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Posts Tagged ‘civilization

“The entire empire has sunk into a quagmire of extravagance from which they cannot extricate themselves”*…

If you ever visit Rome, and wander through the Colosseum or Circus Maximus, it’s hard not to be struck by a sense of fragility and impermanence. Here are the remnants of the most powerful and complex of ancient European societies, now reduced to ruin and rubble. How did this once proud and mighty empire crumble?

Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies has an answer to that question, and to similar questions you might ask about the collapse of other ancient societies (Mayan, Incan, Babylonian etc). His book is widely cited and discussed among those who are interested in the topic of civilisational collapse. Having now read it, I can see why. Tainter presents his views with a logical simplicity that is often lacking in these debates, only setting out his own theory after having exhaustively categorised and dismissed alternative theories. What’s more, his own theory is remarkably easy to state and understand: societies collapse when they hit a point of rapidly declining marginal returns on their investments in problem-solving capacity.

Despite this, I have yet to see a really good summary of his theory online. I want to provide one… I’ll try to focus on the essential elements of Tainter’s theory, and not on his dismissal of rival theories or his detailed case studies. I’ll also aim to be critical of the theory where needed, and to provide some reflections on whether it can be applied to contemporary societies at the end. These reflections will be somewhat idiosyncratic, tied to my own interests in democratic legitimacy and technology…

Academic and blogger John Danaher (@JohnDanaher): “The Collapse of Complex Societies: A Primer on Tainter’s Theory.” To observe the obvious, Tainter’s theory is usefully– provocatively– applied to (large) organizations and their “problem-solving capacity” (e.g., innovation and competitive responsiveness) as well…

(Via Matt Webb, whose contextualization is fascinating…)

* Liu Cixin, The Three-Body Problem

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As we deliberate on decline, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that George Washington was elected President of the United States by a unanimous vote in the Electoral College.

Washington’s inauguration

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“Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice?”*…

Wild rice

Rice is the most valuable agricultural commodity on the planet. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of it are produced every year, an amount valued at more than $300 billion every year. Billions of people around the world rely on it as a staple of their diets, and have done so for millennia all over East, Southeast, and South Asia, and beyond.

But the rice that’s so popular today has a distinct beginning as a cultivated crop, a beginning that arrived somewhere along the Yangzi River more than 10,000 years ago. (The rice traditionally grown in West Africa, and which was brought across the Atlantic by enslaved people and merchants in the early modern period, stems from a separate domestication event. It’s not as productive as its Asian cousin, and so is less widely cultivated now.)

Ten millennia in the past, rice grew a bit beyond its current range thanks to slightly warmer and wetter climatic conditions at the dawn of the Holocene. The people living around the Yangzi River, and slightly to the north of there, were quite happy to use the stands of wild rice growing in their homeland. Grasses might not seem like the most natural food source for people to exploit, because it requires a great deal of processing (grinding, cooking, etc.) to make it edible. As part of a forager’s diet, however, it offered advantages: It was plentiful, it was reliable when other food sources like wild game came up short, and if properly stored, it could last for years.

Around the Yellow River, northern China’s key waterway, rice didn’t grow. Millet, however, grew in abundant quantities. As their counterparts had done further to the south with rice, the inhabitants of northern China learned to process it. A couple of thousand years of experimentation led from simply collecting wild grasses wherever they were found to planting wild varieties in gardens and fields, then intentionally and unintentionally selecting for traits to make those grasses more productive and less likely to fall off the stalk. Farmers created their crops, the ancestors of the foods we eat today, and the increasing viability of the crops created farming as a way of life.

For a variety of reasons, successful farmers tend to have large numbers of children, who expand outward from their core areas, taking their way of life with them. This process of demic diffusion defines most centers of early agricultural innovation around the world. Farming begets more farmers, who tend to spread out. For this reason, Neolithic China – an environment home to not one but two distinct agricultural traditions – produced a stunning diversity of early farming cultures. Starting around 7000 years ago, after 5000 BC, these farming cultures exploded in numbers, scale, and complexity. They filled up new territories and built more and larger villages. Towns followed, and leaders in the form of chieftains and kings. Social hierarchies and inequality defined these new Neolithic societies, distinctions of rank that could be inherited across generations.

These were the foundations on which organized states, writing, and what we might eventually call “Chinese civilization” built, many thousands of years down the road…

Jared Diamond has argued that the advent of agriculture was “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race“; in any event, it was a watershed moment. Patrick Wyman explores the dawn of agriculture and of the social complexity it spawned: “Neolithic China.”

* “Who is to say plutonium is more powerful than, say, rice? One takes away a million lives, the other saves a hundred times as many.” – N.K. Jemisin, How Long ’til Black Future Month?

