Aug 082012
 August 8, 2012  Posted by at 1:29 pm Earth Comments Off on Collapse Is Humanity Adapting To Its Own Presence

Ilargi: What follows is an elaborate contemplation by Alexander Aston, from whom we earlier published From Crisis to Crisis: Zimbabwe to Greece to Montana, on past, present and future of mankind and civilization, on collapse and rebirth. Alexander writes: "Civilization is the adaptation of humanity to its own presence". I took the liberty to strenghten that a little, and "slightly" change it into "Collapse Is Humanity Adapting To Its Own Presence". If we can agree that all civilizations MUST collapse, what after all is the difference?

Alexander Aston:

I think about history … a lot. It has always been my deepest fascination. When I was little I would construct whole civilizations with my Legos and play out their existence. Monuments would be constructed, kings would die, wars would start, cities would be rebuilt, lineages would rise and fall. I suppose as a child what captivated me was the magnitude of the human epic, the drama of the shifting patterns of human relationship over the course of generations. I simply loved telling their stories, and the sort of melancholic beauty that one feels reflecting on all that has passed, all that has succumbed to time and is irretrievable.

The western historical canon is well known to us in its essential form. The basic narrative runs, "Humans gave up their wandering and settled the fertile crescent, cities emerged, myths and legends were established. Then came the Greeks and all that is noble and virtuous in western culture was born: reason, art, democracy, etc. Next the Romans who brought, law, order and engineering until crushed by the barbarians and the rise of Christianity. The dark ages ensued until Europeans pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and proceeded to make their rightful claim on the world as the descendents of Greece and Rome."

The characters of our narratives have become so familiar to us that we tend to simply view our ancestors as us, separated only by time. I have watched the siege of Troy, the burning of the library of Alexandria and Gladiatorial games all carried out with clipped British accents as though everyone living in the past 10,000 years spoke the queen’s English. What happens in the reshaping of history through our narrative lens is, if you will, a cultural-morphic personification.

We attribute to our ancient cultures our own cosmologies and create a linear relationship between our cultures. Now I am not saying that we are not the descendents of the ancients that preceded us and that they have not had a powerful influence upon us. What I am saying is that we distort our ability to truly empathize and understand the humanity of those who preceded us and in doing so we distort our ability to understand our own position in history and relationship to those that will follow us.

The truth is that the ancients were radically different cultures than ours. The stories they told about themselves are not the same as the ones we tell about them. Though we can only reconstruct their worlds now using what facts we know, it is important that we work to empathize with their reality as best we can so that we might understand our own more fully. We must work to imagine the condition of the ancients. I often think of what it would have felt like to go into battle.

Can you imagine standing on the field, heat bearing down on you as you stare out at the mass of humanity on the opposing side, light glinting off of metal? You would have that deep anxiousness in the pit of your stomach. Drums beating as you and the columns start to move, first walking, jogging, then running, everything moving faster and faster.

Leather and metal strapped to your body chafing against your skin, the scent of other humans and dust from thousands of sandals hitting the earth surrounds you. Blood and adrenaline pumping through your body to match the pounding of the war drums. Closer and closer the inevitability of the clash descending upon you, the roar of thousands of voices screaming in unison fill the air and… impact.

What was the psychology of these humans? What ordered their world, what was the visceral intensity of their experience? What makes them "us", what gives them their own unique truths? The people that we call the "Greeks", were an Iron age people in the Mediterranean, already with their own vast history filled with legends and fallen civilizations as distant from their times as we are from them.

Certainly the Hellenes form part of the DNA of our culture, their ideas and actions have been transmitted through the shifting dynamics of human society and played a large role in the shape and expression of our cultures. Yet they were not "Westerners" or "Europeans". They were a people trying to make sense of the process in which they were embedded, trying to create a coherent narrative out of all that they had inherited and did not even remotely imagine of us.

Yet why is this idea of reframing the narrative so important? I would argue that if we do not demythologize our history we will be incapable of demythologizing ourselves, and if our understanding of our lineage is mythic then our relationship to our own times is equally so. That when we respond to our condition with pre-scripted narratives we are attempting to conform reality to our own thoughts, assumptions and biases. This reduces our adaptability because it reduces our ability to see possibilities and to embrace a diversity of perception and response. Think of all the humans burned at stakes, all the texts that have been obliterated simply because they challenged the dominant narratives.


Rebirth, Rebirth

I want to try and posit a different narrative, an attempt at demythologizing history and civilization a bit, and to better map the "geography" of our past to the best of my understanding. I will largely use the lens of western history as that is what I am most familiar with (like those most likely to read this) but not to disregard other histories. This is not meant to be a referenced, academic paper (I am working on that separately), rather I will use logic and what is largely common historical knowledge to establish my argument for a different perspective.

I believe the universe can be viewed as an entropic fractal. Energy and matter collect into differentials that work to more efficiently dissipate available energy. When a differential is formed that can contain a portion of available energy from a source and stabilize it in negative feedback loops, it will form a more complex and energy dense structure at a smaller scale than its source.

This works algorithmically. Unstable structures, such as supernovas, die out, creating not only the room for more stable structures to form but also the materials that provide new differentials. Stable structures increase the amount of energy available on a local scale, which increases the probability of energy pooling into a smaller, available differential. Given enough time and space, material complexity and energy density will be increasingly selected for by the repetition of this process.

Simply put: given enough variables in structure, energy will continue to create denser and more complex structures at successively smaller scales.

