Sunday, 28 July 2013

Balancing of scales

For understandable and legitimate reasons there exists a fair bit of hate/distrust towards large scale social, political and economic structures in the peak oil and related spheres. Globalization (which is more a trend) has created a few large scale international systems, not truly a global one yet, and it doesn't work as advertised while causing quite a lot of suffering. Of the large scale political structures the EU and the United states government come under a lot of fire, especially for their role in the recent financial crisis. Part of the inevitable relocalization is of course the moving of power and responsibilities from larger structures to smaller ones, whether this involves more local production, trade, regulation or politics. In the face of overshoot, this is generally a good strategy since it directly de-complexifies society, increases resilience and frees up resources from an overhanging bureaucracy. On the other hand it loses the efficiencies of scale that benefit large structures leading to lower resource levels and if no counteracting forces exist can lead to small scale but endemic corruption (one counteracting force is large scale overlooking organizations, but these naturally also counteract re-localization), but everything has its price. And if you go to the extreme of the neo-primitivists you find a distrust/hatred of the structures of civilization and urbanism (as in small towns and bigger). Since neo-primitivists often ignore the realities of tribal life, such its many horrors and that generally most tribal people integrate within civilization when given the chance (see New Guinea) often for the many benefits it brings, we can therefore assume there exist serious flaws with the neo-primitivism ideology.

So as long as you don't go to the extremes you can often find legitimate arguments against the current large scale structures that exist. These include that they cause more problems than they solve, aren't nimble enough, don't have an adequate view of whats coming and can often be corrupted by other interests. E.F Schumacher wrote the influential book "Small is Beautiful"  and he talks about the virtues of the small scale and why it often works better. In their place a variety of small scale structures are proposed, see this one for Europe (which unfortunately seems to rely on even larger structures to work) which keeps the pan-Europeanism, or this Archdruid report about Guilds. For quite a few things this is the way of the future, here in Australia for the political sphere it may not (but could be) be as prominent as in Europe and America, but in the social and economic sphere's it should be. So the reverence for mostly local and small scale human structures is understandable and generally a good thing.

However there is a trap that lies down that route that I'm less than convinced that most of the peak oil sphere can dodge. That of overcompensating and only supporting small scale structures while universally condemning all large scale structures, including those that provide greater benefits than the small scale structures would.

Written in the foreword of my copy of "Small is beautiful" is "Small is sometimes beautiful would undoubtedly not have had the same impact as Small is Beautiful [as a title]". At the very beginning he talked about the scales required by man and did not say that all structures should be small, what he said was more complex than that. What he did say was "For his different purposes man needs many structures, both small ones and large ones, some exclusive and some comprehensive".  The problem we have now is not that big structures exist, but that many are too big and we need more small structures. Or in other words a new balance is needed.

That's where the neo-primitivists and extreme localization thinkers go wrong, its also where the globalists go wrong (though in the opposite direction). In this case the extremes are certainly bad and a midpoint is needed (in fact it could be argued that only a mid point is even possible). The first group wants to destroy the balance and have only small structures, while the latter group also wants to destroy the balance and only have large structures. They both share the same problem, they simply flip the value signs of which size is best. The problem is that neither is, it depends on the context and specific structure in question. The answer isn't 'clean' like many ideologies like, it's messy, requires constant tinkering and there isn't a right answer, only what's best at the moment. Some things require a large scale, others a small scale, at this point in history the balance has simply tipped too far into largeness and needs to rebalanced, not tipped to far into smallness. In political terms, having parochial local interests that predominate to the detriment of the whole is bad, but so is having large scale interests that predominate to the detriment of local interests.

Economics isn't actually one structure, but the amalgamation of quite a few different structures. The overall global economy is made up of various national economies, that are made up of regional economies, which are again made up of local economies. The local economies are again made up of various sub-groups (families used to be an economic unit). Some industries are very local, small scale farming and craftsmanship for example, some are a bit bigger, like logging or metal works and others, while large scale mining can count as a national industry. What scale is 'right' depends on the specific economic structure in question, organic farming can work best on a small scale but industrial or cash crop farming is better on a large scale. Most transport networks need to be a least regional for their benefits to really manifest. And so on, before determining what scale is right, you need to know the specific structure in question. Some things are best large, others small and quite a few favour the middle ground between them. 

Politics is also similar, their are appropriate scales for different things and also areas. The last point needs to be looked at, since politics can never be entirely separate from demographics and geography. China tends to unite in a fairly large scale political construct and it generally works well like that, India has never been united before and a good case could be made that it isn't working for them while Germany is normally divided into 10-100 different political structures and a good case could be made that Germany works better when united. So the overall government's best size partly depends on geography, demographics and many intangible variables rather than any internal political matter. This is possibly one of the reasons the EU doesn't work very well, Europe might simply not be right for being united on that scale. But their is also another aspect that's important.

As information travels up and down a hierarchy, it is degraded by about 95-85% per level . This is why hierarchies shouldn't be bigger than about 6-8 levels or else they become overly bureaucratic, the problem is that since humans are descended from primates we favour tall thin structures where as sentient cats (for example) would favour broad flat structures instead. The thing is, the overall structure of government here in Australia is local-state-federal which already takes up half of the available layers. So if our entire government was a single hierarchy it would have to have more than 8 layers to simply have enough people to organize everything and half of the hierarchies would just be the transition from one level to another. But that's clearly not the case, so some organizational trick is being used to stop this from coming about. And that trick relates directly to the fact that certain things are best done at certain scales.

If instead of having one large hierarchy, you have three separate hierarchies that are themselves in a larger hierarchy, you can diminish control loss (effectively by amalgamating several levels into one). You also create multiple hierarchies that deal with specific things or areas. That's why having a division along the lines of local-state-federal is incredibly common in history, though province generally replaces state while kingdom or empire often replaces federal. The important point is that each level is actually a separate organization that slots into a meta hierarchy, rather than a categorical division of a hierarchy into levels.  The fact this trick is both used so often and has worked well in practice has a few lessons.

See here for a discussion of this in the context of a galactic empire. Dual hierarchies are already used, lattice shaped ones would be an interesting experiment.

First, just to be clear, the labels local-state-federal in this case only refer to those levels, replace the states with regional governments has no change as far as this is concerned, it hasn't removed the state level, only replaced it and renamed it.  Now that's done with, what does the repeated and successful application of the three level meta-hierarchy teach us. One, unity of government is actually bad, we don't want a singular government which does everything, another argument for checks and balances along with division of power. Another is that everything has a different appropriate scale and certain governmental/political functions are better when managed at one scale while others are better at another scale. There are a few others, but you get the idea.

While quite a few human structures need to be downsized, not all would be best served by shrinking them. Going to far down that road is just as bad as the current situation, so we need to figure out what structures are best left at their current size or only need a small downsizing. Neither smallness or largeness is the answer, we need to figure out the balance, which itself shifts over time and changes as other things change. To quote Schumacher again, "What I wish to emphasis is the duality of the human requirement when it comes to the question of size: there is no single answer".

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