The only known photograph of Chief Seattle

Thus spoke Chief Seattle

The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him since we know he has little need for our friendship in return.

We will consider your offer. For we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land.

But how can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them from us?

Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing, and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.

This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.

The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children. If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

The red man has always retreated before the advancing white man, as the mist of the mountain runs before the morning sun. But the ashes of our fathers are sacred. The graves are holy ground, and so these hills, these trees, this portion of the earth is consecrated to us.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.

The earth is not his brother but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care. He kidnaps the earth from his children. He does not care.

He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, or sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a desert.

I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. What is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand.

The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath―the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a many dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.

I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever, happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the children of the earth.

This we know. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know.
All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

We may be brothers after all; we shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover―our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot.

This earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

God gave you dominion over the beasts, the woods, and the red man, and for some special purpose, but that destiny is a mystery to the red man. We might understand if we knew what it was that the white man dreams―what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights―what visions he burns onto their minds so that they will wish for tomorrow.

God loves us all. One thing we know. Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.

Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st century Roman artwork

Rational debates and historical processes

The discovery of ignorance

Is there progress in ideas? And can we achieve progress in thought by rational debates and persuasion? These questions are not easy to answer, most notably because people disagree. Still, some ideas may be better than others. So, how can we achieve progress or can we not? Socrates was a Greek philosopher who pondered this question. He lived around 400 BC and was the founder of the practice of rational debate. Socratic debates are discussions between two or more people with different viewpoints who wish to establish the truth using reasoned arguments. Asking and answering questions is a critical component of this process. It stimulates critical thinking and draws out ideas and underlying presuppositions.

In his dialogues, Socrates acted as if he was ignorant. According to Socrates, admitting one’s ignorance is the first step in acquiring knowledge, and awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. The discovery of ignorance can wake you up and push you into pursuing knowledge. For instance, the discovery of America, a previously unknown continent, was a shock to the European worldview. There was an entire continent that nobody in Europe had known. It set in motion the Scientific Revolution. European scientists started to ask themselves what more they did not know. They began to investigate anything they could think of.1 After 500 years, science has completely altered the way we live.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Hegel’s dialectic

By the year 1800, the idea of progress was firmly established. The impact of scientific discoveries began to increase and the Industrial Revolution took off. Societies began to change and enlightenment ideas were spreading. The American Revolution followed the Glorious Revolution in England. During the French Revolution, the masses mobilised for the first time, and they ended the corrupt old regime. The armies of Napoleon then spread enlightenment ideas over Europe. It was the time when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel came up with a scheme for rational arguments. It consists of three stages:

  1. A theory is invented. Hegel calls it the abstract.
  2. The theory is criticised or tested. Hegel calls it the negative.
  3. The criticism and testing lead to a better theory. Hegel calls it the concrete.

Alternatively, the three stages of Hegelian dialectic are presented like so: a thesis, giving rise to its reaction; an antithesis, which contradicts or negates the thesis; and the tension between the two being resolved in the synthesis. You can apply it to rational debates. It works like so. First, someone comes up with a proposition. Then someone else brings in an opposing idea. If both parties have valid concerns and are willing to listen to each other, a rational debate between them can lead to a better understanding of the issue. The new understanding can be a thesis in a new argument. And so, the process can repeat, resulting in the progress of ideas.

An example can illustrate this. Suppose that Adam Smith and Karl Marx meet in a conference hall. Suppose further that a discussion between the two could settle the debate between capitalism and socialism. Smith sets out the thesis. He says that capitalism and free markets are great because they create wealth and distribute goods efficiently. Marx then comes up with the antithesis. He argues that the living conditions for workers are miserable and that capitalism distributes its benefits unfairly. He then says that workers should take control of the factories. Smith then objects by saying that workers are poor entrepreneurs so if workers take over businesses, that will cause a drop in living standards.

If both are willing to consider each other’s ideas and understand the issues at stake, they might concur that capitalism creates wealth but that the plight of workers needs improvement. They could agree on minimum wages, unemployment benefits, workplace safety laws, and state pensions. That is the synthesis. It may work for a while. Then a third individual might enter the debate and say that some people abuse welfare schemes. Another person might argue that economic activity will destroy the planet. That could be the beginning of new discussions that lead to measures to reduce fraud with unemployment benefits and investments in making the economy sustainable.

