Friday, 17 February 2017

The Biggest Lie

Lake Huron Shore
at Kincardine, Feb 16, 2017

For quite a while now I've been promising that I'd get around to talking about collapse: why I believe it's what lies ahead or, more accurately, what's already happening; the sort of collapse I'm expecting; the way it's going to unfold; and what we can do about coping with it.

Now, finally, I am going to get started on this, with a discussion about "Business As Usual" (BAU) and why I think a continuation of things as they are is among our least likely futures. If you try to discuss this with people who aren't already kollapsniks, you'll find it is not a popular subject. I can see a couple of reasons for this.

First, thanks to the media, collapse has come to mean apocalypse—the sort of rapid and disastrous change that results in a world like that portrayed in movies like Mad Max, The Road or Terminator. If you've been convinced that collapse is a swift, sure and final disaster, there's little wonder that you wouldn't want to dwell on the idea and would prefer to keep BAU going for as long as possible.

Second, many people see themselves as benefitting from BAU. In the short run they are probably right. These are the kind of people who have a certain amount (in some cases rather a lot) of power and influence. They don't want to consider anything that might "upset the apple cart", so to speak.

Of course, many other people aren't doing quite so well. Rob Mielcarski*, in a blog post titled It’s Time to Get Real: Trump’s a Symptom, Not the Problem comments that lower and middle class citizens around the world are angry for good reasons:

  • Their incomes have been stagnant or falling despite governments telling them the economy is strong.
  • Their cost of living for things that matter has been rising despite governments telling them inflation is low.
  • They see the upper class getting richer and not being punished for crimes.
  • They carry a high debt load and see that interest rates have nowhere to go but up.
  • For the first time in a long time they worry that the future may be worse than the present.
  • They sense that something is broken and that leaders are not speaking the truth.

But even these people don't want to want to talk about the demise of BAU—they just want it fixed so that it works for them as well as for the rich and powerful. Politicians are clever enough to realize that by promising to make such fixes they can win the support and votes of these folks. The pitch is that with just a few changes to the system—just some fine tuning, really—BAU can be made to work for everyone and as well as it "used to" in some mythical time a few decades ago when everything was good. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of right wing populist parties in many countries is proof that this is a winning political strategy. At least in the short run.

I'll go into much more detail in an upcoming post, but it seems to me that the changes promised by Trump et al, for instance, aren't likely to fix what's wrong with the world. Details aside, there is a simple reason for this—their strategy is based on a lie.

Richard Heinberg** recently put it this way:

Nevertheless, even as political events spiral toward (perhaps intended) chaos, I wish once again, as I’ve done countless times before, to point to a lie even bigger than the ones being served up by the new administration—one that predates the new presidency, but whose deconstruction is essential for understanding the dawning Trumpocene era. I’m referring to a lie that is leading us toward not just political violence but, potentially, much worse. It is an untruth that’s both durable and bipartisan; one that the business community, nearly all professional economists, and politicians around the globe reiterate ceaselessly. It is the lie that human society can continue growing its population and consumption levels indefinitely on our finite planet, and never suffer consequences.

Yes, this lie has been debunked periodically, starting decades ago. A discussion about planetary limits erupted into prominence in the 1970s and faded, yet has never really gone away. But now those limits are becoming less and less theoretical, more and more real. I would argue that the emergence of the Trump administration is a symptom of that shift from forecast to actuality.

There are some unstated assumptions built into BAU, assumptions that are seriously flawed. As David Holmgren*** points out:

At a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for the faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussions of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognized views of particular academics, corporate leaders or politicians but more society wide assumptions that are generally left unstated.

  • Global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities will continue to rise.
  • There will be no peaks and declines other than through high energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
  • Economic activity, globalization and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
  • The geopolitical order that established the USA as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
  • Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will not necessitate changes in the basic organization of society.
  • Household and community economies and social capacity will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.

If you have faith in BAU, this is what you believe in—probably without even realizing it. Holmgren intends this to be a list of improbabilities so extreme that the reader will see there is simply no chance that BAU can continue for much longer. I agree. But we have grown so far out of touch with reality that I fear many will look at that list and say, "So what's the problem?" And for those of us who do see a problem with some of these ideas, there are a couple more ideas that are often stated as reassurances to anyone expressing doubts:

The first is "infinite substitutability", the idea put forth by main stream economists that as resources become depleted they become more expensive and this creates the incentive to develop substitutes. They think this is the answer to resource depletion and that it has no limits.

