Friday, 17 February 2017

The Biggest Lie

Lake Huron Shore
at Kincardine, Feb 16, 2017

For quite a while now I've been promising that I'd get around to talking about collapse: why I believe it's what lies ahead or, more accurately, what's already happening; the sort of collapse I'm expecting; the way it's going to unfold; and what we can do about coping with it.

Now, finally, I am going to get started on this, with a discussion about "Business As Usual" (BAU) and why I think a continuation of things as they are is among our least likely futures. If you try to discuss this with people who aren't already kollapsniks, you'll find it is not a popular subject. I can see a couple of reasons for this.

First, thanks to the media, collapse has come to mean apocalypse—the sort of rapid and disastrous change that results in a world like that portrayed in movies like Mad Max, The Road or Terminator. If you've been convinced that collapse is a swift, sure and final disaster, there's little wonder that you wouldn't want to dwell on the idea and would prefer to keep BAU going for as long as possible.

Second, many people see themselves as benefitting from BAU. In the short run they are probably right. These are the kind of people who have a certain amount (in some cases rather a lot) of power and influence. They don't want to consider anything that might "upset the apple cart", so to speak.

Of course, many other people aren't doing quite so well. Rob Mielcarski*, in a blog post titled It’s Time to Get Real: Trump’s a Symptom, Not the Problem comments that lower and middle class citizens around the world are angry for good reasons:

  • Their incomes have been stagnant or falling despite governments telling them the economy is strong.
  • Their cost of living for things that matter has been rising despite governments telling them inflation is low.
  • They see the upper class getting richer and not being punished for crimes.
  • They carry a high debt load and see that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.
  • For the first time in a long time they worry that the future may be worse than the present.
  • They sense that something is broken and that leaders are not speaking the truth.

But even these people don't want to want to talk about the demise of BAU—they just want it fixed so that it works for them as well as for the rich and powerful. Politicians are clever enough to realize that by promising to make such fixes they can win the support and votes of these folks. The pitch is that with just a few changes to the system—just some fine tuning, really—BAU can be made to work for everyone and as well as it "used to" in some mythical time a few decades ago when everything was good. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing populist parties in many countries is proof that this is a winning political strategy. At least in the short run.

I'll go into much more detail in an upcoming post, but it seems to me that the changes promised by Trump et al, for instance, aren't likely to fix what's wrong with the world. Details aside, there is a simple reason for this—their strategy is based on a lie.

Richard Heinberg** recently put it this way:

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

There are some unstated assumptions built into BAU, assumptions that are seriously flawed. As David Holmgren*** points out:

At a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for the faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussions of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognized views of particular academics, corporate leaders or politicians but more society wide assumptions that are generally left unstated.

  • Global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities will continue to rise.
  • There will be no peaks and declines other than through high energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
  • Economic activity, globalization and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
  • The geopolitical order that established the USA as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
  • Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will not necessitate changes in the basic organization of society.
  • Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.

If you have faith in BAU, this is what you believe in—probably without even realizing it. Holmgren intends this to be a list of improbabilities so extreme that the reader will see there is simply no chance that BAU can continue for much longer. I agree. But we have grown so far out of touch with reality that I fear many will look at that list and say, "So what's the problem?" And for those of us who do see a problem with some of these ideas, there are a couple more ideas that are often stated as reassurances to anyone expressing doubts:

The first is "infinite substitutability", the idea put forth by main stream economists that as resources become depleted they become more expensive and this creates the incentive to develop substitutes. They think this is the answer to resource depletion and that it has no limits.

The second is "decoupling", the idea that we can develop technology that will allow a continually growing economy (sustainable development) which does not place an ever increasing burden on the environment, allowing BAU to continue on without limits.

But these two ideas are at least as unrealistic as the ones that Holmgren lists. They stem from some serious misconceptions:

First, the view of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, ignoring its vital inputs (energy and materials) and outputs (waste heat and pollution). Because supplies of energy and materials, and sinks to absorb waste heat and pollution are all finite, there are real, concrete limits to how long BAU can go on.

And second, the idea that technology can continue to advance at an ever increasing pace—the supposed "law of accelerating returns". This comes from mistaking an "S" or logistical curve that levels off after a period of rapid increase for one that continues rising toward a singularity. It is true that technology has enabled us to inch up closer to those planetary limits over the last century or so—"kicking the can" down the road every time trouble looms ahead of us (excuse the mixed metaphors). But think back to my recent posts (1, 2) on Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies—we have done this by adding complexity to our global industrial society. Complexity comes with ever decreasing marginal returns on our investments in it. And it is powered by energy, of which there is a limited supply.

Already we have picked the low hanging fruit of energy and mineral resources, supplies of fresh water and arable land. There is good reason to think that the same thing is happening with technological innovation—we've done the easy parts, which have given us unwarranted confidence in what remains to be achieved with technology. But further advances will be much harder to develop, cost more, and bear diminishing returns.

Substitutability is running into limits as resources become more depleted—we are finding that there simply are no substitutes for many resources. And there is no evidence that decoupling is happening to any significant extent, or ever was.

So, BAU is based on growth, and a lie about the long term viability of growth. If growth is the problem, then why do we need growth? What if we stopped growing? A close look at the underlying structure of BAU reveals it is not structured to work without continued growth.

Economic growth is necessary in BAU because our financial system is based on credit. It creates money by issuing debt, which must be paid back with interest. If businesses are to pay that interest as well as the principle, they must grow. Likewise, individuals who borrow to finance education or housing early in their lives must make more money later in their lives to pay off those loans with interest. Population growth is also necessary since it supports economic growth. And since the younger generation supports the older generation in their old age (either directly or via taxes), the younger generation must be larger if this is not to be an onerous burden.

Last fall I wrote a series of posts about the book The Limits to Growth which examines in detail the consequences of growth using system dynamic computer simulations. This is the "discussion about planetary limits" that Heinberg was referring to. If you haven't read those posts, it's worth having a quick look.

The Limits to Growth study makes it clear that there really are limits to growth and if we try to exceed those limits, instead of accepting and living within them, the consequences will be severe. The standard run of the LTG world model, which assumes things just continue on as usual, ends with a drastic drop off of human population in the latter half of this century. Resource depletion and pollution result in a failure to produce adequate food supplies and essential services. Indeed every run of the model that tried to find a way around the limits ended in similar results. Those results were avoided only in the runs where a way was found to control our population and live within our limits.

Of course, that study was done in the early 1970s. In 2017 resource depletion and pollution (especially climate change) have progressed much farther and our population has more than doubled. I'd say there is every reason to doubt that a collapse can be avoided, regardless of what we do.

In the light of all this, then, is there anything at all that can be done to mitigate the situation?

Well yes, actually. While BAU is fundamentally, structurally flawed and trying to keep it working will only make the situation worse, there is much that could be done to slow its demise, make sure that collapse doesn't take us as far down as is otherwise might, and to make the crash when we hit bottom as gentle as possible.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled A Political Fantasy, exploring what enlightened governments could do to achieve this, if they weren't saddled with political realities.

If, like me, you have little faith in governments doing the right thing to any significant extent, the good news is that there are also a great many things that can be done to mitigate collapse at the individual, family and local community level. And that is why I want to discuss collapse with people.

In my next few posts I'll be talking about the course that I expect collapse to take, the political realities that will contribute to this and what we can do to cope.


* Rob Mielcarski is a fellow blogger, who I met when he commented on one of my blog posts. He is very concerned about human overshoot and the damage we are doing to a very rare and precious planet, and deeply fascinated by the depth and breadth of our denial of the situation.

** Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He is the author of thirteen books, and presently serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

*** David Holmgren is an Australian environmental designer, ecological educator and writer. He is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept with Bill Mollison. His website Future Scenarios looks at Four Energy Descent and Climate Scenarios.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Seeing Like a State

This time we'll be taking a quick look at James C. Scott's book Seeing Like a State, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

My purpose in reviewing Seeing Like a State is to draw attention to some concepts which I had never really thought about before reading this book. Awareness of these concepts has helped clarify my thinking since then. Or so it seems to me. As with my last post, I hope this may be helpful to my fellow Canadians. I certainly don't intend to speak down to my countrymen—they lean in a direction of which I heartily approve. But when it comes to evaluating the worth (or worthlessness) of states, a different approach is required here, where we are proudly carrying on with our experiment in progressive social democracy, than when talking to people from south of the border, whose newly elected leadership seems eager to dismantle much of their government.

I read this book a couple of years ago and there wasn't really time in the schedule I'd set myself currently to give it a thorough re-reading. So I went looking on the internet and found several detailed reviews and a youtube video of the author discussing the book.

