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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIV–Energy-Averaging Systems and Complexity: A Recipe For Collapse

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XXXIV

November 28, 2021

Athens, Greece (1984) Photo by author

Energy-Averaging Systems and Complexity: A Recipe For Collapse

Supply chain disruptions and the product shortages that result have become a growing concern over the past couple of years and the reasons for these are as varied as the people providing the ‘analysis’. Production delays. Covid-19 pandemic. Pent-up consumer demand. Central bank monetary policy. Government economic stimulus. Consumer hoarding. Supply versus demand basics. Labour woes. Vaccination mandates. Union strikes. The number and variety of competing narratives is almost endless.

I have been once again reminded of the vagaries of our supply chains, the disruptions that can result, and our increasing dependence upon them with the unprecedented torrential rain and flood damage across many parts of British Columbia, Canada; and, of course, similar disruptions have occurred across the planet.

Instead of a recognition that perhaps a rethinking is needed of the complexities of our current systems and the dependencies that result from them, particularly in light of this increasingly problematic supply situation, we have politicians (and many in the media) doubling-down on the very systems that have helped to put us in the various predicaments we are encountering.

Our growing reliance on intensive-energy and other resource systems is not viewed as any type of dependency that places us in the crosshairs of ecological overshoot and unforeseen circumstances, but as a supply and demand conundrum that can be best addressed via our ingenuity and technology. Once again the primacy of a political and/or economic worldview, as opposed to an ecological one, shines through in our interpretation of world events; and of course the subsequent ‘solutions’ proposed.

Our dependence upon complex and thus fragile long-distance supply chains (over which we may have little control whatsoever) is not perceived as a consequence of resource constraints manifesting themselves on a finite planet with a growing population and concomitant resource requirements but as a result of ‘organisational’ weaknesses that can be overcome with the right political and/or economic ‘solutions’. Greater centralisation. More money ‘printing’. Increased taxes. Significant investment in ‘green’ energy. Massive wealth ‘redistribution’. Expansive infrastructure construction. Higher wages. Rationing. Forced vaccinations. The proposed ‘solutions’ are almost endless in nature and scope.

All of these ‘solutions’ have one thing in common: they attempt to ‘tweak’ our current economic/political systems. They fail to recognise that perhaps the weakness or ‘problem’ is with the system itself. A system that has built-in constraints that pre/history, and population biology, would suggest result in eventual failure.

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter discusses the benefits and vulnerabilities of ‘energy averaging systems’ (i.e., trade) that contributed to the collapse of the Chacoan society in his seminal text The Collapse of Complex Societies.

He argued that the energy averaging system employed early on took advantage of the Chacoan Basin’s diversity, distributing environmental vagaries of food production in a mutually-supportive network that increased subsistence security and accommodated population growth. At the beginning, this system was improved by adding more participants and increasing diversity but as time passed duplication of resource bases increased and less productive areas were added causing the buffering effect to decline.

This fits entirely with Tainter’s basic thesis that as problem-solving organisations, complex societies gravitate towards the easiest-to-implement and most beneficial ‘solutions’ to begin with. As time passes, the ‘solutions’ become more costly to society in terms of ‘investments’ (e.g., time, energy, resources, etc.) and the beneficial returns accrued diminish. This is the law of marginal utility, or diminishing returns, in action.

As return on investment dropped for those in the Chacoan Basin that were involved in the agricultural trade system, communities began to withdraw their participation in it. The collapse of the Chacoan society was not due primarily to environmental deterioration (although that did influence behaviour) but because the population choose to disengage when the challenge of another drought raised the costs of participation to a level that was more than the benefits of remaining. In other words, the benefits amassed by participation in the system declined over time and environmental inconsistencies finally pushed regions to remove themselves from a system that no longer provided them security of supplies; participants either moved out of the area or relocalised their economies. The return to a more simplified and local dependence emerged as supply chains could no longer provide security.

Having just completed rereading William Catton Jr.’s Overshoot, I can’t help but take a slightly different perspective than the mainstream ones that are being offered through our various media; what Catton terms an ecological perspective. And one that is influenced by Tainter’s thesis: our supply chain disruptions are increasingly coming under strain from our being in overshoot and encountering diminishing returns on our investments in them (and this is particularly true for one of the most fundamental resources that underpin our global industrial societies: fossil fuels).

What should we do? It’s one of the things I’ve stressed for some years in my local community (not that it seems to be having much impact, if any): we need to use what dwindling resources remain to relocalise as much as possible but particularly food production, procurement of potable water, and supplies of shelter needs for the regional climate so that supply disruptions do not result in a massive ‘collapse’ (an additional priority should also be to ‘decommission’ some of our more ‘dangerous’ creations such as nuclear power plants and biosafety labs).

Pre/history shows that relocalisation is going to happen eventually anyways, and in order to avert a sudden loss of important supplies that would have devastating consequences (especially food, water, and shelter), we should prepare ourselves now while we have the opportunity and resources to do so.

Instead, what I’ve observed is a doubling-down as it were of the processes that have created our predicament: pursuit of perpetual growth on a finite planet, using political/economic mechanisms along with hopes of future technologies to rationalise/justify this approach. While such a path may help to reduce the stress of growing cognitive dissonance, it does nothing to help mitigate the coming ‘storms’ that will increasingly disrupt supply chains.

The inability of our ‘leaders’ to view the world through anything but a political/economic paradigm and its built-in short-term focus has blinded them to the reality that we do not stand above and outside of nature or its biological principles and systems. We are as prone to overshoot and the consequences that come with it as any other species. And because of their blindness (and most people’s uncritical acceptance of their narratives) we are rushing towards a cliff that is directly ahead. In fact, perhaps we’ve already left solid ground but just haven’t realised it yet because, after all, denial is an extremely powerful drug.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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