Wednesday, October 27, 2004

It's almost Halloween...

Keywords of Elegant Simplicity


Apply each of these to food, body, spirit, home, friendship and community, and this will infuse our lives with the meaning that we desire, without deepening (even reversing) our dependence on centralized, stratified, hierarchal control structures.

Magazine Simplicity

In the last few weeks I have spent many hours in airports…boredom interspersed with browsing through the magazines at the multitude of identical news stands. I had just returned from a sailing trip to the wilds of the Sonoran coast of the Sea of Cortez where I made a deliberate effort to not bring along any type of reading material, ensuring that I would truly enjoy the solitude and beauty of my surroundings.

The result: a whole day in the airport without anything decent to read. Which, as already mentioned, led me to the magazine racks. ‘Travel & Leisure’, ‘Dwell’, ‘Esquire’, ‘Architectural Digest’… I must have looked through half the magazines on their rack. By their very nature they are geared towards promoting consumerism, either through promoting the benefits of well-placed products or simply hosting the horde of glossy, full-color advertisements. Even ‘Yoga Journal’ and ‘Real Simple’ were clearly oriented towards getting you to buy something more.

Advertising is a funny thing. The qualities of a product are often quite apparent. You need flour to bake. Everyone knows that. How many advertisements for flour do you see? In fact, advertising in general doesn’t make much of an attempt to illustrate the features or qualities of a product—instead it tries to link that product to some kind of image, allure or mystique. Look at a watch advertisement: Tag Heuer, for example, doesn’t expound on the merits of its Swiss movement. Instead they try to associate their product with speed, or perhaps with “Tiger-Woods-ness”. Clothing advertisements rarely focus on the clothing at all—they try to create associations with beautiful people, places, etc.

This isn’t exactly a profound insight. What struck me, however, was that nearly all of these attempts to speed consumption relied on the eternal appeal of simplicity: a perfect afternoon meal (Bella Sera wines and Subzero Fridges), enjoying the sun with friends (Ralph Lauren), spending time with a lover (Eternity cologne), the value of a low-stress, peaceful life (Prana Yoga Clothing), etc. In each case, the consumption of the advertised product has very little to do with the emotion evoked. I have observed each of these qualities being enjoyed by people in “third world” countries who will probably never be able to afford the products advertised. Even in places where people can afford them, outside of the United States, people still retain some ability to grasp that it is not the product that provides the emotion. On the contrary, it is more the absence of a driving need for such products that frees us to pursue the actual emotional states, the experiences that we desire.

Which brings me back to my campaign for “Elegant Simplicity” and “Conspicuous Simplicity”. These are still vaguely defined concepts, but perhaps the example above will help to clarify: pare down what you want to what will actually bring it to you, look past the self-interested claims of consumer culture, and work towards the achievement of the simplicity that will ultimately prove fulfilling. Bella Sera wines and Sub Zero fridges don’t make a perfect afternoon meal. Look instead to “slow food”, quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients (a backyard fruit tree?), and most importantly contemplate the beauty of every bite and every flavor. ‘Prana’ brand yoga clothing won’t bring you peace of mind, but yoga might (it’s free, despite its overt commercialization), or something else as simple as a walk in the woods. Eternity brand cologne won’t make for a pleasant day with a lover, but conscious attention and simply taking the time out of a busy schedule will (a schedule that is probably busied with the drive to acquire and afford more consumables).

Elegant Simplicity is just that: reprioritizing your life, your patterns of action and interaction, around those things that will provide true fulfillment. See through the mirage of consumption and enjoy the pleasures of life that are free for all—if we will only take the time to seize them. Our genetic ontogeny has wired us to desire simple things: nature, friendship, love, community, food, firelight, festival, song and dance. These things are free, or nearly free, despite the machinations of our memetic-consumer society. Once we understand how things are organized, how things are controlled, and how we can break free of those controls through understanding, there is no reason that we should not all enjoy the high life of Elegant Simplicity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Conspicuous Simplicity

I'll start off by admitting that I'm making this whole concept up as I type this: Conspicuous Simplicity. It's a work in progress--but hey, this is a blog. Don't set your bar too high.

It can be difficult to convince people that reduced consumption and minimization of the use of exotic, high-tech, imported and 'unnecessary' goods is a worthy sacrifice in the name of localization, self-sufficiency, sustainability and the reduction of hierarchy. The thing is, we like our stuff. In an atmosphere of faltering family, loose or non-functioning community, little sense of place and an enhanced feeling of separation from nature, we have allowed hierarchy to replace these sources of experiential wealth, psychological wealth and fulfilled ontogeny with material surrogates. We have more things in our life, but perhaps not more happiness than our ancestors.

But despite what our logic may (or may not) tell us, we aren't prepared to give up these security blankets of consumption in exchange for the promise that "you'll be ok--actually, you'll be better without it." We look at the wealth of tribal people and peasant cultures and can't place it within our mental framework of MTV Cribs and Christmas presents. Unless we're forced by some climate event or economic crisis, we're unlikely to voluntarily reduce consumption. The propaganda of the hierarchal economic system is just too strong a draw. Of course, by the time one of those inevitable triggers (i.e. no more petroleum) begins to cause problems, it may be too late to pull of the most difficult maneuver in the play book: an orderly retreat. There's a good chance that, unless we can figure out a way to voluntarily reduce our consumption early and often, it won't be a pretty picture once we're forced into it.

