Thursday, August 25, 2011

Aurora of Empire Part 2

For fifteen hundred years from the decline of Rome until London in 1800 no civilization in the western world supported a city of a million souls.  While across this era global population continued its steady upward crawl, it did so by populating increasingly marginal parts of the planet, adapting and improving them to support forms of living mostly familiar from antiquity.  When the improved technology of early industrialization began to transform the possibilities of urbanism, drawing ever-greater portions of society into cites as it did, the pressures of density began the systematic transformation of every aspect of the human habitat. 

Cities and the increasingly remote agricultural systems on which they depend became ever more man made artifacts. In the last 200 years we have remade our habitat to conscious tastes without regard to, in fact in near total ignorance of ancient genetic adaptations we physically embody for an organic habitat we have left behind and are now actively extinguishing.  The demographic pressure driving this destruction has both aesthetic and ethical implications and before returning to aesthetics is Part 3, a digression into ethics is warranted because very real ethical constraints explain much of why the complexity of the modern world is so confounding .

People evolved over a period of several hundred thousand years to live in particular social forms, communities for which our consciousness and within it our ethical sensibility is optimized.  The genetically imposed patterns of thought that structure our minds at the deepest level are artifacts of genes selected during that period, again including our moral sensibility, engaging us in productive groups greater in their abilities than the sum of their parts. Having yielded reproductive advantages in a specific biological niche these robust genes facilitate divergent expression that broadens our adaptability well beyond that generative habitat. Our unique mutations supporting language and culture gave us an almost universal adaptability even in the absence of additional genetic change.  This innate flexibility has allowed us to adapt our essential character to almost all the ecosystems of the world.  

That character is one of a loving, hierarchic, social, predatory and calculating animal with a strong narrative impulse it uses to impose linear order on the world, on itself and on its fellow humans. This order propagates values expressed in the narratives of identity people tell themselves, our stories of who we are that necessarily elide or omit more than they contain.  We tell ourselves these stories and judge others by them whether we mean to or not. That character and these traits have led us as a species to an exponential population growth that has coincided with an explosion in city building both driving and driven by the development of complex infrastructures in what is increasingly a man made and unnatural environment. We have taken the ecosystems of nature and remade them to our perceived needs. We have become the dominant agent of nature.

The post-natural environment we now inhabit, both physically in the world and psychologically in our increasingly mediated social organizations, is the product of what only a hundred and fifty years ago was an unimaginable technological transformation.  At that point France and Germany contested the control of Europe with bullet, horse and blade: ordinance had advanced dramatically from its introduction several centuries earlier, but in the throes of combat it remained the bayonet at the muskets end, rather than the ball from its chamber that drew the most blood, ended the most lives and shaped the destinies of nations.  

Both war and peace took forms Hector or Odysseus would have mostly recognized and England dominated this world in both politics and trade with the puny power of sails on wooden spits.  While Imperial China disintegrated The United States was gripped by a civil war contesting the ethical incompatibility of moral systems that saw people either as higher forms of property, a view with a deep legacy in antiquity, or as unique moral agents, a product of the more recent Enlightenment. Just a century and a half ago we fought this war to resolve the economic incompatibility of slave based and market based productive systems, each telling itself its own story of moral purity.  And the cities of this world were walk up cities whose essential forms would not have surprised VitruviusPalladio or Iktinos.  Most of humanity still lived close to the land and still engaged it directly for sustenance in social units that would have been familiar to ancient ancestors.

Of central importance ethically was the relationship between these social units, majorities of the population who still worked the land, and the essentials of human sustenance. Food, clothing and shelter remained as recently as a century ago accessible to simple human effort: if you needed them, you with your community could simply make them. Much of the demographic pressure in Europe that populated the new world was the result of communities hitting real constraints on access to these goods and choosing to seek them on their own terms in the new world.  It is at this threshold, the point where familiar communities lose direct access to the necessities of life, that the ethical relationship between individuals and the larger infrastructures our habitat has become, between human cognition and civilization, finally and irreconcilably change. Colonialism attenuated this transformation in Europe for several hundred years and in the process quite muddied our perceptions of it. 

