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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VI–Infinite Growth, Finite Planet; What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VI

October 9, 2020

Teotihuacan, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

Infinite Growth, Finite Planet; What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Tyee commentary…(https://thetyee.ca/News/2020/10/09/Australian-Invasion-Big-Coal-Plans-Alberta/)

It’s truly unfortunate that our society pursues such self-evidently egregious exploits on our environment. You can’t continue to pollute your backyard without eventually destroying the complex ecological systems that support you — to say little about the finiteness of most resources we overly depend upon. And, certainly, we can’t continue to allow our sociopolitical ‘leaders’ to pursue such destructive policies and actions.

Yet, the issues and underlying dilemmas are much more complex than just exploitive foreign capital and revenue-seeking politicians. Yes, these are problematic; without a doubt. But they are one piece in a multi-layered puzzle that may or may not have a ‘solution’.

Society’s embracing of several self-destructive behaviours must be undone and reversed. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the pursuit of ‘growth’. Economic. Population. Technological. Et cetera.

We do not live on a planet with infinite resources and the exponential increase of our activities continues to paint us further and further into a corner. While it is unlikely there will be a definitive ‘day of reckoning’ because of our blasting past our natural carrying capacity (since collapse is a process, not an event), the consequences of our actions will be felt as surely as day follows night.

In fact, it could be argued that we are already and have been experiencing the fallout of our expanding and increasingly complex activities for some time now. Decimated species required for food crop pollination. Expanding geopolitical tensions over resources, especially fossil fuels and water. Supply chain interruptions. Environmental disasters. Increasingly authoritarian government policies and edicts to control populations. Currency debasement. Global pandemics. And on and on.

A group of MIT researchers some years ago proposed that there were real biophysical limits to the pursuit of growth and that the time to alter our trajectory was upon us. That was almost 50 years ago (The Limits to Growth, 1972). Unfortunately, humanity has followed the ‘Business-as-Usual’ scenario outlined by the study. The path forward from this point does not look promising. Yet, it is virtually guaranteed to be the one we continue to follow since we have ignored the warnings.

In our haste to believe ‘this time is different’ or that ‘we are smarter’ (usually in the form of the trope ‘human ingenuity and technology’), we have continued to pursue growth in almost all its guises. And it’s almost all of us that are guilty. Yes, our ‘leadership’ has led the way and been the main cheerleaders of the idea that growth only has positive attributes. And, yes, the pursuit has been exacerbated by the fiat currency swindle imposed upon the world. But most of us, perhaps unwittingly, have been consumption machines, endlessly purchasing and expanding our environmental footprints.

Unless and until we all begin serious discussions about degrowth on a global scale (even just local/regional would be a great start), I fear we will continue along our current path; in fact, it would appear we have actually picked up speed in these exploitive and damaging endeavours as diminishing returns (see archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies) have made it necessary to invest more and more effort, energy, and resources into finding and retrieving the resources necessary to hold our complex systems together for a bit longer.

Australia’s investments in Canadian resources is a natural consequence of our growth pursuits. And politicians, whose primary motivator is the control, maintenance, and expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue stream, will almost always encourage such activities. Negative consequences be damned.

If we cannot change the conversation and our behaviours, then we cannot change the eventual outcome. Nature will do for us what we are unable to accomplish ourselves. And we will likely not enjoy the way nature brings the planet back into balance.

Old Age and Societal Decline

People grow old and die. Civilizations eventually fail. For centuries amateur philosophers have used the former as a metaphor for the latter, leading to a few useful insights and just as many misleading generalizations. The comparison becomes more immediately interesting as our own civilization stumbles blindly toward collapse. While not the cheeriest of subjects, it’s worth exploring.

A metaphor is not an explanation.

First, it’s important to point out that serious contemporary researchers studying the phenomenon of societal collapse generally find little or no explanatory value in the metaphorical link with individual human mortality.

The reasons for individual decline and death have to do with genetics, disease, nutrition, and personal history (including accidents and habits such as smoking). We are all genetically programmed to age and die, though lifespans differ greatly.

Reasons for societal decline appear to have little or nothing to do with genetics. Some complex societies have failed due to invasion by foreign marauders (and sometimes the diseases they brought); others have succumbed to resource depletion, unforeseeable natural catastrophe, or class conflict. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter proposed what is perhaps the best general theory of collapse in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which argued that the development of societal complexity is a problem-solving strategy that’s subject to diminishing marginal returns. Once a civilization’s return on investment in complexity goes negative, that civilization becomes vulnerable to stresses of all sorts that it previously could have withstood.

There is a superficial similarity between individual aging, on one hand, and societal vulnerability once returns on investments in complexity have gone negative, on the other. In both cases, what would otherwise be survivable becomes deadly—whether it’s a fall on an uneven sidewalk or a barbarian invasion. But this similarity doesn’t provide explanatory value in either case. No physician or historian will be able to do her job better by use of the metaphor.

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What Problems Are We Solving by Increasing Complexity?

What Problems Are We Solving by Increasing Complexity?

The incremental increase in systemic complexity is rarely if ever recognized as a problem that additional complexity can’t solve.
The Collapse of Complex Societies fame has observed that societies increase complexity to solve pressing problems that cannot be resolved with existing solutions.
What is complexity in this context? More organization, more layers of management, higher levels of specialization, an expansion of roles and differentiated areas of expertise, more channels of communication, more feedback loops, and an increase in the quantity and types of communication.
All of which consumes more energy and more treasure, not just to build the infrastructure of this increased complexity but to train the staff and maintain the higher costs going forward.
Which raises the obvious question: how does increasing cost solve anything? Doesn’t increasing the cost of a system create the problems resulting from taking money from some other source to pay the higher costs?
There are several different answers to this question.
1. The problem that must be solved is an existential threat to the society, and therefore cost is no longer an issue. World War II offers a historical example of an existential threat requiring a vast expansion of complexity and cost.
The upside of this dynamic is the problem is resolved relatively decisively by either victory or defeat. The downside is the vast sums borrowed to fund the war effort must be paid, or at least the interest must be paid–or the enormous debts must be renounced, crippling trust and the credit system.
2. The gains reaped by increasing complexity more than offset the higher costs. Amazon seems to offer a commercial example of this dynamic. By investing heavily in complex technology, Amazon has created financial incentives for consumers to shop online and have their purchases delivered to their door.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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