Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tainter on Complexity and Sustainability

Joseph Tainter has published a new essay at The Oil Drum, a definite must read.  For those who are unfamiliar, Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies" is, in my opinion, one of the most important books available to explain the structural nature of our current predicament.  His new essay is not just a rehash of his previous work--it explores a new theory with startling implications.  In short, it turns common perceptions of sustainabilty on their heads. 

I think Tainter's thinking highlights the need for a specific type of solution that I have attempted to articulate in the past:  elegant simplicity, designed tecnics, vernacular zen, etc.  My problem is that I have not had a suitable framework to give structure to my ramblings.  Tainter's latest essay provides that structure--after I finish the Diagonal Economy series, I will turn to re-articulating these previous works as a solution specifically intended to address the issues raised by Prof. Tainter.

On the Diagonal Economy series, my work schedule has kept me from getting it published as quickly as I would like.  I have completed the next installment, and hope to finish up a few more this weekend, ensuring that the next few weeks will be a return to substantive postings...

8 comments:

Jeremy said...

Wow - quite a bit to chew on from Tainter. I take this as a formal proof that humankind will not be able to prevent the coming environmental and resource crises. I guess I already knew this in my heart since it would require unselfish behavior on a large scale, but Tainter shows that the problem is not selfishness but necessity. He calls for a new approach to problem solving, but I see this as even more unattainable than large-scale unselfish behavior. This new problem solving would also have to be done on a large scale, as in the problem of the commons where a few not cooperating can ruin things for the whole community. So my question is: given that global warming, population die-off, etc. is all coming, how should we respond?

Geoff said...

Thanks for the link to that, it's a fantastic piece.

If un-sustainability in a resource use sense comes about due to solving ever more complex problems with more complex solutions, shouldn't we start by asking ourselves what the problems are and whether we've approached them in an appropriate way?

For example, our problem might be not enough food for the local population. Instead of approaching it as a problem of "excessive population" we've tackled it as "not enough food".

I think much of our trouble stems from the way we phrase the problems, from which parts we focus on and the goals we set. Our problem statements and solution scopes are flawed.

Many problems would disappear if we lived simpler lives on a localised scale, and did without a lot of the rubbish that we now consider essential. Consider if our TV breaks, we believe we are presented with a problem. One solution is to give up TV, which is a solution that is infinitely less complex, and would simplify our entire life. The solution we would usually pick is to try and get ourselves a new one, requiring more money/energy/resources/time, not just personally, but across the whole of society.

The biggest problem we face as a species is boredom.

I've figured that out by looking at the most complex areas of our society with the greatest resource use, and determining which problem(s) that complexity addressed :-P

Every fancy new car that isn't just four wheels and a motor, every big screen TV, every new movie and TV show, every complicated piece of gym equipment, each new derivative on the stock market, all of it is a way to relieve some of the perceived boredom.

Rice Farmer said...

Thanks for alerting us to that. The implications for making industrial society "sustainable" are grim. It seems to me that Tainter sort of fudged the conclusion. Since problems are always going to arise, complexity will inevitably increase, thereby requiring increased energy production and consumption, so that viewed in the long term, collapse is just a matter of time. Of course collapse greatly simplifies things, doesn't it? Tainter says that sustainability means staying in the game, but no one stays in the game indefinitely. So the conclusion I draw -- even though Tainter seems to have avoided saying it in so many words -- is that collapse is the inevitable outcome. In that light, perhaps collapse should be seen as the process by which simplification occurs and allows us to start over again.

ryan said...

"The biggest problem we face as a species is boredom...

Every fancy new car that isn't just four wheels and a motor, every big screen TV, every new movie and TV show, every complicated piece of gym equipment, each new derivative on the stock market, all of it is a way to relieve some of the perceived boredom."

very well put. we pretty much suck at life. 3.85 billion years of evolution, 5 previous mass extinctions, biodiversity recovers after each and consciousness continues to evolve until a species becomes reflectively aware that its behavior is causing the 6th mass extinction... beyond our unsustainable resource consumption we are systematically and increasingly wiping out the majority of life on earth and what little is left of wilderness... so we can have cheaper, flatter screen television to watch reality TV... we suck at life.

"In that light, perhaps collapse should be seen as the process by which simplification occurs and allows us to start over again."

prigogine's work with dissipative structures and self-organization suggest the opposite often occurs in complex systems - in times of chaos they emerge to higher orders of increased complexity. regarding what is occurring right now with the collapse of civilization and the emerging tools of the global communication there seems to be the potential for complex self-organization networks to rapidly form which may be resilient to the catastrophes of the 21st century. the survivors of the the next few decades of war, global upheaval and environmental collapse are likely to be so significantly consciously evolved as to never revert back to civilization, capitalism, industrial-techno development, or hierarchy. while shifting to local scale resources, simplifying our lifestyles, and reducing consumption may qualify as "returning to a more simple life" these habits will have to be adopted through novel, emerging pathways to lead global cultural evolution.

"So my question is: given that global warming, population die-off, etc. is all coming, how should we respond?"

"Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die...

"And yet," said Susila, "in a certain sense the advice is excellent. Eating, drinking, dying---three primary manifestations of the universal and impersonal life. Animals live that impersonal and universal life without knowing its nature. Ordinary people know its nature but don't live it and, if ever they think seriously about it, refuse to accept it. An enlightened person person knows it, lives it, and accepts it completely. He eats, he drinks, and in due course he dies---but he eats with a difference, drinks with a difference, dies with a difference."

- Aldous Huxley, Island

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Anonymous said...

Tainter always fudges his conclusions because his theories are so compelling and so brilliant that they provide nothing but a bleak view of civilization's future, which he seems unable to accept. His classic "Collapse of Complex Societies" suffers from the same ending cop-out. He winds up with a sort of shambling, "Well, we MUST find a solution..." that isn't very compelling in the face of the thinking he has just delivered. Tainter's theories on collapse and complexity do not leave any wiggle room, and yet he tries to wiggle out of them at the end of every essay. Complex civilizations have collapsed before; they will again; cycle repeats. That's pretty much all there is. The truth hurts.

If you want advice on how to respond (which Tainter can't or won't offer) you're better advised to read Dmitry Orlov.

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