Monday, February 11, 2008

Hierarchy must grow, and is therefore unsustainable

This first essay in a five-part series, The Problem of Growth, looks at hierarchal human systems and explains why their structures fundamentally demand continuous growth. The second installment will investigate what causes and sustains hierarchy. The third, fourth, and fifth installments will formulate an alternative to hierarchy that addresses its cause, not merely its symptoms, along with proposals to apply this alternative at both the personal and societal levels.

Why must hierarchy continually grow and intensify? Within the context of hierarchy in human civilization, there seem to be three separate categories of forces that force growth. I will address them in the order (roughly) that they arose in the development of human civilization:

Human Psychology Drives Growth

Humans fear uncertainty, and this uncertainty drives growth. Human population growth is partially a result of the desire to ensure enough children survive to care for aging parents. Fear also drives humans to accept trade-offs in return for security.

One of the seeds of hierarchy is the desire to join a redistribution network to help people through bad times—crop failures, drought, etc. Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, is a prime anthropological example of this effect. Most anthropologists agree that the Chaco Canyon dwellings served as a hub for a food redistribution system among peripheral settlements. These peripheral settlements—mostly maize and bean growing villages—would cede surplus food to Chaco. Drought periodically ravaged either the region North or South of Chaco, but rarely both simultaneously. The central site would collect and store surplus, and, when necessary, distribute this to peripheral settlements experiencing crop failures as a result of drought. The result of this system was that the populations in peripheral settlements were able to grow beyond what their small, runoff-irrigated fields would reliably sustain. The periodic droughts no longer checked population due to membership in the redistributive system. The peripheral settlements paid a steep price for this security—the majority of the surplus wasn’t redistributed, but rather supported an aristocratic priest class in Chaco Canyon—but human fear and desire for security made this trade-off possible.

Still today, our fear of uncertainty and desire for stability and security create an imperative for growth. This is equally true of Indian peasants having seven children to ensure their retirement care as it is of rich Western European nations offering incentives for couples to have children in order to maintain their Ponzi-scheme retirements systems. Fear also extends to feelings of family or racial identity, as people all over the world fear being out-bred by rival or neighboring families, tribes, or ethnic groups. This phenomenon is equally present in tribal societies of Africa, where rival ethnic groups understand the need to compete on the level of population, as it is in America, where there is an undercurrent of fear among white Americans that population growth rates are higher among Hispanics Americans.

The Structure of Human Society Selects for Growth

The psychological impetus toward growth results in what I consider the greatest growth-creating mechanism in human history: the peer-polity system. This phenomenon is scale free and remains as true today as it did when hunter-gather tribes first transitioned to agricultural “big-man” groups. Anthropologically, when big-men groups are often considered the first step toward hierarchal organization. When one farmer was able to grow more than his neighbors, he would have surplus to distribute, and these gifts created social obligations. Farmers would compete to grow the greatest surplus, because this surplus equated to social standing, wives, and power. Human leisure time, quite abundant in most ethnological accountings of remnant hunter-gatherer societies, was lost in favor of laboring to produce greater surplus. The result of larger surpluses was that there was more food to support a greater population, and the labors of this greater population would, in turn, produce more surplus. The fact that surplus production equates to power, across all scales, is the single greatest driver of growth in hierarchy.

In a peer-polity system, where many separate groups interact, it was not possible to opt-out of the competition to create more surplus. Any group that did not create surplus—and therefore grow—would be out-competed by groups that did. Surplus equated to population, ability to occupy and use land, and military might. Larger, stronger groups would seize the land, population, and resources of groups that failed in the unending competition for surplus. Within the peer-polity system, there is a form of natural selection in favor of those groups that produce surplus and grow most effectively. This process selects for growth—more specifically, it selects for the institutionalization of growth. The result is the growth imperative.

