Wednesday, February 4, 2009
The Big Picture
I started this blog with the goal of trying to understand the society within which I live. I do it as much for my benefit as to inform any readers I might have. Most of this country has little understanding of the causes and effects of the events impacting their lives, myself included. If you don't understand the system , you are likely to to feel like an impotent victim, subject to despair and ultimately unable to develop effective coping strategies. It really comes down to a battle for survival. You have a choice to be a hammer or a nail, to live or to die. I have made it my goal to study and educate myself in the important subjects of history, philosophy,economics,commerce,ecology, anthropology, geology, engineering and design, agriculture and many others. I had seven years of postgraduate education in which these disciplines played no role whatever. I let schooling get in the way of my education. No mas. I spend 3 to 4 hours every morning starting well before sunup studying world news and markets and if I find a stunning tidbit that I find fascinating, I am likely to include it in my blog, my glorified notebook, my diary. Ted Williams had a great expression:"Life is hard and it's even harder if you're stupid." I would add that not only is it hard if you're stupid, it could be unpleasant, painful, dangerous, and even fatal. With this preamble out of the way, i think it is time to step back and reconsider and reassess the significance of recent events. I have spent a lot of time teasing out statistics and graphs and articles and other data to illustrate my viewpoints and my biases. I have drawn certain conclusions and I fully expect some of them to be wrong. There is no such thing as absolute truth and absolute certainty. That said, I will continue to dwell upon the details of our human civilization on this spinning insignificant rock in the Andromeda Galaxy. I will continue to report and comment on the factors govern and influence our society and our economy and I will come back time and again to the Big Picture of our history as a civilization. I have always been fascinated on how civilizations come and go, rise and fall. This has fascinated many historians from Toynbee to Diamond. The Romans are the most studied but how can you ignore the Harappan and Mesopotamian empires, the Egyptians and the Mayans, Chacoans and Minoans and Mycenaeans, not to mention the various dynasties in China. And who can ignore the spectacle of the lonely basalt icons of Easter Island. Joseph Tainter is a little known anthropologist who teaches at a small state university several hundred miles from where live who has spent much of his professional life studying this very subject who wrote a thin monograph now out of print called "The Collapse of Complex Societies" in 1988. He concluded that there are common threads to societal collapse. At the risk of oversimplification let me summarize his conclusions.
His most oversimplified conclusion is that civilizations eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. He relates it to the Law of diminishing marginal productivity. To wit he says that
1. Human societies are problem solving organizations.
2. Society requires energy for its maintenance and expansion
3. As complexity increases in a society there will be increased costs per capita
4. Investment in increased complexity as a problem solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns. He relates this to what he calls the marginal productivity of increasing complexity. Since oil is the dominant energy source in our civilization, this feeds directly into the implications of Peak Oil to our society.
Tainter's conclusions and methodology are stunning and they been picked up by many current observers one of the most notable being Richard Heinberg who has made a study of how energy flows through a society from an economic and ecological perspective. I will continue to come back time and again to collapse scenarios and how they might play into our current predicament. My bias should be obvious by now. I believe that our current industrial civilization, and more particularly our current American civilization is approaching collapse. Is collapse inevitable? Of course not! Economic collapse does not necessarily imply societal collapse although they often go together. Economic collapse is expensive but societal collapse is dangerous. In this blog I will continue to offer mitigating strategies to deal with and forestall both and I will try to educate and inform and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions. Once observation I would make is that as the complexity of the financial collapse upon us has increased, the pace has markedly increased. Perhaps there is another law working here as yet undiscovered that might relate the rate of complexity to the rate of collapse. At any rate, unless useful strategies are put in place soon, economic collapse is inevitable in my opinion. I also believe that the current economic assumptions of our political and business leaders are flawed and when you combine that with greed and the innate human hardwired inability to plan for the future by sacrificing today, economic collapse is almost inevitable. In future blogs I will try to show why these assumptions are wrong and I hope to offer suggestions to soften the impact of these changes upon our lives.