What We are Doing Wrong
Part 1 — asking the question: “How Can the Human Social System Survive?”
Here is a set of short descriptions of some of the major factors that are involved in driving humanity to the brink of extinction. The list is not meant to be exhaustive, merely demonstrative of the situation we face. These all derive from the current state of human mentality. The big question I have posed is: “Is the human brain sufficiently evolved so as to be able to raise consciousness to true sapience and, hence, change our mentalities in time to mitigate the current challenges?” My research on sapience has so far suggested that the average human brain is not that evolved structurally, meaning it has not gained the necessary circuitry needed to support advanced sapience [in my working papers on sapience (index page), the last section in the first series is devoted to what additional “wetware” would be needed to elevate our sapience level]. The average human being may be sufficiently clever to solve short-term, local-scale problems, but not wise enough to consider the longer-term, global systemic issues faced by the whole species. Evidence for this remains things like the large number of people in the world who think the Kardasians are worth their time, or get so wrapped up in professional sports events. They can readily plan their daily activities so as to be sure to catch the latest episode/game. But they generally do not consider the destructive feedback loop created in a profit-based market system where merely watching such things guides more resources of society toward feeding them. When entertainment is the chief objective and displaces education or productive work as much as seems to be the case, damage to the whole system is done.
It is, therefore, possible that the items in this set are, in fact, carved in stone, so to speak. We might not be able to raise the consciousness of enough of the population to make a difference. One thing is much more certain. The rate at which the problems are approaching critical danger is increasing rapidly. Even if the human species has the capability of learning and raising the collective consciousness, can it do so in time?
One of the more troubling aspects of the world view in which these items participate is that for much of the last 300 years or so, they have actually done much to improve the material living standards of many people. Even those who are considered poor today have far more material wealth than our ancestors. So the set of beliefs about how “good” these are are deeply ingrained in the collective psyche. This world view has worked in the past and provided us with reinforcing rewards for so long that most people will have great difficulty changing their minds.
Human beings are, after all, biological entities. And all biological entities are programmed to accumulate as much energy as they can store when times are good. That is because times are not, generally, uniformly good. Rather good times are followed by bad times. Systems science tells us that all systems that are exposed to fluctuations in supplies require stocks of those materials or energies that are required to operate. When supplies are plentiful the stocks are built up and when times are not plentiful the stocks are called upon to smooth out the operations.
So, from a biological perspective, when times are good, humans are motivated to stockpile as per their biological programming. However, for humans that have broken through the normal constraints of, for example, fluctuations in seasons or droughts, the bad times are greatly attenuated thanks to whatever technological solutions are available. For example, starting with the control of fire, followed by the use of animal furs for clothing, followed by the capacity to construct artificial shelters, humans have been able to conserve energy (body heat) which is basically the same as deriving additional free energy.
Accumulating excesses when they are available is a natural tendency of living systems. Our problem is that the negative side of this equation, the bad times causing a draw-down of the reserves, has been largely eliminated by technologies. We learned how to preserve foods, like drying or salting meats, to act as buffers against winter, but those same proclivities, after the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry produced significant surpluses. The urge to accumulate, however, never got mollified. And it is with us today. It has turned into a destructive force because there never are (on average, of course) bad times for the human animal.
Thus it is that mentally we find it hard to grasp that always going for profits (excess income above costs), indeed maximizing profits, could be a bad thing. From an individual perspective this is completely natural to do and it is difficult to see why there is a problem with it.
Once money became an entrenched feature of economic life it was incredibly easy to apply the notion of accumulating excesses to this abstract representation of potential energy (see: What is Money, Really?. Money became the representation of wealth (see below in Ideologies) since wealth comes from doing useful work and energy is what is needed to do that work. And since modern forms of money have become so compacted as tokens of value (now it is easily represented in bits in a computer memory) there is no seeming physical limit on the storage capacity for building stockpiles. Ergo, today this hidden transitive relation between energy (e.g. food) and money, supported by the biologically wired mandate to stockpile whenever possible has led to the seemingly natural belief that profit taking (and as much as you can get) governs our lives.
