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Today is the publication date of Hive Mind, a book by economist Garett Jones on the intimate relationship between average national IQs and national success, first and foremost in the field of economics.

I do intend to read and review it ASAP, but first some preliminary comments.

This is a topic I have been writing about since I started blogging in 2008 (and indeed well before I came across Steve Sailer or even HBD) and as it so happens, I have long been intending to write a similar sort of book myself – tentatively titled Apollo’s Ascent – but one that focuses more on the historical aspect of the relationship between psychometrics and development:

My basic thesis is that the rate of technological progress, as well as its geographical pattern, is highly dependent on the absolute numbers of literate high IQ people.

To make use of the intense interest that will inevitably flare up around these topics in the next few days – not to mention that rather more self-interested reason of confirming originality on the off chance that any of Garett Jones’ ideas happen to substantively overlap with mine – I have decided to informally lay out the theoretical basis for Apollo’s Ascent right now.

1. Nous

Assume that the intellectual output of an average IQ (=100, S.D.=15) young adult Briton in the year 2000 – as good an encapsulation of the “Greenwich mean” of intelligence as any – is equivalent to one nous (1 ν).

This can be used to calculate the aggregate mindpower (M) in a country.

Since sufficiently differing degrees of intelligence can translate into qualitative differences – for instance, no amount of 55 IQ people will be able to solve a calculus problem – we also need to be able to denote mindpower that is above some threshold of intelligence. So in this post, the aggregate mindpower of a country that is above 130 will be written as M(+2.0), i.e. that aggregate mindpower that is two standard deviations above the Greenwich mean.

2. Intelligence and Industrial Economies

There is a wealth of evidence implying an exponential relationship between average IQ and income and wealth in the United States.


Click to enlarge.

There is likewise a wealth of evidence – from Lynn, Rindermann, La Griffe du Lion, your humble servant, etc. – that shows an exponential relationship between levels of average national IQ and GDP per capita (PPP adjusted). When you throw out countries with a legacy of Communism and the ruinous central planning they practiced (China, the Ex-USSR and Eastern Europe, etc), and countries benefitting disproportionately from a resource windfall (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, etc), there is an amazing R2=0.84 correlation between performance in the PISA international standardized student tests and GDP (PPP) per capita. (In sociology, anything about R2=0.3 is a good result).

The reasons for this might be the case are quite intuitive. At the most basic level, intelligent people can get things done better and more quickly. In sufficiently dull societies, certain things can’t get done at all. To loosely borrow an example from Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, assume a relatively simple widget that requires ten manufacturing steps that have to be done just right to make it commercially viable. Say an 85 IQ laborer has a failure rate of 5% for any one step, while a 100 IQ laborer has a failure rate of 1%. This does not sound like that big or cardinal of a difference. But repeated ten times, some 40% of the duller worker’s production ends up being a dud, compared to only 10% of the brighter worker’s. Consequently, one is competitive on the global markets, whereas the other is not (if labor costs are equal; hence, of course, they are not).

Now imagine said widget is an automobile, with hundreds of thousands of components. Or an aircraft carrier, or a spaceship. Or a complex surgery operation.

More technical way of looking at this: Consider the GDP equation, Y = A * K^α * L^(1-α), in which K is capital, L is labour, α is a constant that usually equals about 0.3, and A is total factor productivity. It follows that the only way to grow per capita output in the longterm is to raise productivity. Productivity in turn is a function of technology and how effectively it is utilized and that in turn depends critically on things like human capital. Without an adequate IQ base, you cannot accumulate much in the way of human capital.

There are at least two further ways in which brighter societies improve their relative fortunes over and above what might merely be implied by their mere productivity advantage at any technological level.


Source: Swiss Miss.

First, capital gets drawn to more productive countries, until the point at which its marginal productivity equalizes with that of less productive countries, with their MUCH LOWER levels of capital intensity. First World economies like Germany, Japan, and the US are extremely capital intensive. It is probably not an accident that Japan, Korea, and Taiwan – some of the very brightest countries on international IQ comparisons – also have by far the world’s highest concentrations of industrial robots per worker (and China is fast catching up). Since economic output is a function not only of pure productivity but also of capital (though subject to diminishing returns) this provides a big further boost to rich countries above the levels implied by their raw productivity. And as the age of automation approaches, these trends will only intensify.

Second, countries with higher IQs also tend to be better governed, and to effectively provide social amenities such as adequate nutrition and education to their populations. Not only does it further raise their national IQs, but it also means that it is easier to make longterm investments there and to use their existing human capital to its full potential.

All this implies that different levels of intelligence have varying economic values on the global market. At this stage I am not so much interested in establishing it with exactitude as illustrating the general pattern, which goes something like this:

  • Average IQ = 70 – Per capita GDP of ~$4,000 in the more optimally governed countries of this class, such as Ghana (note however that many countries in this class are not yet fully done with their Malthusian transitions, which will depress their per capita output somewhat – see below).
  • Average IQ = 85 – Per capita GDP of ~$16,000 in the more optimally governed countries of this class, such as Brazil.
  • Average IQ = 100 Per capita GDP of ~45,000 in the more optimally governed countries of this class, or approximately the level of core EU/US/Japan.
  • Average IQ = 107 – Per capita GDP of potentially $80,000, as in Singapore (and it doesn’t seem to have even finished growing rapidly yet). Similar figures for elite/financial EU cities (e.g. Frankfurt, Milan) and US cities (e.g. San Francisco, Seattle, Boston).
  • Average IQ = 115 – Largely a theoretical construct, but that might be the sort of average IQ you’d get in, say, Inner London – the center of the global investment banking industry. The GDP per capita there is a cool $152,000.

Countries with bigger than normal “smart fractions” (the US, India, Israel) tend to have a bigger GDP per capita than what could be assumed from just from their average national IQ. This stands to reason because a group of people equally split between 85 IQers and 115 IQers will have higher cognitive potential than a room composed of an equivalent number of 100 IQers. Countries with high average IQs but smaller than normal S.D.’s, such as Finland, have a slightly smaller GDP per capita that what you might expect just from average national IQs.

These numbers add up, so a reasonable relationship equilibrium GDP (assuming no big shocks, good policies, etc) and the structure and size of national IQ would be:

Equilibrium GDP of a country exponent (IQ) * the IQ distribution (usually a bell curve shaped Gaussian) * population size * the technological level

Which can be simplified to:

Y ≈ c*M*T

… where M is aggregate mindpower (see above), T is the technology level, and c is a constant denoting the general regulatory/business climate (close to 1 in many well run capitalist states, <0.5 under central planning, etc).

To what extent if any would this model apply to pre-industrial economies?

3. Intelligence and Malthusian Economies


Source: A Farewell to Alms

Very little. The problem with Malthusian economies is that, as per the old man himself, population increases geometrically while crop yields increase linearly; before long, the increasing population eats up all the surpluses and reaches a sordid equilibrium in which births equal deaths (since there were a lot of births, that means a lot of deaths).

Under such conditions, even though technology might grow slowly from century to century, it is generally expressed not in increasing per capita consumption, but in rising population densities. And over centennial timescales, the effects of this (meager) technological growth can be easily swamped by changes in social structure, biome productivity, and climatic fluctuations (e.g. 17th C France = pre Black Death France in terms of population, because it was Little Ice Age vs. Medieval Warm Period), or unexpected improvements in agricultural productivity e.g. from the importation of new crops (e.g. the coming of sweet potatoes to China which enabled it to double its population over the previous record even though it was in outright social regress for a substantial fraction of this time).

All this makes tallying the rate of technological advance based on population density highly problematic. Therefore it has to be measured primarily in terms of eminent figures, inventions, and great works.


Distribution of significant figures across time and place. Source: Human Accomplishment.

The social scientist Charles Murray in Human Accomplishment has suggested a plausible and objective way of doing it, based on tallying the eminence of historical figures in culture and the sciences as measured by their prevalence in big reference works. Societies that are at any one time intensively pushing the technological frontiers outwards are likely to be generating plenty of “Great People,” to borrow a term from the Civilization strategy games.

To what extent does the model used for economic success apply to technology?

4. Intelligence and Technology Before 1800

A narrow intellectual elite is responsible for 99%+ of new scientific discoveries. This implies that unlike the case with an economy at large, where peasants and truck drivers make real contributions, you need to have a certain (high) threshold level of IQ to materially contribute to technological and scientific progress today.

The Anne Roe study of very eminent scientists in 1952 – almost Nobel worthy, but not quite – found that they averaged a verbal IQ of 166, a spatial IQ of 137, and a math IQ of 154. Adjusted modestly down – because the Flynn Effect has only had a very modest impact on non-rule dependent domains like verbal IQ – and you get an average verbal IQ of maybe 160 (in Greenwich terms). These were the sorts of elite people pushing progress in science 50 years ago.

To really understand 1950s era math and physics, I guesstimate that you would need an IQ of ~130+, i.e. your typical STEM grad student or Ivy League undergrad. This suggests that there is a 2 S.D. difference between the typical intellectual level needed to master something as opposed to making fundamental new discoveries in it.

Moreover, progress becomes steadily harder over time; disciplines splinter (see the disappearance of polymath “Renaissance men”), and eventually, discoveries become increasingly unattainable to sole individuals (see the steady growth in numbers of paper coauthors and shared Nobel Prizes in the 20th century). In other words, these IQ discovery thresholds are themselves a function of the technological level. To make progress up the tech tree, you need to first climb up there.

An extreme example today would be the work 0f Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki. At least Grigory Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture was eventually confirmed by other mathematicians after a lag of several years. But Mochizuki is so far ahead of everyone else in his particular field of Inter-universal Teichmüller theory that nobody any longer quite knows whether he is a universal genius or a lunatic.

In math, I would guesstimate roughly the following set of thresholds:

Mastery Discovery
Intuit Pythagoras Theorem (Ancient Egypt) 90 120
Prove Pythagoras Theorem (Early Ancient Greece) 100 130
Renaissance Math (~1550) 110 140
Differential Calculus (~1650+) 120 150
Mid-20th Century Math (1950s) 130 160
Prove Poincare Conjecture (2003) 140 170
Inter-universal Teichmüller theory (?) 150 180

This all suggests that countries which attain new records in aggregate elite mindpower relative to their predecessors can very quickly generate vast reams of new scientific discoveries and technological achievements.

Moreover, this elite mindpower has to be literate. Because a human brain can only store so much information, societies without literacy are unable to move forwards much beyond Neolithic levels, their IQ levels regardless.

As such, a tentative equation for estimating a historical society’s capacity to generate scientific and technological growth would look something like this:

Technological growth c * M(>threshold IQ for new discovery) * literacy rate


ΔT c * M(>discovery-threshold) * l

in which only that part of the aggregate mindpower that is above the threshold is considered; c is a constant that illustrates a society’s propensity for generating technological growth in the first place and can encompass social and cultural factors, such as no big wars, no totalitarian regimes, creativity, etc. as well as technological increases that can have a (generally marginal) effect on scientific productivity, like reading glasses in Renaissance Italy (well covered by David Landes), and the Internet in recent decades; and the literacy rate l is an estimate of the percentage of the cognitive elites that are literate (it can be expected to generally be a function of the overall literacy rate and to always be much higher).

Is it possible to estimate historical M and literacy with any degree of rigor?


Source: Gregory Clark.

I think so. In regards to literacy, this is an extensive area of research, with some good estimates for Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire (see Ancient Literacy by William Harris) and much better estimates for Europe after 1500 based on techniques like age heaping and book production records.

One critical consideration is that not all writing systems are equally suited for the spread of functional literacy. For instance, China was historically one of the most schooled societies, but its literacy tended to be domain specific, the classic example being “fish literacy” – a fishmonger’s son who knew the characters for different fish, but had no hope of adeptly employing his very limited literacy for making scientific advances, or even reading “self-help” pamphlets on how to be more effective in his profession (such as were becoming prevalent in England as early as the 17th century). The Chinese writing system, whether it arose from QWERTY reasons or even genetic reasons – and which became prevalent throughout East Asia – surely hampered the creative potential of East Asians.

Estimating average national IQs historically – from which M can be derived in conjunction with historical population sizes, of which we now generally have fairly good ideas about – is far more tricky and speculative, but not totally hopeless, because nowadays we know the main factors behind national differences in IQ.

Some of the most important ones include:

  • Cold Winters Theory – Northern peoples developed higher IQs (see Lynn, Rushton).
  • Agriculture – Societies that developed agriculture got a huge boost to their IQs (as well as higher S.D.s).
  • Inbreeding – Can be estimated from rates of consanguineous marriage, runs of homozygosity, and predominant family types (nuclear? communitarian?), which in turn can be established from cultural and literary evidence.
  • Eugenics – In advanced agricultural societies, where social relations come to be dominated by markets. See Greg Clark on England, and Ron Unz on China.
  • Nutrition – Obviously plays a HUGE role in the Flynn Effect. Can be proxied by body measurements, and fortunately there is a whole field of study devoted to precisely this: Auxology. Burials, conscription records, etc. all provide a wealth of evidence.
  • Parasite Load – Most severe in low-lying, swampy areas like West Africa and the Ganges Delta.

This old comment of mine to a post by Sailer is a demonstration of the sort of reasoning I tend to employ in Apollo’s Ascent.

All this means that educated guesses at the historic IQs of various societies are now perfectly feasible, if subject to a high degree of uncertainty. In fact, I have already done many such estimates while planning out Apollo’s Ascent. I will not release these figures at this time because they are highly preliminary, and lacking space to further elucidate my methods, I do not want discussions in the comments to latch on to some one figure or another and make a big deal out of it. Let us save this for later.

But in broad terms – and very happily for my thesis – these relations DO tend to hold historically.

Classical Greece was almost certainly the first society to attain something resembling craftsman level literacy rates (~10%). Ancient Greeks were also unusually tall (indicating good nutrition, for a preindustrial society), lived in stem/authoritarian family systems, and actively bred out during their period of greatness. They produced the greatest scientific and cultural explosion up to that date anywhere in the world, but evidently didn’t have quite the demographic weight – there were no more than 10 million Greeks scattered across the Mediterranean at peak – to sustain it.

In 15th century Europe, literacy once again begun soaring in Italy, to beyond Roman levels, and – surely helped by the good nutrition levels following the Black Death – helped usher in the Renaissance. In the 17th century, the center of gravity shifted towards Anglo-Germanic Europe in the wake of the Reformation with its obsession with literacy, and would stay there ever after.

As regards other civilizations…

The Islamic Golden Age was eventually cut short more by the increasing inbreeding than by the severe but ultimately temporary shock from the Mongol invasions. India was too depressed by the caste system and by parasitic load to ever be a first rate intellectual power, although the caste system also ensured a stream of occasional geniuses, especially in the more abstract areas like math and philosophy. China and Japan might have had an innate IQ advantage over Europeans – albeit one that was quite modest in the most critical area, verbal IQ – but they were too severely hampered by labour-heavy agricultural systems and a very ineffective writing system.

In contrast, The Europeans, fed on meat and mead, had some of the best nutrition and lowest parasitic load indicators amongst any advanced civilization, and even as rising population pressure began to impinge on those advantages by the 17th-18th centuries, they had already burst far ahead in literacy, and intellectual predominance was now theirs to lose.

