Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CLXXII
Human Ecological Overshoot and the Noble Savage
Wanted to share yet another online discussion that arose in response to a comment link (see below) posted on my Contemplation regarding electric vehicles (see: Blog Medium) within one of the Facebook Groups I posted it to (Prepping for NTHE).
I share this as a means to spur thinking about the rather linear and simplistic cause-effect attributions that humans tend to make and that Dr. Bill Rees discusses near the beginning of the interview that forms the start of this thread–he attributes it to our nervous systems/brains evolving in relatively unchallenging environments where our thinking could be straightforward (e.g., Is this plant edible? Will this animal eat me? Should I seek shelter?). Homo sapiens’ brains did not evolve in an environment where one may need to consider complex systems with non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena, nor where social interactions with many dozens, perhaps hundreds of people, over short periods of time took place.
We now find ourselves in a very different world with very different circumstances and far, far more challenging environments. While we have become increasingly aware about our place in a very complex universe, we have only recently stumbled across an exceedingly complex predicament that we appear entangled within. I am, of course, speaking about human ecological overshoot with equally complex symptom predicaments (e.g., biodiversity loss, climate change) of this overshoot.
As a result of our brain’s evolutionary past, our thinking about these predicaments tends to become focused upon singular causal agents that we like to believe we can understand and then address, usually via of our ingenuity and technological prowess. This approach tends to lead us away from the significant complexities that exist.
Evidence is mounting that there are a number of causal agents to our overshoot and they are interacting in complex, nonlinear ways. Our attempts to untangle these so that we may ‘right the ship’ are, for all intents and purposes, impossible. In fact, our efforts to do this are for the most part exacerbating our predicament for a variety of reasons, and making the situation even more complex.
Perhaps the most significant impediment to our ability to mitigate overshoot — beyond the sheer complexity of it all — is our notion of human exceptionalism that Dr. Rees raises. By believing that humans stand outside or apart from Nature we miss/ignore/deny the dependence we have upon and interconnectedness we have with our natural world and its various ecological systems. We tend to hold that we can control and thus predict Nature so we can ‘solve’ overshoot.
Reminds me of the saying (sometimes attributed to Sigmund Freud) that ‘Man created God in his own image’…
Anyways, the innate tendency to expand that Dr. Rees highlights and forms the basis of the following discussion does seem to be a foundational cause–along with our tool-creation/-using acumen that provides our species a distinct advantage over others, helping us to extract and exploit resources to expand upon the natural carrying capacity of our environments and avoid the predation from most other life.
Thanks to JS for the conversation and forcing me to reflect on the issues and clarify my own thinking…
JS: JL, Major shortcoming. Rees attributes the growth imperative to “human nature.” In fact, all pre-capitalist societies did not have such an imperative, and grew only in an opportunistic manner here and there, with the norm being extended periods of steady state. Capitalism cannot do even slow growth, let alone steady state. He is clearly tied in his thinking to capitalism.
JL: Since it is apparently most of the current paradigm, I concur.
Me: JS, Not sure I agree. While I believe our current economic system — especially its ability to pull growth from the future via credit/debt creation — has turbo-charged our growth (as has our leveraging of hydrocarbons, and probably significantly more than economics has), most sources tend to trace ‘capitalism’ back to the 17th/18th century, some others to the Middle Ages (ca 14th century). But one hell of a lot of complex societies/empires/civilisations existed and tended to grow (too much) and then ‘simplify/collapse’ prior to this time, supporting Bill’s growth imperative argument — to say little about our species’ expansion from its beginnings on the African continent…growth does seem to be in our nature, especially once we had food surpluses.
DW: JS, capitalism can be thought of as a living entity, after all it is an extension of our minds which are driven by a biological need to breed. Nature has natural negative feedback, humans do not anymore thanks to fossil fuels, at least for now.
JS: Steve Bull: The Roman Empire was pretty much static for several centuries. The Mayan and Incan Empires did not expand beyond the ability of the imperial forces to control. Again static for centuries. There was no economic growth imperative during Feudal Europe. No pressure to grow or die till the advent of capitalism in late Medieval England.