How can the allure of the hierarchal consumer-economy be defeated by a movement of voluntary simplicity? I suggest two simple principles: 'elegant simplicity' and 'conspicuous simplicity'. Taken together, they just may smooth the landing of the brief flight of our 'free-energy' ship.

1. Elegant simplicity: some things work better, are more efficient when they are simple. Simple may not serve the needs of hierarchy, but it often does serve the needs of the individual, family or community. We need to develop and explore these instances when simple is more efficient than complex. I won't go into examples here, but this is a body of knowledge that must be developed, remembered, etc.

2. Conspicuous simplicity: replace the cultural ethos of "conspicuous consumption" with "conpicuous simplicity". If it is desireable to have a flashy and showy level of simplicity, to have as high a standard of living as possible in a "simpler" manner than your neighbor, then we may be able to make the transition from hierarchy and complexity to rhizome and simplicity. It CAN happen--take a look at advertising all around you and look at how attractive the "simplicity" is, how hard the advertisers have to work to make that rolex or ferrari stick out of the beautiful nature scene, how difficult it is to brand your hotel when the real attraction is a quaint seaside locale. How the real star of that diamond commercial is two people in love--or at least the nice meal they're sharing.

Elegant, conspicuous simplicity. It's at least a start.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Vernacular Zen

Vernacular Zen: Glimpses of "The Original Affluent Society"

I am an advocate of localization, simplification, self-sufficiency and fulfilled ontogeny. Slow food. Tribalism. A thousand other catch-phrases that, above all else, raise a singular objection from friends and critics alike: isn't your idealized vision starkly juxtaposed to your professed enjoyment of the finer things in life?

My response: on the contrary, my good friend...these worlds are in fact one in the same, only separated by the disinformation of the consumer economy.

Povero o Rico??
Is this an image of a "poor" fishing village or one of the worlds most exclusive resort islands? Actually, it's both--a picture of the idyllic island of Panarea (just North of Sicily) taken by the author while sailing away aboard the 38' sailboat "Fandango."

I have spent, to be perfectly honest, more than my fair share of mornings slowly enjoying an espresso as the fog burns off the slopes of Mount Etna in the distance, the scent of blood orange blossoms mingling with the sharp aroma of coffee. This is the kind of perfect moment that embodies our cultural ethos: sacrifice enough of what you love now, and you'll make enough money that some day you'll be able to buy back those priceless experiences in the form of a luxury cruise, a meal at that new bistro or a beach house in Florida. The irony is that this perfect moment cost about 65 cents--that's less than 8 minutes wage for a cashier at McDonald's, and yet it's enough to make highly paid executives and professionals alike salivate. This should tell us something...

The finer things in life can generally be divided into two categories: material and experiential. Despite the relentless psychological barrage of advertising, most of us can readily admit that it is the experiential that is truly rewarding and fulfilling. Many even recognize their own predilection to fulfill their desire for the experiential by compensating with an excess of the material. Commercialism tells us that the experiential--that which requires time--is too costly, out of our reach. Our time, we are led to believe, must be sacrificed to meet the demands of the economy. But time is free for all of us. It is the great equalizer, something to which we all have equally random access. But in the modern economy, where average individuals cannot directly provide for themselves, they are duped into trading time for the basic necessities of life--necessities that are directly available to the poorest of the Earth. As this economic hierarchy has intensified over time, we continue to be duped into trading our time for material possessions--far beyond those required to survive. The memes of our economic culture have convinced us that the material is a fine substitute for the experiential. A nagging doubt, dissatisfaction with our own suburbanization, some unknown, unfulfilled yearning tells us that, despire the overtures of mass-media, even the materially rich among us still long for the experiential.

The sun on your face, playing with your children, staring at a fire until late into the night, sitting still in the forest listening to the wind rush through aspen leaves, talking with friends, laying on your back in a meadow and watching the clouds pass above you. All of these things are free--they require only time. Hunter-gatherers around the world spend, on average, less than 20 hours a week "working". The rest of their time was available for the experiential, the "finer things" in life. Perhaps this is why anthropologist Marshal Sahlins calls them "The Original Affluent Society", or why Paul Shepard says that humanity's time in the "hamlet economy" was the best it ever had.

