Category Archives: Fractal History

My favourite Quote – Moby Dick

Off into the storm again soon!

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Several years ago, a friend of mine came close to breaking free from the institutional life. He had a foot in each place. But frightened by the unknown, he pulled back into the world he knew – confident that he was safer there where his mastery lay. Last week he was fired.

In my own life and family too we have a recurring story, a Greek tragedy, where the pull of duty and obligation to the familiar overwhelms the preservation of self. The outcome – an early death for both my father and grandfather. It seemed to be their only exit. I thought that I was exempt from this story but find that I am well into it.

I too like my friend have a choice. The  paradox is that in a turbulent time, the greatest risk is in hanging onto what seems safe. The greatest safety – to reach into the unknown. This is surely not only true for each of us as individuals but also for organizations.

Here is how Herman Melville describes this in Moby Dick

“The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe! ” Moby Dick – The Lee Shore Chapter.


First Post on Food Systems and History

Saturday, July 05, 2003

Many of us ask how best to change our industrial society. Many have an idea of what we need as a species to survive – a more networked world where we work with nature rather than against her. But we don’t know how to get there. Maybe we don’t need a plan but only to wait for what will happen.

My thesis is that we have endured a number of food/technology crises. Each time we this has happened, we have had to make a fundamental shift in how power is used and society is therefore structured.  I think that we are on the brink of such a crisis today. Let’s have a quick blog-like look at our history in this context and then look at what is coming in our lifetime.

Let’s revisit the breakout in 60-40,000 bc that I have talked about earlier today. Remember that we think that complex language was an adaptation to hunting on the savannah and hence was our start as homo sapiens – the tool maker. Our new ability to learn across tribes and across time, rather than only directly face to face in present time,  gave us the ability to adapt to changes in the environment by using culture not biology.

This ability to adapt via culture has given modern man a huge adaptation accelerator that we have been relying on ever since. Think about this for a moment, all other species have to make biological adaptations to environmental change. This is very slow. Humans can use culture or collective learning. Example – Modern man migrated north into the ice because he had clothing, fire and the culture to use weapons and boats in the hunt and tools in the preparation of food. A small ape could compete with a Polar Bear! This ability has given us a unique advantage in the acquisition of food. But this is also a poisoned chalice. Our ability to get food at a rate higher than a natural fit with the resource tends to lead us to over-exploit the resource. As with all systemic processes, the food system tends to collapse suddenly leaving man in a crisis that not only affects his stomach but his society.

Until the breakout, the world was full of large and slow animals. Giant sloths, giant tusked mammoths etc. They had evolved to be very large to make it to hard for the predators of the time. Large size was also an adaptation to cold weather. A large animal has a smaller surface to size area and can therefore hold heat better. Clovis man had the hunting tools, the social structures and the food processing capability, butchery, drying, cooking etc to devastate animals that had been immune from predation before. This lead to a population explosion. By 10,000 bc man had reached every corner of the earth.

Here is the beginning of the pattern that we need to understand. We find a technology for food production that is so successful that it leads to the collapse of the underlying resource. We then have to reinvent our society to take on a new technology. Which in turn leads to a population explosion and the destruction of the underlying resource and so on. Question – will we ever learn?

By 10,000 bc we had effectively wiped out the large animals. It was not just us. The coincidental & dramatic end of the ice age must have been a large factor, but we probably tipped the system. Hunter Gatherer man woke up one morning with nothing left to hunt and had to hand over power to the Gatherers. I bet the end might have happened in the life of a generation. A boy would have been born into plenty and died of starvation. The big game harried by man and failing to adapt itself to the change in climate must have gone like the bison or the carrier pigeon as if overnight.

What must this have meant socially? In short, the men became unemployed as they are a bit today. These were not Gatherer Hunter societies. They were Hunter Gatherer societies. There must have been a revolution in power as women became the prime food source. In many parts of the world, man stopped being a nomad and had to settle. What had been gathering quickly turned into gardening and animal domestication. We see this shift in power in the rise of the Goddess and the sacrifice of the son king every year to ensure the harvest. The idea of property emerged. In the era of the Goddess, property went through the female line. So power was held in a gynarchy – a hierarchy of women. In this time there are no walls and no evidence of much inter tribal warfare. It must have been a golden age unless you were the Son King – but even then you had a good year.

The shift to patriarchy and to the power system that we inherited, comes from the technology used in food preparation and from a different response in the east to the collapse of the large game source. .