In turn life is also an entropic mechanism, it harnesses available energy and dissipates it. However, given the magnitude of available energy in relation to the earth, life forms a massive positive feedback loop expanding and processing larger and larger amounts of available energy. Organisms greatly increase energy density and make energy more available on a local scale by doing things like excreting the byproducts of metabolization (such as when anaerobic organisms oxygenated the biosphere) by being energy dense packets for predation, or simply by decomposing.

By its presence life increases available energy, by increasing available energy it increases the probability of the emergence of new organisms to harness that available energy, creating in turn more complexity and density in a positive feedback loop of adaptation and evolution. In other words the presence of life reshapes and changes the conditions in which it arose, forcing it to continually adapt to its own presence. What we can see in evolution is that the organisms most capable of harnessing available energy are the most fit.

If you will permit me a bit of poetic license, one can view all living organisms as singular entities that have been transforming and mutating in the changing currents of energy over billions of years. Evolution is simply the logic of entropic complexity played out algorithmically with increasing complexity due to the feedback mechanisms inherent in the process.

What we see is an embedded process of agency, set by universal parameters of energy organization and behaviour. A process of agency that is played out with increasing speed and complexity through a cosmic positive feedback loop. I would argue that Humanity, imbedded in this process, forms a whole new fractal of agency. Simply put, the human mind represents the sum logic of evolution, for the purpose of harnessing available energy, in a singular organism. Instead of adapting physiologically it adapts behaviourally, furthering the geometric growth in complexity.

Humanity's arrival has also played in a self similar pattern to the emergence of life. As symbolic consciousness first started to emerge from the "ocean" and step onto the shores of Africa it increasingly began to respond to its own presence. Hominids began organizing into complex social structures, forming a sort multicellular consciousness, capable of ever more sophisticated interactions with its environment and thus changing its environment in turn. Our socio-economic structures create an ecology of consciousness in which humans operate.

This raises the issue of Civilization. Given that social organization and H. sapiens are axiomatic, and that the species is biologically predisposed to the extremely successful system of hunting and gathering, the massive mutations in the social structure over the past 10,000 years must have been predicated upon evolutionary pressures in which tribal systems had no competitive advantage.

Given what we know of the adaptability of the tribal system to environments, and its proliferation globally, the only new environmental factor at the onset of agriculture which would have provided the competition necessary for a mutation in social structure is humanity itself. This is not to negate structural factors such as the end of the last ice age, but recognition that the presence of human consciousness was the fundamental factor.

The agricultural revolution began independently in multiple locations almost immediately after the establishment of indigenous societies in nearly every major geographic region of the Earth. Since the tribal system was so successful it experienced steadily growing populations, and these population pressures would have created increased competition over the available resources, ultimately resulting in the migration of populations in order to meet their resource needs and maintain the growth rate. This process of expansion is shown by the species’ global establishment by 12,000 B.C. However, as tribal populations reached near total coverage of the planet, migratory patterns would have become more restricted by the presence of other human populations.


Agriculture and ultimately civilization began near simultaneously (on a evolutionary and historical scale) worldwide, on roughly the same latitudes. The epicenters of Civilization in the Fertile Crescent, Mesoamerica and the Yangtze and Indus valleys are, or once were, some of the most fertile areas on Earth, meaning that they would have already supported some of the densest populations of indigenous peoples in the world.

Since the members of a species fill the same ecological niche they are naturally in competition for the same resources, and the larger the population the greater the competition leading to an increasingly rapid depletion of resources. As tribal societies filled the Earth’s hunter-gatherer carrying capacity there would have been a steady intensification in competition for resources as the traditional geographic range of hunter gatherer peoples became increasingly limited.

However, tribal structures would have been in a state of competitive equilibrium, meaning that there were no major advantages in resource gathering among the competing populations. Due to the limits on range imposed by population densities, and the inability to out-compete neighbors for their resources, tribal societies adapted to these new environmental forces by intensifying the usage of their resource bases. It is at this point that the mutations from the hunter gather lifestyle into agricultural society began. In essence, the root cause of Civilization is the adaptation of humanity to its own presence.

H. Sapiens has an unprecedented interface with its environment. Due to their tool making and cognitive capacities, humans create incredibly complex social dynamics in order to interface with their surroundings. They essentially operate as one synchronous social organism in order to compete. When humanity first came into being, the tribal interface was in a homeostatic state allowing human populations to expand worldwide.

When the tribal interface began to overshoot the environment's carrying capacity for that specific socio-economic model, it was not a physiological interface that was in a state of competitive equilibrium but a behavioral one, therefore natural selection favored behavioral adaptations that broke the competitive equilibrium.

When the adaptive qualities of the human species came into direct competition with one another, a positive feedback loop was created where intensification of human interaction with its resource base ultimately led to agriculture. Like a star igniting, populations reorganized into ape hives around more localized energy production and denser thermodynamic flows. This in turn created the first major food surpluses which subsequently led to larger populations, which lead to greater levels of cultivation, surplus, and a rapid expansion of peoples carrying the new social mutation.

This would have increased population pressures but civilized peoples had developed a competitive advantage, in numbers initially and later in technology, over the smaller indigenous populations. Once agriculture had achieved a competitive advantage over the tribal interface it began to expand and fill the environment’s carrying capacity, mutating again when its expansion hit competitive equilibrium over limited resources.

