Why Malthus Was Wrong: Our Ecological Proxy Politics In History
However, Malthusian models fail to work for humans so well since we are a networked species--that we live and have environmental impact across multiple ecological situations and in which we choose how to have impacts on that situation. This means our degradation or sustainability is a choice, and both exist in our human history. Such historical contingency, such open choice, and such issues of strategy as innately what humans do in relation to their environment, messes up any simple minded biologically hardwired models that assume only environmental degradation comes with a one-to-one correspondence with human population scales. No where has this ever occurred.
However, in comparative retrospect, what has occurred at least so far is better couched under the terms of our networked species, its ecological proxy, and a 'green theory of history.'
On that first point about us as a networked species, existing across multiple ecologies in our impact and with open choice of what to do about our environmental impact, what follows has rarely been said by others. However, it has been said many times in the past in the history of this blog under the term "ecological proxy."
Next, ecological proxy means we have in our human politics a form of ecological protection politics, in which in taking care of ourselves, we take care of our associated environment--mostly against other human groups attempting to destroy it. So we are unable to essentialize ourselves as one or the other, a 'sustainable species' or a 'degradative species,' when in history both are occurring simultaneously. Different strategic networks get arranged with and against each other, both more sustainable and more unsustainable, in ongoing open presents and open futures of strategic and tactical decisions with and against each other for what to sponsor into existence as the external relations of our lives.
This kind of ecological proxy politics can be maintained and even enhanced by the bioregional state. In most states of the world, ecological proxy politics is a kind of politics that the corrupt and the unrepresentative attempt to destroy or marginalize with their more delimited and clientelistic relationships that remove our strategic and tactical plurality of choices of more suited bioregional arrangements, whether material or ideological. Even many green parties tend to be only delimited and clientelistic ideological vehicles of green politics, thus demoting their own power.
From a discussion I was having with William Graham concerning that post of his, it is clear to me how quickly people reach for Malthusian models to express their frustration even though the models fail to clearly work for human impact. In conversation with him, I said I doubted that humans living in a bubble of self-enjoyment was as new as he thought. It is obviously a more scaled bubble now, though hardly a novel bubble. Therefore, our human impact is more of an issue of scale than a substantive change in kind that would tend to romanticize that only 'modern' relations are degradative. To the contrary, past and present have been equally degradative--just as they have been sustainable in other ways. However, let's get to the point how our networked species is unable to be modeled by Malthus and is better modeled in this open present and open future of a 'green theory of history.'
As a species we have always been odd and different from other species embedded in singular ecology feedbacks, rendering presumed "Malthusian" style feedbacks rather different in humans than in other species. It makes us so different as likely to require a very different way to categorize us in the biological tree of life and in the ecological scheme of things of where we are in it, instead of just as a modern monkey.
For instance, from the development of upright walking, symbolic speech, and opposable thumbs, we live half in an ecological region, and half networked across plural ecologies. How this gets done is that in all cases (i.e., smaller or larger, in our more singular ecological lives or in other networks of cross-ecological lives) is that we live in and through a networked form of acculturation and life that is both ideological and material--and both ongoingly chosen and reevaluated. Both these ideological and material issues are external and entirely open and contingent issues in our networked lives instead of the former falsely dichotomized as being 'internal' only and the other being only an 'external' one, or instead of assuming it has to be one kind of ideology or one kind of material issue. It is entirely open and unpredictable. However, in comparative retrospect, we can analyze what kinds of ongoing strategic decisions we have made with and against each other and their implications. Let us elaborate this and we can see how we have to address our human networked history as history, as an open unpredictable arrangement of social science, strategy, and tactics as there are hardly any singular or stable examples of human networks in the world, though they are in ongoing particular strategic and tactical relations with each other, and they are changing through history as well through such interactions and by decisions of how to react and interact as well.
First, this network species of ours rides on infrastructures that are ideological: our face-to-face acculturation is hardly entirely biological though is networked on the sinews of expressed symbolism, in externally shared symbolic and ideational strategies and tactics with each other as how we acculturate with each other physically, regardless of whether we believe and internalize it or otherwise. For instance, just try to 'biologically log on' to someone without sharing the same language, cultural background, or symbolic interpretations of actions, and see how difficult it is. It is possible to wing it of course, and assuredly some do wing it while (we can assume) others are true believers in something they are expressing or saying. So this ongoing aggregate unalignment is part of social life, and it involves this guessing of the internal meanings of others or the truthfulness of their external expressions by what we interpret about their external symbolism. This questioning of ourselves in an ongoing relation is part of the human condition, since were are mostly still networking on external bases alone when we express various ideological issues instead of ever really knowing if we really share internal sentiments. Even professions of faith for instance still have to be entirely external, which is kind of ironic since the faithful as well as the faithless can be equally earnest.
