Tag: Social sciences

The lure of patterns.

Is this present era really coming to an end?

Somewhere in my aged brain cells is the memory of having heard that humans are great lovers of patterns.  In other words, patterns are deemed to be very important for the progress and evolution of homo sapiens.  Of course, it is not just humans who learn from patterns; I’m sure most of the animals who live around us are great pattern matchers.  To support that proposition, anyone who has owned a dog or cat will have spotted how quickly they learn patterns.  (As an aside, some months ago our puppy German Shepherd, Cleo, work me at around 4am because she needed to go outside for a ‘call of nature’.  I now get woken every single night variously between 2am and 5am for Cleo’s benefit!)

The British mathematician G. H. Hardy who lived from the last quarter of the 19th Century well into the 20th Century, reputedly said (and I cheated and looked it up!):

A mathematician, like a painter or poet, is a maker of patterns. If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.

So why has this post opened with the theme of patterns?  Because, call it coincidence or what, within the last couple of weeks there have been three articles, each from very a different source, predicting that the present levels of inequality in society are both unsustainable and the beginning of the end.

First, on Michael Robert’s blog there was a post eleven days ago about global wealth inequality. From which I quote:

Global wealth inequality: top 1% own 41%; top 10% own 86%; bottom half own just 1%


Just 8.4% of all the 5bn adults in the world own 83.4% of all household wealth (that’s property and financial assets, like stocks, shares and cash in the bank).  About 393 million people have net worth (that’s wealth after all debt is accounted for) of over $100,000, that’s 10% own 86% of all household wealth!  But $100,000 may not seem that much, if you own a house in any G7 country without any mortgage.  So many millions in the UK or the US are in the top 10% of global wealth holders.  This shows just how little two-thirds of adults in the world have – under $10,000 of net wealth each and billions have nothing at all.

This is not annual income but just wealth – in other words, 3.2bn adults own virtually nothing at all.  At the other end of the spectrum, just 32m people own $98trn in wealth or 41% of all household wealth or more than $1m each.  And just 98,700 people with ‘ultra-high net worth’ have more than $50 million each and of these 33,900 are worth over $100 million each.  Half of these super-rich live in the US.

Michael Robert’s essay closes:

All class societies have generated extremes of inequality in wealth and income.  That is the point of a rich elite (whether feudal landlords, Asiatic warlords, Incan and Egyptian religious castes, Roman slave owners, etc) usurping control of the surplus produced by labour.  But past class societies considered that normal and ‘god-given’. Capitalism on the other hand talks about free markets, equal exchange and equality of opportunity.  But the reality is no different from previous class societies.

Secondly, just last Friday I was drawn to an essay on, of all places, The Permaculture Research Institute blog.  The essay, by Chris Hedges (**), was called On Inequality and the Collapse of Globalization.  Chris Hedges opened his essay, thus:

The uprisings in the Middle East, the unrest that is tearing apart nations such as the Ivory Coast, the bubbling discontent in Greece, Ireland and Britain and the labor disputes in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio presage the collapse of globalization. They presage a world where vital resources, including food and water, jobs and security, are becoming scarcer and harder to obtain. They presage growing misery for hundreds of millions of people who find themselves trapped in failed states, suffering escalating violence and crippling poverty. They presage increasingly draconian controls and force—take a look at what is being done to Pfc. Bradley Manning—used to protect the corporate elite who are orchestrating our demise.

We must embrace, and embrace rapidly, a radical new ethic of simplicity and rigorous protection of our ecosystem—especially the climate—or we will all be holding on to life by our fingertips. We must rebuild radical socialist movements that demand that the resources of the state and the nation provide for the welfare of all citizens and the heavy hand of state power be employed to prohibit the plunder by the corporate power elite. We must view the corporate capitalists who have seized control of our money, our food, our energy, our education, our press, our health care system and our governance as mortal enemies to be vanquished.

The PRI editor’s preamble to the Chris Hedges essay included a couple of videos that he recommended watching.  One was a talk by Robert Reich: How Unequal Can America Get Before We Snap?

The other one was a recent TED Talk by Richard Wilkinson (his profile is here).

Mr. Wilkinson explains that for the majority of people there is an instinctive feeling that societies with huge income gaps and corresponding high levels of social inequality are somehow going wrong. He charts the hard data on such economic inequality and shows what gets worse when rich and poor are too far apart: ergo, the very real effects on health, lifespan, and even such basic values as trust.

