Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Book Excerpt: The Problem of Excessive Scale

This is an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors' Toolkit. Please order your copy for shipment in May.


(Although the order is placed through PayPal, you don't need to have a PayPal account; just click "Don't have a PayPal Account?" during check-out and enter a credit or debit card number. If you do have a PayPal account, please make extra-double-sure that the shipping address associated with it is up-to-date and correct, and will remain that way through May.)


In his excellent book The Breakdown of Nations the maverick economist Leopold Kohr makes several stunning yet, upon reflection, commonsense observations. He points out that small states have tended to be far more culturally productive than large states, that all states go to war but that big states have disproportionately bigger wars that kill many times more people, and that by far the most stable and advantageous form of political organization is a loose confederation of states, each so small that none can dominate the rest. Kohr arrives at his conclusions by a process of reasoning by homology (viz. analogy) by analyzing many of the problems of modernity as different manifestations of the same underlying problem: the problem of excessive scale.

Most people can relate to the concept of optimal scale on an intuitive, visceral level; we know when something is abnormally big or abnormally small, and we tend to dislike abnormality. The exceptions, be they midgets or giants, are considered freaks. In living things, growth tapers off and stops when the organism has reached its optimum size. Pursuit of largest possible size is a quixotic one, like that of the farmer who tries to grow the largest-possible turnip. Terms like “jumbo shrimp” make children giggle. There was once a very successful and influential religious cult devoted to finding the optimum in all things: the Greek cult of Apollo, with its motto of μηδὲν ἄγαν — “Nothing in excess.” Excess is never without cost, excessive size is no exception, and beyond a certain point the cost of excessive size becomes exorbitant. This point is lost on very few people, virtually all of whom happen to be politicians. For them, there is simply no limit to how big their nation-state should be allowed to become. When they think “bigger” they automatically think “better” and “more powerful,” in spite of much evidence to the contrary. Incapable of understanding the concept of diminishing and negative economies of scale, they cannot understand why increased defense spending results in more military defeats, or why increased spending on education causes ignorance to spread and test scores to plummet, or why increased spending on health care results in an increase in morbidity and mortality. In their headlong pursuit of “growth” they work themselves into the cul de sac of excessive size, a predicament from which there is no escape except through collapse.

Kohr defines the effect of excessive size using the Law of Diminishing Productivity: if one adds variable units of any factor of production to a fixed quantity of another, at some point the effect of adding one more variable unit will decrease productivity rather than increase it. The best example of this law in action we currently have is with population as the variable unit and Earth as the fixed unit. Indications are that we passed this point some time ago, but the population continues to grow because, although productivity is being steadily diminished, it is still above zero. Kohr's ideas lived on in the work of E. F. Schumacher and others, but they have failed to gain enough traction to reverse the march to gigantism, followed inexorably by collapse.

Ironically, Kohr's effort failed precisely because of the vast scale of the contemporary intellectual endeavor. Kohr pointed out that most of the great advances in learning and the arts occurred in small communities — in ancient Greece, medieval Europe and other places where everyone knew everyone, where the entire sweep of human affairs could be taken in at a glance and where one could be well regarded as what was once called a Renaissance Man — a generalist. But the vast scale at which contemporary society operates makes it impossible for anyone to observe the whole of it with any degree or precision or insight, forcing everyone to specialize in one thing or another; the vaster the scale, the more circumscribed the realm in which one can gain sufficient expertise to understand what is happening and be in a position to predict what might happen next. The proliferation of experts who know almost everything about almost nothing is a sure sign that the pursuit of knowledge has been carried to an excessive scale, but the existence of these same experts makes it impossible to claw knowledge back from the brink of utter irrelevance, because that can only done by a generalist. In turn, generalists are not allowed among specialists: to a specialist, as Kohr pointed out, a generalist is either irrelevant (unable to advance knowledge in the specialist's narrow field of expertise) or an impostor (someone not even interested in advancing knowledge in the specialist's narrow field of expertise).

