Was Modernity Inevitable?

I seem to love asking questions that can’t be answered definitively. Yet, attempting to do so can yield useful insights. I am gearing up to post a sizable piece about whether we can expect modernity to last, but realized that it would probably be a good idea to first take a stab at defining modernity, and to explore whether this phase in human history basically had to happen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I lean toward the conclusion that modernity was inevitable. My position is reasonably strengthened by the observation that we are, in fact, where we are. It would be much harder to argue the counterfactual that modernity was unlikely, and simply wrong to say that it could not have happened.

I am finding that a number of people reject any application of determinism to human affairs—the insulting notion that we might be subject to dynamics beyond our awareness or control. As with many things these days, I tend to suspect such reactions as stemming from a sense of human supremacy: “surely we humans have transcended base forces and bring full agency to all that we do…” I, however, am perfectly comfortable seeing humans and cultures caught in a current, so will proceed on those grounds.

In its broadest sense, we might say that the biggest discontinuity in human ways is between hunter-gatherer mode and agricultural mode, as permanent settlements, cities, and nations only become possible in an agricultural context. From this high perch, “modernity” might be interchanged with “civilization,” and therefore extend to earlier times, while those on lower branches might conceive that modernity started with televisions or smart phones. You can’t please everyone. One thing I have noticed is that people seem to be somewhat willing to accept the notion of modernity’s end, but react more strongly to the notion of civilization’s end. So some distinction lurks in the minds of people between these two—probably in how far back we would have to set the clock upon modernity’s failure (1980 isn’t so bad, but 10,000 years back?  Eeek!).  I will use the term modernity throughout, but personally am willing to substitute civilization much of the time.

The term “anthropocene” is often used to describe the modern age. This is meant to delineate a new geological era dominated by the presence of humans on the planet. The idea has definite merit, given the overflowing presence of humans on the planet and our devastating impact on climate and biodiversity. My main beef with the anthropocentric term is that I wonder if it makes sense to give an era (or epoch) name to something that may be over as quickly as it started.  We don’t have a name for the era between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic marked by the chaotic period in the aftermath of the comet impact 66 million years ago.  Likewise, this disruptive moment may simply delineate two eras, while the disruption itself is brief enough to appear like the thin black layer in the rock between two periods.  In any case, this post will partly lean on this human-dominance aspect in assessing inevitability.

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The Dawn of Everything

Graeber and Wengrow’s book The Dawn of Everything keeps coming up in my life—especially as I dip an amateur toe into trying to understand human prehistory—so I thought I had better take a look. The title sounded promising, and I had heard that the book offers many pieces of interpreted evidence from humanity’s distant past. I like data.

I elected to “preview” the book as an audiobook borrowed from the library, jotting 32 pages of notes as I went along. 24 audio-hours later, I am ready to report. A key point from the authors is: it didn’t have to be this way. To which I say: but it is. Making a convincing case that it could have gone much differently is a tall order given a single—seemingly conclusive—global experimental run. But we’ll get to all that.

I will say up front that I am unqualified to supply a scholarly critique of the book. I can’t argue about any of the archeological evidence, but do find that I have a few bones to pick when it comes to logic and interpretation.

Before I got very far into the book, I wrote down some things I wanted to learn from it.

  1. Is my basic understanding correct: that agriculture leads straight to modernity, in time?
  2. Will the book provide insight into the emergence of human supremacy—a false sense of separateness or transcendence above nature that drives much of modernity?
  3. Does the book talk about animist belief systems and how languages embodied different ways of thinking?
  4. Does the book present our history in the context of one-time inheritance spending of, e.g., fossil fuels and ecological health?
  5. Is the “Everything” in the title broader than an anthropocentric focus on the last 10,000 years as civilizations arose?

I can say that the answer to all these questions is, disappointingly, no. But I’ll be a bit slippery on the first point, in due time.

