Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Went Wrong? Here's a List...

Shamelessly stolen from sage commentator "Numerian" over at The Agonist...posted in response to the question "where's the outrage" among the US public over, oh, the greatest environmental disaster in US history, and the public's blase response. Nicely done, fellow.

It all began in 1980

Or right around then, with the election of Ronald Reagan and the opportunity for right-wing extremists to begin reshaping society. Undoing this work will take ten years or more, and that is if society has a brutal awakening regarding what has happened. That is by no means a sure thing considering what was done. Here is a list of "20 Theses" showing what the right wing has wrought, and how difficult it will be to undo all this:

1) The elevation of the corporation as the supreme social structure in society, superior to the political process, and in possession of rights normally restricted to the people.
2) The creation of an oligarchical command structure consisting of prominent and wealthy businessmen, politicians, media figures, military leaders, intellectual and other consultants, and religious entertainers, who can use political, economic and social power to advance their personal interests over those of society.
3) The abolishment of the death tax as society's best and last means of preventing dynastic wealth, and the use of nepotism to advance the careers of the children of oligarchical figures.
4) The development of crony capitalism, whereby the oligarchy can exert its corporate power to protect their personal wealth.
5) The glorification of the markets and mercantile capitalism as a means of allocating society's wealth and resolving social problems, along with data mining and equity extraction as tools to collect rents from the markets for the benefit of the oligarchical class.
6) The rise of the cult of the individual, and the use of personal wealth and conspicuous consumption as a measure of individual merit.
7) The identification of poverty and want as personal failures.
8) The identification of the government as a source of problems, rather than as a protector of the needy and regulator of the powerful.
9) The embrace of globalization as a way to open vast new consumer markets to corporations, despite the cost in living standards to the average individual in developed economies.
10) The discovery of debt as a means of ensuring economic growth and masking the deterioration in living standards of the people.
11) The suborning of the media by placing them under the control of large corporate and oligarchical powers.
12) The use of the big lie and hypocrisy as tools to achieve and wield political or economic power.
13) The marginalization of the voting process through gerrymandering of Congressional districts, the use of opaque computer vote-counting techniques, the emphasis on candidate personalities rather than issues, and the dramatic escalation of campaign costs so that only corporate-sponsored candidates may compete.
14) The establishment of "enemies within" - liberals, minorities, women, gays, immigrants and others - to replace the external enemy of Communism as a vote-getting device, at least until a new external enemy arose in the form of Islamic extremism.
15) The abandonment of historic civil rights, such as habeas corpus, protections against illegal searches, or torture, all in the name of providing "security", as well as the relegation of the Constitution to the status of "a piece of paper", and the rule of law as an outmoded legal construct.
16) The elimination of the draft, and the use of mercenaries, to allow for the pursuit of war without inconvenience to the people at large, and for the creation of a military empire abroad.
17) The use of patriotism to prevent any questioning of military actions, and the introduction of military techniques on domestic soil, including the creation of a surveillance state.
18) The attack on science and rationality, in pursuit of religious and political agendas.
19) The development of a celebrity culture as a means of distracting the people from real social problems.
20) The hijacking of religion to advance the interests of the powerful and wealthy, including use of the "prosperity gospel" to promote mercantile capitalism, and social markers such as abortion and gay marriage to obtain votes from religious sects.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Oil Spill In The Gulf: Chris Hedges

Well, it could be the greatest environmental disaster in the history of humans...but even if it's not, it's still worth getting some perspective from Chris Hedges. If you haven't read War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, you're missing out. Well, here's his latest, quoted in full:

BP and the ‘Little Eichmanns’
Posted on May 17, 2010

By Chris Hedges

Cultures that do not recognize that human life and the natural world have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, cannibalize themselves until they die. They ruthlessly exploit the natural world and the members of their society in the name of progress until exhaustion or collapse, blind to the fury of their own self-destruction. The oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, estimated to be perhaps as much as 100,000 barrels a day, is part of our foolish death march. It is one more blow delivered by the corporate state, the trade of life for gold. But this time collapse, when it comes, will not be confined to the geography of a decayed civilization. It will be global.

