The recent "crises" in the supply of energy on both the east and west coasts raises the question - why has our society neglected this essential utility? At least a portion of the cause must be attributed to our fixation on real or imagined environmental concerns. Nuclear energy was too dangerous because of possible meltdowns and the problem of disposal of nuclear wastes. Coal fired electrical generation plants create too much air pollution. Electrical transmission lines were believed to cause cancer. Electric power companies were gouging the public and must be regulated.
Continuing on the environmental line, how many of us remember the fear of "global cooling" in 1979. What ever happened to the world food crisis predicted in 1969? Why were the solar panels Jimmy Carter put on the roof of the White House taken down? We could go on and on, but you get the idea. Yesterday's crises are often seen as mania in today's light. And environmental excesses shouldn't be singled out. We have plenty of examples in other fields.
This commentary will use a physical analogy in an attempt to explain the cyclical nature of many societal issues. Mechanical relationships, which follow the laws of physics, have the advantage that they can be described by mathematical equations. When a seemingly complex series of events occurs, it is tempting to find a physical analogy that has a similar behavior pattern. We can then substitute factors controlling the complex events for factors controlling the physical events and see how they interact to produce the observed pattern.
A PHYSICAL ANALOGY
A physical analogy that produces a cyclical response which gradually dies away might be a reasonable substitute for the cyclical nature of social activity. The suspension system on your car has a similar response to a disturbance.
The suspension system consists of the car, the springs, and the shock absorbers. Under smooth driving conditions, the springs in the suspension system hold the car up and away from the pavement a nominal distance. When the car hits a bump, the spring is compressed and puts an additional upward force on the car. Since the force against the car is from a spring, there is no instantaneous shock from the bump.
This spring action would continue to cycle the car up and down for a long period of time if it weren't for the shock absorbers. The shock absorbers provide resistance to the up and down motion. The faster the up and down motion, the more resisitance the shock absorbers give. This is often accomplished by an oil filled piston with a small hole. The faster the piston is moved, the more resistance is created by oil passing from one side of the piston to the other through the small hole.
The illustration on the left shows a rear suspension for an automobile. The red coils are the springs while the yellow cyclinders inside the coils are the shock absorber piston cylinders. These assemblies act as a buffer between the wheel axle and the car frame. The spring and shock absorbers are sized according to the weight of the vehicle. The objective is to have the car oscillate only one or two cycles after encountering a shock in the form of a bump in the road.
Let's now substitute appropriate societal factors for the mass of the car, the spring, and the shock absorber. We can find some important insights into human nature by looking at the writings of Robert Ardrey. Ardrey was an important Hollywood screenwriter from 1940 to 1966. Toward the end of his life, he turned his attention to ethology, the study of animal behavior. He popularized the work of many etholgists and surmized that the main driving forces behind animal behavior were identity, security, and stimulation. We will use the latter of these two driving forces in our physical analogy.
Consider a spectrum of people with varying desires for security vs. stiumlation. At one end of the spectrum we find people that are obsessed with security while at the other end we find people that are in constant need of stimulation.
How we propose that this spectrum of people fits into the suspension system model is shown below:
SPRING - The spring represents those people that desire stiuulation and action. This "let's see what happens" approach often trumps analysis and planning.
SHOCK ABSORBER - The shock absorber represents those people who favor security and resist change. Once change has taken place they may become accustomed to it and resist further change in either direction. This type of person often prefers analysis over action.
MASS - Mass appropriately represents the mass of people clustered around the center of the security/stimulation spectrum. For the most part they are neither doers or analyzers. They are primarily looking for direction in their lives and they depend to a large degree on the opinions of others. In the case of the car, it's mass creates inertia which resists movement. In a population, resistance to action is closely related to the persuasiveness of the argument and the efficiency of communication.
The analogy of a bump in the road could represent the sudden occurance of a significant problem in the societal model. It could also represent an important discovery that allows society to reach greater heights. In either case, a new desired societal goal has been identified. What is not generally recognized is that the attainment of almost any goal requires a tradeoff with other goals. There exists an optimum degree of goal attainment that balances the value of that goal with others that may suffer along the way.
The figures 1 through 4 show a horizontal line across the middle. This line represents the optimal level to which a goal should attain after consideration of competing goals. The vertical scale value at this point is zero which represents balance. Either side of this balance point, the scale goes negative because you have either undershot or overshot the optimum level. The zero level is analagous to the position of the car above the pavement when it is running smoothly (in balance).
The starting point of the response curve represents the amount that society must change in order to obtain balance. The people on the stimulation end of the scale begin to push hard toward the balance point and convince the mass of the people to follow. The people on the security end of the scale resist any sudden changes and have a braking effect on the surge upward.
Figure 1 represents a society with few stimulators and lots of security oriented people. This society gradually makes progress towards the goal but it takes a very long time to get there.
Figure 2 represents a society that has a little more stimulation. In fact it has the optimum balance between stimulation and security orientation. The curve goes smoothly to the goal and reaches it in the shortest possible time, considering the mass of people that must be brought along.
Figure 3 shows what happens when we have a higher level of influence from the stimulation oriented people. The damping effect of the security oriented portion of the population is not enough to prevent society from over shooting it's goal. The direction of the curve is reversed when the population becomes painfully aware that they have gone too far. Gradually decreasing amplitude swings on either side occur until society settles into the proper balance.
Figure 4 is an example of a society that has an even more aggressive stimulation oriented segment of the population coupled with a weak security oriented segment. The result is that the cycles stay at a high amplitude for an extended period of time. If the ratio of stimulation to security oriented people were large enough, the cycling may continue indefinitely.
These graphs are an illustration of what might occur with a single event. Society has many situations such as this running in parallel. The composite curve from all these events would be, and is, very complex.
One of the advantages of modeling is that you can often use the model's mathematics to predict how other relationships will affect behavior. In the physical problem, if we lower the weight (inertia) of the car, it will reduce the response time. A shorter cycle would be the result. In the societal context, if we were to reduce the mass effect (inertia) of the population, it would also reduce response time.
One way to lower the mass effect of the population would be to reduce the size of the population. A small group would be more responsive than a larger group. Another possibility might also have the same effect. Increasing the efficiency of communication within the population would be equivalent to reducing population size and decrease response time. It becomes a small world. The mathematical relationships of the model also show that raising the amount of stimulative activity speeds response time.
The cycles shown in the above figures could represent any length of time - from days to centuries. In times past, mythology and taboos often kept a heavy lid on stimulative ideas and actions. As a result, many people could not detect the presense of a cycle within their own lifetimes. Some cycles were so long and slow as to be undetectable except from the perspective of hindsight. Recent history has shown how progess is accelerated by raising that lid.
The above illustrations show that a synergy exists between security and stimulation. If one dominates the other, society has difficulty making progress. Too much security orientation will result in a society that may never reach it's goals. Also, the effect of too much stimulative action is that society may never settle on the optimum solution. Too much stimulative action causes instability which has other consequences that are not so obvious.
The first task for a civilization is the elimination of anarchy and the creation of stability. A lot of effort is directed towards this end through the creation of laws and the justice system. Stability becomes even more important in a capitalistic society where businesses must have some ability to plan ahead. With a wildly gyrating economy and/or system of regulations, the ability to plan is sharply curtailed and businesses will be reluctant to invest in the future. But we must realize that stability is a double edged sword. Too much stability leads to stagnation. Society must also allow enough freedom for innovation and risk taking - these are the seeds of progress.
We must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time!