Sustainability and Complexity: Are We Doomed to Repeat History?
The more complex a society, the more difficult it is to solve problems and avoid catastrophe. Sustainability advocates need to take a fresh look at the challenges if they are to plan effectively for real-world outcomes.
By William Ophuls
Sustainability as usually understood is an oxymoron. Using the found wealth of the New World and the geological legacy of fossil hydrocarbons, we humans have created an anti-ecological Titanic. Every effort to “green” this monstrous vessel-making the deck chairs recyclable, feeding the boilers with biofuels, installing hybrid winches and windlasses, and the like-is doomed to fail in the long run, because what is required is a radical change in our thinking and way of life. There are many obstacles to such a transformation, but one in particular is under-appreciated: the challenge of complexity.
Civilization’s Vicious Circle
Civilizations are trapped in a vicious circle. They must keep solving the problems of complexity, for that is the sine qua non of civilized existence; but every solution creates new, ever more difficult problems, which then require new, ever more demanding solutions.
Thus complexity breeds more of the same, and each increase in complexity makes it harder to cope, while at the same time escalating the penalty for failure. Breakdown becomes unavoidable in the long run. In effect, civilizations enact a tragedy in which their raison d’être – the use of energy to foster the complexity that raises them above the hunter-gatherer level of subsistence – becomes the agent of their ultimate downfall.
What is to stop us from reforming our mighty civilization so that it does not enact this tragedy?
Unfortunately, beyond a certain point, growth leads to a fundamental, qualitative change in the nature of systems. Specifically, it leads to what scientists call “chaos,” meaning a system is characterized by so many feedback loops operating in a nonlinear fashion that its behavior becomes more and more impenetrable and unpredictable and therefore less and less manageable, because neither the timing nor the severity of specific events is foreseeable.
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