The same fundamental dynamics of population growth apply to Civilization as they applied to the earlier indigenous humans. The success of the adaptation led to steadily growing populations, and as they exceeded the capacities of their resource bases Civilization began to migrate outwards, reaching near total coverage of the globe and human institution by the 19th century. Populations continued to grow but room for expansion became increasingly limited by the presence of other civilized populations, which led to a rapid intensification of resource competition worldwide.

Like its tribal predecessors, Civilization had reached a level of intense competitive equilibrium amongst itself and began adapting to its own presence by intensifying the usage of its resource base. Just as the human population verged on one billion and competition between Agrarian Civilizations reached its zenith, the Industrial Revolution began. Industrialization spread rapidly throughout the densest populations of humanity worldwide, creating another positive feedback loop and rapid growth rate similar to that of agriculture before it.

The past 300-odd years have shown the competitive success of the industrial society over its agricultural counterpart, to the point that it has become the dominant form of social structure for the vast majority of humans.

In light of my conjectures I want to give a slight reframing narrative of western history starting with the rise of Christianity and the Collapse of Rome. This is meant to be an illustrative but truncated narrative focused more on the broad historical pattern, so please excuse me for any glaring omissions.

The Roman Empire was highly dependent on expansion to maintain its structure. The wealth, in both resources and slaves, taken from conquered territories in an expanding periphery was used as the major fuel source for socio-economic activity within the Empire. As the Empire expanded it had to increasingly expended more energy on maintaining coherence within its territory. Overtime the net energy needed to maintain the empire exceeded the net gain from further expansion, meaning that it lost the primary energy source it was organized to harness thus sending it into a long, though not completely linear, period of contraction and decline.

There is an important behavioural component in the culture of Rome at this time. As the patronage systems broke down and services went into decline, as famines, pestilences and other disaster would rip through Roman cities, the Roman elite, the patriarchs and priests tended to have a common response. They’d bugger off. The elites would tend to retreat to their country estates and wait out the worst of it (though this did act to seed the manorial system of the middle ages), leaving the lower classes to sort themselves out.

Christianity went from being a cult of ostensibly 12 families to the dominant religion of the empire in less than 400 years. No small feat in a world where the fastest form of travel was the Trireme. This is often described as one of the "miracles" of Christianity and I am sure there would be those that would be quite displeased to hear me say it would be more appropriately called natural selection.


The Christian worldview, its behavioural/cultural genetics or memes, describes a system of mutual aid and care giving, i.e. "love thy neighbour".

When Christians started encountering the inadequacy of the Roman system to support its citizens they would stay in the urban centers and provide basic care and food to the citizens as their beliefs required them to. Basic care increases a human being's survival rate dramatically, so if you had a christian community you were more likely to survive difficult times. As more people were saved by Christian charity they adopted what was a more functional model of social organization in terms of survival.

Of course this all came with cosmological justification that was transmitted with the behaviour. In this way Christianity was able to grow geometrically in the empire and undercut and supplant the social order despite powerful attempts to stop the process. Adaptation and evolution by any other name.

Thus a behavioural adaptation occurred that tended to create a more effective distribution of resource and increase survival rates amongst its adherents. As the economic ecology of the Roman Empire continued to break down, communities formed around country estates where energy production and distribution was localized, forming the roots of Feudalism.

Because they were more efficient, independent and durable in structure they supplanted the deteriorating ancient economic models and assembled the basis of social organization in the middle ages. Not a pretty system by any means, but an effective one. In essence the manor system created ecological pockets of humanity that were able to whether the collapse of the system.

Now we flash forward a bit to the black death. Roughly 50% of Europe's population is estimated to have died. Combined with events such as the Little Ice Age, the Great Famine, the Western Schism and the 100 Years War. the cultural world view of Medieval Europe began to fall apart and the feudal structure was massively destabilized.

The Plague created more available land as well as a far higher demand for available humans due to the reduced supply of population. This ultimately helped to establish the wage and rental systems, stagnating manorial wealth while increasing economic opportunity and mobility for many surviving Europeans.

As the manor system began to fall apart, cities began to expand as populations migrated for new economic opportunities and a new "middle class" began to emerge (despite attempts by the elite yet again to stifle such changes). It is not surprising that the first major expansions of economic and cultural activity developed in the Italian city states.

Firstly they were the point of introduction of the plague in Europe so they had a head start on stabilization and recovery from its effects. Secondly, because they were the major European trading centers with the rest of the Eurasian continent, they would also have provided the most economic opportunity.

As populations moved into the Italian cities they would have done so with their cultural narratives severely shaken, making them not only more susceptible to new ideas but indeed hungry for new narratives and identification in a vastly changed society. Thus the long dormant memes (preserved for Europe by the Arabs) of the Roman and Hellenic world began to take root and spread. Ancient ideas fueled new ones and the culture began to reorganize its self-conception in the process we term the renaissance developing the first real challenge to the medieval worldview in millennia.

Around the same time wealth from the New World began to pour into Europe, largely through the Spanish conquest of the Americas. One could also argue that the age of discovery was fueled by geography. With Portugal and Spain on the periphery of the major Italian economic centers and with dense populations prohibiting expansion to the east they were directed towards oceanic exploration and expansion in the west to fuel their economies.

This infusion of wealth represented a massive energy boon that stimulated economic activity and also out competed the old aristocratic economic models. This wealth was largely distributed into Northern Europe, especially the Netherlands, France and England, which became the manufacturing base of Europe.

