Power comes from being able to extract energy from the environment, organize it, and apply it. This simple fact is the key to understanding the 21st century. Its significance, though, only becomes clear when we take a longer historical view.
For 90% of the time since modern humans evolved, we were foragers, extracting just a small amount of energy by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. We lived in tiny groups, with little organization and even less power.
That began changing soon after 10,000 BC, at the end of the last ice age. People in what we now call the Middle East invented farming, which allowed them to extract more energy—sometimes hundreds of times more—from the land. Population soared, and over the next 10,000-12,000 years people discovered every possible way to organize and apply the energy released by agriculture. They invented government, cities, states, and empires; they learned to work metals, sail ships, write books, and buy and sell with money.
An energy bonanza
Power became concentrated in the places where farming worked best, above all a band of societies between China and the Mediterranean and another between Peru and Mexico. Farmers dispossessed foragers and then fought each other.
2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire had reached the limits of the power available to farming societies. Rome ruled 70 million people spread across 5 million square kilometers, produced magnificent literature and art, and sent great trade expeditions to India. Other agrarian empires, such as the Song dynasty in China 1,000 years later, would match its accomplishments, but none ever surpassed it.
That feat had to wait until just 200 years ago, when Western Europeans learned to extract the energy trapped in fossil fuels. An energy bonanza ensued. Once again population soared and people found new ways to organize and apply energy. They created nation states, free markets, and democracy; they discovered electricity; they built trains, planes, and computers.
Like the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution produced new centers of power, this time concentrated around the North Atlantic Ocean. These industrial societies spent the 19th century defeating and taking dominion over preindustrial peoples, and then spent the 20th century fighting each other. But despite all the violence, the world prospered; between 1700 and 2000, GDP per person rose roughly tenfold.
Only two centuries have passed since the industrial revolution, and we are still working out its consequences. Three major trends, though, are very clear.
One is geographical. After the initial shift in power toward the North Atlantic, East and South Asia are now having their own industrial revolutions, drawing power toward the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
The second trend is a shift toward organizations with global reach. So far, globalization has gone furthest in economics, but the European Union—despite its recent difficulties—perhaps shows how economic integration might foster political integration.
The third trend is toward individual empowerment. Organizations that discriminate by sex, race, religion, or almost any other characteristic succeed less than those that do not.
Over the medium term—the next century or two—we should probably expect these trends to continue and even accelerate, but nothing is guaranteed. The long-term trend toward more powerful societies, gathering, arranging, and using energy ever more effectively, has regularly been thrown into reverse. In fact, the trend often turns out to be self-defeating. Plenty of farming societies extracted so much energy from the land that they depleted the soils they depended on; and in our own age, we have burned so much fossil fuel that we have changed the climate that we depend on. Sometimes—as when the cities of the Indus Valley in South Asia collapsed around 1900 BC, or when the Roman Empire broke down after AD 400—it could take a thousand years for societies to regain their pre-collapse levels.
Potential to destroy civilizations
Throughout history, every major change in how people acquire, organize, and apply energy has been accompanied by massive violence, but collapses have tended to be the most violent periods of all. What makes the prospect of a 21st-century collapse so terrifying is that since we learned to apply energy in the form of nuclear weapons, we have had the potential to destroy civilization altogether.
The good news is that for every twenty nuclear warheads in the world in the 1980s, there is now only one. An all-out nuclear war could no longer destroy civilization in a day. The bad news, though, is that the great powers are now so good at extracting, organizing, and deploying energy that they could quickly build even bigger arsenals if they wanted to.
We can expect to see more, and more disruptive, changes in the 21st century than ever before, but what these changes will mean is the biggest question of all. It no longer seems utopian to suggest that a century from now we will have limitless, non-polluting energy sources, or that computerization will have reached the point that we merge with our machines, transcending biology. Possibly developments like these will just accelerate the trends of the industrial era, shifting power toward Asia and rewarding global organization and individual freedom; but equally possibly, we may be about to enter a whole new era in the history of power.