Our Humpty Dumpty Communities

Key Questions:

-What are the energetics historically of a functional human community?

-Are/How are homicide rates lower than historical norms in the absence of functional communities?

-What are the markers of community’s death?

Scales and Energetics of Human Communities

Human interactions can range from an individual ostensibly fending for themselves to today’s extreme of a hyper-connected global system. The key to understanding the formation of these different states is that they reflect the self organization of people based on the size of incoming flows of energy. Looking at figure 1, the different scales of human interactions have been broken down into five states though more may exist. There is a hierarchical nature to the different stages. The smallest state, the individual, that requires the least amount of energy flow to exist can be found in different forms at all higher states of human organization, but the largest state, the nation state, cannot be found when there is only enough energy for the individual state. Though not exact, it appears that each state of human organization requires approximately a three fold increase in energy flow per capita.

energetics of communityFigure 1

societal heirarchyFigure 2

For most of human evolutionary history (1 million-12,000 years ago) flows of energy to individuals has been relatively modest compared to today’s levels. Humans evolved in an environment using about 5,000 calories in the form of food, clothing, and shelter. 5,000 calories is only enough energy to support a hierarchy consisting of the bottom two levels and to a lesser extent the third level of the societal hierarchy shown below. This means that from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are optimized to fit into a community consisting of individuals and centered around the extended family unit. As humans acquired more energy from their environments, higher levels of organization were added on top of the individual and family units. Each successive level of organization creates new controlling energies, known as control circuits, that take the form of governing bodies, laws, and religious doctrine. These control circuits self organize to modify the actions of the levels below to ensure a consistent energy flow necessary to maintain that particular level of organization though not always the mental health and well being of the individual that evolved in a different environment.

One of the best glimpses into what an original human community may have looked like during the first part of human evolutionary trajectory is the Yanomami people of South America. The Yanomami live in large families consisting of about 20-30 people that are for the most part very closely related. The Yanomami have a few communal buildings and for the most part do not have many personal possessions and sleep relatively close to one another. In a famous example, a US anthropology student lived in a Yanomami tribe and married a young Yanomami woman. Eventually, he brought her to live in the US. She would leave the US after staying a few years. One of her reasons (paraphrasing), “Here people wake up in boxes, never see each other, and live isolated lives. At home I woke up everyday and my whole world was around me. I could look around and see my whole family and children playing.” The only time someone from a rural or suburban area in a developed nation might have an analogous feeling is coming home the first time from living in a college dormitory. I personally remember the utter desolation of suburbia coming home the first time for Thanksgiving. The space between myself in bed and the next person seemed palpable. There was no roommate, no roommate’s girlfriend for the night, or even the guy sleeping on the other side of a cinder block wall. Just a lot of empty space. In such close proximity to others, the community can quickly recognize and act on pathological behavior. There is always someone around and up to see what individuals are doing and interact with them.

Siegfried, Roy, and a Tiger

Almost a decade ago there was an infamous case in which one of two trainer tiger act, known as Siegfried and Roy, was mauled by their tiger during a live performance. In interviews after the affair, the trainers’ representatives claimed that the tiger was not acting maliciously, but was trying to protect one of the trainers as they tripped on stage. Whether or not this explanation is true, it seems clear that the tiger was not acting out of the one reason tigers would normally maul a human, to get food. Wise trainers of undomesticated animals always follow the first rule of handling a potentially dangerous animal: Make sure thy animal is well fed. Beyond hunger, the tiger may not have been acting out of the normal repertoire of evolutionary reasons: to obtain food, to obtain a mate, protect itself or territory. This is the rise of a pathological behavior.

