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.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Politics and Science

or "Garbage in, Garbage Out"

This post bears on the "reality based" part of my "reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity". I am a fairly odd (and rare) bird in that my position is midway between two extremes —Business as Usual and Crunchiness. I spoke about this at some length in a series of posts that starts here. But in brief, I think that the business as usual world is headed straight for a collision with the material limits of the finite planet we are living on. Our system is fundamentally flawed and the attempts we are making to fix it are doomed to failure —it's going to gradually fall apart over the next few decades. At the same time I believe that the material world we live in is all there is and the scientific method is our best tool for understanding how it works. I think that the current scientific consensus is valid and the alternative ideas subscribed to by so many Crunchies are little more than nonsense. So I am neither a techno-optimist nor a technophobe, but somewhere in between.

If you happen to share this viewpoint, drop me a note in the comments. It would be heartening to know that I am not alone.

But back to the subject of this post —politics and science. I keep hearing people complaining that science doesn't give us the information we need to make political decisions. Then, practically in the same breath, they trot out some supposed "scientific facts" to support their ideas. It very often turns out that those facts run counter to the current scientific consensus. So it seems that what science really doesn't provide is "facts" to support their position, so it has to be replaced with pseudoscience that will deliver the necessary "facts".

The trouble with this is that the old computer programming adage —garbage in, garbage out —applies to politics. If political decisions are based on convenient lies, then the results will not be good.

I have to admit that this post is primarily written as a negative response to some things that John Michael Greer (one of my favourite bloggers) said in one of his recent posts. He's been blogging for over 10 years and I've only caught him in a small handful of what I consider to be errors. In most areas we pretty much agree, so what I am doing here is far from a wholesale debunking of Greer. But it does illustrate what I have said before: that people are not all of one piece —each of us holds some opinions that are rock solid and others that are complete nonsense. The trick is to keep the latter to a minimum by letting go of them as soon as you realize what they are.

I'll get back to Greer in a bit, but first let me say a little about the roles of science and pseudoscience in politics.

First we need to understand the term "scientific consensus" and along with it a bit about how science works.

Science does not prove things in the strict sense that mathematics does, nor does it offer absolute truths in the sense that religion claims to. A scientific consensus is not something you get by polling scientists to see what the majority opinion is. Rather a scientific consensus is a consensus of evidence and tells us what is likely to be true based on that evidence.

A scientist forms a hypothesis (has an idea) about how some aspect of the world works. He then gathers evidence which may support or oppose his idea and more importantly, suggests how he might refine it to better reflect reality. This might result in the idea being thrown out altogether or, hopefully, in gathering more evidence and making more revisions until the idea is so well supported by the evidence that it becomes an accepted theory, and eventually "scientific fact". It is then part of the scientific consensus. Even then, further evidence may well be found calling for further refinements.

Many people are unsatisfied with the provisional nature of scientific knowledge. But it provides the best information we can get to make decisions about the real world, and it is completely honest about how accurate (or inaccurate) that information is. So I don't think science is the problem.

The trouble is that there is so much misinformation going around these days that people regularly get away with using whatever sort of nonsense they like to support their positions. Huge controversies rage on, about issues where the science has been clear for years, but special interest groups keep pushing a non-evidence-based agenda. But for those who understand that science, many political decisions follow more or less obviously from the facts.

Of course it is true that political decisions are usually based mainly on interests and values. Interests are simply who benefits from a decision and who get stuck paying for it. Many people are involved in politics solely because they want to make sure their interests are taken care of. Values are about moral judgments, what's good for society, the rights that people should have and so forth. And again, many people are involved in politics because they'd like to further their values.

But objective reality also matters —you can't determine what will best serve your interests, or advance your values, without a firm grip on that reality. There may have been a time in the past when any well educated person had an adequate grasp of the facts to make good political decisions. But in our more complex modern world a solid grounding in science and technology is needed as well. Sadly, many people don't have that and end up being fooled by smooth talking salesmen and politicians.

Anyway, I don't think anyone seriously questions that the scientific method is the most powerful tool we have for understanding the material world. Indeed this is why misinformation is regularly dressed up in pseudoscientific drag to give it credibility.

There is a great deal of difference, though, between a scientist surveying the literature looking for direction in his research and an ideologue cherry picking bits of evidence from that literature to support his position. I think it's very important to understand just what that difference is.

The scientist works in a very competitive environment and knows that whatever he publishes will be exposed to rigorous examination and criticism by other scientists who are well informed about the state of the art. If his research can't stand up to that criticism his career is in jeopardy. So he is looking not just for confirmation of what he already believes, but also needs to be keenly aware of whatever runs counter to it.

