Tagged: joseph tainter

Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, The Story of Stuff, and a consolidation

A single idea by itself doesn’t stand for much, but one often finds a series of ideas, that when brought together, have powerful implications.

The 4 books above, when brought together, represent a compelling story about the trajectory of the world that we are on. Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies tells of the fundamental reasons why civilisations rise and fall. The main reason is simply that social organisations can become too complex that they collapse under their own weight when they can’t find new resources to solve new problems. Hence the western Roman Empire could not always tax the population while fighting the barbarians and improve food output in the context of changing climatic conditions. In this post, Collapse serves as the main meta-narrative – how the story of the world’s collapse might be told.

Systems Thinking, as represented by Donella Meadow’s Systems Thinking: A Primer, and the Limits to Growth: A 30-Year Update (LTG) represent another crucial element in understanding the processes through which a plausible environmental and socio-political collapse of the world might occur. While the words might sound abstract, these processes have real consequence. LTG belongs to the category of ideas that ought to be proven wrong. To cut the story short; LTG notes that the world is already in overshoot in the drawing of resources from the planet – renewable resources are being extracted without thought of their capabilities to regenerate; non-renewable resources are being extracted without thought of how they might be substituted with renewable sources; and the actual improvement of human welfare is being undermined by the increase in pollution and eventually by their actual health consequences. LTG’s example of CFC’s ban and the preservation of the ozone hole represents a positive example of how action is possible to avert a global catastrophe. Not all is lost, but the window for change before collapse is imminent is narrowing very quickly. With every year of inaction, we hurtle towards our own collapse in our interconnected world.

Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff is an illustrative example of systems and processes. Without explicitly using the language of systems thinking, Leonard nonetheless illustrates the flows and stocks of natural and human resources that come together to create the products that we take for granted. Plastics and the trace compounds used in their production present as-yet unknown health hazards, and preliminary findings of their role as hormone disruptors and as carcinogens are extremely worrying. The costs to human welfare in developing countries are tragic in all the sense of the word – from irresponsible toxic dumping to the horrid conditions of work – these represent a moral case against the excesses of the lifestyle of those in the developed countries. The entire system that creates the stuff in the first place is also clearly presented: the kind of economic system that believes in the unadulterated power of markets to bring about human welfare and the creation of demand via advertising and the grafting of status upon material goods at the expense of other expressions of human dignity.

What is the synthesis then? The only way to avoid collapse, as far as the books seem to indicate, is to embark on a lifestyle that reduces the emphasis on the material goods.To want less stuff, and to find contentment in the many other ways beauty and wonder are expressed. If the end goal is human happiness and dignity, these qualities can be attained through other creative means other than to demand more stuff in our lives. The slackening of this demand ultimately reduces the extraction of resources from the planet and the accompanying pollution; in the pursuit of being less centred on stuff, we can become more connected to the social milieu around us, and find the happiness that we so crave.

Collapse and Joseph Tainter

I had recently come across Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies. As the title suggests, the book explores how past civilizations (and ours?) were unable to cope with certain pressures of their environment and collapsed. The book qualifies the term “collapse” – in Tainter’s view, collapse is a justifiable choice when a society is unable to solve the various problems with greater complexity in their socio-political configurations.

Tainter offers the following points:

  1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations;
  2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
  3. Increased complexities carries with it costs per capita;
  4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.

(p. 194)

Collapse then, is the reduction of sociopolitical complexity. This is manifested in the breakdown of a central administrative authority. Collapse can only occur in the absence of a political vacuum. Hence, the book describes the case of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, and not the Eastern Roman Empire, which would have caused the expansion of peer empires in the immediate region.

Tainter goes on to explore whether the world might be on the verge of collapse. According to Tainter, there are “patterns of declining marginal returns” in several areas, including:

  1. Agriculture;
  2. Minerals and energy production;
  3. Government, military and industrial management;

(p. 211)

and several others. The only way out of this is to seek energy subsidies – to seek a new source of energy that is abundant, and therefore, cheap.

Overall, whether or not the whole world is on the verge of collapse is difficult to say. An individual country can no longer collapse because of the inter-linkages between countries. The collapse of one country these days typically results in an intervention by the global community of some sort, either through a UN mission, or by a group of countries.

There is another way out of collapse. Collapse can be put off by the discovery of new resources. On Earth, the production of minerals and energy could soon be entering a phase of declining returns, and the only other way left seems to be the prospect of mining asteroids in space.

There is also a darker side to this discussion about collapse, and that is collapse might not be such a bad thing. Collapse occurs when the cost of sustaining otherwise complex socio-political arrangements becomes difficult in the face of stresses. Collapse is an option, and an entirely valid and rational option to boot. The natural question to ask is: how can we stave off collapse?

To stave off collapse, one could begin thinking about how to develop alternative and abundant sources of energy. Can we wait for the market to solve that out? In principle, the carbon-based energy supplies are not going to run out anytime soon, although they might become economically unfeasible to extract (and depending on the environment costs attached to their usage). The other solution has to do with how we can reduce the complexity of our various socio-political systems. The nation-state as manifest in our present day might as well represent an “optimum” complexity – and that means that the EU experiment might break down simply because of the costs associated with maintaining the current regime. Translation services for the 23 official languages in the EU costs up to 300M euros per year in the DGs alone. (http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/translation/faq/index_en.htm)

The nation-state could be an optimum arrangement when the people are fairly homogenous and when they share similar values and history. In this respect, nationalism becomes an entirely rational course of action. To reduce transaction costs between the people and the state, there should be congruence in the values and perception of the nation in the first place. Energy (both physical and administrative) would then not be needlessly expended trying to get the values of people in line with the state for every administrative action.

Yet there are sub-state actors as well. Beneath the state, there can be regional bodies with the attendant departments. Cities can be broken down into districts, and districts into sub-districts and zones and sub-zones and finally into neighborhoods. From this perspective, socio-political organization can be thought of as being fractal in nature; self-similar at every level of abstraction, but not quite the same. An appropriate imagery would be the branches of a tree. When socio-political collapse happens, the break down need not be total chaos – autonomy and allocative decisions devolve down the hierarchy. This also means a prior allocation of administrative resources to levels of authority below the hierarchy. At some point, some of these resources might be thought of as wasteful, but in the management of a crisis, power needs to be vested in the lower levels of hierarchy before higher levels of authority can take stock and take charge of the situation.

The sharp reader will note another conundrum here. In times of crises, the devolution of power might be useful, but in normal operating conditions, the investment of power in lower levels of hierarchy can be threatening to the higher levels of hierarchy. Hence separatist movements can happen, as with civil wars, when high levels of autonomy can be granted to regions. This issue depends on the relative levels of power between the central administration and the regional administration. The balance of power between the various sub-national polities is likely to be the result of historical trajectories. There is no clear answer. Singapore, as with all countries, will have to find their own solutions.