Why “new” cultures have had a strong few hundred years, and why they’ve got a built-in sunset clause

We were at an Afghan restaurant tonight and it occurred to me that the cuisine we were eating could all probably be sourced in Afghanistan. Nothing needed to come from around the world, and furthermore I bet the recipes have been around for a long time.

In contrast, what passes for modern day “new” culture is sourced from around the world, and has very few years on it. That naturally begs the question as to why the “new” cultures is in such a dominant position now, and what one might expect going forward.

I think one of the keys is to look at a culture’s capacity to deal with certain types of change. A relatively old culture has a stability to it that speaks to sustainability. However I speculate that with such stability also comes less flexibility, and less capacity to change as the situation changes.

With the unlocking of fossil fuels–first coal, then oil and natural gas–there was a sudden, huge, unprecedented change in the availability of energy per capita in the world. Of course it wasn’t evenly distributed however it was available, more and more, in an initially positive feedback loop that extracted–and used–more and more energy. And with Jeavons paradox, greater efficiency led to even greater use, not less use.

Given a seemingly endless supply of energy, a culture that has little history can be extremely nimble in taking advantage of new opportunities. The old, time-tested cultures will be suspicious of the new flood of energy, and the things it brings, and as a result will be marginalized. Although in the long game, being able to live sustainably off the land and not fluidly using non-renewable “bonanza” fuels might make sense, in the short game, it seems crazy. Why forgo heat, comfort, plentiful food, and endless “recreation?” It really depends on one’s sense of time frame.

The old cultures may be strict, they may be inflexible, they may be “boring” by comparison, but damn it they last. Sure, they evolve over time, as a part of nature, but they don’t suddenly go in a totally different direction.

It’s interesting to look at the case of Japan, in how it did and didn’t change after opening up in the Meiji era, and also after World War II. In Japan you have a very old culture, very much based on the land. On the one hand, when Japan opened up to foreign ideas, technology, and visitors, many outward changes happened. Also with World War II, a lot of things changed on the surface in Japan. But I’d argue that under the covers, much of the culture is as it has been for a long time. The traditional foods are still there, and still popular, and many people still actively care about where their food comes from.

Having said that, for now Japan seems to continue careening ever further away from its sustainable roots. And now with an economic strategy of printing huge amounts of money, Japan will either have pulled off an amazing economic comeback, or will be the proverbial “moose in search of a windshield” and go down in a ball of economic flames.

Consider the old analogy of the grain car which tips over mid-route, and spills grain on the side of the tracks. Now expand this analogy to include two types of rats, those that adapt quickly, and those which do not. The rats which adapt quickly will readily eat the excess grain, gain weight, and multiply rapidly. In the short run, as measured by numbers and territory, these “new school” rats would seem to be on top of the world, and doing well.

In contrast, the “old school” rats would continue to eat what they’ve always eaten, and be to some extent pushed aside by the “new school rats.” They’d seem to be on the losing side of things, and in danger of being out-competed and eventually dying out. However they still know how to live off what the land can provide.

And as long as the grain lasts, the “new school” rats will seem to be doing really well. But when the grain runs out–and once it starts to run out it’ll be totally gone fairly quickly–then the game changes.

The old school rats have lived within their sustainable means and, assuming that the environment hasn’t been too badly trashed, can bounce back. However the new school rats have forgotten how to forage, and are so dependent on the sudden bonanza of grains, that they die off.

The question is, can we choose which kind of rat we want to be? And is there any benefit to being an “old school rat” if you are surrounded by the “new school” type that will eat all of your carefully preserved resources? Food for thought.

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