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Note: I have never watched Avatar or Legend of Korra. I don't know how similar this idea is to that universe.

Suppose that we can manipulate air, water, earth, and fire. To an extent. Most (but not all) people are born with the ability to manipulate one of the four classical elements. Using it for non-trivial things requires training and discipline, and is analogous to exercise and physical training as we know it. Your Average Hydro Joe couldn't channel groundwater into a geyser, but he could probably spray water at someone who tells a really bad joke.

More specifically, let's assume the following:

The World

  • The universe is still made of protons, neutrons, electrons, and their 118+ interesting combinations.
  • It's still the same planet Earth we know and love.
  • Humanity's biological history up to the point of the emergence of Element-Making powers is much the same.
  • Even though I may use it for analogies, I'm not assuming that science, nations, etc. develop as they did in reality.

The Specifics

  • "Earth" refers to most forms of inorganic matter.
  • "Fire" refers to heat and combustion.
  • "Water" refers to...water. H2O. This includes ice, snow, and humidity (but liquid water is easiest to Make).
  • "Air" refers to gasses and their motion.

The Genes

  • Element Making is hereditary in nature, and cannot be learned if you don't have the natural aptitude (Joe Hydro can't manipulate fire, for example).
  • You can be a carrier. Joe Hydro may be a water Maker, but he may be carrying a fire Maker gene. If he has a kid with a fire Maker, the kid is fairly likely to be a fire Maker him/herself. If he has a kid with an air Maker with a fire Maker gene, the kid could still be born a fire Maker, but it's not likely.
  • Some people can Make more than one Element. The prevalence of double-Element Makers is on par with that of certain other uncommon traits such as red hair, ambidexterity, or double-jointedness.
    • If you can't Make any Element, you're probably in a support group.
    • If you can Make two Elements, you're probably popular at parties.
    • If you can Make three Elements, you probably have a Wikipedia page about you.
    • If you can Make all four Elements, you probably have a religion named after you.
  • Element powers are evenly distributed, by number, across the human race. However, some ethnicities or cultures are more propense to certain Elements than others (for example, maybe Asians are more likely to be Earth-Makers, Africans are more likely to be Fire-Makers, and Europeans are split between Water and Fire).
  • You cannot tell just by looking at someone what they can Make (modulo the usual ethnicity distributions).

The Powers

  • Like physical strength, everyone's limits varies on an individual basis. But your Making skills can be honed just like your biceps can; by pushing them to their limits regularly, in a manner analogous to working out at the gym (but with more of a mental component).
  • Temporary performance boosters analogous to steroids exist, and they do indeed affect you negatively if you abuse them.
  • Higher skill in Element-Making usually involves more efficient energy expenditure, greater precision, and wider ranges.
  • Staying healthy (eating your vegetables, getting enough sleep, not being depressed, etc.) can help you be a better Maker.
  • When you use your powers enough, you get really tired, and might even collapse. This is also true of running a marathon.
  • You can't create the Elements, you need them to be nearby. An astronaut on a spacewalk isn't going to be doing much Air-Making, for instance.

The Limits

Infrequent or Unskilled Makers

Usually these are children, or people with both physical and mental handicaps.

Air: Can blow out birthday candles.

Water: Can stir around water in a container (e.g. when making pasta).

Fire: Can light candles or cigarettes at close range.

Earth: Can mix the dirt in a potted plant or knock down a sand castle.

Average Joe

Someone whose day job doesn't involve Making, or someone still in training like a college student.

Air: Can redirect smoke that's blowing in their face.

Water: Surprise water-balloon fight!

Fire: Can light a campfire or keep a pan hot long enough to cook a meal.

Earth: Can dig a hole.

Mid-Career Maker

Someone whose career revolves around some application or study of Making. They've been at it for probably eight to ten years.

Air: Can delicately guide a paper airplane in detailed paths.

Water: Doesn't need an umbrella, can redirect nearby rain to fall around them.

Fire: Hadouken!

Earth: Can sculpt stone into a statue.

