When we see events like the Arab Spring, the January 6th Insurrection, or the irrational pushback against mask mandates in the midst of a devastating pandemic, we think of the NIMH mouse utopias experiment. One must ask whether what we are seeing is a gradual unravelling, in fits and spurts, of civil order. In the pressure cooker of climate change, viral assault, competing theocracies, competing narratives, and peak everything, will we be able to defuse this bomb in time?
Ivan Illich described Leopold Kohr as “a funny bird — meek, fey, droll, and incisive.” I first met him in a villa in Lombardy a little over three years before he passed, at 84. Although nearly deaf, he looked 20 years younger than his age and had a wry wit that never failed to make me laugh loudly. He described himself as a “philosophical anarchist” and professional crank, but was quick to recall what E.F. Schumacher had said:
“Some people call me a crank. I don’t mind at all. A crank is a low-cost, low-capital tool. It can be used on a moderate small scale. It is nonviolent. And it makes revolutions.”
Kohr grew up in the small Austrian town where Silent Night had been composed. He was making preparations to return there from his final home in Wales when death overtook him. Three-quarters of a century before, after studying in Paris, Vienna and London, getting a law degree and doctorates in political science and economics, in 1937 he ran off to do the Spanish Civil War thing, “armed with nothing but a Spanish dictionary and a copy of Don Quixote.” There, crouched behind stone walls being bombed or sitting in smoky bistros mixed with scents of rum and coffee, he would befriend George Orwell, Ernest Hemingway and Andre Malraux. He describes one such scene:
One day a fellow came, gangly, tallish, and asked whether he could sit by my table. Everything was crowded: I had one seat free and, as a matter of fact, there was only room for two and I said, “Of course,” and he said, “Well, anyone who introduces himself nowadays uses a false name. At any rate, my name is George Orwell.” And of course this was a false name. His real name was Eric Blair. But from that day on, for a week, we always met. I had no idea who he was. But what struck me was our conversations and his attitude towards the emerging age of mass dominance. People said afterwards that he was a prophet anticipating things to come in his 1984. He didn’t anticipate things to come. We talked about what was going on around us, in 1937.
Orwell, as he recorded in Homage to Catalonia, was already disillusioned with the alphabet soup of ideologies at play in Spain and must have had a lot to say about that to Kohr. After the Fascists won, Kohr got a visa out of Austria, slipped aboard the Orient Express to Paris, and escaped to America in 1938 ahead of Austria’s Nazi annexation. Lacking proper papers, he found sanctuary in Toronto and later managed to get back into the USA where he taught at Rutgers until 1955. He wrote The Breakdown of Nations “in three weeks, in a snowed-in Christmas period, no one there, everything deep in snow, everyone on holiday.”
From the late 50s through the early 70s he taught economics as the U. of Puerto Rico and UNAM in Mexico. After many rejections, Breakdown was published in 1957 by Routledge & Kegan Paul, London and is still in print from Chelsea Green. I read it for the first time just now and discovered it fit nicely into my thoughts about population.
After a lengthy description of how a process of devolution might work, Breakdown’s 11th chapter “But Will It Be Done?” might be the shortest chapter ever written — just 3 characters — “No!” on an otherwise blank page. Perhaps Kohr had been looking out at the snow and was in a Zen frame of mind.
When I proposed ten years later at the Boston convention of the American Economics Association that the question was no longer how to expand but how to contract; not how to grow but how to put limits to growth, I still drew nothing but blank stares from fellow economists, who dismissed my ideas by referring to me as a poet. And they might have dismissed me along with my ideas had I not benefited from an academic policy that was well expressed by a Jesuit friend from Ottawa when he said: “I always felt that every great university must have some crackpots on its faculty. And if it has not, I consider it the sacred duty of every dean to see to it that some are appointed.”
In an afterword penned for a US edition in 1978, Kohr described how the book evolved through a series of lectures and his experience with the politics of Europe leading into the Second World War. Soon after the conclusion of the war he was giving one of those lectures to a gathering of military planners at the Imperial Staff College — “then a hundred highly realistic staff officers from all corners of the British Empire” — and he showed maps of how Europe might be reorganized not as a single state standing in opposition to the Soviet bloc, but as a federation of little states organized by watershed.
A growing society, when it reaches a given point, has always exploded, like the supernova in the stars. So the annihilating element awaiting us all is not disunion but growth, overgrowth.
It will not explode. Like the aging colossi of the stellar universe, it will gradually collapse internally, leaving as its principal contribution to posterity its fragments, the little states — until the consolidation process of big power development starts all over again. This is not pleasant to anticipate. What is pleasant, however, is the realization that, in the intervening period between the intellectual ice ages of great-power domination, history will in all likelihood repeat itself and the world, little and free once more, will experience another of those spells of cultural greatness which characterized the small-state worlds of the Middle Ages and Ancient Greece.
