Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Science won't save us

Last week one of the three main French trotskist group – Worker's Struggle – published an editorial denouncing "degrowth" as "reactionary". I am no fan of French style degrowth. Most of the time, it is hardly more than revolutionary mythology repackaged as ecology and in my humble opinion, anybody telling that the best way to solve today's society's problems is to destroy it entirely is better off the farthest away possible from any real power. Yet the red hard-liners' reaction is interesting because it highlights one of the industrial world's most pervasive delusion : the faith in science as an all-powerful mean to manipulate reality.

Workers' Struggle's argument is twofold. First they say the decreasing economic activity is unacceptable because it will destroy industrial jobs and reduce general prosperity. This is indeed the whole point but since all those industrial jobs depend upon a clearly unsustainable system, which will collapse no matter what we do, it is probably a better idea to tell people to prepare for the inevitable. The writer probably realized this, so he added there was nothing to fear from the Limits to Growth because technological and scientific progress will lift them (once the evil capitalists will have been overthrown, of course, but since this particular group is called Worker's Struggle, this was to be expected.)

Worker's Struggle is a marginal group, but the faith into the all-powerfulness of science is not, especially among the various political, economical and cultural elites which set the policies of this country. One owes to the truth to say that Reverend Malthus' predictions were ill-timed and that science played a major role in making sure of that. This led most people – including some who should have known better – to consider science as a kind of working magics.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Science, and its offspring technology, is definitely not some kind of mystical product of human creativity and intellect. It is, to paraphrase Joseph Tainter, an investment into problem solving complexity. It has proved quite a good investment and it certainly beats other popular choices such as erecting giant anthropomorphic statues but it has its limits.

Saying that scientific and technological research is an investment means that pouring resources into it is roughly the same thing as buying, say, a new mechanical saw for your sawmill. You spend money – or some other kind of resource – and get capital in return. With some luck this capital proves to be productive and enables you to get more money to invest. Of course, sometimes you miscalculate and end up with nothing but bills, but that's not the real problem.

The real problem is, of course, Reverend Malthus' law of decreasing return. It is relatively easy to raise massively one's productivity by investing into easy solutions, but that works only so far. Afterward, however, making further progress becomes increasingly harder and costlier, so you must steadily increase your investments lest you see the pace of your advance slow down to a grinding halt.

Tainter and Huebner have shown that this applies to science as well as to car plants or sawmills. No matter how we measure it, the productivity of science is decreasing since at least the beginning of the XXth century. At that times it was quite possible – and fairly common – for a lone man to make major discoveries in his basement workshop. That is what Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein did. This possibility still exists in marginal domains – for instance the deciphering of dead languages – but everywhere else, including in computer sciences, it has essentially vanished. Science today is done in teams, with very costly equipments in never funded enough institutions.

Another problem comes from the fact all capital needs maintenance, and it is as true for the immaterial capital that are science and technology as for a tractor plant. Mastery of science and technology is not innate. It must be taught again with each passing generation, lest it becomes lost as did fire making did among Sentinelese. As our body of knowledge grew so did the need for a very complex – and very costly   specialized education system. Moreover, this education system is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It is relatively easy to alphabetize a population, but going farther becomes harder and costlier as the general level of education rises.

So far we have compensated by pouring ever more resource in our scientific and educational system, and managed to continue advancing … at the price of having more scientists and teachers alive today than during the whole rest of human history. This was possible only because fossil fuels enabled us to produce very large surplus and keep them, and their support institutions, well funded enough to remain productive.

The situation will change as we slide down the far side of the Hubbert curve. In fact, it already has begun to change. As the amount of net energy available to our civilization decreases, the quantity invested into science and technology will decrease too. Whole programs will be quietly put on hold as scarce resources are focused on the keeping afloat of the "essential" ones. The pace of progress will slow down then stop. It may even go backward, as costly technologies are abandoned the way civilian supersonic flight was after the Concord disaster.

Resource scarcity is also likely to affect the education system. I don't think schools will be closed down, or that children will quietly drop out, before quite a long time, at least in European countries. What will happen is that the quality of the teaching will go down as funds grow scarce and affluent people migrate toward private schools. Irrelevant – or seemingly irrelevant – technologies will stop being taught and will be forgotten or kept frozen in libraries. This, of course, will harm our ability to exploit efficiently the resource we are left. The productivity of the society will decrease, which will cause the funds allotted to research and education to decrease further.

Those who follows the peak oil debate will have recognized the basic mechanism of John Michael Greer's catabolic collapse – and rightly so for science is every bit as subject to it as the rest of our civilization's immaterial capital. And of course counting on science to stop a process of which the decline of science is an integral part is an exercise in futility.

