"The Collapse of Complex Societies talk cliffnotes" - Views: 1,074 · Hits: 1,074 - Type: Unlisted

Introduction to the terms and concepts: 
• collapse = rapid simplification/loss of an established level of complexity in a society; societies collapse via the same process through which they became complex in the first place 
• in this context social complexity means large, differentiated and highly integrated groups vs. small, homogeneous and disorganized ones (compare, for example, our thousands of different professions to the few roles in hunter-gatherer societies) 
• put differently, an increase in social complexity means diversification and specialization in the structure and function/behavior of a society, with the whole becoming more integrated and regulated 
• to be considered complex a system needs to be both organized and diversified to examples like the Normandy landings (lacking in organization) or the drummers during the opening ceremony in the Beijing Olympics (lacking in diversification) are not “complex” systems 
• this can be counter-intuitive because colloquially we think of complex systems as complicated when ironically social complexity is what simplifies a system by channeling human behavior in certain ways 
• after a collapse a society is simpler (fewer parts), less well organized and usually smaller, the big example (among dozens throughout history) being the Western Roman Empire, more on that later 

Complexity and its cost: 
• common misconceptions about complex societies: they evolve simply because people invent things; they are an accomplishment from the accumulation of inventions over millennia 
• in fact, complexity is not “free”, it has costs associated with it such as money, time or annoyance (e.g. being screened at a security checkpoint is a cost of annoyance in addition to one of time for you and money for the airports) 
• in ancient times this meant that people had to worker harder to support complexity and hence there was no intrinsic tendency towards complexity 
• however, complex societies did in fact evolve time after time and the reason for that is that they are good at solving problems which is often done through additional complexity (inventions, more roles/social positions/institutions, new kinds of activities, …) 
• recent example: U.S. reaction to 9/11 attacks where many new government agencies were created and others reorganized and people’s behavior became more controlled (cf. airport security again) → increase in complexity and thus cost 
• over time, as simple and cheap solutions are exhausted, institutions tend to develop more complex and costly ones 
• economics of complexity: complexity has benefits, higher complexity has costs and changing complexity changes the benefit/cost ratio 
• this results ultimately in diminishing returns for increases in complexity (maintenance of the complexity costs more and more) 
• nowadays this is fueled (huehuehue) through cheap energy, i.e. fossil fuels, and so complexity and energy are linked 
• takeaway: an increase in complexity is done at the cost of long-term sustainability 

The example of the collapse of the Roman Empire: 
• the early Roman conquests were highly profitable and their plundering allowed them to massively expand their society 
• important point: the Roman Empire relied entirely on solar energy, i.e. non-mechanical agriculture 
• during those conquests they seized the accumulated surpluses of past solar energy in the form of precious metals, works of art and people (“loot and pillage” phase) 
• the Roman expansion was thus a positive feedback system: more conquests gave more wealth which funded more conquests 
• the downside here is that you run out of profitable conquests since sacked societies take a long(er) time to replenish but still have to maintain your imperial structure that was built on these conquests (lest your society collapses in our technical sense) 
• thus they had to change their society to it could work on their own yearly solar energy production, meaning that those quick one-time influxes of wealth resulted in military and administrative changes that lasted centuries 
• side note: compare this to the changes we might have to make to maintain our complex societies which were built on the one-time influx of cheap energy (fossil fuels) 
• back to the Romans, the government budget during that period is estimated to have been based 90% on agricultural taxes with subsistence farmers producing very little surplus per capita 

Crisis and the Empire’s end: 
• in the early 60s A.D. two costly events coincided, namely conflict with the Parthians and the burning down of Rome, forcing economic reforms that debased their silver currency, leading to a slippery slope that continued on for centuries 
• in 235 onwards invasions from the Germanic peoples in the north and Parthians in the east as well as constant civil wars lead to the breaking apart of the Roman Empire into rival empires in the 260s 
• continued invasions forced investments into city walls across the Empire and the shrinking of the city perimeters 
• counter-measures to all these threats under Diocletian and and Constantine (284-305 and 306-337): subdivision of provinces with their own administrations, greatly expanded government size, more capitals/seats of government, doubling the army size and proportionally more cavalry, attempt at prize freezes, making critical occupations hereditary, tying farmers to their land and, of course, massively raising taxes → increase of control and hence complexity 
• later plagues killed many people and high taxes meant no reserves and thus no large families, leading to a population decline and so more and more land not being used agriculturally as well 
• the debasing of their currency continued throughout all this, leading to inflation with some periods being reminiscent of hyperinflation in pre-WWII Germany 
• all these were the result of trying to sustain their society and so this attempt to survive the crisis by “consuming” their capital resources (lands and people) the following collapse due to the costs of their problem solving efforts was inevitable 

Sustainability lessons: 
• definition: to sustain means to maintain a desired state or condition, in this case the continuity of our current way of life 
• sustainability is an active condition of problem solving, not simply a passive consequence of less consumption (i.e. you don’t get sustainable just through consuming less/conservation alone) 
• complexity is a problem-solving tool (including sustainability problems) and, again, has a costs and benefits 
• as such sustainability might require the consumption of more resources, not less 
• the damage done by complexity in problem solving is done subtly, unpredictably and cumulatively 
• a society can collapse from the cost of sustaining itself 

