An emerging emergency

It’s been 40 years since Richard Nixon declared war on cancer. Why haven’t we won yet?

Below the flip are a few thoughts on technology, apple picking, space travel, the State Senate crisis, DestiNY USA, the Connective Corridor, backyard gardens, physics, and youth and old age. Proceed at your own risk!

It’s been 40 years since Richard Nixon declared war on cancer. Why haven’t we won yet? The NY Times looks at one possible factor: the fact that, in a world with limited funding resources, researchers tend to grab at the lowest-hanging fruit.

We also have faith in the power of new technology to solve problems, and even more faith in the “inevitability” of the discovery of these new technologies, with little thought as to how expensive and complex these technologies will be to invent and maintain. But expense and complexity is visited on the flesh and bone of people, who either crack under its strain, or rebel. This is ironic, because the very technology we’re hoping will relieve some of these vaguely sourced stresses on our personal lives, is probably contributing greatly to said stresses.

In essence, the pursuit of a cure for cancer may cause certain types of cancers. This is apparently an OK situation to us, though, because we have faith that there will be a sudden, cancer-vanquishing breakthrough: a cure. We always have crises, and triumphant resolutions (as in our wars, at least until Vietnam), so there must be a crisis resolution in store for the war on cancer.

We are standing at the foot of a tall apple tree (medicine) whose lowest and easiest fruits (antibiotics,
vitamins, simple surgery) have already been plucked by those who came before us. We cannot see any more fruits in the tree – just vague shapes that may or may not be fruits – so we imagine there are plenty more fruits to be discovered if we just make a complex, all-out effort to harvest them.

The idea that we simply can’t invest all of our social organization and resource energy to harvest those (perhaps mythical) final fruits, is never permitted to be spoken aloud. (Much less the alternate possibility that there may not actually be more fruits up there in that particular kind of tree.)

So, what kind of a society are you left with, if you give up on the idea of these topmost fruits waiting to be harvested? What drives growth and expansion? Well, that’s it: you aren’t going to have growth and expansion any more. You are going to have decline, at least for the foreseeable future.

There is a whole body of recent literature related to “the end of expansion” which has become sort of a canon: the peak oil community, authors and lecturers like James Kunstler, Jared Diamond, Dmitry Orlov, Carolyn Baker, and then there is the seminal book by Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, which attempts a “grand unified theory” of the decline of many civilizations and states throughout history.

This post isn’t about Tainter, but I’d like to pass on his four theoretical principles, which can be usefully applied to any social organization great or small — a family unit, a tribe, a state government, a nation or a global society.

1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations. (They develop in order to solve human problems.)

2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance.

3. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita.

4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

Consider interplanetary travel. We could put a man on Mars now – if we had the energy and gross national product to pump into the resources, logistics and training that would be necessary. We could have moon colonies. We could probably travel to the nearest star and back. However we recognize that interstellar travel is “impossible” because we know we couldn’t maintain the structure of our society and deal with our problems back on Earth, AND go to Alpha Centauri at the same time. The costs would be too great; even if we didn’t have some kind of global effort to launch the Starship Kumbaya, our leaders would have to extract so many economic and social resources in order to prepare for this multigenerational mission, that we’d have to impoverish billions of people or maybe even our planet’s own ecosystem. Even if we needed to leave the planet, we might not be able to maintain the complexity required to extract the resources to go on that mission.

Even a moon base isn’t feasible; we recognize that the amount we’d need to spend on it far outweighs any energy we might gain by it. Scientific knowledge is often thought to be an absolute gain that automatically translates – somehow – into increased energy, and in the past it has; but that relationship between scientific endeavor and energy surplus grows murkier the more complex that scientific missions and experiments become.

What we might not want to admit is that our reach exceeds our grasp on a great deal of other things. And it’s very hard for people to grasp that while mankind may have a future, maybe even a bright future – we living today are not going to be any major part of any future upward bound.

