CCD illustrates a growing awareness amongst scientists of the power of networked effects. It could be summarised by the old aphorism “that for the won’t of a nail, the kingdom was lost” but it is much more than that.
Sometimes the weakest part of the system is it’s most valuable: complexity matters
CCD is a perfect example of how fragile “weak ties” can be, and the disruption to even one small element of a system can have be disastrous (positive feedback loops can amplify negative effects). A series of articles in New Scientist explores this issue, and how systems that increase in complexity correspondingly become more fragile:
“A few researchers have been making such claims for years. Disturbingly, recent insights from fields such as complexity theory suggest that they are right. It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile…”
Research into this area is revealing some fascinating, if not worrying, insights:
There is, however, a price to be paid. Every extra layer of organisation imposes a cost in terms of energy, the common currency of all human efforts, from building canals to educating scribes. And increasing complexity, Tainter realised, produces diminishing returns. The extra food produced by each extra hour of labour – or joule of energy invested per farmed hectare – diminishes as that investment mounts. We see the same thing today in a declining number of patents per dollar invested in research as that research investment mounts. This law of diminishing returns appears everywhere, Tainter says.
To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity. Success generates a larger population, more kinds of specialists, more resources to manage, more information to juggle – and, ultimately, less bang for your buck.
Eventually, says Tainter, the point is reached when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain its existing level of complexity. Then when the climate changes or barbarians invade, overstretched institutions break down and civil order collapses. What emerges is a less complex society, which is organised on a smaller scale or has been taken over by another group.
Tainter sees diminishing returns as the underlying reason for the collapse of all ancient civilisations, from the early Chinese dynasties to the Greek city state of Mycenae. These civilisations relied on the solar energy that could be harvested from food, fodder and wood, and from wind. When this had been stretched to its limit, things fell apart.
It also notes:
Scientists in other fields are also warning that complex systems are prone to collapse. Similar ideas have emerged from the study of natural cycles in ecosystems, based on the work of ecologist Buzz Holling, now at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Some ecosystems become steadily more complex over time: as a patch of new forest grows and matures, specialist species may replace more generalist species, biomass builds up and the trees, beetles and bacteria form an increasingly rigid and ever more tightly coupled system.
“It becomes an extremely efficient system for remaining constant in the face of the normal range of conditions,” says Homer-Dixon. But unusual conditions – an insect outbreak, fire or drought – can trigger dramatic changes as the impact cascades through the system. The end result may be the collapse of the old ecosystem and its replacement by a newer, simpler one.
The full text of the article is available here: “Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable” Issue 2650, New Scientist magazine, 02 April 2008, page 32-35
Why the “Great CO2 Experiment” should concern us all
Those of advocating for action on climate change (especially the reduction of CO2 emissions) fear such amplified network effects. Taken as a whole, our industrial civilisation is a marvel. However, climate change may bring stresses on parts of the system that will cause failure in other. Our globalised civilisation may be more fragile than one supposes.
When the denial movements states the climate is “too complex to understand” they are only half right. Yes it is complex, and it is for that very reason that scientists are concerned about the power of positive feed-backs.
Given that humanity is presently engaged in a massive, though unintentional, experiment of pumping millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere we should all be pausing for concern. As the average global temperature rises, we reach thresholds (or tipping points) which have further flow on effects. Thus, the collapse of the Greenland ice-sheets due to an average temperature rise of 2c-3c would result in rising sea levels.
This in turn would impact cities close to the shoreline. At the same time, the millions of tonnes of methane and CO2 stored in the Siberian tundra could be released (as these areas of the world thaw, releasing the gases otherwise trapped) speeding up the warming process even further.
If you want to see how some of this could play out, check out some of the papers and presentations given at last years 4 Degrees conference held at Oxford.
From little things, big things grow
To give a further analogy: two years ago who would have thought that large numbers of low-income Americans borrowing heavily would lead to the global financial crises?
That the decisions of millions of individuals in the US (in part prompted by the way in which debt was packaged and sold on financial markets) would ultimately result in the global economy coming to a standstill.
The moment large numbers of those over-leveraged mortgagees in the US found themselves unable to meet their loan commitments sparked a chain of events that lead to the collapse of Goldman Sachs, government intervention across the globe and people losing their jobs in London.
Complexity, networks and interconnectedness.
Our civilisation is the very epitome of a complex network with millions of interdependent parts.
The moment they start to fail, we risk systemic failure.