To illustrate how this works (or, as the case may be, does not work) let us take the specific example of breast cancer. There are specialists in the genetics of breast cancer (which seems specialized enough for our purposes) who have recently taken to the airwaves in the hopes of drumming up support for extending their already rather expensive program of research. They have found some genetic markers for breast cancer which could potentially lead to more effective treatments given a great deal of further research. Some poor sane woman calls up and asks, “What about prevention?” (There didn't used to be so much breast cancer, you know.) One specialist starts babbling about the difficulty of doing studies of breast cancer prophylaxis therapies ... before remembering that she is an oncological geneticist, dammit, not an historical epidemiologist! Now, let's suppose the impossible: someone managed to get an historical epidemiologist specializing in breast cancer on that same show. (It is difficult to have different areas of expertise represented on one show and still have it be interesting because the different specialists tend to politely ignore each other.) The historical epidemiologist would probably say that the evidence for lower historical incidence of breast cancer during centuries past is ambiguous because the diagnostic techniques we use today were not available then, but it's certainly the case that the rates for many types of cancer have doubled and even tripled since the early twentieth century, by which time doctors were certainly able to recognize tumors. So why is that? Well, the epidemiologist volunteers, the spike in cancer rates coincides with the introduction of a large number of synthetic organic compounds into the environment — ones that do not occur in nature. Another poor sane woman calls up and asks, “What about the carcinogenic pesticides found in breast milk?” What specialist do we summon next, a neonatal nutritionist, perhaps, who will tell us about the increased risk of cancer in breast-fed infants? (Sorry, that's off-topic!) Or an agricultural chemist, who will tell us that the pesticides are required to bring in the bountiful harvests we need to feed a growing, albeit cancer-riddled, population? Perhaps we should ask a politician? A politician would no doubt say that he will support all of these lines of research, so please remember to vote for him on election day.

Better yet, let's all take a short mental holiday (because by now most of us could probably use one) and ask a prince. Suppose the court scientist comes to the prince and says, “My prince, our women are developing tumors in their breasts at an alarming rate, and I have discovered why.” (He is the only court scientist, but a very good one. He specializes in Knowing Much More Than Anyone Else.) “In this vial I have an extract of breast milk,” he goes on, “which contains the same poisons your chemists are giving to your peasants to kill insects. I have fed these poisons to rats, and they too developed tumors. The poisons must be banned.” The prince, his pampered hand resting lightly on a leather-bound volume by Niccolò Machiavelli, thinks to himself: “These chemists say that they are my friends, but are they really? Here is my chance to find out. If I ban these dreadful poisons, then they may comply willingly, but if they resist even for a moment, then I will condemn them as poisoners of women and children and clap them in irons and/or banish them from my realm in accordance with my caprice du jour! In either case, I will no longer have to wonder whether or not they are my friends.” Aloud he says, “These poisons are an abomination,” and to the palace guard, “Summon the chemists!” When the chemists arrive some minutes later, red in the face and out of breath, the prince, growing impatient, motions to the court scientist to get on with it. The court scientist repeats his words. “As you wish, my prince,” the chief chemist says, “but don't your peasants need these poisons to kill the insects to feed the growing population?” The prince, now looking positively bored, turns to his scientist: “What would be better for us, a smaller but healthier population or a larger but sicker one ... never mind, I just answered my own question. The poisons are hereby banned. Lunch, anyone?”

If a relatively specific problem, such as the task of banning cancer-causing pesticides, shatters into tiny, mutually unintelligible domains upon the submerged rocks of overspecialization, then what of the far more general problem of controlling scale at every level? It is simply not specific enough to register with any of the numerous specialists and specialisms on whose domains it impinges. There is a vast and desolate no-man's-land stretching between political science, economics, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, history and philosophy (to name a few) and this is the wilderness that our poor hero, Leopold Kohr, chose to wander. And although his book is a joy to read in spite of its sombre message, his fate was a sad one. He was trying to stop the cancer of unconstrained, uncontrolled growth after it had already metastasized and engulfed the entire planet. But thanks to Kohr's efforts we are able to realize that although the sick patient is the entire planet, the cancer is not necessarily in all of us. Instead of pointing at each of us, Kohr points at the global political juggernaut driven by a blind ambition of achieving global unity. Our task, it would appear, is to jump off this death-wagon without breaking our legs.

This was an excerpt from The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors' Toolkit. Please order your copy for shipment in May.


(Although the order is placed through PayPal, you don't need to have a PayPal account; just click "Don't have a PayPal Account?" during check-out and enter a credit or debit card number. If you do have a PayPal account, please make extra-double-sure that the shipping address associated with it is up-to-date and correct, and will remain that way through May.)

19 comments:

Frederik said...

On the topic of pre-ordering. Should people in the EU wait for the launch, and buy via a book store? Given I do not want to pay 2-300% of the price to handling at the customs, but would like to pre-order if possible.

Publius said...

Great post. I will actually buy this book.

It sounds like the problem is something that the great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset also talked about: modern scientists are barbarians, because they know a lot about a little, but suppose themselves to be granted the authority to tell people what to do in areas outside their fields.

The age of the man of letters, or Renaissance man, ended with the institutionalization of modern "science" (which used to be called natural philosophy).

Descartes' and Bacon's dream was that specialization and the accumulation of knowledge would yield a utopia. They missed something, didn't they?