The second is "decoupling", the idea that we can develop technology that will allow a continually growing economy (sustainable development) which does not place an ever increasing burden on the environment, allowing BAU to continue on without limits.

But these two ideas are at least as unrealistic as the ones that Holmgren lists. They stem from some serious misconceptions:

First, the view of the economy as a perpetual motion machine, ignoring its vital inputs (energy and materials) and outputs (waste heat and pollution). Because supplies of energy and materials, and sinks to absorb waste heat and pollution are all finite, there are real, concrete limits to how long BAU can go on.

And second, the idea that technology can continue to advance at an ever increasing pace—the supposed "law of accelerating returns". This comes from mistaking an "S" or logistical curve that levels off after a period of rapid increase for one that continues rising toward a singularity. It is true that technology has enabled us to inch up closer to those planetary limits over the last century or so—"kicking the can" down the road every time trouble looms ahead of us (excuse the mixed metaphors). But think back to my recent posts (1, 2) on Joseph Tainter's book The Collapse of Complex Societies—we have done this by adding complexity to our global industrial society. Complexity comes with ever decreasing marginal returns on our investments in it. And it is powered by energy, of which there is a limited supply.

Already we have picked the low hanging fruit of energy and mineral resources, supplies of fresh water and arable land. There is good reason to think that the same thing is happening with technological innovation—we've done the easy parts, which have given us unwarranted confidence in what remains to be achieved with technology. But further advances will be much harder to develop, cost more, and bear diminishing returns.

Substitutability is running into limits as resources become more depleted—we are finding that there simply are no substitutes for many resources. And there is no evidence that decoupling is happening to any significant extent, or ever was.

So, BAU is based on growth, and a lie about the long term viability of growth. If growth is the problem, then why do we need growth? What if we stopped growing? A close look at the underlying structure of BAU reveals it is not structured to work without continued growth.

Economic growth is necessary in BAU because our financial system is based on credit. It creates money by issuing debt, which must be paid back with interest. If businesses are to pay that interest as well as the principle, they must grow. Likewise, individuals who borrow to finance education or housing early in their lives must make more money later in their lives to pay off those loans with interest. Population growth is also necessary since it supports economic growth. And since the younger generation supports the older generation in their old age (either directly or via taxes), the younger generation must be larger if this is not to be an onerous burden.

Last fall I wrote a series of posts about the book The Limits to Growth which examines in detail the consequences of growth using system dynamic computer simulations. This is the "discussion about planetary limits" that Heinberg was referring to. If you haven't read those posts, it's worth having a quick look.

The Limits to Growth study makes it clear that there really are limits to growth and if we try to exceed those limits, instead of accepting and living within them, the consequences will be severe. The standard run of the LTG world model, which assumes things just continue on as usual, ends with a drastic drop off of human population in the latter half of this century. Resource depletion and pollution result in a failure to produce adequate food supplies and essential services. Indeed every run of the model that tried to find a way around the limits ended in similar results. Those results were avoided only in the runs where a way was found to control our population and live within our limits.

Of course, that study was done in the early 1970s. In 2017 resource depletion and pollution (especially climate change) have progressed much farther and our population has more than doubled. I'd say there is every reason to doubt that a collapse can be avoided, regardless of what we do.

In the light of all this, then, is there anything at all that can be done to mitigate the situation?

Well yes, actually. While BAU is fundamentally, structurally flawed and trying to keep it working will only make the situation worse, there is much that could be done to slow its demise, make sure that collapse doesn't take us as far down as is otherwise might, and to make the crash when we hit bottom as gentle as possible.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts entitled A Political Fantasy, exploring what enlightened governments could do to achieve this, if they weren't saddled with political realities.

If, like me, you have little faith in governments doing the right thing to any significant extent, the good news is that there are also a great many things that can be done to mitigate collapse at the individual, family and local community level. And that is why I want to discuss collapse with people.