Just 16 minutes long, it’s a very revealing talk.  Do watch it.


The final, third piece of the pattern was me coming across an essay on the blog DeflationLand, not a blog I had come across before, on the same day that I saw the PRI article.  This essay, published just two days before the PRI article, was about patterns; the patterns of the centuries.  More specifically, how the characteristics of a century generally evolve to a new culture within the first 10 to 15 years of the following century.  It was a most interesting proposition and, to my delight, I was given permission to republish that essay here on Learning from Dogs.  So here it is.


Why I stopped worrying and learned to love the currency collapse

For the past 300 years, the historical pattern has been for the era marked by a century to continue into the following century by fourteen or fifteen years. Let me explain.  Everyone knows that the 19th Century, its uprightness, its optimism and sense of purpose, the halcyon days of British Empire, came to an end with World War I, starting in 1914 and building to a nasty crescendo by 1916.  The 20th Century had arrived, and it had some real horrors in store for us.

Germans before Kraftwerk
Germans before Kraftwerk

But if we return back another hundred years, we notice that the 18th Century ends in 1815 with the final defeat of Napoleon, that final project of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution.  With the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, we have a new Europe along the lines of Metternich’s plan, and the 19th Century at last is here.

"Sorry, guys.  My bad."
“Sorry, guys. My bad.”

In 1713 and 1714, we have the Treaties of Utrecht, Baden, and Rastatt, bringing an end to the era of Spain as a major power, and the rise of the Habsburgs.  Louis XIV dies in 1715, after reigning for 72 years.  The Baroque period is over, and we are now firmly in the 18th Century.

War of Spanish Succession
War of Spanish Succession

We still live in the 20th Century.  Nothing much significant has changed in our lives in the past twenty years.  Symptoms of a deeper rot are appearing here and there, foreshadowing a larger crisis, but the crisis itself has not arrived yet.  We still live in an era of Pax Americana, the old republic very much a strained and tired Empire now, with the U.S. Dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

That is going to change.

The next task for History is to dismantle the untenable structures and institutions put in place by late Modernity, which have been extended now as far as they can go.  Our debt-based monetary system will collapse, our unbacked fiats will be worthless.  The debts and unmeetable obligations will all default.

There are ironies and great contradictions as the former home and hope of Liberty becomes viciously unfree and increasingly despotic.  Our leaders no longer govern, but try instead to rule us — they are less legitimate with each passing day, their laws corrupt or worse.  They are nearly finished, and will be swept away with the tide.

Just as in 1914, the internationalist system will break down, dashing the hopes of the would-be first-world nations.  We will probably have a pretty good war as well, or many local ones worldwide.  These transitions tend to involve war.

Deflation first — it clears the way for the complete loss of faith and hyperinflation that will follow.  The next big wave down in the financial markets is the battering ram.  The U.S. national debt is about faith, so is quantitative easing, and so is the very idea of magical coins that could ever be “worth” a trillion dollars.  When this faith breaks, in concert with loss of faith in perpetual growth and unlimited cheap energy, then things will move very, very quickly.

There is nothing any of us can do at this point, except navigate the rapids as well as possible, and to stay out of the way of a dying empire, which is still very dangerous in its death throes.  We are actually very privileged to be alive and witnessing this next transition, to what we do not know just yet.  But what an honor to live at this time, not in ignorance but with an existential resolve to come out of it alive and much the wiser.

Ass Americana.
Ass Americana.


** Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author and former international correspondent for the New York Times. His latest book is The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress.

I am neither a scientist nor a historian; just someone who has lived in and observed the world for coming on for 60 years.

So you have to understand that my prediction is hardly worth the ‘paper I write upon’ (which certainly dates me!).  But, undaunted, here are my predictions for the 21st Century:

  • That the power of internet communications will allow more people, more quickly, to find their soul-mates wherever they are on this planet.
  • That the realisation of how dysfunctional many Governments are, of how truly poorly they serve the majorities of their citizens, will lead to mass rejections of these so-called Governments’ policies.  Such rejections predominantly peaceful, as in taking the horse to water but being unable to make it drink.
  • That there will be a new form of localism.  At two levels.  Literally, people geographically close to each other creating 21st C. versions of local communities.  Virtually, those local communities linking to other like-minded communities right across the world resulting in highly effective and innovative learning, accelerated common-sense, (call it wisdom if you wish), and extraordinarily efficient and sustainable ways of living on this planet.

What do you think?

