Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cities Without Citadels

Vertically! That's the way life distributes us. Civilizations past were pretty much the same. Power, prestige, wealth placed you up the ladder. The poor always occupied the bottom rung of history's record. Inconsequential, peasants, working class.

Centuries past tell us of the ruling class and the innumerable thousands of poor. The few lived at the expense of all the rest. It was as though they somehow deserved the best of everything even if it meant deprivation for others. Inevitable in every culture?

Not true!  It's neither inevitable nor needed; and not every civilization was vertically arranged. There have been interesting times and cultures where the play for dominance wasn't a part. Curious?

Centuries ago along Africa's Niger River, rainfall varied greatly from year to year. One year in six was near the region's average; other years were at the extremes for rainfall on the plains and in the upper regions where the river's source was fed.  So to a greater or lesser extent, the plains flooded a little or a lot and crops did or didn't do well.  There wasn't any way to predict how a year's growing season would turn out, so the residents adapted.  It's instructive for us to see their approach.

The river's inland delta, as it's called, is almost level and the Niger river descends just a few millimeters per kilometer over much of its 4000 km length. When the rains come, the flood moves broadly across the region. The amount of rain determines how far from the river the floods will carry, and it's rarely the same two years in a row.  Folks learned that they couldn't master all the skills and manage all the resources needed for every opportunity.  Fishing was varied from year to year and tremendously labor intensive. Farming was even more so with a requirement to understand which crops would do well in which water depths.  The pastoralists managed their flocks by moving significant distances regularly.  Out beyond the edge of the floodplain that was waist deep for six months of the year, then rapidly inward as the land and vegetation dried up.

Communities specialized and cooperated, and they did so without one specialization or community being at the top. Some years the farmers did better than the fishermen and vice versa. Some years, the herds survived well; others, not so well. They needed each other in order to survive, so they shared more or less graciously. Ancient stories persist of conflicts being resolved generously.

Communities grew into cities around the specializations, and they persisted successfully for more than a thousand years.  It was hard, of course, but they did it without an upper class and without a central government and without Wall Street leeches. Interesting.  More than a thousand years without war or sequestration or ... well, you get the idea.

Our present competition and consumption model is unsustainable, we've discovered, and it brings suffering and death to others.  We're all at risk, but there are many alternatives.
Consider ...  the complex society of the inland Niger River Delta.  Bambara millet farmers, the Fulani and Tuareg herders, and the Bozo and Somono fishermen lived together there for 1600 years – on the basis of peaceful and reciprocal relations.  These were acephalous societies, based on complexification of settlement, rather than centralization.  
See: John READER (1999): Africa, A biography of the Continent. Vintage. London; Chpt. 23 – Cities without citadels.