The finer things in life are nothing more than a connection and a oneness with those things that modern culture insists remain separate or "sacred". This connection is available to all of us. Reconnecting to the finer things in life is not dependent on success within the modern commercial economy...on the contrary, my good friend, this reconnection requires that we take a new--or is it old?--approach to life. This is vernacular zen.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

What Al-Qai'da Wants

"Four days later [after March 11 Madrid Bombing], the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, a group claiming affiliation with Al Qaeda, sent a bombastic message to the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, avowing responsibility for the train bombings. "Whose turn will it be next?" the authors taunt. "Is it Japan, America, Italy, Britain, Saudi Arabia, or Australia?" The message also addressed the speculation that the terrorists would try to replicate their political success in Spain by disrupting the November U.S. elections. "We are very keen that Bush does not lose the upcoming elections," the authors write. Bush's "idiocy and religious fanaticism" are useful, the authors contend, for they stir the Islamic world to action. "
(Transcript source:

I first heard this "extended translation" this morning in a commentary from an Iraqi nuclear scientist Imad Khadduri on (raising the question: who would want this to be under-publicized?). While the Al-Qai'da tape claiming responsibility for this was widely published, this portion was barely--to my knowledge, and this is my job--reported at all. It points to what I have been saying for a while:

1. Al-Qai'da uses attacks, including those outside their "homeland", to achieve specific results. The 9/11 attacks were intended to elicit a reaction from America that would help polarize the middle-east, and grow their base of support.
2. It doesn't make sense for Al-Qai'da to attack INSIDE the US prior to the election. Bush is too useful to them, as they can predict his reaction to an attack. An attack shortly after the election will be used by the US as a justification to attack/invade another nation (Iran? Yemen? Al-Qai'da has made statements for some time suggesting that they intend to draw the US into a war in Yemen, and we're already planning for Iran).
3. When does make sense for an attack? November 11,12, or 14th are the dates of the "night of power" within Ramadan when "acts are multiplied by 1000", and have historically been chosen for attacks. This timing has the additional benefit that planning for these dates provides insulation against an uncertain election outcome: Bush wins and we're attacked, he takes action (achieving Al-Qai'da's goal of polarization), and if he loses and we're attacked, he's in his lame-duck period, and he still takes action (achieving Al-Qai'da's goal of polarization).

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

All Roads Lead to Rome

Subsidized Centralization: An Economic Analysis of the Roman Road Network


Empire[1] is the political phenomenon that occurs when a polity expands beyond its regional economic and geographic basin.[2] Using historical inquiry to better understand the processes by which a polity expands and maintains an empire can provide insights into the organizational forces underlying historical and modern events. These processes span economics, politics, history, anthropology and geography. This paper will explore one such process; how the construction of the Roman road network subsidized the centralization of economic activity and political power, thereby facilitating the effective control of a vast empire from a central point. A combination of economic modeling and political anthropology will, hopefully, help to explain a process that animated Roman history—and that remains active in the modern world. Specifically, this paper focuses on how the process of import replacement acts as a brake on the formation of Empire, and how the Roman subsidization and design of their road network counteracted the tendency towards import replacement. By inhibiting import replacement in its provinces, Rome was able to effectively reduce political devolution and maintain centralized control over its far-flung empire.

The Roman Republic was founded in 512 BCE, and by 268 BCE was in control of nearly the entire Italian peninsula. From that point, until the Rome reached its greatest geographic expanse under the Emperor Trajan, its history was one of continual expansion. Rome was by no means a monolithically centralized polity—forces of centralization and decentralization were constantly in conflict, and many regions and governors had significant degrees of autonomy. However, the ability of the central point of Rome to exert significant control over regions as far flung and diverse as England, Palestine, and Egypt remains no small feat.[3]

As Rome expanded, one of the principle challenges confronting the integrity of the empire was the inherent difficulty of exerting efficient command and control over the functions of a huge and diverse domain. Expansion created an increasing need for firm, centralized control to effectively leverage economies of scale (both political and economic) in order to compensate for increasing diseconomies of scale. The Roman road network in Britain and the Italian peninsula provide examples of subsidized financing and Rome-centric orientation that enhanced economic and political centralization. The resulting road network, literally a calcification of Empire, was a critical factor in the success of Rome.

The Import Replacement Cycle

Import replacement is the process by which settlements transition from an economy oriented towards imports and exports to an economy that replaces those imports with self-sufficient production.[4] Import replacement was a common feature of peripheral economic zones prevalent within the Roman Empire.[5] Long supply lines at the periphery increase the cost of imported goods, until at some distance from the center the increased cost of transportation offsets the economy of scale provided by centralized production. Beyond that distance it becomes more economical to replace imports with local production than to pay the cost of transporting them from a central region:

Eventually . . . the most distant farmers are so far from the existing city that it becomes profitable for some manufacturing plants to move [or emerge at] the new locations part of the way from the center to the frontier. When some firms begin to do this, they immediately generate a cumulative process of city growth in the new locations.[6]

As peripheral economies go through the import replacement process, the economic center of gravity shifts from the political center to a virtual doughnut ring of peripheral economies (see Figure 1). The economic tendency towards import replacement acts also as an economic centrifugal force, creating an economic power vacuum in the political center. As “development led by import-replacement rather than export promotion diversifies, stabilizes, and strengthens the local economy,”[7] import replacement leads to the rise of regional power centers that compete with the original center for control of the periphery.