Thus nations on the periphery of the old medieval order – the Church of Rome -, became both more economically powerful and independent. It was this combination of economic transformation, infused with humanist values of the Renaissance spreading north, that helped spark the reformation.

Economic independence provided the insulation necessary for a new conception of human relationship to take root and challenge the authority of Rome. Though in terms of area and populations the Catholics came out dominant, it forever shattered the Church's hegemony over Europe. This in turn created a divide in the cultural geography of Europe, providing new niches for ideas to flourish and spread, ultimately giving rise to the Enlightenment, scientific thinking and the impetus for the industrial revolution.


This is a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, in which long periods of relative stability are punctuated with periods of rapid adaptation and diversification. An ecological system reaches a high level of equilibrium and complexity in its relationships; then something causes the equilibrium to fracture, whether a meteorite or the plague, thus reducing the complexity of the system.

This acts to clear the more inefficient and fragile structures, opening up energy flows and new niches for more stable species (or ideas) to expand into. What is very fascinating on an thermodynamic level is that every phase of punctuated equilibrium ends with a severe reduction in available energy, whether energy available from the sun or from working populations. This collapses the structures dependent on formerly large energy flows, but it creates a selection mechanism for structures capable of organizing more efficiently and densely in relation to available energy.

A perfect illustration of this is the radiation of Endothermic animals (mammals) and Angiosperms with the extinction of the dinosaurs. Endothermic animals have a much higher energy density than exotherms, and though they have higher energy requirements as well, this was offset by the size of the early mammals. This energy density allows them to maintain a higher state of internal equilibrium in relationship to available energy (localized energy production), thus allowing them to better survive the reduced warmth of the post meteorite environment.

It’s the same with flowers and deciduous trees: their broad thin leafs allowed them to better photosynthesize in the reduced light of the nuclear winter, and as coniferous canopies began to clear it allowed for their radiation. With the collapse phase of punctuated equilibrium the most energy dense and efficient structures are selected for, meaning that all subsequent radiation will inherently be more complex due to its increased density and efficiency, further feeding into the positive feedback loop of entropic complexity by making more energy available on the local level.

This is the mechanism that best expresses the emergence of complexity as I understand it. It emerges by orders of magnitude by organizing energy and matter into complex relationships which break down, then algorithmically selecting the most energy dense and efficient remainder to reorganize into a greater order of complexity.

This invariably makes the process faster and faster as systems with an increased capacity for energy density manifest complexity more rapidly, in turn making them more susceptible to breakdown when something interferes with those complex relationships.

In a super brief overview of history we can illustrate it like this: Roughly 8 Billion years from the big bang to the emergence of life. Roughly 2.5 billion years from the emergence of prokaryotic cells to the emergence of eukaryotic cells, and roughly 1 billion years from the emergence of Eukaryotes to Multicellular organisms. 370 million years to the colonization of land etc.

Again, in human history we can see a similar pattern, 150 thousand years to the "great leap forward", 40 thousand years to the development of agriculture and 10,000 years to industrialization. We see this at an even smaller scale in european history, Roman break down, reemergence, Medieval break down, reemergence. Events break down the ecology of human organization and it reforms into denser more complex structures, complete with new adaptive behaviours.

So here we are in 2012 and what we do know is that our systems demands far exceed the capacity of the planet to support it and it is increasingly becoming a thermodynamic impossibility. Our conception of society is at complete odds with the physical and biological parameters that gave rise to it. The collapse of our world order is coming down to simple maths, and while inconceivable to many, it is also irrefutable to anyone willing to look at the basic truths of physics and ecology.

We are caught in the unfolding of a titanic logic bomb between the demands of our economic system and the limitations of both our planet and humanity itself. The high priests of Economics fiercely deny this and demand ever more blood sacrifice from us in order to end the eclipse of their infinite future. This is endemic behaviour of elites throughout history, who have consistently attempted to conform reality to their metaphysics, the worldviews born of, and insulated by, their privilege, while the burden of reality is increasingly placed on those beneath them.

Historically this plays out until the inertia created by their inability to adapt breaks the old order apart. Roman Senators, the Ancient Regime, Mandarins and Czars all suffered from the most extreme forms of normalcy bias, ones used to the command of reality; invariably such hubris condemns the majority to tragedy.

So what can we infer from our history thus far? The history of a species' population growth tends to follow a pattern known as M.I.G.O.D.S. or migration, innovation, growth, overexploitation, decline and stabilization. So far humanity has repeated the first steps with increasing intensity due to its cognitive capacities and ability to adapt behaviourally. Hunter Gatherers migrated and developed innovations to their new environments which continued the processes of population growth and migration.

However, when overexploitation started to confront human populations (at least in those areas that permitted the development of agriculture), humans developed new innovations in culture and production that allowed for the process of growth to continue. This did not nullify the rest of the M.I.G.O.D.S. pattern but delayed it allowing us to reach a level of global overexploitation. What is truly fascinating about us is that yet again Humanity's greatest ecological pressure is itself.

So what are we looking at when we peer into the future using this understanding of population growth? Ignoring either an stratospheric rise or total collapse into oblivion, what we see in the J-curve is a drop followed by stabilization, a state of equilibrium forming a relatively straight line. When we look at this part of population patterns in terms of human history, what we are looking at is a radically different society than any we have ever experienced before.

