Sunday, October 29, 2017

Devolution everywhere: Spain, Italy, Britain and the problems of complexity

The narrative about Catalan independence is that two major cities, Madrid and Barcelona, are competing for power, and one has decided that the best path forward is to declare independence from Spain and free itself of Madrid's dominance.

There is certainly something to this narrative. As CNN reports:

Catalonia accounts for nearly a fifth of Spain's economy, and leads all regions in producing 25% of the country's exports.

It contributes much more in taxes (21% of the country's total) than it gets back from the government.

Independence supporters have seized on the imbalance, arguing that stopping transfers to Madrid would turn Catalonia's budget deficit into a surplus.

Catalonia has a proven record of attracting investment, with nearly a third of all foreign companies in Spain choosing the regional capital of Barcelona as their base.

But the spread of independence-seeking across Europe points to something more than just sibling rivalry. In 2016 British voters shocked the world by voting narrowly to withdraw from the European Union (EU). Just this month two of Italy's richest regions held non-binding referendums on seeking increased autonomy from the central government. More than 95 percent of those voting said yes.

The immediate effects of Britain withdrawing from the EU and of Catalonia becoming independent (if, in fact, either actually ends up happening) could be quite negative economically, cutting both off from established trade arrangements that power their economies. (The vague desire for more autonomy among the provinces of Veneto and Lombardy in Italy does not yet spell economic and political divorce.)

Given this outcome, why would the people of Britain and Catalonia seek to disconnect from central authorities? For Britain perhaps the impetus was that most of the people of Britain did not feel they were sharing in the prosperity generated by the country's affiliation with the EU. Certainly the financial elite centered in and around London have prospered, but not necessarily the rest of the country.

In Catalonia, the problem seems reversed. The Catalans are prospering just fine. But Madrid is siphoning off the fruits of Catalan labor and ingenuity and providing little in return.

Both complaints point to a larger and yet conceptually invisible problem. Joseph Tainter in his momentous study entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies explains that complexity is a strategy for societies to respond to challenges. At first complexity works well to solve problems. Later in the life of a society, complexity—a new bureaucracy here, another layer of complexity in the infrastructure there—continues to work but with diminishing returns. Finally, a society now used to solving its problems successfully with greater and greater complexity is blinded by this success and cannot see the point when the returns from complexity turn negative.

The key here is that the returns from complexity are not evenly distributed. And, when such returns go negative, those implementing the changes that increase complexity—usually the people in power—may, in fact, benefit while the majority suffer. And, the negative returns may not just be economic. They may also have to do with perceived status, the workings of justice, public safety, and any number of other civic functions.

When people perceive these reductions in their well-being compared to others, they seek common cause with those closest to them whom they assume feel similarly aggrieved.

Here in the United States I frequently ask friends how much they think San Francisco, Portland and Seattle listen to the dictates coming out of Washington, D.C. The dispute over so-called sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants is but one example of failure to cooperate with federal authorities. Gov. Jerry Brown sounded more like the president of California than its governor when in the wake of Donald Trump's victory he told the American Geophysical Union that if the federal government shut down satellite collection of climate data,“California will launch its own damn satellites.”

In an age which seems to call out for transnational solutions to climate change, pollution, deforestation, species extinction, and myriad social, economic, and health issues including wealth inequality, cybercrime, and possible pandemics—in such an age we are faced with the strange centrifugal force of devolution as many people lose faith in centralized authorities to solve their problems.

The hugely complex, tightly networked systems within which we live now in communications, trade, transportation and finance have provided unparalleled (but poorly distributed) wealth. They exhibit the economies of scale that attract us because they produce low prices for the goods and services we want. But more and more people are coming to believe that these systems lack the responsiveness needed to address their daily problems.

What they don't necessarily understand is that these systems because of their high efficiency are also very fragile. Their very efficiency means they have little redundancy, and it is redundancy which creates resilience. For this reason, the devolution we see emerging politically may someday be forced upon us in other areas of our lives whether we are prepared for it or not.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at

1 comment:

ChemEng said...

The word “complexity” is abstract. We need examples.

We have just returned from a visit to England where we saw complexity at work. For example,

• In one small village church they wanted to replace the sheet rock. But the building is designated a heritage site. The existing insulation is horsehair, so they have to use (new) horsehair in the replacement, even though modern materials will save energy. And where will a small church find the funding for this?
• In the same church one of the attendees was in a wheel chair. They wanted to remove one of the pews so that he had sufficient space. But they had to get special permission, and they had to keep the pew — which is now cluttering up a back room.
• A relation of mine wanted to serve as a receptionist at a local non-profit. Before she could be accepted she was required to undergo a full police background check. She refused, of course.

Each of these requirements can be justified on its own stand-alone merits. After all, we don’t want to see old buildings radically changed and there had been an incident in which two children were murdered. So the bureaucrats feel good about the work that they are doing.

But these requirements mean that a church, which is already struggling, may face closure (and a church is about people, not bricks and mortar), and a non-profit loses a volunteer. In the meantime some bureaucrat somewhere is being paid a salary and benefits for all this.

It recalls something about not seeing the forest for the trees. (These comments are not a knock on the U.K. We can find similar examples in all countries.)

No wonder people are fed up.