5. Intelligence and Technology under Industrialism

After 1800, the world globalized intellectually. This was totally unprecedented. There had certainly been preludes to it, e.g. in the Jesuit missions to Qing China. But these were very much exceptional cases. Even in the 18th century, for instance, European and Japanese mathematicians worked on (and solved) many of the same problems independently.


Source: Human Accomplishment.

But in the following two centuries, this picture of independent intellectual traditions – shining most brightly in Europe by at least an order of magnitude, to be sure, but still diverse on the global level – was to be homogenized. European science became the only science that mattered, as laggard civilizations throughout the rest of the world were to soon discover to their sorrow in the form of percussion rifles and ironclad warships. And by “Europe,” that mostly meant the “Hajnal” core of the continent: France, Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and Northern Italy.

And what had previously been but a big gap became an awning chasm.

(1) In the 19th century, the populations of European countries grew, and the advanced ones attained universal literacy or as good as made no difference. Aggregate mindpower (M) exploded, and kept well ahead of the advancing threshold IQ needed to make new discoveries.

(2) From 1890-1970, there was a second revolution, in nutrition and epidemiology – average heights increased by 10cm+, and the prevalence of debilitating infectitious diseases was reduced to almost zero – that raised IQ by as much as a standard deviation across the industrialized world. The chasm widened further.

(3) During this period, the straggling civilizations – far from making any novel contributions of their own – devoted most of their meager intellectual resources to merely coming to grips with Western developments.

This was as true – and consequential – in culture and social sciences as it was in science and technology; the Russian philosopher Nikolay Trubetzkoy described this traumatic process very eloquently in The Struggle Between Europe and Mankind. What was true even for “semi-peripheral” Russia was doubly true for China.

In science and technology, once the rest of the world had come to terms with Western dominance and the new era of the nation-state, the focus was on catchup, not innovation.This is because for developing countries, it is much more useful in terms of marginal returns to invest their cognitive energies into copying, stealing, and/or adapting existing technology to catch up to the West than to develop unique technology of their own. Arguments about, say, China’s supposed lack of ability to innovate are completely besides the point. At this stage of its development, even now, copying is much easier than creating!

This means that at this stage of global history, a country’s contribution to technological growth isn’t only a matter of the size of its smart fractions above the technological discovery IQ threshold. (This remains unchanged: E.g., note that a country like Germany remains MUCH more innovative per capita than, say, Greece, even though their aveage national IQs differ by a mere 5 points or so. Why? Because since we’re looking only at the far right tails of the bell curve, even minor differences in averages translate to big differences in innovation-generating smart fractions).

It also relates closely to its level of development. Countries that are far away from the technological frontier today are better served by using their research dollars and cognitive elites to catch up as opposed to inventing new stuff. This is confirmed by real life evidence: A very big percentage of world spending on fundamental research since WW2 has been carried out in the US. It was low in the USSR, and negligible in countries like Japan until recently. Or in China today.

Bearing this in mind, the technological growth equation today (and since 1800, more or less) – now due to its global character better described as innovation potential – would be better approximated by something like this:

Innovation potential ≈ c * M(>threshold IQ for new discovery) * literacy rate * (GDP/GDP[potential])^x


I c * M(>discovery-threshold) * l * (Y/Y[P])^x

in which the first three terms are as before (though literacy = 100% virtually everywhere now), and potential GDP is the GDP this country would obtain were its technological endowment to be increased to the maximum level possible as dictated by its cognitive profile. The “x” is a further constant that is bigger than 1 to reflect the idea that catchup only ceases to be the most useful strategy once a country has come very close to convergence or has completely converged.

Japan has won a third of all its Nobel Prizes before 2000; another third in the 2000s; and the last third in the 2010s. Its scientific achievements, in other words, are finally beginning to catch up with its famously high IQ levels. Why did it take so long?

Somebody like JayMan would say its because the Japanese are clannish or something like that. Other psychometrists like Kenya Kura would notice that perhaps they are far less creative than Westerners (this I think has a measure of truth to it). But the main “purely IQ” reasons are pretty much good enough by themselves:

  • The Nobel Prize is typically recognized with a ~25-30 year lag nowadays.
  • It is taking ever longer amounts of time to work up to a Nobel Prize because ever greater amounts of information and methods have to be mastered before original creative work can begin. (This is one consequence of the rising threshold discovery IQ frontier).
  • Critically, Japan in the 1950s was still something of a Third World country, with the attended insults upon average IQ. It is entirely possible that elderly Japanese are duller than their American counterparts, and perhaps even many Europeans of that age, meaning smaller smart fractions from the Nobel Prize winning age groups.

Japan only became an unambiguously developed country in the 1970s.

And it just so happens that precisely 40 years after this did it begin to see a big and still accelerating increase in the numbers of Nobel Prizes accruing to it!

Extending this to South Korea and Taiwan, both of which lagged around 20 years behind Japan, we can only expect to see an explosion in Nobel Prizes for them from the 2020s, regardless of how wildly their teenagers currently top out the PISA rankings.

Extending this to China, which lags around 20 years behind South Korea, and we can expect to see it start gobbling up Nobel Prizes by 2040, or maybe 2050, considering the ongoing widening of the time gap between discovery and recognition. However, due to its massive population – ten times as large as Japan’s – once China does emerge as a major scientific leader, it will do so in a very big way that will rival or even displace the US from its current position of absolute primacy.

As of 2014, China already publishes almost as many scientific papers per year as does the US, and has an outright lead in major STEM fields such as Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Computer Science. (Though to be sure, their quality is much lower, and a significant fraction of them are outright “catching up” or “adaption” style papers with no new findings).

If we assume that x=1, and that c is equal for both China and the US, then it implies that both countries currently have broadly equal innovation potential. But of course c is not quite equal between them – it is lower for China, because its system is obviously less conductive to scientific research than the American – and x is higher than 1, so in practice China’s innovation potential is still considerably lower than that of the US (maybe a quarter or a third). Nonetheless, as China continues to convege, c is going to trend towards the US level, and the GDP gap is going to narrow; plus it may also be able to eke out some further increases in its national average IQ from the current ~103 (as proxied by PISA in 2009) to South Korea’s level of ~107 as it becomes a truly First World country.

And by mid-century it will likely translate into a strong challenge to American scientific preeminence.

6. Future Consequences

The entry of China onto the world intellectual stage (if the model above is more or less correct) will be portentuous, but ultimately it will in its effects on aggregate mindpower be nowhere near the magnitude in global terms of the expansion in the numbers of literate, mostly European high IQ people from 1450 to 1900, nor the vast rise in First World IQ levels from 1890-1970 due to the Flynn Effect.

Moreover, even this may be counteracted by the dysgenic effects already making themselves felt in the US and Western Europe due to Idiocracy-resembling breeding patterns and 80 IQ Third World immigration.

And no need for pesky implants!

Radically raise IQ. And no need for pesky neural implants!

A lot of the techno-optimistic rhetoric you encounter around transhumanist circles is founded on the idea that observed exponential trends in technology – most concisely encapsulated by Moore’s Law – are somehow self-sustaining, though the precise reasons why never seem to be clearly explained. But non-IT technological growth peaked in the 1950s-70s, and has declined since; and as a matter of fact, Moore’s Law has also ground to a halt in the past 2 years. Will we be rescued by a new paradigm? Maybe. But new paradigms take mindpower to generate, and the rate of increase in global mindpower has almost certainly peaked. This is not a good omen.

Speaking of the technological singularity, it is entirely possible that the mindpower discovery threshold for constructing a superintelligence is in fact far higher than we currently have or are likely to ever have short of a global eugenics program (and so Nick Bostrom can sleep in peace).

On the other hand, there are two technologies that combined may decisively tip the balance: CRISPR-Cas9, and the discovery of the genes for general intelligence. Their maturation and potential mating may become feasible as early as 2025.

While there are very good reasons – e.g., on the basis of animal breeding experiments – for doubting Steve Hsu’s claims that genetically corrected designer babies will have IQs beyond that of any living human today, increases on the order of 4-5 S.D.’s are entirely possible. If even a small fraction of a major country like China adopts it – say, 10% of the population – then that will in two decades start to produce an explosion in aggregate global elite mindpower that will soon come to rival or even eclipse the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in the size and scope of their effects on the world.

The global balance of power would be shifted beyond recognition, and truly transformational – indeed, transhuman – possibilities will genuinely open up.

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In the discussion at the previous post, in which I took exception to Ron Unz’s theory of the East Asian Exception, he alerted me to so additional work on the matter he’d done as a Harvard freshman on Chinese IQ. You can read his summary of Social Darwinism and Rural China as well as Steve Sailer’s commentary on it.

Ron Unz’s Theory of Social Darwinism in Rural China

According to Ron Unz, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits for millennia on end. That is correct. Furthermore, Chinese rural life was “remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements”, far more so even than in England. I do not have the comparative knowledge to offer informed commentary on this, though I would stop to note that such a system may not have been so much a generator of “selective pressure for those able to prosper” under complexity as a reflection of already high IQ’s. After all on most social, economic, and technological metrics China was far ahead of Europe until the 18th century or so (though there were important exceptions). Furthermore, “virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing”, with far fewer of the feudalistic or caste distinctions that proliferate in India and pre-Enlightenment Europe. This is also correct.

This environment included a number of mechanisms that promoted a highly eugenic development path for the Chinese population. Ron Unz says that only the relative affluent could afford their wives for their children. This is not quite correct, or should I say permanently correct, as this issue only heavily manifested itself during times of Malthusian stress, when families opted to kill baby daughters resulting in skewed sex ratios. Otherwise, we should note that Europeans within the Hajnal Line married late and that the poor sometimes didn’t marry at all, so this particular eugenic effect was if anything stronger in Europe.

However the biggest, and most specific to China, eugenic mechanism is argued to be the Chinese custom of fenjia 分家, lit. “family division.” So if, say, a wealthy Chinese family produced four surviving sons, each of them would inherit only a fourth of the family land. The brothers would be back to square one and would have to hustle for money again. A couple of the brothers might be successful and build up wealth again; another would fall into poverty, and the last one would fail to even find a wife and have children. The effect was that every generation, “a good fraction of the poor disappeared from the gene-pool.” As reproductive survivors would tend to be more intelligent and far-sighted, or so the argument goes, this selected for such traits within the Chinese population.

The system of meritocratic imperial exams, which enhanced the reproductive prospects of the very brightest who could pass them, was a further eugenic mechanism but one whose overall impact was “pretty small” compared with “the push from the bottom.”

Finally, Ron Unz compares his theory to Gregory Clark’s book Farewell to Alms, which argues for a eugenic mechanism in England in which the wealthy enjoyed greater reproductive success and, over the centuries, “civilized” the proles via genetic drift through downwards social mobility. As such, the traits of the aristocracy became inculcated in the English masses with all its attendant benefits, e.g. plummeting homicide rates. (This civilization doesn’t seem to have lasted very long however if yob culture and football hooligans are anything to go by). :) He notes that these eugenic mechanisms operated in China for far longer than they did in England.

He also compares the selection pressures facing the Chinese with those that produced the famed intelligence of the Ashkenazi Jew. Unlike the latter, the Chinese didn’t only have to be bright and business-savvy; as a peasant, he also had to maximize “physical endurance, robustness, diligence, discipline, energy-consumption.” As such, selection had a less one-sided skew in favor of intelligence.

My Critique

This is a nice and elegant theory. It has no obvious contradictions. He is planning to publish his analysis in a formal manner pretty soon. However, before he does so I hope that he will address some of the following counter-arguments and discrepancies.

Re-The (relatively) complex legal environment selected for intelligence. HOWEVER, the Chinese – as do East Asians in general – only perform significantly (hugely) better than whites on visuo-spatial intelligence. That is good for hunting mammoths in the prehistoric tundra and some aspects of mathematics, but not anywhere near as good for navigating complex legal codes in which verbal intelligence is key. However, Chinese verbal intelligence if anything lags the indigenous peoples of most developed European nations. According to 2009 PISA results, Chinese verbal (reading) IQ was 98, which was inferior to Germany’s 102, the US’ 101 (including Blacks and Hispanics), and Poland’s 100; and equal to that of Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece.

Here, ironically, Unz faces an additional dilemma: Either he has to reject his theory of the East Asian Exception (i.e. that the Flynn Effect barely applies to them), or he has to rethink his theory of Social Darwinism in rural China.

Re-The eugenic influence of fenjia. The model he sketches out is plausible enough on the surface. That said he has to account for several possible discrepancies.

Korea appears to have a max. potential IQ of about 107, while Japan is slightly lower. Did they have systems of land inheritance that also favored the development of IQ? I do not know. I hope Unz will investigate this matter. A potential problem, however, is that IF they did NOT have their own equivalents of fenjia, then it would be invalidated as a feasible explanation of why East Asian (including Chinese) IQ’s are so high.

Re-Comparison with George Clark’s theory. I don’t think this is a useful crutch to Ron Unz’s China theory at all. So supposedly England had this intensive genetic drift from the top to the bottom. However, today, UK natives (on PISA) score 101; in other IQ tests, the UK’s average is typically set to 100. These numbers are typically lower than those of the Germanic countries like Germany, the Netherlands, etc. – and equal to the IQ’s of the Nordics, the Western Slavs like the Poles and Czechs, (Celtic) Ireland, and (Celtic-Germanic) France.

Really my critiques boil down to a few main issues.

(1) We need more comparative data on IQ, land inheritance systems in the past, etc. I strongly suspect that for all but a few exceptions (e.g. Ashkenazi Jews) the traits developed in prehistoric times still predominate above all others. After all, pre-agrarian prehistory accounts for 90%+ of homo sapiens sapiens’ existence; and selection pressures back then were FAR stronger because of small population sizes. Noncompetitive tribes got wiped out by hostile tribes or the vagaries of climate with chilling frequency. In medieval times, noncompetitive genes were far likelier to linger on to some degree, firstly because welfare systems – crude and rudimentary as they were back then (e.g. poorhouses; alms, zakat, etc; grain reserves; etc) – were still a league ahead of what can possible exist in a tribal hunter-gatherer society; secondly, because violent as the ancient and medieval periods were, they were vastly more peaceful (and populations were bigger) than was the case in the prehistoric era.

(2) To what extent was fenjia unique to China? Was is common to the East Asian region, or not? If not, why then doesn’t Chinese IQ greatly exceed Korea’s? Did it exist in Vietnam? If it did, why then is Vietnamese IQ substantially lower than China’s? Etc. Also, explain why these mechanisms didn’t result in a particularly high verbal IQ; after all, to understand legal matters, that is really what we need, no?

(Republished from by permission of author or representative)
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One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first, and ended up colonizing most of the rest of the world. As late as 1450, the possibility of such an outcome would have been ridiculed. By almost any metric, China was well in the lead through the medieval period – in technology (compass, paper, ship-building, gunpowder, movable type printing), government (bureaucrats were selected based on meritocratic exams, whereas in Europe professional civil services only began appearing in the 19th century), urbanization, etc.

In my view, most of the common explanations for the “European miracle” are largely self-congratulatory post hoc narratives that aren’t really convincing. Europe had markets, you say? For most of the medieval era, and even later, feudalism was the dominant social structure; the rising nation-states replaced it with mercantilism. Robber barons holed up in their castles charged extortionate rates on merchants passing through their fiefs. Throughout the period, most Chinese were freemen, enjoyed lower taxes, and fewer controls on land sales and industry; there were no internal trade barriers (instead, the government funded large projects such as the Grand Canal to economically unify the territory). China was far closer to the free market economy than Europe! Similar ventures only began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In ancient regime France, there were internal controls on trade and many bureaucratic posts were up for sale to the highest bidder, a matter of considerable resentment that would contribute to the Revolution. Even the Enlightenment thinkers only dreamed of governing their countries as efficiently as they imagined the Celestial Empire did.

