Published on Resilience on September 8, 2015
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The following sections are excerpted with permission from Chapter 1 of Toby Hemenway's new book The Permaculture City, published by Chelsea Green.
While the folks clogging the US tattoo parlors may not have noticed, things are beginning to look a little World War one-ish out there. Except the current blossoming world conflict is being fought not with massed troops and tanks but with interest rates and repayment schedules. Germany now dawdles in reply to the gauntlet slammed down Sunday in the Greek referendum (hell) “no” vote. Germany’s immediate strategy, it appears, is to apply some good old fashioned Teutonic todesfurcht — let the Greeks simmer in their own juices for a few days while depositors suck the dwindling cash reserves from the banks and the grocery store shelves empty out. Then what?
Nobody knows. And anything can happen.
One thing we ought to know: both sides in the current skirmish are fighting reality. The Germans foolishly insist that the Greek’s meet their debt obligations. The German’s are just pissing into the wind on that one, a hazardous business for a nation of beer drinkers. The Greeks insist on living the 20th century deluxe industrial age lifestyle, complete with 24/7 electricity, cheap groceries, cushy office jobs, early retirement, and plenty of walking-around money. They’ll be lucky if they land back in the 1800s, comfort-wise.
The Greeks may not recognize this, but they are in the vanguard of a movement that is wrenching the techno-industrial nations back to much older, more local, and simpler living arrangements. The Euro, by contrast, represents the trend that is over: centralization and bigness. The big questions are whether the latter still has enough mojo left to drag out the transition process, and for how long, and how painfully.
World affairs suffer from the disease of terminal excessive complexity. To make matters worse, much of the late-phase complexity operates in the service of accounting fraud of one kind or another. The world’s banking system is mired in the unreality of so many unmeetable obligations, cooked books, three-card-monte swap gimmicks, interest rate euchres, secret arbitrages, market manipulation monkeyshines, and countless other cons, swindles, and hornswoggles that all the auditors ever born could not produce a coherent record of what has been wreaked in the life of this universe (or several parallel universes). Remember Long Term Capital Management? That’s what the world has become.
What happens in the case of untenable complexity is that it tends to unravel fast and furiously. That’s exactly why avalanches and earthquakes happen all at once, not stretched out over a six week period. The global financial scene not so different. It’s just another matrix of linked mutually-supporting relationships that can implode if a few members weaken.
One question worth reflecting on is whether the implosion is actually well underway on-the-ground in real economies, with just the scrim of illusion to make the surface appear intact. That surely seems to be the case in the USA, where the so-called economy has already avalanched into a rubble heap of part-time scut jobs, defaulted college loans, underwater mortgages, and groaning pension funds — with an overlay of pointless and endless motoring.
Over in Euroland, the Greek “no” also implies that every other sovereign nation wallowing in deep financial shit will demand a haircut (and a disinfectant shower). Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and even France cannot possibly meet their debt obligations. Their citizens are being taunted with currency controls, too, and they have every bit as much potential to go ape-y as the Greeks. Notice you haven’t heard much from their leaders and financial ministers in recent weeks. They are all standing on the sidelines watching the Greeks go through the wringer — but you can be sure they are all making plans of their own.
The failure of the European experiment will be extremely demoralizing to the hopeful citizens of that continent, who emerged from the bloodbath of the early 20th century to become the world’s premier peaceful tourist theme park. I don’t know that they necessarily have to go back to fighting each other on battlefields with things that blow up and destroy human flesh, but they surely have to decentralize and re-fashion some kind of simpler, local way-of-life if they expect to remain civilized.
It’ll happen everywhere. The Japanese are next, of course, and they may be the most fortunate, since they retain more than a few shreds of memory for exactly that mode of life: the Tokugawa shogunate (the Edo period, 1600 – 1853), a manner of high pre-industrial economy and culture that might have persisted indefinitely had not Commodore Perry come knocking on their door, so to speak, in his “black ships.”
Ukraine is about halfway back to being medieval with excellent potential to overshoot even that. The Euroland PIIG(F) nations don’t have the energy resources to extend Modernity, even if the banking system wasn’t terminally ill, and then on top of that they have the ethno-demographic quandary of creeping Muslimization — plus the additional flotillas of desperate boat people arriving daily.
America, count your blessings. Tattoos, obesity, drug use, and shiftlessness are all basically behavioral choices. You don’t need a finance minister or a central banker to overcome those problems.
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.
Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi
Published on Resource Crisis on June 8, 2015
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I am not sure I like to be considered a "Collapse Pundit" (as I was recently defined). Surely, however, sometimes I have this horrible sensation that everything is collapsing around me. The world's universities may be a good example of this generalized unwinding of everything. Universities are becoming top-heavy, giant Rube Goldberg machines producing useless paper and bewildered students. (image above, from Wikipedia)
Last week, I invited a colleague from the University of Moscow to give a talk at my university, speaking on the geopolitical factors involved in gas pipelines. Not that I expected a crowd coming, but the results were worse than anything I could have imagined. The whole audience at the talk was a grand total of four people (including myself).
I understand that people are busy, that this is exam time for the students, that the talk was not publicized as much as it deserved, and maybe there were other reasons. Yet, this event gave me a chilling sensation. Thousands of students, tens of faculty members, a subject widely discussed in the news and one that, you would think, it should generate at least some interest in a faculty which has "International Cooperation" among its stated subjects of teaching and study. And yet, almost none of them could spare a single hour for this talk.
I was mulling this thing over and then I saw the post published just a few days ago by my friend and colleague George Mobus in his blog "Question Everything" He nails the problem exactly; read that post and you'll understand the situation of universities. Maybe somewhere things go a little better, and maybe somewhere else things are worse. Yet, universities everywhere seem to have become little more than giant Rube Goldberg machines. We study, we teach, we examine students, we fill out forms, we publish papers, but the whole thing is acquiring more and more an aura of unreality. What are doing here, exactly?
To the already excellent synthesis made by George in his blog, I may add that universities could be considered as small scale models of the whole civilization in which they are embedded: they suffer from the same problems. Not only resources are diminishing, but at the same time, the whole structure is becoming top-heavy, burdened by layer after layer of bureaucracy.
It is what Joseph Tainter called the "diminishing returns of complexity" in his classic study "The Collapse of Complex Societies." The cause of societal collapse is not just the lack of resources, but also the appearance of parasitic structures that weigh on society. In my interpretation of the "Seneca Effect" I termed these parasitic structures "pollution," but you may see "bureaucracy" as a form of pollution. The result is this classic curve, from Tainter's book.
No matter how you call this, it is exactly what's happening to universities. Largely, it is a self-imposed disaster, but unavoidable nevertheless.
Off the keyboard of John Ward
Published on The Slog on December 26, 2014
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We live in complicated times. And complicated is almost always a very bad thing.
I have the world’s most complicated boiler, and so later I added the world’s most complicated programmer to try and understand it. They’re no longer on speaking terms. One or the other fails a couple of times a week at least.
I was asking my younger daughter over Christmas how her new relationship was going. “It’s complicated,” she said. So I asked her to explain, and do you know what? She wasn’t wrong.
I’m also the owner of the world’s most complicated TV channel-changer, and I don’t have a single app that doesn’t make the task I want to perform more complicated than it was before. I have a car clock so complicated to change, it’s still on Greek time from the summer before last, and a kitchen stable door so complicated to separate, the instructions in 5-point type take up one whole pane of the bloody thing.
The nature of oil market geopolitics is so complicated, I have so far counted nine separate motivations in play. Add the complicated politics of Ukraine and stir in the spin being perpetrated by four different regional interests, and you get complications that complicate things so much it requires a complicated computer model to sort out the relative hierarchy of complication.
Did you know that the average mobile phone user employs seven functions regularly, but 3G phones usually have in excess of sixty? And with age, that seven drops quickly to any three-from-four: calls, text, mail, photos. The order for me is photos, calls, texts. I don’t do mobile mail: if I did, the phone would ping on average seventy times a day. The other reason is that the process for aligning mail pickup was so complicated, it’s only a matter of time before Aston University offers a PhD in Complication Studies with Specific Reference to Sony Xperias.
Not only has the once simple lotech process of doing stuff been replaced by self-indulgent, infantile complexity: the hitech stuff we were just getting used to is regularly ‘updated’ every six months at least in order to render it more complicated.
For instance, the process of paying for your parking at Bordeaux Airport, fitting a child seat in the back of a Peugeot 308 SW, programming a Candy dishwasher, transferring mobile phone shots to a laptop, downloading a pdf, sending money by electronic transfer and dealing with landline phone messages are things that – just in the last three months – have become less functionally efficient and more complicated. And the three key words there – less functionally efficient – are central to my fearful frustration with a world that is being created by every psychographic type from neoliberal sociopath to political schemer.
The first line of defence for those defending complexity is to say that their equipment is ‘sophisticated’. This is like saying that a washing line is aboriginal. It’s bollocks: a washing line needs no programming, and on a windy day above 12 degrees centigrade will dry clothes more efficiently (with easier ironing) than any tumble-dryer in existence….free. The Pennsylvanian Amish Community rose to be the richest per head in America on that principle. Think on it.
The second line is ‘user error’. “You’re just a dopey old bloke with grey hair I mean for God’s sake look at you, you’re past it, you hate progress”. Funny how being a senior citizen leaves you open to the kind of baseless insult you could be driven from the stockade for levelling at a woman or an ethnic minority.
And the third is, surprise surprise, “we must all embrace change”. I love that one, it’s a belter. Ripple dissolve to Heimy the Deli owner just off the Kurfürstendamm in Autumn 1934. Heimy is constantly being advised to calm down, and embrace change: the Nazis are all talk, he is told. “Talk, schmalk,” he answers grumpily, “let me tell you, this Hitler is a schlemiel. No good will come of it.”
The idea that all change is for the better is the sort of crap New Labour and Camerlot idiots have been trying to tell us about everything from privatisation and deregulation to fractional reserve banking and globalism since the turn of the century. Yet the truth is that every one of those four changes has made life more complicated….but not one of them has been of the slightest benefit to those on average to poor incomes. Do you really know what QE is and how it works? Do you really know why Zirp was necessary? Do you really understand the rational for financial Big Bang? No, you don’t – any more than I do: you see, it’s complicated.
Far too often, complication is really obfuscation…a smoke-screen if you will. Equally often, it is just one more way to extract more telecoms money from us, justify ovens that cost $7000, and “explain” why we need a new thing just because the old things build quality was complicated aka shoddy. Some complication is the direct result of fluffy social ideas and moral relativism. But all of it comes at an unacceptably high price.
For once, the medical profession is right. When they use the plural noun “complications” it means “bad shit just happened”. My late father – an enthusiastic exponent of technology – used to say “If you can’t explain something in one simple sentence, it’s a bad idea”. Dad developed a high temperature one afternoon at the age of 91 – and then complications. He died the following morning.
Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi
Published on Resource Crisis on June 5, 2014
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In the 1950s, we knew what the future would be: an age of prosperity and unprecedented wonders. Energy too cheap to meter, flying cars, vacations on the moon, and the conquest of space. Then, space heroes would return to Earth to relax on the edge of their swimming pool while the robot-butler would bring them their margaritas. To be sure, the future had a dark side: that of the nuclear holocaust. But it was still a future where human ingenuity would trump everything else.
The future today is completely different. The way we see the destiny of humankind is inextricably linked to the great “pulse” of carbon burning that has been ongoing for a couple of centuries and which is now reaching its peak. Fossil carbon has taken us to where we are now, creating the prosperity of our industrial civilization. But fossil fuels are rapidly running out and that creates a number of consequences; one is the impossibility of running an industrial society without abundant and cheap energy, the other is global warming which is transforming the earth into a completely new planet. These effects will shape the future of humankind in ways that can’t be exactly predicted, but that we can imagine in the form of “scenarios” – futures that could happen. So, here are some possible futures of humankind, arranged from the least exciting one (near term extinction) to highly exciting ones, involving expansion over the whole galaxy.
Extinction is a simple scenario to describe: humankind goes extinct and that’s it. The time scale of extinction may be millennia, centuries or, perhaps, just decades (in the last case, it may go under the name of “Near Term Extinction,” a term popularized by Guy McPherson). In any case, extinction would be very rapid in comparison to the time span of existence of homo sapiens, at least two hundred thousand years.
Extinction is a perfectly possible scenario if we assume the playing out of some of the most dire effects of the human impact on the ecosphere, in particular the emissions of greenhouse gases. The great “methane burp” that could result from the thawing of the Earth’s permafrost could raise temperatures up to 6-8 degrees C and even more in times of the order of a few centuries or even much faster. In its extreme version, global warming could evolve into the “Venus catastrophe“, where the whole biosphere could be sterilized by extremely high temperatures. To be sure, this scenario seems to be ruled out by the results of the current climate models, but we don’t need the Venus catastrophe to unbalance the ecosystem to such a degree that the resources humans need in order to survive would be destroyed. At that point, the outcome could be only one: extinction.
This is a scenario that leaves little to discuss about the destiny of humankind. But, assuming that the biosphere is not completely destroyed, could the planet recover afterward? Perhaps it could, but not necessarily. Nowadays, the Earth is perilously close to the inner edge of the habitable zone in the Solar system and it is being pushed out of it by the gradual increase of solar radiation. It is a very slow process by human standards, but it is estimated that vertebrates have no more than some 100-150 million years to go before the Earth becomes too hot for them to survive. A major disaster such as the one we are contemplating in this scenario could kick the Earth out of the vertebrate habitable zone. In this case, the Earth’s biosphere might revert to a world of unicellular creatures such as it was during the Archean or the Proterozoic eons. In such case, it is possible, and perhaps likely, that vertebrates would never re-evolve and that the planet would remain dominated by unicellular life forms until it gets sterilized by further increases in solar radiation, about one billion years from now.
But let’s assume that the ecosystem can recover without major losses of phyla. In times of the order of hundreds of thousands of years, the excess CO2 in the atmosphere would be removed and transformed into solid carbonates. That would slowly cool down the planet and the ecosystem would gradually recover its former productivity. At that point, vertebrates could become again abundant and the Earth would look very much like it looked millions of years ago, when the ancestors of human beings didn’t seem to be destined to the great explosion of numbers that was to take place with the Anthropocene.
Is there a chance that the Earth would evolve again a species of sentient beings? It is not impossible. If some species of primates could survive the great carbon pulse, they might re-develop tool making abilities and, in time, human-like intelligence. That would take time, considering that it took some 50 million years to arrive to homo sapiens from the earliest primates, but it would still be possible within the remaining lifetime of the biosphere for vertebrates. If all primates go extinct, then the task becomes more difficult considering that it took more than 400 million years for primates to appear after the evolution of vertebrates. But, again, it would not be impossible and, anyway, perhaps sentient beings don’t need to be primates. So, there might be a second (and probably last) chance for intelligent creatures to do better than we did. Good luck to them!
2. The Olduvai Scenario.
The “Return to Olduvai” was proposed by Richard Duncan in 1996 to describe the effect of the gradual depletion of fossil fuels; taking the name “Olduvai” from the name of a region in Tanzania, Africa, where our remote ancestors lived. The idea is that, without fossil fuels, humans would lose their principal source of energy and would be forced to return to their oldest survival lifestyle: hunting and gathering.
The Olduvai scenario could play out as the result of a combination of factors. First of all, fossil fuels would gradually become so expensive to make an industrial economy impossible. In parallel, global warming would raise temperatures so much that tropical and temperate latitudes would become impossible to inhabit year round for human beings. At this point, humans would be forced to retreat to extreme northern and southern regions, where it is not obvious that agriculture is possible. As we move away from the equator, a strong limiting factor is the low level of solar irradiation. Crops can grow nicely at high latitudes, but the problem is the slow rate of the reforming of fertile soil and the consequent erosion. It is a problem already evident today in regions such as in Iceland and Greenland and which might make agriculture impossible to maintain for long times.
So, humans living in high latitude regions could find that the best survival strategy for them is to adopt a lifestyle similar to that of modern Inuit, even though at much higher temperatures. They would live mainly by fishing and hunting marine mammals in the warm season – retreating in their shelters during the long polar night. In the Northern Hemisphere, this lifestyle would be possible in the ring of land around the North Pole, part of Eurasia and of the American Continent. In the Southern Hemisphere, it would mean the tip of the South American continent, Tierra Del Fuego, and perhaps an ice-free Antarctica, where humans could live for the first time in their history.
Modern humans have been hunters and gatherers for at least two hundred thousand years. Their hominid ancestors have been using this strategy for a couple of million years, at least. So, hunting and gathering is a stable and successful way of living that humans could adopt for a long time, at least as long as the planetary ecosystem would be able to maintain a sufficient biological productivity. In time, the ecosystem could stabilize and return the planet to the conditions of the past ten million years or so. In this case, the high latitude regions would probably freeze again and become covered by ice. Humans could then move back to lower latitudes. At this point, they would probably rediscover agriculture and restart with agricultural civilizations, as they had done tens or hundreds of thousands of years before. And so, we move to the next scenario; the return to agriculture.
3. The return to agriculture.
Suppose that we run out of cheap fossil fuels, that is, fuels as cheap enough to sustain an industrial society. And suppose that we haven’t used the energy we had – while we had it – to build up an alternative. Then, we will be forced to return to the world as it was before we started burning fossil fuels: an economy wholly based on biological resources; that is on agriculture.
This is a straightforward scenario that doesn’t imply special events other than assuming that the effects of climate change would not be so drastic and ruinous as some scenarios describe them. Not that the transition won’t be traumatic for humans. The world without fossil fuels and without alternatives to them won’t be able to support, not even remotely, the same population that the fossil-powered agriculture had supported. And it is not just the lack of fossil fuels that will reduce agricultural productivity, it is the fact that centuries of intensive agriculture have destroyed a large fraction of the fertile soil that had created the human civilization. That would necessarily bring a drastic reduction in human population. In such a scenario, “traumatic” is surely an understatement. But humankind would survive.
In this farming future, there would hardly be a chance for a new industrial revolution. The fossil fuels that created the present one will be gone and will need millions of years to reform, if they ever will. Metal ores would also be scarce, although our farming descendants would do well by scavenging the ruins of our cities for metals. They would have plenty of iron and copper and they could even use aluminum for their cooking pans by melting down the zillions of beverage cans that we left behind. But their technological level would be severely limited by the lack of fuels: they would have only wood charcoal for their metallurgy. So, our descendants could still work iron and they could still kill each other with swords and spears (and, maybe, even with occasional muskets and cannons). But we know of no society in the past that could develop an industrial revolution without a cheap and abundant source of energy.
Curiously, however, there is a possibility for a new burst of industrialization in this remote future. It would be the result of mining Antarctica and, in minor measure, Greenland and other high latitude northern regions. Because of the ice cover, so far these regions have been scarcely exploited for minerals (or not at all, in the case of Antarctica). But the great carbon pulse could heat the planet enough that the world’s glaciers would melt completely and open up these lands to mining. In this case, our ancestors could have a second (and likely last) chance to develop a new coal based industrial revolution. That would bring back everything to square one: with the new industrial society threatened by the deadly combination of depletion and climate change. Would our descendants be able to do better than us? Considering that they are – indeed – our descendants, probably not. Hence, this second cycle of industrialization might truly be the last one on the planet.
Apart from Antarctic coal, our descendants could remain farmers for a long, long time. It is said that agricultural societies of the past could be described as “peasants ruled by brigands”, but this is an over-simplification for an integrated social structure where different layers perform highly specialized tasks: peasants, warriors, priests, artisans, and more. In time, agricultural societies could evolve converging to the social structure typical of other species which practice agriculture: mainly ants and termites. These species are “eusocial” (or “ultrasocial”, according to some definitions) and practice extreme specialization, for instance with “queens” taking care of reproduction, while the other members of society are sterile female workers and warriors. Could future human agricultural society become something similar? Why not? At least one other species of mammals has developed full eusociality (the naked mole rat).
Eusocial species are highly resilient and tend to dominate the ecosystem, as ants and termites do and have been successfully doing for at least 50 million years. In principle, eusocial humans could also maintain their dominance of the ecosystem and continue in this role for tens or hundreds of millions of years, until they gradually disappear in a remote future as the earth becomes too hot for vertebrates to survive. If that happens, they would have been the most successful vertebrate species of earth’s history; a species that even briefly dreamed of conquering space.
4. The great metabolic revolution
In more than four billion years of existence, the Earth never stood still. Powerful forces have shaped it in a continuous series of revolutions which have seen the development of more and more complex life forms, increasingly able to exploit the thermodynamic gradient created by sunlight. During this long time span, we have seen several metabolic revolutions; of which two have been the most important ones. The first was photosynthesis, some 4 billion years ago. The second is the aerobic metabolism, about 2.5 billion years ago. It is the latter revolution which, eventually, generated vertebrates and us.
Today, we seem to have reached an impasse in this ever increasing growth of biological complexity. Actually, we may be heading for an inversion of tendency created by long term changes of the ecosphere. The planetary thermostat which stabilizes the Earth’s temperature works by regulating the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. But with the gradually increasing solar radiation, these concentrations are already near the lower limits necessary for photosynthesis. So, the present ecosystem is in a no-win situation: in the long run, either it will be destroyed by the lack of CO2 or by high temperatures. So, in order for a complex ecosystem to survive, we need a truly drastic metabolic revolution. Organic photosynthesis has reached its limits: we need to move to a completely different kind of substrates.
What is in photosynthesis, after all? It is a way to transform solar energy into excited electrons and use them to create chemical compounds which can give back this energy on demand. The efficiency of photosynthesis in this process is reported to arrive to about 13% in ideal conditions – in practice it is of the order of 8%. Note also that plants can’t function as photosynthetic machines outside a narrow range of temperatures and without of nutrients and chemicals which are not always available.