Hegelian dialectic applied to history

For Hegel, historical development proceeds not in a straight line but in a spiral leading upwards to growth and progress. From the opposition of action and reaction, harmony or synthesis emerges.1 In history, progress often involves conflict, and in many cases, there is not a synthesis but an end to the old ideas. For example, in the second half of the eighteenth century, more and more people felt that slavery was morally wrong. It took nearly a century and civil war in the United States to end slavery. And so, activists, planners, and politicians use Hegelian dialectic to enforce change. The Marxists are a prime example. They believed that capitalism would vanish and that socialism would replace it. The Marxists thought they were helping history by trying to end the capitalist world order.

The conflict between capitalism and socialism turned into a power struggle during the Cold War. The United States and its allies advocated capitalism, while the Soviet Union and its satellites promoted socialism. The capitalist block featured freedom of expression, so there was a public debate and ideas could be tested and improved in a Hegelian fashion. Consequently, governments interfered with markets and created welfare states. Their economies became mixtures of capitalist and socialist elements. In the socialist block, there was no freedom of expression or public debate, so the socialist countries did not enhance their economies with capitalist elements. In the end, the leadership of the Soviet Union realised that its mission of uplifting the working class had failed.

In the nineteenth century, workers did not appear to benefit from capitalism. It was hard to envision how socialism works in practice, so it may have been necessary to try it. The Soviet Union did so for seven decades. With the benefit of hindsight, the flaws of socialism appear evident, but if no one had tried it in practice, they probably were not so obvious. The main issue with socialism is that it can make people passive so that they will not take matters into their own hands and wait for the state to solve their problems. Socialism can work well in specific situations. For instance, healthcare in socialist Cuba is cheap and effective compared to the United States. The life expectancy in the United States and Cuba is nearly the same despite the United States spending more on healthcare per person than any country, while Cuba only spends a fraction of that amount. Once upon a time, market-driven healthcare may also have seemed a great idea. By trying, you can find out.

Some Scandinavian countries are more socialist than the United States, and citizens in those countries appear happier with their lives than Americans. The degree to which socialism can work depends on the social trust and work ethic within a group. Scandinavian countries have a Protestant work ethic and are culturally homogeneous. Cultural homogeneity can promote social trust like in Scandinavia, but not necessarily so. Greece is also culturally homogeneous, but the level of social trust is much lower than in Denmark or Sweden. Hence, culturally diverse countries can develop a high level of social trust, even though that is more difficult because of cultural differences. To make socialism work, people should contribute what they can and take what they need, and the needs should not exceed the contributions. Imposed socialism, like in the Soviet Union, will not work. Scandinavian countries are not as socialist as the Soviet Union once was. Their economies are a mixture of capitalist and socialist elements.

Hegel and dialectic conflict

Ideologies like socialism and capitalism are models that describe how society works or is supposed to work. Models are simplifications or abstractions. Models can help us organise our thoughts and establish which ideas have merit and under what circumstances. But for many people, ideologies are like religions. People who use one model all the time tend to be poor problem solvers. If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Political debates are often about scoring points rather than reasoning and listening to each other in a Socratic fashion. Parties use the Hegelian dialectic as a tool in political conflict. They frame the discussion by using their models and language. In your model, you are right, and your opponent looks stupid. Consequently, there can be no rational discussion between opponents who live in different realities like liberals and conservatives in the United States.

Scientific progress

In science, ideas advance. Thomas Kuhn came up with a scheme to describe scientific progress. He believed that science moves forward by theories replacing each other. Scientists in a specific field often work with a set of hypotheses. You may not be surprised to learn about that. So let’s call one of those theories the Old Theory. The Old Theory works fine in most situations, but sometimes it does not. Scientists at first ignore these exceptions, for instance, unexpected readings on their instruments. At first, they may think that faults cause these readings. As more and more experiments indicate that something is not right with the Old Theory, some scientists start to question it.

Then one of them then comes up with a revolutionary New Theory that explains a lot more than the previous Old Theory, including the unexplained readings on the instruments. At first, most scientists have their doubts because the New Theory is revolutionary. When experiments confirm the New Theory, scientists gradually embrace the New Theory and the Old Theory gets abandoned. In this case, there is also an argument going on between two sides, but the New Theory is superior to the Old Theory. That is most clear in the exact sciences like physics. In social sciences and economics, there is progress in theories but there are also debates between different approaches that appear unresolved.

