Thesis #13: Civilization always pursues complexity.

by Jason Godesky

What is “civilization”? When asked this question directly, many people answer that a civilization is simply a synonym for “society”–that a civilization is simply a group of people living together. This definition is betrayed when you press the point with borderline examples. Are you comfortable with the phrase “Inuit Civilization”? Or “!Kung Civilization?” Or “Australian Aborigine Civilization”? Most people are not. There is no doubt as to whether the Inuit, !Kung or Aborigines constitute societies, but we waver on the question of their civilization. Obviously, then, the two words are not the synonyms some would claim.

WordNet provides four definitions for the word:

  1. civilization, civilisation — (a society in an advanced state of social development (e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations); “the people slowly progressed from barbarism to civilization”)
  2. civilization, civilisation — (the social process whereby societies achieve civilization)
  3. culture, civilization, civilisation — (a particular society at a particular time and place; “early Mayan civilization”)
  4. refinement, civilization, civilisation — (the quality of excellence in thought and manners and taste; “a man of intellectual refinement”; “he is remembered for his generosity and civilization”)

The third definition is the synonym of society discussed previously (are not all societies in some particular time and place?). The other three all have a common root in nineteenth century ideas of unilineal cultural evolution. Fundamental to this idea is the notion of a society’s progression from savagery to civilization: “the people slowly progressed from barbarism to civilization.”

Progression, though, implies the reality of perfection. For societies to “progress,” there must be some single goal to move towards. Every culture believes itself to be superior to all others, but even after centuries of philosophical theorizing on the subject, we have yet to develop any objective criteria that do not require us first to accept the superiority of our own culture. We can prove our superiority only when it is taken as a premise, making the entire argument moot. Given that such ethnocentrism is a universal among all human cultures, we should not count our own for anything more than that. Ethnocentrism once had its place: a smug sense of superiority could help keep people from wandering off by themselves and dying alone. Usefulness should not be mistaken for truth.

So we see that none of the four definitions provided are really meaningful. One fails to capture what we really mean by the word, and the other three are based on a deeply flawed premise.

Etymologically, the origins of the word “civilization” lay in the Latin word civis, often translated as “city,” but perhaps more accurately translated as “city-state.” The Roman Empire was a patchwork of civitates, fulfilling a role not terribly far removed from states in the U.S., though the Roman Empire was less influenced by notions of Cartesian space and more interested in spheres of influence. The Roman Empire was, in fact, a hierarchy of such smaller imperial dominions; the Pater familias was emperor of his family, and the magistrate was the emperor of his civitas. Strictly speaking, a civis was the “citizen” of such a civitas, but the word was also applied to the sense of “city-ness,” as well as the city itself.

Etymology, then, gives us our first workable definition: “civilization” is a culture of cities. Working more along these lines, and trying to identify a set of defining criteria among those cultures we can comfortably call “civilized,” Vere Gordon Childe defined a set of criteria still taught in introductory anthropology courses and widely accepted as the criteria for civilization:

Primary Criteria

  1. Settlement of cities of 5,000 or more people.
  2. Full-time labor specialization.
  3. Concentration of surplus.
  4. Class structure.
  5. State-level political organization.

Secondary Criteria

  1. Monumental architecture
  2. Long-distance trade
  3. Sophisticated art
  4. Writing
  5. Predictive sciences (math, astronomy, etc.)

The secondary criteria have a general correspondence with civilization, but are not definitive. There are plenty of civilizations that lack one or more of them (Teotihuacan most likely lacked a writing system), two out of five (predictive sciences and sophisticated art) are human universals, and two of the remaining items (monumental architecture and long-distance trade) are known among non-civilized societies.

The primary criteria, though, help us to begin to understand the true nature of civilization. These five criteria are, however, bound to one another through causation. Thus, they always appear together, and never without the others–forming a clearly defined cultural package that we can call “civilization.” This should not be terribly surprising, because culture is a reflexive system, and changes to one part of that system will cascade throughout the whole. In thesis #8, we saw how formative subsistence strategy is for a culture, and how the precarious nature of food production limited cultivating societies to a very narrow range of possible diversity. We saw that Service’s traditional breakdown may be somewhat biased to tease out greater distinction among those societies more like ourselves, while lumping together far greater diversity among foragers not like ourselves. The differences between industry and agriculture are differences of scale, not kind. The Industrial Revolution did not fundamentally change the nature of agricultural society, it merely accelerated it along previously defined lines. Also, pastoralism is an extremely unusual option, confined almost entirely to the Middle East and Africa. Moreover, such societies cannot exist independently of an agricultural society. I tend to think of them more as an unusual case of symbiosis with agricultural societies: a remora to agriculture’s shark, if you will.

That leaves us with a simplified model of just three subsistence strategies: agriculture, horticulture and foraging. This can be simply explained by two, irrefutable bits. Either you grow plants to eat, or you do not. If you do not, you are a forager. If you do, you either work above or below the point of diminishing returns. If above, you are an agriculturalist; if below, you are a horticulturalist. Consider the graph below, where “utility” is the ratio of calories obtained versus calories spent, and “production” is simply the number of calories obtained:

The Point of Diminishing Returns in Cultivation defines Agriculture and Horticulture

The concept of diminishing returns was first developed in the context of agriculture. After a certain point, simply applying more labor yielded less and less benefit. In fact, from a caloric viewpoint, all agriculture is beyond the point of diminishing returns. Even in agrarian societies, it takes more calories of work to farm a field, than is returned in calories of product. Among simpler agrarian societies, this shortfall is made up with the use of tools and animals. The plow uses the fundamental physics of a lever to lessen the workload. Animals can leverage energy sources humans cannot–by grazing in lands too rocky or infertile to be cultivated. In modern petroculture, fossil fuels make up the shortfall. Petroleum doesn’t just power tractors, it also forms the basic ingredients for everything from fertilizer to packaging, and the fuel for transportation. We now burn between 4 and 10 calories–mostly in fossil fuels–for every 1 calorie of agricultural product we produce.

The slope becomes sharper as more labor is applied–the process becomes increasingly inefficient–but the absolute number of calories yielded always goes up by some amount per unit of labor. So, production can still be increased even past the point of diminishing returns by applying more labor. It just becomes increasingly inefficient to do so.

Forager populations are very dispersed, because their food is very dispersed. Foragers gather food from the wild, whether by hunting, fishing, gathering, or simple scavenging. These resources are not collected in any one space, so every forager band requires a significant range of territory. This makes forager society very sparsely populated.

By comparison, cultivation converts a specific area of biomass into human food, raising the edible ratio of that area to 100%. In swidden (a.k.a., “slash-and-burn”) horticulture, for example, an area of rain forest is cut down and burned, and a garden is planted in the ashes. This is the only way to practice cultivation in the rain forest, as the ground is about as fertile as cement–all of the nutrients are locked in the trees. This very clearly illustrates the conversion from biomass into human food, as the biodiversity of some area of rain forest becomes fertilizer to grow a horticultural garden. This is the essence of all cultivation. With a denser food supply, cultures that depend on cultivation for their food can support much denser populations. Horticultural societies typically live in villages, even complex networks of villages. Agricultural societies practice even more intense cultivation, producing even more calories–and thus, producing an even larger population, because human population is a function of food supply (see thesis #4). These populations are even larger, and even denser–leading to cities, the first of Childe’s five primary criteria.

Foragers enjoy a naturalistic social arrangement. Their life is sufficiently comfortable and easy to simply handle things naturally. Decisions are made by concensus. Infractions of social norms can be handled on a case-by-case basis, by the community as a whole. Circumstances and personalities can be fully considered, and rather than focusing on “punishment,” such societies can instead address the harm done directly. Where most civilized societies simply ritualize a sanctioned form of vengeance and mob rule, these “primitives” enjoy true justice.

The number of infractions of social norms–”crimes”–is always some fraction of the total number of interactions between individuals. In a pairing of two individuals, there is only one interaction. Add a third individual, and there are three possible interactions. A fourth raises the number to six; five, to ten; six, to fifteen, and so on. As the number of individuals increases, the number of interactions increases exponentially, and as that number increases, so, too, do the number of infractions. Before long, the community is so large that individuals are no longer universally known, circumstances are not appreciated by all members of the community, and the number of such incidents is too great to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The essence of “law” is the abridgement of justice–to resolve cases more quickly, by compromising fairness. Most legal systems attempt to abrogate this essential fact, but it remains the basic truth of law. Justice is a luxury only the sparsely populated can afford.

Thus, large populations require a legal body, and judges to execute that law. The nature of agricultural production also demands defense. While ideas of property and ownership are essential to an agricultural society, they are alien to the rest of the world. The gross inefficiency of agricultural life puts the agricultural society in a very tenuous position. This is why only agricultural societies suffer famine. When Richard Lee made his famous study of the !Kung and calculated their average work per day to be three hours, the Kalahari was suffering one of the worst draughts in living memory. The !Kung’s Bantu neighbors–pastoralists–were dying of starvation, while the !Kung complained of having to work so hard–three whole hours–to gather their food. Humans are omnivores, and it would take nothing less than a mass extinction to threaten our survival as foragers. We risk starvation only when we culturally redefine “food” to a small number of closely related, domesticated species. Because of this, any agricultural society that does not protect its fields from animal predators–both human and otherwise–will not last very long. Even worse, the inefficiencies of agriculture require constant expansion in order to continue (see thesis #12).

The need of agricultural societies to defend, expand, and enforce law requires the formation of state-level political organization. So far, we have seen two of Childe’s primary criteria–1 and 5–as unavoidable consequences of sufficiently intensive agricultural production.

Of course, standing armies and state-level political organization already demand the second criterion: full-time labor specialization. Soldiers in a standing army are, after all, specialists in combat. Politicians and rulers are specialists in administration; judges specialists in law, etc. Such complexity in labor division can easily be extended. Such specialists produce no food of their own, and so are dependent on others for their subsistence. This builds an innate inequality to all agricultural exchange, as one party posesses something needed, while the other merely posesses something desired. That inequality can be shifted through threats and coercion–either of physical violence on the part of a military-backed secular force, or of spiritual retribution on the part of a religious organization. This brings us Childe’s third criterion–concentration of surplus–and its consequence, class structure, Childe’s fourth criterion.

So we see that all five of Childe’s primary criterion–cities, full-time specialization, concentration of surplus, class and the state–are all necessary consequences of sufficiently intensive food production. This kind of escalation is, itself, an example of a much more basic phenomenon: increasing complexity.

In his 1983 paper, “Breaking down cultural complexity: inequality and heterogeneity,” (in Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, vol 6), McGuire provides this definiton of complexity:

Complexity is generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. Augmenting any of these dimensions increases the complexity of a society. Hunter-gatherer societies (by way of illustrating one contrast in complexity) contain no more than a few dozen distinct social personalities, while modern European censuses recognize 10,000 to 20,000 unique occupational roles, and industrial societies may contain overall more than 1,000,000 different kinds of social personalities.

In “Complexity, Problem-Solving, and Sustanable Societies,” Joseph Tainter reiterates a point he makes in greater detail in his 1988 classic study, The Collapse of Complex Societies:

As a simple illustration of differences in complexity, Julian Steward pointed out the contrast between the native peoples of western North America, among whom early ethnographers documented 3,000 to 6,000 cultural elements, and the U.S. Army, which landed 500,000+ artifact types at Casablanca in World War 11 (Steward 1955). Complexity is quantifiable.

The conventional view has been that human societies have a latent tendency towards greater complexity. Complexity was assumed to be a desirable thing, and the logical result of surplus food, leisure time, and human creativity. Although this scenario is popular, it is inadequate to explain the evolution of complexity. In the world of cultural complexity there is, to use a colloquial expression, no free lunch. More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita. A society that is more complex has more sub-groups and social roles, more networks among groups and individuals, more horizontal and vertical controls, higher flow of information, greater centralization of information, more specialization, and greater interdependence of parts. Increasing any of these dimensions requires biological, mechanical, or chemical energy. In the days before fossil fuel subsidies, increasing the complexity of a society usually meant that the majority of its population had to work harder.

Tainter recognizes five primary subcategories of a culture’s complexity: subsistence methods, technology, conflict, sociopoltical organization, and research and development. Each area can be made more complex by an investment of energy; each can open up access to greater sources of energy by becoming more complex. Complexity is an investment that requires a given input, and makes a given return.