It represents a transformation or mutation in human social structure as radically different in its function and self conception as the differences between Hunter Gatherers, Agriculturalists and Industrials. The only other thing that I think can be said with relative surety is that on a historical scale the process of transformation will be bloody well fast.


That is why I say that this process will be an order an of magnitude higher than agriculture and Industrialization combined.

Not because we will achieve an unlimited growth in complexity, but because of the speed of reorganization that will be necessary. The speed of decline exerting pressure on societies on the one hand, and our historically unparalleled capacity to transmit information on the other, combine to create the conditions in which behavioural adaptation can manifest very rapidly.

There are two major questions in my view when looking at this. Firstly, at what point in decline do we stabilize, and secondly, what will be the cultural expressions of that stability? The first question is important because the point of stabilization will have a massive impact on the social complexity of future organization.

How much population do we lose, how much information and technology? The extreme of a post industrial stone age puts that into perspective. Obviously the social structures and psychologies of those populations after such an event would be radically new, they would also be far more stable than our current system but the degree of loss in complexity would be astounding.

The second question is far more difficult to approach as the variables are endless and one can only make conjectures as to what is possible. All of us who have thought of these issues have considered the horror that is possible, and many of us have felt terror contemplating such things. However, I want to end this by looking forward to the possibility of a more hopeful and even better future.

This is not to make light of what we as a species are about to encounter. Getting from here to there is going to be painful and difficult to say the least. I have little doubt that we will see wars, uprisings, atrocities, natural and-man made disaster as well as a decrease in populations (deaths) on a global scale unparalleled in history in terms of sheer numbers. These events will affect the human psyche for the rest of its history in one form or another. Still, between delusion and despair lays clarity.

The poet and philosopher Rainer Maria Rilke wrote:

"People have, with the help of so many conventions, resolved everything the easy way, on the easiest side of easy. But it is clear that we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance. We can be sure of very little, but the need to court our struggle is a surety that will not leave us. [..]

The fact that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it. ".

It is my conjecture that the struggle we are headed into could lead to an unparalleled transformation of humanity. That it could lead to the birth of cultures that are healthier and happier than any before known by our species. Societies that will look back on our times with the same astonishment at our barbarity as we look on those societies that burned their people at the stake or cut out their hearts atop pyramids.

I often tell people in conversation that we are living in an age of dinosaurs. Massive beasts in the shape of nation states and corporations roam our planet, consuming resources, metabolizing them and excreting waste. The very logic of their organization will lead to the energy scarcity that will precipitate their extinction. It is my view in light of this metaphor that our job is to be mammals. As the ecological "equilibrium" of these systems starts to break down from energy/resource scarcity, those groups that are able to organize more efficiently, sustainably and ultimately with greater local energy density, will be the societies that are selected for.

Thus forming the base for healthier, more functional cultures to radiate from. They will be islands of stability in an ecological/economic collapse, and their adaptations that make them more fit for survival will form the basis of an Ecocultural revolution. As the old systems break down populations will look increasingly towards new narratives and models that work, adapting those behaviours to their own localities in a process of lateral transmission and organic emergence that has always underpinned true social transformation.

I do not want to make too many claims on what such societies would look like, for certainly sustainability in Montana will look different than that in Maine, or Russia or all the other myriad locations of human society. Some will be religious communities, others anarchist, others quasi feudal. What I will hazard is that the logical cultural hallmarks of these societies will be increased local resiliency with production and the vast majority of needs met locally.

These systems of production will manifest through incredibly sophisticated observations and interactions with their environments. I would also hazard that the most successful of these societies will exhibit high levels of compassion and individual freedom. There are two good reasons for this.

One is that compassionate societies that take care of their members have higher levels of trust and cohesiveness. They more efficiently distribute resources for the good of the larger community increasing their ability to operate and survive in difficult times.

The second is that societies that do not force individuals into monolithic, pre-scripted narratives of behaviour increase the adaptability of their individual members and thus the total community. By creating a society that embraces a diversity of ideas and behaviours in its population it algorithmically increases the possible responses of the society to various circumstances.

So I want to take a moment to imagine a possible future, one that is in my view ideal but not impossible. I think of societies where human existential, social and emotional needs are met by a system of production capable of supporting material needs through a sophisticated analysis and interaction with the ecological and thermodynamic process in which it is imbedded.

I often imagine a world where children dive and play amongst the reefs formed by our submerged cities. A world filled with small city states, rural communities and tribes. I imagine them as able to harness some of our old knowledge through recycling and reusing what they can of the vast wealth produced by our own ancient civilization. Perhaps they can produce electricity, transmit radio waves and still listen to the grand and beautiful music of our culture.

I envision their habitats as ecological gardens, by relying on what they are capable of producing locally and efficiently and by distributing with an egalitarian ethos they are able to free themselves up for other cultural pursuits. I see individuals that are free to pursue their passions in the context of supportive communities creating deeper security, connection and meaning in their lives.

Imagine a society where education and learning are freed from causal economic narratives and embraced as one of the great joys and passions of human consciousness. Where Art and Philosophy are celebrated purely for the joy of the acts themselves. Imagine societies that work conscientiously with their people from early childhood to old age, cultivating their unique abilities and awareness to ever more profound understanding and self expression of existence.

Imagine communities surrounded by vast tracts of wilderness and between those vast and wild lands routes that connect communities for trade and communication. Perhaps they will ply the seas in sailing ships. Perhaps it is all just fantasy but I would rather spend my life working towards renaissance than fleeing apocalypse.

