Hello Oli. This is my side note on the issue while I've got little time to answer you thoroughly:

What is a sustainable culture? This is a good issue to discuss. Ours, I take, is a good negative example. Or is it not? It spreads dissatisfaction everywhere; it is a culture that requires doping (not to increase pleasure but rather to distract from low self-esteem) by alcohol, prozac, cigarettes, coffee, viagra, the idea of entertainment etc.; it is ecologically unsustainable and personally harmful. I think we are no model. I believe, of course, that instincts are not binding (I still have to see an argument to show that the idea that instincts play any role of authority in us is even intelligible). But leave this argument for another sidenote; if we are to consider sustainable cultures to think of what should be our instincts, we'd better think twice. What cultures are sustainable?

Otherwise I guess this will be a busy week but I'll try to wikiend.

Phil, am I abusing the dignity of Wikis with personal dirt?

HilanBensusan

: (see also ProzacAndFeminismPhilJones ;-)

I actually think that the evidence points to OurSocietyAsBeingFairlySustainable (at least in the 100 year time span) - and I was thinking in terms of comparisons with attempts at really extreme cultures that try to deny their human nature. Extreme examples would be cultures that believe in regular suicide - or indeed cultures that have strong beliefs against reproduction, or eating. These would not be very sustainable cultures. Indeed I believe that there have been examples of extreme pacifists cultures being wiped out by neighbouring bad guys (not big - not clever - but very easy to do).

Then, I would contend, cultures that are very very bad at organising their economies are likely to come unstuck pretty quickly. An example would be PolPot's attempt at a completely managed economy in Cambodia. Complete disaster - and thereby totally unsustainable.

So, I don't think it's interesting to say 'hey we could imagine a group of people who have a culture where they do X, Y and Z'. The question for me is whether or not such a culture could be sustainable over the long term. Is it a stable strategy for a group of humans to use when trying to exist in this world? Is it too vulnerable to defections, disease, famine, war ???

In this sense having a "liberal democracy with loosely regulated capital and a social welfare system" appears to be a pretty sustainable basis on which to build a culture. Now admittedly there are many many nuances to build on top of this underlying bedrock ... but the bedrock appears to be pretty dependable and adaptable - I therefore seriously question any attempt to change this bedrock.

OliSharpe

Hilan : Phil, am I abusing the dignity of Wikis with personal dirt?

No, this is a PersonalWiki so you're encouraged to be personal by a) addressing remarks to people, b) signing your comments with your full name, and c) making that name a link to a page to say something about yourself, and where people can leave personal messages for you.

Oli : I actually think that the evidence points to our society as being fairly sustainable (at least in the 100 year time span)

I really don't think 100 year time-spans are very good evidence of long-term sustainability. ;-) But I don't like arguments from "not enough evidence", so consider this. During the last hundred years a) world population has dramatically expanded, b) we've consumed and become highly dependent on oil, c) most conservative estimates think oil will have run out within the next 100 years, d) we don't have any posited replacement with the same energy-content to portability ratio, e) environmental degradation is increasing apace etc.

  • it's worth remembering that the ClubOfRome crowd predicted we'd have run out of food by now. Predictions are tricky beasts. (That said, I agree we need to anticipate the end of BillSeitz:CheapOil.)

Surely a sustainable system is one which you can observe as being in a point or cyclic attractor, and which dissipates energy from a source so large you don't have to worry about exhausting it in the near to medium term. (The sun, for example) Neither of these observations is true of our culture. All we have as "evidence" of stability is the observation that it hasn't crashed yet. And the kind of naive appeal to inductive trends (that the future will resemble the past) that Popper criticises as historicism (OnHistoricism) and I ... ahem ... defend in DemarcatingScience.)

< controversial>PolPot's economy wasn't a disaster because it was managed, but because he killed off all the smart people who might have made management work :-) </controversial>

PhilJones

See also DissipativeStructure

Great! if you take the long term view (trying to look beyond 100 year time spans say) then NO culture on earth has ever been truely sustainable - the Romans came closer than most, but even they couldn't keep their culture going. Indeed, the fossil record suggests that most species arent sustainable over the longer term.