The ideologue is looking for information which supports his position. He most certainly will ignore evidence that does not do so. Further, he is quite willing to distort the evidence and to take it out of context if that's what is necessary. He may well be willing to outright lie. He is aware that the general public, who are his audience, don't have the skills or the depth of knowledge to catch him out in this. He also knows that if some scientist calls him out, he can accuse that scientist of being biased —a shill for the industry —and the public will be only too eager to accept those accusations.

It is also important to bear in mind that many of the people who I'm calling "ideologues" have something to sell beyond just an idea. Maybe they'd like to charge you a stiff fee for a speaking engagement or sell you a copy of their book. Go to their website and check if there is a "store". If they are offering medical or dietary advice, it's likely that the heart of their idea comes down to you buying their products or services.

Under these conditions, the proliferation of pseudoscience is rampant. A lie, as they say, is half way around the world before the truth gets its shoes tied. And in the process, the lie has probably made somebody of lot of money.

But let's back up a minute. Isn't it also true that scientists, being human, do occasionally engage in unethical behaviour? Yes, of course it is. There are also times when they are just plain wrong and very stubborn about admitting it. And on occasion the other scientists who are supposed to be checking on them are asleep at the switch and bad research slips through and gets published.

Sometime later this comes to light and it does nothings for the public's confidence in science. But I would draw your attention to who it is that is uncovering these scandals —other scientists, who in the normal process of reviewing research or trying to duplicate it, find that there is something wrong. That is very much the way that it is supposed to work, and to me, quite reassuring.

Now it also happen that new evidence, or an improved interpretation of the old evidence, causes a drastic change in the scientific consensus. To the public this looks very suspicious, but it is in fact completely legitimate and exactly the kind of thing that we want to happen.

But let's get down to specifics. A while back, a group of Nobel Prize winning scientists wrote this letter:

To the Leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments around the world

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program has noted that global production of food, feed and fiber will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects.

We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognize the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against "GMOs" in general and Golden Rice in particular.

Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. There has never been a single confirmed case of a negative health outcome for humans or animals from their consumption. Their environmental impacts have been shown repeatedly to be less damaging to the environment, and a boon to global biodiversity.

Greenpeace has spearheaded opposition to Golden Rice, which has the potential to reduce or eliminate much of the death and disease caused by a vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which has the greatest impact on the poorest people in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The World Health Organization estimates that 250 million people suffer from VAD, including 40 percent of the children under five in the developing world. Based on UNICEF statistics, a total of one to two million preventable deaths occur annually as a result of VAD, because it compromises the immune system, putting babies and children at great risk. VAD itself is the leading cause of childhood blindness globally affecting 250,000 - 500,000 children each year. Half die within 12 months of losing their eyesight.

WE CALL UPON GREENPEACE to cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general;

WE CALL UPON GOVERNMENTS OF THE WORLD to reject Greenpeace's campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general; and to do everything in their power to oppose Greenpeace's actions and accelerate the access of farmers to all the tools of modern biology, especially seeds improved through biotechnology. Opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.

How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a "crime against humanity"?

Sincerely
Click here for a full list of signatories...

There are currently 121 names of famous and respected scientists on the list but of course that does not make it a scientific consensus. It is evident, though, that the people on the list are well aware of the scientific consensus on genetic engineering, and I'd say they've done a good job of putting it across.

This letter prompted John Michael Geer to write a post entitled "Scientific Education as a Cause of Political Stupidity". After re-reading Greer's post, I have to say it is even worse than I remembered, but I'll concentrate here on a few particularly significant parts.

What he has to say is based first on some of the most ridiculous stereotypes of engineers and scientists, and second, on some of the unfortunate misinformation that is circulating about genetic engineering.

Those stereotypes would have us believe that engineers and scientists are bumbling geeks, brilliant in their own narrow and focused area of expertise, but woefully lacking in social skills or political acumen. Greer offers some amusing anecdotes to support these stereotypes, but no real evidence in any scientific sense. My experience runs very much counter to what Greer is saying about such people, but I won't insult your intelligence by offering anecdotes as proof.

Greer also spends quite a bit of time talking about the role of interests and values in politics, but it seems to me that he really doesn't get that thing about objective reality mattering. He is big on history, but I would say that since history is about past events in the real world it should, in the widest sense, be seen as a type of scientific consensus.

