A crash course in changing the world.
“There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow's just a dream away”
Friends, bloggers, fellow Evoke agents, lend me your eyes.
I am writing this blog to expand upon the very purpose of Evoke. No doubt you already have an idea as to its purpose as defined in the mission statement, or in the result of actions taken by the members of the community, but I want to apply a theme to the overarching concept of Evoke and all similar communities and their raison d'être.
Plainly put, that theme is maximization. Human population exists on this planet with varying levels of comfort (i.e standard of living), but that population already has the requirements for merely existing. The goal of many here is to maximize the standard of living among those that are just above existence levels (as perhaps opposed to subsistence or more ideally, flourishing). The methods they seek to use vary in type and scope, but regardless of the method, they almost invariably have one similar characteristic. They seek to solve a problem without removing the need for a solution.
Before I expand on that thought further, I first want to address the premise of solutions. Human society exists largely for the purpose of pooling resources to solve problems. The problems that face human societies are innumerous in quantity and infinite in scope. Sustainability, it can then be said, is never a point that is reached. Sustainability means always solving new problems. Sustainable society can never reach stasis. But why solve problems at all? Human society, like any system, has an input/output ratio. The input aspect consists of the ability of society’s population to procure energy (i.e. the means of support). The reason I say energy, and not ‘goods and services’, is because everything in this universe utilizes some aspect of energy. Energy is the underlying basis of all resources and actions of a population. The output aspect consists of all the benefits that society confers to the residing population (either real or perceived). The population largely agrees to provide input into society because the benefits they receive back are worth the time, effort, and physical resources that input requires. When the benefits of a society no longer exceed that of the input required, two things can happen. The society can either coerce the population into continuing with an unfavorable ratio of benefits/cost or the society can choose to no longer pay the cost demanded for the continuation of that society. The result is a collapse in the complexity of human society and the loss of the benefits that society conferred.
The progressions of societies largely follow the same trajectory, that being one of diminishing marginal returns.
I will use the analogy of an oil field, it being a very good example of raw energy, to describe a system that is based upon the exploitation of energy. This idea was excellently covered in Chris Martenson’s video linked here: http://www.chrismartenson.com/crashcourse/chapter-17b-energy-budgeting
When an oil field is discovered, it uses energy in the processes of discovery and creating infrastructure, yielding an increasing margin of return (profit) as the field is increasingly exploited. As some point along the timescale of an oilfield, however, the rate of growth of the margin of return ceases to increase, and begins an inexorable decline of surplus energy. When the margin of return reaches a point where it takes one unit of energy to extract a unit of energy (i.e. the margin of return is zero), there is no reason to further exploit the oil field and production ceases. All the benefits that were yielded from this system of surplus energy are lost with it and the capital resources (the left over energy resources now not being invested into further production) are usually cannibalized. Now let’s overlay the idea that society, also, as a dynamic input/output system based on energy experiences diminishing returns. Upon experiencing a problem, society seeks solutions. The solution that is easiest and cheapest is usually the one that’s used first. The marginal return of the benefit/cost ratio of simple solutions for simple problems is usually very good. But growth or time itself will bring about more complex problems, in turn requiring an increase in the costliness of the solution. Organizational structure and complexity of society increases as each problem/solution also increases in complexity.
Society thus engages in a process, where an increase in complexity and organization is constantly needed to maintain a system being faced by more complex problems, but yielding an ever decreasing marginal return (surplus) to be able to deal with such problems. Societies may come across innovations for new sources of energy, as was the case with coal, oil, fission, etc, in which case the marginal return graph may have multiple “humps”, but in the end, there is an inevitable decline in the marginal product.
The law of diminishing returns applies across the board, to virtually all aspects of human societies, old and new. It even applies to the very strategies of problem solving. So the R&D process of solutions increase in tandem with the complexity of problems/solutions themselves, furthering the cost upon society at large. Solutions to declining marginal yields, it can be said, have marginal yields themselves and declining marginal returns are formulated by the decisions to choose less costly solutions prior to more costly ones. The very progression of society is from simple to complex. A few examples would be farming rich, fertile fields before marginal ones, or exploiting light, sweet crude oil before heavy, sulfated crude oil, or fishing rich areas of the sea before poor ones, etc. That’s why I find the idea of simple solutions to problems of increasing complexity so silly. There is [almost always] never a simple answer, only a trade off of costs and benefits.