So, I happy to conclude either a) we take a definition of 'sustainable culture' that includes the (very) long term - and in which case the evidence is not good at all for our current culture (or any other) or b) to say that certain cultures can exist sustainably within a 'context' or 'environment'. So, for example, the Romans clearly had one of the most sustainable cultures ever with certain features of their culture lasting many hundreds of years. If we allow the Roman culture to be considered sustainable within a context then I would contend that our culture will end up to at least have been sustained over a period of possibly around 200 years (say 1850 to 2050) - but certainly around 100 years of the 'car culture' (1930s to 2030s) during which time cheap oil was always around and the background 'world view' did not change very much (even though there were many social/technological developments admittedly)

I would also contend that a defining feature of our current culture is its keen interest in science and technology as tools with which to improve our society. While the looming oil crisis is very real and is going to be very disruptive, I am (have to be) ever the optimist. I believe that, given enough effort, we will find ways to sustain our culture beyond cheap oil - and indeed that it is part of our current ethos to try to become an ever more ecologically sustainable culture. I therefore contend that OUR culture will adapt its technology over the next 100 years to try to desparately ride out the end of cheap oil. But this will be a feature of our culture - not the end of it. It is in this context that I hope that our culture will even out do the Romans in longevity.

Now, given all of that I believe that we can imagine 'cultures / societies' that people could attempt to adopt but that simply wouldn't be sustainable with today's technologies. For example, if everyone in a region of the UK decided that they would only work 1 day a week and spend the rest of their time shopping on credit cards ... that would not be sustainable. Indeed, if they decided to become self sufficient and only work 1 day a week - I think they would soon run out of food.

A society has to be a sustainable dynamical system. A sustainable ecology of components.

Basically I think I'm bored of the idea that we are oppressed by society into working. NO - we are all a part of a society that sustains itself by working 'this' hard. However, our society on average gets way more leisure time than most (if not all) sustainable societies ever before us. We live in a time of unbelievable prosperity (for the global middle classes) and any talk of the middle classes being oppressed by society is (in my mind) completely missing the point. Not only do we live in a time of huge prosperity, we also live in a time of amazing personal freedoms and political empowerment (again compared to most sustainable cultures of the past).

The biggest criticism of our society is that a) the middle classes dont do a fair share of the work leading to a massive underclass of very poor, disempowered, cheap labour and b) the middle classes consume to much and do too much using up an unfair proportion of world energy and material resources.

So, if anything, one might argue that the global society should be 'oppressing' us more, taking away some of our freedoms (to travel and consume) and getting us to work harder.

Now, the fact is that the way in which we've organised our societies means to say that the (institutionalised) forces of coersion in our lives are governments and businesses. So it's rather contradictory to BOTH complain that these institutions oppress us (to work harder, be taxed more and have less time) and yet also think that we're a lazy society that is selfish and consumes too much.

Personally I hope to dedicate at least some of my (luxurious) life to improving the technological bedrock that drives our economy. I want to help create efficient sustainable technologies that (using Marxian logic) will help us create a fairer society.

As far as I can see, the only alternative to better cleaner technology - is for everyone to DO LESS - much much much less - than we currently enjoy doing. Most people I know complain about not being 'allowed' to do more in their lives. Most people complain that society is somehow constraining them too much. They want to do more and work less. Some crazy people also want LESS technology to support this lazier lifestyle !!!

I am a TechnologicalDeterminist.

That doesn't mean I ignore the massively important role of the political process. A healthy political process is essential to ensure that the efficieny benefits of new technologies are shared as widely as possible throughout the society. However, 'sharing the benefits' doesn't mean state control of everything. At a basic level 'sharing the benefits' means cheaper access to whatever is being done more efficiently. Cheaper access can be achieved through a healthy competitive market. So, over the mid term, it is vital that governments prevent monopolies hording the benefits of new technologies. We have such checks and balances roughly in place - although I think IP law could probably be improved to encourage more 'sharing of the benefits'. A detail - albeit an important detail.

So, quite frankly, the problems of the world (except for Iraq and other hot wars) DON'T fundamentally stem from problems with our political systems. There's enough people in the world who genuinely want a better fairer world - and there is just about enough democracy to make it happen - if it were possible. The problem is that we don't have the technology to sustain a fairer world. Politics is fundamentally important - but our systems are roughly on the right track here. The problem is that our technology just isn't good enough.

That why I have, for quite a while now, been advocating the need for a SecondIndustrialRevolution.

–OliSharpe

Oli (first draft on an answer ... will keep improving),

Of course I'm not talking about the very long term. But let's say 100 years is plausibly within our human life-spans. I'd say that's clearly too short. Maybe 1000 years is a good example of medium terms. (See also StewartBrand's LongNow)

So, for example, the Romans clearly had one of the most sustainable cultures ever with certain features of their culture lasting many hundreds of years.

