Thesis #19: Complexity ensures collapse

Predicting the proximate cause of collapse is impossible, though, as we have seen, both environmental problems and peak oil present serious threats–precisely the kind of threat that has toppled civilizations in the past. On their own, however, such proximate causes are probabilistic. Peak oil may mean the end of civilization; or, perhaps we will be able to transition to some alternative. Environmental problems may destroy the most basic necessities of civilized life, or perhaps we will solve them, instead. What makes collapse a certainty, rather than a probability, is, ironically, the very thing that *defines*civilization in the first place: complexity.

Graph theory is ultimately the mathematics of relationships. Here, a graph means a set of nodes and the edges (lines) that connect those nodes to one another. Such a graph can represent nearly anything. A graph of air travel has nodes of airports, and edges of routes. A graph of the internet has nodes of webpages, and edges of hyperlinks. A graph of the electrical grid has nodes of power stations, and edges of power lines. A graph of social power has nodes of people, and edges of power relationships. Graphs can be directed, where edges are all one-way, or bidirectional.

Take, as an example, our power grid. It is, as mentioned above, a graph. We can define the nodes as the power stations, and the recipients who need power. The edges, then, are power lines. There are obviously a great many nodes here, and a great many edges. But buildng a new edge is expensive, and redundancy is only useful when something goes wrong. By taking the resources that might be used to create more redundancy and instead creating new edges, any power company can increase the number of nodes connected by its edges for the same cost. The problem, though, is that the resulting graph is complex, and fragile. Removing a single edge can disconnect a huge sub-graph from the rest of the graph–and in the case of a power grid, that can mean an enormous blackout.

That’s what happened on 14 August 2003, when insufficent tree trimming in a Columbus, OH caused a single power line’s capacity to wear. That caused a power surge throughout the power grid, and the largest electrical blackout in North American history. One-seventh of the United States’ population, and one-third of Canada’s, went without power. The economic toll was estimated at $6 billion. All for an untrimmed tree in Ohio.

Increasing complexity without increasing redundancy means an escalating probability of disaster for the whole network. We can look at the power grid as such a graph, or we can broaden our scope and see all of civilization as such a graph. We now see a global economy, with currencies pegged to the American dollar or the Euro, and interdependent stock markets. Hospitals and security rely on power grids that themselves rely on a complex network of commodities and components some of which, while crucial, yet have no redundancy. Were any natural or political disaster to befall Taiwan, for example, the “Information Age” would come grinding to a halt, with 80%of the world’s mainboards and graphics chips, 70% of the notebooks, and 65% of the microchips suddenly disappearing from the table.

The solution to such vulnerabilities, of course, is simple: create redundancy. That is the only solution to such a conundrum, but it is a solution civilization is incapable of implementing.

As we have already seen, civilization must always grow (thesis #12 and thesis #13). That kind of competition creates an environment where building redundancy is impossible. An entity that spends its resources building in redundancy to guard against possible future vulnerabilities is not using those resources to grow. A competitor that chooses to grow is more vulnerable, but has significant short-term advantages that will allow it to out-compete its more forward-thinking competitor, and makes all her planning for the future a moot point. Running two power stations, or twice as many power lines, makes a power grid more robust, but it also makes it more expensive to maintain. Another grid with less redundancy costs much less to maintain, and so will out-compete the other–at least, until something goes wrong. On a long enough timeline, something *always* goes wrong.

While some part of the globe remains unincorporated into that graph, there is room to grow. However, once that room is consumed, room for growth can only be bought at another entity’s expense–meaning that the overall graph is incapable of any further growth. In the case of civilization, that means that the process of collapse begins. As Jeff Vail writes in “Rhizome, Communication, and Our ‘One-Time Shot’“:

In the past, such peer-polity resource races led to periodic regional collapse. Today such a collapse is not possible—with the ‘Closing of the Map’ it is no longer possible for one region of the world to collapse while progress, technology, and “civilization�? are maintained in another location, much like epidemic diseases. Instead, our global civilization simply swallows up non-performers or attempts at regional collapse and immediately reintegrates them into the global system. … In today’s world, without the ability for regional collapse and reconstitution, the entire world functions as an integrated system. We have had a remarkable run of development, fueled by the twin processes of improving energy subsidy (coal, nuclear, oil, petroleum based fertilizer, etc.) and globalization (always newer and cheaper labor pools, newer and cheaper resource sources). But this will soon come to an end. The fundamental reality of the finite nature of resources upon which we depend (fossil fuels, uranium, metals), combined with the accelerating depletion of renewable resources which without regional collapse can no longer recover (forests, topsoil, clean water) is leading down the road to an inevitable global collapse.

Thus, we find ourselves hemmed in by the very complexity that has so often solved our problems in the past. The diminishing returns of complexity make it increasingly difficult to use complexity to solve our future problems, even as our complex society finishes its 10,000 year march to complete domination of the earth, and we find that the result is more fragile than anything we could have foreseen, and disastrous because it has finally succeeded in eliminating all those alternatives it had once relied on when it had previously failed. The result is a fine, gossamer web of a culture that is doomed to fall apart in the slightest breeze–wherever that breeze may come from.