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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Impact of the future on the past

The impact of the future on the past

Even if another green world happened today and we cut our emissions of carbon dioxide close to zero, the world would still carry on warming. This will lead to an increasingly unstable climate which in turn will disrupt the global economy. If the global economy is disrupted our collective ability to engage in abstract thinking and other complex intellectual activities, especially science is also likely to be disrupted. From my reading of Vlatko Vedera's Decoding Reality (and brief contact via email) the growth of our scientific (and hence technological) understanding of reality depends on the continual processing of information into knowledge. Vedral proposes this process as acting in the opposite direction to the thermodynamic 'arrow of time' which moves from states of lower entropy to states of higher entropy. Vedral equates 'uncertainty' with higher levels of entropy , as an information rich environment with science/abstract thought acting like a Maxwell demon to simplify and reduce the complexity of the raw information into usable knowledge. [Which then generates more information so the cycle has to be repeated if knowledge is to advance.]

The thermodynamic theory which gave rise to the notion of 'entropy' developed from practical attempts to improve the thermal efficiency of heat engines ( e.g. Watt's steam engine). The same process of improvement made such engines more economically useful and so stimulated the industrial revolution which began the process of anthropogenic (human created) global warming. Vedral also points out ( in his discussion of Maxwell's demon) that information processing itself generates heat in the 'erase' part of the cycle.).

In the present (2010), global climate change has not impacted on the global economy and so has not had an impact on our collective ability to reason. The only signs of a future collapse of our collective ability to reason is the attack on science by climate change deniers.

But what will happen once the destructive impact of climate change becomes more apparent? Could this lead to a retreat from reason? Perhaps to a revival of religious/ irrational belief systems – from a 'tower of Babel' type analogy or an equivalent to Augustine of Hippo's 'City of God' metaphor derived from the fall of Rome to the 'barbarians' (Visigoths) in AD 410?

The critical problem is -how far does our ability to reason depend upon material circumstances? I am thinking here about Georg Hegel. Hegel developed his view of history as the struggle of human reason towards self-awareness in a pre-industrial revolution Germany. The enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century likewise developed their philosophies within a pre-industrial / emerging industrial society. They science they knew was also minimal in comparison to that of our age.

On the other hand the enlightenment anticipated the continuous expansion of knowledge, assuming that the world to be created by reason would be superior to a world mired in religious and other superstitions. But if that future turns out to be a nightmare in which we will struggle to survive, where does that leave Hegel's vision? Will reason be dismissed as a 'false god'? Are we about to enter a new dark age, like that which followed the collapse of the western Roman empire?

Perhaps, but what if the the process of industrialisation contained an irrational element? So that the age of enlightenment was thrown off course by the industrial revolution? Or rather, by the rise of industrial capitalism? What if Karl Marx followed Hegel as a continuation of enlightenment thought? What if industrial capitalism is irrational and so is not part of the historic development of human reason? Jumping too far ahead , need to backtrack...literally, to plateways.

Plateways were an early form of railway. They were built in the late eighteenth century using L-shaped cast iron rails [first made in 1787]so that wagons with ordinary wheels could use them. Altogether, 1500 miles of plateways were built. In the early nineteenth century they were superseded by 'edge- railways' with I- shaped rails over which wagons with flanged wheels ran. The change is usually taken to represent a technological advance, but Carolyn Dougherty has questioned this assumption. http://homepage.ntlworld.com/carolyn.dougherty/unlikelyachievement.pdf

Dougherty argues that

the plateway was not a failure but rather a rational improvement on the traditional wooden railways for the transport of coal and general freight. However, its design and operation were based on a model of the British economy that by the turn of the 19th century had ceased to apply; the change from the operational model of the plateway and the canal system with which it was associated to that of the edge railway and the coal mining system where it originated was both a cause and effect of the changing structure of the British economy in the early 19th century.

The critical shift from the plateway open access system to monopolistic use of an exclusively steam powered rail route occurred with the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester edge railway in 1830. This was also the first city to city railway. It was modelled on the coal railways of north east England, but with cotton as its key freight. The aim was to speed up and reduce the cost of the transport of raw cotton from Liverpool to Manchester and of finished cotton from Manchester to Liverpool. Unexpectedly, it quickly developed profitable passenger and general goods traffic. The Liverpool and Manchester railway became the model for the Victorian railway system. Such railways had a dual role in the industrial revolution. They acted as a national rapid transport system which displaced local production for local consumption. The civil engineering aspects of their construction drove demand for iron and other materials while their mechanical engineering aspects stimulated technological developments.