Surely the Romans are a paradigm case of "non-sustainable". The Roman empire was an expansionary ConquestState which collapsed in on itself the moment it hit the limits and there were no more places left to conquer. Not only that, but the collapse was pretty painful and ugly : involving mass public executions of captured foreigners and religious minorities as popular entertainment. Hope you're not advocating this model for us.

but certainly around 100 years of the 'car culture' (1930s to 2030s) during which time cheap oil was always around and the background 'world view' did not change very much

Didn't the world view change very much? This period saw extremes from soviet and chinese communism, fascism, US capitalism, resurgent Islamicism. It's possible that there's more variety of world views than ever before because communication puts us in touch with more cultures that used to be ignored when history was just about Europe.

I am (have to be) ever the optimist.

What's not optimistic about identifying problems and calling on people to solve them? By your criteria ostriches are optimistic if they put their head in the sand and assume things will turn out for the best. What I take you to mean by optimism is really a rephrasing of your TechnologicalDeterminism : technology is the only thing that can sort things out, and technology is coming anyway so why bother with politics. This is demonstrably untrue on the local scale : if material wealth and technology brought democracy then Saudi Arabia would be one of the most progressive and free places on Earth. Singapore would be ahead of India. And it's not even so clear in the long term. The British industrial revolution was preceded by the social revolution of the EnglishCivilWar.

Basically I think I'm bored of the idea that we are oppressed by society into working.

Hey, I'm bored with feeling guilty when I see kids crawing in my rubbish bin and reading about the high level of violence in the satelites too. Go figure.

I am a TechnologicalDeterminist.

That doesn't mean I ignore the massively important role of the political process. A healthy political process is essential to ensure that the efficieny benefits of new technologies are shared as widely as possible throughout the society.

If you don't ignore the role, how can that non-ignoring be expressed except by ameliorating techno-determinism?

However, 'sharing the benefits' doesn't mean state control of everything.

Doesn't have to, no. But it did demonstrably work. Inequality decreased in the UK between the late 40s and mid 70s. Whereas nothing else has that track-record. Certainly not SupplySideEconomics, NeoLiberalism or any market-based solution. Sure consumer goods trickle down to the medium poor, but not much else. Not more leisure time, better health or low stress.

A society has to be a sustainable dynamical system. A sustainable ecology of components.

Agreed. See also WhereDoAlternativesComeFrom

The biggest criticism of our society is that a) the middle classes dont do a fair share of the work leading to a massive underclass of very poor, disempowered, cheap labour and b) the middle classes consume to much and do too much using up an unfair proportion of world energy and material resources.

I think this perspective is based partly on being in the UK where inertia and the WelfareState keep the middle classes in fairly OK condition. In the US, the market is destroying TheMiddleClasses, more and more of whom are falling into the working poor and underclass. Here in Brasilia your claim might have more validity; where a small middle-class of professionals who work for the government (like, embarrassingly, me at the moment) do very well at the expense of a huge majority of extremely poor.

So, over the mid term, it is vital that governments prevent monopolies hording the benefits of new technologies.

And monopolies in general. But chosing whether to do that is 100% a political decision.

We have such checks and balances roughly in place

You're joking of course. Read to http://www.oligopolywatch.com/ to see how well the current checks and balances are doing.

So, quite frankly, the problems of the world (except for Iraq and OtherHotWars) DON'T fundamentally stem from problems with our political systems.

That's a bit like saying that illnesses, apart from spots, coughs and pains, aren't caused by bacteria and viruses. I'd say Iraq, hot wars (and riots, crime-ridden favelas, malnutrition and high child-mortality rates etc.) are all symptoms of failures of our culture. But I'd be interesting to know what evidence or reasons you have for saying that the "normal" problems of poverty aren't to do with the way the system is set up.

There's enough people in the world who genuinely want a better fairer world - and there is JustAbout enough democracy to make it happen - if it were possible. The problem is that we don't have the technology to sustain a fairer world. Politics is fundamentally important - but our systems are roughly on the right track here. The problem is that our technology just isn't good enough.

This I disagree with. I think the first point, there are enough people of good-will is plausible. But the fact they don't succeed is evidence of several failures of "democracy" : the lack of a political "process" by which they can exert their efforts towards improving things; the lack of sufficiently distributed public understanding of the issues and how things work; and the deep CollectiveActionProblems which prevent people working together.

PhilJones

Update August 2004

Phil says : I was on TribeNet defending markets, competition and modern capitalism as being the best system we currently have and the best place to research future utopian societies. And then I got a crisis of confidence. All these institutions are failing. All that extra time and resource is going to waste.

It's a good discussion with Kage. Worth reading if you're interested in this kind of debate and what I think.