As Scott says in the video, the essence of the thing is in the first 15 pages, the rest of it is just examples to prove the point.

Scott published this book in 1998, after he'd done his initial work on hill societies in Southeast Asia. He had noticed, and was trying to understand why:

...the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around"... In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill people on the one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other. The question, however, transcended regional geography. Nomads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarizations) seemed to be a perennial state project—perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.

The more I examined those efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central project of statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it know precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed "map" of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to "translate" what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.

In order for a state to succeed in its projects, it needs control and to effectively exercise control it needs intelligence—information about its land and its people.

How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral (tax) surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.

This project of making society legible has been going on for centuries and where I live it is pretty much complete. But my wife and I both grew up on farms that didn't have street numbers. You can bet there were lot numbers for tax purposes, but nobody bothered with them for addresses. We knew where we lived and so did our neighbours—it just wasn't a problem for any of the locals, and mail came to "general delivery" at the local post office. It was only in the process setting up the 911 emergency call system, in the 1990s, that every house and farm in Bruce County was finally given a number. In rural areas, those numbers are now proudly displayed at the end of our driveways, so the police, fire and ambulance drivers can find us when we need them.

There was a time (and it's still the case in the third world) when even cities didn't have maps, street names were very informal and houses didn't have numbers on them. Only the people who lived in a neighbourhood could reliably find their way around it. Very inconvenient for strangers, but awfully handy for a local trying not to be found...

The concept of legibility is the first new idea I encountered in this book. We in the modern world are immersed in legibility and, in most cases, hardly aware of it. Even some politicians—governing ones—seem to be unaware of it. Steven Harper (a former Canadian Prime Minister) comes to mind, doing away with our "long form" census, because he didn't want to collect (and be confused by) facts that didn't fit his ideology.

Anyway, the government knows where we live, how much we make in a year, our phone number, the license number, make and colour of the car we drive, and so forth. Most of us accept this very meekly. It enables government to deliver the services we count on and to some it seems that legibility is only a disadvantage to criminals or those who actively oppose the state. I'd say, yes, but only if the state is using all that information to do what you want it to. This isn't always so, especially for those who don't fit so well in the one-size-fits-all mold that states tend to stamp out for their citizens.

And that leads us to another concept that goes along with legibility: simplification. The world is a very complex place, full of distracting details, most of which we ignore. This is true for individuals in day to day life, but even more so for states. There are a great many details that a state simply cannot afford to be interested in. What it needs is a synopsis that contains just the information which is significant to its projects. Who's to say what's significant? Well, therein lies a whole range of problems.

When I was the foreman of a crew of electricians, my boss frequently grew frustrated with my usual answer to his questions, which was: "it depends". He wanted a simple yes or no, but often the situation just wasn't that simple and my point was that if he was willing to let a little more information through his filters he'd be able to make better decisions.

Having acquired a measure of legibility, modern states set about a number of huge development fiascos.

But "fiasco" is too lighthearted a word for the disasters I have in mind . The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivizations in Russia and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia are among the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted. At a less dramatic but far more common level, the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities (think of Brasilia or Chandigarh) that have failed their residents.

It is not so difficult to understand why so many human lives have been destroyed by mobilized violence between ethnic groups, religious sects or linguistic communities. But it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I aim, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.

Scott identifies four elements, the combination of which leads to such tragedies. The first is the simplification that comes with legibilitiy.

The second element is what I call a high modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.

When I first encountered this it was another new concept for me, but when you look at it closely, it is nothing more than the religion of progress. In fact, I've rarely seen that faith so clearly described:

High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term "ideology" implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. The carriers of high modernism tended to see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rational organized city, village, or large farm was one that looked regimented and orderly in the geometric sense. The carriers of high modernism, once their plans miscarried or were thwarted, tended to retreat to what I call miniaturization: the creation of a more easily controlled micro-order in model cities, model villages, and model farms.

By themselves, though, legibility, simplification, and an ideology like high modernism are not enough to do much real harm. A couple more elements are necessary for that.

The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.

A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering, high modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarians state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.

But why is it that these four elements, when combined, have led to disaster?

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functional social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowances for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well.

Throughout the book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisations in the face of unpredictability. ...I contrast the high-modernist views and practices of city planners and revolutionaries with critical views emphasizing process, complexity, and open-endedness.

...I attempt to conceptualize the nature of practical knowledge and to contrast it with more formal, deductive epistemic knowledge. The term mētis, which descends from classical Greek and denotes the knowledge that can come only from practical experience, serves as a useful portmanteau word for what I have in mind. Here I should acknowledge my debt to anarchist writers (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Proudhon) who consistently emphasize the role of mutuality as opposed to imperative, hierarchical coordination in the creation of social order. Their understanding of the term "mutuality" covers some but not all of the same ground I mean to cover with "mētis."

Scott acknowledges that from today's perspective, a critique of the failings of high modernism is like a kind of quaint archaeology. Central planning has long since fallen out of favour.

...States with the pretensions and power that I criticize have for the most part vanished or drastically curbed their ambitions. And yet, as I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.

There is much fertile ground today for the sort of thing Scott was talking about. Take out high modernism, substitute in the current ideological fad and combine it with legibility, simplification, a generous dash of authoritarianism and an unsuspecting populace and away we go. We must remember, when getting rid of a bad government, not to usher in something even worse. Right wing populism, techno optimism and eco-modernism come to mind as ideologies that I would really rather not have forced on me or my community. Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have already done enough harm. All these are certainly just as uncritical, unskeptical, and unscientifically optimistic as high-modernism.

Scott goes on for 9 more chapters with a plethora of examples illustrating his thesis. This review discusses them in some detail, if you're interested. It also has some criticism of Scott's ideas, which I think is probably somewhat unfair.

In several places in the book Scott mentions Jane Jacobs, whose activism against, and critique of, modern urban planning I had not previously been introduced to. Here is a biographically article about her that is well worth reading.

This is the last book review I'll be doing for a while. Next time I'll finally get around to talking about what I see as lying ahead of us—the slow and tortuous collapse of industrial civilization. Of course, many people I run into think I am being needlessly dramatic. They would say that business as usual is still in pretty good shape and has a long future ahead of it. I'll begin with why I think that is the single biggest lie we are being told these days.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Art of Not Being Governed

This time we'll be taking a quick look at a book by James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed, an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. This is a scholarly work and heavy going to read, but I think I can, for a change, distill the ideas that are relevant to our discussion here down to fit into a single blog post.

Scott is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is Director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale. His research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism. He is currently teaching Agrarian Studies and Rebellion, Resistance and Repression.

I am writing this post with my fellow Canadians in mind. States have to work at retaining their citizens, either by coercion or by providing sufficient benefits to balance the cost of maintaining the state, a burden which is borne by the populace. Traditionally there has been a striking degree of inequality between the upper classes who operate the state and the rest of the people. This is simply because those who are running things take advantage of their power to make sure that the surpluses created by economic activity are allocated to them and not to the people doing the work.

Here in Canada, we have been very fortunate in the 150 year history of our country to have had legitimate governments, with a minimum of corruption and a pretty steady effort to rule for the good of the country and its people. We do have party politics so of course there are disagreements as to exactly what that good might be. And we do have some inequality, with the rich having a disproportionate share of political power, though less so than in many countries. But I think there is broad agreement that while our system might benefit from minor tweaks in one direction or another, the idea behind it is basically solid.

And to a certain extent I can agree with this. It is an essential element of the human condition that we work together in groups for our mutual benefit. And this can work very well, but when the group gets larger than Dunbar's number (around 150) there are costs associated with organizing and administration, costs which increase disproportionally as the group gets larger.

Those costs are paid mainly in terms of energy and only the onetime windfall of fossil fuels has made possible an organization as large as our modern global civilization. But as fossil fuel depletion progresses, states are finding themselves less able to provide the benefits that they rely on to maintain their legitimacy. More and more of their citizens are beginning to wonder if the social contract is such a good deal.

Canada is no exception, although we are not quite as far along this curve as many other countries. Most Canadians don't realize that the good times we've had here have been made possible by generous amounts of energy from our huge forests, large amounts of falling water and, of course, generous reserves of fossil fuels. We certainly don't want to admit that we face the depletion of our energy resources, even though we certainly do—just like other countries.

Anyway, my intention here is not to dwell on energy issues, but rather to introduce the idea that having a government and being governed may not always be such a fine proposition. That's why I'm reviewing The Art of Not Being Governed. It talks specifically about "the anarchist history of upland southeast Asia", and more generally the ongoing conflict between the expansionary state and its agents on the one hand and the zones of relative autonomy and their inhabitants on the other. Historically speaking, those zones have been able to maintain some degree of autonomy because their geography made them difficult to subdue. Only in the most recent era have states gained sufficient power (fossil fuels again) to make subduing those zones an achievable project.

