Tuesday, December 9, 2008

What Lies Beneath – Looking for the Cause

I went looking for information on the Emergence of Civilization. Most of what I found had to do with some video game. I did come across the online class notes for Anthropology 341 © 2008 by Dr Bruce Owen. After contacting him and getting his permission to use them, I developed this summary of current theories.
1. Social Surplus (V. Gordon Childe)
• Agricultural technology appears and improves
• Production increases
• Increased production allows the formation of larger populations, settlements, etc.
• Lager populations require leadership etc. and civilization is the result (this process is complex and described in more detail in the notes.)

2. Hydraulic Hypothesis (Karl Wittfogel)
• Small-scale agriculturalists submit to a leader in order to build and maintain large-scale irrigation works or flood protections.
• Strong leadership makes these projects succeed and the leader then turns the workforce to other civilization building tasks.

3. Circumscription Theory (Robert Carniero)
• Population rises
• Rising population leads to competition for land
• Competition becomes warfare
• Defeated groups become lower class which develops class society

4. Success in Competition Theory (William Sanders and Barbara Price)
• “social Darwinism”
• Population growth leads to competition between groups for members and territory.
• Success in competition increases group size and success rate
• Group organization, structure, leadership increase success rate

5. War finance (David Webster)
6. Managerial Benefit (Elman Service)
7. Economics of Population Growth (Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle)
8. Resource-deficient Core (William Rathje)
9. Individual and class strategy (Elizabeth Brumfiel)
10. Cybernetic approach (Kent Flannery)
11. Evolutionary Convergence (Ronald Cohen)
Details of these theories can be found in Dr. Owen’s notes - Some theories of the origins of civilization and More theories of the emergence of civilization.

I’d like to advance another theory. For lack of a better name I’ll call it the
Fuzzy Logic Theory of the origins of Civilization (Alan Roberts)
1. Individuals, being true to their selfish, lazy nature, found that acquiring and storing some excess food was advantageous.
• Small increases in available food allowed better survival rate and population growth.
• Population growth provided more workers and allowed further increases in food production
2. Food production increases results in increased population
• Population increases allow specialization
• Specialization allows the development of technology to increase food production and defend surpluses
3. Increased population group develops group dynamic
• Leadership
• Culture

Dr Owen starts his notes with the following
“- A theory (in this context) is just a story that is supposed to explain how something happened. It has to make sense: the steps should follow logically one to the next. It should give us the feeling that we understand the process better because of it.
- A theory can come from anywhere. It is just made up, although in practice, a theory is usually inspired by something real.
- A good theory may or may not actually be true. That is an empirical question; we have to check the facts and see if the theory fits with the details in any given case.”

This has been a purely speculative exercise that, while possibly producing a working theory, is not be based on anything concrete or provable. So, I am going to take inspiration from the Artificer work of Dr. Paul Wildman and try to work back from the conditions on the ground now to find the cause. It will still be something of a mental excursion, but I think the process and the results will have more relevance and testability.

So, to start – Conditions on the ground:

1. Human population growth continuing at an exponential rate
2. Consumption of resources increasing at an exponential rate
3. New carbon being pumped into the atmospheric systems at an ever increasing rate
4. Available fossil fuel energy resources decreasing
5. Deforestation increasing, particularly in fragile rainforest areas
6. Biodiversity on land and in all the bodies of water on the planet decreasing at a faster rate than any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs
7. Food systems becoming more and more fragile, more prone to spreading food borne illnesses, and producing less diversity and lower nutritional quality
8. Soil degradation from erosion, buildup of toxins, nutrient loss, and development for human habitation increasing
9. Economic cycles getting shorter and shorter with wealth being built on credit and products with ever decreasing functional life
10. Potable water decreasing

Numbers 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, and 10 are tied to Population Growth. As the population increases these things all increase.

Numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 10 are also tied to the expansion of Food Production.

I’ve seen many theories that argue that food production increases to meet the demand from an ever expanding population. This is in fact one of the more common theories about the beginnings of civilization. As human population expanded more food was needed and civilization grew out of the organizations needed to produce more food. There is no evidence the field that this is true. In fact the evidence points to the opposite. Populations expand as their food supply expands. So, the sequence seems to be the expanding food supply causes the population to grow and causes an increase in the environmental impact of that population.

