Friday, December 11, 2009

Complexity, Vulnerability, and Deception

The way I've blogged -- when I've blogged, lately -- has been to store up points of interest in the tabs of my Mozilla browser until something catalyzes them in to a tab-dump. Meanwhile, there's always been some stuff left over from every tab-dump, little odds and ends that don't really fit with whatever I feel like writing that day.

Take this story: to run an average UK home, you'd need 100 cyclists putting out their best efforts for about... 11 hours. Given that some of these people were incapacitated for a day or so afterwards, we can guess that the slave population needed to sustain a UK home's energy budget -- not including the energy needed to run a car! -- is probably several hundred slaves. This means (if it means anything) that the average Brit would need to rely on a level of human bondage far greater than all but the wealthiest Confederates. And of course, the Brits are relatively efficient!

Now, the article is actually relatively meaningless, except as a useful metaphor. As the article itself notes, humans are poor livestock: you'd be better off burning the fodder than feeding it to humans. (See: Matrix, terrible science thereof.)

But of course, we do all sorts of things in the modern economy that have the appearance of efficiency but are, in fact, madness. Take bee slums and impotent turkeys, the title of Chip Ward's excellent essay from 2007. We subject bee colonies to forced bussing across the continent, crammed in with tens of thousands of other bees in environments where disease, anxiety, and waste all build up in to a toxic brew. This is "efficient" because we make maximum use of the bees to pollinate a wide variety of crops -- but sometime in the last two years we passed a threshold where the stresses built up and we got colony collapse all over the world.

As for the turkeys, well, the modern commercial turkey is so over-engineered by market forces that it needs to be artificially inseminated. This may be efficient, but it is kind of repugnantly delicious.

The point is one that Joseph Tainter makes in his excellent book -- which I've written about before -- The Collapse of Complex Societies. Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote was inspired by Tainter and wrote The Upside of Down which I loved. CoCS makes the basic point that complexity comes with costs. The examples above -- bees and turkeys -- may be examples of efficiency, but they're also examples of complexity and the costs it brings.

Expanded to the level of human societies, we need to understand that complexity manifests itself as the concentration of energy in to expansions of power -- in several senses of the word "power", of course. Pre-hydrocarbon societies collected energy in the form of food, wood, and other forms of natural energy which were then concentrated in to forms of power: furnaces, livestock for agriculture, and not incidentally soldiers for war.

The exploitation of coal, then oil and gas, fundamentally changed that dynamic. Instead of basically the entire population being involved in one way or another in the energy economy -- until the 20th century, the large majority of people were farmers -- the efforts of a relatively small number of workers in oil wells and coal mines liberated a much, much larger number of farmers: farm productivity surged, especially post-WWII, thanks to massive substitution of oil energy.

This is a phenomenal success story for human society: incredible efficiency, allowing the society we enjoy today to exist. It's also got a built-in warning: the base of this pyramid is crumbling beneath us. As fossil fuels become increasingly unuseable for a variety of reasons, the whole edifice of our society is threatened. Canadian economist Jeff Rubin is actually a relative optimist on this front -- he simply thinks we've got a lifetime of recession ahead of us. The worst-case scenario is in fact the collapse of the complex society we happen to live in.

Here's the thing that I worry about: its appears, based on the historical record, that it's very difficult to tell when collapse is happening. One example is Rome. There's some debate about whether or not Rome even "collapsed" in a meaningful way, but I think that debate is deeply mistaken -- a 95% decline in the population of the city itself makes Detroit look like a wonderland, so I think "collapse" is a useful and correct term.

But even in the midst of that collapse -- the population decline started in the 300s, long before the Goths came over the walls -- it was not obvious to the citizens of the Empire that the best times were behind them. Even keen observers seem to have not grasped what we going on. Ugo Bardi gives us the example of Namantianus:
Everything was collapsing around him and he decided to take a boat and leave. He was born in Gallia, that we call "France" today and apparently he had some properties in Southern France. So, that is where he headed for. That is the reason for the title "of his return". He must have arrived there and survived for some time, because the document that he wrote about his travel has survived and we can still read it, even though the end is missing. So, Namatianus gives us this chilling report. Just read this excerpt:

"I have chosen the sea, since roads by land, if on the level, are flooded by rivers; if on higher ground, are beset with rocks. Since Tuscany and since the Aurelian highway, after suffering the outrages of Goths with fire or sword, can no longer control forest with homestead or river with bridge, it is better to entrust my sails to the wayward."

Can you believe that? If there was a thing that the Romans had always been proud of were their roads. These roads had a military purpose, of course, but everybody could use them. A Roman Empire without roads is not the Roman Empire, it is something else altogether. Think of Los Angeles without highways.
Namantianus is writing in the early to mid 400s, by which point Alaric had already sacked Rome three times. In short, it was impossible to argue that things would continue as they had. And yet, it seems (based on the sparse documentary evidence) that people did, in fact, believe that things would continue as they had. After the fall of Rome and the Visigoth's ascendancy, the Senate minted coins with the words "Roma Invicta" on the back -- "Rome Unconquered".