The happiest people, of course, won’t be thinking about that, but will instead concentrate on their own survival — figuratively speaking. There will at least be a pullback of the field of vision to inner space. If there are any forgotten stores of energy that lie in your backyard – a sunny plot of your yard you’re not farming, or some kind of personal creative or spiritual impulse you haven’t tapped and translated – that is what individual people (families, villages, states) will be mining.

And individuals who are engaged in cultivating these inner fields, are going to be increasingly unwilling to yield them to “The Greater Good” of “We-Are-the-World” style globalism. Or even that style of nationalism, which is what America has run on for a couple of centuries. Although human society isn’t going to turn into a global sequel to Mad Max, it isn’t going to particularly have a global consciousness either, no matter what sort of travel and Internet technology we will possess.

Recent news from elsewhere in the state highlights the problems of trying to set up a locally sustainable system (i.e., backyard gardens) in a world where big-box stores still sell most of the tomato plants. Scary stuff.

Devastating plant fungus found in Plattsburgh

This is the ironic tension I have always found in the whole Age of Obama: localism and globalism cannot realistically coexist as sociopolitical systems. They can certainly coexist in the mind’s eye (“think globally, act locally”) but when the rubber hits the road politically (and economically), more and more exhausted and exploited people will simply drop out of globalism, leaving it starved for participants — for globalism is “peak complexity,” and requires willing participation by locals. Unless globalism becomes even more militant than it is, and forces that participation… which, in turn, breeds more complexity that requires greater energy to maintain…

I hear echoes of this whole process at play in our own State Senate. We don’t even have partisanship (in an ideological sense) or even regionalism going on; we have pure self-interestedness, which probably draws from ethnic or borough politics at best. Globalism, in the form of Gov. Paterson, is now trying to assert itself, even with a threat of militancy (siccing the state troopers on legislators who won’t attend an extraordinary session). The State Senate is probably one of our state’s most corrupt and weak institutions, so you’d expect the process to begin at the weakest joints.

We are in the process of finding and polishing the edges of the broken pieces of a “global state” (New York, in all its diversity and dreams) that started falling apart a long time ago. In the absence of someone to glue them together, the sharp edges will gradually become smooth from this polishing and will no longer quite mesh. It’s still good and useful material. It’s just not in the shape of a mighty vessel any more.

What is to be done? How do you reverse this? Tainter’s observes that there may not be a way to reverse it. Certainly not in the short term – and by short term” that means centuries, if not millennia. Tainter’s theory points to a striking possibility: complex societies like ours are periodic anomalies in human history, and may always have natural lifespans that must obey certain laws of physics (yes, the physics of energy). If there is no longer any energy subsidy for the system you have built to deal with your problems, then increased complexity of efforts to maintain it will not only not be feasible, but may not even ever get you to the desired Point B. Eventually, the familiar cycle of “crisis and recovery” peters out, and there remains only “crisis” – unless you deal with the mega-crisis by throwing in the towel on complexity and evacuating into the scattered local lifeboats. (This was dealt with recently in Kunstler’s book The Long Emergency.)

In that sense, the “failure” of complex civilization may actually represent a successful adaptation that can preserve not just life, but values. And complex human culture – what of it does survive from civilization to civilization – may periodically be forced underground.

People who drop out of globalism tend not to announce what they are doing; they just do it. The “revolution will not be televised.” Many people who were energized by “political” battles of the earlier part of this
decade, have already drifted away to cultivate their own small plots. Some of them will form collectives (families, communes, or gangs), others will live more nomadic or self-contained lives and work on successful strategies to avoid predation while discovering secret personal sources of untapped energy for themselves — and maybe a few carefully chosen friends.

Of course, the search for untapped energy has consumed Upstate for a long time now — everything from willow shoots, wind, water and a mythical “youth energy” has been proposed as a way to “reverse” the decline of individual cities or even the entire region (and therefore the entire state). It is true that there are probably political changes we could make that would unlock some sources of energy we haven’t been using.

