Current Culture

Why Rethink Anything?

Readers who have also read my Question Everything blog may well wonder why I am bothering to rethink anything. I am on record for believing that civilization is close to collapse and one might readily suppose that I would think it too late to rethink what we are doing because there isn't enough time to do anything about it even if we come up with some clever alternatives. And that is basically correct.

Why then am I launching this blog if its fruits are to no avail?

There are several basic reasons that I am pursuing this effort. First, I might be wrong. As convinced as I might be that our modern technological industrial societies are about to vanish (and I am definitely not alone in this surmise), there are plenty of other thoughtful people who, while recognizing that we can't go on like this, destroying the world as we do, also believe there is time to institute changes to prevent catastrophe. Given the complexities of the dynamics it doesn't seem reasonable to me to just argue with their positions or logics. They have their point of view and since I do not have a god's eye view of the world, I can't be absolutely certain that I am right and they are wrong. So, like Pascal's wager, I'm hedging my bets. If they are right, then the effort to find workable and feasible alternatives to societal living might pay off.

A second reason, admittedly selfish, is that pursuing this exercise is fun. I enjoy using systems science and systems thinking to analyze the problematique and consider the designs for solutions. What else should I do with my time now that I've retired from teaching?

But the third reason I want to pursue this effort is that if I am right about imminent collapse then any results of rethinking may be of value to future humans, to help them avoid making the same mistakes we've made. Or, if it will be physically impossible for them to follow the same course of social development (e.g., there won't be any readily available fossil fuels to exploit) and thus are prevented from making those mistakes, to provide them with some guidance as to what to do to develop successful societies. Now this presupposes that the process of rethinking will lead to positive models of societies that will achieve long-term sustainability. I'll confess, I've already done some rethinking about this and will write about it in the months to come, hoping to get comments and feedback and, possibly, better ideas.

As to how any of this may make it into the hands of some humans one hundred or more years from now, that is, of course problematic. I am envisioning the post-collapse period to still include survivors and maybe even a few thrivers living in a "modern" version of a dark age. In the historic Dark Ages little pockets of humanity, monks in monasteries for example, preserved some remnants of Greek, Assyrian, and Roman thoughts by copying and recopying ancient manuscripts believing that the contents might be sacred even if they themselves did not fully grasp their significance. With luck, something like that may take place again. We can't know, of course. It is something of a crap shoot. But if it does work it might give future humans a leg up on guiding future social development. All we can do is give it our best shot and keep our fingers crossed! If anyone has any thoughts about maybe doing something more proactive than crossing fingers please do share.

The first subject to consider rethinking coming soon.

How We Will Approach Rethinking Everything

The Approach

The intent of this blog is to consider all of the beliefs that we humans hold about how the world works that are now becoming evident we got wrong or at least need updating. Today, for example, there is widespread belief that capitalism is a good (if sometimes cruel) economic model. Now, little by little, the evidence is gathering that capitalism, at least as practiced in the major economies of the world where the availability of fossil fuel power is massive, is causative in so many of the destructive forces that threaten humanity's very existence. We will follow the evidence and let that motivate us to find different approaches and new beliefs about how we think the world should work. We will rethink capitalism and, indeed, many of our "cherished" economic beliefs and practices. Hopefully we will find new thoughts about how humanity can live in the world peacefully and sustainably and in accord with the rest of nature.

The general approach is to start with a commonly held belief about how we should live or act now in this modern culture and analyze it systemically taking particular note as to how it results in various interlinked problems. Then consider what alternatives there might be and analyze those systemically to see if they are reasonable and feasible. Only by thinking about alternatives in context of other systems and dynamics can we more properly assess the quality of those alternatives. A good example is something like: "We live in a consumer-based economy, so we all need to keep shopping in order to keep the economy healthy." Clearly we see that continually buying more "stuff" is what contributes to burning more fossil fuels and the subsequent effects on the climate and oceans. So an alternative might be to just stop doing so. That has a moral justification in that by reducing our consumerist ways we are helping the environment, yes. But that alternative also has negative consequences in terms of the jobs that might be lost as a result. In the kind of system we are embedded in, many jobs depend on consumerism. Take those jobs away and you get mass unemployment and subsequent decline in living standards. The COVID pandemic causing many businesses to close has given us a glimpse of this right now. We rethought the belief in consumerism but also realized that the proposed alternative could lead to undesirable consequences.