Meanwhile, the Roman system was falling apart. Province after precious province was making deals with the invaders of one kind or another, for the simple reason that the taxes required to maintain the empire were far, far less than what the Goths wanted. By the 300s, Homer-Dixon describes the revenue system of the Roman Empire as something akin to GOSPLAN: mandatory grain confiscation at the village level, with the Empire's requirements coming before the needs of the peasantry. Unsurprisingly, we see a lot of starvation in the 300s. But this is the kind of system that powerful states resort to if change scares them more than popular backlash. (This David Frum essay [!] has a good discussion of the collapse of the Roman taxation system.)

The Roman system was complex, but increasingly fragile, and the people at the center really didn't realize it even as it was collapsing around them. But what would you have advised the Emperor to do if you had a time machine and an inclination to stop the fall of Rome? I like Ugo Bardi's point on this: you probably would have advised something that would have looked a lot like the fall of Rome: massive decentralization, shrinking the military, and letting fields lie fallow to replenish the soils. To the Emperor, Bardi argues, the choice between preventing collapse and collapse itself was really no choice at all.

So what do we advise people to do in order to stave off the collapse of modern society? Well, if you think the problem is peak oil or climate change, the efforts to prevent collapse look, to the people running this thing, a lot like collapse itself: deglobalization on a massive scale, major cuts to foreign military engagements, smaller homes with few to no cars (and the consequent massive waves of unemployment as homebuilders and carmakers are left idle) with some kind of government effort to cram down the use of fossil fuels, leaving some of the most powerful companies on Earth with nothing to do. Again, preventing collapse looks like collapse itself.

Of course, there is a difference, and now I'm going to use the US Civil War as an example: the Confederate States could have slowly phased out slavery over any arbitrary timeline they chose -- they controlled the Senate, Supreme Court, and Presidency for most of the antebellum period, so there was really nothing stopping them from making a managed transition. Instead, they insisted on preserving the odious privilege of white supremacy and the ability to own black people. So what could have been managed politically became a crisis whose result was both the bloodiest war in history up to that point, and a historical disaster for the South.

Of course, the leadership of the Confederacy actually made out okay after the dust settled: the Reconstruction was successfully beaten back, and for more than a century American historians debated how much blame the North bore for the war and its aftermath: almost all, or all. Jefferson Davis, having led bloody treason against his country, died peacefully in his sleep. His Vice-President was elected to the US Senate after the war.

Nevertheless, it's a basic point of political science that wars are negative-sum games, and I think the lesson applies more broadly to the kind of wrenching transitions that societies sometimes need to make in order to accomodate reality: if you know what the end result is going to be, you might as well concede early rather than waste years and lives fighting progress. The problem is that, on the human scale, fighting to restore the pre-Civil War white privilege was in fact a near-total victory: by 1870, 80% of southern blacks were back under some type of debt servitude. The choices that are bad for society are sometimes very very good for powerful individuals.

On a totally unrelated note, I watched Andrew Ross Sorkin on the Daily Show a few nights ago, and he pointed out that, despite having dragged the world in to a near-calamity, absolutely nothing has changed structurally on Wall Street. We are, hundreds of billions of dollars later, just as vulnerable to avarice run amok as we were before the current President was elected.

4 comments:

Zack said...

i could read this stuff all day. <3

Catelli said...

I agree with Zack. When you find the time to write, its damned good stuff.

Maybe its egotistical, but the impending(?) collapse of Western society appears to be completely unprecedented.

The threats we face are multi-fold, climate change (in its various forms), availability of cheap energy, the health of our oceans (a constantly under-appreciated threat), and I'm sure there are others I'm missing (die off of amphibians?). Throw in the unlikely but possible pandemic, "the big one" earthquake, etc. etc. and it becomes hard to avoid a sense of impending doom.

What really irks me is that we are completely reluctant to take any preventative measures whatsoever. Because we deal with each threat in isolation (if we deal with it at all) we tend to throw all our resources at the current crises.

Take the recent financial collapse. While deficit financing may well have been unavoidable, it cannot be ignored that we threw so much money at that problem that if a new problem happens in the next 2-10 years, we don't have any more cash to deal with that one. (This ignores those that claim that we didn't have any cash to spend this time, we just found a way to whistle past the graveyard. Once.)

I don't find your last point about Sorkin's comments unrelated at all (unless that was dry humour, if it was, well put, if it wasn't it should have been!). Its not just Wall Street's problems that haven't been solved, its consumer debt that hasn't been solved either. Institutionally and individually, we have a cash-flow problem. That problem affects our ability to deal with our other impending issues, as we are a cash based society.

adam said...

I'm feeling good, I'm feeling just fine,
Until tomorrow, but that's just some other time

I'm waiting for my man


Man, this was a good piece. Thanks!

john said...

Thank you, all.

Catelli: my wit is so dry it's... um... something dry. Like a desert. Yeah, that's it.