Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Survival+: Chapter Two

March 25, 2009

Let's begin by considering Context One: Human Nature in more depth. Entire libraries have been written on the subject of human nature, but for our practical purposes those which probe humanity's "default settings" such as Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal and E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis are the most useful.

Although we can slice and dice complex human responses in hundreds of ways (for instance, Who am I? The 16 Basic Desires that Motivate Our Actions and Define Our Personalities ), for the purposes of a stripped-down practical analysis we can group our "default responses" into four basic categories: inertia, fear/panic, casting our lot with a "Big Man"/leader or fatalism/giving up.

Since we cannot sustain the emotionally charged state of fear/panic ("fight or flight") for long, decisions made in this instinctive mode tend to be rash, hasty, impulsive and poorly planned. Thus the key is to recognize this mode and consciously avoid making decisions with long-term consequences while in the grip of this "instant response" survival-mode.

Humans, like our relatives the chimpanzees, are social animals. Like chimps, we are "wired" to form groups and select/follow leaders who reach their high status by offering something back to the community: protection, "potlatch" type sharing of wealth, etc. We will examine this political/social response to crisis in a later section.

But humans also have the capacity to be alone, like our other primate relatives the orangutans. Thus withdrawing from the community has deep roots in human nature and history.

Being creatures of habit—and habits are a survival mechanism, for why change anything when "everything's working"?-- humans prefer the status quo until crisis forces us to change. The underlying state in this inertia/attachment to the status quo is complacency, which acts as a cognitive and emotional "attractor" or trap, as does fatalism/withdrawal.

Complacency and Fatalism

Complacency and fatalism are both seductive "cognitive traps" and emotional "attractors" which we have to avoid if we are to think clearly. Each is an "attractor" because each is highly appealing for several fundamental reasons.

1. Human nature veers between these basic social/anti-social emotions: complacency/status quo (inertia) and fatalism/resignation (withdrawal).

2. History reveals these attractors (complacency and fatalism) were active in previous great declines/collapses, such as the Roman Empire circa 400-576 C.E. (see below)

3. Humans prefer simplistic "answers" to challenges/problems, and a blind faith in the status quo or resignation both fit the bill.

Complacency is best understood as what's expressed in the phrase, "Don't worry, it will sort itself out on its own." In stable "normal" times, this complacency is usually rewarded; various corrective feedback loops within complex systems kick in and problems are met with countermeasures that act to restabilize the system.

But in very dynamic eras, destabilizing factors overwhelm the usual corrective feedback mechanisms, and things do not sort themselves out. Dramatic, even radical action must be taken. In these times, complacency is not a practical or helpful strategy: it is a soothing but dangerous cognitive trap which guarantees the believer will be unprepared for the challenges just ahead.

In the cognitive trap of fatalism, we recognize the risks/dangers of the situation but feel helpless to correct or solve the problems. In this trap, we remove ourselves from action and give up, dooming ourselves to being swept up by whatever passing winds arise.

The goal here is to avoid these traps, analyze the challenges we face clearly, and then plan out a simple but interconnected three-part strategy for not just survival but prosperity and security.

Complacency can take many forms. For instance, a person who has prepared themselves for a doomsday collapse of civilization, i.e. "The end of the world as we know it" (TEOTWAWKI) may well find themselves ill-prepared for an equally probable slow decline in social cohesion and living standards. That is, living conditions in highly developed nations may descend not to a Collapse of Civilization into Chaos but to a Third World level of stable impoverishment.

This highlights the need to ground our analyses and expectations in history—not because it repeats, but because it rhymes. No one can know the future, so we must be cautious about putting all our eggs in one basket/scenario. Prudence suggests always maintaining a skeptical point of view: what if we're wrong? What's our Plan B/alternative strategy?

Fatalism is similarly devious. People who withdraw from society are certainly taking action, but they have surrendered the opportunity to influence the outcome positively: that is fatalism of the first order.

If you're reading this, then you have already advanced beyond the na├»ve complacency of "don't worry, everything will work itself out" which is mesmerizing large segments of our citizenry. You may well be a member of The Remnant—more on that later.

The Politics of Complacency and Fatalism

In Greek mythology, two sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis forced sailors into an unsavory choice of facing one or the other when navigating the Strait of Messina. In modern vernacular, we might say the sailors were "between a rock and a hard place."

