Importance of Cooperative Irrigation for City and State Formation
"Society started out in dank river valleys, where people figured out how to do agriculture and not die in floods. While humans had already started gathering in small bands, tribes, and villages before this, flooding river valleys required the development of cooperative structures that birthed cities:
- "The construction of [irrigation networks] demanded a degree of social intercourse, cooperation, and long-range planning that the old self-contained village culture, complacently accepting its limitations, did not need or encourage. The very conditions that made large urban settlements a physical possibility also made them a social necessity." (Lewis Mumford, The City in History)
The not-dying-in-floods was nice, but it turned out that people had stumbled onto something that would prove even more valuable to the arc of civilization: cooperative development of public goods.
Individual humans rarely have a clear incentive to work together, leading to the tragedy of the commons. Localized irrigation projects are typically too big for any one person, but manageable by a small group of people working together. Furthermore, they can be collectively managed as a shared resource via systems of rules and norms for use.
In other words, this type of cooperative common-pool irrigation led to bottom-up governance systems). These systems are so effective that they are still in use today and often perform better at managing irrigation than top-down government programs.
These newly developed cooperation capabilities led to a rapidly accelerating feedback loop of more people making more food for more people that made more things. Cities became the ultimate manifestation of “the enormous mobilization of vitality, power, and wealth” that “escapes rural limitations” and allows for “no mere change of size and scale”, but a “change of direction and purpose, manifested in a new type of organization” (Mumford).
The first cities became gravitational forces for people, which resulted in a higher density of ideas that led to rapidly escalating technologies: business, writing, money, laws, culture. These primitives of coordination and communication would become the seeds of future developments of civilization-altering technologies.
Mesopotamia, where much of this action was happening around 10,000 years ago, translates to “land between rivers”. The fractal nature of the merging tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates river basins created the conditions for an interdependent network of emerging cities:
Rivers are naturally occurring fractal networks of tributaries, joining together into larger basins. The fact that rivers flow in one direction, joining into bigger catchment basins, provides increasing leverage and the opportunity for concentrated power.
The proto-democratic irrigation cooperatives became a victim of their own success. Where there was technological leverage, there was a physical manifestation of power. As more people showed up, it became harder to coordinate them. At some point, a very cunning and charismatic leader, wearing the Mesopotamian equivalent of a Patagonia sweater vest asked: “Does it scale?”
No one had a very good answer, so the charismatic leader seized the means of production. He called himself a king, got together with his buddies, and started creating propaganda that claimed it had always been this way. Similar stories played out in five other river valleys, with slight variations on the clothing and titles.
These new centralized governance structures were highly efficient.
But despite the scalability of centralized governance structures, they had a fatal flaw: unchecked growth without local self-limiting feedback loops eventually leads to collapse. The first civilizations “suffered from the vice that now threatens to overwhelm our own civilization in the very midst of technological advancement: purposeless materialism” (Mumford).
Sumerian Kings and Egyptian Pharaohs eventually learned the hard way that while you can technically build big great things via centralized control of power, it eventually hollows out civilization, overstretches physical resources, and collapses in under its own top-heavy weight. And then things get really bad for a while."
"as we’ve seen time-and-again, these federated structures are usually short-lived, weak, and fragile. From the irrigation cooperatives of ancient river valleys to Greek city-states to Medieval market towns to New England settlements, the promise of decentralized self-sovereignty has flourished and ultimately failed.
It’s unclear if this cycle can be broken. But we have an opportunity that comes only once in many generations: to use the latest technologies of coordination to take another crack at the problem. Only by deeply understanding the ways decentralized organizations evolve, federate, and centralize can we attempt to build versions that are more resilient to change.
Even if history is destined to repeat itself, the cycles should not be considered failures. Each ebb and flow of civilization brings new and improved forms of technology, governance, and prosperity that creates the foundation for the next wave. The cycles rhyme, but they also manifest in more complex and powerful iterations than their predecessors.
At the end of a cycle, civilization faces two choices: devolve into chaos, or plow forward with new tools for coordination to rebuild decentralized organizations from the bottom up. With eyes wide open to the historical precedents behind us, we are a generation that has been handed the tools to build the next iteration of local self-governance and the federated structures of decentralized cities that will form the basis of the next era of human prosperity."