In my next few posts I'll be talking about the course that I expect collapse to take, the political realities that will contribute to this and what we can do to cope.

* Rob Mielcarski is a fellow blogger, who I met when he commented on one of my blog posts. He is very concerned about human overshoot and the damage we are doing to a very rare and precious planet, and deeply fascinated by the depth and breadth of our denial of the situation.

** Richard Heinberg is an American journalist and educator who has written extensively on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. He is the author of thirteen books, and presently serves as the senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

*** David Holmgren is an Australian environmental designer, ecological educator and writer. He is best known as one of the co-originators of the permaculture concept with Bill Mollison. His website Future Scenarios looks at Four Energy Descent and Climate Scenarios.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Seeing Like a State

This time we'll be taking a quick look at James C. Scott's book Seeing Like a State, How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

My purpose in reviewing Seeing Like a State is to draw attention to some concepts which I had never really thought about before reading this book. Awareness of these concepts has helped clarify my thinking since then. Or so it seems to me. As with my last post, I hope this may be helpful to my fellow Canadians. I certainly don't intend to speak down to my countrymen—they lean in a direction of which I heartily approve. But when it comes to evaluating the worth (or worthlessness) of states, a different approach is required here, where we are proudly carrying on with our experiment in progressive social democracy, than when talking to people from south of the border, whose newly elected leadership seems eager to dismantle much of their government.

I read this book a couple of years ago and there wasn't really time in the schedule I'd set myself currently to give it a thorough re-reading. So I went looking on the internet and found several detailed reviews and a youtube video of the author discussing the book.

As Scott says in the video, the essence of the thing is in the first 15 pages, the rest of it is just examples to prove the point.

Scott published this book in 1998, after he'd done his initial work on hill societies in Southeast Asia. He had noticed, and was trying to understand why:

...the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around"... In the context of Southeast Asia, this promised to be a fruitful way of addressing the perennial tensions between mobile, slash-and-burn hill people on the one hand and wet-rice, valley kingdoms on the other. The question, however, transcended regional geography. Nomads and pastoralists (such as Berbers and Bedouins), hunter gatherers, Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people, itinerants, runaway slaves and serfs have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarizations) seemed to be a perennial state project—perennial, in part, because it so seldom succeeded.

The more I examined those efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription and prevention of rebellion. Having begun to think in these terms, I began to see legibility as a central project of statecraft. The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it know precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity. It lacked anything like a detailed "map" of its terrain and its people. It lacked, for the most part, a measure, a metric, that would allow it to "translate" what it knew into a common standard necessary for a synoptic view. As a result, its interventions were often crude and self-defeating.

In order for a state to succeed in its projects, it needs control and to effectively exercise control it needs intelligence—information about its land and its people.

How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral (tax) surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs or naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.

This project of making society legible has been going on for centuries and where I live it is pretty much complete. But my wife and I both grew up on farms that didn't have street numbers. You can bet there were lot numbers for tax purposes, but nobody bothered with them for addresses. We knew where we lived and so did our neighbours—it just wasn't a problem for any of the locals, and mail came to "general delivery" at the local post office. It was only in the process setting up the 911 emergency call system, in the 1990s, that every house and farm in Bruce County was finally given a number. In rural areas, those numbers are now proudly displayed at the end of our driveways, so the police, fire and ambulance drivers can find us when we need them.

There was a time (and it's still the case in the third world) when even cities didn't have maps, street names were very informal and houses didn't have numbers on them. Only the people who lived in a neighbourhood could reliably find their way around it. Very inconvenient for strangers, but awfully handy for a local trying not to be found...

The concept of legibility is the first new idea I encountered in this book. We in the modern world are immersed in legibility and, in most cases, hardly aware of it. Even some politicians—governing ones—seem to be unaware of it. Steven Harper (a former Canadian Prime Minister) comes to mind, doing away with our "long form" census, because he didn't want to collect (and be confused by) facts that didn't fit his ideology.

Anyway, the government knows where we live, how much we make in a year, our phone number, the license number, make and colour of the car we drive, and so forth. Most of us accept this very meekly. It enables government to deliver the services we count on and to some it seems that legibility is only a disadvantage to criminals or those who actively oppose the state. I'd say, yes, but only if the state is using all that information to do what you want it to. This isn't always so, especially for those who don't fit so well in the one-size-fits-all mold that states tend to stamp out for their citizens.