Civilization is a culture which adopts some key element of complexity for which more energy can be gained simply by intensifying input. Agriculture is the classic example: more intensive cultivation will yield more food. This is not necessarily true of foraging, which includes much more of a gamble. This creates a positive feedback loop by kicking off a game of Prisoner’s Dilemna. Failing to intensify production puts one at risk from those who choose to do so. Thus, all civilizations become compelled to grow at all costs (see thesis #12). Because of this, civilizations are forced to constantly increase their complexity whenever possible, whether by refining bureaucratic or administrative functions, increasing agricultural yields, using miltiary force to secure new energy resources (whether this is expressed in Roman conquests explicitly made to acquire new farmland, or contemporary U.S. military involvement in the Middle East), inventing new technology, or any other form of complexity.

So, at last, we have a working definition of civilization. A civilization is any society which chooses to answer all stresses with an increase in complexity. As such, the seeds of collapse are sown in civilization’s very nature, because complexity itself is subject to diminishing returns, and pursuing any one strategy as the response to every stress will suffer the same fate.

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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Think of various problems you have solved. Think of which solutions you are most proud of. I bet that they’re the simplest ones, the ones that work with the problem to solve it. I know mine are. Alternatively, civilization seems to run on contrived solutions. Instead of systemically solving problems we tack on a “fix” to the system that is already there. Which causes a substantial increase in complexity. […]

    Pingback by Keep It Simple, Stupid » The Anthropik Network — 19 November 2005 @ 2:41 AM

  2. […] As we have already seen, civilization must always grow (thesis #12 and thesis #13). That kind of competition creates an environment where building redundancy is impossible. An entity that spends its resources building in redundancy to guard against possible future vulnerabilities is not using those resources to grow. A competitor that chooses to grow is more vulnerable, but has significant short-term advantages that will allow it to out-compete its more forward-thinking competitor, and makes all her planning for the future a moot point. Running two power stations, or twice as many power lines, makes a power grid more robust, but it also makes it more expensive to maintain. Another grid with less redundancy costs much less to maintain, and so will out-compete the other–at least, until something goes wrong. On a long enough timeline, something always goes wrong. […]

    Pingback by Thesis #19: Complexity ensures collapse. » The Anthropik Network — 13 December 2005 @ 12:52 PM

  3. […] Writing was identified by V. Gordon Childe as one of five “secondary characteristics” of civilization.1 Though generally associated with civilization, it is only a correlation. Scholars continue to debate whether or not the unquestionable civilization and significant empire of Teotihuacan had any writing system.2,3 The Inka quite distinctly did not have a writing system; instead, they used sophisticated quipu. That said, it is generally true that civilizations tend to have writing systems, while other forms of society tend not to. […]

    Pingback by The Anthropik Network » Writing, Language & Thought — 13 June 2006 @ 3:34 PM

  4. […] Some people have tried to make “civilization” a mere synonym for “culture,” but I don’t think this works. Do we feel comfortable talking about an “Inuit civilization” or a “Pygmy civilization”? Perhaps the most open-minded of us, but I think in general most of us find a certain discomfort with those phrases. In thesis #13, I explored the issue of what civilization is, and I wrote: Etymologically, the origins of the word “civilization” lay in the Latin word civis, often translated as “city,” but perhaps more accurately translated as “city-state.” The Roman Empire was a patchwork of civitates, fulfilling a role not terribly far removed from states in the U.S., though the Roman Empire was less influenced by notions of Cartesian space and more interested in spheres of influence. The Roman Empire was, in fact, a hierarchy of such smaller imperial dominions; the Pater familias was emperor of his family, and the magistrate was the emperor of his civitas. Strictly speaking, a civis was the “citizen” of such a civitas, but the word was also applied to the sense of “city-ness,” as well as the city itself. […]

    Pingback by Basic Primtivism Refresher (The Anthropik Network) — 18 September 2006 @ 3:28 PM

  5. […] Some people have tried to make “civilization” a mere synonym for “culture,” but I don’t think this works. Do we feel comfortable talking about an “Inuit civilization” or a “Pygmy civilization”? Perhaps the most open-minded of us, but I think in general most of us find a certain discomfort with those phrases. In thesis #13, I explored the issue of what civilization is, and I wrote: Etymologically, the origins of the word “civilization” lay in the Latin word civis, often translated as “city,” but perhaps more accurately translated as “city-state.” The Roman Empire was a patchwork of civitates, fulfilling a role not terribly far removed from states in the U.S., though the Roman Empire was less influenced by notions of Cartesian space and more interested in spheres of influence. The Roman Empire was, in fact, a hierarchy of such smaller imperial dominions; the Pater familias was emperor of his family, and the magistrate was the emperor of his civitas. Strictly speaking, a civis was the “citizen” of such a civitas, but the word was also applied to the sense of “city-ness,” as well as the city itself. […]

    Pingback by Reviewing the Basics (The Anthropik Network) — 20 September 2006 @ 11:02 PM

  6. […] In the previous thesis, we saw that complexity is subject to diminishing returns, because of each of its facets–subsistence, information processng, sociopolitical control, economics, and technology–are not only intertwined as a single system, but are themselves subject to diminishing returns. As such, any society which pursues complexity as an answer to every stress–which is to say, any civilization (see thesis #13)–must, eventually, collapse. This is only underlined by the basic fact that nothing can grow forever in a finite universe (see thesis #12). This leaves only the question of when collapse will occur, or, “is our current level of complexity before or beyond the point of diminishing returns?” To answer this question, let’s again take a look at each of the elements we’ve previously broken out separately: subsistence, information processng, sociopolitical control, economics, and technology. […]

    Pingback by Thesis #15: We have passed the point of diminishing returns. (The Anthropik Network) — 17 October 2006 @ 10:19 AM

  7. […] It was only 10,000 years ago that another jump in complexity was made with the Neolithic Revolution, and the twin innovations of agriculture and hierarchy (see thesis #10). This one proved distinctly unsustainable, and touched off a positive feedback loop of ever more complexity (see thesis #13), leading inevitably to collapse (see thesis #14). Thus, the global collapse of such a system is its inevitable destiny. That destiny has been averted at various times in the past, but each aversion has merely postponed that collapse–and, in postponing it, intensified it, by allowing for even more complexity that must be collapsed, a smaller surviving resource base to fall back on, and a larger population dependent on that complexity. […]

    Pingback by Thesis #20: Collapse is an economizing process. (The Anthropik Network) — 17 October 2006 @ 10:24 AM

  8. […] To refer to the “Fertile Crescent” today is a cruel joke, but this was not always the case. Once, this region was abundant. The arid desert we see today is the result of agriculture. The first farmers stripped it of all life, and then spread out to the east and west to consume the next region, like the alien invaders of some clichéd science fiction movie. Yet it was not malice or greed that drove them; they were locked into an endless cycle of exponential growth. Their way of life required constant expansion. Good or evil, nice or mean, they were compelled to conquer, whether they liked it or not (see thesis #12 and thesis #13). […]

    Pingback by Thesis #17: Environmental problems may lead to collapse. (The Anthropik Network) — 17 October 2006 @ 10:28 AM

  9. […] The silly notion of “purity” that could never work in a truly primitive life aside, this is largely true. Most of the great movements in history were essentially primitivists; Jesus, Martin Luther, and many, many others held essentially primitivist views, and sought to push back the overwhelming, dehumanizing complexity of civilization back. Today, we know that civilization is defined by its unhealthy relationship with complexity,46 and that complexity is subject to diminishing returns.47 In that pattern, civilization damns itself to collapse. Primitivism makes sense of that pattern, and offers hope for the future by throwing light on just how dehumanizing civilization is. […]

    Pingback by “The Savages are Truly Noble” (The Anthropik Network) — 10 May 2007 @ 3:27 PM

  10. […] that pursues greater complexity as the answer to every stress–that is, any civilization (see thesis #13)–must eventually collapse. The question is not if, but when. Previous: Thesis #13: […]

    Pingback by The Anthropik Network » Thesis #14: Complexity is subject to diminishing returns. — 31 July 2007 @ 2:46 PM


Comments

  1. You know, it’s interesting but having a psych background, I liken complexity to the increasingly convoluted logic processes of a schizophrenic.

    Taking out the possible shamanistic element, it seems that the mind’s reaction to stress is to seek multiple ways out of the stress — to complicate things.

    And here we are living in an increasingly complex world.

    Comment by Bill Maxwell — 27 October 2005 @ 12:33 PM

  2. Alright — so if we’re not building a civilization (which we’re not), what do we call it? (at least temporarily for the sake of discussion).

    After all, we’re discussing the creation of a society based off of forager bands and human-sized (150 or less) villages.

    What do you think?

    Comment by Bill Maxwell — 27 October 2005 @ 12:35 PM

  3. Hmmm, might I humbly suggest the word “tribe” to refer to each group of 150 or fewer humans living in egalitarian societies with foraging as their main source of food?

    Comment by Benjamin Shender — 27 October 2005 @ 12:57 PM

  4. A society is any group of people.

    A culture is (1) the whole set of learned behaviors, and (2) the society that learns the same behaviors.

    A civilization is a culture that pursues complexity as its response to all pressures.

    So, civilizations are a subset of cultures. There are lots of cultures that aren’t civilizations. So might I suggest simply referring to a “culture” or “society”?

    Tribe might be good, but it’s got some baggage. Band would work for many foragers. Rhizome is precise, but relatively esoteric. But ultimately a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. :)

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 27 October 2005 @ 1:04 PM

  5. We’re growing [i]Rhizome[/i].

    Comment by JCamasto — 27 October 2005 @ 1:11 PM

  6. On swidden horticulture and the fertility of the rain forest — Beyond Wilderness

    We’ve all been told how terrible the Amazonian soil is: cut down the trees and you’re left with nothing. But at least 10%—possibly much more—of the Amazon Basin (an area the size of France) is covered with a rich black earth called terra preta. Terra preta soils hold their nutrients even in tropical downpours, and are rich with soil life. They seem to regenerate themselves, and were used by Amazonian Indians to inoculate less fertile soils, kick-starting nutrient cycles. They also last for many centuries. And terra preta, scientists have finally agreed, is human-made. Using nitrogen-fixing trees, permanent crop cover, deep mulching, manure, and other techniques so familiar to permaculture, the Amazonians built feet-thick soil over much of the basin.

    Their conclusion is also interesting:

    Wilderness may be merely a European concept imposed on a depopulated and abandoned landscape. The indigenous people of the Americas were master terraformers, using a hard-learned understanding of ecological processes to preserve the fundamental integrity of natural systems while utterly transforming the land into a place where humans belonged and could thrive. They were truly a part of nature, and likely did not make a distinction, as environmentalists do, between land where people belong and land where we do not. I’ll certainly agree that people carrying chainsaws and riding bulldozers don’t belong everywhere. But I’m beginning to think that gardeners, with gentle tools and sensitive spirits, have been and might again be the best planetary land managers the Earth can have.

    Food for thought. :)

    Comment by Devin — 27 October 2005 @ 3:50 PM

  7. I don’t think the Earth needs planetary land managers–gentle and sensitive or not. Did just fine without us, after all.

    Everything’s sustainable over a certain amount of time. The question is whether it’s indefinitely sustainable. Foraging’s been around long enough to prove itself; horticulture’s no older than agriculture. It may be just as unsustainable, only over a slightly longer time scale. So I remain suspicious.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 27 October 2005 @ 3:53 PM

  8. Quinn said it best:

    “We have as much business being stewards of the world as infants have being stewards of the nursery. It’s we who are dependant on the world, not the other way round.”

    Comment by Raku — 27 October 2005 @ 4:11 PM

  9. What are the chances of any member of the current generation to make it to the promised land of egalitarian forager bands living more or less peacefully and sustainably?
    If foragers require so much land to gather food, any widespread acceptance of this lifestyle (even with 2-3% of current population) will cause intense territorial clashes for several generations.
    The presence of huge number of civilization artefacts after collapse will create a very interesting dynamic in these clashes, as groups with better artefacts and better technical knowledge as well as better forager life skills will gain initial advantage.
    Hiding from civilization’s derelicts turned cannibals was mentioned as a great challenge for emerging forager tribes, but there is no mention of likely territorial fights between the emerging forager tribes if they are squeezed too tight in not enough land.
    Whatever happens, if too many people become good primitives, they are likely in for a life of strife lasting several generations

    Comment by Anonymous — 27 October 2005 @ 4:26 PM

  10. You can still read the article, sheesh, lol. I think we might be getting a little too fundamentalist about all this. “Terra preta” sounds pretty amazing to me.

    Do you plan on buying land in the wilderness and starting from there? How much wilderness is left?

