Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why Neo-Tribalism is Ultimately Inevitable in an Energy Descent Context

An online acqaintance asked me the following question yesterday:

"Interesting thought Tripp, but what makes you think that a world with a lot less energy would necessarily devolve into decentralized tribalism?"

And here is my response:

Here's why: because according to widely accepted anthropological findings, about 150 people is the maximum number of folks any one person can keep up with - names, occupation, family relations, etc. At this level, which is basically the tribal level, societies are self-regulating. That is, everyone knows everyone, and is therefore accountable to everyone. It is in one man's interest not to kill another man because he would be found out and dealt with accordingly. You can't get away with much at the tribal level of organization.

Let's think of this as a comparison of food chains, tribes representing the shortest food chain that we are likely to see in such a highly populated world. Band organization is probably distant history for the most part.

So in that tribe of less than 150 people, there is no need for policemen, lawyers, judges, or even a chief, no kleptocrats whatsoever actually. Everyone is involved in acquiring food, even the "big man." Which is not a hereditary title, but conveyed solely on the merit of personal character. In ecological terms, kleptocrats represent parasites on the production system. That is, they are not directly involved in food production, and so have to be fed by the labors of other members of society. Ostensibly in return for a service of equal or greater value. Ostensibly.

Which takes us to the chiefdom level of societal organization. Because there are now roughly several thousand citizens at this level of political organization, they can't possibly know and respect everyone in the society, so 3rd-party arbitrators need to be employed - the police, lawyers, and so forth. Another layer of organization, another link in the food chain, but this time it's a new apex consumer class preying on the producing class below, and, because of typical and quantifiable energy loss to metabolic inefficiencies, every link up the food chain requires not an arithmetic expansion, but something closer to a logarithmic expansion of energy. Think about the preponderance of claims of inefficiency in the larger, more complex governments of the world. They're absolutely legitimate, and absolutely natural, according to energetics laws.

On top of this, new heights of political organization always demand monument building to solidify and consolidate their power, organized group projects like temples, monuments, and state houses. The impressive moai of Easter Island come immediately to mind. The chief is now typically ordained by the local deity, and the title passed on through hereditary title, thus creating a permanent entitled class above the producing masses. Another logarithmic expansion of energy flow up the food chain.

Without burdening the reader further with a discussion of state or even empire level organization, one can see quite plainly that increasingly-larger political organizations require exponentially more energy to maintain. (Think trial, appellate, and supreme court systems, with their level upon level of production capacity-draining kleptocrats.)

With the knowledge we have of peak oil, and understanding as we do that energy will now become increasingly difficult to capture, what sense does it make to assume that we won't enter some sort of balkanization process, slowly heading back through state, chiefdom, and on down to tribal level political organization?

Again, who knows about the timeframes here. I don't have a crystal ball in my pocket, more's the pity. But I understand ecosystem energetics fairly well, and I'm fairly certain that dwindling energy resources will remove apex predators from the food chain (something to celebrate in my opinion - think about the Bernie Madoffs of the world), in human societies just as in more classically natural populations. Because the most effective way to cut pork is by removing the head first. Which is why it never happens to any significant degree in complex political cultures; why on earth would I knowingly allow my underlings to dispatch me?? Besides the awful effects of DDT, this is one of the main reasons why birds of prey suffered from human expansion. They were apex predators who had their food chains undermined or usurped by us.

As a logical extension of this argument, one could almost assume that the greater a society's monument building is, the longer the food chain supporting it, and the more energetically unstable it is. That's why I don't worry too much about "the Chinese takeover" in a global energy descent context. Has there ever been a more monument-obsessed culture than the Chinese?

So yeah, I feel pretty confident that my macro perception of our trajectory is fairly well informed. Micro? Hard to say. But I think it's fair to assume that saving the planet (and thereby ourselves) relies on our getting small and getting local as quickly as we can. Because every link in the food chain that we remove cuts energy use logarithmically too. Which is why this might take a while. But me, I'm just ready to get back to something a lot less complicated. Some of us are simply skipping the hassle of organizing and reorganizing repeatedly, and instead, actively engaging neo-tribalism, and giving the uber-high-energy complex political organization we're all too familiar with a miss. Because we understand that our future depends on it, and we have the stones to act on that knowledge now.

I'm not sure "devolve" is the right word, but it would certainly be counter to the trends of the last ten millenia.


  1. Nowhere in your post is there even a mention of the corporation, which is the largest, most vicious and most inefficient in the whole chain.

    Maybe next post you can write about how the private corporates will die out in an Energy Descent scenario.

  2. I guess I just assumed that to be given. If it's energetically unstable, and inefficient due to the length of the food chain, like most corporate structures, then it will give way to energy descent. On a more isochronic scale, isochroma, if we all withdrew from the formal economy by choice, the vicious and inefficient corporations would just cease to exist. And if governments prop them back up, then they will cease to exist soon too.

    What I mean is that governments and corporations are both just products of their energetic reality, and subject to its governance alone, for the most part. Their graft is enabled by the obscene excess energy in the system. The same excess energy that allows American children to be both obese AND malnourished.

    I think energy descent will be the great industrial enema. And the bigger the industry, the harder the fall. Banking and insurance are on life-support already, desperately trying to figure out how to remain relevant.