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As we contemplate cultivation, we might recall that it was on this date in 2017 that the U.N. General Assembly adopted 2019-2028 as the Decade of Family Farming. This program aims to serve as a framework for developing and promoting better public policies on family farming– an opportunity to contribute to an end to hunger and poverty as well as to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Here’s something that each of us can do to help the neediest.

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“When angry, count four. When very angry, swear”*…

Annibale Carracci – The Cyclops Polyphemus (detail)

Anger, like other emotions, has a history.

It is not merely that the causes of anger may change, or attitudes toward its expression. The nature of the emotion itself may alter from one society to another. In classical antiquity, for example, anger was variously viewed as proper to a free citizen (an incapacity to feel anger was regarded as slavish); as an irrational, savage passion that should be extirpated entirely, and especially dangerous when joined to power; as justifiable in a ruler, on the model of God’s righteous anger in the Bible; and as blasphemously ascribed to God, who is beyond all human emotions.

Profound social and cultural changes—the transition from small city-states to the vast reach of the Roman Empire, the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of Rome—lay behind these shifting views, but all the positions had their defenders and were fiercely debated. This rich heritage offers a wealth of insights into the nature of anger, as well as evidence of its social nature; it is not just a matter of biology….

The history of anger– indeed, the very fact that it has a history– sheds light on the elevated emotional climate of today: “Repertoires of Rage.”

* Mark Twain

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As we wrestle with wrath, we might recall that in 1752 in Britain and throughout the British Empire (which included the American colonies) yesterday was September 2. The “jump” was occasioned by a switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, as a product of which almost all of “western civilization” was then on Pope Gregory’s time; Sweden (and Finland) switched the following year.

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Written by LW

September 14, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable”*…

 

FL covid

 

Data visualizations that make no sense...

cheese

weather

flights

work from home

More at “WTF Visualizations.”

* Mark Twain

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As we celebrate clarity, we might spare a thought for the mathematician, biologist, historian of science, literary critic, poet, and inventor Jacob Bronowski; he died on this date in 1974.  Bronowski is probably best remembered as the writer (and host) of the epochal 1973 BBC television documentary series (and accompanying book), The Ascent of Man (the title of which was a play on the title of Darwin’s second book on evolution, The Descent of Man)… the thirteen-part series, a survey of the history of science–  from rock tools to relativity– and its place in civilizations, is still an extraordinary treat.  It’s available at libraries, on DVD, or (occasionally) on streaming services.

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“A culture, we all know, is made by its cities”*…

 

c-atalho-yu-k_after_the_first_excavations_by_james_mellaart_and_his_team

Çatalhöyük after the first excavations

 

Welcome to one of the mothers of all cities, Çatalhöyük, a community on the Anatolian plane that is now part of Turkey. … [Nine thousand] years ago … Çatalhöyük consisted of attached dwellings covering 33 acres. … The city was so new back then, they hadn’t invented the street yet — or the window. So the only way you could get into your apartment was to walk over your neighbors’ rooftops. A ladder was propped against the skylight opening of your apartment.

Çatalhöyük lacked something much more significant than streets and windows. There was no palace here. The bitter price of inequality that the invention of agriculture cost human society had yet to be paid. Here, there was no dominance of the few over the many. There was no one percent attaining lavish wealth while most everyone else merely subsisted or failed to subsist. The ethos of sharing was still alive and well. There is evidence of violence against women and children, but the weakest ate the same food that the strongest ate. Scientific analyses of the nutrition of the women, men, and children who lived here show a remarkable similarity, and everyone lived in the same kind of home. … Dominating [every] room was a giant head of an auroch with massive pointed horns, mounted on the richly painted wall. The walls were lavishly festooned with the teeth, bones, and skins of other animals.

The apartments at Çatalhöyük have a distinctly modern look. The floor plan is highly utilitarian and modular, uniform from dwelling to dwelling, with cubicles for work, dining, entertaining, and sleep. Bare wood beams support the ceiling. It was home for an extended family of seven to ten people…

More of this excerpt from Ann Druyan’s Cosmos: Possible Worlds at “The First Proto-City.” (Via the ever-illuminating delanceyplace.com)

* Derek Walcott

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As we appraise our antecedents, we might spare a thought for Muhammad; he died on this date in 632.  The founder of Islam, he is considered by its adherents to have been a prophet– the final prophet– sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets.  He united Arabia into a single Muslim polity, with the Quran (the transcriptions of divine messages that he received), as well as his other teachings and practices, forming the basis of Islamic religious belief.

220px-Mohammed_receiving_revelation_from_the_angel_Gabriel

Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. From the manuscript Jami’ al-tawarikh by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, 1307

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Written by LW

June 8, 2020 at 1:01 am

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