Friday, April 03, 2009

Survival+ 5: Trends and Cycles of History (April 1, 2009)

The Great Transformation: Trends and Cycles of History

We cannot hope to understand the forces which will shape the Great Transformation unless we examine what might be called "ontological forces": structures of Nature which work not just in organisms but in human societies and history, and ontological states which can be characterized as "the politics of experience." By ontological I mean these are forces that are not limited to certain eras or cultures; they act upon human societies in all era and locales.

Feedback Loops, Phase Shifts/Reversals and the Politics of Experience

The human mind seeks patterns and trends as a key survival strategy: if we can anticipate a problem before it overwhelms us, or discern a pattern or cycle in the world around us, we can make a corrective adaptation or modify our behavior accordingly.

Trends may be profitably understood as vectors: a predictable direction influenced by measurable forces. Once we identify a trend/vector, we quickly anticipate it will continue in the same direction.

Thus in the early 1960s, oil seemed so abundant and the promise of nuclear power so bright that the future was envisioned as containing flying vehicles for every suburban home, plastic pod homes and a leisure founded on endless prosperity.

Now, a few scant decades later, the future vector to many has darkened to a collapse that will return advanced economies to the 18th century in the best-case scenario and to a violent AK-47-ridden Dark Age in worst-case scenarios.

Neither of these extremes seem likely, in my view, because neither one is grounded in an analysis of culture, history or feedback systems.

Feedback is built into Nature, including ourselves. A bacterial infection triggers an immune response; without such a feedback loop, we would never survive past a few hours of life. Feedback Loops, Positive and Negative .

All of life, from bacteria to the largest organisms and systems, responds to its environment with feedback; there are no vectors or trends that do not meet with positive and/or negative feedback. Thus the bacteria responds to anti-bacterial medications by developing resistance, companies respond to changing market conditions, etc.

Positive feedback reinforces itself; the classic example is nuclear fission, in which decaying uranium atoms trigger a cascade of radiation that becomes a nuclear explosion. Doomsday scenarios assume that such positive feedback loops will overwhelm any negative feedback loops that would act to slow or reverse the trend.

Thus the Doomsday scenario assumes all civilizations fall in a great heap; some have, some haven't. The ever-popular "technology-will-save-us" scenario downplays or denies the full measure of positive feedbacks and assumes the negative countermeasure loops will correct or reverse any downward trend. We cannot arbitrarily assume either alternative: that would be joining complacency with fatalism.

The outcome depends on our understanding of the crises and our responses (feedback) to those challenges: as families, communities and as nation-states.

We can be fairly certain of one thing: the likelihood of everything remaining like it is today is near-zero. All trends are merely temporary vectors influenced by positive and negative feedback loops which can drop away, strengthen or interact in unforeseen ways.
Those who assume runaway feedback will trigger complete collapse may also be anticipating a phase shift—a sudden jump from one state to another. This concept has been popularized as a "tipping point" in the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference . In the stock market, such a shift takes the form of a reversal of trend; this is also visible in elections, when the electorate seeks to reverse polarities, so to speak, and place the other party in power.
But a system has to be near a tipping point or phase shift for little things to matter. This ties directly into our exploration of The Remnant and the Pareto Principle: seemingly small percentages of people leading by example can have an outsized influence on the "trivial many," slowly building a trend for change which can "phase shift" at certain points, changing the entire cultural milieu and mindset in a short period of time.

That is, phase shifts do not have to be negative collapses; they can also be relatively sudden "awakenings" or positive transformations wrought by the informal leadership of The Remnant or by a sudden technological improvement which rapidly replaces a less efficient technology. The messy, lengthy revolution launched by the printing press is a good example of the latter, as is the Web/Internet.

Defining the Problem Defines the Solution

Some ideas are easier to express and understand than others. For instance, if I were to say the solution to all the problems listed above is to buy gold and a ton of rice, we can all understand the idea of not trusting paper money and a fragile supply chain of grain.

But if I say that how we identify a "problem" defines the "solution" we will accept, that is more difficult to grasp. The reason is that most of the assumptions we make in framing a "problem" are subconscious or deeply embedded in our cultural/intellectual worldview.

R.D. Laing, author of Politics of Experience, penned this prescient lecture in 1972, The Obvious, explained the inherent difficulty of understanding "the obviousness" of any "problem":

To a considerable extent what follows is an essay in stating what I take to be obvious. It is obvious that the social world situation is endangering the future of all life on this planet. To state the obvious is to share with you what (in your view) my misconceptions might be. The obvious can be dangerous. The deluded man frequently finds his delusions so obvious that he can hardly credit the good faith of those who do not share them.

What is obvious to Lyndon Johnson is not at all obvious to Ho Chi Minh. What is obvious to me might not be obvious to anyone else. The obvious is literally that which stands in one's way, in front of or over against oneself. One has to begin by recognizing that it exists for oneself.

The study of social events presents an almost insurmountable difficulty, in that their visibility, as one might say, is very low. In social space one's direct immediate capacity to see what is happening does not extend any further than one's own senses extend. Beyond that one has to make inferences based on hearsay evidence, reports of one kind or another of what other human beings are able to see within their equally limited field of observation. As in space, so in time.

Our capacity to probe back into history is extraordinarily limited. Even in the most detailed investigations of small fragments of micro-history, in studies of families, one finds it difficult to get past two or three generations. Beyond that, how things have come to be as they are disappears into mist.

Many of us recognize that paper money (i.e. fiat money) has declined precipitously in value when priced in gold. Rather than watch our wealth (as measured in currency or gold) vanish, then we seek to find a store of value which will not fall to zero: gold.

But this "solution" assumes the "problem" is limited to paper (fiat) money. If we understand that "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy, then we reach another understanding of "the problem" and thus of the "solution."

Let's say that the fragile supply chain of remaining oil breaks down in a complex interaction of positive feedback loops. Oil would not just be costly; it would be unavailable to individuals. The government would undoubtedly ration what was left for essential services like agriculture, food distribution, police and hospitals, etc.

Let's say we anticipated this and responded not by hoarding gold but by buying a 100 KWhr/day solar power array, productive land in a mild climate, a store of fertilizer and a few electric vehicles to share with our family/community. We own zero gold but we own a power supply, the means to grow food and transportation that does not require petroleum.

Now would we sell these productive assets for gold? At what price, if they were essentially irreplaceable? What would we do with our pile of gold if we can't go anywhere, can't grow food and have no power source?

The holder of gold assumes that all goods can be purchased with a means of exchange holding a tangible value, i.e. gold or an equivalent commodity. But this may not be entirely true. Yes, we will sell some of our power/energy output for gold, but we will not sell our "wealth" i.e. the power plant for gold, which may or may not be able to buy a replacement. As a store of wealth, gold is no match for a productive source of energy.

The reason is "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy. From this point of view, fertilizer is stored energy. You may or may not be able to exchange "money" in any form for stored energy, for "wealth" is either stored energy or the capacity to generate energy sustainably. Everything else is merely a means of exchange.

Will gold hold more value as a means of exchange than paper money? If history is any guide, yes—but that's a different "problem" than building or storing wealth.

There are many other examples of "problems" whose solutions may well completely fail to address the structural challenges we face. Once again we must explore complacency, not just as an emotional haven, but as an intellectual attractor.

If we define the "problem" incorrectly, that is a way of selecting a "solution" which may only turn into a positive feedback loop, i.e. make the real problem worse.

NOTE: My computer/web time continues to be extremely limited; my apologies for the inability to respond to emails for the next few weeks.

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