Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Costs of Complexity

It’s a bit ironic, given the events now in the headlines, that I started last week’s post by commenting that it had been an interesting week for connoisseurs of decline and fall; it might have been better to say “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” About the time the volcanic ash from Iceland began settling out of Europe’s airspace, to begin with, another black cloud began to rise from the lava vents of Wall Street, caused by the spontaneous combustion of whatever might have been left of Goldman Sachs’ reputation for fiscal probity.

It’s a fascinating turn of events, not least because Goldman Sachs has been remarkably cozy with the last two presidential administrations here in the US. Still, that didn’t keep the SEC from filing fraud charges against the firm, and it didn’t prevent the publication of a flurry of highly damaging emails in which Goldman Sachs executives boasted about selling made-to-fail securities to widows and orphans – yes, that last phrase actually got used – and then taking out short contracts on those same securities, so that Goldman Sachs profited when the securities did what they were designed to do, and lost money. For all the world like Casablanca’s Captain Renault, Congress is shocked, shocked to find that Goldman Sachs is making money at its customers’ expense; the interesting question is whether this fine imitation of outrage is simply the sort of ritual theater governments use so often these days as a substitute for constructive action, or whether serious power shifts are under way.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is the latter. Despite cheerleading and doctored statistics from within the Beltway, the US economy is in deep and deepening trouble; foreclosures continue to climb, commercial real estate and second mortgages are shaping up to be the next big shocks, and the rolling collapse of state and local government finances shows no sign of slowing down. The Goldman Sachs flacks who moved into power with the Obama administration promised to fix things; they have pretty clearly failed; and as the neoconservatives learned not long ago, intolerance for failure is very nearly the only thing on which the squabbling factions of the American political class can agree.

Meanwhile, another plume of smoke has been rising from Europe. Greece has had its credit rating cut to junk-bond levels; Portugal and Spain have suffered downgrades, and even rock-solid Germany has had trouble selling its bonds, as investors price in the economic burdens of bailing out countries that lack the political will to keep their expenditures in line with their national income. If the response to this crisis is bungled badly enough, it’s not impossible that the survival of the Euro may be at risk; it’s still open to question whether a single currency will work without a single government to back and manage it, and the handwaving and bickering that has been the order of business in European capitals as the crisis has unfolded does not particularly inspire confidence.

Speaking of plumes of smoke, of course, calls to mind the third unfolding disaster of the last week, the wreck of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which according to an announcement today is currently spewing around five thousand barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. The US Coast Guard has announced that it plans to light the spreading oil slick on fire, in the hope that enough of it will burn up to save the $2 billion a year Louisiana seafood industry from disaster. Partisans of the “drill, baby, drill” approach to energy security take note: there are good practical and economic reasons why most of the US coast has long been off limits to oil drilling, and getting oil out of deposits nearly a mile underwater, and a good deal further than that under sea-bottom sediments, is not as foolproof a procedure as politicians and talk show hosts would like you to think.

These three smoke plumes, interestingly enough, have a factor in common, and it’s the theme I want to discuss in this week’s post – not least because a great many of the crises we’re likely to face as the age of cheap abundant energy comes to an end also share that factor. All three of them resulted when people in a situation of high complexity tried to solve the problems of that situation by adding on an additional layer of complexity.

Goldman Sachs, to begin with, has been in the business of making complex problems more complex for a very long time. One of the chapters of John Kenneth Galbraith’s excellent The Great Crash 1929, a book which ought to be required reading for all those people who think they understand the stock market, is titled “In Goldman, Sachs We Trust”; it’s an account of the preposterous investment vehicles – it does violence to the English language to call them “securities” – that Goldman Sachs floated in the 1929 stock market bubble. Very little has changed since then, either. In 1929, Goldman Sachs sold shares of investment trusts that speculated in shares of other investment trusts; in 2009, they sold tranches of CDOs composed of tranches of other CDOs, and in both cases they served mostly as a means by which a lot of people lost a lot of money while Goldman Sachs did quite well.

You may be wondering why anybody would put their hard-earned money into an investment vehicle that consisted of a collection of bets that other investment vehicles would make money off yet a third set of investment vehicles. In 1929, the answer was raw greed, whipped up to monumental intensity by a very widespread attack of the delusion that brokers want to make you rich. In 2009, the answer was more complex. For more than twenty years, beginning in the wake of the 1987 Wall Street crash, the financial agencies of the US government had been struggling to keep what was left of the American economy from imploding. One of the main tools used in this struggle was rock-bottom interest rates, which were brought into play whenever one speculative bubble popped and which then, with clockwork regularity, fed the new speculative bubble that followed.

One of the many problems set in motion by this strategy was that all the ordinary sources of investment income were reduced to paying chump change. Gone were the halcyon days when every bank in the United States paid 5.25% per annum on savings accounts by federal law. (It somehow seems to have escaped the attention of most economic historians that the end of that era coincided very precisely with the point at which most Americans stopped putting their money into savings accounts.) As the Fed repeatedly bounced interest rates off the floor to jumpstart an increasingly reluctant economy, every person and institution dependent on investment income found themselves facing a sharp decrease in income. The simple solution would have been to accept the austerity that this entailed, but for obvious reasons this was not popular; it’s worth remembering that “simple” is rarely the same thing as “easy.”

The alternative was to respond to this complex set of circumstances by adding another layer of complexity, and Goldman Sachs was ready to help them do so. Complicated, risky investment strategies that promised high returns became the order of the day. In their eagerness to make more than chump change, a great many people thus became chumps.