Seasoned Professional

When these Makers say something, people listen. Probably twenty-five to thirty years of professional experience. These are the John Carmacks or Neil deGrasse Tysons of Making. They might even have a verified Twitter account if they're trendy enough.

Air: Can fly.

Water: Portable water cutter.

Fire: Can melt metals and rocks without getting the surrounding area hot.

Earth: Can disintegrate a boulder into sand.

In the History Books (comparable to Einstein, Newton, etc.)

Talent like this comes around maybe once every few hundred years. Comparable in skill and influence to Plato, Einstein, or Shakespeare. These people have words named after them.

Air: Can incite tornadoes.

Water: Can manipulate the weather if the clouds are already present

Fire: Can burn down a forest during a downpour.

Earth: Can incite earthquakes.

The Question

How could such a society have evolved, starting from about 2000 BC to the modern day? How would law and culture develop, and how would they differ from our own?

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closed as too broad by JBH, jdunlop, elemtilas, Arkenstein XII, Vincent Mar 23 at 14:10

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ This is probably too broad. Specify exactly what you mean. Do you want cultural effects or scientific effects or what? $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Apr 16 '16 at 20:56
  • $\begingroup$ Held at gunpoint? Let's say culture and law (the two tie closely together anyway). $\endgroup$ – JesseTG Apr 16 '16 at 20:57
  • $\begingroup$ I actually like this question (or the world setting) but as Bellerophon mentioned, it calls for wild speculation and for all of us to do your work for you. It would be better to take what you have here and then look at the societies that existed back then. Then, speculate how things would have changed. The first culture that figured this out probably goes on to dominate the known world (unless they botched it and someone else took it over). So figure out what that society was and start figuring out how it would evolve differently. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jan 27 '18 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ "Note: I have never watched Avatar or Legend of Korra. I don't know how similar this idea is to that universe." Your world is actually almost exactly like the Avatar series, including the 'four elementer gets a religion' thing. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Mar 11 at 3:08
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Law

I assume over time your world will develop a similar court system to the U.K or US. Prisons will have to be made from non-flammable materials and it would be useful if they could prevent people using magic on them. Alternatively the prisons could be tailored specifically to the prisoners e.g underground prisons for air users. Most police would have some basic training in Making and their may be special squads for anti-terror who have high level training.

Culture

I think that in ancient times top Makers would become Kings or priests and their fame would grow and distort over the years until they had powers far greater than they really had attributed to them. For example a water maker who could cause rain storms might over time become a legend who could fly, part the seas, cure the sick and many more powers. It may be that huge religions could be created by that odd person who has high level skills on three or four elements. These days there would be charities to support those unable to control elements. Some people would think themselves superior because they have especial skills like manipulating three elements.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think it would be a little more likely that there are different prisons for different powers. Fire prisons made of stone, earth prisons floating in harbors, air prisons underground, and water prisons in the desert. You get the idea. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Apr 16 '16 at 23:39
  • $\begingroup$ I thought that may be too difficult in a world with multiple countries. For example how would U.K build a prison in a desert? $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Apr 17 '16 at 20:49
  • $\begingroup$ Fair point. You could simply say that prisons or areas of prisons might be tailored to your specific powers. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Apr 18 '16 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ @XandarTheZenon Will do. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Apr 18 '16 at 20:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Bellerephon: They'd send prisoners to Australia, as per usual. $\endgroup$ – JesseTG May 5 '16 at 10:50
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LAW

I do think that in this field, if the power is not used for killing, then the power is considered legal. Consider nuclear technology, it can be used to power houses for a cheaper bill, or make a WMD. Or even as simple as a knife which can stab someone to death, or be a tool to cut the best steak you can ever imagine.

So if a Air user created a Tornado in the middle of a city for no reason, he can be considered as a criminal, and law enforcement groups can kill or arrest him. If a Air user can, however create a Tornado to push back a tornado, or maybe destroy a tornado (if one can create, one can also destroy right) Then he could be given a medal of valor, or better yet, he might even be in a group of people that saves lives. Kinda like the fire brigade but this time its for Tornados.