An example might clarify how it works. Around 1680, Isaac Newton worked out the laws that explain the motion of objects. Newton’s laws tell us how fast objects fall to the ground and how planets orbit around the Sun. Newton presented his laws in a few mathematical formulas so it became possible to calculate how long it would take before a stone hits the ground if you drop it from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

In the centuries that followed, scientists developed more precise instruments and did measurements they could not explain. These were only small deviations from the values calculated with Newton’s formulas so they did not worry much about them at first. They could be errors. But the more precise the instruments grew, the more sure physicists became that something was not right. Albert Einstein then developed a theory that explained these curious readings, but also the motion of objects.

Assessing what to do

A reasoned debate combined with experimenting may be the best way of assessing what to do. Social sciences, including economics, involve human interactions. The number of variables is high and not all are known. That makes it difficult to ascertain causes and effects or to make accurate predictions. And so, experts in these fields make wrong judgements from time to time. It can be dangerous to blindly trust experts, but ignoring them can be even more hazardous. An ignorant person can be right by accident, while an expert can miss out on something. Sometimes, the difference between expert opinion and mere guessing is obscure. That emboldens the ignorant, and it makes the experts cautious.

Experiments can help to ascertain whether or not an assumption or a theory is correct. In social sciences, that may involve experimenting with humans. And that is not always ethical. And so, we should be careful as to the social experiments we engage in.

Reasoned debates are more common in science than in politics but scientists need research budgets provided by businesses and governments. The issues scientists investigate and the outcomes of scientific research can be influenced by the interests of those who fund the research. And so, the results of their research are not always what you might expect from an unbiased investigation.

Even when actions are based on the outcome of rational debates and experimenting, the actions lead to new issues that may need to be resolved in subsequent discussions and trials. The questions that will arise are often difficult to foresee, and it is even harder to think of how they will be resolved. Marx thought he could predict the future. Using Hegel’s dialectic, he thought he could predict how history would play out. Thinking that you know what will happen is a mistake many people make.

Marx believed in progress as Hegel did. Many people think there is progress. Yet, that is not so obvious. That is why conservatives want to keep things the way they are or go back in time to revert things to as they once were. To put it into perspective, if you live in a developed country, you may ask yourself, ‘Are you happier now than your parents were fifty years ago?’

Featured image: Portrait of Socrates in marble, 1st-century Roman artwork. Eric Gaba (2005). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

1. Hegel’s Understanding of History. Jack Fox-Williams (2020). Philosophy Now. [link]

The last day

The limits to growth

Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface, a plant is growing. Its leaves suffocate all life below. The plant has already been there for 1,000 days, and it doubles in size every day. So, here is a question. If the lake is already covered half by the plant, how many days are left to save the lake? The correct answer is one day. Behold the power of exponential growth.

In one day, the size of the plant doubles, so the lake will be fully covered the next day. It does not matter how long the plant has been there already. Exponential growth stops once there is no more room for expansion. As soon as the lake is fully covered, life in the lake ends. And if the plant depends on that life, it will die too.

The lake represents the Earth, the plant represents humanity, and the leaves are people like you and me. No more room for growth means that mass starvation is not far away. As of 1971, humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently, we use two times as much. By 2050, humanity will need three Earths. Make no mistake. We live on the proverbial last day.

The end may come suddenly. Most people do not see it coming, while others believe it is unavoidable. They are preparing for the worst. In 1972, a group of scientists in the Club of Rome predicted the end of civilisation when natural resources would run out shortly after the year 2000.1 Their predictions did not come true because new technologies allowed us to extract more raw materials from the planet.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend
The end

– The Doors, The End

End time prophets have been consistently wrong so far. That does not mean that the day of reckoning is not at hand. The laws of nature usually are not kind to those who ignore them. The measures currently entertained likely are vastly insufficient. Technological innovation alone could fail to solve the issues we face. And so, a lifestyle change, most notably for rich people, seems imperative. Possible solutions are politically incorrect, so liberal democracy may not deliver them. The reasons could be:

  • We are inclined to value the present more than the future. What will happen later on does not affect us now. That may be why voluntary pension schemes often fail.
  • It is a collective action problem. It is pointless to restrain yourself when others do not. For instance, if I stop using my car but others do not, it will have no effect.
  • The future is uncertain. Predictions often do not come true, and most disasters we prepare for never materialise, so people hope rather than act.