What about China’s stultifying Confucian traditionalism? Again, there was no shortage of reaction in Europe. No colonial empires bringing in revenue from trade and overseas commodities, because the Chinese grounded their fleet in the 1430′s? Please, Spain owned half the western hemisphere, and ended up stagnating despite (or because of) it; meanwhile, inland European regions with no colonial empires to speak of, such as the Ruhr or Silesia, industrialized early. Ravaged by rebellions, nomadic invasions, and repeated Malthusian crises? But Europe also had its fair share of these: the Black Death depressed European populations for nearly three centuries, and constituted a classical subsistence crisis, while some conflicts were also exceedingly devastating, e.g. the Thirty Years’ War that killed about a third of the German population. No good energy sources? China has as many rivers for watermills as Europe, and the Song dynasty produced more coal and pig iron in 1000AD than Europe did in 1800. The Chinese were hobbled by a low national IQ? This controversial theory was advanced in some circles to explain the historical failure of India or the Arab world, but whatever its merits, it surely can’t apply to China. Nor can several specific reasons given for the failures of other civilizations, such as water stress and desertification in the Middle East, or being on the wrong latitude as with Africa, India, and the Americas.

For a long time, I’ve only found two theories to be semi-plausible. First, Jared Diamond’s argument that China’s geography – a flatland of fertile river plains, capable of feeding big armies, with no major peninsulas that could host rival power bases – is naturally suited for unification (in contrast to Europe’s zigzag of mountain ranges and rugged peninsulas coasts). This reduced internal competition, so that the effects of bad policies – such as the occasional banning of private seafaring – reverberated throughout the whole of China, whereas in Europe only one region at a time suffered under Louis XIV’s fiscal depredations or the Spanish Inquisition. But on the other hand, surely this was counterbalanced by the returns to scale and (relative) internal peace enjoyed by a unified China, as opposed to fragmented Europe with its never-ending internecine wars? While IMO the charge of “geographical determinism” is thrown about too wildly nowadays, in this case it may be justified.

Second, as I said in my post on cliodynamics, the depth of Malthusian collapses that occurred in China were arguably bigger than in Europe, and tended to affect all of China at once (because of its greater internal connectedness). This meant that during these “dark age” periods, there may have been more technological regression in China than in Europe. Nonetheless, both of these theories are speculative and hedged with all manner of caveats. In my view, this question remains wide open.

However, I’m only writing this post because I think I’ve discovered a major, perhaps the major factor, that explains the “great divergence” between Europe and China. In short, it is China’s writing system.

From its origins in Phoenicia, the alphabet spread to Greece and Rome, and formed the building blocks of all future European literary culture. In contrast, China retains a system of hieroglyphs (汉字), inherited from the very earliest days of literacy (imagine using Egyptian hieroglyphs or Linear B today). All its writings are in the form of thousands of distinct symbols, and combinations thereof, expressing ideas. The hanzi may look much cooler than a standard alphabet, but in practice it throws up a host of serious problems.

1. Universal Literacy. It is much harder to attain practical literacy in Chinese, than it is in “normal” languages. A typical West European only has to know 26 or so symbols, and after that – because her language is mostly phonetic – she can transcribe most speech into text that is, at a minimum, legible and understandable. Not so for Chinese, where knowing how a word is pronounced is typically no clue as to how to write it. The PRC’s standards for literacy are recognition of 1,500 characters for rural dwellers and 2,000 characters for urban dwellers, but in fact it is estimated that real fluency requires knowledge at 3,000-4,000. Furthermore, this is passive recognition; writing stuff involves active recall, and is much more difficult still. David Moser’s The Writing on the Wall [DOC] has many amusing anecdotes on this subject, e.g.:

The most astounding example I encountered back in my early days studying Chinese was during a lunch with three graduate students in the Peking University Chinese department. I had a bad cold that day, and wanted to write a note to a friend to cancel a meeting. I found that I couldn’t write the character ti 嚔 in the word for “sneeze”, da penti 打喷嚔, and so I asked my three friends for help. To my amazement, none of the three could successfully retrieve the character ti 嚔. Three Chinese graduate students at China’s most prestigious university could not write the word for “sneeze” in their own native script! One simply cannot imagine a similar situation in a phonetic script environment – e.g., three Harvard graduate students unable to write a common word like “sneeze” in the orthography of their native language.

What was even more amazing – and puzzling – was that the Chinese people I dealt with showed almost no concern for this phenomenon. Most tended to explain away the situation as due to low educational standards, or merely natural everyday memory lapses. “And besides,” they would say to me, “Don’t you sometimes forget how to spell a word in English?” And I slowly began to realize that part of the problem is that, for most native Chinese, who have not grown up using an alphabetic system of writing, the contrast between the systems is not at all evident – they simply have no basis of comparison. Such people tend to assume that their difficulties are with the process of writing itself, rather than the particular writing system they are using.

Go, read his essay. And his other essay, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. Good, you’re back, and want to know what this has to do with China’s late industrialization. The answer is that, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, literacy rates, and educational human capital in general, is the most important prerequisite and determinant of economic development. The most literate countries in 1800 were also the richest ones in 2000. Thanks to its traditionally high levels of development and meritocratic system for grooming civil servants, China has always been relatively literate, until eclipsed by North Western Europe by 1800; as you can see in the graph below, its somewhat of an outlier. But knowing what we know of the peculiarities of literacy as limited by the very structure of its writing system…

(PS. Note that both Korean uses an alphabet; and so does Japanese, if a very complicated set of two alphabets (hiragana and katakana) with borrowings from Chinese hieroglyphs in the form of kanji. Could this, at least partially, explain why both Japan and Korea were far more successful at industrialization than China?)

One tentative implication is that the literacy rate estimated for historical China would be a fraction of its conventionally estimated percentage because to be able to functionally express the same range and depth of ideas in a hieroglyphic script as a scholar working with an alphabet-based writing system would constitute a much harder undertaking. I daresay that for anyone without a photographic memory, a great deal of time would simply be taken up with laboring over the Kangxi dictionary. This reduces the amount of mental energy that could be spent on more practical matters of original research or innovation.

2. Platonic Worldview. Many theorists have speculated about the role of traditionalism in keeping China back, but one can’t help noticing that such tendencies would logically be encouraged by the limitations of the Chinese writing system. Hieroglyphs originally evolved to keep track of two basic functions: religious ceremonies, trade accounts (e.g. bushels of grain delivered, etc), court historians (mostly formulaic accounts of dynasties, omens, wars, etc). As symbols stand for ideas, and given the simplicity of Chinese grammar, I suspect it is much harder to accurately convey unusual and complex phenomena in the Chinese script. Psychologically, this may have encouraged a Platonic worldview based on perfect forms, and the exaltation of traditional wisdom over the skeptical empirical, which is all antithetical to the scientific method.

3. Small Webs Of Reference. In pre-industrial times, much of what passed for industry and manufacturing was hands-and-eyes type of work, small artisans with apprentices and a few simple machine tools practicing their art in a workshop. China was abreast or ahead of medieval Europe in most of these spheres (barring a few things like eye-pieces and mechanical clocks). They even invented movable type printing well ahead of Europeans, which is truly amazing given how much simpler that system is for alphabet-based scripts. In some respects, Song China was already as economically developed as 18th century Europe. But they never made the leap to mass production and assembly lines; from about 1820, England made a qualitative spring forwards that China would not begin to replicate until the 1950′s.

Ultimately, the reason for this may reside in alphabetic script. Artisinal techniques can be conveyed well enough by word of mouth; the larger projects, such as dams or canals, can be overseen by a few very well-educated bureaucrats with the appropriate symbolic expertise. But once you get into the world of mass production, steamships, advanced metallurgy, chemicals, electricity, etc., then you can’t do without a big reservoir of specialists with a high degree of functional literacy, and a big, shared body of knowledge that these specialists can consult. The Chinese writing system is not conductive to the emergence of the far wider webs of reference, of citation and indexing, that is a prerequisite for an industrial takeoff. As Moser points out, this remains a problem even in the digitized modern age:

Yet even if some technological fix were to be devised to solve the problem of character entry, the non-alphabetic nature of the writing system still results in other serious and long-standing “invisible” problems. For example, the inclusion of a standard index to books, manuals and reference materials is made orders of magnitude more difficult by the Chinese writing system. The result is that to this day, the vast majority of non-fiction books published in China do not have an index, or anything like it. This fact seems incredible to those firmly ensconced in the alphabetic world, for obviously the lack of an index considerably lessens a book’s usefulness. Removing indexes from Western library books would be like an atomic bomb being dropped into academia. Yet their lack is a mundane fact of life in China.

… In virtually every informatic context, from library card catalogs to everyday user’s manuals, the relatively cumbersome Chinese writing system exerts a low-level but constant drag force on productivity, and tends to reinforce an undemocratic state of affairs in which only the educated elite or the doggedly determined make full use of the tools of the information environment.

Now imagine the challenges faced by Chinese scholars of yore, who did not even have the pinyin alphabetization system to help them out. In summary, the main problem of hieroglyphic writing systems is that it puts a mass of structural impediments towards the effective sharing of information that would not otherwise exist in an alphabetic system. This might be as good an explanation of why China reached a technological plateau early, and then largely stagnated for the better part of a millennium, as any other.

(Granted, there were improvements during this period. For instance, there was a huge burst in agricultural productivity during the Qing dynasty, which enabled the Chinese population to remain on par with the European. But this was a matter of traditional experimentation with crop varieties that has been practiced since the dawn of agriculture; an industrial revolution it does not – and cannot – make.)

Many pundits believe Chinese industrial catch-up is unsustainable because of its “traditional” lack of innovation and tendency to retreat into itself and stagnate. However, if this, for now admittedly fragile, theory is accurate, then the prospects for China under 21st century technological conditions look auspicious (for now, we’ll leave aside issues of climate change and Limits to Growth). Automatic translators can instantly look up any characters; likewise, any pinyin can be instantly converted into the appropriate character. Cell phone apps can recognize characters on paper and translate them. In tandem, a limited alphabetization and modern IT have overcome most of the structural difficulties that once stymied Chinese breakthrough into the world of industrialism and hi-tech. Furthermore, the critical languages of the future are those of math and computer science, and in these the Chinese are on a level playing field.

I can only finish these ruminations with a few comments on the big debate surrounding the simplification and/or alphabetization of Chinese. Largely, the latter is far more effective than the former; simplification may, in most (but not all) cases, improve the chances of character memorization, but it doesn’t resolve the core problems of hieroglyphic writing systems. On the other hand, the Chinese characters are a major cultural legacy and losing them would be tragic. As such, it would be best IMO to use pinyin (or Gwoyeu Romatzyh; I wish, LOL!) for practical purposes, but continue compulsory teaching of Traditional and Simplified characters for their historical and literary value.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Then you might get something like Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War, which I’ve finally read on the recommendations of Kolya and TG. Ranging from Ermak’s subjugation of the Sibir Khanate to the rise of Rome, Turchin makes the case that the rise and fall of empires is reducible to three basic concepts: 1) Asabiya – social cohesiveness and capacity for collective action, 2) Malthusian dynamics – the tendency for population to outgrow the carrying capacity, and 3) the “Matthew Principle” – the tendency for inequality and social stratification to increase over time. The interplay between these three forces produces the historical patterns of imperial rise and fall, of war and peace and war, that were summarized by Thomas Fenne in 1590 thus:

Warre bringeth ruine, ruine bringeth poverty, poverty procureth peace, and peace in time increaseth riches, riches causeth statelinesse, statelinesse increaseth envie, envie in the end procureth deadly malice, mortall malice proclaimeth open warre and bataille, and from warre again as before is rehearsed.

Turchin, PeterWar and Peace and War (2006)
Category: history, cliodynamics, war; Rating: 4/5
Summary: Amazon reviews

Ibn Khaldun, Malthus, and Saint Matthew meet up for coffee

1) According to the Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, empires only form when a tribe, nation, or religious sect attains a high degree of asabiya, – the ability of a group’s members to cooperate with each other, to maintain their identity and discipline in the face of adversity, and to impose their beliefs, values, and control over other groups. Other similar expressions are social cohesion or “social capital”. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, “royal authority and dynastic power are attained only through a group and asabiya. This is because aggressive and defensive strength is obtained only through… mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other”. (To put this in context, this is similar to Lev Gumilev’s theories of “passionarity” / пассионарность (willingness to sacrifice oneself for one’s values) or my own ideas on the sobornost’-poshlost’ / rationalism-mysticism belief matrix, in which a state of sobornost’, of course, refers to a high level of asabiya).

This is not surprising – military cooperation and morale is an important factor in military success. See the stunning successes of the early Islamic armies spreading the revelations of Mohammed, or of Nazi Germany. Later in the book, Turchin references the work of Trevor Dupuy, who showed that the Germans had a “combat efficiency” of 1.45, compared to the British 1.0 and American 1.1, in the battles on the western front of 1944 – in other words, excluding equipment and terrain, each Germany soldier was militarily “worth” 20% more than an Anglo-Saxon one.

Now why do some societies have higher asabiya than others? Ibn Khaldun’s analysis covered the dynamics of the desert / settled boundary in the North African Maghreb. Amongst the desert Bedouin tribes, constant inter-tribal warfare exerts group selective pressure favoring the emergence of tribes high in asabiya. These selective pressures are much weaker in settled civilizations with rule of law. Now these defects are more than made up for civilizations’ greater population density and better technologies, which can normally yield much bigger, better-equipped armies than anything the barbarians can muster. However, should civilization fall into a state of internal strife and social dissolution, it becomes “vulnerable to conquest from the desert” by a coalition of Bedouin tribes organized around one group with a particularly high asabiya. However, as soon as the barbarians become ensconced within their new domains, they gradually assimilate into the urban civilization, the high asabiya of the core group dissipates, and the cycle begins anew.

Turchin extends Ibn Khaldun’s beyond the Maghreb into a general theory of the rise of empires, almost all of which arise along “meta-ethnic frontiers” featuring bloody conflicts between starkly alien peoples. The constant military pressure and hatred for the Other binds the borderlanders together, fostering the relative economic equality, social solidarity, and discipline that will in time build an empire. Examples of this include the conflict of the Roman farmer-warriors against the Celtic barbarians of the Po Valley that melded the Latin peoples into the Roman Empire, the centuries-long struggle against the raiding, slave-taking steppe Hordes that incubated Muscovy’s rise, and the violent frontier wars against the Native Americans that formed the “melting pot” identity of the United States. The entire history of Europe from the Roman Empire to Poland-Lithuania has been characterized by the millennial, north-eastern drift of the meta-ethnic frontier between Rome/Christianity and tribal pagans, a frontier which repeatedly spawned new states and empires (Rome itself, the Caroliangian Empire, and the myriad Germanic and Slavic states.

