Reply To: 3rd November: Joseph Tainter

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Markus # Posted on November 12, 2014 at 18:50

Question 2
I belive calling increased complexity “human nature” to be wrong. Whatever is human nature often turns out later to merely be a form of social construction. Anything from gender stereotypes to economic systems, all are social constructions.
Though what I am prepared to admit is that the civilisations Tainter investigate all share just that – they are civilisations. It could be that civilisation, as we generally think of it, has common traits no matter where they occur or when. It could be said, I believe, that the very definition of civilisation is a centralisation of power and wealth in combination with an accentuated center-peripheri economic system. That is, an economic system where the distance between those with power and wealth and those without increase socially, geographically and culturally, as well as a system where the ecological load of the economic system is displaced far from those who most benefit from it. The very term, civilisation, is derived partly from the latin word civitas – city – which itself is could be defined as an area so highly populated that its citizens (latin: civis) are depending on imports of materials and energy for sustenance. In other words, civilisation has something to do with cities, with urbanisation, and cities are dependend on imports, in other words distancing between production and consumption, to use a modern nomenclature.
With centralisation comes the idea of seperatedness, between higher and lower classes and more broadly between human beings and (the rest of) nature. This is a fertile soil in with ideologies, sciences and religions can grow that poses humanity and/or the elite as the rightful exploiters of the environment and of lower classes.
Is this unavoidably human nature? No. But it is a powerful and, as Tainter points out, quite a successful social construction. Are there cases where complexity (coupled with centralisation, urbanisation, distancing from nature, etcetera) has not been the “natural” development of societies? Yes. I would argue that probably the vast majority of cultures and social systems humanity has created throughout 200 000 years of homo sapiens’ history has been quite at ease with themselves as part of, not master of, the rest of the planet and its peoples. Tainter hints at this too when he talks about how little technological development there was for millenia prior to to the advent of civilisation. Most of these cultures, however, did not leave much, or even anything, for archeologists to find, which leads to a classic case of scientific bias: We might think civilisations were much more common and important because it is they that leave traces for us today to find.
Does all this mean that humanity is by nature immoral and “evil”? Of course not. But it does pose some serious ethical concerns regarding our current economic, cultural and social systems, which too is based on the same structures as for instance the Roman Empire. The question should rather be: can civilisation ever be moral? I belive so, to some degree. It does not, by necessity, have to be the case that center and periphery is in a user-used relationship, it does not have to be the case that those with power are expoiting the powerless. Some might argue that it is a slippery slope, that once cities are starting to form and demanding imports, creating social stratification and environmental costs beyond the imidiate vicinity, civilisation is by definition unsustainable. Derrick Jensen is one such “civilisation critic”, or “anarcho-primitivist”. But I disagree with that for two reasons. One is that we really do not have much of a choice right now, concidering the number of people in the world and the current unequality as well as environmental load. Secondly, the world is not black and white, and whenever someone says it is, I’m suspicious. Civilisation can’t be only “good” or “evil” – it can also be everything in between. One way of being somewhere in between is to constantly and critically ask and reflect on what kind of energy and social structures the current complexity needs in order to function. Today, that energy is fossil which leads to vast environmental destruction, and enormous risks for far more species than humanity. We could start there by realising that that is simply unacceptable.
Humanity is not evil. Just stupid. Sometimes.