Anyway, Greer then goes on to dismiss the thoughts of those Nobel Laureates on the value of Golden Rice:

There are, as it happens, serious questions of value and interest surrounding the genetically engineered rice under discussion. It’s been modified so that it produces vitamin A, which other strains of rice don’t have, and thus will help prevent certain kinds of blindness —that’s one side of the conflict of values. On the other side, most seed rice in the Third World is saved from the previous year’s crop, not purchased from seed suppliers, and the marketing of the GMO rice thus represents yet another means for a big multinational corporation to pump money out of the pockets of some of the poorest people on earth to enrich stockholders in the industrial world. There are many other ways to get vitamin A to people in the Third World, but you won’t find those being discussed by Nobel laureates —nor, of course, are any of the open letter’s signatories leading a campaign to raise enough money to buy the patent for the GMO rice and donate it to the United Nations, let’s say, so poor Third World farmers can benefit from the rice without having to spend money they don’t have in order to pay for it.

I have to give Greer full credit for being honest enough to admit the plain fact that golden rice can help prevent Vitamin A deficiency (VAD), which is a major cause of blindness in poor people for whom rice is a staple. He is wrong that Golden Rice produces Vitamin A — it actually produces beta carotene, which is turned into Vitamin A in our bodies.

But he proceeds to go much further astray than that —I suspect because he has been listening to the standard anti-GMO party line without checking out the facts for himself. If he had done so, and it is not hard to do, he would have found that the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board has the right to sublicense breeding institutions in developing countries free of charge. And Golden Rice breeds true, so those who wish to save seed from this year's crop to plant next year's will be free to do so at no extra expense and without fear of any legal battles. There is no need to buy the patent as Greer suggests. Those "nasty biotech companies" who owned the various patents involved voluntarily made them available for humanitarian reasons.

The largest population in the developing world who live almost exclusively off rice are not farmers, but the urban poor. If the farmers who grow rice commercially for sale to those folks were growing Golden Rice, it would easily solve the VAD problem and eliminate a great deal of suffering. Without those farmers having to worry about any restrictions on saving seed or paying a premium to buy the special seed.

As Greer says, there are other ways of treating Vitamin A deficiency, but...

Golden Rice has the potential to complement existing efforts that seek to reduce blindness and other VAD induced diseases. Those efforts include industrial fortification of basic foodstuffs with vitamin A, distribution of vitamin supplements, and increasing consumption of other foods rich in vitamin A. Those programs are successful mainly in urban areas but still around 45% of children around the world are not reached by supplementation programs. Moreover, these programs are not economically sustainable. Small countries, like Nepal or Ghana, require about 2 million dollars every year to run the campaigns, in spite of the negligible cost of the vitamin A capsules. A large country like India cannot afford to run country-wide programs, because the costs become prohibitive. There is no guarantee that donors and governments will be able to carry on funding those programs year after year (UNICEF, Micronutrient Initiative). Biofortified crops, like Golden Rice offer a long-term sustainable solution, because they do not require recurrent and complicated logistic arrangements once they have been deployed.

Check out these links for further information:
Vitamin A Deficiency-Related Disorders (VADD),
How white is my rice? Colour: Deterrent or selling argument?

Of particular interest to those of us who expect a collapse of industrial civilization, Golden Rice is a collapse proof solution which will go on working even when the technology it took to develop it is no longer available. And because somebody is sure to bring it up, let us be clear that the initial problem with low yields (compared to regular rice) have been solved.

Greer stops talking about GMOs and golden rice at that point, having completely failed to explain just what it was that those 121 Nobel Laureates said that was so stupid. A clear case here of "garbage in, garbage out", even though John Michael's thinking is usually pretty solid.

Whenever you see pseudoscience being successfully promoted, you can bet the propaganda campaign is being financed by people who stand to lose a lot of money if the scientific facts were accepted by the politicians and the public they represent.

This was shockingly obvious when the tobacco companies tried to convince us that their product was safe, when it had been clear for years that it was a serious health hazard. Anthropogenic climate change is similar —the science has been clear for decades at this point, but the fossil fuel industries and many wealthy industrialist would have us believe otherwise because they stand to lose so much if we quit using fossil fuels. It may not be quite so clear where the anti-vaccine and anti-science-based-medicine movement comes from, but it's much easier to understand once you realize that the multi-billion dollar alternative medicine industry stands to gain a great deal by scaring people away from conventional medicine.

In the case of GMOs, it's the organic foods industry ( a multi-billion dollar a year sector of the economy) who stand to gain if they can scare people away from GMO based food and conventionally grown food in general.

I'm not saying, by the way, that John Michael Greer was paid to say what he said about Golden Rice—far from it. But once a body of misinformation like this gets going it picks up a lot of free support.

Now I imagine many of the crunchier folks reading this are just dying to tell me how I've got it all wrong about "GMOs" and conventional agriculture. Don't even bother to start —I used to agree with you but after a closer examination of the evidence I changed my mind. Now I actually see genetic engineering as a technology with a lot of promise in addressing the challenges we are facing. As for agriculture (both conventional and organic), yes, there are many problems and as yet relatively few answers.