Those who carry out this global genocide—men like BP’s Chief Executive Tony Hayward, who assures us that “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume’’—are, to steal a line from Ward Churchill, “little Eichmanns.” They serve Thanatos, the forces of death, the dark instinct Sigmund Freud identified within human beings that propels us to annihilate all living things, including ourselves. These deformed individuals lack the capacity for empathy. They are at once banal and dangerous. They possess the peculiar ability to organize vast, destructive bureaucracies and yet remain blind to the ramifications. The death they dispense, whether in the pollutants and carcinogens that have made cancer an epidemic, the dead zone rapidly being created in the Gulf of Mexico, the melting polar ice caps or the deaths last year of 45,000 Americans who could not afford proper medical care, is part of the cold and rational exchange of life for money.

The corporations, and those who run them, consume, pollute, oppress and kill. The little Eichmanns who manage them reside in a parallel universe of staggering wealth, luxury and splendid isolation that rivals that of the closed court of Versailles. The elite, sheltered and enriched, continue to prosper even as the rest of us and the natural world start to die. They are numb. They will drain the last drop of profit from us until there is nothing left. And our business schools and elite universities churn out tens of thousands of these deaf, dumb and blind systems managers who are endowed with sophisticated skills of management and the incapacity for common sense, compassion or remorse. These technocrats mistake the art of manipulation with knowledge.

“The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else,” Hannah Arendt wrote of “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” “No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

Our ruling class of technocrats, as John Ralston Saul points out, is effectively illiterate. “One of the reasons that he is unable to recognize the necessary relationship between power and morality is that moral traditions are the product of civilization and he has little knowledge of his own civilization,” Saul writes of the technocrat. Saul calls these technocrats “hedonists of power,” and warns that their “obsession with structures and their inability or unwillingness to link these to the public good make this power an abstract force—a force that works, more often than not, at cross-purposes to the real needs of a painfully real world.”

BP, which made $6.1 billion in profits in the first quarter of this year, never obtained permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The protection of the ecosystem did not matter. But BP is hardly alone. Drilling with utter disregard to the ecosystem is common practice among oil companies, according to a report in The New York Times. Our corporate state has gutted environmental regulation as tenaciously as it has gutted financial regulation and habeas corpus. Corporations make no distinction between our personal impoverishment and the impoverishment of the ecosystem that sustains the human species. And the abuse, of us and the natural world, is as rampant under Barack Obama as it was under George W. Bush. The branded figure who sits in the White House is a puppet, a face used to mask an insidious system under which we as citizens have been disempowered and under which we become, along with the natural world, collateral damage. As Karl Marx understood, unfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force. And this force is consuming us.

Karl Polanyi in his book “The Great Transformation,” written in 1944, laid out the devastating consequences—the depressions, wars and totalitarianism—that grow out of a so-called self-regulated free market. He grasped that “fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that refused to function.” He warned that a financial system always devolved, without heavy government control, into a Mafia capitalism—and a Mafia political system—which is a good description of our corporate government. Polanyi warned that when nature and human beings are objects whose worth is determined by the market, then human beings and nature are destroyed. Speculative excesses and growing inequality, he wrote, always dynamite the foundation for a continued prosperity and ensure “the demolition of society.”

“In disposing of a man’s labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity ‘man’ attached to that tag,” Polanyi wrote. “Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. Finally, the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprise, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts in primitive society. Undoubtedly, labor, land, and money markets are essential to a market economy. But no society could stand the effects of such a system of crude fictions even for the shortest stretch of time unless its human and natural substance as well as its business organizations was protected against the ravages of this satanic mill.”

The corporate state is a runaway freight train. It shreds the Kyoto Accords in Copenhagen. It plunders the U.S. Treasury so speculators can continue to gamble with billions in taxpayer subsidies in our perverted system of casino capitalism. It disenfranchises our working class, decimates our manufacturing sector and denies us funds to sustain our infrastructure, our public schools and our social services. It poisons the planet. We are losing, every year across the globe, an area of farmland greater than Scotland to erosion and urban sprawl. There are an estimated 25,000 people who die every day somewhere in the world because of contaminated water. And some 20 million children are mentally impaired each year by malnourishment.

America is dying in the manner in which all imperial projects die. Joseph Tainter, in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” argues that the costs of running and defending an empire eventually become so burdensome, and the elite becomes so calcified, that it becomes more efficient to dismantle the imperial superstructures and return to local forms of organization. At that point the great monuments to empire, from the Sumer and Mayan temples to the Roman bath complexes, are abandoned, fall into disuse and are overgrown. But this time around, Tainter warns, because we have nowhere left to migrate and expand, “world civilization will disintegrate as a whole.” This time around we will take the planet down with us.