But should you think this is just a phenomenon in business people, consider the common desire for increases in income or raises in wages that most people believe is their right. This is one of the more bizarre notions in economics. Everybody thinks they need to get a raise, at least to compensate for inflation in prices of goods and services. But no one thinks about why there is inflation in those prices. At least in part it is because of inflation in labor costs! In other words we have another reinforcing feedback loop that is there because everyone is driven by their biological mandates and fail to recognize the real nature of money and wealth.
If you are interested on a more expanded version of this take on profit, see my Aug. 2013 post Either Profits Go or We Go.
All of this is further bolstered by another set of biologically motivated beliefs revolving around the concept of growth.
Closely related to the profit motive is the biological mandate to produce more biomass. The most immediate form of this is to reproduce, to generate children. There are all kinds of biological reasons that we can actually cognize for doing this. One of the oldest is the need to have children who will take care of us in our old age. One of the curious anomalies about the human life cycle is that we live longer into non-reproductive age and age-related debilitation necessitates a familial support system. Part of the evolutionary explanation for this is that we are a species that invests tremendous energy into nurturing our immature young — they need extra time to become autonomous and parents and especially grandparents need to teach them how to do so. It is another manifestation of our expanded intelligence (bigger brains).Evolution made sure that sex was very gratifying and invented all sorts of hormonal/brain tricks to make us want it a lot. In prehistoric times (and even into the early years of the industrial revolution) this made sense. Nature was simply ensuring that given the infant mortality rates normal for hunter-gatherers there would be enough babies produced so that the percentages favored keeping the population going. But, of course, once we transitioned into a technology-based lifestyle with medical science reducing disease-caused deaths at both ends of the age spectrum, the negative feedback was relieved and the original biological impetus for all that sex was obviated but not the drive itself. This didn't happen overnight of course. As societies progressed through the agricultural and industrial stages the need for so much reproduction diminished mostly unnoticed. We now have a population of seven+ billion people on a planet that is likely only able to support a couple of million without the high power energy support that we've enjoyed over the last three centuries. Therein is the rub. We are closing in on the end of our ability to extract net high-power energy sources like coal and oil.
A growing population mandates the need for growing production of resources. Coupled with the built-in profit motive, societies adopted the view that growth of production was the normal way of things. Profits started out as ways to accumulate investment capital (even before the advent of money as such), that is we borrowed from savings. Investments in not only production capacity, e.g. open up more fields for agriculture, but in invention of even better technologies for exploiting energy flows, e.g. water wheels to drive milling, also became the norm. As seen in the feedback loop in figure 1, this reinforced the notions that profits and growth were to the benefit of society. It is likely that these attitudes were developing subconsciously at first (say during the first few thousand years after the advent of agriculture). It might even be the case that as proto-empires emerged from smaller city-state entities, that the nascent kings were following subconscious urges to expand their holdings just because growth and profit had always been a part of the social milieu, as far as they knew.
The feedback loop in figure 1 provides an economic argument for accumulation of wealth and growth of production. One outcome of these strategic urges was the gradual improvement of living standards, at least for portions of the populations. New clever inventions for providing lighting in homes, even running water and sewage for those who were in the elite classes, and better metals for sharper knives and swords provided convenience, safety, and sometimes luxury. Any walk through a museum of ancient history provides ample evidence of how life was improving over the ages. That is, until empires crashed or collapsed under the weight of their own hubris. Invariably kingdoms destroyed their own basis for production, the soils on which their crops grew. The nature of the feedback loop in figure 1 generates a kind of dynamic where the social expansion and good times go gang-busters right up to a peak after which there is a generally more rapid decline due to the negative feedback of having depleted resources. Sometimes it has been a very rapid decline.
There is an optimal maximum size for any given kind of system. For living systems there are internal controls regulating the growth rate of individuals; as the size of the individual approaches the maximum, the rate is decreased and the system goes into a steady state dynamic where material inputs are balanced by material outputs so that the system maintains that size (at least over a “normal” life span for that kind of system). Somatic cells in the adult body replicate only to replace lost cells so that tissues maintain their proper size and function. Populations are ordinarily regulated by external forces such as limits on food supply or level of predation, though there are apparently some internal mechanisms that come into play when the population size gets too big due to relaxation of one or more of the external forces. One of the factors of fitness for any species is the instigation of a regulation mechanism that keeps that species from over-exploiting its resources. Those mechanisms have not been particularly effective for human beings. Both our bodies (personal biomass) and our populations have expanded beyond what is healthy or fit.