2) The author notes that Ibn Khaldun’s blaming of “luxury” and “senility” for the degeneration of civilizations is an inadequate explanation, being nothing more than a biological metaphor with questionable applicability. Instead, Turchin lays out the theory of cliodynamics, the “mathematized history” that attempts to provide a comprehensive explanation of the “secular cycles” of imperial rise and fall by modeling Malthusian dynamics, i.e., when a great empire arises the resulting stability and prosperity produce overpopulation, which results in dearth, rising inequality (i.e. the old middle-class shrinks, while oligarchs and the landless indigent veer into prominence), and an intensified struggle for scarce resources that undermines social solidarity. Eventually, a severe shock such as a disastrous harvest, peasant uprisings, civil war, or foreign invasion provokes a full-fledged Malthusian crisis that triggers the collapse of the empire. I’ve already written about cliodynamics in detail here.

(Incidentally, I’ve also connected the decline of asabiya (or in my terminology, the transition from sobornost’ to poshlost’) to the socio-demographic cycles of cliodynamics. The theme of The Ages of Man, in which the bounteous Golden Age of the first dynasties (imperial rise) degenerates into the “immorality” and dearth of the Iron Age (social atomization, Malthusian stress, decline), – finally followed by an apocalyptic “cleansing” and start again (Malthusian collapse, barbarian invasions, Dark Ages, etc), is common to all civilizational traditions. See my Musings on the decline and fall of civilizations and explanation of the Malthusian Loop.)

3) Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath”. In other words, there is a natural tendency for wealth to become concentrated in the hands of the few, called the Matthew Principle. In other words, if a pre-industrial civilization enjoys socio-political stability, has ineffective redistributive mechanisms, no free land / overpopulation, and a social mentality that accepts (or even glorifies – see “conspicuous consumption”) big levels of wealth inequality, within several generatons it will develop prodigal levels of social stratification. Wealth inequality tends to reach a maximum just before a collapse of the entire system: for instance, the Roman Empire fell for the last time just decades after reaching “peak inequality” in 400AD. Similar things can be said about the end of republican Rome, the decline of medieval France, and even Russia 1917 or Iran 1979.

Why does the Matthew Principle operate so strongly in Malthusian settings? In agrarian societies, private property is the normal way of storing inherited wealth. If a family has lots of children, each one will inherit ever smaller plots. To make ends meet, they will be eventually forced to borrow loans; if they can’t, their land is taken over by their creditors, and they now have to hire themselves out as agricultural laborers or drift into the cities where they can try to join a trade (hence the reason why cities expand so much in times of subsistence stress). Meanwhile, those who have land can 1) rent it out at exorbitant rates (since the demand for it is so high in an overpopulated country) or 2) they can sell the grain their tenants or serfs produce at high prices (again because there are more mouths to feed). The resulting accumulation of drifting unemployed are matchwood for social unrest (e.g. see the role of the sans-culottes in the French Revolution).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social spectrum, the elites or nobility grow at a faster rate than the commoners because they have better access to food and can afford more children, and die less quickly. Those with land benefit from cheaper labor and the rise in rent prices, while manufactures become easier to afford thanks to the increase in trade and urban artisans. However, intra-elite inequality also increases, and there is increasing tension as some poor nobles see peasant arrivistes rising above them in social status. Because the king depends on the nobles for governing his kingdom, state institutions must be expanded to “feed” all those nobles who are left out of inheritances, fostering corruption, aristocratic intrigues, and social stratification. Those at the very top of the social pyramid engage in the most extravagant conspicuous consumption, provoking envy amongst the have-nots. All these widening social chasms reduce the society’s asabiya.

The plagues, wars, and internal violence unleashed by Malthusian collapse tends to kill off most of the top and bottom of the social period. The landless indigent starve to death, or their weakened immune systems succumb to disease, or they get carried away as the cannon fodder in the uprisings that wrack the failed state. The nobles also die fast, thanks to their status as a military caste. Generational cycles of violence and wars and political purges carry many of them off. After the collapse, land becomes cheaper and labor becomes more expensive. Subsistence stress largely subsides and society becomes much more egalitarian. The cycle begins anew.

Criticisms and Consequences

I think Turchin’s book is a good introductory text to the new science of cliodynamics, one he himself did much to found (along with Nefedov and Korotayev). However, though readable – mostly, I suspect, because I am interested in the subject – it is not well-written. The text was too thick, there were too many awkward grammatical constructions, and the quotes are far, far too long.

More importantly, 1) the theory is not internally well-integrated and 2) there isn’t enough emphasis on the fundamental differences separating agrarian from industrial societies. For instance, Turchin makes a lot of the idea that the Italians’ low level of asabiya (“amoral familism”) was responsible for it’s only becoming politically unified in the late 19th century. But why then was it the same for Germany, the bloody frontline for the religious wars of the 17th century? And why was France able to build a huge empire under Napoleon, when it had lost all its “meta-ethnic frontiers” / marches by 1000 AD? For answers to these questions about the genesis of the modern nation-state, one would be much better off by looking at more conventional explanations by the likes of Benedict Anderson, Charles Tilly, or Gabriel Ardant.

Nowadays, modern political technologies – the history textbook, the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the radio and Internet – have long displaced the meta-ethnic frontier as the main drivers behind the formation of asabiya. Which is certainly not to say that meta-ethnic frontiers are unimportant – they are, especially in the case of Dar al-Islam, which feels itself to be under siege on multiple fronts (the “bloody borders” of clash-of-civilizations-speak), which according to Turchin’s theory should promote a stronger Islamic identity. But their intrinsic importance has been diluted by the influence of modern media.

Turchin has an interesting discussion of the future of the US, China, Russia, and the European Union based on the conclusions of War and Peace and War. In particular, one very relevant point he made is that to become a true empire, the EU requires 1) the development of a European-wide loyalty towards it, willing to shed blood for it, and 2) its core state, Germany, must continue to underwrite it financially. None of these conditions, I think it is safe to say, will be met. Germany is most emphatically not prepared to sacrifice its national interests in favor of a European project over which it does not have direct control; the Germans have their own problems, foremost among them the demographic aging of the population. Furthermore, only 37% of Germans are today prepared to fight for their own country, according to the findings of the World Values Survey*; if that is the case, then how many Germans would fight (and risk death) for the Brussels bureaucracy? 5% would probably be generous. Quite simply the EU does not have any foundations for an imperial future, nor the will to create one; it is very fragile and will start unraveling at the smallest shocks.

Another major problem with the book that makes it incomplete is that although Turchin touches and speculates about the modern world and the future – in particular, he notes that the rising inequality, crime rates, slower growth, etc, of the post-1960′s industrialized world is similar to the traditional symptoms of an emerging Malthusian crisis – he does not connect the dots with the Limits to Growth, the theory that explicitly states that we are being swept into a Malthusian crisis due to global overpopulation and resource depletion. This is a far more important development than the techno-hype he devotes much of the last chapter to.

In the end I gave a 4/5 for this book, although it could have potentially gotten 5*/5. Turchin did valuable work in emphasizing how the material (e.g. the Malthusian) interacts with the spiritual (asabiya) in history, whereas many lesser theorists regard the latter as a “mystical” factor unworthy of serious attention. However, the book suffered from 1) poor writing, 2) too many marginal details that should have been edited out, and 3) unsuccessful application of the theory to the current, post-agrarian era. He should either have left it out entirely, or spent a lot more time doing it better.

* From the latest “wave” of the World Values Survey, “Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?” I think this question is an excellent way of gauging asabiya in a nation, since it directly addresses the issue of life, death, and self-sacrifice. The results are very interesting.

The Scandinavian countries – limp-wristed feminist socialists that they are ;) – all say a resounding “yes” (Sweden 86%, Norway 88%, Finland 84%). Similarly, for all the problems of the post-Communist transition, Eastern European nations also retain high levels of asabiya (Poland 75%, Russia 83%, Georgia 70%), though Serbia 61% is lower (maybe because they’ve already fought) and so is Ukraine 69% (its Russophones aren’t as loyal as West or Central Ukrainians). Most of the Muslim countries say “yes” (Iran 81%, Egypt 80%, Morocco 77%), including a whopping 97% in Turkey. Iraq 37% is the sole outlier. Similarly, the Asian nations also have high levels of patriotism (China 87%, India 81%, South Korea 73%).

The United States 63% isn’t as high as one might think, and curiously close to France 61%, Great Britain 62%, and the rest of the Anglo-Saxon world. The nations of Latin America tend to have similar figures. The Mediterranean countries, the old countries, and the countries defeated in World War Two are the last willing to put their lives on the line for their nation (Italy 43%, Spain 45%, Japan 25%, Germany 37%).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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If I could recommend just one book to someone with a business-as-usual outlook, someone who believes human ingenuity and free markets will always bail us out of any resource scarcity or environmental problem, it would be Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (henceforth LTG). After reading it, you may never look at the world in quite the same way again. This post contains a summary, but I really do recommend you go and read it all. It is well argued, eminently readable, and pertains to issues central to our common future.

Meadows, Donella & J. Randers, D. MeadowsLimits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (2004). BUY THE BOOK!
Category: world systems, resource depletion, pollution; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: wiki; synopsis; WSJ story.

The first book was published in 1972, commissioned by a circle of statesmen, businesspeople, and scientists called the Club of Rome. The LTG models, using the latest advances in systems theory and computer modeling, suggested that business-as-usual economic growth on a finite planet would eventually lead to stagnating and then falling living standards, as ever more industrial capital has to be diverted towards mitigating the consequences of growth, e.g. soil degradation, resource depletion, and runaway pollution.

Cornucopians and establishment “experts” have tried to discredit LTG by claiming that its predictions of global apocalypse failed to materialize; instead, hasn’t the world seen remarkable economic growth since 1972? These criticisms are unfounded. First, the LTG modelers did not make any concrete forecasts, but merely a range of scenarios based on varying initial conditions (e.g. global resource endowments) and future political choices. Not all the scenarios led to collapse – a reasonable global standard of living is preserved under scenarios in which humanity makes a transition back below the limits towards sustainable development. Second, none of those scenarios projected a collapse before 2015 at the earliest, so the claim is invalidated even if you treat the worst case scenario as a prediction. As such, we can only conclude that these critics are either liers or haven’t actually read the book.

In this 30-year update, the authors note that their more pessimistic conclusions are already coming true – for instance, in per capita terms, global grain production peaked in 1984 and the marine catch reached an all-time high in 1988. Both have been on a slow, downward plateau since. (This finally culminated in the global foot riots of 2008 and rising “food protectionism” on the part of agricultural net exporters). Contrary to the hype surrounding globalization, the “new economy”, the flat world, etc, global GDP growth rates peaked in the 1960′s, and have since settled down to a lower level practically everywhere outside emerging Asia (and they may yet go into outright stagnation in the 2010′s due to the convergence of peak oil, geopolitical stresses, and the decline of the West). Furthermore, this slowdown was accompanied by rising inequality, between and within countries. Overall, the authors believe that humanity’s ecological footprint overtook the carrying capacity of the Earth sometime around 1980, ushering in “overshoot”.

A few things we should note before going further. LTG is not about particular phenomena, such as peak oil – though in itself very important, it is but a symptom of much deeper, underlying trends (the limits to growth). Second, the models indicate that growth will only begin to really falter once the system is in severe overshoot, so for the 1970-2010 period the LTG authors did not expect any major divergence between the unending growth predicted by neo-classical macroeconomics, and their own biophysical / systems dynamics models which account for the vital role of energy and ecological factors to sustaining growth. As the authors note, “we must all wait another decade for conclusive evidence about who has the better understanding” (and so far the economists are off to a bad start).

Exponential Growth, Limits, and Overshoot


The human population naturally exhibits exponential growth. Whenever total fertility rates are substantially above the 2.1 children per woman needed for simple population replacement, the population will usually grow very rapidly. In Malthusian, pre-industrial societies, this population growth typically exceeded the rate of growth of the carrying capacity; when the two drew level, population growth ceased as lower wages, elite predation, and food dearth raised mortality rates and lowered fertility rates. This increasing brittleness of the system, which made it vulnerable to shocks like poor harvests or peasant uprisings, is the single most convincing explanation for the cyclical emergence and collapse of empires.

In modern industrial societies, the effects of exponential population growth are modulated by the demographic transition, the tendency for fertily rates to transition to or below population replacement rates with increasing wealth. However, the effects of these gains on reducing the human impact on the environment is more than balanced out by the growth of the stock of industrial capital. This growth is inherently exponential, because the machine tool building sector that constitutes the base of the industrial ecosystem essentially reproduces itself, i.e. you need machines to build more machines. Labor and capital factor inputs, in their turn, are the motors of exponential growth in all other spheres of the human economy – food production, goods production, resource extraction, pollution emissions, services provision, etc.

Therefore, population and industrial capital can be said to have “an inherent system structure to produce the behavior of exponential growth”, which in turn drive increases in the food, energy, goods, and services needed to sustain that same growing population and industrial system. This increases the system’s level of physical throughput, the “continuous flows of energy and materials needed to keep people, cars, houses, and factories functioning”. However, both the materials-providing planetary sources (hydrocarbons, metals, minerals, etc) and the pollution-absorbing planetary sinks (soils, oceans, air, etc) needed to sustain a certain level of physical throughput are limited (the former can be depleted, the latter can be overfilled). There are hard planetary limits to the “rate at which humanity can extract resources (crops, grass, wood, fish) and emit wastes (greenhouse gases, toxic substances) without exceeding the productive or absorptive capacities of the world”. Once those limits are breached, development becomes unsustainable and we enter a state of overshoot.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that try to keep the system within its limits. The delays can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

Although the planetary sources usually appear large on paper, only a small fraction of them tend to be economically recoverable due to the law of diminishing returns. All the low-hanging fruit are picked first, such as “supergiant” oil fields, rich copper ore deposits, etc, or in other words energy sources with high energy return on energy invested (EROEI), thus leaving only remoter, deeper and more dilute resources such as polar oil, unconventional liquids, etc. Their extraction costs soar exponentially and requisition an ever greater share of the industrial base, leaving less room for consumer products (vital for political stability), the agricultural base (to prevent starvation), investment in capital stock renewal (to prevent the depreciation of the industrial base), and environmental mitigation (to prevent runaway pollution from wrecking other sectors).

Due to the dropping EROEI of newer energy sources, ever greater volumes have to be excavated and processed just to keep standing in place (e.g. coal’s gross energy content peaked in 1998 in the US, despite that volumes have continued increasing since). These diminishing returns per unit of capital employed towards resource extraction lead to rising pollution, which negatively feeds back into the agricultural base and human health. We could divert resources from other sectors to combat this pollution, e.g. through emissions reductions or geoengineering. Alternatively, rapid climate change coupled with declining oil and fertiliser output may lead to catastrophic falls in agricultural output, which could only be mitigated for a time by diverting capital and energy into this vital sector – but which would hurt the long-term prospects for renewal in the energy extraction and industrial sectors! And so goes our Faustian trap…

Below are four examples of these phenomena in action.

An example of diminishing returns / lowest fruit being picked first. The quality of copper ore being mined is falling, and more and more energy needs to be expended to get the same quantity of copper. Eventually, the returns may become so low that mining it will no longer be at all profitable, at which point the system collapses to a lower level of complexity and salvage becomes an attrative strategy.

PS. Note the counter-intuitive spike in the early 1930′s, correlating to the Great Depression. Economic retreat forces the shutdown of the least efficient mines, because the efforts they have to expend on extraction now surpass what they get back in profits. Unless the state takes increasingly coercive measure to maintain physical output at all costs, requisitioning labor and capital in a last-ditch Stakhanovite effort to prolong industrialism in a game of “last man standing”, the end of the industrial age will see the same general pattern.