The economic power vacuums created a disparity between the political and economic importance of the central point. In the case of Rome, its “huge population was maintained not by trade or manufacture but by the taxes and rents of the empire.”[1] The burden of transporting goods over long distances prevented Rome from serving as both the center of political power and the center of economic production, despite the potential benefits of economy of scale in the manufacture of goods. As economic power is a critical component in a state’s political power, the development of economic power vacuums could have created political instability, with the tendency for the economic periphery to dissolve into separate polities. Without some means to hold the political reigns of distant regions from a central point, Rome would not have been able to maintain such a vast area under its control.

If the vagaries of history, geography and the uneven distribution of resources can be temporarily ignored, the economically optimized geographic distribution of human settlement would conform to the hexagonal pattern of Walther Christaller’s Central Place Theory[2] (see Figure 2). Christaller’s framework demonstrates the path-of-least-resistance for societal formation. The cost of transportation and the information processing burdens of hierarchy[3] impose economic costs on any polity that expands beyond a theoretical optimum area of control. Figure 3 illustrates how peripheral economic regions will tend to aggregate into separate, peripheral polities that compete with the center as transportation costs make their formation more energy efficient than maintaining an enlarged, centralized structure.

The built environment can also influence the process of spatial self-organization, as it creates a geography in which such economic costs are not uniformly imposed. Roads and other “man-made transportation networks are a powerful component of the self-organization of economic space.”[1] Any society that wishes to deviate from Christaller’s optimum spacing and distribution must provide a continual input of formational energy in order to maintain a non-conforming pattern—a subsidy. Empire, a vast distortion of the preferred polity size in Christaller’s natural pattern of organization, is especially dependent on mechanisms that subsidize the energy demands of its formation and maintenance.

Many of the major empires that preceded Rome[2] shared a common source of formational energy. As described by historian Karl Wittfogel, they were largely “hydraulic” empires.[3] The mechanism of centralization was their shared need to pool massive labor and resources to build and maintain the irrigation works of a river basin upon which their agricultural sustenance depended. Rome formed in the absence of great public-irrigation projects, and in the absence of the natural constraint of a river basin. As such, it required a new mechanism of political centralization to provide formational energies and counter the distributed spacing and centrifugal tendency of economic organization. Rome pioneered a new form of Empire, a connectivity empire, laying the groundwork for modern hierarchal state-economies (See Figure 4).

Rubicon of Empire: Subsidization of Centralization Mechanisms

The subsidization of the means of centralization, facilitating the expansion of a polity beyond the optimal bounds of economics and geography, is the litmus test of Empire. Subsidization of the means of centralization distorts the price equilibrium of certain activities to favor those that benefit centralized control. In Rome, road construction was a subsidized economic activity because the cost of construction is not directly financed by use-associated mechanisms. In other words, the state collected taxes from people who were not the primary users of the roadways (taxing farmers, populations adjacent to construction sites, conquered peoples) and applied that money to finance road construction. As Strade Publicum, the roads were free to use. The result was that those entities that made extensive use of the roads, agents of the state, the military, and agents of import and export, did not have to account for the true cost of their activities. Their activities of trade and political control were, in effect, subsidized by the road construction policies of the empire.

As transport economists Brownlee and Heller point out, “it is essential that means of transport be properly priced so as to avoid over-allocation or under-allocation of resources to transport services as a whole, to particular forms of transport, or to particular segments of any given form.”[1] Traditional liberal-economic theory holds that market forces will most efficiently allocate scarce resources, and that any command-input to allocate these resources—for example, to build a network of roadways—is an inefficient distortion of market forces. If Roman road construction was, therefore, economically inefficient, then why would the empire persevere on such a course for centuries? The answer is that such activity—the subsidization of the means of centralization—was necessary in order to counteract the centrifugal forces of import replacement. The Roman roads were a means of subsidizing long distance trade the viability of import replacement, helping to ensure that regional economic centers (especially in the less developed provinces) could not become sufficiently powerful to challenge Rome for control.

Roman Roads: The Calcification of Empire

The particular feature of the Roman roads that this paper explores is their Rome-centric design methodology. The design of the road network demonstrates the strong influence of the builders’ desire to ensure that communication, trade and power flowed along roads directly “to Rome, which for the most part by-passed the old urban centers.”[2] Figure 4 provides a theoretical illustration of exactly such a design methodology. While conscious intent on the part of the network’s designers is not clear, it is demonstrable that the network had the effect of subsidizing those links that connected most directly with Rome or with Roman political outposts (such as Londinium), while often penalizing those links that connected potentially rival regional centers with their immediate periphery (see Figure 5).

The geography of the Roman Empire placed the road network in a position of particular importance. Throughout history, maritime transport was considerably more efficient than land transport when dealing with bulk goods. In Rome, the central position of the Mediterranean further increased the efficiency of maritime transport. However, due the maritime dominance of Carthage, and the geography of the Italian peninsula, Rome developed as a land power, not effectively challenging Carthage for hegemony over “their” Mare Nostrum until late in Rome’s development.[1] As a result, Rome evolved an increased dependency on land transportation. Furthermore, pirates posed a significant threat to maritime transport well after the defeat of Carthage.[2] While the Mediterranean served as a central highway, Rome’s military challenges existed at the perimeters and far away from maritime transport options; Britain, Germany, Gaul, and Parthia all lay beyond the reach of the Mediterranean hub. Additionally, while maritime transport was faster and more efficient for the transport of bulk products, such as grain from Egypt, it was significantly slower as a means of communication. Efficient roadways with networks of mounted messengers could span several hundred miles a day. This speedy, reliable connectivity was critical to the effective command and control of an empire.