Our "default mode" responses were selected for a hunting-gathering lifestyle; humanity has pursued agriculture for perhaps 5% of its long history as homo sapiens sapiens and dealt with advanced technology for perhaps 1% of its history.

The consequences of these unconstructive responses can be seen in the advanced civilizations (Mayans, Rome, etc.) that collapsed despite a wealth of experience and knowledge.

As a result, even as we work at devising rational, long-range solutions, we will be fending off the "monsters" of complacency and fatalism every inch of the way.

Analyzing challenges and then plotting out practical solutions is arduous, precarious work, as the answers are rarely clear and painful trial-and-error attempts are often the only way forward. Rather than engage in this difficult process, many find doing nothing (complacency) or withdrawing (fatalism) much less risky and demanding. This inaction feeds on itself, setting up a point-of-no-return that could have been avoided by bold action when the problems were first visible.

Humans cannot remain in the high-stress "fight or flight" status for long; we seek a resolution or equilibrium, both intellectual and social. Thus the most constructive approach is to assess the challenges in a clear-eyed fashion, hashing out the strengths and weaknesses of each major strategy. Then make a decision, and commit to giving the chosen strategy the time, resources and unity it needs to succeed—or fail conclusively, perhaps, at which point we make a reassessment based on what we've learned from the experience.

At every point in this process, two new temptations arise: to either leap erratically from strategy to strategy as a short-term desire ("fight or flight" mode) for instant results sabotages any long-term effort, or to tire of the process of negotiation and analysis and give up any sustained effort.

Many who do engage the challenges will do so out of raw self-interest and thus they will base their solutions on inflexible ideological (political and/or religious) worldviews that are too rigid to be practical/realistic. Rather than face the problems with an eye on actual solutions, these players seek to protect their own fiefdoms, privileges and benefits under the guise of emotionally appealing ideologies. Faced with the loss of their sacrosanct (to them) privileges and benefits, they view the battle for diminishing resources as a "fight to the death." In a real sense, their status and advantages are definitely at risk; but ironically, by focusing on their ideological opponents instead of the actual problems, they seal their own destruction by insuring the collapse of the entire system.

Both ends of the political spectrum are prone to this frantic defense of the failing status quo: the plutocracy/holders of wealth and those drawing benefits/welfare. This too mirrors the experience of the Roman Empire's decline, which saw massive expansion of wealth disparity (those at the top gained ever more wealth at the expense of the middle class) even as an ever-growing army of unproductive recipients at the bottom received the infamous "bread and circuses" of free bread and public entertainments.

As a consequence of this rabidly self-serving political battle over diminishing resources and surpluses, those championing flexible, practical solutions are crowded out by the shrill, desperate voices of those protecting their fiefdoms and privileges. The result is a profound disunity in the body politic in which compromise is abandoned and common ground vanishes. As external and internal threats increase and surpluses/resources shrink, the culture and economy are frozen into warring camps, each of which seeks to undermine the other rather than actually address the severe problems facing the entire body politic and economy.

All these forces—complacency, fatalism, fanatic self-interest, ideological rigidity at each end of the political spectrum and political disunity—pose enormous challenges to those seeking long-term solutions to critical problems.

If we seek historical examples of the immense power of complacency, we need look no further than the Western Roman Empire.

For an explication of just how destructive such deep complacency can be, I turn to the excellent account of the causes of the Roman Empire's collapse by Michael Grant, The Fall of the Roman Empire :

"Enmeshed in classical history, all he can do is lapse into vague sermonizing, telling the Romans, as many a moralist had told them throughout the centuries, that they must undergo an ethical regeneration and return to the simplicities and self-sacrifices of their ancestors.

There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. His whole attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.

This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.

This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all."

But fatalism, often expressed by opting out/withdrawing from society, can be just as destructive as complacency.

As Grant noted elsewhere in The Fall of the Roman Empire :
"Considerable sections of the population of the later Roman Empire decided to opt out altogether. In the first place, a large number of people, finding the social system intolerable, went underground and became its enemies. But a second movement consisted of numerous men and women who merely abandoned the company of their fellow human beings and divorced themselves from the community.

And so as the final political and military reckoning rapidly approached, this substantial number of men and women was no longer available to contribute either to the actual defense of the Empire or to the revenue needed to pay for the defenders."

