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Archive for November 4th, 2020

How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?

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Ben Ehrenreich has an interesting article in the NY Times Magazine, and you can listen to it at the link. The printed text begins:

When I first spoke with Joseph Tainter in early May, he and I and nearly everyone else had reason to be worried. A few days earlier, the official tally of Covid-19 infections in the United States had climbed above one million, unemployment claims had topped 30 million and the United Nations had warned that the planet was facing “multiple famines of biblical proportions.” George Floyd was still alive, and the protests spurred by his killing had not yet swept the nation, but a different kind of protest, led by white men armed with heavy weaponry, had taken over the Michigan State Legislature building. The president of the United States had appeared to suggest treating the coronavirus with disinfectant injections. Utah, where Tainter lives — he teaches at Utah State — was reopening its gyms, restaurants and hair salons that very day.

The chaos was considerable, but Tainter seemed calm. He walked me through the arguments of the book that made his reputation, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” which has for years been the seminal text in the study of societal collapse, an academic subdiscipline that arguably was born with its publication in 1988. “Civilizations are fragile, impermanent things,” Tainter writes. Nearly every one that has ever existed has also ceased to exist, yet “understanding disintegration has remained a distinctly minor concern in the social sciences.” It is only a mild overstatement to suggest that before Tainter, collapse was simply not a thing.

If Joseph Tainter, now 70, is the sober patriarch of the field, it is not a role he seems to relish. His own research has moved on; these days, he focuses on “sustainability.” But even in his most recent work his earlier subject is always there, hovering like a ghost just off the edge of each page. Why, after all, would we worry about sustaining a civilization if we weren’t convinced that it might crumble?

Tainter, who grew up in San Francisco and has spent all of his adult life in the West, has never been one to play Cassandra. He writes with disarming composure about the factors that have led to the disintegration of empires and the abandonment of cities and about the mechanism that, in his view, makes it nearly certain that all states that rise will one day fall. In interviews and panel discussions, Tainter sits with an uncanny stillness, a gray bear in wire-rimmed glasses, rarely smiling, rarely frowning, rarely giving away anything more than an impatient tap of his fingers on one knee. In our telephone conversations he was courteous but laconic, taking time to think before speaking, seldom offering more than he was asked. He wasn’t surprised that I had called to ask him if our compounding crises signaled the start of a major societal rupture, but he also wasn’t in a rush to answer.

In recent years, the field Tainter helped establish has grown. Just as apocalyptic dystopias, with or without zombies, have become common fare on Netflix and in highbrow literature alike, societal collapse and its associated terms — “fragility” and “resilience,” “risk” and “sustainability” — have become the objects of extensive scholarly inquiry and infrastructure. Princeton has a research program in Global Systemic Risk, Cambridge a Center for the Study of Existential Risk. Many of the academics studying collapse are, like Tainter, archaeologists by training. Others are historians, social scientists, complexity scholars or physical scientists who have turned their attention to the dynamics shaping the broadest scope of human history.

After I spoke to Tainter, I called several of these scholars, and they were more openly alarmed than he was by the current state of affairs. “Things could spin out,” one warned. “I am scared,” admitted another. As the summer wore on even Tainter, for all his caution and reserve, was willing to allow that contemporary society has built-in vulnerabilities that could allow things to go very badly indeed — probably not right now, maybe not for a few decades still, but possibly sooner. In fact, he worried, it could begin before the year was over.

For nearly as long as human beings have gathered in sufficient numbers to form cities and states — about 6,000 years, a flash in the 300,000-odd-year history of the species — we have been coming up with theories to explain the downfall of those polities. The Hebrew Scriptures recorded the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and divine rage has been a go-to explanation ever since. Plato, in “The Republic,” compared cities to animals and plants, subject to growth and senescence like any living thing. The metaphor would hold: In the early 20th century, the German historian Oswald Spengler proposed that all cultures have souls, vital essences that begin falling into decay the moment they adopt the trappings of civilization.

The question of collapse also haunted archaeology, but it was rarely studied directly. In the field’s early years, archaeologists tended to focus on the biggest and most wondrous structures they could find, the remains of monumental architecture abandoned for centuries in deserts and jungles. Who made these marvels? Why were they left to rot? Their mere existence suggested sudden and catastrophic social breakdowns. Yet at the height of the Cold War, when the real possibility of nuclear war took modern societies closer than they had ever been to the brink of destruction, the academy lost interest in the subject. Scholars tended to limit themselves to understanding single cases — the Akkadians, say, or the Lowland Classic Maya.