When Europeans reached Southeast Asia we found it populated by "civilized" valley people and "wild" hill people. The initial assumption was that the hill people were the remnants of the original inhabitants, who had never yet been "civilized". It turns out that this was wrong—but we'll get to that in a bit....

The area was settled not more that 60,000 years ago, and...

the region's first small concentrations of sedentary people appeared not earlier than one millenium before the common era (CE) and represent a mere smudge in the historical landscape—localized, tenuous and evanescent. Up until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been a standard human condition.

The founding of agrarian states, then, was the contingent event that created a distinction between a settled, state-governed population and a frontier penumbra of less governed or virtually autonomous peoples. Until at least the early nineteenth century, the difficulties of transportation, the state of military technology, and, above all, demographic realities placed a sharp limit on the reach of even the most ambitious states. Operating at a population density of 5.5 persons per square kilometer in 1600 (compared with 35 for India and China), a ruler's subjects in Southeast Asia had relatively easy access to a vast, land rich frontier. That frontier operated as a rough and ready homeostatic device—the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had. The frontier underwrote popular freedom. Richard O'Connor captures this dialectic nicely:"Once states appeared, adaptive conditions changed yet again—at least for farmers. At that moment mobility allowed farmers to escape the impositions of states and their wars. I call this tertiary dispersion. The other two revolutions—agriculture and complex society—were secure but the state's domination of its peasantry was not, and so we find a strategy of 'collecting people... and establishing villages.'"

So people were rounded up and put to work at rice paddy agriculture. This yields a high productivity in terms of the amount of food produced per land area, though it is quite labour intensive. Still, there were some advantages to such a settled existence, enough to keep the peasants around as long as the demands of the state did not grow too onerous.

There were always taxes in the form of a share of the rice crop and a certain number of days of labour on state projects or service in the army. If the ruler decided to build a new temple or palace, or wage yet another war against a neighbouring state and those taxes became too high, it was not too difficult for the peasants to head for the hills where it would be hard for the agents of the state to track you down. There they could take up a life of nomadic slash and burn agriculture, growing mainly root vegetables which are harder for state officials to find and take. And of course the forest itself provided much in the way of food and other useful materials, some of which were luxuries not available in the valleys that could be traded for goods that couldn't be produced in the hills.

So it turns out that, by the time Europeans arrived, the population of hill people was made up almost entirely of escaped peasants from the valleys and their descendants. Scott goes into a great deal of detail about the societies of the hill people in highland Southeast Asia (what he calls "Zomia"), but I think the idea is clear: that living in a state was often a chancy proposition and many people did just fine on their own.

As Scott says:

Any effort to examine history as part of a deliberate political choice runs smack against a powerful civilizational narrative. That narrative consists of a historical series arranged as an account of economic, social and cultural progress. With respect to livelihood strategies, the series, from most primitive to most advanced, might be: foraging/hunting gathering, pastoral nomadism, horticulture/shifting cultivation, sedentary fixed field agriculture, irrigated plow agriculture, industrial agriculture. With respect to social structure. again from most primitive to most advanced, the series might read: small bands in the forest or savannah, hamlets, villages, towns, cities, metropolises. These two series are, of course, essentially the same; they chart a growing concentration of agricultural production (yield per unit land) and a growing concentration of population in larger agglomerations. First elaborated by Giovani Battista Vico in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the narrative derives it hegemonic status not only from its affinity with social Darwinism but from the fact that it maps nicely on the stories most states and civilizations tell about themselves. The schema assumes movement in a single direction toward concentrated populations and intensive grain production, no backsliding is envisioned; each step is irreversible progress.

As an empirical description of demographic and agricultural trends in the now-industrialized world for the past two centuries (and the past half-century in poorer nations) this schema has much to be said for it . Europe's nonstate ("tribal") populations had, for all practical purposes, disappeared by the eighteenth century, and the non-state population of poorer countries is diminished and beleaguered.

My readers will no doubt recognize this story as the same one told by the religion of progress, missing only the conclusion where we shake off the chains of gravity and head for the stars. But is this the only story that history has to tell us? Scott thinks not:

As an empirical description of premodern Europe or of most poor nations until the twentieth century, and as an empirical description of the hilly areas of Southeast Asia (Zomia), this narrative is profoundly misleading. What the schema portrays is not simply a self-satisfied normative account of progress but a gradient of successive stages of incorporation into state structures. Its stages of civilization are, at the same time, an index of diminishing autonomy and freedom. Until quite recently, many societies and groups have abandoned fixed cultivation to take up shifting agriculture and foraging. They have, by the same token, altered their kinship systems and social structure and dispersed into smaller and smaller settlements. The actual archeological record in peninsular Southeast Asia reveals a long term oscillation between foraging and farming depending, it would seem, on the conditions. What to Vico would have seemed to be lamentable backsliding and decay was for them a strategic option to circumvent the many inconveniences of state power.

He goes on to look at several historical examples of this sort of "escape agriculture" in Europe and the Americas. I am reminded of what we covered in my last post on Joseph Tainter's book about the Collapse of Complex Societies: collapse may not be such a disaster if the populace has access to land and can grow their own food. "Escape agriculture" would seem to fit the bill and indeed seems to be pretty much what did happen with many collapsing societies—the peasants voted with their feet and left the state and the upper classes to fend for themselves.

Of course, in the modern world, things are a little different.

The level of comfort and convenience experienced by the populace in modern high energy societies is unprecedented. Royalty in the past did not live so well as our middle class. People are understandably unwilling to give this up. Modern medicine, especially when provided free of charge by the state, provides a huge opportunity for a state to legitimize itself and a wonderful argument for its citizen to stay put, even if the taxes are high.

Despite all this, there are still people who dream of going off grid and practicing "escape agriculture". But those who actually succeed in doing so are a very small percentage of the population. And having decided to escape, where can one go? The options are limited—the world is very full and the hinterlands have shrunk in size and remain in only the least desirable areas.

Furthermore, escape is now much harder to do. Aerial and satellite photography, the global positioning systems, and motorized vehicles, especially aircraft, have rendered the most rugged terrain much more accessible than it was even a century ago. If they really want to catch you, they likely can.

I've been observing a trend, though, that may set all this on its head.

Modern states are now beginning to feel the pinch of resource depletion and economic contraction. Their tax base is shrinking while at the same time (due to unemployment and the demographic bulge of the baby boom) the social safety net is growing more expensive to maintain.

A few countries have raised taxes, redistributing a shrinking pool of wealth to reduce economic inequality. This seems to actually make the economy work better and slow the downhill slide. It will be interesting to see how they cope as things get worse.

Most countries are loath to raise taxes, and have borrowed and accumulated large debts on the assumption that things will get better down the road. This makes their economies even worse and increases inequality. The next step, already underway, is to cut social spending, basically abandoning those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Many of these people end up homeless and starving. Tent cities have sprung up in or just outside a great many North American cities. Sadly, in response to this, many communities (if they can really be called that) have responded by essentially making homelessness illegal, bulldozing tent cities and driving the inhabitants away.

It would seem that people abandoned by the state should find escape agriculture a good alternative. There are even examples of such folks starting gardens, only to have them plowed under by the authorities. These days, all the land is owned by someone and even if it is not being farmed, it is unlikely to be made available to the homeless. At some point, though, the state may not have the resources to harass the poor or to protect land that is not being used. Perhaps the state could just come to the realization that unused land and abandoned people are a good fit, and simply stand back and let those people do what they want.

Some will say that we need every square inch of land to grow food for the growing human population. I have two comments about how that is likely to go as collapse progresses: first, at some point population will quit growing and start to decline; and second, as the rich countries become poorer and less capable, they will be less able and less inclined to help poorer nations and even the poor within their own borders.

I'll be considering the possibilities that lie in that direction a few posts down the road.

Next time I'll be looking at another book by James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. In the meantime, check out YouTube for some videos featuring James C. Scott.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

The Collapse of Complex Societies, Part 2

In my last post I started a review of Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

In that post, we saw Tainter develop his theory that complex societies collapse because of diminishing marginal returns on investments in complexity. He makes these observations:

  1. human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. sociopolitical system require energy or their maintenance;
  3. increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
  4. investments in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns

I quoted Tainter on how, as marginal returns decline, societies find themselves spending so much on maintaining complexity that they don't have the resources to adequately responding to stress—various sorts of emergencies and disasters. I should have mentioned that this can also be looked at in terms of optimization and resilience. In order to minimize those decreasing marginal returns, complex systems are usually optimized as much as possible. That is to say, they are made as efficient as possible in terms of their intended output under ideal conditions. Unfortunately, this inevitable reduces their adaptability and resiliency. Such systems are very brittle and when even fairly minor things go wrong they tend to break (collapse) where a more resilient system would have been able to adapt and carry on.