And that leads us to another concept that goes along with legibility: simplification. The world is a very complex place, full of distracting details, most of which we ignore. This is true for individuals in day to day life, but even more so for states. There are a great many details that a state simply cannot afford to be interested in. What it needs is a synopsis that contains just the information which is significant to its projects. Who's to say what's significant? Well, therein lies a whole range of problems.

When I was the foreman of a crew of electricians, my boss frequently grew frustrated with my usual answer to his questions, which was: "it depends". He wanted a simple yes or no, but often the situation just wasn't that simple and my point was that if he was willing to let a little more information through his filters he'd be able to make better decisions.

Having acquired a measure of legibility, modern states set about a number of huge development fiascos.

But "fiasco" is too lighthearted a word for the disasters I have in mind . The Great Leap Forward in China, collectivizations in Russia and compulsory villagization in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia are among the greatest human tragedies of the twentieth century, in terms of both lives lost and lives irretrievably disrupted. At a less dramatic but far more common level, the history of Third World development is littered with the debris of huge agricultural schemes and new cities (think of Brasilia or Chandigarh) that have failed their residents.

It is not so difficult to understand why so many human lives have been destroyed by mobilized violence between ethnic groups, religious sects or linguistic communities. But it is harder to grasp why so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry. I aim, in what follows, to provide a convincing account of the logic behind the failure of some of the great utopian social engineering schemes of the twentieth century.

Scott identifies four elements, the combination of which leads to such tragedies. The first is the simplification that comes with legibilitiy.

The second element is what I call a high modernist ideology. It is best conceived as a strong, one might even say muscle-bound version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and, above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws. It originated, of course, in the West, as a by-product of unprecedented progress in science and industry.

When I first encountered this it was another new concept for me, but when you look at it closely, it is nothing more than the religion of progress. In fact, I've rarely seen that faith so clearly described:

High modernism must not be confused with scientific practice. It was fundamentally, as the term "ideology" implies, a faith that borrowed, as it were, the legitimacy of science and technology. It was, accordingly, uncritical, unskeptical, and thus unscientifically optimistic about the possibilities for the comprehensive planning of human settlement and production. The carriers of high modernism tended to see rational order in remarkably visual aesthetic terms. For them, an efficient, rational organized city, village, or large farm was one that looked regimented and orderly in the geometric sense. The carriers of high modernism, once their plans miscarried or were thwarted, tended to retreat to what I call miniaturization: the creation of a more easily controlled micro-order in model cities, model villages, and model farms.

By themselves, though, legibility, simplification, and an ideology like high modernism are not enough to do much real harm. A couple more elements are necessary for that.

The third element is an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being. The most fertile soil for this element has typically been times of war, revolution, depression, and struggle for national liberation. In such situations, emergency conditions foster the seizure of emergency powers and frequently delegitimize the previous regime. They also tend to give rise to elites who repudiate the past and who have revolutionary designs for their people.

A fourth element is closely linked to the third: a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans. War, revolution, and economic collapse often radically weaken civil society as well as make the populace more receptive to a new dispensation. Late colonial rule with its social engineering aspirations and ability to run roughshod over popular opposition, occasionally met this last condition.

In sum, the legibility of a society provides the capacity for large scale social engineering, high modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarians state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.

But why is it that these four elements, when combined, have led to disaster?

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functional social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowances for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well.

Throughout the book I make the case for the indispensable role of practical knowledge, informal processes, and improvisations in the face of unpredictability. ...I contrast the high-modernist views and practices of city planners and revolutionaries with critical views emphasizing process, complexity, and open-endedness.

...I attempt to conceptualize the nature of practical knowledge and to contrast it with more formal, deductive epistemic knowledge. The term mētis, which descends from classical Greek and denotes the knowledge that can come only from practical experience, serves as a useful portmanteau word for what I have in mind. Here I should acknowledge my debt to anarchist writers (Kropotkin, Bakunin, Malatesta, Proudhon) who consistently emphasize the role of mutuality as opposed to imperative, hierarchical coordination in the creation of social order. Their understanding of the term "mutuality" covers some but not all of the same ground I mean to cover with "mētis."