Clearly we have some hard thinking to do. [Be sure to read the final section below on Reader Participation.]

Establishing the Context

Every human being is born into an existing culture. During our early development that culture is all we know. And we are genetically and mentally programed to accept it as "normal." Whatever the culture says about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it is embodied in all of the artifacts that constitute the culture. Those artifacts include not just the material artifacts like machines and clothing styles, but also the institutions, religions, and the set of beliefs and ideologies that were the result of social evolution. Beliefs are constructed by the human brain, shaped over generations by real-world experiences, but also by imagination and desires. We may believe the world works in a particular way because, to some degree, that is the way we want it to work.

The cultures each of us have been born into has come down to us through a process of social evolution. There are historical contingencies to be accounted for but also biology (and neuropsychology).

Each of us believes essentially what those around us already believe. These are shared concepts and values. Having them is what makes us hypersocial beings. We generally don't question them until evidence builds that they might not be as certain as our culture would suggest. Most people, I suspect, never really question the beliefs and practices of the culture into which they were born. Some, a few, however begin to see some discrepancies between what they were taught to believe is true and what they observe to be real. Some get exposed to other cultures and through logic figure out that different people hold different beliefs - they can't all be right, can they? Still others may be intuitively repulsed by commonly accepted notions like war being the way people establish power relations between nations. Unfortunately, those who question represent a small portion of the general population. Its hard to say whether a larger portion will begin to realize the necessity of eschewing their cherished beliefs when nature whacks them up-side the head with reality. Can you imagine many of the Republicans and especially the libertarians rethinking the "American way of life" just because the number and intensity of storms and fires have been clearly increasing and property damage and lives lost as well? I suspect they will rationalize in any way they can to preserve their precious concept of expanding personal wealth.

Today there is mounting evidence that many, maybe most, of the beliefs that most people hold, are erroneous. The practices we base on those beliefs, like maximizing profits, are starting to show their detrimental effects. Beliefs that may have once resulted in constructive practice are no longer relevant or have turned negative. Take the belief in societal growth. Once, a long time ago, when people observed that life seemed to get easier when there were more hands to share the workload, growing a community to a sustainable (reproductively speaking) size could be called a good thing. Today, population and economic growth are destroying the habitat of humanity.

In that light I propose to pursue, in this blog, not condemning our beliefs and practices out of hand as being evil and wrong. Rather I want to examine how they are not serving us in the current context of global civilization. And then I want to explore new thoughts, new ideas, and new beliefs all based on our modern scientific understanding of the world and ourselves. And I want the process of rethinking to be guided and informed by systems science as a means to understand the world in a transdisciplinary way.

And, incidentally, this rethinking applies to myself. Over the years, in my QE blog, I have developed beliefs about the fate of humanity, let's just say it leaned toward gloom-and-doom. So perhaps I should put my own beliefs, assumptions, and biases under the microscope as well.

Here is an example of engagement in rethinking a strongly held belief.

The Fact and Myth of Progress

For all of human history social evolution has been progressive, that is, our societies have evolved to become more complex with more material wealth. Throughout history this has been accomplished in geographical pockets. And, throughout history many, societies have collapsed from whatever advanced state they had achieved while other pockets popped up to take up the process. On a global scale, societies have demonstrated a steady (but lately accelerating) growth in size and complexity. The phenomenon of progress, overall, and the reasons for collapse can actually be boiled down to one central factor - energy available to do useful work. In historical civilizations the people tended to drain resources in their immediate vicinity. They had to travel further, thus expending more energy, to find new sources. At some point the energy cost of recovering new resources exceeded the benefits of doing so and the society could not maintain its material state. Collapse.

Even so, humanity as a whole has maintained a belief in progress. We humans are superior to animals and it is our destiny to rule the world and have more material comfort. Recalling the historical developments, just in the West alone, of social development, the progress toward the first civilizations in the Hilly Flanks after the invention of agriculture, toward the sophisticated civilizations of ancient Greece and Egypt, toward the grandeur of the Roman Empire, toward the Enlightenment, toward the Industrial Revolution... I'm sure you get the picture.