Civilisations do fail!

Any lessons for today from the Valley of the Pyramids at Tucume in Peru?

The view of Huaca Larga (Photo: Heinz Plege/PromPerú)

Let’s set the scene,

It’s amazing to think that anyone lived here, that this valley was once green. Now it is sun-blasted, scorching hot, and the only life is the circling vultures and the rainbow-colored iguanas, like something out of a desert hallucination, skittering across the rocks.

The reminders of past life rise up around me, however, eroded to look more like drip castles than the pyramids they once were. I am in Túcume, the once-grand capital of the Sican culture, Peru’s mythical Valley of the Pyramids.

I am not far from Chiclayo, and even closer to the city of Lambayeque, where the Royal Tombs of Sipán Museum serves as one of the major tourist attractions on the north coast. Here at Túcume however, there are few visitors.

It is not hard to get to the site. Combis leave regularly from Chiclayo and Lambayeque, dropping passengers in the modern village of Túcume, from which an quick mototaxi ride leads to the ruins. By car or taxi, it is about a 30 minute ride from Chiclayo.

There are two main trails marked out across the desert plain in Túcume. One leads to Cerro Purgatorio, a craggy hill overlooking the 26 pyramids that comprise the site. The trail winds across the scorched valley, between several of the pyramids, before arriving at a staircase leading to different scenic overlooks on the face of Purgatorio.

WikiPedia, too, has a short reference.

Then there’s a long and revealing article on the InkaNatura Travel Site, which I recommend you go to.

So what happened at Túcume to cause the civilisation to fail?  Maybe this 10-minute film gives the answers, but just a note to say that there are some potentially upsetting scenes for the younger or more sensitive among us.

So anyone sufficiently brave to say that history won’t repeat itself.

Wonder which would be the ‘cursed cities’?

Random Notes 2.

More reflections for this Saturday.

Some of you may remember that this ‘series’ started on the 24th with the first of John H.’s delightful collection of humour and reflective thoughts.  Here’s number two!  Have a great week-end.

Tsunami” wasn’t a common word in the 1950’s.

Imagination energizes creativity

We live within natural rhythms.

Collective insanity is destructive in proportion to species growth.

The struggle is not between good and evil

It’s between self and Self.

Ernst Friedrich “Fritz” Schumacher

Ernst Friedrich “Fritz” Schumacher (16 August 1911 – 4 September 1977)

Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher

It seems amazing to realise both that this far-sighted man was born a century ago this day and that his incredibly influential book, Small is Beautiful, was published 38 years ago.

The book has been hugely influential.  Indeed, my gut sense is that it probably started the whole ‘green’ movement.  The Times Literary Supplement of October 6, 1995 regarded E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered as among the 100 most influential books published since the end of the Second World War.

Just a personal note that for many years I lived just a few miles from Dartington in Devon (UK) where Schumacher College was founded in 1991.  Named after the great man, it provided, and still does, learning for sustainable living.  Perhaps no surprise at all that nearby Totnes became the world’s first ‘transition town’.

Want to find out more?  Then go to the New Economics Institute website here and discover,

The New Economics Institute is a US organization that uniquely combines vision, theory, action, and communication to effect a transition to a new economy — an economy that gives priority to supporting human well-being and Earth’s natural systems. Our multidisciplinary approach employs research, applied theory, public campaigns, and educational events to describe an alternative socio-economic system that is capable of addressing the enormous challenges of our times.  Our premise is that a fair and sustainable economy is possible and that ways must be found to realize it.

The Institute, formerly the E. F. Schumacher Society, is working in close partnership with the New Economics Foundation from London to add the programs and experience developed in the UK to its own work in the US.

Finally, to get a flavour of this wonderful man and the amazing legacy that he has left the planet, watch this short video of E.F. Schumacher answering a question from the moderator about whether or not Buddhist Economics can work in the West. (Question & Answer Panel at Great Circle Center, 3/19/77.  Peter Gillingham Collection, E. F. Schumacher Library Archives.)

From ants to cities

More on the work of E. O. Wilson

Yesterday, I introduced a 50-minute film concerning the famous biologist E O Wilson, Lord of the Ants which, as well as being a wonderful tribute to Prof. Wilson, also allowed us humans to have a better understanding of our deeper human issues.

Coincidentally, around the same time of watching that film, I saw an article on the Grist website that referred to some research published in Nature magazine.  This what I read, first from Grist, reprinted with the kind permission of Libby S., Senior Marketing Manager of Grist.