The depopulating of the New World by Eurasian disease forestalled  the resource constraint in Europe for several centuries by providing America's bounty for Europe's dispossessed. What we now think of as the colonial era was a period in which unselfconscious European civilizations spread their cultural forms and institutions around the world oblivious to both the origins of their biological advantages and to the change they were imposing on their habitats, both new and old.  As these cultures saw the effort, it was the expansion and aggrandizement of national empires, but at the same time it was a re-distribution of population that relived the pressures on overtaxed urban and agricultural systems who's integration, though quite real was not quite apparent. Exporting population, a program conceived for other ends, functioned by serendipity to forestall the exhaustion of these systems.

Cities had existed for millennia but had never exceeded the scale where constituent communities could for the most part acquire direct access to the essential goods of survival in duress, and well enough to prevent a material crisis. The period of colonialism purchased several hundred extra years for European powers before their populations would exhaust the carrying capacity of their systems. This period, perhaps by luck, perhaps by right, yielded up the industrial revolution, an application of fossil energy to new machines of production that exponentially increased output in both agricultural and urban industries. At the same time it fueled an explosion of both laboring urban populations and urban environments to house them.

It was and remains difficult to disentangle aesthetics from ethics in the relationship of people to the environment they make for themselves and the transformational economic processes of industrialization magnified this problem, but the degraded living and working conditions of the exploding population of urban poor managed to make the distinction clear with the cholera outbreak in 1854 London. Responses to this epidemic broached for the first time our deliberate reconstruction of the environment into the sphere of living tissue, into biology itself.  It is the subsequent advances in medicine more than any other technology that have enabled sustained urban growth. The energy capture of industrialization had transformed the physical structure of the man made world into one that could support an exponentially greater number of bodies, but those bodies proved to be a monoculture uniquely susceptible to viral and bacterial blights until the pathways of infection and the wonders of antibiotics were discovered. 

This new science resulted in new human institutions to support the development and maintenance of new technologies that have pushed out the reach of human understanding at a rate that continues to accelerate. The institutions and technology of this new set of disciplines created new physical conditions that are radically different from our evolutionary environment, new conditions in which human populations expand exponentially. Before modern medicine it was the dispersion of human genetic stock, physically isolated populations primarily engaged in subsistence agriculture spread thin across continents, that preserved the species against the periodic blights that struck the urban monocultures. In our technologically changed world quarantine, quinine, vaccines and antibiotics transformed and exponentially reduced the mortality exposure of urban populations exponentially accelerating urbanization around the world. 

Epidemics now are clearly an artifact of systemic failures, whether a political system's collapse into war, economic collapse through corruption or the simple decay of urban infrastructures through political distraction. Before the modern era, epidemics were simply a force of nature. So at the same moment that industrialization and energy capture were exponentially expanding the carrying capacity of urban/agricultural systems, medical science was exponentially altering the balance of forces between our immunities systems, which now expanded into the chemistry lab and pharmaceutical factory, and the microbes that once checked our population growth.

The introduction of industrial energy capture to agriculture and manufacturing, the sine qua non of the industrial revolution, combined with the growing opportunities scientific materialism opened up through the division of labor to draw majorities of populations of advanced western countries into cities for the first time in history: for the first time majorities were thus removed and isolated from agricultural production networks and into urban manufacturing ones where vastly reduced mortality rates of modern medicine allowed exponential growth. This deprived majorities of recourse in crisis to fruits of the land and shelter they could provide for themselves. The decisive and virtually invisible systemic result of this change was to oblige majorities for the first time in human history to depend absolutely on the money economy for existence itself.

