The cost of complexity

Intersection. Dubai, 2020. Photo by Timo Volz via Unsplash

We live in a complex world — no one questions that. Some even measure progress in terms of how complex our societies have become. Just take a look at how diverse roles and functions have became from semi-conductor supply chain analysts to sustainability managers and climate envoys. According to the progressive narrative adding “renewables” to the energy mix will create additional new jobs all over the place, which is an unquestionable good to the economy and societies alike.

On a similar note as products become more advanced, they evolve and branch into an ever increasing number of variants, come in several colors, oh and of course become smart. Even better: AI driven. And connected. In one word: better than ever — or should I say more complex than ever? Think of the vast array of wireless vacuum cleaners and robots, leaf blowers, etc. — whereas 20 years ago a simple broom and a rake was enough to keep your home and garden tidy (and by the way, still is today).

This story of complexity being a measure of progress has started to fall apart in front of our eyes however. COVID lockdowns with their ensuing product shortages and supply chain breakdowns have shown us that there is a fundamental problem with complexity. What seemed to be a good idea twenty years ago, namely: outsourcing everything to the cheapest location possible, replacing the workforce with cheap labor from the East / South (depending on where you live), creating fragile supply chains everywhere, and adding a microchip even to the simplest of products now seems to be backfiring on us. According to the mainstream narrative this is a temporary problem though, which will be sorted out in due time. Take notice however, that this “problem” was already baked into the cake decades ago, and would have turned into a predicament with or without COVID anyway…

Predicaments with outcomes

Increasing complexity has always been a way to solve “problems” — so much so, that it can be considered normal human behavior. It, on the other hand, has also contributed greatly to the fall of many empires before: this modern civilization being no exception in any way. Anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter has described this process and illustrated it with the story of many past empires in his seminal book: Collapse of Complex Societies.

According to a summary of his work, complexity can be recognized by:

  • numerous differentiated and specialized social and economic roles
  • the many mechanisms through which these roles are coordinated (hierarchies)
  • the reliance on symbolic and abstract communication (writing, laws, accounting etc.)
  • the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production (clerks, lawyers, engineers etc.)

Following this definition above, the global techno-industrial society is the most complex of all times. And what’s wrong with that?

“Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning the consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth).”

Since we are headlong into a major energy and resource crisis, this does not bode well — to say the least — for us in the global north, living in affluent, complex societies… Nevertheless, the amount of magical thinking applied to hide the fact that well paying jobs and high hierarchies are only possible in an energy and resource abundant world never ceases to amaze me.

Anyway, here is how the process unfolds:

  1. A society finds a reliable and abundant energy resource (rich topsoil producing consistently high yields, or in our case fossil fuels), and starts extracting it — not knowing that by doing so, they destroy the resource itself. (If we were truly wise species, we would stop right here and abandon the idea. Since this never was the case, we’ve always moved on to step 2.)
  2. Cities with a network of roads and other infrastructure are being built. Society develops different classes (warriors, clerks, clerics, or industrial workers, managers, lawyers, engineers etc.), as a lot less people are needed to produce food compared to previous ages. Population grows exponentially.
  3. As the abundant energy source shows signs of depletion, ever more complex and costlier methods are developed to extract more of it, or wars are waged to obtain the said resource from neighbors, or from nature. Growth slows but doesn’t stop yet. Layers of technology, hierarchy, roles etc. are added upon existing layers, until no one understands what’s going on. Corruption raises its ugly head and bureaucracy overwhelms the system.
  4. Efforts, aimed at increasing energy harvests, start to cost more and more, while adding less and less energy in return (i.e. providing ‘diminishing returns’). This is what we have seen first with coal in the late 19th century, then nuclear power (for safety reasons), then with oil (first conventional then shale oil and soon with tar sands). Alternative methods (e.g.: “renewables”) prove to be intermittent and suffer from the same diminishing returns on investment. Technological and social complexity keeps on rising exponentially, while growth slowly grinds to a halt.
  5. The end of expansion: the use of the said energy resource reaches it’s apex (peak cereal production in an ancient empire, or peak fossil fuel production in our case). Resource production begins its slow terminal decline, with complexity still rising, but growth slowly turning negative despite all efforts. The red queen race has been lost. In my assessment this is where we are at the moment.
  6. A complex infrastructure, bureaucracy, long supply chains, or a large empire can no longer be maintained on falling energy inputs: parts / regions are allowed to break off permanently. Decline gathers pace and becomes glaringly obvious for everyone. The once mighty empire fractures into smaller, more manageable pieces and learns to live with less energy by shedding most of it’s complexity (warriors returning home to plow the fields / economies becoming more local with ever simpler products and less trade). The system starts to feed on itself and utilize the resources freed up by the ongoing collapse (aka catabolism). Population starts to decline.
  7. Economic contraction decelerates, but doesn’t stop until the energy resource becomes so depleted, that people give up harvesting it. Most of the knowledge associated with the society and the resource itself is lost. What remains is maintained at monasteries (or the like). Social and technological complexity is gone.

This is where we are headed. Again: this is perfectly normal, a consequence of regular human behavior. Viewed from this perspective adding “renewables” to the energy mix is nothing more than a last-ditch attempt to cope with declining energy availability (first in Europe, then elsewhere), and to prevent the collapse of societies around the world.

Note: the phases listed above are steps in a continuous phase transition, and can be present in parallel. The system flickers back-and-forth between them as it slowly moves through its life-cycle. Climate change is “just” an accelerator in this process, which would play out in a similar fashion with or without it.

The way ahead

Based on scenes seen in the movies everybody has an image of collapse: ruined cities with plenty of dust and bad guys running around with big guns. The thing never shown is how do we get there — and with a good reason: it takes terribly long in reality, and doesn’t always end up that bad. Collapse can be also be thought of as radical simplification, which is not necessarily bad. A flourishing rural community with a democratically elected mayor is just as viable as a dusty Mad Max world — it is entirely up to us how we deal with the situation.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and didn’t fall in a day either. It took centuries for it to do so. In our modern world, turbocharged by fossil fuels and featuring almost 8 billion humans, it will certainly happen a lot faster… Still, it will take several decades, if not a century. The thing is: it has already started, but it happens so slowly that from the inside it just looks like a slight slowdown in growth, with a slump here and there. This is perfectly normal for collapse to play out: for decades it happens unnoticed and very slowly, just like ageing of the human body. Then a tipping point is passed and the wildest roller coaster ride in history begins. Don’t expect one Big Bang though, it will be a series of events lasting many decades into the future… A gargantuan train wreck in ultra-slow motion.

At bottom end of the ride you get the opposite of complexity. A situation characterized by:

  • very few differentiated and specialized social and economic roles: most of the people are jack-of-all-trades spending most of their time putting food on the table
  • high hierarchies replaced by flat structures: one lord and many commoners, without a central government and its many institutions
  • symbolic and abstract communication kept to the minimum: simple laws with immediate punishment for those who break them
  • the lack of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production: only one clerk per town or county

So how does complexity brings about collapse? First, it leads to a system no one really understands, or able to steer. Everybody plays her role, thinking how important she is — while in fact not having a slightest leverage on where things are going. A complex system like this flies on auto-pilot with one item on its agenda: devour as much energy and turn as much matter into copies of itself as possible. While it is busy doing this, it naturally runs into resource and/or pollution limits. In an attempt at making itself as lean and nimble as possible it consumes and eliminates all its buffers. The system gradually looses its resilience, where a minor disturbance is enough to derail it, and with limits and tipping points approaching, disturbance is all but guaranteed.

“Buckle your seat belt Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye.”

Until next time,





A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.

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