Monday, May 2, 2016

Trump, the unavoidable: is political polarization destroying democracy?




Image from Pew Research Center. The increasing polarization of the US electorate has destroyed all the previous certitudes in politics, generating the unavoidable rise of Donald Trump.




The hurricane named Donald Trump has taken everyone by surprise by going against all the established rules in politics. So far, candidates were always trying hard to avoid taking extreme positions; aiming for the center of the political spectrum was seen as the way to win, and it worked. But Trump has taken exactly the opposite strategy, always aiming to positions that not long ago would have been seen as extreme and even unspeakable. But he is having success. How can that be?

For everything that exists, there must be reasons for it to exist, and this universal rule must be valid also for Donald Trump. And, indeed, the rise of Trump should be seen not only as having reasons to exist, but even as unavoidable. Let me try to explain why.

In 1929, Harold Hotelling developed a model of spatial competition among firms that today is still well known and takes his name. The idea is sometimes described in terms of what the best location for selling ice cream on a beach. Assuming that customers are distributed evenly along a linear beach, it turns out that the best position for all of them is to cluster exactly at the center. Something similar holds in politics: it is called the Hotelling-Downs model. It says that, in a political competition, the most advantageous position is at the center. This is a well known and traditional political strategy; those who are at the center win elections.

So, did Donald Trump disprove the Hotelling-Downs model with his strategy based on taking extreme position? No, but all models work only within the limits of the assumptions that produced them. If the assumptions change, then the models change as well. The Hotelling-Downs model, as it is commonly described, works on the assumption that voters' preferences tend to cluster in the middle of the spectrum of political views, something like this


Image source


Imagine that the horizontal axis describes the voters' preferences about, say, war and peace. At the two extremes of the diagram there are absolute warmongers and absolute pacifists, At the center, there is a majority that takes an intermediate position; preferring peace but not ruling out war.

This was the situation up to not long ago for most issues. But the recent data indicate a remarkable ongoing transformation, something more like this:

(image from Pew research center)

You see how the preferences among American voters are splitting into two halves. Liberals and conservatives are becoming more and more different, a split that may increase in the future.

In a previous post of mine, I interpreted this trend as the result of the growing impoverishment of society, a phenomenon that increases the competition for the remaining resources. The increased polarization derives from the fact that some categories or social classes tend to find it easier to gather resources by stealing them from those who have them rather than creating them out of natural resources (e.g. banks vs. citizens or the elites vs. the middle class). If this interpretation is correct, political polarization is here to stay with us for a long time.

The problem is that polarization has deep political consequences. If society is split into two ideologically incompatible halves then the mechanism of the "primaries" enhances the split even more. The Hotelling-Downs model still holds, but separately for the two halves. At this point, in order to win votes, a candidate may be better off by aiming for one of the two peaks, either at the left or at the right; a position that's in practice obligatory with the primaries, where voters are split into two halves as well.

Indeed, Donald Trump has been playing king of the hill in the republican hump while pushing most of the other candidates in the Republican desert of the center. The only Republican rivals that survived Trump's onslaught are those, like Ted Cruz, who are competing with him for the same rightmost peak. Something similar has generated the relative success of Bernie Sanders on the opposite side of the political spectrum; even though that may not lead him to the nomination. So, Donald Trump was really an unavoidable phenomenon.

And now? It seems increasingly likely that Trump will obtain the Republican nomination by means of his successful polarizing tactics. But, in order to win the presidency, Trump should abandon the safe but limited hill on the right and try to conquer the center. But can he really do that after such an aggressive and divisive nomination campaign? Trump has nearly supernatural communication skills, but this may be too much even for him. The problem is that the President of the United States is supposed to be the president of everyone, not just of those who voted for him. But, we already saw a dangerous crack in this arrangement with President Obama, when a considerable number of people seemed unable to accept the idea of having a black president. As president, Donald Trump would be likely to generate similar reactions from a different section of the public. That could produce a split in society that, euphemistically, we could define as a little difficult to manage.

But, again, Trump is not the cause of anything, he is just the unavoidable result of the rising internecine competition within an increasingly poorer society. He may fail in his bid for the presidency, but the social and political factors that created him will remain. And these factors might easily lead to something much worse than Trump if the economic situation deteriorates further, as it probably will.

So, where is the institution we call "democracy" going? It is difficult to say, but, in order for democracy to exist, there must exist certain conditions, in particular a reasonably equitable distribution of wealth in society. And this is something that we are rapidly losing. As we slide down the Seneca Cliff, democracy may be rapidly lost as well.







Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why we can't understand global warming


An interesting excerpt from George's Lakoff "Don't Think of an Elephant!" 2014.


"Every language in the world has in its grammar a way to express direct causation. No language in the world has in its grammar a way to express systemic causation.

