A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What Would a No-growth Economy Look Like -3

and when would we need to function in one? – Essay Three

How would humans have to live to again become part of the biospheric ecology?  It is sophistry to argue that since we live on the earth, we are part of the ecology and thus whatever we do is “natural.”  The Consciousness System of Order always puts us in the paradoxical position of being of nature, but not a part of it since we can, with consciousness, violate the biophysical principles under which all other species labor.  And yet, we have no choice but to use the CSO to reintegrate with biospheric order. 

As Jared Diamond and others have understood, we planted the seeds of our present economic and social systems with the beginning of agriculture. To shift metaphors: the die was cast.  It was not genetic change that allowed and formed the agricultural habit, but a new application of the consciousness order, and ultimately the complete reliance of the human individual living state on the machinations of consciousness derived designs.  These are designs of processes and events that would never occur (have a vanishingly small probability) without the action of a new system of collecting, storing and implementing information. 

But in only one sense was the die cast.  What happened had to happen, but, especially because the source was consciousness order, it does not have to continue to happen. The essence of the functioning of the Consciousness System of Order is that imagined objects, processes and conditions can be made to exist in reality.  

The “impossible” can become a certainty.  A human might, given the biological design of the forelimb, throw a rock with some accuracy and hit a small animal.  The energy and material input as a consequence from such abilities would help to structure the economic and social order.  The human rock thrower would have a level of maximum proficiency and effectiveness, But WHAT IF those efficiencies could be improved to, say, 90% over distances of 30 meters and 50% over distances of 50 meters?  Today that ‘what if’ has produced the ‘impossible’ ability to hit with certainty a target the size of a human city on another planet or pinpoint a target moving at twice the speed of sound from 40 kilometers or more.  These abilities also structure the economic and social order. 

While there is great value in examining the process of transferring our primary economic and social designs from living order origins to consciousness order formulations, there is little chance, and it would not be desirable, to return completely to pre-consciousness designed conditions – the option of being forced there by total economic and environmental collapse is the least desirable of the possibilities that confront us.

Indulge me a metaphor: Imagine a train on a track.  The riders and crew of the train are not so happy with where they find themselves at the end of each day’s travel and so they get together to find a solution to their problems.  They study the maps of all the tracks they can find and from these design a plan of travel to what they assume, from the best evidence available, will be a better place.  This is using the consciousness order, but not to its fullest.  Consider removing the track and rebuilding it ahead in a new direction.  Consider finding a system of track that is not connected to the one you are on, taking the train apart and reconstructing it on the other system.  Consider leaving the train altogether. 

The actions that an individual needs to take to be healthy and happy are relatively simple in basic design, but often extremely difficult to actualize in the present situation: a sufficient amount of high quality food, a sufficient amount of clean water, some protective structure to store goods and that allows for the modification of ‘climate’ to human comfort levels, protective structures and behaviors that mitigate the more dramatic physical and medical dangers, opportunities for personal expression, opportunities for relationships with other humans at a wide variety of levels, time for reflection on and contact with the forces of the Real biophysical reality as a means of keeping the powers of the consciousness order organized in reality and inhibiting its tendency to self-reference into madness. 

We are “buying” the first five by giving up the second four.  This is totally unacceptable; especially so since the loss of the second four is allowing us, without serious thought, to deny the first five to billions of humans with just as much biological ‘right’ to exist as we have.  What those billions do not have, according to our present madness, is the economic right to exist. 

How we move to the next position in our changes will be of incalculable significance.  It is my view, and the view of others such as Dee Brown, that the genocidal origin of the USA has tainted the national psyche.  It is a simple fact that Europeans acquired unfettered access to the American continents by killing off the people who lived here.  Millions of people and hundreds of cultures were killed in a process that ranged from accidental to the most tortured and bloodthirsty plans.  This fact has, I believe, helped lead us to be a nation without history – or rather a nation with a cartoon history that prevents honest historical reflection and thus denies us any chance of living in even the pale reality that is accessed through historical reality.  How the human species will proceed if a select segment designs the extermination of billions of humans as way of saving itself is unknowable, but it might not be worth doing.  If the Stories that arise as the designs of the CSO are to be the “societal DNA” for future generations, it would be best for humanity and the earth in general that we find our way out of this cul-de-sac in some way that begins the process of reintegrating Story with the Living System of Order.  This would also have the consequence of slowly (very slowly) reducing the total suffering, created by human excess, experienced by those living things that can suffer. 


For humans to live in a no-growth economy the ‘profit motive’ [1] will have to be replaced with other motive bases.  The most obvious are to be found in meeting the 9 needs listed above with personal action.  If humans had to feed themselves, had to clean their own water, had to build their own shelters, if these behaviors were the expected social standard, then a variety of issues would be resolved.  If the expected rates of “technological progress” were far slower, at least generational in length rather than monthly, yearly or decadal, then the focus of life could be on living it and less on the addiction of newness with no regard to consequences.  There is no advantage to there being great changes in transportation, communication, entertainment, medicine, construction, etc., if life is rendered into madness as the trade off.  These legs were made for walking. There is sanity in walking.

Milton Friedman [2] was right about what happens during a serious shock to expected designs of order; people go with the ideas that are in place to be used.  It doesn’t matter very much that an idea would have no chance of being listened to or implemented prior to such a shock, what does matter is that it appears comprehensive and less scary than no idea at all.  And so it doesn’t matter that there is not a chance in hell that most people can even hear now such ideas as these.  As the shininess of the madness tarnishes and the social order is more and more obviously insane, people will be looking for something that sounds possible.  Many will go to the even greater madness of present “religions,” but many will not. 