The Cult of the Expert is destroying us, and those who are skeptical of expertise are heretics. Hopefully we won't be burned at the stake.

There is a certain level after which technology becomes a force that enslaves us: we've passed that point a long time ago. Appropriate technology is technology that your local village nerd will be able to take apart and fix for you.

That leaves out the nanobots.

What do you think of Ray Kurzweil's recent claim that we are on the cusp of the vaunted Singularity he has been raving about for decades now?

Alchemyguy said...

Kurzweil is the same as every other Utopian visionary with the Deus ex Machina trope (almost literally, in his case). No utopia has stood and there's no evidence that any would in the real world.

I'm not so thoroughly down on Experts, though. Maybe because I'm biased (I am specialized and "expert" in my field); experts/specialists do things in their field better than the generalists, which is (generally speaking) useful to everybody. The court scientist is in fact a form of expert; he's probably not much of a farmer or mason any more than the baker is a good soldier or sailor. The point isn't that being an expert on anything is bad (Evil Chemists poisoning the population!), it's that Experts need to be managed by non-experts (The Prince) to yield satisfactory results. The chemists in our tale are probably very useful if appropriately applied ("Create something useful that doesn't poison the population", mutters our Prince. They return a few months later with a method to improve wine production and quality by managing something they call "pH")

To suggest that experts should be mistrusted (as in the commenter above) by virtue of the fact that they are experts is to run to the other extreme and commit the same error that expertophiles do and to ignore the fact that specialization is useful.

DeAnander said...

I suspect that there is a level of specialisation -- as there is a level of streamlining production -- which works optimally for any given endeavour. It's finding this golden mean that seems to challenging. Failing to detect and curb excess seems to be the keynote of human folly (if X is good then 10X must be better!) -- perhaps this is why so many of our traditional spiritual/religious traditions dwell on self-mastery, restraint, and humility... only to be, themselves, taken past the excess threshold and into lunatic territory by zealots! [the gods of irony are never idle]

at some point there is a mixture of the amateur and the professional, the specialised and the generalised, that works most harmoniously for all concerned -- particularly if even the specialists are educated from childhood to understand that their speciality is connected at all its edges to the rest of the complex world. here by happy coincidence is a recently posted article about the work and social ethos of the Edo period:

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-01-31/living-with-just-enough

we could criticise much about that historical epoch in terms of human rights, etc -- but a credible claim is made that there was, among reputable crafts people and professionals, some sense of that interconnectedness, of responsibility to a larger world. a little less of the absolute blinkering that we embrace in our atomised, Taylorised culture.

Publius said...

Alchemyguy:
Good point.
I didn't claim that experts should never be trusted.

I claim that we shouldn't live in an "expert-ocracy" as we do now, in which experts are allowed to act as the prince.

I have been an expert myself, and am now in the software industry.

I wouldn't want most of my colleagues to be running anything bigger than a computer company - some of them, of course, actually have common sense.
Such as Mr. Orlov. :)

Jean-Paul Printemps said...

Very much looking forward to the book. Another apt analogy is the Tower of Babel.

Human authority does not scale with geographic extent. At a certain point the level of sophistication exceeds that of your proverbial prince and enters that of a cohort of moneyed interests.

Alchemyguy said...

@Publius: "...and those who are skeptical of expertise are heretics..." suggests my reading (and I didn't say you said "never", but delving down these rabbit holes isn't productive), and I'll accept your second post as clarification.

I agree with @DeAnander that there must be a golden mean between knowing nothing about everything and knowing everything about nothing. Everybody should have a trade and still be able to figure out that somebody else is bad or good at their trade without having to take their word for it.



The Brother said...

on the fact of larger states being more culturally productive, that is a feature not a bug.

in a small state everyone is aware of the cultural developments and the can proceed together relatively harmoniously.

in a large state rapid cultural developments would be separated and this would most likely cause disharmony when the meet and threaten to break up the state or introduce instability.

therefore for large states slow cultural development is a survival strategy

Luciddreams said...

Just paid for it. Can't wait to read it. Been waiting since 2008 after I read "Reinventing Collapse." I had 21 dollars in my pay pal account that I earned selling my uncle some hot sauce I made last summer. The total was 21 dollars after shipping. It's fermented hot sauce from peppers I grew. My own jalapeno/cayenne hybrids.

Judy said...

This blog relates very well to my experiences recently.

