Monday, April 28, 2008

Giving Up the Car

I just finished reading Noel Perrin's "Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879" for the second time. The first time I read it was for a dinner party/discussion group with noted military history professor Dennis Showalter in 1998 while attending the US Air Force Academy. This book is very important for a number of reasons...

First, let's not pull any punches: Perrin's historiographical method is poor. Perrin didn't speak Japanese, and largely fails to discuss one key to Japan's successful "giving up the gun" was that Tokugawa had unified the country and eliminated the impetus for warfare that existed prior to the Shogunate.

That said, the book is really an in-depth exploration of the ability of society to effectively "turn back the clock," to set aside an available and known technology due to a cultural preference. In the end, Japanese society consciously chose to set aside the gun in favor of a less "efficient" form of military killing that better suited their desire to maintain the class and cultural status quo. Specifically, samurai found that their heroic stature on the battlefield, their cultural significance, and their place in Japan's feudal hierarchy were endangered by a weapon such as the gun that effectively leveled the playing field and allowed plebeian marksmen to mow them down at will. Because of their leverage within the Shogunate, and because of the prevailing desire to maintain cultural "harmony" by the elites, the gun was effectively marginalized.

Even when I first discussed this book in 1998, it was in the context of the ability of human society to set aside a technological possibility for the long term benefit to humanity of not pursuing the short-term gain promised by that technology. Then, the specific focus was nuclear armaments. I re-read the book for the same reason, but today my interest was in the ability of human society to set aside our energy-intensive culture for our own long-term benefit--whether that comes in the form of climate change, preparation for peaking of fossil fuel production, or simply maintaining a level of information processing and hierarchy that is compatible with the human genome. I still think that Perrin's book has valuable insight to offer on this question--a question that I think is increasingly critical for the future of humanity.

Unfortunately, after re-reading Perrin, I am more pessimistic about the ability of modern society to set aside our current reliance on cheap and polluting energy in favor of some more sustainable economic basis for society. Perrin's analysis of Tokugawa Japan highlights (in part due to his historiographical failings) one key feature that facilitated Japan's "giving up the gun" but that is not present in modern society: economic, political, and military power all unified within a shared cultural framework. In Japan, the feudal economic and military system was composed of individual who were also the key to the contemporary military order, who shared a common cultural ethos, and who uniformly benefited themselves by supporting the Shogun's efforts to maintain that system by marginalizing guns. Modern society does not enjoy this kind of "unified command" of political, military, and social elements. Rather, and especially in comparison to modern industrial society, Japan in the Shogunate was hegemonic and could effectively move in unity in a single direction provided that the class of power-brokers uniformly benefited. Today, if the US were to effectively transition to a sustainable economic footing, India and China would most likely just pick up any slack in the system, and would likely even leverage the short-term benefit they would enjoy in both economic AND military advantage. Similarly, if one corporation or one individual were to make such a transition to sustainability, others would likely exploit their short-term inefficiency (or failure to maximally exploit the environment) to their own advantage. It is a new twist on a classic "tragedy of the commons" scenario: the global commons in energy consumption and environmental degradation requires that all players maximize their near-term consumption and pollution or lose out in power to those who do, without actually preserving energy or the environment through their own sacrifice.

It's a poor analogue, but "giving up the car" may be the close to the modern equivalent of giving up the gun. Absent a modern Shogunate to impose upon the masses what may (ultimately) be in our own best interest--preserving our environment, embarking on some form of oil depletion protocol, minimizing impact on climate--we likely won't choose to do so on our own. And even if we could muster the political will to do so in America, or in Europe, someone else will recognize this for what it is--an opportunity--and their resultant increase in consumption/pollution will eliminate any positive effect of our sacrifice. Which leads me to Vail's 10th Law (I'm still working on the first 9): any "solution" that requires people or government to behave better than they have in the past is doomed at the outset to failure. Or at least doomed to working as well as that strategy has worked in the past...

If I had to boil down my thinking into a meta-theory, it is that the trajectory of human society is a result of the structure of that society, and not of the individual wills at work within it. Change requires changing that structure, not producing some "great man" to lead the pliant masses. Right now our structure doesn't allow us to "give up the gun," or to give up the car either. At least not voluntarily. We may be able to, as individuals, see that it would be the wisest long-term course of action, but that is a very different thing than taking that path, collectively, as human society...

23 comments:

Vinay Gupta - Hexayurt Project said...

