Thursday, December 23, 2004

Hierarchy Hangover

Hierarchy creates great empires, large corporations, huge displays of its capability to command coordinated action. Hierarchy, however, is also an inefficient mode of organization. It depends on surplus energy. As small-scale hierarchies emerged at the dawn of written history, this surplus energy was obtained from hydraulic projects (irrigation systems), harnessing animal energy, cutting down the forests of Europe for firewood or developing new technologies like crop rotation to better free the energy of rich soils. Surplus energy is measured as a ratio of calories made available per calorie of human energy expended. Return:Investment. The higher the ratio, the more hierarchal the resulting government. The Nile provided a great surplus energy, and resulted in the hierarchal systems of the Egyptian pharoes. Constant warfare brought a constant source of slaves to the Roman empire to fuel the surplus from its great North African wheat plantations (latifundia). Coal and colonies provided the surplus energy for the rise of the British Empire. Today's hierarchies are are in turn dependent on the greatest source of surplus energy ever to be tapped by human civilization: oil. Oil produces more available calories of energy per calorie of human input than any other energy source available. It is, quite literally, the most concentrated form of solar energy available on the planet. The result of this great energy surplus has been great hierarchy: the empires and wars of the last hundred years have been defined by this phenomena.

What will happen when this source of surplus runs out? It may take 5 years or 100 years, but there is no doubt that this great surplus is draining away. Optimists (perhaps an inappropriate title) always state that we will surely find another--perhaps even greater--source of energy surplus. The facts belie the rhetoric, however: Hydrogen needs surplus energy to be produced. Oil shale provides a far smaller surplus ratio than the Gahwar fields of Saudi Arabia. Nuclear energy has never provided a surplus ratio without the subsidy of the military-industrial complex. There simply is no replacement for the surplus energy of oil.

As this surplus fades away, the era of hierarchy will slowly--if fitfully--fade with it. It not be likely to go quietly into that good night--as we may already be witnessing in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia today. Only societies and economies not dependent on this surplus ratio will survive--societies that are capable of existing on just the real-time solar energy hitting the earth. Such energy patterns will demand a rhizome mode of organization. The greatest question is: can we demonstrate the foresight to utilize some of our surplus now to lay the foundation for a zero-surplus society in the future? Or will we squander our fast-dwindling resources in an attempt to hold on in the face of inevitable change, only to lose our one chance at setting up a sustainable but advanced society? Many peak oil theorists think that our planet--that every planet--only gets one shot at setting up a sustainable society before their resources run out, and that if they miss, then they will fade into the obscurity of nature from which they came. Perhaps that won't be such a bad thing, but it strikes me that a middle ground--a sustainable, ontogenetically compatible, interconnected and informed society--may be possible. I think that is something to shoot for.

8 comments:

Susan said...

This is one of the better answers for the old question, "Where ARE they?" (i.e. aliens) as it's been pointed out that a society not very far ahead of ours technologically would spread through the galaxy rather quickly. Previous ideas have included "They blow themselves up" or Charles Pellegrino's even more sinister "Someone else blows them up;" this can be summed up "They freeze to death in the dark."

Indeed, and we're marching down that path as fast and as mindlessly as we can go.

Jason Godesky said...

There seems to be an important elaboration on this principle being left out; namely, that agriculture requires more calories than it returns. Foraging is much more efficient in terms of caloric return on investment; horticulture, Marvin Harris says, is the most efficient subsistence approach there is. But agriculture is a losing proposition.

The key to making it work at all is surplus energy, usually in the form of animals who can utilize energy from spots of land too rocky or infertile to cultivate. Which leads to the phenomenon you describe. It's very difficult to strike such a fine balance where you use exactly as much external energy as necessary to complement your shortfall, without overshooting and producing surplus. And really, what lasting, institutional bulwarks are there to insure such a system against the passing whimsies of a population?

I think a zero-surplus population is very possible, but I doubt its plausibility in an agricultural context. When the surplus runs out, we'll be forced to shift to other means of subsistence, where a zero-surplus society will be forced upon us.

Jeff Vail said...

Susan, I think that your point is very possible: maybe "they", if extant, haven't contacted us because they either missed their one chance (as we are about to?) to convert to sustainable energy, or because they became advanced enough to realize that such expansion represents a symptom of hierarchy, not sustainability...

Jason, I agree that modern agriculture is unsustainable--based in part on the fact that it uses more calories than it produces. I think that modifications, hybrids of forage and agriculture, however, may prove to be truly sustainable: Fukuoka's method, permaculture, forest gardens, etc. The key here is the cultivation of the entire ecosystem, not the use of outside surplus energy (petroleum based fertilizers, etc.) to pursue intensive monoculture. Just one example that most people would love to ignore: if you have a "sustainable" farmstead, but use a flush toilet/modern sewer system that takes critical nutrients and removes them from the local environment, the resulting nutrient shortage will foil the sustainability of the plan. Villages in parts of china have managed to practice intensive, sustainable and continuous agriculture on the same plot of land for thousands of years in large part because they return manure (from humans and animals) directly to the land...

I think that a "zero-surplus" civilization is possible--even with some remnants of agriculture. The key to its success, in my opinion, is the elimination of aspects of hierarchy that only function in a surplus-energy environment (modern ag, centralized sewers, extreme specialization of production & distribution, central government, etc).