It is hard to overstate the importance of this change, although it is hardly ever spoken of at all. The contests between farmers and bankers and workers and capitalists have been entombed in a discourse of class conflict that, by framing the story around the conscious agency of individuals and groups in conflict completely misses the essential systemic and common underpinnings of these conflicts: the uniquely new existential dependence on money. Even the advanced money economy of Rome had been constrained by biological energy of ox and horse and the biological predation of microbes as to how dense a population it could support. Scientific materialism unshackled the money economy of cities from these constraints. Having mastered external material constraint, we've struggled this last century and a half with the internal one of ethics: what we owe to each other in this new habitat, our man made environment.

And money is the token of that struggle. It is what we in modern industrialized societies owe each other. Money in my pocket is paper recording the obligation of my civilization to provide me with benefit of the specified value. To acquire such benefit from my society I must first earn its obligation by providing value through my own effort: I work; society is in my debt; my pay is the record of societies obligation; my consumption is the redemption of societies debt. More than this, money introduces time risk into exchange by separating in space and time, at my convenience/risk, the act of earning the obligation from the act of redeeming it. Once I earn with money I can save rather than redeem and husband societies obligations to me to my benefit. But only at the risk of some social failure: should force majeure intervene my claims may after the event prove worthless or eroded. It is the allocation of these risks that are at the heart of the disputes between capital and labor, between rich and poor and between creditor and debtor with the powerful always leaning their influence toward displacing risk off themselves and onto the weak. 

If you've made your money you'll want to see its purchasing power preserved, it will make sense to you that those who have not earned what you have should bear the consequences of maintaining its value. On the other hand if you've just left college with debts you were encouraged by your elders to incur for an education, an investment to bind you further into the productivity of "the division of labor" and the wealth creation power of complex modern production, confronted with no opportunity to earn, the preserved purchasing power of the prior saver is a theft of opportunity that can push you into bankruptcy or debt peonage to the state. The saver's decision to save, freely and rightly arrived at by him, subjects new entrants and other unfortunates to obligations society asked them to bear and now prohibits them from fulfilling. By not spending in a flat or declining economy, by husbanding the systemic obligations to himself that money represents, the saver insures himself against future risk. The cost of his doing this is the poverty of those who would have been on the other side of his consumption transactions. The contractual nature of money displaces risk from those who hold it by obligating those who do not to suffer in the real economy.

This characteristic of money, its ability, at risk, to distribute exchange across time at our convenience facilitated both the creation of all the other infrastructures of modernity, from highways to air travel to information technology to medicine, and set the stage for the perpetual political struggle to allocate who will bear that risk. While money has always been at the heart of urban politics, the unique conditions of modernity subjugate all of modern society to the risks of money systems where in the pre-modern world only urban elites were subject to its fits and seizures. It is this ethical pressure, the real survival dependence of whole populations that has created the modern monetary infrastructure centered around currency issuing central banks. 

Cities are a technology to integrate all other technologies for our convenient use. But all of these technologies are products of the conscious human mind that operates mostly oblivious to the underlying motives and real needs that drive it. We respond mostly to our environment with our heuristic systems evolved for the pre-urban world of our evolutionary environment, including kin structures and their embedded familial obligations. The aggregating forces of language, religion and war have over the centuries revised our narratives of identity to expand our identities beyond genetic tribalism, but they have not altered our heuristics which are fundamentally miss-calibrated to our new entirely man made habitat. 

If people were intrinsically wicked, there is no chance that we'd have aggregated a population approaching seven billion. And yet some people do terrible things all the time, and they do them in recurring patterns and mostly in cities. It is my contention that this is because we are as a species deeply maladapted to this artifact of conscious projection we call urbanism. It is what we think we want, but we must be very careful in our use of it to make it what we actually need. We live now in a habitat of hard and mechanical things connected and cross connected with water and light and cooling and heating and communications of all kinds. These are conveniences, but they are alien. We were not born for this environment and until we adjust our habits to optimize our engagement with it it will continue to alienate significant numbers of us. And most important of all, our gut responses to these circumstances, including the alienated behavior of our fellows, will mostly be wrong because we and our perceptual systems are simply not scaled, not calibrated, not applicable, not evolved for this alien environment. 

Part 3

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