April 18, 2009

WHY WE ARE WORRIED- Without Numbers Or Big Words



We are here to have a general discussion about acute transformations.



Enticing, colorful figures, no? Enlightening explanation and stimulating discussion are sure to follow.

NATURAL SYSTEMS are highly dynamic, increasingly unstable. Geometric, compounding, multiplying, exponential.

Here is your simple graph of exponential change occurring in some phenomenon. Some thing- measured on the “y” or vertical axis- is changing. Or “growing.” (Let’s call growth a subset of “change.” that will be consistent with our discussion here).

“It” is changing with respect to something else on the “x” axis. Here, the “x” axis is denoted as “time.” That will be apropos here too. We could show lots of other things, in other ways, but for our purposes here we can let the “x” axis refer, in general, to time.

As you can see, this is a general discussion. We do not mean to lecture. You are familiar with and understand simple geometric behavior like this. (Insert citation and reference to the Web Lesson by —-.)

So let’s just intuitively treat the “x” axis as time. The time scale along this axis is not defined. It is variable from illustration to illustration. It is speculative, and illustrative only. It should suggest thought and not conclusions. The graphs illustrate only very general phenomena, and the subject of “time” in this discussion is a very uncertain (and controversial) thing. Questions of time and timing are central here, as you will well know from the uncertainty of your own speculations. When indeed? How fast? Speed is, after all, change over time…

We repeatedly use vivid, colorful figures in order to constantly keep the acute, irresistible nature of exponential growth in sharp focus as we go along.


Figure 1.

 t = TIME

Time on “x” axis. Something Else is Changing Exponentially.


Figure 2.


You recognize this. This is how variable phenomena stay notionally “stable” over time under the influence of “moderating” or modulating external factors.


Figure 3.


Here’s a graphic way of looking at it.


Figure 4.


Something is relatively (dynamically) stable. Over a much longer time frame, external “events” perturb it, and it departs from its range of stability. It then “equilibrates” around some dramatically different, new range of stability.

Our general awareness of this phenomenon is associated with biological evolution. Good resources would be Edmund O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould, Matt Ridley and other good popular writers who discuss biological evolution. (We have here E.O. Wilson, In Search Of Nature (New York: Island Press1996), Stephen Jay Gould, Full House (New York: Harmony Books 1996), and Matt Ridley, The Red Queen (New York: Penguin Books 1993).

Of course, this behavior is not restricted to biological phenomena (none of the best rules of the universe are). This matter is studied in systems theory, chaos theory and theoretical math, too. A good place to look into this would be James Gleick, Chaos: Making A New Science (New York: Penguin Books 1997), and, of course, Ilya Prigogine (Insert Reference).

(A note about dimensionality. Our graphic figures here are in two dimension, and we will keep them that way. In general, everything we have to say can be enriched by thinking in more than two dimensions- especially mathematical constructs like chaos theory. After all, reducing things to two dimensions is really quite an abstraction isn’t it?)


Figure 5.


And Some Thoughts about Numbers and Words.

 It is very difficult to explain and evoke with words alone the natural behaviors of systems that we are discussing here. Some of us are graphic learners, anyway. Some of us are tactile learners and some of us are auditory learners and some of us are oral learners and some of us are oral-genital learners. But we can all learn, right?

We do this without numbers. There are only a “couple” of numbers here, and we have taken pains to write them out alphabetically, and they will (still) be controversial. Numbers provoke controversy and argument, rightly so. They are also intellectually seductive and distracting, and rightly so. We are not demographers, or toxicologists, or experts of any particular stripe. You, dear Reader, probably are. Please comment, or argue, or help us with facts or data or references or proofs, if you care to. Please.

This presentation is crude. Intentionally. It is abstract. Deliberately. It is imprecise. On purpose. Our intent is manifestly not to make proofs, or arguments, or conclusions, or refutations. It is not to present points of view. It is to evoke understanding.

The references we include are not intended to provide up-to-date data, or cutting-edge projections, or contemporary research, either. Deliberately. They are books, generally, that have helped us with understanding and meaning. If you care to extend our conversation with data and references that are contemporary and comprehensive, please do.

We intend to be general and abstract. We argue that the general observations we make here are uncontroversial- at least among the sane. Nearly anyone likely to read this will recognize uncertainty, argument, contention and controversy in these sober matters. But no-one will dispute the generalities, we hope, abstracted as they are, unless they are ideologically or personally unable to come to terms with this.

Some of us have a hard time acknowledging the harm we do when our livelihoods -and our very lives- depend on it. People in business can have a hard time acknowledging the contradictions in capitalism. People who justify their consumption can have a hard time acknowledging the harm we do to others and our planet. For many of us, the coming transformations don’t only challenge the goodness of our self-perceptions. They provoke visceral, existential fear.

