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The Political Ecology of Collapse, Part Two: Weishaupt's Fallacy

Nostalgia’s a funny thing; you never know what’s going to fill the place of Proust’s madeleine and catapult you back to memories of some other time. A little over a year ago, I had a reminder of that while visiting the Upland Hills Ecological Awareness Center in Oakland County, Michigan. The path from the parking lot wandered through a lovely autumn woodland, then turned a corner and deposited me back in 1980.

In those days I was passionately interested in the appropriate technology movement, to the extent of spending the better part of three years working part time on an organic farm, learning the uses of cold frames, a solar greenhouse, compost bins, and double-dug garden beds. Every cliché you can imagine about late-70s communes was present and accounted for: wood smoke and mud, naked bodies in a creaky wood-fired sauna, goats and chickens in the pasture, and a handbuilt wind turbine that went whuppeta-whuppeta and churned out a trickle of twelve-volt current whenever the breeze picked up.

The center at Upland Hills was a good deal cleaner, and the goats and the naked bodies were nowhere to be seen, but the esthetic was much the same. Their wind turbine sounded a silky pup-pup-pup atop an honest-to-Fuller octet truss tower, and the center itself was what all of us at the Outback Farm dreamed of inhabiting someday: a big comfortable earth-bermed shelter with passive solar heating and old-fashioned round photovoltaic cells soaking up the sunlight. When we went inside, I half expected to see a circle of scruffy longhairs sitting on pillows around the latest issue of Coevolution Quarterly, excitedly discussing the latest innovations from Zomeworks and the New Alchemy Institute.

Nostalgia aside, there's a lot to be learned from the rise and fall of appropriate tech in the 1970s, and one of its lessons bears directly on the theme of this series of posts. For many of the people involved in it back then, appropriate tech was the inevitable wave of the future; nearly everyone assumed that energy costs would continue to rise as the limits to growth clamped down with increasing force, making anything but Ecotopia tantamount to suicide. A formidable body of thought backed those conclusions, and the core of that body of thought was systems theory.

Nowadays, the only people who pay attention to systems theory are specialists in a handful of obscure fields, and it can be hard to remember that forty years ago systems theory had the same cachet that more recently gathered around fractals and chaos theory. Born of a fusion between ecology, cybernetics, and a current in contemporary philosophy best displayed in Jan Smuts' Holism and Evolution, systems theory argued that complex systems -- all complex systems – shared certain distinctive traits and behaviors, so that insights gained in one field of study could be applied to phenomena in completely different fields that shared a common degree of complexity.

It had its weaknesses, to be sure, but on the whole, systems theory did exactly what theories are supposed to do – it provided a useful toolkit for making sense of part of the universe of human experience, posed plenty of fruitful questions for research, and proved useful in a sizable range of practical applications. As popular theories sometimes do, though, it became associated with a position in the cultural struggles of the time, and as some particularly unfortunate theories do, it got turned into a vehicle for a group of intellectuals who craved power. Once that happened, systems theory became another casualty of Weishaupt's Fallacy.

Those of my readers who don't pay attention to conspiracy theory may not recognize the name of Adam Weishaupt; those who do pay attention to conspiracy theory probably "know" a great deal about him that doesn't happen to be true. He was a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria in the second half of the eighteenth century, and he found himself in an awkward position between the exciting new intellectual adventures coming out of Paris and the less than exciting intellectual climate in conservative, Catholic Bavaria. In 1776, he and four of his grad students founded a private society for enthusiasts of the new Enlightenment thought; they went through several different names for their club before finally settling on one that stuck: the Bavarian Illuminati.

Yes, those Bavarian Illuminati.

There were a fair number of people interested in avant-garde ideas in and around Bavaria just then, and. before too long, the Illuminati had several hundred members. This gave Weishaupt and his inner circle some grandiose notions about where all this might lead. Pretty soon, they hoped,all the movers and shakers in Bavaria – not to mention the other microkingdoms into which Germany was divided at that time – would join the Illuminati and stuff their heads full of Voltaire and Rousseau, and then the whole country would become, well, illuminated.

They were still telling themselves that when the Bavarian government launched a series of police raids that broke the back of the organization. Weishaupt got out of Bavaria in time, but many of his fellow Illuminati were not so lucky, and a great deal of secret paperwork got scooped up by the police and published in lavish tell-all books that quickly became bestsellers all over Europe. That was the end of the Illuminati, but not of their reputation; reactionaries found that blaming the Illuminati for everything made great copy, not least because they weren't around any more and so could be redefined with impunity – liberal, conservative, Marxist, capitalist, evil space lizards, you name it.

The problem with Professor Weishaupt's fantasy of an illuminated Bavaria was a bit of bad logic that has been faithfully repeated by intellectuals seeking power ever since: the belief, as sincere as it is silly, that if you have the right ideas, you are by definition smarter than the system you are trying to control. That's Weishaupt's Fallacy. Because Weishaupt and his fellow Illuminati were convinced that the conservative forces in Bavaria were a bunch of clueless boors, they were totally unprepared for the counterblow that followed once the Bavarian government figured out who the Illuminati were and what they were after.