Little about Tainter’s early career suggested he would do otherwise. In 1975, after submitting his dissertation on the transition, in about the year 400 A.D., between two cultures that had inhabited the lower Illinois River, he was hired to teach at the University of New Mexico. His contract was not renewed. “There was a senior professor,” Tainter says, “with whom I didn’t get along.”

He took a job with the U.S. Forest Service, which was hiring archaeologists to assess the potential impacts of any project undertaken on public land. Tainter would spend the next several years preparing and reviewing reports in advance of logging or mining operations in New Mexico’s Cibola National Forest, about two hours out of Albuquerque.

In 1979, he and a co-author wrote a report for the Forest Service that shows early signs of the concerns that would come to dominate his professional life. It was an overview of the “cultural resources” present in the area around a dormant volcano called Mount Taylor, a site sacred to the Navajo and several other tribes. (The mineral division of Gulf Oil Corporation was mining the mountain for its uranium deposits.) The bibliography alone stretched to 37 pages, and Tainter included an extensive section on the Chaco Canyon complex, which was more than 100 miles from Mount Taylor. The civilization at Chaco Canyon thrived for at least five centuries until, beginning around 1100 A.D., its sites were gradually abandoned. In a text destined for a government filing cabinet, Tainter bemoans “the lack of a theoretical framework to explain the phenomenon.” Scholars, he complains, “have spent years of research on the question of why complex societies have developed,” but had devised “no corresponding theories to explain the collapse of these systems.”

It would take him most of the next decade to develop that theory, which became the heart of “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” Tainter’s argument rests on two proposals. The first is that human societies develop complexity, i.e. specialized roles and the institutional structures that coordinate them, in order to solve problems. For an overwhelming majority of the time since the evolution of Homo sapiens, Tainter contends, we organized ourselves in small and relatively egalitarian kinship-based communities. All history since then has been “characterized by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control.”

Larger communities would have to be organized on the basis of more formal structures than kinship alone. A “chiefly apparatus” — authority and a nascent bureaucratic hierarchy — emerged to allocate resources. States developed, and with them a ruling class that took up the tasks of governing: “the power to draft for war or work, levy and collect taxes and decree and enforce laws.” Eventually, societies we would recognize as similar to our own would emerge, “large, heterogeneous, internally differentiated, class structured, controlled societies in which the resources that sustain life are not equally available to all.” Something more than the threat of violence would be necessary to hold them together, a delicate balance of symbolic and material benefits that Tainter calls “legitimacy,” the maintenance of which would itself require ever more complex structures, which would become ever less flexible, and more vulnerable, the more they piled up.

His second proposal is based on an idea borrowed from the classical economists of the 18th century. Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns. It costs more and more, in other words, while producing smaller and smaller profits. “It’s a classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ situation,” Tainter says. You’re “running faster and faster to stay in the same place.” Take Rome, which, in Tainter’s telling, was able to win significant wealth by sacking its neighbors but was thereafter required to maintain an ever larger and more expensive military just to keep the imperial machine from stalling — until it couldn’t anymore.

Or consider  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it should be of particular interest these days.

Later in the article:

A disaster — even a severe one like a deadly pandemic, mass social unrest or a rapidly changing climate — can, in Tainter’s view, never be enough by itself to cause collapse. Societies evolve complexity, he argues, precisely to meet such challenges. Tainter doesn’t mention it specifically, but the last major pandemic makes the case well: The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans between 1918 and 1919, but the economic hit was short-lived, and the outbreak did not slow the nation’s push for hemispheric dominance. Whether any existing society is close to collapsing depends on where it falls on the curve of diminishing returns. There’s no doubt that we’re further along that curve: The United States hardly feels like a confident empire on the rise these days. But how far along are we?