So, if we want another metabolic revolution, we need something that can be both more efficient and less demanding in terms of environmental conditions. A possibility is the photovoltaic (PV) cell. The efficiency of a modern silicon PV cell can be higher than 20% in creating excited electrons. By themselves, the cells do not store energy, but can be coupled to energy storage devices and used to power a variety of processes and reactions for an overall efficiency that is comparable (and arguably higher) to that of photosynthesis. Silicon PV cells function using abundant elements: mainly silicon and aluminum, plus traces of nitrogen, boron, an phosphorous. The present generation uses also silver, but that’s not a crucial. But the great advantage of “silicon photosynthesis” is that solid state PV cells do not need water or gaseous oxygen, and can operate in freezing temperatures or at high temperatures, up to a few hundred degrees centigrade. The “habitable zone” for PV cells is not a narrow shell around the sun: it spans a huge volume that includes all the major planets and probably extends even closer and farther from the sun. The quantity of solar energy that can be gathered in this volume is incredibly larger than the tiny amount intercepted by the Earth.
Of course, solid state PV devices are not normally considered the photosynthetic part of an ecosystem. They enjoy the name of “cells”; but unlike biological cells they don’t reproduce themselves. But PV cells delegate their reproduction to specialized entities; cell factories, just like worker ants delegate their reproduction to specialized entities: queen ants. So, it is all part of a new ecosystem that is emerging; one which starts from the beginning as eusocial.
We know that complex systems become more complex the more energy flows through them. If the solid state ecosystem turns out to be more effective than the biological one, then the perspectives are mind boggling even if we limit our horizon to the surface of the Earth. Of course, it is hard for us to imagine the consequences of such a revolution (think of how difficult it would be for a protist of the Proterozoic age to imagine the advent of vertebrates). What we can see is that such a system is born connected at the planetary scale. The rapid development of the internet is giving us a taste of this new situation of extended interconnectedness. From our viewpoint of human beings, it is an unpleasant loss of privacy. On the other hand, ants in an anthill don’t enjoy much privacy. It is, again, one of the characteristics of eusociality: you pay the advantages of efficiency with a loss of individuality. But we can hardly say more than that: if the new system is to be born, it will. What it will do, it is impossible to say, but it can – theoretically – expand to the whole solar system and survive for the whole remaining lifespan of the Sun, about 5 billion years – and even more.
In a way, it would be the ultimate triumph for human beings who would have engineered the birth of a new ecosystem encompassing the whole solar system and perhaps over the whole Galaxy. Would they still exist in this new ecosystem? If so, which role could they play? And, if not, will they be remembered with gratitude? (Note, however, that we don’t feel particularly indebted to our one-celled ancestors).
5. Where are we going, anyway?
All civilizations of the past have declined and collapsed. But collapse is nothing more than rapid change and, as long as the sun shines, the ecosystem has at least a chance to move to higher levels of complexity. The future that we can dimly see today is rich in possibilities. Billions of years ago, Mars – and possibly also Venus – had a chance to develop an organic ecosphere. But in both cases the time available was too short and soon both planets left the habitable zone and were sterilized. The Earth has had a much longer time, billions of years more to develop the ecosystem we know today. But the Earth never stood still and it is not standing still: change is accelerating to speeds never seen before in history. We may go down to a sterile planet or move on to a new system of unbelievable complexity. It is the ultimate challenge for humankind; one that we cannot avoid to face.
Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi
Published on Extracted on March 23, 2014
Image from an advertising campaign for Pirelli in the 1990s.
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Power is nothing without control
Empires seem to be a typical human structure that reappears over and over in history. The problem is that empires are often so efficient that they tend to overexploit and destroy even theoretically renewable resources. The final result is a destructive cascade of feedbacks: not only the empire gradually runs out of resources, but it also runs out of the capability of controlling them; with the two effects reinforcing each other. Power is nothing without control. And, usually, control seems to run out before power.
In practice, empires in trouble tend to fragment into independent blocks or statelets before actually disappearing as economic systems. It is the result of the increasing costs of control, which are not matched any more by the diminishing flux of natural resources. We have seen this phenomenon in recent times with the fragmentation and the disappearance of the Soviet Union. We may be seeing it today with the modern worldwide empire we call “Globalization.” The recent events in Ukraine seem to show that the system, indeed, has troubles in controlling its periphery and may soon fragment into independent blocks.
Of course, it is still too early to say whether what we are seeing today in Ukraine is just a bump in the road or a symptom of impending systemic collapse. As usual, however, history may be a guide to understand what lies ahead. In the following post, I examine the collapse of the Roman empire in light of considerations based on control and resources. It turns out that, even for the ancient Romans, power was nothing without control.
Peak gold: how the Romans lost their Empire
by Ugo Bardi
When I heard for the first time that the Roman Empire fell because of the depletion of its silver and gold mines, I was skeptical. Compared to our situation, where we are facing the depletion of fossil fuels, the Roman case seemed to me to be completely different. Gold and silver don’t produce energy, they don’t produce anything useful. So, why should the Roman Empire have fallen because of something we might call “peak gold”?
And yet, as I delved into the matter, I noticed how evident was the correlation of declining gold and silver availability with the decline of the Roman Empire. We have scant data on the production of Roman mines, mainly located in Spain, but it is commonly believed that production peaked at some moment during the first century CE (or perhaps early 2nd century CE). Afterwards, it rapidly dwindled to nearly nothing, even though gold mining never completely stopped (1).
As you can see in the figure, the loss of precious metal production was reflected in the silver content of the Roman currency. The Romans didn’t have the technology needed to print paper bills, so they just debased their silver currency, the “denarius,” by increasing its copper content. By mid 3rd century, the denarius was nearly pure copper: “fiat money” if there ever was one. During that period, gold coins were not debased, but they basically disappeared from circulation. (graph above from Joseph Tainter (2)).
As I argued in a previous post, the progressively dearth of precious metals correlates well with the various events that took place during the declining phase of the empire and with its eventual disappearance. Of course, correlation doesn’t mean causation but, here, the correlation is so strong that you can’t think it is just a question of chance. With time, it appeared clear to me that there were also clear links between several factors in the collapse of the Empire.
In general, complex systems tend to fall in a complex manner and the Roman Empire did not simply fall because of the lack of its primary energy source which, at that time, was agriculture. Energy (and power) is useless without control and for the Romans controlling the energy generated by agriculture requires capital investments for troops and bureaucracy. Both were affected by the decline of the production of precious metals. In time, the reduced military effectiveness of the empire disrupted the ability of controlling the agricultural system. That condemned the Empire to collapse.
This is a hugely complex story that can’t possibly be exhausted with a mere blog post. Nevertheless, the problem is very general and it can be condensed in a single sentence: “power is nothing without control” So, I believe it is possible to lay down in a relatively short space the main elements of the interplay between gold, military power, and food in Roman times. Let me try.
– The Romans and gold
Ultimately, what creates and keeps together empires is military force. The Roman Empire was so large and so successful because it was, possibly, the mightiest military force of ancient times. The Romans had been so successful at that not because of special military innovations. The recipe for their success was simple: they paid their fighters with precious metal currency. The combined technology of gold mining and coin minting had allowed the Romans to create one of the first standing armies in history. Still today, we call our enlisted men “soldiers”, a term that comes from the Roman word “Solidus;” the name of the late empire gold coin.
Not only money could create a standing army, it could also swell it to large sizes. Enlisting in the legions – the backbone of the army – was reserved to Roman citizens, but anyone could enlist in the “auxilia“, “auxiliary” troops. In the figure, you see Roman auxilia (recognizable by their round shields) presenting the severed heads of Dacians to Emperor Trajan during the Dacian campaign of the 2nd century CE. Normally, Romans were not supposed to cut off enemies’ heads, it was seen as uncivilized, but the auxilia were notoriously a little unruly (note how the Emperor, on the left, looks perplexed). But, by the time of the Dacian wars, the auxilia had become a fundamental part of the Roman army and they were to remain so for the remaining lifetime of the Empire.
Gold and silver were essential elements in the hiring of troops for the Romans and that was especially true for foreign ones. Put yourself in the caligae (sandals) of a German fighter. Why should you put your framea (lance) in the service of Rome if not because you were paid? And you wanted to be paid in serious money; copper coins would not do. You wanted gold and silver currency that you knew could be redeemed anywhere in Europe and especially in that gigantic emporium of all sorts of luxury goods that was the city of Rome, the largest of the ancient world. And, by the way, where did these luxury items come from? Mostly, were imported. Silk, ivory, pearls, spices, incense, and much more came from India and China. Importing these items was not just an extravagant hobby for the Roman elite, it was a tangible manifestation of the power and of the wealth of the empire; something that was an important factor in convincing people to enlist in the auxilia. But the Chinese wouldn’t send silk to Rome in exchange for worthless copper coins – they wanted gold and they obtained it. Then, that gold was lost forever for the Empire which, basically, could produce only two things: grain and troops, neither of which could be exported at long distances.
This situation explains the gradual military decline of the Roman empire. With the decline of the precious metal mines, it became more and more difficult for emperors to recruit troops. The lack of a strong central power caused the empire to become engulfed in civil wars; with the army mainly engaged in fighting chunks of itself and the empire splitting in two parts: the Eastern and the Western. During this phase, the number of troops was not reduced, but their quality strongly declined. After the military reform by Emperor Diocletian during the third century CE, the Roman army was formed mainly of limitanei; not really an army but a border police unable to stop any serious attempt on the part of foreigners to puncture the borders. To keep the empire together, Emperors relied on the “comitatenses” (also with other names) mobile crack troops which would plug (or try to plug) the holes in the border as soon as they formed.
The combination of limitanei and comitatenses worked in keeping the barbarian out of the Empire for a while. But the hemorrhage of gold and silver continued. So, during the last decades the empire, the paradigmatic Roman troops were the “bucellarii” a term that means “biscuit eaters”. The name can be taken as implying that these troops fought for food. Of course that may not have been always true, but it is a clear indication of the dearth of money of the time. There are also reports of troops paid in pottery and in some cases with land – the latter use may have been a factor in creating the feudal system that replaced the Roman empire in Europe.
In a way, as we see, the Romans were doomed by their “peak gold” (and also “peak silver). By the loss of their precious metal supply, the Romans lost their ability of controlling their troops and as a result of their resources. And power is nothing without control.
But the Roman empire did not fall just because it was invaded by foreigners or because it split in multiple sectors. It experienced a systemic collapse that wasn’t just a military one: it involved the whole economy and the social and political systems as well. To understand the reasons of the collapse, we need to go more in depth in the way the Roman economic system worked.