I think it's high time that I spent a post or two discussing those issues....

Sunday, 6 November 2016

What I believe, updated

I'm going to take a little break from book reviews, one of which occupied my last few posts. It's time now to update the "What I Believe" page that I added to this blog back in the spring of 2012. Even if you've already had a look at that page, I've made enough additions that it is likely working checking it out again.

The rest of this post can be found on that page.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Limits to Growth, Part 5

In my last post we looked at The Limits to Growth, Chapter V—The State of Global Equilibrium. The post concludes my review of this book, with a look at the last two sections and some thoughts of my own.

Commentary

This chapter is by the Executive Committee of the Club of Rome and contains their comments on the book. They make it clear that they did want a study on limits.

...we had two immediate objectives in mind. One was to gain insights into the limits of our world system and the constraints it puts on human numbers and activity....

A second objective was to help identify and study the dominant elements, and their interactions, that influence the long term behavior of world systems....

The report has served these purposes well. It represents a bold step toward a comprehensive and integrated analysis of the world situation, an approach that will now require years to refine, deepen, and extend. Nevertheless, this report is only a first step. The limits to growth it examines are only the known uppermost physical limits imposed by the finiteness of the world system. In reality, these limits are further reduced by political, social, and institutional constraints, by inequitable distribution of population and resources, and by our inability to manage very large intricate systems.

But the report serves further purposes. It advances tentative suggestions for the future state of the world and opens new perspectives for continual intellectual and practical endeavor to shape that future.

A preliminary draft was submitted to 40 people, mostly members of the Club of Rome, who responded with just the kind of weak criticisms that have become so familiar in the years since the book was published.

1. Since models can accommodate only a limited number of variables, the interactions studied are only partial. It was pointed out that in a global model such as the one used in this study the degree of aggregation is necessarily high as well. Nevertheless, it was generally recognized that, with a simple world model, it is possible to examine the effect of a change in basic assumptions or to simulate the effect of a change in policy to see how such changes influence the behavior of the system over time. Similar experimentation in the real world would be lengthy, costly, and in many cases impossible.

2. It was suggested that insufficient weight had been given to the possibilities of scientific and technological advances in solving certain problems, such as the development of foolproof contraceptive methods, the production of protein from fossil fuels, the generation or harnessing of virtually limitless energy (including pollution-free solar energy), and its subsequent use for synthesizing food from air and water and for extracting minerals from rocks. It was agreed, however, that such developments would probably come too late to avert demographic or environmental disaster. In any case they probably would only delay rather than avoid crisis, for the problematique consists of issues that require more than technical solutions.

3. Others felt that the possibility of discovering stocks of raw materials in areas as yet insufficiently explored was much greater than the model assumed. But, again, such discoveries would only postpone shortage rather than eliminate it. It must, however, be recognized that extension of resource availability by several decades might give man time to find remedies.

4. Some considered the model too "technocratic," observing that it did not include critical social factors, such as the effects of adoption of different value systems. The chairman of the Moscow meeting summed up this point when he said, "Man is no mere biocybernetic device." This criticism is readily admitted. The present model considers man only in his material system because valid social elements simply could not be devised and introduced in this first effort. Yet, despite the model's material orientation, the conclusions of the study point to the need for fundamental change in the values of society.

Overall, a majority of those who read this report concurred with its position. Furthermore, it is clear that, if the arguments submitted in the report (even after making allowance for justifiable criticism) are considered valid in principle, their significance can hardly be overestimated....

Although we can here express only our preliminary views, recognizing that they still require a great deal of reflection and ordering, we are in agreement on the following points:

1. We are convinced that realization of the quantitative restraints of the world environment and of the tragic consequences of an overshoot is essential to the initiation of new forms of thinking that will lead to a fundamental revision of human behavior and, by implication, of the entire fabric of present-day society.

2. We are further convinced that demographic pressure in the world has already attained such a high level, and is moreover so unequally distributed, that this alone must compel mankind to seek a state of equilibrium on our planet.

3. We recognize that world equilibrium can become a reality only if the lot of the so-called developing countries is substantially improved, both in absolute terms and relative to the economically developed nations, and we affirm that this improvement can be achieved only through a global strategy.

4. We affirm that the global issue of development is, however, so closely interlinked with other global issues that an overall strategy must be evolved to attack all major problems, including in particular those of man's relationship with his environment.

5. We recognize that the complex world problematique is to a great extent composed of elements that cannot be expressed in measurable terms. Nevertheless, we believe that the predominantly quantitative approach used in this report is an indispensable tool for understanding the operation of the problematique. And we hope that such knowledge can lead to a mastery of its elements.

6. We are unanimously convinced that rapid, radical redressment of the present unbalanced and dangerously deteriorating world situation is the primary task facing humanity.

