Monday, April 27, 2009

System of Future Planning, Part II.

My post from two weeks ago generated some excellent feedback, and unfortunately it came exactly at a time that I had to stop paying attention to this blog to focus solely on a trial.  My apologies, but hopefully this post will get me back on track.  In this post, I'll recap the major themes that I have discussed in the several years I have been writing here, and I will also directly address the comments from two weeks ago.

Major Themes:

1.  System-analysis of our civilization, focusing on the core themes of Hierarchy and The Problem of Growth, and its symptoms of peak oil, energy geopolitics, and economic "wizardry."

2.  Systems-theory in general, and specifically as it informs the inefficiencies of hierarchy, alternate modes of information processing and economic organization, and 

2.  Philosophy, specifically understanding human ontogeny (how the process of our evolution dictates our current physiological, neurological, and emotional processes) as an input into human systems and as the foundation for individual happiness and fulfillment.

2.  Moving forward:  addressing the two very separate goals of optimizing the functioning of human civilization and individual human functioning in light of the systems-analysis and human ontogeny "problems."

In reality, this is one unified theme:  an attempt to create a set of instructions for operating humans, both as individuals and in groups of all sizes, in light of both internal and external constraints.  I think it is inextricably linked to the traditional studies of history, politics, economics, biology, psychology, anthropology, mathematics (specifically game theory), and physics.  But in my mind it is so much more than that.  The goal is not to improve psychology or anthropology or any of these other discrete disciplines per se, but rather is specifically to generate a synthesis, a meta-theory for humanity.  This is essentially the mission of philosophy, but I hesitate to accept the limitations commonly ascribed to philosophy.  Perhaps, though, it is accurate to view this goal as similar to the very practical philosophical approaches of, say, Plato in The Republic (though, like Karl Popper, I disagree vehemently with Plato's conclusions...).  Here is a case where, perhaps, John Zerzan's more extreme theory of language and symbols shows its strengths:  any attempt to label this process, and my goals, is unacceptably limiting.   Hopefully this brief explanation has been slightly clearer than mud!  Next week I'll take a look at this goal and evaluate what, specifically, has been accomplished and what is left to be accomplished, and set forth a roadmap for what I will address in future posts.  For now, though, I'll finish by responding to comments from last week:

Neven commented about the frustration that stems from realizing what could be done, but not yet being able to put these plans into practice.  I share this frustration.  I certainly don't live in a real-world hamlet economy that I have created for myself--far from it.  I think it's important, however, to stress that I am not a "fast-crash" proponent.  I fall generally into the "slow-crash" camp--the theory that our economic, political, and social systems will gradually degrade over the next several decades (and longer).  I don't think it is necessary to have a self-sufficient farmlet immediately--though if this is something that 1) is realistic for you, and 2) will make you happy, then by all means it sounds like a wonderful plan.  I think it is best to use an improved understanding of our civilization and its trajectory to influence every decision that we make in our day-to-day lives, but I don't think it's necessary to quit your job, sell your house, and become a neo-homesteader.  Largely I think this because the network that such efforts need to succeed is not yet established.  I think we're much better off gradually moving in these directions because this is something that we can potentially do as a group (e.g. everyone).  Any "solution" that doesn't include mass transition is essentially a blueprint to build a fortress.  That said, I'm not sure that mass transition is possible, and one of the gradual transitions that I am making is to put myself in the position to make a sudden transition when possible and if necessary...

