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The myth of redundancy

It is remarkable how many people seem to think that smartphones were around in the Middle Ages… or at least that the only reason they weren’t was because nobody had thought of them.  This is all to evident in the discourse around a techno-utopian degrowth of the kind peddled by the Davos crowd, which assumes that we can simply do away with all of the superfluous consumption but maintain those trappings of an advanced industrial economy which make life bearable.

It’s not even a particularly new idea.  In the 1930s, Mahatma Gandhi famously remarked that “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not greed.”  There were a lot less of us in those days of course… around two billion, most of whom lived in conditions not so different to life in Medieval Europe.  Only a fortunate few million in the industrial regions of Europe, North America and Japan could enjoy the trappings of an embryonic consumer economy.  For the majority of humanity, life revolved around the daily struggle to secure food.  And mostly, what Gandhi was referring to was the way food had become a commercial commodity in the industrialised states even as millions starved elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the sentiment persists.  The internet, we are told, would have a much lower carbon footprint if only we stopped using it for sharing pictures of our dinner and videos of our cats.  If only supermarkets sold just the raw ingredients instead of a mountain of processed food, nobody would starve, and the environment would be healthier for it.  In some quarters, there is even the suggestion that consumption could go digital – just as vinyl records, cassette tapes, and CDs have been replaced by mp3 files, so most of the goods and services we currently consume could be converted into a digital form…  even holidays abroad might be replaced by virtual reality once the technology has been sufficiently improved.

The basic proposition is seductive.  Not least because – technology aside – the proposed simplification would involve a massive reduction in energy and resource consumption and would thus begin to reverse the environmental destruction wrought by our current “landfill economy.”  There is, however, a fundamental flaw in this thinking.  Simplicity is at the opposite end of a pole from complexity.  And complexity, for the most part, arises as a survival mechanism – albeit one which contains the seeds of its own destruction.

The first humans lived as simply as is possible.  Like every other mammal, they traversed the landscape following the cyclical patterns of the seasons and the availability of food.  At some point, a few groups in the temperate regions of the planet took the first steps into agriculture by planting out additional food crops to supplement their hunting and gathering.   And once sufficient food had been cultivated, for the first time, humans faced the problem of storage.

The solution which emerged came in roughly the same manner in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, Mesoamerica, and the western slopes of the Andes mountains.  City states emerged separately and with little contact between them as the best solution to optimising food production and storage.  Indeed, it is no accident that the earliest writing is not epic poetry or even religious teaching, but inventories of the wealth of the civilisation.  It is also no accident that, while the buildings in the first human settlements were mostly the same size, in the city states three buildings were much larger – the granary, the palace and the barracks.

Even where these civilisations had no contact with each other, their development followed a familiar enough pattern that they could be easily understood.  As Ronald Wright explains:

“What took place in the early 1500s was truly exceptional, something that had never happened before and never will again.  Two cultural experiments, running in isolation for 15,000 years or more, at last came face to face.  Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognise the other’s institutions.  When Cortez landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music and books.  High civilisation, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.”

 The difference for the civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East is that they developed contact with one another from an early stage… and with contact came another facet of complexity… trade.  The unequal distribution of resources probably explains the earliest motivation to trade.  Copper and tin, for example could be obtained from Cornwall – where archaeologists have found evidence of ongoing seaborne trade with the Eastern Mediterranean.  Rather than each civilisation attempting to produce everything, each could do the things it was best placed to do and then trade for those things it lacked.

Herein though, is the single biggest flaw with complexity – it is always traded against resilience.  In a less complex economy where trade is rare, people would need to hedge against the various natural disasters which have always hung over humanity.  If the growing season was too dry or too wet, the harvest would be stunted, and people would die from hunger.  To hedge against this, the people might plant a range of different crops, each thriving in different weather conditions.  This might not provide the maximum possible harvest, but it would ensure that the harvest provided enough to avoid starvation.  For all of its benefits, trade incentivises specialisation in growing and maximising crops for export.  It also leaves the civilisation dependent on the fortunes of other civilisations for the continuing supply of those goods and resources which it no longer produces for itself.

We know from the archaeological record that the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean economy enjoyed a massive amount of trade.  The wrecks of ships containing everything from tin ingots to gold jewellery and from wheat to olive oil have been excavated.  But something happened around the reign of Ramesses III (1186 to 1155 BCE) which caused empires to fall and trade to come to an end.