7. This supreme effort is a challenge for our generation. It cannot be passed on to the next. The effort must be resolutely undertaken without delay, and significant redirection must be achieved during this decade.

8. We have no doubt that if mankind is to embark on a new course, concerted international measures and joint long-term planning will be necessary on a scale and scope without precedent.

9. We unequivocally support the contention that a brake imposed on world demographic and economic growth spirals must not lead to a freezing of the status quo of economic development of the world's nations.

10. We affirm finally that any deliberate attempt to reach a rational and enduring state of equilibrium by planned measures, rather than by chance or catastrophe, must ultimately be founded on a basic change of values and goals at individual, national, and world levels. This change is perhaps already in the air, however faintly.

But our tradition, education, current activities, and interests will make the transformation embattled and slow. Only real comprehension of the human condition at this turning point in history can provide sufficient motivation for people to accept the individual sacrifices and the changes in political and economic power structures required to reach an equilibrium state.

The question remains of course whether the world situation is in fact as serious as this book, and our comments, would indicate. We firmly believe that the warnings this book contains are amply justified, and that the aims and actions of our present civilization can only aggravate the problems of tomorrow. But we would be only too happy if our tentative assessments should prove too gloomy.

The commentary concludes with the following thoughts:

The last thought we wish to offer is that man must explore himself-his goals and values-as much as the world he seeks to change. The dedication to both tasks must be unending. The crux of the matter is not only whether the human species will survive, but even more whether it can survive without falling into a state of worthless existence.

Appendix

Simply a list of related studies, and the last section in the book.


My thoughts

I think it is first and foremost important to understand that the idea of exponential growth leading to overshoot and collapse should not be a surprise to anyone. This is simply the way ecosystems behave. It is the height of hubris to believe that the human race is an exception to this. Of course, many people do believe exactly that—that because we are intelligent and can anticipate problems before they occur, we will always be able to solve them.

There is also a common misconception that there is "a balance of nature", that leads us not to expect ecosystems to undergo change. Of course our ecosystem has undergone drastic change during the last two centuries, but many people have become inured to this, see it as normal and expect that it can go on forever.

It may be that the authors of The Limits to Growth should have spent more time familiarizing their readers with these issues...

At any rate, once one has understood the implications of exponential growth, it also should be of no surprise that none of the proposed technological solutions in Chapter 4 provide more than temporary relief. Or any other technological solutions, really. The problem, after all, is the exponential growth, not the technology. If we could just get the growth under control (stopped, in other words), the judicious application of appropriate technologies might lead to a stable system, as discussed in Chapter 5.

Stopping that growth, though, would be a social, not a technological solution. And it seems that we don't have a very good grasp of how to engineer social change. For the most part it just happens in reaction to whatever is going on, rather than as part of any sort of plan.

I can't help observing that except for the Standard Run, all the other model runs in The limits to Growth involve ridiculously optimistic assumptions. Even the ones that still end in collapse. The "successful" ones shown in Figures 46 and 47 take that optimism even further, especially as regards social change. And while population and industrial activity are stabilized in those runs, resources are still being used in a non-sustainable way. If those runs were continued on into the twenty second century, at some point they too would run into a resource crisis.

A great many otherwise intelligent people were totally gobsmacked by this book, and reacted very negatively. They simply didn't believe in limits and it seems that The Limits to Growth only hardened that irrational disbelief.

But here we are 44 years after the book was published. Can't we just look at how things turned out to see if there was anything to the future they predicted? Yes, indeed we can—have a look at Is Global Collapse Imminent? An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data by Dr Graham M. Turner, who is a Principal Research Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne, Australia.

It turns out that the Limits to Growth standard model run is a pretty good match to how things have turned out since then. In the standard run, resource depletion started early in this century and required more capital to be diverted to the resource sector.

With significant capital subsequently going into resource extraction, there is insufficient capital available to fully replace degrading capital within the industrial sector itself. Consequently, despite heightened industrial activity attempting to satisfy multiple demands from all sectors and the population, actual industrial output (per capita) begins to fall precipitously from about 2015, while pollution from the industrial activity continues to grow. The reduction of inputs to agriculture from industry, combined with pollution impacts on agricultural land, leads to a fall in agricultural yields and food produced per capita. Similarly, services (e.g. health and education) are not maintained due to insufficient capital and inputs.

I'd say there is every indication that we have already seen the start of something very much like this in the past decade or two. As early as the 1990s real economic growth slowed due to resource depletion and surplus energy issues. The markets started blowing bubbles in an attempt keep growth going. First the dot com bubble and then the real estate and derivatives bubble in 2008. After that, higher prices for depleted resources (especially energy) slowed a faltering economic recovery, reduced the demand for those same resources and brought their prices down below what it costs to produce them, leaving the extraction industries in a very rough spot. I certainly expect a further down turn and eventually collapse during the next few decades—just what the standard run shows us.

