Two suspects A, B are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and having separated both prisoners, visit each of them and offer the same deal: if one testifies for the prosecution (turns King’s Evidence) against the other and the other remains silent, the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence and the betrayer goes free. If both stay silent, the police can only give both prisoners 6 months for a minor charge. If both betray each other, they receive a 2-year sentence each.
Such is the classical formulation of the Prisoner’s Dilemna. It is one of the founding problems of game theory. The best case scenario would arise from cooperation: if both prisoners remain silent, both go free. However, not only does betraying the other mean you will go free immediately, but not betraying the other carries a 50% chance of bearing the maximum penalty alone. Altruistic cooperation is so rare in this game that it barely warrants any consideration whatsoever; nearly every game involves one, the other, or both, betraying his fellow.
The Prisoner’s Dilemna provides the logical foundation of why civilization must always continue to grow. Each society faces a choice: do we continue to intensify production, adopt greater complexity, and increase the size or scale of our society, or do we happily accept the level we’re already at? If you choose not to intensify, you will be out-competed by those who do–and your lower level of intensity and complexity will become a resource they can absorb to fuel their further acceleration, whether by outright conquest or more subtle forms of economic or cultural exploitation.
This is the underlying logic of Joseph Tainter’s argument concerning collapse in peer polities in The Collapse of Complex Societies. If one peer polity does choose to collapse, that region becomes a resource that can be exploited by its neighbors. Whoever conquers it first will have an advantage over the others in the continuing race of escalation.
The same logic was successfully applied to the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The growth of civilization can be seen in similar terms. Even when the problems of unrestrained growth are recognized by a society–even when all can plainly see that a smaller-scale, less complex society would be preferable–there is no option to make use of that knowledge. Ultimately, it is an application of Tainter’s principle that no single polity can collapse in a peer polity system (even if that collapse is merely trying to stand still). To do so means becoming less complex than one’s neighbors, to exploit one’s resources less intensively, to have smaller populations, smaller armies, equipped with less material (and less complex material). Such a region will be absorbed by some other, more complex entity–whether directly and military, or indirectly and economically is a trivial distinction, for they both end with the same result, whether de juris or de facto.
Civilization itself is a Prisoner’s Dilemna driving ever greater intensification, complexity and growth. Garrett Hardin compared the “Tragedy of the Commons” quite explicitly to the nuclear arms race; Daniel Quinn, similarly, compared his “Food Race” directly to the arms race. Both illustrate the arms race itself as a single, minor aspect of a much larger phenomenon that in fact defines all of our recorded history: civilization’s need to continue growing, no matter the cost.
Our entire economy is based on the principle of continual and unrestrained growth. The Great Depression did not see a contracting economy–it did not even see the economy ceasing to grow. Instead, the Great Depression was the result of the economy growing only at 75% of its capacity. Not only must our economy continue to grow; it must continue to grow as quickly as possible. In A Theory of Power (ch. 7), Jeff Vail explains:
Misplaced faith in perpetual growth exists as a by-product of the intensifying, hierarchal master pattern that underlies most aspects of human society. Despite the clear reality that we live within a system limited by finite resources, our entire economy rests on the need for continual growth.
The publicly owned corporation serves as an example of a pervasive pattern that cannot accept stability; if it does not provide a regular, growth-based return to its investors, it will find itself quickly dissolved. The press, politicians and the general public often rush to express surprise at the corporate decision making process. Why won’t corporations act as more responsible citizens, help protect the environment, or take better care of their employees? Doing so may provide long-term benefits, not only for society, but also for the corporation’s bottom line. Ultimately, however, the very structure of the corporation constrains it in its decision making process: it must respond to the short-term demand to increase shareholder value, resulting in the ubiquitous, shortsighted decision making of corporate America. Like the corporation, economists see serious trouble for a country’s economy as a whole if it temporarily stops growing, as the debt and inflation based finance structure cannot handle mere stability. Any entity, whether a small business or a national economy, that finances its operation by borrowing money at interest must continually grow in order to remain solvent due to the demands of repaying the time-value of money. No wonder, then, that with an institutionalized demand for continuous growth, our society seems willing to ignore the clear realities of finite resources. This process begs the question: should we view environmental overshoot as a possibility or as a foregone conclusion if we continue with our present economic structure?
Theoretically, let us consider a set of societies who have all agreed on the foreseen consequences of such unrestrained growth, and understand that such rampant growth inside of a finite universe is unsustainable and must ultimately end in collapse. They may adopt the “seventh generation” sustainability outlook that was expected of Iroquois chiefs, or some similar ideology. Regardless, they have the means of intensification, but they are expected all to forego that because of the catastrophe it would visit on all.
We have, in effect, a cartel. Cartels, like OPEC, agree to fix the price of a given commodity they control–usually higher, in order to create greater profits. However, this creates a Prisoner’s Dilemna as well. The first one to defect from the cartel and price his goods lower will out-compete everyone else in the cartel and more than make up in volume what he lost in each unit. Ultimately, cartels always fail–as OPEC will eventually fail–because the incentive to defect is too strong. Eventually, one member of the cartel will defect, and because of its nature, it only takes one defection to bring it all down.
We have the same situations amongst our sustainable societies above. They have made a cartel, pledging not to grow, but to remain stationary. The first member who defects and decides to accelerate his growth will be in a very advantageous position over the rest of the cartel–tipping off the very same “growth race” we see today. The effects of one’s actions to the seventh generation mean nothing if you face extinction at the hands of a more complex, intensive neighbor today.
Thus, civilizations must always grow. Failure to grow makes them vulnerable to other civilizations, and all are compelled to continue the self-reinforcing, positive feedback loop of continual growth, or die trying. Civilizations which fail to grow mark themselves for extinction. Constant growth is the only condition under which civilization can persist. It cannot continue in decline; it cannot continue standing still. In Collapse, Jared Diamond notes that a civilization’s collapse very often swiftly follows its peak. In an article for The New York Times (1 January 2005), titled “The Ends of the World as We Know Them,” he remarks:
History warns us that when once-powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability.
In other words, collapse occurs not when those resources we require run out–it occurs when the acquisition of those resources stops continuing to grow, but not our need for them. When demand outstrips supply, the economy acts to correct the situation. Usually that means a higher price, extinguishing demand–but when the resource is necessary for life, other means may also be necessary. Ultimately, the market always finds a solution; the problem is that most people who trumpet that fact tend to suffer a lack of imagination where what such a solution might entail is concerned. As Joseph Tainter took such pains to point out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, collapse is, above all, an economizing process.