Scientists have been doing studies for years that show you are more likely to suffer from mental illness if you live in a city. What they haven’t figured out is why.

Now, researchers in Germany have conducted experiments that they believe might begin to get at the neuroscience behind the crazy-making nature of urban areas.

Publishing in the journal Nature, a group led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg’s Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, looked at how social stress affected the minds of subjects, some city-dwellers and some not.

If we then turn to that article in Nature (to get access you will need to arrange prior free sign-up) we get to read this,

City living marks the brain

Neuroscientists study social risk factor for mental illness.

Alison Abbott

Epidemiologists showed decades ago that people raised in cities are more prone to mental disorders than those raised in the countryside. But neuroscientists have avoided studying the connection, preferring to leave the disorderly realm of the social environment to social scientists. A paper in this issue of Naturerepresents a pioneering foray across that divide.

Using functional brain imaging, a group led by Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of the University of Heidelberg’s Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, showed that specific brain structures in people from the city and the countryside respond differently to social stress (see pages 452 and 498). Stress is a major factor in precipitating psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

The work is a first step towards defining how urban life can affect brain biology in a way that has a potentially major impact on society — schizophrenia affects one in 100 people. It may also open the way for greater cooperation between neuroscientists and social scientists. “There has been a long history of mutual antipathy, particularly in psychiatry,” says sociologist Craig Morgan at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. “But this is the sort of study that can prove to both sides that they can gain from each others’ insights.”

I feel uncomfortable about reproducing more of this fascinating study without some formal permission to do so, therefore, if you want to read the full article then do sign up for access at the Nature website.

Back to the article from Grist written by Sarah Goodyear, Grist’s cities editor,

I called Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg to ask him more about the implications of his experiment, and what he thought might be the cause of heightened sensitivity to social stress among urban dwellers.

“On the neural level, we find two things,” he told me. “A, the neural effects are completely dissociated, so current urban living only affects the amygdala, urban upbringing only affects the cingulate. And B, these areas are associated with these illnesses. The amygdala is sort of a danger center, and it’s critically important for fear. And it is clear that the amygdala is a major player in depression. The cingulate is a prefrontal area regulating negative emotion, and it’s known to be one of the earliest areas affected by schizophrenia.”

So what accounts for the hyperactivity of the amygdala-cingulate circuit in urban dwellers? “That exact circuit that we found hyperactive has also shown to be activated when someone comes too close to you and crowds your personal space,” Meyer-Lindenberg told me.

But he cautioned against inferring that mere density of population is at fault. “It’s still speculation,” he said. “There could be myriad components of the urban experience that might or might not be bad for you from the point of your risk for mental illness. No one really knows. People are annoyed by noise or by traffic, or it could also be lead, or air pollution, but there’s no evidence base to say this is an important factor, this is not an important factor. Therefore there’s no basis for urban planning that’s grounded in human biology, at least with regard to mental illness.”

Later in the Grist article, Dr. Meyer-Lindenberg told Sarah Goodyear,

“Social status is closely linked to socioeconomic variables. What we found in our imaging studies is that if your social status becomes labile, and especially if you are in danger of losing it, a very similar brain circuit becomes active. There is a convergence of socially relevant risk factors on that circuit.”

Different types of urban environments might also affect people in different ways. “It’s very different if you live in Manhattan and you sort of live in a series of overlapping villages, if you will, or if you live in a city like Sao Paolo, in which no such microstructure is immediately available to you, or if you live in a large spread-out area,” said Meyer-Lindberg.

The social connections that are fostered in more walkable neighborhoods could help city dwellers from losing it. “A previous study found that that the size of your social support network is actually correlated to the size of the exact brain circuit we found in this study,” Meyer-Lindenberg said. “So that’s a protective factor. The more friends you have, the bigger those brain structures are.”

Already, more than half the human population lives in cities. That proportion will only increase. New cities are springing up all over the developing world, some built to order, some completely unplanned. The form they take could be crucial.

More knowledge about what exactly drives people could lead to concrete solutions that would make for better mental health — the same way the discovery of how disease was spread by waterborne germs finally ended the scourge of cholera in London.

“I think it would be important to make cities better, given that we can’t escape cities, given the dynamics of urbanization,” said Meyer-Lindenberg. “That’s a reality that we’re not going to get rid of.”

Fascinating article made doubly interesting by E O Wilson’s lifetime study of ants!