Cooperative Culture–Energy Characteristics

Together; The Rituals, Pleasures, and Politics of Cooperation, R. Sennett, 2012 Yale Univ. Press

by Mary Logan

Professor Dave Tilley suggested a review of Richard Sennett’s new book, Together; The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation.  The book was thoughtfully written. Sennett traces the nature and evolution of cooperation in society, and examines the reasons for the lack of cooperation in current society, and how we can reclaim it. He examines the relationship of cooperation to solidarity, competition, and ritual.  Sennett views cooperation realistically; he understands that cooperation is not innately benign, and has its own problems, as people who are bound together can then do harm to others. He discusses the need to rebuild cooperation using the metaphor of repair work embodied in a social workshop, as suggested by the book’s cover painting at right, Making a Staircase by Frances Johnston. He makes a number of fascinating points; for example, he describes the institutionalization of cooperation in the form of solidarity as the Left’s response to the evils of capitalism. Sennett ends the book with a quote from Jacob Burckhardt about modern times as an “age of brutal simplifiers”. Sennett suggests that:

Today, the crossed effect of desires for reassuring solidarity amid economic insecurity is to render social life brutally simple: us-against-them coupled with you-are-on-your-own. But I’d insist that we dwell in the condition of “not yet.” Modernity’s brutal simplifiers may repress and distort our capacity to live together, but do not, cannot, erase this capacity. As social animals we are capable of cooperating more deeply than the existing social order envisions . . . . (Sennett, 2012, p. 280).

Sennett is a sociologist; while he does not view the world through an energy lens, he is aware of the unbalanced nature of our competitive society and the need for return to a more civil, cooperative society. He blames our cultural woes on industrial society and capitalism, thus he arrives at some of the same conclusions as those who frame their worldview using an energetic focus. A society based on grossly surplus energy creates extremes of inequity, with weakened social cohesion, psychological withdrawal, and loss of justice.

As I read the book, I found the need to take notes, as a slightly different perspective unfolded than that of the author. As I read, wearing my spectacles made with energy lenses, I saw the give and take of mutualism throughout history as a function in part of societies with surplus energies (high gain) and less surplus energies (low gain). Viewing the world energetically was briefly fashionable in the 1970s for many science specialties, including ecology and anthropology. Ecologists addressed the issues of succession and relative energy availability in systems in structural terms, and cultural Anthropologists wrote about ecological anthropology. But these approaches to energetic gain generally faded in theoretical popularity in the 1980s after the oil shocks diminished, except for notable holdouts such as Tainter and Allen, who have continued to develop theories viewed through an energetic lens, based on environmental determinism. Many science specialties including ecology dispensed with an energetic world view at the same time that western society as a whole dispensed with it.

The review morphed into a summary of potential characteristics of a new culture. So here, below, is an optimistic view of how a society with less surplus energy might develop as we descend, and what some of those changes might look like. This table is a work in progress, garnered from a number of different sources; some are referenced below.