Regardless, we subsist socially through these externally expressed ideational infrastructures. Plus, these are hardly in the abstract though only exist in particular strategic choices of symbolisms that innately get aligned with and against other particular ones. That means we have to address our ongoing contingent history and our plurality of networks in interaction as part of our human condition instead of attempting to start from various singular reified ideas about ourselves or various abstract ideas about ourselves that always fail to exist. We have to start with an ongoing open history, an open present, and an open future. We have to start with an ongoing plurality of different neworked human groups with and against each other, operating with and against each other at different scales. We have to start in a situation where ongoing strategies are with and against each other as well, and where the particulars of such dynamic strategies matter, and where the ongoing unpredictable interpretations and reactions of some individuals or groups to others' strategies and tactics matter as well.
For instance, externally expressed beliefs in various Malthusian principles of course are some of these interpretive bubbles shared by some as well of course, and particularly those ideologically internalized and committed to such ideas may only want to 'log on' to others that externally share their ideational networks as they externally compete with others they believe are out to get them and destroy them. Thus we can use the expressed belief in Malthusianism as an idea that demonstrates how we are a networked species, and we can use the idea of how people believe other things, or how people change their minds and join or invent other networks as an example of how our human species is uncapturable in any particular kind of singular ideational bubble. We have to talk about ourselves in ongoing plural networks strategically with and against each other, where the particulars chosen matter for how aggregate groups are assembled as appeals (and sometimes, by attempting to simply remove other choices of thought and assemble people by default lack of choice). In this way to assemble some groups based on some particular ideological strategies is likely going to be aimed at dismantling and disassembling another's network capacities as well that use other strategies.
Second, that kind of networked life can be material as well--though hardly in the abstract materialism sense of Marx or Smith-ian inspired economics (which of course are other examples of people living in ideational networks, with and against others believing otherwise). I'm talking about particulars once more instead of reified abstracts. I'm talking about strategic choices of particular biophysical materials, materials chosen out of sets of materials for different social uses, and chosen by different people based on different filtering in which some choosers choose more representatively and sustainably and some choose more unrepresentatively and degradatively.
Regardless, this means we have to seek a more social science and historically unpredictable view of our human-to-human relationships and our human-to-environmental relationships instead of reach for biologically deterministic and falsely predictive models. This means we have to get serious about thinking of ourselves as a plural networked species, living in and across multiple ecologies, in which the sinews of our lives are our ongoing choices of strategies and tactics with and against each other. Both Malthusian biological models and deterministic social science models are failures here.
So our networked lives are both ideational and material, and they are plural in their ideational-material networks with and against other ideational-material networks. We have selective culturally constructed bubbles/filters of interpretation amongst ourselves and the same in selective choices of materials that influence our environmental impacts by our choices of both, instead of influencing it by our raw population scales like other species per se.
And thus 'normal' ecological checks and balances (that perhaps keep most other species in check with their immediate singular-ecology predator/prey and sustenance environment), are different for us: we have many loopholes as the "network species" by existing across multiple ecologies and by having a choice in our own impacts ideationally and materially. Therefore, our degradative strategies when they occur come from particular ideational and material choices, and, because we subsist across multiple ecologies, such degradative strategies fail to always lead to some kind of wider ecological check and balance theorized for other species.
So on the one hand, we can choose to degrade, and instead of always improving when facing ecological karma, we just might move on geographically and keep the same degradative ideational and material misalignments. Some might choose to fight harder to keep these misaligned ideational and material choices in a novel area, with, in comparative retrospect, the same problematic degradative and self-destructive results. Meanwhile, others at the same time might be coming to different conclusions and different projected futures.
