Archive for Janeiro, 2013

Kazys Varnelis, (2009)

Archeologist Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies has done much to shape my thinking about our contemporary predictament. Issue 20 of Volume Magazine carried an interview I did with Tainter earlier this year but since the interview had to be cut down to fit the graphic design required by Volume, I thought I should post it online in its entirety.


Kazys Vernelis: In your book you argue that civilizational collapse, as it took place in ancient societies such as the Chou Dynasty in China, the Indus Valley, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Rome is “a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by complexity and why it leads to collapse?

Joseph Tainter: I approach complexity from the perspective of an anthropologist. In our field one of the oldest questions is how and why human societies evolved from relatively simple and undifferentiated to complex and highly differentiated. Complexity in the framework I use consists of two components: structural differentiation and organization. Structural differentiation refers to the development of new categories of social roles, institutions, information, settlements, occupations, technologies, etc. Organization is how those are constrained so that they behave to form a system. If everydone does as they please there is no organization, and structural elements cannot form a system. Organization limits and channels behavior. So increasing complexity consists of increasing differentiation of structure combined with increasing organization. With a collapse, an established level of complexity is quickly lost.

KV: So as civilizations develop, you conclude, they differentiate—for example, by creating highly specialized social roles—and build greater and greater levels of organization that require higher investment of energy to maintain. Eventually the marginal returns on investment decline and civilizations either figure out how to deal with that situation or collapse. You note that from the perspective of humans as a species and hominadae as a family, complexity is quite unusual. Most of our existence has been in small settlements or nomadic groups that have relatively little differentiation and low levels of complexity.

Today we are living in the most complex society that has ever existed, yet we’ve avoided collapse thus far. Why is that?

JT: Diminishing returns to complexity are probably inevitable, but collapse doesn’t necessarily follow. Collapses are actually not that common. There are several ways to cope with diminishing returns to complexity. One is to find energy subsidies to pay for the process. That is what we have done with fossil fuels. And it is a big part of why a future crisis in fossil fuels is the most important thing we should be worrying about.

KV: All but a few geologists suggest that a decline in fossil fuel extraction is inevitable. In 1998 Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah said “The oil boom is over and will not return… All of us must get used to a different lifestyle.” Are we doomed?

JT: The critical point is when we reach peak oil. This is the point where 50% of recoverable reserves have been extracted. At this point, production might be kept level for a few years with heroic efforts, but soon production will start to decline. And every year after that there will be less oil available than the year before. One of the challenges with peak oil is that you know you’ve passed it only in hindsight. So there is naturally controversy about how close it is. Some analysts think we have passed it already, but the effect is masked by the economic downturn. How badly peak oil affects us depends on how quickly we bring alternative energy production systems into place. If we delay too long, the party will be over. This is a real danger. Developing new energy sources is the most important thing we can do.

KV: What about technological innovation? The spread of digital technology, the Internet, and mobile technology contributed to the economic recovery during the last fifteen years. There has been a bit of talk about innovating our way out of this recession too, for example through urban computing, green architecture, or investment in new kinds of infrastructure. Is such optimism in technological solutions warranted? Are there pitfalls to it? Are there other means by which we can avoid collapse?

JT: Short answer: It’s complicated. Long answer: Technological-innovation-as-savior is part of our cosmology. It is a fundamental part of our beliefs, so frequently we don’t think about it rationally. Relying on technological innovation to find some solution is what I call a faith-based approach to the future. There are two things about technological innovation that concern me. The first is that, like other endeavors, research grows complex and costly and can reach diminishing returns. This is covered in the Collapse book so I won’t elaborate here. The second problem is what is known as the Jevons Paradox. William Stanley Jevons, a 19th century British economist, pointed out that in the long run technological innovations aimed as at using less of a resource actually lead to even more of the resource being used. His example was coal, but the principle applies across the board. As technological innovation leads to economy in using a resource, people respond to the lower cost by using even more. I conclude from this that technological innovations can offer only short-term advantages. They quickly become outdated, then the next round of innovations may be harder to achieve.

KV: Beyond outright collapse, is it possible to have partial collapses of complexity? Given that I go to see my parents in Lithuania frequently, I am fascinated by the ruins of the Soviet Empire. This wasn’t an outright collapse, but certainly a major level of social organization was shed.

JT: The term “collapse” has, of course, many colloquial meanings, and often it is applied to the demise of political entities. For academic purposes I prefer to use it to mean a rapid, substantial loss of complexity. With the end of the Soviet Union there was certainly some reduction in complexity, coming mainly in the form of a diminishing of organizational control. But this was not comparable with the loss of complexity in western Europe at the end of the Western Roman Empire. So the end of the Soviet Union may have been like other collapses in some ways, but it was not similar in scale.


