torsdag 28 februari 2013

Books I've read recently

"Books I've read lately" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I read the four books below between mid-September and the end of October last year. It has unfortunately been no less than three months since the last time I wrote about books I've read "recently". 

The four books below are a mixed lot. The first two concern sustainability and the last two books corner economy and history.

I actually went to a release party for Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström's "Den stora förnekelsen" (2011) [The great denial] and I bought my copy of the book then and there on a whim. Some time passed 'til I read it, and it by now seems like the translation into English had been finished. The English-language version is called "Bankrupting nature: Denying our planetary boundaries". Johan Rockström's claim to (scientific) fame primarily rests on the concept of "planetary boundaries" as developed in his 2009 Nature article "A safe operating space for humanity". Johan is also head of Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and Stockholm Resilience Center. Co- and first author Anders Wijkman is primarily known for his political work, having (for example) been a member of the European Parliament for a decade (1999-2009). The one strange thing about Anders' political career is that he was a member of the Christian Democrats rather than then Green (environmental) party. He has also been the general secretary of the Swedish Red Cross for a decade before that and is now co-president of the global think-tank Club of Rome.

So what about the book in itself? The book is obviously an attempt to do several things at once with an emphasis on popularizing science about the state of the world (it's bad), questioning the current societal "growth paradigm" (a crucial task) and the direction we seem to be heading in (straight to hell), lowering the threshold for political action (much needed) and hammering in the lesson that economy, development and environment are interconnected and that the prize (monetary or otherwise) for disregarding environmental (climate, sustainability, energy) issues are larger than the costs (it makes sense to care about the climate also from an economic point of view - because sawing of the branch you're sitting on is obviously a non-sustainable strategy). That one overly long sentence basically summarized the whole book. The authors' tone of voice is serious but still conveys the message that "we can fix this" if we only [list of lots of things that needs to be done as soon as possible]. So is the book successful in its endeavor? For the most part I think it is. It does a great job of popularizing the science and the seriousness of our current course. Whether the suggested "fixes" are enough (or even the right ones) can be discussed, but I think "The great denial" would be a great book to put in the hands of a host/hostess at a dinner party (instead of a bottle of wine) - but for that to happen there needs to be an inexpensive pocketbook edition. Right now the hardcover edition is more of a semi-expensive birthday present.

Another book in a similar genre ("public education") is Magnus Redin's "När resurser sinar" (2010) [When resources dry up]. We are here moving to the other end of the spectrum as Magnus is far from a global player, but rather a local politician (as well as an acquaintance of mine). The book is self-published and relatively hard to get hold of. It is possible to find the book in web but not in physical bookstores (I bought my copy directly from the author). The book is written in the same genre as Stellan Tengroth's "Tillväxt till döds" (2010) [Growth to death], except that Stellan has been more successful in his outreach. Both books are written by sensible persons who have thought and discussed Important Issues a lot, and now have taken the time to formulate their thoughts in short, to-the-point manuscripts (pamphlets).

Beyond natural and energy resources drying up, Magnus is very concerned about political stability and societal coherence in collapse or exhaustion scenarios. How things turn out in the end to a large extent depends on how we as individuals, groups and societies react to prolonged scarcity and economic and other hardships. Will we band together or will we fight each other over the remnants at the dinner table? As a local politician, Magnus has a keen grasp of everything that "goes together" to get our society to work. In the parlance of Tainter (below), Magnus is sharing his ideas about how to deal with (societal and economic) decline in his book and Magnus is a "doer". He embodies standing with his both feet on the ground and a stubborn peasant/engineer reasonableness. He's the kind of person who could be a radio amateur - making things happen and working with what resources there are to make the best of the situation - like a bricoleur:

"The Bricoleur is adept at many tasks and at putting preexisting things together in new ways, adapting his project to a finite stock of materials and tools."

I've decided to re-read a few "old" books every year that I thought were pretty great back when I read them the first time around. The first such book is James Beniger's "The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society" (1986). Some of Beniger's thoughts made a very strong impression on me when I read the book the first time and have been with me since, so I figured I owed it to him to re-read this book of his. As apart from all they hype about information technologies remaking the world from scratch, Beniger's book puts these technologies in a 100+ years long context of data processing and bureaucracy. Before the digital computer came along there were typewriters, calculators and punch cards, and before digital computing there was analog computing, punch-card processing and desktop calculating. To Beniger, computing is just one (the latest) in a long line of inventions we use in our attempts to (re-)gain control over time, space, information, resources and material flows. Beniger makes the point that:

"Once we view national economies as concrete processing systems engaged in the continuous extraction, reorganization, and distribution of environmental inputs to final consumption, the impact of industrialization takes on new meaning. Until the Industrial Revolution, even the largest and most developed economies ran literally at a human pace, with processing speeds enhanced only slightly by draft animals and by wind and water power [...] By far the greatest effect of industrialization [...] was to speed up a society's entire material processing system, thereby precipitating what I call a crisis of control, a period in which innovations in information-processing and communication technologies lagged behind those of energy and its application to manufacturing and transportation."

This perspective blew my mind when I read the book some 20 or so years ago. This particular summary basically went against everything I thought I knew at the time: "computer technologies, contrary to currently fashionable opinion, are not new forces recently unleashed upon an unprepared society, but merely the latest installment in the continuing development of the Control Revolution".

The crisis in control took as its starting point a general speedup of materials throughput. This led to consecutive crisis in other parts of economy; a crisis in transportation (railroads) in the 1840's, a crisis in distributions in the 1850's, a crisis in production in the 1860's and a crisis in marketing in the 1880's. Furthermore,

"Each of the major sectors of the economy tended to exploit a particular area of information technology: transportation concentrated on the development of bureaucratic organization, production on the organization of material processing [...]‚ distribution concentrated on telecommunications, marketing on mass media."

The last book in this blog posts is Joseph Tainter's masterful "The collapse of complex societies" (1988). "The collapse of complex societies" together with Jared Diamond's more recent and more popular(ized) "Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed" (2005) are the literal bibles of all collapsitarians. Tainter's book is part of the "New studies in archeology" series at the prestigious publishing house Cambridge University Press, but this is archeology as I have never seen it before (not that I've seen that much in the first place :-)

Tainter's basic thesis is that societies are problem-solving entities. When civilization (agriculture, cities, bureaucracy etc.) takes off (which has happened many times in history), the payoff of solving basic problems (food production, trade, overcoming/deterring barbarian invasions etc.) is huge. But as time goes on and more problems are thrown at, or are invented by a society, societies experience decreasing returns of increased complexity. As each new problem is solved, the structural costs of added layers of complexity (rules, laws, bureaucracies, political systems amending (and adding to) earlier rules, laws, bureaucracies and the intricate details of political systems) stay in place with maintenance costs increasing over time but without much actual utility being added. The developments over time are summarized in one neat picture:

Figure: Level of complexity (x axis) = cost. Benefits of complexity (y axis) = utility. After an initial burst, the marginal return (benefits) of increased complexity decreases. After a break point, complexity (and cost) continues to increase, but adds not increased but decreased net benefits. Confused? Think about the costs and the benefits or the European Community or the Euro currency...

As an archeologist, Tainter's quest was to find underlying factors for the collapse of past civilizations. The collapse of the Western Roman empire (0-500 AD), The classic Maya collapse (0-1000 AD) and the Chacoan collapse (New Mexico, 1100-1200) are case studies in his book, but "collapse is a recurrent feature of human societies". What goes up, must come down...

As an archeologist, Tainter uses the term "collapse" in a very specific manner, but let's first make clear that collapse is not the same thing as apocalypse. Collapse is a political process that makes itself known as "a rapid, significant loss of an established level of sociopolitical complexity". Rapid to an archeologist in this case means that it takes "no more than a few decades". Sociopolitical complexity manifests itself through (for example) increased stratification and social differentiation, increased specialization of individuals, groups and territories, increased trading and redistribution of resources, increased regulation and centralized control, increased monumental architecture as well as through artistic and literary achievements, increased flow of information between individuals, groups and between a center and its periphery, increased coordination and organization of individuals and groups and larger territory integrated within a single political unit.

The collapse of an empire can take many decades or even centuries with temporary revivals (in themselves lasting for decades (i.e. a lifetime)), but the general direction over time is still towards decreased complexity. Despite for the most part directing his gaze backwards in time, Tainter also glances towards the future and asks whether modern societies too are vulnerable to collapse, and adds that "to some historians of the early twentieth century the twilight of Rome seemed almost a page of contemporary history". I'd say we are back there again. I'd go one step further and state that collapse is not something we might experience in the future, but rather something we are experiencing today. Writing about the collapse of the Roman empire, but equally applicable in the context of an ailing EU and an ailing U.S., Tainter writes:

"Serious stress surges [...] began to affect the Empire in the mid second century A.D., and increasingly thereafter. Unable to bear the cost of meeting these challenges out of yearly productivity, the emperors adopted a strategy of artificially inflating the value of their yearly budgets by debasing the currency. This shifted the cost of current crises to future taxpayers. Such a strategy assumes that the future will experience no equivalent crisis. When this assumption proved grossly in error, the existence of the Empire was imperiled.

A series of escalating crises [...] both internal and external, proved increasingly detrimental to the welfare of the State. The costs of meeting these crises fell on a decimated support population. By debasing the currency, increasing taxes, and imposing stringent regulations on the lives of individuals, the Empire was, for a time, able to survive. It did so, however, by vastly increasing its own costliness, and in so doing decreased the marginal return it could offer its population. [...] In being unable to maintain an acceptable return on investment in complexity, the Roman Empire lost both its legitimacy and its survivability."

There are (hopefully) some differences too between then and now, because the crisis in the Roman Empire wore on:

"As crops were confiscated for taxation and peasant's children sold into slavery, lands were increasingly ravaged by barbarians who could not be halted with the Empire's resources. [...] many peasants were apathetic about the dissolution of Roman rule, while some actively joined the invaders."

Let's hope it won't come to that! ...But if a slated collapse will play itself out over a scale of centuries, who can really tell...?


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