Sunday, 29 April 2007

The Demographics of Change

In the previous blog, I presented a portrait of our current societies that emphasized the omnipresence of orthodoxy. It seems slightly presumptuous to claim that we are moving, as a collective, away from the dominance of orthodox beliefs, given such a massive presence of orthodox thinking. On what evidence can such an argument be maintained?

I mentioned several phenomena that do not follow orthodox behaviors, but, with the exception of the internet, these phenomena have been around for hundreds, thousands, even millions of years. They did not prevent the development of huge collections of orthodox thinking before. On what basis can I affirm that they will have such an effect now?

The argument that leads, inevitably from my point of view, to such a conclusion is somewhat complex, but it is rooted in a very simple observation. Throughout most of human history, the population has been in accelerating expansion. Since the first cries of alarm raised in the 1950s, through books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and over the following decades, it has become clear to a large part of the world’s population that we, as a people, as part of a larger ecology, have been headed for serious trouble if this were to continue unchecked. Not only that, it was noted that the “crunch” would come all too quickly, given the fact that the exponential expansion was nearing the limits of the ability of the planet to support it.

The September 2005 edition of Scientific American was devoted to the observation, now confirmed by a growing number of studies, that this situation has changed. Although the rate of expansion has never been larger than now, the global rate is slowing for the first time in human history (with the possible exception of times such as the Great Plague in Middle Age Europe or other major diebacks).

This observation is, itself, somewhat paradoxical. The world’s population is increasingly concerned with the issue of environment change – the consequences of not having acted earlier to stem the impacts of human development on the environment. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that actions taken now will not be enough to prevent dramatic climate change. The statement that the world’s population growth has started to slow seems a small consolation for the developing catastrophe that is our relationship with the environment. It is a relief, perhaps, but no one is suggesting that we drop our guard, in this of all times.

On a second look, the change is not only a relief, but a suggestion that we, as a species, are perhaps finally taking our responsibility towards ourselves and our environment more seriously. If the tendency continues, we are on the road to a situation of sustainability.

It still, however, seems to be only a small blip on our radar screen.

However, as a scientist, I find I cannot accept such a lackadaisical reaction. I believe the consequences of this change in demographics to be profound. I believe this may prove to be the single, most important event to have occurred in recent, perhaps all human history.


Because the dynamics of a decreasing expansion rate are dramatically different than those of an increasing expansion rate. From a systems perspective, these correspond to entirely different system states. Just as the rapidly increasing expansion rate that characterized the twentieth century fed many different forms of dynamics, and all of these led to a worsening of the prognostics for long term human habitation of the planet, so a decreasing expansion rate entails a change in dynamics for a large number of secondary, but all important, processes. We are no longer in a divergent dyanamics, we are now functioning within a convergent dynamics.

And because we have never, as a species, experienced such a regime while the population is commensurate with the resource limits of the planet, with nowhere else to go. In former times, when life got difficult, or times troubled, one could move to a different place, outside the sphere of influence of the earlier location. This didn’t always solve the problem, but it was always a possibility for individuals or groups, and provided a way of siphoning off some of the sources of conflict and trouble. In our world today, there is nowhere on the planet one can go to, and escape the issues that are facing us. And our will and technologies are not advanced enough, yet, to support movement to other planets, or even to orbital stations.

As a people, as a species, we are in a “crucible”, a “nexus”, a “moment of transition”. The moment when a system changes from accelerating expansion, to braking expansion, is called the “critical point”. It is hard to observe, because the change is small and the expansion rate is high. But the system operates after the critical point in a way that is fundamentally different from how it operated before the critical point.

Humanity appears to have passed through its critical point, without hardly noticing it has done so. Human life, from here on in, will be different from what it has been. It will take time for the differences to manifest in a way that becomes obvious, but the change is no less profound for being invisible to us.

Moving Away From Orthodoxy - A Portrait of Our Times

eWe live in a world where the official discourses are highly orthodox, but where the underlying and emerging realities are increasingly less orthodox.

The word “orthodoxy” derives etymologically from the roots “ortho” and “doxa”, Greek words meaning “right” or “correct”, and “thought”, “teaching” or “glorification”. Its formal definition is given as “correct theological or doctrinal observance of religion as determined by some overseeing body” (wikipedia). A common definition is, on the other hand, “a belief or orientation agreeing with conventional standards”. Hence there are two distinct ideas here, one that orthodoxy is determined by a committee, and the other by convention.

We can find many, many examples of both these forms of orthodoxy within our current society. Hence most religions, sects, and so forth are orthodox in the first of these senses. The Political Correctness movement, often called, simply, PC, resulted in the promotion of an orthodoxy of the second kind. The feminist movement, one of the driving forces behind the PC campaign, itself struggles with the issues of orthodoxy – not all feminists are in agreement over its necessity within the broader movement, indeed, some believe that “orthodoxy” is a tool if not invented by men, then certainly wielded by them to keep people (e.g. women) in line.