Jason Godesky said...

I was using the term "agriculture" in the anthropological sense; I still cannot find any defining criterion to seperate permaculture from horticulture. I'm also skeptical of the viability of these methods to support a human population greater than 1 billion.

That said, "civilization" is not the same thing as "sophistication." I think the future of humanity lies in sustainable subsistence and "rhizomatic" social structures--but both of these require small populations. Furthermore, they violate the five primary criteria for civilization proposed by V. Gordon Childe (though I would expect a number of secondary criteria to continue, even as many of them are found today among non-civilized peoples). So, I don't think a "civilization" is possible for our future, save in the most vague, meaningless and ethnocentric definition of the term as a "complex society."

Afterculture is an interesting artistic thought experiment of what such a society might look like.

Jeff Vail said...

The afterculture link has some great imagery... It reminds me of my favorite line from Fight Club, about the kudzu vines climbing the buildings and people treating hides on the ancient freeways. Anyway...

I wonder sometimes if any level of organization is sustainable? The evolutionary progression of hunter-gatherer seems to be towards intensification whenever environment permits--are there any examples that you can think of where environment would have permitted more complex organization, but it was somehow avoided? I think that it is reasonable, though, to say that it is possible to build individual nodes that are sustainable. It's the interactions of these nodes that seem to cause problems. Building a sustainable organization linking several nodes requires, I think, that each node be functionally self-sufficient. Nodes can cooperate, but they can't depend on the function of another, otherwise they quickly fall into hierarchal relationships. The history of intensification seems to be a history of otherwise independent nodes that--due to infrequent environmental or other outside stimulus--fall into a dependent relationship which quickly solidifies into hierarchy. Take the transition from tribe to big-man group, for example--normally a result of the 'big man' having the surplus to help out a neighboring group in times of hardship, which results in the incorporation of the needy group into the hierarchal structure. How is this tendency towards dependence and hierarchy avoided?? Is it possible to create an organizational structure that doesn't always expand to its environmental limits (thereby making it vulnerable to the tendency of intensification when those limits unexpectedly contract or conflict)???

Jason Godesky said...

I don't think it is possible. All animals seek to optimize their genetic survival; we cannot expect humans to break that fundamental drive.

What we can rely on, I think, are natural barriers. Horticulturalists depend on surrounding wilderness for vital proteins to supplement their gardens; without this, they die. Ergo, maintaining nearby, verdant wildlands is imperative. For agriculturalists, wildlands are not only "going to waste," but harboring all manner of wildlife that prey on crops--threatening the already tenuous caloric balance with the commonplace of agricultural famine. Foragers, naturally, are even more dependent on a rich wilderness than horticulturalists.

Hierarchical societies can only emerge where resources are abundant. The Kwakiutl are instructive in this regard. Usually, such abundance is geographically constrained--as were the Kwakiutl's salmon runs. In these cases, hierarchical societies become geographically isolated anomalies.

The problem is not a natural evolutionary drive towards complexity, but a natural evolutionary drive towards diversity constrained by the environment. So, where the environment allows for more hierarchical societies, they will emerge.

And, like DNA's emergence in the primordial soup, hierarchical societies spread unlike non-hierarchical societies. Their need for surplus--to say nothing of the memetic underpinnings of such a miserable lifestyle and the threat peaceful, happy neighbors pose to that lifestyle--drives them to destroy all the non-hierarchical neighbors they can.

In the Kwakiutl's case, they couldn't destroy very many before straying too far from the salmon runs. In the case of the Aryans, however...

Jeff Vail said...

Jason,

You make great points... I think that a non-hierarchal, horticulturalist (which I agree is pretty synonymous with permaculture) basis for society can potentially be sustainable--if the world population gets down to 200 million or so (just pulling that number out, but certainly less than 2 billion?). My concern is that the existing, unified hierarchy will take everything with it in its final collapse. Peak Oil types theorize that the ideal situation is a sort of "soft-landing", a gentle return to the old ways (although they don't seem to associate that with non-hierarchal and horticulturalist !#$%).

I guess what I'm wondering at the moment is this: is it possible for a hierarchal system (like we have), with the technological capability to extend their exploitation well into the resource-poor periphery (as ours is) ever going to voluntarily slow its consumption long enough to make this kind of soft-landing scenario possible? For that matter, is this a case of "we can't go back"? -- as in, even if we return to that kind of living, we will retain the theoretical technology to colonize and exploit the "wilds", so will we ever be able to resist that urge? I don't know... maybe the best we can hope for (if you can call it a "good" thing) is for things to collapse quickly, so that we'll enter a long-cycle of regrowth & SLOW intensification, followed by another short stint of overextention and collapse. Sounds kind of like the Mayan and Hindi concepts of the "long-cycle"... and 2012 is just around the corner

Jason Godesky said...

Whether it's possible or not is certainly the question. I persevere with Pascal's Wager firmly in mind; it's best to assume it's possible, because if I'm wrong I'm just as screwed. I take some hope in the fact that humans are incredibly resilient and adaptable, while agricultural, hierarchical civilizations are incredibly fragile, being dependent on a few, closely-related organisms for food. So, I expect civilization will fall long before the human species. I'll be very surprised if the end of civilization ends the human species. Unless somebody's trigger finger gets itchy hovering over a nice, red button, but I don't deal in such probabilistic scenarios.