– The Romans and energy
The energy of the Roman Empire came from agriculture; mainly in the form of grain. At the beginning of their history and for several centuries onward, it seems that the Romans had little or no problems in producing enough food for their population. That makes sense considering that in Roman times the population of Europe was less than one tenth of what it is today and hence there was plenty of free space for cultivations. Reports of food problems in the Empire appear only with the 1st century CE and truly disastrous famines appear only with the 5th century CE – when the Western Roman Empire was already in its terminal phase. “Peak food”, apparently, came much later, about 3-4 centuries later than “peak gold”.
The very existence of a “peak food” for the Roman empire is somewhat puzzling: agriculture is, in principle, a renewable technology that had been able to feed the Roman population for several centuries. During the last period of the empire, there is no evidence of a population increase; on the contrary, it is clear that it declined. So, why couldn’t agriculture produce enough food?
The problem is that producing food doesn’t just involve plowing some land and sowing crops. Agricultural yields depend on the vagaries of the weather and, more importantly, agriculture has the tendency of depleting the land of fertile soil as a result of erosion. To avoid this problem, the ancient had a number of strategies: one was nomadism. From Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico” we learn that, as late as in the 1st century BCE, European populations still practiced a nomadic life style. They would do that in order to find new, pristine land and planting crops in the rich soil that they could produce by slashing and burning trees. That was possible because continental Europe, at that time, was nearly empty of people and entire populations could move unimpeded.
The Romans, instead, were a sedentary population and they had the problem of soil depletion. As population grew, it became a larger and larger problem, especially in a mountainous region such as Italy (3). In addition, some urban centers – such as Rome – became so big that they were impossible to supply using just local resources. With the 1st century BCE, the situation led to the development of a sophisticated logistic system based on ships that carried grain to Rome from the African provinces, mainly Libya and Egypt. It was a major task for the technology of the time to ensure that the inhabitants of Rome would receive enough grain and just when they needed it. It required large ships, storage facilities and, more than all, a centralized bureaucracy that went under the name of “annona” (from the Latin world “annum“, year). So important it was this system, that Annona was turned into a full fledged Goddess by imperial propaganda (you can see her in the image above, on the back of a coin minted at the time of Emperor Nero – from Wikipedia). For us, turning bureaucracy into a divine entity may appear a bit farfetched but, perhaps, we are not so far away from that.
Despite its complexity, the Roman logistic grain system was successful in replacing the insufficient Italian production and it permitted to feed a city as large as Rome, whose population approached (and perhaps exceeded) one million inhabitants during the heydays of the empire. But it was not Rome alone which benefited from the annona and the system could create a relatively high population density concentrated along the shores of the Mediterranean sea. It was this higher population density that gave to the Romans a military edge over their Northern neighbors, the “barbarians”, whose population was limited by a lack of a similar logistic system.
But what actually moved grain from the shores of Africa to Rome? In part, it was the result of trade. For instance, grain shipping companies were in private hands and they were paid for their work. But grain itself didn’t move because of trade: the provinces shipped grain to Rome because they were forced to. They had to pay taxes to the central government and they could do so either in currency or in kind. It seems that grain producers paid usually in kind and Rome didn’t ship anything in return (except in terms of troops and bureaucrats). So, the whole operation was a bad deal for provinces but, as usual in empires, opting out was not allowed. When, in 66 CE, the Jews of Palestine decided that they didn’t want to pay taxes to Rome any more, their rebellion was crushed in blood and Jerusalem was sacked. In the end, it was military power that kept the system under control.
The Roman annona system may not have been fair, but it worked fine and for a long time: at least a few centuries. It seems that the African agricultural system was managed by the Romans with reasonable care and that it was possible to avoid soil erosion almost until the very end of the Western Empire. Note also that the annona system doesn’t seem to have been affected – in itself – by the debasing of the silver denarius. This is reasonable: grain producers had no choice; they couldn’t export their products at long distances and they had only one market: Rome and the other major cities of the empire.
But the system that fed the city of Rome appears to have rapidly declined and finally collapsed during the 5th century CE. We have some evidence (3) that it was in this period that erosion turned the North African shores from the Roman “grain belt” into the desert we see nowadays. Possibly, the disaster was unavoidable, but it is also true that warfare does a lot of damage to agriculture and this is surely true for the North African region, object of extensive warfare during the last period of the Roman Empire. More in general, the strain to the economic system generated by continuous warfare may have led producers to overexploit their resources, privileging short term gains to long term stability. Were it not for these events, it is likely that the agricultural productivity of the land could have been maintained for a much longer time. But that was not the case.
With the North African land rapidly turning into a desert, King Genseric of the Vandals (see his face on a “siliqua” coin in the figure), ruling the region, halted the shipping of grain to Rome in 455 CE, then proceeding to sack the city in the same year. That was the true end of Rome, whose population shrunk from at least a few hundred thousands to about 50,000. It was the end of an age and never again would the North African shores be exporters of food.
– The fall of the Roman empire
Complex systems tend to fall in a complex manner and several interlocked factors played a role together first in creating the Roman empire, then in destroying it. At the beginning, it was a technological innovation, coinage of precious metals, that led the Romans to develop a military might that allowed them to access a resource which would have been impossible to exploit otherwise: the North African agricultural land. But, as it is often the case, the exploitation mechanism was so efficient that eventually it destroyed itself. Lower productivity of the precious metal mines reduced the efficiency of the Roman military system and this, in turn, led to fragmentation and extensive warfare. The increasing needs of resources for war were an important factor in destroying the agricultural system whose collapse, in turn, put an end to the empire.
The dynamic interplay of the various elements involved in the growth and the fall of the empire can be seen in the figure below, from a previous essay of mine. In the diagram, the source of energy is agriculture, but it is just an element of a complex system where various entities reinforce or dampen each other.
The diagram is patterned after the one originally created by Magne Myrtveit for our society described in the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study. This, as other studies of the same kind, provide a nice, aggregated view of the trajectory of an economic system which tends to overexploit the resources it used. As models, however, they are not completely satisfactory in the sense that they don’t include the question of control. It is a cost which needs to be paid and the gradually declining flow of resources makes it difficult. As a result, empires rarely collapse smoothly and as a whole, but rather tend to fragment and engage in internecine wars before actually disappearing. That was the destiny of the Roman Empire which experienced the general rule that power is nothing without control.
The Romans and us
It has always been fashionable to see the Roman Empire as a distant mirror of our civilization. And, indeed, we see that the points of contact are many. Just think of the sophisticated Roman logistic system: the navis oneraria which transported grain from Africa to Rome are the equivalent of our super-tankers transporting crude oil from the Middle East to Western countries. And think how China and India are playing today exactly the same role they were playing in the remote Roman times: they are manufacturing centers which are gradually soaking the wealth of the empire that we call, today, “globalization”.
This said, there is also an obvious difference. The Roman energy system was based on agriculture and hence it was theoretically renewable, at least until the Romans didn’t overexploit it. Our system is based on fossil fuels, which are obviously non renewable resources. Hence, we tend to be more worried about the depletion of our energy resources rather than that of gold and silver which – it seems – we could safely remove from our financial system without evident problems.
Still, there remains the fundamental problem that power is useless without control. The control system of the globalization empire works on similar principles as the older Roman one. It is based on a sophisticated financial system which, eventually, works because it is integrated with the military system. In the globalized army, soldiers, just like the Roman ones, want to be paid. And they want to be paid with a currency that they can redeem with goods and services somewhere. The dollar has, so far, played this role, but can it play it forever?
Eventually, everything that humans do is based on on some form of belief of what has value in this world. The Romans saw gold and silver as stores of value. For us, there is a belief that bits generated inside computers are stores of value – but we may be sorely disappointed – not that there will ever be a “peak bits” as long as there are computers around, but surely a major financial collapse would not just impoverish us, but most of all it would disrupt our capability of controlling the energy resources we need so desperately.
So, when oil pundits line up oil reserves as if each barrel were a soldier ready for battle, they tacitly assume that these reserves will available for use of the global empire. That’s not necessarily true. It depends on the degree of control that the empire will be able to exert on producers. That depends on the financial system which may well turn out to be the weak link of the chain. Without control, power is useless.
The Roman empire was lost when the financial system ceased to be able to control the military system. When the Romans lost their gold, everything was lost. In our case, it may well be that we will lose our ability to control the military system before we actually lose our ability to produce energy from fossil fuels. If the dollar loses its predominance in the world’s financial system, then producers may be tempted to keep their oil for themselves or, at least, not so enthusiastic any more in allowing the Empire to access it. What’s happening today in Ukraine may be a first symptom of the impending loss of global control.
1. “Mining in the Later Roman Empire”, J.C Edmondson, The Journal of Roman Studies, 79, 1989, 84, http://www.jstor.org/stable/301182
2. Tainter, Joseph A (2003. First published 1988), The Collapse of Complex Societies, New York & Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-38673-X,
3. “The Roman Empire: Fall of the West; Survival of the East”, James F Morgan, Bloomington 2012
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on January 10, 2014
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Joseph Tainter‘s Thesis
In The Collapse of Complex Societies Tainter posits that many historical civilizations have collapsed due to a very subtle phenomenon, one hard to perceive for both those who live through it and those historians who later study the records. There have been a number of “major cause” theories advanced over the years, the poster child being Rome’s collapse due to invasion by barbarians. None of those theories really got down to the root of the matter. Tainter, and a number of other authors have more recently taken a systems approach and discovered a common element, something that, for example, prepared the Roman empire to suffer invasions (among other injuries). That phenomenon can be characterized as the diminishing returns on increasing complexity. The returns have to do with access to adequate resources to support a growing population, especially all forms of energy, including food. The complexity he refers to are all of the cultural approaches to solving the problems associated with that acquisition and with managing an increasingly restless population. This is essentially a biophysical economics explanation. Someone invents a new technology or procedure (including laws) for improving the acquisition and distribution of needed resources. In doing so they increase the complexity of the society. But, ironically, the increased complexity generated ends up having a diminishing marginal gain relative to the costs of maintaining the complexity. We pay more but get less and less over time.
There is a psychological problem herein that is yet more subtle. People, in general, can be negatively affected by increasing complexity in their social milieu. Alvin Toffler, in 1970, wrote about Future Shock or the effects of information overload on people and how that impacts the societies in which they live. Increasing complexity of culture (e.g. technological innovations coming at a rapid rate) is what generates information in the sense that each new detail surprises the observer. Each increment in complexity might not generate a lot of information by itself, but collectively it adds up to bombardment of the brain with more information than can be processed reasonably by the average brain.
Today we know so much more about how the brain processes its daily input of information, throwing out anything it can’t categorize or associate with an affective (meaningful) state and integrating what it can into our knowledge base. This is mostly done while we sleep and dream. The process of integration and deletion, however, takes time. Under the conditions that humans evolved to their current mental capacities the rate of this process, and the time period of normal sleep, matched well with the rate of information accumulation during the day so that the brain was not, on average, overloaded. Overload, when it does occur, results in two conditions. One is a loss of information that should have been retained and integrated during the night. The other is accumulation of short-term memory traces (engrams) that should have been discarded. Our brains have a storage capacity that allows buffering of overload for a short while to allow for variations in sleep periods and daily doses of experiences. Thus the brain can actually retain, for several days, useless traces that simply clog up the works and might even prevent truly useful messages from being stored for processing. But in the human’s natural state such overload situations are temporary and over time information can be processed. When the overload condition becomes chronic, it is another story.
