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The Collapse of Complex Systems

General Ideas

We talk about energy depletion, global climate change, overpopulation and a host of other problems, but these are only symptoms of the true problems. In focusing upon these symptoms, we do not look at the larger problems and so are in no way prepared to begin seeking a solution. What is really happening is that a complex system is approaching a systemic breakdown due to flaws in fundamental conceptions. So long as we do not change our concepts of prosperity and economic growth, and so long as we do not take into account the true costs of environmental destruction and worker exploitation, the breakdown will proceed. In the meantime, we will simply be dealing with the symptoms instead of curing the disease.

It is in the nature of complex systems to grow and burgeon until fundamental flaws bring their downfall. Complex systems are rather susceptible to sudden, large scale change. They handle slow and subtle changes smoothly, but quick, large scale change does not leave a complex system an adequate opportunity to adapt. Complex systems are like heavily loaded diesel trucks on a downhill run: they require more braking distance than smaller vehicles. Sudden change tends to stress a complex system precisely where its fundamental flaws make it the weakest. Without adequate time to adapt to the change, the result is a systemic breakdown.

Systemic breakdowns tend to progress unpredicably. You can see my article about North Korea for a sample of this (Drawing from Experience, Part 1, Pfeiffer, Dale Allen; in The End of the Oil Age; Lulu Press, 2004; out of print), or Dmitri Orlov’s excellent material on the collapse of the USSR (Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century & Our Village, Orlov, Dmitri; in GRITS; Grassroots Ideias to Survive; Lulu Press, 2005; out of print). There is simply no way to anticipate a systemic breakdown. You can hazard guesses about some of the effects and prepare for those; but you can be sure that you will run into something unforeseen, and that the effects you did foresee will be complicated by other chains of effect beyond your ability to forecast.

Even if there was a true techno-fix for energy depletion, the chances are that it is already too late to implement it. The time for techno-fixes was back in the 1970s and 1980s. Now we are already at the hairpin curve at the bottom of the mountain, and the brakes on our diesel haven’t even been engaged yet. We had over thirty years to make the necessary transition. Instead, we went on a mad binge of consumption and accumulating wealth. So now we have to pay the fiddler.

Beyond this, even if there were a perfect techno-fix for energy depletion and time enough to implement the fix, this would not solve the fundamental problems of which energy depletion is just a symptom. If we solve the energy problem, then the more basic flaws that infest the complex system we call our civilization will simply fester up in some other way. And the longer we put off addressing the underlying fundamental flaws, the more serious the symptoms will be, the more difficult it will be to resolve the true problems, and the more disastrous will be the systemic crash.

Consider treating pneumonia as a cold. You might be able to clear up the cough and sinus condition temporarily, only to have the untreated infection claim the patient. The civilization we live in is simply a complex form of ecosystem. As such, it obeys all the laws of ecology. Increased energy availability will result in population growth, given there are no other immediate limits to environmental carrying capacity. Already, the world population is almost twice again more than the carrying capacity of the planet without hydrocarbons.

Should we find and implement the perfect techno-fix, population would continue to grow. The adoption of conspicuous consumption (otherwise known as the American lifestyle) by more and more people will result in graver problems. And the eventual population crash will be even worse.

And for those who say that a techno-fix would work if we also practiced conservation, I submit that it is impossible for our current socioeconomic system to conserve. For one thing, conservation could endanger the economic growth upon which this system is so dependant. And even if we did succeed in conserving energy in some ways, Jevon’s Paradox implies that total energy consumption will still increase (see

This is why scientists and engineers have been warning us for over a decade not to expect techno-fixes. Our problems are too complex, and they result from basic conceptual flaws that lie outside of the realm of science and technology. It is too late for techno-fixes. Even if it existed, a techno-fix would only be a temporary fix. And, in any case, our efforts would be much more effective if we were to address the fundamental problems instead.

In order to avoid systemic breakdown, we must change our concepts of prosperity and growth. We need to stop measuring our health in terms of dollars, or we need to incorporate true social and environmental costs into those dollars. We must forge a new socioeconomic system not based on conspicuous consumption and constant economic growth.

We need to begin restructuring our lifestyles, our households, our neighborhoods, and our communities. We need to adapt for self-sufficiency and sustainability. And while we are doing this, we need to evolve some new criteria for measuring prosperity, and a new respect for our environment and for each other. These are things that we can undertake at a grassroots level, and which will do the most good in the long run.

When we talk about peak oil, then we must either hope for a techno-fix or head for the hills armed for survival. But when we realize that peak oil is only a symptom of the true problem, then we also realize that neither techno-fixes nor personal escape will really solve our problems. So let us state once and for all: the problem is not peak oil or energy depletion, nor global climate change, nor overpopulation. The problem is the collapse of a complex system due to fundamental conceptual flaws.

When we have focused upon the real problem, then we can begin to contemplate a solution on the grassroots level, based on the development of a localized, sustainable socioeconomic system that makes the environment and community an integral part of the equation both on the social level and on the individual level. Then, and only then, can we begin to solve the problem.

10 Comments on "The Collapse of Complex Systems"

  1. Duke on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 1:45 pm 

    The author overlooks human nature as the root cause of our problems. It is what makes us sucessful as a species that created our problems. While some of us choose voluntary simplicity most want never ending consumption.

    The only true answer lies in purging the earth of those personality/genetic types that over consume and destroy the earth while keeping the reserved around. But that’s not going to happen as the greedy and destructive are in power.

    I can live on 5 percent of the energy spent by the average north american. And I can do this happily. But most of those above me can’t. Until we can answer that question we won’t get anywhere. My goals are not consptiom but spiritual and personal growth.a deep and rich inner life drives me forward.