What's the difference between direct and systemic causation?

From infanthood on we experience direct, simple causation. We see direct causation all around us: if we push a toy, it topples over; if our mother turns a knob on the oven, flames emerge. Picking up a glass of water and taking a drink is direct causation. Slicing bread is direct causation. Stealing your wallet is direct causation.

Any application or force to something or someone that produces an immediate change to that thing or person is direct causation: When causation is direct, the world cause is unproblematic. We learn direct causation automatically as children because that's what we experience on a daily basis. Direct causation, and the control over our immediate environment that understanding it allows, is crucial in the life of every child. That's why it shows up in the grammar of every language.

The same is not true for systemic causation. Systemic causation cannot be experienced directly. It has to be learned, its cases have to be studied, and repeated communication is necessary before it can be widely understood.

That's right, no language in the world has a way in its grammar to express systemic causation. You drill a lot more oil, burn a lot more gas, put a lot more CO2 in the air, the earth's atmosphere heats up, more moisture evaporates from the oceans yielding bigger storms in certain places and more drought and fires in other places, and yes, more cold and snow in still other places. The world ecology is a system - like the world economy and the human brain.

As a result, we lack a concept that we desperately need. We need to understand and communicate, for instance, about the greatest moral issue of our times - global warming. The ecology is a system operating via system causation. Without an everyday concept of system causation, global warming cannot be properly comprehended. In other words, without the systemic causation frame, the oft-repeated facts about global warming cannot make sense. With only the direct causation frame, the systemic causation facts of global warming are ignored. The old frame stays, and the facts that don't fit cannot be comprehended."


This excerpt by Lakoff provides some fundamental insight of the problems involved in understanding the climate change issue. It is clear that Lakoff understands very well the concept of "system dynamics;" without a dynamic view of complex systems, it is impossible to understand the concept (and the danger) of the problem. 

However, Lakoff's book is not about climate science, but about communication. Its main thesis is that the apparently simple way concepts are presented in the current political debate is only a reflection of a complex tangle of ideas and perceptions that form people's single personalities. Lakoff maintains that Liberals and Conservatives have different worldviews but that, overall, conservatives have been able to "frame" their worldview in simple snippets that turned out to be more effective than the equivalent attempts by liberals. And it is because of this effectiveness that we see the present increasing polarization in the political scene in the US. 

In my opinion, there is a lot of truth in this interpretation which, however, fails to understand the basic reasons for the increasing polarization. These reasons are deeper and complex as well as I discuss in this post






Monday, April 25, 2016

The story of the fisherman and of the farmer


Image from Daniel Vickers' "Farmers and Fishermen", 1994.

As I sit on the podium with the other speakers, I have in front of me about 30 boys and girls, around 10-12 years old; not even teenagers. They sit while the other speakers tell them of climate change and renewable energies. They are being told what we believe is good for them: that we are in danger, we need to act, we need to recycle our waste, save energy, and reduce emissions. But, at the same time, I can't avoid thinking that, out there, outside the cozy world of the school and of their teachers, there is a different reality. A world where the only tree that has a value is a tree that has been cut down and sold. A world where the measure of success is how much a person can consume. A world where the fragile thing we call "the environment" is always the least important concern. 

Are we doing to these children a favor by telling them what we are telling them? I cannot say, I can only see that they are good boys and good girls and that they are doing their best to listen to the speakers. They seem to understand that what they are being told is important for their future. And some of them seem to understand that it is not obvious that they will have a future. 

As my turn to speak approaches, I try to think. What can I tell to a group of tired (and also a little scared) children? An idea appears in my mind all of a sudden. In ten minutes or so, I scratch a script on a few sheets of paper and when my turn comes I call for volunteers to play the script in front of the other children. They like the idea and they immediately understand how to play the respective roles, they are happy and excited to do something different than just listening. Here is the script I wrote, as I remember it.


THE FISHERMAN'S FAMILY.

Dad, dad.... We are hungry, we are hungry! We were waiting for you to come back, we were waiting for you to bring fish for us. Did you have a good catch, dad? Tell us!

Children, children, I am sorry, the catch was small. The net that I spread in the sea didn't catch so many fish. Children, I am sorry, but this is all that I can bring to you today.

Dad, is it so little? But we are hungry. We are hungry, dad, why can't you bring more fish for us from the sea?

Children, children, I threw my net in the sea many times, but there is not so much fish anymore in the sea because there are many fishermen and all of them have hungry children. And all of them try to catch as much fish as they can. And if we fish too much, there is not much fish left in the sea. But everyone does the same and if I don't do that, too, the fish that's left will be caught by the other fishermen. So, children, this is the catch that I brought today, and I know that it is not enough. But that is what I could do today and I cannot tell you that I will do better tomorrow. And that's the way of the fisherman.


