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Emergence and failure of societies: first take

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How do societies fail? Not just average, but also successful ones?

Historically, there are a number of complex, developed and highly-civilized societies that rose, became very successful and the, just as magnificently/incredibly fell, leaving behind testimonies of their greatness.

Jared Diamond outlines few glaring examples in his excellent book “Collapse.” Let’s take Easter Island. Its society built and dragged 80-ton 33-feet-high statues for 10-15 miles, in addition to navigating the Pacific Ocean to and from the most remote islands in the world, also managed to cut down its rich rain-forest and doom itself. With no trees left for making canoes, the Easter Islanders turned to devouring each other. The typical insult to a member of a rival clan was, “The flesh of your mother sticks between my teeth.” The population fell by 90% in a few years, and neither the society nor the island ecology have recovered ever since.

Or take other examples. Failures/collapses of once-powerful societies — the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years  — or  successes of, for example, Tokugawa Japan, which reversed its lethal deforestation, and Iceland, which learned to master a highly fragile environment. Modern times have their parallels to those of history. Rwanda, which lost millions in warfare caused by ecological pressure, and Australia, with its ambitions to overcome a rough environmental history, which still struggles to find a comprehensive solution.

Diamond contends that it’s a society’s failure to think long-term, which has many causes. One common reason is that elites become insulated from the consequences of their actions. Mayan kings could ignore the soil erosion that was destroying their crops just like  modern wealthy Americans enjoy sufficient security, education, and retirement benefits, ignoring national as well as global issues that are already affecting their lives, indirectly, and will continue to do so increasingly for future generations.

But is it the only or even the most important problem that causes a society to fail?

Societies are complex entities, and as such failure/success factors, let alone underlying reasons, would hardly be simple to pinpoint – nor would they most probably be simple in their nature, embedding a combinations of smaller factors. There are concurrent conjectures/theories that attempt to explain away one or another aspect of functioning of societies and their subsequent lows/ups. They all, one way or another, base their claims on what is called theory of emergence.

In briefly, “emergence” – popularised in Steven Johnson’s book “Emergence” – is about how complex systems organise themselves, without any apparent direction/plan. Individual units of systems “do their own thing” without knowledge of any overarching aim/scheme, but out of this “chaos” order, pattern and system emerge. In Johnson’s book, classic emergent systems are ant colonies, cities and self-learning software, which, he claims, will bring self-organised order to the chaotic Internet in the not too distant future.

There is a need to differentiate, marked by Mark Bedau and others, between two categories of emergence:

  1. Weak emergence. Systemic phenomena that are theoretically but not practically reducible to characteristics/functioning of its composite parts. Most complexity theories (for example, modeling, simulation, system laws, etc.) study this form of emergence. Calculations required to predict the resulting phenomena are so complex as to be effectively impossible but instead, these calculations are carried out by means of simulation.
  1. Strong emergence. Systemic phenomena that are fundamentally not reducible, but are distinct and can exert downward causation on the system from which they emerge. It is mostly a subject of philosophical discourse or considered in competing conjectures/theories of human consciousness, which didn’t evolve much since Nobel laureate Roger Sperry‘s research in 1969. No simulation is possible for this type of emergence.

Why is this relevant to the question of complexity in societies and the question of collapse? There seems to be an important interface between emergence and failure/collapse of complex societies as noted by Joseph Tainter in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies.”

Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed. Everyone of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed. He looked for some explanation common to these sudden collapses. The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, but because of it.

According to Tainter, a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, found itself with a surplus of resources – management of this surplus made societies more complex, eventually resulting (at least for some of them) in the shift from rural- to urban-centric societies. Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive — each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output — but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity becomes a cost. Tainter’s thesis is that when a society’s elite members add a layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end-up extracting all the value from their environment possible to extract and then some more. This overstretching is what ushers complex societies into systemic collapse because, when a stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, it seems mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just refashion themselves into simpler ones? The answer Tainter gives is that when societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, but because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice is by then a huge, interlocking system not readily adjustable to change/simplification. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden incoherence of such societies as a conincidence, mistake or failure to think long-term: “Under a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response.” Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because no simplification fits or is satisfactory to elites.