For a long time, the collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean economy was believed to be the result of invasions by the mysterious “sea peoples.”  But more recent re-evaluations of the evidence suggest that the region was struck by a series of natural disasters including a change in the climate to colder and drier conditions, along with earthquakes across the many geological fault lines in the region.  Insofar as the sea people were involved in the collapse, they likely arrived as armed refugees fleeing famine in Sardinia and Sicily.  And despite defeating them in the Nile Delta, Ramesses III’s Egypt was doomed to abrupt simplification as a consequence of the loss of its trading partners.

The Roman Empire, probably unconsciously, resolved some of the problems with complexity by attempting to incorporate trade within its own borders.  But this version of empire building came with two problems of its own.  First, and most obviously, the administration of conquered peoples is expensive.  Even areas where the indigenous people could be incorporated into the empire, local administrations and garrisons had to be maintained.  Ironically, the garrisons required for the ongoing occupation of Britain were so big that on several occasions the governor and army in Britain marched on Rome in attempts to seize power.  Of course, not all Roman provinces were as relatively peaceful as Britain.  Notably, revolt against Roman occupation provides the historical backdrop to the story of Christ, with the Gospels being written at about the time of the siege of Masada.

Notably, as the cost of administering the Roman Empire rose, the value of its currency collapsed.  The first silver denarii were so pure that they were accepted as currency well beyond the boundary of the empire.  But in the final decades of the Western Roman Empire, the denarii were no more than base metal with a thin wash of silver.  And far from stabilising the empire, this abuse of the currency generated inflation.

The second, less obvious problem concerns the tendency of civilisations to outgrow their energy base.  Gradually, the Roman Empire consumed its trees beyond the point where they were replaceable.  This is the main reason for their attack on the Germanic people east of the Rhine, since, like the Picts, the German lands were previously considered too poor to be worth invading. 

Today, we understand this problem as monetary inflation combined to a growing supply-side (energy) shock from which the only way out is to develop a replacement (more energy dense) source of energy.  Which gives rise to the old chestnut about why the Roman Empire didn’t industrialise, since the coal and iron deposits which provided the base for the Industrial Revolution were available to the Romans (the most likely reason, by the way, is that the Romans had ready access to slave labour whereas Britain on the eve of the Industrial Revolution had labour shortages).

Europe became something of a backwater in the aftermath of the collapse of Rome.  The loss of the internal trade following the collapse left most regions unable to sustain complexity.  To give one obvious example, stone building was widespread within the Roman Empire but all but disappeared in the following centuries.  In Britain, it was only after the Norman Conquest that stone building was revived, and it is only in the seventeenth century that the architectural finesse of Roman stone masons was replicated.

Had it been possible to observe the fourteenth century world, it would have been patently obvious that the first truly global empire would be one of either the Ming or Ottoman Empires.  Europe, having had its population decimated by the Black Death, was a patchwork of constantly quarrelling kingdoms, principalities, duchies and city states which surely could never muster the drive and resources required to build empires.  And yet, a century later both the Ming and the Ottomans were in decline even as Europeans were building colonies in the Americas.

There were four key drivers behind the emergence of Western Europe in its rise to prominence between 1500 and 1945.   The first was precisely the warring that all too often blighted the region.  Geographically, Europe is a small peninsula at the far west of Eurasia.  It is bounded in the North and East by the marshes and forests of modern-day Belorussia and Russia, and to the East and South by the Carpathians and the Balkans.  These barriers tended to prevent invasion.  Less obviously, along with the long coastline, they served to prevent marauding bands from pillaging the European economies.

Neither the Ottomans nor the Ming faced neighbouring rivals strong enough to threaten their existence.  Their main military threat came from raiding.  Which is a key reason why, despite inventing gunpowder, the Chinese rarely deployed it in battle.  If the enemy consists of fast, horseback raiders, the defence has to be equally rapid… which is not something that can be done while carrying muskets or towing canons.  In Europe, in contrast, warfare tended to comprise a series of set piece battles where heavy weapons could win the day. 

Rudimentary canons appeared on the field at Crecy (1346) and as is common with technology, they were rapidly improved.  The same is true of the early muskets, which came with a stand to allow the shooter to manage the weight.  But the biggest impact of canons was in naval warfare.  Where early warships had fore and aft castles to allow archers to fire at enemies, the development of canons required bigger ships and sturdier mounts.  This, in turn, gave rise to a revolution in shipbuilding and a less obvious shortage of timber… which was also the primary energy source at the time.