But you can look at the same evidence, squint a little and hold your mouth just right, and conclude that what we are seeing is just a bump on the way to growth with no end in sight—the techno-optimist's wet dream. Are we already deep into overshoot or just nicely getting started on our way to the stars? Depending on who you ask, you can hear spirited arguments on either side of the issue.

Based on The Limits to Growth and the intervening years of history, during which essentially nothing was done to address our headlong approach to those limits (and lots of other evidence as well), I'd say you'd have to be pretty deep in denial not to see that we are already well into overshoot. Time will tell, but my nature is such that I want to be prepared for the worst. In the unlikely event that it doesn't happen, I'll be quite relieved.

I've just finished reading Nicole Foss's The Boundaries and Future of Solution Space. I mention this here because it deals mainly with defining things that are outside the set of feasible responses. And because most of what is suggested in The Limits to Growth is indeed outside of that set. She looks in detail at the kind of changing social conditions which will be brought on by collapse—the sort of thing that was anticipated but not explored in detail by the authors of The Limits to Growth.

I think looking at things to avoid is a very good place to start. Here's Nicole's list:

  • Given that the cost of capital will be very high, and there will be little purchasing power, proposed solutions which are capital-intensive will lie outside solution space.
  • Proposed solutions to our predicament that depend on the functioning of large-scale organizations operating in a top-down manner do not lie within viable solution space.
  • If proposed solutions depend on a cooperative social context at large scale, they will not be part of solution space.
  • Given that the energy supply will be falling, and that there will, over time, be competition for increasingly scarce energy resources that we can no longer take for granted, proposed solutions which are energy-intensive will lie outside of solution space.
  • Proposed solutions dependent on the current level of socioeconomic complexity do not lie within solution space.

In the early 1970s, The Club of Rome was advocating the sort of top down, co-operative response that needed to be started almost immediately if it was to be successful in moving towards a "equilibrium state". None of this happened, and the model run illustrated in Figure 48, where stabilizing policies are not put into effect until the year 2000 and which leads to another collapse, serves as a cautionary tale. All the more so in 2016 with no move toward stabilizing policies anywhere in sight.

Ms. Foss believes there is little hope of ever achieving a worldwide steady state economy. The fact that there is no such thing as a "balance of nature" would tend to support that. It is a new concept for me, but one worth considering. I definitely agree with her that our efforts need to be focused at the family and local community level. And that reliance on government and high level activism to convince governments to change course, would be foolhardy in the extreme.

I should add at this point my usual comments about the shape of the collapse I am expecting. First of all, I am not talking about sudden, apocalyptic change. The collapse I expect, and indeed am already seeing, will take place very unevenly both geographically, chronological and across the various social classes. It will take place over decades—a slow, step-wise descent to a level of economic activity that can be support by our remaining energy resources.

For many people it will be detectable only after it has happened. If you are a member of the elite, moderately lucky and perhaps a bit dense, you may not be aware that it is happening until it is pretty much over. On the other hand, if you are a refugee in a war zone or starving in the middle of a famine, collapse has already happened for you. And if your investments have turned out to be worthless and you've just lost your job and your house, then collapse will very real for you, even if most of the people around you are oblivious.

Already, even for those of us that collapse hasn't quite caught up with yet, it is easy to see what Ms. Foss is talking about. Most of us don't have access to much in the way of capital, or much influence in large scale organizations or government. So what shape should our preparations take?

In the early days of this blog, I talked about that quite a bit and I think most of what I said still applies. You might have a look at the following posts:

Well, this concludes my first attempt at a book review. I still have several shelves full of books I'd like to talk about, but I clearly need to find a way to do this that doesn't take more than one post per book!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Limits to Growth, Part 4

This posts continues looking through the book The Limits to Growth, summarizing it and offering my thoughts on what it has to say. In my last post (insert link) we finished with Chapter IV, Technology And The Limits To Growth.

Chapter V—The State of Global Equilibrium

In real world finite systems there are negative feedback loops which stop positive feedback loops from generating exponential growth and collapse. The delays in the negative feedback loops allow overshoot to occur, which is wasteful of resources and actually reduces the carrying capacity of the environment, leading to a deeper collapse and making recovery more difficult. Technological solutions work by weakening the negative loops and allowing growth to continue for a while, but in the long run the result is the same.

Instead we need to stop growth and level out into a steady state system before we encounter limits.

We are searching for a model output that represents a world system that is: 1. sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse; and 2. capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all of its people.