So on the other hand, we can choose to degrade, and after an ecological crash or during an interpreted one, sometimes we may reevaluate past ideational and material choices and change our impact ongoingly. This would make those past choices of ideational bubbles and material choices less likely to be seen as legitimate or possible to continue. This would bring up a social, ideational, and material conflict by the different developing networked choices of people previously at least ambivalently in the same arrangement. So as the latter, in facing such ongoing degradation, we might change and improve our ideational and material choices to better fit such a context. However, it is always an open choice and depends on what we choose to do and even what we interpret is occurring.
Second, keep in mind multiple networks of humans in ongoing interaction once more. As our degradation becomes sponsored potentially by some group's choices as more distributed across multiple ecologies, at the same time, for more situated peoples, that same degradation is felt more in how those particular more regionalized populations may come earlier to reevaluate any past adherence to those other ideational or material choices that are degradative. This is because they have more 'ecological proxy' relations in how their own more regionalized networked lives may develop more feedback from the wider external environment and the externalities that they have generated (or others have generated upon them) to fix it toward more representative and sustainable relations and choices of culture, materials, and organization versus of course those wider networked versions of culture and material choices simultaneously existing that are more attenuated and muffled from such ecological proxy feedback.
Thus the latter kinds of wider networks, being more immune to that kind of ongoing regionalized ecological proxy feedback, may interpret that their own choice is just to press a bit harder to get their unrepresentative and degradative choices implemented upon those clamoring for or organizing for wider and more representative and sustainable choices. So we have some particular wider networks of people in their choices of ideas and materials that can be particularly degradative upon and against themselves as well as degradative upon and against those more regionally choosing to work with their immediate environment in better strategies of ideas and material choices more regionally aligned.
So we have to model ourselves in a 'green theory of history,' as our human-environmental relations are entirely open, contingent, strategic, and tactical histories of many different plural networks of ongoing more regionally embedded humans working with and/or against more singular and more distanciated networks of humans across multiple ecologies.
Moreover, it is a poor model of thought as well to attempt to reduce history to a falsely dichtomized 'anthropogengic' group versus multiple regional 'ecological' groups, when both are human 'anthropogenic' networks of course, some simply more aligned to pressures from ecological proxy situations than others. So a better model of human-environmental relations is a multitude of particular more regionalized ecological/human relations versus other wider particular ecological/human relations, if you see what I mean. Some arrangements of anthropocentrism get aligned with ecological sentiment, while other forms of anthropocentrism are more attenuated and muffled in hearing such ecological sentiment, and this occurs at the same time in ongoing unpredictable strategic and tactical interactions with each other of which the outcome is unknowable. However, in comparative retrospect, we might note what, if any, are the more regular choices and more regular implications from such choices or from different kinds of choices. Comparative history has to be our guide to understanding our networked species since our ongoing human-environmental impact is historic and strategic, instead of biologically hardwired ideas being our guide or instead of sociologically hardwired organization being our guide either per se.
For examples of ongoing ecological proxy and thinking about it, you might read some Elinor Ostrom or something I wrote here in my book Ecological Revolution (2009) about these kinds of smaller versus larger ongoing strategic choices of action with and against each other over history, and why a mistaken view of 'humans versus environment' or 'anthrpocentrism versus ecocentrism' should be replaced with a more nuanced view of particular more sustainable regional strategies of humans working better with their particular regions as with and against other wider human strategies that can be more degradative, at least so far.
So our best kind of social feedback for sustainability would be to find ways to provide more ecological checks and balances on expressing more durable regionalized material and ideational choices to defend these from erosion from larger placeless economic and political shakeouts that tragically tend to end (or even worse repeat) in the same way.
In conclusion, I think that the case can be made that our 'human' degradation comes from us as a unique networked species across multiple ecologies and all that follows from it, and from how we have historically provided our own ecological feedback upon our own degradation throughout history by opposing and by changing our ideational and material strategies--with and against others' attempts to keep choosing and imposing more degradative and unrepresentative patterns and reduced choices.
However, history is contingent.
On the one hand in this contingent history, we can see various examples of more sustainable and regionally representative arrangements throughout history that strategically are savvy enough to win (and of course, are involved in situations where the attempts to maintain degradative and unrepresentative strategies of others fail). These are the triumphs of history, and they have repeated throughout our world history.
On the other hand in contingent history, we can see various other examples of wider networked degradative relations strategically 'winning' as well, winning against other failed strategies of more representative and sustainable attempts. These are the repeating tragedies of history--and they indeed have repeated as well, at least so far.