  2. BillT on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 2:11 pm 

    Duke, I agree somewhat with your comment, but I take exception to the statement “most want never ending cinsumption”. Had you stated that we have been brainwashed by corporate America to WANT unlimited consumption, you would have been correct.

    When I was a kid (50s & 60s), a refrigerator lasted 20-30 years. A radio had tubes that were replaceable like you replace a light bulb. Ditto, TVs when they came along. I often looked at the diagram on the back of our TV and took out the burned out tube, went to the hardware store, bought a new one and the problem was fixed.

    We had our 1st TV for almost 20 years, until it because difficult to buy the tubes because the corporations were not selling enough new TVs to make a huge profit so they forced you to buy new TVs by not making replacement tubes.
    In came planned obsolescence and the race to consume was underway.

    No, we will not change. TV advertising has made it compulsory to buy ‘stuff’ to make us feel good, successful, happy. We fill basements, attic, garages, and rented storage cubes with ‘stuff’ as long as our credit holds out. BINGO! Credit and incomes are dropping, and the ‘complex system’ is collapsing, helped along by peak oil, climate change, and too many people. We will soon know what it means to live on the same amount of resources as the other 7 billion people around the world.

  3. Kenz300 on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 3:32 pm 

    Over population and endless population growth makes every problem worse. The food crisis, the water crisis, the fish stocks crisis, the energy crisis, the climate change crisis, the financial crisis and the jobs crisis. The additional billion people added to the earth in the last 12 years makes every problem harder to solve.
    Access to family planning services needs to be available to all that want it.

  4. christian philip on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 4:14 pm 

    get ready for canibalism now, lucky yoyo’s….

  5. DC on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 8:16 pm 

    The author hasnt overlooked human nature at all. Its quite clear to me he grasps that part of the problem just fine. But saying most humans are greedy or w/e does not add anything useful or meaningful to his article. Hes describing the behaviour of a system, not us as individuals.

  6. Goat1080 on Wed, 25th Jul 2012 9:53 pm 

    The top One-Percent (in power) will continue along just fine, with all the luxuries while the other ninety-nine percent will mostly die off and what remains will become slaves to the former One-Percent (upgraded thanks to attrition to the top Ten Percent)…

  7. DMyers on Thu, 26th Jul 2012 1:28 am 

    In a complex system, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think that’s a fair way to describe it. Let me picture it in the simplest way. Say we have a complex system (CS) as a circle 13″ in diameter. The first 12″ of the circle represent the physical sum of parts of the CS. The marginal one inch is the part that makes the CS greater than the sum of its parts. This is made up of something strange, energetic, kinetic, generated by the systemic interactions in the CS which has attained critical mass.

    That layer contains all the flaws, and there’s no way to figure out all that’s in there.

    Complexity is in your face. It causes a common sense of being overwhelmed. Due to computers, our perception of complexity only takes in a fraction of the true phenomenon. Think for example of a bank like Wells Fargo or the US Govt. keeping up with all their accounts manually. We’re talking adding machines, folders, ledgers, filing cabinets, even slide rules…..It could take weeks to know the verified balance in your account, three months ago. A system like that could not keep up in the reality of current numbers and would become useless. The true complexity is net complexity, without the aid of computers. If you can get yourself to look at it that way, net complexity is crushing.

    So I find interesting that Western civilization has loaded all the weight of its complexity on a bad knee of computer technology. Electricity is the sin qua non of computer technology. Electricity, how do you threaten to fail me? Let me count the ways. I leave the rest to your imagination.

  8. ken nohe on Thu, 26th Jul 2012 4:08 am 

    I completely agree with the article but then what do we do?

    Let’s say we are a bunch of activists and want to change the world. So as suggested above we will make a TV that last 30 years. 1 – It will cost 3 times as much. 2 – In 10/15 years TV are gone. Any part of your wall can act as a screen thanks to polymer covering. It doesn’t work.

    So we change our tactics. Now we want 100% recyclable products. It is even more expensive and we only realize 10 years later that some new material is actually very toxic and expensive to reuse. Again it doesn’t work.

    So we must stop making TVs? OK but then what we were trying to save crumbles anyway.

    The reality is that social crashes may be part of our evolution. We try to arrange things based on some ideas and principles and when eventually they reach their limits, civilization comes to a halt and starts again later based on new ideas.

    The Chinese and Indians have known that for ages which is why they see their civilizations as cycles. Westerners have a more linear vision, ignoring that the “dark ages” was a spiritual reaction to the failure of the materialism of the Romans and that the renaissance was a return to these earlier values.

    If there is anything positive, it is that there is progress nevertheless. We do learn from past mistakes, albeit slowly. Instead of a cycle where you eventually end up where you started, humanity moves slowly upward in an expending spiral of knowledge and experience.

    But this positive long term note doesn’t change the fact that we are very close to the high point of this loop and as on a roller-coaster we can’t see any rails in front of us. Can’t be very good!

  9. Stephen on Thu, 26th Jul 2012 6:42 am 

    I think we need to make things to last again, and change the “Planned Obsolence” and start FIXING broken things again (When is the last time you have had someone local do a component level repair, as opposed to shipping the unit somewhere else)?

    See for more on this planned obsolence and the waste of things and toxicity of things!

  10. BillT on Thu, 26th Jul 2012 8:01 am 

    ken, there is no need for planned obsolescence. There is no need to come out with a new bell or whistle to add to the complexity of something like a TV that only need to be a TV, not a hundred other things that you never use like a karaoke machine. Refrigerators only need to keep food cold. They do not have to dispense beer from the door tap. Cars only have to provide cheap, reliable safe transportation, not all the comforts of home. THAT is why the end is in sight for the system.

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