The situation in Greece, and a great many other southern European countries, was similar. The same habits of economic manipulation that made the US economy so complex over the last two decades were just as popular in Europe, with the added complexity of a single currency far too rigidly structured to deal with the economic vagaries of more than a dozen fractious nation-states with different economic policies. Add in the speculative boom in real estate that went bust in 2008, which flooded southern Europe with money and then took it all back with interest, and you have a very complex situation, one in which all the usual options were foreclosed by EU economic policy. There were several simple solutions, such as ditching the Euro and allowing a new Greek currency to find its market value, but once again, “simple” is not the same thing as “easy.”

The government of Greece responded to these complexities instead by adding another layer of complexity. It hired Goldman Sachs – no, I’m not making this up – to create a set of complicated investment vehicles that made the Greek national debt look smaller than it was, in order to get by the more onerous limits of EU economic policy. These vehicles proceeded to crash and burn in the grand style, and took the Greek economy with them. Similar vehicles were sold by quite a number of brokerages – Goldman Sachs was far from the only player here – to national, provincial, and municipal governments all over Europe, and to state and local governments in the US as well, and yes, they’ve been blowing up right and left; I don’t think vehicles so flammable have been seen in such numbers since the Ford Pinto was recalled.

As far as I know, Goldman Sachs had nothing to do with the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform. Still, the entire strategy of pursuing petroleum production in deep waters is an attempt to solve a hideously complex problem – the problem of peak oil – by adding on another layer of complexity. There’s a simple response to peak oil, of course; it consists of using less petroleum, making do with less energy per capita, and learning to live within our means. Once again, though, “simple” doesn’t mean “easy,” any more than it means “enjoyable” or “politically acceptable.”

The result is that we’re pursuing oil wherever we can find it, no matter how complex or risky the prospect might be. Deepwater drilling is one example. It’s complicated stuff, far more expensive and demanding than the methods used to extract oil that happens to be conveniently located under dry land, and when the standard problems faced by oilmen everywhere crop up, responding to those problems involves a whole new world of complexity and risk. One of those standard problems is the risk of a blowout: a sudden surge of crude oil and natural gas that can come bursting up through a well at any point between the moment it’s first drilled and the moment the relatively sturdy structure that handles production is in place.

That’s almost certainly what happened to Deepwater Horizon. It’s a common enough event in drilling for oil, and it’s dangerous even when it happens on dry land and there’s someplace for the drilling crew to run. When the well begins almost a mile underwater, though, there’s the additional problem that nobody has the tools to handle a deepwater blowout if the underwater valves meant to shut it off at the wellhead should fail. That’s also happened to Deepwater Horizon, and if the current efforts to trigger the valves via robot submersibles don’t succeed – and they’ve shown no sign of succeeding so far – the only option left to the BP response crews is to jerry-rig techniques designed for shallow waters and hope they can be made to work 5000 feet under the sea. In the meantime, five thousand barrels a day of crude oil fountain out into the Gulf from the crumpled pipe.

In all three of these cases, the decision to add an additional layer of complexity to an already complex problem was an attempt to maintain business as usual, while the simpler option that was refused would have required the decision makers to abandon business as usual and accept a degree of austerity and limitation very few people find congenial these days. That’s not inherent in the relationship between complexity and simplicity, but it does tend to be a very common feature of the way that relationship works out in practice just now. We have an extraordinarily complex society; for some three centuries, attempts to manage problems by increasing complexity have paid off more often than not, which is why we have such a complex society; and this has led to the kind of superstition discussed in last week’s post – the unthinking assumption that what worked in the past will continue to work in the present and the future.

As Joseph Tainter has pointed out in his useful book The Collapse of Complex Societies, though, increases in complexity are subject to the same law of diminishing returns as anything else, and sooner or later a society that responds to every challenge by adding a new layer of complexity will reach the point that adding more complexity causes more problems than it solves. Several observations concerning Tainter’s insight are worth making here.

First, the diminishing returns of complexity apply to specifics as well as generalities, and for statistical reasons, the specifics will usually show up first. A society that has overloaded itself with complexity will tend to heap up more complexity in some areas of life than others, and one or more of these areas may well tip over into dysfunction sooner than others. Thus a society that is hammered by repeated crises of the same kind, and tries to solve them with layers of additional complexity that consistently seem to make the problem worse, may be at risk of tipping over into a wider dysfunction of which the visible crises are merely symptomatic.

Second, if a society has driven itself past the point of negative returns on complexity, and continues to try to add complexity to solve the resulting problems, it risks establishing a disastrous feedback loop in which its attempts to solve its problems become the major source of its problems. This can also apply to specifics as well as generalities, and show up first in particular aspects of a society’s collective life.

Third, one of the ironies faced by a society that has reached the point of negative returns on complexity as a means of problem-solving is that thereafter, the only way it can solve its problems is by not solving its problems. Any attempt to impose additional complexity will simply make matters worse, while allowing some particularly problematic heap of complexity to crash and burn may just reduce the complexity of the whole system to a point at which something constructive can actually be done. In the extreme case, where an entire society has pushed itself past the point of negative returns on complexity, collapse can be an adaptive response to a rising spiral of crisis that can be ended in no other way.

Finally, all these considerations apply just as much to the level of the individual, family, and community as they do to civilizations as whole systems, and it’s possible to use simplification on the level of the individual, family, and community to counter at least some of the consequences of complexity run amok. We’ll talk more about how that might work next week.


Robin Datta said...

Reminds one of animal traps that direct the animal onward from the entrance of the trap to the chamber from which there is no return.

Kevin said...

You've sketched out with wonderful clarity this particular cluster of attributes in the general process of collapse.

