The more complex a society, the more difficult it is to solve problems and avoid catastrophe. Sustainability advocates need to take a fresh look at the challenges if they are to plan effectively for real-world outcomes.
Sustainability as usually understood is an oxymoron. Using the found wealth of the New World and the geological legacy of fossil hydrocarbons, we modern humans have created an anti-ecological Titanic. Every effort to “green” this monstrous vessel—making the deck chairs recyclable, feeding the boilers with biofuels, installing hybrid winches and windlasses, and the like—is doomed to fail in the long run, because what is required is a radical change in our thinking and way of life. There are many obstacles to such a transformation, but one in particular is under-appreciated: the challenge of complexity.
Civilization’s Vicious Circle
Civilizations are trapped in vicious circles. They must keep solving the problems of complexity, for that is the sine qua non of civilized existence; but every solution creates new, ever more difficult problems, which then require new, ever more demanding solutions.
Thus complexity breeds more of the same, and each increase in complexity makes it harder to cope, while at the same time escalating the penalty for failure. Breakdown becomes unavoidable in the long run. In effect, civilizations enact a tragedy in which their raison d’être –the use of energy to foster the complexity that raises them above the hunter-gatherer level of subsistence—becomes the agent of their ultimate downfall.
Unfortunately, beyond a certain point, growth leads to a fundamental, qualitative change in the nature of systems. Specifically, it leads to what scientists call “chaos,” meaning a system is characterized by so many feedback loops operating in a nonlinear fashion that its behavior becomes more and more impenetrable and unpredictable and therefore less and less manageable, because neither the timing nor the severity of specific events is foreseeable.
Complexity Leads to Unpredictability and Crisis
Complex adaptive systems can be more or less stable and robust, but in general, the greater the complexity, the greater the criticality. Thus increasing the complexity of a civilization inexorably pushes it toward the critical end of the spectrum, meaning that both the challenges and the risks of managing its systems begin to compound.
In fact, complex adaptive systems cannot be managed in the usual sense of that word. Just understanding system behavior, let alone controlling it, challenges the human mind. Our minds and language are linear and sequential, but in systems many causes routinely come together to produce many effects.
Thus systems tend to overwhelm us both intellectually and practically. Even highly sophisticated models are no match for the irreducible uncertainty characteristic of complex adaptive systems. In short, limited, fallible human beings are bound to bungle the job of managing such systems. What they can neither fully understand nor precisely predict, they cannot expect to control, so failure of some sort is inevitable at some point.
The tedious repetition of financial crises provides a perfect illustration. The financial system is the epitome of a chaotic system. Generation after generation of highly motivated, talented and well-capitalized individuals in both the public and private sectors have time and again failed to prevent intoxicating booms from becoming devastating busts—and this despite the lessons of economic history, which are quite well understood.
Efficiency, Connectivity Erode Resilience
Societies struggling with the dilemmas of complexity are vulnerable from two directions. First, systems that are too tightly coupled or too efficient are fragile; they lack resilience. Thus they risk being toppled by a cascade of failure. That is how region-wide electrical outages propagate. The failure of one sector brings down another and another until the grid itself fails, and once down it takes heroic effort to get it up and running again.
Second, they are exposed to simultaneous failure. When formerly separate problems coalesce into a problematique, a nexus of interlocking problems, the society does not face one or two discrete challenges, as in simpler times, but instead a swarm of simultaneous challenges that can overwhelm its capacity to respond, thereby provoking a general collapse.
Take climate change as a current example. To address this overall problem will require us to surmount a host of challenges in many different sectors (e.g., agriculture, forestry, public health, energy production, infrastructure and so on) not only in one country or economy but in every country—to varying degrees.
Can Civilization Be Reformed?
Dire implications follow directly from seeing civilizations as chaotic in the scientific sense. Complex adaptive systems are stable until they are overstressed. Then one perturbation too many, or one that arrives at the wrong moment, can tip the system into instability virtually overnight, with unpredictable and frequently distressing consequences.
The second implication is even more distressing to contemplate: there may be no way to reform an advanced civilization. Complex adaptive systems operate according to their own inner dynamic, which can only be imperfectly understood by the human mind or influenced by human conduct.
Once a civilization is plagued by numerous intractable problems, most attempts at reform will therefore either fail or make matters worse. Indeed, ironically, it may be the very effort to reform that precipitates a collapse. It was perestroika and glasnost that precipitated the implosion of the USSR. Similarly, it was Louis XVI’s convening of the Estates-General that triggered the revolution and regicide that liquidated the ancient régime.
As these examples suggest, planning to avoid breakdown or to make a gradual and controlled transition from one stable state to another may be next to impossible. In effect, chaos sets at naught the human pretension to mastery of the historical process.
That does not mean that planning and reform are useless. However, it does mean that our overdeveloped industrial civilization seems unlikely to achieve a gentle, painless and orderly transition to a state in which humanity peacefully coexists with nature.
About the author: “For decades, William Ophuls has been among the world’s most original thinkers about the implications of our global ecological crisis for freedom, democracy, and political order. In Plato’s Revenge, he goes to the essence of this crisis: the deep, tacit, and widespread beliefs that nature and society are nothing more than machines, that the state should play no role in cultivating citizens’ virtue, and that self-interested individuals should rely solely on reason to guide their lives. Ophuls weaves together the ideas of some of history’s greatest thinkers to argue that humankind’s future lies in small, simple republics that cultivate their citizens’ virtue through natural law. In doing so, he shreds conventional wisdom and invigorates our conversation about the kind of world we intend our grandchildren to inherit.”
—Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.