Let’s now shift gears and look at how emergence theory is (bluntly) being applied to describing modern social frameworks. If we can think of “democracy” as meaning a system through which members of communities organize themselves, rather than a system for controlling them, our democratic systems would be getting closer to being complex, adaptive and self-organizing. But what is wrong in the transference of the insights of “emergence” to political democracy and economic systems is its false analogy between physical systems (for example, ant colonies) on the one hand, and political/social organisation on the other.

Nobody knows exactly how ants organize themselves, but it is obvious each individual ant can’t possibly have any knowledge of the overall system. In fact, ants pick up signals from chemicals called “pheromones,” which they secrete. Scientists showed that if two ants go foraging for food, the ant, which finds food closer, will return quicker, and thus deposit more pheromones than the other ant. This trail will then be followed by others, and an efficient pattern of food foraging is thus established.

Another author, Steve Marcus, in his book “Engels, Manchester and the Working Class” argues that the clear-cut separation of upper and middle classes from workers which “emerged” around the working class areas of Manchester in 19th century was too complex a system to have been planned and thought up in advance. It was perhaps not planned in advance but certainly the outcome of conscious decisions, i.e. decisions of middle and upper class people to live as far away from the workers as possible. This may not have been a planned decision, but it was conscious.

Johnson thus considers cities as classic examples of “organised complexity” or more a “self-organised complexity”. Cities are in fact – like any human society – a dynamic interaction of planning and spontaneity. No one plans in advance the complex system whereby thousands of people get off a train. But that it takes place at all is a function of the underfunding of public transport, and (not least) the decision to build the train station in the first place. Decisions of this kind may not have been simultaneous and may have aggregated over time, but they did not just “emerge” out of thousands of random local/individual decisions. Self-organised complexity interacts with a rather well-organised complexity. Johnson proceeds showing that through the generations cities replicate their basic structure, even if all the individuals and businesses change; they are “patterns in time.”

A recent example of initiating a complex social system, without a recourse to traditional, hierarchic governance system is the Zapatista movement. On August 9 2003, the Zapatistas in the state of Chiapas (Mexico) presented their newly created Zapatista municipal authorities. This was an archetypal example of self-organisation from the bottom up and (not with reference to but) against state authority. This formidable achievement has taken ten years of work in difficult circumstances. In 2000, when 500 Zapatista activists from the communities arrived in Mexico City as part of their national consulta campaign, at least half of them were ill, suffering from different infections and other illnesses. What made them ill? Poverty and a lack of basic medicines like antibiotics, which would have immediately cured most of them. They were lacking basic social, economic and health factors that are usually institutionalized and supprted by a typical centralized government.

Zapatista example proves exactly the point Johnson is trying to make, namely that when delving deeper into the theory of emergence, one discovers that emergent systems are rule-governed. In natural systems the rules are established independently of the units whereas in human society rules and norms of behaviour have to be established consciously.

Stephen Wolfram writing in his book “A New kind of Science” confirms the same idea of complexity being based on a set of simple entities. “Whenever a phenomenon is encountered that seems complex it is taken almost for granted that the phenomenon must be the result of some underlying mechanism that is itself complex. But my discovery that simple programs can produce great complexity makes it clear that this is not in fact correct.” He has devised rules of interaction for those simple entities, known as “cellular automata” which as Ray Kurzweil writes can result in “patterns that are neither regular nor completely random. It appears to have some order, but is never predictable.”

It seems therefore that there is some sort of agreement that many systems (societies, economies, etc.), themselves based on or representing simple entities, are complex in their nature and not necessarily reducible to characteristics of their parts. We do however need to differentiate complex human systems, a mixture of conscious schemes and random choices, and other complex systems (such as ant colonies) where the emerging properties of a complex system are defined by individual random choices only.

China’s environmental crisis

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China, China, China… All global issues of concern as well as hopes and aspirations for “next big thing” find themselves to one extent or another expressed, influenced by or influencing this country.

Environmental awareness has been steadily gaining prominence ever since we have started exploring the outer space, and thus gaining a bird’s eye view of our planet. With this increasing awareness we came to realize that human intervention in the natural cycles of our planet in such a way as to tip the balance. Henceforth,  with the dawn of New Age and emergence of theories such as Gaia, and glaring affect of (human activity emitted) greenhouse gazes (and subsequent effect of global warming causing gradual increase in average temperatures) on the homeostasis of our planet, we are more than ever before aware of the environment we live in.

