Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Art of Not Being Governed


James Scott is a political scientist at Yale University, an advocate of anarchy lite — not “smash the state” but “make the state more wise and fair.”  Originally, the ancestors of all humans were wild folks living in sweet freedom on open lands owned by no one.  Then came agriculture, private property, inequality, and the rise of creepy states, in which well-fed rulers exploited mobs of unlucky subjects and slaves.  The Art of Not Being Governed examines the power dramas between free folks and states in Southeast Asia. 

In this region, states first arose in the valleys and lowlands, especially in locations suitable for growing rice in flooded paddies.  Rice produces high yields, but is labor intensive.  Land that is ideal for raising crops only generates wealth when there is an adequate workforce of fairly obedient taxpayers and slaves.  Alas, wading in paddies, in clouds of mosquitoes, baking in the heat, constantly bent over, was not everyone’s idea of a good time.  Persistent misery inspired many non-elites to envision a beautiful alternative — escape!!!  

Most of the landscape surrounding the valley states was mountainous and rugged, unsuited for conventional agriculture, but ideal terrain for state-evading sanctuaries of freedom.  So, the higher elevations were home to small groups of hill people who preferred autonomy to subservience.  They hunted, foraged, and grew food in scattered locations.  Root and tuber foods, like yams, cassava, potatoes, and sweet potatoes, did not ripen at once, or require storage.  They could be left in the ground up to two years, and dug up as needed.  Scattered amidst the natural vegetation, they were not easy for outsiders to discover.

These scattered communities of hill people often had little, if any, contact with outsiders.  Their primary desire was to live in freedom.  All of them were refugees, coming from a diverse mixture of cultural, ethnic, and religious traditions.  Hill folks had no official name, so a scholar invented one.  He called them Zomians, the people of Zomia (highlands).  The numerous remote hill communities that comprised Zomia were widely dispersed across an area the size of Europe.  Zomian groups inhabited a region that spanned across five nations, and four Chinese provinces.  [MAP]

Down in the valleys, the rice producing states were often disrupted by ongoing conflicts and instability.  Scott noted that these states “tended to be remarkably short-lived.”  The lives of subjects and slaves were miserable, which is why they never stopped running off into the hills.  From most rice paddies, the hills of Zomia were always visible.  In a prison without cages or walls, freedom was just a walk away.  Physical flight was the primary check on state power.  It was usually less dangerous than revolt. 

The constant loss of manpower was a serious challenge that required constant efforts to snatch fresh replacements.  Military campaigns brought home prisoners who were forced to begin exciting new careers in slavery.  States often sent slave raiders into the hills of Zomia, in efforts to find free folks and drag them back to the rice paddies.  

Classroom history books focus on stuff like wars, empires, heroes, and progress.  Slavery gets slight mention, if any.  Students will read about classical Greek intellect, art, and architecture; not slavery.  There were times when the population in Athens had five times as many slaves as full citizens.  Around the world, slavery was a standard component of most agriculture-based civilizations, until recently, when mechanization sharply reduced the need for two-legged farm implements.  Your extended family tree likely contains more than a few slaves.  Visit Wikipedia’s article on slavery.  [HERE]

Clive Ponting published an excellent history that focused much attention on how the hungry dirty commoners actually lived, suffered, and died.  He wrote, “Until about the last two centuries in every part of the world nearly everyone lived on the edge of starvation.”  J. R. McNeill noted that in preindustrial times, horses and oxen were often luxuries that were too expensive for poor farmers.  Humans were far more energy efficient than draft animals, and they were capable of performing clever tricks, like digging up spuds, or planting rice.  Having a gang of slaves boosted the net profits for their masters.  Lords adored hoards of gold.

In the hills, Zomians were wizards at utilizing “geographical friction” to make it harder for slave raiders to find them.  Rather than courteously providing their pursuers with smooth well-marked paths, they deliberately preferred to reside in locations that were not highly visible, or easily accessible.  Some locations were perfect for defensive warfare, because they enabled a small number of guardians to block or ambush a larger force of aggressors.  The most secure refuges were places “only accessible to monkeys.”