THE FARMER'S FAMILY

Dad, dad.... Mom gave us some bread, but it was not so much and we are still hungry. And we saw that there is still grain stored in the house. Why can't we have that grain milled and use the flour to make some good bread for us, dad?

Children, children, I know that you are hungry and I know that there is still grain in the house. But, children, we cannot eat that grain. Your mom is giving you as much bread as she can, and I know that it is little. But you must go on with what mom can give you and ask no more.

But, dad, why can't we eat that grain that's kept stored in the house? Tell us, dad, because we don't understand this.

We can't eat that grain, children, because it the seed for the next harvest. Soon, we'll go sowing in the fields and we'll sow that grain as seed. And the seed that we sow will germinate and produce more grain, and that grain we will harvest and we will have bread for next year. And we'll keep some of the grain we harvest for the year that will follow and we'll keep doing that for the years that will come as our father and grandfathers did, and as you will do yourselves and for your children and their children. And that's the way of the farme


And there we are. The children who played as actors have recited their part, and they look happy and excited. Those who sat in the audience listened intently and they seemed to enjoy the performance. But did they understand what I was trying to tell them? I ask, "why can't the fisherman feed his family every day?" One of the children says, "because he fishes too much, and then there is no fish left in the sea." I ask her, "but why that doesn't happen to the farmer?" She answers: "because the farmer keeps some seed for the next harvest!" They never heard of the "tragedy of the commons" nor of the problem of fishery overexploitation, but they seem to have understood these concepts. 

So, I ask them, "but, today, are we behaving like farmers or like fishermen?" They are a little perplexed. I explain: "are we keeping some seed for the future or are we consuming everything we have?" They look at me, they understand what I said. One of them says: "like fishermen". And I tell him, "You are right, but let me explain: it doesn't matter if we are farmers or fishermen, but we must not take too much of what the land or the sea can provide so that the land or the sea have the time to re-create what we took away. Whether we are a farmers or fishermen, if we respect the land, or we respect the sea, our children will never go hungry. And if we all respect the earth, then everyone will be happy, and the earth, too!" They all nod; they seem to have understood the idea.

The workshop is over; the children move away, texting on their smartphones and chatting among themselves. Will they remember what I told them? And if they will, would that be useful to them?  I can't say. As I look at them leaving, there comes to my mind that they will be less than 50 years old in 2050, when the world will either have cut fossil fuel use by 80% or so or will face the dire consequences of not having done that. What kind of world will they see? (if they will be able to see it). I can only wish them good luck. 



h/t Marco Rustioni


Thursday, April 21, 2016

The world industrial system as bacteria in a Petri dish

by Jacopo Simonetta


In a previous post, I speculated that a thermodynamic system such our industrial economy is completely dependent from its “outside”. As it grows and incorporates this “outside”, it is obliged to store high entropy inside itself. Possibly, the epidemic diffusion of riots in the very heart of the global system is an indicator of this predicament. Here, I will try to discuss another aspect of the same topic: the fact that, apparently, we are unable to do anything to avoid global collapse despite our deep knowledge of Natural laws and our incredibly powerful technical means.

40 years after the publication of “Limits to Growth”, we discover that we have been just following the trajectory of the "base case scenario" of the book; business as usual, and with a disturbing accuracy level. In fact, in the intentions of the authors, the BAU scenario was not a forecast, but just one scenario among others, useful to analyse how the system works and changes. But the real world itself has turned this scenario among others into an authentic prophecy (image source)




How was this possible?

It could be that we have done nothing to change our policy and economy, but this is hard to believe. In the past 40 years, we have seen a number of major changes and all of them were completely unpredictable at the beginning of the Seventies. For instance, the partial collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of China to the level of the second planetary power, the globalisation and financialization of the economy, the Internet, the Euro and so on. The Meadows and their staff could not have incorporated all this into their model, simply because they could not imagine anything like that. So we are forced to think that such epochal happenings have been marginal accidents in the evolution of the global socio-economic system.

To get a better understanding of this issue, I think it is best to start by considering World3 itself. In a post of some time ago, Ugo Bardi showed that, behind its complexity, World3 has a very basic thermodynamic architecture. It is a system that builds up and stocks information, with a positive retroaction to the inside flow. The larger the system is, the more it is able to extract low entropy from the wells and throw out entropy to the sinks.

In other words, the BAU scenario more or less describes the activity of bacteria inside a Petri box. First of all, it starts to exploit the very best resources (for instance: sugar) and so it grows. As it grows, it needs more resources and so it starts to digest everything available and, at the same time, it evolves as fast as possible in order to implement its efficiency in the exploitation of increasingly rare and poor resources. This until, at the end, it digests itself and dies.