While the Roman roadways fulfilled the normal functions of roads such as trade, military transport, communications, they did so in a manner that directed power flows towards Rome, and specifically precluded the accumulation of regional power. The “political significance of the courses taken by certain roads should be noticed. Agde, [was the] main center of Marseilles’ commerce, yet neglected by the via Domitia; the [via] Appia passed by [the once significant source of rival Greek power on the Italian peninsula,] Tarentum.”[3] The political cohesion of Roman Italy “depended on a space economy defined by the road.”[4]

The physical layout of the road system served to centralize the flow of power in the empire. In low-intensity or non-centralized civilizations, roadways are an emergent phenomena. They grow out of economic necessity in a pattern that more closely resembles ecology than hierarchy (see the pre-Roman trackways of Britain in Figure 6).

Current theories on network architecture[1] and the inefficiencies of hierarchy[2] suggest that the most economically efficient road system would be distributed and decentralized—very different from the roads of Rome. But road systems that grow to optimize their economic function do not necessarily serve the political goals of a central power. Such distributed road systems tend to encourage, not prevent the process of import replacement, and the resulting devolution of political power. The Roman road system, while less efficient from a purely economic standpoint, carefully reversed the natural tendency towards distribution in favor of centralization. Roman roads normally ignored the pre-Roman roadways as these served to further the development of regional economies and polities. By providing subsidized road systems that bypassed traditional regional political centers and channeled resources and trade directly to imperial administrative centers (like Londinium) or to Rome, rather than with each other, Rome hindered the outlying regions from developing independent regional economic and political networks. Their intent was, in the words of historian Ray Laurence, to “create a system that unified those members of the state at a distance from Rome . . . it was this space economy that facilitated the appropriation and political domination of distant territory by the Roman state.”[3] Laurence, however, expresses the common opinion that this tendency was merely the result of the skewed “nature of Roman space-time,”[4] implying, in my opinion incorrectly, that Roman leaders were incapable of thinking through complex economic problems. While they may not have used modern economic constructs, the Roman road system is a sophisticated example of political subsidy.

In Roman Italy, the road network radiated outwards from Rome, providing direct connections with regional cities and resource basins. Conspicuously, it did not efficiently connect these regional entities with each other. As illustrated in Figure 5, these spoke roads specifically flowed communications and trade efficiently to Rome, and only with far greater difficulty between outlying entities. The physical geography of Italy makes this trend even clearer. Italy is defined by the Apennines, a mountain range that runs the length of the peninsula like a central spine. Economically efficient road layout would have resulted in the confluence of roads at the point before a roadway crosses these mountains. Instead, the Roman road system pushes across the Apennines at more points than necessary, directly connecting key points on the Adriatic with Rome. On the western side of the Apennines there is a conspicuous absence of roadways connecting the cities of Cortona, Florentia (Florence), Seana (Siena), and Pisae (Pisa). More recent Italian history illustrates the wisdom of this Road layout, as the alternative economic and political center of gravity of Florence, Siena and Pisa posed an ongoing challenge to Italian unification until modern times.

Roman Britain provides another, although different, example of the role of the Roman road network in maintaining the integrity of the empire. Roman road building in Britain largely ignored the placement of pre-Roman trackways (See Figure 6). Rather than providing connectivity between local settlements, the Romans built roads connecting their new capital of Londinium with regional Roman forts. While their road network did provide interconnectivity to the local economy, it ensured that these points of connection occurred at an imperial outpost, and that they directed economic flows not to the traditional British economic centers, but to the new imperial administrative center of Londinium. This facilitated the control and regulation of the conquered Britons, even encouraging them to Romanize by relocating to one of the new but economically prosperous Roman crossroad towns. Additionally, the Roman roads in Britain provided excellent connectivity with ports on the English Channel. This acted as a subsidy to trade in imports and exports (especially tin), and inhibited the development of indigenous import replacement industries.


The Roman Empire utilized a Rome-centric road system as an effective means of centralizing command and control to counteract the centrifugal tendencies and diseconomies of scale of such a vast empire. The use of subsidized financing to construct the road-network of Rome was essential in the reshaping of the Roman economy to facilitate Empire. Combined with a design methodology that inhibited the development of competing power-centers, the road network played a key role in the creation and maintenance of the most expansive empire in the world in its day. Critically, the shift from the irrigation-based centralization mechanisms of Wittfogel’s hydraulic empires to the connectivity-based centralization of Rome facilitated the expansion of Rome far beyond the geographic limitations of preceding empires. While the specific history of the Roman road system served as an example to illustrate these mechanisms, it is the role of Roman roads in the broader process of empire formation that is of critical relevance to the understanding of this historical pattern, and of its application to the challenges facing humanity today.

