As centuries passed, and the human herd swelled, the strains on society increased, often sparking friction. In an effort to discourage chaos, many societies became more structured — codes of rules, conflict resolution systems, hierarchies of control and coercion. Tribes formed alliances with others, and these confederations often merged into states. In a shark pool of ongoing growth and overshoot, weak states were vulnerable sitting ducks. The struggle for survival was a never-ending challenge. It encouraged better defenses, stronger offences, technological innovation, and tough leaders.
To nourish their strength, states had to focus on maximizing tax revenues, conscripting fresh cannon fodder, and promptly smashing uprisings. To do this effectively, they needed detailed censuses listing the names and residences of all citizens. They needed maps that illustrated the boundaries and fields of landed property, the names of the owners, and the economic output generated on each estate. They needed accurate street maps of cities. The better a state understood the society it controlled and exploited, the richer and more powerful it could become.
James Scott is a political science professor at Yale. In his book, Seeing Like A State, he presents a tragi-comical exposé of bloopers and blunders performed by a variety of ambitious states in their quest for greater efficiency, order, and prestige — modernization.
Chapter one takes readers on an illuminating visit to eighteenth century Germany. Prior to the coal age, wood was the essential source of energy and building materials — no wood, no civilization. Today, it’s impossible for anyone to know the actual amount of oil that remains underground, but in the forests of old Germany, the reserves of standing trees were perfectly visible to everyone, and they were getting smaller. Yikes! Folks having more than a few brain cells realized that if they wiped out the forests, they would wipe themselves out.
Unlike modern society, which is fatally addicted to nonrenewable energy, old Germany had better options, in theory. Forests were renewable, in theory. Forests were complex self-regulating ecosystems, and their long-term health was seriously harmed by persistent attacks from gangs of vicious ax murderers. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats of the state didn’t understand this at all. When they looked at a forest, they saw precious treasure to be taken, and they throbbed with giddy adolescent excitement.
Healthy, happy undisturbed forests included diverse communities of tree people, most of which were not valuable grade-A species, in the minds of greed-heads. In a sparkling shower of light, a brilliant solution fell out of the sky — scientific forestry! The treasure could be maximized by growing nothing but grade-A trees! Simply erase the messy old forest, and replace it with plantations of Norway spruce. These trees could be planted, evenly spaced, row after row, century after century. Every year, the volume of wood grown would equal the volume of wood removed, in theory. By 1900, scientific forestry had been adapted by cutting edge nations around the world.
Whoops! Well, the first generation of plantation trees was awesome, having been planted in the fabulously fertile soil produced by thousands of years of old growth forests. The second rotation was less than awesome, and went downhill from there. Monocultures were always a magnet for pests and diseases. Spruce trees become chronically depressed slackers when planted in abused and depleted soils. Unhealthy root systems encouraged blow downs. This inspired the birth of a new word — Waldsterben (forest death).
In other types of projects, growing states fooled around with strategies similar to scientific forestry. Scott says that these strategies were the offspring of an accident-prone control freak mindset, which he called the high-modernist ideology. It proclaimed that the path to utopia was lit by science, technology, and reason. He takes readers on a breathtaking whitewater raft ride through a number of high-modernist catastrophes, designed by a mob of half-clever smarty-pants.
Vladimir Lenin, a leader in the Russian Revolution, was a devious super-ambitious control freak, determined to create a high-modernist utopia, by any means necessary. In order to rapidly industrialize the new state, he needed to rapidly industrialize agriculture, to keep the heroic factory workers well fed. The age of tractors had arrived, and many nations were becoming very excited about industrial agriculture. In the twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution was having powerful orgasms, and the entire planet was ravaged by a highly contagious epidemic of drug-resistant get-rich-quick fever.
A fatal flaw in the high-modernist ideology was that it intensified civilization’s merciless war on ecological sustainability. Yes, scientific forestry was foolish, but so was the traditional low-tech forest mining it replaced. Scientific forestry just accelerated the wreckage. Yes, industrial agriculture was foolish, but so was the organic low-tech soil mining it replaced. The modernists could not comprehend the serious irreversible consequences of the well-intended mistakes they were making; they focused their full attention on utopian fantasies.
Joseph Stalin brutally collectivized Russian agriculture. Millions of peasants were forced to work on huge mechanized farms. They were like slaves, even more oppressed than during the bad old days of the czars. Idiot bureaucrats, who knew almost nothing about the farms they managed, established impossible production quotas. If factory workers didn’t meet their quotas, they were still fed. The same was not true for farm workers. They starved. Folks who complained were deported or executed. This adventure in high-modernism resulted in at least 20 million deaths.
The new Brazilian capital, Brasília, was a perfect city, in theory. It was designed by notorious geniuses, and then built on a bulldozed forest. It was the pinnacle of modernity, reminiscent of Albert Speer’s monumental designs for Hitler’s Berlin. Comically, the city that dazzled the avant-garde intelligentsia was despised by the thousands of miserable government workers forced to live in it. Life in Brasília was painfully bleak. Eventually, they built an unplanned city around the edges of perfect hell, where they could roll their socks down and enjoy life.
Like a cat with nine lives, high-modernism refuses to die. Today’s modernist buzzwords include sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, sustainable cities, sustainable development, and so on. The ideology has thoroughly infected the cultures of the civilized world. It’s taught in every school, so the kiddies are prepared for a soul-killing life of sustainable consuming. In every facet of our lives, every minute of the day, the air is constantly buzzing with modernist memes. They define the specifications for how normal, well-adjusted, planet-thrashing consumers think and behave. Questioning is unacceptable. Don’t!
Scott’s book is loaded with descriptions of quirky high-modernist escapades. It’s powerful medicine for folks who are beginning to experience doubts about the sanity of our age of astonishing wonders. No, you’re not crazy; you’re coming out of the trance. Good job! Welcome to reality!
A free PDF of the book can be downloaded HERE. YouTube has an interesting 38-minute video of Scott HERE.
Scott, James C., Seeing Like A State — How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.