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Theo_musher said...

Well,

We gave up whale oil. And it wasn't due to running out of whales. The population became depleted, but the reason people stopped whaling is because they could no longer make money on it.

I see a lot of reason for hope. First of all trends in architecture like "New Urbanism." I also think that as cars become more fuel efficient they will be a bit less sexy in a "gearhead" "muscle car" type way.

I would give up my car if I could live in a beautiful city. a city designed around a "triple bottom line" ecologically integrated and green.

I think there will be more cities like this and they will attract more and more people and out compete other cities as popular places to live.

Trends change. Nascar and car culture may be huge today but not tomorrow.

Theo_musher said...

Here is how I think the trajectory of society will change, and I didn't invent this concept:

Natural Capitalism

The next industrial revolution will be Green. Its already happening. It is a response to changingb patterns of scarcity. I would be interested to hear your opinion on this book. Its been out for a while.

Theo_musher said...

Here is a link to the chapter on cars in pdf:

http://www.natcap.org/images/other/NCchapter2.pdf

brent said...

Here are my thoughts…
We are in a unique period because many of us may experience the collapse of global society within our lifetimes. I believe that individual or collective decisions to preserve what is left of the fragile environment (give up the car, eat local produce, less waste, etc) may actually be important now as opposed to any other time in history. If one believes that this collapse will be permanent because of the irreversible depletion of soils, energy, and raw materials, then preserving places that are inhabitable will be worthwhile.
During periods of growth, if one entity declines to exploit a resource then another peer entity will. During a period of negative growth, however, the ability to exploit resources is diminished. The resource may even stay intact until the next period of growth when it will inevitably be exploited. If collapse is permanent, however, the resource may stand a very good chance in the long term. For the first time in history, our efforts to preserve the environment may not actually be in vain.

mountain hiker said...

Hi Jeff,

Always enjoy your thoughtful words.

I agree with your analysis.

Perhaps you have seen George Bush Senior on the New World Order

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc7i0wCFf8g

Now watch Esoteric Agenda.

http://video.google.com.au/videoplay?docid=-1131942400352901009

It really all makes sense. I think others have come to the same conclusion you have.

Keep up the great thinking and writing.

thanks

Rice Farmer said...

Sorry to sound pessimistic (I prefer to call it realism), but I think we are surely in for a wrenching period of adjustment in which many, many people suffer and die miserably. For the reasons you have given -- the very structure of our socioeconomic system and politics, the constant struggle to come out on top by exploiting short-term benefit to the detriment of long-term interests, etc. -- humanity finds itself trapped in a self-destructive spiral. We can see a world of energy/resource fascism and oil wars in the offing. All the big players on the global chessboard are positioning themselves to maximize their gains and lock down whatever fossil fuel reserves they can.

And unlike the gun in feudal Japan (as a sidelight, it would be interesting to analyze the connection with the ban on everything except hunting rifles in modern Japan), everyone benefits hugely from, or at least is fatally in love with, the mobility created by oil. And there is also the considerable military advantage conferred by oil.

So that's why we're spectators of one of the greatest grabfests ever, and it's just getting started.

In conclusion, I think we will give up the car only when forced to. We're being dragged kicking and screaming back to a pre-modern world.

Dan tdaxp said...

The Tokugawa Shogunate was a dark age, when Japan stagnated and shunned the world.

The implication that we are nowhere near a global Tokugawa-like place where we could technologically regress is very good news.

Jeff Vail said...

I think Dan makes an interesting point. Perrin does go into some detail of how Japan under the Shogunate continued to advance in many areas, with civil engineering feats (canals, mostly) better than anything in Europe, and with rice yields improving consistently faster than in Europe. However, supporting Dan's point, a book I'm (still) reading on Ando Shoeki suggests that the Shogunate was a period of intense feudal oppression of the populace, highly unsustainable agricultural practices aimed only at maximizing yield at all cost (mostly frequent and severe famines), a destruction of soil quality, etc.

To me, the question is twofold: 1) if we are to limit our use of technology, do we necessarily regress to this kind of "dark age"? and 2) if so, is this kind of intentionally imposed dark age better than the modern alternative if we DON'T limit our use of technology--namely the possibility of runaway global warming, massive economic and agricultural collapse, etc. when the energy sources we continue using at breakneck speed really begin a crash in production? I don't know, but Perrin's discussion is, to me, very interesting because it provides great food for thought on exactly this issue...