But we argue that there are not two -or multiple- sides to this. We mean to capture the whole story here, without the kinds of particularities that might personalize this or create false ideological divides or controversies. We are not right, or wrong. If you want to argue about that, do it at home. We are all in the shit here, and there isn’t any other side to it. That is what we mean by the whole story, and it is why we mean to be crude, blunt, abstract and general. No-one is innocent. And no-one is on the right side of anything. Not the Law, or Goodness, or Righteousness or Rightness, or God.

 Figure 6.

Figure 6.


Acceleration. Turbo-charged.


Figure 7.


When a previously stable system becomes unstable and departs (exponentially), we have no idea where it might go. In some sense, we cannot even imagine the possibilities of new “states” to which a now wildly unstable system might migrate and evolve a new state of dynamic stability. In chaos theory, these “states” can be called “attractors.” There are even “strange attractors.” Like my sister. Good references would be, again, James Gleick and Ilya Prigogine.


Figure 8.


Again, from the perspective or point of view of a familiar and recognizable stability (or “attractor”), possible futures are utterly unpredictable. They are profoundly, literally, unimaginable. Future, altered paradigms have uncountenanced, incomprehensibly foreign paradigms of their own. Nothing can prepare us. (See Immanuel Wallerstein, cited below).


Figure 9.


Stable systems are dynamically “equilibrating” because external destabilizing events (inputs) are countered by relatively small “outputs” that reorient the system back toward the “attractor” around which it is “balanced.”

If  “outputs” become gradually larger relative to “inputs,” the system is increasingly unstable. This is “positive feedback.” Eventually, some “input” will cause the system to completely depart from the region of stability and head for… well, the unknowable. Some mid-sized city in Nebraska. Bifurcation.


Figure 10.


Wherever you are in an exponential equation or system, everything looks the same. Your experience of the changes in the system today looks like the experience of yesterday, and of tomorrow (until some kind of “breakout” occurs). One cannot, from within the system, tell where one is on the “slope” of exponential change. Everything is relative.

Only externalities, in the form of limits, make it possible to distinguish one “location” from another inside the logic of exponential growth. It is only something from without the paradigm of geometric increase -something non-geometrical, or absolute, or linear, or “external” in a profound sense- that disturbs the “view.”

Only something that is systemically, mathematically “alien” can even enter into the picture and give it any sort of datum or baseline. Exponential change doesn’t even look like change, since it is eternal… relative change. Until something alien introduces absolute change. Then, and only then, can you see any sort of distinct landscape going by: external, non-geometric “limiting” factors like resource constraints, or catastrophe, or imminent paradigmatic transformation. Then you see immense, profound change in the system: radical departure from growth, e.g. decline, cataclysm, extermination. One could profitably read E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful (London: Blond and Briggs, 1973) and (further citations: The Limits To Growth and ref. population). 


Figure 11.


Look at the form here- just so we’re not mistaking anything. Externalities impose dynamic stability on a phenomenon that would otherwise multiply geometrically. Increasing instability leads to a “bifurcation” or departure from the region of stability. The system roars off to some new “attractor” or region, where it stabilizes.

Notice the overall form here. The larger form shows a geometrical “growth” at a meta-level. The local phenomenon of geometric multiplication is “regulated.” At the larger “scale,” the meta-phenomenon is also geometrical multiplication. Many natural systems exhibit this- e.g. human population.

Consider the “acceleration” of two (or more) geometrically multiplying factors. Then “multiply” that behavior by this meta-phenomenon. Phenomenal!


Figure 12.


Think of the step-wise line on this figure as some sort of progression of successive transformations. “improvements” in agricultural technology would be a good example. These “enhancements” are an accelerant- they geometrically compound the underlying exponential growth.


Figure 13.


Here’s an example. Quarrel with the simplification if you like. We are not experts and will do you the indignity of not being offended. The graph represents (theoretically) human population. Let’s say, planetary. The domestication of food-stock (plant and animal), cultivation, and the major technological achievement of the moldboard plow each successively multiply the productive capacity of agriculture and husbandry. Each leads to a multiplication in population. We… are in the Age of Petroleum Fertilizers and Mechanized, Industrial Agriculture and Resource Exploitation.


Figure 14.


Here’s the general form. Think of medical technology, or transportation. And think of social/cultural technologies too- cooperation, language, exchange media, urbanization, labor specialization, labor exploitation, capital accumulation.


Figure 15.


Another General Form. Traumatic, Large-Scale Variations Become the Norm.