 . . . Peter Turchin, who teaches at the University of Connecticut, follows Tainter in positing a single, transhistorical mechanism leading to collapse, though he is far more willing than Tainter to voice specific — and occasionally alarmist — predictions. In Turchin’s case the key is the loss of “social resilience,” a society’s ability to cooperate and act collectively for common goals. By that measure, Turchin judges that the United States was collapsing well before Covid-19 hit. For the last 40 years, he argues, the population has been growing poorer and more unhealthy as elites accumulate more and more wealth and institutional legitimacy founders. “The United States is basically eating itself from the inside out,” he says.

Inequality and “popular immiseration” have left the country extremely vulnerable to external shocks like the pandemic, and to internal triggers like the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He does not hesitate to predict that we can expect to experience far more of the kind of unrest we’ve seen this summer, “not just this year but in the years ahead, because the underlying conditions are only getting worse.”

When I last heard from Turchin late in the summer, he — and more than two million others — had lost electricity in the wake of Tropical Storm Isaias. His internet connection had been out for days. “There are a lot of ironic angles,” he says, to studying historical crises while watching fresh ones swirl and rage around him. Having been born in the Soviet Union and studied animal-population ecology before turning to human history — one early work was “Are Lemmings Prey or Predators?” — Turchin is keenly aware of the essential instability of even the sturdiest-seeming systems. “Very severe events, while not terribly likely, are quite possible,” he says. When he emigrated from the U.S.S.R. in 1977, he adds, no one imagined the country would splinter into its constituent parts. “But it did.”

Turchin is not the only one who is worried. Eric H. Cline, who teaches at the George Washington University, argued in “1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed” that Late Bronze Age societies across Europe and western Asia crumbled under a concatenation of stresses, including natural disasters — earthquakes and drought — famine, political strife, mass migration and the closure of trade routes. On their own, none of those factors would have been capable of causing such widespread disintegration, but together they formed a “perfect storm” capable of toppling multiple societies all at once. Today, Cline says, “we have almost all the same symptoms that were there in the Bronze Age, but we’ve got one more”: pandemic. Collapse “really is a matter of when,” he told me, “and I’m concerned that this may be the time.” . . .

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2020 at 1:26 pm

Best Type of Vitamin B12: Cyanocobalamin or Methylcobalamin?

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I was taking B12 — not specifically because of my plant-based diet, since elderly people (and indeed younger people) generally do not absorb enough B12 from their diets, and after I read (in Dr. Greger’s How Not to Die) about the superiority of cyanocobalamin, I switched from the methylcobalamin oral spray I had been using to a cyancobalamin tablet. Since I wanted to make sure that the tablet fully dissolved, I decided that it made more sense for me to chew the tablet than to swallow it whole. I was interested to see in this video that’s exactly what he recommends. (The same is true for aspirin: if you want quick absorption, chew the tablet — it doesn’t taste so good as cyanocobalamin (somewhat sweet), but it’s not all that bad, and chewing it means it will start to work much sooner. However, time-release medications definitely should not be chewed: the whole point of those is that they are absorbed slowly and steadily.)

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2020 at 10:15 am

Polo-handle brush and the great fragrance of Cologne Russe — and the superb iKon open-comb razor.

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The brush shown has a handle as close to the classic Polo handle as makes no difference. This was a limited run offered a while back by Chiseled Face. It make a terrific lather from Barrister & Mann’s wonderful Cologne Russe shaving soap. I agree with their description:

Based on one of the oldest forms of perfume, Cologne Russe is a throwback to a scent created by the House of Guerlain for the Russian royal family and discontinued in the early twentieth century.

We blend lemon, bergamot, petitgrain, and herbs with violet, rose, bay, and amber to produce a rich, beautifully fresh scent derived from the colognes of old. The scent is distinctly warmer than most other cologne-type fragrances, owing largely to its inclusion of castoreum, benzoin, and vanilla. Clean and elegant without the aloofness of some other scents, Cologne Russe is the perfect way to brighten your morning.

It’s an unusual fragrance for a shaving soap, and it’s a delight. If you don’t have it, you might want to order it for a gift for yourself — Christmas if not Thanksgiving.

With the superlative iKon open-comb the shave continued to be a treat. (It helps that after yesterday’s storm, today is bright and sunny.) Three passes and then a good splash of the aftershave.

This really is an unusual fragrance, and unusually good.

Written by Leisureguy

4 November 2020 at 9:50 am

Posted in Shaving

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