Scott acknowledges that from today's perspective, a critique of the failings of high modernism is like a kind of quaint archaeology. Central planning has long since fallen out of favour.

...States with the pretensions and power that I criticize have for the most part vanished or drastically curbed their ambitions. And yet, as I make clear in examining scientific farming, industrial agriculture, and capitalist markets in general, large scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety.

There is much fertile ground today for the sort of thing Scott was talking about. Take out high modernism, substitute in the current ideological fad and combine it with legibility, simplification, a generous dash of authoritarianism and an unsuspecting populace and away we go. We must remember, when getting rid of a bad government, not to usher in something even worse. Right wing populism, techno optimism and eco-modernism come to mind as ideologies that I would really rather not have forced on me or my community. Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have already done enough harm. All these are certainly just as uncritical, unskeptical, and unscientifically optimistic as high-modernism.

Scott goes on for 9 more chapters with a plethora of examples illustrating his thesis. This review discusses them in some detail, if you're interested. It also has some criticism of Scott's ideas, which I think is probably somewhat unfair.

In several places in the book Scott mentions Jane Jacobs, whose activism against, and critique of, modern urban planning I had not previously been introduced to. Here is a biographically article about her that is well worth reading.

This is the last book review I'll be doing for a while. Next time I'll finally get around to talking about what I see as lying ahead of us—the slow and tortuous collapse of industrial civilization. Of course, many people I run into think I am being needlessly dramatic. They would say that business as usual is still in pretty good shape and has a long future ahead of it. I'll begin with why I think that is the single biggest lie we are being told these days.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Art of Not Being Governed

This time we'll be taking a quick look at a book by James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed, an Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. This is a scholarly work and heavy going to read, but I think I can, for a change, distill the ideas that are relevant to our discussion here down to fit into a single blog post.

Scott is the Sterling Professor of Political Science and Professor of Anthropology and is Director of the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale. His research concerns political economy, comparative agrarian societies, theories of hegemony and resistance, peasant politics, revolution, Southeast Asia, theories of class relations and anarchism. He is currently teaching Agrarian Studies and Rebellion, Resistance and Repression.

I am writing this post with my fellow Canadians in mind. States have to work at retaining their citizens, either by coercion or by providing sufficient benefits to balance the cost of maintaining the state, a burden which is borne by the populace. Traditionally there has been a striking degree of inequality between the upper classes who operate the state and the rest of the people. This is simply because those who are running things take advantage of their power to make sure that the surpluses created by economic activity are allocated to them and not to the people doing the work.

Here in Canada, we have been very fortunate in the 150 year history of our country to have had legitimate governments, with a minimum of corruption and a pretty steady effort to rule for the good of the country and its people. We do have party politics so of course there are disagreements as to exactly what that good might be. And we do have some inequality, with the rich having a disproportionate share of political power, though less so than in many countries. But I think there is broad agreement that while our system might benefit from minor tweaks in one direction or another, the idea behind it is basically solid.

And to a certain extent I can agree with this. It is an essential element of the human condition that we work together in groups for our mutual benefit. And this can work very well, but when the group gets larger than Dunbar's number (around 150) there are costs associated with organizing and administration, costs which increase disproportionally as the group gets larger.

Those costs are paid mainly in terms of energy and only the onetime windfall of fossil fuels has made possible an organization as large as our modern global civilization. But as fossil fuel depletion progresses, states are finding themselves less able to provide the benefits that they rely on to maintain their legitimacy. More and more of their citizens are beginning to wonder if the social contract is such a good deal.

Canada is no exception, although we are not quite as far along this curve as many other countries. Most Canadians don't realize that the good times we've had here have been made possible by generous amounts of energy from our huge forests, large amounts of falling water and, of course, generous reserves of fossil fuels. We certainly don't want to admit that we face the depletion of our energy resources, even though we certainly do—just like other countries.