The past couple of weeks have indeed been particularly eventful news weeks. You could easily have added mention of the political unrest in Thailand and the current threat of famine by drought in Africa, and yet not strayed from the themes of ecological depletion and disappointed masses yearning for unattainable prosperity (as well as political freedom) that are clearly underpinnings to your general thesis.

I suspect that what's currently happening in Greece may well be the beginning of the unraveling of the Eurozone and, by extension, of the global industrial economy generally.

BTW, I think you've mentioned four smoke plumes rather than three, have you not? Although some are of course metaphorical: one over northern Europe, one over Greece, one over Wall Street, and another soon to rise above the Gulf of Mexico. I tend to visualize them all, even the financial ones, in my mind's satellite camera.

medved said...

Hello JM Greer,

this weeks analyzes has reminded me an old saying from my part of the world:
The building of communist society consists of 2 phases:
Problems of growth
Growth of problems

I am starting to see the Marxist bragging of "avant-guarde of the world" in rather different, slightly bleak meaning.

If only the catharsis played out in the overall peaceful manner (exceptions painfully accounted for).

Happy Beltain from Bohemia


flute said...

Thanks again for a brilliant post!
You wrote about "the halcyon days when every bank in the United States paid 5.25% per annum on savings accounts by federal law". When was that ended? Living in Sweden, I actually never heard about this before.

Cherokee Organics said...


It took me years to understand that calling something a derivative was just a fancy name on an old story. ie, you loan someone (or something) money and they pay you back some sort of interest and/or capital. It's not more complicated than the average loan arrangement really. The difficulty comes in the legal details and the naming of the financial product. It's really a case of form over function and the use of legalise to confuse people. The only reason you'd want to confuse people is to hide the true nature of what the person (or entity) borrowing the money is actually up to. You can see this with Greece, in that they used these products to get around inconvenient Euro debt to GDP ratio rules so that they could spend more than they earned. There isn't much more to it than that.

I often liken living beyond your income to the heating and cooling of a domestic dwelling. Most of us would like to keep our dwellings at a certain temperature which is comfortable. The term comfortable varies for everyone of course. Most given the choice (and no consequences) would heat and cool the entire dwelling to that comfortable temperature though. However, if reality sets in, low income people may only be able to afford the fuel to heat a single room over winter (if they're lucky) and not the whole dwelling. Welcome to the third world as this is the kind of decision that people living there have to make on a daily basis. Do you burn the dung to heat the room or do you burn it to cook food?

In Western societies we look at whole home heating and cooling as some sort of right even though it is a recent development. But what happens when the cost of the fuel to achieve this outcome exceeds the discretionary spending powers of an individual or family. Instead of reigning in expenditure on heating or cooling energy I've noticed that people tend to get upset and start demanding that the past be reinstated and that comfort levels be retained.

Whole economies are no different, in that if you run a deficit budget year after year, you are saying that at some point in the future we will pay those borrowed funds back (which were borrowed to fund the deficit). You cannot do this forever as the costs of maintenance on the debt escalate every year until such point as the income produced is not enough to cover the maintenance of the debt. At this point the utilities cut you off and you have to face the hard realities of living in the actual natural world without heating or cooling. This is where Greece is at and it poses the unspoken question "would you want your family and/or country in this predicament?".

The search for oil in increasingly difficult and remote places will only bring on the inevitable increase in the price of oil. It is a feedback loop as it requires increased capital and energy to produce increasingly diminishing returns. It's not much different from putting your money in the pokies (slot machines) as sooner or later the cost is going to exceed the income from the product produced.

Good luck.

Cherokee Organics said...

To xhmko,

Hi! We're up in the Central Highlands north of Melbourne. Gippsland is far to the East.

It wouldn't surprise me if large scale journeys were undertaken although the various dialects and languages plus inter tribal wars would have been have been a major problem. I've actually driven across the Nullabor and it's a long way! The climate here isn't too different from say Pemberton with it's Karri forests.

Where were you in SW WA?

Me said...

First and foremost, o wise Archdruid, let me thank you for your excellent and insightful blog. It is pointless to heap praise on you, I could never heap enough anyway and you could pass out under the weight before I would even get to it with full force, so I won't try, just – thank you. Richard Feynmann recalls somewhere that after Los Alamos, he used to walk about and wonder why people bother to build anything, considering the inevitable doomsday. We, in contrast, see the trouble coming slowly (at least in human time) and know that some will survive. On the philosophical level, that’s not so bad, but then there’s that pesky fragility of individual life, and I am grateful that some people care enough to dispense both truth and a bit of hope.

Now, the curious case of Greek economy. As you said, the resulting intra-European bickering is not a pretty sight, but then, useless bickering is our favourite pastime. Moreover, there is not much of what Eurozone can do at this point – if they bail out the Greeks, who cheated, what about the Spanish and Portuguese, who at least had the huevos to admit the depth of mud they're in? The Greeks cannot devalue their currency (although they certainly try, given the recent Euro exchange rates), they must lower wages. So what did the Greeks do? Went on strike against lowering it. That mind-boggling stupidity doesn’t give much hope regarding at least not too idiotic responses to incoming trouble – and we are talking years, not decades, nothing serious has happened yet and people are already going crazy.

Look at the Hungarians. Socialists screwed up, crisis came. The response? The far-right Fidesz got a constitutional majority. A single party! That basically cannot happen on the continent, the last time it occurred in Central Europe were the years 1946–48 and we know what it meant. No civilization downsizing here yet, a single economic bump was enough for the electorate to hand their country over to people who may or may not have envisioned a fascist future for it.
The party is already talking about changing parliamentary democracy into “national union”, whatever the hell that means.