***The young people of today have yet to grasp that the unprecedented change that has overtaken our time concerns not the nature of our social difficulties, but their scale. Like their elders, they have yet to become aware that what matters is no longer war, but big war; not unemployment, but massive unemployment; not oppression, but the magnitude of oppression; not the poor, who Jesus said will always be with us, but the scandalous number of their multitudes.
Nor have they as yet shown any understanding for the real conflict of this age, which is no longer between races, sexes, classes, left and right, youth and age, rich and poor, socialism and capitalism — all hangover confrontations from the past. The real conflict of today is between Man and Mass, the Individual and Society, the Citizen and the State, the Big and the Small Community, between David and Goliath. But as long as our youth and campus leaders have the same tendency as their national leaders whom they want to succeed to measure their grandeur by the size of the organizations they command, there is little reason to assume that they will do more for smallness than provide it with an Ark and salute it in tribute to its poetry and beauty as it drifts away on the rising waters of the Deluge.
Before Kohr passed away he might have read Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies (1988) but could not have seen Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005). He would have recognized the parallels between their case studies of the Maya Theater State, Easter Island and the Norse colony on Greenland with his own studies of the Holy Roman Empire and Ancient Greece. He was also on familiar terms with Toynbee’s studies of 28 civilizations and the conclusion that once a sustainable growth peak is exceeded, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal from the realities of a decaying world; science; and authoritative sources of information), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight or by following some sort of charismatic prophet).
In the 1990s, the evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin applied equations used to model the populations of predators and prey to describe human societies. He showed how income inequality augured political instability, with a long “secular” cycle lasting two to three centuries before the lower-class became so miserable and the upper-class so obscenely wealthy that detente fractured. This precipitated a shorter cycle at progressively turbulent intervals of 50 years — 1870, 1920, 1970, 2020. The mathematician Safa Motesharrei applied Turchin’s predator-prey models to an all-devouring consumer society of “predators” and rapidly depleting natural resource “prey.” He found that neither unequal competition nor resource depletion necessitated collapse unless both arrived at the same time. Then Katie bar the door.
Kohr told a CBC interviewer,
What animates the waves of water, as Da Vinci said, also explains the waves of wind, of sound and light. So this is a meta-economics, these are physics outside…beyond economics. And then I am at the door of economics, I open it and see another wave: business cycles. And the reason why economists can’t grasp this is that this structure of cycles has changed. These are no longer caused by the irregularities of business activities which produces spells; they have entirely different, non-economic, meta-economic, physical origins. What we confront is size cycles. At a given size of integration, things become uncontrollable, not only by capitalist intervention, but by state intervention, by communist intervention. There are cyclical fluctuations and size cycles in the Soviet Union, but without a Marxist theory to explain it, it can’t be in a controlled economy. So they shoot the business managers. So this is what I mean. To understand economic phenomena, one must not mathematicize or statistify them, but philosophize them, go back to the laws of nature.
Kohr compared the traffic patterns in cities to the rush of students to get out of a classroom when the bell rings.
… one entrance door for students is ample. Reluctantly they filter through at slow pace, but when the bell rings at the end, they get stuck in the doors, because the exit velocity is much faster, and the higher velocity has the effect of increasing the pressure.
He said the proper size for governability depends on velocity, or more precisely, integration. As a society prospers it gains communication needs, commuting to work, shopping, business travel, tourism, and more. These add “velocity,” or what Paul Ehrlich lumped under “affluence.” It is a population force multiplier. Kohr said a billion people living unintegrated in Siberia might not be a problem, but integrated into a modern consumer society they represent five or ten times their number in terms of pressure.
Now the only way of reducing this is not necessarily birth control, but size control of states, to reduce the distances each of us has to cover to perform our daily functions. Not decentralization, but centralization writ small — the small community, which slows down the need for fast movements.
When next the G8 gather in Davos, they should read this from Kohr:
So, when I suggest that the solution to bigness is break up the big powers, I often use the analogy of an avalanche coming from the Austrian Alps.
The way avalanches are dealt with is the controllers put small barriers of concrete sticks over a field. So when an avalanche begins to develop, just as it begins to enjoy the mass of its weight and power, it runs into these partitioning pillars which turn the awful thing into a harmless spray, without damaging the beauty of the snow. And the thing is that, politically, nothing at all is lost by returning to smaller communities.
In his forward to the Dutton edition, Kirkpatrick Sale wrote:
In the real political world, in other words, there are limits, and usually fairly conscribed limits, beyond which it does not make much sense to grow. It is only in small states, Kohr suggests, that there can be true democracy, because it is only there that the citizen can have some direct influence over the governing institutions; only there that economic problems become tractable and controllable, and economic lives become more rational; only there that culture can flourish without the diversion of money and energy into statist pomp and military adventure; only there that the individual in all dimensions can flourish free of systematic social and governmental pressures. Thus, the purposes of the modern world might better be directed not to the fruitless pursuit of one-worldism but to the fruitful development of small, coherent regions, not to the aggrandizement of states but to the breakdown of nations.