Accelerating transformations, like technological innovations, actually multiply effects beyond the underlying geometrical growth. But they are external, and may have fundamental limits in themselves. They can have their own internal, destabilizing limiting “logic-” especially since they cause the underlying phenomenon to be altered- but note that they act as “local” equilibrating events. Think about the “hydraulic civilizations” that grew enormously because of extensive irrigation technologies, such as the Anasazi, the Meso-American and Peruvian, the Egyptian and the Chinese civilizations.


Figure 16.


Another figure returning our attention to human population over time. Think about it- these systemic instabilities and traumas make for exciting times! Lots of people dying and shit.


Figure 17.


When Barbara Ehrenreich refers to the possibility, even likelihood, of human extinction in the journal The Nation, it is time to think. (Insert Citation.) There have been some big extinctions in the past, and believe me, they must have been exciting! Again, one could refer to evolutionary paleontologists like Wilson and Gould. A particularly poignant book to go look at would be: Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, The Sixth Extinction: Patterns Of Life And The Future Of Mankind (New York: Anchor Books 1995). No-one in their right mind disputes that we are in a great period of great extinctions- one to compare to the grand-daddy of ’em all, the end-Permian. And the vulnerable species are the out-liers, especially the large, the highly specialized, those that depend on a complex hierarchy of other life forms, and those that consume food that is most like themselves. In any self-respecting extinction, odds are the large mammals are toast.


Figure 18.


Probably not really, looking at the overall picture we are putting together. But here. Three figures that follow this one will explain it.


Figure 19.


a” here can represent some (theoretical) numerical value. This could apply (does apply) to amoeba and mule deer, but say human population is increasing rapidly, and limits and traumas lead to a sort of a catastrophic “imbalance” and population “adjusts” and rebalances around some significantly lowered number. Let’s say, and we could argue, that the peak value is around eleven billion living humans, and the lower value shown is about six billion. “a” is then about five billion, no?

This is speculative. We don’t assert that human population can stabilize, long-term, around six billion. It can’t.

The question of time and timing is compelling here, too. If the elapse of time between these two points is long, then the decrease will be a significant, but maybe not cataclysmic, change in the rate of deaths over births. But maybe you are a demographer (we are not). Remember that right now, any rate of births over deaths is within a complex, exponential population growth equation, anyway.

If the time frame is shorter, say on the order of a human lifetime or a generation, things look mighty exciting indeed. Five billion people die, excess of deaths over births (roughly), young, early, reluctantly and of “unnatural cause.” Wow!

The population of parts of Europe generally decreased by about a third in the course of the Plagues. One could read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (Toronto: Random House 1978) for a lively account.


Figure 20.


A more extreme scenario. Population screams up a bit higher (this is what many of us have been concerned about). Resource crisis is more acute, rapid and generally calamitous. Just for fun, let’s say that in this scenario, humans become extinct within what we may generally think of as the same “event.” Maybe within one lifetime, or one generation, even.

Say population peaked at more like fifteen million. From fifteen to zip in a lifetime. Use your imagination. Now That’s got to have enough excitement to go around for the whole group! Just for the record: We, the Editors, think maybe birth rates worldwide will go down, now.


Figure 21.


This figure just abstractly compares the two generalizations. Does you inner paleontologist really give a shit? Or are you really concerned about experiencing this kind of excitement yourself? Moral question, or no?

Look at “b” minus “a.” Fifteen million people die, unintentionally, leaving none (and an unrecognizable planet). Or five million die, leaving some, on an unfamiliar planet, and with a wildly unstable and improbable future. The net, b – a = ten billion excess deaths. Insofar as this matters, this is why some of us have made precautionary urges for us to change our collective behavior.

Let’s take a bathroom break. Back in fifteen minutes?


Figure 22.


Back to another example of transformation. Say medical technologies lead to successive increases in life expectancy, and hence population. But then a global health event disrupts the picture- say the overload of toxic build-up in the human environment- and population precipitously declines. Our Stolen Future by Theo Colburn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers (New York: Penguin 1996)  (and….) is a worthwhile read. And, of course, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Laurie Garret: The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases In A World Out Of Balance (New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux 1994) is a responsible account.

23-second-general-form-500pxFigure 23.

Figure 23.


A general form again. Technologies have unintended consequences. Those destructive, unpredicted ones? Those consequences? Those were the unintended ones….

Let’s say that the upper graph there represents dollars spent globally, on medical care and technologies. This could be per capita, or absolute. Whatever. We, the Editors, think it has probably peaked, either way. That other curve there is human population, marching along… exponentially.

Or let’s say that the upper graph there represents human life expectancy, at birth, worldwide. It has been increasing, due to a number of factors, many of them discussed here… until now. That is human population there again, in the background, marching along… exponentially. We, the Editors, think maybe human life expectancy at birth, globally, has peaked, for the foreseeable future. Maybe forever. Probably.