In my view there is no more noble and honourable task that we might take on in our lifetimes than to try and create this future for our descendents. To create a world in which we are the ancients that they look upon with that mixture of horror and awed respect, forgiving us our confusion and complexity for having done our best with what we knew.

The endeavour is monumental and far from assured. We would have to analyze all that we know of our world and humanity to see what has worked and what has failed in order to assemble a new vision from a collage of working parts. We would have to operate in our communities with radical creativity and criticality and we would have to embrace the possibility of failure with the dignity of having tried.

In the words of Rilke:

"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

Image top: Raja Ravi Varma "King Dasaratha finds Queen Kaikeyi collapsed on a tile floor" 1895, WikiCommons


Aug 072012
 August 7, 2012  Posted by at 9:16 pm Finance Comments Off on Here’s The Science That Can Solve The Crisis

Harris & Ewing Machine Shop 1917
"C.W. Hecox, instructor in machine shop, D.C. public schools. Supervising manufacture of practice shells for Navy at McKinley training school"

Last week, Nature Magazine wrote about a report by Stefano Battiston, Michelangelo Puliga, Rahul Kaushik, Paolo Tasca & Guido Caldarelli, researchers at ETH Zurich, originally published as DebtRank, too central to fail? at the FOC site.

This is how the people at Phys.Org summarize the report:

Team studies the innermost circle of the financial crisis

“Too central to fail” instead of “too big to fail”: whether banks pose a risk to the financial system when they get into distress has more to do with their level of networking than with their size. Economic researchers at ETH Zurich have developed a method to deduce the “systemic importance” of banks from their complex connections within financial networks.

“Between 2008 and 2010 a total of 22 banks formed the innermost circle of the financial crisis. They were so intensely connected with each other through credit relationships, mutual equity investments and financial dependencies that the distress of any single one of them could endanger the entire financial system. [..]

“The paper by the ETH Zurich researchers injects fresh impetus into the debate regarding the systemic importance of banks that are “too big to fail”. A bank becomes systemically important, or “too big to fail”, when its services are irreplaceable and its insolvency would cost the national economy more than its rescue by the state. However, a bank’s size is only one indicator of its importance for the financial system. Even small banks can pose systemic risks if they are closely networked with other financial institutions.

“The identification of such networking risks and interdependent credit risks presents major challenges for science, business and the authorities concerned. For this reason, the European Commission has launched the scientific project “Forecasting Financial Crisis (FOC)”. FOC is financed by the FET OPEN Scheme (“Future and Emerging Technologies Open Scheme”). Its research topic is to understand and possibly forecast systemic risk and global financial instabilities. [..]

“The Federal Reserve data originate from the “emergency loan program” from 2007 to 2010, through which the Fed provided “cheap” money to financial institutions in the USA that were acutely at risk of defaults. At the height of the crisis, the total amount of loans granted climbed to an astonishing USD 1.2 trillion.

“The Federal Reserve published the figures after the US Supreme Court granted the Bloomberg business and financial information and news company the right to inspect the data, since the American financial system had, after all, been restructured using public funds. The data sets from the Federal Reserve and Bloomberg document the residual outstanding debts and the market capitalisation of a total of 407 financial institutions that borrowed emergency loans from the Fed. The size of the loans provides an indication of a bank’s individual debt over equity ratio and of any potential distress or defaults.

“The assessment of the Federal Reserve data showed that, although the various banks got into difficulties at different times, around 30 banks reached the peak of their emergency situation simultaneously at the height of the crisis. Considered over the entire duration of the emergency loan program, it also became apparent that the number of top borrowers at any given moment hovered around a figure of 20. The ETH Zurich researchers then turned their focus towards those 22 institutions that had received more than USD 5 billion in emergency loans on average over the entire crisis period.

Ok, introductions done. I toyed around with a great little widget on the FOC page based on the report, and generated the graphs below.

Now, before you jump to conclusions, please note that the method, in this instance, uses one set of data: the ones, obtained by Bloomberg, after a huge hassle, through the Freedom of Information Act, that cover only the Fed “emergency loan program” from 2007 to 2010. Hence, if you think you see things – such as interdependence between banks – seemingly returning to normal as time progresses, you would be wrong. It's just that the research team ran out of data. They used the Fed numbers merely to provide a demonstration of what their method could achieve. A very important caveat. Let's get back to that after the graphs.

How does it all work? Just think Google. If you can do PageRank, you can do DebtRank. if you have access to the data. Mark Buchanan explains that part for Bloomberg:

How Google Can Avert the Next Financial Crisis

The mathematical insight that turned Google Inc. into a multibillion-dollar company has the potential to help the world avert the next financial crisis. If only banks made public the data required to do the job.

Sixteen years ago, the founders of Google — computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin — introduced an algorithm to measure the “importance” of Web pages relative to any set of keywords. Known as PageRank, it works on the notion that Web pages effectively vote for other pages by linking to them. The most important ones, Page and Brin reasoned, should be those drawing links from many other pages, especially from other really important ones.

If this definition sounds circular, it is. It also captures an authentic reality, which is why respecting it gives far superior results. Page and Brin’s breakthrough involved using mathematics to make it work. The required ideas don’t go much beyond high-school algebra, although it takes lots of computing power to make something as sprawling as the World Wide Web possible.