Geographical friction is an interesting idea.  Our wild ancestors lived in lands where free movement originally had many natural obstacles.  Friction was provided by rugged mountains, swamps, dense jungles, vast deserts, rivers, seas, etc.  Friction hampered the expansion of early states.  It wasn’t quick or easy to suppress a revolt ten miles away.  Friction could be reduced by roads, bridges, boats, beasts of burden, and contraptions with wheels.  Today, far less geographical friction remains.  We have long distance travel via highways, railroads, air travel, and cargo ships.  We can instantly send info anywhere.  Scott refers to these as “distance demolishing technologies.”  With great pride, we have dumped trash on the moon. 

Scott was fascinated by the deep human desire to live in freedom.  Genetically, we are alert and intelligent wild omnivores, not dimwitted feedlot critters, or hive insects.  His discussion of Zomia revealed patterns that parallel a similar downward spiral of trends around the world.  Folks went from nomadic to sedentary, which led to plant and animal domestication, slavery, patriarchy, population growth, perpetual conflict, civilization, industrialization, and our remarkably victorious world war on everything.

For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors enjoyed the freedom of living in small nomadic groups.  Our mental equipment is fine-tuned for this way of life.  The hill people of Zomia focused on equality, autonomy, and mobility.  For them, the concept of “chief” was incomprehensible.  Lads who got too assertive sometimes had to be ethically euthanized, in order to maintain the coherence of the group.  Smooth cooperation worked far better than compulsory obedience to sharp orders from big daddy buttheads. 

Societies took a sharp turn for the worse with the shift toward private property, when the open commons got chopped into chunks of exclusive, inheritable, real estate.  Equality was displaced by hierarchies based on wealth, class, and status.  Social rank was based on wealth.  More was always better.  Strive to climb the social pyramid.  Primary emphasis shifted from “we” to “me.”  It’s like a silly goofy bratty children’s game.

When our wild ancestors evolved in the tropics, food was available year round, nobody owned it, and it was acquired when needed.  Later, when folks colonized temperate regions, food storage was required for winter survival.  This eventually inspired plant and animal domestication, which created food that was owned, and held in concentrated locations — granaries and enslaved herds.  These treasure chests of valuable grain, meat, and muscle power were “appropriable and raidable.”  They provided irresistible temptation to ruthless geeks who were allergic to hard work and honesty.

Indeed, this led to the creation of a new career path.  Stealing food required far less labor than producing it, and raiding was far more adventurous and exciting for adults who had testicles.  At this point, the need to eradicate looters led to the emergence of armed defenders, a military class.  These warriors could also serve as armed aggressors, looting the treasure chests of other communities.  Since then, the military sphere has never stopped growing in size and power. 

With the transition to hierarchy, the old fashioned tradition of mutual support took the back seat to a competition-based, winner take all culture.  When you’re a slave in a rice paddy, and your master is a cruel bastard, and your foreseeable future is perpetual misery, you begin to contemplate the meaning of life.  You can go crazy, you can flee into the hills, or you can float away into magical thinking. 

The hill people were primarily animists.  They enjoyed a life of freedom in places of healthy wild nature.  They developed intimate relationships with the surrounding flora, fauna, and landscape — here and now reality that you could see, touch, and smell.  For them, the living world was spiritually alive.  Directly experiencing this profound coherence did not require imagination or belief.  It was deeply meaningful.

The stressed and oppressed valley people were more inclined to seek solace in salvation religions, primarily Buddhism and Islam.  Christianity arrived more recently.  Slavery was an institution with deep roots in many cultures around the world.  Until recently, salvation religions treated it as normal.  Slaves must be obedient.  What these religions promised was that the sucky life you have today will pass, and your soul will continue its journey forever via reincarnation, or admittance to a beautiful eternal paradise (if you weren’t too naughty).  Religion provided something to hope for, a better future. 

