New Zealand Law Society - Origins of our social conflict

Origins of our social conflict

This series of articles will look at the issue of social conflict and the role of lawyers as peacemakers. By necessity, much of the conversation will be generalised and won’t apply to every pocket of society. The intention is to highlight the key areas or issues that, in my view, lead to social conflict so that we can debate them in a more open and less politically charged way.

The arguments-as-war metaphor we see applied to most conflict runs parallel with the long-held theory that war is embedded in our very nature. This is a commonly held belief of socio-biologists, anthropologists and other students of human behaviour based, not only on the propensity of modern man to go to war with his neighbours, but also on theories about the way pre-agricultural ‘hunter-gatherers’ behaved.

That theory is now under threat. A recent study of tribal societies that live by hunting and foraging has found that war is an alien concept, and not, as some academics have suggested, an innate feature of so-called “primitive” people (Douglas Fry & Patrick Soderberg of Abo Akademi University, Finland).

The study discovered that although such hunter-gatherers are far from peaceful, they are also far from warlike. Most who die violent deaths in these societies did so at the hands of other tribesman, not ‘foreigners’.

Ironically, the study found that most of the ‘primitive’ people on earth are actually quite peaceful compared to modern, developed nations. The conclusion is that warfare was probably not common before the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago.

So, warfare, despite its often malignant hold on modern life, has not always been part of the human condition.

Five pre-conditions have been suggested for turning peaceful tribal peoples of the distant past into the war-prone societies of recent centuries (The Birth of War, National History Journal – July/August 2003):

  • A shift from a nomadic existence to a sedentary one, commonly though not necessarily tied to agriculture;
  • A growing regional population and possibly increased competition for resources;
  • The development of social hierarchy;
  • Increasing long-distance trade, particularly in prestigious goods; and
  • A severe climatic change that breaks down the subsistence base.

It seems that when we start gathering in large numbers we cause ourselves trouble. In the few known cases of warless societies of hunter-gatherers, social organisations do not extend beyond family in a loose, flexible network of kin. On the other hand, hunter-gatherer societies that make war have larger and more defined groupings such as clans. It seems that the existence of bounded groups make for a sense of collective injury and desire for unified retaliation. Put another way – the more we identify with a tribe, the more likely we are to take whatever steps are necessary to defend that tribe.

Some concerning themes come out of this research that were factors 10,000 years ago and are in fact amplified by modern living:

  1. A sedentary existence. Most of us are deskbound for our occupation. Our physiology and the way our bodies are optimised for results requires us to be upright, moving and outdoors. And yet very few of us achieve this – in fact the complete opposite. The advent of agriculture and societies forming around farming communities have meant we have largely stopped moving. If we still spent our days foraging for food and shelter, we might not have any energy for conflict.
  2. Population growth and increased competition for resources. Some say that it is not climate control that is our biggest issue but our consumption rates and how quickly we are working through the world’s resources. I believe they are inextricably intertwined. Depending on who you read, many scientists advise that our global population already exceeds the capacity of this planet. Our consumption of resources has grown exponentially since the start of the industrial revolution and the introduction of the industrial economy we have lived in ever since. And modern living is about more: more people, more choice, more advertising, more disposable income and more pressure on production.
  3. Social hierarchy. We have created social haves and have-nots – the mega-rich and the homeless. The gap between the rich and the poor grows larger year-on-year and the recent pandemic has added to that disparity. Those in lower socio-economic areas or tribes are greatly affected by each crisis. Conversely, as Naomi Klein suggested in The Shock Doctrine – the mega-rich actually get wealthier during times of crisis.
  4. Long-range trading, particularly in prestigious goods. We are now a global trading village although restrictions on air and sea transport may temporarily slow that down. Initiatives like the Belt and Road transport and business initiative out of China will foster an increasingly global village for trade but not a harmonious heterogeneous world adept at healing social conflict.
  5. Severe climate change? No further comment needed.

The existence of these issues – that have over the last 10 millennium become somewhat synonymous with conflict and war – should concern us all, particularly as the pressure they bring to bear on our society increases. All have been increasing in intensity since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The modernisation and industrialisation of manufacturing, production and commerce has had an unintended but, in my opinion, intensely negative consequence for the way we live and has driven us towards social unrest. Combine this with our ever-increasing focus on wants and desires and you are left with a very deformed view on what is important in life and how to live. We are increasingly driving ourselves towards social confrontation and conflict.

Marketing is the perfect example of many of these issues at work. Effectively invented in America post-World War I when the American government had warehouses full of surplus stock that had been manufactured but not needed for the war effort in Europe. Solution – invent marketing to get the stock moving. America has used retail spending as a stimulus for its economy ever since.

Jump forward 100 years where algorithms and AI are increasingly measuring our every want and desire when we shop, when we surf the net, and when we talk in close proximity to our smartphones. We are force-fed more and more information on things that these algorithms perceive we are interested in and which further stimulate our wants and desires to the point where we “simply must have” the latest this, or the newest that.

What is the takeaway from all this?

We have created a social structure that increases our propensity for conflict. A structure that makes us potentially more warlike because of issues such as increased competition for resources.

Next time we will look a little more at our attitudes toward competition and our misconceived reliance on the work of Charles Darwin.

Paul Sills is an arbitrator, mediator and barrister specialising in the effective resolution of commercial and civil disputes.

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