Now the question is: how is it possible that with all our intelligence, science, and technology we act just like bacteria inside a Petri box? And what about our freedom of choice?

Regarding the first question, I suggest that, in 1970, at a global level, the socioeconomic system had already overshot the Earth's carrying capacity. My idea is that a system may have a certain degree of freedom, which declines exponentially as it reaches its limits. This means that, far from the limits, systems can change their trajectory and, the farther the limits, the more choices are possible. Bu, when the system impacts against its limits, simple and brutal physic changes become the only possible evolution and nothing can change that.

For example, a boy can choose his job. Sure, there are always severe limits depending on his geographical location, economic and social status, culture and so on. But the degrees of freedom are anyway more numerous than zero. For instance, he can choose to be a soldier, a taxi driver, or an employee. But, if a 50-year-old man loses his job, the only thing he can do is to slice his bread as thin as possible. If he was an employee, he will never have a taxi licence or he will never be enrolled as a military contractor in Libya.

I presume that my hypothesis is consistent with physics and also with historical data. Many, if not all, extinct civilisations have disappeared because of foreign invasions or collapsing in a typical “Seneca Cliff” trajectory. Many historians have investigated this astonishing phenomenon: Vico, Toynbee, Spengler, Tainter, to mention only the more prominent scholars. Each one of them proposed a different set of causes for the collapse of civilizations and all of them analyzed some important aspects of the process. Possibly, the effect of dissipative structures dynamics is the underlying physics of this historically recurrent event.

To me, this hypothesis is consistent with ancient wisdom too. Mythology and epic are full of examples in which the hero has the possibility to change an adverse fate, but only until he (or she) is far from the accomplishment of such a fate. To cite an example, Hector had three times the opportunity to put an end to the Trojan war, but each time he refused to do so because he was winning and wanted total victory. He was sure that the destruction of the Achaean fleet would mean the end of the hostilities, but we know the story went differently. He eventually understood his miscalculation, but by that time it was too late: Achilles was standing in front of him.

Possibly, at a socio-economical level we have a similar situation: as long we are growing, we can choose to halt the growth. But once the overshoot arrives, we can only follow the intrinsic thermodynamic path generated by the system. Usually, this means an extra growth dragged by system inertia, followed by a more or less troubled downsize. And that may be our unavoidable destiny.



The shape of a typical Secular Cycle, based on the work of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov in Secular Cycles. ( http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8904.html ) Chart by Gail Tverberg

Sunday, April 17, 2016

What is it like to live in a steady state economy? Miss Hokusai in Edo Japan


"Miss Hokusai" is a delicate and beautiful movie set during the late Edo period in Japan. It may give us a feeling of what it is like to live in a steady-state economy. In the picture from the movie, you can see O-Ei (Miss Hokusai) together with her father, the painter Tetsuzo, better known by his pen name of Hokusai.



We owe to Kennet Boulding the concept that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” And we call the end of this impossible growth a condition of "no growth", "zero growth" or "stable state." Many people argue that such a condition is not only necessary because of physical reasons, but it is also a good condition to be in.

In practice, we don't know what a true "zero-growth" society could be, simply because it has never existed in the modern Western World. The only hint we can find on how such a society could be is from history. Probably the best example of such a society, close in time and very well known, is Japan during the Edo Period, that historians place between 1603 and 1868.

We have no data about Edo Japan that we could compare to our modern concept of "Gross Domestic Product," which is at the basis of our idea of "economic growth". However, we have good data about the population of that time and there is no doubt that it remained nearly stable during the whole period. We also know that the extent of cultivated land in Japan didn't vary over almost one century and a half, from 1720 to 1874 (source). The large cities, such as Edo (the modern Tokyo) grew during this period, but that can only be the result of people moving away from smaller cities or from the countryside. Overall, I think we can say that, for some two centuries, Edo Japan was as close to a "zero-growth" society as we can imagine one.

So how was life in a zero-growth society? Clearly, Edo Japan very different than our society. The large majority of the people (around 90% of the population) were peasants living in country villages. On the other side of the social spectrum, there was the elite, the warrior class who ruled the country with an iron hand and meted harsh punishment to the smallest sign of disobedience. There was no such a thing as "democracy", to say nothing about concepts such as "personal freedom", "human rights," or "social security."