In today’s world the information load from every aspect of our lives in a technological society is overwhelming for most people. The brain executes a self-protection mechanism. It simply starts filtering out a lot of information. We subconsciously switch off our attention to the world around us to keep from being swamped. Additionally, our bodies react to information overload by treating it as stress and if chronic it does damage to our health.
Part of the tuning out of messages in a complex society is that people simply do not pay attention to what is happening. They subconsciously turn to ignorance and lack of attention to protect themselves. In our modern societies I observe that the majority of people tune out the complexities. For a vast number of them, that includes especially education in and subsequent attention to the sciences. But today I see it in all domains. Even in watching or reading news reports, most people will attend to news stories only if the implications fit their pre-conceived beliefs about the world (which are necessarily over simplified). Ergo the rise of media phenomena like Fox News and its followers (same story for progressive/liberal media).
Knowledge (what and how) and understanding (why) of the way the world works provide a kind of inoculation against future shock. The reason is that knowledge is the reciprocal of information. The more you know, the less information you receive with each situation and thus avoid information overload. Being ignorant of the way the world works simply makes you more susceptible to it. And therein lies the conundrum. A positive feedback loop exists that makes people less able to cope with complexity as complexity grows. They become increasingly ignorant while trying to self-protect their brains from overload, but that just means they become more easily overloaded as complexity increases. And because they are ignorant they don’t grasp how to prevent more complexity from emerging — even the perpetrators of complexity, the lawyers, politicians, bankers, and tech gurus, are increasingly ignorant of the overall effects of what they do, so they just keep doing more of it. Meanwhile our “education system” is completely oblivious to this simple fact. Rather than educating people to understand (which is hard to do) we teach them to avoid understanding (teach to the test, which is easy to do).
Thus each new solution to the biophysical problems (or perceived problems) leads to increasing complexity and diminishing returns on investment in development, maintenance, and usage. That, in turn, drives people away from understanding what is happening in their world (the complexity) so that they cannot make rational choices. Increasing complexity then leads to increasing mistakes of judgment and eventually collapse of the system (society). In terms of major transitions in evolution (see: Major Transitions in The Future of Evolution) this crisis situation has led to the emergence of effective hierarchical coordination within some representative systems in a population of such systems that, by virtue of their increased fitness (stability against collapse) survive and differentially “reproduce”. In the case of human societies on a global scale this is more problematic since the current species of human is caught in an in-between state of mental evolution, between just barely sapient and fully sapient. As I have written many times over the years, sapience has all the attributes of a natural integrating mechanism to allow those sapient individuals to form much better governance systems. A collapse of global civilization should result in more isolated, small communities not unlike the unit tribes of early hominids in Africa. All of these communities would then constitute the population of evolvable systems.
Take a Snapshot — What do You See?
One of the most visible characteristics of peak and post-peak complexity is the way in which subsystems that contribute to overall system complexity have a tendency to break down. Or they will not work properly relative to their intended functions, which means they are not providing the desired service.
As an example, there is a set of “smart” traffic lights on a sequence of corners on my way into work. Smart lights sense the presence of traffic, especially that waiting to get the green light. Most such systems try to measure the load (how many cars are lined up waiting for the light to turn) and calculate from both a time limit and the rate of the cross-traffic flow (how many cars per unit time are sensed crossing the sensors in the road). A fairness policy dictates that when traffic in one of the directions is very heavy, say during the time people are driving to or from work, the light will stay green longer for them, but it will change within a reasonable time to prevent overloading the cross street. Or at least that is the idea. Smart lights are supposed to solve the problem of traffic congestion by smartly (optimally) regulating the flows. But the several lights that I mentioned are anything but smart. I think what happened is that when they put in a light rail line that crosses my street it changed the complexity of the whole system. The light rail needs special handling so that it can maintain a schedule, which changes the light changing program. When that happened the lighting engineers must have made some very wrong assumptions about how to handle the increased complexity of timing the lights because now, with no traffic (including the light rail) crossing we end up sitting much longer than the true smart light would have allowed. Moreover there are many times when there are cars in the left turn lane on my side of the road, but none on the other side, the lanes going the opposite direction. What should happen is that all of our lanes should get the green light, the going-straight and the left-turn lanes, while the go-straight lanes on the opposite side should have to wait while our cars make their left turns. But no, what actually happens is that the left turn signal on both directions is turned on so that those of us who are going straight need to sit and wait — even when there is no one in the left turn lane on the opposite side.
The rest of the light timing is even dumber than this but I don’t have the time to describe all of the idiot ways that traffic gets snarled up by these stupid lights. They would do better to simply have a fixed timer on all directions and let it go at that. But this example shows how things go wrong with complexity and end up doing damage when they were intended to make things better. It also shows the failure of a system, the engineering process that was supposed to handle the new complexity but didn’t do it correctly. It seems a small thing, a little inconvenience, so most people probably don’t even think about the 20 seconds to 2 minutes they lost at those corners. Some might say, “only a systems engineer would notice and worry about such a small thing.” And that is probably right. However, add up all those lost minutes from every car that needs to get through. Add up every day that those minutes are lost. Before long you can actually see a not-insignificant loss of time for society. We all lose. Now consider how many such corners exist in the world, where smart algorithms should be facilitating traffic but actually slow it down. I’ve seen a number of them around here and even in other countries. It does add up.
Then consider all of the little screw-ups in technologies that are the result of poor design of an overly complex system (a certain operating system comes to mind). How much time is lost there? Almost everybody has experience with technologies that are too complicated to operate (features are never used) or break every once in awhile for no apparent reason. I have a wireless router at home that is forever needing reset. Why (a simple answer is that I was too cheap to buy the top of the line!)?
These are all little things that people don’t take much notice of, and never consider the global consequences of. But the really worst cases of things breaking or not working as intended is governments and organizations. We are seeing record numbers of scandals, un-prosecuted crimes (are you listening Mr. Dimon?) and failures to act in accordance with the rules. At least half of this is attributed to the cheating attitudes and greed that seem to be driving so many people in authority or position. But the other half is due to the simple fact that our institutions have gotten too complex for anybody to fully understand. Take a look at the Dodd-Frank bill or the tax code. We’ve gone over the top (the peak) when supposed experts in policy or taxes make horrendous mistakes because they cannot deal with the complexity of those rules and regulations or the procedures involved. But then, what does it matter? The enforcers are overwhelmed too so they don’t really do a proper job of monitoring and enforcing so no one who makes a mistake actually gets caught or pays a penalty. Couple that with the greed half and you now have a pat formula for stealing in plain sight.
And with just about everybody information overloaded, no one notices. Or at least no one who could possibly change things.
Single individuals (even the president of the United States) are powerless. Even if they knew what needs to be fixed they haven’t the influence or tools to do the fixing. Small groups are powerless. In our litigious society no one group can get anything effective done without stepping on someone’s toes and getting pushback for their trouble. Not even congress can move forward without some kind of gridlock.
What Isn’t Broken?
Over complexity that is not mitigated by the introduction of a hierarchical management systems (which actually reduces overall complexity) causes systems to fail in various modes. The failures, even little ones here and there, accumulate. Some can even have multiplicative consequences when positive feedback in included. Societies, even organizations, collapse due to over complexity and the law of diminishing returns applied to it.
Look around you. What institutions/systems do you see that are humming along happily doing their jobs? Me? I see very few, if any. I’ve even recently discussed the failures of the institution of science. Looking at political failures, aside from the incredible stupidity in Washington DC, consider the mess in the MENA region (e.g., Egyptian turmoil).
Can we really find just plain proper working let alone dysfunction? I suspect you will find it hard to point to truly functional systems in this world. What am I watching?
Peak Energy and the Rapid Decline of Supportable Complexity
There is still a lot of conversation and debate over the energy picture, specifically regarding fossil fuels. With the high media visibility of non-conventional extraction techniques (fracking and tar sands) and the over-hyping being done about the long term consequences of slightly increased volumes now from these technologies the public is buying into a belief that the energy problems are over. Remarkably the increases in volumes has not really translated into lower prices (the initial high flows of natural gas flooded the market and drove prices down, but those are starting to creep back up again.) Gasoline, for example, is still high from historic perspectives. Several people have calculated that any price over $90 per barrel of oil produces a damaging drag on the economy. This has been cited frequently in explaining why the US economy (as well as the global economies) have been struggling so badly over the past 4-5 years. Energy costs are at the root of ALL costs for all products and services as well as government — in fact everything. So even small increases in energy costs contribute to the problems.
At least in part this means the costs of maintenance and replacement of capital makes it harder to fix things or make them right in the first place. The decline in available free energy per capita, which is the defining parameter, translates directly into the availability of monetary representations of work and that too declines. We humans have cheated a bit, and continue to try to do so, by using debt instead of a currency that is backed by exergy (free energy). Essentially a few of us have tried to pull the wool over the rest of our eyes and make us think we still have the resources to keep on our consumptive ways. But look at the reality. Everything is breaking down. I will even go so far as to say nothing will really get fixed. Even if the American congress were to miraculously pass an important bill that seemed to have positive benefits for all it would be a short-lived anomaly on the road to perdition. The rule from here on out is decline and decay and all of our complex institutions and technologies will crumble to our feet.
What will likely be the short-term response from governments and financial institutions? Print more money. Go into more debt. Try desperately to make it look like things are OK. They will do this by trying to create yet more complex solutions (e.g. where exactly did quantitative easing or credit default swaps come from?) Depending on any swings in the political arena in the next (mid presidential term) elections, or in the presidential election of 2016 such that one party gains complete control of the white house and both houses of congress will determine how many more complex laws and rules will be created. The current gridlock is actually saving us from total asininity. If one or the other party gains control they will immediately find more complex ways to govern, which, of course, will simply lead us to ruin that much faster.
There is no physical way out of this dilemma. It is strictly thermodynamic business — nothing personal against you Homo sapiens. There is nothing you or I can do about it, except in personal preparation terms.But watch for yourself. You will likely see the degradation continue. You are witness to the peak of complexity every time you fire up your smart phone. Look for those phones to soon become a source of aggravation to you. The next model or operating system will have more glitches because the designers were racing to get it to market. The networks will suffer more outages with increased traffic. Technology will fail to serve. Institutions will break down and collapse. Our global society will collapse into a small number of isolated communities and the beginning of a new dark ages at best.
I am neither a “glass half empty”, nor a “glass half full” person. The glass is rapidly emptying and has or soon will pass the halfway point. Nor is there any way that we can start filling it back up to compensate. On the other hand there is a sort of positive side to this. For those lucky or smart enough to survive, the world will get a lot simpler and, ironically, in the long run, a lot more humane.