We do not like to hear about inconvenient truths. Our way of living is unsustainable. Climate change gets a lot of attention, but we hear less about cutting down forests to produce biofuels. And completely switching to renewables may be so costly that reducing energy consumption will be cheaper. That is hard to sell to the public as it may entail a decline in the standard of living for many people. That standard of living probably is still better than most people had for most of history. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.

What does it mean to live sustainably? A ‘worst-case’ scenario might be living like the Amish. How bad is that? Amish are free to leave their community. Most of them decide to stay. It appears that their living standard is not a burden to them. Adapting likely is the most painful part. Once you become accustomed to a new way of living, it becomes normal for you, and you will probably be as happy or as miserable as you were before.

The exponential growth of human activities may soon hit the limits of this planet. Waiting for more evidence to arrive does not seem a good idea. You have conclusive proof when it happens. But that is too late. And so, our lives may depend on taking appropriate action now. The limits of the planet do not care about you or your feelings. You will have to cope with them. Societal collapses often coincided with die-offs in which up to 90% of the people perished. The measures we can take affect the following areas:

  • food and water
  • energy
  • pollution and destruction of ecosystems
  • population

Food and water

The impact of climate change on future harvests is unknown. Climate change may cause harvest failures and famine. Crops could fail in unison so the global food supply may become unstable. Currently, stored food stocks can feed humanity for a few months. Famine is just around the corner. It seems wise to heed the advice Joseph once gave the Pharaoh, which is storing food to cope with poor harvests.

The need to increase food supplies in the face of diminishing harvests may require a critical look at our diets. The food for animals we eat takes arable land that could feed humans. It often takes three to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. Meat production causes animal suffering and destroys ecosystems. And meat production is a source of greenhouse gases.

Nearly one billion people lack access to clean, affordable water within half an hour of their homes. Every year 300,000 children under five die of diarrhoea, dirty water and poor sanitation are often to blame. By 2025, half the world’s population could live in areas with water shortages. Causes are irrigation for agriculture, climate change, and water-intensive production processes like producing clothes.2

Energy

There are two diverging predictions regarding the future of renewable energy. The first scenario is that renewable energy will become cheaper than fossil fuels and replace them.3 The second scenario is that this will not happen because solar and wind cannot provide a stable energy source. Our civilisation depends on a constant and reliable supply of energy. Hence, backup power from other energy sources must remain available.4 Renewable energy may become cheap, but stabilising delivery may be prohibitively expensive. And so, the most challenging part is not getting to 50% renewables but 100%. Perhaps it is possible but that is not certain.

Denmark is successfully switching to renewable energy, most notably wind. Denmark’s government is committed to renewable energy. And the Danes are willing to pay up for electricity. Electricity in Denmark costs twice as much as in France. In 2020, 32% of Denmark’s energy consumption came from renewable sources. Denmark’s ambition is to get to 100% by 2050. That points at the central issues: there must be political will to make it happen, but there may be limits to what is possible. If electricity becomes ten times as expensive, lifestyles will have to change.

Renewable energy sources will not meet the projected global energy consumption in the coming decades. They may cover the rise in demand, but not more than that. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a near 50% increase in world energy use by 2050.5 The EIA further predicts that the use of fossil fuels will not go down. That may necessitate additional measures like:
• curbing non-essential energy consumption;
• using nuclear power (the projected damage caused by climate change dramatically exceeds that of nuclear accidents and waste);
• using natural gas and compensating for the carbon emissions.

Many people feel entitled to their lifestyles, so curbing non-essential energy consumption is a politically incorrect idea. It may be needed. High energy prices affect poor people the most. Ending non-essential energy consumption means that the rich make the greatest sacrifice by saving fuel for essential purposes so that energy prices may not rise as much. It may also affect many middle-class people, for instance, when air travel stops or car use becomes restricted.