    What about all the other land that has been damaged — do we restore it? Do we stop spraying chemicals everywhere, do we tear up the concrete and the asphalt, do we remove invasive species? If so, why? How arrogant of us to think that we are the stewards of the land…

    Except that we’ve been living this arrogance for thousands of years now. Where do we draw a line on what is “good” interference and what is “bad” interference? Sustainability to me is a really poor way of measuring, because quite simply we aren’t able to tell. Who could tell hundreds of years ago that the Earth wasn’t flat? Who knew that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe? That the Earth was even finite? Who knew that there wasn’t a God interfering daily, one with the power to restore it or destroy it all with a flick of a finger?

    Similarly — what effect is climate change going to have on the next 100 years? 1000? 1 million? How long does sustainability last? What if humans go extinct? So what if humans go extinct?

    Whose story is this anyway?

    Comment by Devin — 27 October 2005 @ 4:26 PM

  11. I kinda figured ‘rhizome’ worked pretty well. ;-)

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 27 October 2005 @ 4:35 PM

  12. I utterly reject the concept of being the kings of life on Earth, and find the idea of being the stewards of life on Earth rather silly. I rather suggest embracing the ideal of being servants of life. As with the Terra Preta spoken of above, made by humans, what’s to stop us from causing life to bloom in ways it never has before?

    After all the pain and destruction we’ve caused, don’t we owe it to the world, at least in some small way, to not only heal the damage we’ve done, but to repay with interest? After all the extinctions we’ve caused, why shouldn’t we give speciation a jump start?

    Why not create a world so full of life that it makes a rainforest look like a parking lot? Does this seem like a vision many could share, or am I alone?

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 27 October 2005 @ 4:51 PM

  13. Chuck,

    You’re definitely not alone in the idea of re-wilding the places we’ve screwed up.

    And yes, Jason, this could lead to a lot of grief in terms of where we should ‘interfere’ and where we shouldn’t but consider two things: (1) a number of tribes offered ‘gifts’ to the Green Nation that turned out to be damned good insecticides, so even foragers ‘manage’ the land a little.

    And (2) perhaps the key to it all is being a part of the story of life. What if we are no more stewards of the planet than the buffalo which drops a load of fertilizer? What if it’s just returning the love to the world that the world has shown us (in happy, goofy terms, let’s give the world a hug!)

    Best

    Bill

    Comment by Bill Maxwell — 27 October 2005 @ 5:16 PM

  14. Who could tell hundreds of years ago that the Earth wasn’t flat? Who knew that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe? That the Earth was even finite? Who knew that there wasn’t a God interfering daily, one with the power to restore it or destroy it all with a flick of a finger?

    Um, tribal peoples? Sorry, Devin. ;) Just taking potshots at your expense. The Terra preta info was really interesting, thanks! :)

    I rather suggest embracing the ideal of being servants of life.

    Nope. I don’t want to be a servant. I just want to belong.

    After all the pain and destruction we’ve caused, don’t we owe it to the world, at least in some small way, to not only heal the damage we’ve done, but to repay with interest? After all the extinctions we’ve caused, why shouldn’t we give speciation a jump start?

    Why not create a world so full of life that it makes a rainforest look like a parking lot? Does this seem like a vision many could share, or am I alone?

    The damage will be healed, without any interference from us. And giving speciation a head start and creating worlds implies that we have some kind of control over it, which is the kind of thinking that got us into trouble in the first place. All we can do is find what works best for us, and leave the rest to itself.

    Comment by Raku — 27 October 2005 @ 5:16 PM

  15. After reading the article, I can’t help but think these people recognized the story of life and then inserted themselves into it as active characters. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Isn’t that something wonderful to strive for?

    Also, re: our responsibility to the world, I understand that the idea of control got us into this mess, but there are several NA myth cycles that talk about how we messed up the previous ‘world’ and now need to work harder, follow the rules, and keep the balance.

    I believe the same type of myth should go to our children so we never try this madness again. (barring of course, the ability to do it)

    Best

    Bill

    Comment by Bill Maxwell — 27 October 2005 @ 6:00 PM

  16. No fundamentalism, Devin, just a general suspicion of all cultivation because it has yet to prove itself. I’ve heard of terra preta before, but surely you’re not one of those people saying that the rain forest is somehow suitable for non-swidden cultivation simply because 10% of its soil is fertile? Remember, that means that 90% is cement.

    But, the argument raised here is the one argument for permaculture that puts me on the fence about maybe it being OK. If permaculture is being used to try to accelerate the healing process for all the damage we’ve caused … then maybe it won’t be sowing the seeds of doom for all mankind.

    Maybe.

    I’m still suspicious, though….

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 27 October 2005 @ 7:31 PM

  17. No, I wasn’t saying that the other parts of the rainforest were suitable for non-swidden cultivation. That would be stupid. :) I was simply saying that permaculture practices helped build lush soil. Which, in my mind, goes to show that not all cultivation has to cause ecological destruction — a pretty important point to be made.

    I’ve now heard of a number of different practices of cultivation that are enriching rather than consuming. Permaculture practices, swidden horticulture, Masanobu Fukuoka’s Natural Way of Farming, and so on. It’s a pretty farsighted claim to say that these things will cause the doom of all humankind.

    As it is, about any form of food gathering/production is better than industrial agriculture. Denigrating potential tools for the transition out of some adherence to an ideal seems to be a strange reversal of policy for you. See your answer to question #1 on “5 Common Objections to Primitivism”.

    Comment by Devin — 27 October 2005 @ 8:06 PM

  18. Jason;

    Let’s use your very own Thesis #1, that diversity is the greatest good. Now, you use this to show that anything that combats that diversity and decreases it is bad for the whole. In other words, civilization. Don’t tell me you can’t push it through to the other side and say that if diversity is indeed the greatest good, then anything that actively increases diversity is also good. And if you can take it a step further, the faster diversity increases, the better (provided it is still dynamically stable). Which, incidentally, humans could accomplish.

    I do not, and never will suggest that humans should act as if in control the world; if anyone takes that idea out of my words, they brought the idea. Rather, I suggest that humans could act as a sort of “pressure cooker.” While we wouldn’t want to (and couldn’t!) replace the process of creation or speciation or evolution, we could speed things up quite a bit, to “replace” the species we’d destroyed and beyond. I’m talking about a planet-wide climax ecosystem, which has never before occured. Humans can do it.

    Does the world NEED us to do this? Well, of course not! The world doesn’t NEED us any more than we NEED any one type of food when there’s so much out there. We have plenty of other nourishment, and so does the Earth.

    So what’s my point?

    A vision where humans have assumed the mantle of the friend and protector of life? A vision where humans are the willing agents of creation who have taken on the task of fostering life? It sounds like a very constructive, inspiring, rewarding (and safe) vision to me.

    If there should ever come a time when there is the possibility of civilization regaining its former strength, I would much rather the world be populated by humans with the mentality of ‘Elves with the means to create’ than by humans with the mentality of ‘Orcs who have lost the means to destroy’. The idea that “we don’t have to worry about it because it’s impossible” has never sat well with me, because humans are an inventive bunch. Is the absolute best way to stop humans from rebuilding civilization to make it physically impossible? Yes. But what if a way is found? Your choice; a world populated by Elves, or by Orcs.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 27 October 2005 @ 8:21 PM

  19. I realizes what I was really trying to get at about four minutes after I hit “submit.” Pretty common.

    Scrap the Elf/Orc thing… it’s an incorrect analogy. I won’t use an analogy at all. I’ll tell a story.

    Two thousand years from now, in a lush and beautiful redwood forest in what is today called the Pacific Northwest, two young humans are having a discussion while they take a break from their hunt:

    “It doesn’t explain why so many of the Elder Brother’s cultures took so long to fight back against the spread of the Structure.”

    “Argh, are you on this again? More wild theories, I bet. I don’t know, I suppose that the Elder Brothers were taken by surprise, Jaren. Not much one can do about it.”

    “No, Davver, They weren’t taken by surprise. At least our histories say so. Many of them saw the Structure coming, centuries in advance. Many even understood parts of it… but because it was merely incompatible, merely different, they couldn’t comprehend the whole. They never fought to destroy it, merely to protect themselves when the Structure loomed large.”

    “And that can’t happen to us?” Davver went back to greasing his bowstring.

    “Well, could it? If I told you that only three days walk from here, there were people who were gardening in massive fields with only one type of plant per field, and returning nothing to the soil, what would you say?”

    Davven furrowed his brow. “I would say that to do such a thing would be in direct opposition to everything I hold sacred. Only one plant in the field? Disturbing. Unsustainable, and even worse, degrading to the soil.”

    “So you understand what happens, because your worldview is the exact opposite.”

    “Well, yeah, Jaren. I understand that what they’re doing destroys what Life has created. It’s not just wrong, it’s… dangerous. Incredibly dangerous.”

    “What if you knew that these people were interested in expanding their lands?”

    “Hmm, well, they’d sort of have to, wouldn’t they? Once they depleted their soil, if they’re as crazy as you say, they won’t just start gardening or foraging. They’ll have to get more land.”

    “You understand this, then, Davver.”

    “Yes. And furthermore, I would get together with hunters and fighters from nearby villages and tribes and make a preemptive stike to destroy these people before they got out of hand.”

    “So you see? It couldn’t happen to us.”

    Having a starkly opposing vision to agriculture and civilization as opposed to a merely incompatible vision would allow humans to act as a sort of immune system for civilization, naturally supressing any civilizations or agricultural societies before they could become a threat.

    Or at least, that’s one of the practicalities.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 27 October 2005 @ 8:56 PM

  20. I am of the opinion that civilisation would HAVE to be made physically impossible in order to stop it from popping back up. This would be difficult to accomplish.

    After a crash, recovery may indeed take many milennia, but if we still have domesticable plants and animals knocking about, as well as rejuvenated forests and local concentrations of metals (scrapyards and cities) I don’t see anything to prevent civilisations of a 17th century European (eg Spanish) level from eventually appearing. This kind of level of civilisation is capable of extreme expansionism and nastiness. The only difference in the future would be that civilisation would stop right there, not having any fossil fuels to take advantage of. The civilisation would crash, then a new one would pop up somewhere else. It will keep on happening, with irritating frequency, for any hunter-gatherers who happen to be nearby.

    If our present civilisation crashes, it won’t mean the end of all civilisation for ever. It’ll just mark a high point in the cycle.

    Comment by Clive — 27 October 2005 @ 9:03 PM

  21. Historical problem with destroying entire cultures: if you don’t kill everyone to the last man, woman, and child you would have only made a group of pissed off refuges that will rebound with the ralying cry “kill the tribal bastards!” So don’t start it if you aren’t willing to finish it then and there.

    Comment by Benjamin Shender — 27 October 2005 @ 10:01 PM

  22. Chuck,

    It is precisely because permaculture has the potential to engender more diversity that I think it might be worthwhile. But similar bills of goods have been sold before, and they have often produced less, not more, diversity. If the promise of permaculture turns out to be a lie, and it instead degrades diversity, then it is a problem. This is why I’m skeptical; we’ve been lied to before, and I’m not yet entirely convinced that permaculture can deliver on its promises.

    As for engendering an anti-civilization ideal, well, idealism follows from praxis. Live like a primitive, and you’ll start to think like one, too. Trying to think primitively while still maintaining your 9-to-5, though, that’s … difficult at best.

    Clive,

    Civilization will be impossible to rebuild, regardless of what we do. The metals in cities and scrapyards will oxidize in a generation, which will make most of the useful metals there unusable and unworkable. The thing to worry about is probably mining the junkyards, but even that would be a vastly inferior resource to naturally mined ore. So the cap isn’t the 17th century; it’s the Neolithic.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 28 October 2005 @ 8:51 AM

  23. Hey –

    The thing that intrigues me about permaculture — especially ‘rewilding permaculture’ (as far as I know, MY OWN version… :-) ) — is the potential to change the whole way people look at food production. IF it works then what you are fundamentally ‘telling’ people is that mother nature does it BETTER, so stop trying to control your food source.

    Hopefully in two or three years(eight to ten???) I will be able to answer that IF :-)

    Janene

    Comment by Janene — 28 October 2005 @ 9:28 AM

  24. It’s one thing to live as primitives, and when the next door neighbors start practicing agriculture, think, “Hm, that’s unusual.” This is pretty much what our genetic (not cultural) ancestors did, for the most part.

    It’s quite another to live as primitives, and when the next door neighbors start practicing agriculture, gasp in shock and horror and proclaim, “Look at what they’re doing to life and diversity! They’re evil incarnate! Suppress them!”

    I got to thinking that no matter how difficult it is to restart civilization, someone’s gonna try anyway, and it’ll cause a lot of suffering. No one’s going to go to war to stop this embryonic civilization just on the word of the oral histories. (”And then Vail and Godesky, who were great orators, told the people, ‘Civilization blows. Trust us.’”) Now, if there’s a general mindset that any human behavior that decreases diversity is eeeevil, well, when a small civilization gets going, it’s not going to last long.