Progress in the form of more material wealth (never fairly distributed necessarily) and greater complexity, greater convenience, and so on, is a fact of life. It happened because of two intermingling factors. The first was human inventiveness (bolstered by human inquisitiveness) for finding ways to make life easier and for finding better sources of energy. The second was that energy itself. Better sources means more useful energy available for the energy used up in getting it. That has been the case from the end of the last Ice Age to the present. First burning wood to compensate for cooler weather, to improved clothing and shelters, to agriculture to improve the yield of plant calories, to employing draft animals, to using wind in mills and sailing ships, to coal, then oil and gas, to nuclear... Once again you get the picture. Progress has always been a result of finding more and better energy sources that provided a surplus and thus an ability to turn attention to more invention.

But there is also the myth of progress. That myth is that progress can go on forever. It is the most common belief held by most of the people in this world. "We are richer today than we were before, therefore, we will be richer tomorrow than we are today." Progress has always been the case in the past so that means it must always be the case! Here we encounter a very subtle issue. It may be that the Universe will continue to make "progress" in the sense of continuing the larger process of evolution. But if we examine carefully the history of universal evolution we find that overall progress comes in stages, literally phase transitions in which a higher level of organization (and complexity) emerges from the lower preceding level. Atoms emerged from subatomic particles once the Universe cooled sufficiently. Molecules emerged from atoms once the atoms could be concentrated by gravity on rocky bodies. Life emerged from chemical reactions driven by energetic disequilibria (now thought to have been centered in undersea thermal vents). New species of life emerged once biological evolution kicked in. And social organizations emerged, in various forms, once life produced information processing capacities to actuate cooperation.

But here is the catch. Once a transition to a higher level of organization is achieved the developmental progress that led to that transition slows down or stops. There is no more increase in complexity at that level of organization. Further progress shifts to the new level. Which basically means that for humanity and societies, further progress, say getting richer per capita, is not at all necessarily in the cards. In fact, quite opposite, I have reason to assert that humanity has reached the critical point where a phase transition is about to take place. Observe the obvious facts. We are rapidly running out of cheap fossil fuel energy to power our civilizations. And as I have argued in QE, the so-called alternative (and so-called renewables) have no chance to take fossil fuel's place in terms of producing the same level of free energy needed to maintain, let alone support progress our technological culture. Something has to give. I suspect it will involve some radical shifts in lifestyles and population sizes, both demanding significant changes in beliefs.

Thus, it seems that progress for humanity, both for individual people and for society will come to a natural halt. That doesn't mean the Earth as a whole won't continue to evolve. It just means that cultural evolution will experience supervenience from some higher order organization that emerges. I hope to explore this possibility further in future bolgs.

Reader Participation

My QE blog was a somewhat personal exploration of the things that bothered or interested me; I wrote more for myself than for any particular audience. Fortunately, there apparently was an audience that was receptive to my thoughts. But with RE I propose a different approach. I would like to open the forum up to reader participation by way of soliciting suggestions for topics to rethink. Certainly, I have a backlog of topics that I am ready to offer my own rethinking on. But my priorities and, yes, biases, cannot be necessarily the right way to look at things. So I invite readers to make suggestions, along with providing some preliminary arguments as to why their particular topic should be taken up. Readers may use the comments section to raise their candidate topics. We'll see what sort of responses come from the readership and make a sort of collective decision about taking up the topics. Think of this as a sort of crowd-sourcing rethinking.

I will publish the first several topics along with my ideas so that you can see the kind of thing I have in mind. Then we can start collecting reader suggestions and go from there.

From time to time I will provide space for other thinkers to provide content as guest bloggers. Over the last several years I've had the privilege of meeting and working with some truly amazing thinkers in the domain of systems science and practice. I do hold a strong conviction that if we are to intentionally design a new world to replace the one we have now, the one that is deteriorating before our eyes, it will be based on systems approaches. I will be inviting some of my colleagues to rethink the world too.