As the ore grade falls, more and more material has to be extracted and processed to get the same amount of copper. This naturally results in soaring pollution emissions, which will put increasing stress on regional and global biocapacity.

An explanation for the drastic improvements in air quality, river health, fuel economy, etc, in advanced industrial nations in the 1970′s-1980′s – picking the lowest-hanging fruit is pretty cheap. But beyond a certain point, reducing pollution becomes without a direct fall in physical output becomes prohibitively expensive.

One more example of limits (the main ones, resource depletion and CO2 pollution, are covered elsewhere in this blog) – arable land availability. The amount of land devoted to agriculture has remained constant in recent decades, though its quality has decreased as good land becomes exhausted and more marginal lands were brought into exploitation. Crop yields have risen and continue to rise, but 1) they are overly dependent on the intensification of farming, e.g. using (natural-gas dependent) fertilizers that mask the decline in natural soil fertility and 2) as noted above, they have not kept up with population growth since the 1980′s.

The graph shows possible food futures: if no more land is lost and crop yields double, then the world’s 8bn people can be fed on a comfortable West European diet. If on the other hand “erosion, climate change, costly fossil fuels, falling water tables… reduce yields from present levels”, then there will be a global Malthusian crisis. Possible solutions: “farming methods that conserve and enhance soil – such as terracing, contour plowing, composting, cover cropping, polyculture, and crop rotation”, and in the tropics, “alley cropping and agroforestry” – all methods that achieve high yields, improve the soil, and don’t require prodigious fossil fuel and fertilizer inputs.

Basically, LTG gives one a valuable sense of how interconnected all these global systems are, about just how universal the law of diminishing returns is, and how the failure to move decisively towards a sustainable economy now will lead to collapse further down the road (and the later we postpone this transition, the greater will be the eventual collision).

The most important thing is to make the human industrial ecosystem a closed loop, in which population ceases to grow, and a recycling sector feeds back wastes as inputs into the system instead of continuing drawdown to maintain an unsustainably-high “phantom” carrying capacity.

Why recycling matters: “undiscovered reserves” (sources) and the sinks for “solid waste” are both limited; hence, a high standard of living can only be preserved by 1) redirecting most wastes back within the loop and 2) directly reducing material throughput by technological innovation (energy efficiency, ecotechnology, informatics).

The World3 Scenarios

All of these are feedback loops that I’ve described form the basis of the World3 computer models that the LTG authors used in making their scenarios. They are reproduced below, in concise detail.

The central feedback loops of the World3 model govern the growth of population and of industrial capital. Two positive feedback loops involving births and investment generate the exponential growth behavior of population and capital. The two negative feedback loops involving deaths and depreciation tend to regulate this exponential growth. The relative strengths of the various loops depend on many other factors in the system.

Some of the interconnections between population and industrial capital operate through agricultural capital, cultivated land, and pollution. Each arrow indicates a casual relationship, which may be immediate or delayed, large or small, positive or negative, depending on the assumptions included in each model run.

Population and industrial capital are also influenced by the levels of service capital (such as health and education services) and of non-renewable resources.

The “initial conditions” and assumptions are overall rather optimistic, for instance, the ones dealing with the power of the environment to clean up toxic pollution. The model leaves out corruption, military expenditures, wars and political disruptions – although vital, they are too hard to model with any degree of rigor (I write about these in my posts on Collapse Ethics and Ecotechnic Dictatorship). Chronic food and energy shortages will lead to civil unrest and political instability, necessitating greater expenditures on law enforcement and assorted populist gimmicks (e.g. the tinpot dictatorships that will rise up in the pre-Collapse period), taking away industrial capital and managerial resources from the industrial base, agriculture, and other critical sectors.

Statistical bodies will manipulate inflation and GDP growth figures to preserve an image of stability, even as creeping normalcy converges to an ever darker reality. There will be a scramble to secure the world’s remaining sources of high-density resources, which will lead to a greater share of the industrial base being devoted to (unproductive) military production. Elites will mobilize support for permanent war and surveillance by citing the moral imperative of fighting freedom-hating terrorists, evil empires, and/or maintaining global peace, security and stability. And so on.

Basically, by excluding these political and geopolitical variables, the World3 model presents the uppermost possibilities for the “real” world, even in the standard run which leads to collapse. This standard run is reproduced below.

As you can see, it leads to overshoot and collapse. Why? Because signals and responses to problems are delayed, and limits are erodable.

Examples of erosion – 1) as hunger returns, resources are concentrated into intensifying agricultural exploitation at the cost of preserving longterm soil fertility, 2) as more industrial capital is needed to maintain a certain level of resource extraction, pollution abatement, and agricultural production, less is left over to counteract the depreciation of the industrial capital stock, which begins to wither away, 3) worst of all, increasing pollution can erode the pollution absorption mechanisms themselves, thus increasing the rate of pollution buildup – this is already evident in the reduced ability of the biosphere (forests, oceans, etc) to soak up human carbon emissions.

Symptoms of overshoot, many of which are already becoming self-evident:

Primary Physical Symptoms – Resource stocks fall, and wastes and pollution accumulate.

  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted to activities compensating for the loss of services that were formerly provided without cost by nature (for example, sewage treatment, air purification, water purification, flood control, pest control, restoration of soil nutrients, pollination, or the preservation of species) – AK: In the worst case scenario, geoengineering would mean that the most basic function previously performed by Gaia, maintaining planetary homeostasis, becomes a human responsibility.
  • Capital, resources, and labor diverted from final goods production to exploitation of scarcer, more distant, deeper, or more dilute resources. – AK: See the declining EROEI of oil sources, talk of seabed mining, the increasing emphasis on unconventional & remote energy sources like tar sands, deep-sea, polar oil, shale gas, coal seam gas, etc…
  • Technologies invented to make use of lower-quality, smaller, more dispersed, less valuable resources, because the higher-value ones are gone. – AK: See greentech (greenwash?), the “hydrogen economy”, electric batteries, etc.
  • Failing natural pollution cleanup mechanisms; rising levels of pollution. – AK: See climate change.

Resulting Physical Symptoms – As resource stocks fall and wastes accumulate the behavior of natural systems may change with consequences for ecosystems and human communities.

  • Growing chaos in natural systems, with “natural” disasters more frequent and more severe because of less resilience in the environmental system. – AK: More heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, etc, are already observed.

Resulting Social Symptoms - Society tries to live with, compensate for, and adapt to the primary physical symptoms (note: these symptoms do not include responses that address the decline of the resource base in the first place, such responses are catalogued in Signs of Life Within Limits).

  • Capital depreciation exceeding investment, and maintenance deferred, so there is deterioration in capital stocks, especially long-lived infrastructure. - AK: See US infrastructure problems, paralleling that of the late Soviet Union.
  • Growing demands for capital, resources, and labor used by the military or industry to gain access to, secure, and defend resources that are increasingly concentrated in fewer, more remote, or increasingly hostile regions. - AK: See resource wars, of which Iraq 2003 is one of the first in a long series to come; the US, China, and Russia have all ramped up military spending since about 2000.
  • Investment in human resources (education, health care, shelter) postponed in order to meet immediate consumption, investment, or security needs, or to pay debts. - AK: We’ll see plenty of that in the next few years as Western states fall into insolvency like dominoes.
  • Debts a rising percentage of annual real output. – AK: Debt levels have exploded throughout the developed world since 2000, and went into overdrive following the 2008 economic crisis & bailouts of politically-connected corporate groups.
  • Eroding goals for health and environment.
  • Increasing conflicts, especially conflicts over sources or sinks. - AK: Conflicts over sources = resource wars (see above), over sinks = “ecological warfare” (PLA colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui wrote about this in their prophetic book on Unrestricted Warfare).
  • Shifting consumption patterns as the population can no longer pay the price of what it really wants and, instead, purchases what it can afford. – AK: That is basically another way of saying people will become poorer.
  • Declining respect for the instruments of collective government as they are used increasingly by the elites to preserve or increase their share of a declining resource base. - AK: Predatory elites always become a heavy burden on the peasantry and middle classes during times of imminent Malthusian dearth. Applied to the modern world, see the rise of the “surveillance state”, the emphasis on waging a (by definition endless) “war on terror”, the creeping militarization of internal security forces, universal databases, etc… Meanwhile, internal inequality has risen in every major region of the world – the US, Eastern Europe, Japan, China, India, etc – since 1970.

Do you observe any of these symptoms in your “real world?” If you do, you should suspect that your society is in advanced stages of overshoot.

Finally, here are the central assumptions in World3 that give it the tendency to overshoot and collapse: 1) growth in the physical economy is considered desirable and central to our socio-political systems; this growth tends to be exponential, 2) there are “physical limits to the sources of materials and energy that sustain the population and economy, and there are limits to the sinks that absorb the waste products of human activity”, 3) the world system receives signals about these physical limits that are “distorted, noisy, delayed, confused, or denied”, and responses are hence delayed and non-optimal, and 4) the “system’s limits are not only finite, but erodable when they are overstressed or overused”, and furthermore, there are “thresholds beyond which damage rises quickly and can become irreversible” (e.g. see tipping points in climate change). The authors note that if you want to refute LTG, you will have to show that one of the statements above is invalid.

Markets and Technology to the Rescue?

Maybe not. Here are three explanations. First from one of my older posts.

The criticisms from markets and technology also fall flat on their faces. Markets are implicitly modeled in World3 as resource allocations are typically automatically transferred to the sector of most pressing need. (Actually, if anything the models are more market-driven than our own world, since we don’t have perfect information and instant responses in the real world, as opposed to the model). As for technology, unless concrete steps are taken to reduce material throughput, improvements are simply soaked up by the Jevons paradox. Unless technological progress is extremely rapid (e.g. as envisioned by singularitarians), there will sometime come a tipping point when efficiency improvements no longer make up for decling agricultural and resource yields and soaring pollution, and world population and human welfare collapse.

Second from Limits to Growth synopsis.

The most common criticisms of the original World3 model were that it underestimated the power of technology and that it did not represent adequately the adaptive resilience of the free market. Impressive —and even sufficient— technological advance is conceivable, but only as a consequence of determined societal decisions and willingness to follow up such decisions with action and money.

Technological advance and the market are reflected in the model in many ways. The authors assume in World3 that markets function to allocate limited investment capital among competing needs, essentially without delay. Some technical improvements are built into the model, such as birth control, resource substitution, and the green revolution in agriculture. But even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience that seems possible, if those are the only changes, the model tends to generate scenarios of collapse.

One reason technology and markets are unlikely to prevent over shoot and collapse is that technology and markets are merely tools to serve goals of society as a whole. If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short‑term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

The second reason for the vulnerability of technology is that adjustment mechanisms have costs. The costs of technology and the market are reckoned in resources, energy, money, labor, and capital.

Third from my post on ecotechnic dictatorship to criticize the technology element of Korotayev’s cliodynamics model, but which happens to apply somewhat to LTG as well.

However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization.

I.e., 1) to get technological growth, you have to divert resources from industrial capital and services to sustain it, 2) many spheres of technological growth themselves show diminishing returns on investment, e.g. electricity-generating turbine efficiency has more or less plateaued, electric batteries are showing signs of plateauing, etc, 3) a lot of the technology we did create in the fossil fuel age is not even at all suitable for sustainable development and are thus essentially worse than useless, i.e. only ecotechnologies can be sustainably supported, and 4) technology requires a electro-industrial base for its very sustenance: if the latter gives way, so will technology, and we will see a collapse in spheres like energy efficiency, made even worse by the fact that the available energy sources would be increasingly depleted and low-EROEI.

Conclusion. Since technology itself relies on a material base for its sustenance, which in turn requires energy inputs to sustain itself. Thus, it will probably be one of the first things to be downsized when physical limits start pressing down on the economy. The hen that lays the golden eggs will probably be the first to get cooked. Second, there may be sudden and catastrophic increases in pollution. Climate change may be abrupt and catastrophic. A collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea levels by several meters and wipe the world’s ports and more importantly, much of its prime agricultural land. The Amazon is increasingly vulnerable to a conflagration that will turn it into desert, releasing more CO2 than I care to look up in the scientific literature. Increasing temperatures may unleash uncontrolled methane emissions from melting Siberian permafrost and oceanic clathrates.

Past the point of irreversible decline a controlled retreat to sustainability becomes ever more and more unlikely, because of a) the inertia of past pollution emissions and capital investments, b) political crisis in a society predicated on permanent growth will lead to short-term thinking and ever more exclusively stopgap solutions and c) eventually institutional collapse will make it impossible to fund and implement new energy-efficiency or pollution-control technologies on any sufficiently large scale or even maintain already existing infrastructure devoted for those purposes.

Further Reading:

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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As a follow-up to my article on the historical necessity of Green Communism, I would like to 1) refute some common myths and misconceptions about limits to growth-induced collapse, 2) clarify the concept of Green Communism, and 3) elucidate why the only realistic way to prevent collapse now is to force through a “sustainable retreat” by an “ecotechnic dictatorship”.

Let’s take as a starting point our current situation. From the late 1970′s or early 1980′s, calculations indicate that humanity exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. Fossil fuel resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate, producing an increase in what William Catton called the “phantom carrying capacity“, which now supports many of the Earth’s surplus billions. However, should the energy base becomes too weak to sustain this phantom carrying capacity, there will be a catastrophic fall of the human population as the Earth system snaps back into equilibrium, producing a massive Malthusian dieoff. The recent peaking of world oil production and accelerated Arctic methane release are but the early portents of hard limits to growth on our finite planet.

We are in a predicament, dependent on an industrial Machine whose insatiable appetite for ever higher levels of material throughput will eventually doom us all. A Machine and its brother, Mammon, with whom we have made a Faustian bargain. We have to somehow wriggle out of this physical and spiritual dependency on our industrial Mephistopheles to avert a collapse of industrial civilization by 2050, but continued dithering and denial makes the changes required ever more drastic year by year. Had the world begun the transition to sustainability in the 1970′s, a great deal of personal freedom and private affluence could have been preserved; as of today, it looks ever likelier than only a Leviathan invested with total power over society can haul us back from the brink of the Olduvai Gorge.

The Necessity of Green Communism, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the State

The world’s industrial infrastructure and services run on cheap fossil fuels and electricity (much of which is derived from hydrocarbons). Past global energy transitions, such as the one from biomass to coal, took 50 years to accomplish. It is not unreasonable to expect a similar timescale for the hydrocarbons to renewables transition, especially since unlike in the past we will be shifting towards energy sources with lower EROEI’s and lower energy and power densities. At the same time, we will have to deal with the problem of anthropogenic climate change, which seems to exhibit more signs of veering out of control with every passing year.

In the face of these challenges to industrial civilization, the world system may continue on one of the following three paths: 1) business as usual, 2) limits to growth, and 3) sustainable retreat. The rough shape of humanity’s ecological footprint trajectories are summarized for each scenario in the graph below, where 100 is a rough estimate for the carrying capacity of the Earth in 1960.

My vision of three possible future overshoot scenarios.