Ellen Meiksins Wood Agrarian Origins of Capitalism
Monthly Review | The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism
JS: DW: See my response to Steve Bull right above. ^^^
Me: JS, I believe there would be many pre/historians who would disagree with your assertion that the three empires you name were ‘static’ for centuries; or any for that matter. And if they were, it was not because they didn’t want to pursue growth; it was because they no longer could ‘afford’ to.
In fact, archaeologist Joseph Tainter looks at two of these in detail (Roman, Mayan) and appears to conclude that both of these expanded until they no longer could due to diminishing returns on their investments in complex expansion. Once they reached their expansionary ‘peak’, they began to use surpluses or other means (e.g., increased taxes and currency devaluation; increasing warfare; expansive agricultural/hydraulic engineering) in an attempt to maintain the status quo that on the surface would have appeared as being ‘static’.
In both cases the expansionist policies reach a peak and some semblance of continuity was achieved by depleting their capital resources to sustain themselves for as long as possible, but their people were experiencing tremendous and increasing stress over those years — until the costs of supporting their sociopolitical system were well above any perceived benefits and they ‘walked away’ leading to societal ‘collapse’.
It seems that as with any biological species, humans will ‘grow/expand’ in population (and thus planetary impact) if the resources are present. If the resources or the technology to help procure such resources (be it accessing hydrocarbons, hydraulic engineering to increase food yields, military incursions, and/or financial/monetary accounting gimmickry) are not present, then that growth will not tend to occur much past the natural environmental carrying capacity — as seems to be the case for many smaller, less complex societies.
Yes, human expansion/growth is limited but probably not because we don’t have a desire to pursue it but because there are hard, biogeophysical limits that we cannot overcome; when we can overcome them as has been the case for some large, complex societies (mostly due to their ‘technologies’ that have helped them to increase available resources), it seems we tend to grow/expand.
Throw on top of this tendency of a species to grow/expand when the resources are available a one-time cache of tremendously dense and transportable hydrocarbon energy that allows the creation of all sorts of tools to expand our resource base almost unimaginably and a monetary/financial/economic system that can appear limitless due to credit-/debt-expansion and hypergrowth seems inevitable and virtually impossible to control/halt…no matter how many of us understand the double-edged nature of this expansion on a finite planet.
JS: Steve Bull: Those empires had the OPTION to not grow given it would be too expensive. Under capitalism, there is no such option. Only twice before has global capitalism entered a period of no growth/negative growth lasting more than a year or two, and i’m talking on GLOBAL terms. This was in the early 1910s, and in the 1930s (starting in late ‘29). Both these situations led to world wars. The global system has been doing its best to avoid a collapse for 5 decades now. A collapse was prevented in late 2019 only via the largest ever injection of money by the world’s central banks, and this led to the shutdown of 2020, basically putting the world’s economy into an induced coma. Excellent analysis of this by John Titus at “The Best Evidence.” This is his most recent video, from October.
Presenting the Fed’s Perfect Plan for U.S. Dollar Oblivion
JS: Steve Bull: and from the other side of the political spectrum, but with the same conclusions, “Marxist” Fabio Vighi.
Endless emergency? The Lockdown Model for a System on Life Support | Prof Fabio Vighi
Me: JS, While I don’t disagree with the additional and significant pressure placed upon current human systems to continue growing due to the economic/monetary/ financial systems that they employ (a debt-/credit-based currency being a significant factor), I believe that the biological/physiological imperatives may ultimately be more influential in the long run and, as Bill Rees argues ‘natural’. It is not just human populations that expand to fill their environments based upon available resources but all species. Throw on top of this consideration the Maximum Power Principle that Erik Michaels has emphasised in a number of his articles and it would seem we are at the mercy of our genetic predispositions.