Convenience and Speed
Most of human inventions have been about increasing free energy either by increasing the extraction process (e.g. the steam engine applied to pumping water from coal mines in Britain) or decreasing the amount of energy needed to do a particular job (e.g. the ox-drawn plow). It is quite natural for biological systems to seek ways to conserve energy because in the pre-human world of nature energy sources were difficult to come by and there was always competition for what existed. So human inventions that provided more free energy per capita meant less effort by human workers to accomplish the same level of work. The invention of machines that could exploit exosomatic (outside the human body) sources of energy greatly expanded this capability and, once again, became part of the normal expectation in human mentality.
Machines, using higher power, allow us to do things more quickly. Once again there is a biologically determined mandate driving our mental conception of the need for speed. In the evolutionary process, the quick tend to survive and the slow tend to either not catch their food, or are food. Either way, with a few interesting exceptions, evolution tends to favor a propensity for speed. Doing things faster meant creating wealth and profit faster, leading to greater surpluses faster.
One nice consequence of speed and producing more wealth has been that some people with particular talents have been able to specialize in activities that do not seem to directly contribute to productivity itself. Philosophers, artists, and tinkerers could be supported by the fact that societies accumulated surpluses (usually stockpiled by the ruling authorities). This meant there was more time to fiddle around with the finer aspects of culture, art, music, musing, etc. It turns out that modern psychology has shown that there really is a benefit that affects work productivity in having entertainment and fine arts as part of our culture.
The downside of letting machines do the work is that human effort, today, is spent sitting at a desk typing on a keyboard, as I am doing right now. This takes far less energy and saves strain on muscles. At first this seems like a good thing until you realize two things. One is that we still eat all we can because we are programmed to do so from the time of food scarcity and all of those calories (including enhanced caloric content due to refined sugars) are not getting used up in hard work. The exercise gyms and the medical profession have profited from our fight with the waistline. The second is that muscles are particularly good at atrophying to just the level needed to do whatever demand (or lack thereof) is put on them. Once again the gyms benefit as some people try to compensate. But what has never occurred to us is that if we simply forewent the convenience and speed (walk instead of drive) in the first place we would not have to be spending the extra time gained at the gym. I admit that this realization came to me late in life, after it had become clear that convenience and speed were not really doing us any favors. Most people, however, are not likely to enjoy giving up what they have grown used to having.
It isn't so much that we are 'doing' this wrong, but the belief in a certain kind of progress amplifies the above propensities and seems to give their all-out achievement legitimacy.
We might be able to see this by contrasting what it seems many people (and they are often well-intentioned humanists) believe progress to be against what a systems theory of progress would entail. To the majority of people progress has come to be represented by things like the iPhone having a slightly better camera this year than last. Progress is being able to stream Netflix or some other service to their TVs. They no longer have to search through a catalog of movies or TV shows on their computer and wait for the mail delivery. Convenience is having a mobile app that tells them they are standing next to a Chinese restaurant when they are hungry for Chinese food. For some people progress is represented in our social milieu when, for example, people in the defined ‘poor’ can buy a used car on credit.
From a systems theory point of view, progress occurs when a system enjoys an increase in available energy to do useful work, what physicists call ‘free’ energy or also ‘exergy’. The key is in the definition of ‘useful’ work. That is any work that does one of the following jobs. First is the acquisition of needed materials to support metabolism. I have written on occasion about societal metabolism as an exosomatic extension of our bodily metabolism. This work is essentially maintenance of our biomass, but also of our energy (i.e. technological) cocoons. The second kind of work is when we need to do extra in the way of responding to environmental contingencies such as escaping from a predator, but these days it might mean getting out of the way of a flood or hurricane. This is one of the reasons we store extra energy (see profit motive above). The third kind of work we have to be able to do is repair damages. Our bodies have to have the ability to repair wounds or ravages of disease. This takes additional resources above baseline metabolism. We also need to repair our energy/technological cocoons, like our houses and businesses after a disaster. A final kind of work that we do (that animals do not do) is direct free energy into creating new artifacts that have the effect of increasing effective free energy. We invent machines to do our useful work or help us do it.
