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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Resilience and Collapse

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama famously claimed that we're at "The End of History" because the "struggle between ideologies is largely at an end".  While not everyone agrees with Fukuyama's assessment, the end of history implies that western civilization will also have no end and will continue forever.  Forever is a long time, but perhaps the end of history could mean that the span of our current civilization might be measured in tens of millennia instead of the tens of decades that have measured the length of every civilization that began and ended before this one.

On the other hand, many scholars, including Joseph Tainter ("The Collapse of Complex Societies") and Mancur Olson ("The Rise and Decline of Nations") identify powerful forces inherent in the formation of civilizations that sow the seeds for the decline and eventual collapse of the extended order.

Civilization is a society that surpasses a minimum level of complexity where complexity is, according to Tainter, "generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. Augmenting any of these dimensions increases the complexity of a society."

Complexity is created in order to solve problems according to Tainter.  The main problem is to support ever more people with ever more material comfort but also includes problems such as competition and warfare.

Complexity has a cost.  Layers of management, analysis, research, and other functions are required, none of which directly produce anything but each layer requires energy and resources.  At this level, these resource are the same, in theory, whether or not they are part of private or public institutions.

At first the benefits of the added complexity far outweigh the costs.  For example, the minimal complexity needed to go from hunter/gatherer tribes to an agrarian society increase human edible food per acre by a large multiple without adding all that much cost.

But eventually, the incremental level of innovation and specialization to increase prosperity and/or populations or even maintain them at current levels in the face of decreasing natural resources per capita becomes ever more difficult and costly.  According to Tainter, once this diminishing marginal return for additional complexity is surpassed by the impact of declining resources, the civilization begins to decline.

During the decline, the civilization is less able to deal with new adversity and eventually a problem that might have been trivial to overcome a few decades or centuries earlier, becomes catastrophic and the civilization collapses.  In other words, the civilization becomes increasingly less resilient after complexity increases beyond a certain point and becomes unable to respond adequately to a wider range of shocks and events.

Collapse also has a specific definition in this context.  Collapse is the rapid simplification of society.  In other words, the society loses much or all of its complexity in a relatively short period of time, where the time frame is typically less than a couple of generations.  A great simplification is sometimes associated with a greatly reduced population, but not always - if the cost of maintaining the complexity prior to the collapse far outweighed the benefits, the population can be better off and better fed after the collapse.

Tainter's models are based on resource depletion.  All of the numerous civilizations he studied were ultimately unable to maintain even the status quo as the resources available given the technology of the era diminished on a per capita basis.

We're probably not terribly near the diminished resource per capita wall yet, and we probably won't be there for decades or centuries.  At least not according to Julian Simon who has been fairly accurate in his many predictions so far:
“Our supplies of natural resources are not finite in any economic sense. Nor does past experience give reason to expect natural resources to become more scarce. Rather, if history is any guide, natural resources will progressively become less costly, hence less scarce, and will constitute a smaller proportion of our expenses in future years.”
So maybe our current civilization is safe for a while, or at least won't collapse due to lack of resources.  Let's turn to the individual nations that make up our civilization.  Here we need to consider the structure of socio-economic complexity.  This is where Mancur Olson's work (and also the work of Public Choice Theorists) is important:
"The idea is that small distributional coalitions tend to form over time in countries. Groups like cotton-farmers, steel-producers, and labor unions will have the incentives to form lobby groups and influence policies in their favor. These policies will tend to be protectionist and anti-technology, and will therefore hurt economic growth; but since the benefits of these policies are selective incentives concentrated amongst the few coalitions members, while the costs are diffused throughout the whole population, the "Logic" dictates that there will be little public resistance to them. Hence as time goes on, and these distributional coalitions accumulate in greater and greater numbers, the nation burdened by them will fall into economic decline."
The burden imposed by the  lobby groups described by Olson has a similar effect to the burden of reduced resources per capita described by Tainter.  They both increase the cost and decrease the benefit derived from increasing complexity while decreasing the resilience of society.  The difference is that resource limitations may be a civilization-wide constraint (if Julian Simon is wrong) while the sclerosis Olson identified is primarily (but not completely) associated with governments within a nation state.  As a result, nation states can collapse without bringing the surrounding civilization down with them.