On the one hand I have been trying to get a prescription for my son. A specialist diagnosed him needing medication and wrote to our Doctor. The Doctor refused to write a prescription because they said it is too specialist, and they have insufficient experience with it. The Doctor then wrote to the psychiatrist who had recommended the specialist. The psychiatrist also claimed he could not prescribe said medication because he was not the person who recommended it. The initial specialist then said they could only prescribe said medication if they received a letter of recommendation from the Doctor. The Doctor wouldn't write a recommendation for treatment that he had not diagnosed.....I hope you can see that I am really getting nowhere after 5 weeks of going round in circles. And these are supposed to be well-educated intelligent people! (Dare I say that I could buy the medication over the counter in the US!)

This is just a small example of how inefficient it is dealing with the large National Health Service in the UK, and I am still left chasing to get the medication.

On the other hand I am part of our local Transition Town. On the 15th December 2012, a few of us met at a local allotment site where there were some vacant plots and thought it would be great to get a community allotment started. Already we have created an official group, leased the allotment, laid sheeting over the weeds, obtained concrete slabs, been given a slightly damaged but new shed from the local DIY store, and on Friday will be collecting a greenhouse that has been 'freecycled'. A seed swap has been organised in the town library, in a fortnights time and the plot will be dug over by volunteers next week.

Not bad going really for a bunch of unqualified misfits, just helping each other. This is the power of small communities. This is hope for the future.

Judy

vegaseller said...

aren't you going to at least pretend to adjust for higher living standards and longer life expectancy into the equation. Yes, incidences of cancer was less back then, precisely because people died in their 40-50s. Now people are pushing into the 80-90s and so cell division and free radical decay takes it toll and show up in the increased cancer rate. While I understand the point you were trying to make and this was just used as an example. A simple explanation isn't always that hard to come by.

Glyn Green said...

Will it possible to order an ebook version on your site also? I'd like to buy it and I'd rather more of the money went directly, but I'm the other side of the planet for a few years (bicycling around and trying to learn forest gardening) and it's not practical for me to buy physical books at this point in my life.

Cheers, Glyn

artinnature said...

Perhaps we need a new category of experts, the Dot-Connectors. Mr Orlov and Mr Greer could be the founders.

onething said...

Vegaseller,

It always surprises me when people say that in the past perfectly healthy people started dropping like flies in their 40s and 50s. Average life expectancy was much shorter because so many infants and children died, more than for any other reason. Also, people who had accidents or wounds might die of infection or blood loss, whereas we can save them now.

People were healthier then, than now. Deaths started to tick up at about the age of 60, as now. We do drag a fair number of people's lives on a bit longer and that may account for some cancers, but it isn't the main reason for higher cancer rates.

Patrick said...

vegaseller you say,
"... precisely because people died in their 40-50s. Now people are pushing into the 80-90s..."
That is not exactly accurate. Life expectancy has increased dramatically because of lowered infant mortality. Yes, people are living longer, more of them into their 80-90s but people didn't typically die off in their 40-50s of "old age" in the past. The biblical estimate of "3 score and 10" was pretty accurate.

John D. Wheeler said...

@Publius, Descartes and Bacon were not wrong, they were just very low on the curve, where increasing specialization gave increasing results. It says nothing against them, we have just moved way past that point.

Also, we should trust experts, IN THEIR FIELD OF EXPERTISE. Outside of it, their opinions should not be valued any more than the average person.

@artinnature, the names for the category of experts you talking about are systems thinking or holistic managers. While Mr. Orlov and Mr. Greer do make valuable contributions, they are at least a generation removed from being the founders. Fritjof Capra and Allan Savory might be more deserving of that title.

DeVaul said...

I agree with everything about the cult of the expert (most of whom are "anonymous" now), but I was surprised by the statement that confederacys fare better than nations or empires.

I know of no confederacy that lasted more than a few years. Since the member states are reluctant to commit their armies and resources to other members without reciprocity (guarranteed), most confederacys fail just on this one point alone.

This is how the South in America failed. Each state decided to protect itself rather than Virginia or Georgia when united northern armies invaded from all directions.

I would like to know what examples Kohr uses of "successful" confederacys. Unless he is talking about a confederacy of villages or small tribes, I don't know if his theory will hold up to the light of history.

Sir Tagio said...

Dmitry,

Many moons ago you had a slide in one of your old presentations about the 5 stages of collapse that was a quote from A. Solzhenitsyn offering advice on how to deal with politicians. It was something like don't listen to them don't believe them ignore them. Seems to me that slide was a good "Orlovian" t-shirt message for our ideologically-mesmerized age. Could you provide me with a link to where I can find that in your work?

Ordered two books, one for home and one for my son. Eagerly anticipating same. Thanks.

anvor said...

How do we know if we're excessively specialized in our area of knowledge or "too generalist" to know enough to make sense of most things?