To use a climate change analogy, the Liverpool and Manchester railway fits into a 'hockey stick' type graph. The handle is the slow growth of railway development from their fifteenth century use in mines through to the 1500 miles of plateways and then, after 1830, a sharp upward turn towards the 22 000 miles of railways built in Britain by 1900. Graphs of coal and iron production and cotton imports and exports show a similar curve. In 1709, 2000 bales of cotton were imported to the UK, mainly through London. By 1797 this had risen to 17 000 bales, mainly imported through Liverpool. In 1831, 799 512 bales of cotton were imported via Liverpool. By 1841 this had risen to 1 642 259. In 1911, 5 230 000 bales of cotton were imported to the UK, 90% of which came through Liverpool.

From a future perspective, was it inevitable that the horse drawn plateway system was displaced? The plateway system worked as part of a dispersed economy, linking (more cheaply than canals) lots of relatively small scale industrial centres. What the canal network, theplateway system or turnpike roads could cope with was the concentration of industry which occurred in Manchester. The step change to a steam powered railway was necessary if the growth of Manchester was to continue. If the change had not occurred, the advantages of industrial concentration would have been limited and the viability of a more dispersed economy enhanced.

What am I fishing for here? I guess ways to counter the 'there is no alternative to business as usual' mind set as it applies to the climate change challenge. To the argument that says either we carry on burning fossil fuels or we go back to living in caves. But if the coal/ oil fired path leads to a dead end, then alternatives have to be found. At one level the alternatives have to be practical and concrete – the development of wind, water, solar and other sources of energy, but the development of alternatives also needs to be abstract and theoretical.

This leads me to Hegel since he developed his 'science' right at the same time that the upward tick of the hockey stick started – between 1790 and 1830 – in a pre-industrial revolution Germany, but with an awareness of the changes occurring in Britain. After Hegel came Marx, but Marx had to work within the reality created by the industrial revolution/ industrial capitalism. Marx anticipated the eventual end of industrial capitalism, but assumed it would fail as a consequences of its internal contradictions rather than the external agency of climate change....although climate change is itself a product of industrial capitalism with 'nature' as equivalent to 'proletariat'.

Of course Hegel might just be another dead end rather then leading on to a post-growth, steady state society, but I am still impressed by his work. By this I mean the movement of awareness (consciousness) from pure absence (which is also pure being) to rational (rather than mystical) self-awareness/ self- consciousness. Hegel then anticipated that, following the breakthrough of the French revolution, that there would be a rationalisation of social structure, that human society would become collectively self-aware/ self-conscious.

Although Hegel was beginning to realise that this was not going to happen – in his 1831 essay on the English Reform Bill for example- Hegel died in November 1831 and so was unable to explore the implications of the problem. It was Marx who extended Hegel's work to take into account the impact of the industrial revolution/ development of industrial capitalism. Hegel had assumed that the word was becoming more and more rational, that the sphere of reason was expanding. But, although the technological advances of the industrial revolution required the application of reason, the social/ economic system they were developed in – industrial/global capitalism- was not a rational system. The progress of reason was checked and thrown of course by a huge upsurge in unreason. It would only be after a long struggle that a rational/ reason based economic system and society finally emerge.

If the plateway economy was a 1790s alternative, then the 'radical technology' movement of the 1970s was a similar alternative. If there had been a shift to sustainable/ renewable technologies in the 1970s then the threat of climate change and peak oil would have been reduced. But it didn't happen. Instead there was an intensification of industrial capitalism globally and (in the UK) an extension of high-finance capitalism. The need for these was driven by [David Harvey's analysis] by capitalism's dependence on a 3% annual growth rate. Just as an aeroplane has to keep moving forward at a speed fast enough to stop it stalling – or it will crash to the ground- so capitalism has to keep being able to reinvest its profits 'profitably'. Capitalism cannot exist in a steady state/ no growth/ less than 3% growth economy. So far, that is for the past 250 or so years, this level of growth has been achieved and therefore the assumption is that it can be continued. But what if it can't?