What could this have to do with finance? Quite a lot. The systemic risk that turned the U.S. subprime-lending crisis into a global disaster is circular, too. We can’t identify it simply by looking for the banks with the most assets or the biggest portfolios of risky loans. What matters is how many links a bank has to other institutions, how strong those links are and how risky those other banks are, not least because they too have links to other risky banks.

Something like PageRank might be just the right thing to cut through it. That’s the argument, at least, made by a team of European physicists and economists in a new study. Their algorithm, DebtRank, seeks to measure the total economic value that would be destroyed if a bank became distressed or went into default. It does so by moving outward from the bank through the web of links in the financial system to estimate all the various consequences likely to accrue from one failure. Banks connected to more banks with high DebtRank scores would, naturally, have higher DebtRank scores themselves.

The first set of graphs is the "dry" DebtRank set.

We start out pretty demure in January 2008. Banks' markets caps are still -relatively – high, and debt ranks are low, i.e. no bank is yet central enough to be an overt risk to the system. According to the Fed data set, that is; the full reality, of course, is already much worse at this point.



In July 2008, there's a first blip, with market caps falling and interdependence (debt ranks) surging.



November 2008 brings the real thing. Debt ranks explode, and market caps plunge. No coincidence.



In March 2009, things get even worse. Average market caps reach a bottom, having dropped some 80% or so, and the too-central-to-fail banks are in the middle of the debt rank circle, meaning they can do a lot of harm to the system.



After that there's a sharp drop in interdependence, though it remains above the January 2008 starting point, and a relatively nice rise in average market caps, which, however, stay far below the starting point. up until the end of the data set in mid 2010.



And next, a similar series of graphs, identical timeline, for what the researchers call the Bubble Plot, which they define this way:

DebtRank vs Size. Scatter plot of DebtRank versus asset size, measured as a fraction (in %) of the total of the asset size in the network. For sake of simplicity, in the experiment, asset size was assumed constant during the time span of the data. Notice that institutions such as UBS, or CITIGROUP alone account for almost 10% of the total assets. The size of each bubble is proportional to the outstanding debt of the institution while the color reflects its fragility, defined as the ratio of debt over market capitalization.

In January 2008, everything seems quiet. Note how Morgan Stanley's lonely at the top.



In the first July 2008 blip, bubbles blow and rise slightly.



In November 2008, it's game on. Increased bubble size, and the bubbles rise, indicating, let's say, increasing volatility.



In March 2009, the ceiling's not high enough anymore. Except for Morgan Stanley …



And a year after that, all seems well again.



What does all this mean? Well, there are plenty of caveats involved, so many that any a voice can say many a thing to discredit the report, and its validity. But in the end, we can only conclude that there is indeed a way to measure the impact of too-big-to-fail and/or too-central-to-fail financial institutions on our economies. Or at the very least that there is one that is worth examining, that very strongly promises to provide us with a way to measure it.

We just need to feed in the data. That won't make the debt go away, but at least we would know how much it is, and, perhaps even more importantly at this point, where it is.

But of course the data are not made available. Not by the banks themselves, and not by the regulators that are supposed to control them. And not by the lawmakers who are the only ones that would have the power to demand they're made available.

Perhaps, for instance in one of the myriad of upcoming LIBOR related courtcases, there's a judge somewhere who demands real numbers. But we can't count on that happening either. We're all basically the combined butts of a worldwide joke.

Still, let no-one anytime anywhere anymore tell you that the whole financial mess we've been sinking into for years now is too complex to measure.

It's not.

It's just that nobody wants to measure economics using scientific standards. Because that would expose it all for the fraud it is, both the economics profession and the financial system as a whole. Here's Matt Buchanan again, putting it very eloquently:

An algorithm alone can’t save the world, and this isn’t the final word on the best way to measure systemic risk. Yet the apparent superiority of the DebtRank approach underscores how our ability to monitor the financial system depends wholly on the availability of data. Currently, most of the information that would be needed to calculate DebtRank or any other similar measure is simply not public.

Imagine a world in which banks and other financial institutions were legally required to disclose absolutely all of their assets and liabilities to central banks, which would in turn make that information public on a website. Regulators — indeed, anyone — would then be able to see the whole network and assess a bank’s situation in full clarity. Anyone so inclined could calculate measures such as DebtRank and assess how much any particular bank is contributing to potential financial instability.

With full transparency, it’s just possible that the core business of lenders would go back to assessing the creditworthiness of borrowers. They would need to do so to maintain a good reputation and to borrow themselves, as any risky loans they made would be known to all. In such a situation, the economist and physicist Stefan Thurner of Medical University of Vienna suggests, “financial institutions would only survive and prosper if they assess the risk of others better than their peers.”

That is a radical idea, so radical it is almost certainly a political nonstarter. But as the British physicist William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin, put it back in the 19th century: “What you cannot measure, you cannot hope to improve.” It’s a lasting piece of wisdom.

Yeah, sure. Full transparency. And the day we manage to make pigs fly, they'll be see-through too.


Aug 062012
 August 6, 2012  Posted by at 4:42 pm Earth Comments Off on Terrifying Study of Planetary Collapse

A few days ago, I posted an article on how the Brazilian government has sacrificed the lush Amazon Rainforest for short-term economic profits over the course of a few years. Today, I’d like to share more “good news” about the global environment that probably went unnoticed by many people (h/t Jaded Prole). About two months ago, Nature published a report by a group of 21 scientists who arrived at a very startling conclusion – Earth’s ecosystems are heading for an “imminent, irreversible collapse” well before the century is out.