The Development of Modern Economics & Finance Requires Growth

This civilizational selection for growth manifests in many ways, but most recently it resulted in the rise of the modern financial system. As political entities became more conscious of this growth imperative, and their competition with other entities, they began to consciously build institutions to enhance their ability to grow. The earliest, and least intentional example is that of economic specialization and centralization. Since before the articulation of these principles by Adam Smith, it was understood that specialization was more efficient—when measured in terms of growth—than artesian craftsmanship, and that centralized production that leveraged economy of place better facilitated growth than did distributed production. It was not enough merely to specialize “a little,” because the yardstick was not growth per se, but growth in comparison to the growth of competitors. It was necessary to specialize and centralize ever more than competing polities in order to survive. As with previous systems of growth, the agricultural and industrial revolutions were self-reinforcing as nations competed in terms of the size of the infantry armies they could field, the amount of steel for battleships and cannon they could produce, etc. It wasn’t possible to reverse course—while it may have been possible for the land area of England, for example, to support its population via either centralized or decentralized agriculture, only centralized agriculture freed a large enough portion of the population to manufacture export goods, military materiel, and to serve in the armed forces.

Similarly, the expansion of credit accelerated the rate of growth—it was no longer necessary to save first buy later when first home loans, then car loans, then consumer credit cards became ever more prevalent, all accelerating at ever-faster rates thanks to the wizardry of complex credit derivatives. This was again a self-supporting cycle: while it is theoretically possible to revert from a buy-now-pay-later system to a save-then-buy system, the transition period would require a significant period of vastly reduced spending—something that would crush today’s highly leveraged economies. Not only is it necessary to maintain our current credit structure, but it is necessary to continually expand our ability to consume now and pay later—just as in the peer polity conflicts between stone-age tribes, credit providers race to provide more consumption for less buck in an effort to compete for market share and to create shareholder return. Corporate entities, while existing at least as early as Renaissance Venice, are yet another example of structural bias toward growth: corporate finance is based on attracting investment by promising greater return for shareholder risk than competing corporations, resulting in a structural drive toward the singular goal of growth. And modern systems of quarterly reporting and 24-hour news cycles only exacerbate the already short-term risk horizons of such enterprises.

Why This is Important

This has been a whirlwind tour of the structural bias in hierarchy toward growth, but it has also, by necessity, been a superficial analysis. Books, entire libraries, could be filled with the analysis of this topic. But despite the scope of this topic, it is remarkable that such a simple concept underlies the necessity of growth: within hierarchy, surplus production equates to power, requiring competing entities across all scales to produce ever more surplus—to grow—in order to compete, survive, and prosper. This has, quite literally, Earth shaking ramifications.

We live on a finite planet, and it seems likely that we are nearing the limits of the Earth’s ability to support ongoing growth. Even if this limit is still decades or centuries away, there is serious moral hazard in the continuation of growth on a finite planet as it serves merely to push that problem on to our children or grandchildren. Growth cannot continue infinitely on a finite planet. This must seem obvious to many people, but I emphasize the point because we tend to overlook or ignore its significance: the basis of our civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. Our civilization seems to have a knack for pushing the envelope, for finding stop-gap measures to push growth beyond a sustainable level. This is also problematic because the further we are able to inflate this bubble beyond a level that is sustainable indefinitely, the farther we must ultimately fall to return to a sustainable world. This is Civilization’s sunk cost: there is serious doubt that our planet can sustain 6+ billion people over the long term, but by drawing a line in the sand, that “a solution that results in the death of millions or billions to return to a sustainable level” is fundamentally impermissible, we merely increase the number that must ultimately die off. Furthermore, while it is theoretically possible to reduce population, as well as other measures of impact on our planet, in a gradual and non-dramatic way (e.g. no die off), the window of opportunity to choose that route is closing. We don’t know how fast—but that uncertainty makes this a far more difficult risk management problem (and challenge to political will) than knowing that we have precisely 10, 100, or 1000 years.