He also makes it clear (to me, anyway) that adding complexity is our preferred strategy. Even when we reach the point where we are working as hard as we can to just maintain the status quo, we are very reluctant to simplify things. This would seem to imply that our path of progress from the caves to the stars is fated to be interrupted on occasion by collapse, and perhaps stopped altogether.

Of course, these ideas are very unwelcome to those of us who have been raised in the religion of progress. We have been taught that progress makes things work better, makes life more convenient and comfortable and holds great hope for the future. But very little is said about what it all costs. It is pretty clear to me that progress amounts to increasing complexity, even if some of that complexity is hidden. My dad's first car, for instance, (a Model T Ford) had a manual choke and manual spark advance and starting it took quite a bit of skill. Today the latest models have push button start which takes care of all those details and works pretty much every time. Much simpler you might say, but have a look under the hood and you'll find that it takes a lot of hidden complexity to achieve this "simplicity".

When I first read this book, I was unwilling to even accept the idea of decreasing marginal productivity. Even though Tainter offers extensive examples and statistics in Chapter 4 to show that this is indeed so. Whether it is agriculture, resource production, manufacturing, information processing, sociopolitical control, specialization or overall economic productivity—the law of decreasing returns does indeed apply. Indeed, it is one of the few areas of economics in which we have enough confidence to call a "law".

But what I couldn't understand is how you could have decreasing productivity when yields have been going up significantly. Of course, what we are talking about here is decreases in marginal productivity.

To use terminology from agriculture, the yields per acre have indeed improved. But the amount of additional (marginal) effort required has grown for each successive improvement. Effort means energy. Traditionally that meant muscle power, human or animal. Today we have achieved great reductions in the amount of muscle power required in agriculture, but only because we have learned to use energy (in the form of fossil fuels) directly to drive machines or manufacture fertilizers and pesticides. With all this, agriculture has become an increasingly complex endeavour which consumes more energy than ever before. And over the last couple of decades yields have started to level off despite heroic measures to improve them.

Another illustration of this is the development of the coal-based economy in England, covered by Tainter in chapter 4 of this book. One commonly hears the switchover to coal extolled as a great leap forward, due to the greater BTUs per unit weight to be had from burning coal. Unfortunately, that viewpoint suffers from a certain amount of tunnel vision.

Jumps in population at around AD 1300, 1600 and in the eighteenth century, led to intensification in agriculture and industry and as land was increasingly deforested to provide fuel and agricultural space, basic heating, cooking and manufacturing needs could no longer be met by burning wood. A shift to reliance on coal began, gradually and with apparent reluctance. Coal was definitely a fuel source of secondary desirability, being more expensive to obtain and distribute than wood as well as being more dirty and polluting... Mining of coal from the ground was more costly than obtaining a quantity of wood of equal heating value and became ever more costly as the most accessible reserves were depleted. Mines had to be sunk ever deeper, until groundwater problems became a serious problem. Ultimately the steam engine was developed to pump water out of mines, using some of the coal as a power source...

The increased costliness per unit of thermal value in the initial shift from wood to coal is apparent, but unfortunately good data on returns to energy investment are not available before the recent period. Modern data not only illustrate the trend quantitatively, but indicates that the process of declining marginal returns is continuing.

That was written in 1988. It is interesting to note, from our vantage point in 2017, that coal mining in the UK peaked in 1913 and finally came to an end in 2015.

Another aspect of increasing complexity is that, in order to minimize those decreasing marginal returns, complex systems are usually optimized as much as possible. That is to say, they are made as efficient as possible in terms of their intended output. Unfortunately, this inevitable reduces thier adaptability and resiliency. Such systems are very brittle and when even fairly minor things go wrong they tend to break (collapse) where a more resilient system would have been able to adapt and carry on.

In Chapter 5, Tainter takes a close look at three examples of collapse to see if his law of decreasing marginal productivity works as an explanation. These are The Western Roman Empire, The Classic Maya of the Southern Lowlands and The Chacoan Society of the American Southwest. Tainter goes into quite a bit of detail about each of these societies, but I'll just share his conclusions:

  1. In each of the cases examined, the costliness of complexity increased over time while the benefits to the population declined.
  2. In each substantial increased costs occurred late, shortly before the collapse, and these were imposed on a population already weakened by the previous pattern of decreasing marginal returns
  3. For Rome and Maya, population leveled off or declined before the collapse and the well-being of most people deteriorated. This seems to have come about from the demands of supporting such complex systems. It is not currently known whether something similar happened in the Chacoan case, but it is noteworthy that the number of Outliers participating in this system dropped prior to the final collapse. Quite possibly, Outlier communities, whose participation could not be enforced (unlike the Roman and Mayan cases), withdrew from the network before declining marginal productivity adversely affected their local populations.
  4. For the Maya and Chacoans, subsequent abandonment of their territories, and the lack of a substantial reoccupation by agricultural peoples, suggests that there was environmental deterioration during the period of growth. This may indicate that pressures of population on resources had more to do with the Mayan and Chacoan collapses than with that of Rome. The Roman case is very different, for the later Empire was decidedly under populated.
  5. In each case, people on the periphery (the northern European barbarians, the northern Maya, and the Western and Eastern Pueblos) rose to prominence after the older society had collapsed.

None of these cases can be completely understood by the explanations commonly advanced for them.

  1. The fall of Rome was not due to barbarians, for the Empire was economically, organizationally, and militarily stronger than the besiegers. And it was not due to internal weakness, for the Empire remained essentially intact for a period of several hundred years. Rome's collapse was due to the excessive costs imposed on the agricultural population to maintain a far-flung empire in a hostile environment.
  2. The fall of the Maya was not due to a peasant revolt, for peasants supported this civilization for over 1000 years. It was not due to invasions, for which there is unclear evidence and uncertain causality, nor to agricultural deterioration, for the evidence of agricultural intensification indicates that the Maya were fully capable of increasing the productivity of their environment. The collapse of the Maya civilization was due to the burdens of an increasingly costly society borne by an increasingly weakened population. Peasant dissatisfaction, foreign pressures, internal conflict, or an agricultural crisis may have provided a final, insurmountable challenge, but such a challenge was effective only because the Maya were following a course that made them vulnerable to collapse.
  3. The Chacoan collapse was not due to drought or environmental deterioration, for these were factors which the Chacoans were technically capable of dealing with, and indeed had previously done so. The regional populations of the San Juan Basin chose not to continue participating in the Chacoan network, nor to rise to the challenge of the final drought because the costs of doing so had grown too high in comparison to the advantages conferred. Collapse and migration were economically preferable.

This chapter began with the observation that the framework for explaining collapse could probably not be subjected to a formal, quantitative test. The alternative was to investigate three cases in detail, asking whether the framework developed in Chapter 4 helps us to understand why these societies collapsed. The results lead us to answer the question affirmatively: the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Southern Lowland Maya and the Chacoan society can be understood as responses to declining marginal returns on investment in complexity.

In Chapter 6 Tainter summarizes what he has been saying so far, and then considers the idea that collapse may not universally be a catastrophe:

...under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response.

What may be a catastrophe to administrators (and later observers) need not be to the bulk of the population... It may only be among those members of a society who have neither the opportunity nor the ability to produce primary food resources that the collapse of administrative hierarchies is a clear disaster. Among those less specialized, severing the ties that link local groups to a regional entity is often attractive. Collapse then is not intrinsically a catastrophe. It is a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population.

Tainter concludes by considering the implications for contemporary societies. And here I believe he finds himself in something of a state of denial. Or it may be that he felt a wholehearted endorsement of the idea that collapse lies in our future would have just been too much for his audiences to swallow. Tainter was well aware of the response experienced by The Limits to Growth.

He acknowledges that his findings certainly point to the possibility of collapse of our complex modern society and that such a collapse could be devastating because much of the population does not have the opportunity or ability to produce primary food resources. In addition to mentioning existential threats like comet strikes, he lists a number of scenarios for contemporary collapse:

  • nuclear war and associated climatic changes
  • increasing atmospheric pollution, leading to ozone depletion, climatic changes, saturation of global circulation patterns, and similar disasters
  • depletion of critical industrial resources
  • general economic breakdown, brought on by such things as unrepayable national and international debts, disruptions to fossil fuel availability, hyperinflation, and the like.

