TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK
Historians, social scientists, and economists see patterns in the way civilizations and societies have evolved. I recently read about a social scientist who had determined a roughly fifty year cycle between social unrest and relative cultural harmony. The unrest generally seems to coincide with times when a small cabal of the rich and powerful use their leverage to introduce unsustainable imbalances in the culture. At this time in history in the U.S., we have the 99% lined up against the one percent fraction of society that controls the nation’s wealth and public policy.
A Nobel Prize winning chemist named Ilya Prigogine came up with what is now coined a Theory of Dissapative Structure, which was first applied to chemistry. It was later seen to have application to life in general as an adjunct to General Systems Theory to provide some sense of how cyclical dynamics work. Born in Russia, Prigogine is refered historically as being Belgian because he spent most of his life there, became a Belgian citizen, and did his most important work there.
When Prigogine’s ‘Disspative Structure’ ideas are blended with Ludwig Von Bertalanffy’s ‘General Systems’ view of biology, the result is a view of human life that constantly cycles between chaos and good order. In rough parlance, Prigogine’s view is that living systems deal with a relentless introduction of new possibility by stacking on ever more complexity as a means of maintaining order. Eventually, the sheer weight and scale of that complexity causes the system to collapse, with a new harmony emerging, built on a simplified structure that accounts for all the complexity previously introduced. It sounds more complicated than it is.
I have my own way of characterizing this cyclical collapse and reordering. In looking at history, the pattern I see boils down to ‘two steps forward- one step back’. Sure, it’s an oversimplification, but it does provide useful perspective.
World War Two amounted to chaos on a global scale. Afterward, human societies quickly reordered themselves. The post war years in the U.S. were relatively calm. Since then, we have endured a near constant barrage of social, economic and political turmoil. Each step taken to deal with one of these cultural scale conflicts – racial prejudice, for instance – required additional layers of complexity as a means of restoring order.
To use an analogy, if the Golden Gate Bridge were required to carry ever more, and ever heavier vehicles, with ever greater frequency, and with windstorms and earthquakes acting on its aging structure, the expected response would be to add more steel to strengthen the bridge. Eventually, the sheer weight and complexity of the bridge would cause it to collapse. At that point, what would likely emerge is a new bridge with a simplified design that allows for an ordered management of all the added variables in traffic and other factors affecting the bridge’s function.
Okay, so where do we stand right now as humans if we apply this ‘two steps forward- one step back’ logic to events shaping our lives and the lives of future generations? My view; as a human society, we are caught up in some deadly serious backsliding. Just think of the global scale challenges we are faced with, then consider how we are dealing with most of them. Overpopulation: as a society we mostly remain in denial. Resource overexploitation: many of us sense that we are dangerously depleting our fresh water resources, our top soil, our forests, and the living biology of our oceans. Yet, we allow our society’s ‘foxes to remain in charge of our henhouse’. Public policies on energy, on banking, and pretty much any other area of consequence have been shaped and are controlled by rapacious insiders. Money and power become the chief arbiter rather than enlighened public interest. The weight of this has become an unprecidented burden on the collective human culture.
The step backwards that we are now fully caught up in is global in scale. Layering on ever more complexity will not fix the problem. The damage we are doing to our biosphere is massive and, in too many cases, irrepairable. The way we respond over the next decade or so will determine how hard and how far we will fall. New technologies and new progressive ideas are emerging that promise the possibility of evolving into a way of living that is sustainable. We must sweep away the detritus of the old ways and embrace a new cultural paradigm designed on nature’s model. That is the only life-affirming way forward. – EmanPDX