This is our ultimate challenge: solve the problem of growth or face the consequences. Growth isn't a problem that can be solved through a new technology--all that does is postpone the inevitable reckoning with the limits of a finite world. Fusion, biofuels, super-efficient solar panels, genetic engineering, nano-tech--these cannot, by definition, solve the problem. Growth is not merely a population problem, and no perfect birth control scheme can fix it, because peer polities will only succeed in reducing population (without being eliminated by those that outbreed them) if they can continue to compete by growing overall power to consumer, produce, and control. All these "solutions" can do is delay and exacerbate the Problem of Growth. Growth isn't a possible problem--it's a guaranteed crisis, we just don't know the exact time-frame.

Is there a solution to the Problem of Growth? Can global governance lead to an agreement to abate or otherwise manage growth effectively? It's theoretically possible, but I see it about as likely as solving war by getting everyone to agree to not fight. Plus, as the constitutional validity and effective power of the Nation-State declines, even if Nation-States manage to all agree to abate growth, they will fail because they are engaged in a very real peer-polity competition with non-state groups that will only use this competitive weakness as a means to establish a more dominant position--and continue growth. Others would argue that collapse is a solution (a topic I have explored in the past), but I now define that more as a resolution. Collapse does nothing to address the causes of Growth, and only results in a set-back for the growth-system. Exhaustion of energy reserves or environmental capacity could hobble the ability of civilization to grow for long periods of time--perhaps even on a geological time scale--but we have no way of knowing for sure that a post-crash civilization will not be just as ragingly growth-oriented as today's civilization, replete with the same or greater negative effects on the environment and the human spirit. Similarly, collapse that leads to extinction is a resolution, not a solution, when viewed from a human perspective.

A solution, at least as I define it, must allow humans to control the negative effects of growth on our environment and our ability to fulfill our ontogeny. The remaining essays in this series will attempt to identify the root cause of the problem of growth, and to propose concrete and implementable solutions that satisfy that definition.

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loosy2goosy said...

This was well written and very informative. You pointed some hypocrisy as well. On, you can submit your article and get even more traffic.

Anonymous said...

always a pleasure to read your writings Jeffs.

just wondering what your thoughts are on the 70% of the earth surface that is covered by water. might we one day go 'under' to live and acquire our food.

as humans around the world have proven, just about anything is edible (might not taste great), collapse is a long way off.

Jeff Vail said...

I find it interesting that, as we push the envelope of Earth's ability to sustain our growth ever more, our "solutions" begin to look more and more like the schemes from James Bond villains: live under the sea (The Spy Who Loved Me), or dramatic and worldwide population control/reduction (Moonraker). I think you're correct, though, that we will certainly try to implement these "solutions." I think that humans are remarkably adaptable when change happens very slowly (as it did historically with most weather patterns, or as civilization gradually grew and intensified), but that we tend to resort to war, violence, reactionary nationalism or religion, etc. when faced with very fast change. So while I think there are still plenty of choices to postpone collapse, I think that all of them represent fast-change and can't be realistically implemented, as people will tend to choose reactionary paths instead. I think collapse *could* be a long way off, but that it won't be in reality, just like I think we *could* end war tomorrow by all agreeing not to fight, but we won't... I don't know if collapse can or even should be prevented, but I think that a safety net of decentralized resiliency and self-sufficiency should be erected under our existing pyramids, but more on that in the coming weeks...

Rice Farmer said...

With regard to the need to keep growing, I found this analysis quite interesting.

I too think humans will try all sorts of "solutions." Every so often we hear someone talk about living under the sea, or rocketing people off into space to colonize other planets. But those are not realistic solutions to anything if people take along the same old baggage. And for humans to live under the sea or on another planet would require unrealistically large inputs of materials and energy. From here on, humanity must learn to do with progressively less energy (much of which will be squandered in wars to control it). Unfortunately, I think Jeff is right: most people will choose reactionary paths, which will just exacerbate the problem. In fact, governments promote this by creating bogeymen to ratchet up the fear level.

Austin said...

Of course this growth must lead to collapse sooner or later on a finite plantet. But what is growth? All growth feeds on a cooresponding decline, but the second law ensures this decline is, in terms of entropy, larger than the corresponding growth. If one views human growth as an agent of the second law then one is hard pressed to view the current human situation as anything other than a normaly functioning universe. The massive accumulation of fossil fuels were in dire need of a dispersal agent. Fortunately, for you and I, nature knew just what to do.

