Changing Planet

Globalization Through the Eyes of a Nomad

Mongolian nomadic man standing above the Shirinbot mountain at sunrise (photo credit Albert Lin).

I recently had the opportunity to speak at length with one of Mongolia’s greatest historians, Professor Shagdaryn Bira, an academic scholar recognized as a State Hero for his lifetime achievement in the preservation of knowledge.  It should be noted that this effort was not an easy task through the long periods of cultural repression and struggle that he and his generation endured.  Sitting across the table from me, his eyes peered through wrinkles of wisdom with a youthful vibrance that highlighted a fire, continually burning within his mind.  We had wandered into a conversation about the concepts of international globalism, from the mindset of the nomad.  And as he spoke, his body leaned forward, intensified by the embers of thought that spread outward, challenging my understanding of the universe with every insight.

“Without the past, we have no present, and without the present we have no future,” he stated.

He hypothesized that the practice of modern globalization can find itself rooted in the perspective of the ancient nomad.  It may seem strange to suggest that the motivation behind our global economies, wars, cultures, and politics can be summed up within the mindset of the herdsman on the grassy steppe.  But then again, the largest contiguous empire in human history was created by one of those nomads, and his name was Chinggis (Genghis) Khan.

To the nomad, survival on the steppe has always required the constant pursuit of fresh grass to feed a roaming herd.  Prof. Bira explained that under the great blue sky the shaman religion of Tengrinism viewed the nomad as simply the child between “Mother Earth” and “Father Heaven”. An outlook that at first may seem simple, but is in fact deep in its simplicity.  In this thought borders should not exist; there is no concept of an outsider, everyone is simply under the sky and above the earth, where the universe is infinite.  Thus, at the geographical boundaries between the tribal steppe and the great powers of the 13th Century, a conflict of ideology naturally inflamed.  While the nomad believed himself to be part of an infinite universe, those within the walls of the great stone empires saw the universe as centralized. Anyone foreign to those walls was alien, “barbarian”.  Understandably, this would be frustrating.

Sitting around the table with Prof. Bira, it was hypothesized that Chinggis Khan’s pursuits in war were manifested from a desire to eliminate those borders, a part of the shaman global outlook.  And indeed this did occur.  The remarkably rapid expansion of the Mongol empire, while ruthless, brought in an era of unprecedented global commerce, intellectual transfer, and spiritual exchange.  Under the shaman outlook even religions fell between the concept of the sky and earth, and thus subjugated cultures were able to continue their religious traditions.  Yet, the largest and fastest single military globalization phenomenon in human history is also marked by an equally rapid decline.

With incredible insight, Prof. Bira described his thoughts on why the rapid decline occurred then, and why it may occur again.  He stated that the hope for a globalized world is as basic as the nomad’s outlook on the universe, but the failure to achieve sustainable globalization by the 13th century was due to the method under which it was established, by force. This, he explained, was the only way it could not be sustained.

Later that evening, I was left with the haunting realization that global force is no longer in physical warfare alone; it exists in domains such as economics, information, resource management, etc.  If the methods in which we bring the world under one banner are done by force, the empire we create today will face the same fate as that of the great empires of the 13th-14th centuries.  Yet if we find a way to look beyond the societal concepts of “borders”, “walls”, and “outsiders”, we will find the ancient understanding of the nomad, that we are all in this together.

These were the inspiring insights of the great Prof. Bira, which left me striving to live up to my given name, Yu-Min. A name which translates into English as “universal citizen”.

Albert Lin is a Research Scientist at UC San Diego and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge at the boundary of science, technology, and exploration. He leads an international effort known as the Valley of the Khans Project and heads a group he calls the "Exploration Laboratory . Here he develops new methods to push the boundaries of non-invasive exploration including, unmanned drone technology, advanced geophysics and National Geographic's first citizen science effort: ( Albert is an avid rock climber, surfer, mountaineer, photographer, sailor, and traveler.
  • General Bob

    Great bolg Albert.

  • Puujee

    Thanks dear Albert Lin, interesting article!

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