But it would be wrong to dismiss Edo Japan as a harsh dictatorship of no interest for us. In between the peasants and the warriors, there were people whom we could identify as close to our concept of "middle class:" craftsmen and merchants. These people were not rich, but they seem to have been reasonably free of worries about near-term survival. And they seem to have been thriving. Basically, as long as they didn't attempt to rebel against the ruling class, they were left in peace by the government. This sector of the Japanese society was lively and innovative. Edo Japan was a country of artists and of master craftsmen in all fields: the Japanese were very advanced in technologies from metallurgy to paper-making, and they created a culture that we still know and admire today: from poets such as Matsuo Basho to painters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Today, we have a large number of fiction works, from Manga to Samurai movies, that try to convey something of a period that, evidently, modern Japanese still remember very well and, probably, with a certain degree of nostalgy. From all these works, we can have a visual impression of what it could have been to live in Edo Japan as a member of the craftsmen or merchant class. And the impression is that, yes, so many things were different but, maybe, not so much. Everywhere and at all times, people face the same troubles, challenges, and opportunities. So, the "middle class" of Edo Japan lived in a simple world, dressed in simple but elegant cotton kimonos, their only drink was sake, and wherever they wanted to go, they had to walk there on their own feet. But they seemed to be able to live a fulfilling life. They enjoyed nature, poetry, literature, music, and each other's company. Not even their oppressive government could take that away from them.

The movie "Miss Hokusai" is an especially good portrait of life in Edo Japan, showing a great attention to the details of everyday life. It is a delicate and beautiful movie, centered on the life of O-Ei, the daughter of the famous painter Hokusai. It has no great dramas nor scenes of battles or fights (although it does have quite a bit of supernatural hints). But it is an unforgettable portrait of human life that transcends its historical setting and tells us something of what it means to be human anywhere in the world.

We cannot say if in the future we will be able to attain a global "zero-growth" society as Japan did during the Edo Period. Maybe empires will continue to grow and fall as they have done during the past millennia. Or, maybe, we will be able to create a worldwide stable society that might look like ancient Japan. Will it have to be a harsh dictatorship as it was then? We cannot say for sure, although is at least possible that, in order to maintain stability, it is necessary to block social mobility and to suppress every attempt of rebellion. But, in any case, nothing can stop human beings from being human. The future remains open and it will be what we will want it to be.



Thursday, April 14, 2016

The cuckoo that won't sing: sustanaibility and Japanese culture

This post was published for the first time on April 6, 2011. It is re-proposed here as part of a mini-series on Japanese culture that includes the previous post on population control during the Edo period


Many elements of Japanese culture have taken a stable foothold in the West. One is Judo (the figure above shows Kano Jigoro, founder of modern Judo) but there are many others in figurative art, literature, philosophy, and other fields. Here, I discuss what we can learn from Japanese culture in terms of sustainability, referring in particular to the "Edo Period" from about 1600 AD to mid 19th century. The Japanese society of that period is one of the few historical examples we have of a "steady state" economy. How did the Japanese manage to attain that? Here I am suggesting an explanation on the basis of the old Japanese story of  "the cuckoo that won't sing."


This is a version of a talk that I gave at the "Kosen Dojo" in Florence, Italy on March 26 2011. It is not a transcription, but a text written from memory where I try to maintain the style of a spoken presentation.


Ladies and gentlemen, let me say first of all that I gave many talks on energy and sustainability in my career, but this is the first time that I am giving one while sitting cross-legged on the floor on a Japanese mat, a tatami. But, let me add, it is a real pleasure to do it, and it is a special pleasure to give it in a dojo, under the portrait of Kano Jigoro, the founder of modern Judo. Indeed, I used to be a judoka myself, although I must say it is a while that I don't practice. So, this place reminds me a lot of Japan, where I had a very nice time when I lived there, years ago and, as you all know, the recent events in Fukushima have highlighted the problem of energy and sustainability both in Japan and in the whole world.

The Japanese have suffered more than anybody else as the result of the way we have mismanaged atomic energy. It is a sad story that of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. Perhaps some of you had a chance to visit those places - I visited both cities and I can tell you that the memory of those events is not something you can easily ignore. In comparison, the nuclear accident in Fukushima has been a small thing, of course.  But it remains difficult for us - intended as humankind - to manage nuclear energy. Maybe it is just too big and complex for us to manage.

Anyway, let's not go into the pros and cons of atomic energy; it is not what I wanted to discuss with you today. Rather, I think you might be interested in discussing a little about Japanese culture. The very fact that we are all sitting on the floor on a Japanese tatami, means that Japanese culture is influencing us; just as it has influenced Western culture in many fields - just think of manga! So, what I would like to do today is to discuss what we can learn from Japan in terms of sustainability.

So, let me start with something about the history of Japan. You surely know of the early "Heian" or "Imperial" period that started long ago; it was the "classical" period of Japanese history. Then, the Heian age gave way to a period of civil wars; the sengoku jidai, the period of the Samurai. Many movies have shown it as a romantic age, but I am sure the people who lived in it didn't find it very romantic; it was a period of continuous wars and it must have been very hard for everyone. Anyway, that historical phase was over when Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged as the winner of the struggle and he became the shogun, the ruler of all Japan. That was around the year 1600 and it started the "Edo" period which was much quieter. The Edo period lasted until Commodore Perry arrived with his "black ships" in mid 19th century and that started the modern period.

