In last week's episode of the C-Realm podcast, KMO interviews the always-interesting author Charles C. Mann. Mann's latest book, 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created, describes the results of what Alfred Crosby called "The Colombian Exchange," where the two halves of the world that were once separated by oceans were combined into a whole by the activities of human beings. Mann dubs this "The Anthropocene Era." KMO describes the settlement pattern of the New World as waves of colonialists coming to settle in the New World and dying in mass numbers, until eventually there are enough to sustain a new society. This leads to a discussion about whether or not the moral progress we've created over the past several centuries, things like trial by jury, the abolition of slavery, the rollbacks of capital and corporal punishment, the elimination of hereditary rule and the routine subjugation of women - will be preserved as we enter an era of decline.
It's a weird piece of serendipity, since I had contemplated the exact same thing earlier this month. The conversation, as always, is well worth a listen in it's entirety.
By an even stranger coincidence, I had just recently listened to a podcast with the science fiction author David Brin on Point of Inquiry. During a portion of the interview, Brin talks about where the moral progress we have made came from, and where it might be headed. I have transcribed some relevant portions of that conversation below:
“You have four older accountability arenas, four older arenas that were invented by the Enlightenment that brought about a cornucopia of what are called positive-sum games. Now, if there’s any concept that your listeners absolutely need, it’s that of the positive sum game…The positive sum game is one where we compete with each other, but our competition is now harnessed. Competition is the great creative force of the universe, and it made us through evolution, but it made us in ways we do not want to replicate in society because it was mostly death. Our ancestors were the few who managed to reproduce and survive, and that’s not so nice. And so we invented arenas where completion can bring about this positive sum game where new things are invented, and new discoveries are made, and things get improved, but the result of the competition is not blood on the floor, not corpses all over the place. And these four accountability arenas are: markets, democracy, science, and justice courts, and all four of them are incredibly competitive, especially science.”
“These four accountability arenas harness competition to create these positive sum games, and we’ve been refining them for 400 years. And what they do is, there’s a two-phase process. First, you have a place where can safely refine your product – your company, your political party, your scientific lab and tenure, attorney-client privilege. But then there is a call to battle, ritualized battle, a very tightly controlled, regulated battle in what are called markets, and in democracy, elections, the marketplace, the courtroom, the scientific conference, and these highly ritualized combats result in a growing consensus in models of what’s good, what’s accurate. And the main thing is, that there is death. Bad products die. Bad scientific theories die. Bad policies…well, we’re fighting that fight right now… But when democracy does work and we’re not in culture war, then bad policies die. The Congressional Research Service just showed that across sixty-five years there is not a single case of supply-side economics ever actually having come true or worked. It should then die.”The host later asks David Brin what sort of predictions he's willing to make about the future.
“Oh, well, I’m not really sure of anything, but I believe that the biggest choice we’re going to have to make is whether or not we’re going to keep the diamond-shaped social structure or a scientific Enlightenment civilization going, or do what is very natural, and that is allow it to fall apart the way the Athenians allowed the Periclean experiment to fall apart, because all the odds are against it. And I’m involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence as you know. I read a lot of the major papers about that field. I still have my hand in astronomy…but the fundamental thing is called the Fermi paradox. And that is the question, if life seems so easy to develop in the cosmos, and planets, and fifteen years ago we knew of none outside our solar system, now we know of over a thousand…the question is, why does the universe appear to be empty of any other sapient life? I’ve just stirred a hornet’s nest just now by saying that, and I’m sure many people are just howling right now; they have their own particular answers. I’ve cataloged hundreds of these. And the fact of the matter is, one of the failure modes that human beings could fall into, is that this civilization, the mode of government that dominates human society for our future, may be a return to the pyramidal social structure – elite, oligarchic ruled, top-down – because that’s the standard one, that’s the standard human civilization."
