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:

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:

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:

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,