For a more recent example, consider the rise and fall of the neoconservative movement, which stormed into power in the United States in 2000 boldly proclaiming the arrival of a "new American century," and proceeded to squander what remained of America's wealth and global reputation in a series of foreign and domestic policy blunders that have set impressive new standards for political fecklessness. The neoconservatives were convinced that they understood the world better than anybody else. That conviction was the single most potent factor behind their failure; when mainstream conservatives (not to mention everybody else!) tried to warn them where their fantasies of remaking the Middle East in America's image would inevitably end, the neoconservatives snorted in derision and marched straight on into the disaster they were making for themselves, and of course for the rest of us as well.

Systems theory was a victim of the same fallacy. The systems movement, to coin a label for the heterogeneous group of thinkers and policy wonks that made systems theory its banner, had ambitions no less audacious than the neoconservatives, though aimed in a completely different direction. Their dream was world systems management. Such leading figures in the movement as Jay Forrester of MIT and Aurelio Peccei of the Club of Rome agreed that humanity's impact on the planet had become so great that methods devised for engineering and corporate management – in which, not coincidentally, they were expert – had to be put to work to manage the entire world.

The study that led to the 1973 publication of The Limits to Growth was one product of this movement. Sponsored by Peccei's Club of Rome and carried out by a team led by one of Forrester's former Ph.D. students, it applied systems theory to the task of making sense of the future, and succeeded remarkably well. As Graham Turner's study "A Comparison Of The Limits to Growth With Thirty Years of Reality" (CSIRO, 2008) points out, the original study's baseline "Standard Run" scenario matches the observed reality of the last three and a half decades far more exactly than rival scenarios.

It's not often remembered, though, that the Club of Rome followed up The Limits to Growth with a series of further studies, all basically arguing that the problems outlined in the original study could be solved by planetary management on the part of a systems-savvy elite. The same notions can be found in dozens of similar books from the same era – indeed, it's hard to think of a systems thinker with any public presence in the 1970s who didn't publish at least one book proposing some kind of worldwide systems management as the only alternative to a very messy future.

It's only fair to stress the role that idealism and the best intentions played in all this. Still, the political dimensions shouldn't be ignored. Forrester, Peccei, and their many allies were, among other things, suggesting that a great deal of effective power be given to them, or to people who shared their values and goals. Since the systems movement was by no means politically neutral – quite the contrary, it aligned itself forcefully with specific ideological positions in the fractured politics of the decade – that suggestion was bound to evoke a forceful response from the entire range of opposing interests.

The Reagan revolution of 1980 saw the opposition seize the upper hand, and the systems movement was among the big losers. Hardball politics have always played a significant role in public funding of research in America, so it should have come as no surprise when Reagan's appointees all but shut off the flow of government grants into the entire range of initiatives that had gathered around the systems theory approach. From appropriate tech to alternative medicine to systems theory itself, entire disciplines found themselves squeezed out of the government feed trough, while scholars who pursued research that could be used against the systems agenda reaped the benefits of that stance. Clobbered in its most vulnerable spot – the pocketbook – the systems movement collapsed in short order.

What made this implosion all the more ironic is that a systems analysis of the systems movement itself, and its relationship to the wider society, might have provided a useful warning. Very few of the newborn institutions in the systems movement were self-funding; from prestigious think tanks to neighborhood energy-conservation schemes, most of them subsisted on government grants, and thus were in the awkward position of depending on the social structures they hoped to overturn. That those structures could respond homeostatically to oppose their efforts might, one would think, be obvious to people who were used to the strange loops and unintended consequences that pervade complex systems.

Still, Weishaupt's Fallacy placed a massive barrier in the way of such a realization. Read books by many of the would-be global managers of the 1970s and you can very nearly count on being bowled over by the scent of intellectual arrogance. The possibility that the system they hoped to manage might, in effect, have been more clever than they were probably crossed very few minds. Yet that's how things turned out; at the end of the day, the complex system that was American society had reacted, exactly as systems theory would predict, to neutralize a force that threatened to push it out of its preferred state.

Unfortunately that reaction slammed the door on resources that might have made the transition ahead of us less difficult. Set aside the hubris that convinced too many systems theorists that they ought to manage the world, and systems theory itself is an extremely effective toolkit of ideas and practices, and a good many of the things that moved in harmony with systems theory – 1970s appropriate tech being a fine example – are well worth dusting off and putting to use right now. At the same time, though, the process that excluded them needs to be understood, and not just because the same process could repeat itself just as easily with some new set of sustainability initiatives. The homeostatic behavior of complex systems also casts an unexpected light on one of the major conundrums of contemporary life, the location of political power in industrial society – the theme of the final part of this series.

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