Diamond, Jared (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Group, New York.
Homer-Dixon, Thomas (2006). The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, Island Press, Washington DC.
Tainter, Joseph A. (1988). The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.
Toffler, Alvin (1984). Future Shock, Bantam Books, New York.
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on November 28, 2013
Discuss this article at the Science & Technology Table inside the Diner
The Major Transitions in Evolution
This last year, having completed work on the systems science textbook, I have immersed myself in the emerging and growing literature on this subject. Evolution as used here refers to the universal dynamic of change, specifically the increase in levels of organization and complexity1 over time (McIntosh, 2012; Morowitz, 2004). I devoted an entire chapter to the phenomena of auto-organization and emergence as underlying the process of evolution involving selection, descent with modification, competition, and cooperation. The latter was covered in the following chapter (the two chapters form a unit section titled Evolution). My co-author and I sought to present the concepts in the most general forms possible, as applicable to all levels of organization in the universe. The reason is that there is emerging a general understanding that evolution is much more than just the neo-Darwinian biological paradigm that has dominated thinking and investigations for the past hundred years or so. The theories of evolution have been evolving! One of the most exciting discoveries (still somewhat tentative but gaining evidence) contributing to this evolving understanding is that evolution itself has been evolving! That is, as new levels of organization emerge, the mechanisms of evolution within the new level seem to be accelerated compared with what came before. For example, I have already written about the new thinking about evolvability and how it may have played a role in the survivability of mammals and birds after the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg, formerly the K-T) mass extinction event. Over the past several decades considerable work has shown that evolution in all its forms is far more complex, subtle, and operates in levels of organization just as the physical universe is evolving into more complex, subtle, and leveled organization due to evolution. The philosophical implications are deep.
The emergence of higher levels of organization is now recognized as a sequence of transitions that occurred as a result of increasing complexity within the Universe. That means that as the complexity at any one level of organization reached a critical point in complexity of structures and functions (e.g. when proteins and nucleotide polymers were sufficiently large and interacted in autocatalytic cycles and were associated with bi-layer fatty acid complexes — membranes) many of these structures/functions combined to create new super-structures with new super-functions that, in effect, created a whole new level of organization (formation of protocells). Figure 1 shows a summary of the major transitions where higher complexity emerged from lower levels in the hierarchy (Calcott & Sterelny, 2011; Maynard Smith & Szathmáry, 1995).
Figure 1. A summary of the major transitions leading to levels of organization in the evolution of the Universe. The presumptive “Big Bang” is thought to be the origin of ordinary mass and energy. Nucleons evolved through the interactions of gravity and nuclear fusion processes in supernovae explosions. Once the Universe cooled sufficiently for stable atoms to interact within nebular clouds and in the form of formed mass bodies such as planets (like the Earth) chemical reactions led to a large variety of molecules and crystalline structures. The combinations of atoms created more complex structures that could then further interact in a pre-biological evolution of precursors for life.
At each level in this summary we see that the complexity of structures that auto-organize increases as we go up the hierarchy. For a more complete explanation of the process of auto-organization, emergence, and evolution of complexity, please see my working paper, “Does Evolution Have a Trajectory?” Here I am more interested in what that trajectory looks like, standing back and looking at the whole of the history of the Universe.
Figure 1 illustrates what we mean by levels of organization and the blue dashed lines represent the transitions from a lower level to the next higher level. For example pre-biotic chemical evolution involved the generation of the major molecular constituents of life from non-organic sources. The origin of life problem is far from solved in detail, but the broad outlines of what compounds needed to be synthesized in advance of protocell organization is understood well enough to be confident in saying that the pre-life conditions could create a milieu in which further auto-organization of those component parts led to protocells with heritable, stable genetic material and the triggering of neo-Darwinian evolutionary mechanism. The latter increased the rate of increase in complexity above what had been the case in all time before (see Figure 2 below). And eventually, with the emergence of chromosomes and stable energy-gradient consuming metabolisms, true cells (e.g. eubacteria) organized and set off a new level of evolution.
Notice a few interesting dynamics indicated in Figure 1. The obvious (red arrow pointing upward) is the increase in complexity with the increase in levels of organization. But there are two other very intriguing dynamics we should note. The first (green arrow pointing up) starting in biological evolution continues upward. This is to recognize that the emergence of social evolution (cooperation among biological entities to give rise to higher organisms) did not actually bring biological evolution to a halt. Biological evolution, however, is seen as halting any chance for pre-biotic developments. The reason given is that bacteria, especially, would instantly consume any non-organic but carbon-based molecules that might form by accident. So the chance that a second or third pre-biology could get a hold is essentially nonexistent. This is similar to the slowdown and cessation of nucleonic evolution due to the limits of energies needed to fuse ever more complex nuclei. The depletion of lighter weight elements in making heavier elements simply acted as a negative feedback to bring further evolution to a halt.
Social emergences and evolutions (e.g. endosymbiosis giving rise to eukaryotes, colony cell specializations giving rise to multicellular forms, and higher forms of social organizations) did not halt biological evolution, but instead enhanced it (Bourke, 2011). But then we get to cultural evolution, and in particular that of human cultures, which especially includes science and technology. Suddenly we see a re-triggering of lower level evolution due to human intervention. We have generated nuclei we don’t (or haven’t) find in nature. We have created chemical compounds impossible to auto-synthesize in nature. We are on the verge of creating artificially constructed protocells and even cells. We have cloned all kinds of creatures that would not have happened in natural selection. We have created chimeras from multiple species. It seems as if humans and their scientific cultures have restarted the lower levels of the complexity hierarchy and we have yet to see what may come of further evolution taking place in those levels. Most people look with great horror on this development, claiming we are creating monsters that will destroy us. They may be right. But there is another (non-humanistic, but perhaps more objective) way to look at it. We are simply unwitting agents in the Universe’s once-more increase in the rate of evolution of complexity. We are the Universe’s way to increase its own evolvability. We, as a species, may be victims of this transition. But the Universe as a whole may actually achieve a whole new level of organization as a result.
Figure 2 is a very rough approximation of the rate of increase in complexity as a result of Universal evolution. It looks exponential. A central question raised by this view would be, how much more complexity is possible? The answer may lie in realizing that the perspective shown in Figure 2 is from us residing on this planet. Change the scale, by stretching the time line out many more billion years into the future and the complexity measure up by many orders of magnitude and the steep rise we see from Earth might just look like a slower sloping exponential (still). In other words, we can’t let our earth-bound and species-centric bias influence our perspective on what evolution is really all about.If we can help it.
Figure 2. Overall complexity of the Universe appears to have grown at an exponential rate (albeit very small exponent). This is a very rough graph that shows how levels of organization emerged and the evolution of complexity then appears to have greatly increased. Other authors have suggested that the graph should depict a step function as the emergence phase might have been rapid and the evolution phase slower.
Auto-organization, the emergence of new levels organization, and the evolution of structure and function with those levels depends entirely on the flow of energy. Energy flowing from a high potential source of the right kind of kinetic form to a low potential source powers the processes and their adaptation (maintenance of function in spite of environmental variations) and evolution (changes in form and function to maintain continuity into the future) over time and space. The sun has been the main source of high powered energy flows in the form of electromagnetic radiation (light). Early life may have used less powerful chemical potential gradients to extract energy but once photosynthesis was discovered the power of light was exploited to synthesize new structures and perform new functions (of course life based on chemical energy sources can still be found today, for example at thermal vents in the deep ocean). The evolution of life has since largely been driven by the steady flow of energy to the earth from the sun and the eventual degradation of the energy to waste heat due to the many work transformations done by the biosphere.
Life evolved us. We and our late progenitors found new ways to raise the level of organization above that of life itself. Through the evolution of our large brains we became capable of invention of artifacts that allowed us to exploit sources of solar energy other than food. We gave rise to a new complexity — humans and artifacts that would then evolve together, that is co evolve. The artifacts increased human access to high powered energy flows which then allowed humans to gain greater ecological fitness in a much higher number of environments. Even though some people think evolution of our biology has ceased with our ascension to the top of the food chain and our technological ability to keep genetically deficient individuals alive prosthetically (e.g. glasses), in fact we are not the exact same species that emerged from Africa some 60-65 thousand years ago. Racial differences attest to the on-going force of selection for traits commensurate with different environments. This cannot be denied. So our culture(s) which made dispersion across the planet feasible has recursively acted on us to push biological evolution, albeit at a normal pace for biological evolution, further along.
On the other hand, culture has evolved at an exponential rate due to the continuing discovery of higher and higher potential energy gradients. We cannot eat hydro power, or fire, or explosions. These forms of energy conversion from potential to kinetic could not feed directly into our biological bodies to drive some kind of super-biological evolution. But they can be exploited in machines that we invented as we explored what possible ways we could exploit water, wind, animals, tree, coal, oil, and nuclear fission. These high power energies can effect our minds, inspire our inventiveness, and as a result we act as the selective forces that play the evolution of culture. With enough excess energy available our artifacts need not be only functional (practical) but esthetic as well. Indeed a whole category of artifacts are only meant for esthetics. Culture evolved rapidly because of the availability of energy and the coupling between biology and artifacts through the human mind.
This raises an unpleasant thought. If evolution depends2 of increasing availability of higher power then we face a very unusual condition in the not-so-far-off future. Fossil fuels being the main source of power now (over 80% globally) and finite in abundance are starting to be harder to extract as a result of their depletion. This is reflected in the rising costs of extraction and decreasing marginal returns on investments and production. Eventually, and I suspect within the next decade, the cost-benefit ratio for fossil fuels will simply go to one (1) with the result that the energy flows to our culture (and hence to our biomass maintenance) will fall to zero from these sources. Cultural evolution will slow to a halt and afterward go into devolution (in the best case scenario).
Of course, humans will not react well to this decline of what they had come to know as “progress.” Their reactions will more likely cause a catastrophic decline of the further coevolution of mankind-cultures leaving whatever is left of the former with naught but the stone tools of our fore bearers of some fifteen thousand years ago.
At first glance this would seem to go against the picture of evolution producing ever higher levels of organization in these major transitions. From our perspective this looks like an end of evolution rather than a transition to higher evolution. But that is just from our perspective. Had the dinosaurs been at all sentient and knew something about progress they would have surely thought their extinctions would have been an end to the emergence of higher levels of organization. After all they were the norm. To their way of thinking they probably could not imagine the world going on without them. Wouldn’t progress have simply meant more diversity in dinosaur species?
But while a power reset to a lower value will degrade cultural evolution in its current form, it does not follow that all of humanity is lost. The bulk of human biomass does depend on technology to keep it alive. Without modern agricultural industry, more humans will go hungry and starve to death. Others will act violently to save themselves as best they can. However it is not a given that all human life will come to an end. There is some non-zero likelihood that some humans will survive and figure out how to maintain in spite of the collapse of societies and the radical climate changes that are ahead. Human beings are, after all, enormously adaptive. And all that is needed to provide the future basis of continuing biological and “mental” evolution of the genus Homo is a high capacity to adapt.