The second thing we have to look for is the immediate benefit for the individual. Since there is not now nor has there ever been a king of civilization driving humanity to conform, the impetus must come from individual actions. So, is there a benefit to the individual from increasing the food supply? The answer is YES. An increased food supply gives the individual more security, and more power.

So, increasing the food supply a little increased the population a little and allowed specialization and technical advancement. Specialization and technical advancement then allowed further increases in the food supply creating a positive feedback loop that was and still is the driving force of civilization.

Question – Is the production of excess, first food and then other ‘needs’, the driving force of civilization?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Civilization vs. Culture

Sheria’s comment about government brings up a point I need to explore a bit. We seem to be talking about two different things, civilization and culture. We often use the two interchangeably, but for this discussion I need to clearly define a difference.

Culture is an expression of the group. It serves to define the group and differentiate it from other groups. All of the bits that fall within the realm of culture serve to maintain the group as an entity. Government, religion, language, food, customs, costumes, music, and art all fall under the umbrella of culture. Cultures differ from place to place, people to people. They even differ from group to group within a place. One of the reasons government and religious institutions have been so ineffective in solving the big problems we face is that they are designed to first maintain group integrity and function. Things that are caused by forces outside the group dynamic do not respond to governmental or religious pressures, programs, or rules. Government exists to defend the group from outside forces and protect the functioning of the group from the base behaviors of individuals. Religion exists for the same purpose but works on leading us through expressions of our higher selves rather defending against our baser selves.

Civilization, as I am using it here, is what’s left after you strip away culture. It should be the same from place to place, group to group, and even across time. It is the collection of behaviors and forces that give rise to the groups and that drive the growth and expansion of the groups. It is the same set of behaviors that gave rise to the Maya and the Anasazi, the Norse and the Easter Islanders, and the Eastern and Western “civilizations” of today. Understanding the forces and behaviors that give rise to civilization across cultures and times will allow us to find real solutions to the unsolvable environmental and social challenges which threaten to destroy us.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Fractal Nature of Civilization

Civilization is a very difficult to get a handle on. First of all, we are living in the middle of it as part of it. It is hard to really see something you are a part of objectively. Second, there is no governing document, board, U.N. Committee, constitution, or any identifiable thing or group to consult for a defining statement. It is the product of billions of individuals acting in their own self interest. Third, there is no black or white, good or evil in civilization. Every part of it is gray, fuzzy, good AND bad, black AND white. It is a non-linear, fuzzy, chaotic system, and it is very difficult to imagine there are rules that make it function.

We are at the same place Benoit Mandelbrot was when he took chaotic, unsolvable problems and discovered a way to make sense of them. Fractals - a complicated structure arising from a simple definition.

I like this particular set as an example of civilization. The edge is where we live, the now, the complex daily life interactions of billions of people. The edge represents the benefits of civilization to us, individually and collectively. Yet the edge can’t exist without the void, the space and resources used up in the process of creating an ever-expanding edge. On a small scale, this isn’t too big a problem, but when this mode of living encompasses the whole planet we eventually run out of space to expand the edge and the void starts eating away at everything.

In Fuzzy Logic, a non-linear, multivalent system of mathematics used in system controls, artificial intelligence, neural networks, etc, we also find examples of complex systems and behaviors governed by a few simple rules. The actions of flocks of birds, colonies of ants, beehives, traffic, and other random systems can be mimicked by the application of a few simple rules rather than complex bivalent logic trees. Civilization is such a system. There is no central governing body, there are no missionaries teaching civilization, there is no enforcement squad ensuring everyone conforms to the rules of civilization, and yet in a very short time it has enveloped the earth. The force behind civilization must be able to pass from person to person quickly, easily, without any deliberate effort on the part of the conveyor, and must result in almost immediate benefit to the new practitioner of civilization. That is the only way it could spread unaided to envelope the planet.

So, what is this simple rule that both results in immediate benefit to the individual and, when extrapolated out over billions of people, creates the complex, good/bad chaotic/fuzzy system we call civilization?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Here We Go Again and again and again and again…..

One often hears “History repeats it’s self.” Have you ever wondered why? Are we stupid? Is it human destiny to make the same mistakes again and again until we destroy everything? Individuals and groups are working on the environmental and social problems we face. They have been doing so for years, spending vast amounts of money and time trying to fix the mistakes and secure the future. Despite their noble efforts, the problems are still here and getting worse. None of the programs seem to work.