    The best controls on civilization are of course physical; that’s basic technocratic principle: “The best way to inhibit a behavior is to make that behavior physically impossible.” But the second best controls are social controls and should not be ruled out.

    Ran Prieur wrote something that I’ve taken to heart:

    My problem with Indians, at least as they’re portrayed by sympathetic white people, is that they’re always saying they “don’t understand” the evils of civilization. “We don’t understand why you kill millions of people, so we are wise, and you are stupid.” Excuse me, but lack of understanding is not wiser than understanding. It’s the other way around. And I do understand why civilized people build death camps, why we’re obsessed with control and sterility and changelessness, why we hate life. I understand it in my bones, because I was born and raised in this reality and I paid attention. And if Indians really don’t understand, then there’s a place where we’ve gone past them, where they can learn from us.

    Of course, there’re a lot of things wrong with the “purely factual” parts of this bit, but the spirit is what I’m going after. The “new primitives” will be better off than the originals because we will understand civilization, and hopefully will design our societies around never allowing it to surface again, in whatever form, for however brief a time.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 28 October 2005 @ 1:42 PM

  25. Chuck,

    One of the things I addressed with a story on the forum was that the cultural meme that made up our civ was just close enough to the First Nations to make them pause. After all, what if those strange folks who tore up the land were right? They certainly seemed to have a lot of powerful stuff. Maybe the Creator was on their side.

    By the time they learned they were wrong, it was way too late.

    Comment by Bill Maxwell — 28 October 2005 @ 1:47 PM

  26. Hmm…it seems that the conquering of the Americas occured either because 1)They had never seen civilization and had no idea how it operated, so were willing enough to help it along at first, then had no defense strategy against it 2)Their existing methods of warfare did not involve enough inter-tribal cooperation to defend against invaders 3)Germs 4) In the case of places where civ already existed (like the Aztecs), germs plus a string of bizzare coincidences? I mean, white gods? Unarmed soldiers? Insulting the Bible?

    Do I dare bring up the case of the Greenland Norse again? ;) Look at what happened to them. Did the Inuit help them at all or just watch them starve, shaking their heads at the absurdity? What if there had been no deadly germs in the American invasion? The Indians initially had quite the advantage in their dealings with the colonists. They knew the land, the plant and animal life; they could survive anywhere. My guess is that foreknowledge of the danger of civilization, combined with extensive knowledge of the land, defense of one’s own territory and good intertribal communication might prove strong enough. It seems to be working for Al-Qaeda, even against maximum strength civilization. We won’t have the germ factor, at least not immediately. And if Jason’s assertion about there not being the resources for more than scattered pockets of Neolithic-level civilization ends up being correct, then its spread is going to be pretty limited.

    Comment by Raku — 28 October 2005 @ 3:14 PM

  27. Bill,

    Great insight! As we know, the Six Nations weren’t exactly that far off of us… we were simply dissimilar to them.

    Now, if civilization had shown up in N’Am, and every tribe thought that it wasn’t just wierd, or abnormal, or strange, but just plain evil… maybe it would have taken much longer for the white man to spread accross the Western Hemisphere.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 28 October 2005 @ 3:16 PM

  28. I think, on some level, it will be unavoidable. We’re polluted with these memes now, and we can’t help but know the things we know. And that will be passed on to our children–it’s not something we can help. And thus, it will perpetuate itself.

    Trying to “build in” some genocidal exterminator meme not only is an idea of questionable merit (kill those who are evil, like Takers — but isn’t the next tribe over that looks at me funny just like Takers?), it’s also of highly questionable effectiveness. It would, essentially, be a religious idea–and no one dies for religion. Even with that meme, they won’t go to war unless their interests are threatened.

    At the same time, it seems foolish to think that our rhizomatic relationships will suddenly disappear, forgotten. And we’ll know precisely the threat we face. When one of the tribes comes to the festival with tales of the abomination lurking in the West, I think our legacy will be sufficient to call up a great war party that would limit their growth against that particular league, like Hermann Arminius limited the growth of Rome.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 28 October 2005 @ 6:12 PM

  29. Even with that meme, they won’t go to war unless their interests are threatened.

    And an imminent invasion followed by the destruction of their way of life isn’t of interest?

    The “religious” aspect you mention exists only to provide a framework for the understanding of what increases diversity, and what decreases it. Thusly, under such a framework (understood in whatever way), anyone who saw the looming threat of the artificial destruction of diversity would be able to recognize it.

    Unless I am wrong, people are reading the concept of “permaculture” into what I say, but I’ve never mentioned it. The understanding that comes from such a mental framework would allow hunter-foragers - or whoever - to understand the way that soil is created - and destroyed.

    This understanding is the goal; being a “servant of life” with the task of “increasing diversity” only provides the framework necessary for all walks of life to be have the necessary knowledge to see a civilization coming down the pipes, and be able to react to the menace of reborn civilizations.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 28 October 2005 @ 7:34 PM

  30. And an imminent invasion followed by the destruction of their way of life isn’t of interest?

    It has to be really imminent to work that way–just, “hey, they’ll invade us in a century or two,” usually translates as, “OK, so we can ignore this for about a century or two.”

    The permaculture thing was in response to a totally different discussion up-thread.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 28 October 2005 @ 8:35 PM

  31. > I don’t think the Earth needs planetary land managers–gentle and sensitive or not. Did just fine without us, after all.

    There were older “versions”: ants and bees. Less “intelligent” (or so we want to claim) yet…

    1. Settlement of cities of 5,000 or more people: ant hill can contain over million of “citizens”.
    2. Full-time labor specialization: sure. Soldier ant can not even eat without help!
    3. Concentration of surplus: of course. A lot of surplus is concentarted in ant hill.
    4. Class structure: pretty flat, but yes.
    5. State-level political organization: yup. No long debates, but drones are killed :-)

    > Foraging’s been around long enough to prove itself; horticulture’s no older than agriculture.

    Hmm… In my calculations 100 millions of years are somewhat more then 100′000 years, don’t you think.

    Conclusion: there are nothing wrong with civilization per se. TODAY’S civilization is other story - somewhere invisible border was passed. Perhaps ants are too primitive to pass this border. Perhaps ants who passed it in the past are not long extinct and “sane ones” survived. Who knows ? But the fact is fact: bees and ants are “civilized” (by this definition) and yet live happily for millions of years.

    Comment by Vorfeed Canal — 29 October 2005 @ 4:11 AM

  32. Like I said, civilization might be a wonderful system–for some species other than humans. Ants and bees are not humans; ants and bees are adapted to that kind of society. Humans are not. It is that maladaptation–the fact that we’re taking creatures uniquely adapted to egalitarianism, and shoving them into a hierarchy–that makes civilizations of humans so destructive. Square peg, round hole; ultimately, that’s the problem.

    Horticulture hasn’t been around for hundreds of millions of years; horticulture is also 10,000 years old, just like agriculture.

    If you don’t think there’s anything wrong with civilization per se, I’d invite you to read the rest of the Thirty Theses so far written … there is not a single problem with today’s civilization that is not present in all other civilizations. The only difference between industrialism and agriculture is scale, not kind.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 29 October 2005 @ 10:23 AM

  33. Jason,

    I think what Chuck & I are talking about is creating a meme that acts like an adaptive immune system. We’ve been infected by civilization before and by creating the proper myths can empower rhizome networks to react and destroy civ cells before they overwhelm the system again.

    (You know, as I write this, I’ve got Quinn’s writing going through my head where he says “do not equate civilization to a sickness” but, hey, sometimes you got to go where the metaphor takes you)

    Funny, after looking at the wiki stuff on immune systems, there’s nothing innately that prevents civilization but perhaps adaptively, we can do something about it.

    Comment by Bill Maxwell — 29 October 2005 @ 12:17 PM

  34. Damn, it Bill! I spend almost a thousand words trying to get at my point. I write a frickin’ story, make references to LOTR, bounce hither and thither, and then you come and say,

    I think what Chuck & I are talking about is creating a meme that acts like an adaptive immune system.

    AAAAAARGH!

    God, that’s so eloquently said!

    Certain peoples of the future California coast, at least, will have an adaptive cultural immune system. :)

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 29 October 2005 @ 11:00 PM

  35. So, at last, we have a working definition of civilization. A civilization is any society which chooses to answer all stresses with an increase in complexity. As such, the seeds of collapse are sown in civilization’s very nature, because complexity itself is subject to diminishing returns, and pursuing any one strategy as the response to every stress will suffer the same fate.

    Complexity began with the development of tools. Civilization could be said to have begun with the Ice Age. The Ice Age reduces flora and fauna in the habitat of early humans, restricting food supplies available to foragers, so humans develop spears with which to hunt large mammals such as mammoths. In order to make spears, a body of knowledge about stonecrafting must be developed and passed down from generation to generation, and suitable stone and wood must be found. By your definition, this is civilization.

    Civilization is the result of human evolution. As far as the continuation of evolution, it now consists entirely of the sucess or failure of societies. The reason the Inuit lived the way they did is because they lacked the resources with which to advance their civilization in the harsh climate they lived in. To strive for a return to “primitivism” is 1) an attempt to avoid deveoloping solutions to the problems posed by modern civilization, 2) futile, as civilization is what humans evolved to develop, and 3) argue that society would be better than it is now if we died younger and left no contribution of knowledge to the next generation other than what is needed to survive at the most basic level. This last part means that society must refuse to learn, as anything learned could give rise to new ways of living. This is impossible.

    In habitats in which the human population increases enough, the environment cannot sustain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for all of the people, and there are only 4 options: agriculture, emigration (which merely postpones the problem to a different time or place), starvation, or population control through some form of family planning or the killing of members of the population. The environments in which agriculture did not develop that you mention, the Artic, the Kalahari, and Australia, are either entirely unsuitable for agriculture or marginally arable only for societies that already posess advanced knowledge of agriculture. Every hunter-gatherer society that could use agriculture in an envrironment, after its population increased to a level unsustainable without agriculture, has at some point as a whole or as a subset incorporated agriculture into its way of life. What makes you think this is not inevitable? What makes you think this is unsustainable? If you think there are no examples of it being sustainable, a prime example is the island civilization of Tikopia, in the Pacific, which existed with a relatively high population density and employed agriculture on a small isolated island for almost 3 millenia with little contact with the outside world prior to encountering Europeans.

    Comment by NF — 31 October 2005 @ 2:07 AM

  36. Complexity began with the development of tools. Civilization could be said to have begun with the Ice Age. The Ice Age reduces flora and fauna in the habitat of early humans, restricting food supplies available to foragers, so humans develop spears with which to hunt large mammals such as mammoths. In order to make spears, a body of knowledge about stonecrafting must be developed and passed down from generation to generation, and suitable stone and wood must be found. By your definition, this is civilization.

    No, absolutely not. As Tainter points out, every culture has some level of complexity. A “complex society” is not a binary option, it’s a spectrum. What I said was:

    A civilization is any society which chooses to answer all stresses with an increase in complexity.

    Sometimes foragers answer stresses with an increase in complexity, such as new tools (though your scenario isn’t really correct in its details). But at other times, foragers answer stresses with a decrease in complexity, such as with group fissioning. So, they don’t answer all stresses with an increase in complexity, only some–and that’s the crucial difference. Because of that, they go up and down the scale, and the diminishing returns of complexity do not become a significant problem for them.

    Civilization is the result of human evolution.

    I could not possibly disagree more. In terms of its short time scale and its absoluteness, nothing in the known universe has ever failed more completely. Pursuing complexity to answer every single problem is incredibly stupid, and the result is a society entirely maladapted to human evolution. To call this humanity’s sole destiny is not only unbelievably ethnocentric, it’s positively myopic and self-absorbed.

    The reason the Inuit lived the way they did is because they lacked the resources with which to advance their civilization in the harsh climate they lived in.

    You are correct; societies are mechanistic. Complexity is a function of energy. Less energy, less complexity. But again, complexity beyond the point of diminishing returns ultimately collapses. It is an unstable configuration; the only stable level of complexity is the stone age. That’s another reason the Inuit live as they do.

    To strive for a return to “primitivism” is 1) an attempt to avoid deveoloping solutions to the problems posed by modern civilization, 2) futile, as civilization is what humans evolved to develop, and 3) argue that society would be better than it is now if we died younger and left no contribution of knowledge to the next generation other than what is needed to survive at the most basic level.

    1.) There are no solutions to the problems posed by modern civilization to be developed. The problems posed by modern civilization are inherent to civilization itself. The only solution to them is the end of civilization.