Nick, I agree with your concern that virtual discussions of these topics is just not enough.  When I am able to have lengthy discussions in person with large groups (such as at last year's ASPO conference), the payoff is amazing.  This year's ASPO conference is in Denver in the Fall--worth considering if you can make the train trip/drive/flight/etc.  It's also interesting to hear your observation that many rural communities are already moving in the direction of rhizome without using this as a conscious model.  I think we'll see more of this as the global financial and energy systems continue to erode, become less reliable, or simply exact more transaction costs.  But I do think that establishing self-sufficiency is something where we need to get out ahead of the curve--if we wait until we're forced to establish self-sufficiency, the results will be at a minimum "expensive," and potentially catastrophic.  There are many excellent models for moving toward a higher degree of self-sufficiency (100% is certainly unrealistic and unnecessary in almost all instances).  The Transition Towns movement is a great place to start--it has an excellent model for building momentum and consensus in existing towns without everyone understanding the gravity of the situation.  Additionally, moving toward scale-free self-sufficiency is a complementary strategy:  while 100% self-sufficiency at the individual level is nearly impossible (short of a hunter-gatherer mode of production which cannot support our population levels), I think we can realistically attempt to increase our individual self-sufficiency, our community self-sufficiency, and our regional self-sufficiency by a few percent per year.  A good model might be increase personal self-sufficiency each year by 5%, and increase community and regional self-sufficiency each year by 1%?

Eadwacer suggests making more explicit connections between my theories and existing systems models--I agree, and hope to do that in the future.

Jeremy gaiasdaughter, and TH all suggest that, while the mainstream my ignore these issues, that doesn't make them any less important.  I have often used the monastery in Dark Ages Europe as an example here:  we need to develop individual and community solutions not because they will spread voluntarily at first, but because they will exist as proven solutions to transfer knowledge when people are actively searching for this.  Additionally, this highlights how important it is that we not develop one solution, but that we develop many solutions, appropriate for many regions and sets of circumstances.

Lonnie adds that we need a new lexicon to discuss these concepts, and to counter preconceptions.  I think that, more than just a new lexicon, we need extant examples of these ideas in action to show directly that they need not conform to any stereotype...

Finally, Theo wrote a well though out response on his blog.  I agree with Theo that I have a pessimistic bias--specifically, that I don't think we can continue on our current course indefinitely, and that I foresee a gradual collapse over the next several decades.  I disagree with Theo, though, to the extent that he interprets my writing as an unending pessimism--I specifically think that our current civilizational structure is not very compatible with our ontogeny, and that we are actually presented with a golden opportunity to re-cast civilization, post-collapse (or, more accurately, through the long process of collapse) into something that is more compatible with humans and the rest of our planet.  While I commend efforts at green capitalism because I think they will ultimately soften and facilitate a transition, I disagree with Theo that green capitalism, or a green market-state system, can "save" us from the Problem of Growth.  Turning briefly to Robert Anton Wilson, I understand how Theo sees me as opposed to the basic notion of Wilson's book, but I think I actually agree with the basic premise--simplistically, that humans as individuals can take control of ourselves and our environments with nearly unlimited potential if we properly understand ourselves and our environment--because I separate individual potential and prospects from those of our civilizational structure as a whole.  I think Wilson and Leary's "Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension" notion is an artifact of the time they were writing, but that the underlying goal was actually freedom, enlightenment, and fulfillment for individuals--something that I am actually very optimistic about in a rhizome future.  To the extent that this is the "real" wealth to which Theo refers, I think the growth-based predicate for "green" capitalism and its failure to address the incompatibility between human ontogeny and hierarchal systems eliminates it as a solution--I think it is ultimately more a case of "greenwashing" as a systemic defense to internal threats to hierarchy, and one that I think will do nothing to make that system fundamentally sustainable...


Theo_musher said...


Since what you call "human ontogeny" factors so heavily into your philosophy, I think you should read this book:

The 10,000 year explosionThe premise is that contrary to Jared Diamond, people living in Complex hierarchical societies have changed genetically over the past 10,000 years. The populations that have lived under agriculture the longest have changed the most. Its a process called "self domestication"

What would the implications of this be to your position? What if instead of everyone having the identical physiology and psychology of a hunter gatherer, living 50,000 years ago, the fact is rather that many people are adapted civilized life, specialization, even submission to, and dependence upon elites?

Seriously, what if millions of people don't want complete independence, self sufficiency and egalitarianism? What if a large percentage of the Earth's population, don't want what would be required to have basically Jeffersonian Democracy, Ghandi's vision of Democracy, Rhizome etc?