Perhaps even the United States could collapse without dragging the rest of western civilization down with it.  However, there's tremendous risk if the United States collapses because of a number of factors:

  • As sclerotic and fragile as the United States government and economy are getting to be, most of the other governments that comprise western civilization are even worse - a US collapse could easily be the first domino to fall taking a slew of other countries with it;
  • All bets are off regarding Simon's prediction of essentially infinite resources if the drivers of innovation in the US and other western countries suddenly find themselves without a functioning society in which they can continue to innovate putting civilization solidly into Tainter's reduced resources per capita state of decline coupled with the chaos of one or several non-functioning nations;
  • Efficiency via specialization and resilience are often opposites and therefore the efficiencies gained by specialization within the global order can become an Achilles Heel when one or more nations collapse - an example was the 2011 Japanese tsunami (not all that huge of a natural disaster) that damaged global automobile production for months.

The last point deserves more elaboration.  In the short term, resilience is increased by redundancy since if a resource becomes unavailable a redundant resource can be used instead.  Redundancy is generally the opposite of efficiency as it implies either resources that are typically not used or at least not optimized for a specific use so they can be used for multiple functions.  Specialization generally increases efficiency since each component is optimized for its task but reduces redundancy and resilience since the component isn't as easily available for alternative uses.

However, in the bigger picture, in the longer time frame, efficiency in a complex society may increase overall resilience because it enables more rapid growth of knowledge, experience, and wealth which may be called upon to mitigate the impact of adverse events.  So efficiency can increase resilience in dealing with slow decline but can decrease resilience relative to short-term shocks or rapid collapse.

Centralization of resource and/or the management and control over those resources generally reduces resilience.  In addition to Olson's insight regarding the burdens of special interests that are both inherent to a central government and more easily extracted from the concentrated target represented by a large, centralized entity, damage to the command and control of the centralized entity is more difficult to recover from than a decentralized, redundant decision making regime.  Examples* include large and centralized mainframe servers versus the Internet (for which the primary design criteria was to be fault tolerant and resilient) and cloud computing; a single large distribution center for a given commodity such as gasoline which could cause grave problems in the case of failure or attack versus multiple production and distribution centers run by different organization and spread out in terms of geography; a single monopoly producing a product where poor and wasteful decisions can lead to both inefficiency and catastrophic failure of that market versus a vibrant competitive market with many companies involved where poor decisions lead to bankruptcy of some with the recycling of the associated resources but the probability of at least some companies making good decisions is increased; and so forth.

Yet in certain cases, centralization of resource can add to resilience.  In addition to obvious cases like defense, the re-insurance market with governments being the insurer of last resort comes to mind.  This alleviates the need for small communities and even entire regions to produce adequate savings to fund their entire redevelopment should catastrophe strike (note that this doesn't imply that the central government should be involved in actually performing disaster relief and redevelopment - only that it be able to make the resources, in this case money, available for disaster relief and redevelopment).

Overall, it's clear to me that the debate about whether or not various functions being performed by a central government make a society more or less resilient is going to be split along ideological lines with Libertarians and Conservatives claiming that virtually everything done by government makes society less resilient and Statists and Collectivists claiming the exact opposite.  But the framework above allows everybody to think through the different possibilities and come up with their own conclusions.

I've been thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations because I've encountered quite a number of libertarian/conservative/republican blogs and websites panicking about Obama's reelection because they are certain that collapse is now imminent for the United States and even Western Civilization:  "The Titanic is sinking" (where the Titanic is the United States) in a post by one of Instapundit's recent co-bloggers, Sarah Hoyt; "piling up our own funeral pyre" in an article by Roger Kimball (who was predicting a Romney landslide - oops!); etc.

Nothing has changed.  Same President, same Republican House (more or less), and the Senate is still run by Democrats and the level of sclerosis due to lobbying probably won't accelerate much due to split government.  We have stable or expanding exploitable resources per capita (with the exception of helium) so we're not a lot closer the style of collapse described by Tainter.  In my analysis, while we may well be getting ever less resilient, the process is very slow and near term collapse isn't much more likely than it was before the election.  Obamacare was and continues to be a large unknown and might easily make our health care system brittle, but as a society, we can probably easily survive that even if it's horrendously bad for individuals.

My advice?  Stop worrying, relax and enjoy life!

*Thank you readers for the examples!


Howard said...

The movement from an independent agrarian economy to an industrial economy linked by nationwide transportation and communication networks paved the way for the efficacy of more centralized government. Globalization, technologies which impower the individual and other elements of the information economy pave the way for a the efficacy of more dispersed or distributed forms of government, generally speaking. Statists/collectivists clinging to the past will only make this transition more costly and painful. That will not stop them from trying.

Regarding Obamacare, there are a number of technologies and ideas already coming into existence which will allow for substantial creative destruction in medical care. It's quite possible that 10-20 years from now substantial progress will have been made in spite of such convoluted legislation.

Peter said...

