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Why Societies Collapse
A homogenous world is a weak world
Last week I interviewed economist Lisi Krall about how our economic system overpowers our culture. Lisi traced the current system back to the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago when homo sapiens began farming a grain surplus, leading to the creation of societal and cultural hierarchies which divorced our species from our long relationship with the natural world.
During the episode, we discussed the fragility of our global culture—and that global culture is capitalism. This homogenous culture has crept into every single corner of a world in which all citizens are plugged into the same financial system through the same technological infrastructure, bargaining and trading in the same market, and being acted upon by the same market forces.
It's quite astonishing for our global population to number 8 billion people, and for the majority of those people to essentially share a single culture; Lisi evidences this homogeneity by highlighting the eradication of diverse languages around the world.
So even though our global system is increasingly complex thermodynamically and technologically—which is driving the climate crisis, making it increasingly difficult to navigate let alone change our system—the culture of that system is not. The increasingly complex infrastructure is simplifying culture around the world, and as we know from ecosystems, diversity is a form of resilience, and resilience is a form of strength.
Our global culture lacks diversity, rendering it frail and vulnerable to shock. Perhaps that’s what this imminent collapse is all about: we have run out of runway, the system can no longer self-propagate, and evolve, because our culture cannot evolve with it as it gradually simplifies.
Our culture is now a drag on the economic system, in a sense, because we've become so entrenched in the values that come along with it, so entrenched in the cultural ideas of profit maximization, of market forces of trade that we will drive even the system that is causing this problem into the ground by refusing to allow it to evolve.
Systems are increasingly complex. But if the global culture becomes enmeshed in this same culture, and cannot change by definition because it needs to be homogenised to manage the trillions of interactions which signal transactions on the market, then the culture gets to a point where it threatens the system.
Perhaps that’s what we’re seeing, perhaps that is why it seems like late stage capitalism is on the verge of collapse. It is not just the climate crisis. It is not just the fact of the planet now responding to the 1.1 degrees warming that we have thrust upon it with our human activity. It's the fact that the system itself has run out of wiggle room to become something else, because not only did we make the infrastructure so complex, we made the culture that drives it simple so that we could export it around the world and find people to trade with all around the world.
Our culture is impeding our capacity to respond to this system. But it may also be hindering the system in itself.
If our economy is like an economic superorganism—if it is a force in and of itself that is, for want of a better word, alive, that self propagates, reproduces itself, is dynamic in nature—then it equally is endangered by the culture thrust upon it. If you have a growth-obsessed system on a finite planet, that puts not only the culture at risk of the people, but puts itself at risk, too.
This perhaps sounds like anthropomorphising a system, but systems do tend towards self reproduction, and therefore the continuation of themselves. That’s why feedback loops and tipping points are so dangerous in a planet on the brink of collapse.
Culture is only one part of the system, but given it is the part that we identify with, it is the way we communicate, it is the way in which we interact with the system itself. Culture is the bridge between us and the system.
Therefore, if our simplified culture which exists within a complex infrastructure, cannot adapt quickly enough to the needs both of the system and of the people, then it will become a drag on the system and the people—and it will threaten us with collapse.
Now our culture is institutionalised, essentially—homogenised, globalised—making it very difficult to change. This one global culture exists only to interact with the economic system, essentially. A more resilient system would feature a collection of human cultures, an ecosystem of heterogenous cultures, interacting with one another. This would mean that if some part of the system decays then it doesn’t take the entire ecosystem down with it. That’s why diversity is a form of strength and critical to survival.
However, because we are all plugged into the same global financial system, interacting with one another in the same culture, we depend on that culture for survival—because we depend on that culture to communicate with the system, and it is the system which connects us all. But that very dependence on the system, and on the culture, is going to bring about the demise of the culture because we cannot change the culture that is threatening ourselves, and the system, even, which perhaps wants to evolve in order to continue self-propagating.
Lisi says in the episode that localised resistant movements are critical—different forms of organisation, different nodes of culture, and re-imagining this problem, this crisis as “glocal”: global and localised. Our crisis is global, but can only be acted upon within local contexts. This allows us to free ourselves from the homogenous, globalised culture we're entrenched in, and act upon this system in different ways.
We can only act upon the system by removing ourselves from the global culture, in a sense. By removing the paradigm. Of course, we can't actually remove ourselves, but removing ourselves begins with understanding it, re-imagining it, and attempting to act upon it.
Again, it is the attempt that allows for the possibility of more, of different, of other. Everything begins with the attempt.
Our system is on the verge of collapse. Could it be that our culture is the reason.
Culture was an adaptive advantage and evolutionary trait, Lisi says. By refusing to adapt, we are inviting our own destruction, and the destruction of everything else which has evolved alongside us—including, perhaps, the economic superorganism.
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