Pottery is a key technology platform. Most of our transforming processes today are based on the idea of applying heat and pressure. Nature on the other hand uses water and enzymes. A new breakout for man came from learning how to use high temperatures to make pottery for food storage and cooking. This technology lead directly to the technology of metal working which in turn lead to advanced tillage tools, such as the plow and then to weapons. It also lead to the wheel. The first wheel was a pottery wheel. Some consultant of the time, an outsider, must have one day made the click and suggested that the wheel could be attached on a different plane to a sled and we would have a cart. With a cart and a plow you can have farming. With farming you can have a surplus. Until this time nearly everyone had had to work in food production. With a surplus, new occupations open up not directly related to food. With a cart and a surplus you can have a city. With a surplus you can feed priests, soldiers and civil servants. With the new tools and the domestication of oxen to pull the plow, we had a population explosion that is only today levelling out at maybe 8 billion in 2050.

In the east another process  unfolded. Here the men did not give up power to women and settle. Instead, they selected a small number of animals that could be domesticated, sheep, goats and horses and became herders. They developed a very extreme form of patriarchy. Gods were men and were cruel. This group migrated west.

The tipping point was when the Herders and their Gods met the Farmers and their Goddess. The herders, saw that stealing food and calling it taxation was a “good thing”. They saw that they could use the huge surplus populations as armies and priests and our modern world was begun. At first the Goddess married the God, Hera and Zeus. But then Yahweh, and later Allah, killed the Goddess off. Her ghost is Mary

There are many subplots along the way. Enclosures, the agricultural revolution and the advent of industrial farming and distribution. But we have been on an arc of the same system of exploiting the bounty of nature and using force and power to dominate those that grow food since Babylon. This at one level has been very successful. We have enjoyed a huge population explosion.

But we are near the end. We will see the end of wild fish in the sea in our lifetime. We, like Clovis hunters, will only have memories of fishing the ocean. Like Clovis men our ability to use technology and organization will have deprived the world and ourselves of a great bounty. We too will have overexploited the soil itself. But most importantly we will have overexploited fresh water.

In 50 years time it will not be possible to grow food in California. In 50 years time the Orgalla aquifer will have run dry and we will not be able to grow food in the mid west. In 20 years time China and India will have outstripped their water supplies. Maybe our world will be warmer as well and we will have droughts thanks to nature as Clovis man endured the great melt. In 50 years time our population will be about 8 billion just as our food system comes to a halt.

If we are smart we will use some hiccups along the way to start making some changes.

In 10 years borders will be shut to the transshipping of food as food safety scares such as mad cow, foot and mouth, wart etc are used politically to protect local food systems. The whole idea of mono cropping aimed at exports will die off. The farmers in the west will crack before the water runs out.

In 5 years, the outcry against processed food and its role in our obesity epidemic will start to change food habits in the mainstream. This month we have seen Kraft and Nestle begin to make changes. Pop and trans-fats will be seen like tobacco. A demand will rise for food grown in a new way.

Our children will have to reinvent how we get and process food. Vast cities with only 3 days supply of food will no longer be able to rely of an industrial complex to send them cheap food. I have seen this in Ukraine where every family in Kiev has a Dacha plot and ensures its food supply by gardening. In Havana, every family has an urban plot.

As with the end of the large animals or the takeover of the Gardeners by the Herders, all our power lines will shift. Vast agro-industrial enterprises will have no place in a such a a world. The process of cityfication, started in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago will have to unwind.

It will not be the internet per se that will change how and where we live and who has power or not. It will be the end of our current food system. It may be the internet that will enable us to adapt more quickly to whatever we find as the alternative but be assured when power shifts it is not a fun time.

It may be likely that the balance of power will once again shift between the sexes. I suspect that the new food system will be local and will be closer to gardening than farming. Women are already in the vanguard in this field.

So what do we do? We can wait for the collapse. You say that it will not happen. It’s a matter of simple math, when you take more water over time than is recharged, it runs out. When you pollute your water systems as we are on PEI over time with nitrates, you tip at a point in the future and you have no usable ground water. If we do nothing, all this is only a matter of time. Or we can wake up and see that water and food are the key. We will not be able to save the western water shed, not the Orgalla nor India or China but we can save ourselves. All we have to do is to wake up and look at the trends. Then we do as man has always done we get together and find a new way!

The Breakout link –

The great leap: “60,000 years ago humans were on the brink of extinction. An evolutionary eyeblink later, there are over 6 billion of us. How did we do it?” [Guardian Unlimited > [ t e c h n o c u l t u r e ]] [Universal Rule]

More and more evidence is emerging that something unusual happened with humans about 60,000 years ago. I’m waiting for the movie. [A Man with a Ph.D. – Richard Gayle’s Weblog]

The breakout 60-40,000 bc is the tipping point where man left the world of animals. More and more the thesis behind this shift has been that complex language appeared at this time. A blind alley for research has been the search for a mechanical adjustment in the body – the throat/larynx area. Soft tissue does not last – hence “proof” of language as a product of mechanical adaptation cannot be found.

