Thinking about change

The POET Model

This is a model of social change, developed by Otis Dudley Duncan, in which societal functions are basically sorted into four categories. Population should be easy enough to grasp. Numbers can go up, go down, mortality and fertility rates can change, people can migrate, move to different areas, the age structure can change over time, etc. In industrialized nations, where fertility rates and death rates are low, populations are older, there are less children (which puts a strain on public programs like Social Security).

Organization would include some of the organizational structures of a society–here in the U.S., the government and political systems would be important, large corporations, industries and business patterns, communities, culture, families, churches/mosques/temples/synagogues, mass media, etc. What people do obviously will vary greatly if they live in an industrial vs a pre-industrial society. The economic organization of a society is important as well. Ours is mostly a capitalist economy, characterized by private property and ownership, relatively open markets where goods and services are exchanged (versus, say a ‘command economy’ in a socialist state where the government makes many of the decisions about what gets produced and how it gets distributed). The capitalist system is generally organized around the profit motive, which provides incentives for investment, but which may not distinguish between investment in the short- and long-term.

Environment should be fairly self-explanatory. You might think about three general functions of the environment–living space, a place to put our waste, and a repository for resources. In other words, everything around you came from the environment–desks, chairs, computers, your clothes, shoes, pens, etc. They came from a stock of natural resources at some point in their history (although may have experienced a good deal of processing and transformation). We also have to live somewhere, and we have to dump our waste somewhere. Usually we try to keep these functions spatially separate–that is, we don’t want to live near where we dump our waste, or where we’re doing our mining, or cutting down trees. The environment obviously isn’t randomly organized, there are ecosystems (composed of living organisms and their physical environments, with an emphasis on system, interaction and place), biomes (certain kinds of natural systems, like tundra, tropical forest, desert, ocean, grassland, etc.).

Technology is the fourth category, and we won’t get into subtle nuances of definition. Technology can include actual artifacts, such as a toaster, or a nuclear warhead, or a tractor, or even a short-handled hoe, or a stone axe, an arrowhead–in other words, technology doesn’t have to be sophisticated, and it isn’t the same thing as science. If it helps, think of technology as tools that are used to achieve some end, but keep in mind that there are few tools that exist in isolation (e.g., Ford’s assembly line required an entire social and technological system to make work). It could be that making arrowheads requires considerably less in the way of support, but you might need certain kinds of rocks for knapping flint, there might be different techniques, different grades of mineral, division of labor as to who did what, etc. Think of the difference in how societies organized based on whether their main source of transportation is by donkey cart, or automobile, and the consequences for and demands placed on the natural environment (and thus those three functions of living space, resource repository, and waste disposal).

The POET model should help you better grasp some of the ways the earth and humans’ relationship with it have changed over the time our species has been here (maybe 150,000 years, at the most).

POET model


For instance, how might an introduction of technology affect population? We could look at different dimensions of population–total numbers of people, birth rates, death rates, distribution across space, by age, by gender, etc. How might population affect technology (pressure on hunter-gatherer societies and the resource base, for instance)? How might turning to sedentary agriculture, as a result of population density increases and resource pressure, affect the environment? Many authors believe that innovation in food production has prevented what some considered inevitable–a population crash (because, as Thomas Malthus explained over 300 years ago, human numbers can grow fast enough to outstrip food supply–a 3% growth rate would double the population in 23 years).

So, one theory might say that technology increases population. Another might say that population density drives innovation (the need to grow more food), which can help explain why the arrows on the POET model go in both directions. P, O, E and T are all interrelated. And if T changes P, then P is likely to change E, and that could reorganize settlements (O), etc. Try examining the demographic transition to help you follow a narrative of change.

As you can see, this can get quite complicated, and the double-sided arrows are necessary for understanding the complexity. Use the POET model as sort of a guide for understanding how humans can produce technologies, which might affect population, organization, the natural environment, and how each of those in turn might cause other changes. Unless you think that humans are somehow exempt from natural laws, after all, we are part of the environment.

At the same time, human ecologists would look at us as just another species on the face of the earth (riiiiight …). But it should be pretty clear that Homo sapiens has had an impact on the earth’s landscapes, water, and atmosphere, that is unmatched by any other animal or plant species, over such a relatively short period of time–the last 300 years or so (although humans have had major regional impacts for much longer, as Jared Diamond’s book Collapse documents). So much so that one scholar, William Catton, proposes that we should distinguish those living in industrial, high technology societies by giving them their own species–Homo colossus (one of your readings).

How did humans do it? How did a species with such an enormous impact on the landscape get from 1 billion over 150,000 years to over 7 billion in the last 300 years? How have we managed to alter climate patterns and influence average global temperatures? Who are ‘we’ anyway? Are the changes caused by sheer numbers, the drive for living space and resources, by consumption, by the use of certain forms of energy? Technologies have obviously played roles, but different roles in different societies. Many of us would not be alive today (myself included) were it not for medicine, surgery, even simple things like . . . rumble strips on highways, or airbags.

Lots to discuss in here … the POET model should help you get a better picture of how change has taken place, why, and how to think about the roles played by technology.