The problems of rising complexity

I find George Monbiont’s analysis of current world events the most insightful. In Trump’s climate denial is just one of the forces that point towards war he refers to an article by Paul Arbair where Arbair notes that beyond a certain level of complexity economies become harder to sustain. I would suggest reading the article in full, but the main takeaways for me are (emphasis mine):

As complexity rises problems become more difficult to solve.

In addition to weighing on economic growth, biophysical constraints – in particular the various rising constraints on the energy supply – may also negatively impact societies’ capacity to innovate and to maintain their level of complexity. As shown by American anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, human societies can historically be conceived as problem-solving organisations, which tend to develop ever-greater organisational and technical complexity in order to solve the social, economic and political problems they are confronted with. As their complexity rises, the problems they have to deal with become more difficult to solve, requiring growing investment in further economic and societal complexity.

Innovation in industrialised societies become more expensive and less productive over time.

A key determinant of a society’s capacity to develop greater organisational and technical complexity, according to Joseph Tainter, is its capacity to harness ever-growing supplies of energy. The availability of abundant, inexpensive, high quality energy has indeed been historically instrumental in the development of industrial societies’ capacity to build increasing complexity into their economic, technical, political and social systems. As biophysical constraints on the quantity and quality of energy and other resources rise, this ‘energy-complexity spiral’ may transition from being an upward spiral to being a downward one. Technical innovation that increases productivity may slow down this evolution, but research shows that innovation in industrialised countries tends to become more expensive and less productive over time, meaning that societies need to continuously step up their investments in innovation to continue solving problems through building up increasing complexity.

We need to scale down expectations, because of the cost of rising complexity.

As there are growing signs that we might be in a crisis of complexity caused by rising biophysical constraints and characterised by diminishing returns of investments in societal complexity, we are entering an era when circumstances will trump personalities and institutions. What we now need, hence, is not so much to find new political ‘leaders’ capable of designing and enacting grand plans to lead us further up the complexity pathway, but to ensure that we can make collective choices that are fit and appropriate for an age of scaling-down expectations.

Decide for yourself how this links to what Stephen Hawking writes in This is the most dangerous time for our planet:

So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.