More progressive researchers think instead about mindset and culture as evidenced in rates of innovation in tools and art which can be observed. There is no doubt that the rate of innovation becomes exponential for homo sapiens at this time. Poor old Neanderthal has almost no innovation. Art appears to explode fully realized at this time “Lascaux”

The theory that appeals to me is that early man could speak even Neanderthal. But early language as with say highly evolved apes and monkeys was not merely vocal but used a wide range of visuals. Alarm calls, food calls, are all part of the language of many primates. This language is by definition trapped in the present. “Hungry” “Back off” “I want you” I’m sad” etc My mother in law still lives in this world of the emotional present. It is a language of self – we see the world only through our eyes and only in the now. There is no future. The driving force is emotion. This mindset does not allow us to imagine a future and hence there can be no speculative innovation. You can only learn by observing the work of another directly. It is very hard to to exchange ideas outside of a tribe.  I bet the vocal apparatus evolved in this prolonged era of mother in law world view. So the tools were ready for a different application.

So how did we speak in anew way that enabled us to think of a future and to learn indirectly?

Robin Dunbar suggests that complex speech evolved for man from the primate habit of grooming. All Primates groom. The reason is to keep up emotional health in a hierarchy. Grooming enables you to form and sustain your protective political alliances and community within the tribe that keeps you safe from internal aggression. You get the protection of some alphas and you support each other when you have been put upon by a higher person. We do this at the office but today we use words and we call it gossip. Human society like all primate society is highly political and hierarchical. Think of high school! The cool set – cliques etc.

This is Dunbar’s aha! As we moved onto the Savannah where we had to hunt in an organized manner – unit size had to grow so that there were at least 8 adult males. This drove a tribal size of about 40 with perhaps 8 adult females and 15 youths and children. As the unit size grew there was a conflict between the grooming time needed to hold the structure together and the time needed for other activities such as hunting and food preparation. You can only groom one person at a time but you can gossip with many – especially is you are a woman and you are sitting by the fire working on skins with the other women while looking out for the kids. So we started to chat! Getting my drift?

Might social software act as a chat/gossip amplifier? Might it be a driver for an extension of mindset and consciousness that gossip drove 60,000 years ago?

The Foundation of the New Renaissance Ideas

A friend asked me this morning how I found the ideas that I am attached to. Did I intuit them or do they come directly from my reading and hence have some attributable source? I had never given much conscious thought to how I think and so Jean got me going – here is my reply plus a bit more
What a good question! I start with an intuition but thankfully I am finding more and more science to back me up. I ground all my work in a hypothesis..Which is –

I think that we have been blinded from a proper understanding of nature by our manufactured modern dogma just as the medieval mind was in its own turn blinded by the dogma of its time. I believe that if we could see our nature and nature more clearly that most of our problems could be made better.
Much of what I read is either intuitive – Robert Ardrey speculating on the unit size of a hunting band in 1970 which is then supported later in science by Robin Dunbar who today has found the neocortex formula for human groups and Magic Numbers.

Often I take an idea from over there and apply it over here. I read about chaos theory and apply it to culture shifts. I read about Information Theory developed for rangefinding and telephone networks and apply it to human communication.

I rarely speculate entirely. Most importantly I filter everything I read through a point of view. I read incessantly about physics, nature, evolution and networks. I am an Historian by education and have discovered that the higher, or the longer the time frame,  the more clearly the patterns of history are revealed. So I also look for bifurcation in history. My timetable has extended back to the beginning of the solar system. I look at the evolution of life and of living systems My main interest today is the study of early man and our development as primates and hunter gatherers.

I am hopeful as we stand at the edge of either a catastrophe or a renewal. I think that have the potential to experience a new renaissance and that if we look at the last one, we can see the pattern for this type of event.

The medieval world worked well until the 14th century when the complexity of life overwhelmed its ability as system to solve the problems of the day.The Black Death had killed 30% of the population ending the feudal relationships. There was a mini ice age. Civil War in Europe had become pandemic and Christendom as a group was engaged in a 300 year war with Islam  Navigation had extended the world beyond Ptolemaic math for navigation. Weapons had become democratic – a Welsh Bowman could kill many expensive Knights – and the reality of military power had been upended asymmetrically. The advent of the printing press had revolutionized the cost and reach of communication putting huge stress on the existing power structures such as the Church and the Monarchy.

