And Dunbar's Number
modern capitalism there is no solution to the problem of oil depletion.
Oil energy cannot be replaced with the equivalent amount of "alternative"
energy in the required time, so the consequences of oil depletion will
be disastrous. Those disastrous consequences are beyond the range of
the normal or acceptable issues of political debate. No political contender
can win votes by saying that the world is coming to an end. The "end"
may be real, but there is no political mechanism to deal with it in
the over-crowded and overly complex modern state.
As the twenty-first
century progresses, urbanization will increase, and most people will
live in about twenty or thirty mega-cities, although the very rich will
live in fortresses with armed guards . These very rich will be trying,
more or less successfully, to insulate themselves from the coming economic
troubles. During this era, however, "oil wars" will continue
to devastate the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, the Balkans, and elsewhere,
as the great powers try to control the oil-producing regions and the
nothing newsworthy about the above; the problem of oil depletion 
has been described in detail for at least the last few decades. As Schumacher
points out , the only problem with The Limits to Growth , first
published in 1972, is that the authors should have focused more on the
loss of petroleum. However, the problem of "peak oil" is largely
obliterated from human consciousness by widespread denial of its existence:
a gentle but persistent flurry of skepticism, of not-quite-deliberate
misinformation, appears on the back pages of newspapers and magazines.
The reports of oil depletion are exaggerated, we are told, or the predictions
have never come true. Or we are reminded obliquely of Adam Smith’s
"invisible hand": control of the economy is, in some sense,
unnatural, and if we would only allow market forces to have free play,
all the temporary anomalies would be sorted out. The economy is something
like God, in a Deistic sense, and we should have respect for all those
gears and pulleys and levers that are beyond our comprehension.
issues of natural resources are so fastidious about statistics and probabilities
— admirably, because of such is the nature of science —
yet they usually fail to pay attention to detail when writing the last
chapter of a book, the unit on "what must be done." To prevent
a truly enormous problem of oil depletion, it would first be necessary
for a large percentage of the human race to become literate, to read
books, and to understand difficult scientific abstractions, scholarly
entanglements which are neither comic nor tragic but simply unpropitious.
Yet that is precisely the opposite of how most people behave.
the entire political structure of every country would have to be changed
almost instantly. The American political system, for example, would
have to be utterly transformed so that political representatives were
chosen, not from among those who have learned the art of buying votes,
but from a group of philosopher-kings like those of Plato’s Republic
— although perhaps one should not trust kings of any sort.
the President of the United States would have to go on television, disrupt
the leading prime-time program, and announce that unlimited driving
of automobiles was no longer possible in the United States and its territories.
He would also have to explain that tax incentives would be provided
to people who have few or no children. All of that from a country that
is one of the worst at devouring resources, and that consistently boycotts
all serious international efforts at solving global problems.
of that is highly improbable, it might make more sense to say, "A
catastrophe is inevitable. What do we do next?"
has one fundamental cause: human overpopulation. In the year 1950 the
world’s population was less than three billion, and in the year
2000 it was six billion. The authors of The Limits to Growth found that
the problems of overpopulation and resource-consumption tend to intensify
each other, no matter what future scenario is examined. Or rather, the
problems will first be reciprocal and then mutually exclusive: there
will be a moment in which all problems reach a cataclysmic maximum,
and then there will be a massive die-off.
macabre ways, however, perhaps some of the approaching problems might
tend to preclude others. Global war, for example, might somewhat reduce
the problem of excess population. A general economic collapse would
decrease the need for oil.
It is not
so much that it is difficult to find a political solution to the problem
of oil depletion. There is, in fact, no such thing as a political solution,
difficult or otherwise. That is to say, there is no solution within
the most commonly accepted modern sense of the word "politics":
the cluster of misconceptions generally referred to by the terms "capitalism"
At this stage
of western history, the biggest problem with democracy is that most
of the important issues are now beyond the understanding of the average
person. Unemployment, oligopoly, the welfare state — how is the
average person to comprehend such things? Ironically, one of the most
important economic events does not entail the production and distribution
of goods, or even the production of services, but rather the movement
of pure money, raw money — it is often the daily shifting of large
amounts of money, plain finance capital, that determines whether an
individual person has a job tomorrow, and whether that same person can
buy what he needs tomorrow.
corruption and dishonesty among politicians in modern democracies are
so common that the topic can rarely even sell newspapers anymore. (There
is no reason to fear the loss of freedom of the press, since the press’s
few attempts at truth are largely ignored anyway.) The small voter turnout
in any election is a sign of the anger and hopelessness that most people
feel toward modern "democratic" government. What is wanted
is a new life, a new birth, not the silliness of a false democracy.
question of the ideal political system is essentially not a political
question but a psychological one. Homo sapiens and his ancestors spent
several million years living in small groups, hunting and foraging.