Characteristic: Low Gain (Scarcity) High Gain (Surplus Resources)
Energy Mandate Efficiency more important for Maximum Empower Maximum Empower w/ less efficiency
 Less dense, less technology Increased size, more technology
Slower, less productive, more recycling Faster, wasteful of energy, high entropy, open mineral cycles
Sustainable orientation, pulsing, k-selection Growth Orientation r-selection
Zero Sum or Negative Sum Positive Sum Game
Requires stable energy base Boom and bust more common
Focus Community Needs Individual Wants
 Goal Communal harmony?, quality Wealth, quantity
 Relation to Nature  Living within Nature as stewards Separate from Nature, less stewardship
 Spatial Orientation Localized, smaller capacity, more stratification, heterogeneity Global, colonization, urbanization
 Temporal Orientation 7 Generations + perspectives Next quarter outlook
Hierarchy Shorter food chain length Longer more complex hierarchies
Diversity More diversity, parallel units, narrow niches Less diversity, less complex webs, broad niches
 Ethics Centered on Community, Justice Focused on Individual Personhood, Respect for Personhood, Autonomy
 Needs Hierarchy Focus on basic needs Focus on higher needs
More self-reliance Needs supplied by system
 Equity More equity, less division Less equity
Physical Better genetic fitness Larger mass, better health, more offspring
 Psychological Depression/vigilance OK Techno-optimism
Generalists More diversity in terms of specialties
Focused on Maintenance Focused on Expansion
 Social Extended families, guilds Nuclear families, mobility
Cooperation Competition
Altruism, Gift economies Inequality, Winner takes all
Mutual Dependence, Harmony Independence, Mobility
 Political Less freedom, more equality Capitalism (more freedom, less equal)
Increased regulation, stored info Just-in-time
Grass Roots Centralized
Network Silos, bureaucracies
Symbiosis Darwinism, Social Insurance
Externalize Internalities? Internalize Externalities
 Cultural More Ritual, myths, stories Division of labor, Information society
Stricter Values Looser Value systems, self-indulgence?
Civility, conformity Experiments, social deviance
Selflessness Self-aggrandizement
More resistance, less resilience Rapid evolution

from Odum, 1969; Tainter et al., 1996, 2003; Sennett, 2012, Roszak, 2003

6 thoughts on “Cooperative Culture–Energy Characteristics”

  1. I can’t help think of the geographical areas associated with the two different views, and the difference in energy sources in those regions. I was just looking at this map this morning, showing the locations where people work for corporations.

    The cold areas of the world are where all of the “scarcity” responses grew up. The warm areas of the world are where all of the “surplus resources” responses grew up. As we go forward with less energy available, all will be affected. But the global warm areas are better prepared to provide for a reasonably large population. The cold areas will especially be affected by shortages, since they started out short to begin with.

    1. Oops! I think I got it backwards. The low gain societies are in the “Global South”. The high gain societies are in the “Global North.” The high gain societies were able to get that way, by outsmarting the natural environment, by using lots of fossil fuels. The low gain societies started from more abundance, and had less need for fossil fuel gain. I still see the Global North as being more affected by fossil fuel shortages. But the Global South is now vastly overpopulated as well.

  2. Hi, Gail. Interestingly enough, HT’s father studied the social and economic forces at work in the Southern Regions. He and his brother got their holistic viewpoint from their father.

    IMO, this seems to me to be a classic example of the maximum power principle. The North got out in front early, using fossil fuels, building complexity and finally industrializing. Those that have get more, through the feedback loops that develop. Then those in the “superior” North looked around, and realized that the South was backwards using real slaves instead of fossil fuel slaves, and the Civil War was born. It is easy to be morally and ethically superior from a stance of surplus energy inputs? Which just makes me wonder what is in store for us in the future as our value system shifts along with everything else in our world view?

    Then they found oil in Texas, and air conditioning was born, and the South was off to the races. Interestingly enough, when I look up the dates for those, modern ac was born in 1902, and Texas’ Spindletop struck in 1901.

    ETA: I’m just as worried about the concentration of NPPs in the Northeast as the concentration of complexity? It all hinges on the electricity. If we were to have a sustained blackout in the northeast . . . .

    Mary Logan

  3. Billie Holiday understood maximum empower, in her song “God Bless the Child”

    Them that’s got shall get
    Them that’s not shall lose
    So the Bible said and it still is news
    Mama may have, Papa may have
    But God bless the child that’s got his own
    That’s got his own

    Yes, the strong gets more
    While the weak ones fade
    Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade
    Mama may have, Papa may have
    But God bless the child that’s got his own
    That’s got his own

    Money, you’ve got lots of friends
    Crowding round the door
    When you’re gone, spending ends
    They don’t come no more
    Rich relations give
    Crust of bread and such
    You can help yourself
    But don’t take too much
    Mama may have, Papa may have
    But God bless the child that’s got his own
    That’s got his own

    Mama may have, Papa may have
    But God bless the child that’s got his own
    That’s got his own
    He just worry ’bout nothin’
    Cause he’s got his own

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