There are several factors in play here that cause the failure of these noble efforts. One factor is that the problems we face, and pour so much effort into fixing are symptoms, not causes. Working to fix, mitigate, eliminate the symptoms can only succeed if the cause is addressed.

Another factor is inertia. The problems we face were not created by evil companies, or by a group of villains bent on destroying or dominating the world. They were created by the everyday actions and decisions of billions of people. Changing behaviors on this scale is a rather daunting, if not impossible, task.

The last factor is inherent in the nature of all creatures inhabiting this planet. Individually we all have very short memories, we’re selfish, and we are lazy. These are all survival traits, selected over millions of years of evolution because they work. Short memory allows us to act in situations that are unpleasant or painful. If the females of the species could remember in vivid detail the pain of childbirth, they would certainly be less inclined to repeat it. If we could remember clearly the pain and fear that some of our actions brought we would freeze, and die. Such a species would be rather quickly eliminated from the gene pool. Selfishness and laziness serve similar roles. We only act in ways we perceive to be beneficial to us. And, we only expend as much energy as we need to get what we desire. All effort is linked to some reward. We don’t engage in activities that do not produce rewards, at least not more than once. This mean that we make the decisions we do on a daily basis because they are the least costly (at least the immediate cost) way to get what we want/need. These decisions are not influenced by memories of past pain or knowledge of future pain.

When we combine these factors we can see that the cause of our problems must not only produce the destructive end result we now face, but must also provide some immediate individual benefit. If it didn’t, the billions of people choosing to act on a daily basis would make different choices and the end results would be different. We know this because we can see it in human behavior. We often see individuals who engage in what appears to be destructive behavior over and over again. Attempts to help them by limiting or mitigating the effects of the destructive behavior don’t help. Only getting at the root cause and the linked reward and helping them find a new path to that reward result in any long term change in behavior.

Our first challenge is to find the cause of our problems. Until we can clearly identify the cause we can’t act to solve the problems. The cause must fill several criteria. It must be a driving force in civilization, pushing the civilization to dominance. It must be something that is common to our global civilization, and to the failed civilizations from the past. Even though they were very different culturally and geographically these civilizations collapsed due to the same problems we have created, so the same cause must have been in play. The cause must also produce rewards for the individual in a way that meets the selfishness and laziness characteristics of human nature (immediate low cost benefit), while also producing the destructive results we now face. If we can identify that cause we have some hope of solving our problems before we destroy ourselves. If not…

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Fragile Systems

Systems seem to fall into two categories, robust systems capable of functioning in all manner of conditions and performing adequately even when many of the components are disabled or destroyed, and fragile systems which break down when conditions change or components are compromised. Robust systems tend to be filled with redundancies, multiple components that fill the same function in the system. This is what makes them capable of maintaining function in changing conditions or when components fail. Fragile systems tend to have few or no redundancies. In optimal conditions a fragile system will operate with more efficiency than a redundancy laden robust system.

When we look at the life support systems for our civilization - food production, water, energy, we find exceptionally streamlined systems. Systems that use very few producers of a limited number of products, processed by a small number of processors, and shipped all over the world. Some of these systems are completely dependent on the other systems to function. Food production for example is a very fragile system that is entirely dependent on products from the fossil fuel system (another very fragile system) to function. A breakdown in the energy system would cripple the food production system and quickly result in total system failure.

Our food system is fragile for other reasons beyond its total dependence on fossil fuels. As it has moved toward a more efficient, global system redundancies have been stripped away. Now most of our food is produced and processed by a very few companies, using a surprisingly small number of products. The volume of the production system makes it susceptible to contamination from microbial or chemical sources that enter the production chain undetected and are rapidly disseminated around the globe. The poisoning of the soil used for growing our food by the over use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides creates vast pools of microbes that have developed resistance to traditional controls and which have no natural counter. Add to this the use of just-in-time stocking in regional warehouses and local grocery stores which results in most places in the US having less than a 72 hour food supply, and you have an immensely fragile system.

The fossil fuel system, which provides most of our energy as well as most of the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides used in food production, is similarly fragile. It also produces waste products which are contributing to the warming of the global climate. The increase in carbon and other emissions from the use of fossil fuels is making global weather more chaotic, more prone to vast fluctuations in temperature and precipitation, and shifting temperature zones around the globe. These things put huge, unpredictable strain on the energy distribution system and on the food production system, contributing to the likelihood of collapse.