Multinational salvation religions can be practiced anywhere on Earth.  They are highly portable because their focus is on great mysteries.  Worship often takes place inside buildings, shut away from the family of life.  Paradise is somewhere unseen, a faraway realm.  Some preach millenarian visions of a new and enduring era of peace, justice, and prosperity — a miraculous transition that is inevitable, and may arrive soon.  Wickedness will be destroyed, and the righteous will receive their just rewards.

Even though the hill people enjoyed some advantages over the valley slaves, nobody in the realm of Zomia enjoyed a life of bliss.  Hill folks were frequently pursued by hostile outsiders, and valley slaves were frequently abused by their masters.  Many folks passionately dreamed that their painful way of life would somehow someday be completely turned upside down, and then move in a new and better direction. 

Prophets and messiahs often fell out of the sky, describing their divine revelations, fanning the flames of resentment, and triggering thousands of uprisings and rebellions.  Make Zomia great again!  Folks desperate for any possibility of emancipation were vulnerable to the tempting promises of ambitious, slick talking, charismatic blowhards.

Sadly, a better tomorrow missed the bus somewhere down the road.  States got bigger and more powerful, and then they got blindsided by steamroller colonizers from outer space, like the empire-building British, French, and Japanese.  By 1945 it was pretty much bedtime for Zomian freedom.  Variations of this tragic drama took place around much of the world.  Today, virtually all humans are subjects of states.  Fleeing to zones of refuge is nearly impossible.  Tyrants now have fighter jets, helicopters, tanks, missiles, cluster bombs, land mines, drones, satellites.  Good luck with that rebellion. 

Scott laments the outcome.  “The future of our freedom lies in the daunting task of taming Leviathan, not evading it.”  He says that our best tool for the challenge is representative democracy.  Good luck conjuring virtuous government.  He was writing in 2009, back in the happy days when there were a billion fewer primates on the ark.  More recently, hopping mad, power-hungry, nationalist psychopaths have been popping up in nations all over the place, like mushrooms after an autumn shower. 

Oh wow!  Look!  A pair of 800 pound gorillas has jumped into the brawl — the climate crisis and resource limits — two invincible giants spawned by the unintended consequences of our obsession with idiotic cleverness.  Their plan is to act like bulls in a china shop, and smash up Fantasyland.  This should be interesting.

Scott, James C., The Art of Not Being Governed, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Dear Subscriber

Howdy!  I’m writing to inform you of some upcoming technical issues here.  This blog allows readers to become subscribers, so you’ll automatically receive notice of future posts/comments (see the upper right corner of this page).  At the end of June, the “Follow by Email” function (provided by Feedburner) will join the dinosaurs. 

If you are currently subscribed via Netvibes, My Yahoo, or Atom, nothing should change.

I’ve downloaded the 1,380 email addresses of my Feedburner subscribers, and I’m trying to transfer them to a different service (a HUGE pain in the ass!).  If it works, great!  A new “Subscribe To” icon will appear, and the “Follow by Email” option will go to the compost pile. 

I have no idea how well Feedburner has actually served subscribers.  I have subscribed using two of my email addresses, and I have received nothing from them in the last few years.  Maybe nobody has.

I apologize for any inconvenience, and I thank you for your interest in my work.  This blog is approaching 600,000 page views.  

Monday, June 7, 2021


Steven Koonin’s Unsettled is an unsettling book.  I learned about it via a Facebook post, clicked my way over to Goodreads, and listened to the reader comment jungle drums.  Folks seemed to like it.  A few climate deniers wrote that the book had convinced them that the climate was actually warming.  Wow!  What could a book say that might communicate with them?  I promptly downloaded a copy of the Kindle version.

Koonin is a physicist who has worked for BP, Obama’s Department of Energy, and in academia.  He enjoys an unblemished reputation as a contrarian.  For him, climate change is “a possible future problem.”  The mainstream mindset constantly tells us that the science on climate change is settled (huge threat!).  Koonin insists that “The Science” is unsettled — reputable climate science has been highjacked by doom mongerers (but he does acknowledge that the climate is indeed warming).  The Trump administration once wanted to use him in a proposed media campaign to challenge mainstream perceptions about climate change. 

