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.
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,"
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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