Grant traces much of the intellectual justification for what might be termed "a fatal fatalism" to Christian thinkers like Augustine:

"And so Augustine preached, as other had before him, that 'we do not want to have dealings with the powers that be.' That is frank: a call to withhold service from the government. Equally frank is his reminder that the Empire is bound to collapse anyway.

Augustine shifted the center of gravity so that the state is now a good deal less that half of what matters: far from helping his own country to survive, his attitude contributed to its downfall. But his suggestion that, since it was up to Providence whether the Roman world should collapse or not, human endeavor could do nothing about it in any case, met with the strong disapproval of thinkers such as Pelagius.

Pelagius' reaction to the sacking of Rome in 410 by Alaric was by no means limited to fatalistic gloom and despair. Both before and after the capture of the city, he found himself deeply dissatisfied with the moral sluggishness of many prosperous people of Rome. He insisted on a strenuous individual effort to attain salvation: we sin by a voluntary imitation of Adam, and an equally voluntary decision can cast our sins behind us.

His doctrine of the will at least wanted people to try. Augustine's philosophy, on the other hand, led to fatalism.

Given the stupendous inertia of complacency, the fierce defense of the status quo from those contributing little but reaping plenty and the intellectual and emotional charms of fatalist surrender or withdrawal, those seeking practical solutions and strategies may well see the battle as essentially hopeless.

As tempting as that fatalism might be, there is hope offered by the Pareto principle: the influential few (The Remnant) can indeed lead the trivial many.

Opting Out/Opting In

The desire to withdraw from a corrupted, declining society, or indeed, from the imperfect company of humans, stretches back to the dawn of civilization. In many cultures, a spiritual quest for Oneness with God/Enlightenment encourages withdrawal and rejection of worldly goods and goals.

We have seen in the example of Rome how eras of crisis encourage many to "opt out" of society. But opting out of society can mean either a withdrawal to what we might call "splendid isolation" or an opting in to an alternative social structure.

Thus the yogi, spiritual seeker, or Transcendentalist might well seek complete isolation in a wilderness, while others opting out of a failing state might join a religious commune or monastery. Such communities are largely self-sustaining, even as they retain ties to various parts of the greater society and economy.

Both of these methods of opting out have deep roots in American culture and history. The noble desire to seek Oneness with God and fulfillment via oneness with Nature was championed by Henry David Thoreau in Walden, while various faith-based communes and communities have found fertile ground in every century.

Splendid Isolation also ties directly into a key American Myth: the Rugged Individual. This is a tangled web of fantasy, reality and hidden dependence on a functioning economy beyond the wilderness. Thus even Thoreau walked back to town on numerous occasions, for food and social contact, and the Buddhist mendicant monks of Southeast Asia rely on the alms of productive people for their sustenance. In other words, Splendid Isolation still relies in most cases on "the outside world" to grow the grain, etc. which the "one alone" ultimately relies upon.

It is exceedingly difficult to grow, nourish and sustain all that life requires alone. That is the fundamental reason why most primates, including humans, form groups: a group is simply a far more productive, robust survival structure than a single individual.

Thus, rugged individuals who could survive on their own form communities to reap the advantages of such mutually beneficial networks.

A few years ago the U.S. Army ran an advertising slogan "An Army of One." But this was a misnomer, for the single most important combat asset is unit cohesion. Even the supreme Rugged Individual survives best in a circle of others willing to fight together for a common cause.
Another enduring myth of American culture is "living off the land." Many of my correspondents who hunt and fish report that when discussions of financial hardship arise, many of their acquaintances say they will simply bag some deer and go fishing to feed their families.

Sadly, what was possible in the remote, largely unpopulated America of the distant past is not possible for a nation of dwindling wilderness and 300 millions mouths to feed.

The more one has actually walked remote areas of the nation like the Rockies, High Sierra, great deserts and untilled plains, the more one comes to understand just how little food for humans exists in the wild. This is why hunter-gatherers require vast tracts of land: Nature is indeed bountiful, but rarely for humans.

It is easy to over-estimate the number of wildfowl, fish and large mammals available for human consumption in the "wild," and even easier to overestimate the calories available to be reaped from the wild before the land is stripped of game and other edibles.

The hunter who bags several dozen pheasant, for instance, ends up with a pitifully small bag of dried meat at the end of the process. As for the plentiful fish—let's not forget they were stocked by an advanced-technology, oil-fueled, well-funded state agency. Once the fish are no longer stocked, the illusory bounty disappears.