When the marginal product in society begins to decline, by definition that society will be commanding a declining surplus (as a percentage of input, although as a quantity, it may be greater than in the past) and at the same time will have to be allocating an ever increasing portion of the energy budget simply to maintain organizational institutions (brought about as solutions to previous problems). With every advance, the difficulty of the task is increased and society is less capable of providing subsistence in the future. The result, in the words of Malthus is that “…exponential growth is needed to maintain constant progress.”
Human societies are victims of their own success. Society trends towards complexity and a marginal productivity with an increase in specialization/differentiation. They do this because the benefits outweigh the cost. But the very process of increasing complexity requires increased amounts of energy and resources and greater integration and organizational hierarchy. The result becomes a positive feedback loop where succeeding in solving problems only creates more damning problems down the road. Yes we can give everyone access to fresh water, and yes that is a good thing, but the increase in population also means an increased strain on resources. This increase in population impacts on other segments of society that otherwise may have been stable, but now require even greater resources and new solutions. Maybe it is possible to empower women across the globe to be man’s equal in society (again, obviously a good thing), but now you are increasing resource consumption of a large percentage of the population upwards, again creating further strain. Every solution has unintended consequences. Dr. Albert Bartlett addressed this thought when he so aptly pointed out that the very aspects of society that we admire (health care, safe food & water, traffic laws) all contribute to increasing the population strain, whereas those we don’t admire (war, famine, disease) relieve the stress. The very existence of complex society has allowed human population to exceed that, which would never have been otherwise attainable. That’s why the phrase “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is so applicable.
The movement towards sustainability largely ignores that even “sustainable societies” collapse. History is actually rife with it. From Rome to the Mayans, they all were relatively sustainable agricultural civilizations. Their energy, in the form of food crops, was entirely renewable, and it let them last hundreds of years. But even sustainable societies are susceptible to the acc**ulation of stresses. These cultures didn’t decide to increase complexity (e.g. raising larger armies, or increasing peasant taxes, or debasing currency, etc.) because they wanted to or because they were stupid. They were forced to do so or face the dissolution of society. Regardless of the problem (and people can point out all the specific problems they want to, but it doesn’t matter), they would have faced an infinite number of problems, requiring ever-greater complexity, in turn requiring ever-greater energy. Equilibrium in human society does not exist. There will always be one more problem to overcome that requires the balance to be shifted.
The absolute worst aspect of those who attempt to be sustainable, but miss the big picture, is the desire to maximize the evolutionary process of marginal yield (i.e. taking complexity as far as it can go for maximizing actual yields [of numerical quantity as opposed to maximized marginal yields which create surplus, i.e. breathing room, valued as a percent]). They want to make sure everyone has… whatever, pick something; it really doesn’t matter. The end result is an increase in population and in turn increases impaction on other areas. Maximizing the marginal yield process for maximum actual yield of quantity leads to no margin of error or room for expansion, hence upon the need for a solution to a new crisis (or even simple productivity fluctuations), current sustaining product must be undermined (capital resources are cannibalized) simply to attempt to solve a problem. The result is inevitable collapse of societal structure.
Collapse of societal structure becomes a logical choice to members of a societal population when dissolution from society results in a greater marginal profit in their lives (or in a subset society). Extreme costs for sustaining society (i.e. maintaining the status quo) means collapse becomes the economical solution and concurrently declining marginal returns makes increased complexity less attractive. Joseph Tainter, whose works I have largely based this thesis on, pointed out that the paradox of collapse is that a drop in complexity yields a rise in the marginal return on investment and that “under a situation of declining marginal returns, collapse may be the appropriate response... whereas economic intensification is not [an understandable response].”
