Peak Complexity: Standing On the Brink of Release


[…] Buzz Holling was instrumental in describing the adaptive cycles of complex ecological systems, and specifically he studied forest ecosystems. He identified 4 general stages of evolution in complex ecological systems (what he termed “fractal adaptive cycles”), and these could just as easily be applied to human systems that have been built on the foundation of those ecological systems (my descriptions will be greatly simplified – follow the referenced sources for more detail) :

1. Growth – The system finds an abundance of available resources and spaces which are exploited for material wealth, and this flow of energy/resources allows the development of many inter-dependencies, efficiencies and specialized functions. Diversity of agents within the system increases as does overall wealth.

2. Conservation – The system’s rapid growth decelerates as it becomes highly specialized and opportunities for novel exploitation strategies diminish. Increasing amounts of energy are directed towards conserving the existing system instead of growth, and “wealth” is extracted from the periphery to central parts of the system. The system’s complex inter-dependencies become more rigid and less resilient to disruptions that may propagate throughout the highly-connected networks of the system (Holling described the system at this stage as “an accident waiting to happen”).

3. Release – A relatively small triggering event exceeds the margins of error allowed in the system and pushes it into a chaotic liberation of energy and resources. The previous structures, relationships and complexities of the system are rapidly dismantled as central hubs deteriorate and networks are disconnected.

4. Reorganization – The fractured parts of the previous system re-structure themselves into more complicated relationships, but not necessarily in the way they were organized during the first growth phase. Typically, this phase leads to a restarting of the adaptive cycle in which many new opportunities for innovative development become available.

It is also important to note that complex ecosystems are typically composed of smaller systems and are also embedded in larger systems, creating a nested set of self-similar structures. Typically, the larger system can absorb much of the release from smaller systems contained within it, and act as a “memory bank” that allows rapid regeneration of the smaller system. If an individual American company goes bankrupt, its assets can typically be absorbed and immediately put back to use by other companies in that economic sector (assuming it does not have TBTF status). However, if the larger system is synchronized with the smaller system during the release and reorganization phases, then it could potentially lead to what Holling terms a “poverty trap”, in which low levels of wealth and connectivity are persistent.

It is pretty easy to see the progression of our global economy through the stages listed above. Since the industrial revolution, our fossil fuel inheritance has allowed local economies to become increasingly specialized, efficient and inter-connected with others to create even more efficiencies through trade and investment. On top of that, a smaller system of global finance has developed through equity and credit markets that traditionally facilitated productive investments in people, businesses and governments. Of course the last few decades have seen a rise in what can most accurately be called Ponzi finance, in which major creditors extract wealth from the global population by pushing non-productive debt on them and taking control of political institutions that could potentially stand in their way. To be fair to the debt pushers, we (in the developed world mostly) have gladly bought their drugs and have remained their loyal addicts to the bitter end.

The 2008 subprime housing crisis was the spark that ignited the release of our complex financial system, and unfortunately finance is such a large part of the global economy that there is not much of a larger economic system to absorb the fallout. It is also true that our oil-subsidized industrial economy is approaching its own stage of release that cannot be absorbed by an alternative energy economy, and as if things weren’t dire enough, it is arguably the case that our entire atmospheric system is synchronized as well due to the ongoing process of carbon emissions and climate change (the effects of which we are certainly experiencing now). The processes of growth and conservation in these systems of varied scales may have been temporally different, but it appears that the tipping points triggering release are converging within a few decades at most.

Instead of building resilience in the face of exponentially increasing complexity and decelerating growth, we have pushed forward full speed ahead and concentrated increasing amounts of resources/wealth in our corporate/governmental central hubs. We have become extremely vulnerable to any shocks that could potentially propagate throughout the system, as we recently witnessed when a few major banks held the entire global economy hostage. Now our debt-saturated governments are trying to save the current system by concentrating even more wealth in the center, but nature clearly has other plans. It is painfully clear that politicians, corporate executives, corporate media and all other central actors that have power to implement large-scale policies promoting resilience have chosen (intentionally or inadvertently – does it really matter?) their own material interests over that of the masses. We, as individuals and communities, must choose to implement our own policies of resilience, because we are ultimately a part of a much larger system than the economic, political or social systems that have been imposed on us.

We Can Survive With No Regrets

Some people find economic theories and abstract mathematic principles extremely dry and unfamiliar. I’m pretty interested in economics and finance, but I still find it painfully boring to watch Ben Bernanke testify about monetary policy in front of Congressional representatives, who probably find it even more boring than I do (which may explain their weak excuses for questions). But most people familiar with the modern world, especially those of us in fully “developed” countries, have intimate experience with complexity on a daily basis. We are constantly bombarded with facts and data regarding events and trends progressing around the world. We attend colleges with dozens of specialized majors and tracks of study within those majors. People constantly tell us that the world has become “smaller” due to telecommunications technology, which is true in a sense, but they fail to mention the world has also become exponentially more complex.

It is especially easy for us to identify the advantages of increased growth and complexity. These advantages are mostly materialistic in the sense that we have more financial “wealth” and higher standards of living. The disadvantages are sometimes harder to grasp since they are more ephemeral in nature. We are more isolated from nature, disconnected from local communities and uncertain about the future. Some of our most basic concepts and values, such as fairness, equality, cooperation, compassion and ethical behavior, have been watered down to the point of being topics for dinner tables or the occasional academic journal, but nothing else.

There are certainly material disadvantages to a complex, highly-dependent society as well, since many people have lost the knowledge/ability to grow food, build things, fix things and generally be self-sufficient. However, there has been at least one extremely important advantage to complexity in the development of advanced communications technology, and especially the internet which has connected billions of people across the globe. Insightful thinkers can use the internet to communicate their ideas to people in a distant location such as me, and I can then use their ideas to write a short essay such as this one, and send it to several others. We can use the communications networks to take back some level of knowledge, cooperation and resilience that we may have lost.

There are five general areas of resilience that every individual and family should understand and take incremental steps towards. These include food security, water security, energy security, health security, and financial security. There are many tremendous writers out there that have written and spoken volumes on these issues and have generously shared their knowledge with anyone willing to read or listen.

The quicker we individually quit acting like deer caught in the headlights, and take actions towards resilience, the better off we will be as a collective species on a planetary system that has generously supported us, and continues to do so. The upcoming years will truly be a unique, eventful chapter in the history of human evolution. Perhaps in whatever records of history that may survive this rapid transformation, we will be known as the “peak generations” who sacrificed their extraordinary wealth, lifestyles, and comforts for a more simple form of social organization, where we re-organized to create a sustainable, just society. More likely, we will end up being the “peak generations” that fought desperately to defy reality and ended up in a heap of our own rubble. Either way, we should not focus on what society thinks about us now or how we will be remembered in the future. We should only be focused on doing what needs to be done, and then we should do it with no regrets.