Part 1. How Can the Human Social System Survive?
Toward a Human Social System in the Ecos
This is the first of a five-part series to essentially wrap up a theme I have written about often. These posts will summarize what I think are the major issues regarding what we humans are doing that are directly responsible for our existential crisis. If what we are doing is wrong, then obviously we have to learn to do things differently if we hope to have a future social system. I will address what we need to change and what it will mean for future humans.
I want to bring this theme to closure in part because I have been simply repeating myself too often. But more than that, I am personally looking toward a new domain of query more. I have written some about this new domain, but now I find myself thinking about this most of the time. As with all of the themes and sub-themes I have addressed over the years, this one is related to systems, to “systemness”, and what is the meaning of it all. Lately I have been going more deeply into a concept I introduced a while back regarding the trajectory of evolution (see link below).
Meaning is the realm of philosophy. So a fair warning to readers who are less interested in this domain of inquiry. After this series is completed I'm afraid I'll be mostly writing in that realm.
Since 2007 I have been analysing the human condition, using systems science, in these blogs. I have posed many questions that follow from one main one: “If human beings are so smart (clever) why do we find ourselves facing existential threats to our species, of our own creation?” I have promoted the systems approach to analysis and extolled the use of systems science to grasp our condition. In 2014 my textbook, with co-author Michael Kalton, Principles of Systems Science was published by Springer. It contains a compendium of the different sub-fields of systems science and some clues as to how I used systems science to try to get a handle on the human state of affairs. Subsequently, I have been pursuing questions of how best to get more people using systems science in the same way to not only understand the human condition, but to possibly solve those existential threats. My newest project is a possible book to develop the methods of systems analysis, simulation modelling, and designs for artifacts, policies, and procedures. Work on it is one reason I have not posted much of late.
This post is largely a summary and review of many of my previous posts. There are some links to prior posts embedded for those who have not been long-time readers so you can take a look at the positions I have advanced for a number of years now. I am putting this blog up now because in my opinion we are getting to the “knee point”, or curve inflection in the exponential rise in the rate of collapse of civilization. Those familiar with exponential curves will know what that means. For others, simply put, the poop has hit the fan and is now being distributed randomly throughout the room. This being the Autumnal Equinox, another inflection in the annual seasonal cycle (a sinusoidal-like curve) is a time for reflection and consideration for the future.
Where We Came From, Where We Are Going
The human condition is arrived at after the 2 million year long evolution of the genus to which we belong, Homo, culminating in us, Homo sapiens. That, after nearly 8 million years of evolution of the apes that followed the split between chimpanzees and the line that would give rise to Homo. Life emerged as single celled bacteria-like organisms perhaps 4 billion years ago. For all of this time the biosphere has been evolving increasing complexity in terms of the emergence and selection of increasingly organized organisms (see my somewhat lengthy essay: Does Evolution Have a Trajectory?). The main trajectory of this increasing complexity has been the drive toward higher levels of intelligence in animals. Our species represents the epitome of intelligence and creativity on the planet. And that level of intelligence has created artifacts and culture that depends on burning the long buried fossil fuels that result in dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates. The accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and hydrosphere threatens to destroy large portions of the biosphere, reducing the complexity and organization of the planet drastically.
But this is not the first time that life has polluted the environment leading to the destruction of a significant portion of itself! It is believed that about 2.3 billion years ago the cyanobacteria organisms, the first known to produce their food from photosynthesis, poisoned the atmosphere with free oxygen (a product of photosynthesis). All of the other life on the planet at that time had evolved in a reducing atmosphere/hydrosphere and so the oxygenation of the world killed all that were exposed (see: The Great Oxygenation Event). So a precedent, of sorts, had been established. The upshot of the killing of reduction-based metabolism (except possibly those that survived in, for example, the deep ocean vent environments) was the creation of new niches and opportunities for a new version of metabolism that provided more energy to cells. What was a catastrophe led to the emergence of wholly new opportunities for life to flourish.
A careful analysis of what humans do, such as the burning of fossil fuels, shows a pattern that is actually completely in accord with natural evolution. Nature abhors a gradient. Fossil fuels represent an energy concentration and space represents a significant sink (at 3 degrees absolute!). It was inevitable that the carbon-based fuels would be burned, the energy released as heat radiating to space. We humans are merely the agents of its release. However, that inevitability does not mean it had to be done as fast as possible. An alternative pathway might have included taking a rate of energy consumption that both improved life and bought us time to learn what it meant. Rate control, however, requires a governance subsystem set to manage it. As a species we opted for the former and eschewed the latter.
Though I have very little hope that there will be a gentle transition from the way we operate now to the way we will need to operate in order to live in balance and accord with our Earth environment — the Ecos — I am hopeful (almost confident) that a remnant of the human species will survive through the impending evolutionary bottleneck. That remnant will survive only by the individuals comprising it completely change their consciousness, their capacity to be aware of reality. They will have to adopt a completely different way to operate and completely different perceptions of what is important to successful living. The changes will be radical.
The vast majority of humans alive today accept certain concepts without question. They have desires that reflect their beliefs about how the world works and they will take umbrage with any suggestion that those desires are at the root of the destruction of our world. Those ideas come from the evolution of cultures, particularly the western cultures, and the desires come from our biological nature. They have been bolstered by two major factors, the discovery of increasingly powerful sources of free energy and the capacity to invent technologies, such as internal combustion engines, to exploit those energies to obtain higher rates of extraction of resources and greater convenience — making life “easier”. One consequence of the growth of technology (and agriculture counts as such a development) was the reduction in child mortality and the resulting growth of the population. For all of this time of social development the exploitation of higher power, thanks to inventions, and the growth of the population formed a tripartite positive feedback loop (Figure 1). Human inventiveness gave rise to technology that enabled both finding and exploiting energies to do work, to construct artifacts that made life easier and safer. This led, in turn, to the expansion of the population. The growth of the population supported two additional conditions that added to the positive feedback. A growing population would demand even more energy. It would also supply more bodies to distribute the work load over, and some of those workers could specialize in invention! As social units, first villages, then cities, and their surrounding agricultural support regions, became larger they also became more complex. The rest is literally history.
Figure 1. Human intelligence and creativity created a whole new phenomenon in biological terms. The social system of humans included the invention of technologies that allowed the exploitation of increasing amounts of free energy. This, in turn, allowed for the growth of the populations and increasing specialization, especially in the realm of invention. The positive feedback loop drove both growth and development of the HSS.
This thumbnail sketch of human history is only meant to provide a “reminder” of how we got to our current state of affairs. Readers who missed the last near decade of my questions and analyses in this blog are invited to browse the archives for details. For now, in the next post, I will provide a “list” of the issues that have become problematic. In the third post I will offer ideas on why we are doing “the wrong things” so we can see what we are up against vis-a-vis making changes. In Part 4 I advance the notion that we humans need to achieve a higher level of consciousness in order to overcome the weaknesses outlined in Part 3. Finally, in Part 5 I will offer some ideas about what we will have to do to change the course of the future. I will lay out a set of “changes” in our beliefs, cognitions, and behaviors that are going to have to take place if some remnant of our genus is to survive the bottleneck and provide a basis for a future sentient species on this planet. Yes, it is really that desperate!
I plan to post these installments approximately every week. They are already written so I will schedule them for publication. I am doing it this way so that readers have some time to digest each part before the next one pops up. After the last one has been up for a while I turn to questions of a metaphysical nature!
Part 2 - What We Are Doing Wrong
Part 3 - Why We Do What is Wrong — Holding Ideologies