"The Chinese are right now trying to build the very best version of the top-down, controlled, pyramidal social structure based on Confucian models. It’s possible. And if we wind up being in such a situation, if that governs the world, I hope it’s a Chinese model, because there’s lot of noblesse oblige there. But I am loyal to the civilization that made these positive-sum games, that empowered transparency and reciprocal accountability, and competition with compassion, that empowered science fiction…The point is this – if it’s so natural for us to fall into that feudal pattern that 99 percent of human cultures follow it, and it resonates in our hearts, in our romanticism. That’s why we love Tolkien, Lord of the Rings and all that; the kings and wizards and all those things. We love that because we’re all descended from the harems of the guys who managed to become the kings.
And I find it so ironic that the great-great grandchildren of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith and George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln…that the great-great children of these heroes of the Enlightenment who saved us from that beastly way of life, should all go running off saying, ‘Oh, I wished we lived under kings.’ And I believe in answer to the Fermi paradox, I believe that one of the answers is, that it’s possible that most civilizations out there have the same Darwinian dynamic, and that most of them become top-down oligarchies who are hyper-conservative and repress scientific advancement and never go out to the stars. And I think this is the level of the choice that we’re making… It may not just be the fate of humanity that’s at stake in the decisions we’re making in the next fifty years. We may have a chance to be the exception if we keep Enlightenment going, and get militant and get involved in doing it, all of us, that we may be the exception who builds starships, and we may be the ones who go out and rescue everybody else. And what a task, what an incredible task, for our grandchildren to have! We have a grittier task, and that is, to prepare a civilization that can create such grandchildren. That can create grandchildren who are capable of creating a civilization like Star Trek. That’s a task.”That last thought from Brin really feeds into this comment which KMO makes early on in his conversation with Mann where he tacitly endorses the dark side of our romantic impulse:
“...We were talking about how it seems like there’s a portion of the population who really longs for the old days when there was a lot more violence, and it was a lot more socially respectable, and might made right, and nobody even questioned that, and they really long for it. And the zombie apocalypse, as it unfolds, gives a lot of people permission to go and enact those fantasies. And I’m just wondering how lasting the progress we seem to have made really is.”I too, have talked about how the economy is transitioning to a zero-sum game future, where one person's gains come at the expense of another person's, rather than the cooperative game which most economists depict our existing economy as. While Brin is correct to look at the European Enlightenment, I wonder how much he knows about the Peak Oil situation. Is it possible that the situation of non-zero-sum games is as much a consequence of fossil fuels as Enlightenment thinking? Or are they both a consequence of the inventive and inquisitive forces unleashed by science?
I think we can say the weakening of despotism and the empowering of the individual caused a lot of these gains to occur. Certainly the new scientific inventions and the opening of markets empowered individuals in a way they had not been through much of history since the dawn of agriculture. Empowered individuals could just do things their own way, without worrying about some king or dictator putting a stop to it. And this evolution inspired good ideas to rise and bad ones to fall, as David Brin described above.
I also think the opening of the vast new frontiers for European settlers (e.g. the New World, Australia, South Africa) had a lot to do with that. It's hard to be a despot if your victims can just pack up and go someplace more amenable without having to be under someone else's thumb. That's probably what kept despotism from forming in ancient human societies when food was plentiful, or at least from becoming too oppressive. And the frontiers had feedback loops - the American Revolution helped usher in the French; Enlightenment thinkers heard the stories of native peoples and yeoman farmers not living under kings, and these caused revolutionary ideas to spread the other way across the Atlantic. Their definition of what was possible expanded to include things people just didn't think about before. The opening of these frontiers, even before the advent of fossil fuels, raised the living standards of Europeans. That's why you get the Enlightenment before you get the Industrial Revolution. In fact, you could argue it's what made the Industrial Revolution possible - the weakening of the oligarchy and the empowerment of the individual, along with new modes of thinking about what was possible.
But when a frontier is closed due to overexploitation, when scarcity starts to bite due to overpopulation, then suddenly despotism rears it's ugly head, and you get the kind of oligarchies and conservative elites that Brin talks about above. People in places like ancient Mesopotamia and China, due to the overexploitation of the environment and population growth, had no choice but to submit early on in the human story. But now it seems like the entire world is closed off with nowhere to turn. Sure we can feed ten billion, but at what cost to our freedom?
