Disappearing Worlds and the Prime Directive

The progress of any civilization brings certain drawbacks. With the advancements of modern society, there also comes the destruction of prior cultures. Societies that are primitive in some technological aspects are being eradicated by our advancing world. A typical case of this takeover involves much destruction. There are two points at the heart of these happenings: the reasons for intervention and the reasons for development.

The beginning of modern civilization brought many new ways of living to the world. Tribal societies existed for a very long time before any of this, but with these new advancements came the need not only to survive, but to for power and dominion over others. With their basic needs met, humans strove to create a better way of life by thinking of and creating more advanced tools and social structures. This is what brought the caveman of ages past to become the businessman of today.

From a world view, certain societies advanced in different ways than others. However, it has always been the most destructive society that has had the power to take over others, thus the wars of conquest which parallel the rise of civilization. As the world settled into the framework of countries, nations, and societies, a rigid structure formed, dividing technologically advanced cultures from others: highly economically developed countries are first-world countries, second-world countries are lower in world power, and third-world countries are poor, under developed, usually colonized, that is, invaded, nations. The so-called fourth world, the tribal societies that used to occupy the entire planet, are now literally an endangered culture.

Since the time of Columbus, exploration has come from the need of some societies for room for progress for their own advancement. The intervention and exploitation of native territories has an almost mindless inconsideration for other cultures. The advancing and invading culture's morals, religion, and social structure are assumed to be the universally correct way to live, so these are enforced upon the natives.

This is what usually happens in a typical case of this takeover: Country A has reached the limits of the use of its territory, and is evenly militarily matched with surrounding countries. It decides, then, to send explorers to a distant place where virtually no national structure is present. Explorers first chart the area, and are soon followed by mineral prospectors, who force the natives into slave labor with nearly genocidal violence, and then by missionaries, who convince some tribesmen that their religion, a cornerstone to their society, is not the correct ideology, thus starting the pattern of ethnocide. By the time the tribe realizes that it is being invaded, it is too late to resist the overwhelming cultural takeover. Before long Country A has annexed the tribal nation as part of its own territory. Settlers establish the new land as a third-world country, and the natives are either forced into the new culture as second-class citizens, killed off, or left to live as renegades without the land they once lived on.

The violence that usually accompanies settlement stands out as a blatant disregard for the native's human rights. However, the lasting damage that is done is due to the cultural changes caused by the invading societies. Because progress is viewed as a good thing, the settlers enforce upon the natives all the modern conveniences of living, which usually do not fit into tribal life as well as expected. Because they are not allowed to develop naturally as the other societies did, but are forced into accepting technology, tribal cultures are not able to deal with such abrupt change. As a consequence, their way of life, which cannot be proven to be any worse than the settlers', is ruined, and they never usually adapt to the ways of modern societies.

A galactic example of the need for cultural independence to develop naturally, free from intervention, is the Prime Directive, the cardinal rule of the space explorers in Star Trek. When the Federation makes contact with a developing society, they do nothing to interfere with the natural progress of that culture. Without this disturbance, it is claimed that the human race itself would not have survived, something that is readily apparent considering the dying out of fourth-world cultures. Another point to consider is the diversity of societies that is being eliminated by the domination of technologically advanced first-world countries. A uniform world without this diversity would not be very exciting to live in.

The opposite philosophy of the Prime Directive would be to force all other cultures into modern life, or at least to give a choice to other cultures concerning giving aid for their development. Certainly some aid, such as medical assistance, would be helpful in some areas. However, the introduction of new diseases, as well as the numerous other disastrous consequences of interference sometimes outweigh these benefits of intervention.

In addition of the genocide and ethnocide of a fourth-world takeover, another great disaster that occurs in such a case is the exploitation of the land itself. The natural resources of the area, which can be renewed at the rate of tribal use, are ravaged and overused by the settling nations. The land is no longer used for survival, but for economic reasons. Also, many species have been made extinct by the human advancements of civilization. A pattern of this natural destruction throughout the world has raised the question of whether the ecological balance of the earth is in danger of taking such damage and still sustaining human life. This ecological consequence of settlement is a very important issue in the philosophy of development.

In the end, we are presented with difficult choices concerning modern development and intervention. Humanity's search for the good life has led to many changes over recent years. Because of the rapid advancements of modern society, which tends to now be more power-centered than humanitarian-centered, it may be entirely possible that in our technological rush for progress, some developments have not caught up with others and we have passed the good life up. As we develop as a species, we need to make sure not to leave our humanity behind us in our strive for new discoveries.

For this reason, great care needs to be taken in dealing with other cultures. Just because one civilization is more complex in some areas, differently developed, or even mightier than another, does not mean that it is better. Although a more complex form of life is certainly capable of being a more satisfying way of living, this must be tempered with a great deal of understanding for simple virtues. It could be that we are clearing room for our own type of progress where the way of life may in fact be better than ours. As we look at the mistreatment of our own planet as a consequence of this over-development, we must consider alternatives to rushing headlong into new advancements.

This essay was written by John Hubbard for the Macalester College course "IT 27: Disappearing Worlds" in January 1993. It has not been significantly altered from the original version; the last modified date shown below indicates when this Webpage was last uploaded in its present form.

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