To avoid collapse and try to maintain some semblance of stability, society will often choose to endure a situation of unfavorable margins of return, as previously stated through coercion. The result is an increase towards social tyranny. Tyranny exists in this situation to prevent the dissolution of key pillars of society, who would otherwise have chosen to reject complex society in favor of the increased margin return of simplification. This partially results from the broader part of society refusing to accept a loss of complexity in their own lives (either justifiably or not). Societal hierarchy, to solve both issues of breakaway core aspects of society, yet hazardous internal disaffection as a result of loss of surplus marginal product per capita, adopt tyranny, that both suppress through force, yet appeases through the “bread and circuses” model. In this instance, sustaining society does not confer freedom or liberty, which may have been the lure into the society. Originally, population members may have been allowed the liberty to do things within society because of the excesses of the marginal return. They did so in a preference to the dangers of an anarchist lifestyle, in terms of productivity, health, and physical safety. The idea was that the large leeway in freedom to do something, while having the safety nets of society was preferable to having total and complete freedom (to do anything, right or wrong), but having a shorter, and often violently abrupt lifespan. The irony is that as society progresses into declining returns, there is also a declining amount of freedom (cost), but not a comparable increase in safety/lifespan (benefit), and the population is left choosing between being “damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” Look around you. If you live in a first world nation, & especially the United States, that should be obvious.
Collapse of society in today’s world, as it was in societies of the past, means a collapse of the population that societal structure supports. This is the conclusion I have reached, and it’s not one I have taken lightly. The difference between collapse today and collapse of the past, as proposed by Joseph Tainter, and concurred with by myself, is that collapse this time will be global. There is a subtle reason for this, and I will illustrate it using an analogy of several communities on an island. Let’s say there are 5 of them. Four of them many would consider sustainable. Their population is at replacement levels. They grow enough food for themselves to eat comfortably and perhaps then some. Every other aspect of society is at a quality where it has no impact upon population. But in the last tribe, their population growth is quite large, and they frequently face crises where they do not have the means to support themselves. They may first attempt to ask for assistance from the other tribes and the tribes just may subsidize this tribe’s behavior, perhaps out of humanitarian reason, or perhaps out of fear. At any rate, there will come a point where that tribe will not be able to support itself and the other tribes will either be unwilling or unable to give assistance. The result, as proven historically is a violent confrontation of acquisition of another “tribes” resource base. Assuming the behavior yet goes unchanged, this will continue until the wh*** island system collapses. Even if it had not been violent, or if the problem had not been one of population, the result would have eventually, given enough time, been the same as a crisis impacts one group, forcing it to confront another. The tribe(s) suffering the crises could have chosen to collapse to a level where marginal return was great enough to weather the storm, but doing so, especially in a situation where other tribes face similar problems (or they may not, but might simply have a growth behavior where expansion into the collapsing tribes base is a ‘solution’) means the possibility of being subjected to the domination of other groups who refuse to collapse alongside of you. As put by Tolkien: “It needs but one foe to breed a war, and those who have not swords can still die upon them.” What really factors into the equation is the concurrence of problems (which certainly affects global society today), for that is what is (and has in the past) driving competition as opposed to cooperation. The thing to draw away from this is that no society in today’s world is going to accept a collapse strategy (e.g. as espoused by Richard Heinberg in Powerdown) over a continued escalation of the social complexity dynamic, even if returns become unfavorable. The mere existence of other states becomes the reason for continued complexity. As put by Tainter: “Competition makes controlled collapse unfavorable, making unfavorable marginal returns favorable.” This continues until the wh*** world is faced with problems that are beyond the scope of society to solve, leading to a rapid global collapse. This time, the cost will most likely be measured in billions of lives.
This is the purpose of Evoke, and all similar communities, who like broader society, seek ways to solve problems of ever increasing cost and complexity to avoid what is inevitable collapse. They seek solutions for problems that inevitably, given enough time (and I don’t think that much more time is going to be needed), have no permanent solutions. The problem is the need for the solution. There is no way to achieve that without collapse of much of what society holds dear. If collapse is indeed inevitable, then my hope is that it comes sooner, rather than later, if for no other reason than to reduce human suffering and environmental cost. And that is why I am a Doomer.
"There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow's just a dream away
Man has a dream and that's the start
He follows his dream with mind and heart
And when it becomes a reality
It's a dream come true for you and me
So there's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day
There's a great, big, beautiful tomorrow
Just a dream away!"