Figure 24.


There are always unintended consequences. Technologies (of this kind) are self-arresting, and inherently contain the contradictions and limits that will bring the system back within “the rules.” It is one of the astounding features of humans that some of us always believe that this solution, this technology, this salvation, this is the one… that won’t. Them’s the rules.


Figure 25.


We have reached a region of profound instability. Relatively small perturbances in the system are producing more extreme and radical “outputs.” The global climate is disrupted. Our analytic sciences, that are only beginning to understand and describe highly complex systems, are inadequate. The sciences of stable systems are inadequate to give meaning to the reality of profound transformation.

The global “climate” (the term itself seems tiny and inadequate to the cataclysmic transformation our ecosystem is embarking upon) is disrupted.

Our society, our species and our interspecies interdependencies are on the brink of unprecedentedly traumatic disruptions that will feed back upon themselves. There is much, much more to say about social transformations, disruptions and destructive, violent “positive feedback” than we will say here. A look back at Figure 20 should do the trick. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride together.

It is refreshing that Immanuel Wallerstein has examined the implications of chaos theory for social theory. In The End Of The World As We Know It (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota 1999) he analyses increasing economic and social instability and disruptive positive feedback, and how they lead to radical departure from a region of social, cultural and economic stability. (Insert quote from The Nation).


Figure 26.


Here’s an example. Food production has been increasing, and human population with it- exponentially. It is going to decline. It is going to go from a multiplying feedback to an absolute limit – nongeometric- situation.

And! Fisheries are collapsing.


Figure 27.


Civilizations have grown as their technologies to extract, transport and utilize energy have multiplied. Then they have reached the absolute limits of their energy bases. The technologies, the complex civilizations that allowed their accumulation, and their populations have all concurrently collapsed. The collapse of civilizations correlates precisely to their blowing through -geometrically- the limits -absolute- of their resource bases. You have probably read the popular Jared Diamond books, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies (New York: Norton 1998) and Collapse (Insert Citation).


Figure 28.


Another general form. Resource: you name it. Water, soil, air, plant-based foods, fish, oil, wood, what-have-you.

The absolute resource constraints are reached, simultaneously, for many critical resources. Each in turn weakens the stability of the system. The unstable swings introduced by each reinforce the others, in “positive feedback.” At each instant, the increasing instability of the system makes it more brittle, less resilient, less able to neutralize destabilizing “inputs.” Each trauma, in turn, reduces the resourcefulness of the system.

Instability is a geometric phenomenon, too. This is, after all, within the logic of a geometrical system. Compounding is negative. This is what “positive feedback” means. If you have an account that grows by some percentage and you make a regular draw on it that exceeds that growth, what happens? The power of compounding works both ways.


Figure 29.



Figure 30


Another general form.  Some “thing” is accelerated by external transformation such as technology (the upper orange curve). This accelerated phenomenon runs ahead of the background rate of increase of, say, human population (the lower tan curve).  Look at the affect on human population- the bold, pink curve. Extetrnalities, in the form of a geometric “accelerant” and an absolute limit or constraint that is outside the paradigm of exponential growth, have destabilized the system. Collapse ensues.

Examples abound. We have cited many. Now’s your chance- use your imagination. Here’s a good example: petroleum. Oil extraction, world wide, has peaked. This is not subject to credible dispute.

Our production of food depends on petroleum. We use multiple calories in motor fuels to produce a calorie of food. And nitrate fertilizers are literally made of petroleum.

That big red dot there? The End. Some absolute limit. It is observable in either axis, once you see it. It is an absolute limit to an absolute number- say the number of people a resource base can sustain. And it is observable in time- the time beyond which the system cannot be “equilibrated.”

A Note About “Carrying Capacity.” (Insert Text.)


Figure 31.


An increasing unstable system (declining upper line- declining absolutely) supported by declining resource base (declining line- absolutely) with declining resiliency (declining line) and declining ability to absorb perturbances (yes, absolutely! the declining line).

Externally, absolute limits (the ability of the natural system to be a “sink” for degradation and contamination, depletion of fisheries, limits to agricultural production, etc). Come up as events.

Instabilities in the system lead to increasing frequency and magnitude of systemic social traumas, e.g. social inequalities, injustice, instability, violence, extremism, totalitarianism, etc.

External traumatic events compound and multiply the instabilities- e.g. climatic disruption, environmental catastrophes, rising sea levels, natural catastrophes both predictable and unimaginable.

Multiply all these together. This is, after all, a geometric, exponential system and these effects all compound and amplify one another.


Figure 32.


Get some sleep. 

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editor @ 11:04 pm

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