Howard, I wonder whether someone won't throw a Fermi's Paradox at you someday and ask you why, if globalization and technology favour "dispersed or distributed forms of government", they seems to have resulted in so much centralization.

Bret said...

Peter, in the grand scheme of things the information age is pretty new. It may take generations for its impact to totally take effect.

But already, I think we're seeing decentralization of news, media, and entertainment; the possibility of more small business and far more niche markets in both manufacturing and services; etc.

Government is just always the last to innovate.

Peter said...


Walmart revolutionized retailing by centralizing inventory control. Even small transactions for longstanding customers are now given final approval by the head offices of large banks. Orders of battle are set and monitored by central command half a world away.

I would agree that technology can give the appearance of decentralization. Government offices can be established all over the country, but that doesn't mean Washington doesn't keep a tight grip on decision-making.

I wouldn't bet on the long term inevitability of anything other than death and taxes.

Hey Skipper said...


Very interesting post. Sorry if the following wanders into excess or irrelevance, but I was taking notes as I went along.

While not everyone agrees with Fukuyama's assessment, … but perhaps the end of history could mean that the span of our current civilization might be measured in tens of millennia instead of the tens of decades that have measured the length of every civilization that began and ended before this one.

This statement seems self-evident, but I don't think it tracks particularly well with the concept of collapse. (I haven't read Fukuyama, yet. And I haven't read Tainter or Olson, either. But I have read Jared Diamond's "Collapse", which seems very similar to those two.)

Granting my lack of expertise, if pressed to make a list of every civilization that had some definable end point, it would be pretty short. Egypt, Rome, China, Russia, and the various Central American civilizations that fell to conquistadors and inadequate immune systems.

Given that there was no civilization prior to about 4500 BC, then the duration of any civilization couldn't possibly exceed 650 decades. Within that span, the notion of collapse gets hard to find. Certainly, the period following the fall of the Roman Empire qualifies — IIRC, there was something like 1000 years from the fall until infrastructure and economic activity in the areas under Rome's sway recovered to pre-collapse levels.

Within western Europe (and, by extension, the US), there has probably been 80 centuries of almost uninterrupted increases in all the criteria that define civilization.

The example of Mesoamerican civilizations is more problematic. The impact of one-off epidemiological consequences isn't going to be repeated. Moreover, while qualifying as civilizations, the Mesoamerican entities were scarcely removed from the stone age (they didn't have a written language, the wheel, or anything like iron.)

As for Russia and China, their civilizational progress was minimal until communism, when they fell into the abyss. But taken over time, communism was a mere hiccup (to the extent that hecatombs can be considered "hiccups") en route to continuations of the respective nations that are now far more civilizational than what had preceded them.

The main problem is to support ever more people with ever more material comfort but also includes problems such as competition and warfare.

The best book I have read recently is Stephen Pinker's "Better Angels". One of the, and perhaps primary, benefit to civilization is avoiding the Hobbesian Security Dilemma. There does seem to be at least one arrow in history: civilization increasingly lessens warfare.

Hey Skipper said...

Efficiency via specialization and resilience are often opposites and therefore the efficiencies gained by specialization within the global order can become an Achilles Heel ...

Yes, but … If the Japanese tsunami doesn't qualify as a huge disaster, it is hard to think of one that would, especially keeping context in mind. The loss of life is probably the worst that a modern country has ever suffered, which kind of contradicts the initial assertion. Japan is a fairly centralized country, with a pretty high degree of specialization. Yet it is both those qualities which minimized the loss of life in the first place.

As for the damaged automobile production, it was mostly limited to Japanese manufacturers, lasted less than a year, and caused barely a ripple in the auto market.

Overall, it's clear to me that the debate about whether or not various functions being performed by a central government make a society more or less resilient is going to be split along ideological lines ...

Libertarians have never been able to solve the free-rider problem. Collectivism is doomed to failure because it is impossible to know as much as Collectivists need to know in order for Collectivism to work.

However, there are IMHO, certain classes of problems where government is not only the best solution, it is probably the only solution. Examples: basic infrastructure; resource management where ownership is impossible to establish (sea otters, tuna); standards and measures, because they increase transactional overhead; dealing with externalized costs.

IMHO, truly excessive centralization will not occur for the same reason that Fukuyama* was essentially correct: while there is fairly wide latitude in the details, there doesn't seem to be any competitive alternative to largely self-organized complexity, which comes naturally to Western notions of individuality, but nowhere else.

Which is why, among other changes I think the GOP should make, an explicit commitment to Federalism is first on the list.

* What I have read about Fukuyama, that is ...