Winter Solstice 2017 – Cycles

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Published on the Question Everything on December 21, 2017

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The occasion of the Winter Solstice has me thinking about a major fundamental aspect of all system processes. They all involve cycles (which include quasi-cycles or quasiperiodicity, hypercycles, and other variations on the theme of cyclic or almost cyclic behavior). In nature as well as human-designed systems cycling between multiple states is the rule without exceptions. Mountains are built up only to be weathered away into sand that then turns eventually into sedimentary rock in preparation for the next round of mountain building. Living organisms are propagated, develop, reproduce, go into senescence and die. Economies emerge, grow, develop, run out of adequate resources, and collapse. Out of the left-overs of prior societies, new ones emerge, generally because of newer technologies that allow extraction of previously unexploited resources. And the cycle starts over. Most cyclic behaviors in nature are non-periodic, not like a sinusoidal. But the systems pass through states that resemble one another again and again. Another kind of cycle that is often found in systems where energy is gradually declining is the spiral. Each time around the cycle the states come closer and closer to maximum entropy.

Some are tempted to think that the current world civilization will not run out of resources because the emergence of new technologies has seemingly always allowed a new spurt of economic growth and development. But writers like Robert J. Gordon (The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World)), and James Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency), have identified trends in the invention and development of new technologies suggesting that the economic impacts of the most modern ones are relatively small. Gordon analyzed the phenomenal growth in American productivity and growth of the national wealth and income during the period post-WWII through the 1980s (his total analysis went from the end of the Civil War to the present) and found a strong argument that that growth was anomalous in the long-run, and largely due to the introduction, starting in pre-WWI years, of the most impactful technologies, i.e. communications, air transport, trains, etc. Even the Internet does not have as strong an influence on growth as did these 'seminal' technologies. Similarly, and deeply connected the advent of the age of oil was responsible for tremendous growth once the infrastructure for massive extraction and refining was in place, stimulated mainly by the needs of fuels for WWII. Now that the cost of extraction and refining are climbing relative to the energy supplied to society, the net access to high-power energy is declining at an accelerating pace. That trend does not bode well for our civilization. [Those still insisting that alternative energy sources will permit continuing business as usual should really try to wake up from your dream. A society that might be powered by alternatives would have to necessarily be a much-reduced version of today in the developed world.

The current news about how the economy (of the US anyway) is improving and growing at an increasingly "healthy" pace is based on faulty analysis and deeply flawed theory. It is propelled into the discourse by wishful thinking more than carefully reasoned arguments based on facts and sound theory. The situation is not dissimilar to conditions in 1929.

But just on the principle of cycling in systems dynamics we can confidently predict that the current world economy will collapse. We don't know when precisely, though some trends are starting to emerge that imply it won't be long. This is the way the Universe works. Whether or not a new, very different kind of society will emerge from the ashes is impossible to predict except to suggest that it is a reasonable expectation. This is the way evolution seems to work. The collapse of global civilization may provide a powerful selection pressure on survivors that favor the wise over the foolish (which I suspect represent the vast majority of the population at present). I suspect (and hope) that severe climate change will require extreme wisdom in order to survive and procreate. For better or worse, the core theme of human evolution has been based on cooperation (group selection) and that seems like the path that will most likely succeed for future generations.

Of course, systems do go extinct. Stars may explode sending their elemental components into space for recycling. Planets can enter runaway feedbacks that lead to unlivable conditions (like Venus, perhaps). Dinosaurs (except Aves) no longer roam the planet. Runaway positive feedback in cycles lead to total disruption of the system. In a few of these cases the systems simply disintegrate into simple component parts that might get recycled in new systems (a meta-cycle). In others the parts are just randomly distributed through maximizing entropy. What will the fate of humanity and societies be is anybody's guess. I'd like to believe there is a future for our distant future progeny. But who knows?

The current political situation in the US is a portend of what is to come. But it is also a measure of what processes are playing out. It gives us insight into what happens when a system runs out of energy and internal regulation. Our political process is so completely and unrecoverably broken that it is hard to imagine anything other than some kind of revolution (possibly preceded by another civil war) tearing down the last remnants of a government. None of the branches of government in the US are functional anymore, except of course to serve the interests of the super-rich.

For the Northern Hemisphere the days are going to start getting longer. We will have more light by which to witness the continuing degradation of societies. I don't think the drive toward Spring will bring renewal of the social system. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this Spring Equinox shows us the cycle of despair.

Nevertheless, rejoice in the change of seasons.

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