The ability of us naked, story-telling apes to employ a variety of tools (from agriculture to modes of economic production, and everything in between — but especially leveraging energy from hydrocarbons) to influence our resource extraction and use — has turbo-charged our natural growth/expansion tendency. It seems only when we have reached hard, physical limits to that do we stop. In fact, it appears we almost always go over our natural carrying capacity in one way or another (overshooting it) because of our tool use and attempt to extend our run, but then we are forced to contract/simplify…but not by our choice; it is usually by way of external factors, be they economic or ecological.
Despite the ‘option’ of not overshooting natural limits being theoretically possible (and, certainly, the best one to pursue), it seems our species rarely if ever do so willingly. Intelligent, just not very wise.
JS: Steve Bull: With capitalism, there is not gonna be any respect to natural limits, no matter what. Slow growth is not gonna be an option. Pedal to the metal, till extinction. Previous societies did eventually pay attention to these limits. This pressure by capital is not “significant,” it is overwhelming, impossible to overcome within capitalism. “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.”
Me: JS, I’m not convinced many if any societies willingly respected natural limits. Slow or no growth was imposed upon them. Humans like to believe we have agency in such matters but I am increasingly unconvinced of that.
JS: Steve Bull: you’d have to explain thousands of years of stable indigenous societies in the Western hemisphere before colonial times.
And there is no imposing any limits on capital. It will destroy the planet an all humans if that’s what it takes.
JL: In the final analysis, overshoot prescribes that we ultimately fail, much like the previous civilizations in past history. We continue to expel other life as we make our way to our perceived rewards which will be that we cause our own penultimate extinction or reduction to meaningless numbers. Humans cannot be the only life around, although they live like they are the only organism above most life extant…
Me: JS, An FYI that I am penning a somewhat lengthy response to your last comment that I am going to post as a new Contemplation, hopefully in the next few days — a tad distracted with ‘holiday’ commitments.
Here is my Contemplation response:
Me: JS, It’s been a few decades since my graduate work in Native anthropology/archaeology but I believe the idea that you are expressing — that prior to European contact and colonisation, indigenous societies in the Western hemisphere were ‘stable’ for thousands of years (and if we rid ourselves of capitalism we can return to this state) — is a derivative of the Noble Savage narrative that arose in 16th-century Europe not long after increased interactions with Native societies in several locations about the globe, and influenced a lot of subsequent thinking.
This view that ‘primitive’ peoples who lived outside of ‘civilisation’ were uncorrupted, possessed an inner morality, and lived in harmony with Nature filtered throughout Western intellectual circles, particularly within political philosophy where attempts to justify a centralised government raged.
Thomas Hobbes in particular applied this notion to American Indians. Jean-Jacques Rousseau furthered it by arguing the natural state of humans was of innate goodness but that urban civilisation brought out negative qualities. Literature also played a role in propagating this view of Native societies with such works as Henry Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha and James Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. In essence, civilisation=bad/corrupted and native=good/uncorrupted. Thus arose the justification/rationalisation/’need’ for central government oversight in large, complex societies.
Not surprisingly, given their widespread acceptance within academic/philosophical circles, early anthropologists/archaeologists adopted these ideas as their studies on the ‘other’ expanded. As anthropology developed, however, these views have been criticised as being overly romantic, serving political purposes, and, perhaps most importantly, on the basis that they contradict ethnographic and archaeological evidence.
Turning back to our discussion about societal stability and ultimately whether human societies grow beyond limits due to a capitalistic economic system or as an innate tendency, the vast array of complex indigenous societies that covered the ‘New World’ engaged in a variety of behaviours that can be considered quite ‘unstable’ and certainly in contrast to the stereotype of a ‘Noble Savage’.
Early on during the human occupation of the Americas there were many nomadic, hunting and gathering tribes that had little impact upon the ecological systems that they depended upon and could easily migrate to unexploited regions when the need arose but mostly because their resource needs required it. But even during these relatively ‘stable’ times (that seems to have been due primarily to resource abundance and low population pressures) humans were having a significant impact upon the native species, hunting several large mammalian species to extinction.
Then, as elsewhere in the world, once food surpluses were established (primarily due to the adoption of agriculture, which has been argued was a response to population pressures after which positive feedback loops kicked in leading to an explosion in population numbers) a variety of large, complex societies developed. And pre/historical evidence has demonstrated that these societies are not ‘stable’. They grow, reach a peak of expansion/complexity, and then simplify/collapse.
In the ‘New World’ these societies followed a similar path to those of the ‘Old’: competed (often viciously) over resources with neighbouring competitors; were not only quite hierarchical in nature with significant inequality but some included slavery and even engaged in human sacrifice; and, on occasion, degraded their environments to the point of ‘collapse’ with many forced to migrate.
There were the well-known societies of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec. There were also the lesser-known societies of the Toltec, Mississippian, Mixtec, Moche, Teotihuacan, Iroquoian, Chimu, Olmec, Zapotec, and Chakoan, just to name a few.
None of these complex indigenous societies engaged in modes of production that would be considered capitalism but they certainly engaged in behaviours that would be considered detrimental to long-term sustainability and some experienced overshoot of their local environments. Archaeological evidence points to every one of these societies growing in complexity and expanding until a ‘peak’ is reached after which a societal transformation/shift occurred in which sociopolitical complexity was lost and living standards ‘simplified’.
The narrative that there was thousands of years of stability amongst indigenous societies prior to European colonisation does not reflect the evidence. It has been argued that environmentalists have adopted the belief that indigenous societies were ‘stable’ before Europeans for purposes similar to that of the political philosophers in the 16th-18th century: the belief is being leveraged for narrative purposes.
This does not mean that indigenous societies and some of their perceived sustainable practices should not be studied nor disseminated in attempts to correct some of our errant ways and perhaps help to mitigate marginally our overshoot. This could be said to be appropriate for every society, provided we could agree on what is truly ‘sustainable’ — there’s ample evidence that much (most? all?) of what is being marketed as such is anything but.
Dr. Rees’s contention that humanity expands from an innate predisposition is more about humans being part and parcel of Nature, and that we are a species like all others in that we are driven by genetics to propagate and expand. We do this and are successful (or not) based upon a number of ecological factors not least of which are the resources available and the factors that attempt to keep our numbers in check. As an apex predator with tool-making abilities, our expansion has been basically unchecked and thus the human ecological overshoot predicament we have found ourselves in.
While many do argue that human societies have tended to grow and broach regional and/or planetary limits due to their modes of production, it’s not as simple or straightforward as it being exclusively or even mostly due to ‘capitalism’ or some similar phenomenon. Yes, our current economic systems are horrible for ‘sustainability’ and attempts to reduce our extractive/exploitive processes. If we cannot, however, overcome the innate tendency to propagate and expand, and leverage our tool-making abilities to push beyond the natural, environmental carrying capacity, then even radical shifts in how we organise our economic systems are moot. We’re rearranging the chairs on the Titanic and telling ourselves everything will now be fine.
As I suggested previously “The ability of us naked, story-telling apes to employ a variety of tools (from agriculture to modes of economic production, and everything in between — but especially leveraging energy from hydrocarbons) to influence our resource extraction and use — has turbo-charged our natural growth/expansion tendency.”
Basically, what I guess I am arguing is that similar to other ‘tools’, our economic systems and their subsystems have been additive to our instinctual behaviours to grow. They are making a bad situation worse, as are many of our species’ other ‘tools’. Eliminating or reducing one of these variables in our complex systems is not enough to ‘right the ship’. Nonlinear feedback loops and emergent phenomena are everywhere and impossible to predict, let alone control.
And didn’t this guest post on Rob Mielcarski’s un-Denial site pop up in my email this morning. It argues that humans basically act like every other species on our planet in using whatever resources they can as quickly as they can until resources get harder to access and then the system finds a balanced state [which, in the case of overshoot, will be the result of competition over dwindling resources and very likely a massive die-off]. And while humans are unique in some aspects, we are similar to other species in the most fundamental attributes. We’ve simply been more successful than others because of our opposable thumbs and ‘cleverness’, making us an apex predator within any ecosystem we inhabit.