    2.) Since we’ve already seen that your idea that civilization is somehow the inevitable outcome of human evolution is incredibly wrong, and because no such society ever lasts longer than a few millennia (that is, in terms of human evolution, a minor blink), far from being futile, it is, in fact, inevitable.

    3.) If you get lost trying to drive somewhere, do you decide to go back, get back on track, and continue from there, or do you say, “No, damn it! We go forward! This is the inevitable conclusion of trying to get where we’re going! We cannot go back!” Primitive societies have been evolving for just as long as we have. The Ju/’Hoansi are not living fossils. This idea that primitivism is “going back” evokes the incredibly flawed idea of unilineal evolution. Evolution doesn’t work that way. There is no going back, and primitivism makes no such suggestion. Primitivism suggests something radically different, but there is no back, and any claim that it is “going back” can only be based in a seriously flawed understanding of what evolution is, some rampant ethnocentrism, or, more likely, both.

    This last part means that society must refuse to learn, as anything learned could give rise to new ways of living. This is impossible.

    Of course. And forager societies did just that for two million years, sustainably. Civilization has nothing to do with progress or learning; it has to do with stubbornly pursuing complexity every single time something happens. It has more to do with stupidity than knowledge. More reasonable societies pursue the solutions that work best, not the most complex solution every single time, no matter what.

    In habitats in which the human population increases enough, the environment cannot sustain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle for all of the people, and there are only 4 options: agriculture, emigration (which merely postpones the problem to a different time or place), starvation, or population control through some form of family planning or the killing of members of the population.

    Yes, but how does that population increase? Human population is not an independent variable. It depends on food supply. Human populations increase because of agriculture!

    The environments in which agriculture did not develop that you mention, the Artic, the Kalahari, and Australia, are either entirely unsuitable for agriculture or marginally arable only for societies that already posess advanced knowledge of agriculture.

    Precisely, that’s why we didn’t kill them.

    Every hunter-gatherer society that could use agriculture in an envrironment, after its population increased to a level unsustainable without agriculture, has at some point as a whole or as a subset incorporated agriculture into its way of life. What makes you think this is not inevitable?

    Because those populations rise because of agriculture. And most foragers don’t adopt agriculture–they’re massacred by hordes of starving, agriculturalist soldiers, enslaved, and put to work in agricultural fields planted by their conquerors. It’s not inevitable because it’s a stupid idea–it locks you into the Food Race, forces you to answer every stress the same way no matter how inefficient it may be, and ultimately dooms you to a quick collapse back to where you started.

    How could it possibly be inevitable, when it’s less than 0.16% of our total history? High levels of complexity, like agriculture, is an abberation. If we chart all of human history into the span of a single day, then we passed morning, noon, evening and most of the night without this “inevitable” development. We began both at 11:54 PM, and as the second hand nears midnight, the whole thing is going to come down. Inevitable? No; it’s futile.

    If you think there are no examples of it being sustainable, a prime example is the island civilization of Tikopia, in the Pacific, which existed with a relatively high population density and employed agriculture on a small isolated island for almost 3 millenia with little contact with the outside world prior to encountering Europeans.

    Tikopia was not a civilization. They were willing to decrease complexity from time to time. They did not practice agriculture; they practiced horticulture.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 31 October 2005 @ 9:10 AM

  37. [Disclaimer: the following might be is a bit sarcastic…]

    Oh man, he’s got almost all of them! The Jellyfish argument; unilineal cultural evolution; civilization is inevitable; complexity is the result of evolution (Janene? How many times, I know… *shakes head*); we’re somehow “avoiding our responsibility” to come up with solutions to … help a system that was “God’s Intended” and that shouldn’t really need our help if nothing was wrong with it (but I digress); and even “what makes you think this is unsustainable?”.

    If I didn’t know any better, I’d think this comment was a plant so we could all have a field day! But I know better. I think he’s just playing Anti-Primitivism-Arguments (”gotta catch’em all!”). In which case, dude, you’re missing some of the commons (although kudos for the Tikopia example, that one is rare):

    “Technology is our savior, praise Science!” — Maybe this one was coming a bit later, as some sort of trump card to an anticipated response about “what makes [us] think this is unsustainable”.

    “Primitive life was nasty, brutish, and short!” — Which is why civilization is clearly the ultimate goal of all existence… those damn savages. This argument invariably cites cannibalism, infant mortality, and life expectation estimates (usually false). Sometimes “quality of life” is thrown in there, which sets up a really solid refutation… kind of sad in many ways how quality of life in civilization just doesn’t even compare.

    “Hierarchy is inevitable” — along the same lines of “civilization is inevitable”, but slightly more difficult to refute, given a certain set of premises. Most of the time, though, other species are cited as evidence for why human hierarchy is inevitable. Which is not too intelligent, but most unexamined initial ideas are. To be honest, I made this argument. It’s what civilization has trained us to see, really.

    “Civilization is responsible for all art, music, truth, and beauty in this world.” Which is just not true. No way around that one.

    “Tribes will be impossible to create.” This is one of my favorite arguments I made. Even though they still exist today, and have existed ever since humans have existed. Despite civilization’s best efforts to the contrary.

    “We have to get off the planet!” Which is another of my favorite arguments I made. I don’t think I was really thinking… that’s not an excuse, but I think it highlights just how much stands in the way of grasping what it is we’re talking about. I really believed that we needed to get off the planet in order to save the human race. It was a way of deriving meaning from all of this meaninglessness. I loved (and still love) science fiction novels that involve space travel. In later reflection… I think that love had more to do with imagination, the sense of wonder, and the sense of being part of a story that those books gave me. Because in reality, Earth is probably the best home we’ll ever have. Why would we ever want to leave Earth? We only need to leave if we make it so inhospitable that we can’t live here anymore. Which is exactly what we’re doing right now, sadly enough. But still – all of this “are we alone?” stuff doesn’t make much sense. How could we be alone? There are and were millions of other species that are and were alive on this planet. The very question of “are we alone?? strikes me as our attempt to find a sense of belonging that we’ve lost in our intellectually-forced isolation from the rest of life.

    “Humans are not like other species.” This is a big one. When we talk about bacteria in a petri dish growing at an exponential rate, exhausting their food supply, and then collapsing, we like to think “stupid bacteria.” When reindeer eat their way into extinction, we like to think “stupid reindeer”. Somehow, we’ve got it in our minds that we are somehow exempt from biological laws of overshoot and collapse — and yet here we are in overshoot, awaiting a collapse. This argument is especially interesting, as the previous argument of “hierarchy is inevitable” typically cites other species as evidence. Regardless, this argument is one of the most common I’ve seen, and has other variations as well. Like the “modern humans are not like past humans” variation that is used to explain how this civilization is going to avoid the fate of all other civilizations. This will usually include an invocation of science (!) and occasionally history — the argument being that since we are aware of past societies that have collapsed, we will be able to avoid their fate. This might be true if we would actually examine this history in order to draw conclusions from it, but that would mean checking our hubris at the door. Which is, for some reason, exceedingly difficult. Those who are able to do it are likely the ones the argument is being used against in the first place, because they were open enough to the evidence to actually change. Hmm.

    Anyway, I think I could do a much better job arguing against primitivism than that. Not that we’re making this a competition — all I’m saying is that if you’re going to argue against primitivism, at least use some more clever arguments and some different angles. Or blend them better. Or something. Because if you’re going to be a detractor of something, and have already decided that you’re not going to change regardless of the counter-arguments presented, be a good detractor. Be the best damn detractor there ever was.

    And if you’re not like that, and you’re open enough to actually change, I think you’ll recognize that even the best arguments against primitivism aren’t very good. Sadly, though, most people cling on to what they think they already know – so not much change occurs. Not in an argument, at least.

    Devin

    [p.s. Please forgive my sarcasm, you really should have seen MY responses when I was talking with Mike (wackymorningdj, IshCon-ers) about this for the first time… I made many of these arguments, directly and indirectly. It’s pretty embarrassing and humbling (and really pretty damn funny) to go back and read through that conversation. I think we just have to recognize that we all have had our own paths to get to where we are, some of them more easy than others, and all of them unique. There is no value judgment necessary in all of this. It’s just difficult to see the humanity in someone’s words on the internet sometimes, and NF unwittingly became the fall guy. No significant harm intended. Peace.]

    Comment by Devin — 31 October 2005 @ 10:10 AM

  38. Civilization will be impossible to rebuild, regardless of what we do. The metals in cities and scrapyards will oxidize in a generation, which will make most of the useful metals there unusable and unworkable. The thing to worry about is probably mining the junkyards, but even that would be a vastly inferior resource to naturally mined ore. So the cap isn’t the 17th century; it’s the Neolithic

    I disagree. The reality is much more complex than all the metals will be gone in 100 years.
    Aluminium alloys do not oxidise to an unusable form.
    Neither does titanium. We have millions of tons of space age materials that will remain in their present form for hundreds of years.
    Our Bronze age ancestors had no idea about aluminium, but we managed to produce so much that a 17th century level of civilization might be sustained by aluminium tools and weapons.

    Comment by Anonymous — 31 October 2005 @ 1:03 PM

  39. I disagree. The reality is much more complex than all the metals will be gone in 100 years.

    You’re right, I simplified the matter. Point still stands, though. The metals that will persist are useless for weapons or tools, and thus, useless as a means of intensifying complexity.

    It was only the Hall-Héroult process that made aluminum economical. Prior to that, it was a precious metal; Napoleon III laid out aluminum plates for his best guests (others would have to make do with just gold). The Hall-Héroult process is very intensive, industrially. There are some plants that now use hydroelectricity, but you need an industrial infrastructure to do it. So, aluminum might become a precious metal again for art and decoration, but it won’t be used to weapons or tools.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 31 October 2005 @ 1:55 PM

  40. When Napoleon served his guests, there wasn’t millions of tons of aluminium already produced.

    The civilization already spent the electrical energy to produce the metal, and now we have it. After collapse, we will still have it in huge quantities, so that no new aluminium will have to be produced for a long time. While no new aluminium will be produced, what is already available will be enough for a smallish scale civilization. Further expansion will be limited by the amount of aluminium which the new civilization will be able to scavenge.

    Comment by Anonymous — 31 October 2005 @ 3:20 PM

  41. A quantity which, ever unreplenished, will contnually dwindle. Not something you can pursue a strategy that requires constant, exponential growth with. Also, while oxidation is not much of a concern (aluminum oxidizes almost immediately, and is still useful), there is this:

    Care must be taken to prevent aluminium from coming into contact with certain chemicals that can cause it to corrode quickly. For example, just a small amount of mercury applied to the surface of a piece of aluminium can break up the normal aluminium oxide barrier usually present. Within a few hours, even a heavy structural beam can be significantly weakened. For this reason, mercury thermometers are not allowed on many airliners, as aluminium is a common structural component in aircraft.

    So, not only is the post-collapse aluminum supply limited to what we’ve already made, it’s also going to be steadily decreasing by attrition. Sure, a lot of these metals will be useful for the first generation–but not for trying to save civilization. None of them will be in supplies we can increase, so they’re useless as the foundation of a society trying to grow exponentially, so they’re going to be useless to civilization.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 31 October 2005 @ 3:29 PM

  42. I’d like to propose a topic for a essay.

    While I am in agreement with you that Collapse is inevitable for a number of reasons (The first one I heard about was Peak Oil in 2002), I am still convinced that it will be a slow collapse spanning at a minimum 100 years. How low we will end up is yet another issue (Little House on the Prairie vs Quest for Fire).

    Why am I convinced that it will be slow instead of fast? Well, for one thing every other civilization that collapsed took two or three generations to do so, if not a few hundred years as in the case of Rome.

    Today, we have this huge pool of accumulated knowledge that we can tap into to soften the blow. Just think of all the sites and books on primitivism and permaculture. Yes, there will be a die off but it will be slower in some parts like North America versus say China.

    Perhaps this site already contains the answer in pieces across many essays? If so, could you maybe put them all into one list: Why Collapse Will Be Lightening Fast.

    Comment by Peter — 31 October 2005 @ 3:58 PM

  43. But that is the point which you’ve tried to address before. Early stages of exponential growth are indistinguishable from linear growth. If a fledgling civilization starts from a small enough size, it will be able to expand exponentially for a while before coming to limits in growth. The limits on this new emerging civilization are going to be lower than they were for this civilization, yet with the heritage we are leaving behind, it might go pretty far still, and become almost as nasty to the tribal people before it in turn collapses.
    The future might contain not just a single huge collapse, but a series of collapses, each of the decreasing magnitude than the previous. Still, the collapse of this civilization will not be the end of civilization, only the beginning of the end

    Comment by Anonymous — 31 October 2005 @ 4:04 PM

  44. If civilization does rebuild it will just collapse again. Unless there is some sort of entropy-reversing non-diminishing-returns perpetual-motion civilization scheme… then there will be yet another story to be in, and so on.