[1] In this paper, the term “Empire” is used in an economic sense to refer to a vast yet centrally controlled polity. This should be differentiated from the political meaning of the term Empire: a polity that is ruled by an emperor. While the polity of Rome transitioned politically from a Monarchy (ruled by a king) to a Republic (ruled by the Senate) to an Empire (ruled by an Emperor), Rome became an Empire—in the economic sense used in this paper—when it expanded its political borders beyond the Italian peninsula.

[2] This paper proposes the term economic/geographic Basin as the concept that the uneven geographic distribution of resources, terrain, climate, economic history, etc. creates a virtual drainage basin for economic activity, where there are economic tendencies for trade and production to pool and flow in a prearranged manner. For example, rainfall along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies will gravitate

toward the Gulf of Mexico and not the Pacific, unless some artificial system distortion—such as using outside energy to pump the runoff across the continental divide—overcomes the attraction of the terrain basin. A Basin performs the function of an attractor in chaos-theory.

[3] For additional background history on ancient Rome, and for sources for this brief summary, see

[4] Michael Schuman, “Going Local”: 56.

[5] F. W. Walbank, “The Decline of the Roman Empire in the West”: 30.

[6] Paul Krugman, “How the Economy Organizes Itself in Space: A Study of the New Economic

Geography”: 254.

[7] Michael Schuman, “Going Local”: 56.

[1] Neville Morley, “Metropolis and Hinterland”: i.

[2] Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, “Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice”: 187.

[3] R. A. Wilson, “Prometheus Rising”: 63.

[1] Paul Krugman, “How the Economy Organizes Itself in Space: A Study of the New Economic

Geography”: 258

[2] To include the Egyptian kingdoms (Oriented around Nile Hydrology), Assyrian empire (Tigris &

Euphrates, later adding the Nile), Mauryan (Ganges, Indus), and Qin Dynasty (Yellow and Yangtze).

These were the major “hydraulic” empires that preceded Rome. According to the definition of empire

given in the opening paragraph (polity exceeding economic and geographic basin), the Egyptian kingdoms

may not qualify as an “Empire”, as they only intermittently expanded beyond the Nile basin, a natural

economic and geographic region. The others pass the litmus test of Empire as they spanned more than one

river basin (each an economically and geographically optimal basin). The Hittite, Elamite, Phoenician,

Persian, Athenian and other empires Empires do not conform to Wittfogel’s “Hydraulic” concept, nor are

they adequately explained by the “Connectivity” concept of Rome. Various formational factors, from

maritime trade access to metallurgy advances have been used to explain their respective formation, but

further analysis is beyond the scope of this paper.

[3] Karl Wittfogel, “Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power.”

[1] Brownlee, O.H., and Walter W. Heller, “Highway Development and Financing,”: 249.

[2] Neville Morley, “Metropolis and Hinterland”: 180.

[1] Rome’s first significant assertion of maritime dominance came with the First Punic War against Carthage

in 264-241 B.C.

[2] While Rome completed their destruction and conquest of Carthage by 146 B.C., there was still the need

in 67 B.C for the Roman general Pompey to conduct a campaign against the Cilician sea raiders. See

“Piracy Timeline” at

[3] Raymond Chevallier, “Roman Roads”: 205.

[4] Ray Laurence, “The Roads of Roman Italy”: 39.

[1] Mark Buchanan, “Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks”: 46.

[2] R. A. Wilson’s SNAFU principle, see Wilson’s “Prometheus Rising”: 78.

[3] Raymond Chevallier, “Roman Roads”: 79-80.

[4] Ibid: 78.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The Four Virtues

Spirituality + Hierarchy = Religion

OK, so if you take away that element of hierarchy, can spirituality alone perform the critical task of societal regulation? Maybe...

My current (working) theory is that an ethical/spiritual model will be the most effective way of ensuring a sustainable, peaceful, wealthy society without resorting to hierarchy. I've boiled down my theories into "four virtues", meant to be short and easily remembered, but broadly applicable and, hopefully, with some hidden depths. Disclaimer: very much a work in progress


Own only that which you must presently use, for all else is deceit. Use little, as virtue is derived from experience, not consumption.


Simplicity is virtue. The most beautiful form of simplicity is the elegant circle of self-sufficient consumption and creation. In all forms of accounting, do not consume more than you have already created.


Virtue is found not in secrecy or in the constraint of freedom, but in acknowledgement, and accepting responsibility for all costs of one's actions.


Understanding the universe of connection is virtue. Connect with space through silence. Connect with time through experience. Free yourself from ego through awareness. Protect transcendent beauty.

Perhaps a little cryptic, but I'll follow up with where I'm going with this in the comments.

Energy, Society & Hierarchy

Energy drives all aspects of our lives... energy to fuel our bodies, energy to fuel our cars, energy to fuel our homes. One way of looking at the inputs to "price" is as a composite of all energies needed to place a product or service at in the hands of a consumer. But energy is not as simple as adding up the inputs to find a total -- there are a wide variety of energy types and systems available to any society, and how each society chooses to engage them largely determines their economics, politics and freedoms. Here I will focus specifically on how energy choices influence the formation of hierarchy within a society, and how an understanding of this relationship can be used to alter societal structure and hierarchy in general.