An Impending Transition
When considering some of the conditions prevailing prior to previous transitions it is intriguing to realize that most were in response to heavy stresses acting on components that would eventually combine to create the new structures at a new level of organization. In other words, the emergence of a new level, and the mark of a transition, were a result of strong selection against components but for combinations that were more adaptive than any one component by itself. Synergy is the result of components acting cooperatively to accomplish what no one, or even the aggregate of components, could do alone. Though much research must be done to validate this, a picture has been developing of the fortuitous symbiotic relations that developed between prokaryotic cells that gave rise to the eukaryotic forms. The process has been termed “endosymbiosis.” There is a suggestion that larger prokaryotes ate smaller ones but failed to digest them and they stuck around, having found a suitable safe haven. We don’t know exactly what the conditions were for some large prokaryote to engulf, say the precursors of mitochondria or chloroplasts (plastids that retain a significant working genome of their own), but we do know that relations between all of those precursors could have developed gradually and probably proceeded through a colony-like association before actual internalization. Mitochondria precursors, for example, might have supplied large eubacteria colonies with ATP supplements to their chemoenergy sources. Also what we know is that mutualistic relations develop between species when there is an advantage to cooperate and that such an advantage increases the fitness of both. And, finally, we know that such relations will be selected for even when there is negative selection operating on the individual members of one or the other species.
The growing abundance of free oxygen in the atmosphere and hydrosphere was just such a dramatic and increasing selective force. Respiration requires oxygen to “slow burn” carbohydrates to release energy packets able to supply synthesis machinery (e.g. ribosomes). Oxygen also kills anaerobic bacteria quite nicely so selection for oxygen tolerance was quite strong. It would have been greatly increased by the inclusion of a nice little bug that could fix oxygen to carbon and hydrogen while producing wonderful little batteries for use by other organelle (also likely prokaryote derived).
The transitions seem always to involve the evolution of sociality3. The new level of organization always involves the new kinds of interactions between socialized new forms. Molecules can undergo chemistries that atoms by themselves are incapable of. For example, protein catalysts (enzymes) are able to facilitate so many difficult reactions (with large energy hurdles) that no single atom, or even small molecules, could manage. The chain of amino acids in an enzyme cooperate by forming complex shapes that have kinetic properties suited to perform their collectivized function.
Even the origins of human sociality on the plains of Africa seems to have been in response to strong selection forces. Humans gave up claws and jaws in favor of posture and voice. They were no match for the carnivores of the environment. They were not even built well for being carnivores. They needed to evolve social mechanisms to support acting as a unit for hunting, gathering, protection, etc. The stresses of climate and competition acted to select those groups of humans (tribes) that best cooperated within the group. They were in competition not only with other species, but with conspecific tribes as well. The ones that did the best job of intra-group cooperation won the competition.
The reduction in the power available to human culture may mean an end to the kind of culture we have become used to. But it does not mean an end to human evolution. As long as there is sunlight some humans can and will survive, even thrive. But the stresses of survival in the brave new world could easily mean that the evolution of a new, greater level of socialization is in the offing. Current human culture represents what amounts to the first baby steps toward the kind of eusociality previously accorded to species like ants and naked mole rats. Our role in this transition to a sentient form of eusociality is merely as a transient species having some of the characteristics of both a semi-social (e.g. other apes) and a eusocial species. The latter is evidenced in the fact that we can, under nominal conditions, form strong cooperative associations even with strangers to accomplish some common goal. Evidence of the former is the level of cutthroat competition, selfishness with profits, and greed that are displayed by too many of our kind today. This is our ancestral reptilian brain at work. The cooperativeness that we display in our near eusociality is the result of our neocortex and particularly the large prefrontal cortex (orchestrated by the patch right behind the eyebrows called Brodmann area 10). We are the transition.
Humanity finds itself in the same kind of predicament early life (anaerobic bacteria) faced when those devilish little blue-green algae (actually cyanobacteria) started defecating oxygen! The impending stresses from reducing power flows and increasing climate changes promise to put us in dire need. We have to evolve or go extinct.
A Blessed Bottleneck
Transition in the biosphere is coming. There is no way to avoid it. There will be another great die-off and many species will exit the stage of life. We could be one of them. But I honestly don’t think we will. Rather I think the course of evolution already laid, its trajectory, will not be thwarted entirely. Our culture is not the defining property of our biological species, our capacity to build a culture based on cooperation is, however. The extent and kind of culture that humans can build will, of course, depend on the power available to them, but it is the act and process of building some culture that is the essence of our biology.
Regardless of who gets through the bottleneck event (roughians or sapients) I’m not sure it will make a difference. The forces that will drive the evolution of future species of Homo, I conjecture, will favor greater cooperation not less. Furthermore, the brain structural seeds of circuits that will support cooperativity are already sown. As future generations experience mutations that improve those circuits they will differentially succeed in the competition with poor cooperators by building adaptive cultures that can deal with the contingencies of the future.
The history of universal evolution is one of transitions to greater cooperativity (sociality) reacting to increases in stresses at lower levels. Think of it like what Per Bak calls self-organized criticality. A pressure builds up in a non-linear complex system. Mostly small evolutionary events occur. Every once in a while a middle sized event (e.g. origin of a new genera or loss of an old one) occurs. And on very rare occasions a really large event, a transition event, takes place, and nothing is the same afterward. I think this is where we are headed.
Do not weep for humanity friends. We are just players in a universal drama. It is a story of redemption even if the protagonist dies. Sentience will continue up the curve in Figure 2 for a ways more. It can happen not by increasing cultural complexity per se, but by raising the social complexity bar. After the transition (say ten thousand generations from now!) the cultural + social complexity can once again increase. Power alone is not the only thing needed for post-transition complexity. Mind, sentience, cleverness mediated by sapience is the key. Eusapient beings in that distant future may discover new sources of power to drive artifact complexity once again. But they will not be lured into creating complexity for its own sake (novelty and convenience). Nor will they be so foolish as their predecessors (us) to waste their environment in pursuit of that kind of complexity.
How Could Anyone Know What Will Come?
No one does, of course. I am speculating, to be certain. But consider this. The major patterns of universal evolution are becoming clear to us. Those patterns repeat themselves in different forms, but systemically they are the same. Competition drives inter-specific and conspecific incremental evolution. Cooperation emerges in response to the build up of competition-based and environmental forces (like climate). I have no idea what the details might look like, but I think I can see a broad picture emerging that gives me considerable hope. And joy. Humans in our current form will absolutely go extinct eventually. But, if I am right, it will be the death of a species giving birth to a new species that is more fit in the context of the planet as a whole system. It would be sad indeed if the extinction of Homo sapiens was the end of sentience on this planet, given the potential for that sentience to rise above mere sapiens‘ cleverness. It is certainly one of the outcomes possible but it would seem to me to have been such a waste of time and resources. Evolution has a history of purchasing new opportunities on the expenditures of prior species, genera, and higher. It has inexorably led to greater information/knowledge processing and complexity of organisms throughout its history. Why would it not be so in the future?
Indeed, as long as the sun produces an energy flow commensurate with life (light energy) there is still time for evolution to produce a much more highly capable sentience than are we. There is no law of nature to prevent it. We won’t be able to know what that sentience looks like (humanoid presumably). But I think we can take comfort in knowing that if it exists it will be the new and better us.
Bourke, Andrew F.G. (2011). Principles of Social Evolution, Oxford University Press, New York.
Calcott, Brett & Sterelny, Kim (2011). The Major Transitions in Evolution Revisited (Vienna Series in Theoretical Biology), The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
Maynard Smith, John & Szathmáry, Eörs (1995). The Major Transitions in Evolution, Oxford University Press,
McIntosh, Steve (2012). Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins, SelectBooks, Inc.
Morowitz, Harold J. (2004). The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex, Oxford University Press, NY.
Sawyer, R.Kieth (2005). Social Emergence: Societies As Complex Systems,Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.
Simon, Herbert (1996). The Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd ed. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
1. Complexity as used here refers to an indexed value based on the depth of the hierarchy, after Herbert Simon (1996). As components form stable complexes at lower levels, new interactions between those complexes emerge and new laws of organization take shape. This forms a hierarchy of realized complexity. The depth of the hierarchy (as shown in Figure 1) provides a measure of complexity.
2. And here I include the effects of population growth as part of the equation of evolution because larger populations support a possibly higher variability in genetics and ideas, thus the fitness of mankind plus culture has to lead to higher reproductive success for all!
3. Sociality is the term being applied to all forms of cooperation taking place at all levels of organization in the complexity hierarchy. Atoms are social in combining to make molecules. Molecules are social in combining by various bond forms to create complex shapes (like enzymes). Cells are social when the communicate with one another and form tissues, and so on.
Off the keyboard of George Mobus
Published on Question Everything on July 14, 2013
Discuss this article at the Podcast Table inside the Diner
The Greatest Intellectual Feat of Mankind
I love science. All science and sciences. I’ve spent a lifetime reading every popular science book I could get my hands on in every imaginable discipline. And in fields in which I was intensely interested I read the textbooks and the journal articles. Science as a way to understanding has been my passion. It therefore gives me great pain to entertain the possibility that the institution of science is yet another failed institution of Homo calidus.
The recognition of the process of science and, in particular, the scientific method has to stand as humanity’s greatest intellectual success. The notions of objectivity, observation, empirical methods, data, analysis, and provisional interpretation as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge have been woven into a beautiful tapestry of process that has proven its value over and over again. Ideologies (beliefs without actual verification) and religious dogma served a purpose to hold groups together by sharing common ideas and beliefs when our species emerged from the basic biological nexus as sentient, social self-conscious beings. Some purely practical beliefs took their origin in observations of nature that were repeatable and therefore the basis of prediction. Where the game could be found, when the rains would come, where the predators lurked, all of these kinds of regular happenings were the basis for repeatability. Each foray out to hunt was an experiment testing the hypothesis of that belief. But the existential questions that came with self-consciousness were not answerable by observations of nature. It would take the discovery of Darwinian evolution by natural selection before we could even begin to approach such questions.
And therein is the reason that ideologies and religions still exist today; that and the likelihood that the further evolution of eusapience was stymied after the invention of settled agriculture.
Even so, agriculture provided a significant boost to what would one day become science. Observation of many variables associated with plant and animal husbandry, and the application of those observations in controlled ways was incipient science at work. Large-scale agriculture gave rise to number systems for accounting, and, eventually, writing — using abstract symbols to express speech. Both were essential for codifying knowledge gained. Number systems and accounting (plain arithmetic) gave rise to mathematics when architects were commanded to build complex monuments and cities. Science (observing and interpreting) and engineering (exploiting knowledge to design and construct artifacts) were already developing as practical but unconsciously performed practices. As civilization progressed it enabled more areas to come under scrutiny and, in turn, allow civilization to progress further. Astrology (an attempt at answering existential questions) morphed eventually into astronomy and enabled long-range navigation and exploration.