Water is not systematized like food and energy. It suffers from neglect. There is only a limited supply of fresh water on the planet. Much of it is being wasted or polluted with out thought. The natural conservation and filtration systems, forests, lakes, streams, wetlands, etc are being destroyed at an alarming rate.

All of the systems we as a civilization depend on are in a similar state. Highly efficient, fragile systems completely interdependent on each other, and offering the only way to meet basic needs for most of the human population on the planet.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Collapse – What happened and where did the people go?

When you speak of the collapse of a civilization people imagine either a sudden, violent end, like Pompeii, all life snuffed out in an instant, or a gentle decline with the population dwindling toward poverty and genetic unsustainability.

The reality is much grimmer. Evidence indicates that civilizations collapse rather suddenly, but not instantly. Several systems which had been providing for the basic needs of the population abruptly fail. The result is a drawn out, violent scramble for basic resources – food, water, energy, etc. In the Mayan collapse 90% to 99% of the population disappeared. The remainder of the population fled into the wilderness and was absorbed by other groups. In most cases the systems had been pushed to the tipping point and some outside event, like drought, disease, or invasion crashed the systems. In some cases, the Anasazi for example, larger groups left when the collapse became inevitable. They moved out into the wilderness, merging with other, simpler societies and survived.

For us, fleeing to the wilderness isn’t a viable option. There isn’t enough wilderness left to actually support viable populations, and there are no remaining societies we could join. The collapse of a global civilization like ours would result in waves of violent competition for ever scarcer resources, cascading through global population centers until humanity was diminished to the point that the remaining people could survive on the simple resources they could find. Perhaps humanity would survive, perhaps not.

So, where are we on the path to collapse? How close to the tipping point are the systems that provide our food, water, energy? What happens if one of these basic systems collapses?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The End Of Everything

Watching the news lately I’ve been struck by the shortness of the life of any particular topic. They constantly serve up a new crisis of the moment, complete with stunning video, moving eyewitness stories, and pithy headlines. What is missing is any ongoing coverage of real issues. They show up once in a while, have their 15 seconds in the spotlight, and then disappear. The real issues aren’t News, they are Olds and not being sexy or heart rendingly tragic they fall out of the public eye. So we go blithely through our day, regaled by stories of the latest superstar scandal, or senseless tragedy, knowing at a subconscious level that there are bigger issues beneath the noise, but rarely being reminded of them.

The things that are not in the News in any meaningful way but continue to have real impact on everything include;

• Human population growth continuing at an exponential rate
• Consumption of resources increasing at an exponential rate
• New carbon being pumped into the atmospheric systems at an ever increasing
• Available fossil fuel energy resources decreasing
• Deforestation increasing, particularly in fragile rainforest areas
• Biodiversity on land and in all the bodies of water on the planet decreasing
at a faster rate than any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs
• Food systems becoming more and more fragile, more prone to spreading food
borne illnesses, and producing less diversity and lower nutritional quality
• Soil degradation from erosion, buildup of toxins, nutrient loss, and
development for human habitation increasing
• Economic cycles getting shorter and shorter with wealth being built on
credit and products with ever decreasing functional life
• Potable water decreasing

These are the Olds. On going problems we can’t seem to fix that bubble beneath the News. As disturbing as their absence from public discussion is, I found this second list more disturbing. It is from the book Collapse by Jared Diamond. In this book Mr. Diamond looks at various peak civilizations that failed, collapsed, disappeared and the reasons for their collapse. He found the following things contributed to or caused the extinction of the Easter Island, Anasazi, Maya, Norse and other civilizations.

• Deforestation and habitat destruction
• Soil problems – erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses
• Water management problems
• Over hunting
• Over fishing
• Effects of introduced species on native species
• Human population growth
• Increasing percapita impact of people

His list and the list of things that aren’t in the News are disturbingly similar. The truly disturbing part is that while the civilizations Mr. Diamond described were peak civilizations rivaling any now in existence, they were all relatively contained in their own geographic region. Their collapse was a loss to humanity, but there were plenty of people around to rebuild and continue the species. Now we find a civilization that has become global and that is facing the same kinds of problems the led to the demise of all the great civilizations from the past. These are not new problems, but the situation for humanity is more tenuous. When this civilization collapses who will survive and where will they go?