Wednesday, December 23, 2009

With a big enough stick, you can move the universe.

In the commentaries on Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West (sidebar), the issue was often raised concerning the Rabbinic distaste for honest labour. Another writer has given thought to this problem which permeates western society (and all the other societies culturally contaminated by westernism). In Decline of the West it was observed that Chereidi/UO Judaism is a product and subset of Western culture in microcosm, with some exaggerated issues due to the relative insularity and structure of Orthodox Jewish society. One of those exaggerated issues is indeed a deep distaste for "am ha'aretz" and others who engage in arts, crafts and manual labour of all types.

In this article, the issue is food production in India. Food production was also brought up as an issue regarding Orthodox communities in the discussion of Decline of the West. Few if any Orthodox households own farms, have "victory gardens," raised beds, or even patio pots because of this stigma against being associated in any way with "am ha'aretz" who are perceived as being too low class to pay for food and services and thus have to provide their own. This attitude is a huge impediment to relocalizing our community economies, because people who think they are too "high status" to work with their hands are not going to be willing to learn the arts, crafts, skills, trades and professions needed for everyday living. Not everyone in the community can be a Rabbi, banker or attorney - somebody actually needs to make clothes, furniture, household goods, and grow/preserve food. That's a problem when the Rabbis are telling everyone they should be studying and thinking all day.

The Oil Drum - Campfire
Peak oil and the psychology of work
Posted by Nate Hagens
December 23, 2009

...In physics work is the same as energy. In fact energy is defined as the ability to do work and therefore they are measured in the exact same units. In the biological world, all organisms have to do work in order to change and exploit their environment for their benefit. But it is not uncommon in the animal kingdom to have sharply differentiated work burdens across different members of a species, e.g. the work differential between the worker ants vs the drones, or the lioness vs the lion.

However, what work means to the human mind is something quite different from both the physical concept, and the forms observed in other animal species. The intrinsic tendencies towards work in humans (like most other mental faculties) have always influenced and defined their cultural and political systems and thus contributed to the rise and fall of civilizations. It is not difficult to see that both the agricultural and industrial modes of human existence principally involve the organization and concentration of matter using energy to overcome the inevitable tendency towards disorganization and diffusion (in other words overcome the second law of thermodynamics). The main difference lies in the fact that in the agricultural mode human work is an integral part of the energy flow whereas in the industrial mode human energy is replaced to a large extent by energy obtained from burning fossil fuels.

It is normally acknowledged in peak-oil circles (at least amongst those who do see the decline in fossil fuels as leading to a decline in industrial civilization) that the aftermath of peak-oil would witness the come-back of human labour as a prominent source of energy for economic activities. And this may very well happen for the simple reason that individuals would have no other choice. But it is worth looking at the psychological context in which this might happen if for no other reason but that our sanity may depend on doing so...

...Throughout the pre-industrial period various ecological and cultural limitations kept a lid on the natural human aspiration of moving away from physical labour and towards mental labour and this contributed to maintaining societal homeostasis...

...Across the world, the fall of empires and civilizations resulted mostly from political overreach (as in Rome) or straightforward ecological overshoot (as in Easter Island) or some combination of these reasons. The relative role of physical and mental labour might have had only a marginal influence on the decline phase of pre-industrial civilizations.

I would argue here that a non-productive leisure class played a large role in the fall of the Roman Empire, and that "pre-industrialized" cannot be equated with "pre-western," but you see his main point. Even if they didn't like it, previous generations had to work for a living and many took pride in the quality of their work, even if they also spent time in winter or evenings studying.

...Yet the industrial civilization has seen the most drastic change in the composition of people doing and willing to do physical work vis-a-vis mental work. The proportion of America's population doing agriculture has declined from around 50% near the beginning of the 20th century to less than 5% towards its end, no doubt aided by the explosion of less manual labour intense employment in the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy. But in addition and most importantly, it has opened up newer aspirational possibilities to ordinary humans that one could not even dream of in the pre-industrial age...

For example, few in the past had any real expectation of being a rich investment banker, but now for only the cost of college tuition, which can be had with student loans, grants, and work-study, you, too, can be a wall-street wizard and make a fortune - or at least you could until recently. Now that you can't, kids are going to have to find something else to aspire to - and in a relocalized, sustainable low growth economy they will have to be satisfied with a far less high-flying lifestyle.

...A deindustrialising society will therefore need to not only deal with the scarcity of material resources but also work against the prevailing cognitive current of privileging non-manual labour on a scale unprecedented in human history. The problematic part is that this is not merely a political arrangement, but a manifestation of the individual's preference and is central to the aspirations of millions of humans today. What this implies is that the breakdown of the industrial civilization will also witness an unprecedented cognitive breakdown as well.

A variety of questions can be asked on how this will play out and what adaptive mechanisms we have at our disposal at both the individual and the collective levels...

The question when discussing Decline of the West was similar - can Chereidi/UO society embrace the lifestyle of their great-grandparents and older forebears who couldn't rely on welfare, charity, gambling with investments, tax or investment fraud and other machinations to live a high-cost unsustainable lifestyle? Not without a great deal of stress, most likely. They're going to have to admit the paradigm they pushed so hard was unrealistic and unworkable - and the Rabbis don't exactly have a great track record of 'fessing up when they've made a huge mistake.

On the other hand, starving is a great motivator. What will it take to get our leadership to shift gears? Or would they rather have entropy grind our communities to a screeching halt? Stay tuned.

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