Koonin is an expert at computer modelling, and he’s very interested in climate science.  Models are given a set of rules, and then selected data is fed into them for processing.  If significant trends appear, they can provide a basis for projections of the future.  Armed with compelling graphs, and a blizzard of statistics, he shines a spotlight on little known truths.  For example, “The net economic impact of human-induced climate change will be minimal through at least the end of this century.”

Actual reality is more complex than a collection of data points.  In the Arctic, bright white surfaces, like snow and ice, are very reflective (high albedo).  Earth is bathed with incoming solar heat every day, but albedo bounces about 30 percent of the heat back into outer space, so we don’t bake.  Darker surfaces, like forests or open water, reflect much less heat (low albedo).  The 70 percent of solar heat that reaches the planet surface helps to keep the climate at temperatures that enable life as we know it.  This is an amazing balancing act.

Because the climate is warming, especially in the Arctic, the glaciers, ice pack, and sea ice are busy melting and retreating — exposing darker surfaces, like dry ground and seawater.  So, less heat is bounced away, and more is absorbed, leading to rising temps.  The warmer it gets, the faster the melting, which raises the warming, which speeds the melting — a vicious circle.

The atmosphere also plays a starring role in the balancing act.  Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2) methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and water vapor (H2O).  In the atmosphere, they provide a comfortable insulating blanket that retains much of the heat radiating upward from the Earth’s surface.  This process beneficially contributed to the balancing act until the industrial era, when greenhouse gas emissions intensified, and heat retention began increasing.

Warming affected permafrost.  Consider the area of the 48 U.S. states that lie between Canada and Mexico.  In the Northern Hemisphere, permafrost underlies an area almost 2.5 times as large as the 48 states.  In the Arctic, vast deposits of it, which can be many thousands of years old, exist beneath both dry ground and offshore waters.  Permafrost is a mix of frozen soil and organic material (plant and animal).  When it warms, it thaws (not melts). 

With thawing, land that was once strong and solid becomes more pudding-like.  Towns decompose, villages slide into the sea, pipelines fall apart, and hills release landslides (exposing mammoth bones).  Microbes feast on the defrosted organic matter, and then emit methane.  Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas.  In the atmosphere, it survives for 7 to 10 years before breaking down into CO2, which is less potent, but can remain airborne for many centuries.

On the bottom of northern seas, permafrost lies beneath layers of sediment.  Sediments contain frozen crystals of methane hydrates (or clathrates), which look like ice, but can burn.  Seabed hydrate deposits in the Arctic are estimated to contain 13 times the amount of carbon that’s currently present in the atmosphere.  As rising temps melt the bright surface of sea ice, darker seawater becomes exposed to daylight, and absorbs heat.  When seabed waters warm, the crystals melt, and methane gas is released.  In deeper waters, the plumes of methane bubbles dissolve while rising.  In shallow waters, methane bubbles make it to the surface, and enter the atmosphere. 

As the Arctic climate continues warming, it’s possible that a catastrophic release of methane could be triggered.  Folks who pay attention to this stuff are nervous.  They are monitoring the East Siberian Arctic Shelf — 810,000 square miles (2.1 million km2) of shallow waters in methane country.  The shelf covers an area more than five times larger than California.

So, why don’t we just slow down greenhouse gas emissions?  Here, we collide head-on with a monumental bummer.  Koonin wrote (2020) that in the atmosphere, CO2 levels are 415 parts per million (ppm).  Each year, about 37 billion tons of CO2 are emitted.  At this rate, the concentration in the atmosphere would increase by about 2 ppm in a year.  Year after year, more is added.  These emissions remain in the atmosphere for centuries (!) — so their concentration continuously grows.  He calculated the trajectory of current greenhouse gas emissions, and concluded that they would double by 2075.