“We in the lucky countries of the West now regard our two-century bubble of freedom and affluence as normal and inevitable; it has even been called the ‘end’ of history, in both a temporal and teleological sense,” writes Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress.” “Yet this new order is an anomaly: the opposite of what usually happens as civilizations grow. Our age was bankrolled by the seizing of half the planet, extended by taking over most of the remaining half, and has been sustained by spending down new forms of natural capital, especially fossil fuels. In the New World, the West hit the biggest bonanza of all time. And there won’t be another like it—not unless we find the civilized Martians of H.G. Wells, complete with the vulnerability to our germs that undid them in his War of the Worlds.”

The moral and physical contamination is matched by a cultural contamination. Our political and civil discourse has become gibberish. It is dominated by elaborate spectacles, celebrity gossip, the lies of advertising and scandal. The tawdry and the salacious occupy our time and energy. We do not see the walls falling around us. We invest our intellectual and emotional energy in the inane and the absurd, the empty amusements that preoccupy a degenerate culture, so that when the final collapse arrives we can be herded, uncomprehending and fearful, into the inferno.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Complexity and Sustainability: Joseph Tainter

This paper, quoted in its entirety, deserves a much larger audience. Too bad Chaos has been so lax lately, that readers have probably fled! Oh well...anyhow, here is the eminent authority of collapse, on sustainability:

Human Resource Use: Timing and Implications for Sustainability
Joseph A. Tainter
Department of Environment and Society, Utah State University, Logan, Utah 84322, U.S.A.


Few questions of history have been more enduring than how today’s complex societies evolved from the foraging bands of our ancestors. While this might seem of academic interest, it has important implications for anticipating our future. Our understanding of sustainability depends to a surprising degree on our understanding of the human past. My purposes today are to show that the conventional understandings of cultural evolution are untenable, as are assumptions about sustainability that follow from them, and to present a different approach to assessing our future.

Cultural complexity is deeply embedded in our contemporary self image. Colloquially it is known by the more common term “civilization,” which we believe our ancestors achieved through the phenomenon called “progress.” The concepts of civilization and progress have a status in the cosmology of industrial societies that amounts to what anthropologists call “ancestor myths.” Ancestor myths validate a contemporary social order by presenting it as a natural and sometimes heroic progression from earlier times.

Social scientists label this a “progressivist” view. It supposes that cultural complexity is intentional, that it emerged through the inventiveness of our ancestors. Progressivism is the dominant ideology of free-market societies. But inventiveness is not a sufficient explanation for cultural complexity, which requires facilitating circumstances. What were those circumstances? Prehistorians once thought they had the answer: The discovery of agriculture gave our ancestors surplus food and, concomitantly, free time to invent urbanism and the things that comprise “civilization”–cities, artisans, priesthoods, kings, aristocracies, and all of the other features of early states.

The progressivist view posits a specific relationship between resources and complexity. It is that complexity develops because it can, and that the factor facilitating this is surplus energy. Energy precedes complexity and allows it to emerge. There are, however, significant reasons to doubt whether surplus energy has actually driven much of cultural evolution.

One strand of thought that challenges progressivism emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the works of Wallace (1761), Malthus (1798), and Jevons. The economist Kenneth Boulding derived from Malthus’s essay on population three theorems: the Dismal Theorem, the Utterly Dismal Theorem, and the moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem. The Utterly Dismal Theorem directly challenges the progressivist view:

Any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for as long as misery is the only check on population, the improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population, which is to increase the sum total of human misery (Boulding, 1959: vii [emphases in original]).

The implication of this strain of thought is that humans have rarely had surplus energy. Surpluses are quickly dissipated by growth in consumption. Since humans have rarely had surpluses, the availability of energy cannot be the primary driver of cultural evolution.

Beyond a Malthusian view, there is another factor that undermines progressivism. It is that complexity costs. In any living system, increased complexity (involving differentiation in structure and increasing organization) carries a metabolic cost. In non-human species this is a straightforward matter of additional calories. Among humans the cost is calculated in such currencies as resources, effort, time, or money, or by more subtle matters such as annoyance. While humans find complexity appealing in spheres such as art, music, or architecture, we usually prefer that someone else pay the cost. We are averse to complexity when it unalterably increases the cost of daily life without a clear benefit to the individual or household. Before the development of fossil fuels, increasing the complexity and costliness of a society meant that people worked harder.

