Friday, May 3, 2013

Education, Sustainability, and Social Complexity

Having spent a fair bit of time around the sustainability movement, one thing I notice is a sharp divide between two basic groups which map somewhat to a left and right wing of the movement.  I will call them "technocrats" and "localists."  The basic distinction is that technocrats believe that we can innovate our way to sustainability, while localists tend to think that sustainability lies in a more intimate, local, and spartan lifestyle, and that if we are honest with ourselves, we must do without many modern conveniences to achieve it.  I tend to fall much more in the latter camp, but I also think that there are huge differences underlying the division.

Recently this came up on a question that had been bothering me for a while, regarding the interaction between unsustainable consumption and the levels of education that society requires from workers.

Rather than address this today, I want to offer some thoughts based on my study of history.  These are dark thoughts but at some point they must be said.  My view quite frankly is that sustainable living is not in our nature and that in the end, we humans will do what we have always done, which is to move from one near ecological disaster to the next.

The question of education though is interesting because it relates to a fairly large number of other social factors which go into supporting our unsustainable consumption.

As an overview:

  • There is a mutual causation between expectation of education and social complexity.  Social complexity itself can be unsustainable as has shown by Prof. Joseph Tainter regarding a number of civilizations including both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires.
  • Social complexity has a significant number of sustainability costs both tangible and intangible.
  • Humans have rarely if ever lived sustainably, and the cases where long-term sustainability has existed, it has been through co-evolution of ecosystems.
  • The purpose of sustainable living then is to cultivate skills, resources, and communities which can continue to flourish as our current ecological crises continue to develop.
But before we begin, I want to put out a few thoughts on the athropogenic global warming hypothesis.  The fact is, it seems more likely than not (looking at this as a historian) that AGW is happening, but given the fact that even local cycles last for hundreds or thousands of years, it seems that sixty years of really solid evidence doesn't get you much beyond just over the preponderance of evidence hurdle.  One certainly cannot say that any scepticism is misguided, and certainly scepticism at the more alarmist claims seems relatively well founded given that the climate models do not agree well with historians' understandings of climate in medieval Europe (particularly in Northern Scandinavia, Greenland, and Iceland) for example.  But I digress....

The first thing to note is that there is generally an assumption (which is totally ungrounded in the archaeological record) that primitive individuals were particularly easy on the environment.  In fact this is not true. One can date bronze age Yamnaya tombs in part with some accuracy based on the initial ground level's soil degradation  from overgrazing.  Much of Europe was deforested early in order to supply iron to early armies.  Similar examples occur almost everywhere there is wealth.

More interesting are the cases were a surprising level of sustainability was achieved by people who had very different views on sustainability than we do today.  For example the aborigines hunted to extinction (given the pattern, probably deliberately) a species of monitor lizard larger than the Komodo  Dragon as well as the three largest species of native crocodiles.  In essence, the most sustainable civilizations worked carefully to co-evolve their ecosystems including sometimes eliminating species they didn't want there.  There are however a few other examples.  Rice farming is relatively sustainable because it works with natural flood plain nutrient cycles and in fact chemical fertilizers were first developed because wheat was depleting the soil and there were significant concerns that wheat eating peoples otherwise could not compete with rice-eating peoples.

The second point broadly speaking has to do with complexity, and in particular social complexity.  Complexity is largely a function of specialization and regulation.  One has a larger number of social roles, and an increasing amount of effort that goes into keeping those roles working together.  An individual making an axe handle requires much less regulation than a factory of workers that produces axe handles on an assembly line.  Complexity is the driving factor in ever-longer education times.

Complexity, as Tainter shows, is made possible only by heavy energy inputs.  In other words, we can afford to have a large government, to grow crops in heavily mechanized ways etc because we have a surplus of energy.  In Rome it was pillaged gold and silver that allowed them to effectively import agricultural surplus from elsewhere.  Here we use fossil fuels.

The wishful thinking that we can hold onto a modern life in the face of disappearing resources is what I see as the key mistake of technocratic approaches to sustainability.  The hard fact is that we cannot and the life that we live after we go through the current transition will be very different than it is now.  It will likely be more spartan.  So the question is what is worth conserving?  Perhaps the answer lies in family and community, and in a simple lifestyle paying much more attention to what is important:  place, family, and community.