    Whether or not civilization will be able to rebuild is sort of beside the point, isn’t it? I mean… if you accept the collapse, aren’t you going to want to create a new infrastructure/culture anyway?

    I personally only mention theoretical frameworks such as diminishing returns (Peak Oil, agriculture, and so on) when I am dismissed as being romantic. Then I become some sort of twisted flower-loving tree-hugging utopian doomer, and that doesn’t work out too well, really. But oh well, it’s not the end of the world or anything. Not the world I live in, at least.

    Comment by Devin — 31 October 2005 @ 5:16 PM

  45. *snarls*

    I ain’t no TREE HUGGER.

    :)

    Comment by Raku — 31 October 2005 @ 5:28 PM

  46. Peter and Anonymous, ironically, the answers to both of your points are closely related.

    Consider the situation we are in. Complexity is a function of energy, and our current level of complexity is supported by a fossil fuel subsidy. Richard Cowen writes:

    Although the mining operations of Central Europe were extensive, so were the forests needed to supply supporting timbers for the shafts and galleries, and charcoal for the furnaces. Production in the great silver mines of Saxony was slowed by water in the shafts rather than a shortage of wood, until well into the 16th century.

    The situation was different in England and France. Much land had been cleared for agriculture in Roman and again in medieval times, and the population was much denser than in mountain Germany and Bohemia. Although metal mining was never on the enormous scale of the Central European strikes, many small mines exploited tin, lead, copper, and iron deposits. All these ores were smelted with charcoal, and with heavy demands on the forests for building timbers for castles, cathedrals, houses, and ships, for building mills and most machinery, for barrels for storing food and drink, and fuel for the lime-burning, glass and brewing industries and for domestic fires, the English and French found that they were approaching a major fuel crisis.

    Nations were therefore faced with only two alternative solutions: to import timber from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and/or to substitute coal wherever possible. Transport costs imposed severe penalties on transporting timber long distances unless it was needed for special purposes such as building construction, pit props, or ship-building, and the coal-mining and coal-processing industries grew astonishingly, beginning in Elizabethan England and extending to European regions as the timber crisis overtook them.

    Every economic indicator suggests that the timber crisis was most acute in England from about 1570 to 1630. It is at this time that we see an unwilling but dramatic change to coal as the nation’s industrial fuel.

    So, the first wide-scale use of a fossil fuel–coal–was introduced in response to a repeat of “Peak Wood“–a repeat that was exacerbated by earlier iterations, such as by the Romans, which left the kingdoms of the Renaissance in a much worse state than they were.

    That fossil fuel subsidy has allowed an explosion of complexity with the Industrial Revolution, something never seen before in the history of humanity. Tainter discusses this subsidy in his 1996 paper, “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies,” where he writes:

    Industrialism illustrates this point. It generated its own problems of complexity and costliness. These included railways and canals to distribute coal and manufactured goods, the development of an economy increasingly based on money and wages, and the development of new technologies. While such elements of complexity are usually thought to facilitate economic growth, in fact they can do so only when subsidized by energy. Some of the new technologies, such as the steam engine, showed diminishing returns to innovation quite early in their development. What set industrialism apart from all of the previous history of our species was its reliance on abundant, concentrated, high-quality energy. With subsidies of inexpensive fossil fuels, for a long time many consequences of industrialism effectively did not matter. Industrial societies could afford them. When energy costs are met easily and painlessly, benefit/cost ratio to social investments can be substantially ignored (as it has been in contemporary industrial agriculture). Fossil fuels made industrialism, and all that flowed from it (such as science, transportation, medicine, employment, consumerism, high-technology war, and contemporary political organization), a system of problem solving that was sustainable for several generations.

    Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be. If our efforts to understand and resolve such matters as global change involve increasing political, technological, economic, and scientific complexity, as it seems they will, then the availability of energy per capita will be a constraining factor. To increase complexity on the basis of static or declining energy supplies would require lowering the standard of living throughout the world. In the absence of a clear crisis very few people would support this. To maintain political support for our current and future investments in complexity thus requires an increase in the effective per capita supply of energy-either by increasing the physical availability of energy, or by technical, political, or economic innovations that lower the energy cost of our standard of living. Of course, to discover such innovations requires energy, which underscores the constraints in the energy-complexity relation.

    In fact, Rome’s decline and fall was the exception, rather than the rule. Almost universally, collapse occurs very quickly–in a matter of a decade or less. This suddenness is actually part of Tainter’s own definition of collapse, and something that Diamond discusses in his volume, as well. The reason is well known. As Diamond put it:

    History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability.

    When demand surpasses supply, normally the price increases to extinguish demand and re-establish equilibrium. Things go a bit differently if we’re dealing with the essentials of a society, because then we’re dealing with a different scenario. Usually, this is a local restriction in an overall economy that is still growing. If it’s a restriction in something vital, like food (or, in an industrialized society, fossil fuels), then it’s the restriction of the entire economy. The society needs more energy to continue intensifying complexity; instead, it has the same amount of energy, or less complexity.

    This makes a society desperate, as this principle takes over: “No country is more than three meals away from a revolution.” The inability of the state to deliver the basic needs of the population results in the swift end of the state. That loss of complexity means less energy to distribute food (energy) to the population. Things happen quickly then, as a complex society breaks down. That break down continues until the next viable level of complexity is reached.

    So, where is that level? Is it “Little House on the Prairie”? No. Centuries of agriculture have made most of the world infertile. The Great Plains would be a desert now, except for industrial fertilizers made from fossil fuels. The price of corn is currently rising astronomically, because corn is the most fertilizer-intensive of the three staples (corn, wheat and rice) that provides over 90% of the civilized diet, and that fertilizer is made almost entirely of natural gas–the supply of which was severely disrupted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Without any such fertilizers at all, no significant level of agrarian life will be possible.

    Horticulture and/or permaculture, then? Such practices could work, but they are geographically limited to specific types of terrain. Where they’re possible, I’m sure they’ll pop up, but they’re not possible everywhere.

    The rest of us will be left with foraging. That means a solid disruption in civilization; future attempts will have to start from scratch. Some metals may be actively preserved, but anything else will be unusable in a generation. Because our deposits of ores and fossil fuels are so deep in the earth, you’ll need both ores and fossil fuels to retrieve them.

    The later prospects for cultivation will become even more grim with the end of the Holocene. It is agriculture that has propped up the Holocene interglacial for such an unnaturally long time. Without that environmental devastation, the ice age will return. Though, we have now pushed global warming far enough to initiate a positive feedback loop, so the earth’s temperature may stabilize at some, much hotter equilibrium. Either way, the Holocene is very nearly over. Cultivation will be impossible over most of the earth simply on climatic grounds after that.

    So, because nobody’s willing to be the one to starve, and because of how far we’ve pushed things, the future becomes fairly easy to predict. Recession will give way to depression; depression will deepen into things we’ve never seen before. Grocery stores will give way to food lines; food lines will give way to food riots. The government already lost control in New Orleans due to a natural disaster which will become all the more common as global warming takes its toll. The government will collapse because it will become irrelevant. Food riots may give rise to warlords, but their promises of food will be just as vain, and their rule will disintegrate into simply roving bands of cannibals preying upon one another until every city is dead. Because everyone needs to eat, this entire process could take place over just one year.

    With our current level of complexity, we have enough energy to unlock sufficient energy to increase our level of complexity. If our level of complexity drops for any reason, even the slightest bit, then we’re in trouble. Because we made all lower levels of complexity between our current level and the stone age completely untenable on our way here. If we drop for any reason, we won’t stop dropping until we’re all in the stone age again.

    That means there may well be pockets in the future where some cultivation is possible. Without metals or fossil fuels, their size, scale and complexity will be capped at the Neolithic. Administrative complexity will be insufficient to cover anything more than what we’d now consider a small town, and the logistics of military campaigns in such an environment will cap the size of these city-states to no more than, say, a week’s walk in any direction. They will ultimtely fall due to a “peak wood” problem, much more quickly than the Bronze Age kingdoms did (lacking bronze), and thus will only be a threat to those foragers too stupid to move out of their reach, as foragers usually do in such situations.

    Nor can any significant portion of the earth support any combination of such kingdoms, as there will be only a few pockets where agriculture is viable. The reason that cultivation was only taken up during the Holocene, is because the climate was uniquely suited for it. Without that climate, there may not be anywhere on earth suitable for such cultivation. Especially without the tools that were so essential for the spread of our civilization, this will be a nearly impossible endeavor. But, given the right riverine flood plain at the right latitude, with just the right pH balance and salinity in the soil–and of course, the right people happening to live there–there’s a chance of a small, Neolithic kingdom emerging, and collapsing within a maximum of five centuries due to “peak wood.”

    After millions of years, the ore and fossil fuel deposits will resurface. If, after that, we have another ice age, then one of its interglacials may well provide a good context for the re-emergence of civilization. At this point, though, we have eliminated the possibility of anything more complex than a Neolithic kingdom for the passage of geological time. I’m satisfied with that.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 31 October 2005 @ 8:40 PM

  47. Thanks. I’ll read this tonight.

    Comment by Peter — 31 October 2005 @ 9:06 PM

  48. So, because nobody’s willing to be the one to starve, and because of how far we’ve pushed things, the future becomes fairly easy to predict. Recession will give way to depression; depression will deepen into things we’ve never seen before. Grocery stores will give way to food lines; food lines will give way to food riots. The government already lost control in New Orleans due to a natural disaster which will become all the more common as global warming takes its toll. The government will collapse because it will become irrelevant. Food riots may give rise to warlords, but their promises of food will be just as vain, and their rule will disintegrate into simply roving bands of cannibals preying upon one another until every city is dead. Because everyone needs to eat, this entire process could take place over just one year.

    This will have to happen everywhere at once. Otherwise, you’ll be left with pockets of civilization somewhere that will defend its borders from hungry refugees.
    If some country with large fossil fuel reserve decides to hoard its supply and not share with the rest of the world, the things you’ve described will not happen in that country. This country will not experience food riots, if it is able to produce its own fertilizer and its own food. Additionally, this lucky country may decide that conquering the world full of hungry cannibals is not fun, because they won’t be able to feed all the hungry. So, they’ll wait until the roving bands eat each other, and then maybe conquer the empty space.
    Let us consider what happens, when the US does not produce enough food to send to the poor regions of the globe as aid. Who will starve first, the Americans or the Zimbabweans? When the Zimbabweans starve and US closes and guards its borders, what does it matter to us that Zimbabwean society just collapsed? If oil and transportation is expensive, the refugees will never threaten American borders.
    The point is, as the global civilization colapses, rich countries that can afford it will be sealing their borders and taking lessons from the unlucky countries that collapse first. When it is our turn to collapse, your message of primitivism, tribalism and return to foraging will be accepted by a sufficiently large percent of the population to make foraging unsustainable. The roving bands of foragers will be fighting each other for foraging territory which will be too small for all of them.

    Comment by Anonymous — 31 October 2005 @ 9:41 PM

  49. Hmm… why does that scenario sound really unlikely…

    Oh yeah. Because foraging takes knowledge. Knowledge of plants. What to eat. And how to survive. And even then, you’re going to have to link up with lots of friends. Friends who won’t kill you and eat you when they get hungry, because they know how to get food too.

    Have you ever gone camping? Next time you go camping, don’t take any food.

    Comment by Devin — 31 October 2005 @ 9:56 PM

  50. More unlikely than that Devin. The rich countries will crash first.

    Comment by Benjamin Shender — 1 November 2005 @ 12:18 AM

  51. This will have to happen everywhere at once. Otherwise, you’ll be left with pockets of civilization somewhere that will defend its borders from hungry refugees.

    Collapse always happens everywhere at once. That’s how collapse works. It’s impossible for one part to collapse without all others. Complex societies must collapse as a society, not as arbitrary sub-systems.

    If some country with large fossil fuel reserve decides to hoard its supply and not share with the rest of the world, the things you’ve described will not happen in that country.

    Yes, for them, it will go slightly differently. Let’s take the country in the best position to do that–Venezuela. Venezuela’s crude is heavier (has more crap in it), and more sour (has more sulphur), sp it needs more refining. Venezuela also has one of the world’s most significant refining capcities. Because of this, Venezuela could be in a very good position to close its borders and maintain itself. It may even, like the Byzantine Empire under Justinian, make a bid to reassert global complexity. Such a bid is doomed to failure, then. Even reasserting complexity over South America will be problematic. The axis that Chavez is creating with Castro and other Latin American leaders certainly suggests an intriguing possibilty of some kind of survival of civilization there.