Many of these conditions are evident again in some form today. The stress of the medieval world ended when a few men “saw” the ancient world with clear eyes and also the natural world with the dogma stripped off. So for a while, the meaning of the ancient texts was revealed to intellectuals like Petrarch and the meaning of the solar system was revealed to men like Galileo.Observation and intuition became important. Power  and relationships shifted and new institutions arose

I feel that we have become blinded by our own set of dogma today as well. Our dogma has shut down as unacceptable our powers of observation and our use of our intuition as to how things are. The good news is that those today who are using their intuition are finding that science is rapidly catching up. As in physics, the breakthrough comes intuitively and then is grounded in observation.

So what is our modern dogma that puts up barriers to intuition and observation? There are four strands that I can see.

The first begins with the Judeo Christian myth than man is put by God in dominion over the world. In other words, that we are not an animal and part of the world but are in fact a unique godlike being who has the right to do anything he wants to the planet and to all others that inhabit it. This idea survived the Renaissance and has become, I think, our biggest block to renewal. It holds in it 3 subset ideas that drive further problems as well. Dualism which prevents us from seeing systems – paradox and complexity. Like the medieval time, our modern world view has worked well but now there is too much complexity for it to cope. Our life has shifted up several gears in complexity and rational thought, the child of dualism, cannot cope with complexity and the unknown. Rational thinking alone is a weak tool as it can only cope with the known. Every breakthrough in science, every great piece of art,  has come from the intuitive yet we shun the intuitive as unscientific and un-business like. Rational thinking alone causes us to develop much of our operational dogma of today. These ideas about who we should be are  “artefact’s” of our mind and are disconnected from observed reality. I suspect that these are ideas based in the longing for humans to escape their heritage as primates. They include ideas such as: men and women are the same. All  humans are created equal. We should find strangers appealing. We are really peace loving beings. If only we were only richer we would be happier and so on. You can feel immediately how heretical it would be to challenge these ideas today. Finally this meme also drives the idea of Redemption after life which allows us to avoid seeing how precious life is while we live it. When we believe in redemption, we can live the live of a slave in hope for a better afterlife. We can work as a drone in the hope of a retirement and so on. We lose the joy of the day.

We have become a planetary species but we think that we are still a village species. I think that these ideas allow us to treat the planet with disrespect and all animals as if they were our objects. This is village thinking where there are no consequences outside the visible and the local. Consequently, we destroy the very systems that support us without “seeing” what we do.We set up aspirations about behaviour and our nature as humans that we can never reach so we feel guilty all the time.

The second set of dogma comes from our Judeo Christian background as well. This time from the Reformation. The kingpin idea is the idea of “success = the chosen”. In the medieval times the aspiration was grace. Not often achieved but the medieval worldview was not driven by the idea of commercial everything. The reformation brought into play the meme of the “elect on earth” who could be observed by how well they did. As a result, doing, activity and success became the measures by which we were measured. This I think has driven the Secular age that we live in now where nearly every act and thing has a commercial value and our principal aspiration is to have more things. This is the now secular consumer meme that Islam seems to have such a problem with and the meme that is at the heart of our current religion the consumer economy.
As a consequence, we live a life now of frenetic activity with a goal that cannot give us satisfaction.
The 3rd dogma is how we make things. Our basic transformative process for materials has been the use of heat and pressure. I think that this came from our experiments with fire and later pottery. The problem with this meme is that it makes all our processes environmentally destructive. Nature makes much better materials than we do and uses chemistry, proteins, water and room temperature.
The result is that we are doing a good job of reversing a key work of evolution which has been to bury heavy metals deep below the surface so that life could live.
The last dogma that I see is the dogma of our view of organization which is driven by the metaphor of the machine. Tools and hence machinery have taken us from the plains of Africa to the modern world. We are tool makers. I think that we have fallen in love with the machine and we use it as a metaphor for most things. A machine is a dualistic concept. They only connect directly to  inputs and outputs. They have a cause and an effect which is predictable. They have to have parts in them that “fit”. They are based on the idea of engineering efficiency. They need an outside force to power them. The machine world is a zero sum game

BUT nature does not organize that way. It organizes in nested networks that all interact. We have in the west nearly institutionalized, or put into a machine context, all social aspects of life. We put our children into daycare and then into a school system that teaches dualism and obedience. We work in institutions and when we can work no more we end up in an old people’s home. We have lost adventure, each other and ourselves in the process. Most western families are one parent families now – can’t get any smaller. So we have become parts of a machine like in the film the Matrix. The irony, like in the film, is that we don’t even know it.