Can we learn from these repeating tragedies, to avoid them and to dismantle their ongoing bad choices of ideational and material strategies? Can we learn from the comparative triumphs of history as well, in order to improve them and make them more durable instead of mostly see them become the next weakly strategic short-term interim for an ongoing ignorant human and environmental tragedy that destroys them? I believe we can learn from both. We can learn from the triumphs to make the triumphs stronger strategically by learning where they strategically failed typically. We can learn from the tragedies as well, so we can recognize them when they start to repeat the same degradative and unrepresentative repression of choices.
Sometimes in such triumphs, we see a deeper triumph: a more plural cross-regionally representative arrangement instead of just a more regionally representative and sustainable attempt. It occurs particularly in clear contexts of greater political power parities for instance (particularly when facing common interpretations of external threats), that can become a series of ongoing choices toward greater internal brinksmanship in which ongoing strategies are encouraged to become ever more durable representative, sustainable, and politically transparent strategies in history for ourselves. However it is still a choice of what we do.
In comparative retrospect so far (and thus this is hardly a prediction, since predictions are unable to be made about our open present and open future), we tend to choose wider degradative and unrepresentative trends that get paired later against a plurality of more regionalized feedbacks against it, in which those later regional pluralities divide and conquer among themselves and make their trend easy prey for their own destruction. In some cases, such greater pluralities of regionality learn to strategically work together to make themselves stronger cross-regionally as well. In other cases, some regional groups can be more sustainable and representative, while other regions can be just as unsustainable and unrepresentative.
Thus a view of ourselves as a more unpredictable and strategic networked species means we have to analyze what I call a 'green theory of history' and leave behind simpleminded ideas of predictable futures that we see in many human-environmental theories whether Malthusian, Marxist, or even in Beck's more positive Risk Society view. Equally, we have to leave behind blaming empty abstracts of 'anthropocentrism' as well, which entirely misses the point of our ongoing ecological proxy history as an anthropocentric view for some, against others. Equally, we have to leave behind blaming empty abstracts of particular religious traditions, since such ongoing ecological proxy history is clearly seen in religious and science history as well, in origins of many religious and scientific movements as interlinked in such ecological proxy feedback strategically working against the use of religion (sometimes even the same religion) that is strategically employed differently.
Historically now, I think we are on the crux of either a more cross-regionally representative putsch like before, or we will continue with the ever larger scale of such unrepresentative and degradative trends of choice. It is up to what people choose.
These ongoing degradative trends now are occurring on much larger scales, different than the smaller scales of it in the past. However, this European imperial history of the past 500 years is just the same as what has been occurring in past world history as well instead of attempting to frame some regions as entirely to blame while treating other regions as environmental innocents. However, all regions degraded themselves long before European empires, just as all regions have evidence of more sustainable choices as well. This is because we are the network species, worldwide, and we exist everywhere in this green theory of history. So we can all learn from each other comparatively. That is the point.
So in basing these ideas on our network species themselves, and on much comparative historical sleuthing about our ecological proxy pressures, this green theory of history is equally contrary to assuming that there have been major epochal changes in the past 500 years. Instead, we are the same networked species as ever before, and these kind of ongoing patterns are just larger than before and have become the first global level arrangements of it, and at least so far have created the same ongoing patterns as before (at least so far by choice): a tragedy without a future. The only future is to choose for other futures, to choose to learn of the different triumphs we have seen in history and to learn from them to improve on their strategic faults to create something more representative and sustainable than ever before.
In conclusion, in comparative retrospect, what has occurred at least so far is better couched under the terms of our networked species, its ecological proxy, and a 'green theory of history.' This sets up understanding the basis of a fourth term: 'trialectics' (described in earlier posts) as how in comparative retrospect, these different multiple regional groups and divided delocalized leaderships interact strategically and tactically in an open space, an open present, and open future of history. This ongoing open trialectics in history makes far more sense of historical patterns and historical transformations than any closed Hegelian/Marxist dialectics.