Anyway, my intention here is not to dwell on energy issues, but rather to introduce the idea that having a government and being governed may not always be such a fine proposition. That's why I'm reviewing The Art of Not Being Governed. It talks specifically about "the anarchist history of upland southeast Asia", and more generally the ongoing conflict between the expansionary state and its agents on the one hand and the zones of relative autonomy and their inhabitants on the other. Historically speaking, those zones have been able to maintain some degree of autonomy because their geography made them difficult to subdue. Only in the most recent era have states gained sufficient power (fossil fuels again) to make subduing those zones an achievable project.

When Europeans reached Southeast Asia we found it populated by "civilized" valley people and "wild" hill people. The initial assumption was that the hill people were the remnants of the original inhabitants, who had never yet been "civilized". It turns out that this was wrong—but we'll get to that in a bit....

The area was settled not more that 60,000 years ago, and...

the region's first small concentrations of sedentary people appeared not earlier than one millenium before the common era (CE) and represent a mere smudge in the historical landscape—localized, tenuous and evanescent. Up until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been a standard human condition.

The founding of agrarian states, then, was the contingent event that created a distinction between a settled, state-governed population and a frontier penumbra of less governed or virtually autonomous peoples. Until at least the early nineteenth century, the difficulties of transportation, the state of military technology, and, above all, demographic realities placed a sharp limit on the reach of even the most ambitious states. Operating at a population density of 5.5 persons per square kilometer in 1600 (compared with 35 for India and China), a ruler's subjects in Southeast Asia had relatively easy access to a vast, land rich frontier. That frontier operated as a rough and ready homeostatic device—the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had. The frontier underwrote popular freedom. Richard O'Connor captures this dialectic nicely:"Once states appeared, adaptive conditions changed yet again—at least for farmers. At that moment mobility allowed farmers to escape the impositions of states and their wars. I call this tertiary dispersion. The other two revolutions—agriculture and complex society—were secure but the state's domination of its peasantry was not, and so we find a strategy of 'collecting people... and establishing villages.'"

So people were rounded up and put to work at rice paddy agriculture. This yields a high productivity in terms of the amount of food produced per land area, though it is quite labour intensive. Still, there were some advantages to such a settled existence, enough to keep the peasants around as long as the demands of the state did not grow too onerous.

There were always taxes in the form of a share of the rice crop and a certain number of days of labour on state projects or service in the army. If the ruler decided to build a new temple or palace, or wage yet another war against a neighbouring state and those taxes became too high, it was not too difficult for the peasants to head for the hills where it would be hard for the agents of the state to track you down. There they could take up a life of nomadic slash and burn agriculture, growing mainly root vegetables which are harder for state officials to find and take. And of course the forest itself provided much in the way of food and other useful materials, some of which were luxuries not available in the valleys that could be traded for goods that couldn't be produced in the hills.

So it turns out that, by the time Europeans arrived, the population of hill people was made up almost entirely of escaped peasants from the valleys and their descendants. Scott goes into a great deal of detail about the societies of the hill people in highland Southeast Asia (what he calls "Zomia"), but I think the idea is clear: that living in a state was often a chancy proposition and many people did just fine on their own.

As Scott says:

Any effort to examine history as part of a deliberate political choice runs smack against a powerful civilizational narrative. That narrative consists of a historical series arranged as an account of economic, social and cultural progress. With respect to livelihood strategies, the series, from most primitive to most advanced, might be: foraging/hunting gathering, pastoral nomadism, horticulture/shifting cultivation, sedentary fixed field agriculture, irrigated plow agriculture, industrial agriculture. With respect to social structure. again from most primitive to most advanced, the series might read: small bands in the forest or savannah, hamlets, villages, towns, cities, metropolises. These two series are, of course, essentially the same; they chart a growing concentration of agricultural production (yield per unit land) and a growing concentration of population in larger agglomerations. First elaborated by Giovani Battista Vico in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the narrative derives it hegemonic status not only from its affinity with social Darwinism but from the fact that it maps nicely on the stories most states and civilizations tell about themselves. The schema assumes movement in a single direction toward concentrated populations and intensive grain production, no backsliding is envisioned; each step is irreversible progress.

As an empirical description of demographic and agricultural trends in the now-industrialized world for the past two centuries (and the past half-century in poorer nations) this schema has much to be said for it . Europe's nonstate ("tribal") populations had, for all practical purposes, disappeared by the eighteenth century, and the non-state population of poorer countries is diminished and beleaguered.