Rice Farmer said...

Surely there was much about the Edo period that was undesirable, but painting it as a dark age ignores all the good. In fact, it was a vibrant culture. Japanese ecologists point out that Edo society recycled everything, and has much to offer in the way of hints on how to build an ecologically sustainable society (there are a number of books on this in Japanese, but I don't know if any have been translated). Further, long centuries of feudal warfare had left much of the country denuded, and it was during the Edo period that the country's forests were regenerated. This, in fact, had much to do with the agricultural practices at the time.

I am part of a group trying to revive the "satoyama" practices of this era in the area where I live.

Indeed, there was much exploitation of the peasants, and a dearth of contact with the outside world, but it is wrong to say that Japan "stagnated."

Anonymous said...

There is quite a bit we could do without "giving up the car". Back in the 1960's we saw the introduction of the "Honda 50"
(step-thru and straddle designs)
which managed to get somewhere
well over 100 miles to the gallon.
We could also restore Carter's 55 mph speed limit which did save a bit of gas. Getting more "serious" about the issue, we could do a number of things to cut down fuel consumption here in the US. However, those people with "six figure" and above incomes would rather strongly object to any restrictions upon
the amount of "energy" they might
be allowed to use for motor homes,
yachts, heavyweight SUV's, etc.

Dan tdaxp said...

Japan stagnated in two broad ways during the Shogunate: economically and culturally.

Economically, the Shogunate's policies encouraged population growth without economic growth. So while the population continued to rise, the food supply only just kept up. You therefore had more Japanese living in less tolerable conditions, with the poorer classes continually being starved out.

Culturally, the Shogunate began with Japan roughly comparable to the European states, and ended with Japan being easily opened to the outside world by the American fleet. The Shogunate's approach to foreigners - kill them - proved effectively at imposing DPRK-like Juche policies, and disastrous at helping Japan keep pace with the world.

Theo_musher said...

Jeff, it seems to me that you are exploring a hierarchical approach to conservation.

I am enjoying the dialectic.

I have toyed with that idea as well. Now I am kind of going the other way.

I started out thinking about conservation in a "green anarchist" kind of grass roots bottom up way, then explored hierachical ideas in relation to conservation and now I am into thinking of free market ways.

Conservation through wealth creation. "Wealth" meaning, not money, but all the good things that make life better, clean air and an intact eco system falling under that heading as well. Also "social capital"

I think this gets to the heart of what RAW talked about in relation to the upward spiral of the third Semantic time binding circuit in relation to economics and global intellectual development that starts with literacy.

I feel like I am on to somthing with this "fruitful" line of thinking.

But I think capitalism isn't designed to ceate wealth, but money and wealth is a bi-product, also "illth". The key is to create the most wealth(includig ecological wealth and social wealth) and the least illth.

Rice Farmer said...

Dan tdaxp's points are well taken, but you can't just throw out the baby with the bathwater. Much was also accomplished during the Edo period, as I've pointed out.

Further, the idea that Japan wasn't able to "keep up" with the rest of the world is exactly the problem we've been discussing on this blog, right? The need to "keep up with the rest of the world" brings us back to the same escalating spiral. Surrender to hierarchy, and sacrifice long-term interests for short-term benefit in order to get a leg up on everyone else. Which leads to the eventual collapse of the whole system.

Instead of blaming the Shogunate for not "keeping up," we should be blaming the Americans and their black ships. After all, why did the Americans demand the opening of Japanese ports? Was it for peace and friendship? Of course not. It was to find a way to exploit another country and further aggrandize the US.

Theo_musher said...

Is isolationism the answer? I mean could it be possible for a large country to be basically Amish and protectionist? With sealed borders and no trade?

Speaking of Amish, I understand they have depleted their topsoil. Some are adopting organic farming and permacultual techniques. To me that shows that its good to interact with other cultures.

I actually buy milk from one such Amish guy. Its kind of strange because he is still totally Amish but all his customers are kind of Newagey health food eating types.

Dan tdaxp said...

rice farmer,

Dan tdaxp's points are well taken, but you can't just throw out the baby with the bathwater. Much was also accomplished during the Edo period, as I've pointed out.

Much was accomplished during the Edo period, such as a decline in living standards across the board, not to mention increased xenophobia combined with a decline in power compared to foreign powers.