Is it ethical to "do unto others as you would have done unto you" if their wants and needs are different than yours?

I think its quite possible, even likely that people drawn to anarchism may be throwbacks to a hunter gatherer mindset. It's also quite possible that people such as the San Bushmen are congenital anarchists. But its also just as likely that many people are domesticated and adapted to a domesticated life.

As civilization spread,and absorbed territory formerly belonging to hunter gatherer societies there were probably only two viable options besides being annihilated or enslaved. And many tribes simply could not be enslaved, such as Native American tribes in North America.

1. retreat into increasingly marginal areas
2. Become elites yourselves.

That seems to be how domestication works. There is a domestication event and that domesticated population spreads from where it was originally domesticated into other areas as civilization moves in and they supplant the wild population. That's why the genetics of European Cattle is not connected to the European aurochs but instead the Middle Eastern aurochs.

Initially, humans were domesticated by elites, but since there was 2 way gene flow between elites and laborers, eventually the whole society was more or less domesticated.

There are also many cases in history of what were perhaps "semi-domesticated" Pastoralists, over throwing the elites of Agricultural civilizations and becoming the new elite.

How is this possible? Its only possible if you assume that the people at the bottom eschelon of these agricultural societies were domesticated. Its almost as if it didn't really matter to them who was in charge as long as somebody was.

Then there are people like the Pashtun that seem congenitally unable to be conquered by any one.

How do you undomesticate people if they are domesticated?

What if an "authoritarian mindset" is genetic?

Theo_musher said...

As far as "greenwashing" doesn't that imply some type of hypocrisy on the part of the corporation? But then doesn't the term "Greenwashing" also imply the inverse as well which is the possibility of a legit Green corporation?

I mean what if it was a bio remediation corporation? Would it not be green, just because it was a corporation? The Nature Conservancy and Ducks unlimited are corporations. What if it were a Corporation that did Geoff Lawton, style permaculture projects, only on a large scale? Couldn't a hierarchical organization do that? Couldn't a company hire work crews to Green an area of denuded land? It seems like if a Corporation can log off an area or Mine it, they could also heal it. I mean if small "grass roots" groups of people can destroy the environment (which they can), and they can also get together and improve the environment why couldn't the same be true of corporations? Considering the amount of environmental damage in the World it seems like it would be able to exist in a pattern of "unsustainable" growth for quite some time. The Earth is still finite, so the amount of restoration or improvement would be finite as well...I guess.

John.Howley said...

If you want to know what a "slow crash" will look like all you need to do is consider the past 35 years.

Economic and energy constraints slowly tighten. Inter-generational decline in standard of living. Accumulation of insoluble societal dilemmas. Growing separation of elites from people. Parasitic forms of business activity replace productive ones. Relative growth of rivals.


Jeff Vail said...


I think a truly "green" corporation is possible, but not within our current corporate structures. Modern corporations have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize profits (and this must be in the near-term due to accounting standards). If they fail to do this, their shareholders can bring a derivative lawsuit on behalf of the corporation to oust officers, seek damages, etc.

This isn't to say that it isn't possible--some clever corporate lawyers somewhere could probably structure something truly sustainable and green that works within our existing legal system, but the required changes would be radical. Thom Hartman has written extensively on this problem, though I'm not convinced he has a very pragmatic understanding of legal reality (not that this is an insult--pragmatism may not be very helpful here!).

I think we need informal networks to address the problem of growth and the fundamental unsustainability of the hierarchal corporate/state strucutre, but that's not to say that we can't find a way to build a truly "green" corporate structure.

