Friday, August 8, 2014

Sustainability of Increasingly Complex Societies

A must read article along the lines of Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Societies.  Examines the
viability and sustainability of increasing complex societies.  Is “doing more with less”, i.e. is ever increasing productivity sustainable.

One should also think of increasingly complex Finance and Financial Instruments, and increased instability of finance and economies (kind of touched here) when reading the article.  Its all connected.

Excerpts from the Archdruid Report
recent chatter about “cloud computing.” What is this thing we’re calling “the cloud?” Descend from the airy realms of cyber-abstractions into the grubby underworld of hardware, and it’s an archipelago of huge server farms, each of which uses as much electricity as a small city, each of which has a ravenous hunger for spare parts, skilled labor, and many other inputs, and each of which must be connected to all the others by a physical network of linkages that have their own inescapable resource demands. As with Fuller’s satellite analogy, the ephemeralization of one part of the whole system is accomplished at the cost of massive capital outlays and drastic increases in complexity elsewhere in the system.

The basis of that theory is the uncontroversial fact that human societies routinely build more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain. During periods of prosperity, societies invest available resources in major projects—temples, fortifications, canal or road systems, space programs, or whatever else happens to appeal to the collective imagination of the age. As infrastructure increases in scale and complexity, the costs of maintenance rise to equal and exceed the available economic surplus; the period of prosperity ends in political and economic failure, and infrastructure falls into ruin as its maintenance costs are no longer paid.

The pulse of anabolic expansion and catabolic collapse thus defines, for example, the history of imperial China. The extraordinary stability of China’s traditional system of village agriculture and local-scale manufacturing put a floor under the process, so that each collapse bottomed out at roughly the same level as the last, and after a century or two another anabolic pulse would get under way. In some places along the Great Wall, it’s possible to see the high-water marks of each anabolic phase practically side by side, as each successful dynasty’s repairs and improvements were added onto the original fabric. rably more troublesome if the resource base lacks the permanence of traditional Chinese rice fields and workshops. A society that bases its economy on nonrenewable resources, in particular, has set itself up for a far more devastating collapse.

Buckminister Fuller had a well-earned reputation in the engineering field of his time as “failure-prone,” and a consistent habit of pursuing efficiency at the expense of resilience was arguably the most important reason why. The fiasco surrounding Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion car is a case in point. One of the car’s many novel features was a center of mass that was extremely high compared to other cars, which combined with an innovative suspension system to give the car an extremely smooth ride. Unfortunately this same feature turned into a lethal liability when a Dymaxion prototype was sideswiped by another vehicle.

The unavoidable tradeoff between efficiency and resilience can be understood easily enough by considering an ordinary bridge.

A society dependent on vulnerable satellite networks in place of the robust reliability of oceanic cables, cloud computing in place of the dispersed security of programs and data spread across millions of separate hard drives, just-in-time ordering in place of warehouses ready to fill in any disruptions in the supply chain, and so on, is indeed more ephemeral—that is to say, considerably more fragile than it would otherwise be.

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