Now, the two centuries and a half of the Edo Period are very interesting in terms of sustainability. The two centuries and a half of the Edo Period are very interesting in terms of sustainability. It was not just a period of peace; it was also a period of a stable economy and of a stable population. Actually, that is not completely true, population increasing during the first part of the Edo period, but when it arrived at nearly 30 million, it stayed nearly constant for almost two centuries. I don't know of another society in history that managed such a period of stability. It was an example of what we call today "steady state" economy.

The reason why most societies can't manage to reach a steady state is because it is very easy to overexploit the environment. It is not something that has to do just with fossil fuels. It is typical of agricultural societies, too. Cut too many trees and the fertile soil will be washed away by rain. And then, without fertile soil to cultivate, people starve. The result is collapse - a common feature of most civilizations of the past. Jared Diamond wrote about that in a book of a few years ago; titled, indeed "Collapse".

Now, there is an interesting point that Diamond makes about islands. On islands, he says, people have limited resources - much more limited than on continents - and their options are limited. When you run out of resources, say, of fertile soil, you can't migrate and you can't attack your neighbors to get resources from them. So, you can only adapt or die. Diamond cites several cases of small islands in the Pacific Ocean where adaptation was very difficult and the results have been dramatic, such as in the case of Easter Island. In some really small islands, adaptation was so difficult that the human population simply disappeared. Everybody died and that was it.

And that brings us to the case of Japan; an island, of course, although a big one. But some of the problems with resources must have been the same as in all islands. Japan doesn't have much in terms of natural resources. A lot of rain; mostly, but little else and rain can do a lot of damage if forests are not managed well. And, of course, space is limited in Japan and that means that there is a limit to population; at least as long as they have to rely only on local resources. So, I think that at some point in history the Japanese had reached the limit of what they could do with the space they had. Of course, it took time; the cycle was much longer than for a small island such as Easter Island. But it may well be the civil wars were a consequence of the Japanese society having reached a limit. When there is not enough for everyone, people tend to fight but that, of course, is not the way to manage scant resources. So, at some point the Japanese had to stop fighting, they had to adapt or die - and they adapted to the resources they had. That was the start of the Edo period.

In order to attain steady state, the Japanese had to manage well their resources and avoid wasting them. One thing they did was to get rid of the armies of the warring period. War is just too expensive for a steady state society. Then, they made big effort to maintain and increase their forests. You can read something on this point in Diamond's book. Coal from Kyushu may have helped a little in saving trees, but coal alone would not have been enough - it was the management of forests that did the trick. Forests were managed to the level of single trees by the government; a remarkable feat. Finally, the Japanese managed to control population. That was possibly the hardest part in an age when there were no contraceptives. From what I read, I understand that the poor had to use mainly infanticide and that must have been very hard for the Japanese, as it would be for us today. But the consequences of letting the population grow unchecked would have been terrible; so they had to.

We tend to see a steady state economy as something very similar to our society, only a bit quieter. But Edo Japan was very different. Surely it was not paradise on earth. It was a highly regulated and hierarchical society where it would have been hard to find - perhaps even to imagine - such things as "democracy" or "human rights". Nevertheless, the Edo period was a remarkable achievement; a highly refined and cultured society. A society of craftsmen, poets, artists and philosophers. It created some of the artistic treasures we still admire today; from the katana sword to Basho's poetry.

So, the Japanese succeeded in creating a highly refined society that managed to exist in a steady state for more than two centuries. I think there is no comparable case in history. Why did Japan succeed where many other societies in history had failed? Well, I think that being an island was a major advantage. It shielded (mostly) Japan from the ambitions of their neighbors and also from the temptation that the Japanese might have had to invade their neighbors. And if you are not so terribly afraid of being invaded (and you have no intention of invading anyone) then you have no reason to have a big army and so no reason to increase the population. You can concentrate on sustainability and on managing what you have. Then, of course, when Commodore Perry and his black ships arrived Japan was not an island anymore; in the sense that it was not any longer isolated from the rest of the world. So growth restarted. But, as long as Japan remained isolated, the economy remained in steady state and, as I said, it was a remarkable achievement.

But I don't think that the fact of being an island explains everything about the Edo period. I think, that it would not have been possible without a certain degree of wisdom. Or, perhaps, a more correct term, in this case, is "sapience."

