Starting over: rebuilding civilisation from scratch

IN JUST a few thousand years, we humans have created a remarkable civilisation: cities, transport networks, governments, vast economies full of specialised labour and a host of cultural trappings. It all just about works, but it’s hardly a model of rational design – instead, people in each generation have done the best they could with what they inherited from their predecessors. As a result, we’ve ended up trapped in what, in retrospect, look like mistakes. What sensible engineer, for example, would build a sprawling, low-density megalopolis like Los Angeles on purpose?

Suppose we could try again. Imagine that Civilisation 1.0 evaporated tomorrow, leaving us with unlimited manpower, a willing populace and – most important – all the knowledge we’ve accumulated about what works, what doesn’t, and how we might avoid the errors we got locked into last time. If you had the chance to build Civilisation 2.0 from scratch, what would you do differently?

Redesigning civilisation is a tall order, and a complete blueprint would require many volumes, not just a few magazine pages – even if everybody agreed on everything. But, undaunted, New Scientist set out to discover what might be on the table, by seeking provocative ideas that challenge what we take for granted. The result is a recipe for overhauling how we live, get around, and organise our societies – as well as reconsidering our approach to concepts such as religion, democracy and even time. Dreaming of a new civilisation is more than a thought experiment: the answers highlight what is most in need of a rethink, and hint at bold repairs that might be possible today.

Take cities, for starters. Historically, they have generally arisen near resources that were important at the time – say harbours, farmland or minerals – and then grown higgledy-piggledy. Thus San Francisco developed on a superb harbour and got a boost from a mid-19th century

gold rush, while Paris grew from an easily defended island on a major river. How would we design cities without the constraints of historical development?

In many ways, the bigger cities are, the better. City dwellers have, on average, a smaller environmental footprint than those who live in smaller towns or rural areas (New Scientist, 18 November 2010, p 32). Indeed, when Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico and his colleagues compared cities of different sizes, they found that doubling the size of a city leads to a 15 per cent decrease in the energy use per capita, the amount of roadway per capita, and other measures of resource use. For each doubling in size, city dwellers also benefit from a rise of around 15 per cent in income, wealth, the number of colleges, and other measures of socioeconomic well-being. Put simply, bigger cities do more with less.

Of course, there are limits to a city’s size. For one thing, West notes, his study leaves out a crucial part of the equation: happiness. As cities grow, the increasing buzz that leads to greater productivity also quickens the pace of life. Crime, disease, even the average walking speed, also increase by 15 per cent per doubling of city size. “That’s not good, I suspect, for the individual,” he says. “Keeping up on that treadmill, going faster and faster, may not reflect a better quality of life.”

But there’s an even more fundamental limit to how big a city can get: no matter how efficiently its inhabitants use resources, a city must have a way to get enough food, materials and fresh water to support its population.

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Starting over: rebuilding civilisation from scratch