Nuclear power can provide a reliable source of energy. There is a lot of emotion surrounding this energy source. Nuclear accidents were rare and did not kill many people, but many think nuclear power is evil, perhaps because radiation is invisible and has a long-term irreversible impact. In the Netherlands, national route 666 leads to Borssele. It is the location of the only remaining Dutch nuclear power plant. I once came on this route after leaving a village named Kwadendamme (translation: Evildam). The second power plant in Dodewaard (translation: Death Holm) has been closed. The former municipality of Dodewaard had been 66.5 square kilometres, close enough to 66.6 to be noteworthy. Nuclear power may be a ‘deal with the devil’ that we wish to avoid, but burning fossil fuels most likely is far more problematic.

Nuclear reactors may become safer and cheaper to operate, but the problem of nuclear waste remains. This waste will remain dangerous for over 10,000 years. Nuclear fusion can be safer than fission, the type of energy currently used. If something goes wrong, the process dies out. The nuclear waste from fusion is more manageable and will probably be safe to handle after a few hundred years. Energy from nuclear fusion may be available within a few decades, but that is far from certain. During wars, armies may bomb power plants, so nuclear power can never be safe without lasting world peace.

Pollution and destruction of ecosystems

Several environmental disasters are happening at the same time. Many species of plants and animals have become extinct or are on the brink of extinction because humans destroy their habitat. On average, there has been a 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the last 40 years.6 There is hardly any wildlife left.

To put it further into perspective, the seven billion humans on this planet together weigh 300 million tonnes. All the domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, horses and sheep, together weigh 700 million tonnes. By comparison, all the remaining large wildlife on planet Earth, such as lions, elephants, whales, crocodiles and penguins, together weigh less than 100 million tonnes.7

Why produce garbage

Economists argue that economic growth is the way to a cleaner environment. Wealthy people usually are willing to pay more for a clean environment. It can be true as long as the benefits of economic growth exceed the cost of cleaning up. Only, costs tend to escalate once you become more ambitious. Joseph Tainter claims that removing all organic waste from a sugar processing plant costs 100 times more than removing 30%.8 Many pollution-related issues are of a similar nature. In such cases, doing less damage is cheaper than repairing it. And so, the way to a cleaner environment could be producing less.

Population

A mother in waiting once asked the Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers what she could do to raise her child as environmentally friendly as possible. Dekkers then said that nothing harms the environment more than having a child. ‘Cutting down one hundred hectares of tropical rainforest is not nearly as bad,’ he added. Limiting the number of children people get, for instance, to one child per couple, can be a good idea. Population control becomes even more urgent when humans live indefinitely.

Apart from people wanting to have children, poor people seek economic security. Their retirement plan is to have children who can care for them when they are old. Even though they do not use a lot of resources, poor people often have many children. If their standard of living rises, that will place an even greater burden on the planet. The limits of our planet make population control imperative. In the long term, it will have the greatest impact.

The nature of collapse

The breakdown of societies and civilisations is a poorly investigated domain considering the likelihood and implications of such an event. Most people think that life after the collapse is a war of all against all where only the strong survive. There is a breakdown of authority and central control, law and order disappear, local self-sufficiency replaces trade and specialisation, and populations decline. No longer can people rely on defence, maintenance of public works, or delivery of goods.

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter investigates some known cases from the past and available hypotheses about the causes. He then tries to come up with a general theory of societal collapse. Tainter defines collapse as a rapid loss of social and political complexity.8 It affects both the public and the private sphere. Existing explanations mention external causes like resource depletion, (environmental) catastrophes, changing circumstances, or internal causes like conflict and mismanagement.

Human societies are problem-solving organisations. Societies become more complex when they add institutions to address new problems as they emerge. Institutions have benefits, most notably just after their introduction, but they can outlive their usefulness and become a liability. Each additional institution comes at a price for the population. According to Tainter, the law of diminishing marginal returns applies to investments in societal complexity. At some point, the costs of additional complexity start to exceed the benefits. Hence, a reduction in complexity can be a boon to the population at large.8

Maintaining complexity requires surpluses. In agrarian societies, most people were subsistence farmers. Their produce was scarcely enough to feed themselves and their families. Few surpluses were traded in markets or appropriated by governments. Since the Industrial Revolution, surpluses rose dramatically, and societies became more complex than ever before. In modern societies, only a few per cent of the population are farmers. Most people nowadays work in the service sector and do not produce things. An abundant supply of energy provided by fossil fuels made it possible.

