A Clearing in the Dark Forest

The Dark Forest

Civilisation first began to spring up around ten thousand years ago and spread slowly around the world. By this I mean settled and organised communities, not just smart hunter-gatherers and nomads. For most of its existence conquest, wanton destruction and the genocide or enslavement of neighbouring civilisations has been the norm.

Civilisations were relatively easy to build, but for most of them riches were harder to come by. The most direct route to wealth and the power that protected it was to conquer another, richer civilisation or two. You expended what money and power you had raising an army, and with it you won far greater spoils. At the same time, this protected you against similar conquest by your stronger neighbours. Any civilisation too enlightened, impoverished or decadent to maintain a formidable army presently got conquered by a more active and vital one.

This way of things is traditionally described as a dog-eat-dog world. Chinese writer Liu Cixin has described it more picturesquely as the "Dark Forest". The model pervades Cixin's SF trilogy, of which the eponymous novel is the second volume. According to it, there is always someone out there, somewhere in the forest, who is stronger than you and burning to grow stronger still. Treachery is a valuable survival tactic, you can trust no-one. This leads you to pre-emptive strikes against even your friends, never mind the reflex annihilation of strangers (and therefore potential annihilators of yourself). In the Dark Forest, everyone is your enemy.

Cixin uses ideas from Darwinian evolution to justify his arguments. However he goes a step beyond, declaring that, in the interplay of tensions between cooperation and enmity, enmity is the only sure survival tactic. This is not a widely accepted tenet of evolutionary theory, in which it is generally held that nature maintains a balance between the two. This mainstream view is backed up by long observation of Nature. In fact Nature seldom drives things to extremes, and when it does that is often a sign of imminent extinction. Rather, the Dark Forest smacks a little too much of Chairman Mao's "Power comes out of the barrel of a gun." That may be true up to a point, but one must remember that if you are to aim enough guns in the right direction to see off your attacker, your survival may well depend on unconditional friendships.

Darwinian evolution is what got life on this planet to where it is today. How does the Dark Forest really stack up against it? The Dark Forest does seem to explain the actual history of our Earthbound civilisations rather well - up until 200 or so years ago.

The forest clearing

The situation only began to change around the time that America fought itself free of the British yoke, just a couple of hundred years ago. Today huge swathes of the world live in peace with each other, though many laggards large and small still cast their shadows on their neighbours. The change has happened in the historical blink of an eye. Why, and why now? What prompted it? What gives it staying power?

The Age of Enlightenment and the rise of Humanism must have had something to do with it. Yet the European nations who brought these revolutions continued to wage eternal wars of conquest to and fro against each other, and to enslave their ethnic minorities and non-Europeans as they felt inclined. The change took concrete form in the political dimension of the humanist philosophies of the late eighteenth century, in Britain and America, and soon spread to France and beyond. This period and location coincide with the growth of the Industrial Revolution, and I suggest here that this is no coincidence.

At that time James Watt's steam engine and Abraham Darby's coke-fuelled and steam-powered blast furnace were replacing the old watermills and timber engineering materials, pushing Britain's Industrial Revolution into overdrive. Meanwhile in America the shortage of labour was pushing the development of mass-production techniques in the manufacture of rifles and other commodity items. Up until then industry, such as it was, had comprised hundreds of workers with shovels and hammers, often hired short-term for the job in hand. But now it became huge expensive complexes full of expensive machinery, requiring long planning and investment to bring into being. It was no longer something that you could afford to discard or lose, and then reassemble overnight when you needed it again.

As a result, the balance of pros and cons in waging war began to change. If your enemy raided a couple of towns and razed them to the ground, you no longer lost only a few citizens and their personal wealth, you lost their industry. And you lost the brains to rebuild it. Your civilisation was crippled for years to come. If you launched a long and bitter campaign, your industry might not be able to keep supplying you with the necessary engines of war. And even if you won through, your industry might be so exhausted that another enemy could easily grab the moment and conquer you. The bigger your industrial base, the bigger your advantage. Head counts and treasure hoards no longer mattered.

Suddenly, the philosophy of the Dark Forest and the pre-emptive strike no longer seemed such a good idea. Making friends was a better way to go.

But if you are raiding a nation for slaves and raw materials, they are not going to be your friends. If you subjugate them under Empire, they will rise up against you just when you need them most. The risks are now too high.

Preservation of your industrial base is all. And that means an end to warfare.