Another example of orthodoxy is the existence of political parties within our democratic institutions. Political parties are often characterized by both forms of orthodoxy, both a doctrine decided upon by a small committee that applies to all “card-carrying members”, and conventions that may apply to a much broader group within the voting public. As a result, our governments are generally based on orthodox doctrines. In the case of dictatorships, this is likely to be even more the case, although the determining group may be a committee of one.

The institution of scientific research follows an orthodoxy, albeit a somewhat heterogeneous one. Scientific doctrine is vetted not by a single committee, but by many committees, however, the overall goal of these committees is very similar, and very much devoted towards “right thinking”. The funding of science is also an exercise in orthodoxy, as is, somewhat paradoxically, the funding of art. Art is not in and of itself an orthodox practice (well, not so-called “high art” – it can be argued that popular art does follow a form of orthodoxy, since it is heavily constrained by conventions). Educational institutions follow orthodoxies, as do medical institutions. Professions, in general, are based on some form of doctrine and hence are orthodox.

The list gets longer… it might be tempting to say that all aspects of our culture are dealt with through various forms of orthodoxy. However, it is easy to point to other constituents of society that are not orthodox. Much of the economy evades determined attempts by governments and others to establish an orthodox and controlling doctrine. The internet in its totality escapes all attempts to impose a single doctrine. Our individual psyches do not follow doctrine, even though many would like that to be the case, or attempt to convince themselves that it can be done.

All three of these are examples of what are called emergent phenomena – that is, phenomena which are characterized by global patterns that are not directly determined, but rather emerge from more local phenomena that may be pre-determined. This is an important point, it allows me to restate my central idea in a somewhat different way. The social arrangements into which we are moving are emergent phenomena, different from the determinations at smaller scales that lead to them. The 21st century world is an emergent culture, and, as such, cannot be understood in terms of orthodoxy.

It is my claim that, despite the apparent omnipresence and ubiquitous nature of orthodoxy throughout our current social fabric, that we are moving into an era where orthodoxy will have far less of a hold than it has in previous centuries.

Furthermore, the very existence of paroxysms of violence based on orthodox religion in various forms that we are experiencing on the world stage presently, reinforces my argument. Orthodoxies in today’s world feel threatened – the violence we see is at least partially a consequence of that sense of change that is installing itself in many levels within our social and economic arrangements.

Introduction to 21st Century Musings

It is my belief, and in these virtual pages I am planning to present the complex jigsaw puzzle that constitutes this belief, that we, humanity as a whole, are entering a new era which will have substantially different forms that those we have become accustomed to, over many centuries. The fundamental change I propose to explore is a shift from a social, economic and personal preoccupation with orthodoxy and orthodox thinking, towards modes of being, thinking and acting that are much more paradoxical.

This belief is not, however, “pulled from a hat” - it is based on broad exposure to a variety of different disciplines, thinkers … and contexts of everyday life, along with a lifetime effort to bring together disparate modes of being. I am also aware that my position is “radical”. I am going to argue that, unlike the argument that suggests there is “nothing new under the sun”, that on the contrary, the nature of what it is to be human is changing.

Although I am a scientist, my argument is not primarily technological. I am not making any claims that what it means to be human is changing because of the introduction and use of new technologies, whether these be physical, biological, informational, or something else. In this regard, I present an argument that differs from a great many of my colleagues.

Although my arguments are convergent with those of a growing number of key thinkers today, and are rooted in contributions from giants of the past, I believe many of the details within my arguments will surprise many. They have taken me into nooks and crannies I did not expect to go to myself, sometimes highly controversial areas of discourse. Over the course of the adventure, I expect to talk about a great many subjects, many of them taboo in one way or another. Indeed, I expect to get into trouble with some readers because of this. I believe that as part of a “great airing” that needs to take place, of issues, possible actions, dreams and nightmares, we need to take the “kid gloves” off with regard to issues we’re all afraid to talk about openly. We need to name the things that disturb us, call them forth into the open, give ourselves the space to say things, even in writing, that are controversial and, sometimes, counterintuitive.

I know I am being a little mysterious about this right now, but all in due time. First of all, we need to lay down some foundations before we can begin to talk about such things.

A word about writing style. This blog is being developed from an unpublished book manuscript I wrote last year, but I am rewriting and adapting the manuscript to suit a blog format as I go. I believe the blog format is ideally suited to this kind of exposition. Indeed, part of the argument I want to make is that these issues need to be taken up by a much broader community – these issues concern us all. The process of writing a manuscript and publishing this as a book has stood us in good stead for more than 500 years, but the internet today provides a different approach that can be much more effective. I hope to take advantage of what has been called “collective intelligence” to broaden and deepen my own understanding of these issues.

I also expect to include more informal musings about events in the world as they unfold, in relation to these arguments, as well as discussions regarding any responses readers may be prepared to provide, as these become appropriate.

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