My readers will no doubt recognize this story as the same one told by the religion of progress, missing only the conclusion where we shake off the chains of gravity and head for the stars. But is this the only story that history has to tell us? Scott thinks not:

As an empirical description of premodern Europe or of most poor nations until the twentieth century, and as an empirical description of the hilly areas of Southeast Asia (Zomia), this narrative is profoundly misleading. What the schema portrays is not simply a self-satisfied normative account of progress but a gradient of successive stages of incorporation into state structures. Its stages of civilization are, at the same time, an index of diminishing autonomy and freedom. Until quite recently, many societies and groups have abandoned fixed cultivation to take up shifting agriculture and foraging. They have, by the same token, altered their kinship systems and social structure and dispersed into smaller and smaller settlements. The actual archeological record in peninsular Southeast Asia reveals a long term oscillation between foraging and farming depending, it would seem, on the conditions. What to Vico would have seemed to be lamentable backsliding and decay was for them a strategic option to circumvent the many inconveniences of state power.

He goes on to look at several historical examples of this sort of "escape agriculture" in Europe and the Americas. I am reminded of what we covered in my last post on Joseph Tainter's book about the Collapse of Complex Societies: collapse may not be such a disaster if the populace has access to land and can grow their own food. "Escape agriculture" would seem to fit the bill and indeed seems to be pretty much what did happen with many collapsing societies—the peasants voted with their feet and left the state and the upper classes to fend for themselves.

Of course, in the modern world, things are a little different.

The level of comfort and convenience experienced by the populace in modern high energy societies is unprecedented. Royalty in the past did not live so well as our middle class. People are understandably unwilling to give this up. Modern medicine, especially when provided free of charge by the state, provides a huge opportunity for a state to legitimize itself and a wonderful argument for its citizen to stay put, even if the taxes are high.

Despite all this, there are still people who dream of going off grid and practicing "escape agriculture". But those who actually succeed in doing so are a very small percentage of the population. And having decided to escape, where can one go? The options are limited—the world is very full and the hinterlands have shrunk in size and remain in only the least desirable areas.

Furthermore, escape is now much harder to do. Aerial and satellite photography, the global positioning systems, and motorized vehicles, especially aircraft, have rendered the most rugged terrain much more accessible than it was even a century ago. If they really want to catch you, they likely can.

I've been observing a trend, though, that may set all this on its head.

Modern states are now beginning to feel the pinch of resource depletion and economic contraction. Their tax base is shrinking while at the same time (due to unemployment and the demographic bulge of the baby boom) the social safety net is growing more expensive to maintain.

A few countries have raised taxes, redistributing a shrinking pool of wealth to reduce economic inequality. This seems to actually make the economy work better and slow the downhill slide. It will be interesting to see how they cope as things get worse.

Most countries are loath to raise taxes, and have borrowed and accumulated large debts on the assumption that things will get better down the road. This makes their economies even worse and increases inequality. The next step, already underway, is to cut social spending, basically abandoning those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Many of these people end up homeless and starving. Tent cities have sprung up in or just outside a great many North American cities. Sadly, in response to this, many communities (if they can really be called that) have responded by essentially making homelessness illegal, bulldozing tent cities and driving the inhabitants away.

It would seem that people abandoned by the state should find escape agriculture a good alternative. There are even examples of such folks starting gardens, only to have them plowed under by the authorities. These days, all the land is owned by someone and even if it is not being farmed, it is unlikely to be made available to the homeless. At some point, though, the state may not have the resources to harass the poor or to protect land that is not being used. Perhaps the state could just come to the realization that unused land and abandoned people are a good fit, and simply stand back and let those people do what they want.

Some will say that we need every square inch of land to grow food for the growing human population. I have two comments about how that is likely to go as collapse progresses: first, at some point population will quit growing and start to decline; and second, as the rich countries become poorer and less capable, they will be less able and less inclined to help poorer nations and even the poor within their own borders.

I'll be considering the possibilities that lie in that direction a few posts down the road.

Next time I'll be looking at another book by James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. In the meantime, check out YouTube for some videos featuring James C. Scott.