Kohr’s own introduction to the 1957 edition of Breakdown rolled his entire philosophy into a simple idea: that there seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Conversely, the antidote to all the problems we face is equally simple: littleness.
Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Wherever something is wrong, something is too big. If the stars in the sky or the atoms of uranium disintegrate in spontaneous explosion, it is not because their substance has lost its balance. It is because matter has attempted to expand beyond the impassable barriers set to every accumulation. Their mass has become too big. If the human body becomes diseased, it is, as in cancer, because a cell, or a group of cells, has begun to outgrow its allotted narrow limits. And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units such as mobs, unions, cartels, or great powers. That is when they begin to slide into uncontrollable catastrophe. For social problems, to paraphrase the population doctrine of Thomas Malthus, have the unfortunate tendency to grow at a geometric ratio with the growth of the organism of which they are part, while the ability of man to cope with them, if it can be extended at all, grows only at an arithmetic ratio. Which means that, if a society grows beyond its optimum size, its problems must eventually outrun the growth of those human faculties which are necessary for dealing with them.
Hence it is always bigness, and only bigness, which is the problem of existence, social as well as physical, and all I have done in fusing apparently disjointed and unrelated bits of evidence into an integrated theory of size is to demonstrate first that what applies everywhere applies also in the field of social relations; and secondly that, if moral, physical, or political misery is nothing but a function of size, if the only problem is one of bigness, the only solution must lie in the cutting down of the substances and organisms which have outgrown their natural limits. The problem is not to grow but to stop growing; the answer: not union but division.
At the end of the Second World War, Iceland, Finland and Estonia found themselves in foreign clasp. Finland bought its way out, ceding 10% of its territory, including its fourth largest city, Viipuri (Vyborg), paying out a large amount of war reparations to the Soviet Union, and formally apologizing for having fought alongside both Nazi Germany and the Allies against Russia. Today Finland always tops the World Happiness Report and has one of the most comprehensive social welfare systems in the world. It mints unicorn tech startups (>billion-dollar capitalization) with amazing frequency. It has the highest concentration of cooperatives relative to its population.
Iceland is the world’s most sparsely populated country with the world’s oldest Parliament. In May 1944, under Allied occupation, 97 percent of Icelanders voted to end their union with Denmark, abolish the monarchy, and establish a republic. Thanks to its FinTech sector, Iceland in the 21st century became one of the most prosperous countries in the world, with a slight hiccup during the credit default swap crisis of 2008 when its four major investment banks declared bankruptcy and Iceland declined the requests from investment banks in Europe to consider that a national debt.
Since October 2017 Iceland’s coalition government consists of the Independence Party, the Progressive Party and the Left-Green Movement, headed by Katrín Jakobsdóttir. It had 81.4% voter turnout during the most recent elections. About 85 percent of total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from domestically produced renewable energy sources. According to the Economist Intelligence Index, Iceland has the second-highest quality of life in the world. Based on the Gini coefficient, Iceland also has one of the lowest rates of income inequality in the world. Its people retain good health long into old age, on average.
After its non-violent Singing Revolution in 1991, the last units of the Red Army withdrew from Estonia in 1994. Today the Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, elected in 2021, looks like Nancy Pelosi when she was 25. It is the only country in the world to currently be led by both a female President and Prime Minister. It has full e-government, with 99 percent of the public services being available on the web 24 hours a day. Broadband is universal and fast. In 2019 parliamentary elections 44% of the total votes were cast over the internet. 109 languages are spoken. A balanced budget, almost non-existent public debt, flat-rate income tax, free trade regime, competitive commercial banking sector, innovative e-Services and even mobile-based services are all hallmarks of Estonia’s market economy. Its GDP growth rate is 5 times the EU average. It too has a surfeit of unicorns and the reassuring knowledge of a healthy, long-lived, and well-cared-for elderly sector.
In my meeting with Leopold Kohr in 1990 he related a story of the time he got an invitation to visit the President of Luxembourg. While he was seated alone with the President, the phone rang. The President picked it up and answered, “Government.” Kohr told me that he always thought that was how small the government could be but this was the first time he had actually seen it.
What do Finland, Iceland and Estonia have in common, apart from less sunlight and high snowfall? Littleness. When they understood where they needed to go, they got their people’s support and got it done.
The first rule of holes is, when you find yourself in one, stop digging. When approaching the edge of an abyss, the right move is retreat. Population growth and economic growth are not a matched set. Neither is an end goal. The end goal is a happy, healthy, informed citizenry living in harmony with nature.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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