Friday, March 21, 2008

The Problem of Growth

**Update: A unified and condensed version of "The Problem of Growth" is now up at The Oil Drum--readers may find the comments there of interest.

The fifth and final essay in "The Problem of Growth" is published (see links to all five essays below). This summary post is intended to place the series within the context of the problem it addresses, and will serve as an introduction to those who are getting to the party a bit late:

"The Problem of Growth" addresses what I see as the critical problem facing humanity: the structure of our civilization, its inherent need to grow (and therefore its unsustainability), and how we can fix the problem realistically. My proposed solution is, by definition, quite radical, because it rejects the prevalent problem-solving mechanism of modern technology: that we can use technology to continually mitigate the symptoms, rather than take the difficult (but, as I will argue, necessary) step of actually identifying and addressing the underlying problem.

Of course, it is certainly possible to "fix" the problem by continually developing more and better high technology "solutions" to each symptom of the underlying problem as it arises. This is what I call the "Roddenberry" solution, after the Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. It consists of addressing symptoms through high-tech fixes, though it often claims to be addressing causes--in fact, it fails to either identify the underlying cause, or to address that underlying cause in any fundamental way.

It may be possible to successfully mitigate every symptom of our civilization's greatest problem as it arises through newer and shinier technology--we can, by definition, never know the truth of this proposition. I submit, however, that anyone who "believes" that it can or cannot happen is acting on faith, not reason. I personally view the potential for success of this "Roddenberry" proposition as very unlikely, primarily because success requires an unending streak of successes while failure simply requires failing to address any one key symptom; secondarily, I see this approach failing because I see most of the attempted "solutions" under the "Roddenberry" approach as actually contributing to the underlying problem; finally, I dislike this approach because the requisite faith in the technological solution necessary to believe that it will continue to work indefinitely, and not merely pass on a truly insurmountable problem to our grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren, seems eerily akin to some talking-sky-god religion. As Arthur C. Clarke noted in his Third Law, any sufficiently advanced technology [here, one that could continue to solve our problems indefinitely] is indistinguishable from magic.

That said, if we continually rely on technology to facilitate infinite growth on a finite planet, I think we're quite likely to be disappointed. I won't go so far as to say that "I know we'll fail" because that would rejecting the possibility that I'm wrong. Anyone who takes a position on this topic on faith--that is, anyone who "knows" that they're right or that I'm wrong--is, I suggest, acting irrationally. Even if you think it's very, very likely that technology and human innovation will continue to solve our problems, if you can't admit that there is a possibility that you're wrong, then you're just not being rational. If we can get people to rationally discuss the problems facing civilization (tall order, I admit), then I think we have a decent chance of solving them.

Below are links to each of the five essays in "The Problem of Growth" series:

Part 1: Hierarchy Must Grow, and is Therefore Unsustainable
Part 2: Hierarchy is the Result of Dependency
Part 3: Building an Alternative to Hierarchy: Rhizome
Part 4: Implementing Rhizome at the Personal Level
Part 5: Implementing Rhizome at the Community Level


Jeff Vail said...

Note: I had originally locked comments on this post, under the theory that it would be better for people to comment on the individual component essays. After thinking about it again, that was silly... comments about the series as a whole seem more appropriate here. Please feel free to comment at either location.

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Rice Farmer said...

This is a fine series, which I think I'll have to read once more to fully digest everything.

On reading about the Roddenberry solution (didn't somebody call this "technofix"?), it occurs to me that in the public's mind, the distinction between science and technology seems to have blurred into some kind of panacea monster called "scitech." And the word "technology" conjures up images of sophisticated gadgets that few people understand.

For example, people who grow irrigated rice needed to figure out how to get water to their paddies. They noted that water flows downhill (call that "science"), and so they built canals and gates to bring water and control its flow (that's "technology"). In other words, science yields knowledge of how nature works, and technology uses that knowledge to solve problems.

But now, "scitech" is bringing us all sorts of things we don't need (to satisfy markets), and many that just create more problems. It's turned into a monster that seems to exist to serve markets and greed, always promising a better world, but delivering so little that really improves our quality of life. But we're enthralled with it, as seen in our infatuation with every new gadget that appears, the auto shows, computer conventions, and what have you. It's almost a religion.

Theo_musher said...


I've actually given quite a bit of thought to the issues that you are writing about. I plan to write an essay myself. First of all, I think the concept of the "big man" in an anthropological sense, the way you spell it out here relating it to Papua New Guineans gaining status but having lots of pigs and sweet potatoes and therefore gaining status with the tribe- thinks its related to a genetic mutation. The DRD2 7R allele, that has been subject to positive selection. There is evidence that has emerged that there may be different "morphs" of human males.

"drab males" and "flashy males" For example, the bushmen of the Kalihari that politically left leaning people who quote anthropologists are so fond of are "drab males" wheras the males of other primitive tribes are "flashy" like the Yanomamo and the various tribes in Papua New Guinea. The flashy males live in horticultural tribes as opposed to hunting and gathering.

The bushmen don't seem to have the DRD4 7R gene, wheras the Yanomamo"Fierce people" have a high incidence of it.

There is also anecdotal evidence that entrapreneurs in the West have this gene and have it turned on. Its also associated with ADHD and novelty seeking.

Now its usually not wise to tie behavior to a single gene, but the reason it may work with this gene is because it controls dopamine reception in the brain.

So anyway, the point is People that want to aggressively pursue creating situations of abundance to increase their social status exist and have for a long time, and its a type that has increased in the gene pool due to positive selection.

The problem has been that the market has come to reward growth, and that all this growth has depleted natural resources too quickly. The solution would be then to tie economic growth into the "growth" of the environment. Easier said than done, but still it would be a way to harness all this "Donald Trump" type energy that is out there, without having to squelch it some how with some type of morality, or "anthropological self -awareness"

I also think that these two morphs have been existing side by side and have had a complex and somthimnes antagonistic relationship. Drab males being more egalitarian and co-operative, flashy males being more patriarchal and competitive.

Theo_musher said...

For example, in the middle ages, the "flashy males" would be the Nobility and Royalty and the peasants would be drab males.

They would form social units headed by the flashy males, from families with high incidences of this gene. The falshy males would use the drab males as a support system, and would compete with other flashy males in Wars.

If you look at old paintings, the nobility are adorned much like Papua New Guinea tribesmen adorn themselves. The peasants were drab, the way working class males today are drab.

"organized labor" is basically the drab males pooling their resources together to look out for their interests. Wheras Wall street is controlled by competitive Flashy males.

In societies where most males are the flashy type, social organization is on a low level. ie. yanomamo. But where both appear together and form hierarchies with the drab males as workers, they can function at a high level of complexity.

For example a corporation. Corporations employ workers and compete with the aggressive and competitive type males at the tops of other corporations.

This is why we often have scandals of CEO's throwing these huge multi million dollar parties. From an anthropological perspective its not much different from a Chief in a New Guinea tribe slaughtering hundreds of pigs and having a huge party, to show off his power and staus.