Saturday, February 26, 2005

The 'soft' collapse

WorldChanging has a worthwhile piece on Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond and the notion of societal collapse. While there is much to provoke thought in this essay entitled "Collapsing Upwards", I think it wrongly conflates current geopolitical laments (i.e., the reckless foreign policy of the American Empire) and the proposed solution (i.e., more cooperation and less arrogance) with the notion of the collapse of complex societies. The United States could (and should, in my opinion) pursue a more multilateral and humble foreign policy. The rich nations could pursue a more magnanimous role in helping the poor nations. But, it is not any one of these societies which is in danger of collapse. It is the entire complex worldwide system of resource exploitation and trade which is in danger. Tainter is explicit about this. The world is now one interconnected complex global society, and the next collapse won't be one isolated to a particular region or country, but rather will involve the entire world. The writer acknowledges this.

But, then he makes the case for more egalitarian relations between countries. It seems to me quite pausible that 20 or 30 years hence nation-states won't have much significance. Our relations with one another will be region to region or locality to locality. Creating better relations between nation-states is a helpful notion now, but I'm not sure how applicable it will be in the future.

That brings me to my second point. The piece also confuses "centralized" with "complex." It's true that the world economic system is highly decentralized. In a sense, that's what makes it robust. No central administration stands in the way of allocating resources to their most profitable use. (Notice that I didn't say best use.) But, that same system is highly complex and highly sensitive to moderate perturbations. It depends literally on billions of connections to function properly every day in order for it to work. Its highly sensitive nature would be quickly demonstrated by an oil price of $150 a barrel. Shortages of key minerals would shut down factories worldwide. A major grain harvest failure in the United States and Canada would result in widespread starvation. So, while the operation of the worldwide economic system is decentralized, its functioning remains highly vulnerable because of its interconnectedness and complexity. A decentralized system doesn't necessarily imply a system of low complexity. But, I would contend that a reduction in scale almost always means lower complexity, and that is where I believe we are headed.

The writer properly points out some strategies for reducing complexity in a way that would not lead to a sudden and catastrophic collapse. But, those strategies mean a major downsizing of the world trade system, one that is unlikely to happen except in the face of a crisis. Even then, we may be able to employ strategies for a more localized economy, but it will, of course, be under duress that we do it. Some people are getting a head start by promoting more local agriculture, retail, food processing, renewable energy production, and even handicrafts and manufacturing. What we learn from these efforts now will become the most precious knowledge on the planet in the face of a worldwide energy challenge that forces us to live simpler lives in a simpler society.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

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