Energy, culture, and Civilization

I only recently came across the ideas of Leslie White (1900-1975). White was an American anthropologist who developed a mathematical model for civilization. Civilization, or Culture, according to White, is a product of Energy and Technology (C = E x T). His thought was that every human culture begins with a certain amount of energy at its disposal – primarily, food, which gets transformed by humans into work. Technology – like farming, irrigation, animal husbandry, etc – can be thought of as something like an accelerant, making more energy available or making its employment more efficient. At some point, there is surplus energy, which allows for a class of people who can do something other than meet the needs of survival – so we get priests, politicians, administrators, artists, philosophers, scientists, and so on. Culture then stagnates unless more energy becomes available. In his words (on Wikipedia), “‘the basic law of cultural evolution’ was ‘culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased’.” He was, needless to say, a socialist.

In one of White’s earlier essays, he goes so far as to claim that civilization in the west stayed pretty much at the same level from about 2000 BCE (farming) until the 18th or 19th century CE, or roughly the time of the industrial revolution. That’s when a distinctly new form of energy developed (steam), which allowed for a giant step forward. (One can see from this that White was a very big-picture guy; the Renaissance does not appears even as a tiny blip on his map of cultural evolution.) He didn’t see another step coming until nuclear energy or solar energy provided a new burst of available energy.

In his own day, White was at odds with the bulk of historians and anthropologists, especially the followers of Franz Boas, who looked at culture in more qualitative, idealistic ways. His work, then and now, is regarded as overly reductive – which is surely right, but then again, it’s not nothing, either. I came across his work while reading a more recent book in the same vein, The Measure of Civilization (Princeton UP, 2013), by Ian Morris. Morris’s work is more qualified and plausible, to be sure, but it is keyed to White’s essential insight. Instead of “Culture” or “Civilization”, Morris writes of “social development,” which he defines as “a measure of communities’ abilities to get things done in the world” (p. 5). He develops this measurement by starting with the UN’s Human Development Index, which takes into account life expectancy, education, and standards of living (GDP per capita). For his own purposes, he modifies the HDI formula and instead bases his “scores” on four traits: energy capture per person, social organization, information technology, and war-making capacity. He posits “1000” as the highest possible score by 2000 CE, and traces the advances of the east and the west century by century. By the end, “the west” has a score of 906.37 and “the east” has a score of 564.83.

Basically, what White and Morris have worked to provide is a score system for the real-world game of Civilization. But it is one based on considerable research and insight. It certainly is overly reductionistic if one thinks it is the only measure worth taking interest in, but Morris wisely doesn’t recommend that. He’s just trying to develop an large-scale, quantitative picture of global human social development, and if that’s what you want, he provides a pretty decent measurement.

Of course, now that I’ve mentioned Civilization, I have to point out that it also provides a scoring system; after all, that’s the game. And this leads me to wonder how the real world stacks up in terms of Civilization’s own system of scoring. Unsurprisingly, one can find the answer to this on the internet. On a reddit thread for Civ 5 a couple of years ago, “onlydrinksliquids” generously provided the following assessment:

After some googling, I came up with the following components for score: Number of cities, population, land area, tech level, and wonders built. The straight number of each is multiplied by a modifier and then they are summed. The modifiers are as follows:

Number of cities: 8

Population: 4

Land Area: 1

Techs: 4

Wonders: 25

Future Tech: 10

My conversions for the above to real world metrics were as follows:

I used the cities present on this list [“Global Cities” list] as the cities each country controls in the present day.

I pegged the value of one population point to one million citizens. I’m pretty sure that the in-game demographics counter has a real value for this, but it isn’t linear and this is much easier to deal with.

For land area, assuming that we are using a huge map, I divided the circumference of the Earth, around 40.000 km, by 128 tiles, the width of a huge map. One can find the area of one tile, then to be around 75.000 sq km. From there I divided a country’s land area given on wikipedia by 75k to find that score component. This actually ended up not mattering as much as it should, giving ridiculously small values for the number of cities in question, so I ended up multiplying this value by 4 for every country to balance it (assuming my map is 4x huge size). I think this was my only deviation from the actual score formula.

Techs were pretty straight forward. There are 80 techs not counting Future Tech, and most countries I used were at about the same tech level, 78 techs researched (Nanotech and Fusion are not yet real life). I had India, Brazil and Indonesia at a little less than that, 77 for India and Brazil and 75 for Indonesia. No country has ‘Future Tech’ yet so nothing there.

Wonders are straightforward, just counting how many each country has within their borders today.

Since I was initially assuming a huge map, I stopped at 12 civs. The scoreboard is as follows.

China 6455

India 5438

USA 2621

Russia 1840

Brazil 1663

France 1488

Indonesia 1392

Canada 1066

Japan 888

Germany 824

UK 799

Italy 706

Obviously, China and India’s huge populations are a huge buff to their score, and the small land areas of European countries are a detriment even if they have more cities. I’d be interested to see how Bangladesh and Nigeria, etc compare. I was surprised military strength and culture didn’t figure in the formula at all; if they were I’m sure this list would be very different.

So there you have it. Of course, the idea of “scoring” civilization is silly and can lead to all manner of ill-formed judgments; but then again, societies do end up with disparate powers to get things done, and at the most fundamental levels human need caloric input to do work, and there should be some sort of explanation of how the two might be connected.

One last idea to throw into this mix. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Red Mars, some of the characters advocate “eco-economics,” or a social system in which people are rewarded or valued according to whether they are adding energy to the system or taking it. The key idea is that “It’s a matter of how many calories we create by our efforts, or send on to future generations, or something like that …. Everyone should make their living, so to speak, based on a calculation of their real [caloric] contribution to the human ecology.” It’s a fascinating proposal, though I’m pretty sure I’d land at the bottom of the heap. I’ll try to eat fewer potato chips from here on out.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Machines / gadgets / technology / games, Meanings of life / death / social & moral stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Energy, culture, and Civilization

  1. Howard says:

    At Yale there is a sociological theorist I’ve come across, named Jeffrey Alexander. Your post put me in mind of him.
    In his work on theoretical logic he highlights two poles of logic: the instrumental and the value laden (my paraphrase)
    It’s not an exact fit, but White would fit into the instrumental while Boas would fit into the value laden.
    His work has moved on- in the seventies he published a mulltivolume analysis placing Comte, Marx and Weber and Durkheim and Parsons in a framework according to this typology you’ve stumbled upon in your post and in your reading lately.
    If it works for sociology, it should work, more or less for anthropology, I’d guess with just different names plugged in


  2. Huenemann says:

    Thanks, Howard – I’ll have to look up his work!


  3. Howard says:

    Before men had even stone tools, did they have culture?
    Is language a technology by White’s definition?


    • Huenemann says:

      Interesting question! I suppose White would look at language as an “energy enhancer” – we can get more stuff done by communicating with each other and coordinating. But this would then make poetry a side-effect of culture – which seems weird!


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