Our history is usually described as either a linear path of progress (from the caves to the stars), or as a cycle with events re-emerging from time to time in a regular fashion. What if neither is the case? What makes us believe that we are moving in any direction at all? Taking a short pause in the coverage of this nice little energy “crunch” we have, I invite you to take a step back to have a broader look on where we came from, and what drives our behavior.
Schools of thought
Our current (Western) belief system holds, that we were making progress ever since we have left the trees and stepped on the grass of the savanna. We’ve picked up a stone and threw it towards a bird we wanted to eat for dinner. Then sharpened that stone and used it to cut plants and animals into pieces, when finally someone combined the two ideas and created a spear. Fast forward half-a-million years and we’ve arrived at an image of a man picking up a stone — from the surface of the Moon. Continuing this line of thought, another thousand years later we will surely set foot on an extraterrestrial planet…! Social structures, human rights, equality, freedom ought to develop together with technology, and as economies grow, more and more people will enjoy the fruits of progress. It sounds so temptingly logical and attractive, that it is almost impossible to resist.
Not for people though living through times of contraction, like the dark ages after the fall of an empire. They must’ve thought: things were so great back in the days of king [you name it], but now it’s all doom and gloom. For them history is an arrow clearly pointing downwards: from the magnificent past to a savagely cruel future. Scholars might point out, that this has happened to other empires before, so history must be cyclical: following a strict pattern of creation and destruction.
Knowing what’s on our plate this cyclical view might seem appropriate. In the first phase of this model wealth is built up gradually, its bounty shared equally among members of a society, whose members enjoy a high morale, and an even higher work ethic — all working towards building utopia on earth. Then as wealth reaches a certain level, things start to deteriorate: morale decreases together with the work ethic and progress starts to slow down then stagnate. At a later stage decadence sets in, trust in science and the elites slowly falls apart – bringing consensus and morale down with it. People start to fantasize about a heroic past while disintegration gathers pace and accelerates until a new form of power takes hold. (For a more detailed explanation of this theory listen to this audio reading — it’s really fascinating.)
The missing ingredient
Both the linear (progress going on forever) and the cyclical worldview lacks an important aspect however. There seems to be no consensus among authors on what is driving them… Most scholars point to “human nature”, or something along these lines (like morale), while others mention natural resources: soil, wood, minerals etc. and their eventual depletion. While these factors all play their roles for sure, there must be a driving force behind all this. And if there is, maybe it can give us answer where we are headed…
Long time readers of this blog it won’t find it surprising that we live in a complex adaptive system. We are part of a large ecosystem (not limited to the human enterprise), where we are subject to the laws of biology and physics. This system makes it up as it goes: it tries various forms of claws, teeth, fur — as well as tools, techniques, social arrangements, ways of making business etc. — until the best fit for the purpose is found. Then it multiplies this best practice until the environment changes and another solution needs to be found. A spear is a case in point: it was an excellent tool (far superior than simple stones or random sticks) to hunt large animals. Since large animals meant a lot of free calories for relatively little work, the widespread use of spears was all but inevitable.
Lots of food meant lots of babies though — more hunters and more hunting — luring humanity into one of its first progress traps, as Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress phrased it brilliantly. We became simply too good at hunting, and as a result contributed greatly to the extinction of the giant animals of the last ice age. After mammoths were gone, and every hunting ground was occupied by another tribe, something had to be “invented” (to put it better: experimented with), until a working model has emerged. That something was agriculture: leading to another boom and bust cycle, we now call the age of empires.
It was not a smooth transition however — contrary to the myth of progress — this method of sustenance was flickering on and off for several hundreds if not thousands of years. First, it was practiced in parallel with hunting and gathering. It worked for several years until a major crop failure came, and the band had to return to hunting only.
Notice however, how this whole story with hunting, and later with agriculture, really could not happen any other way. Given the chance would you not use a spear, when it is so much easier to hunt with? Or kill that last mammoth nearby— not knowing that there might be no more to be found on the entire continent? Or would you let your family die of hunger when you knew that the seeds of the grass in the nearby field is actually edible? I guess not.
The driving force
There is a common pattern in the background, which drives the population increase of any species — including ours. The availability of food, in other words: energy. The fat and muscle of mammoths. Grains from a wheat field. If you had a surplus, more and more people from your tribe would survive into the next year. The one thing never taken into account was that while food production could grow only up to a certain limit – depending on the level of technology – then taper off, populations always expanded exponentially. Overshoot was all but guaranteed.
Humans are smart and have learned how to use energy from outside their bodies. Fire from wood. The power of steam. Oil. Effectively sparing their own energy from food, leaving more room for the next generation to grow. These solutions all seemed to be excellent ideas of their time — until we realized that there is no turning back. Once people born they had to be fed — or they would start a riot against the elite. This is why empires had an irresistible incentive to grow: to obtain land to keep feeding their exponentially growing population. They had no other choice.
In order to get out of a progress trap — caused by too much energy and a subsequent population boom — humanity had to up the ante and raise energy use to the next level. Sometimes, more often than believers of progress like to think, it simply didn’t work out. Empires fell apart under the weight of their complexity, overpopulation and depletion of their natural resources. They’ve failed to find alternative energy resources to power their civilizations.
The Strange Attractor
Both the linear way of progress and the cyclical model reflect a rather mechanistic worldview: mere mental constructs depicting a machine churning its way through history. Both, together with many other interpretations of history, put a huge emphasis on human values, behavior, governance, inequality etc. Things, existing entirely in our heads, and thus supposedly in our control, vs the real world in which history is embedded in… granting us the illusion of control we crave so much. These models also neglect something else here: how this is a random process. Where many tried, only a few have succeeded. The role of luck was non-negligible all the way through.
If there is a direction to history — both human and natural — it is pointing towards higher energy use (dissipation)— luring us and every other living being to try and experiment with harnessing energy to the maximum available level. Some experiments fail, some succeed... for a while. Since all this experimenting happens in a constantly changing, highly unstable environment, it would be all too simplistic to imagine the use of energy following a simple trend-line or a perfect circular rhythm. Energy use is much more like a strange attractor, an unstable parameter towards which systems (including the human enterprise) reach and try to evolve, but before they could grasp it, it changes forms and disappears from sight — leaving the poor system in a free fall.
Yes, there is a circular pattern to it. History has a certain cyclical nature to it, driven by the availability of harnessable energy. It’s rhythm is uneven though: if it would be audible, you would hear a terrible noise, with some clear tunes hear and there – fading into the background soon after you have noticed it.
Energy seems to be the missing link between human and natural history. It’s use is the driving force behind the rise and fall of civilizations — every social construct is a mere distraction from this fact. A comforting thought, that by changing our behavior we can change history. Fortunately or not, this is not the case: individuals do not matter at all — contrary to modern beliefs a person cannot be a strange attractor by definition. It is the summary behavior of millions, driven by their desire to dissipate as much energy as they can, that shapes the future of mankind, just like any other living being’s history on this pale blue planet and throughout the Universe.
Until next time,