A quick review of economic relationships will demonstrate the central role of energy choices in an economy. Control over economic activity translates directly into political power (politics being generally defined as the decision process of how to distribute finite resources within a context of infinite desires). Similarly, control of certain energy resources needed to engage in economic activity translates directly into control over economic activity, which translates into political power.

Certain energy, for example small-scale wind turbines or solar-conscious home designs, are inherently decentralized. They are produced and controlled by the end consumer, and inherently focus political power and economic efficacy in the hands of the individual. Other energy resources, such as petroleum-derived energy, and especially nuclear power, do just the opposite -- they take that control away from the individual and focus it in the hands of large corporations and central governments.

Historically, patterns of energy useage can effectively predict, and are a useful tool in understanding societal structure and hierarchy. Ancient China and Egypt, home to the earliest and most centralized/despotic civilizations, can be explained in terms of an energy-dependence dynamic. The energy that drove both these systems was control of the periodic flooding of the nile and yellow rivers, used to irrigate the agricultural systems of the respective societies. The individual land control of farmers in both societies has mystified many historians as to why such despotic political systems were allowed to develop. This can, however, be easily explained by the fact that it required huge, often 100,000+ man work details to keep these "hydraulic" (see Wittfogel) agriculture systems functioning -- something that could only be accomplished by a powerful, centralized authority.

Conversely, tribal political structures, epitomized by autonomy and individual freedom (if not material wealth) are examples of highly de-centralized energy systems -- mainly firewood gathered by individuals at a sustainable rate.

Taking advantage of the distant mirror of history to examine our own society, it is clear that our dependence on petroleum-derived energy has led to a complete dependence on a despotic government-corporate complex that controls and ensures our supply of petroleum. Our society of "freedom and empowerment", our vaunted democracy might, to those in a removed vantage point, look like the same superficial good deal as the pharoh's providing and maintaining a complex hydraulic-irrigation network must have looked like a good deal to the ancient egyptian peasantry.

Tragically, both centralized energy systems lead, by necessity, to the same result: highly centralized, despotic political systems that re-shape every aspect of society in their favor and strip freedom from the people and concentrate it in the hands of those who control the system. This process remains hidden from the vast majority today, just as it remained hidden from the Egyptian and Chinese peasants until long after they had become slaves. Fortunately the study of how energy systems influenced past societies can provide a tool for the present, the ability to look at today through that same distant mirror of history.

If we wish to avoid the fate of past millenia of peasantry (I'm reminded of "Those who forget the past..."), then we must find a way to decentralize the energy we depend on. After all, energy dependence isn't bad... as long as one is only dependent on energy they control, and energy that is sustainable.

Sustainability of energy is our first concern, as energy independence that relies on non-sustainable forms of energy only keeps us living on borrowed time. All energy on earth, with three exceptions, is solar energy. Petroleum, coal, natural gas, firewood, etc. is all stored solar energy. Wind, direct-solar and water energies are also derivations of the sun's solar energy inputs to Earth. Our rapid depletion of this stored energy has been called by some "the last hours of ancient sunlight" (Hartmann), and promises to be rapidly extinguished (not to mention the related issues of centralized control). Solar energy that is used at a sustainable rate (i.e. as the sun's rays reach the earth) provides great promise, and can be used in a highly independent manner -- it is the energy that forms the core of my suggested solution.

The first of the three remaining types of energy available to us is geothermal. While this holds some promise, it also requires at least a moderate degree of centralized control, and is only available in limited parts of the planet.

Second, tidal-gravitational energy, holds great promise as a decentralized, sustainable resource. It, too, is part of my recommended solutions. Unfortunately, however, it has received very little attention and is at present not ready for our use (not unexpected that governments who will not be able to centralize control of a resource have thus-far ignored it).

Third, and most dangerous is atomic energy. While it is theoretically sustainable (if we ignore the inevitable safety issues), both fission and fusion energy are the worst possible choice in energy -- as they necessitate by far the most centralization of control, with all the accompanying issues. The utopian vision of cheap, clean fusion power is a pharoh-generator -- we must not hang our hopes on it.

Energy independence, then, is achievable, but must be pursued carefully. The step that must be taken -- the same step that has been carefully portrayed as anathema to our nations "values" by our own government -- is to end our dependence on petroleum-based energy. Unfortunately, we have become so completely dependent on petroleum for our very existence that we no longer have the option to simply stop using it. We must first localize our personal economic interactions, build greater individual self-sufficiency and create nodes of localized energy-independence. The most immediate and realistic way to achieve this is to increase our own control and production of energy -- in short, we must grow more of our own food at home and use intelligent design principles to ensure our homes provide for our energy and water needs. The techniques to do this effectively and economically have been developed already by pioneers such as Bill Mollison and Art Ludwig, but, understandably, have been supressed by our own government through building codes and subsidies of competing (petroleum-dependent) methods. Below are some excellent resources... explore them and see how you can apply them to your lives:

Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, by Bill Mollison
Create an Oasis with Greywater, by Art Ludwig
The New Independent Home (Free Online Edition), by Michael Potts