Wisdom or sapience is not something that you can quantify or attribute to specific persons. But I think that Japan as a whole had attained a certain degree of - let's say - "enlightenment." Please, understand that I am referring to the Edo Period. I know very well that, today, Japan is just as ugly as most places in the Western World - polluted, overcrowded and full of ugly buildings. But, during the Edo Period they had developed a way of looking at the world that we still admire today, that is - in my opinion - embodied in Japanese poetry: a marvel of lightness, of perception of the detail, of love for the delicate little things of the impermanent world. But not just poetry - think of Judo according to Kano sensei. It is a way of life - a philosophy, a way of gaining wisdom. Judo is  a modern idea, of course, but it has its origins with the Edo period. As far as I understand, the Japanese attitude at that time was as far as possible from that monstrosity that we have today; that of the golem we call "homo economicus" who seriously thinks that a tree is worth nothing unless it is felled. If this is the way we see the world, we deserve to collapse and disappear. Wisdom cannot be a non-renewable resource, but we seem to have been able to run out of it, too.

So, out of Japanese wisdom, I think I would like to tell you a little story that has to do with the warring period, but that was surely invented during the gentler Edo Period. You probably know the names of the main leaders of the last phase of the civil wars in Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Eventually, it was Ieyasu who became shogun and the leader of all Japan. About how he managed to do that, there is this story which exists in the form of a "senryu", a short poem. It says that one day Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and Ieyasu got together and they saw a cuckoo bird that won't sing. So, Nobunaga said; "If it doesn't sing I'll kill it". But Hideyoshi said, "No; I'll convince it to sing" And Ieyasu said, "I'll wait until it sings"

I think this story is a nice illustration of how people of the Edo Period rationalized the events that led to their age. It says that the winning strategy is not violence and not even cunning. It is adaptation. The Japanese had understood that they could not force or cajole their island to behave the way they wanted - just as you can't force or cajole a cuckoo bird to sing. They had to adapt and they did. This, I think, is wisdom.

Now, one characteristic of wisdom is that it can be applied to different situations, different places, different times. Let's see how we can see this story in our age. Of course, we have big problems: not enough oil, not enough mineral resources, not enough water and not enough atmosphere to take in the results of burning oil. So, how do we react? Well, a little like Nobunaga. We tend to use violence and not just in terms of "oil wars". We try to force the earth to produce what we want. In a sense, it is like telling the bird "sing or I'll kill you". So, it is "drill, baby, drill" and we are willing do anything and use anything we can find in order to produce the liquid fuels we are convinced we absolutely need, even if we are going to destroy the land and the atmosphere. We are willing to build atomic plants, no matter what the risks involved and to do many other things to force the earth to produce what we think we need.

Then, there is a different attitude that looks more civilized. It is efficiency. It says that if we can convince people to use resources in more efficient ways, we can still have everything we are accustomed to have and save the earth, too. Fluorescent lamps and small cars surely look much better than the "drill baby drill" idea but, in the end, the concept is not so different in the sense that we are not willing to change in what we think we need. The American way of life remains not negotiable, apparently, just the way of obtaining it might be. It is a strategy that might even work - for a while, at least. But can we really find technological solutions to get all that we are accustomed to have - and for everyone? The recent case of the Fukushima disaster should have shown to us that we are not so smart as we think we are.

We have not arrived yet to the last part of the story; when we could discover that the winning strategy is neither forcing nor cajoling the earth to give more than it can give. The winning strategy is adaptation. We need to adjust our needs to what this planet can give us. It is what the Japanese did on their island and, after all, we are all living on an island, a gigantic, spherical, blue island floating in the blackness of space. It is up to us to manage the bounty that we can have from the earth and create something that could be as beautiful as the Edo Civilization in Japan; surely with better and softer ways of controlling population.

If the historical example of Japan counts for something, we may be heading in the right direction and the age of planetary civil wars may end one day or another. So, if we can wait long enough, one day we may hear the cuckoo sing.




Acknowledgement: thanks to Jacopo Visani and Niccolò Giannetti for having organized the meeting at the Kozen Dojo where I gave this talk.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The population problem: should the Pope tell people to stop breeding like rabbits?



Image by Rakka.

In this post, I argue that overpopulation is a complex problem that has to do with human choices at the level of single families. It is not impossible that such choices will eventually lead to a stabilization of the world population at a sustainable level. It has happened in some historical cases, such as in Japan during the Edo period.


The population question arises strong feelings everytime it is mentioned and there is a general feeling that people will keep reproducing like rabbits unless something drastic is done to stop them. This position often goes in parallel with criticism to religious leaders and to religions in general, accused of encouraging people to reproduce like rabbits. Or, at least, to hide the fact that reproducing like rabbits is bad for the planet.

But is it true that people tend to reproduce like rabbits? And would they stop if someone, let's say the pope, were to tell them to stop? Maybe, but things cannot be so simple. Let me show you an example: Japan during the Edo period.