The logic of this argument does not seem to have been appreciated at the time. Calls for the abolition of slavery and the creation of international treaties were built more on the humanitarian philosophies of the Enlightenment. Trade helped tie the two strands together; cementing friendships cemented trade, which strengthened industry. The desire to do the latter surfaced as action to build the former.

These humanitarian arguments bore their first fruits in the abolition of slavery. It would be another hundred years before the expansion of Empire stuttered, its motives moved from the Dark Forest to the humanitarian idealism of Rudyard Kipling and his ilk, and the Gandhis of this world drove wedges into the hollowness of those aspirations.

The subsequent expression of this principle has long been embodied in the encouragement of international trade, the realisation that the more your economy depends on trade the less sense it makes to start a war - or to enslave and demotivate your trading partners. And there is strength in numbers. The European Union, for all its failings, is perhaps the greatest expression of this principle to date.

The Hippie clearing (an aside)

Roll forwards to the Hippie era. Industrial progress had amplified unbridled capitalism and nationalism to bring great evils; world wars, nuclear holocaust, napalm, toxic wastes, unhealthy diets and the Silent Spring of environmental pollution. The Hippie movement turned away from it all, sought a back-to-nature reinvention of society. But what they missed was the ironic fact that the very agent of our undoing, industrialisation, was itself the parent of their faith in peace and mutual love as the way things needed to be. Without industry, the world would revert to the Dark Forest.

And it did. The communes struggled on in poverty and eventually closed down, the hippies cut their hair, threw away their worn-out flares and Laura Ashley, and got paid jobs so they and their children could eat. The punks trashed the clearing and the yuppies planted cash crops. The dream was over.

The Great Game, then and now

Today, we find adherents of the Dark Forest surviving in totalitarian regimes such as Russia, China, North Korea and the brief reign of Donald Trump. They still have faith in conquest and cultural annihilation as the only safe option. The Russian approach to the Great Game is typical. This has been played between Russia and the West (previously Britain, recently the US, today the whole of NATO and the EU) for several hundred years. It is the play for political and military dominance of Central Asia and on occasion, as today, Central Europe. Russia has always been fearful of a war on two fronts, of enemy forces executing a pincer movement from both East and West. Long ago it developed a model of conquering neighbouring states to provide a buffer zone should the enemy invade. Presently, the buffer states become assimilated, their cultures annihilated and their mass absorbed into a greater Russia. Now, a protective zone around this greater Russia is sought, a USSR if you will. As the West resists, the Great Game moves out to this new ring. Thus, the Dark Forest remains the core of Russian thinking, yet the insecurity in having eternal enemies prompts the equally eternal creation of subjugated states, political slaves. Nowhere is this more graphically illustrated today than in Vladimir Putin's flat betrayal of all UN agreements and waging of a war to recover Ukraine, one of several buffer territories who recently regained their independence.

China's appropriations of Tibet and Szechuan (or however they want us to spell it this week), its subjugation and progressive re-assimilation of Hong Kong, and its ambitions for Taiwan and South Korea, all tell a similar story.

Such predatory nations protest their innocence, aware that free trade is greatly to their benefit. But they are unable to shuck off their medieval attitude to international relations, with its greed for the spoils of Dark Forest victory. Neither Eastern power can resist forcing their international IT service suppliers to spy on the West. Russia cannot resist playing its oil and gas supplies as a political tool. As the West is burned by these tricks, it pulls back from free trade and the Dark Forest economies suffer.

The great gamble of the Western Clearing is that the economic impact of technology has changed the rules of the game. Any economy of any size and power must be technology based. As the Dark Forest economies struggle in isolation, the Western Clearing economies seek to cooperate and mingle to form one global super-economy which cannot be beaten. If you want to win the might-is-right gambit, the only way is to joint it and surpass it from within. But that demands you leave the Dark Forest, and this by definition a Dark Forest economy does not do. History will show us whose gamble pays off in the end.


Today, the Internet is the darkest forest of all. But it is also the largest trading bazaar ever conceived, and the largest network of trusted friends. Use it well. The rules are the same as anywhere else:

By all means, never trust an adherent of the Dark Forest. Cixin has it right there. By contrast, unconditional friendship is of value beyond price, and throwing it away needlessly is a far more dangerous gambit; know your real friends, earn their trust and repay them with yours. When you meet a stranger, do not attack unless the warning signs are unmistakable. Show politeness and consideration - and keep your shield arm high. Remember, while an enemy is more dangerous than a dead stranger today, a true friend will be more valuable tomorrow.

Updated 17 Mar 2024