When societies experience a stress surge, for instance, resource depletion, a catastrophe, or mismanagement, then the available surpluses drop, and the cost of maintaining complexity can become prohibitive. The current world economy needs growth or continuously increasing surpluses. When energy and resource supplies do not enlarge, surpluses do not increment, and stress may emerge. Products may become unavailable, and public services may halt. People may see their prospects dim and grow angry.

Competing societies cannot collapse voluntarily as a competitor could take over. In the past, competing polities continued to invest in their militaries, regardless of the cost to their populations. Societies do not have to break down under those conditions. Europe has seen centuries of intense military competition and warfare without polities collapsing. If competing states did break down, they usually did so in unison when their dwindling populations were exhausted and starving.8

A recurring pattern is a frantic increase in coping activities on the eve of a breakdown. These activities can be public display to legitimise the leadership, for instance, building monuments, adding hierarchical levels to manage dwindling resources, building a military to raid neighbours, and cultivating barren lands to scrape out a bit of additional agricultural output. Cleaning up the environment after polluting it may also fall into this category. During collapses, leaders appear inept, even when they make the best out of the circumstances.

Aborting the exponential growth of our economic activities and scaling them down to a sustainable level could be in the best interest of humanity. It might entail a reduction in complexity, in other words, simpler lifestyles for many people. A managed complexity reduction could be better than a collapse, as collapse can come with famines and resource wars. Nevertheless, that could still cause emotional stress and dislocations in the economy. You only have to think of what abandoning air travel will do for the freedom of movement and jobs in airline-related industries.

Tainter sees collapse as a consequence of diminishing marginal returns on investments.8 If additional investments yield nothing, there appears to be no point in making them. Negative interest rates can mitigate the breakdown and help to turn it into a more graceful contraction. For instance, a holding fee on currency could make the financial system robust and capable of withstanding a financial shock resulting from an economic decline caused by halting non-essential activities.

Few people are willing to give up their lifestyles. Countries do not stop competing and will not end economic growth out of their own. If we do not alter our course ourselves, then the limits of this planet may do it for us, resulting in unprecedented suffering, wars, and starvation. Voluntary change requires an authority all people in the world accept. Only a possible owner of this universe has this kind of authority. If the end of times ever comes, it may be now. We can only imagine how life in Paradise is going to be.

Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
Waterfalls
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?

[…]

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle

– Talking Heads, Nothing But Flowers

Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Other images: Why produce garbage when it is thrown away all the same. Loesje. Loesje.org.

1. The Limits to Growth. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III (1972). Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
2. Are we running out of water? Fiona Harvey (2018). The Guardian. [link]
3. The Sky’s the Limit: Solar and wind energy potential is 100 times as much as global energy demand. Carbon Tracker Initiative (2021). [link]
4. The “New Energy Economy”: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. Mark P. Mills (2019). Manhattan Institute. [link]
5. EIA projects a nearly 50% increase in world energy use by 2050, led by growth in renewables. US Energy Information Administration (2021). [link]
6. Living Planet Report. World Wildlife Fund (2018). [link]
7. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
8. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter (1988), Cambridge University Press.

one ring to rule them all

Multiculturalism

A successful idea

One of the most successful political ideas in history is multiculturalism. Multiculturalism allows people from different cultures to coexist peacefully under one government. It is an old concept, even though the modern version of multiculturalism is more about respect for other cultures than peaceful coexistence. Under the influence of identity politics, it has become a recipe for division rather than unity. Nevertheless, many successful empires of the past were multicultural states.

Cultures usually do not change in a short timeframe. Leaders of states that conquered other states often allowed subjugated peoples to keep their customs and religions as long as they did not threaten the political and social order. It promoted peace and stability, which improved trade and prosperity. For instance, Cyrus the Great, who ruled around 550 BC, respected the religions and traditions of the different peoples in his empire. He helped the Jews to go back to Palestine and rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.