Business as Usual, or “Fantasy”

The miraculous discovery of a new energy source, embodied in the element unobtainium, enabled an uninterrupted continuation of economic progress. Energy researchers all over the world slapped their balding heads in frustration in 2012 for not discovering this energy source earlier, an energy source that was non-polluting, present throughout the world’s oceans, and very easy to extract and exploit. Just a few years later world governments embarked on a geoengineering scheme to create a cloud of self-assembling nanobots, designed to cleanse up the surplus atmospheric CO2 back to its pre-industrial levels, and hopefully not turn the world’s biosphere into “grey goo” in the process.

By the time they got ready to get going with this in 2025, to their happiness they discovered it wasn’t even necessary. Just a few days before the nanobots were due to be unleashed, the theory of anthropogenic global warming was finally exposed as a massive hoax invented by Al Gore to further his megalomaniac plans for global totalitarian socialism. In an interview, the UN climate panel’s chairman admitted, “I am deeply ashamed for having perpetuated such a massive fraud on the governments of the world”. Al Gore himself couldn’t be found for comment, the conman having been raptured into the technological singularity hours before the scandal broke.

Limits to Growth, or “Reality”

Though business-as-usual cornucopia sounds like a good plot for a literary homage to Michael Crichton, few informed people can seriously believe that technology and markets by themselves will enable us to extend our Faustian bargain with the Machine long enough to cheat Gaia when she comes to collect. The likeliest outcome of business-as-usual hubris is a flattening plateau, following by a global, cliff-like collapse in human numbers, technology, and socio-political complexity. There are four major sources of evidence for holding this theoretical viewpoint.

1) Limits to Growth. According to the findings of the widely-publicized 1972 study by the Club of Rome, exponential growth is unsustainable on a finite planet, even when markets and technological growth are accounted for. The results of the “standard run” of their World3 model contained in the 2004 updated version of the study are reproduced below. Crushed between the Scylla of resource depletion and the Charybdis of pollution overload, collapse occurs within the first half of the 21st century.

The Limits to Growth standard run leads to collapse early in the 21st century.

A recent report by Graham Turner of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with 30 years of reality, showed that world system dynamics in the post-1972 era closely tracked the forecasts of the Limits to Growth standard run. Not good.

2) Resource Depletion. In support of the theory that the world will experience severe problems with energy are depletion studies of the three major fossil fuels – oil, natural gas, and coal. Let’s summarize each one.

Peak oil was most likely reached in 2008, and from 2011 depletion will decisively overtake new fields coming offline – most of which will be located in remote locations like deep offshore or the Arctic, and will require huge investments for exploitation to begin. Natural gas will peak by 2030, but its decline profile will be much steeper than for oil; however, there are hopes of prolonging the gas age by exploiting shale gas and coal seam gas. Finally, although on paper coal reserves should last centuries, the bulk of the deposits are very low EROEI and may even require more energy to extract than they will ever produce through combustion. It should be noted that even though US coal extraction by volume has seen continued increasing uninterrupted in recent years, when measured by total energy it peaked in 1998, and has since been on a slow downslope. Finally, tar sands, oil shale, and other unconventional sources of oil require a phenomenal amount of fresh water and natural gas to extract, they are extremely polluting, and have a very low EROEI; it is completely unfeasible that they will make good the gap.

Paul Cherfurka’s projections of future global energy usage by source.

Could renewables save us? Solar PV is improving rapidly, but it starts from an extremely low base. Wind power is already well established, but there are serious questions over its real EROEI level – can industrial civilization be run on wind, or is its real inefficiency masked over by the prior cheap oil subsidies used in the making of wind turbines? Yet the crucial problem facing wind and solar are their low energy and power densities, which makes them unsuitable for providing the base load that a stable electricity supply demands. The only real hope is to massively expand next-generation nuclear reactor construction, in conjunction with other renewables. However, this will take a intense effort spread over decades, and it is not clear that this effort will be sustained as the system comes under assault from ever fiercer energy and climate shocks – and that’s assuming uranium extraction remains profitable in net energy terms.

In conclusion, the evidence indicates that from 2030, the net energy available to industrial civilization will begin to decline; furthermore, due to diminishing marginal returns, by that time there will be little scope for more efficiency improvements. This lends support to the Limits to Growth standard run model that industrialism will decline by the first half of the 21st century due to resource shortages.

3) Tainter on diminishing returns to complexity. In his celebrated work on The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter posits that societies increase their complexity in order to solve certain problems. For instance, one of the major reasons behind the formation of the Chinese state was its provision of a bureaucratic-administrative mechanism for implementing irrigation and flood control works, which increased the carrying capacity of the land. Unfortunately, the flip side is that societies need to expend ever more organizational and physical energy to maintain a certain level of complexity, a complexity which is subject to diminishing marginal returns. Eventually, this expenditure undermines the society’s economic base and opens up a large potential gap where said society could reap the same benefits but at a lower level of complexity (and cost). At that point, there arises the risk of collapse.

Tainter’s collapse model: at C3-B1, there appears a risk of collapse back down to C1-B1, at which point “hypertrophied states” tend to use coercive tools to try to prevent this from happening.

Civilization reaches its absolute peak of power, health, well-being, etc, at C2-B2. When it begins to run up against problems, the typical reaction is to continue increasing complexity, even though marginal costs now exceed marginal benefits. At C3-B1, there appears an appreciable risk of catastrophic collapse back down to C1-B1, because at that point people would retain the same benefits but at a much lower cost. Furthermore, by this point a civilization’s natural legitimization mechanism, economic growth, will have long since failed; more artificial forms of legitimization have to be found (e.g. the idea that the Empire is sanctioned by God), as well as ever higher levels of physical coercion (e.g. the security forces, authoritarianism) – for instance, the Western Roman Empire adopted Christianity and experienced its highest levels of militarization just a century or so before its final collapse in 476 AD.

In addition to society’s tendencies to try solving its predicaments with the failing tools of the past (ever more complexity), in systems characterized by competitive peer polities, such as our own anarchic international system, there is a further reason for maintaining complexity – anyone who doesn’t can’t support an army, and those who don’t have armies get conquered for their resources. In these systems, organizational complexity is maintained absolutely regardless of costs, and the extractions necessary to sustain it are legitimized by the fact that every other state within this system is doing the same thing. Only when every unit of the system reaches economic exhaustion does the resulting power vacuum finally allow for a rapid, global collapse. A collapse more reminiscent of the relatively rapid fall of Mayan civilization, than of the Roman Empire’s slow decline over the centuries.

The Limits to Growth model has to be updated to reflect these political and geopolitical feedback loops. The likely result is that the increasingly authoritarian, “hypertrophied states” of future decades, locked in deadly competition over each for resources, will stretch out the smooth peaks shown in the Limits to Growth standard run into decades long plateaus, as shown in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”. However, when collapse does finally come, it will be far, far steeper than it would have in a world without politics. The artificial prolongation of industrial civilization will result in an explosive closing of the awning “potential gap” on the complexity graph, plunging the world into famine, anarchy, and dieoff.

4) Cliodynamics. Another valuable analytical tool is the recently-developed science of “cliodynamics“, which attempts to mathematize “big history” by modeling the systems dynamics of the rise and fall of civilizations. In particular, its insights can teach us a great deal about the nature of Malthusian stress and political-demographic collapse.

Here is the basic story. Over millennial timescales, technological growth produced a secular rise in the carrying capacity of the land, which allowed the human population to grow to its current seven billions. However, over shorter timescales the Malthusian tendency for populations to grow faster than technology or the increase in carrying capacity typically resulted in diminishing per capita surpluses and a plateauing of the population. The system became fragile, as surplus stocks accumulated during the “Golden Ages” of plenty were drawn down, and climatic, political, and geopolitical perturbations during the stagnation resulted in sharp dips into dearth. During these times of dearth, peasants began to turn to banditry, producing rising internal violence in the countryside, which forced other peasants into the cities and further decreases food production. Faced with their own shortages, elite predation also grew, further squeezing the peasantry.

Eventually, a “tipping point” was reached, in which elite predation, internal violence, and depreciation of carrying-capacity improvements (e.g. roads, canals, grain silos, redistribution mechanisms, irrigation works, etc) became self-sustaining and spiraled out of control. In the ensuing “cascading collapse”, the central state withered away into a patchwork quilt of warring fiefdoms, and the drastic reduction in the carrying capacity of the land resulted biblical-scale Malthusian dieoffs. However, as soon as the violence died down, the population was found to be far below the carrying capacity of the land, and there was a new “Golden Age” of growth until it once again bumped up against the plateau of carrying capacity. This explains the basic mechanism of pre-industrial Malthusian political-demographic cycles.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Flow chart representation of the collapse dynamics in a typical Chinese political-demographic cycle.

Now Korotayev et al (the cliodynamicians) believe that ever since the industrial revolution, technological growth has reached such great velocities that the increases in carrying capacity accruing from it now far surpass any Malthusian pressures. According to them, the era of cyclical collapses is now at an end. However, a closer examination shows that 1) their models of technological growth are flawed – they do not account for the diminishing returns seen for technological progress in recent decades, nor 2) do they note that in most cases post-industrial technology has not been in the form of low-maintenance knowledge, but embodied in the (fossil fuel-dependent) machines of industrial civilization. But their greatest omission is that much of the post-1900 increase in carrying capacity has come not from technological growth, but from the technologically-enabled exploitation of the high-EROEI hydrocarbon “resource windfall” – oil, coal, and natural gas. Once these resources become scarce again, the technology used to exploit them will become as chimerical as the fossil fuel-powered machines and phantom carrying capacity they once supported.

The end result will be similar to the same Malthusian-era collapses analyzed by the cliodynamicians. An era in which surplus per capita draws to the level necessary for mere subsistence, characterized by dearth and famine in the bad years, and limited recoveries in the good years; a plateau that increasingly slopes down, until a series of severe perturbations (climatic disasters, resource wars, etc) so disturbs the world system that negative feedback loops take over and the entire system collapses into a prolonged Dark Age.

In conclusion, drawing on the theoretical works of systems modelers (Limits to Growth), energy modelers, collapse theorists (Tainter), and modern cliodynamicians (Korotayev, Turchin, Nefedov, Khaltourina, etc), we can paint a general outline of the next 50 years. Ever more human effort will be mobilized or requisitioned by ever more coercive “hypertrophied states” to compensate for the effects of declining emergy availability (peak oil, exploitation of lower-EROEI energy sources, diminishing returns to energy efficiency, and the effects of credit collapse, resource nationalism, and geopolitics), falling agricultural productivity (fertilizer shortages, heatwaves, rivers and fossil aquifers running dry, rising sea levels inundating coastal farmlands, etc), and other costs accruing from exponentially rising climate chaos.

Those regions which collapse first, nowadays called “failed states”, will be taken over by neo-colonial industrial powers to contain the chaos and acquire resources to buy just a little more time for their industrial civilization. Physical output will plateau and stagnate, while real living standards begin to degrade at an accelerating rate. Eventually, a series of shocks – climate catastrophes like the conflagration of the Amazon or a “hydroxyl collapse”, poor harvests resulting in global famine and pestilence, perhaps even a final, total war of late global industrialism – will finally make the Machine give up the ghost. The collapse of fossil fuel availability will render usless most modern technology, everything from microchips to electric cars and photovoltaic panels. This will result in a political-demographic collapse of unparalleled severity that reduces the human population to below one billion souls within a few decades, ushering in a post-industrial “Rust Age” on a polluted, desertifying, and drowning planet.

The "Rust Age", or "age of salvage" (M. J. Greer).

The “Rust Age”, or “age of salvage” (M. J. Greer).

Sustainable Retreat, or “Green Communism”

As shown above, business-as-usual will be anything but usual, and will almost certainly lead to impoverishment, oppression, totalitarianism, wars, and eventual global dieoff. There is still however a path out, should we choose to take it – a global “sustainable retreat” to below the limits, which if accomplished within the next generation could still stave off collapse and allow us to continue with the development of a truly sustainable civilization, one based not on growth of physical output and consumerism, but on intellectual, cultural, and spiritual self-actualization. This ideal or utopia I shall call Green Communism, a scientific fantasy in which man reaches reconciliation with Gaia, socio-economic classes disappear, and the coercive state itself withers away into oblivion.

However, Green Communism cannot be attained while human psychology remains myopic, short-sighted, competitive, and individualistic; nor is any such transition possible while the world is in overshoot and increasingly hemmed in by limits to growth. As such, a transitory period is required – an “ecotechnic dictatorship” that would concentrate onto itself the political legitimacy and coercive tools to force the world back onto a sustainable path. But first, to forestall the inevitable criticisms and condemnations, I must point out why alternative roads to the sustainable transition are no longer viable, even if they ever were in the first place.

1) The Anarchist Delusion. Disillusioned with the “System” – states, corporations, etc – many “peakists”, “doomers”, survivalists, etc, advocate community-based retreat on a spectrum ranging from weed-smoking “hippies” teaching themselves organic permaculture to “frugal patriots” holing up in their Idaho “doomsteads” with prodigious quantities of canned food and firearms. However, very few of them have truly broken off the ties that bind to industrial civilization; learning to survive on sustenance agriculture in true pre-industrial fashion is very, very hard work, and almost no-one has the will and perseverance to follow through.

Furthermore, they will receive a rude awakening in the coming era of limits to growth-induced authoritarianism and collapse. Governments don’t like anarchists, especially nasty ones. Period. One of my critics tried to prove an anarchic lifestyle works by posting a Wikipedia link to a “list of anarchist communities“. But on closer examination, practically all their modern manifestations collapsed within just a few years, either from internal causes or due to state suppression.

Perhaps the anarchists will “band together” to protect themselves, he went on to suggest? Will there be enough of them to keep the warlords away? That would certainly be a good idea as the government’s writ collapses and rural violence soars. However, one very important thing is that “bandits” are so-called violence-specialists; it is what they do, their profession. For a settled anarchist community, it will be difficult in the extreme to muster the economic, administrative, and military capabilities to successfully accomplish all three of the following necessary tasks for surviving in an anarchic environment: 1) producing enough food and goods for community subsistence, 2) managing internal conflicts, and 3) defending themselves from the bandits, psychos, and warlords. Drawing resources from one task will undermine the likelihood of fulfilling another. In practice, what will almost certainly happen is that either the anarchist communities begin paying tribute / protection money to the warlords (thus creating a dependency through which they can later be brought to heel), or they find it more profitable to become warlords themselves. After all, the first kings and nobles were all essentially just the most successful racketeers!

Yet the most essential feature of the anarchist delusion isn’t even their belief that they can make it on their own, but that the state is dispensable, unnecessary, and even harmful to the human enterprise. From the same poster: “What problems has the state solved that weren’t caused by the existence of states?”

The fundamental predicament (not problem) of most biological life-forms is their tendency to overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. One of the most powerful theories for the rise of the state was its capacity to raise the carrying capacity of the land, which postponed overshoot and collapse, and in general made state-centered societies far more powerful than the hunter-gatherer tribes that they displaced.

Now let’s turn to today’s reality. If all states were to magically vanish right now, so would the administrative and coercive tools to sustain global industrialism. Soon afterwards, the underlying carrying capacity-enhancing infrastructure such as the global oil industry, fertilizer production, cybernetics, etc, would depreciate into irrelevance from lack of maintenance. Anarchy will reign and the global population will plummet back down to the few millions of people that primitive technology and band-like social organization could support. You may dismiss or despise the hand of the state that feeds you, but you will likely sing a different tune when it withers away into your anarchic paradise.