To secure timber from further afield, European ship builders had to construct bigger and stronger ships.  The English, for example, fearful of being trapped in the Baltic, began making the hazardous voyage around the North Cape to access Russian timber.  But these were not the only voyages made possible by bigger and stronger ships.  One reason why Europe was relatively poor at the time was that it lay at the very end of the overland Eurasian trade routes.  Along those routes, every count, duke, king and emperor levied a tax on the goods so that, by the time the goods turned up in Europe, only the rich could afford them.  What though, if European mariners could discover one or more viable sea routes to Asia and then bring back those goods without having to pay a single ducat in taxes?  This is what the “voyages of discovery” were really about, and the first trading vessels returned profits in excess of 1000 percent.

In the course of one of the early Portuguese voyages, following the easiest winds and currents around the west coast of Africa, the ships sailed so far west that they sighted the coast of Brazil.  Not long after, Columbus – who believed the world was about half of its actual size – persuaded the Spanish monarchy that riches would surely flow from a trade route to the west.  And following Columbus’ discovery of the lands in the Caribbean, it was not long before all of the nations of Western Europe were making voyages to the Americas.

There is some evidence that Ming mariners may have visited the west coast of America.  But the world’s ocean currents and winds ruled out any sustained trading or settlement.  In the pre-industrial world, the round trip between China and America was around 8,000 miles and involved following the Asian coast north to Siberia, across the Bering Strait to Alaska, down the west coast of America, and then returning across the equatorial Pacific.  It was (just) possible to provision a ship for the journey, but not to allow settlement at the other end.  Europeans though, faced a much easier journey (although still of several months) of around 3,000 miles following the wind and currents south along the west of Africa, crossing the Atlantic at is narrowest to the east coast of Brazil, along the north coast of South America, and then returning along the east coast of North America and back across the Atlantic.  Crucially, the shorter distance and time involved meant that ships could be provisioned not just for the voyage, but to allow settlers to establish bases in the Americas.

This ability to make the best use of renewable energy (along with the abomination of slavery, which the Europeans learned from the Ottomans – the word is derived from “Slav”) means that the Atlantic economy of the seventeenth century was probably the best that can be achieved without the additional power derived from fossil fuels.  And each of the Western European states involved began building empires.

The people whose institutions Ronald Wright argues were so familiar, were not quite the same.  The people in Central and South America, for example, had not developed metal working, making them easy prey to Spanish swordsmen and musketeers.  The north was somewhat different because, in one of those accidents of history, the nations of North America had collapsed (simplified) after a series of wars.  Indeed, the reality of American Thanksgiving – which celebrates native Americans providing the European settlers with the food to survive – has an altogether darker backstory, as it was about one group of natives making an alliance with the Europeans against another – the old story of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” – how did that work out?

Notice too that, contrary to common sense, the Spanish Empire which cornered the gold and silver ended up far poorer and less powerful than the English and French who developed resources and novel agricultural produce.  Indeed, the introduction of massive amounts of gold and silver into a Spanish – and wider European – economy which lacked the energy and resources to absorb it, created an inflation greater than Weimar Germany in the 1920s or Zimbabwe in the 1990s.

Despite the growth of the Atlantic trade, war continued between the nations of Europe – first in revolt against Spain, then later against the growing dominance of France – not least in Canada, where Britain and France were vying for territory.  As the Romans had discovered, the administration of an Empire ends up costing more than it is worth.  So it was for the British in the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756-63).  The short-sighted decision to impose additional taxes on an American people whose terms of trade with Britain were already restricted, provoked the rebellion which triggered the War of Independence (1775 to 1783) which the Americans won with the support of France and Spain (demonstrating the impossibility of maintaining an empire at a distance by force).

The “Age of Revolutions” which followed inadvertently kick-started what we think of as the industrial Revolution – the use of coal power for industry.  The revolution was powered by coal, but it was not caused by it.  As we have seen, the Romans had access to it in vast quantities but never used it.  And English metal workers had used coal on and off for centuries – although charcoal was the preferred fuel.  Industrial technologies – particularly in cotton production also predate the Industrial Revolution – with early manufacturing drawing power from water wheels.  The earliest Newcomen beam engines of the 1720s were a solution to flooding in deep mines rather than a viable driver of industry, and it is only after Watt’s condensing engine was introduced in 1776 that truly productive steam power began.