The greatest accomplishment for humans was the eventual recognition of the process and its formal codification, transforming it from natural philosophy into a rigorous disciplinary method for obtaining knowledge. There were many steps in this process over a number of centuries. Aristotle had advocated what would become the empirical methods of observation. Roger Bacon, in the 13th century would advocate further for empirical observation as the basis for gaining truth. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries the Scientific Revolution crystallized and science emerged as a recognized process distinct from philosophy or religion.
And what a revolution it was. Mostly in terms of the pickup of the pace. Discoveries and exploitation came at accelerating rates. The invention of the printing press made it feasible to get it all recorded and disseminated. The institution of science would rapidly evolve.
Today science is an established institution overlaid on universities, government agencies, foundations, and industry. Money flows to researchers who conduct peer-reviewed projects with definite goals laid out. The granting institutions decide what the worthy pursuits will be and the investigators compete to show that their projects are relevant and likely to succeed. If a neuroscientist pursues an National Institutes of Health grant to study some aspect of brain function, she is required (if she wants a chance to win) to mention how her research could lead to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. Failure to delineate how a line of research is going to lead to solving the energy crisis or cure cancer is a death sentence in the highly competitive fields of the modern practice of science.
The line between science and engineering has become blurred. Today engineering PhDs need to do research, ostensibly applied, to push the boundaries of what artifacts they can develop and what those artifacts can do. As in the above paragraph, scientists doing ostensibly pure research are obliged to mention the practical applications. The gaining of knowledge has come down to a gaining of new forms of wealth and wealth creation, not of gaining understanding of nature. If that happens from time to time it is a by-product, not the main goal. Put simply the funding model has changed the purpose of science and turned it into Über-engineering — finding solutions to problems. Science is now an industry*.
The universities, for their part, are producing copious PhDs in sciences and engineering even while the corporations complain that there aren’t enough. There aren’t enough of the Über-engineers based on the fact that the level of competition in innovative product development is staggeringly high. Today what counts as science is a discovery of how to cram more transistors on a chip of silicon.
And as often happens when you over produce a product you turn it into a commodity. The crops of PhDs and Master’s degreed people coming out of second and third tier universities have flooded the markets. They look for jobs as adjunct “instructors” or lecturers rather than full time, tenure-track positions in departments with active research agendas. Thanks to the societal meme that everyone should have a college degree, the subsequent rapid expansion of higher education institutions, and the demand for instructors, this has resulted in a positive feedback loop that produces stamped out of the mold products (PhDs) who then take whatever job they can get. A PhD in a science is no longer about science or the level of intellectual sophistication that it had been at the beginning of the 20th century.
A Two-Edged Sword
Science has been used for good and evil for its whole history as a human endeavor. I count evil as those acts of violence such as wars that make humanity worse off. Science has given us medicines but it also gave us the means of maiming soldiers so that they would require those medicines. Radioactive isotopes and atom smashers have been extremely useful in medical and investigative work but nuclear bombs have been a curse. And now, industrial grade agriculture is feeding billions (though some not so well) it is also poisoning our bodies, our soils, our air, and our waters. And not just our species is suffering.
Up until the mid 20th century science was mostly perceived as a force for good and progress. Very few people could or would question this proposition. But a few started to wonder about the negative effects that they began to suspect and later observe. Rachel Carson and her “Silent Spring” is a poster child of this thinking. But there were others and many even before Ms. Carson. The sword had become that of Damocles to them. We enjoyed the benefits of science and engineering, but most people were either ignorant of or simply ignored the threats hanging just over their heads as they sat on the throne of progress.
Unfortunately the warning voices were drowned out by the din of exclamations about the wonders of science. As I was just coming into more adult-level awareness, having been brought up on Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and (later) Star Trek, the Brussels World’s Fair (Expo 58) was a site where adulation of our knowledge of atomic energy was on display. I had been born exactly on the day the first atomic bomb had been used to kill people in Japan 13 years earlier. So I found myself conflicted over the science of atomic energy; on the one hand producing such horror, and on the other producing what seemed, at the time, like a promise of prosperity. By my senior year in high school and continuing in my first years of college, I wondered how this could be. What kind of creatures were we that we could do this to ourselves?
Ironically I would come to live in Seattle, WA. less than a decade after the Seattle World’s Fair where the expectations of progress and the great promise of science was the major theme. I had grown up reading mostly science fiction tales about space travel. Men had landed on the moon just before I came to Seattle so it looked like we were on our way to the Gordon/Rogers/Trek era. The optimism surrounding what would be possible given our mastery over science was palpable throughout the western world (as long as you could suppress thinking about the Cold War and nuclear Armageddon). To this day I like to visit the Pacific Science Center on the grounds of that fair, with the towering Space Needle a constant reminder of the notion of progress. I still love science, with its ability to produce meaningful knowledge of how the universe works. But I have developed considerable doubts about its payoff for humanity given our propensity to see that knowledge as only valuable if it increases our profits or helps us kill our enemies.
Science itself, as a means for gaining knowledge, is not a failure. As a process it is not inherently a two-edged sword. It is not evil. It is the use of science that has turned evil. I hinted at this above.
By evil I don’t mean in a spiritual sense. I mean in the effect on human life sense. As a species we are bound to protect our interests in survival so anything that does so in the evolutionary framework is good, anything that threatens us is evil. Unfortunately in mankind’s exploitation of the knowledge we gained from science we find increasingly more evil than good. The knowledge itself is, of course, neutral. It is just knowledge. The problem is that we do not have the meta-knowledge of how to use knowledge for the long-term benefit of humanity. We have, instead, learned to exploit science, through engineering, for immediate gains without thinking about the long-term consequences. So knowledge of heat engines is used to engineer machines that propel us rapidly from point A to point B. We individuals in the here-and-now “profit” by getting places faster. Our time is then in surplus, our personal energies conserved. Why should we worry about the consequences of burning fossil fuel to achieve this short-term profit? Isn’t it easy to believe this trend will go on and on forever, that our children, and their children, will have even more profit from science and technology?
Knowledge of how to use knowledge for the long-term good of humanity is wisdom. That knowledge is not explicit nor are we necessarily consciously aware of it when it influences our intuitions. It just comes up from our subconsciousness as a feeling about the right path to follow, the right thing to do. Wisdom is also veridical knowledge. It must be valid, consistent, holistic, and morally motivated. It comes only from the experiences of a lifetime that consolidate into mental models of deep reality. It is knowledge ultimately based on evolutionary truth. It cannot be otherwise since evolutionary fitness objectively requires the species to be operating in accordance with the rules of the environment.
Evolution itself is the wisdom of ordinary biology. For every prior species that has ever existed evolution made the strategic decisions through variation and natural selection. Species improved in fitness until the environments changed radically enough to require new strategies. Variation in the genetic pools provided the raw material for selection to cause both incremental improvement, to adjust the phenotypes to shifting environments, and novelty, when needed to launch a new line, so to speak. And if the changes in environments were too extreme, as in a major die-off, evolution started over with whatever remained — the rest went extinct.
Humans emerged as a species with an expanded capacity to imagine the future by taking into account environmental changes that were possible and feasible. They began to formulate their own strategies and improve their own fitness. They figured out how to control fire, how to make artificial fur out of animal hides. They learned how to survive in inclement climates. Cultures became the new ‘species’ (or sub-sub-species). But as with any emerging property or behavior, strategic thinking started out fairly weak and only a few variant members of a population ever achieved anything close to what would eventually be needed as the cultures continued to evolve. Group selection is now being recognized as the selection process that deepened our eusocial nature, but also promoted the ascension of a few wiser leaders in early human tribes. The tribes with the most dominance of cooperation and with the wisest elders were more fit than those who were less cooperative or failed to have sufficiently wise elders.
The basis of eusociality, primarily empathy and language, along with strategic thinking ability are the roots of sapience and wisdom. Stronger sapience (i.e. genetic variants that boosted expansion of the necessary brain components in fetal development) led to more successful groups, which in turn favored the increase in sapience. But it just didn’t progress far enough or fast enough to build the kind of wisdom — knowledge of how to use knowledge — needed to manage the growth and use of simple knowledge.
Ergo here we stand today, overrun with some knowledge of the natural world (including ourselves) and lots of knowledge about stuff (the human-built world) and we haven’t a clue as to how to use it appropriately to bring balance between the two realms. What passes as science today is a mere shadow of what it was and what role it played in discovering how the universe works. There are still, fortunately, a large number of scientists who keep to the old ways. But they are generally the older members of the community. Often they are the ones who have gained wisdom. They are the ones who tend to write books about what the science they practice means in the larger sense. But their voices are barely heard at all against the clatter and banging of the modern industrialized, politicized institution we call science.
Science, as it originated, still stands as an ultimate intellectual achievement. As a method for gaining knowledge, when practiced with wisdom it stands unsullied. It is the process that uses science, the low-sapient human society, that is failed. Society creates institutions that process information and use it for supposed human uses. Something has gone terribly wrong in the institutionalized science of modern times, and that something is the lack of wisdom in humans themselves.
* Lest I be accused of painting with too broad a brush I should hasten to point out that there are still many scientific fields that are pursued for the sake of gaining knowledge without a profit motive. I’ll name one, cosmology. I don’t think cosmologists and astronomers need to justify their grant proposals with anything immediately profitable or curing a disease. However, it has been getting harder and harder to get sufficient grants as national budgets are strapped and priorities increasingly focus on “practical” work. Ask any Republican congressman if he/she thinks it valuable for the NSF to fund a project to find out if there is life on other planets and see how they respond. Ask the same person how valuable it is to research the next major weapons system and you will likely get a totally different response. My feeling is that whatever funding is going toward pure research in these fields is on the basis of momentum and tradition more than choice.
Off the microphones of David Korowicz, RE & Monsta666
Published on the Doomstead Diner on July 13, 2013
Discuss at the Podcasts Table inside the Diner
David is best known in the Collapse Blogosphere for his Research Papers
Trade Off: Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse and Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production – An Outline Review , Catastrophic Shocks in Complex Socio-Economic Systems—a pandemic perspective, which analyze the parameters involved in Fast Collapse scenarios.
Part 1 of the podcast focuses on the effects of Lock-in, Irreversibility and Tipping Points in Complex Systems. We look at analogies to biological systems as well as geophysical systems in this podcast.
Part 2 of the Podcast features discussion of Financial Contagion as well as alternative Currency regimes and replacement monetary systems.
Part 3 looks at possible solutions from both Top Down planning and Bottom Up construction of more resilient systems, as well as Community Development and Planning.
As we air them, the following 2 parts of the Podcast will appear here in this article, as well as on the Podcast Page of the Doomstead Diner.