We Czechs now say that “the better tomorrow has already passed,” but people still have no idea. The US will probably dissolve into local communities, holding onto their guns and God, but Europe has a different tradition. In difficult times, we embrace violent collectivism. The far-righters and far-lefters (and far-everythingers) are going to rake the voters in, not in decades, now. And our tribes, old and new ones, just love killing one another, we have been doing it for three thousand years, fertilizing the soil with blood over and over again and laying bones in layer over layer. The eventual outcomes of peak-oil are clear and inescapable, it’s the next twenty years that scare me. Look at Arizona and the Mexicans, it’s already here. Me being young and not entirely straight gives just a nice personal angle to the so very close end of democracy. One has to wonder which is worse – adding complexity, or simple solutions? We may talk about the complexity of systems, yet what we are going to actually see will be throngs of people being shot like rabid dogs.

disillusioned said...

JMG and all,

:) this point reminds me of:

How Engineers Try To Fix Things

There is a way engineers approach the problem of a broken gadget. Simplify it and run it again.

What I have seen (and done) is to strip off excess components from a system, leaving the underlying mechanism in a cruder, more basic state. What is being sought is - do the basics work? No machine or system can operate if the basics are broken.

There are two enemies of this approach - feedback and feedforward (just the same as feedback, but something is fed "up the food chain" to modify a later stage).

Such feed systems create loops - routing data or material around systems and changing operational dynamics, often markedly.

Cutting these loops (by stripping out parts) will likely make the core system behave in a very uncontrolled manner; it's then almost impossible to diagnose issues (unless the engineer is well familiar with the habits of a "part-system").

What to do now?

Well, the most common approaches are:

1) just start swapping bits out hoping that the dodgy part will be hit on and replaced

(a process familiar to car owners)

2) "bodge" it - fix up a by-pass or secondary route about a problem area - this may get the whole thing working "good enough" again,

3) throw the whole thing away, or

4) live with it.

Actually, car owners are pretty familiar with the whole set of approaches! Especially "everything works fine, yet somehow the problems still there..."

What to do though for a system as complex as global economy? We are living in the damn thing; we can't say "Hold up for a year, whilst we figure it out..."

:( makes me

Brad K. said...


I learned the recorder late in life. One of the songs in my first book was "The harp that once", a rabble-rouser from Ireland's struggles for independence.

Back in High School, I participated in a regional band ensemble. One of the pieces was a Frederic Smetana piece, "Three Revolutionary Marches", as arranged by Vaclav Nehlybel. Mr. Nehlybel conducted us, and the piece was stirring. I transcribed the melody line; in makes a great recorder (or whistle) tune. Mr. Nehlybel recounted that the Czechoslavakian nation had made playing the piece there, a capital offense.

Where are the simple, engaging, unifying pieces for this time of troubles? I imagine that the American Revolution was a struggle against the complexity of remote rule ("Yankee Doodle"), and perhaps the states-rule/slavery issues of the American Civil War ("Dixie", "Battle Hymn").

At a time when saving American pubic education may mean abandoning Federal dollars and control, and closing the Department of Education, the US Senate committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions spent the last week considering various proposals regarding new and changed programs in education. Teachers unions are making the news, with some being part of the solution to budget crises while the larger organization attempts to (with added complexity) assure full funding for union wages.

I am sure that YouTube is great for circulating excitement of the moment - like debunking mainstream media and government spins on inconvenient facts. But were is the "We Shall Overcome" tune to unite a search for a more robust solution?

Don't we have a struggle, yet, worthy of a poet's heart?

John Michael Greer said...

Robin, bingo. Unless the animal figures out that backing up, fast, is the only sensible option, it's caught.

Kevin, the one over northern Europe was last week's theme -- though I could probably have found a place to discuss Gordon Brown's self-immolation if this were a political blog.

Tomas, a happy Belteinne to you as well! Yes, it's an elegant irony that the Warsaw Pact nations may have been ahead of their time in a slightly different sense than the one Marx had in mind.

Flute, that was one of the New Deal banking reforms enacted in the early 1930s, and it remained in place into the 1970s.

Cherokee, the one significant difference I can see between derivatives and less vaporous investments is that the latter often have some kind of link to some form of real value -- say, the profits of a company, as in the case of stock. Most derivatives have nothing backing them but rhetoric.

Me, I grant that the return of history to Europe (or vice versa) won't be pretty.

Disillusioned, as I recall, one of the corollaries of Murphy's Law is that a complex system that appears to work always relies on a simple system that works, and a complex system that doesn't work is usually interfering with the simple system that used to work.

Brad, as I see it, we don't have heroic songs yet because we don't have heroes, and we don't have heroes because most of us are still trying to strike a bargain with fate that will allow us to hang onto our comfortable lifestyles. When that changes, the songs will show up.

Ekkar said...

I kept thinking of the similarities throughout this post between the psychology of humans collectively and the psychology of individuals (which you touched on the last paragraph)with our brand loyalties, and our total reluctance to see that we are fully responsible for our lives, and actions, and the feedback's we receive there in. I find this to be true even with people who are smart enough to know better. I think James Howard Kunstler (although I'm pretty sure that he was quoting someone else) hit it on the head with the idea of the "psychology of previous investment" as a powerful driving force.
I think also that we collectively and individually suffer nostalgia for a time that never really existed.
But I guess admitting that you have been living a lie for most your life is a hard thing to digest.
Keep up the good work!

favonius said...

Goldman Sachs is far from being the most clever!

Don Plummer said...

It's interesting in light of this week's posting that the proposed financial reform package before Congress includes a provision for increased complexity: another layer of bureaucracy inside the Federal Reserve.

billhicksmostfunny said...