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Our Time on the River

A post from last year titled The Ride of Our Lives explored the game theory aspect of modernity: those who adopted grain agriculture and new technologies had a competitive advantage over neighbors who didn’t. The “winners” were destined to be those who followed the path that we now call progress.

In that post, I used the metaphor of a gentle stream turning into a swift river—by now a raging class-5 rapid—heading toward an inevitable waterfall as a feature simply built into the landscape from the start. In this post, we will examine this river more closely, pausing to pay tribute to the various tributaries that contribute to its estimable flow. I even drew a map!

Metaphorical map of modernity’s journey. The orange time references relate to the post: The Simple Story of Civilization. Click the image to enlarge.

Here is a PDF (vector graphics) version.  I suggest having this open in another window while reading the post.

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The Simple Story of Civilization

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

The stories we fashion about ourselves are heavily influenced by our short life spans during an age of unprecedented complexity. We humans, it would seem, are unfathomably complicated creatures who defy simple “just-so” characterizations. Animals, or humans tens of thousands of years ago are fair game for simple stories, but not so for transcendent modern humans.

Two major problems I have with this attitude are that 1) we are animals, and 2) we have exactly the same hardware (albeit with slightly smaller brains) as we had 100,000 years ago.

So allow me to pull back from our present age of baffling complexity to outline a simple story covering the broad sweep of the human saga. The result may be a little startling, and, for a number of readers, sure to be rejected by cultural antibodies as “not applicable” (see also my views of our civilization as a cult).

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Finite Feeding Frenzy

Image by ariesjay castillo from Pixabay

You may be aware that our food industry is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, to the point that it takes about 10 kcal of energy input to deliver 1 kcal of consumed food. The enormous energy multiplier is due to extensively mechanized plowing, harvesting, processing, and delivery of food; fossil-fueled fertilization (via methane feedstock); refrigeration and preparation; then of course food waste. In olden times, when all agricultural energy came from muscle power that needed to be fed, the system would collapse (i.e., starve and fail) if energy inputs exceeded energy ingested.

Some have phrased our current practice as “eating fossil fuels,” and in fact a 2006 book by Dale Allen Pfeiffer had this title. So what? More power to us—literally.

The problem, people, is that fossil fuels are finite. We have already consumed a fair fraction (roughly half?) of the accessible allotment. And before concluding that we therefore have a century or so before needing to worry about the consequences, realize that the inflection point happens around the halfway mark, wherein decreasing ease of access tends to result in ever-decreasing output rates in the second-half of the resource. We see this behavior in individual oil fields and in regional (country-scale) aggregations. The low-hanging fruit is taken first, sensibly, so that what’s left is more stubborn.

Because human population has been substantially boosted by fossil fuel input, we have put ourselves into a vulnerable position. What happens when fossil fuels begin to give out on us?

It’s been a while since I did any, you know, math for this blog, as I seem to be living my own worst nightmare and turning into an armchair philosopher (oh the shame). In this post, I return to something closer to math. It’s illustrative rather than quantitative, but helps frame the peril we have put ourselves into in a low-effort sort of way.

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The Ride of Our Lives

Courtesy Pixabay/fraugun

How much time do we spend fretting over the course we take as a human species? Granted, perhaps too few are focused on ultimate success, which I define as long-term sustainable living as a subordinate partner to all of life on Planet Earth. Even for those who do concern themselves with the intermediate and far future, attention tends to focus on what adjustments we can make to steer a safer course. Yet, when have we ever truly steered our path as a species? Are we actually in control at all? I’ll argue that we’ve never really been in the driver’s seat on the decisions that have mattered most. Our path has been more like an amusement park ride equipped with an ornamental steering wheel, giving the adorable tykes an intoxicating but illusory sense of control.

The central idea is that any development conferring a short-term competitive advantage will come to dominate the landscape, so that failure to adopt it means losing the race and dropping out of the future. It’s a meta-evolution selecting for something other than our best interests. And it’s winning, as it must.

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