In his book, The Great Acceleration, environmental historian J. R. McNeill said it differently, “Some proportion, perhaps as much as a quarter, of the roughly 300 billion tons of carbon released to the atmosphere between 1945 and 2015 will remain aloft for a few hundred thousand years.”  By 2008, concentrations had grown by 25 percent in just 50 years.  Of the emissions caused by humans, about 85 percent was related to fossil fuels.

Koonin contemplated where the path of continuous accumulation would lead.  He reflected on humankind’s massive addiction to fossil fuels.  Would we ever willingly back away from our high impact way of life, as long as it’s still possible?  No!  We’ll bet heavily on hope, and patiently wait for technological miracles, until the lights go out.  Suddenly, a divine revelation arrived.  The notion that we could stabilize current CO2 emissions in the coming decades was simply not plausible — and forget actually reducing them.

“Modest reductions in emissions will only delay, but not prevent, the rise in concentration.”  If greenhouse gases continue their out of control accumulation, less heat will escape, the climate keeps warming, the Arctic keeps melting, albedo keeps decreasing, and the climate keeps getting warmer and warmer.  We’ve started something we can’t stop.  Yikes!  Never fear!  Koonin pulls three “solutions” out of his magic hat. 

Solar Radiation Management (SRM) would artificially increase albedo by frequently dispersing tons reflective substances high in the sky, year after year, forever.  The Artic would quit melting, and humankind could live happily ever after.

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) uses technology to extract the surplus CO2 from the atmosphere, and put it somewhere secure, where it will cause no mischief for a million years.  A few small pilot projects are underway, and they have serious limitations so far. 

Geoengineering is a word used to describe processes like SRM and CDR.  If one or both turn out to be miraculously successful, humans could, in their wildest dreams, continue burning fossil energy, and living like there’s no tomorrow.  In reality, neither is a proven success, nor cheap, easy, or sustainable.  Both ideas make lots of people nervous, for a wide variety of intelligent reasons.  Unintended consequences are guaranteed.

Luckily, there is one tried and true, all-purpose solution that humans have relied on for countless thousands of years — adaptation.  Courage!  Migrate to a region where you won’t starve, turn to ice, roast alive, or drown in rising seas.  Learn how to walk.  Become a great forager.  And so on. 

Doom mongerers warn that human influences will eventually push the climate beyond a tipping point, at which time catastrophe will ring our doorbell.  Koonin writes that it’s unlikely that human influences will push the climate over a tipping point.  “The most likely societal response will be to adapt to a changing climate, and that adaptation will very likely be effective.”  If adaptation isn’t enough, we can always throw all caution to the wind, and fool around with geoengineering. 

So, Koonin introduced readers to the notion of albedo, rising temperatures, melting Arctic, less albedo.  Great!  He came extremely close to the powerful punch line, but then suddenly swerved off into a head spinning whiteout blizzard of statistics and graphs.  His viewpoint is based on data collections — statistics on temperatures, precipitation, storms, etc. — stuff that computers can process (36 red dots, 55 blue dots…). 

A great benefit of Kindle books is that they are searchable.  I searched the book for a number of essential climate science keywords, and discovered zero hits for: Peter Wadhams (Arctic researcher), permafrost, methane hydrate, methane clathrate, methane craters, ocean acidification, ocean deoxygenation, East Siberian Arctic Shelf, pine beetles, tree death, threshold temperatures (too hot for agriculture), etc.  A whole bunch of essential information is absent in the book, and it may be an invisible elephant in the room.  Could doom mongerers actually be reality mongerers?

Reading this book was an interesting experience for me.  It made me question my views (all survived).  I learned a few new things.  Koonin is a purebred scientist, absolutely dedicated to the holy quest for truth.  The long and winding upward path to sacred certainty passes through numerous challenges and arguments that eventually weed out the dodgy ideas.  The Steven Koonin article in Wikipedia [HERE] provides ringside seats to the debate — links to commentaries by some of his critics who also have respectable credentials.

Koonin, Steven E., Unsettled, BenBella Books, Inc., Dallas, Texas, 2021.