In Dark Age Britain the rulers of what had been a highly urbanized and literate society could not have signed their names to save their life. In late bronze age Greece, the very idea of writing was lost with the collapse of the palatial economy. The only question worth asking about technology and science in the age of the energy descent is how much of it will we lose ?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A problem of security

A week ago the French government announced that it was canceling the planned recruitment of 5000 policemen. This has hardly been a cause for debate, even in France, for understandable reasons. President Sarkozy, a former Minister for Police, is big on law and order and such an announcement does not really fit within what he claims to be his policy, as for the left opposition, even if it wasn't busy tearing itself to pieces – which it definitely is – it does consider policing as a dirty job, something which must be done but which decent people should not talk about. Yet, and even though it is quite unlikely to make the front page of any remotely meanstream paper, the event is definitely worth discussing, for it highlights an important aspect of the energy descent.

Since it was taken away from townships after WWII, law enforcement, in France, is a central state function. Policemen are civil servants, recruited for life on a national basis. Since they, too, age and retire, failing to do so any particular year means that the numbers of policemen in French streets will drop, probably dramatically. Of course, there are other law enforcement agencies in France : the gendarmerie, a military police in charge of rural areas an the Internet, and various municipal polices but they are still of lesser importance and certainly cannot make up for the National Police's deficiencies.

The immediate reasons of Sarkozy' decision are quite obvious. Like everybody those days, he is desperate for cash and due to European regulations he cannot run too large a deficit or print. Budget cuts, especially those kinds of budget cuts, are hardly absurd. They can help create some maneuver room and liberate resources for more vital, or politically more important, domains.

The problem is that it works only for temporary crisis, something the one we face is definitely not. While its immediate cause has been the subprimes debacle, it is fundamentally a manifestation of our colliding with the Limits to Growth the Meadows Report highlighted thirty years ago. Our economies are dependent upon a steady inflow of high grade energy only fossil fuels can provide and the supply of those is stagnating and will soon enter terminal decline. This means that the resource available to support state apparatus – whether or not they are as bloated as the French one – will become scarcer and scarcer.

Of course, we should not imagine a state suddenly collapsing under its own weight. It never happened in the past, it won't happen this time. What will happen is that states will focus their remaining resources upon maintaining what they see as vital services, at the expenses of the others – the same way a human body immersed in cold water will concentrate whatever heath it is left around vital organs, even if that means letting one toe or two freeze. As I said, it is not an absurd strategy on the short term. There is, after all, little point in subsidizing , say, classical music when you are at risk of being overrun by a foreign invasion.

The problem is, of course, that budgets cuts which are relatively safe in the short term can land you in a sea of trouble if the crisis lasts. Underfunding road repair cans sound like a good idea for a resource-short government. After all, roads take time to deteriorate and even if they do, it won't stand in the way of your reelection. Besides there are always ways to put the blame on somebody else shoulders – for instance the company you sold the said road to. On the long run however, you will end up with a very bumpy, and nearly useless road network.

The same is true with administration in general and security in particular. As their resource based declined, past civilizations tended to scrap services they deemed unessential. Of course that rarely meant security. No matter how powerful kings and emperors were, there was always some neighbor more than ready to part them from their throne. That could mean, however, abandoning peripheral territories or trusting local authorities with the organization – and the funding – of their own defense. That is what the late Roman Empire did. It did abandon Dacia and Britain, and hired Germanic tribal warlords to defend its borders. Let's say it was not a resounding success.

Such a fate is unlikely to befall us. Abandoning territory is taboo in our political culture, unless said territory really wants to go away, as for settling foreign mercenaries under their own laws... no matter what conspiracy theorists say, it is as likely to happen as an invasion of flying pigs. It is just incompatible with the ruling paradigm of the nation-state.

What will probably happen, however, as we slide farther and farther on the road to catabolic collapse, is a slow but irremediable loss of control by the state. Even though it is not all powerful, modern states exert an unprecedented control upon their own society. It is not because they are particularly power-thirsty, of course. Ivan IV would have been as totalitarian as Stalin it he could have and some Chinese emperors were very fond of intrusive laws and secret polices. They just didn't have the means to fully control their territory.

Modern states have. Their economy creates enough surplus to fund huge administrations and police forces able to reach down to the remotest part of their territory. Those are very costly, however, and as states focus their dwindling resources on their core functions, they will grow thin on the ground. This may take various forms, of course. Administrative service, among which, security, may be sold out to private agencies which will only partially assume them. They may be devolved to local authorities, without the means to assume them. They may become so chronically underfunded they become both ineffective and corrupt.

The end result will always be the same. The state will lose the control of the peripheral parts of its society and territory. Of course, it will still be able to crush any open revolt, but it will no longer be able to provide any effective day to day administration. Local authorities will have to step in – arm their municipal police and use it as a real law enforcement agency, for instance – and in some places ganglords will become de facto rulers. Of course this will hinder the states' ability to efficiently mobilize its remaining resources, which will trigger another round of budget cuts and loss of control until the state itself become a mere fiction and is replaced by whatever really controls the territory.

Another consequence, is that we may see the rebirth of that rural banditry which plagued pre-industrial countries and is still very present in the Third World. We have forgotten how common highwaymen were in pre-industrial Europe, how they could defy the central power for years and even wage small wars against it. As public authorities become less and less able to police their territory they may very well be reborn and accelerate the post peak version of the withering of the state, whether it be by depriving it of much needed resources or by encouraging locals to step in.