Regarding your comments on ontogeny and people generally prefering being taken care of to being free, I largely agree. I think this still plays off our genetic ontogeny--unless faced with an immediate survival threat, we tend to be lazy and complacent. This is largely because--both chemically and pedagogically--we have a very steep discount rate on future rewards. Nate Hagens at The Oil Drum has written some outstanding articles on this topic, but basically we aren't chemically wired to optimize over the long-term. How do we fix this? I think there are three options (and I'll be writing a post series about this eventually): enlightenment, control, and erosion. We can all become enlightened and start rationally optimizing our behaviors over a long time-frame. Not going to happen. We can all be under the control of someone or something that will optimize over this long time frame. Not very nice. Or we can let the ecological foundation of our civilization erode to the point that we are no longer capable of making unwise short-term choices because we can't support the economic and political complexity necessary to support such short-sightedness. I don't like any of the options, and I think there may be a glimmer of a hope for a fourth option (e.g. rhizome), though most likely in a post-collapse scenario or only in very limited areas...

Theo_musher said...

I actually think Monsanto is on the right track. As distasteful as that might seem to a lot of people. If they had more audacity they could be more effective. They feel like if they invent a bio-engineered crop, they have the right to patent it. It goes a long with modern ideas of private property. Monsanto doesn't have the audacity to "own" a species created by nature. Its like stealing. People rejected a Landowner class in the French and American Revolution. Interesting that Daly, points out the advantages to that defunct system. What was he trying to say? He just briefly mentioned it as "unearned income"

But anyway, say Corporations owned or leased and managed segments of the biosphere and tied profit into an increase in Natural abundance. More clean water, more clean air, clean up of polluted areas, more trees birds, etc. All profit. It would still be a growth economy. It could still be competitive.

I think its perfectly legit to charge people for increasing their quality of life.

Theo_musher said...

Costa Rica seems to be getting economic growth and ecology to work together

Theo_musher said...

A lot of restoration and healing of the land would be hard to measure. If you make air cleaner for the entire Earth who pays?

I thinks what "climate change" its the creation of a new market for people who already have the technology to manipulate the weather and solve the (manufactured) crisis. If no one things the Climate is going to hell in a handbasket there is no market for "fixing" it

The model of tying in economic growth and ecology is already in the works.

There is lots more room for this kind of thing.

Lonnie said...


I would be careful using Monsanto as my bellwether. My concern about genetically engineered super plants is the same concern that I have regarding infinite growth. Simply having a technology does not necessarily mean that it is ultimately a productive technology. A super plant may have the tendancy to deplete the soil at a faster rate than indigenous plants.

You can call me a cynic on this one but I'm sure the boys at Monsanto are actively planning how long until current weed biotypes will become totally resistent to Roundup. Then they will introduce a Super Roundup Ready hybrid and the cycle continues.

How do Roundup Ready species fit in to your 'healing the land' scenario, when the last thing left standing might be a patch of Roundup Ready weeds?

Theo_musher said...

Monsanto is evil and everything. I acknowledge that. But think of a Hegelian type thing, where you have a hybrid of their model and its anti-thesis, which would be sustainable agriculture. How about licensing genomes of plants and animals that aren't genetically modified? Maybe lease them for a few years, in order to manage them? The idea is to make money managing living systems. That's what I would take from Monsanto. Not so much the pesticide and GM aspect.

But it will take technology to regenerate living sytems faster than they would regenerate on their own, and it has to be profitable. Since things are so screwed up, to me it looks like a growth industry and I totally think "Climate Change" is the viral marketing wing of a long range business plan that has been in the works for years.

If people can make money solving manufactured environmental disasters they can profit from real ones. Plenty of opportunity.

Lonnie said...


I agree that new systems must be incorporated as examples. I don’t know how these examples can be put forth without a different perception than what has been historically suggested.

I think the time is ripe for new communities that are ‘sustainable’ in concrete ways versus having an energy star rating, leed certification or just labeling them green. At the same time, I don’t see myself living in a community where I am compelled to gather in a circle and chant a common mantra. Possibly omnivore baby boomers are ready to make a transition, without the peripheral spiritual trappings and the standard issue tie die. The hurdle is marketing in today’s society. How does one convince a group of typically mainstream sheeple (myself included) to invest in these concepts? A community where permaculture, agriforestry and micro scale renewable power replace the golf course as a form of leisure time, where the auberge is the community center.