He even acknowledges that industrialism will someday have to deal with resource depletion and its own wastes. The major question is how far off the day is. And he admits that patterns of declining marginal returns can be observed in at least some contemporary industrial societies in the following areas: agriculture; mineral and energy production; research and development; investment in health and education; government, military and industrial management; productivity of GNP for producing new growth; and some elements of improved technical design.

He identifies two opposing reactions to all this: economists who believe the challenges we faces are all solvable economic dilemmas (to be solved by economic growth), and environmentalists who believe that stimulating economic growth can only hasten the inevitable crash and hold that we should be aiming for economic undevelopment (what is known today as "degrowth"). He says that both sides are ignoring key historical factors.

He proceeds to do a good job of debunking techno-optimism, talking clearly about what is wrong with the principle of infinite substitutability:

One problem with the principle of infinite substitutability is that it does not apply, in any simple fashion, to investments in organizational complexity. Sociopolitical organization, as we know, is a major arena of declining marginal returns, and one for which no substitute product can be developed. Economies of scale and advances in information-processing technology do help lower organizational costs, but ultimately these too are subject to diminishing returns.

A second problem is that the principle of infinite substitutability is, despite its title, difficult to apply indefinitely. A number of perceptive scientists, philosophers, and economists have shown that the marginal cost of research and development... have grown so high it is questionable whether technological innovation will be able to contribute as much to the solution of future problems as it has to past ones...

It is not that R&D cannot potentially solve the problems of industrialism. The difficulty is that to do so will require an increasing share of GNP. The principle of infinite substitutability depends on energy and technology. With diminishing returns to investment in scientific research, how can economic growth be sustained? The answer is that to sustain growth, resources will have to be allocated from other sectors of the economy into science and engineering. The result will likely be at least a temporary decline in the standard of living... The allocation of greater resources to science of course is nothing new, merely the continuation of a two century-old trend. Such investment, unfortunately, can never yield a permanent solution, merely a respite from diminishing returns.

But then, in my opinion, he goes astray. He says that historical collapses were all of complex societies functional in isolation. Today's world is full of complex societies in competition with each other, which (he asserts) changes things.

Any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbour or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power, or by an international funding agency; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates its population and territory will be absorbed by some other.

His comments on degrowth are limited to this:

Here is the reason why proposals for economic undevelopment, for living in balance on a small planet, will not work. Given the close link between economic and military power, unilateral economic deceleration would be equivalent to and as foolhardy as, unilateral disarmament. We simply do not have the option to return to a lower economic level, at least not a rational option. Competition among political peers drives increased complexity and resource consumption regardless of costs, human or ecological.

I do not wish to suggest by this discussion that any major power would be quickly in danger of collapse were it not for this situation. Both the primary and secondary world powers have sufficient economic strength to finance diminishing returns well into the future.

It is amusing (and sad) that this was written very shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, during which the rest of the world stood by and declined to finance the USSR any further. Evidently, there was insufficient economic strength to finance diminishing returns.

Since then we have witnessed numerous cases where the world powers have stood by and allowed an assortment of small countries to undergo something very similar to collapse. Why? Because it didn't make economic sense to do anything else. Off the top of my head I would point to Cuba, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Somalia, Rwanda, Greece and Venezuela.

The major powers are simply no longer ready to finance diminishing returns in those cases where there is no profit in it for them. The phenomena of "throwing them to the wolves", both in the case of small economically insignificant countries, and inconvenient groups and individuals within countries, is becoming standard procedure. Help from international funding agencies has turned out to be the kiss of death for developing countries. And people are very unwilling to support governments that call for austerity as a path to economic recovery (rightly so).

Tainter goes on to say (as have so many others) that a new energy subsidy beyond fossil fuels will be necessary to finance declining marginal returns, and even that will only be a temporary fix. He believed that the lack of a power vacuum and the resulting competitive spiral have given us a temporary reprieve in which to search for that energy subsidy.

There is both cause for optimism and pessimism in the current situation. We are in a curious position where competitive interactions force a level of investment, and a declining marginal return that might ultimately lead to collapse except that the competitor who collapses first will simply be dominated or absorbed or dominated by the survivor...

...in fact industrial societies are subject to the same principles that caused earlier societies to collapse. If civilization collapses again, it will be from failure to take advantage of the current reprieve, a reprieve paradoxically both detrimental and essential to our anticipated future.

Sorry, Mr. Tainter—in the event, that's not the way it turned out. Whatever reprieve there was in the closing days of the twentieth century has slipped between our fingers. In the twenty-first century, those who collapse are largely abandoned by those striving to avoid a similar fate.

This just goes to show you how difficult making predictions is, especially about the future. But none of that takes away in the least from the main message of this book, which I would say is rock solid—human societies use complexity to solve problems and because of declining marginal returns, those solutions are always temporary and often lead to collapse. This principle should be kept very much in mind by those of us who are trying understand the events unfolding around us in the world today.

I recommend reading the book, but there are also a quite a few videos featuring Joseph Tainter on YouTube.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Collapse of Complex Societies, Part 1

In a few weeks I'll be starting a series of posts called Political Realities: Collapse Step by Step, looking into how the collapse of industrial society is likely to proceed. The title is a reference to a series of posts I did a while back, entitled A Political Fantasy which looked at what could be done to improve our situation if the political will existed. In the upcoming series I'll be looking at what is going to happen instead. Before I get there, though, I'll be doing reviews of a few books that will help us understand some features of this collapse.

In this post and the next one, we'll be looking at Dr. Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies. It was published in 1988, and is a classic among us kollapsniks.

In his first chapter, Tainter tells us that collapse is a political process and that a society has collapsed when it displays a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity. He goes on to describe the following characteristics of a collapsed society:

  • a lower degree of stratification and social differentiation
  • less economic and occupational specialization of individuals, groups and territories
  • less centralized control; that is, less regulation and integration of diverse economic and political groups by elites
  • less behavioral control and regulation
  • less investment in the epiphenomena of complexity, those elements that define the concept of "civilization": monumental architecture, artistic and literary achievements and the like
  • less flow of information between individuals, between political and economic groups and between a center and its periphery
  • less sharing, trading and redistribution of resources
  • less overall coordination and organization of individual and groups
  • a smaller territory integrated within a single political unit

I have a few points to add to that list:

  • collapse is always political because the entity which is collapsing (a complex society) is essentially political
  • "rapid" is a relative term—if you are living through events that will later be seen as happening rapidly, it will probably seem to you like it is taking forever.
  • as a collapse is happening, very few people see it as such. What at the time are optimistically seen as temporary setbacks are later clearly seen as stages of collapse.
  • when a society is in collapse, efforts to prevent changes to less complex forms may do more harm than good and gracefully accepting the inevitable may be beneficial. Later on in the book Tainter shows us why this is so.

He goes on to look at collapses in history. I think he may have been trying to establish how common a process it is, for the benefit of those less familiar with the subject. He makes a few remarks about the collapse of modern empires like the Spanish, French and British, in which the home administration did not collapse—a notable difference from the empires of the past. Writing in 1988, of course, he was just a little early to include the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He finishes this chapter with a look at the characteristics of collapsed societies. As one would expect, with collapse comes a breakdown of authority and central control and the services provided at that level. The populace is left to get by as best they can and organize themselves at the local level, with much less long distance trade and communication. There is typically a marked rapid reduction in population size and density, because people flee and/or the death rate comes to exceed the birth rate. One might assume that the death rate increases, but if we look at the case of the Soviet Union, it is interesting that the birth rate actually went down significantly during the collapse.

Given all this, it is small wonder that collapse is feared by so many people today. Whether collapse is universally a catastrophe is considered in the concluding chapter of the book.

The second chapter considers the nature of complex societies. What follows is my impression of what Tainter has to say; apologies to him if I have misunderstood or added much that is my own.

At one end of the spectrum we have hunter gatherer societies, at the other our modern global industrial society.

The small hunter gatherer band is the archetypal un-complex society. This is not to say that considerable effort isn't spent in organizing and co-ordinating the endeavours of its members, but rather that at this scale it can all be done with nothing more than native human abilities. No administrative organization or written records, for instance.

Tainter describes several theories of how more complex societies got started. The one that makes the most sense to me is "Managerial": as we move to larger and more technologically advanced societies, the number of people involved and the differentiated and interconnected nature of their activities is such that an administrative organization must created in order to manage the whole thing.

There are two others that are referenced latter in sections of the book that I want to quote, so I'll include them here, conflict theory and integrationist theory:

In essence, conflict theory asserts that the state emerged out of the needs and desires of individuals and subgroups of a society. The state, in this view, is based on divided interests, on domination and exploitation, on coercion, and is primarily a stage for power struggles.

Integrations theories suggest that complexity and stratification arose because of stresses impinging on human populations and were positive responses to those stresses. Complexity then serves population-wide needs, rather than responding to the selfish ambitions of a few.

