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Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable

Source:  Copyright 2008, New Scientist
Date:  April 2, 2008
Byline:  Debora MacKenzie


DOOMSDAY. The end of civilisation. Literature and film abound with tales of plague, famine and wars which ravage the planet, leaving a few survivors scratching out a primitive existence amid the ruins. Every civilisation in history has collapsed, after all. Why should ours be any different?

Doomsday scenarios typically feature a knockout blow: a massive asteroid, all-out nuclear war or a catastrophic pandemic (see "Will a pandemic bring down civilisation?"). Yet there is another chilling possibility: what if the very nature of civilisation means that ours, like all the others, is destined to collapse sooner or later?

A few researchers have been making such claims for years. Disturbingly, recent insights from fields such as complexity theory suggest that they are right. It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down.

Some say we have already reached this point, and that it is time to start thinking about how we might manage collapse. Others insist it is not yet too late, and that we can - we must - act now to keep disaster at bay.

Environmental mismanagement

History is not on our side. Think of Sumeria, of ancient Egypt and of the Maya. In his 2005 best-seller Collapse, Jared Diamond of the University of California, Los Angeles, blamed environmental mismanagement for the fall of the Mayan civilisation and others, and warned that we might be heading the same way unless we choose to stop destroying our environmental support systems.

Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington DC agrees. He has long argued that governments must pay more attention to vital environmental resources. "It's not about saving the planet. It's about saving civilisation," he says.

Others think our problems run deeper. >From the moment our ancestors started to settle down and build cities, we have had to find solutions to the problems that success brings. "For the past 10,000 years, problem solving has produced increasing complexity in human societies," says Joseph Tainter, an archaeologist at Utah State University, Logan, and author of the 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

If crops fail because rain is patchy, build irrigation canals. When they silt up, organise dredging crews. When the bigger crop yields lead to a bigger population, build more canals. When there are too many for ad hoc repairs, install a management bureaucracy, and tax people to pay for it. When they complain, invent tax inspectors and a system to record the sums paid. That much the Sumerians knew.

Diminishing returns

There is, however, a price to be paid. Every extra layer of organisation imposes a cost in terms of energy, the common currency of all human efforts, from building canals to educating scribes. And increasing complexity, Tainter realised, produces diminishing returns. The extra food produced by each extra hour of labour - or joule of energy invested per farmed hectare - diminishes as that investment mounts. We see the same thing today in a declining number of patents per dollar invested in research as that research investment mounts. This law of diminishing returns appears everywhere, Tainter says.

To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity. Success generates a larger population, more kinds of specialists, more resources to manage, more information to juggle - and, ultimately, less bang for your buck.

Eventually, says Tainter, the point is reached when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain its existing level of complexity. Then when the climate changes or barbarians invade, overstretched institutions break down and civil order collapses. What emerges is a less complex society, which is organised on a smaller scale or has been taken over by another group.

Tainter sees diminishing returns as the underlying reason for the collapse of all ancient civilisations, from the early Chinese dynasties to the Greek city state of Mycenae. These civilisations relied on the solar energy that could be harvested from food, fodder and wood, and from wind. When this had been stretched to its limit, things fell apart.

An ineluctable process

Western industrial civilisation has become bigger and more complex than any before it by exploiting new sources of energy, notably coal and oil, but these are limited. There are increasing signs of diminishing returns: the energy required to get each new joule of oil is mounting and although global food production is still increasing, constant innovation is needed to cope with environmental degradation and evolving pests and diseases - the yield boosts per unit of investment in innovation are shrinking. "Since problems are inevitable," Tainter warns, "this process is in part ineluctable."

Is Tainter right? An analysis of complex systems has led Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the same conclusion that Tainter reached from studying history. Social organisations become steadily more complex as they are required to deal both with environmental problems and with challenges from neighbouring societies that are also becoming more complex, Bar-Yam says. This eventually leads to a fundamental shift in the way the society is organised.

"To run a hierarchy, managers cannot be less complex than the system they are managing," Bar-Yam says. As complexity increases, societies add ever more layers of management but, ultimately in a hierarchy, one individual has to try and get their head around the whole thing, and this starts to become impossible. At that point, hierarchies give way to networks in which decision-making is distributed. We are at this point.

This shift to decentralised networks has led to a widespread belief that modern society is more resilient than the old hierarchical systems. "I don't foresee a collapse in society because of increased complexity," says futurologist and industry consultant Ray Hammond. "Our strength is in our highly distributed decision making." This, he says, makes modern western societies more resilient than those like the old Soviet Union, in which decision making was centralised.

Increasing connectedness

Things are not that simple, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, Canada, and author of the 2006 book The Upside of Down. "Initially, increasing connectedness and diversity helps: if one village has a crop failure, it can get food from another village that didn't."

As connections increase, though, networked systems become increasingly tightly coupled. This means the impacts of failures can propagate: the more closely those two villages come to depend on each other, the more both will suffer if either has a problem. "Complexity leads to higher vulnerability in some ways," says Bar-Yam. "This is not widely understood."

The reason is that as networks become ever tighter, they start to transmit shocks rather than absorb them. "The intricate networks that tightly connect us together - and move people, materials, information, money and energy - amplify and transmit any shock," says Homer-Dixon. "A financial crisis, a terrorist attack or a disease outbreak has almost instant destabilising effects, from one side of the world to the other."

For instance, in 2003 large areas of North America and Europe suffered blackouts when apparently insignificant nodes of their respective electricity grids failed. And this year China suffered a similar blackout after heavy snow hit power lines. Tightly coupled networks like these create the potential for propagating failure across many critical industries, says Charles Perrow of Yale University, a leading authority on industrial accidents and disasters.