How to do this? Well, we could strengthen the negative feedback loops. But most people would take a dim view of increasing the death rate in order to stop population growth or increasing the rate at which industrial equipment wears out in order to stop industrial growth.

What if we weakened the positive feedback loop instead? This has never been tried or even seriously suggested, but within a system dynamic model we can easily change a few numbers to see what happens if we reduce positive feedbacks, and see if it is worth trying in the real world.

In Figure 44 the positive feedback loop of population growth is effectively balanced, and population remains constant. At first the birth and death rates are low. But there is still one unchecked positive feedback loop operating in the model—the one governing the growth of industrial capital. The gain around that loop increases when population is stabilized, resulting in a very rapid growth of income, food, and services per capita. That growth is soon stopped, however, by depletion of nonrenewable resources. The death rate then rises, but total population does not decline because of our requirement that birth rate equal death rate (clearly unrealistic here).

What happens if we bring both positive feedback loops under control simultaneously?

The result of stopping population growth in 1975 and industrial capital growth in 1985 with no other changes is shown in Figure 45. (Capital was allowed to grow until 1985 to raise slightly the average material standard of living.) In this run the severe overshoot and collapse of Figure 44 are prevented. Population and capital reach constant values at a relatively high level of food, industrial output, and services per person. Eventually, however, resource shortages reduce industrial output and the temporarily stable state degenerates.

What if we combine controlling both positive loops with technological changes? One example of such an output is shown in Figure 46.

The policies that produced the behavior shown in Figure 46 are:

1. Population is stabilized by setting the birth rate equal to the death rate in 1975. Industrial capital is allowed to increase naturally until 1990, after which it, too, is stabilized, by setting the investment rate equal to the depreciation rate.

2. To avoid a nonrenewable resource shortage such as that shown in Figure 45, resource consumption per unit of industrial output is reduced to one-fourth of its 1970 value. (This and the following five policies are introduced in 1975.)

3. To further reduce resource depletion and pollution, the economic preferences of society are shifted more toward services such as education and health facilities and less toward factory-produced material goods. (This change is made through the relationship giving "indicated" or "desired" services per capita as a function of rising income.)

4. Pollution generation per unit of industrial and agricultural output is reduced to one-fourth of its 1970 value.

5. Since the above policies alone would result in a rather low value of food per capita, some people would still be malnourished if the traditional inequalities of distribution persist. To avoid this situation, high value is placed on producing sufficient food for all people. Capital is therefore diverted to food production even if such an investment would be considered "uneconomic." (This change is carried out through the "indicated" food per capita relationship.)

6. This emphasis on highly capitalized agriculture, while necessary to produce enough food, would lead to rapid soil erosion and depletion of soil fertility, destroying long-term stability in the agricultural sector. Therefore the use of agricultural capital has been altered to make soil enrichment and preservation a high priority. This policy implies, for example, use of capital to compost urban organic wastes and return them to the land (a practice that also reduces pollution).

7. The drains on industrial capital for higher services and food production and for resource recycling and pollution control under the above six conditions would lead to a low final level of industrial capital stock. To counteract this effect, the average lifetime of industrial capital is increased, implying better design for durability and repair and less discarding because of obsolescence. This policy also tends to reduce resource depletion and pollution.

In Figure 46 the stable world population is only slightly larger than the population today. There is more than twice as much food per person as the average value in 1970, and world average lifetime is nearly 70 years. The average industrial output per capita is well above today's level, and services per capita have tripled. Total average income per capita (industrial output, food, and services combined) is about $1,800. This value is about half the present average US income, equal to the present average European income, and three times the present average world income. Resources are still being gradually depleted, as they must be under any realistic assumption, but the rate of depletion is so slow that there is time for technology and industry to adjust to changes in resource availability.

We might choose to make different tradeoffs in setting up a stable system, but this example does show the levels of population and capital that are physically maintainable on the earth, under the most optimistic assumptions. What if we go back a little in the direction of the real world and relax some of the restrictions imposed in Figure 46?

Suppose we retain the last six of the seven policy changes that produced Figure 46, but replace the first policy, beginning in 1975, with the following:

1. The population has access to 100 percent effective birth control.
2. The average desired family size is two children.
3. The economic system endeavors to maintain average industrial output per capita at about the 1975 level. Excess industrial capability is employed for producing consumption goods rather than increasing the industrial capital investment rate above the depreciation rate.

The model behavior that results from this change is shown in Figure 47. Now the delays in the system allow population to grow much larger than it did in Figure 46. As a consequence, material goods, food, and services per capita remain lower than in previous runs (but still higher than they are on a world average today).