We all bargain with fate everyday. But I have noticed that fate doesn't care much to bargain with a bunch of arrogant little ants. And that is what makes it great. Like the wind and the rain and the stars up above, it cares not................

I await the day, the day we return to what is simple and forget what it was like when things were easy.

Loveandlight said...

As the Fed repeatedly bounced interest rates off the floor to jumpstart an increasingly reluctant economy, every person and institution dependent on investment income found themselves facing a sharp decrease in income.

I can understand why this made people stop putting money in savings accounts (these days, what you get from putting money in one of those is so paltry as to be practically nothing), but you didn't really explain how the lowering of interest rates impacted investment income. Was the explanation too complex for a blog-post?

suz said...

hi JMG,
it's hard for my old brain to visualize concepts well. could you give me a real life example of a society where this has happened?
'Second, if a society has driven itself past the point of negative returns on complexity, and continues to try to add complexity to solve the resulting problems, it risks establishing a disastrous feedback loop in which its attempts to solve its problems become the major source of its problems. This can also apply to specifics as well as generalities, and show up first in particular aspects of a society’s collective life.'
that way i can better grasp your overall message.
i hope to meet you at faery festival. i'm kind of a fangirl.
:) khairete

Rasmus said...

This is another one in a long line of excellent analyses by JMG. I recently went back to the mid-2009 posts here and re-read many of them in sequence. The Oct. 7th 2009 one ("The Metastasis of Money") mentions...:

"Ilya Prigogine, one of the most innovative physicists of recent years, showed via a series of dizzyingly complex equations that the flow of energy through a system increases the complexity of the system..."

This is highly relevant to today's blog post. The constantly added complexity to industrialized societies in the last decades was backed up with ever-increasing energy use. Now we are at a point where this strategy just doesn't work anymore, for reasons of geological, geopolitical and ecological reasons. And so the entire house of cards comes falling down now.

PanIdaho said...

We're celebrating both the season and the "events" of the past couple of weeks by adding another rainwater barrel or two to our collection. And getting backup replacement flappers for our hand pump. Seems as good a response as any to the "smoke plumes" you mentioned, and probably better than most.

At some point, though, you just have to let go of your outrage and laugh at the humongous joke we've played on ourselves. We've added so much complexity to our every day life that the vast majority of us have become "Peter Principled." We no longer understand anything but a very small part of the overly-complex world we are exposed to every day, which means each of us are probably the patsy in a hundred different cons we aren't even yet aware of...

Personally, as you mentioned, I'm all for backing slowly out of the trap.

Paul said...


I only recently found your wonderful blog - wonderful in its writing and logic, not in the unpleasant message that "the party is over" for our way of life of the past 2 generations.

I’ve long believed in continued, nearly limitless growth, made possible by the geometric advance of scientific knowledge. But as both a student of history and economics there was always the nagging thought that such was impossible. I've long wondered why a 1964 quarter is now worth 12 times that, and your blog explained it – peak oil. We won the lottery and spent all of the winnings as fast as we could. The engine of growth has been gone for 40 years, and all of the economic problems since have had to do with trying to manipulate paper (or electrons) to cover up this fact.

Today’s blog regarding complexity, and the comments above related to cars, really hit home. My father's first car was a '59 Olds 88, with a 392 cubic inch V-8. It cost $3,000, weighed over 4,000 lbs., yet got 18 MPG on the highway – due to NO pollution controls. Any kid at a local gas station could fix it, and many people did repairs & maintenance at home. It served us for 164,000 miles with nothing but routine maintenance and it was sold only because Dad wanted something newer. Similar vehicles today cost 10x as much, have less interior room, have so many pollution controls and electronics that they weigh about as much...which cuts down on MPG. 40 years of "progress," and yet a vehicle today with the 1959 pollution standards would cost 50% as much as today's cars, get far better mileage, be far cheaper to maintain and more durable. Simplicity is often better, though complexity has some benefits (with autos, better handling, somewhat better safety per pound and less pollution).

Economically and culturally, we’ll have no choice but to move back to those ideas/ideals that made this country great – thrift, self-reliance, common sense and community. You want to buy something? Pay cash. You want to be able to build up that cash? Live in a smaller place that costs less to buy and maintain. You want lots of food? Grow some at home. You want your kids to turn out well? Then one parent needs to stay at home and actually RAISE THEM - teach them right from wrong, and make them learn from books and not from the latest idiotic TV show. You want the benefits of a close family and community? Then put something into those things, don't expect to just take.

Most of today’s complexity comes from the idea that we have to show everyone else that we are living better than them. Thanks a load, Madison Avenue and Hollywood! That single idea has led to 2-earner couples, latchkey kids who learn from their equally clueless and ill-raised "friends" on the street, more vehicles, more junk toys that parents buy for their kids to assuage their guilt, more of the "I deserve it" attitude - costlier and thirstier cars, bigger homes, the plethora of ever-newer electronic devices to replace the "obsolete" ones (that were, when new, a vast improvement over the technology of only 5 or 10 years before...but that's never good enough, apparently), and, finally, a dependence on government to be everyone's parent, to take care of everything one finds unsatisfactory. Basically, we're like rats on a wheel - the faster we run to get ahead, the faster we must run to avoid tripping and getting thrown off...all the while not really going anywhere, and using up limited resources.

Our need for ever more resources has led to our continued involvement in conflicts all over the world, resulting in vastly more expensive government, which then raises taxes and only exacerbates the problems caused by so many two-earner couples.

What a rotten mess - if only someone could invent a time machine and go back to the early 20th century and show that time’s leaders where we are now, with a warning to choose a different path.

Jose said...