Steam power liberated industries which had previously been tied either to a resource base or a water source.  In Britain, the railway frenzy which followed the first commercial trains in the 1830s began to link industries and towns which had functioned relatively independently for centuries.  Even more importantly, railways linked towns and industries to ports.  So that, with the introduction of steam ships, an additional layer of complexity emerged in the shape of timetables.  For the first time, it was possible to anticipate with reasonable accuracy the arrival of a train at a station or a ship at a port.  And this took trade to an even more complex level.  Steel made in the foundries of South Wales was used in construction around the world, in Australian bridges and Argentinian and Canadian railways.  In exchange, Australian wool, Argentinian beef, and Canadian grain was shipped back to Britain.

In the 1850s and 1860s, everyone else was playing catch-up.  But from the 1860s, two countries with even greater coal deposits – Germany and the USA – began to overtake Britain in industrial output.  This was due to a process of “combined and uneven development” coupled to “the psychology of prior investment.”  As the first place to industrialise, Britain had deployed technologies that were in their infancy.  But Britain’s competitors didn’t have to repeat the process.  Rather, they could deploy technologies that had decades of improvements compared to those in Britain.  And on the other side of this economic vice, British companies which had spent a fortune investing in 1830s technologies were not about to demolish them in favour of investing even more in the newest versions.

Britain also struggled with the age-old problem of empire – it costs more to administer than it is worth.  On the eve of the First World War, Norman Angell used this argument to “prove” that industrial warfare was self-defeating.  In what way did a Staffordshire potter, a Welsh miner or a Lancashire textile worker benefit from the armed subjugation of Southern Africa?  Would not the same South African people continue working the same farms and mines for the same income as before?  Isn’t the only added entry in the accounts the added cost of administration and militarised policing?

There was though, yet another layer of complexity within the post-American Revolution British Empire – modern banking.  The British Empire and its trade companies borrowed an idea first developed by the Knights Templar during the crusades.  The main reason the Templars were set up was to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.  And one of the main reasons why these pilgrims were at risk was they had to carry supplies and currency with them to survive the journey.  To get around this, the Templars set up branches across Christendom where a pilgrim could deposit currency in exchange for a sealed “letter of credit” which could be exchanged for currency at any other Templar outpost.

Letters of credit are a central part of the modern, global, electronic system of exchange – aka “the Eurodollar system” (named after the place it originated not where it operates).  But the British Empire adopted it as a core part of the Sterling Bloc – the system of exchange, nominally backed by Sterling Silver, which operated across the empire, allowing the import and export of goods without the risk of not being paid.

This process, however, gives rise to the opportunity for any bank which trades in Sterling to generate a profit – that is, charge interest – from providing access to it.  The rulers of a state which wished to access industrial goods would somehow have to access Sterling.  Mostly the way this was done was to pledge some of the future taxes on its people as an asset against which a loan could be secured… with the interest rate determined by the risk of default. 

Seen in this light, Angell’s argument was likely on its head.  It wasn’t the British military that was conquering countries – which were too expensive to administer and police – so as to allow banks and industrialists to initiate trade.  Rather, it was influential bankers who exercised power over governments to use military power to secure the revenue they expected from their Sterling-based loans.  Industrial warfare might cause massive losses to almost everyone, but it is always profitable for the bankers who finance it.

The war – which so few among Europe’s rulers saw coming, despite voluminous evidence had they chosen to look – put an end to Europe’s moment in the sun.  The first stage between 1914 and 1918 saw the collapse of four monarchies – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, and the Ottomans.  Less obviously – because the spoils of war increased their size – the British and French Empires were so badly weakened that it was only a matter of time before they too disintegrated.  Even prior to the Second World War, British politics was exercised with the question of Indian independence.  And without “the jewel in the crown,” what would remain of the Empire beyond a handful of island tax havens?

Also in the inter-war years, Britain’s military leaders warned that under no circumstances should Britain allow itself to be in conflict with Italy, Japan or Germany – and most certainly they should avoid conflict with all three.  Yet this is exactly where the logic of a failing empire led Britain’s rulers.  And unlike in 1914, neither Britain nor France enjoyed the accumulated wealth of empire to pay for the conflict.  Instead, in order to end up on the winning side, both European states had to accept the USA as a new hegemon with a new, oil-backed dollar-based imperialism of its own.