Theo…Monsanto is no more evil than Thomas Edison. Monsanto just is. Monsanto has done a lot more good than harm according to our current paradigm. You and I aren't too far apart in our thinking, I just don’t see how your theories can be propagated without large expenditures of energy or pulling things out of thin air.

Joel said...

I couldn't agree more with the incremental, multi-scale approach to self-sufficiency.

I think a major benefit of your project might be an overview of the search-space of responses to a changing civilization, since that might make local maxima less sticky for the communities that find them.

I'm excited by the number of methods that might be tried.

I had an idea a few weeks ago to place large planters in residential streets, in a way that both slows through traffic and offers community garden space. I just wrote it up on my blog, if anyone wants to take a look.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think it's necessary to quit your job, sell your house, and become a neo-homesteader. Largely I think this because the network that such efforts need to succeed is not yet established." This becomes a chicken and egg question. If no one is part of this network there won't be a network. But we need the network to work before we can become neo-homesteaders.

I think we need to become neo-homesteaders now and connect with as much as possible of the information regarding more sustainable way of life that a few people still know how to live. There is lots of information, and many tools, breeds of animals and vegetable varieties that we are loosing every day. If we wait for a network to become established it many be too late.


Jeff Vail said...

Joel: excellent point. The amount of calories that could be grown if towns just transitioned traditional landscaping trees to fruit/nut trees is significant.

EJ: I agree, and need to clarify. I think we DO need to become neo-homesteaders, but that we don't need to do it all at once by quitting our jobs and moving to the country, though if that's realistic for individuals that's great. Instead, I think we need to transition, gradually, in the places and networks we already occupy, while simultaneously establishing new networks with people who are similarly committed across larger geographic space. In suburbia, it is very realistic to increase personal self-sufficiency by 5% per year (both by localized generation/production and by reduction in consumption). In more optimal areas, it may be possible to go much more rapidly. Pair that with efforts to transition local communities, regions, etc. at a slower pace (owing to more gradual buy-in) of maybe 1-2% per year and the amount of progress in a decade would be amazing. Sure, that's optimistic, and for those who can set up an alternative autonomous zone of self sufficiency I think that's great, but that brings you back to the classic problem: if the time comes that you NEED that self-sufficiency, and if the rest of society hasn't transitioned alongside you, then you also NEED to be a fortress (or have fallen "off the map")...

Theo_musher said...

If people don't catch up in terms of self sufficiency you must:
1. Be a fortress
2.Be invisible

How about:

3. Be their employer? Hire them as farm laborers?

I mean its not something an individual working on a small scale could do, but its perhaps something large organizations could transition into doing. Buy lots of land, put temporary housing in place, set up large scale energy generating, land reclaimation and agricultural projects and get ready to deal with large numbers of displaced hungry jobless people.

Theo_musher said...

Anonymous said...

I still think we need to consider who will hold knowledge and resources until we "NEED that self-sufficiency".

If you only consider stockpiling limited resources, sure you will need a fortress and ways to defend it. If you consider a bank of knowledge that grows as it is shared, open doors (to a certain extent) are a better solution.

So many of the older skills that will become necessary again can best be learned by hands on, several year experience.


usofc said...

'what is the authoritarian mindset is genetic'...
This issue of bio-cultural adaptation to hierarchy is something I have looked at for a while. The authoritarian dynamic (AP's: leaders and followers), psychopathy (charismatic by non-empathetic manipulative leaders), autistic disorders, and other social factors do appear to interact strongly with hierarchy, mechanistic views of life (ie classisist/platonist mindsets) are all anti-thetical to complex-systems/ecological thinking. Thjer is a very real danger that hierarchy has become such a strong strange attractor that everything about human society is being sucked into its evolutionary bleck hole. Can we escape or as the Sufi's suggest - in the end times only 20% of people will be able to escape from hierarchy, the other 80% are lost to it. To me also this is an ethical probelm - in advocating rhizome we may be condemning 80% of people to hell.

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