The fundamental problem is that profit is impossible so banks people states universities juggle reality so as to suppose that they can get something from nothing. I am always impressed by Rosa Luxenburg view that for capitalism to exist it is necessary for someone to produce wealth but being outside the system does not use that wealth and the wealth is transferred to the advanced region. Krugman said recently that the problem is that there is no other planet to export to. That is there is no one outside the system that we can take advantage of. Neither Greece nor Spain nor Portugal are in trouble. The ones that are in trouble are the banks that push money in exactly the same terms that drug pushers market their wares. Create a need and in order to satisfy it lend money but rent cannot be perpetually extracted from the work of people unless the people perish and then there is no one to extract value from. There is a good deal of old fashioned and present fashioned ethnicism that writes about problems in the Mediterranean when the problems of Great Britain and the USA are infinitely larger.. To exist is to grow, being is acting, shrinking our activities is certain death. Life is tragic and we all try to make it into a comedy by suggesting solutions that will clear us from the fate of perishing.

robertsgt40 said...

Good article. I have to take exception to the "peak oil" analysis. We have more oil on the North Slope in Alaska than the US can consume in the next 300yrs. Haiti is sitting on huge reserves. No need to confiscate that yet. It's not about needs. It's about control and greed. The illusion of shortages creats fear that only the powerful can fix. Get it? By the time WWIII is over, there won't be much need for oil. The invasions in the ME are for the control of oil, not consumption. We don't want the Rooslies or Chinese to have it. It's ALL about the control.

Óskar said...

I can't help thinking of the European Union again and again while reading this week's post. It may be local bias because the EU is the nearest "big bureaucracy" that I'm familiar with and partly living in (as a citizen of Iceland). The EU is complexity incarnate and consistently tackles all problems that come up by adding more complexity.

The current crises of sovereign debt, spreading across Europe like smallpox, are revealing the EU's extreme lack of resilience. It's ironic that my dear Eyjafjallajökull erupted at this exact time with those exact consequences, proving further Europe's vulnerability and overgrown complexity.

What I sometimes wonder is whether the EU is appealing enough culturally to make an eventual come-back in history... will future European Napoleons rally the people around a restoration of the EU (only more autocratic), much like they used to restore the Roman Empire again and again?

pgrass101 said...

Excellent post, I already see the world governments doing the same things that they have always done and wondering why it isn't working anymore.

In the U.S.A., I see and have seen the desperate attempt by so much of the population to maintain an unsustainable standard of living. We are already seeking to blame illegal immigrants for the loss of high paying low skill jobs. Most of the population seems to not realize the relatively low cost of our food and other basic services is only possible because we use a cheap shadow work force. We do not realize that our high standard of living is based on the exploitation of others, and once that the outsourcing of that exploitation becomes too expensive , we either have to exploit ourselves or decrease our standard of living or both. Our empire is collapsing and we are stuck in denial and are just now becoming angry and blaming the easy targets.
I do wish that we as a whole would be granted some wisdom and fortitude. The wisdom to see what is coming and the fortitude to make the changes to our lifestyle so we can adapt to our new low energy world.

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,
While my menfolk work jobs and speculate in the stock market, I alone am left to cope with high wind shed destruction, snow in my seeded garden, and the cold-related death of half my baby chicks. Henry Thoreau mentioned that for every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil there is one hacking at the root. This is what you are up to--thanks and carry on!

Petro said...

A wonderful post, and especially gratifying as I wrote a number of posts on this very subject a few years ago.

(I am glad that the comments are moderated. This way you can ignore my comment if you find my blog-whoring unseemly. If not, and you let this through, you may certainly delete this parenthesized aside. Or not.)

Don said...

A slow -but sure- legitimization of the individual's right to enforce the ultimate penalty for such crimes against humanity as are represented by complexity's scientific approach is surely arising.

Look out, when it comes to full bloom.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Well, this is enough to think about for awhile. It's sort of like--courtesy Food, Inc., which I had my students watch this week--if you let feedlot cattle eat grass for a few days before slaughter, you nearly eliminate E. coli (simple), but the food industry has responded to the challenge by bathing hamburger meat with ammonia in huge factories (complex). Of course one's first issue is with CAFOs themselves. So nearly every segment of society is in this sort of trouble?

Didn't know GS was so involved in 1929. It figures. A real leopard and spots thing.

Kat said...

Love this blog! You challenge my thinking and I love that! Thank you!!

Re the issue of complexity vs. simplicity, I was thinking of the US Postal Service, where my husband worked for over 30 years. Back in the day when he first started working there, local mail was put in a separate slot and the clerks here sorted it and delivered it the next day. Locals were usually hired back then--people who knew the town and the people in it, so mail got where it was supposed to go, even with vague or incomplete addresses. This system was "improved" several years ago and now our local mail goes to a sorting facility 70 miles away to be sorted by strangers who toss mail to "Grandma Jean on 5th St." into the "return to sender" pile, then truck it right back here another 70 miles. Complexity is up; service is down, more fossil fuels burned for no reason.

Claes said...

The Greek crisis doesn't come as a surprise, of course: pick, say, sixteen (or, eventually, twenty-seven) dynamical systems, each with its own dynamics and parameters and controlled by its own (single) control variable – let's call it the interest rate. The guy in charge of the system, not being a systems engineer or suchlike, knows absolutely nothing about observability or controllability (or, for that matter, stability), so he chooses the control strategy (or, more likely, the control function) more or less at random, hopefully guided by previous experience and a certain amount of intuition. It might work – at least as long as you don't expect too much.