The development of complexity is thus a paradox of human history. Over the past 12,000 years, we have developed technologies, economies, and social institutions that cost more labor, time, money, energy, and annoyance, and that go against our aversion to such costs. Why, then, did human societies ever become more complex?

At least part of the answer is that complexity is a basic problem-solving tool. Confronted with problems, we often respond by developing more complex technologies, establishing new institutions, adding more specialists or bureaucratic levels to an institution, increasing organization or regulation, or gathering and processing more information. While we usually prefer not to bear the cost of complexity, our problem-solving efforts are powerful complexity generators. All that is needed for growth of complexity is a problem that requires it. Since problems continually arise, there is persistent pressure for complexity to increase.

Cultural complexity can be viewed as an economic function. Societies and institutions invest in problem solving, undertaking costs and expecting benefits in return. In problem-solving systems, inexpensive solutions are adopted before more complex and expensive ones. In the history of human food-gathering and production, for example, labor-sparing hunting and gathering gave way to more labor-intensive agriculture, which in some places has been replaced by industrial agriculture that consumes more energy than it produces. We produce minerals and energy whenever possible from the most economical sources. Our societies have changed from egalitarian relations, economic reciprocity, ad hoc leadership, and generalized roles to social and economic differentiation, specialization, inequality, and full-time leadership. These characteristics are the essence of complexity, and they increase the costliness of any society.

In the progressivist view, surplus energy precedes and facilitates the evolution of complexity. Certainly this is sometimes true: There have been occasions when humans adopted energy sources of such great potential that, with further development and positive feedback, there followed great expansions in the numbers of humans and the wealth and complexity of societies. These occasions have, however, been so rare that we designate them with terms signifying a new era: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. It is worth noting that these unusual transitions have not resulted from unbridled human creativity. Rather, they emerged from solutions to problems of resource shortages, and were adopted reluctantly because initially they created diminishing returns on effort in peoples’ daily lives.

Most of the time, cultural complexity increases from day-to-day efforts to solve problems. Complexity that emerges in this way will usually appear before there is additional energy to support it. Rather than following the availability of energy, cultural complexity often precedes it. Complexity thus compels increases in resource production. This understanding of the temporal relationship between complexity and resources has implications for sustainability that diverge from what is commonly assumed. I will explore these implications shortly. It is useful first to present a historical case study, the Western Roman Empire, that illustrates these points.

The Roman Empire collapsed in the mid 5th century A.D., but its last 200 years of existence had been a reprieve. It had been nearly destroyed in the 3rd century. In the half-century from 235-284 the empire was repeatedly breached by invasions of Germanic peoples from the north and the Persians from the east. When these invaders were not being repelled, Roman armies were fighting each other in the service of would-be emperors. Many cities were sacked and productive lands devastated. For a time, rival empires broke away in the east and the west. It seemed that the Roman Empire would not survive much longer.

The Roman government had a clear sustainability goal: the survival of the empire. In response to the crises, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine, in the late third and early fourth centuries, designed a government that was larger, more complex, and more highly organized. They doubled the size of the army. This was very costly. To pay for this sustainability effort, the government taxed its citizens more heavily, conscripted their labor, and dictated their occupations.

With the rise in taxes, population could not recover from plagues in the second and third centuries. There were chronic shortages of labor. Marginal lands went out of cultivation. Faced with taxes, peasants would abandon their lands and flee to the protection of a wealthy landowner. The Roman Empire survived the 3rd century crisis and achieved two centuries of sustainability, but at the long-term cost of consuming its capital resources: producing lands and peasant population. When crises emerged again in the late 4th century, the empire lacked the resources to respond adequately and in time collapsed.

The Roman Empire is a single case study in complexity and problem solving, but it is an important and representative one. It illustrates the basic process by which societies increase in complexity. Societies adopt increasing complexity to solve problems, becoming at the same time more costly. In the normal course of economic evolution, this process at some point will produce diminishing returns. Once diminishing returns set in, a problem-solving institution must either find new resources to continue the activity, or fund the activity by reducing the share of resources available to other economic sectors. The latter is likely to produce economic contraction, popular discontent, and eventual collapse. This was the fate of the Western Roman Empire.