    But the EROEI of Venezuelan crude is starting low, and it will eventually peak in production, as well. So, such a post-collapse Latin American civilization may hold some large portion of South America for a few centuries yet, but they won’t last very long. They’ll also need to deal with significant global climate change–whether warming, or an ice age–that will likely make agriculture impossible.

    The caliphate which seems increasingly likely may also have a good chance of maintaining some level of sociopolitical complexity. Wahhabism is a primitivist philosophy, such as the term is used by scholars of comparative religion. The technological level of the 600s that Wahhabists prefer is far more sustainable than our current level. With the peak of Arabian oil, that may put them in a good position to survive. However, without any agricultural base left in the Middle East, even that is doubtful.

    So, it’s possible that some areas may be able to delay the inevitable, particularly a location like Venezuela that is already moving in the direction of isolation and self-sufficiency. However, given how enmeshed even Venezuela is in in the global system of complexity, even that is unlikely. The pressure currently on Venezuela shows the pressure that system places on those who even move in the direction of abandoning it. There is every possibility that Chavez will be removed by force, by the global system of complexity, for his attempts to move away from it. So, it is very likely that any region that does try to isolate itself in the manner you suggest will merely set itself up as the very last of civilziation’s conquests prior to its elaborate suicide.

    When the Zimbabweans starve and US closes and guards its borders, what does it matter to us that Zimbabwean society just collapsed? If oil and transportation is expensive, the refugees will never threaten American borders.

    Neither the United States, nor Western Europe, nor Central Asia, nor Oceania, nor Africa is self-sufficient. None of these regions have the option of closing their borders; they all depend on imports from elsewhere. Closing their borders would be suicide for all of them. The only viable possibilities for this strategy were discussed above: Venezuela and maybe the Middle East. In both their cases, their prospects for such a strategy are very dm indeed.

    The point is, as the global civilization colapses, rich countries that can afford it will be sealing their borders and taking lessons from the unlucky countries that collapse first.

    It is precisely the rich countries which are most dependent. Poor countries will probably suffer less, as more of them live closer to their subsistence base. The wealth of nations has always been dependent entirely on the poverty of others. Without those other regions to offset the costs of our rising complexity, our way of life is not possible. We can’t close our borders, because we need them far more than they need us. We create dependence among them, in order to make them dependent on us, because that’s the only way we can assure that they’ll continue to support us. Without that support, our way of life is impossible.

    When it is our turn to collapse, your message of primitivism, tribalism and return to foraging will be accepted by a sufficiently large percent of the population to make foraging unsustainable. The roving bands of foragers will be fighting each other for foraging territory which will be too small for all of them.

    I’m not going to flatter myself; we’re a fringe of a fringe of a fringe. Most Americans don’t even believe in evolution, and think we need to wait for more evidence about global warming. In all other such cases, the vast majority of people choose to curl up and die. Sure, they’re desperate, but they’re desperate in predictable ways. They rob grocery stores, they eat each other, but to the bitter end, they will NEVER chew plaintain. Just doesn’t occur to them.

    I’m going to reach everyone I can, and make sure they understand the choice they’re presented with, because it’s always a choice–even if you don’t know you’re making it. And no matter what I do, 99.9% of the human population will choose to stay true to their culture, right to the bitter end, and die. For those few who survive, it will be entirely sustainable, because it will always be few. My message will always be rejected by the vast majority of the population. Even though every single individual will choose whether they want to stick wth their culture and die, or try something new and live, the population will remain very predictable.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 1 November 2005 @ 11:09 AM

  52. One country, rich in fossil fuels and extremely resistant to conquest is missing from your analysis.
    Russia. They have the oil, the gas and the nukes.
    They would be impossible to conquer, their population is not growing, and they have the capacity to seal their borders.
    Additionally, while you may be fringe of a fringe of a fringe here in US, there is a rich tradition of surviving starvation and collapse by going to multiple alternative food sources in Russia.
    If climate changes are significant, and the Siberian permafrost thaws, they’ll get access to vast new tracts of arable lands as well.
    Russia is what I actually had in mind when I said rich country.
    So, for all the readers who want to finish their lifes in a civilized place, your best chances are going to invlolve learning Spanish, Russian, or Arabic.

    Comment by Anonymous — 1 November 2005 @ 1:06 PM

  53. Russia. They have the oil, the gas and the nukes.

    Nukes are irrelevant, except to conflict between nation-states. Russia’s current levels of complexity are propped up only by investments from other complex areas. Without that input, Russia cannot maintain sufficient complexity to keep its gas pumps going.

    Additionally, while you may be fringe of a fringe of a fringe here in US, there is a rich tradition of surviving starvation and collapse by going to multiple alternative food sources in Russia.

    Agricultural starvation foods. Russians are more likely to eat things they don’t prefer rather than starve, but even they only look to crops.

    So, for all the readers who want to finish their lifes in a civilized place, your best chances are going to invlolve learning Spanish, Russian, or Arabic.

    I’m actually OK with this. It’s a good thing. If people who actually like living their lives as mindless cogs for to enrich others can have their civilizations, and those civilizations don’t threaten me, then that’s fine. The problem with civilization is that it can brook no alternative; it cannot co-exist with anyone or anything. But if there are strict limitations keeping civilization from ever again conquering the world, then I don’t mind if there are some pockets that survive.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 1 November 2005 @ 2:08 PM

  54. “they have the capacity to seal their borders.”

    If the US can’t seal its border with Mexico how can Russia, a much poorer country, seal off a border ten times longer?

    Comment by Peter — 1 November 2005 @ 2:15 PM

  55. If the US can’t seal its border with Mexico how can Russia, a much poorer country, seal off a border ten times longer?

    I know they did it before, when they were a Soviet Union, and had an even larger border, and it was sealed off tight. The US never really tried to seal their borders. If the US had a really good incentive to seal their border with Mexico, they’d be able to do it.

    Comment by Anonymous — 1 November 2005 @ 2:37 PM

  56. Russia’s border are pretty porous. Back in the Soviet Uniion days no one had reason to sneak in but many people sneaked out to pursue a better life elsewhere.

    If you really think borders can be sealed off think about Iraq for a moment. It’s in the best interests of the USA to seal it off entirely, yet this has been proven to be impossible. Everyday more and more fighters enter the country.

    You can’t seal off a country.

    But we are really getting off-topic here.

    Comment by Peter — 1 November 2005 @ 2:46 PM

  57. That’s not at all the case. Russia has never successfully sealed its borders, and usually doesn’t have to try. According to conservatives, Reagan “won the Cold War” by bankrupting the Soviet Union. The stealth bomber wasn’t undetectable, it was just very difficult to detect. Thus, to protect itself from such a bomber, the USSR had to build extremely expensive detection centers across the entirety of its enormous border–since any hole in that protection would make it the same as doing nothing at all, since that would just be where the bombers came through.

    The problem with this history is that the USSR military spendng was flat through the 1980s. They knew they could not afford such a project. They knew it was impossible to seal their borders. They didn’t even try. It was a good bait, but the Soviets didn’t fall for it. They weren’t stupid enough to try something as foolhardy as to attempt to seal such an enormous border.

    Is your suggestion, then, that Russia’s resources of intelligence have dropped that dramatically in a single generation?

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 1 November 2005 @ 2:50 PM

  58. Russia doesn’t have to seal off its borders against bombers using advanced technology this time.
    They have to prevent large groups of hungry refugees from moving in, that is all.
    Remember, when New Orleans flooded, there was a neighborhood across the river, whose sheriffs took position on the bridge and shot at refugees trying to cross, thus preventing the refugees from fleeing the city. This is all I mean when I mention sealing off the borders.
    Just protection against large numbers of hungry refugees.

    Comment by Anonymous — 1 November 2005 @ 3:15 PM

  59. Rivers are easy, because bridges present choke points.

    There are no choke points across the Mongolian border.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 1 November 2005 @ 3:18 PM

  60. Russia has 56 divisions on that border.
    Thats 700 thousand troops per 7500 miles of the border.
    They can also use aviation to strike at mobs of refugees crossing the border. A threat of lethal force applied to these refugees will stop them just as well as the guns of the sheriffs on the bridge.

    Comment by Anonymous — 1 November 2005 @ 5:03 PM

  61. But, again, Russia is not self-sufficient. Those capabilities are part of a level of complexity that is maintained only by outside investment.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 1 November 2005 @ 5:10 PM

  62. Jason, you might be interested in an essay called “Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century”. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Of note is how they have kitchen gardens (similar to permaculture) and know all the edible mushrooms.

    Also, I recall Hitler invading Russia, and not doing too well. Most of the “refugees” aren’t going to think “oh shit, my heat is out, let’s go to Russia.” No. Russia is cold. and BIG. You’re not going to get anywhere on foot.

    Besides, I think it is highly unlikely that Russia isn’t going to collapse as well. Maybe it will collapse slower… collapse doesn’t have to happen quickly, guys. In some places it WILL, but that’s not everywhere. Collapses tend to happen very quickly, but that’s because there is no real limit to how fast they can collapse. I think the envisioning of Mad Max scenarios is completely off… that’s only going to happen on the tail end of a collapse and only in crowded areas. Hmm. Let me see if I can delineate this theory a little better:

    All Jason is saying that overall complexity is peaking. This doesn’t mean that everything is collapsing utterly all at the same time… it means that the aggregate sum of overall complexity is now going to decrease. The graphs on this site show what aggregate complexity looks like. Note how the individual regions do NOT all peak at the same time, nor do the individual wells. Each of these follow diminishing returns curves of their own. But also note how when you add it all together, it forms a cumulative diminishing returns curve. This is what the graph of complexity looks like as well. As complexity follows energy, you’re probably going to be able to graph complexity very well by measuring the total energy input into a region/country. When this total energy input decreases, even if ever so slightly or temporarily, that region/country will collapse, even if ever so slightly or temporarily. That’s the model, at least.

    “Collapse” as termed in the popular imagination doesn’t help with this understanding in the slightest, but all we’re going to be doing is following the total energy curve back down. On a global level. Nation-states in a situation similar to America (with 7 trillion dollars in debt, our debt being owned by other countries, our dollar being propped up by its place as the reserve currency for all oil transactions worldwide, and more importantly with indigenous oil production having already peaked and Natural Gas approaching its cliff) are the more precarious states. Which explains our increasingly aggressive position in the Middle East. Expect us to continue to try (and fail) to take over oil production there.

    Instead of going through the list of countries that are going to be screwed (I think most), it would be far more prudent to come up with a list of criteria that will be good indicators of which ones will do relatively well. Countries that 1. are still on the upslope of fossil fuel production (oil, natural gas, and coal), 2. have a trade surplus, especially in raw materials, 3. the capability of developing manufacturing with those raw materials 4. have well-distributed localized (and preferably organic) food production – no 3,000 mile salad, and 5. have a stable (relatively homogenous) political climate, 6. present a challenge to hostile takeover, 7. have room for population expansion, and probably 8. have a relatively small or isolated landmass are probably going to be doing well, relative to their neighbors. I don’t have all the data on this, but I’m thinking that very few countries fit this description. The countries that fit these criteria, with perhaps a few exceptions, will be the only ones still able to increase their own complexity and thus not collapse. However, this will not change the global complexity curve, which will still peak with the energy.

    Maybe that will help put things into perspective.

    Comment by Devin — 1 November 2005 @ 6:15 PM

  63. p.s. The above comment was partially directed at Jason’s comment above. Jason, you might know better than I do if Venezuela fits the criteria I suggested. Do you know of any countries that do fit these criteria? Does anyone? I’m not too familiar with stuff like that.

    Comment by Devin — 2 November 2005 @ 1:30 AM

  64. p.p.s. My formulation of “do relatively well” does not mean that they will also not follow a marginal returns curve. It just means that they will be able to increase their current level of complexity and thus continue to expand even during a collapse. I might also suggest a 9th criteria, sort of as a guide: a low level of complexity, one that is perhaps lower on the marginal returns curve. I highly doubt First World countries will fit most of the original criteria, so this might be redundant.

    Hmm. That also makes me think. What does anyone think of this idea: that the “First World” countries are one level of a peer polity, and will collapse together, first. When the level of complexity on that graph reaches about the complexity of those in the Second World, the Second World will collapse. I guess I’m imagining a top-down collapse, with the top levels collapsing inward and bringing the lower levels down with them…

    Comment by Devin — 2 November 2005 @ 1:40 AM

  65. For what it’s worth I know of no country that fit’s your critieria. But you can check for yourself if you want: CIA World Factbook. The CIA World Factbook is one of the best around, possibly the best. Every nations demographic data as well as world demographic data is here. As Jason would say, it’s all the points, you still have to figure out the story they tell.

