All Nature Is Conservative.

A time of transition/structural change/social upheaval.

There exists a simple reason which explains the essential conservatism of all nature and this applies to every living system regardless of complexity.

Consider a simple living system, such as a single cell. Within that cell all energy seeks to continue. That is, the cell seeks to continue being a cell and is not designed to break down. If the latter were true then we as multi cellular animals would be forever struggling to exist as parts of us broke down. (Note this is not intended to refer to the process of entropy, the inexorable break-down of all matter; or to autopoiesis, the ongoing replacement of cells).

Thus, moving from the center of the cell to its boundary brings about an increase in the intensity of conservation. As the boundary is neared the conservative effort needs to be greater than it was at the center of the cell. This is what prevents the cell collapsing in upon itself.

Beyond the cell however there is another order of compliance. Outside the boundary of the cell is the need to comply with the structural needs of the next order, in this case say some tissue of which the cell is part. So we have an integral cell continuing to exist, according to its structure and also complying with the next level of hierarchy. That is, there are two directions of compliance, one building up and ending at the cell’s boundary and one taking over once the boundary is passed.

This analogy can be taken further with similar results. The tissue is structured to continue being tissue and this is the internal conservation. However the next level of order, say an organelle, requires the tissue to comply with its (the organelle’s) needs.

This two-fold direction of conservation may be viewed in figure 1.

Another way to look at this relationship of inner and outer is to consider one’s home.
Inside the home a family conserves its own mores, ways of being in short ‘house rules’. Now these exist and are conserved regardless of the public rules issued by authorities. However, when members of the family go into the public sphere then the house rules do not apply and they must comply with the rules of the greater public. Furthermore it is at the boundaries that the ‘house rules’ will be most strongly defended.

Transition Zone.

This coexistence of inner and outer compliance raises a question. What happens between the two zones beyond a name, transition zone? Very little is known about this event. The changes can be described but this does’t explain what actually occurs. It is a wonderful mystery which defies our best attempts to measure either in time or space.

Water in the freezer can be described by saying that gradually the temperature drops until ice forms at zero degrees C. This however does not explain what occurs at that moment in which the first droplets of water change from being liquid into crystalline ice. Similarly we can describe what it looks like to watch the kettle boil. Water approaches boiling point and steam emerges often driving a whistle announcing the boil. Yet this fails to explain the detail of the first droplets changing from liquid to gas. We just don’t know. This is the realm of advanced thermodynamics.

What we do know is that transition zones can be momentous because at these zones structure changes, often dramatically. To ordinary human empiricism, that is, to our senses, there is no relation between liquid water and crystalline ice. Nor any between that same water and gaseous steam. To our senses these are dramatically different states and structures.

For those who may wish to follow this more academically then an excellent starting point is the work of Ilya Prigogine, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1977 " for his contributions to non-equilibrium thermodynamics, particularly the theory of dissipative structures".

In simple terms Prigogine’s theory goes something like this: a system which is open with many points of instability has a high chance of changing structure once boundaries are met. In a closed system, such as a cold cup of coffee, there is little opportunity/energy to change. When the system is open however and there is a free-flow of inputs and outputs then instability can arise and once this reaches a threshold dramatic change occurs. If the graphics capacity was present it would be possible to show a droplet of water. Without disturbance the structure is circular. When a sound, such as a musical note, is continuously played at this droplet, its structure changes. This change is instantaneous at the threshold. If the pitch is increased the structure will change again.

Signs Of The Times

One way for dramatic change to express itself is of course, in chaos. Were you to continue to put objects onto your desk then eventually your desk-top would become a zone of chaos with things falling in all directions. Thus the resultant change does not have to be (to our view) progressive. It may also move in the opposite direction which we may term chaotic. However, Prigogine’s work suggests that the greater the level of instability the greater the opportunity for the system to change to a more complex (progressive) structure.

Since the events known now simply as "9/11" the world has moved into an increasingly conservative, or controlling mode. You may have noticed that civil liberties have been more curtailed and in most places the Police have been given greater authority by legislation. In Australia, under anti terrorist legislation, any individual may be detained without notice or charge for an extended period, without so much as a single phone call to alert family members. Too bad if the individual is innocent or has been mistaken for someone else. When the public complained in Sydney that Police had removed their identification tags and acted abusively on a peaceful, public protest the new Commissioner stated, "that's the way we do business now in NSW." Since he got away with this illegal action it can only be assumed that the Government supported his stance.

You may also have noticed that the large multi nationals and utilities, with which members of the public must deal, increasingly demand more and more information and exert greater control on the provision of their services. Today the writer’s family applied for a telephone connection and was told that the telephone company must first receive proof of home ownership and details of house security systems. Proof of identity has become more important than the identity itself!

