Monday, March 18, 2019

The Next Phase Shift



An Important Argument hasn’t been made.
Hunter-gatherer groups are fiercely egalitarian. Egalitarianism insists on distribution of resources, cooperation within groups, perfect personal freedom, strict accountability for anti-social behavior, and is highly sustainable. It is by insisting on sharing and reciprocity that egalitarianism promotes the well-being of all members of the group, regardless of the role that each member fulfills, and thus promotes social stability, and ultimately sustainability. Egalitarianism isn’t just a strategy in a set of sustainable practices. Egalitarianism is the necessary attitude for sustainability.
Tragically for the fate of life on Earth, and humanity (sixth great extinction, global warming), the super abundance of natural resources suitable to the uses of human ingenuity has supported economic systems which encourage inter-group conflict, and hyper-inequality in their distribution. The is the academic way to say that humanity has stolen, betrayed and warred on itself most extensively and tragically since ingenuity produced surpluses and the greed of some found these surpluses could be used to control other people. Simply, egalitarianism is sustainable so long as cheating can be punished, but is “unfit” in competitions with hierarchically organized groups, when resources are surfeit (horses, clubs, swords, guns, grain) and can be mustered against small, stable, homeostatically regulated groups. Scott (Against the Grain, 2017) argues that the emergence of the coercive state was resisted by hunter-gatherer groups, as long as they had access to food and resources. However, as population densities rose and the vagaries of weather forced some people into dependence on other people, nascent coercive states – utilizing hierarchy – were able to focus more energy and more lethal technology against hunter-gatherer groups, and the subservient of their own societies.
The transition from egalitarian hunter-gatherer modalities to hierarchical modalities could be described as a phase shift from a super stable, low impact, survival modality (egalitarianism) to an unstable, high impact modality (hierarchy and privilegism) which in its nature drives culture toward short-term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability. At that point at which habitat suited to hunting and gathering diminishes to negligible, hierarchical societies have won in nature’s game of natural selection. The course of history is set.
The problem at hand for us is either how to transform, or with what to replace, hierarchical organization, such that we can maintain modern levels of science, education, health care and nutrition, while deprecating modern levels of poverty, habitat destruction and pollution, mental illness, war, and genocide. Egalitarianism is perhaps not the goal, but a principle strategy. Success in such a project would be the next great phase shift for humanity: considering the impact of hierarchy on human history, what would post-hierarchy look like?
Traditional economists emphasize innovation and growth as key strategies toward meeting human need. These strategies are consonant with the hierarchical model, but provide no means of accountability for being unsustainable. Practice of the traditional, Neo-liberal economic model speeds us toward the brink of Gaia-cide. We do not play “chicken” in this race. We aim to stop the race. The key research question is “How do we make hierarchy unprofitable? How do we make sharing seem necessary and inevitable?”.
The hunter-gatherer model of economic activity sustained itself in the abundance of nature until food supplies began to expand with farming and pastoralism, while diminishing for hunter-gatherers. The surpluses of the agrarian economies (grain, cattle, military supplies) energized hierarchy, larger populations, and dominance over subsistence groups. Without those surpluses, hierarchy could not have prevailed over egalitarianism, and surpluses continue to drive hierarchical wealth accumulation. The argument here made is that the thing we fear – Gaia-cide, the loss of our life on Earth as we know it, the loss of the resources we need to live – may be the loss that finally forces humanity to enter this next phase shift. Well populations of Homo sapiens could collapse, in which case populations would be so dispersed that hunting and gathering would be feasible again.  But we value our own lives and the opportunities of the modern world, and we don’t want to go over that cliff. So what changes permit us to begin the phase shift?
What would a cooperative, egalitarian world culture look like? What does the next phase in human history look like? Are we trying to imagine a compromise between hierarchy, property and control, and equality, sharing and mutual respect? Does the natural fitness of hierarchical systems, where resources are available to energize those systems, make the totalitarian social control exhibited by the Chinese state a necessary future for humanity? Or will the instinctive drive of Homo-sapiens toward “fairness”, freedom and accountability effectively undermine the fitness of the totalitarian state? What innovations are needed to build self-correcting sustainable systems that can prevail over the natural short-term advantages of the hierarchical organization?
The one thing that I prize that only the modern world can provide is information: science, stories of other people in other places, visions of the past and the future, deep knowledge of how the universe works. I want only enough energy available to me so that I can, one, enjoy these flights of imagination that make my intellectual and emotional growth possible, and two, so that I can engage with other people in creating the world that we want. I do not want to be above or below anyone, I don’t want to be the decider. I want my voice to be among the voices that decide. I want my share of voice, where everyone gets a fair share – and not more and that is what I want. 
Hunter-gatherer societies were highly sustainable and required very little work from their members. Effectively, nature did the work, of growing plant foods and hunted foods, and the hunter-gatherer only needed to go harvest them. At some point, as explained by Scott (2017), humanity had to work harder to get enough food. We have been working harder and harder ever since. Up to the dawn of the age of fossil fuels, energy was supplied mainly by human labor and animal labor, with some wind and water energy, and people typically worked all day, frequently under dire cruelty. With the advent of fossil fuels, slavery was eventually outlawed, though not eliminated, but we continued to work hard. Instead of using all of that energy to reduce our workload, it was used it to increase material wealth, some even for those at the bottom of the hierarchies, and to sustain ever more people. The burdens on other life forms, eco-system services, and the planet, multiply exponentially.
The use of power to coerce behavior is only possible where there is power. What if social organization – with prolific use of altruistic punishment – were to deprive those centers of privilege and authority of that power, when it is shown to be abusive? What if we appealed to the instinctive egalitarianism of human beings? What if we systematically retrained resources to be distributed as they are created? What if we designed our systems for finding leaders so that the modest, reasonable and compassionate were as likely to be chosen as anyone else? What if everyone in the world were trained in how to resist coercion, and to recognize manipulation? What if we designed new systems of accountability for leadership which is over-ambitious? What if community members were taught to make appropriate use of power, by other members of the community, the measure of status? What if everyone was trained to seek the distribution of wealth, instead of allowing the concentration of wealth? Axelrod (Evolution of Cooperation) predicts the long-term inevitability of cooperation. But for a global civilization, how long do we have to wait? What efforts, what transformations, are necessary to achieve that cooperation? Can we enter the transformation soon enough? We are asking these questions.
I think we can safely predict that the vast majority of social revolutions are driven by the egalitarian principle “I want a life worth living.”. IOW, egalitarianism is alive and well in the human psyche. Our question is “How do we tap this instinct to create the world where everyone, including every other form of life, has a life worth living?”.