Read Full Post »

Read Full Post »


Read Full Post »

Ver aqui9147_dfb7_500

Read Full Post »


Read Full Post »

já circula, ainda que veladamente, pela Assembleia da República, como o prova a Resolução 109/2011 da dita cuja. O que podia ser uma boa notícia, se o fraseado eufemístico (“Protocolo do Esgotamento”!!) e as cómicas recomendações (que o governo promova um convénio internacional!!) não levantassem fortes suspeitas de que aquela gente não faz a menor ideia da iminência e gravidade do problema para um pais como Portugal, que consome 240 mil barris de petróleo por dia e produz, ao que parece, 1926.

Read Full Post »



Premises of Endgame

Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

Premise Two: Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources—gold, oil, and so on—can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities.

Premise Three: Our way of living—industrial civilization—is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.

Premise Four: Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

Premise Five: The property of those higher on the hierarchy is more valuable than the lives of those below. It is acceptable for those above to increase the amount of property they control—in everyday language, to make money—by destroying or taking the lives of those below. This is called production. If those below damage the property of those above, those above may kill or otherwise destroy the lives of those below. This is called justice.

Premise Six: Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this degradation will continue to harm humans and nonhumans for a very long time.

Premise Seven: The longer we wait for civilization to crash—or the longer we wait before we ourselves bring it down—the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

Premise Eight: The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.

Another way to put premise Eight: Any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and stupid. Sustainability, morality, and intelligence (as well as justice) requires the dismantling of any such economic or social system, or at the very least disallowing it from damaging your landbase.


Read Full Post »



Scale matters. When it changes, other things change as a function of it, often in unpredictable ways. Emergent properties are system characteristics that come into existence as a result of small and simple units of organization being combined to form large and complex multi-unit organizational structures. One can know everything there is to know about the original simple units and yet be unable to predict the characteristics of the larger system that emerges as many units come together to interact as a larger whole.

For instance, knowing everything about an individual cell sheds no light on the behaviour of a sophisticated multicellular organism. At a higher level of organization, knowing everything about an organism does not predict crowd behaviour, the functioning of an ecosystem, the organization of stratified societies, or the dynamics of geopolitics as societies interact with one another. The complex whole is always far more than just the sum of its parts.

Human social organization is particularly flexible when it comes to changes in scale. It can function in a myriad forms – from simple, generalist tribal associations, where everyone knows everyone else and interactions are grounded in established personal relationships, to the most complex, specialized and hierarchical imperial civilizations, where emergent connections and institutional structures must inevitably transcend the personal.

Where human societies find themselves along that continuum will depend on many local factors, including the nature, extent, accessibility and storability of the resource base over time, as well as the potential for leveraging human labour, historically using animals. Energy, and particularly energy returned on energy invested (ie the potential to control substantial energy surpluses) is critical. The greater the extent to which substantial, storable resource surpluses can be amassed and centrally controlled, the more likely a complex hierarchical organizational structure is to emerge. Where surpluses are small, resources cannot be stored, human efforts cannot be leveraged, or key resources are less subject to control, much smaller scale, simpler and more horizontally structured groups would be expected instead.

Forms of organization based on agriculture are inherently both expansionist and catabolic. Existing ecosystems are destroyed to make way for patches of monocrop, rapidly converting the productive potential of the land into human biomass at the expense of biodiversity and soil fertility. Many hands are needed to work the land, so many children are produced, but as they grow up, more land must be cultivated every generation, because the existing land cannot accommodate the rapidly rising number of mouths to feed. Carrying capacity is, however, limited.

This in-built need to expand, sometimes to the scale of an imperium in the search for new territory, means that the process is grounded in ponzi dynamics. Expansion stops when no new territories can be subsumed, and contraction will follow as the society consumes its internal natural capital. Previous agricultural societies have left desert in their wake when that natural capital has been exhausted.

Limits to growth are not a new phenomenon, nor is collapse when expansion is no longer possible. The difference this time is that we are approaching hard limits at a global scale, there is nowhere left to expand to, modernity has greatly increased the scope and the rate of our catabolic potential, and therefore the collapse will be the most widespread human civilization has faced.

Some societies are more despotic than others. Elite control over resources, distribution of surpluses, or monolithic infrastructure, such as major dams, confers power and strengthens hierarchy. Where surpluses are substantial, controllable and storable, and can support a large percentage of the population not required to work the land directly, a great deal of societal differentiation and complexity may develop, with a substantial gap between haves and have nots. The haves are typically part of the rentier economy, or otherwise in a position to cream off the surpluses from the labour of lower social strata.