Credit crunch

Perrow says interconnectedness in the global production system has now reached the point where "a breakdown anywhere increasingly means a breakdown everywhere". This is especially true of the world's financial systems, where the coupling is very tight. "Now we have a debt crisis with the biggest player, the US. The consequences could be enormous."

"A networked society behaves like a multicellular organism," says Bar-Yam, "random damage is like lopping a chunk off a sheep." Whether or not the sheep survives depends on which chunk is lost. And while we are pretty sure which chunks a sheep needs, it isn't clear - it may not even be predictable - which chunks of our densely networked civilisation are critical, until it's too late.

"When we do the analysis, almost any part is critical if you lose enough of it," says Bar-Yam. "Now that we can ask questions of such systems in more sophisticated ways, we are discovering that they can be very vulnerable. That means civilisation is very vulnerable."

So what can we do? "The key issue is really whether we respond successfully in the face of the new vulnerabilities we have," Bar-Yam says. That means making sure our "global sheep" does not get injured in the first place - something that may be hard to guarantee as the climate shifts and the world's fuel and mineral resources dwindle.

Tightly coupled system

Scientists in other fields are also warning that complex systems are prone to collapse. Similar ideas have emerged from the study of natural cycles in ecosystems, based on the work of ecologist Buzz Holling, now at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Some ecosystems become steadily more complex over time: as a patch of new forest grows and matures, specialist species may replace more generalist species, biomass builds up and the trees, beetles and bacteria form an increasingly rigid and ever more tightly coupled system.

"It becomes an extremely efficient system for remaining constant in the face of the normal range of conditions," says Homer-Dixon. But unusual conditions - an insect outbreak, fire or drought - can trigger dramatic changes as the impact cascades through the system. The end result may be the collapse of the old ecosystem and its replacement by a newer, simpler one.

Globalisation is resulting in the same tight coupling and fine-tuning of our systems to a narrow range of conditions, he says. Redundancy is being systematically eliminated as companies maximise profits. Some products are produced by only one factory worldwide. Financially, it makes sense, as mass production maximises efficiency. Unfortunately, it also minimises resilience. "We need to be more selective about increasing the connectivity and speed of our critical systems," says Homer-Dixon. "Sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits."

Is there an alternative? Could we heed these warnings and start carefully climbing back down the complexity ladder? Tainter knows of only one civilisation that managed to decline but not fall. "After the Byzantine empire lost most of its territory to the Arabs, they simplified their entire society. Cities mostly disappeared, literacy and numeracy declined, their economy became less monetised, and they switched from professional army to peasant militia."

Staving off collapse

Pulling off the same trick will be harder for our more advanced society. Nevertheless, Homer-Dixon thinks we should be taking action now. "First, we need to encourage distributed and decentralised production of vital goods like energy and food," he says. "Second, we need to remember that slack isn't always waste. A manufacturing company with a large inventory may lose some money on warehousing, but it can keep running even if its suppliers are temporarily out of action."

The electricity industry in the US has already started identifying hubs in the grid with no redundancy available and is putting some back in, Homer-Dixon points out. Governments could encourage other sectors to follow suit. The trouble is that in a world of fierce competition, private companies will always increase efficiency unless governments subsidise inefficiency in the public interest.

Homer-Dixon doubts we can stave off collapse completely. He points to what he calls "tectonic" stresses that will shove our rigid, tightly coupled system outside the range of conditions it is becoming ever more finely tuned to. These include population growth, the growing divide between the world's rich and poor, financial instability, weapons proliferation, disappearing forests and fisheries, and climate change. In imposing new complex solutions we will run into the problem of diminishing returns - just as we are running out of cheap and plentiful energy.

"This is the fundamental challenge humankind faces. We need to allow for the healthy breakdown in natural function in our societies in a way that doesn't produce catastrophic collapse, but instead leads to healthy renewal," Homer-Dixon says. This is what happens in forests, which are a patchy mix of old growth and newer areas created by disease or fire. If the ecosystem in one patch collapses, it is recolonised and renewed by younger forest elsewhere. We must allow partial breakdown here and there, followed by renewal, he says, rather than trying so hard to avert breakdown by increasing complexity that any resulting crisis is actually worse.

Tipping points

Lester Brown thinks we are fast running out of time. "The world can no longer afford to waste a day. We need a Great Mobilisation, as we had in wartime," he says. "There has been tremendous progress in just the past few years. For the first time, I am starting to see how an alternative economy might emerge. But it's now a race between tipping points - which will come first, a switch to sustainable technology, or collapse?"

Tainter is not convinced that even new technology will save civilisation in the long run. "I sometimes think of this as a 'faith-based' approach to the future," he says. Even a society reinvigorated by cheap new energy sources will eventually face the problem of diminishing returns once more. Innovation itself might be subject to diminishing returns, or perhaps absolute limits.

Studies of the way cities grow by Luis Bettencourt of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, support this idea. His team's work suggests that an ever-faster rate of innovation is required to keep cities growing and prevent stagnation or collapse, and in the long run this cannot be sustainable.

The stakes are high. Historically, collapse always led to a fall in population. "Today's population levels depend on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture," says Tainter. "Take those away and there would be a reduction in the Earth's population that is too gruesome to think about."

If industrialised civilisation does fall, the urban masses - half the world's population - will be most vulnerable. Much of our hard-won knowledge could be lost, too. "The people with the least to lose are subsistence farmers," Bar-Yam observes, and for some who survive, conditions might actually improve. Perhaps the meek really will inherit the Earth.

From issue 2650 of New Scientist magazine, 02 April 2008, page 32-35

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