If the empire lasted long enough, the different peoples of an empire could form a common culture and become one. In this way, smaller groups became integrated into larger ones. That happened, for example, in the Roman Empire. Many later Roman emperors came from the provinces such as France, Africa or Arabia. When the empire collapsed, the conquered peoples did not reappear as independent nations.1 The Roman Empire did not have an assimilation strategy, but cultural integration happened nonetheless.

multiculturalism

The case of Bosnia can illustrate the success and the vulnerability of multiculturalism. For over 500 years, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians lived relatively peacefully together under the umbrella of three successive multicultural states. These were the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and Yugoslavia. But in the 1990s, identity politics suddenly turned them into Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, and they started killing each other in a civil war.

Multiculturalism has often been a step towards more unity. There have been temporary reversions as empires collapsed. Still, the long-term trend is unmistakable. The world gradually became more integrated as smaller cultures merged into larger ones. Nowadays, the world is closely interconnected, and a global culture may emerge without conquest. A new unifying religion can accelerate this process like Christianity and Islam did in the past.

So why do many people think multiculturalism is a failure? First, identity politics changed the nature of multiculturalism. Rather than peaceful coexistence, it is now about respect for other cultures. Respect for one person or group is often at the expense of another person or group. It is also hard to see the success of multiculturalism when foreigners come to your country and do not integrate. Large numbers of immigrants can profoundly change the nature of society. Many people currently in Europe and the United States fear that it will not change for the better. That is understandable. Refugees come to Europe and the United States because they see no future in their home countries.

If human civilisation does not collapse, all the peoples are likely to be integrated into a global culture. Multiculturalism can be a step in this direction. There may still be cultural differences in the future, but tribes and nations may lose their meaning. Multiculturalism can provide a framework that allows different cultures to coexist peacefully in the meantime so that forced assimilation is not necessary.

Us and them

Us and them
And after all, we’re only ordinary men
Me and you

Pink Floyd, Us and them

We divide humanity between us and them. Us is the good people, and them is the evil people who act oddly, look differently, have funny accents and wear peculiar outfits. People differ in skin colour, religion, sexual preferences, or other qualities. And that helps us to feel good about ourselves. Even when you think you are open-minded, there are those evil narrow-minded others. Welcome to human nature. Xenophobia is a trait we share. Racism and homophobia are particular expressions of this feature. Many people prefer the company of like-minded individuals and do not like people who are different. The strange people can tell you similar personal stories about bullying, physical violence and exclusion.

Those who do not experience regular bullying and exclusion often fail to understand life under these conditions. That is the meaning of lived experience. For instance, you do not know how it feels to live in a ghetto if you have never lived there yourself. Lived experiences express themselves, for example, in Black Lives Matter, right-wing populism, and #Metoo. These movements highlight the effects of police violence towards blacks, the neglect of the interests of the working class by the elites, and male conduct towards women. But emotions can undermine rational debates. For instance, defunding the police can cause more violence. And right-wing populism is often just anger without a viable perspective for the future. Lived experience is also central to identity politics. More and more groups demand respect for their lived experiences and demand not to be offended by unpleasant facts. It halts progress towards more unity.

If your culture is dominant, you enjoy advantages you may not realise you have. Societies in Western Europe and the United States may be multicultural, but Western culture is dominant. Western culture has such a profound impact on world culture that it may be the most influential culture in the world today. White privilege is being part of the dominant culture. Similar privileges exist for members of dominant cultures in non-Western countries. The most significant cultural advantages do not come from being part of the dominant culture. Some ethnic groups have trouble finding a place in the multicultural society, but others do better than the dominant cultural group.

A multicultural society is a melting pot with growing pains. If it lasts long enough, tribalism may end, and unity may emerge. If we constructively engage the unpleasant facts, then a social contract for the multicultural society can emerge. It can help us to focus on our future together. Adaptation can hurt feelings, and cultural change comes with stress and alienation. It will be painful for everyone, but the existing cultures of today are unfit to meet the challenges of the future. And so, cultural change will be about meeting the demands of the future like living within the limits of the planet and ending poverty.

Being born with a specific cultural heritage is not an achievement nor a reason for shame. Overcoming the limits of your background and contributing to a better future is a real accomplishment. Lived experiences can help us evaluate how our conduct impacts others and renegotiate social rules. Such a feat is much easier to achieve with a new unifying religion. That may happen because this universe could be a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation.

Featured image: One Ring to Rule Them All. Xander (2007). Public Domain.

