In physics, there are Conservation Laws, which are among the most important discoveries mankind has ever made. The great-granddaddy is Conservation of Energy, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. An unexpected energy imbalance has driven a lot of physics; for instance, neutrinos were discovered mathematically long before they were actually detected because of an energy imbalance in beta decay.
In the human social world, the conservation laws are not so obvious. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that there are many quantities that are quasi-conserved across years and decades, with a balance that accurately reflects the deposits and withdrawals made against it. I say quasi because they are quite as pure as Physics conservation laws, and they usually involve fundamentally innumerate quantities anyhow. But they still come close to a conserved quantity for it to be useful for understanding things in the real world.
More interestingly, there seems to be action thresholds for many of these quantities, where a series of small deposits can add up until a threshold is crossed, and the potential suddenly arcs out and does somethings splashy. Depending on what happens, some things spend themselves entirely this way, and other things are able to build up enough "investment" to become self-sustaining forces for change.
One positive example of the latter is the Civil Rights movement. Every time a man was told he couldn't have a job because of his color, every racial slur, every act of active and passive violence built up an immense debt in our society of unrest and frayed social fabric, until it went arcing out in the Civil Rights protests we are all so familiar with.
The chaos and violence that resulted was ultimately an expression of the weakness of the social fabric and the fundamental unrest that had been building up. Unrest is conserved; you can't get rid of it without it being expressed. You might think that it was theoretically possible to get from the attitudes and opinions of the 1950s to the attitudes and opinions of today without such violence and unrest, but I do not believe it was. The unrest could not just be dissipated, it had to go somewhere. Any attempt to re-direct it would be like trying to dam up a river; you can hold back the water for a time, you can make it come out somewhere else, but sooner or later if you don't allow it to come out, it will force its way out. Human emotions are very real, and they can not just be waved away, no matter how desirable that may be.
But damming the river seems like a good idea to a lot of people, because the immediate effects are plainly visible (the flow stops), while the hidden effects are, well, hidden, locked up subtly in a myriad of little things, the play of relationships, the tone of a community, the tiny attitudes that children pick up on without ever realizing it and weave them into foundation of their souls. Unlike a lake resulting from a backup, the buildup of these social quantities can be hard to see even if you are looking for them, and it's very easy to willfully miss them.
I think that is what makes this idea easy to miss; you'd think if there was some sort of "buildup" of these things that we would notice them. But we don't, because they typically express themselves in the most structural aspect of the fabric of our lives, the yardstick we're trying to measure with in the first place. How do you measure the cultural cohesion of a country? It exists as billions upon billions of small, unmeasurable interactions taking place every day. How polite are people? Do people hold the doors open for other people? Are there agreed upon standards for behavior? Are they followed? Do people tolerate corruption? Is some form of honor alive? What are people talking about, and how do they feel about the topic? It's impossible to have any view but an extremely local one, and it's hard to see the true pattern of the mosaic when you are merely a small part of one little tile. The small slice that you experience is easily ignored, missed, or rationalized away.
Speaking broadly, Empires fall when the elite of the Empire over-estimate the strength of the empire, and withdrawals exceed deposits for long enough, until the Empire is a hollow shell that can be knocked down by any ol' band of marauding barbarians.
Coming forward to more recent times, I am reminded of the unrest experienced in France in the summer of 2005, remarkable both for its duration and relative freedom from violence-to-humans. By this theory, the unrest has been at least partially expressed, and I wouldn't be surprised if this year passes relatively free of incident as a result.
On the other hand, the French did nothing to address the root causes of the violence. They were able to successfully sweep the problem under the carpet for 2005. As a result, the same forces that produced the unrest that fueled the first riot are still there, generating more unrest, and next time the "arcing" is liable to be even more violent. The longer they go without an incident, the worse the eventual incident will be. So I also wouldn't be surprised if it happens again this year, and if it does, I expect it to be even worse.
(In the previous paragraph, I use the phrase "root causes", which has picked up a certain connotation. I use the phrase in its original sense of, well, "root causes". Root cause analysis is almost always a good idea, but root causes are not generally amenable to "discovery by assertion". Usually, if you're not at least somewhat surprised by where the root cause analysis leads you, you didn't do it correctly; the universe is a very tricky place. A root cause analysis that just happen to end up with results that precisely match your previously-held political agenda are almost certainly wrong. That the phrase "root causes" has happened to get attached to an analysis with such a pre-ordained result is unfortunate, and I refuse to cede the otherwise-valuable idea to those people.)
Again on the positive side: The United States is not strong because it has a thriving economy and a strong military. It is strong because it has strong social fabric, a strong tradition of honor and honesty, a tradition of openness and free inquiry, a lack of toleration of corruptness, and many other such things. The US scores a 0 out of 7 of the Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States. None of these things are perfect, but I would say that we are sufficiently good at most of them that we can better perceive deviations from perfection than in countries that don't have these qualities at all. (It is far easier to find even a small stain on a white shirt than to find a large stain on a Hawaiian shirt. This does not prove that the white shirt is more stained than the Hawaiian shirt, nor does it prove that the white shirt has no stains.)
Military strength and economic success are the effects of this strong cultural fabric, not the cause, and if success has any particular effect it causes a degradation of cultural cohesion, not a strengthening.
And while I'm not writing this to particularly discuss the Middle East, one could hardly fail to address it today. In the Middle East, there is a lot of very negative stuff flowing around. If the world is like a human body, the Middle East right now is a highly infected area full of pus. Just as with the civil rights example above, there is no way this pus is going to be expressed without some violence.