We do not suppose that any single one of the policies necessary to attain system stability in the model can or should be suddenly introduced in the world by 1975. A society choosing stability as a goal certainly must approach that goal gradually. It is important to realize, however, that the longer exponential growth is allowed to continue, the fewer possibilities remain for the final stable state. Figure 48 shows the result of waiting until the year 2000 to institute the same policies that were instituted in 1975 in Figure 47.

In Figure 48, both population and industrial output per capita reach much higher values than in Figure 47. As a result pollution builds to a higher level and resources are severely depleted, in spite of the resource-saving policies finally introduced. In fact, during the 25-year delay (from 1975 to 2000) in instituting the stabilizing policies, resource consumption is about equal to the total 125-year consumption from 1975 to 2100 of Figure 47.

From my viewpoint in 2016, this is not encouraging. Yet it bears out much of what I have been saying is this blog all along—that resource depletion is already causing a collapse and it is too late for a solution that enables those of us in the western world to maintain our current lifestyles.

The rest of the chapter is spent considering the many obstacles to setting up a steady state system and arguing the value of doing so. Here are a few typical paragraphs that will give you the flavour of this:

Indeed there would be little point even in discussing such fundamental changes in the functioning of modern society if we felt that the present pattern of unrestricted growth were sustainable into the future. All the evidence available to us, however, suggests that of the three alternatives—unrestricted growth, a self-imposed limitation to growth, or a nature-imposed limitation to growth-only the last two are actually possible.

Achieving a self-imposed limitation to growth would require much effort. It would involve learning to do many things in new ways. It would tax the ingenuity, the flexibility, and the self-discipline of the human race. Bringing a deliberate, controlled end to growth is a tremendous challenge, not easily met.

By choosing a fairly long time horizon for its existence, and a long average lifetime as a desirable goal, we have now arrived at a minimum set of requirements for the state of global equilibrium. They are:

1. The capital plant and the population are constant in size. The birth rate equals the death rate and the capital investment rate equals the depreciation rate.
2. All input and output rates—births, deaths, investment and depreciation are all kept to a minimum.
3. The levels of capital and population and the ratio of the two are set in accordance with the values of the society. They may be deliberately revised and slowly adjusted as the advance of technology creates new options.

Population and capital are the only quantities that need be constant in the equilibrium state. Any human activity that does not require a large flow of irreplaceable resources or produce severe environmental degradation might continue to grow indefinitely. In particular, those pursuits that many people would list as the most desirable and satisfying activities of man-education, art, music, religion, basic scientific research, athletics, and social interactions-could flourish.

Technological advance would be both necessary and welcome in the equilibrium state. A few obvious examples of the kinds of practical discoveries that would enhance the workings of a steady state society include:

  • new methods of waste collection, to decrease pollution and make discarded material available for recycling;
  • more efficient techniques of recycling, to reduce rates of resource depletion;
  • better product design to increase product lifetime and promote easy repair, so that the capital depreciation rate would be minimized;
  • harnessing of incident solar energy, the most pollution-free power source;
  • methods of natural pest control, based on more complete understanding of ecological interrelationships;
  • medical advances that would decrease the death rate;
  • contraceptive advances that would facilitate the equalization of the birth rate with the decreasing death rate.

One of the most commonly accepted myths in our present society is the promise that a continuation of our present patterns of growth will lead to human equality. We have demonstrated in various parts of this book that present patterns of population and capital growth are actually increasing the gap between the rich and the poor on a worldwide basis, and that the ultimate result of a continued attempt to grow according to the present pattern will be a disastrous collapse.

The greatest possible impediment to more equal distribution of the world's resources is population growth. It seems to be a universal observation, regrettable but understandable, that, as the number of people over whom a fixed resource must be distributed increases, the equality of distribution decreases. Equal sharing becomes social suicide if the average amount available per person is not enough to maintain life.

And they conclude with the following:

If there is cause for deep concern, there is also cause for hope. Deliberately limiting growth would be difficult, but not impossible. The way to proceed is clear, and the necessary steps, although they are new ones for human society, are well within human capabilities. Man possesses, for a small moment in his history, the most powerful combination of knowledge, tools, and resources the world has ever known. He has all that is physically necessary to create a totally new form of human society-one that would be built to last for generations. The two missing ingredients are a realistic, long-term goal that can guide mankind to the equilibrium society and the human will to achieve that goal. Without such a goal and a commitment to it, short-term concerns will generate the exponential growth that drives the world system toward the limits of the earth and ultimate collapse. With that goal and that commitment, mankind would be ready now to begin a controlled, orderly transition from growth to global equilibrium.

Forty plus years later we are no closer to having the goal they speak of. Our politicians still see "economic recovery"—the resumption of "robust" growth—as their main goal. Even though growth is the very thing that is causing most of our problems.

In my next post we'll (finally) wrap up this review.