Oct 21 2008

The Collapse of Civilisation

Published by under General

In 2005, Jared Diamond wrote “Collapse” – showing how environmental mismanagement resulted in the collapse of past civilisations. The April 2008 issue of “New Scientist” reminds us of another set of factors that are at work: the increase of complexity which ultimately renders a culture unstable. The article is prophetic in the light of the recent turmoil in the world’s financial system.

Joseph Tainter, in his1988 book, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” showed how each layer of complexity added to a culture inposes an additional cost in terms of energy – and the return for that additional investment is less. There is a law of diminishing returns which applies across the board. To keep growing, societies must continue solving problems. That means adding complexity. Finally, all its available resources are required just to maintain it. Then when a crisis arrives (Barbarians invade; climate changes), it cannot respond. A less complex society may emerge from the carnage. Or it may be taken over by another group.

Our culture has grown bigger and more complex than any other as it has exploited the energy sequestered over millions of years in the form of coal and oil. But diminishing returns are hitting here too, as more energy has to be used to mine them, and also to use them in a way that does not damage the environment.

The New England Complex Systems Institute has shown that this analysis generally holds true. More complex societies shift to networked organisation when a hierarchy with one individual at the top cannot cope with the increasing complexity. But the tight interlocking nature these networks develop in the interests of efficiency and profitability soon renders the complex society increasingly vulnerable to unforseen shocks. Tight networks transmit shocks rather than abosorbing them. They propagate the failure rapidly across the network. Electricity grids, global production systems, and most recently, the financial markets have all shown this characteristic.

Getting some reundancy back into the system is paramount. But private companies, focussed on maximising profits, tend to squeeze it all out. Space for partial healthy breakdown here and there has to be opened up. That needs governmental regulation. It needs the rebuilding of independent local infrastructure for food and energy supply, local markets, work, culture, and living. This amounts to a race between tipping points: which will come first: a race to a less tightly networked, sustainable technology, or collapse? The way it is now, an ever-faster rate of innovation is required to keep cities growing and prevent stagnation and collapse. In the long run, this cannot be sustained.

<p Thomas Homer-Dixon addresses these concerns in his 2006 book “The Upside of Down.” He observes that in biological systems, such as rain forests, increasing complexity is a very efficient system for remaining constant in the face of the normal range of conditions. But unusual conditions – insect outbreak, fire, or drought – can trigger dramatic changes as the impact cascades through the system. The end result might be the collapse of the old ecosystem, and its replacemenbt by a new, simpler one. Our globalised culture is subect to exactly the same threats. The trigger need not be all that dramatic.

What kind of a faith might guide us and sustain us as we move to such a radically new future? One that is non-hierarchical, non-doctrinal, but mystical, sensing the connectedness of all; one that ascribes spiritual value to the whole; where the mythology draws partly from indigenous traditions, but also from contemporary scientific insights. We need, as a species, to be awakened to the gravity of our situation, and encouraged in our attempts to deal with it urgently, but also quietly, calmly, and compassionately. – Ian Crumpton

Comments Off on The Collapse of Civilisation

Comments are closed at this time.