Commentary & sustainability analysis
The account I have given of Morris’s thought has been much reduced and simplified – to do him justice you could read his books.
Much of the casual history we read in newspapers, novels and popular literature, is short-term history about people – it is social history. Morris’s human drama is played out as a long-term theory of human access and use of life’s basic resources and in this sense it is an economic history. But his key themes, the life-sustaining resource of food energy and the social significance of fossil fuels goes directly to the heart of human historical dependence on plants.
Morris’s long-term history thesis takes us to a historically strange place – the evolutionary context of organism and environment. As long-term human history it is, at the same time, short-term human evolutionary theory.
In the course of the dialectic of human-environment adaptation selection pressure came first from nature (geography) and subsequently from culture (people and institutions).
This voyage through social, economic and environmental history must be part of our journey to sustainability.
We might not agree with all of Morris’s analysis but he has a clear framework for his thought and challenges us to do better, identifying his approach to history as reductionist, materialist, universalist, functionalist, and evolutionist: reductionist because he teases out the barest and most important causal links in the chain of historical causation; materialist because he identifies material causes rather than cultural forces as more important in shaping long-term history; universalist in that his theory covers more than 95% of people who ever lived, although it does exclude steppe pastoralists; functionalist in regarding values as adaptive traits constrained by our range of moral intuitions (‘values always exist only in the real world, as parts of actual social systems’); evolutionist by being a supporter of social evolution and the claim that moral and social systems are cultural adaptations.
Morris’s long-term temporal scale draws our attention to spatial scale as geography: small village settlements became towns, cities, city states and empires based around resources, mostly energy, firstly local but subsequently based around river valleys, then oceans. Energy and geography were the key determinants of where and when things happened over the long term. The question of why they happened at all is more a biological question about human nature.
Morris is modest about the role of historians. If we want to know why history is the way it is we need to look to biology – to human human nature; if we want to know how it works we need to look to sociology; and if we need to know where certain changes are likely to have occurred in the past then we should look to geography.
He tackles, head-on, the key historical question ‘Why did human history unfold the way it did?’ , by identifying energy capture as the core factor, associated with geography, this regulating the social organization and value systems of past societies (only evident when history is viewed long-term).
Although Morris acknowledges the halting messiness and waywardness of social selection he clearly thinks that human history has not been a random and accidental process. Indeed, though nothing in history is ever absolutely certain, historical outcomes have not been arbitrary because social evolution is ‘path-dependent‘ . . . ‘the state of a society today constrains what it might turn into tomorrow . . .’ ‘Those events most likely to occur often do!’.
Morris goes on to consider how the phases of history (accounting for more than 95% of all people, but largely ignoring steppe pastoralists) can be accounted for in this way. Geography is the key determinant of the time and place wh/ere/en three major energy transformations occurred.
Finally he considers whether these major phases of history were inevitable – concluding that they were: and then speculates on future energy use and societies.
Historians will point out alternative scenarios. Why does Morris regard geography as having such a large influence on social organization – why not religion, culture, science, or technology? Why does he think that, over the long term, it is material rather than cultural factors that have shaped history; that our long-term history has been about energy and ‘maps not chaps’?
Geography, he argues, accounted for the origin of agriculture in the ‘lucky latitudes’ where there were plants and animals that could be domesticated in the amenable bioclimatic conditions that arose in these regions after the last Ice Age.
Increasing social organization facilitated migration to fertile river valleys where trading cities were built. And, with people increasingly based in maritime coastal areas, trade and influence in the West spread from river valleys to the Mediterranean, then to ports of north-west Europe bordering the Atlantic that would flourish from a new triangular trans-Atlantic circular trade of manufactured products in Europe to Africa where slaves were loaded, and on to the plantations of the Americas, with profits to be made at each port. The rest of the world, explored from the Indian and Pacific Oceans, gave up the secrets of its spices and other products and resources.
Large-scale agriculture and cities arose independently in different parts of the world suggesting stages in an inexorable process of social complexification.
There was a high probability that farming would emerge given suitable conditions and, once established, the benefits of scale were so great that the future of foragers were bleak when aligned against the armies, cities, technology and accumulating written knowledge of Agraria. Social pressures propelled foragers towards an urban and rural lifestyle rather than the reverse, drawing Agrarians into the healthier freedom of nomadic foraging but which was generally more violent. ‘No one chose hierarchy and working longer hours; these things crept up on them’ . . . ‘. . . it was as close to inevitable as anything in history can be’ . . . ‘In general the most likely things to happen, do’.
