Monday, July 30, 2007

Hope the below makes sense its something I have been trying to put together for a week or two now.

Autonomy and Hierachy and Agriculture

Over 12000 years we have gone from semi nomadic bands of a few dozen people to living in citys of millions, this fact alone testifys to the remarkable adaptability of the human brain. I do not think any other primate could adapt to such a large change in social organisation. This shift towards mass society has required that individuals suppress their own autonomy to the greater good.

Pre agriculture humans lived in bands and small tribes, varying in number from 10 – 200 these bands were semi nomadic, had few material possessions and enjoyed a quality of life only surpassed by rich western nations within the past 100 years. In fact in some areas such as working life it is thought that the most affluent of western nations do not have as much leisure as pre agricultural peoples did. With a lot more time to forge social connections and a high level of interdependence amongst small groups of people conflict would probably have been minimised. Also social censure and custom would probably have been a lot more effective at limiting dispute than in our society.

Hierarchy as we know it was limited in hunter gatherer societies. Due to low populations levels and constraints on food an energy supply hierarchy could not emerge on an institutionalised basis. Also limiting the rise of hierarchy was social cooperation required during the hunt, and the benefits of sharing food. If a tyrannical leader did emerge then an option was available that is no longer available to us, they could splinter and groups go there separate ways. As the knowledge of food and medicinal plants was attained at a relatively early age the threat of starvation if you walked out of the area was nowhere near as real as it is for agriculturalists.

As humans made the transition from low intensity methods of cultivation to high intensity forms hierarchy became to emerge for several reasons. The storable surplus generated in agricultural societies provided enough energy to support increasing complex forms of social organisation. Complex social organisation became necessary for projects such as irrigation and the use of hierarchy would have been virtually unavoidable in managing growing numbers of people. In hunter gatherer society food storage was often difficult and food sharing was a key way of ensuring that even if you didn’t catch or find much one day you would still get something to eat. The storable surpluses allowed by agriculture changed this and the huge investment of time and energy in food production made individual or family control over land and food unavoidable.
Whereas social complexity was not beneficial to hunter gatherer societies as it was not necessary to organise people to wander round collecting roots. It became highly rewarding in agricultural societies. If an agricultural community could organise to build an irrigation network or organise to conquer the surrounding area then that community had a significant advantage over lower complexity societies. Hierarchy as a way of managing that complexity would have inevitably emerged.

Specialisation and autonomy

Specialisation is one of the defining features of civilisation someone produces the food, someone else makes the pots and someone else does the hunting. On a day to day scale this is just people doing what they are best at be it hunting birds or climbing trees for honey. However once specialisation becomes occupational it quickly deprives humans of freedom and forces participation in the wider system no matter how destructive that system is.

In our society all land is owned be it by individuals companies or the state, and to get anything helpful to survival one must pay. This payment varies from hunting licenses, rent purchase price etc but the general rule is that to survive one must participate in the economic system. Added to this is a never before seen level of specialisation our society has created. This specialisation is so complete that virtually no one in our society has the skills necessary to survive outside of our technological society. On top of these two material barriers to surviving apart from our industrialised society are psychological and social barriers. We have all to some degree or another internalised the belief that working hard or specialising in some particular field is our ultimate job in life. We have also internalised the belief that surviving in an environment which is not under the control of humans is difficult and painful. Well so what? I believe that understanding why the vast majority of the population continues to participate in such a destructive culture is vital to any attempts to stop the destruction of our own culture.

From birth our free will is systematically broken, if we can be forced to sit in a dull room writing lines instead of playing outside then we will do anything. Now from birth young people are placed in front of screens to entertain them, leaving them bored whenever they are not hyperstimulated by loud colourful images. These efforts to break our free will and to destroy the ability to entertain ourselves means that we do have free time we don’t know what to do with ourselves and instead look for content generated by another. This guarantees that even we are not relying on the system for the basic nessecities of survival we look to it for entertainment and direction. The chances of us spending our free time consciously or unconsciously picking up the ability to live in wild nature because of this lower for our generation than any one before us in history.

Complexity requires specialisation, a dam above a certain size requires egineers, brick makers, scaffoldders etc etc. Everyone could do some of each job but as specialisation increases efficiency when there is enough energy then it makes sense for each person to do one particular job. Because every part of the dam requires all the workers to do their jobs on time nobody is free to choose to do something different. For the dam to be built the workers must suppress their own desires for the good of the wider society. This message of suppressing our own desires is the message which has been drummed into us from birth.

