Thursday, January 05, 2012

Musings on optimism vs fear, innovation vs collapse

Today I happened upon this near one hour long couch talk by Geoffrey West (visit the site for audio or video). Among the themes he discuss is drawing some lines in the sand in the very long debate between Malthusian fears of over-population / over-exploitation of nature and the technological optimism that future inventions will solve anything and everything.
"One of the bad things about open-ended growth, growing faster than exponentially, is that open-ended growth eventually leads to collapse. It leads to collapse mathematically because of something called finite times singularity. You hit something that's called a singularity, which is a technical term, and it turns out as you approach this singularity, the system, if it reaches it, will collapse. You have to avoid that singularity in order to stop collapsing. It's great on the one hand that you have this open ended growth. But if you kept going, of course, it doesn't make any sense. Eventually, you run out of resources anyway, but you would collapse. [...] There's a theorem you can prove that says that if you demand continuous open growth, you have to have continuous cycles of innovation. Well, that's what people believe, and it's the way people have suggested that’s how you get out of the Malthusian paradox. This all agrees within itself but there is a huge catch. [...] The question then is, is this sustainable? The system will collapse, because eventually you would have to be making a major innovation, like you know, IT every six months. Well, that's completely crazy."
Geoffrey West is using mathematics and physics to propose very general laws that apply across the natural world; in plants, animals, people and even societies. Extend his work a bit and... do you get formulas that predict breaking points where susceptibility to violence and conflict gets critical?

It reminds me of a very short chapter in my book, The physics: Energy budget of resource exploitation, pages 92-93. Mostly because I remember pausing to wonder if I could research this sub-topic even deeper.
"will near future solutions turn into distant future battlefields? Will we learn from mistakes of our past?"
- Ecowar - Natural Resources and Conflict, p. 93
What I also write about is natural resources (and factors that influence natural resources) not being enough to cause wars by itself. Quite unrelated I happened to read two articles while on the train today: an interview with Umberto Eco and an article about Curzio Malaparte's book Kaputt. Both refer (directly and indirectly) to fears inspired by conspiracy theories as co-causes or even preconditions for atrocities and war. This makes sense and is something I have come to understand certain conflict authorities are quite focused on. To distance myself from an impression I am afraid to give that I am obsessed with all wars being caused by natural resource scarcity, here is a quote from the introduction of my book:

"this is not about trying to prove the dominant role of any single root cause to all human conflict. This is not about eliminating any particular factor as a cause for conflict. This is simply about looking at many different natural resources in many different conflicts. Trying to measure their impact."
- Ecowar - Natural Resources and Conflict, p 10

I guess I'll have to take a closer look at Geoffrey West's research. For the time being, I take comfort in hearing such an intellectual authority talking along some of the same lines I have been thinking in. Needless to say: I'd love to hear your criticism of the "theory" presented in both my book and here at my blog!

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