China has been at the forefront of global economic and industrial boom witnessed by the 20th century. Its economic and industrial expansion and impact it had on global economy, politics and climate cannot be overstated. Especially in matters of (negative) environmental impact, China stands above others by being considered the world’s bigger polluter recently overtaking the US. CFR has a comprehensive summary of issues, which contribute to environmental crisis not only in China but, due to its sheer size and energy-related policies, have a huge environmental impact around the world.

China’s heady economic growth continued to blossom in 2007, with the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) hitting 11.4 percent. This booming economy, however, has come alongside an environmental crisis. Sixteen of the world’s twenty most polluted cities are in China. To many, Beijing’s pledge to host a “Green Olympics” in the summer of 2008 signaled the country’s willingness to address its environmental problems. Experts say the Chinese government has made serious efforts to clean up and achieved many of the bid commitments. However, an environmentally sustainable growth rate remains a serious challenge for the country.

What are some of China’s major environmental challenges?

Water. China suffers from the twin problems of water shortage and water pollution. About one-third of China’s population lacks access to clean drinking water. Its per-capita water supply falls at around a quarter of the global average. Some 70 percent of the country’s rivers and lakes are polluted, with roughly two hundred million tons of sewage and industrial waste pouring into Chinese waterways in 2004. As part of its effort to harness the nation’s water supply, China has a large dam-building program with over twenty-five thousand dams nationwide–more than any other nation. The dam projects are not only a high cost in terms of money, but also in farmland loss, ecological damage, and forced migration of millions of people, says the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Jennifer L. Turner, director of its China Environment Forum, in a report for the Jamestown Foundation.

Land. Desertification in China leads to the loss of about 5,800 square miles of grasslands every year, an area roughly the size of Connecticut. The Worldwatch Institute, an environmental watchdog and research organization, reports that excessive farm cultivation, particularly overgrazing, is one of the leading causes of desertification. The cultivation stems from a policy followed from the 1950s to the early 1980s that encouraged farmers to settle in grasslands. As the deforestation grows, so do the number of sandstorms; a hundred were expected between 2000 and 2009, more than a fourfold increase over the previous decade. Desertification also contributes to China’s air pollution problems, with increasing dust causing a third of China’s air pollution.

Greenhouse gases. In 2008, China surpassed the United States as the largest global emitter of greenhouse gases by volume. (On a per capita basis, however, Americans emit five times as much greenhouse gas as Chinese.) The increase in China’s emissions is primarily due to the country’s reliance on coal, which accounts for over two-thirds of its energy consumption. It contributes to sulfur dioxide emissions causing acid rain, which falls on over 30 percent of the country.

Population and development. China’s inhabitants number more than 1.3 billion. The country’s growing economic prosperity and rapid development mean increasing urbanization, consumerism, and pollution. One example of this can be seen in car production: As Kelly Sims Gallagher notes in her book, China Shifts Gears, China produced 42,000 passenger cars in 1990. By 2004, the number hit one million, with sixteen million cars on China’s roads. By 2000, motor vehicles were the leading cause of China’s urban air pollution, though China adheres to stricter mileage standards than the United States.

What has China done to improve the situation? Read here..

It is not yet clear as to how the recent economic recession will affect this equation.

Written by Hayk

January 6, 2009 at 10:31 am

Musings on scarcity of resources and political strifes

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The most important prerequisite of social stability and economic development in a country or region is political stability and good governance. In times of strives, conflicts and wars, the only priority for the society and its people is a day-to-day survival and struggle for achievement of piece. Every other matter has a lesser priority… Maslow’s Pyramid, that is.

“What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”  – Henry David Thoreau

While the immediate reaction and focus of any potentially conflict-rich situation is leave aside other concerns besides security and peace, it must be nonetheless stressed that such situations result mostly from social, cultural, economic or plain human-nature specific reasons. Greed, egoism, arrogance, self-indulgence. These are human traits common to individuals. What is not common and desirable is when they mould into a group-think and become directed towards an end at the detriment of moral values and traditions of a society.

History is a witness to a great number of wars that have started as a result of scarcity of resources. Water, land and natural resources attracted greedy and powerful in their quest for self-fulfillment and enrichment like magnet attract metal. Wars ensued; innocent people died; lands were plundered.