I am confident that reassociating the Consciousness System of Order with the Living System of Order is essential and that daily practice in the details of the living order is a requirement.  I am also certain that there are several forms that this can take, though only a tiny few, and all related, compared to the unlimited possibilities of madness.  

The essential change is that human global society must not continue to be a separate “ecological” structure in competition with the natural ecology.  For that is what we have become.  The Consciousness System of Order has organized species of behaviors, environments of structures and processes, economies of relationships, all of which can seem quite independent of the biophysical reality – but, of course, are all completely dependent on every action and process of that reality.  The failure to be integrated into the actual forces and processes that sustain life on the earth is madness from which there can be no recovery. 

There is no reason not to maintain large amounts of our technological wonders.  There is no reason not to continue with scientific study and philosophical investigations.  In fact there are very good reasons to do both.  But the social, political and economic design that separates individuals from the daily activities that sustain the individual life must be replaced.  And population levels would have to be deduced appropriately to such a design.  Everyone would feed themselves (produce some significant proportion of their food) as a social expectation as powerful as the expectation now that people are responsible for their own actions.  I would assume this could be done in small collectives where minimal economies of scale could function, but the large “economies” of scale that are destructive of the living order would be socially and scientifically rejected. 

Travel would be restricted by the amount of energy that we could devote to it – an amount arrived at by study and political compromise (and this would be true of other things).  If we are to avoid giving our control back to the not so tender mercies of the LSO, then we will have to reengage one of the early functions of the consciousness order: the sensitive (intuitive) social constructions of Story that inhibited the fullest expression of our capacities for acting on and changing the world immediately around us.  These processes functioned adaptively in a time frame much faster than biological evolution, but much more slowly than the change rates that we currently experience.  Therefore, we must discover the means to bring inhibiting processes in to our deliberations and actions.  The “native” conservatism of looking before leaping is a principle lost.

The sciences are just about our only reliable knowledge base from which to accomplish these things.  And the key to the use of the sciences as a social foundation is a well-informed population.  This is not as misguided as it might sound at first blush.  Science is universal; there is no Indonesian science separate from French science.  Science, in combination with philosophy, can offer well-founded cautions; if you do this, then there is about an 80% chance that that will happen.  The basics of science literacy is no more difficult that baseball statistics or auto mechanics. 

Institutional religions intuitively recognize this challenge to their ancient role of human guide and will fight back, but even here I see movement to accept certain inevitables: the reality of the biophysical cannot be denied even by a madman when it begins to consume him. 

The other side of using science as a universal knowledge base is the development of a spiritual structure formed on a similar model to personal sufficiency and integrated with it.  I do not think of this as religion, although I see only semantic reasons not to, but as the cognitive/emotional designs that attach the person to the universe in which our improbability exists.  For most people such a connection could be largely devoted to the activities of self maintenance [3] and supported by the Stories that form around these activities, while for others a more philosophical and literary depth could manifest and make them the creators of Story. 

The key to all of this is the grounding of life in the actions of life; the reintegration of the CSO with the LSO.  The suggestions above are only random thoughts.  A rededication of daily life to the biophysical reality is the model in what ever form it might take.

[1] This is not to say that motive is not necessary, only that the profit motive is a disembodied motive for abstract gain and as such tends to function as a positive feedback rather than as a homeostatic feedback design.  A motive that cannot be satisfied, and worse that gets stronger as it is met, is a very dangerous one indeed.  It is vital that the general motive structure for human action be of a homeostatic design, if it is not we will remain in a cycle of exponential growth and catastrophic collapse.

[2]  Milton Friedman: “Only a crisis, real or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”  The problem with this idea is, however, that the ‘solutions’ are always for conditions that either once existed and do not exist now or for conditions that have never existed except as some ideology and never will.  Perhaps the best we can do is to have tried in practice, and supported by some consensus, a variety of options.  There is always the danger of a narrow ideological self-interested group taking advantage of troubles as presented by Naomi Klein.

[3] The lack of self-sufficiency is the great political and economic sword hung over our heads.  If it were the social expectation that everyone were 30%, 50% or 70% self-sufficient, the “economy” could run on the remaining percentage, but could always be rejected when its productions were destructive of life – and daily lives would also supply that measure in an immediate way.

1 comment:

Michael Dawson said...

You should really turn this material into a book. Seriously. It's fecund in every paragraph. It reminds me of a deeper, more optimistic rendition (or the Hegelian "positive moment," if you will) of Dmitri Orlov's _Reinventing Collapse_.

By the way, three observations:

1) If you look at the latest Statistical Abstract of the USA, they have a table showing that we are now burning 29 percent of the total energy we use in the country on transportation, and this is only the _use_ of the movement machines, not the use + construction. The table places the energy we spend in building and maintaining and providing roads for travel into the manufacturing category. So, my sense is that we're actually using something like 40% of the huge, mega-unsustainable energy burn we are conducting on travel! Is that not the absolute height our insanity (as well as the absolute core requirement of corporate capitalism)? It would almost take conscious planning to exceed this madness.

2) On the bus after teaching two nights ago, I sat in front of two metal-machining students who spent the entire 45-minute ride discussing their craft and its challenges. And such people accept the notion that they are "dumb," and not worthy of first-rank consideration.

3) Isn't much of the existing concept of "economy of scale" actually just a substitution of non-renewable energy for renewable? I.e. a way of stealing from the future, or living off the seed-corn?