This understanding of complexity and resources has implications for understanding sustainability. Both popular and academic discourse commonly assume that (a) future sustainability requires that industrial societies consume a lower quantity of resources than is now the case, and (b) sustainability will result automatically if we do so. Sustainability emerges, in this view, as a passive consequence of consuming less. Thus sustainability efforts are commonly focused on reducing consumption through voluntary or enforced conservation, perhaps involving simplification, and/or through improvements in technical efficiencies.

The common perspective on sustainability follows logically from the progressivist view that resources precede and facilitate innovations that increase complexity. Complexity, in this view, is voluntary. Human societies become more complex by choice. By this reasoning, we should be able to forego complexity and the resource consumption that it entails. Progressivism leads to the notion that societies can deliberately reduce their use of resources and thereby achieve sustainability.

The fact that complexity and costliness increase through mundane problem solving suggests a different and startling conclusion: Contrary to what is typically advocated as the route to sustainability, it is usually not possible for a society to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term. To the contrary, as problems great and small inevitably arise, addressing these problems requires complexity and resource consumption to increase. As illustrated by the Roman Empire and other cases, this has commonly been the case.

Many advocates of sustainability will find it disturbing that long-term conservation is not possible. Naturally we must ask: Are there alternatives to this process? Regrettably, no simple solutions are evident. Consider some of the approaches commonly advocated:

1. Voluntarily Reduce Resource Consumption. While this may work for a time, its longevity as a strategy is constrained by the fact that societies increase in complexity to solve problems. Resource production must grow to fund the increased complexity. To implement voluntary conservation long term would require that a society be either uniquely lucky in not being challenged by problems, or that it not address the problems that confront it.

2. Employ the Price Mechanism to Control Resource Consumption. This is currently the laissez-faire strategy of industrialized nations. Since humans don’t commonly forego affordable consumption of desired goods and services, economists consider it more effective than voluntary conservation. Both approaches, however, lead eventually to the same outcome: As problems arise, resource consumption must increase at the societal level even if consumers as individuals purchase less.

3. Ration Resources. Because of its unpopularity, rationing is possible in democracies only for clear, short-term emergencies. This is illustrated by the reactions to rationing in England and the United States during World War II. Moreover, rationed resources may become needed to solve societal problems, belying any attempt to conserve through rationing. Something like this can be seen in the fiscal stimulus programs enacted recently.

4. Reduce Population. While this would reduce aggregate resource consumption temporarily, as a long-term strategy it has the same fatal flaw: Problems will emerge that require solutions, and those solutions will compel resource production to grow.

5. Hope for Technological Solutions. I sometimes call this a faith-based approach to our future. Members of industrialized societies are socialized to believe that we can always find a technological solution to resource problems. Technology, within the framework of this belief, will presumably allow us continually to reduce our resource consumption per unit of material well-being. Conventional economics teaches that to bring this about we need only the price mechanism and unfettered markets. The flaw here was pointed out by William Stanley Jevons: As technological improvements reduce the cost of using a resource, total consumption will actually increase.

In conclusion, sustainability is not the achievement of stasis. It is not a passive consequence of having fewer humans who consume more limited resources. One must work at being sustainable. The challenges that any society (or other institution) might confront are, for practical purposes, endless in number and infinite in variety. This being so, sustainability is a matter of solving problems.

In the conventional view, complexity follows energy. If so, then we should be able to forego complexity voluntarily and reduce our consumption of the resources that it requires. This approach to sustainability implicitly sees the future as a condition of stasis with no challenges.

In actuality, major infusions of surplus energy are rare in human history. More commonly, complexity increases in response to problems. Complexity emerging through problem solving typically precedes the availability of energy, and compels increases in its production. Complexity is not something that we can ordinarily choose to forego.

Applying this understanding leads to two conclusions. The first is that the solutions commonly recommended to promote sustainability–conservation, simplification, pricing, and innovation–can do so only in the short term. Secondly, long-term sustainability depends on solving major societal problems that will converge in coming decades, and this will require increasing complexity and energy production. Sustainability is not a condition of stasis. It is, rather, a process of continuous adaptation, of perpetually addressing new or ongoing problems and securing the resources to do so.

It is useful to think of sustainability in the metaphor of an athletic game: It is possible to “lose”–that is, to become unsustainable, as happened to the Western Roman Empire. But the converse does not hold. Because we continually confront challenges, there is no point at which a society has “won”–become sustainable in perpetuity, or at least for a very long time. Success, rather, consists of staying in the game.