A recent survey of small Charities found that the majority no longer even make applications for funding because of what respondents described as a marked preference for ‘acceptable middle-class projects’. An instance may be found in work with men. While there is no men’s shelter in the city of this writer there are large sums allocated to educational programmes designed to increase working men’s involvement with home-life and family. This is not to suggest the latter is not important however it does indicate public priorities. Those working at the unpleasant coal face of social work, such as in needle exchange or heroin support, are deemed less than acceptable.

Australian public radio is fond of offering speakers from The Independent Institute as experts. Such programmes however do not inform the listeners that this Institute is highly conservative and holds views described as ‘right-wing’. Newspapers likewise offer daily columns to Institutes, such as the Sydney Institute, another highly conservative source yet one has to look hard and far to find a think tank representing the ‘left’ of politics. The Australian Institute is a notable exceptions. It almost goes without saying that the shock-jocks of talk-back radio are without exception of a right-wing, conservative persuasion.

So what have these sundry instances got to do with anything?

Implications For Social Theory

If indeed the world we inhabit is increasingly conservative then this strongly suggests that society/civilisation is approaching a boundary. The closer this boundary is neared the more conservative public life may tend to become. The next stage will be a transition zone. This means that there will be (‘will be’ may be asserted although when and how are not predictable) a structural change and the result will be dramatic. It may indeed spell the end of this, and the beginnings of a new, Civilization.

It may be possible to find some clues in the vexing question of euthanasia. This has been a matter for public debate since the late 1980s yet there is no resolution. Some individual States in the USA and Australia temporarily changing legislation permitting the practice however each was short lived and that legislation was revoked. Euthanasia is a vexing question because it touches upon a core value of Western Civilisation, which is generally expressed as the ‘sacredness of life’. Such an assumption is difficult to recognize when the deaths and cultural disasters of the 20th century are considered (e.g. slavery in increasing, pharmaceutical companies refused cheap medicine to sub Saharan Africa which is the epicenter for AIDS, the UN did not intervene in the genocide in Ruanda…).

The reason this question of euthanasia cannot be resolved lies in a conservation of old values which have more in common with the world 2000 years ago than today. We might almost measure this conservation by the rise of fundamental religious behaviour in recent years. The question will remain unresolved until there is a structural change in our Civilisation.

What can individuals do about any of this? Firstly individuals can understand the driving force of conservatism on the planet and cease to be disempowered by the agencies through which it is exerted. “Lay low ” is a wise motto for the time being; avoid wasting energy fighting against a growing conservatism. The fact is it is going to get worse; and while the use of ‘worse’ is a value judgment, it is used because the lot of the poor, the working poor and the maginalised will become increasingly difficult to bear.

You may recall in the 1990s the buzz-words such as public participation and consultation. Where are they now? Governments have taken license since the events of 9/11 to become more controlling, more centralized, more restrictive of social spending, more willing to allocate obscene budgets to military hardware and defence. This is the immediate future, more weapons, greater autocracy, smaller central Government and pronounced limitations of the freedom of the individual.

It may indeed be warfare which brings about the onset of transition, or a collapse in the global economy perhaps triggered by a seemingly insignificant mistake. We are now in the realm wherein a small shift may have the ability to generate substantive changes throughout the system. Those who can will retire and live as well as they can away from major centers, enjoying ordinary everyday life. Those without choice will remain in large urban areas where a computer glitch or a failed power line can immobilize an entire city.

Will Life Be Unrecognisable After Transition?

Not necessarily. On the surface the world may appear almost exactly as it does now.
After all there are many wonderful features of contemporary life; computers, excellent sanitation, medicines, comfortable housing… What is more likely to change is the attitude of human beings. We may well come to know that how we be is more important that what or who we be. Imagine in today’s world everything run by an enlightened attitude wherein personal power and ego are irrelevant; where service is done to express oneself and to serve the greater good rather than one’s own sense of importance. This is the irony. All that really needs to change is attitude. We will conserve the telephone, motor vehicles (albeit on a new fuel base), pubic infrastructure, schools and hospitals and much more. These are not the problem. The problem is an ancient Patriarchy whose time has become exhausted but of course such powerful will not simply hand over power; no they will engage armies to defend it. So in the near future you may expect accountants and lawyers to become more numerous, all at the expense of teachers and nurses. As the beans become more scarce so they will be counted all the more carefully.

The collective consciousness of all humanity will decide the features of the post-transition world. Just as we co-create reality every moment every day so we will co-create the future. The best you can do is follow that ancient advice which was written over the gates of the Temple of Delphi, "know thyself," never was it more relevant for you may be surprised to discover that you are not who you think you are.

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