The thermodynamic arrow of time says that such endless growth is physically impossible. Vlatko Vedral can be interpreted as suggesting that the end of such growth can be postponed so long as information can be processed/ compressed into knowledge. This process can be equated with Hegel's work, where the becoming of reason translates information into knowledge, thus creating history in its wake. However Hegel implies that the realisation of (collective) self- awareness/ self- consciousness marks the end of the struggle – the advent of a 'steady-state' of society/ economy/ politics.

Is there a position which can be imagined as existing beyond the present crisis - a future position- from which one can look back at the past and trace a path through the chaos of the present to that future? Or put in a different way – how can reason extricate itself from this mess? The theory is that reason managed to extricate itself (ourselves) from the subjectivity of religious belief systems and achieve rational consciousness via the enlightenment. Have we therefore had 250 years of the triumph of reason? Or did we simply swap one set of irrationalities for another? If we were rational, would we be in this mess? A mess which threatens to knock us back into a new dark age of bare survival?

The position I have been arguing here is that the breakthrough of reason described by Hegel was almost immediately swamped by the advent of industrial capitalism. This contained / was based on a fundamentally irrational notion of 'unlimited growth'- David Harvey's 3% problem. To achieve the 3% growth rate, we are locked into Marx's money>commodity> money mechanism, which acts like a self-replicating machine. [There is an analogy with John von Neumann's self-replicating device – see Vedral's Decoding Reality p. 44] For money to create more money, it has to pass through a commodity phase – has to be materialised, be physically present. To continue the growth cycle, then gradually everything has to be turned into a commodity. To go back to the John von Neumann analogy, it is as if the self- replicating devices continue to replicate until they have used up all the raw materials available.

That there might be a physical limit to growth has been proposed in the past, but has so far been dismissed as pessimism. The problem is that until an actual limit to growth has been reached, growth will continue and then it will stop abruptly. The difference with climate change as a limit to growth is that it has (unlike for example Thomas Malthus' predictions) the weight of science – or reason- behind it. This creates a tension between science and capitalism. It is difficult to see how, assuming Harvey's 3% growth rate is correct, capitalism can survive. If reason prevails and a minimal/ no growth future is the outcome, there will not be a large enough rate of return to keep capitalism going. If reason does not prevail, the social, economic and environmental stresses of climate change will be so disruptive that 3% growth will be impossible.

If reason does not prevail, then history will be swallowed up by myth and the past will cease to exist. Within a hundred years of the end of Roman rule in Britain, the writer Gildas' (a British Christian monk, born before AD 500) knowledge of Roman Britain was minuscule. Our actual knowledge of the immediate post-Roman period have been confused by layers of Arthurian mythology. [Michael Moorcock has parodied this process in his 'Hawkmoon' books – Giving 'Aral Vilsun' – Harold Wilson and , Blansacredid 'balance of credit '- as two of the gods of a future 'Granbretan'].

With the 'reason prevails' scenario, history is still possible. Future historians will be able to look back at the past and re-assign significance to events. Which is what I have tried to do here.


Anonymous criticalkabbalist said...

Have you read Russell Hoban's novel Riddley Walker? It looks back from a post-Nuclear war future where 'history' as such has vanished, leaving our present rendered as myth.

10:01 am  
Blogger Alistair Livingston said...

No I haven't read it. I hardly read fiction at all these days. I will check if my daughter has read it / has a copy. Or maybe see if AL junior is interested. Then if either of them get a copy, I can have a read as well. Or even check local library...

10:00 pm  
Anonymous Critical Kabbalist said...

It's worth checking out anyway, as it's written in its own language, or rather an imagining of how English might have developed in the future - Clockwork Orange is one of the few other books that have attempted it.

On a completely different tip I've been reading Redemption and Utopia: Jewish libertarian thought in Central Europe by Michael Lowy. He postulates that Walter Benjamin and others developed a different concept of temporality to Hegel, with the unfolding progress of reason replaced by a notion of revolution as a radical interruption of capitalist time - essentially a secularised messianic vision, influenced by Jewsish mysticism/Kabbalism. Nice idea, but not entirely sure where this leaves a reason - the future golden age surely as much as a myth as the past golden age. By which I mean that we can imagine a far better organisation/distribution of social wealth, but even in the best society imaginable people will still disagree, fight, suffer and die - not heaven on earth, just a better way of life on earth.

9:31 pm  
Blogger Alistair Livingston said...

Thanks CK - Just found the Lowy book on google books and having a read of the chapter on Benjamin.

9:22 pm  

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