I will not go into it in the present discourse but the increase in free energy for a system is related to, in fact is due to, the only legitimate form of growth in the Universe, in the context of evolution — the growth of knowledge. Rather than try to explain this concept now, I will save it for future explorations after this series of posts. Suffice it to say that knowledge is an actual “substance” in the world that is encoded in the structure of systems and the capacity of the system to interpret messages. Messages that convey information result in systems increasing their knowledge (at least marginally). And except for the decay of structures (e.g. 2nd law of thermodynamics) as long as messages and systems interact total knowledge in the Universe increases. This is the same concept as embodied in the notion that evolution has a trajectory that leads to higher levels of organization and complexity.
The increase in free energy that comes from discovering new more powerful sources of energy or from inventing a more efficient machine means that we can do more work per unit time. But it does not follow that we should do more work per unit time. If we acquire additional free energy we can use it up as fast as we can through the support of growth and accumulation of artifacts, or the development of artifacts that do not actually increase free energy for the future, but simply add to the “novelty” aspect of life. The latter category of work is no longer useful; it merely consumes resources to support the kicks we get out of new stuff.
Or we can extend the life of the system by conserving free energy resources by doing just the work needed to maintain the system (our culture in this case) in what is called a steady-state. That state can only be achieved if the system is no longer growing in physical size. Once the system reaches an optimal size increases in free energy can be put to development work (further invention that continues to increase free energy for the future) or simply used to extend the lifetime of the system into the future.
But we humans have latched onto the trivial concept of progress and whenever there has been any increase in free energy, either total free energy for society or per capita, we immediately try to spend it as soon as we can. This is what fuels the further growth and wasting of our energy resource on technologies that do not provide real systemic progress. Since there is a link between free energy and money we can see that the wealthy 10% have basically crossed a threshold where they cannot spend their free energy any faster (after, for example buying their mansions in the Hamptons, their yachts, and their private jets), so they hoard their free energy in various forms of paper-based assets (stocks, etc.) in the financial system. The really interesting thing about this phenomenon is the surprise they are going to feel when the financial and banking systems fail and their assets are worth nothing. You can't eat bits in a computer memory! [Same goes for gold bugs hoarding that beautiful metal.]
The concept of progress is one of the more interesting ones in our mentation. The idea that there can even be such a thing as progress is a relatively new mental phenomenon, fostered by the advent of the Age of Reason (science) and particularly by the Industrial Revolutions. But our minds had the capacity to believe in our ability to somehow make our lives better when we first started working with fire (pre-Homo sapiens).
Human beings are the first species of animal to think about how things could be better in the future and capable of inventing artifacts that bring it about. I seriously doubt that a lioness woke up one morning thinking about how to make the hunt more efficient or easier on the pride. And even if such a lioness did have some idea about it, she could not communicate her intentions to the others, so that would be the end of it. Unlike the above biologically mandated propensities, the belief in progress represents a completely new mode of thought in a biological system. I have even thought that perhaps Homo sapiens should be considered a completely new kind of life, or rather humans plus their cultures should be considered as such. We may be participating in the beginning of a whole new domain of life. I suppose this isn't too different from what the trans-humanists proclaim. But the point is that behavior that is directed toward improving life processes through artifact creation (and procedures for doing things in new ways are kinds of artifacts) is something entirely new in the biosphere.
It is therefore difficult to value judge the notion of progress before we know what it actually means in the larger picture of the evolution of the Ecos. I think the systems view given above is the only way we should approach the development of judgement and an ethics describing what sorts of inventions we should pursue. Nevertheless, it is possible to judge the extent to which modern humans have come to rely on the notion of progress as representing the normal state of affairs and employ that belief to justify both the elements mentioned above and a few to be mentioned in the next installment.