Innovation as the solution? 
• common belief present in even the highest/smartest places: our creative societies can overcome any problem through innovation (a.k.a. scientific optimism/faith in technology; lookin’ at you, too, /r/futurology) 
• innovation is not a characteristic of human history, we went without it or with only very little for tens of thousands of years (despite the apparently already present biological and cultural prerequisites) and some primitive societies do to this day 
• what we have nowadays is institutionalized innovation with short product cycles and continuous new introductions; industrialized nations allocate around 3% of GDP for R&D 
• today economic success depends on innovation and non-innovative companies and nations cannot compete 
• two opposing views of the future are that there is an inevitable collapse that will be triggered by “scarcity of environmental resources” (Jared Diamond) and, more prevalent, that innovation and energy alternatives can prevent said collapse 
• the underlying premises of the latter is the principle of infinite substitutability; that resources are never scarce, just priced wrong and as soon as prices get too high there is an incentive for innovation and a solution magically emerges (put bluntly: this is a matter of faith) 

Problems with that hope: 
• an alternative view looks at science as an evolving complex system wherein, over time, simple and cheap research problems t(hat are general in nature and widely useful) become resolved, leaving more difficult ones (specialized and narrowly useful) that are harder and more expensive to solve, requiring increasingly larger shares of national wealth 
• the productivity of innovation is not constant, it diminishes with time 
• need for exponential increases in research expenditures (money and people) to maintain a constant rate of innovation, meaning diminishing returns (Nicolas Rescher): 
> “Once all of the findings at a given state-of-the-art level of investigative technology have been realized, one must move to a more expensive level... In natural science we are involved in a technological arms race: with every 'victory of nature' the difficulty of achieving the breakthroughs which lie ahead is increased” 

• innovation evolved roughly from the discoveries and inventions of “lone-wolf geniuses” to massive collaborative efforts involving lots and lots of researchers as all the easy fruits have been picked by now, so to speak, so no more backyard tinkerers and instead necessarily highly complex joint enterprises 
• this problem has been recognized elsewhere for a while, in the military for instance where it was noted that advanced vehicles could be produced in fewer and fewer quantities for the same money (e.g. 744 B52 bombers produced in the 50s and 60s vs. 100 B1 bombers in the 80s vs. only 21 B2 bombers during the 90s onwards), it’s known as the Death Spiral or Augustine’s Law 
• this trend in innovation can be seen in worldwide patents which, over the last thirty years, show a continued increase in the size of patenting teams on the one hand and decline of the output (patents per inventor) on the other, showing what is effectively 20% decrease in productivity over the course of just one generation 
• that trend can be observed universally throughout different industries and research fields, both old and new, including the energy sector and even its alternative technologies such as solar and wind 
• conclusion: the productivity of innovation has been declining for a while now, more and more resources will need to be allocated to R&D and this can only be done by taking those away from other major sectors (healthcare, defense, transportation, infrastructure etc.), a trend that obviously cannot continue forever: 
“It is clear that [science] cannot go up another two orders of magnitude as [it has] climbed the last five....Scientific doomsday is therefore less than a century away.” (Derek de Solla Price, 1963) 

Impending doom: 
• “The chief cause of problems is solutions” (Eric Sevareid) 
• the biggest future challenges are: retirement funds for the Baby-Boom generation, increasing healthcare cost, replacing decaying infrastructure, adaption to climate change and damage repair, new energy source development, continuing high military costs, increasing costs of innovation.
• these challenges converge in time, meaning we have to face them more or less simultaneously (20-30 year period), and thus probably overwhelms our problem solving capacity 
• solving these problems will not result in new net wealth, they must be solved just to maintain the status quo (which, remember, is what undermined the Roman Empire) 
• these converging problems will have to be solved at a time when net energy will be decrease and thus more expensive, taking up a larger percentage of household incomes, and the productivity of innovation, as noted, will decline 

The dilemma of problem solving: 
• problems are inevitable and so the process of increasing complexity is inexorable 
• increasing complexity in order to solve them produces increasing costs and diminishing returns 
• at first the cost of solutions appear acceptable but the damage comes from cumulative costs 
• societies hence become vulnerable through the mundane process of solving problems 
• it doesn’t help here that (ethical) leaders try to solve societal problems which ultimately only post-pones the collapse and may thus result in catastrophe 

Approaches to problem solving: 
• accept and pay the costs for the solution of the problem 
• shift or defer the costs (e.g. the Romans debasing their currency) 
• find subsidies to pay the costs (cf. our use of fossil fuels) 
• reconnect costs and benefits (i.e. alleviate costs through un-/improperly used benefits) 
• don’t solve the problem (duh) 

Hard questions we now have to ask ourselves in light of this: 
• Can we honestly expect household wealth to continue to grow as we have come to expect it and what are the consequences if it doesn’t? 
• What are we going to do about energy? 
• Will we be facing an economy in a steady state or in decline? 
• Do we want to accept and pay the costs of solving our problems?