2) Why Individual and Community Retreats are no Real Solution. Another strand of the anarchist delusion is that since collapse is unavoidable, it is best to retreat from the System while you can, pay off your debts, cut the ties that bind, etc. But quite apart from the implicit resignation to the inevitability of the untimely deaths of billions of people, it cannot be stressed enough that any collapse today will be global (see Tainter above), and the chaotic fluxes it produces will be so violent than any community, no matter how prepared or resilient, could be casually swept away by the tidal waves it would generate.

I do not deny that it pays to get personally and psychologically prepared for collapse, but this must be part and parcel of a multi-pronged political effort to avert collapse if possible, and dampen its severity should avoidance prove impossible. The idea that you can hole up in a doomstead and survive against the imminent zombie hordes is particularly inane (read the War Nerd‘s entertaining essay Apocalypse Never to find out why). Finally, defeatist notions of the inevitability of collapse – such as those advanced by Dmitry Orlov, who is strongly opposed to all forms of political activism – are in many ways as counter-productive as the mindless business-as-usual mentality of modern society.

The traditional American focus on individualism and self-reliance only worked in the age of abundance which characterized their entire history (the US GDP has been higher at the end of every decade than at the beginning since its founding). This era is at end and will never return. This will be a major shock for Americans, more so than for most people whose memories of cyclical and Malthusian dynamics are more recent, but they will all have to get used to it.

3) The Gramscian Road to Green Communism will take too long. Say what you will about them, but at least the Green Party has a political plan for a sustainable future. This plan involves changing society’s core values to embrace concepts such as “ecological wisdom” and “community-based economics”, through means of grassroots political action and infiltration of key political and economic institutions. Hopefully this will displace the pro-growth bipartisan consensus and enable the democratic enactment of policies that will steer the world back towards sustainability.

As I argued in Roads to Green Communism, however, this “soft” approach to the sustainability transition is doomed to failure. Guilt-ridden liberals may be moved to make $10 donations to Greenpeace or boycott electricity consumption for a grand total of one hour per year (on the so-called “Earth Hour”), but this will not be enough to persuade them to make real sacrifices. It gives me no joy to say this, but the hard truth is that left to themselves, free from coercion either by their peers or by the Leviathan of the state, even enlightened individuals will not take anything more than symbolic steps to reduce their ecological footprint.

Why? All humans are prone to a psychological blindsight called “creeping normalcy”, or what Jared Diamond in his book Collapse calls “landscape amnesia”. This describes a process in which slow, detrimental changes to the environment go unnoticed by the general population because of their slowness and gradualism, but whose eventual accumulated impact becomes devastating. One tragic example would be the Easter Islanders who chopped down all their trees, accelerating the tempo in the last decades of their pre-collapse civilization in order to construct ever bigger moai (statues) to honor the gods that legitimized the tribal chieftains who ruled over them. Human psychology reacts well to immediate threats, but when they are far-off and abstract – such as the declining EROEI of energy sources of climate change – mobilization is much more difficult. As the biggest McMansions and tallest skyscrapers have been erected in the present era of peak oil, there is nothing to suggest that modern civilization is any wiser than the Easter Islanders.

As of now, changing this psychology quickly will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. In the Soviet Union, it took around two generations to transform the bulk of society from having a traditionalist-peasant worldview, to an urban-secular one – and this despite uninterrupted state propaganda and coercion. Today, even most educated people see the green movement as a bit weird and extremist, if not as evil socialists planning to enslave the world. And we certainly don’t have even a single generation to wait, let alone two. Gradualism is not a solution, it is suicide.

4) Our current System is blinded by Institutional Myopia. Could the current System bail us all out, like it did the politically connected Wall Street oligarchs? Almost certainly not.

Modern society is run by experts and technocrats, if indirectly (their recommendations have to be balanced against corporate interests and the popular will, which is what politicians are there for). However, those same experts are either part of, or suborned by, the System – the sum total of the texts and power relations that make up a society’s set of beliefs. The former category, which includes government policy-makers and corporate strategists, suffers from an “institutional myopia” which gives answers in advance and precludes all questions questioning the legitimacy of their own institutions.

For instance, what can a rational, capitalist state – interested in self-preservation, predicated on unlimited economic growth, and confronted with irrefutable evidence of the dire consequences of business-as-usual greenhouse emissions on the world’s climate – do to resolve these contradictions? The answers are meaningless buzzwords and Orwellian oxymorons like “green growth”, “skeptical environmentalism”, and “clean coal”; the forbidden question relates to the efficacy of industrial capitalism as a system to confront the imminent challenges of man-made climate change.

The latter category, encompassing private think tanks and academia, have a greater degree of freedom in asking inconvenient questions. However, it is ultimately the state that pays academics their salaries. Biting the hand that feeds is always dangerous, especially if their fangs contain the poison of the forbidden question. Anathema unto them. Therefore, academia’s answers also tend to conform to the reigning paradigm.

Incidentally, this very omnipresence of this System will doom the Gramscian and anarchist approaches. For when systems come under strain, they tend to rigidify, to revert to authoritarian conservatism, and free thinkers – the only people who have any chance of averting socio-political collapse by “scanning” an innovative solution to the problem – are scapegoated as a divisive enemy by the angry, confused masses, and repressed by the coercive “hypertrophied state”, which for all its authoritarianism is a fragile, populist creature that appeases society on the easiest matters (such as repressing the powerless). From Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

Even the intensified legitimization of the “hypertrophied state” vanishes, as do the coercive tools that kept it together well past the point when it should have naturally collapsed. Science and rationalism retreat, and its former agents – intellectuals, priests, tax collectors, etc – are liquidated, as the Sun dawns over a new Dark Age.

5) Technological Singularity as a Road to Green Communism? As Good wrote in 1965:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Hence, as soon as humanity and its technologies become obsolete, the biosphere’s limits to growth will become equally irrelevant to the future of intelligent life on Earth. If we manage to hold on long enough to unleash this technological singularity – and avoid its various perils and pitfalls – then the super-abundance produced by self-assembling nanotechnology will eliminate scarcity, the “dematerialization of production” will make classes obsolete, and the borders between reality and virtual reality will fade into oblivion as the Earth metamorphoses into Tlön. Fully freed from material constraints, humanity will be able to build the purest forms of Green Communism… should it wish to.

There is one problem, however – industrial civilization may not survive long enough to catapult itself out of overshoot. For the projections suggest that a singularity-driven transition to sustainability may elude us, for both “singularitarians” and the Limits to Growth proponents tend to place their respective events – Singularity and civilizational collapse – in the 2030-50 timeframe.

So which trend will win out? Will we “transcend” just as industrial civilization begins to finally collapse? Or will the world’s last research lab be burned down by starving rioters just as the world’s first, and last, strong AI pops into super-consciousness inside?

This may be the last answer industrial civilization will find out.

The Necessity of Ecotechnic Dictatorship to Force a Retreat from Collapse

In his excellent book “Our Ecotechnic Future“, Michael John Greer outlined his thoughts on the future of our civilization, which he saw as going through the following four stages: 1) “abundance industrialism” (1950-2010), 2) “scarcity industrialism” (2010-2050?), or the plateau on my “World Overshoot Scenarios” graph characterized by rising coercion, impoverishment, and resource wars, 3) the “age of salvage” (2050?-2250?), in which civilization scavenges the detritus of late industrialism to sustain a very low-level, primitive industrial system, and 4) the “ecotechnic future”, in which post-industrial technologies in spheres like renewable energy or biotechnology, scarcely-conceivable today, may reset the world on a path of truly sustainable development in harmony with Gaia. Such an ecotechnic age will be close to the Green Communist ideal.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na'vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to "network" itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

Perhaps the humans of the ecotechnic age would even resemble the Na’vi people from the film Avatar, in which an ostensibly primitive society has managed to “network” itself into Mother Nature on an incredibly intimate level, allowing its members to lead what appear to be very fun and fulfilling lives.

However, is it really necessary to endure a catastrophic human dieoff and a centuries-long wait for the sustainable transition to Green Communism that may not even come about? Or perhaps there is still a chance, however slight, of effecting such a transition through a sustainable retreat starting from today, as shown under “Green Communism” in my graph of “World Overshoot Scenarios”?

I think that given the will, there’s a way – an ecotechnic dictatorship leading the people towards Green Communism.

This system will be based on three pillars – reinforcing resilience, educating the people, and preparing for collapse. These pillars will be supported by the full power of the modern state and technology.

A) Reinforcing Resilience. Technocratic central planning using the latest tools of operations research and networking to minimize waste while maximizing real living standards. The legitimacy of the state is not based on creating prosperity or opportunity, so it will be ideologically resilient in the face of the economic decline that is necessary to reduce physical throughput to levels consistent with a retreat to global sustainability. Resources will be funneled into 1) intensive, targeted research in computer science, cybernetics, sustainable energy generation and food production, geoengineering, systems dynamics, and cliodynamics, 2) the provision of social goods such as education, preventative healthcare services, high culture, and social support to the indigent, and 3) internal security and military forces necessary to defend the fledgling ecotechnic republic from hostile forces within and without.

The ecotechnic dictatorship is a democratic society. The state will make strategic decisions by balancing their decisions between opinion polls and expert panels – much like modern China’s experiment with “deliberative dictatorship“. Since corruption and economic sabotage will be immensely harmful in a world suffering from resource shortages, it will have to be stamped out without mercy. One workable method is to institute a system of universal 2-way sousveillance to detect corruption and free-riders; since this mechanism is “horizontal”, in contrast to the “vertical” nature of traditional surveillance, it will reinforce ecotechnic democracy. The people will be able to observe trials and electronically vote on criminals’ punishments.

How to maintain enthusiasm and prevent the ideological ossification of the regime’s elites? Through a dedication to meritocracy and the power of modern electronic technology to enforce transparency. Promotions will be based on technical competence and devotion to the cause as judged by one’s peers; greater power will gain one greater material perks and privileges.

One might object, how is this different from the current System that needs to be overthrown? Realistically, some level of hierarchy is necessary and inevitable. Once society acquires a certain level of size and technological development (like our own), it needs a corresponding level of socio-political complexity to sustain itself, and that in turn requires a hierarchy. You need people at the top to set certain the limits and restrictions by which the world is to be dragged back from overshoot. Unless we return to primitivism (impossible with the size of today’s populations) or manage to achieve a technological singularity (then we’ll talk about it), all hierarchy cannot be abolished without a large fall in carrying capacity. That said, under the ecotechnic dictatorship, there will be nothing on the scale of the awning inequality chasms of today. Furthermore, thanks to the power of modern networking technologies, power can be distributed horizontally to an unprecedented degree. The ecotechnic elites will be subject to greater scrutiny than those below them.

Though this all sounds restrictive of individual freedom, even dystopian, it is nonetheless a valid and probably morally superior alternative to anarchy, collapse, and dieoff. (Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that a reversion to authoritarianism – furthermore, a socially unjust authoritarianism – is in any case virtually guaranteed in the last throes of the business-as-usual scenario). For we can only achieve a rapid enough sustainable retreat back to within the limits if the transition is backed by a powerful, global, and universal coercive force, or in other words, Leviathan.

B) Informing the People. The second pillar of the ecotechnic dictatorship is its focus on reforming human psychology from its accumulative-materialist basis to progressive, transcendental values of ecotechnic sustainability. This is the fundamental and necessary legitimization behind the ecotechnic dictatorship and its march towards Green Communism. The end goal is to coax a real “gift economy” into being (as opposed to a centrally planned one), perhaps with the help of social engineering and widespread psychosomatic therapy.

As soon as these ecotechnic values percolate throughout society, the necessity for the powerful state will vanish, and the ecotechnic dictatorship can be allowed to wither away as a new spirit of universal kindness and spiritual oneness, a state of complete sobornost, bathes humanity in the ether of Green Communism.

C) Preparing for Collapse. Though it would be great if the ecotechnic dictatorship managed “sustainable retreat” successfully, as a regime orientated towards the future it must always keep in mind the possibility of its own failure and demise, a demise that would inevitably lead to global collapse.

Hence, it will devote a black budget into making secret preparations to “buffer” human civilization against the possibility of collapse by creating Arctic “lifeboats” or repositories containing seed stocks, banks of knowledge, etc, whose locations will be entrusted to a society of dedicated Guardians. The goal of these Gaian priests and priestesses would be to function as the “bookleggers” and “memorizers” of Miller’s post-apocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz, preserving knowledge and culture into the post-collapse Dark Ages.

What is to be Done?

1) Is collapse under the business-as-usual scenario truly inevitable? Or am I underestimating the capability of markets and technology to overcome the restrictions posed by finite resources and the laws of thermodynamics?

2) What are the chances of effecting a “sustainable retreat” before it is too late and energy shortages and climate chaos destroy industrial civilization? Can such a transition really be carried out from the grassroots level and gradual culture change, or is the capitalist-industrial System too entrenched for that to work?

3) If an “ecotechnic dictatorship” as described above or something similar is necessary to prevent collapse, how should we go about implementing it? Through Gramscian infiltration and subversion of the current System, or a decisive revolutionary break that, in Zizek’s words, “does not occur within the coordinates of some underlying global matrix, since what it achieves is precisely the “reshuffling” of this very global matrix”?

4) How should the “ecotechnic dictatorship” legitimize itself, and how should it defend itself from its numerous enemies within and without – preferably without degenerating into all-out tyranny? Indeed, how much liberalism can we afford?

5) And how can we “globalize” the Revolution so as to prevent our ecotechnic enclave from being smothered in its cradle by outside capitalist-industrial Powers?

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Consequent to my post Categorizing the Russia Debate and the lively debate it spawned, it occurred to me that much of Russia’s tortured and intriguing history could be rationalized as a self-reinforcing loop within a belief matrix. This can even be extended further to many other societies – I will also have similar posts up for a) Germany’s “Reich cycles”, b) America’s “liberty cycles” and c) the continuous “radical redefining of terms” that characterized Soviet history from 1914 to 1953. Here I will focus on outlining my theoretical framework (the concept of a belief matrix); then I will post about how it can be applied to different societies.

My assumption is that societies can be defined along two axes – their degree of ease with themselves, and with the West. By the latter, I mean specifically the Idea of the West: acceptance of the scientific method; rule of law; economic rationalism; and liberalism. An important semantic point is that these should not be conflated with “Western countries” (the US, the UK, France, etc); though they have, by most measures, internalized the Idea of the West to a far greater extent than most other cultures, they cannot ever reach unity with it because they are, at root, organic, human societies, whereas the Idea of the West is an absolute.

The other axis denotes how content a civilization is with its traditions. The default steady state is acceptive; though occasionally challenged by dissidents who reject tradition, society is characterized by a state of sobornost – a deep sense of spiritual harmony amongst classes, regions, races and sexes. Or as my definition of Russophilia goes, they understand, accept, forgive and unconditionally love their community / nation. This can break down when a culture is faced with unexpected challenges, such as Malthusian crises in the pre-industrial era or contact with the West (or rather its manifestations in British gunships and American multinational companies) in the modern era. In the latter case, society typically enthusiastically embraces the trappings of the West and rejects its own traditions, after viewing them from the Western frame of reference. This causes severe internal dislocations, leading to disillusionment and culminating in a vehement rejection of Western values, to an extent impossible in its absense. One can view Bolshevism, Nazism, fascism and radical Islamism as extreme forms of this rejection (and by rejection, implicit acceptance), relying as they do on Western technics in their attempts to recreate an imagined past.