Sound a bit too extreme and alarming? Perhaps, but the authors feel that the logic and data to back up such a conclusion are all there. One key factor, for example, is the rapid loss of biodiversity in our ecosystems – something Brazilian federal de-regulators should know all too much about. That’s just one factor among many others, though. And while these scientists don’t focus much on human financial, economic, social or political systems, we must remember that they all play an integral part in preventing radical reversals of Earth-destroying policies at large scales.

At the same time, it is equally frightening to imagine what a desperate group of elite policymakers will do once they can no longer hide from reality, but can only think to act in extreme ways, perhaps at the behest of the masses. I’m confident that there are at least a few of them who are already thinking about what they can get away with in such a scenario. That’s why I cringe when I read the scientists proposing this – “Society globally has to collectively decide that we need to drastically lower our population very quickly”.

Anyhow, here is Carol Thorbes summarizing the terrifying report in an article for Simon Fraser University, where one of the 21 scientists works as a Professor of Biodiversity (Arne Mooers). The actual report can be found through Nature’s website.



Study predicts imminent irreversible planetary collapse


Using scientific theories, toy ecosystem modeling and paleontological evidence as a crystal ball, 21 scientists, including one from Simon Fraser University, predict we’re on a much worse collision course with Mother Nature than currently thought.


In Approaching a state-shift in Earth’s biosphere, a paper just published in Nature, the authors, whose expertise spans a multitude of disciplines, suggest our planet’s ecosystems are careening towards an imminent, irreversible collapse.


Earth’s accelerating loss of biodiversity, its climate’s increasingly extreme fluctuations, its ecosystems’ growing connectedness and its radically changing total energy budget are precursors to reaching a planetary state threshold or tipping point.


Once that happens, which the authors predict could be reached this century, the planet’s ecosystems, as we know them, could irreversibly collapse in the proverbial blink of an eye.


“The last tipping point in Earth’s history occurred about 12,000 years ago when the planet went from being in the age of glaciers, which previously lasted 100,000 years, to being in its current interglacial state. Once that tipping point was reached, the most extreme biological changes leading to our current state occurred within only 1,000 years. That’s like going from a baby to an adult state in less than a year,” explains Arne Mooers. “Importantly, the planet is changing even faster now.”


The SFU professor of biodiversity is one of this paper’s authors. He stresses, “The odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations. Remember, we went from being hunter-gatherers to being moon-walkers during one of the most stable and benign periods in all of Earth’s history.


“Once a threshold-induced planetary state shift occurs, there’s no going back. So, if a system switches to a new state because you’ve added lots of energy, even if you take out the new energy, it won’t revert back to the old system. The planet doesn’t have any memory of the old state.”


These projections contradict the popularly held belief that the extent to which human-induced pressures, such as climate change, are destroying our planet is still debatable, and any collapse would be both gradual and centuries away.


This study concludes we better not exceed the 50 per cent mark of wholesale transformation of Earth’s surface or we won’t be able to delay, never mind avert, a planetary collapse.


We’ve already reached the 43 per cent mark through our conversion of landscapes into agricultural and urban areas, making Earth increasingly susceptible to an environmental epidemic.


“In a nutshell, humans have not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there,” says Mooers. “My colleagues who study climate-induced changes through the earth’s history are more than pretty worried. In fact, some are terrified.”


— 30 —



Backgrounder: Study predicts imminent irreversible planetary collapse


Coming from Chile, Canada, Finland, the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States, the authors of this paper initially met at the University of California Berkeley in 2010 to hold a trans-disciplinary brainstorming session.


They reviewed scores of theoretical and conceptual bodies of work in various biological disciplines in search of new ways to cope with the historically unprecedented changes now occurring on Earth.


In the process they discovered that:


Human-generated pressures, known as global-scale forcing mechanisms, are modifying Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and climate so rapidly that they are likely forcing ecosystems and biodiversity to reach a critical threshold of existence in our lifetime.


“Global-scale forcing mechanisms today “include unprecedented rates and magnitudes of human population growth with attendant resource consumption, habitat transformation and fragmentation, energy production and consumption, and climate change,” says the study.


Human activity drives today’s global-scale forcing mechanisms more than ever before. As a result, the rate of climate change we are seeing now exceeds the rate that occurred during the extreme planetary state change that tipped Earth from being in a glacial to an interglacial state 12,000 years ago. You have to go back to the end of the cataclysmic falling star, which ended the age of dinosaurs, to find a previous precedent.


The exponentially increasing extinction of Earth’s current species, dominance of previously rare life forms and occurrence of extreme climate fluctuations parallel critical transitions that coincided with the last major planetary transition.


When these sorts of perturbations are mirrored in toy ecosystem models, they tip these systems quickly and irreversibly.


The authors recommend governments undertake five actions immediately if we are to have any hope of delaying or minimizing a planetary-state-shift. Arne Mooers, an SFU biodiversity professor and a co-author of this study, summarizes them as follows.


Society globally has to collectively decide that we need to drastically lower our population very quickly. More of us need to move to optimal areas at higher density and let parts of the planet recover. Folks like us have to be forced to be materially poorer, at least in the short term. We also need to invest a lot more in creating technologies to produce and distribute food without eating up more land and wild species. It’s a very tall order.”

Jan 202012
 January 20, 2012  Posted by at 9:17 pm Donate Comments Off on Donate

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