As society increases in scale our individual power over decisions is increasingly limited. So in a village of 50 people with rich terrain surrounding it I may be able to say I don’t want to build the dam due to the effect on the fish in the stream and I might have apretty good chance of getting my way. Not building the dam would be a possibility because population pressure and the resulting need to intensify production of crops would probably not override all other factors. If I lived in a city of 100,000 people with an exploding population to to the need for more and more workers in the fields then my opinion about the fish would be irrelevant. Population pressure would require the intensification in production and my role as an individual would be reduced to that of a cog.

As scale increases the ability of humans to make meaningful choices becomes more and more limited. In our own society no one has the power to stop the endless increases in destruction as to do so would not be in the best interest of the generations now alive. Of course individuals may feel differently, some may go so far as to attempt to block the construction of dams knowing full well the increasing requirements the wider society has for increasing food or power production. If these people put up more than a symbolic protest and the wider society places the perceived need for power production over that of the natural world then whoever in charge will invariably use whatever force is deemed acceptable to get that dam built.

Some of us feel strongly enough about the destruction our society is causing to want to try and abandon it. This is where the obstacles come into play; first of all we need a place to live. For agricultural societies abandoning farms and walking off into the bush when things got tough was a real possibility but for us that is a lot more difficult. We need to pay to live anywhere so we need to buy a place outside of the system. Also none of us have any of the survival skills common amongst pre agricultural peoples so we need to rely on our current society to survive until we acquire those skills. And as has been pointed out before you often have to pay to acquire those very skills from someone who already knows them. And once we have land and the skills we need to survive we need to constantly pay rates or some form of basic tax for the right to exist on the land. meeting all of these conditions is enough of a barrier to ensure that almost everyone no matter how much they hate what our culture is doing will not walk away from it.

A barrier often ignored by permaculturalists and others walking away from the system is the need for community. The chances of finding a dozen or so others who are willing and motivated enough to walk away from civilisation is rather slim and the type of people who most hate this society have social problems which make a healthy functioning community a very hard task. This need for community is a problem which is often ignored and both makes surviving outside civilisation difficult and unattractive for many.

Our society has places for people who are set upon walking away from it as too try and contain everyone would be too much work. Small niches of people exist on the fringes of all societies, hermits, bums, punks, anarchist squats, cults and many other ways of living are allowed because they are not attractive enough to cause large portions of society to quit there jobs and walk away. And these groups do have benefits such as a sense of community which overrides the discomfort these lifestyles entail.

Increasing complexity reduces us to cogs in a global machine and leaves very few with the ability to stop it. I believe that the barriers to abandon society are high enough to contain all but the most determined. Because of this I see a collapse brought on by an inability generate enough food and energy to support our complex way of life as the only way that people will ever leave our current society. Even then the above barriers will still work to keep people clinging to the remnants of civilisation as long as possible.


Marcy said...

Awesome post! Your mention of specialization reminded me that I have thoughts about specialization that I keep forgetting to write about.

John said...

Thanks I was worried it didnt maek much sense :)

George said...

So, given our current population, and the resulting need for efficiency in the utilisation of resources, is a step backwards to a lower level specialisation (and, I'm assuming lower levels of efficiency) even possible? That is, outside of a massive and disastrous collapse.

I'm assuming that techniques/technologies such as permaculture would go someway to resolving that, but would they go far enough?

John said...

The short answer is no, our society is so complex and dependant on high energy inputs that any transition would trigger a catabolic collapse where each decrease in energy input woud cause further decreases.

Low energy use techniques such as permaculture could be adopted on a wide scale and could help to limit the effects of declining global energy supplys. Also because they do not generate lare storable/transportable surpluses subsistence techniques would limit the rise of complexity and hierachy. Also we have degraded our soils and ecosystems to the point that complex civilisation will be unable to rise in the forseeable future.

Kathryn said...

Community and individual relationships

As John says, permaculture can help us produce food sustainably in an energy decline context.

Some ways of reducing dependency on The System (TS): Obtaining food and other items from our own [community] gardens and food co-ops, by trading or re-using stuff.

Most of these things are more fun with other people. Making the conscious choice to co-operate with others builds relationships of trust with people.

This takes time. Perhaps community is ultimately a collection of individual relationships. The quality of those relationships is paramount. The process at least as important than the goal.

So when working in a community garden, you are not just a pair of hands. You are a neighbour and friend who we get to know and care about (even if you don't do any 'work'), try to listen to, support [not only in fair weather] try to understand, and show generosity towards...

What kind of communities will we develop? This may depend on the individual relationships we develop, whether close, and/or open.

On listening, really listening to people. [not easy!]

on how we accept and value diverse people and co-operate with them. Not everyone is the same, not everyone has the same [cultural] values, views or virtues.

Hopefully among the remnants of TS we recycle in our hearts some positive ways of respecting and valuing each other. No matter who that person is.