Now combine all these sixteen – or twenty-seven – systems into one giant system, in the process replacing all the individual control variables with just one single variable. Let the Master Controller – let's call him Jean-Claude Trichet, say - steer this new Behemoth on the stormy oceans known as the global economy. Will he succeed? Well, neither he, nor you or me, knows if the system is observable and controllable (or even stable), so he has to take that on faith. And then he must, at each point in time, choose the appropriate value of a single control variable (the interest rate of the European Central Bank), controlling the dynamics of the entire system …

Being a European, I'd like to know what makes the dollar work, despite certain similarities with the euro (51 somewhat autonomous states with fairly different economies). Is it just because the common currency was introduced from the very beginning, or is there some deeper secret to it?

Michael Dawson said...

Nice connections, but no way is there a power shift going on. Financial speculation isn't some kind of accidental conspiracy. It's a logical outcome of a system that has run out of new ways to invest elite wealth in producing more real goods and services. To demote Wall Street would be to demote the Money Power.

Privileged elites never demote themselves, as Frederick Douglass noted.

quantumskunk said...

i aint making this up. reports indicate the icelandic ash cloud never happened or was greatly over estimated. so we had 3 days of no flight. any boffins figure out how much anthropomorphic CO2 was saved?
but now we have controlled burns of the rig in the gulf. any boffins want to calculate how much CO2 is being released? and finally how many barrels of oil and how long to equal the 600 million dollars of jet fuel that gets burned every three days? all that is a mere trifle. an environmental disaster is unfolding. if folks think fish stocks are near depletion wait till all that oil disrupts the food chain.
as to gold man $ucks, i live in nj. our gooberner had a fiscal emergency speech. yet as far as i know gold man $ucks is getting a million dollars per day from the state of nj. i stopped by the bank. i could see the drive in line at mc done all's was doing,shall we say, BAU.

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

Re Gone were the halcyon days when every bank in the United States paid 5.25% per annum on savings accounts by federal law.

I believe you have received erroneous information. As far as I recall (and my conscious memories go back to the 1950s, although I was a child then) interest rates in savings accounts have not been set by the government.

For a discussion of interest rates over the last four decades of the twentieth century, with a chart comparing 10 year Treasury notes with three month Treasury Bills, see 'Real Interest Rates' in

The material is from a course taught at U.C. Berkeley by Brad DeLong.

pasttense said...

I think you are wrong about the 5.25%. It was a maximum rate.

Twilight said...

"The interesting question is whether this fine imitation of outrage is simply the sort of ritual theater governments use so often these days as a substitute for constructive action, or whether serious power shifts are under way."

Probably a little of both, but there do seem to be some power shifts beginning. The people at the top have to know that there's more bad news and economic pain to come. If we assume that these are pretty astute folks with their eyes on the prize, then if they perceive that their present associations might put them in a weak position they will be looking to change the game in their favor. There's no loyalty, just calculations and maneuvering. With that kind of atmosphere things can get out of hand quickly

It's not at all clear who will make the best moves, but just like always it's worth remembering that these people have their own interests in mind, not yours. Given that, and the understanding that there are much greater forces at work shaping our future, it's probably best to let them play their games and ignore them as much as you can. I'll admit that I find it too interesting to look away, but I have no emotional investment in their maneuvers.

John Michael Greer said...

Ekkar, thank you. Of course it's hard to own up to the fact that we've been living in an imaginary world! Still, that's the first thing that has to happen; trying to get from one town to another in the real world is much more challenging than it has to be if the only map you have is of Neverland.

Favonius, granted -- they're just the whipping boy du jour right now.

Don, bingo. And when that doesn't work, there will be more layers...

Bill, well, I hope you do enjoy that day when it arrives. I suspect a lot of people will find that it's a lot less fun than it looks when viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of imagination.

Loveandlight, I should have sketched that out, shouldn't I? Basically, interest rates on federally insured savings accounts put a floor under interest from every other source; if you're a company and want people to buy your bonds, for example, you have to offer them a better yield than they'd get from just putting their money in savings, to compensate them for the risk that your firm might default on the bonds. Investment income (as distinct from speculation) is always the interest from some form of loaning money to somebody, so when savings accounts were pegged at 5.25%, bonds ranged up from there, and you could count on getting 5-10% a year off your investments; when interest rates dropped, so did investment income.

John Michael Greer said...

Suz, I'll be there Saturday and Sunday -- by all means say hi! As for the feedback loop, think of the way that the Soviet Union went down. Its fatal problem was bureaucratic mismanagement of its economy, and it tried to solve that problem by managing the economy even more tightly with more and more layers of bureaucracy, each of which made the economy even more inefficient and badly managed.

Rasmus, excellent! Your crystal ball is working well, I see; this is a point I plan on developing in a post sometime soon.

Panidaho, that's good. The Peter Principle is exactly what's going on; as a species, we've reached our level of incompetence -- though I don't think we'll stay there. Nature is a lot quicker to demote the unsuccessful than we are.

Paul, the scary thing is that in the 1970s, people did present the leaders and people of the industrial world with a very clear picture of exactly where we were headed and how to avoid disaster. Once it became clear that this latter was going to involve short term inconveniences, most people convinced themselves that it wasn't going to happen, and voted Reagan, Thatcher, et al. into office.

Jose, you're spot on -- the impossibility of making a profit from a contracting economy is the elephant in the living room of our collective lives right now.

Robert, you're wrong. It really is that simple. There isn't that much oil in Alaska, or Haiti, or anywhere else on Earth at this point, and insisting that there is simply feeds a fantasy that has long since passed its pull date.

Oskar, now that's a fascinating question. I think it depends on how long the EU lasts before it finally falls apart, and what replaces it.

Pgrass, bingo. Nobody in America wants to grapple with the extent to which our lifestyles depend on the extraction of wealth from the rest of the world.