It seems that leadership is essential in complex societies and establishing the legitimacy of that leadership is a significant challenge. People accept leadership because they see that it brings them advantages or because they are coerced into doing so. Both strategies are expensive and this is the basis states and politics.

The third chapter looks at the study of collapse and the various factors to which scholars have attributed collapse. Tainter looks at 11 major explanations of collapse and finds them wanting in a variety of ways, offering the following summary at the end of the chapter:

  1. Resource depletion. Dealing with resource depletion is a common activity of complex societies and may be one of the thing that they do best. Where this is not the case, research has to focus on the characteristics of the society that prevent an appropriate response, rather than the exclusively on the characteristics of the depleted resource.
  2. New resources. This theme has some attraction of integration theorists, but none to conflict theorists. Its usefulness is mainly restricted to simpler societies.
  3. Catastrophes. Complex societies regularly provide for catastrophes, and routinely experience them without collapsing. If the society cannot absorb a catastrophe, then in many cases characteristics of the society will be of greater interest, obviating the catastrophe explanation.
  4. Insufficient response to circumstances. The assumptions made in this theme about the nature of complex societies—that they are inherently fragile, or static, or incapable of shifting direction—simply cannot be supported. Where complex societies may display such characteristics, that is a matter to be explained.
  5. Other complex societies. Major cases, such as the Roman one, cannot be accounted for by this theme. Conflict between states more often leads to cycles of expansion and contraction than to collapse.
  6. Intruders. The overthrow of a dominant state by a weaker one is an event to be explained, not an explanation in itself. Empirically, intruders are often difficult to detect archeologically where they have be postulated. It is difficult to understand why barbarians would destroy a civilization if it was worth invading in the first place.
  7. Conflict/contradictions/mismanagement. The capacity to control labor and allocate resources is intrinsic and necessary in complex societies. Collapse cannot be explained by factors so vital to survival, at least not without raising many more questions than are answered. Elite mismanagement and self-aggrandizement, to the extent that these are detrimental to the survival of a society are matters to be explained. Exploitation and misadministrations are normal, regular aspects of complex societies, and by themselves cannot account for... collapse. Peasants rarely revolt except when allied with other social strata, and their rebellions are not typically aimed at collapse.
  8. Social dysfunction. These explanations offer neither sources of strain nor causal mechanisms that can be analyzed in any objective way.
  9. Mystical. Mystical explanations fail totally to account scientifically for collapse. They are crippled by reliance on a biological growth analogy, by value judgments and by reference to intangibles.
  10. Chance concatenation of events. This theme provides no basis for generalization. Collapse is not well explained by reference to random factors.
  11. Economic explanations. These are structurally and logically superior to the others, at least as these others have been formulated to date. They identify characteristics of societies that make them liable to collapse, specify controlling mechanisms and indicate causal chains between controlling mechanisms and observed outcome. While economic explanations are not universally accepted in the social and historical sciences, such scenarios remedy the logical deficiencies of the other approaches. Existing economic models often suffer from incomplete forays into political and social explanations, but this is not an intrinsic flaw. The major drawback to economic explanations, for present purposes, is to develop an explanatory framework that is globally applicable.
With the exception of mystical explanations, which are without scientific merit, none of these explanatory themes fails entirely. Indeed, the economic theme comes close to success—in logic, if not in specifics—but does not go quite far enough. Except for mystical explanations, these approaches are not necessarily wrong or misguided. They are simply inadequate as presently formulated.... A general explanation of collapse should be able to take what is best in these themes and incorporate it. It should provide a framework under which these explanatory themes can be subsumed, so that one can account for what is worthwhile in each. A general explanation should make these themes clearer in application than each would be standing alone.

In Chapter 4, Tainter develops that explanation.

It will be no surprise to my readers that this explanation involves energy. While Tainter doesn't mention it, the ideas of "dissipative systems" and "dissipative structures" are useful here. Wikipedia defines a dissipative system as a thermodynamically open system which is operating out of, and often far from, thermodynamic equilibrium in an environment with which it exchanges energy and matter. It goes on to define a dissipative structure as a dissipative system that has a dynamical régime that is in some sense in a reproducible steady state.

Living organisms (including human beings) and ecologies are dissipative structures. So are human societies. All these structures maintain themselves by taking in energy and giving off waste heat. That "reproducible steady state" is not a matter of equilibrium, indeed it is definitely not is an sort of "balance", and if the supply of energy falls below the appropriate level, that state cannot be maintained and death and dissolution follow. On the other hand if a surplus of energy is available, these systems can grow and become more complex.

Indeed, my definition of politics is "the means by which a society decides what it will do with surplus energy".

Hunter gatherers, when faced with a windfall of surplus energy (usually in the form of food), often simply choose to accumulate a larger reserve of body fat, enjoy more leisure time and make sure more of their offspring survived to adulthood. This lifestyle worked very well for a couple of million years, during which time we spread to all the continents except Antarctica, and began to fill them up.

It seems to me that the problem which initially (and often since then) drove the adoption of complexity was this growing human population and the need for an increasing the food supply. It started out with the simplest forms of agriculture, which required more work and more organization than hunting and gathering, but returned a higher and more predictable yield of food on a smaller area of land. Remember, before the invention of heat engines, societies ran largely on muscle power, so food was the most important form of energy.

The important things that Tainter would have us understand is that each additional layer of complexity requires an additional amount of energy to support it. And further, that each additional investments in complexity give us lower returns, eventually reaching the point where more complexity actually makes things worse. This is called the law of "decreasing marginal productivity" and it is illustrated in this diagram, Tainter's Figure 19.

The horizontal axis represents the "Level of Complexity" and the vertical axis represents the "Benefits of Complexity". The shape of the curve gives us "decreasing marginal productivity." From the origin up to point B1C1 increases in the level of complexity yield very favorable increases in benefits. After B1C1, further investments in complexity still increase benefits, but by a smaller amount. For a similar investment today we get less improvement in benefits than we did yesterday and tomorrow is even worse. At point B2C2 additional complexity brings no benefits and at great deal is being spent just to maintain the status quo. If we go further to the right, adding complexity actually makes things worse. Note than at point B1C3, the benefits of all that added complexity are just the same as at the much less complex point B1C1. A move back to point B1C1 would be beneficial if it could be done without causing too much damage. The difficulty is that the very fabric of society is based on complexity, and at point B1C3, quite a lot of complexity. To switch back to point B1C1, much of that complexity would have to be dismantled or abandoned and replaced with something simpler—a process which, by definition, may be indistinguishable from collapse.

Human societies are problem solving organizations and our first choice as a problem solving technique is to add complexity. This often comes in the form of technology, which never makes things simpler, even though the added complexity may be hidden somewhere out of sight in the organization.

The horizontal axis of Fig. 19 can also be seen as representing energy used to maintain complexity, and the vertical axis as the energy gained by adding complexity. Initially, adding complexity yields enough extra energy to support that new level of complexity and enough surplus to support using further complexity to solve further problems.

Nothing succeeds like success and human societies tend to become like Christopher Robin's friend Tigger, who could only climb up trees. To get him down, drastic action was required (some help from the narrator, rotating the book so poor Tigger could step off the tree onto the text and from there to the ground). Human societies often get caught in "progress traps" and the only solutions they can think of just make things worse. Problems arise, and eventually things get to the point where adding complexity doesn't solve them. Collapse often ensues.

This can be avoided by "extending the tree"—adding technologies that use energy more efficiently or by acquiring additional sources of energy. Traditionally, this was done by taking over more land to grow more crops. In the modern world, fossil fuels have provided a huge energy subsidy which has enabled our society to become ever more complex. But as Figure 20 shows, this offers only a temporary reprieve. As we move further to the right on the curve, we eventually reach another area of decreasing returns and have to confront once again the possibility of collapse.

In any case, societies which find themselves on a downward sloping part of the curve are very vulnerable to collapse.

First, as the marginal return on investment in complexity declines, a society invests every more heavily in a strategy that yields proportionally less. Excess productive capacity and accumulated surpluses may be allocated to current operating needs. When major stress surges (major adversities) arise there is little or no reserve with which they may be countered. Stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget. This often proves ineffectual. Where it does not, the society may be economically weakened and made more vulnerable to the next crisis....

Secondly, declining marginal returns make complexity an overall less attractive strategy, so that parts of a society perceive increasing advantage to a policy of separation or disintegration. When the marginal cost of investment in complexity becomes noticeably too high, various segments increase passive or active resistance, or overtly attempt to break away.

