-anka wilk

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last updated 2/23/03