To the unknowing eye, the Hawaiian rain forest looks like it must be a veritable cornucopia of edibles suitable for human consumption. In fact, the truly native Hawaiian rain forest offers very little to hungry humans. If you come across a mango or banana tree, that was planted by other humans.

You would also find that the "wild" mango tree is remarkably stingy with its bounty. Growing high above the ground, most of the fruit is unreachable, even with ladders, and the fruit is small and mostly seed; the actual pulp is stringy and meager compared to the farm-coddled mangoes we find in markets.

Thus a small intensive garden may well contain more human-suitable food than a square kilometer or square mile of wilderness. Many bounteous wild crops like acorns require a backbreaking amount of work before they can be rendered suitable for human consumption—and they require copious amounts of fuel for cooking.

It is sobering to recall that tiny bands of primitively armed humans hunted the wooly mammoth to extinction in a matter of a few decades, and a relative handful of better-armed Americans shot millions of bison in a few short years, driving the herds which once blackened the plains to the precipice of extinction.

We should be very wary of all such complacency traps: there is simply no way to feed 300 million people by foraging a mostly calorie-barren landscape and fish-stripped sea. Such a stupendous population requires a large-scale, heavily mechanized intensive production of grain.

Conclusion #1: everyone who opts out of a given social circumstance opts into some other circumstance. There can be no "opting out" without a corresponding "opting in" to something else.

Conclusion #2: Opting into a myth is not a sustainable option; humans developed social networks /communities and agriculture precisely because the alternative options of Splendid Isolation and foraging were perilously less successful survival strategies.

Conclusion #3: The key difference between opting for isolation and opting into alternative communities/networks is the sustainability and productivity of the community. Very few who live in isolation are truly independent of a larger productive society. This simple truth is the engine behind agriculture and urban centers.

Thus the skeptic gazes at the latter-day isolationists who stockpile six months of advanced-economy, advanced technology consumables in a remote cabin and asks:

What happens in Month Seven when the stockpile is gone? Or make it Month 13 or Month 25; the point is withdrawing without creating a productive sustainable source of food, energy and other critical necessities is not a survival strategy at all, it's simply pushing the day of reckoning forward a bit.

Creating an integrated, independent, sustainable productivity by oneself or as a couple is akin to raising a child in isolation: it looks fun until you really give it a try. A baby may well be adorable to a teen for an hour or so, but give the teen the baby for 48 hours straight and his/her reaction will be quite different.

Haul water in five-gallon buckets from a stream for a few weeks, cut wood by hand, carry a 5-gallon propane tank by bicycle down to the refilling station, sharpen a chisel by hand, fix a balky gas-powered refrigerator—the list of skills and energies required are far longer than a myth-based culture can even imagine.

While it is possible to envision a technology-rich "splendid isolation" fueled by solar panels, water pumps, satellite Internet links, geothermal-exchange heating, triple-pane windows, all protected by elaborate security technology, there are two difficulties with this scenario: few can afford to set it up, and those few who do have created a high-value, very vulnerable target in the middle of an existing population with whom they have no social or economic ties. One need look no farther than luxury vehicles being smashed and burned in the streets to foresee the possible responses such wealth disparity causes.

There is a model for barricading oneself and one's wealth behind high walls of security: all "planet of slums" cities in the Third World contain small heavily defended islands of wealth in a vast sea of poverty. If this lifestyle appeals to you, there are ample opportunities to try it out today in any Third World mega-city/mega-slum.

The skeptic wonders if the Isolationist expects others to have constructed a large-scale productive sustainable economy in their absence, and to welcome those who opted out of contributing to the arduous construction of this sustainable future with open arms.

Just because the grasshopper squirreled away a stash to last the winter does not mean the productive colony of ants will welcome his future freeloading come spring.

Thus the goal must be a truly sustainable productivity, not a temporary opting out dependent on a stockpile of unsustainably produced consumer goods.

In some societies, the religious mendicant can freeload off the productive society because the productive members believe feeding the mendicant provides them with religious merit. But the U.S. is not such a society; its historical religious principles are expressed in the line, "The Lord helps those who help themselves," and stockpiling high-tech goodies to last a few months is not actually helping oneself or others in any long-term, sustainable fashion.

Next: A skeptical look at Isolationism: The Art of Survival, Taoism and the Warring States

Note: my computer time will be extremely limited and sporadic over the next two weeks. Please check the main blog at www/ for updates. Thank you.

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