Where the various European empires had divided the world’s trade into blocs, the USA sought to create a single world trade area based around a gold-backed dollar which was itself backed by the productive power of the USA’s vast oil reserves (although the Soviet Union and its vassals went their own way between 1945 and 1991).  And it is no accident that the first – Bretton Woods – currency system came to an end just as US oil production was reaching its peak and the Texas railroad Commission lost control of world oil prices.  In its place, from August 1971, was a “temporary” fiat currency system based around a Eurodollar (i.e., dollars created outside the USA and out of reach of regulation by the Federal Reserve) system.

This system added additional layers of complexity to an already complex, globalising economy.  Not least because in its early stages a fiat system appears to be preferrable to the old gold or silver-backed currencies.  This is because a fiat system allows the creation – at least in theory – of an infinite amount of currency.  And so long as there are enough resources and energy to mop up the additional currency, the economy can grow seemingly forever.  But inevitably in a closed system, currency creation outgrows the available energy and resources, generating inflation and reducing prosperity.  The US-led global economy was already running into this problem in the 1970s, when the energy cost of energy and resources became too expensive to maintain western living standards.  But paradoxically, the – neoliberal – “solution” was to expand the system by cutting wages and indebting the western populations while shifting manufacturing to regions of the world with cheaper labour and fewer regulations.  That is, by adding more complexity.

Which brings us back to the ubiquitous smart phones that so many people take for granted.  This is because smartphones – which only put in an appearance in 2007 – turn out to be only possible as a consequence of a hyper-globalisation that provides sufficient critical mass consumption to render truly global supply chains profitable.  That is, without billions of consumers worldwide, there is no way that smartphone producers could afford the mineral supply chains involved:

U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 167

In this respect, the smartphone stands as a proxy for many of the worlds manufactured goods, which also depend upon extended supply chains and mass consumption to remain viable.  And therein is the fundamental flaw in the belief that we can have our techno-utopian cake and eat it.  Once the critical mass of consumption is lost, the complex network of global supply chains is no longer profitable – not just in financial terms, but in energy and material terms, it simply costs more than it delivers in return.  So that any process of simplification – managed or catastrophic – must inevitably lose the beneficial technologies and services along with the apparently trivial and mundane.

Critical mass may be – and probably is being – lost as a consequence of a rising energy cost of energy and of mineral resource depletion.  Put simply, with fossil fuels and mineral resources, we began by extracting the cheap and easy before moving on to the expensive and difficult… and the more we have done this, the closer we are to the point where it costs more energy and resources than the process can deliver in return – something which would be accelerated by a re-localisation of the economy.  But critical mass can be – and currently is – lost on the demand side as a rising cost of essentials like food and energy causes sufficient numbers of consumers to curb or cease discretionary spending.  This is why, paradoxically, a loss of critical mass of consumption results in lower raw material prices even where initial shortages cause temporary price spikes.

Importantly, there is no plan being followed and no secret cabal operating the machine from behind the curtain (although there are wealthy accelerationist Death Cults who wrongly believe that a collapse of the current system will provide the foundations for a techno-utopian future).  As anthropologist Joseph Tainter explains, complexity arrives as a solution to previous problems.  But, as we have seen, at every stage resilience is traded for complexity, making civilisation ever more vulnerable to collapse.  And in our globally hyper-complex economy, a loss of critical mass consumption – whether by rising energy costs/depleting mineral resources or by collapsing discretionary demand – will be followed by a catastrophic loss of much that we have grown up to treat as essential – such as rudimentary health care, clean drinking water, and a reasonable amount of artificial light and warmth.

To sum up what I have set out here in just three sentences, a complex civilisation is like a soufflé.  It is either growing or collapsing.  There is no steady state.

A more or less steady state economy is possible though.  The Anglo Saxons enjoyed one which lasted for half a millennium between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the arrival of the Normans.  The extent to which they were “green” and “sustainable” is evidenced by the lack of artifacts in the archaeological record.  Almost everything they built and made used organic material which long since disappeared – only post holes and discoloured soil remains.  Such is the economy that we will inevitably revert to in the event that we cannot continue to expand and complexify our industrial civilisation – and the kicker is that we have no means of doing so…  when the smartphones cease being profitable, industrial civilisation is done!

As you made it to the end…

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