The “Western countries” are unique in that somehow or other they have succeeded in substantially imprinting the Idea of the West onto their own traditions. This is much harder than it sounds. The scientific method is alien and unfamiliar to the peasant mind filled with images of rain gods and trickster demons. The rule of law cannot sit well in human societies traditionally reliant on communal coercion, “big man” influence and sacrificial scapegoating. Economic rationalism is anathema to subsistence societies, characterized as they are by reciprocal, socially-determined networks of gifts. Market forces, by destroying this communal spirit, would tear these societies apart, hence the universal disdain for merchants, usury, etc, typical of all rural pre-industrial societies (e.g. see Aristotle discovers the economy, Karl Polanyi). And liberalism (rights for all, including minorities) frequently stands in opposition to democracy (the generally anti-market, conformist will of the people).

It is probably no surprise that capitalism and liberalism historically developed most vigorously in the United States, with its abundant high-quality land and scarce labor yielding massive per capita surpluses. The Idea of the West first appeared in the “West” because of the region’s inheritance of Latin (law) and Germanic (customs) traditions, favorable geographic factors (long coastlines, good rivers and fertile, varied climes) and comparatively successful control of population pressures (through fertility suppression – West Europeans married later and had fewer children than most other civilizations, and later outmigration to their colonies). That said, it should be emphasized that even here relations between the West and tradition were uneasy and factitious; as I emphasize again, the Idea of the West is an ideal which humans can only aspire to, but never reach unity with.

Having laid out the basic concepts, it is now time to look at two general cases of human socio-spiritual dynamics: Malthusian (what happens to belief systems when a traditional society exceeds the carrying capacity of the land and begins to fall apart?) and Western (what happens to traditional societies when they come into contact with the West?). Both begin at the same place.

State of Stasis

At first, society is in a state of stasis, of sobornost. As in all traditional societies the individual submits to the communal will and the sovereign will (the Lord, the Emperor, Allah, etc)… and is all the happier for it. From Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Hard to comprehend for an individualistic Westerner, perhaps. But this is the way most people lived throughout the eons of human existence. Stadtluft macht frei?? Perhaps Arbeit macht frei isn’t so far off the mark.

(Here I would rush to add the caveat that this only applies to communal work where everyone partakes and lacks knowledge of and is too unimaginative to imagine any “better” alternative, such as aristocratic indolence or financial speculation. This is patently not the case in industrial societies and explains the failure of totalitarian attempts to go back to the future).

The Malthusian Loop

Before the industrial era, all societies were subject to Malthusian dynamics in which population growth saturated the carrying capacity of the land and leveled off at an unstable plateau. The period of high growth was typically regarded as a Golden Age of bucolic virtue (e.g. republican Rome), which I’ve labeled The Rise of Empire. Because of limits to growth, this could not last. Subsistence stress resulted in the growth of cities and large standing armies to soak up the landless poor, and literate bureaucrats to manage the new problems. Paradoxically, even as problems loomed on the horizons many aspects of culture like literacy, inventiveness, etc, flourished. This is because society encouraged its thinkers to “scan” for solutions to these problems.

However, these same cities and intelligentsia fuel feelings of resentment on the part of peasants on account of a) their perceived decadence and lasciviousness and b) the fact that said degenerates are supported by their taxes. To accommodate the rising reaction and diminishing surpluses, politicians and kings are forced to go back to the future. Way back. Quoting from my notes on Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies:

At this point, decomposition rapidly becomes inevitable as “scanning” ceases, for the system no longer has the surpluses to do it. In most cases rigid behavioral controls are imposed, innovation and positive change is stymied and corruption, authoritarianism and feudalism begin to dominate … for society is enslaved to its own myths of superiority and delusions of grandeur.

… Censuses and historical detail thin, as literacy and science declined during this period to be replaced by an “increase in mysticism, and knowledge by revelation”, as well as by “increased propaganda about patriotism, ancient Roman values, and superiority over the barbarians”.

Yet this is only a stopgap measure, for by now eventual demise is inevitable:

Increasingly radical attempts to save the system, even cardinally change it, cannot permanently reserve the trend towards further complexity and disequilibrium; eventually, everyone loses faith in the system and there is a severe collapse. …

… According to RM Adams, “By the fifth century, men were ready to abandon civilization itself in order to escape the fearful load of taxes”. In 476, after being denied payment or settlement in Italy, the Roman barbarian army mutinied, sacked Rome and deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor.

In other words, society begins by rejecting the Idea of the West (in those times, “rule of law” and Greek scientific-rationalism), and the state intensifies efforts to both legitimize itself and coerce people into believing in it. But nonetheless, a breaking point is eventually reached and society loses faith in the state (hitherto, tradition), culminating in the collapse of civilization, a prolonged period of anarchy and reversion to older forms of social existence focused on family, clan and community (denoted as The Collapse of Civilization).

During the anarchic period, there is a “radical redefinition of terms” as patriotism (faith in country) goes from being an accepted tradition, to a rejected tradition: for once the Sun dawns over the new Dark Ages, the peasant commune; the manor; self-sufficiency, etc – these are now the new pillars of traditions. Any surviving agents of the state (soldiers turned brigands, renegade tax collectors, the urban intelligentsia, etc) are its enemies.

After a few dark centuries, roving bandits seize permanent control of settlements, and become stationary bandits with an interest in development and permanent extraction instead of pillage. Localism, mysticism, anti-statism, etc, once again become heresies. The specter of the state rises anew, rewinding the loop to Year Zero.

The Sisyphean Loop

When a traditional society comes into contact with the West, there occurs a great deal of turbulence, much like in a society in the throes of Malthusian crisis. This loop is reproduced below:

As attested to by numerous chronicles, first contact with Westerners by less advanced civilizations results in fascination and a determination to catch up, especially to acquire its military-industrial technologies to prevent Western predation. The two cleanest examples of defensive modernizations are seen in Japan during the Tokugawa and Meiji eras, and repeatedly in Russian history (Muscovy under Ivan the Terrible, the Russian Empire under Peter the Great and Alexander II, Stalin, Putin?).

Local traditions are seen as incompatible with modernization and are rejected by the ruling elites, often stirring social unrest as the internal balance of power is disturbed. There occurs a growing gap between the Westernizing elites and the more traditional mass of society. The former come to be seen as foreign leeches on indigenous soil, decadent and degenerate; using the rhetoric of Westernization to feed themselves (e.g. see the French-speaking Tsarist aristocracy). This in turn discredits further Westernization, especially once the easiest (and ostensibly most useful) task of military modernization is completed. The people and the elites lose faith in the West: the former because they associate it with degeneracy and corruption (e.g. the Russian workers and peasants most aware of it: because of the development of railway systems, even a peasant from a rural backwater could now comprehend the parasitic decadence of the Court), the latter because of the shallow nationalism consequent from reinvigorated military, economic and cultural strength accruing from limited modernization. There is a gradual movement now back towards tradition (e.g. Slavophilia, the intelligentsia’s idolization of peasant life, etc).

But now one of two things happens. A part of the elite realizes that their decadence is politically dangerous (a large gap between the masses and the elites presages revolution), and tries to move back towards indigenous traditions – back to the people, so to speak. This is opposed by another part of the elite that has gotten used to its perks and privileges, despite the spiritual anomie in which they are stuck because of this. The ruling elites become disunited and weak; the masses are increasingly disillusioned with the whole system; new ideologues appear, preaching about total rejection of the West (e.g. the Bolsheviks) and a return to an imagined past of purity and virtue, i.e. to tradition (e.g. the radical Islamists who overthrew the Iranian Shah).

There appears a crisis, further straining divisions in the government and polarizing society in general (e.g. World War One). Eventually the government is forced to reform, but alas and alack, as per de Tocqueville the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to try to get better. By reversing course and showing weakness, it delegitimizes itself in the face of crisis; furthermore, it frequently becomes more democratic just when the people are becoming more hardline, and extremists (Bolsheviks, Islamists, etc) are waiting in the wings. The extremists moderate their positions to win over the people and consolidate their control; after that they unleash terror, taking the country into the far-top fringes of uncompromising rejection of the West. This is the dark region where totalitarianisms rise and democides are unleashed.

On the other hand, if the elite remains united; if the crisis is not very severe; if the people retain a firm belief in the Idea of the West and are unswayed by the extremists, then a more moderate outcome can be expected – a reversion back to the past, the state of stasis, yet having assimilated some elements of the Idea of the West during its loop so now “better” and perhaps “fairer” than before (at least by the standards of more Westernized states). They remain in this comatose state until another shock (e.g. defeat in war by a more Westernized nation, or recognition of weakness) forced them to act, restarting the loop.

Why do I call this a Sisyphean loop? Because while it lasts this basically explains a tortured nation’s attempts to catch up with “the West” (roll the rock to the top of the mountain), but never managing it (the rock keeps going back downhill). This is very pronounced in Russia – it’s entire history since gunpowder Muscovy has been one of quixotic attempts to catch up to and surpass the West, yet which all too often ended in catastrophes wrought of messianic delusions, and prolonged periods of stagnation, decline and frustration. I will explore its dynamics more closely in an upcoming post, focusing on a) the continuous “radical redefining of terms” that characterized Soviet history from 1914 to 1953, b) the belief dynamics of the post-1988 transition and c) its prospects for the future: sovereign democratization (the “Putin Plan” – democratization / Westernization on its own terms / while retaining belief in tradition), return to authoritarian stasis (Russia’s “natural state”, in both meanings of the term), totalitarianism or liberalization?

Yet this is not specific to Russia, it’s just that the overall dynamic is most visible there. Even nominally “Western nations” like the US – that archetype of the West – is imprisoned within the Sisyphean loop. It’s just that through the accumulated circular momentum of liberal tradition, the structure of its political system that moderates sharp swings towards extremism in the population and of the media which muffles extremist voices, and most importantly its reconciliation of liberalism with popular democracy, its “liberty loops” manage to remain anchored firmly within the bottom-right quadrant, well away from the instability brought on by the disillusionment / rejection of tradition of the left, and the totalitarianism of the top. But what makes the US a spiritually much more satisfied nation is that the very organic nature of the integration of its sobornost and Westernism makes Americans unaware that they life in the Belief Matrix, just like everyone else.

Laws of the Matrix

Why do I call it a matrix? a) because it is a matrix / grid, and b) in honor of the films, of course – whereas people believe they have free will, in reality all choices are predetermined and our only task is to try to understand and accept why we made those choices (in itself a Sisyphean-like endeavor – so yes, don’t bother pointing it out, I know I’m in the Matrix too).

Law of Skewed Perspectives – ideologically skewed people have warped perspectives on other people, interpreting moderates as biased; and those slightly biased, as irrevocably so. If political leaders are sufficiently out of sync, then the people are radicalized in the other direction.

Law of Quantum Truth – any individual finds it hard to judge the position of another, including herself; this is best done by a large number of individual, informed observations which tend to build a probability map around the likely position. Malevolent ideological opponents would represent the extreme edges of that probability map as that individual’s true position, whereas in fact it is not (or at least very rarely so).

Law of Circularity – at its extremes, ideologies converge (or flip). For instance, shout very loudly that you are a zealot for progress, justice, freedom, etc, even as your actions forsake those ideals. Examples: Bolsheviks, neocons, liberasts.

Law of Extremism – they tend to flip if they do, but they need to be in separate enclaves to build up into really extremist movements. Violent revolutions tend to happen during agrarian-industrial transitions because you have lots of self-contained classes thinking similarly and very opposed to each other (e.g. urban proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy, etc); these differences tend to become less extreme in the later stages of industrialism when there is greater social mobility.

Radical Redefinition of Terms – how traditions are defined, and hence whom the community accepts and whom it rejects. A good illustration is the Russian Revolution: Bolsheviks came from being viewed as traitorous outcasts in 1914, to heroic defenders of the Motherland by 1918 against the foreign-backed Whites – who had themselves become heretics. During the 1930′s, the Party turned on itself and consigned many Old Bolshevik stalwarts into oblivion. Severe shocks can lead to a RRoT from below, while totalitarian regimes can perform RRoT’s from above.

Law of Chaos – big, sudden changes lead to instability, chaos, unpredictability, e.g. after radical redefinition of terms.

Law of Distance and Antipathy – the more distant you are from a certain viewpoint, the more you hate them. Hence the reason moderates are moderates, and extremists are not.

Law of Social Development – agrarian (collective belief → stability, rigidity, conservatism, but catastrophic breakdown if system fails); industrial (less collective, more skeptical, but still similar); post-industrial (atomized, enclave concentrations, very skeptical).

Law of Heresy – the totalitarian mind, in its rejection of the West and fervent rediscovery of traditional belief, views all deviations from orthodoxy as heresy (see Law of Skewed Perspectives, which applies to ideologues).

As commentators Scowspi and Kolya in the Categorizing the Russia Debate discussion noted, true artists are by definition dissidents (at least in the opinion of other dissident artists ;) ), hence they find life tough in totalitarian societies and may themselves become extreme in their dissidence.

The concept of heresy is alien only to someone who completely internalizes the Idea of the West (this is of course impossible in practice).

Consequences for the Future

We live in a very, very interesting time. I’m sure the next few decades will be far more fun than even the first half of the twentieth century in Europe, though whether this is a good thing is an entirely different question.

1) The Sisyphean Loop will remain as strong as ever as societies try to reconcile their traditions with the West and to internalize the paradox that is liberal democracy. Whereas there have been some major discontinuities this century, the dominant trend is that the power of liberal democracy is taking sway throughout the entire world – if not in reality, at least as an ideal. Practically all nations, except a few in the tortured Dar al-Islam (where Islamism constitutes a major alternative, albeit discredited by rational people), accept liberal democracy as the optimal form of government, much as Fukuyama observed in his “end of history” thesis”.

2) But… there remain lingering attractions for the dark splendor of totalitarian ideologies, which are supported by the eternally valid justifications of moral relativism and post-modernism. All that’s needed is the force to implement it, which is rather lacking as of now…

3) Perhaps not for long though. The Malthusian belief cycle is reasserting itself in the shadows of industrial civilization – the polluted, drying rivers; the depleting oil fields; the melting permafrost releasing Siberian methane into the atmosphere; failed states and spreading chaos; the democratization of the means of making terror from the state to the individual.

4) Right now, I would say the world as a whole turned a corner with the 2008 Crisis (a much less noticed, but in reality more significant thing about that date is that it was most likely the year of peak oil production). “Scanning” was much in progress during the 1970′s-2000′s (clean energy, “sustainable development”, etc), when energy and ecological problems first made themselves felt. I think the 2010′s will see a heightened period of chaos, governments everywhere will become more authoritarian and new colonial empires will emerge. “Scanning” will within one to two decades be suppressed and confined within certain parameters as governments begin to chronically fear instability and collapse, fear that nothing they can do will save their societies from collapse. (They are already preparing: note the proliferation of CCTV cameras, databases, militarized security forces, etc). Quite possibly questioning the health and desirability of industrial civilization will come to be classed as subversive, perhaps under the rubric of the war against terror.

5) Then there’s the Internet and connectivity. Though often touted as democratizing and enlightening, this is not always the case: totalitarianism becomes more total than anything dreamt up by the despots of yore in the age of ubiquitous mass surveillance, and extremism is honed, not blunted (see enclave extremism). Like all previous technologies, the Internet cannot be anything more than a reflection of the society that exploits it. And our societies do not appear to have bright futures ahead of them…

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.