In their book Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson talk about failing countries as having "extractive elites," elites who are able to sabotage the individual initiative, creativity, discovery, and social well being of their society for their own personal gain. By contrast, successful societies have "open institutions" where anyone can participate and create better ideas and innovations (including social ones) and improve their lives. Geography also matters - see Jared Diamond's review of Why Nations Fail.
Right now I'm reading Ian Morris' Why the West Rules - For Now, and it seems that this is a significant factor in his central question - why the West took over instead of China. China never made this moral and institutional progress because it was always pushing up against Malthusian limits. It seems that, historically speaking, and tying in with Brin's basic idea, that Europe of the Enlightenment had open institutions, whereas China and previous societies managed to hold onto extractive elites and closed institutions. Hyper-conservative elites were always able to bully the individual into submission, and they never made those final leaps despite their intelligence, organizational capacity, and history of invention. By contrast, Europe gained a sudden "release valve" which undermined the power of elites and opened up a flurry of new ideas along with higher living standards. And eventually, we added fossil fuels to the mix to create the world of abundance some of us enjoy today.
What it boils down to is this: in the age of fossil fuels and innovation, we set up institutions to create positive-sum games where competition drove better lifestyles for all. In an age of shrinking resources, we will increasingly turn to negative sum games, where one person’s gain comes at another’s loss. These new competitions are winner-take-all rather than win-win.
I think Brin's right, the default state is to slide back into despotism, and we will have to fight to keep that at bay. It's not just fossil fuels - overcrowding and lack of alternatives are a part of it. The labor shortages after the Black Death loosened the bonds of serfdom from medieval Europeans, fatally weakened the feudal system, and set the stage for the Renaissance and the subsequent Age of Exploration. One thing you get reading Morris' book is the idea that there is this cyclical process where civilizations push up to the limits of their environment, and then fall apart. And what happens when they pick up the pieces varies from culture to culture. But the certainty is that the more empowered the individual, the less crowded the environment, the greater the range of options for the individual, the more resources per capita, and the weaker the hold of elites, the greater the likelihood of preserving moral progress and advancing as a society, to space or anywhere else.
For her part, Nicole Foss, quoted in the C-Realm podcast, says the following:
"Basically, when you have a whole lot of energy, things tend to improve from a social justice perspective, because when you have energy slaves you have less need for real ones. So the emancipation of slaves has been largely been a function of energy supplies that made more sense to use. So we've had a lot more freedom. And I think we've moved in our period of expansion, we've really moved to a point where, the most effective way for people at the top of the food chain to secure a share of the wealth has been to let people be free, nominally, and tax the results, because that has produced more than direct ownership would have done. But that freedom probably hangs on whether that continues to be the case."
"So in a period of expansion, giving people freedom and taxing the results is the most efficient way to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few. In period of contraction that's probably not true. When there's a lot less economic activity going on, then it's probably going to be more efficient from the point of view of the powers-that-be to directly control the means of production. So I think we're probably going to be looking at backsliding in terms of social justice and more of a reliance on human labor, not all of which will be voluntary, unfortunately. When you have less energy slaves available, and we can't just push buttons and have things happen, then I think we're going to have a lot more human labor."Morris talks about this issue too in his concluding chapter (I skipped ahead a bit).
Civilizations have collapsed before and societies have backtracked in terms of social development in history, but we've never had a fossil fuel revolution before. We've never broken the ceiling of progress that we did in the age of fossil fuels, and we've never tasted the freedom we enjoy today since before the dawn of agriculture. The question really is, do we have the fight in us? Clearly the last few decades, and especially the last five years do not inspire confidence. We now know what's possible, Will we remember and fight to keep it?
I'll conclude with this tidbit from the C-Realm podcast:
KMO: I'm reminded of a phrase from 1493. It made such an impression on me, I wrote it in my notebook. The phrase is, 'The human propensity to believe that flukes of good fortune will never come to an end.'
CCM: Yes. That's us in a nutshell, don't you think?
KMO: It seems that way...