The population of Japan during the Edo Period (uncorrected data as reported by the bBafuku government). It shows how it is perfectly possible to attain a stable population in an agricultural society, even without "top-down" rules and laws. (data source, see also this link)


Note how the population has remained relatively constant for at least 150 years. It is a fascinating story, discussed in detail in the book "Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660–1950" by Fabian Drixler. Here is an illustration from the book:


Another impressive set of data: the net reproduction rates in Japan remained around or below the replacement rate during the Edo period, keeping the population constant for, indeed, something like one century and a half. It is also impressive to note how the reproduction rate literally exploded afterward, bringing the Japanese population from the ca. 25 millions of the Edo period to the present level of around 125 million, five times larger. Note also how rapidly the reproduction rate collapsed after the 1950s; it is a stark example of what we call the "demographic transition."

As we can see from these data, human reproduction strategies are much more complex than what you would imagine if you limit yourself to the biblical commandment "grow and multiply". The Japanese did NOT reproduce like rabbits during the Edo period. It doesn't appear that they were forced to reduce their birthrate by the government or by religious credences. Some famines are reported in Japan during the Edo period, but they couldn't have been truly disastrous, otherwise you would see their effects in the population curve. The population remained stable, it seems, mainly by "bottom-up" strategies at the level of single women or single families: contraception and, when that was not enough, infanticide.

So, what led the Japanese families to choose (rather than being forced) to limit their reproduction rate? There is plenty of scientific literature on the strategies of reproduction of various species, including the human one. The basic idea is that, in all cases, parents have a choice on how to employ their limited resources. Either they invest in having a large number of offspring (the "r-strategy", also the "rabbit strategy") or they invest in caring for their young until they reach adulthood (the "K-strategy" or the "Elephant strategy"). The choice of the reproductive strategy depends on the situation.  Let me cite directly from a paper by Figueredo et al. (1)
...... all things being equal, species living in unstable (e.g., fluctuation in food availability) and unpredictable (e.g., high predation) environments tend to evolve clusters of “r-selected” traits associated with high reproductive rates, low parental investment, and relatively short intergeneration times. In contrast, species living in stable and predictable environmental conditions tend to evolve clusters of “K-selected” traits associated with low reproductive rates, high parental investment, and long intergeneration times.
Humans, clearly, are more like elephants than like rabbits. The number of children that a human female can give birth to is limited, and it is normally a good strategy for her to maximize the survival chances of fewer children, rather than trying to have as many as possible. So, for most of humankind's history a family - or a single woman - would examine its environment and make a rough estimate of what chances their (or her) children could have to survive and prosper. In conditions of limited resources and strong competition, it makes sense for parents to maximize the health and fitness of their children by having a small number of them. It seems to be what happened in Japan during the Edo period: facing limited resources in a limited island, people decided to limit the number of their offspring, applying the "K-strategy."

The opposite is true for periods of abundant resources and scarce competition. When the economy is growing, families may well project this growth to the future and estimate that their children will have plenty of opportunities, then it makes sense to have a larger number of them - hence to apply the "r-strategy". The dramatic growth of population during the past 1-2 centuries is the result of the increasing consumption of fossil fuels. Everywhere, and in Japan as well, people reacted by filling up what they saw as open slots for their children. But with the second half of the 20th century, economic growth slowed down and people started to perceive that the world was rapidly filling up and that the economy wasn't growing anymore. They may not have perceived the depletion of mineral resources, but the result was obvious anyway. It was the "demographic transition," normally related to increasing wealth, but that we may also see as the result of a perception of the future that was seen as less rosy than before.

There are other cases of human populations that remained stable for some periods, so we may conclude that humans do not - definitely - reproduce like rabbits; except in some very special are rare conditions of history. Humans are intelligent creatures and, within some limits, they choose how many children to have in such a way to maximize their survival probabilities. The human population will tend to grow in a condition of economic growth, but it should tend to stabilize in static economic conditions. So, if we were able to stabilize the economic system, avoiding major wars and the need of cannon fodder, then the human population may well stabilize by itself, without any need for a "top-down" intervention by governments (or maybe by the Pope). Unfortunately, between now and then, there is a little problem called "overshoot" and stabilization at a sustainable level may be anything but painless. But if stabilization was possible on the island of Japan during the 19th century, why can't it happen in the larger island that we call "Earth"?


See also a post of mine titled "The cuckoo that won't sing: sustainability and Japanese culture"


1. Aurelio José Figueredo, Geneva Vásquez, Barbara H. Brumbach, Stephanie M.R. Schneider, Jon A. Sefcek, Ilanit R. Tal, Dawn Hill, Christopher J. Wenner, W. Jake Jacobs, Consilience and Life History Theory: From genes to brain to reproductive strategy, Developmental Review, Volume 26, Issue 2, June 2006, Pages 243-275, ISSN 0273-2297, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2006.02.002


Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)