We can ask many questions: is history really only about the ascendancy of one people over another – high and low scores? Aren’t values, at least in part, a consequence of rational consideration rather than just biological traits or social forces? Can history’s complexity really be distilled down to just a few key causal factors, why isn’t apparent complexity real multi-factor complexity? Regardless: having a strong thesis to attack is a great way to advance.
Rising energy capture, a cultural adaptation to changing environments, has created selective pressure for the development of certain kinds of social organization and values. Forager daily energy use would not exceed about 10,000 kcals/person/day, agrarians from about 10,000-30,000 this rocketing to 230,000 kilocalories in the 1970s. Agraria was a better survival machine that small nomadic bands, and Industria better again. Morris points out that this is an empirical observation that ‘does not necessarily mean that there is no such thing as a single, all-best set of values, whether it be calculated in terms of a telos toward which our values inevitably move, or utility, or the categorical imperative, or a difference principle’ but ‘The reality is that values cannot be separated from the concrete world in which they are held ‘. . . what moral philosophers have really done is argue about what kinds of values work . . . at their own stage of energy capture . . . ‘
History, like other subjects in the arts, is threatened by the scientific sword of Damocles. The deep mysteries of the human spirit and its motivation are being unlocked by psychologies of every kind and shade. The once opaque machinations of society are being dissected, analyzed and quantified by economists, aided by social and political scientists. Ancient human societies are best understood, not by historians, but by archaeologists and anthropologists. So what remains for the historian? Whatever it is – it is getting smaller.
Most historians explain the past in terms of culture, beliefs, values, institutions, or blind accident rather than the hard surfaces of material reality preferred by Morris. Soft culture is mostly where history and the humanities reside: material causes are more in the realm of the sciences and perhaps one reason why historians would rather give them a miss.
Morris is a historian with a natural science bent. We feel intuitively that material factors must underlie the cultural. We cannot develop religion, science, art, ideologies and good government if we have nothing to eat. His acknowledgement of energy as underlying social activity is a surprising admission coming from a historian, but extremely welcome, especially as a contribution towards the opening up of cross-disciplinary studies rather than a curmudgeonly hunkering down into the silos of specialization.
Over the 10,000 years of his analysis there has been more than a 90-fold decrease in violent death which he attributes to the overseeing that occurs in regulated state societies. As Morris himself points out  his view that values are a consequence of social circumstances has the ring of moral relativism that conflicts with our intuition that at least some values must hold regardless of convention or historical circumstance. Are values really just a matter of functional adaptation? Can and should underlying values be subject to ideological distortion, material scarcity, insecurity and other social and economic conditions.
Moral philosophers distinguish between moral values that can be identified as true or objective, identified in Morris’s text as Real Moral Values (would murder be ‘right’ if we all took a ‘murder pill’ for example? Is morality relative?) Actual values in societies are referred to as Positive Values. For Morris, particular values are held by particular people at particular places and times ‘… it is positive values all the way down’ as they serve evolutionary and social functions. For Morris shared core values – fairness, justice, love, hate, respect, loyalty, preventing harm, and a sense of the sacred – are reinterpreted across successive stages of human development (see also Moral philosophy). ‘For me wrong behaviour is something that violates my strongly held, fossil fuel interpretations of biologically evolved human values’. Many would find the idea of morality as just being different at different times or stages of social evolution as inadequate. We can challenge this particular sense of moral progress.
Moral values arrived at through reason have nothing to do with evolution except insofar as reason itself (not just the content of value, but the capacity to value) is a product of evolution. Sometimes our values are immediate and impulsive, sometimes they are longer-term practical responses to the world around us, and sometimes they are based on long-term rational considerations in which practicality plays little if any part. We also reflect on our values without automatically endorsing them all. Perhaps, like our capacity for scientific knowledge, our values develop slowly through history. We can explain changes in value systems over time in different ways but a kind of total social determinism does not feel intuitively correct. We are conscious of values made for reasons of expediency and values that may be of more lasting worth. Acceptance is not endorsement. Perhaps Morris’s biologicism dismisses the philosophers too quickly.
Wealth equality is an unlikely prospect as we have experienced a great divergence in recent times. Plato recommended no more than a fourfold difference in wealth between the people of Athenian society. When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776 th difference between rich and poor nations was about fourfold. Today th discrepancy between rich and poor is about 55-fold, figure than certainly needs to be addressed for many reasons.
Scale (population size) has produced hierarchy but this has diminished as scale gets larger, suggesting that energy use and not scale is the ultimate cause just as capitalism too is a proximate not ultimate cause.