The degree of general freedom probably depends on the extent to which it is in the interests of the powerful. If it is more profitable for the elite to grant economic freedom, and then reap a large share of the proceeds, than to control society directly from the centre, then freedom is far more likely. When circumstances change, however, that may no longer be the case. Relative freedom is associated with economic boom times, when there is an explosion of economic activity to feed off. When boom turns to bust, and there is little economic activity for a prolonged period, direct control of what if left is likely to be of greater appeal. As we stand on the verge of a very substantial economic contraction, this is a major concern. Freedom is addictive, and taking it away has consequences for the fabric of society.

In our own modern situation, the freedom enjoyed in first world countries is arguably both a direct and an indirect a result of the enormous energy surplus we have benefited from. Energy surplus has allowed us to substitute energy slaves directly for the forced labour that has been a prevalent feature of so many previous societies, and it has allowed us to intensify complexity in order to create many opportunities for innovation and advantage. It has also enabled an increase of scale to the global level, so that hard work for low pay, and unpleasant externalities, could be off-shored while retaining the benefits in the first world, albeit very unevenly distributed within it.

The size of the global energy surplus is likely to fall very substantially in the coming years. This will inevitably have a major impact on global socioeconomic dynamics, as it will undermine the ability to maintain both the scale and degree of complexity of the global economy. The expansion of effective organizational scale on the way up is a relatively smooth progression of intensification and developing complexity, but the same cannot be said for its contraction. As we scaled up we built structural dependencies on the range of affordable inputs available to us, on the physical infrastructure we built to exploit them, on the trading relationships formed through comparative advantage, and on the large scale institutional framework to manage it all. Scaling down will mean huge dislocation as these dependencies must give way. There is simply no smooth, managed way to achieve this.


Read Full Post »

Clive Hamilton in his “Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” describes a dark relief that comes from accepting that “catastrophic climate change is virtually certain.” This obliteration of “false hopes,” he says, requires an intellectual knowledge and an emotional knowledge. The first is attainable. The second, because it means that those we love, including our children, are almost certainly doomed to insecurity, misery and suffering within a few decades, if not a few years, is much harder to acquire. To emotionally accept impending disaster, to attain the gut-level understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality. The most daunting existential struggle of our time is to ingest this awful truth—intellectually and emotionally—and continue to resist the forces that are destroying us.

The human species, led by white Europeans and Euro-Americans, has been on a 500-year-long planetwide rampage of conquering, plundering, looting, exploiting and polluting the Earth—as well as killing the indigenous communities that stood in the way. But the game is up. The technical and scientific forces that created a life of unparalleled luxury—as well as unrivaled military and economic power—for the industrial elites are the forces that now doom us. The mania for ceaseless economic expansion and exploitation has become a curse, a death sentence. But even as our economic and environmental systems unravel, after the hottest year in the contiguous 48 states since record keeping began 107 years ago, we lack the emotional and intellectual creativity to shut down the engine of global capitalism. We have bound ourselves to a doomsday machine that grinds forward, as the draft report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee illustrates.

Complex civilizations have a bad habit of destroying themselves. Anthropologists including Joseph Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” Charles L. Redman in “Human Impact on Ancient Environments” and Ronald Wright in “A Short History of Progress” have laid out the familiar patterns that lead to systems breakdown. The difference this time is that when we go down the whole planet will go with us. There will, with this final collapse, be no new lands left to exploit, no new civilizations to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate. The long struggle between the human species and the Earth will conclude with the remnants of the human species learning a painful lesson about unrestrained greed and self-worship.


Read Full Post »

Statistic Verification
Source: BLS American Time Use Survey, A.C. Nielsen Co.
Date Verified: 2.7.2012


Total Use of Television

Average time spent watching television (U.S.) 5:11 hrs
White 5:02
Black 7:12
Hispanic 4:35
Asian 3:14
Years the average person will have spent watching TV 9 years
Family Television Statistics
Percentage of households that possess at least one television 99 %
Number of TV sets in the average U.S. household 2.24
Percentage of U.S. homes with three or more TV sets 65 %
Percentage of Americans that regularly watch television while eating dinner 67 %
Percentage of Americans who pay for cable TV 56 %
Number of videos rented daily in the U.S. 6 million
Percentage of Americans who say they watch too much TV 49 %
Child Television Statistics
Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television 1,480
Percent of 4-6 year-olds who, when asked to choose between watching TV and spending time with their fathers, preferred television 54 %
Hours per year the average American youth spends in school 900 hours
Hours per year the average American youth watches television 1,200
Number of violent acts seen on TV by age 18 150,000
Number of 30 second TV commercials seen in a year by an average child 16,000

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »