In the discussion thread: Stewart Brand: Why Environmentalists Must Accept Nuclear [View all]
Response to wtmusic (Reply #13)
Sat Feb 9, 2013, 02:41 PM
GliderGuider (16,922 posts)
17. Good questions.
I do use the singular and plural of "system", but I'm trying not to do so interchangeably. Every complex system is a what Arthur Koestler called a holarchy, or what ecologists are coming to call a panarchy. At any level a system is composed of smaller systems, and is in turn a part of some system larger than itself. So when I use the term "system" in the singular I'm trying to refer to the most inclusive system at the level of organization I'm discussing - the top-level system under consideration. When I use it in the plural, I'm trying to talk about the component systems that make up the higher-level system.
In this case when I say "The System" I'm talking about civilization as a whole. I've used the term "civilization-as-complex-system" but that's a bit clunky. Perhaps there is language that makes this distinction more clear - I'm open to suggestions.
The sub-systems that make up civilization-as-complex-system include (but aren't limited to) nations and national groups, national governments, international governance and regulatory organizations, cities and municipal groupings, economic and financial systems, corporate and business systems, legal systems, education systems, security systems (military, intelligence and police), educational systems, energy distribution systems, agricultural systems, communications systems, transportation systems, organized religions, family units and the individuals that compose them, and on down into individual humans: digestive, respiratory, nervous and endocrine systems etc.
All those component systems interlock to form the super-system that we call civilization. Many civilizations have existed before ours, the main thing that's without precedent in ours is the scope and scale of it. What sort of higher system is our civilization a part of in its turn? Things get murkily philosophical at that point, so I won't speculate too much except to say that perhaps our civilization has its place in the larger system of life itself. And if so, what even higher system is life itself a holarchic component of? It gets metaphysical really fast...
Your first question was why don't I use all the energy that is available to me? I have two answers to that.
The first answer is that I, GliderGuider, do in fact use about all the energy that is available to me. "Availability" is mediated by the cultural mechanism of money, and I spend most of my income on housing that required much energy to build and takes more to maintain, on heat, light, food, operating a vehicle, and paying for various goods and services that require energy to supply. I think that most of us are in a similar situation. As a citizen of a modern, northern, industrial nation I'm in the top tier of energy use on the whole freaking planet just to survive, so I'm definitely doing my part to serve The System.
The second answer is that The System is so vast that even if some people don't "do their part" as I do, and live below their means, it doesn't much matter. Others who live above their means by accumulating debt make up for it. To The System it's only the aggregate power throughput that matters. It's similar to the situation with workers in a large corporation. Some work very hard, to the point of jeopardizing their own mental, physical and social health, and they make up for the inevitable percentage of slackers. What matters to the corporation is not individual performances so much as the aggregate throughput, as expressed in the bottom line of profits.
Given the recent 200-year performance history of The System, as measured by GWP, energy consumption, and growth in size and complexity, it's doing very well at maximizing its aggregate power throughput.
Next let's look at humanism and the role of the human mind in the creation, direction and maintenance of The System. This is probably going to be the hardest issue for me to communicate.
When I start talking about The System's "goal" being to maximize power throughput, that the operation of this principle shapes human society at all levels, and that human beings can be viewed as agents of that principle, our ego recoils automatically. The idea smacks of determinism or fate, and seems to take the notions of free will and voluntary choice out of the picture. It's a blow to our pride, and it doesn't seem to agree with the way we see things working around us. After all, it looks like things happen in human systems because people do them, right?
Let's look at things from an historical perspective first. Human beings started off with the idea that the Earth was flat, because that's what it looked like. Then we thought about things for a few thousand years. As our knowledge grew more sophisticated, we first suspected and then proved, that our eyes were deceiving us - the world was in fact round. But the sun went around the Earth, and we were still at the center of the universe. After all, just look for yourself - you can see the sun travelling around the Earth across the sky, it's pure, incontrovertible common sense. But along came Copernicus, and shoved Man off center stage. The sun, not the Earth or Man, was the center of the universe. Then we thought about things a bit more, and realized that even this perception was an illusion - our sun and its attendant solar system is an infinitesimal part of an incomprehensibly vast and complex universe.
Now stir in the recent research on unconscious decision making by Benjamin Libet and others. It shows that what we believe to be fully voluntary choices are actually made ahead of time, out of view of our conscious minds. When the decision is presented to our consciousness, one of its main roles is to rationalize it in such a way that it can claim ownership of the choice, and in some cases make it seem socially appropriate. This mechanism plays a role in most decisions that have socially loaded content - things like climate change denial, collapsitarianism, of the acceptance or rejection of nuclear power are examples everyone here is familiar with.
These two streams (one astronomical, one psychological) imply that voluntary human agency in the real world may not be as strong as we believe it is. In a sense, my idea that we are to some extent involuntary agents of a larger, quasi-intentional System of Civilization is just another signpost on the road that leads through Copernicus, Galileo and Libet. To use a thespian metaphor, it appears to lead towards a view of the universe in which each of us is not a director of the play, but one actor among many, all reading from some self-writing, self-organizing script.
This doesn't imply that the human mind is insignificant in events at our scale. After all, even actors have to interpret their parts well for the play to get good reviews. What it does mean is that the stage on which we play our parts may not be quite as expansive as it seems to us. And of course, in order to do a good job, the actor must understand what the play is about. "What's my motivation in this scene, Mr. DeMille?"
I have no idea if the whole play is going to end in a catastrophe or not. I do know that for many people this play of life is already a catastrophe, and the prognosis for humans on this planet is looking a bit grimmer every day. However, there are no guarantees of success or failure. If we choose to behave as though we are the directors, then it should come as no surprise that we can do little to shift the unfolding story-line. If we choose to change our view of what's going on, it may present us with a brand new, potentially more effective way of interpreting our parts. If it doesn't, we can always go back to doing what we've been doing - the activism, the education, the exhortations, the arguing and angst that we know so well. But if it's not working for us, why not think about changing ourselves first?
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