Tuesday, November 07, 2006
Energy And The Rise And Fall Of Civilizations
Energy as the catalyst to progress in the context of human societies.
David Attenborough, the famous naturalist and paleontologist, has stated that "The history of human civilizations - including their rise and fall - can't be properly understood unless we appreciate the importance of ‘power subsidies'".
In the evolution of societies and cultures, energy has played invariably a pivotal role, beginning with the energy that we, as living humans, must store in our own bodies to survive. Because of this, the destiny of our ancestors in the Homo lineage was that of wandering the plains of Africa in search of food that could be assimilated and stored as reserve energy. Which was, by the way, the destiny of all other members of the Animal Kingdom - except that Homo excelled at it. By acting collectively and cooperatively with the environment, Homo (by now become sapiens) was able to increase the critical mass of the brain and to use the added intelligence to secure what he needed to sustain small communities - the embryo of civilization.
Later on, as the quest for improved life progressed, Homo sapiens continued to hone his above-average intellectual capabilities to make the transition between nomadic life to that of more stable nuclei, which based their sustenance on agriculture. By domesticating animals and plants, furthermore, Homo sapiens secured a continuous and reliable supply and surplus of readily available energy and, by so doing, further increased the quantity of energy that could flow through his communities - and his body. Plant cultivation, moreover, aided by irrigation systems, greatly increased the yield per unit of human energy - labor. Agricultural surpluses, later on, freed people from attending the land on a daily basis. Thus various Homo sapiens could differentiate tasks and this differentiation spawned new, more complex institutional and hierarchical arrangements within their primitive societies.
As a direct and proximate result of all this, Homo sapiens abandoned pre-history and walked triumphantly into history, and this very passage helped to facilitate an even greater energy flow-through. It was 10,000 years ago.
From the onset, the relationship between energy and cultural development has been very strong. The tie and junction point between energy and culture is also the thread behind the concepts of ‘allocation of scarce resources' in Neoclassical Economics. Lionel Charles Robbins (1898-1984) defined ‘resource scarcity' as the difference between what people desire and the demand for goods. Thus a good is said to be scarce if, at any given price level (including price level zero - i.e. for free), people would consume more of it than the available supply. But the impact on demand - and thus the desire for a certain type of good, continued Robbins, has its roots in the culture of any given society, whereas the availability of that given type of good is in direct function of its cost, that is of the total combination of raw materials, labor and energy involved in its production.
No better example of this can be found in the variety of foods and cuisines all over the world. Foods that are consumed in North America, like hamburgers for example, are certainly not as nearly appreciated in India, where cows are sacred and untouchable. Likewise the production of ham and other cured pork meats for which Italy is worldwide famous is absolute anathema in Israel and the Muslim world for religious reasons.
Robbins stated that there are three critical factors in assessing the ‘progress' of any culture: first, "the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year". Second, "the efficiency of the technological means with which energy is harnessed and put to work". And finally "the magnitude of human need-serving goods and services produced". By combining these three factors together, societies evolved as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year increased or, alternatively, as the efficiency of the technological means of putting the energy to work increased. Either way, energy is both the catalyst and the ruling factor in the development of cultural systems.
The human experience as an evolutionary journey is in direct function of the increased use of available energy. The degree of civilization of any people, or group of people, is measured in fact by the ability to utilize energy for human advancement. More specifically, whether a culture is low or high on the scale of human progress is directly correlated to the amount of energy produced and consumed per capita. A fact this, substantiated by econometrics studies. In fact, going back to David Attenborough, "the very function of culture is to gather and control energy so that it may be used for man's wants and needs".
Human beings throughout the world and in any epoch have accomplished the development of their societies by inventing tools to capture and transform energy to manage the creation and maintenance of social institutions. So therefore, what we call ‘progress' is merely the use of tools in combination to capture, store and use more and more energy and, by so doing, to extend our power and increase our wellbeing. All of which brings us to the present time.
Energy is so essential in today's technologically advanced world, that no one can envision a society without it. So much so, in fact, that no one and nothing can function without energy either. Going through a blackout, even of modest proportions, underscores this point. Classical capitalist theory embeds the concept that the creation and transformation of energy is vital to the proper functioning of the capitalistic system. David Ricardo (1772-1823), the English economist, in his work entitled Principles Of Political Economy And Taxation examines not only the importance of energy within the (new at that time) concept of free trade in Capitalism, but also sheds light on the reason - the sole reason, in fact - as to why civilizations ultimately collapse and disappear.
Collapse sets in when a mature civilization reaches the point at which it is forced to spend more and more of its energy reserves merely to maintain its complex social arrangements, while experiencing diminishing returns in the energy enjoyed per capita. In the early stages of civilization, the creation of infrastructures such as roads, irrigation systems and conquest of new lands and territories are determinant to a net increase of energy returns over energy expenditures. In the late stages, states spend most of the energy just to maintain existing infrastructures, as well as to sustain the ever-expensive lifestyles of political elites or other "non-productive members of society".
Furthermore, a large population whose number grew during times of economic expansion suddenly enjoys less energy per capita, even as people are working harder and longer. At the same time, states impose more and more taxes on people to make ends meet, thus hastening the downwards spiral. Often times, at the very end of the civilization cycle, in a final effort to protect themselves from the anger of the population, states order whatever energy is left in the form of surplus food, money, outputs and economic resources to be allocated first for use and equipment of the military, thus further angering the public. The population begins to disaggregate and fend for itself, setting off the process of disintegration. Unless a new source of energy is found, either by discovery or conquest, collapse is all but inevitable.
Naturally, if anyone reads in the conclusions brought forth by David Ricardo some two-hundred years ago an ominous parallelism with what is happening in our societies today, and with the plight for oil, gas and the control natural resources in the political arenas of the world, any such similarity must be nothing but purely coincidental ...
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