Another example is the earth guy, if he uses his skills to create sculptures out of buildings and because of that it destroys the shelter of the residences living in the structure, then he can be called a criminal, but if the same guy uses his skill, if this does exists, turn boulders into sand and save people that are buried in the 9/11 attack, then he could have been a hero, better yet he could have been part of the rescue group that could have save hundreds to thousands of lives.

TLDR: Laws will be the same, just this time it will involve magic. And maybe a special prison per element, the design of these prisons must secure the prisoner while making sure they can't use their powers to escape.

Culture

This depends on the evolution of people in your story, do take note that in Japan, we have かなまら まつり(Kanamara Matsuri) where japanese people parade the male genetalia to ask for children and have a healthy sexual relationship. I do know we have a place in Japan that celebrates a masterbating male genetalia because that place had a drought due to a crime involving a virgin being killed in the ocean, a fisherman masterbated and his spem was sent into the water, the virgin was pleased, and ended the drought. Thus that place has sculptures of males masterbating in front of the sea.

TLDR It depends, if a air user saved a town from something using his power, then there might be a festival in honor of the act.

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If you find this interesting, you should definitely watch Avatar: it really explores the implications of this very well.

Some more interesting thoughts:

  • Can Earth-Makers control Uranium? Because if they can Make more than 52 kg of U-235, there might not be any culture left.
  • Can you control water inside a human? Avatar explores this 'bloodbending.' It would be a pretty gruesome death to have your water drained from a small cut by a water Maker.
  • Is there anything that can't be controlled by anybody? Because otherwise prison design would be really hard. You could have firemaker prisons, earthmaker prisons, et cetera. Maybe a criminal would go their whole life hiding a secret second element ability so that they could escape from fire prison later by using Earth manipulation to tunnel out of the fireproof cell.
  • There would be a sport made out of this.
  • Teens would use it for sex.
  • There would be a slower development in some tech areas where there is no need. Why automate anything when humans are so powerful?
  • You can improve flight efficiency by holding a big kite to catch the air like a sail. This would eventually evolve into air-manipulator powered planes. When they go high enough and realize the air stops, maybe they can have a crew of air makers to hold in enough atmosphere to explore space briefly? Rocket propulsion is more efficient when you can create fire blasts without fuel.
  • Earth Making would be really overpowered. There's so much earth around, and all you need to win a fight is to dig a hole under the person, then fill it up again with them in it.
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  • $\begingroup$ Currently at work, and I stumble on "Teens would use it for sex" which strikes me both as extremely NSFW and utterly confusing. I'm puzzled and afraid of the possible implications... $\endgroup$ – Nyakouai Mar 13 at 16:30
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Heresy to Golden Age

"Witch! Burn the Witch ... or warlock ... or wizard ... or however you self cast."

This is a very hard question to answer for it is creatively open. It all depends on what your end goal is. We can rationalize and explain almost anything given constraints and where you want to end up.

Since history is written by the victors it all depends on which culture is dominant at the end of the turmoil (turmoil is caused by the sudden inexplicable introduction of these powers into the world). Was this society bent on purging the world of this demonic infestation. Then people today might still view them as vile and that powers should never be used and if used could cause imprisonment.

Alternatively if the victor is one that embraced these powers given down by [insert god(s)] then a religiously ruled future with people with power in charge is what you might get.

If two great powers of opposing view points stay in power after the turmoil you might get a perpetual cold war.

Because this is so flexible you can rationalize that our current world exists only with few alterations. Most laws are there because of consequences caused by actions not so much the actions themselves. It is illegal to kill someone either by punching them to hard or by Hadouken. How you kill them only matters to your court case. You can't fly things near an airport... you shouldn't use your powers to levitate the drone near the airport.

Culturally your adding a new "medium" (don't know if this is the correct word). New sports would develop using these powers and people with good skill / showmen ship would become popular. Other parts of your culture would use it as flair (pyrotechnics at a concert). Essentially it would not be any different then any other "mediums" (hockey, dressage, Formula 1, Painting, architecture...).

If you rework your question with more specifics as to what conditions you want for your story we can help with a more targeted history to help you end there.

Between 2000 BC and modern times we have enough story telling time to mold your world to what ever your desires are.

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