However, making political changes in New York has gotten to the point where few citizens have personal energy to invest in a “broken” system – “broken” as in split into many competing self-interests. The political system itself has become a vampiric energy sink. The reason why Espadas and DeFranciscos keep getting re-elected is because few citizens have the energy to do anything but concentrate on their personal survival. To many of them, I suspect, the antics of the senators (if noticed) are embarrassing, but merely a backdrop to their struggles against greater forces which they don’t believe that a functioning Senate could really help them with anyway. (Did a functioning State Senate stop massive job losses in the ’70s? The ’80s? The ’90s?)

Upstate and Downstate have been concentrating on their own survival for a long time, and now that Wall Street has failed, lessening the overall available “energy subsidy” for everyone, we can expect to see these fragmentational trends to continue in all aspects of New York State life. A disinvestment in complexity (“One New York” being exceedingly complex) will involve an increased unwillingness to cooperate with the taxman, with state regulations, with massive corporate and public schemes of all kinds (NYRI, anyone?). We will continue to scream for benefits and subsidies from the state (don’t kid yourself, the Republicans certainly will). More vulnerable people among us will certainly suffer. But we’ve already seen that happening. This is where our personal values come into play; we just may have to fight for them on more confined and personal battlegrounds.

Is there untapped energy to be found that will sustain a less complex version of New York? I think so, but many of the local suggestions we’ve seen involve…er… more complex re-engineering that seems to have no logical endpoint: DestiNY USA a big example, the Connective Corridor perhaps somewhat less so. (Keep in mind that the Connective Corridor is built not just on a plan for a streetscape, but on a whole set of assumptions about Syracuse and the higher education industry — assumptions that may start crumbling after the next few fiscal years).

Dmitry Orlov has scoffed that for some green activists, returning to a simpler time all too often involves re-engineering the humble compost pile. But the less engineering, planning, funding and committees you need for your local simplification, the more net energy you will actually gain from simplification.

In a sense, you also need to have people around who are more deliberate and efficient, and perhaps less active and exciting. Americans are big energy wasters. We like to think of ourselves as “energy exuders,” magically transmitting our boundless original enthusiasm across the ether to the entire world. But a lot of our mental and physical energy (not just oil and gas energy) gets leaked away on activities which are culturally popular and emotionally desired, but may not particularly efficient in a time of scarcity.

The idea that “youth” is, in itself, a potent form of elemental energy seems to be one of America’s most cherished illusions, and there’s nothing more that Upstate thinkers would like to do than gain the power of this inexhaustible magic fire. But the magic fire of American youth didn’t come directly as a gift from an approving God. It came from the affluence that we derived from the natural resources – the energy – that our forefathers took from the control of the people who originally lived here, and from the energy we took from the rest of the world with the help of our elegant “military-industrial complex,” as they used to say. What that energy runs out, so will the magic fire of American youth. They will become just ordinary youth, like Swiss youth or Malaysian youth or Cameroonian youth. Bummer!

The truth: we need all kinds of people, but especially we need more people who don’t waste the limited store of available energy. Unfortunately, young American college students don’t always fit that description… which is why Madison, Wisconsin has to have a lot of police on duty on boozy weekend nights. (Young foreign college students, who grew up in perhaps less affluent surroundings and in societies with less energy resources to waste, seem to be much more efficient users of their energy.)

You also might need to keep a few people around who are not spending their energy (or society’s energy) partying or raising children – a demographic not often included in the big re-engineering plans for Syracuse. The issue of the personal and societal energy costs involved in raising children in today’s society, is another sensitive topic not often discussed. At what point does an overemphasis on certain lifeways use up more energy than it gives back to a system?

Simply put, you cannot engineer a collapse. You cannot build a growth industry around collapse mitigation (and you certainly can’t call it “smart growth” unless you are thinking you know when the tide is going to turn, which probably none of us know). Collapse is something that is going to happen whether you organize it or not. Because we’re so afraid of the concept of collapse, we have never studied its physics, which is necessarily in order to understand how to step the hell out of the way, and live to dream another day.

The root of the word “emergency” is “emerge.”