During the seventies, the Breton singer Gilles Servat sung about what he thought would be the 2000s

Il y avait encore des grands chemins
que les bandits fréquentaient guère
Aujourd'hui on croirait la guerre
Les embuscades au petit matin

There were still highways
Bandits didn't roam
Today one would believe to be at war
Ambushes at dawn

He may have been wrong only about the timing

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Aella's complex

Most of you probably haven't' heard about it but France has recently gone through another round of debate about the "Islamic veil". A bunch of members of parliament have petitioned for the creation of an inquiring committee about the burqa. Like all such proposals, this one tells more about its authors than about the handful of burqa wearing women living in France. It is no accident that one of the proposers is an unreconstructed communist openly supporting Castro's regime. This affair does more, however, than throwing an unforgiving light upon the reactionaries tendencies of some parts of the French society. It highlights some of the difficulties modern complex societies will experience as they slide down the slop of Hubbert's curve.

One of the most overlooked characteristics of modern industrial societies is how they have replaced external, geographic, diversity by internal, societal, diversity. Pre-industrial societies were as diverse as our own, but this diversity was made of a collection of very homogeneous local communities. There was, for instance a Breton culture, embedded within the mainframe of French culture, and divided in a a number of local cultures – Bigouden, Poher, Leon, Tregor – each one of them with its own dialect, dances, music and approach to religion, and so forth down to the village level. Within them, however, diversity was very low, social conformity, at least at the outside, very high, and adhesion to Christianity almost mandatory – even if following its precepts was not necessarily, as shows the high number of "virgin births" in my family line.

This diversity survives – the villages of the marsh area just outside of my home town were still held by the communist party not so long ago – but it is – or rather was – fading and has been replaced by a larger but more heterogeneous national – or sub-national – society. While local differences are less pronounced, there is a considerable number of sub-cultures of various origin, and far more allowance for individual dissent or eccentricity. This evolution has not been an easy one and it is not yet complete. A long struggle has been necessary to widen the boundaries of acceptable opinion and for gays, for instance, it has been won only recently – in France, I mean.

The problem is that this internal diversity is a consequence of the emergence of a society complex enough to accommodate literally thousands of social niches, and that this society is dependent upon a constant inflow of high grade energy. Only fossil fuel can provide it and as their name implies, they exist in limited quantity. As their supply declines, so will society's complexity, probably catastrophically so.

This decline, also called catabolic collapse, does not mean, however, that we will magically revert to the statu quo ante, no more than the fall of the Roman Empire mean that Druids would roam the forest again and that people would going back to speaking Gaulish again. What will happen is that the society will unravel into its constituent part and that local culture will coalesce back around left over from the pre-industrial period, imports from overseas or totally new creations.

This may mean that in some areas Islam may become the new local norm, and even spread further from there. It is perfectly possible that in one or two centuries from now will be Muslim and while this would make it differently Breton, it would not necessarily make it less so. This would not be the first time such a thing happens either. While collapses do not always translate into religion shift, they make them easier by destroying the web of interconnected institutions and beliefs around which the society is built. Taken off-balance, faced with the obvious failure of long-held beliefs to explain the situation, people are more prone to convert to foreign or new ideas.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, the newly, and probably superficially Christianized British tribes recovered their independence and began to war among themselves. As was relatively common at the time they imported Germanic mercenaries they settled along their respective borders and to whom they apparently gave high positions in their armed forces. In Kent, the leader of a mercenary band seemingly seized power from the local cronies of the western British warlord Vortigern, probably with the locals' support. In neighbouring Sussex however, things went differently. The local Germanic leader Aella, never became a king and modern research suggests he remained faithful to the Regnenses tribe and integrated within the local aristocracy.

Yet, one century latter English was spoken in Sussex, not some cousin of Welsh or French, and the main religion was Anglo-Saxon paganism, not Celtic Christianity. There had been some immigration from the mainland, probably more than in neighbouring Wessex and Mercia where first "Saxon" kings had unmistakable British names. Even there, however, it was insufficient to swamp the native element. What happened is that native Bretons converted to Anglo-Saxon language, way of life... and religion.

It certainly was a complex phenomenon, and it was bitterly resisted by some, as one can see from Gildas' xenophobic rant De Excidio Britanniae, but probably not so much as latter interpretations would lead us to believe. VIth century warfare in Britain was about tribal politics and personal ambitions, not about ethnicity or religion.

A similar evolution can take place in part of today's industrial world, with Islam, but also Wicca or whatever religion you care to imagine. It is neither a desirable nor an undesirable process, even if one may have reservations about the particulars of such or such religion. It is just something which happens when civilizations collapses and societies reshape and rebuild themselves. What is important, however, is to make sure that the resistance of new Gildas won't trouble more what already promises to be a very troubled time and that if somebody manages to follow the steps of Aella, he does so in a rather smooth and orderly maneer. A solution could be to separate religion from identity and to found communities upon shared values rather than upon a shared faith. That is what secularism should be about.

The French deputies' initiative does not bode well in that matter, and whenever I see a scarfed woman in the street I think of Aella... and of Gildas... and of Badon Hill.