The result is that we are stuck as was the 14th century western world.

So where is the new Renaissance? It is surely to be found by looking back at our lives as Hunter Gatherers and “seeing” the wisdom of our heritage and then applying this to our lives today. I don’t mean living in a cave. Petrarch did not try and recreate Athens either. He took the meaning from the ancients and made it real again for his own time. It is is having the humility to observe nature afresh. Just as Galileo looked through his telescope and saw that the Sun and not the earth was the centre of the local system It is to give up intellectual artifact, or the equivalent of religious dogma of the medieval world, wherever possible and to look to nature herself for design for materials and for organization. It is to see that we too are animals and are partners in the biosphere with all other life and so to treat it with the same respect that we want for ourselves.

The huge collective outpouring of ideas around networks, emergent democracy, natural organization etc I find very encouraging. So much is happening in this regard in blogging itself. How do I feel? Frightened. The Renaissance had no guarantees and as two world views clashed at its birth life was especially hard

My First Post on the New Renaissance

Monday, March 31, 2003

A New Renaissance? Back to the Future

I think that we can usefully take a much deeper look at our Hunter Gatherer past. I have a sense than if we care to look we will find the ideas that may lead to a new Renaissance. Was not the last Renaissance a time when a few people saw past the page to the meaning of the ancient texts? Monks had been copying them for a thousand years but no one could “see” what they said so long as they were prisoners of the Medieval Mindset. The essence of the last Renaissance was that the great ideas of the Ancient world were re-contextualized for the modern world. The early actors did not seek to recreate the ancient world but to apply its thinking to the problems of their time. The result the birth of the modern world. What about our time?

Now our modern world is failing as a thought system. I wonder if we in the blogosphere have been climbing a ladder of revelation about social networks that in fact will take us back to the wisdom of our 4 million years of hunter gatherer tribal structures? These, surely are where we are hardwired to be most comfortable? I am not suggesting that we immediately don skins etc but I am suggesting that a more rigorous study of our hunter gatherer past will tell us how to live in the post industrial society.

My sense is that we, like our medieval forefathers are trapped in a way of thinking that has become the problem. We are prisoners of the Cartesian and Industrial Mindset. But as some of us work our way through how blogging reconnects us using the Magic numbers of social connections, the deep laws of tribal behaviour become revealed and their meaning burst upon us. We are experiencing the power and the value of these groupings – not as a design but as an experience.

I think that Daniel Pink’s ideas about a Free Agent Nation also talk to a new way of participating in the economy where many of us seek to make a livelihood and no more. Many of us work at home and have no break from family. Many of us are building work relationships through blogging. I am experiencing this myself and I witness that you are experiencing this too. Here my needs are few and my work hours are also few. I find it hard to discriminate between work and play and between friends and collegues. My family is inside my work

Back to the Future? I think so. This is why the article that follows is so helpful.

Original Affluence. Marshall Sahlins is the author of Stone-Age Economics, which is an interesting read, in part about gift economies and how pre-historic economic systems weren’t as miserable as they’re commonly believed to be. Here is something from the article The Original Affluent Society:

“There are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be “easily satisfied” either by producing much or desiring little The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way- based on the concept of market economies- states that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although they can be improved. Thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point that “urgent goods” become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, which states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters. And it helps explain some of their more curious economic behaviour: their “prodigality” for example- the inclination to consume at once all stocks on hand, as if they had it made. Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own.”

Sahlins explains how typical hunter-gatherers work 3-5 hours per day on acquiring food, and they have plenty of time for leisure. For that matter, they have a schedule that most civilized people would be sort of envious about. The more ‘civilized’ we become, the harder we tend to work, and the less time we have for leisure. He also makes some interesting distinctions between primitive living and poverty. In hunter-gatherer cultures starvation would be pretty much unthinkable.

“The world’s most primitive people have few possessions. but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilisation. It has grown with civilisation, at once as an invidious distinction between classes and more importantly as a tributary relation that can render agrarian peasants more susceptible to natural catastrophes than any winter camp of Alaskan Eskimo.”

I’m not sure what we can learn here, other than that it is possible to successfully live very simply and modestly. There must be some kind of point that applies also to a technological civilization. A just-in-time kind of thinking. We could very well arrange our world so that nobody ever has to starve and so we only work a few hours per day. From what I hear, only 2-3 percent of our work relates to actual production, and from my own observation, the majority of human work is inefficient or unnecessary, just arranged to keep people busy. So, why can’t we have a an efficient and productive, but leisurely and relaxed, high tech society, where it would be unthinkable that basic needs wouldn’t be filled? [Ming the Mechanic]