Further, the idea that Japan wasn't able to "keep up" with the rest of the world is exactly the problem we've been discussing on this blog, right? The need to "keep up with the rest of the world" brings us back to the same escalating spiral. Surrender to hierarchy, and sacrifice long-term interests for short-term benefit in order to get a leg up on everyone else. Which leads to the eventual collapse of the whole system.

Keeping up in living standards isn't a problem, it's the solution.

Instead of blaming the Shogunate for not "keeping up," we should be blaming the Americans and their black ships.

Really?

The caste-based decline in living standards that characterized the Edo period was superior either to the industrialization and rise in living standards of the Restoration, or more liberal contemporary order?

You really would prefer Japan to have remained a pre-industrial North Korea?

After all, why did the Americans demand the opening of Japanese ports? Was it for peace and friendship? Of course not. It was to find a way to exploit another country and further aggrandize the US.

Merely the promotion of commerce and negation of states that prohibit it, which has been our consistent strategy up to the present day.


Dan tdaxp

steve coyle said...

Nature paper describes technique for extracting hierarchical structure of networks
Aaron Clauset
aaronc@santafe.edu
505-946-2774
Santa Fe Institute
Nature paper describes technique for extracting hierarchical structure of networks

Networks -- used throughout the sciences in the study of biological, technological, and social complexity -- can often be too complex to visualize or understand.

In a May 1 Nature paper, “Hierarchical structure and the prediction of missing links in networks,” Santa Fe Institute (SFI) researchers Aaron Clauset, Cristopher Moore, and Mark Newman show that many real-world networks can be understood as a hierarchy of modules, where nodes cluster together to form modules, which themselves cluster into larger modules -- arrangements similar to the organization of sports players into teams, teams into conferences, and conferences into leagues, for example.

This hierarchical organization, the researchers show, can simultaneously explain a number of patterns previously discovered in networks, such as the surprising heterogeneity in the number of connections some nodes have, or the prevalence of triangles in a network diagram. Their discovery suggests that hierarchy may, in fact, be a fundamental organizational principle for complex networks.

Unlike much previous work in this area, Clauset, Moore, and Newman propose a direct but flexible model of hierarchical structure, which they apply to networks using the tools of statistical physics and machine learning.

To demonstrate the practical utility of their model, they analyze networks from three disparate fields: the metabolic network of the spirochete Treponema pallidum (the bacteria that causes syphilis), a network of associations between terrorists, and a food web of grassland species. Even when only half of the connections in these networks were shown to their algorithm, the researchers found that hierarchical structure can predict missing connections with an accuracy of up to 80 percent.

“Many networks, particularly those in the biological sciences, are not well understood,” says Clauset, an SFI Postdoctoral Fellow. "But hierarchy offers a way to understand their large-scale organization and, from this, predict what interactions we might have missed.”

Kotare said...

This is an interesting thought piece Jeff. Much food for thought.

Don Dwiggins said...

It is a new twist on a classic "tragedy of the commons" scenario: the global commons in energy consumption and environmental degradation requires that all players maximize their near-term consumption and pollution or lose out in power to those who do, without actually preserving energy or the environment through their own sacrifice.

Another good resource to get an alternative view is Elinor Ostrom's work on commons; her book "Governing the Commons" is a good starting point. In fact, there are thousands of historical examples of stakeholder-managed commons, some lasting centuries. The book discusses formal models, such as ToC, prisoners' dilemma, etc., as well as successful and unsucessful commons. In my (all-too-slowly emerging) wiki on community, I describe some relationships between community and commons.

Dylan said...

If people do it because they see it's the wisest, then we can expect other people around the world to see it's the wisest as well. We can expect some people to pick up the environmental-damage slack to some degree, but not completely, so its a move in the positive direction. Also, since Peak Oil requires us to make the changes eventually, there's not even an option to keep going on with the car forever. Also, living in villages as opposed to suburbs is wise for many reasons that benefit us in the here and now, not just in prevention. Suburbs are truly a waste of resources in the present, not something that's only bad in sustainability terms

dylan said...

I'll be more careful with my wording in these discussions. From the comments, it appears that some people take the phrase "giving up the car" too literally. I'd rephrase it as "reducing the scale of car-use." Villageforum.com. for example, talks about cars being driven from village to village, but not within the village, and having 80% of the economic transactions occur within the village, not all of them. Homesteads are another option to villages of course, as is New Urbanism from what I hear.

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