    Once oil production peaks there is no food. No food, and it doesn’t matter. In Russia, with there vaunted foraging and gardens. And no more imported food? Russia is probably the last place on Earth that could support 143 million people on foraging and gardening limited by freezing weather. As for oil…they’re out in 22 years. They have 69 billion barrels of proven reserves. They produce 8.42 million barrels a day. Do the math, they’re out in 22 years…oh wait, those numbers were for 2003. They’re out in 20 years. Which doesn’t really matter, without food people will knife each other over the last donut. They will collapse, you could argue that they are even more prone to collapse than the US, and we’re almost there now.

    As for Venezuela? Conquerable. Begging for it. When oil peaks and countries start really feeling it every oil producing nation will be struck by dying Super Powers. You think that a starving US would think twice about bombing Venezuela? Not a chance. They’ll be our “protectorate” against the harmful influences of non-American powers. We’ll take the big brother route again. Their oil being ours will just be payment for our help. I wouldn’t be suprised if they “threw it at us with glee while the president tries to refuse.” Makes us feel good, gets us oil, no minus I can see…unless you’re Venezuelan.

    Comment by Benjamin Shender — 2 November 2005 @ 11:44 AM

  66. If food production is mostly organic, then an oil peak won’t be a problem for food. And you’ll also note my 1st criteria: Still on the upslope of fossil fuel production.

    Russia and Venezuela are hardly the only countries in the world… they were just the ones brought up in this thread so far. I’m curious about lesser-known countries. I’ll check the CIA world factbook a little bit later, I guess.

    Comment by Devin — 2 November 2005 @ 6:12 PM

  67. Hmm,

    so ‘the end of civilisation’ simply means ‘the end of increased complexity as the only response to stress’?

    When you put it like that, it’s almost appealing…

    Comment by speedbird — 28 February 2006 @ 11:52 AM

  68. It’s like the difference between Pringles and ordinary potato crisps/chips. Pringles are exceedingly complex but uniform. Ordinary crisps are simple but all slightly different.

    Pringles are very tasty, but entirely unnatural.

    Comment by speedbird — 28 February 2006 @ 12:05 PM

  69. Social insects have, by the criteria listed here, been “civilized” since the Cretaceous. How is it they’ve survived these tens of millions of years? Should not the same ecological constraints that doom human civilization also doom the social insects? I am serious. You often state that humans are not special. It must follow that neither are ants and termites. So what are they doing differently?

    P.S. - Before you reply that humans aren’t ants, let me interject that ants weren’t always ants. They evolved from wasp-like precursors that were far less social. Why did they not follow the same trajectory as humans and catastrophically revert to a less complex social order?

    Comment by Anonymous — 18 September 2006 @ 9:55 PM

  70. That’s a great question! Sadly, I don’t think I have a great answer….

    My gut reaction is that despite the fact that ants have a complex social structure that emphasizes specialized roles and food surpluses and (possibly) a hierarchy, they aren’t civilized.

    A more rational response might be that they don’t practice agriculture (though some [b]do[/b] practice something akin to pastoralism). And they’ve certainly never used fossil fuels….

    One might also point out that the insect world is one of much wonder and awe and has considerably different issues of scale.

    Some or all of these might be applicable, but in the end, well, I guess I can’t really give you a better answer than the one you’ve already given….

    Comment by jhereg — 19 September 2006 @ 9:24 AM

  71. Several species of ants and termites cultivate fungus, while some species of ants are also known to herd aphids. Lemon ants create “devil’s gardens” in which all the local flora is systematically poisoned with formic acid and reduced to nesting material — except for a single tree species, Duroia hirsuta, with which the ants form a symbiotic relationship. All of this sounds awfully familiar. So again, what’s their trick?

    Comment by Anonymous — 19 September 2006 @ 10:16 PM

  72. Easy. They didn’t sit down one day and form a committee and say, “Ya know, I’ve been ankerin’ for a Queen, so let’s get off our duffs and start making it happen.”

    Instead, they evolved. And they evolved along with a community of life. A community of life that could control their population.

    Translation: ants get et. Humans don’t get et. If the ant population suddenly exploded due to them using more resources, the bird/spider/other crawly things would explode as well. When the human population exploded, there were no aliens from distant places in PA or flesh eating zombies to stop us.

    So, my not smart-ass answer is that the reason they aren’t running amok is because they’re not at the ‘top’ of the food chain. If they were, they probably would.

    - Chuck

    Comment by Chuck — 19 September 2006 @ 10:30 PM

  73. Again, ants weren’t always ants. They were wasps that stumbled into sedentary lifestyles cultivating fungus and herding aphids, much as humans stumbled into agriculture. They adopted all the trappings we attribute to civilization, and yet they survived — even flourished. The only predators that can really endanger ants (at least as a collective) are other ants. They have some trouble with parasites, but no more so than humans do with disease. So…what is their trick?

    Comment by Anonymous — 20 September 2006 @ 12:05 AM

  74. The idea that progress “implies the (unattainable) reality of perfection” is logically flawed, as by analogy the idea that learning implies the reality of omniscience.

    Instead I would suggest: To the extent that progress is synonymous with growth, it reinforces the idea that unending growth is desirable, when in fact it is impossible on a finite planet.

    Re. definition of civilization: I find it shocking that the present mainstream definition, as taught in universities, includes “concentration of surplus” and “formation of distinct economic classes.” According to that definition, a hypothetical communist society would be uncivilized, and the partial socialisms of northern Europe, regardless of level of technology, would represent a regression toward barbarianism. The other three criteria, cities of more than 5,000, full-time specialization of labor, and development of city-state political apparatus, seem fairly conventional.

    I’m inherently suspicious of this dualistic dichotomy that loads all the “good stuff” on the HG side and then uses the term “civilization” as a pejorative for all the “bad stuff.” It’s a stereotype that in turn can be stereotyped and thus weakened.

    More useful, I think, is the point about the diminishing returns of agriculture and the simple fact of the impossibility of sustaining such practices without an unlimited source of cheap energy. Thus, whether or not it’s “good” that the empire collapses, it’s “inevitable” that it will do so, and thus our task is to find a way forward that will not come to a painful end whose pain is measured in gigadeaths.

    Though in fact, we have already passed the point of no return in that department; gigadeaths await whether we like it or not.

    Re. rate of collapse: Fast crash hits the economic machine and its financial abstractions hardest, and favors people who know how to work with their hands. Slow crash does the opposite: favors those who control the financial abstractions, at the expense of those who work with their hands.

    Something to think about when looking at probable future scenarios. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of jumping to conclusions in favor of “fast crash” just because it’s easier for people such as ourselves.

    Jason, what do you call it when a society meets some of its needs with increases in complexity and some with decreases in complexity, and tends to favor the latter?

    In engineering, “elegance” is the term for maximum simplicity of a system or a design.

    Complexity in and of itself adds exactly nothing. Yet take a look at the place where most of us encounter superfluous complexity all the time: “fine print.” The purpose of fine print is to obfuscate via complexity. But its goal is not obfuscation for its own sake. Instead its goal is to fatten the bank accounts of those who are *both* greedy *and* lazy: who want lots of “things” but don’t want to actually *work* for the things they want.

    I suggest that this is the real origin of the drive that appears to be “complexity for complexity’s sake.” It’s not for its own sake, it’s for the sake of the boundless appetites of the greedy, lazy elite.

    BTW, the Middle East will implode. The only thing keeping it from doing so at present is the influx of consumer garbage made possible by petroleum exports. As it implodes it will look quite like present-day Iraq only more so.

    And you sure as hell wouldn’t want to be female in that environment.

    Comment by gg3 — 31 January 2007 @ 6:10 AM

  75. The idea that progress “implies the (unattainable) reality of perfection” is logically flawed, as by analogy the idea that learning implies the reality of omniscience.

    No, the analogy is flawed. Learning need not have any particular end-point; learning is defined in its own terms. Progress, however, means that you have moved closer to a given end-point. You can speak of progress towards a stated goal easily enough, but to speak simply of “progress,” as a society without qualification, implies the existence of some objective perfection that we have progressed towards.

    I’m inherently suspicious of this dualistic dichotomy that loads all the “good stuff” on the HG side and then uses the term “civilization” as a pejorative for all the “bad stuff.” It’s a stereotype that in turn can be stereotyped and thus weakened.

    That’s not a matter of defining civilization as “bad” or hunter-gatherers as “good.” The fact that it lines up like that is both simple to explain, and compelling in the evidence it provides: humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, and we are ill-suited to civilization. There’s nothing in civilization that’s objectively “bad,” and in fact most of it is found readily in other parts of the animal kingdom. But we, as humans, almost universally condemn these elements because they stand in such stark opposition to human nature, and for a very simple reason. Human nature is a hunter-gatherer nature.

    Something to think about when looking at probable future scenarios. And we shouldn’t make the mistake of jumping to conclusions in favor of “fast crash” just because it’s easier for people such as ourselves.

    I’m planning a new series on this topic soon. Summary: the difference between “fast” and “slow” crash is one of perspective. “Slow crashes” are usually appreciated in hindsight, and usually involve a distinct inflection point that’s seen by contemporaries as a “fast crash.” It’s later on that historians look back and trace the origins of that crash, and its reprecussions, out to several decades, or even centuries. In our own case, we’re much further along than we might appreciate. Much of the series will concentrate on defending the supposition that our civilization’s collapse began a hundred years ago already.

    Jason, what do you call it when a society meets some of its needs with increases in complexity and some with decreases in complexity, and tends to favor the latter?

    Anything else. :) That’s what the whole wide world of uncivilized society is made up of. Hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists alike tend to take that approach. Civilization is just one type of human society, one with a very peculiar, and quite self-destructive, relationship with complexity.

    In engineering, “elegance” is the term for maximum simplicity of a system or a design.

    In computer programming, according to Gregory Chaitin, an elegant program in a given language is the shortest program in that language that computes the same function.

    BTW, the Middle East will implode. The only thing keeping it from doing so at present is the influx of consumer garbage made possible by petroleum exports. As it implodes it will look quite like present-day Iraq only more so.

    Present-day Iraq is maintained through the importing of ammunition and the stoking of political animosities by outside, more complex forces. That’s a situation that it cannot sustain on its own. Actually, the Middle East is one area that I think will have it less hard than others. Salafi Islam is already a primitivist movement, and they’ve already developed a rhizome network. I can see a caliphate of roaming desert nomads emerging fairly quickly and easily in the wake of collapse. What causes so much violence in the Middle East is the meddling of foreign sources of complexity who require their resources for the energy that makes their complexity possible. With that removed, both the means and the reason for so much of the violence that afflicts the region now are removed. It’s one region that will vastly and almost immediately improve when global complexity faces cascading, catastrophic failure.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 31 January 2007 @ 10:52 AM

  76. Social insects have, by the criteria listed here, been “civilized” since the Cretaceous. How is it they’ve survived these tens of millions of years? Should not the same ecological constraints that doom human civilization also doom the social insects? I am serious. You often state that humans are not special. It must follow that neither are ants and termites. So what are they doing differently?

    The definition that Jason uses for civilized is Responding to every challenge by an increase in complexity (i.e. invention) I don’t know a lot about ants but I doubt that they are inventing new tools or new uses for old tools. In addition the range of a hive of ants is limited by their logistical tail (i.e. how far they can travel and maintain food supply)

    Secondly, hive insects are for the most part sterile with only one (or a few?) reproductive members. This limits the growth rate per hive to a linear equation as opposed to the exponential growth rate of other species.

    Finally, it appears to me that in humans division of labor and heirarchical social structures were a result of the storage of food surplusses, while in social insects it seems that the social structures evolved first. (And do social insects actually have food surplusses? Do they gather more than the hive eats?)

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 31 January 2007 @ 12:55 PM

  77. Jason, our civilization’s collapse could not have began a hundred years ago.
    A hundred years ago, civilization had access to much less space, resources and ideas than it has now. If your ancestor tried escaping collapsing civilization a hundred years ago, he would fail perhaps faster than you would fail if you started your escape today.
    Collapse is when a civilization retreats, but our civilization did not retreat. It became much more complex and involved much more people and territory in this hundred years.

    Comment by Anonymous — 31 January 2007 @ 6:35 PM

  78. That’s a common perception, but I don’t believe it’s true. What the evidence seems to tell me–and I’ll be making the argument for this in the forthcoming series–is that civilization peaked a hundred years ago, and since then we’ve simply been trying to maintain. Very little expansion has taken place over the past century. I can see how that claim is counter-intuitive, and that’s why I’m going to take a whole series to defend it.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 31 January 2007 @ 6:39 PM

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