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Great Law Of Peace

What society could look like

Can we have a free and equal society? The road to tyranny is paved with good intentions. So can this question be asked at all? Or do we lack vision? Perhaps examples can show us the way. In 1142, five North American tribes, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, formed a league known as the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois or Five Nations. In 1722 a sixth tribe, Tuscarora, joined. Their constitution is known as The Great Law Of Peace.

The impact of the league on world history is considerable. Unlike Europeans, the Haudenosaunee had equality and liberty for all. This degree of equality is not uncommon in tribal societies. The Haudenosaunee influenced the European colonists settling in the United States and 18th-century European thinkers. Freedom, equality and brotherhood became the motto of the French Revolution and are still amongst the values many people believe societies should be based on.1

The formation of the league

Legend has it that three people made it all happen, Dekanawida, known as the Great Peacemaker, Ayenwatha, also called Hiawatha and Jigonhsasee, the Mother of Nations, whose home was open to everyone. They proposed the league to end the constant warfare between the neighbouring tribes. The warrior leader Tododaho of the Onondaga kept on opposing the idea.

Deganawidah then took a single arrow and asked Tododaho to break it, which he did with ease. Then he bundled five arrows together and asked Tododaho to break them too. He could not. Deganawidah prophesied that the Five Nations, each weak on its own, would fall unless they joined forces. Soon after Deganawidah’s warning, a solar eclipse occurred, and the shaken Tododaho agreed to the alliance.

The Haudenosaunee absorbed other peoples because of warfare, adoption of captives and offering shelter to displaced peoples. During the American Revolution, two tribes sided with the revolutionaries. The others remained loyal to Great Britain. The tribes had to take sides. They needed the favours of the winning party as diseases had reduced their populations. After the revolution, the league was re-established.

The principles of the league

The Great Law Of Peace consists of 117 codicils that deal with the affairs between the Six Nations. Major decisions require the consent of the people who are part of the league. When issues come up, the male chiefs or sachems of the clans come together at the council fire in the territory of Onondaga.

The league aims for consensus. Decisions require large majorities of both the clan mothers and the sachems. It puts pressure on individual members of both groups not to impede decision making with insignificant objections or frivolous considerations. Matters of great importance are decided in referendums.

Women have considerable influence and are entitled to the land and its produce. The clan mothers deal with the internal affairs of their tribe. They elect the sachems of their tribe and can remove them from office. Hence, the sachems heed the advice of their female relatives.

Influence

Compared to the despotic European societies of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Haudenosaunee was a liberal form of government. In the first two centuries of European colonisation, there was no clear border between natives and newcomers. The two societies mingled. Europeans could see from close by how the natives lived. They had a degree of personal freedom common to tribal peoples but unseen in Europe.1

As for the Haudenosaunee, the colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749 that they had such absolute notions of liberty that they allow no kind of superiority of one over another and banish all servitude from their territories. Colden had been an adoptee of the Mohawks. Other Europeans complained that the natives do not know what it is to obey and think that everyone has the right to his own opinion.

Social equality was as important as personal liberty to the North American natives. They were appalled by the European division into social classes. Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron of Lahontan, was a French adventurer who lived in Canada between 1683 and 1694. He noted that the natives he visited could not understand why one man should have more than another and why the rich deserve more respect than the poor.

Some early colonists preferred to live with the natives. The leaders of Jamestown tried to persuade the natives to become like Europeans. That did not happen. Instead, many English joined the locals despite threats of dire punishment. The same thing happened in New England. Puritan leaders were horrified when some members of a rival English settlement began living with the local tribes. As Franklin lamented in 1753:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, though ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, when there is no reclaiming them.

usseal
United States Seal

European colonists had to adapt. Otherwise, they could lose their people to the native tribes. It may have helped make American society more free and equal than societies in Europe. The European philosophers of the 18th century took their ideas of freedom from the native Americans. It eventually led to the French Revolution. Freedom and equality are now basic principles of democratic nations.

The ideals of liberty and limited government influenced the United States Constitution. Equality and consensus did not. The US Seal features a bald eagle holding thirteen arrows bound together, representing the thirteen founding states reminiscent of the bald eagle and the five arrows from the legend of the Five Nations.

Featured image: The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy. Mont Clair State University website (Montclair.edu).

1. New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). Charles C. Mann. Knopf. [link]