World History as a Thermodynamic Process
* Article: World History as the synoptic narrative of a thermodynamic unfolding. By Peter Pogany.
excerpted from: “What’s Wrong with the World? Rationality! A critique of economic anthropology in the Spirit of Jean Gebser” (Nov. 5, 2010)
Also published as Appendix B in the book “Havoc: Thy Name is Twenty First Century,” published Oct. 2015.
Prologue, by David MacLeod:
"Peter Pogany (1936-2014) was born in Budapest, Hungary. As a trained Economist, he taught International Economics in Vietnam, worked as a Senior Economist and Statistician for Petroci in the Ivory Coast in Africa; worked as an Economist for the U.S. International Trade Commission (where he contributed to many high-profile U.S. government studies on foreign economic issues), and was an Adjunct Professor at George Washington University.
Pogany framed the stages of recent world history as Global System 0 (GS0), Global System 1 (GS1), Global System 2 (GS2), and Global System 3 (GS3). Each of these can be considered subepochs within modernity. Pogany saw each of these sub-epochs as self-organizing systems where the people embedded in them are so enmeshed socially, culturally, spiritually, economically, that it becomes their 'myth of the given.' They can't see other ways of being or organizing and the system itself reinforces what contributes to the system and squeezes out opposing forces and ideas. Therefore it's very difficult to change the system. Pogany’s views were in line with those of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser, who argued that system change only happens when the existing system goes into decay, and through a chaotic transition the next oncoming system "overdetermines" the previous system.
A kind of progression or cultural evolution can be observed through these different stages, gradually becoming more like an evolved, mature, dynamic ecosystem where dominator species do not thrive, and collaborative species thrive more and more. However, it is not a gradual progression. Pogany framed it as a series of abrupt bifurcations, along the lines Gebser outlined, and consistent with the disequilibrium thermodynamics of Ilya Priogine.
“As elaborated by Ilya Prigogine, the father of modern disequilibrium thermodynamics, a material entity that gains in size while becoming increasingly complex (where complexification is defined as growing volumes of information generated and transmitted among the entity’s decision centers) must undergo an alternation between relative (dynamic) steady states and bifurcations (chaotic transitions).” - Peter Pogany, “ ‘Fifth Structure’ – emergence in economics: Observations through the thermodynamic lens of world history” (2009, p. 4).
"The present analysis is interfused with the thermodynamic theory of world history, which is briefly summarized below. Human population and produced artifacts together may be perceived as a material entity, an aggregation of atoms or, even more generally, that of subatomic particles. This entity, culture, has undergone exponential growth through human activity (extended reproduction both biologically and economically), a process called cultural evolution.
As elaborated by Ilya Prigogine, the father of modern disequilibrium thermodynamics, a material entity that gains in size while becoming increasingly complex (where complexification is defined as growing volumes of information generated and transmitted among the entity’s decision centers) must undergo an alternation between relative (dynamic) steady states and bifurcations (chaotic transitions).
By the end of the 18th century, cultural evolution demanded global-scale organization to maintain its accelerating mode. The chaotic transition that began with the French Revolution and ended in the early 1830s led to the establishment of the world’s first global system (GS1), characterized by laissez faire and metal money. It lasted from approximately 1834 (the “birthday of the industrial proletariat” [Polanyi], a year of intense legislation in Britain concerning the poor) until the outbreak of World War I in 1914. The period 1914-1945 was another chaotic transition that brought the second and current global system (GS2) -- mixed economy/weak multilateralism -- into existence. (Until the end of the Cold War, socialism remained an unsuccessful alternative for global self-organization.)
At present, physical limits are beginning to slow cultural evolution. Its demand for free (accessible) energy (in the form of low entropy matter and energy carriers), and capacity to absorb pollution are coming into conflict with non-expendable terrestrial constraints. As a consequence, the world has either entered or is on the verge of entering another period of chaotic transition. A new global system (GS3), two-level economy/strong multilateralism, will be needed to create a sustainable balance between culture and humanity’s ecological niche. Micro-activities will have to be made legally subject to globally-determined and nationally allocated macro-constraints. The required transformation of individual behavior and institutions will be vast. " (http://www.humanthermodynamics.com/Fifth_Structure_Emergence_in_Economics.pdf)