Imagine yourself a tiger trainer stepping into a tiger’s cage . The likelihood of survival would depend on many of the factors listed earlier, but for simplicity sake will be termed calorie intake. These calories can be looked at much like today we survive on 250,000 calories but most are not in the form of food consumption. Once basic needs of the tiger are met, the chance of becoming tiger food decrease greatly (figure 3 left); however, while normal evolutionary drives for becoming tiger food drop, new pathological reasons develop. There are many ways to prevent the tiger carrying out pathological behavior. The tiger could be put through rigorous training sessions, could be physically restrained, made physically incapable of carrying out a lethal attack by removing teeth and claws, or chained and caged. The problem with Siegfried and Roy’s show was that its economic utility for spectators depended on the fact that the tiger could act out in a dangerous fashion, so the only control circuit available to them was training.Calories of dangerFigure 3

Stepping into the Human Cage

Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, have spent a lot of time writing books on the decline of violence because of modern day civilization. The crux of their argument is that humans are safer from human on human violence than ever. While their books sell well to people who wish to be told how great they are, their lack of evidence falls flat. There actually exists very little evidence for human on human violence for the first 1 million years of human existence. In their books, they try to extrapolate people like the Yanomami as being non-state and therefore representative of human history. The Yanomami represent impoverished people on the edge of states instead of some primordial human state. Further, Diamond and Pinker fail to use the latest anthropological/archeological evidence to make their cases of high non-state human violence (see this for more in depth argument). They are correct that starting 12,000 years ago, humans became very violent towards one another. This time period coincides with the rise of agriculture, higher human organizational levels, disruption of human scaled communities, and pathological behaviors, ie human on human violence (figure 3 right).

There are two particular points in long-term human caloric intake where human on human violence is relatively low. The first is at 5000 calories, where human communities work out their evolutionary optimized functions. The second starts to occur at about 75,000 calories, which is the blossoming of large nation states. The nation state is much like the tiger trainer above. The amazing energetic flow of fossil fuels has essentially allowed the state to create an amazing array of control circuits. Depending on which nation state you live in, you can expect some of the following: massive prison populations, weapons control laws, massive individual monitoring programs carried out by camera, DNA and digital information collection, state sponsored schooling/education, religious sponsored schooling/education, and social transfer payment programs. These all work to control pathological human behaviors in the absence of functioning communities, but are unable to fix the underlying pathological mental states. However, much like the horror of a trained tiger acting out pathologically, modern day civilization is still struck with tremendous shock when a human acts out pathological behavior, like Columbine, Chinese school stabbing, Norway Island Massacre, and Sandy Hook. It may not be coincidence that the greater number of control circuits, the greater though less frequent the pathological outburst.

The Birth of a Child, the Death of a Community

Today there seems to be little in the way of anything recognizable as communities, because of the way control circuits at levels above the familial unit have altered its functions (see figure 4). If a neighbor develops an illness, it is often asked, “Is there anything I can do without offending them?”, instead of “What can I do to help them?” Looking at the landscape of modern day society, there remain a few stories of a time of a weakened but still persistent community. These stories seem to come to a dead-end at the construction of car passable roadways. Nothing is more telling of the persistence of a community than where children are born and sick are cared for and is instructive of when the community died. In the US, the death of the community has been a boon for pathology (figure 5). In 2000, 2.5 million people were diagnosed with serious mental illness (about 1% of the population), while in 1880, there were about 2500 diagnosed with serious mental illness (about .004% of the population). The nation state utilizing 250,000 calories per person has made us the safest individuals in the past 12,000 years, while leaving us listless in broken communities.

community comparisonFigure 4Birth and death of the communityFigure 5

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

There are no good answers to the problems faced by our lack of community. Not many would want to willingly go back to a world with less energy and therefore: less mobility, less medicine, and less longevity. More importantly with a world population of 7 billion, it is not possible to get a 5,000 human calorie diet with the proper population densities of the distant past. Everyone is on their own to try to create their own communities. This is going to take a lot of mental, physical, and probably fossil fuel energy until limits to growth come into full view. Once we hit these limits, we might find ourselves once again in more fulfilling, yet more dangerous communities.

Individual Action:

-Charles Hugh Smith has some great ideas about ways to physically get started in your community

John Greer (the archdruid report) has been posting recently about the community. While I agree with his assessment of what we should/will do, I disagree with the reasons that brought us here and the previous health of our communities and the costs they imposed.

-Take a hard look at donations to assist people in developing countries to build roads and airstrips. Not that we shouldn’t, but there are true costs to these peoples lives and communities.

Next Time: I take out my macroscope and stare down some chickens and geese living in my yard.


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