Down the rabbit hole

One of the most fascinating tidbits from the new Bill Bonner book, Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets, is the discovery by anthropologists of a limit to the number of human interactions the brain is capable of processing.  Citing British researcher Robin Dunbar:

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.  Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.

What’s more, Dunbar’s research uncovered dozens of examples of hunter-gatherer cultures whose average village size was 150.  So it goes for the modern-day Hutterite communities of the Dakotas and the Canadian Prairies.  A cohesive fighting unit in the military is limited to about 150 or 200.  But as Bonner and co-author Lila Rajiva point out, this number is far smaller than what we find in most modern organizations. 

Seen this way, it’s no wonder big government and big business are so dysfunctional – too much top-down control over too many people. 

Will this ever change?  Could society scale itself down to units of more manageable size?

If you listen to the most radical of the Peak Oil theorists, the answer is yes — and in fact, that change will be forced upon us.  James Howard Kunstler in the The Long Emergency predicts that as energy becomes much more scarce, all commerce will become much more localized.  Lettuce from California and orange juice from Florida will be a luxury, not a staple.  Food will increasingly be grown locally, because it will be too expensive to ship it in from elsewhere.  And if goods and services are increasingly produced on a local level, that implies a significantly smaller scale of societal interaction.  In Kunstler’s view, a household good that comes now from a multinational corporation using iron mined in Australia, the parts assembled in China, and the finished product shipped to Los Angeles, might be produced locally in the future – if it’s produced at all.

I’m not saying this is how events will pan out in a Peak Oil world.  But it’s interesting to contemplate in light of the proposition that humans function optimally in groups of limited size.

Now let me take this a step further, and venture into the realm of counterfactual history.  Is there any way in which modern society might have evolved in line with this notion of Dunbar’s “magic number” of 150?  Well, consider what we might call the Founding Conflict of America – Alexander Hamilton’s vision of “energetic government” with special favors for favored businesses versus Thomas Jefferson’s minimalist government that would play no favorites.

Hamilton, of course, won that conflict, even as he lay dying from a duel while Jefferson occupied the White House.  Hamilton’s vision animated the Federalist Party, later the Whigs, then the early Republicans, finally reaching a point where today it’s just one big bipartisan free-for-all of pork and pelf. 

But what if Jefferson had gotten his way instead?  Because in addition to the debate over the scope of government, the Founding Conflict was also about whether America was to develop along industrial or agrarian lines.  Hamilton, of course, favored industry – a vision that in the 19th Century developed into the “American System” of roads, canals, and railways supported by a national banking system and a steep protective tariff.  All this was anathema to Jefferson.  But how might a society replete with modern conveniences have developed under Jefferson’s agrarian vision?  Would it have been a system of self-sustaining farms, largely independent of “the grid”?  Would there even be a “grid” per se?  Would the growth of cities have been inherently limited this way – obviously not to numbers as low as 150 but certainly not as large as the modern megalopolis that defined 20th Century America?

OK, I’ve ventured pretty far down the rabbit hole here.  But Mobs is the kind of book that can take you on a train of thought to destinations unknown – even while it reads as easily as any of Bill’s essays in the DR.  It’s #1 on Amazon’s Business & Investing list, #8 overall as I write.  Recommended reading, for sure.  Order here.