Our capacity for language and mental analysis have given us the ability to share ideas about how we think the world works. Recognizing that we started from complete ignorance of the hidden forces of causality and had to invent stories about those workings, it is no wonder that we humans have relied heavily on ideas that seemed to do a reasonable job of explaining things. We all have our own personalities with respect to things like our propensities to explore and take risks versus just exploit what we have already found and just protect what we have. As a result, ideas that seem to support and justify one or the other of these propensities tend to attract followers who adopt them as truths to be venerated. Authorities are born of ideas that seem to satisfy a personal need to follow some path toward finding the new (progressivism) or holding on to the past (conservatism). Unfortunately, it seems most humans tend rather strongly toward one or the other pole. When humans were first emerging from Africa this actually worked to our species' advantage. The risk takers could seek new territories while the risk averse could exploit the already mastered environments. The balance between the two types gave rise to a rate of expansion that eventually put human beings on every continent except Antarctica, initially.
Competition as the Main Driver of Progress
Tying all of these together is perhaps the most insidious belief of all. The idea that competition between rivals in the marketplace is the main driver of improvements (progress) is largely taken for granted. Another commonly held belief about competition is that in a laissez-faire capitalist marketplace it helps keep prices down for consumers so long as there are multiple producers vying for business. Ironically these ideas were developed during the late 1800s and early 20th century as the result of the rise of the theory of evolution by variation and selection provided by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in his work, On the Origin of Species in 1859. He noted that selection worked to promote the promulgation of individuals in a population that were more fit and examples included competition between conspecifics and across species, such as predator-prey. Darwin was greatly influenced by the works of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) and Adam Smith (1723-1790) both of whom had provided the economic background for why competition worked to “improve” conditions as a result of competition. In biology for the rest of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries the picture of evolution based on competition and the notion of fitness as being better able to out-compete the rivals reigned supreme.
Just toward the end of the 19th century several other thinkers, most notably Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) reflected the ideas of natural selection back onto the economic stage. Noting that in a free market with many producers and consumers (firms and labor) competing for customers and jobs, that the most able persons would benefit the most, Darwinism could be applied to the understanding of the economy and by inference to the class structures of many societies. This was the infamous Social Darwinism that would later be used as an excuse to commit horrible crimes against humanity.
What is ironic about this is that today most people abhor the notions of social Darwinism because of the bad history it went through, yet unthinkingly accept the idea that competition in a free market is the way to a better life. They applaud the thought that an inefficient producer will go out of business due to other producers of the same product offering better prices. They would never think to call that social Darwinian. They might feel sorry for the carriage makers who were put out of jobs when automobiles replaced the horse and buggy but see it as simply the result of progress (a good thing overall). The reality of the free market, neoliberal capitalist, economic system is that indeed it is a social Darwinian process as ordinarily practiced. The idea that competition is the driver of progress is deeply embedded in our consciousness because it is so clearly the fact that it has played the dominant role in the evolution of our cultures. How could this be wrong?
Why is this belief in competition now a wrong notion? It is wrong because it is not the complete picture of how evolution works. Darwin only got it partly right with regard to how evolution works. Today, the more modern view, based on substantial and growing evidence, is that cooperation has played an equal role in the evolution of progress in both the biological and economic worlds. Cooperation between disparate entities have contributed to the major emergences in the evolution of the Ecos (origin of life, origin of eukaryotes, origin of multicellular life,... origin of societies). Universal evolution is a combination of competition and cooperation in a balance that produces the levels of organization and complexity that we find in the world. It takes both working for emergence to take place.
And once a new level of organization does emerge, it takes a hierarchical cybernetic system to govern the stability of the new system. In our societies we are seeing the nascent emergence of cooperative processes (e.g. the open source movement) that eschew most of the above beliefs or at least modify them and scale them appropriately so that the cooperative parts are coming balance with the competitive parts. Right now the tendency is very modest compared with the continuing belief in competition (sometimes brutal and often times involving breaking social rules). However it is conceivable that the bottleneck we look to be going into could act as a filter to block out the competition components that are destructive of real progress (evolution) and allow for the emergence in some future world of a new level of organization of society more fit, as a system, to live in the Ecos.
Ideas are obviously powerful motivators for humans. But once we understand that most of our ideas come from ignorance of our own natures we should probably look for concepts that are more grounded in the realities of systems evolution. I'm just not sure we are capable. Part 3 will examine the nature of ideologies and why these support and amplify what I have discussed thus far.