[permaculture] Financial Collapse / Katrina

Toby Hemenway toby at patternliteracy.com
Mon Mar 3 21:12:39 EST 2008

Warning: verbiage ahead.

David Travis wrote:
> This is a rather ironic interpretation of Katrina,
You've given a nice assessment of the causes of the Katrina mess, but my 
point was not that FEMA was the cause; it was that it was useless. 
You've said "a lack of coordinated centralized planning" prevented a 
decent response. Precisely. Centralized systems at that scale are too 
hierarchically complex and rigid to respond intelligently. But I don't 
want to get stuck on FEMA; there are thousands more examples of 
large-system failure and distributed system agility.  

How hilarious to be "neo-con for a day!" But an observation that 
economies are like ecosystems is not a value judgment that corporatism 
is good. Makes a good straw man, though. But the Social Darwinism stuff 
seemed a bit much.

> "our economy" has virtually destroyed our planet, has exterminated and enslaved entire cultures, and has managed to become one of the most inefficient, self-destructive, and inhumane resource allocation and management systems ever devised

You miss a critical point: compared to what? And I mean in the real 
world; in theory, perfect communism or socialism would be great.

Look at the centralized alternatives to a distributed economic system: 
the USSR and its satellites in Eastern Europe, China, North Korea and so 
on. Repression and destruction of human rights on a scale, duration, and 
severity unequaled anywhere in the West. Cosmic blunders of 5-year 
plans. And their ecosystems are vastly more devastated. I loathe 
corporate capitalism, but if the USSR or China or any centralized state 
dominated the planet the way corporatism has, it would be a lot worse.

> I would be genuinely interested to hear why anyone would consider it to be a good candidate for dealing with rapid change.
How could you argue otherwise? Our culture's rate of change has been 
astronomical, and our economic system has managed to deal with it for 
centuries (the USSR collapse comes to mind, again). Again, compared to 
what? There are hundreds of dead cultures that failed to adapt to a 
fraction of the change this one's dealt with. Often simple immigration 
has killed a culture. Ours thrives on it. Distributed systems can learn. 
Centralized ones can only react and plan.

The so-called "free market" is often vicious and destructive as well as 
cooperative and opportunity creating, just like an ecosystem. It's not 
an analogy I've leapt into; it's the assessment of a few hundred books 
and thousands of papers. Economies and cultures are complex adaptive 
systems, vernacularly called ecosystems. Centralizing their control 
intelligently is beyond our abilities, even if we are wise enough to 
know which direction we want them to go, which is doubtful. Sometimes 
regulation works (the early FDA); sometimes it's a disaster (the current 
FDA). I don't see more government as an answer to corporate control; 
they are both part of a systems problem, and we are young at 
understanding systems.
> An ecosystem might "adapt" to stress with "positive" things, such as symbiosis, but it may also respond with increased incidents of epidemic disease, population decline, and even species loss.
I don't like the conclusion, either. But just 'cuz it's ugly doesn't 
make it untrue. Species loss in an economic ecosystem is analogous to 
businesses disappearing (or in a cultural system, ideas dying out). 
Population decline? I hope so--we need the whole planet to develop the 
birthrate of Europe, or slower, and feedback from expensive resources 
(as in Europe) works better than government condom programs. Uh-oh, I'm 
a neo-con!

Like anyone, the neo-cons have a grain of truth; they've just taken it 
to an insane place.

When an ecosystem goes through an energy descent, it restabilizes at a 
different state, and that is traumatic for some communities and species. 
When we try to avoid these natural processes, we just put off and 
exacerbate the reckoning. This doesn't mean "never help the poor," but 
it means that local, distributed solutions are liable to work best. A 
good example is the Green Revolution; a well-intentioned centralized 
plan to replace thousands of local crops with a handful of oil-dependent 
ones, and it created about 2 billion mouths now likely to starve, while 
"saving" a small fraction of that many people. There's real Social 
Darwinism for you. Natural selection can't be avoided for long.

We are infants in the discovery of how economies and ecosystems 
function, but they are very similar. I think the observation that 
economies behave like ecosystems will give us enormous power to devise 
more just economies. Bloated corporations that gut mountainsides seem 
like kids discovering fire: it's too much power to handle at first, and 
you risk burning down the house, until eventually you learn how it works 
and use it well. But the learning, for us, is on the scale of centuries.


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