Thursday, January 26, 2012

High and Low Surplus Societies: Yet Another Reason Why You Should Also Read (Very) Old Books

On a number of my previous posts and in comments elsewhere I've spoken of high and low surplus societies.  Apparently I've vastly overestimated how common these terms of art are, searching google turned up very few matches.  So let me describe in more detail what I mean by high and low surplus when speaking of societies.

A high surplus society is a society that has vastly more resources readily available than are necessarily to sustain basic survival for all of its members.  To earn enough money to have basic food and shelter takes a small fraction of the available time for even a person who is well below the mean in terms of economic value.  A high surplus society is so rich it can even afford to give significant alms to those who can't (or in extreme cases, won't) work.  You and I live in a high surplus society, probably the highest surplus society to exist for thousands of years.  Even welfare recipients in most Western countries have treasures that the kings of old could only dream about.  Pretty much everyone would be in the category of 'a rich man' from the perspective of Jesus' contemporaries.  Status is a different matter---that is largely zero sum, someone must always be, by definition, in the back of the bus.  We'll not belabor that in this post.  The high surplus condition of our society is largely the result of our technology base and the availability of extreme quantities of cheap energy.  Here's an exercise I once offered for extra credit to new engineering students a couple of decades ago.  Hop on a treadmill at the gym.  They've normally got meters on them that indicate how many watts of energy you are expending.  150 watts isn't terribly atypical for a sustainable level for a healthy young man.  Now consider that to make one kilowatt-hour you are talking 6-7 hours at that pace, probably enough to largely exhaust your energies for the day.  Now look up how much that amount of energy would cost you from the electric company (typically 8-20 cents).  To do this is to truly understand at a gut level what permits the 'holiday from history' we are presently still mostly living in.

A low surplus society conversely lives very close to the margin of basic survival.  Famines, droughts and the like don't just mean higher prices, they mean lots of people are likely to die.  Most people today in Western countries with the exception of a few missionaries to the absolute worst basket cases of countries have no experience at all with a low surplus society.  But there are quite a few reasons why we desperately need to understand such societies:

1.  We need to understand low surplus societies so we can properly understand our own history without radically distorting our view of our ancestors.  Much of 'White Guilt' can be traced to a failure in this.
2.  It is difficult to understand our present institutions without understanding the circumstances that gave rise to them.
3.  Our present high surplus condition is not guaranteed by the laws of physics or history.  Being reduced to a low surplus condition is not only possible, but frankly quite likely, especially if the center does not hold and things fall apart.  It is also, of course, quite possible that we may find ourselves in a nearly-limitless surplus society, should something akin to the Singularity come to pass.  I rate these two prospects as both far more likely than business as usual when I think about the medium-term (25-75 years out) future.

So how can we understand such societies, assuming we're not interested in a long term mission to examine what is most likely an extremely dysfunctional low surplus society ('modern' low surplus societies are usually a lot less functional than historical ones).  Our old friend Thomas Carlyle provides us an answer:

"In books lies the soul of the whole Past Time; the articulate audible voice of the Past, when the body and material substance of it has altogether vanished like a dream."
(From On Heroes and Hero Worship)

C.S. Lewis had quite a bit to say on why modern readers should add old books to their diet, and preferably the original sources rather than 'books about books'  His essay, in the form of a forward to Athanasius:  On the Incarnation is linked below---I dare say his forward has become more famous than the work to which it is prepended.  I'm not certain how he would have felt about that.

In short, Lewis' argument is that you are totally surrounded by the trappings, attitudes and assumptions of your Age and your only real way to get a perspective outside of that is to read works from other Ages.  The books from the future being sadly unavailable, those from the past must suffice.

I'm normally loathe to excerpt such a masterpiece, preferring to link it for the benefit of our readers, be they reactionary or fellow travelers, but I'll make an exception for Jack.  Hopefully it'll induce enough appetite in you to consume the whole thing.

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?"—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."

By reading these particularly old books--these works of Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, et al, I contend you can gain a better grasp on past, present, and future.


Steve Nicoloso said...

You know you're in a high surplus society when it is the bottommost rungs of society that are most plagued by obesity and the health consequences thereof.

"150 watts isn't terribly atypical for a sustainable level for a healthy young man. Now consider that to make one kilowatt-hour you are talking 6-7 hours at that pace, probably enough to largely exhaust your energies for the day."

Indeed this remains my principle complaint about The Matrix... humans would be a positively terrible source of energy for the AI(s)... and, like all "machines", humans require more input energy than they put out to boot. Other than that... great movie.

Jehu said...

Yes, that was an amusing scene---what was it...humans as batteries coupled with some sort of fusion was purported to power the AIs.