Three-quarters of all wars since 1945 have been within countries rather than between them, and the vast majority of these conflicts have occurred in the world’s poorest nations. Wars and other violent conflicts have killed some 40 million people since 1945, and as many people may have died as a result of civil strife since 1980 as were killed in the First World War. Although the number of internal wars peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining slowly ever since, they remain a scourge on humanity. Armed conflicts have crippled the prospect for a better life in many developing countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, by destroying essential infrastructure, decimating social trust, encouraging human and capital flight, exacerbating food shortages, spreading disease, and diverting precious financial resources toward military spending.

Although there is no single cause of strife or war, a growing number of scholars suggest that rapid population growth, environmental degradation, and competition over natural resources play important causal roles in many of these conflicts. Recent quantitative studies analyzing the correlates of internal and external wars from the 1950s to the present indicate that population size and population density are significant risk factors. In terms of environmental factors, recent statistical work indicates that countries highly dependent on natural resources, as well as those experiencing high rates of deforestation and soil degradation, and low per capita availability of arable land and freshwater, have higher-than-average risks of falling into turmoil. In short, many researchers now conclude that it is impossible to fully understand the patterns and dynamics of modern conflicts without considering their demographic and environmental dimensions.

The past century witnessed unprecedented population growth, economic development, and environmental stress, changes that continue to this day. From 1900 to 2000 world population grew from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion. Since 1950 alone 3.5 billion people have been added to the planet, with 85% of this increase occurring in developing and transition countries. Worldwide population growth rates peaked in the late 1960s at around 2% a year, but the current rate of 1.2% still represents a net addition of 77 million people per year.

Such rapid demographic and economic changes over the past century have placed severe and accelerating pressures on natural resources and planetary life-support systems. The traditional Malthusian notion that exponential population growth alone drives strains on the environment has long been refuted; no serious thinkers, including neo-Malthusians, now maintain that human-induced environmental changes are a mere function of numbers. Rather, neo-Malthusians argue that the relationship between population growth and the environment is mediated by consumption habits, and by the technologies used to extract natural resources and provide goods and services.

Neo-Malthusians cite the 1969 war between El-Salvador and Honduras as a classic example of a scarcity induced conflict. The conflict became known as the Soccer War and lasted only 100 hours, during which several thousand people died on both sides. One of the main causes of this war was the scarcity of arable land. The sources of the shortage were population growth, erosion and unequal land distribution. A similar scarcity of arable land resonated in the minds of Ethiopians when their then Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted in 1974. The provisional Ethiopian government, the Dergue, failed to improve conditions resulting in large migrations of Ethiopians into a contested region on the Somali border, which in turn precipitated the Ogaden War of 1977. The scarcity of arable land was also a contributing cause of the violent dispute between Senegal and Mauritania in 1989. The conflict focused on Senegal River, which demarcated the border between the two. In this case, it was shown that the cause of land scarcity was population growth and desertification, along with lack of adequate quantities of fresh water.

Numerous signs suggest that the combined effects of unsustainable consumption, population growth, and extreme poverty are taking their toll on the environment. More natural resources have been consumed since the end of the WW2 than in all human history to that point. The consumption of nonrenewable resources has significantly increased, although it has risen at a slower rate than population and economic growth as a result of changes in technology. The global consumption of fossil fuels (which account for 77% of all energy use) in 2003 was 4.7 times the level it was in 1950.

“Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water,”  – Ismail Serageldin,  Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and former World Bank Vice President

In the eyes of a future observer, what will characterize the political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa? Will the future mirror the past or, as suggested by the quote above, are significant changes on the horizon? In the past, struggles over territory, ideology, colonialism, nationalism, religion, and oil have defined the region. While it is clear that many of those sources of conflict remain salient today, future war in the Middle East and North Africa also will be increasingly influenced by economic and demographic trends that do not bode well for the region.

By 2025, world population is projected to reach eight billion. As a global figure, this number is troubling enough; however, over 90% of the projected growth will take place in developing countries in which the vast majority of the population is dependent on local renewable resources. For instance, World Bank estimates place the present annual growth rate in the Middle East and North Africa at 1.9% versus a worldwide average of 1.4%. In most of these countries, these precious renewable resources are controlled by small segments of the domestic political elite, leaving less and less to the majority of the population. As a result, if present population and economic trends continue, many future conflicts throughout the region will be directly linked to what researchers term “environmental scarcity”— the scarcity of renewable resources such as arable land, forests, and fresh water.