Tainter wraps up Chapter 4 by commenting that historically, the need for more energy was frequently met by conquering more land and this could provide only a temporary respite from declining marginal productivity. This tendency in particular resulted in a situation where collapse, when it did occur, affected a wider territorial sphere in a more devastating manner than might have otherwise been the case.

Next time, I'll wrap up this book review, covering Chapters 5 and 6 of The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Political Fantasies, Political Realities

Sunset on Lake Huron, Dec. 18, 2016,
not far from where I live.

A while back I did a series of posts entitled A Political Fantasy. The idea was what would I tell our Prime Minister if he should actually ask me for advice on how to run the country in the age of scarcity. Small chance that that would ever happen, or that he would take my advice if he did get it, but it made for a good way of getting some ideas across.
In the new year I'll be doing two or three book reviews as a way of covering some concepts that need to be set up before I start another series of posts entitled Political Realities--Collapse, Step by Step. The original series appeared here before I caught on to posting links to my blog in a few choice locations. Readership has gone up considerably since then, which is good, but it means that relatively few of you have seen that series. Having read A Political Fantasy before we start on Political Realities might be a good idea, so here is a list of links:
A little light reading to see you through the holiday season. ;) And speaking of that, best holiday wishes to all my readers. Take care of yourselves--I'll see you in 2017.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Big Picture

I just finished reading Sean Carroll's book "The Big Picture—The Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself". A review of this book fits in very nicely with where I was going in my last post and, at the end of it, gets us back on track again talking about life in the age of scarcity.

Carrol, who is physicist, calls himself a "poetic naturalist" and this deserves a little explanation.

A naturalist is what I would call a monistic materialist, someone like me who believes that:

  1. There is only one world, the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
  3. The only reliable way to learn about the world is to observe it.

There is a trend these days for naturalists writing books to do their best to give a sound drubbing to those who believe in god, the supernatural and so forth and to blame religion for the world's problems. Carroll does not do this. He takes a very gentle, even handed approach, which probably makes this a great book for someone from a non-scientific background looking to see what science has to say about "the big picture". Of course, I am not such a person, but I did find much that will be helpful when trying to explain my position to such folks. And I suppose that, really, I am the ideal reader—someone with no formal training in science, but who is a "science watcher" and wants to up to date on the "big picture".

The "poetic" part refers to the kinds of stories that we tell about that world.

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

Modern physics has reduced the world to a collection of quantum fields and in principle the world can be entirely described by the behaviour of those fields. In practice, though, there are many "emergent" properties and behaviours that are not obvious from that low level description. Carroll takes us up through a series of higher emergent levels: particles and forces, bulk matter such as solids, liquids and gases, living organisms, and finally consciousness. He has some interesting things to say at each level, especially about consciousness, but I was somewhat disappointed that he did not carry on to talk about the obvious next level—the social sciences which deal with the emergent properties of people living together in groups.

After a week of struggling with a nasty cold (it's that season again here in Canada) and trying to sort out which parts of this book to talk about, I've decided to skip directly to the last section of the book. What I'm leaving out are some very eloquent and cogent treatments of a variety of subjects that I find intensely interesting. But this is a significantly longer book than The Limits to Growth, which took me 6 posts to cover, and there are other books and other subjects that I need to get on with. Who knows, there is a wealth of material here and I may return to some of it on another day. In the meantime, have a look at the author's website for more information and then get yourself a copy of the book—you won't regret it.

In Part 6, after spending almost 400 pages on how science works and what it can tell us about how the world works, Carroll takes an abrupt turn. One which very nicely wraps up the book for me. What follows is my attempt to condense his 46 pages into the 2000 or so words I have left to work with in this post. Leaving room for a few of my own thoughts at the end, of course.

Part Six: Caring

45. Three Billion Heartbeats

For naturalists, the evidence is pretty strong that there is no afterlife. The implications of naturalism are uplifting in many ways, but this is not one of them. A little rough calculation shows that each of us has about 3 billion heartbeats. What are we going to do with them?

Meaning, morality and purpose are not built into the universe—they emerge as ways of talking about our human-scale environment. Though science tries to describe the world as accurately as possible, it has nothing to say about how we should spend our 3 billion heartbeats, the goals we should strive for or how we ought to behave. Our source of values is not to be found in the world outside, but inside us. We're part of the world but the best way to talk about ourselves is as thinking, purposeful agents who can make choices. One of those choices, unavoidably, is what kind of life we want to live.

Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life opens with the statement "it's not about you". Poetic naturalism says just the opposite: it is about you, me and every other person, it is up to us to create meaning and purpose for ourselves. The ascendance of naturalism has removed the starting point of much of how we used to conceive of our place in the universe. Like Wile E. Coyote after running off a cliff, we need some ground to walk on or we need to learn how to fly.

Sure you can say you are leading a rich and rewarding life based on your love for your family and friends, your dedication to your craft and your work to the make the world a better place. But are you really? If the value we place on things isn't objectively determined and we won't be around in 100 years or so, can you say your life truly matters? Yes! The love you feel is still there, as pure and true as ever.

If neither God nor the universe will help us attach significance to our actions, where do we start? With who we are—we are creature of motion and motivation. The dynamics of life manifests itself as desire and despite it's bad reputation, desire is what we have, it is about caring: about ourselves, other people, and what happens to the world. In the light of evolution, caring is what keeps us trying, we are built to care about the world and make it matter. As conscious beings we can build on our personal cares and desires to create values that look beyond ourselves to the wider world. The challenges are real, the opportunities are incredible and the finitude of life makes this particularly poignant.

46. What Is and What Ought to Be

The thing is, you can't derive "ought" from "is". "Is" is descriptive, "ought" implies a judgment. A problem for naturalism is that the natural world doesn't provide judgment and different people will judge differently.

Many have tried to derive "oughts" from logic, but they always end up cheating and sneaking in "ought" statements as premises, rather proving them from the logic. Sneaking oughts is often justified by saying, "oh it's only a little thing and we all agree about it anyway." But when we look closer we find that such premises are often major points of contention. We shouldn't hide or downplay the assumptions we make in order to get moral reasoning off the ground. Our attempts to be better people are best served if those assumptions are brought out into the open, interrogated and evaluated as carefully as we can manage.

Some would use science to determine what morality should be. This boils down to something like "we ought to make the world a better place", and that all hinges on our definition of "better". Our definitions of better always comes down to some assumptions that are not based on observation of the natural world, and therefore can't be tested or falsified.

Certainly, once we have decided what our goal should be, science can help us achieve it. The trouble is we don't all agree on what constitutes happiness, pleasure or justice. There are fundamental disagreements about meaning and morality which aren't just a matter of someone having made a mistake—they are real and inevitable. Other people do things that we judge to be bad, but we can't do an experiment or point to data or construct a syllogism or write a stinging blog post that would persuade them of why their actions are bad.

We should recognize that our desire for an objective grounding for morality creates a cognitive bias and we should compensate by being especially skeptical of any claims in that direction

47. Rules and Consequences

The Bible tells us that God called Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. There are many interpretations of what Abraham (and Isaac) should or could have done. When it is not clear what is right and wrong, what are the most basic principles that should ultimately decide?

Philosophers pose a thought experiment called "the trolley problem". A group of five people is tied to some trolley tracks. A speeding trolley has lost its brakes and is barreling toward them. If no action is taken, they will surely die. But you have the option of taking an action: you are standing by a switch that will divert the trolley to another track, which has a single person tied to it, who will surely die if you pull the switch.

Such moral dilemmas are real, even if not usually quite so stark. An absolute moral standard like God can be very challenging, but the lack on one also leaves us with no guide to resolving such dilemmas. Nature alone is no help, it doesn't lead us to "ought", so what is the best way to think about how we should live?

Philosophers distinguish between ethics (what is right and wrong, e.g. killing puppies is wrong), meta-ethics (what it means to say that something is right or wrong and why we should pick one set of guidelines over another, e.g. our system of ethics should be based on improving the well-being of conscious creatures). Naturalism does tell us that ethical systems are constructed by human beings, not found out there in the world and should be evaluated accordingly

Two schools of ethical thought are consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialists believe that the moral implications of an act are determined by the consequences it causes, like "the greatest good for the greatest number". Deontologists feel that actions are morally right or wrong in and of themselves regardless of their consequences, that we should simply follow the rules.

The two systems correspond roughly to different parts of our brains. System 1 is based on heuristics, instincts and visceral reactions and would have us mindlessly follow the rules. System 2 kicks in when we start thinking as consequentialists. In the trolley problem, System 2 would have us pull the switch and kill only 1 person rather than 5, while System 1 is appalled by the idea.