There is an unquestioned assumption that many people hold that the mere fact of a policy causing violence proves that the policy is flawed, and that therefore, only policies that cause immediate cessations of violence can be correct. However, with an area as messed up as the Middle East, when a policy emerges that stops violence even temporarily, whether the policy is truly defusing violence or merely allowing it to build up needs to be examined. Is the incoming pus flow stopped and the current reservoir being emptied somehow, or is the flow merely dammed, and the reservoir building?
While it may be theoretically possible to defuse the situation in the Middle East without violence, I believe that the pus backlog in the Middle East is so large that such a solution would require superhuman capabilities to plan and implement. The problems in the Middle East are not just the obvious hatred and violence; it extends into entire countries that score 7 of 7 of the Signs of Uncompetitive States, pathological social structures, and various evil people who have staked their "[their] Lives, [their] Fortunes and [their] sacred Honor" on the perpetuation and cynical manipulation of these pathologies. The hatred and violence is so strong now that it almost certainly has a life of its own above and beyond these pathologies, but it certainly isn't going to go anywhere until some of the foundational problems with these cultures are resolved.
Based on this analysis, I think that in the present time, a policy in the Middle East that manages to produce a short-term peace is almost certainly wrong. It is vital to understand that I believe this not because I am against peace, or that I believe peace is bad, but because I am for peace and I do think it's good. And because I am quite certain that suppressing violence today will only cause far more violence tomorrow, that buying a small amount of peace today at the cost of greater war and evil tomorrow is not a good trade, that I believe that a forced ceasefire is almost certainly not a good thing.
(It should go without saying that even without this conservation-of-pus analysis that a ceasefire enforced only upon one party, which based on the actions of "the international community" appears to be the true aim of "the international community", is an even greater evil. It provokes (justified) resentment and anger on the part of the party that the ceasefire is successfully enforced on, and further trains the party the ceasefire is not enforced on that there is no depth of depravity that they can reach that will cause them to be censured, a lesson you should never ever under any circumstances teach an entire civilization! You build a stable international community by making sure every civilization is taught the exact opposite, that even relatively small international infractions will be punished, yes, "disproportionately". This recent manufactured doctrine of "proportionality" is not just disingenuous, it is one of the most destabilizing doctrines I can imagine. In the terms of this essay, it builds right into its foundational structure both the mechanism for generating pus and the mechanism for making sure it gets dammed.)
We have arrived in this situation in the Middle East because nobody, least of all the leadership of the Middle East, have been willing to address the "root causes" of the problems in the middle east. Again, consult the Seven Signs of Uncompetitive States and see how many are collectively exemplified and culturally enshrined by the leadership; if you're willing to give partial credit for exhorting people to work... for the express purpose of taking down the "Zionist Entity" and the "Great Satan"... I count 6.5 of 7, but that's being pretty generous. Always the Great Powers choose short-term expedience, and we are now reaping the joyous benefits of a region where we have collectively chosen the short-term fix for at least a hundred years now. (If the United States and the rest of the civilized world prove that the heights that Man can reach are nearly unbounded with technology, the Middle East proves that the depths that Man can reach are similarly almost unbounded; without the flow of money and technology the countries of the Middle East would have long since collapsed into backwards little states barely capable of arming themselves to go over and stomp on and repressed their neighbors. See: Africa.)
What's the solution to the Middle East problems? This sort of analysis can't tell you that. But it can tell you that it is not going to take the form of something where suddenly, one day, everybody wakes up and is happy with their situation and no longer hate the Jews. Unfortunately, the violence we see erupting due to our current attempts at solutions in Iraq and the current Israeli-Hezbollah war are necessary aspects of any solution. Perhaps even more unfortunately (because it sure would be great if the solution was this easy to discern), the violence is not a sufficient condition for a solution. (I use "necessary" and "sufficient" in the mathematical sense; in this case, it means that any correct solution to the problems in the Middle East will unfortunately and regrettably contain violence, probably quite a lot, but the mere fact of violence does not prove that the solution is correct.) No matter what we do, there is an element of risk, but contrary to popular opinion, that risk is maximized if we try to artificially suppress the violence without addressing the underlying factors creating the violence.
This is just a sampling both of the conserved quantities and the situations in the world that I think are best understood in-the-large through this sort of analysis. The big, splashy "arcings" of various potentials, the wars, genocides, riots, protests, social upheavals, get all the attention, but they all come from billions of little deposits and withdrawals upon the conserved quantities that these events are based on. If you want to see the wars coming, you need to see whether the society is making a net deposit or withdrawal on the relevant accounts over time.
And most importantly of all, I believe you can take away two important lessons from this analysis:
- The contributions of your daily actions may be small (like the effect of one vote), but you are doing your part to determine whether the social fabric receives a deposit or a withdrawal that day. Just like with the vote, the summation of everybody's decisions can add up to something very important. When you act with honor, when you are polite, when you work for justice, when you act with dignity, you are not the only one being affected; you are setting the tone for your society. Even if there is a cost to you, society may benefit, and thus indirectly you do, too. (I'd also say that while you shouldn't be an ass about it, it is appropriate to hold people around you to these standards. You have an interest in whether they meet these standards because you have an interest in the society they affect.)
- I used nations as examples in this essay, because we all experience these things and we can all consult history, but this analysis works for groups of all sizes. If you wish to avoid potentially destructive "arcings", the best strategy is not to try to suppress them directly, or just "dam the flow". The best strategy is to try to change the little interactions that lead to such destructive outbursts; to build a more positive culture one deposit at a time, and to encourage others to also do that. Leaders (formal or otherwise) will find that if they tend to the small things, they are more likely to build a culture that can be resilient against the big things.
So, this long and somewhat rambling essay actually ends in a tip in how to manage your office environment. You just never know where an essay will end up, you know?