The group was small enough so that each person knew every other person.
Democracy could work because the voters were visible. It has only been
in a tiny fraction of the life span of humanity that political units
have been created that are far too large for people to know one another
except as abstractions.
practical size for human association seems to be Dunbar’s number
of 150, but for an optimal number we might allow some leeway in either
direction — perhaps somewhere between about 20 and 200. Roman
soldiers, for example, were organized into "centuries," and
modern Hutterite communities have between 60 and 160 members. Chester
G. Starr’s statement  is probably as good as any: "Whereas
Paleolithic packs numbered perhaps 20 or 30, Neolithic farmers either
lived in family homesteads, in villages of 150 persons (as at Jarmo),
or in even larger towns (as at Jericho)."
than that of the band, the small tribe, or the village just do not function
effectively, and by "function effectively" I mean "make
people happier than if they were in some other arrangement." A
social group of a million or a billion may have military advantages
but is more likely to operate as a tyranny than as a democracy —
China is the obvious case. That is not to say that a social unit of
over 200 is entirely unworkable, but that as the size of the unit expands
the chances of true psychological cohesion are likely to diminish.
In any case,
neither military power nor economic well-being is necessarily correlated
with the size of the political unit. Switzerland, for example, can hardly
be considered either weak or impoverished. Schumacher claims that there
is actually an inverse relationship between the size of a nation and
its and well-being.
When I suggest
that the "tribe" is the ideal unit, however, I am speaking
somewhat metaphorically. Primitive cultures may be organized into any
of a number of social groupings, distinguished by anthropologists as
tribes, clans, moieties, sibs, bands, and so on, but in every case the
group has two characteristics. In the first place, it is ancient; any
group has been forming and reforming for generations, and one might
say that the group is as old as humanity. Secondly, any group consists
of members who are all tied by the bonds of blood or marriage. For those
two reasons, a sudden ad hoc clustering of humans would face psychological
challenges unlike those of people living deep in the jungle.
have their problems. Nevertheless, in terms of providing human happiness
for the average person, the tribe is always more efficient than the
empire. Any political party that was at all honest in its dealings would
therefore state quite plainly that the human population must drop from
seven billion to several million. Schumacher’s solutions are couched
in patronizing monosyllables about moral reawakening, but he is on the
right track. The anarchistic dreams of Kropotkin and the ecological
dreams of Schumacher are complementary; they are both visions of a world
without a corrupt and inefficient government, a world not covered with
concrete and asphalt, a world that leaves room for trees and birds.
not designed to live in groups of such immense size as we see today,
nor were they given the physiological equipment to deal with the over-stimulation
of crowded living-spaces. It is also true, for various reasons, that
the sight of green trees is more pleasing than that of gray machines.
It is not just a platitude to say that we are out of touch with Nature.
To the extent
that empires have formed vast cycles, one can compare present-day America
to a world of many centuries ago. In the year 731, the Venerable Bede
wrote his Ecclesiastical History of the English Church and People, describing
the world of the Heptarchy, the Seven Kingdoms of Kent, Wessex, Essex,
Northumbria, East Anglia, Mercia, and Sussex. Bede was a monk in the
monastery of Jarrow in Northumbria, and his History is dedicated to
Ceolwulf, the king of that land. In the final chapter ("Chronological
Recapitulation"), Bede tells us that "in the year 409 [actually
410] Rome was brought down of the Goths; from which time the Romans
ceased to rule in Britain."
Yet the end
of one world is the start of another. When Bede was writing, the Roman
Empire was still slowly turning to rubble and dust, but England’s
"Dark Ages" were filled with light, as the monks scratched
away in their scriptoria. In his penultimate chapter, Bede tells us
that in that year 731 there was "the pleasantness of peace and
quiet times." On a planet so primitive that even such basic problems
as war, overpopulation, and government have not been solved, like Bede
we can keep alive the miracle of reading and writing.
Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. Population Resources Environment: Issues
in Human Ecology. 2nd ed. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1972.
Peter. The Post-Oil Economy: Beyond the Techno-Fix. www.countercurrents.org/goodchild221207.htm
Hans-Peter, and Harald Schumann. The Global Trap: Civilization &
the Assault on Democracy & Prosperity. Trans. Patrick Camiller.
Montreal: Black Rose, 1997.
Donella H. et al. The Limits to Growth: a Report for the Club of Rome’s
Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2nd ed. New York: Universe, 1982.
E.F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. New York:
Harper & Row, 1989.
Chester G. A History of the Ancient World. 4th ed. New York: Oxford
Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American
Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. He can be reached at [email protected].
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