Another thought experiment, the footbridge problem, involves pushing someone off a bridge to stop the trolley in order to save 5 people. MRIs taken of peoples' brains when faced with personal decisions (like pushing someone off a bridge) show activity in areas of the brain associated with emotions and social reasoning. Impersonal decisions like pulling a switch cause activity in the parts of the brain associated with cognition and higher reasoning. Clearly, the parliament that constitutes our brain has different factions.

The real world is more complex and less clear cut and we may actually act differently than we predict we would. This discussion is meant to give us an idea of how we think about how we should behave.

There is a third ethical system based on virtues, which is concerned with basing your decisions on the basic virtues such as courage, responsibility and wisdom. All three systems lead us to different conclusions in important situations. Which should we follow?

"Should" implies we have a way of judging different approaches,. Let's think about how we could go about choosing any ethical system at all. Fortunately we have desires, feelings, things that we care about, things that attract us, things that repel us. Primatologists have done research that shows the basics of empathy, fairness and co-operation exist in monkeys and apes, showing that some of our most advanced moral commitments have very old evolutionary roots.

One approach to moral philosophy is to think of it as simply a method for making sense of those commitments: making sure that we are true to our own self-proclaimed morals, that our justifications for our actions are internally consistent, and that we take into account the values of other people where appropriate. Rather than fitting data in a scientific sense, we can choose our ethical theories by how well they conform to our own existing sentiments.

A moral framework is "useful" to a poetic naturalist to the extent that it reflects and systematizes our moral commitments in a logically coherent way. This is resolutely practical: it is what we do anyway when we try to think carefully about morality. It can also be terrifying when right and wrong is just a matter of our personal feelings and preferences, with nothing external to back it up. But admitting that morality is constructed, rather than found lying around, doesn't mean the there is no such thing as morality.

This approach is known as moral constructivism. This is different from moral relativism, which thinks that morality is grounded in the practices of a particular culture and can't be judged from outside. A constructivist acknowledges that morality originates in individuals and societies, but accepts that those individuals and societies will view their beliefs as correct and judge others accordingly. Just because moral are constructed, doesn't mean they are arbitrary. Ethical systems are invented by humans and we can all have productive conversations about how they can be improved.

Different constructivists have reached different conclusions. Immanuel Kant was a strict deontologists, and held that every rational person would ultimately construct the same moral framework. David Hume was more at home with skepticism, empircism and uncertainty. Hume held that "Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions."

From a naturalistic viewpoint, Hume was right: we have no guidance on how to distinguish right from wrong: not from God, not from nature, not from the pure force of reason. But we are burdened and blessed with the talents, inclinations and instincts that evolution and our upbringing have bequeathed us. Judging what is good and what is not is a quintessentially human act. We need to face up to that and still remember that other people may not judge the way we do.

48. Constructing Goodness

What kind of morality shall we construct?

If we choose to be consequentialists, we could try the theory of ultilitarianism. But we quickly find there are problems with defining ultility and with applying it, even in principle.

If we choose to be deontolgoical, we must be aware that psychologists have found that most moral reasoning and rule based reasoning in particular, serves to rationalize opinions we hold intuitively, rather than leading us to novel moral conclusions.

Clashes between moral guidelines and our personal moral sentiments would be okay if we though the guidelines captured some transcendent truths—so much the worse for our sentiments. But if the project of moral philosophy is to systematize and rationalize our sentiments, then such approaches have a big problem.

All the various systems of ethics capture something about our moral impulses. We want to act in good ways, we want to make the world a better place, we want to be good people. We also want to make sense and be internally consistent, which is hard to do while accepting all these conflicting impulses at once. Moral philosophies tend to pick one approach and apply it universally, which leads to conflicts. Instead, perhaps we should take the bits and pieces from all the systems that fit us best. There is no "right" answer to the trolley problem, how you should act depends on who you are.

The worry is that if morality is constructed, everyone will construct whatever they like, and what they like won't be very good. Or worse yet, that we won't have any strong basis to reject things that are clearly bad. But in practice such worries are overblown. Most people, in most circumstances, want to think of themselves as doing good rather than evil. If we disagree with them, we can sit down and talk and work out a mutually reasonable solution. And if we decide that something is deeply wrong, there is no reason we cannot work to prevent it happening.

Deciding how to be good isn't like solving a math puzzle or discovering a new fossil. It's like going to dinner with a group of friends. We think about what we want for our individual selves, talk to others about their desires and how we can work together, and reason about how to make it happen. The group may include both vegetarians and omnivores, but with a good faith effort there's no reason everyone can't be satisfied.

Here is the early twenty first century, a majority of scientists and philosophers are naturalists. But in the public sphere, at least in the US, on questions of morality and meaning, religion and spirituality are given a preemminent place. Our values have not caught up to our best ontology, our current understanding of how the world works.

They had better start catching up. We're like that first fish flapping up onto land, faced with a new world of challenges and opportunities and not yet adapted to it. We are faced with moral questions our ancestors couldn't have contemplated.

Poetic naturalism doesn't tell us how to behave, but it warns us away from the false complacency of the conviction that our morals are objectively the best. We don't need an immovable place to stand; we need to make our peace with a universe that doesn't care what we do and take pride in the fact that we care anyway.

49. Listening to the World

A good poetic naturalist will resist the temptation to hand out lists of Ten Commandments, but perhaps a list of Ten Considerations would be appropriate.

  • Life Isn't Forever
  • Desire is built into life
  • What matters is what matters to people
  • We can always do better
  • It pays to listen
  • There is no natural way to be
  • It takes all kinds
  • The universe is in our hands
  • We can do better than happiness
  • Reality guides us

Each comes with a few paragraphs of explanation and they are definitely worth reading.

50. Existential Therapy

Carroll was brought up religious and studied astronomy as an undergraduate at a Catholic university. None of this experience was in the least repressive—he wasn't driven away from religion as so many of us have been.

He was always curious about the world and fascinated by science, We talk about awe and wonder, but they are two different things. He is in awe of the universe, but his primary feeling is wonder. Awe implies reverence of a mystery and wonder implies curiosity and an urge to figure it all out.

Carroll feels it is a mistake to embrace mystery for its own sake, to take refuge in a conviction that the universe is fundamentally inscrutable. He always thought it was crucial that different aspects of the world fit together and make sense. Thinking like this eventually led him to abandon his belief in God. But for him the important distinction is not between theists and naturalists, but between those who care enough about the universe to try to understand it and those who fit it into a predetermined box or simply take it for granted. It's us against the mysteries of the universe; if we care about understanding, we're on the same side.

For poetic naturalists the universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium. We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle; a miracle in that it is wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable and immeasurably precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.

All lives are different, and some face hardships that others will never know. But we all share the same universe, the same laws of nature, and the same fundamental task of creating meaning and of mattering for ourselves and those around us in the brief amount of time we have in the world. Three billion heart beats. The clock is ticking."


And now for my thoughts.

I am truly impressed with Carroll's ideas on morality and meaning. Even hacked down to their bare bones, as I have presented them here, I think they hang together quite well.

I have only a couple of minor quibbles.

Philosophers tend descend into binary thinking when trying to clarify issues. The trolley problem is all very well as a thought experiment, but in the real world it would very likely be possible to mess with that switch in such a way as to derail the trolley and bring it to a halt saving all six people. Could be pretty hard on the trolley, but I care more about the people. My point, though, is that there is usually a third way out of these dilemmas (if not a fourth, fifth, sixth...) and that is what we should be hunting for.

As a practicing scientist Carroll has a pretty good grasp of objective reality. He made it clear in the first five parts of the book and took it for granted in the sixth. This, I think, contributed much to the clarity of his reasoning about ethics. But a great many people have no such grasp of objective reality and believe what their ideologies tell them to, however wrong that may be. This is a peril that Carroll warns us of repeatedly.

While it is true that science can't give us answers to our questions of how we ought to behave, if our ethical reasoning is not based on a solid grounding in how the world works, it will inevitably go astray. If we are fundamentally wrong about what the consequences of our actions will be, then our moral judgments will be faulty.


It is interesting to ponder how this all applies to what I've been talking about on this blog.

Today "Business as usual" forges ahead, in denial about climate change, resource depletion and the fundamental faults of its economic system. The consequences of this loom large before us. There is a clear moral obligation to acknowledge those consequences and act accordingly.

At the same time, for many who do see those consequences (I call them "Crunchies) there is a reluctance to accept much of what science tells us because science is seen as being in league with the forces of "business as usual". This is another form of denial and just as crippling as the denial at the other end of the spectrum.

What I am trying to do here is to point both Business as Usual folk and Crunchies towards a reality based approach to life in this age of scarcity. I am well aware that this is rather cocky of me and somewhat of an exercise in futility as well, but I'm having fun with it, so what the heck.

Until next time, take care of yourself.