Paul Cox said...

Within the oil and gas industry I have been writing about the redundancy of the hierarchy. I propose we use the industry standard Joint Operating committee as the solution to the problems you discuss here.

Check out my blog at

Dan Bartlett said...

This looks lined up to be a great series. I'm glad you're still pushing the Earth shaking ramifications of the growth imperative. It should be the foundation from which any energy proposals are considered.

My favourite way of stating the situation is emphasising that "THE SYSTEM WORKS." (over and over and over) Civilisation is great at achieving continual growth at all costs. It may be inefficient and wasteful, but it works best for growth. Fascism, evil corporations, wars, energy extortion, profit imperatives, and the crushing of the human spirit are almost totally predictable under the framework of need-growth. We have to get to the root... for sustainable lifestyles, sane cultures & higher pleasures. I'm hoping to drive these points home in my book.

Human neuropsychology has pretty much set out our path--if we plan ahead with awareness and intent, we can confront this co-operatively and intelligently. If left too late, our survival instincts take over and wars, violence and reflex behaviours become inevitable.

Hmmm, how to get people off the growth train... mentally and physically... I see this as a task for scouts of the human future, awakening minds until we hit a tipping point. Looking forward to the next posts!

Alastair said...

Your writing is encouraging Jeff. I have been doing some related thinking and thought you might be interested in the following psych aspect of power.

When you say that humans are averse to uncertainty there is a sub-factor that I find very interesting. I was beginning to research the psychology of power myself but when I saw your work I decided veer off and look at a sub-set of psychology factors. Specifically psychopathy/sociopathy.

In short there is a general pattern of association between the following individual differences that is very obvious when we start to think about it - conservatism, inflexible thinking (inability to deal with change, hence rule-bound and binary thinking), tough-mindedness and non-empathy(and in its extreme sociopathy/psychopathy), inflated sense of self - arrogance, anthropocentricity (as opposed to wholistic and ecological non-hierarchical).

Think of the kinds of people with this pattern of personality toward the non-empathy, individualistic perspective, as opposed to empathic and inclusive end of the scale of traits/states of thinking. They seem concentrated higher up the hierarchy, think of business 'leaders' and politicians, think of aristocracy/oligarchy.

This pattern of what I call sociopathy/self-centric traits or thinking patterns seems to have evolved itself into the centre of the hierarchy in search of power, control, and reduction of the uncertainty that drives such minds to control others and control nature.

Derrik Jensen has had a lot to say about the effects of these traits as though they exist to the same extent in all of us. I think the psychological problem of hierarchy is that those who psychologically benefit most from its structure are those who are best at manipulation of others - the most sociopathic (see Robert Hare at UBC Vancouver on the spectrum of sociopathy/psychopathy). Such people are suited to being in the centre of the hierarchy and they use that position to their own advantage and they do so very well. Sociopathy is the enemy of rhizome. Find a way to attack that way of thinking as has been happening over the past half-century using mass-communication, to inject some truth into the manipulative hierarchy, and it begins to break down from the inside. Attack or undermine the sociopathic mindset and hierarchy loses its power. Combined with a reduction in hydrocarbon use and the hierarchy will retract: Peak oil plus internet, plus anti-capitalism, are its greatest enemies.
I am keen to explore these ideas more Jeff.

Carl Davidson said...

I think this neo-Malthusianism is fatally flawed and dead wrong.

It dismisses 'high design' as a way to get more qualitative value from less resources, and, thus far anyway, ignores raising the real-world choices for women--through technology, cultural and opportunity--as the best way to stabilize population.

Plus it looks at new life as simply one more mouth to feed, rather than two more hands and one more brain to create as well.

I'll study the rest, but from what I see so far, this lead to a dead end, and reveals the hidden flaw in anarchist theory. In the meantime, ponder the skin color of which peoples you're suggesting we start curbing first.

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