(And within those trialectical dynamics, in which this long-term historical ecological proxy politics of all those more 'grounded' and multiple regional groups of humanity are versus a more attenuated and historically inbred ruling elite with less of these relationships, it helps us understand a fifth term: why we are mostly homo bioregionalensis instead of abstract homo sapiens. All that ongoing environmental proxy politics and our more sustainable regional choices got into our biological genetics over time. Various evolutionary interactions sculpted our genetics as dependent variables to reflect variegated regional metabolisms involved in regional foodway and cultural choices which of course are in turn both involved in wider regional ecological/climate situations. These three factors have evolutionarily interacted in us--with our genetics as the crucible--over the past 5,000 years of sited agriculture. It has fit us genetically and metabolically well into particular regional ecological and foodways contexts over time. Homo bioregionalensis explains why we get sick when we leave such regional diets for the most part because our regional metabolisms are becoming 'unsynched' to a changing globalized food culture. Homo bioregionalensis explains why we get healthy once more when we return home to such historically regional and varied regional diets. The groundwork for thinking about our human biology and genetics as hardly an abstract causal independent variable though as a variegated dependent variable influenced by our culturally winnowed choices of regional foodways (that intermix with climate, soil, and local ecologies) that gets into our biological metabolism was pioneered by ethnobotanist Nabhan.)
Plus, we can say more. Despite a basic openness of dynamics in the open present and toward an open future with a basic unpredictability of our choices in our human organization and human impact on ourselves and our environment, in comparative retrospect, there unfortunately have been more regular choices and more regular implications from such choices that can be analyzed in history. In comparative retrospect, I would call this a trialectical process (described at that other link). Framing a trialectical process as (at least so far) a more regular series of ongoing choices and more regular series of implications helps us understand how our ongoing tragedies in history work and interact with examples of our historical triumphs, in ongoing "ecological revolutions" in history.
So from understanding these three terms above, we can have a far more realistic, empirical and strategic analysis of our history. We set the stage for understanding this fourth term of trialectics as a description of those open strategic and spatial dynamics of such relations and choices in our ongoing tragedies and triumphs. Furthermore, within trialectics, we can understand the fifth term, why such a phenomenon as 'homo bioregionalensis' developed in us genetically. Homo bioregionalensis is a durable ongoing effect of ourselves being simultaneously the open strategic network species and yet for much of our history, in which historical genetic populations of humans were more spatially situated particularly after agriculture. Thus we became more attuned and involved in regional feedback relations of different kinds of agricultural choices, suiting us genetically and metabolically to particular regional areas of the world based on our own open interactions of foodways cultures, regional soil and regional climate/ecological issues combined. Thus our own ongoing strategic choices have led our biology to get involved in interactive evolutionary feedback loops of our own genetics, our cultural regional foodways, and any climate/ecological regionalisms that make us more healthy and adapted to regionalism and which makes us sicker once we leave it.
In all of these issues, the empirical nuggets for analysis become our human jurisdictions in the plural and, in comparative retrospect so far at least, how our human jurisdictional hegemonies change by choices in time and over space by decisions in such open strategic and spatial interactions. This comparative historical analysis of such open jurisdictional interactions of humanity and the ongoing transformations of such jurisdictional hegemony over time become crucial to understanding our human impact upon ourselves and our environment as interlinked. These interactions of plural jurisdictional politics, cultures, and environment impacts is an ongoing open choice. However, in comparative retrospect, there are regular choices which cause regular implications. Sometimes such regular choices strategically arrange, maintain, or change our jurisdictions toward repeating tragedies and sometimes toward better triumphs.
These plural jurisdictional interactions in history in trialectical dynamics have at their core an ongoing competitive informal-formal sponsorship of an aggregated and conditional accommodation in any jurisdiction. This places the historical analysis of how such conditional jurisdictional alliances are strategically created and maintained as core of understanding ourselves as the network species as well as core to understanding our own ongoing open history and open environmental impact as well. Each of these jurisdictional alliances are in an ongoing inter-competition and interaction for hegemony. So trialectics makes sense of both our ongoing infinitely open, contingent and strategic history and the fewer more regular comparative historical pattern dynamics of common (merely regularly chosen) jurisdictional transformations worldwide better than any other model of human-environmental history. However, it all begins by understanding why Malthus is wrong, and why we are the network species that degrades through our networked choices, in ongoing tragedies of choice or in triumphs of choice. In the latter way, our networked choices toward more representative and sustainable relations with ourselves and our environment can end past tragedies.
Understanding all linked five terms is a different interscientific view of humanity and history in general.