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 1

Introduction: A Theory of Power

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I have often wondered about the structure of the world. What drives our actions and desires? Why do patterns appear to repeat themselves throughout history? Why do the poor outnumber the rich? Can I find the blueprints for the world laid out in some cosmic instruction manual—if not, then what forces have defined its course of development? Simply looking at the surface of the world around me has never provided satisfying answers. Stemming from my desire to understand myself and my environment, I have attempted to understand the fabric of so-called “reality,” from the microscopic to the cosmic—how and why it works the way it does. In the process, I have come to understand the difference between perception and truth. I have realized that truth “is” a perception, just as much as anything “is” at all.[1] The irrational assumption, the belief in the sanctity of “is” seems to form the foundation of our mask of reality.

For thousands of years, sages and mystics of many religions have questioned this impression of reality. They call reality “Maya”, an illusion. To Buddhists, Christian Gnostics or Sufi Muslims, the path to enlightenment requires one to see through this illusion.[2] The scientific community rejected this uncertainty and presented an opposing picture of reality. Following the examples of Galileo and Newton, scientists defined the world “objectively”—look closely enough, they said, and a concrete structure, an absolute deep-reality emerges. In the 20th century, however, developments in the field of quantum mechanics, anthropology and psychology began to support a consilience of science and mysticism—they suggest that both views appear correct, even inseparable.

Consilience, the unification of varied fields of scientific inquiry, pushed aside the veil of illusion to reveal the foundations of reality.[3] Reality, it turns out, often appears as anything but static, instead appearing as a dynamic web of transactional entities and experiences. Strikingly, experiments continue to suggest that everything in the universe influences every other thing, instantaneously, and at all times.[4] Reductionism—defining the smallest component particles of existence—will not illuminate the nature of our world. Rather, the connections, the power-relationships between entities prove illuminating, coalescing to form the “tangible” around us.

The networks of connections, not the elements connected, appear to constitute a more accurate map of reality. Consider this a critical paradigm shift: the connections, not the parties connected, may best represent our world. Take the seemingly simple nature of this very book. All of our senses confirm that it “is” a solid object, with little mysterious about it. Another of our models of reality represents its composition as that of a web of billions of atoms; nearly entirely empty space speckled with clusters of sub-atomic particles. Other models exclude the concept of a concrete “particle” entirely: quantum mechanics provides us with a model of reality without fixed particles at all, using instead a nebulous web of constantly changing energies and waves of probability. These energies and connections may represent all that actually exists! The connections, the power-relationships between perceived “entities” make up the world around us, not the illusion of particles. This concept of the connection, and the power-relationship it represents, extends to our genes, our culture and our technology. It wields great power over all areas of our lives. Our thoughts, desires and self-perceptions, our very identity, stems from this enigmatic web of connectivity. This book will explore the concept of the connection, the power-relationship, as it underlies the fabric of reality.

A closer examination of the dynamics, structure and evolution of patterns of connections will provide the foundation for exploring and learning to work with power-relationships. The complex web of connectivity animating our world did not simply spring into existence fully formed. Rather this web results from the ongoing processes of development and intensification. Understanding the process of how and why we have arrived at our present state provides the insight that will eventually give us greater control over our future. It will illuminate the fundamental clockwork of our minds, bodies and societies, revealing principles of power-relationships that govern all aspects of what we perceive as reality, from the environment and economics to politics and psychology. It will unravel the bonds that hold humanity in slavery to the patterns of history—and ultimately provide the key to our freedom. Understanding the interconnectivity of such diverse fields will yield a theory of power-relationships that will expand our understanding of the world as a whole. This theory will reduce power to its discrete nature and reassemble it into the swirling web that exists around us. Power defines every aspect of our experience of reality. Ultimately, this knowledge, this theory of power, will provide us with a tool chest to affect our world.


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[1] I have written this text, almost entirely, in the language of ‘English Prime’—English, without the “is of identity”, as proposed by Alfred Korzybski—in fact, without any form of the verb “to be”, as proposed by David Bourland, R.A. Wilson and others. This results, hopefully, in a more operational language. It avoids the irrational, dogmatic mannerism of stating that something “is” something else, without providing any further justification to equate the two terms than the mere presence of the verb “to be”. The few exceptions, noted in quotation marks, are used primarily to point out the logical fallacy of the verb “to be”.
[2] For an outstanding overview of the world’s spiritual traditions, see Aldous Huxley’s “The Perennial Philosophy”
[3] See Edward O. Wilson’s “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge”
[4] R. A. Wilson summarizes Dr. John S. Bell’s 1965 theorem: “If some sort of objective universe exists in some sense… and, if the equations of quantum mechanics have a similarity of structure (isomorphism) to that universe, then, some sort of non-local correlation exists between any two particles that ever came in contact” (Quantum Psychology, pg. 167). In other words, any two things that ever came in contact will always maintain an instantaneous influence on each other, no matter how distant the separation between them. The far-reaching implications of this theorem demonstrate the importance of connections to the functioning of our universe.

Bibliography from "A Theory of Power"

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