Opposing Influences — Part 1: The Wild on the Shape of Society

Whenever I create a new milieu, I like to take the time to develop the regional geography and ecologies before populating the human cultural and political landscape. Historically, societies are a product of their environment. For example, native peoples to desert-like regions typically have been nomadic or semi-nomadic with small societal groupings. This was all the land could support. However, the “breadbasket” regions of the world spawned larger and more complex populations. Ultimately, the shape of a society is defined by how easy it is for them to provide food, water, and shelter to their population, and their ability to overcome deficiencies in their environment.

Until the basic biological needs of a society are consistently met, individuals will devote a significant portion of their daily efforts to survival-related tasks. Higher pursuits don’t matter when you are worried about dying next winter due to lack of food or exposure. However, once a stable system is in place to provide for a larger population, individuals can specialize and devote their time to higher matters such as governance, craftsmanship or art. Furthermore, by this point in a culture’s development, there is usually a demand for such specialization to meet the society’s needs.

In addition, a region’s ecology and geography defines where humans will most likely choose to settle. Like any other species seeking an ecological niche, humanity prefers places in which they can easily thrive. Societies only expand into more hostile regions when their current territory can no longer support their numbers, or the new region has some material or geographic advantage that will allow them to offset the challenges they face. Though a thematically appropriate and dramatic set piece, Arrakis would have never been settled without the spice melange. Only such a valuable resource could offset the cost of importing the materials and technology needed to make the planet habitable.

As a species, we have convinced ourselves that we are the masters of our environment. Though true in some ways, the sentiment is largely self-delusion. Even today, a single natural disaster can reshape an entire region, bring a society to its knees, and have wide reaching and long lasting effects. Hurricane Katrina (2005) shut down a large swath of the southern United States, resulting in significant loss of life, massive property damage, disruptions to travel, and local shortages of food, power, medical supplies and key raw materials. Though it only lasted a few days and was limited to a relatively small geographic region, Hurricane Katrina’s influence could be felt on the international markets.

Despite our technological progress and efforts to “tame the wild,” the natural world still has a significant impact in the shape of our societies. People will flock to regions that can support larger populations in relative comfort and avoid others unless there is good reason to settle there. Ultimately, the shape of any society will be determined by the challenges their environment places upon them and their ability to survive regardless.


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