Ariel, I'm sorry to hear about your chicks! We're having a fairly warm spring here in the Appalachians, fortunately.

Petro, posting a link to your blog is just another way of making a comment. As it happens, I can't edit your comment -- all I can do is let it through or send it into electronic limbo.

Don, that kind of language usually turns out to be doublespeak justifying somebody's power grab. Mind you, that'll be common enough in the years to come.

tristan said...

I'm glad someone set you straight Archdruid. There is more then enough oil under Alaska and there are new finds in Brazil and Haiti. And that does not even touch the Canadian tar sands which is enormous as well as the gargantuan deposits of shale oil. There is so much oil lying around that it should be given away with every 1000 mile salad you buy at the local restaurant!

Besides even if we were to run out of oil there is nuclear fission which is cheap, safe and plentiful, and nuclear fusion is just a stones throw away from being viable. And as we all know with breeder reactors the fuel for nuclear power plants is as common as dirt.

And that doesn't even touch Coal! Why do you realize that we have so much coal that we could burn nothing but coal and by the time we ran out more coal would have formed in the earth (it is a fact - I saw it on the Internets).

I think all those hippie dippie people are goofy for wanting solar and wind power. But even if we went that route all we would have to do would be to cover Nevada with a giant solar panel and we would have all the power this nation could ever want.

But the real future is in zero point energy. Do you realize that physics has now proven that there is free energy all around us? That's right the very space around you is filled with a minute amount of free energy that can be tapped to produce unlimited power - because, as we all know, space is infinite.

No, it can't be that we are running out of energy, that is completely impossible. Personally I suspect the space lizards. As you know they have infiltrated our society and are likely behind the conspiracy to hide the fact that energy is plentiful, abundant and free.

Tristan (channeling Swift)

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, that's my take on it, certainly -- every corner of industrial society is overburdened with excess complexity, and adding more complexity to deal with the problems of complexity! Not a pretty sight.

Kat, in one town where I lived in the early 1980s, you could simply write "City" in place of the name of the town and the zip code, and it would get to its addressee the next day. Of course "improvements" took care of that!

Claes, the secret of the dollar is that, since 1865, the states are only autonomous in theory. In the political sphere, they do what the federal government tells them to do; in the economic sphere, they are even more tightly coordinated, and have essentially no economic policies of their own. They have the same role, basically, as provinces in European countries.

Michael, I didn't say that power was shifting away from the political class; it's shifting from one coalition to another within that class. The American elite is the opposite of monolithic; it's fragmented, squabbling, and (just now) floundering around trying to figure out why the world doesn't work. That's why we've had a series of factional coalitions pulling the country first one way and then another.

Skunk, it'll be business as usual until suddenly it isn't...

Charley and pasttense, hmm. I'll check it out.

Twilight, exactly. Watching the American political class scrambling for power and privilege is a bit like watching breeding habits in a mink farm, granted, but it does have some lessons to teach.

Brad K. said...

@ Paul,

I believe the message, "not in the unpleasant message that "the party is over" for our way of life of the past 2 generations.", is not so much that the party is over, as that we had best be cleaning up now that the party is over, and get back to living a useful life.

Any significant change, according to the Tarot system, includes a "little" death - a clearing away of the life before, to make room for the change and what is to follow. Or, as "Grasshopper" learned in Kung Fu, "the stone enters the water, thus the journey ends. But in ending, a new journey begins." Or something like that. It has been some 36 years or more since I saw that episode.

Brad K. said...

@ robertsgt40

Peak Oil isn't about the absolute volume of yet-unconsumed oil, nor even about the amount of oil that the US consumes or imports.

Peak oil is the point that production of existing fields, world wide, falls below world wide demand. It was the world wide recession last year that ended the $150/bbl "run" on oil. As the rest of the world recovers, their consumption will re-establish itself.

It takes, currently, about a decade to bring a new discovery to market, as I understand it. New finds are typically a bit harder and more expensive to harvest, on average - the easy fields are already in production. Existing fields can no longer produce at previous levels as they near depletion. Much of the "reserves" reported are optimistic - it isn't economical, yet, to plumb the dregs. That could change, what won't change is that the cost in energy and money to produce the tail end of a field is higher than for a new find.

Thus, about 2005, according to one number I read, the ability to produce oil at a rate that meets or exceeds the current market demand - failed. Economic conditions are expected to rhythmically rally and then depress demands for oil, so that at any given day or week, there will look to be sufficient production to meet demand. But every time the "ball gets rolling", economically, demand will kick to a higher level, once again triggering economic instability as demand exceeds production. That instability will cycle back and choke back demand.

The cycles of economic recovery triggering a setback will not reach an equilibrium. Developing nations are pursuing the same "cheap energy" technological drives and economic goals as the US and much of the world have. Thus, as oil production and economies allow, there will continue to grow a demand for cheap energy (oil) overall, at the same time that the rate of production will continue to decline for the forseeable future, until worldwide demand, not just US demand, falls below a sustainable level.

Even better, for a very long term stability, would be to strive for a very low reliance on fossil fuel, or even radioactive material, for significant energy production.

My personal fear is that the disruptions of Peak Oil - including the attendant disruptions in food and economic security - will result in unequal changes in national securities. That armed conflicts will occur over access to food (indirectly energy) and access to fossil fuels. Envy, greed, and starvation have all been products of instability, and incitements to war.

"Economic decline" associated with Peak Oil is expected to be a jagged, saw-toothed line, not a smooth and observable retrenchment. Nor is Peak Oil expected to be a cliff that we fall over at some "tipping point" - thus, the assertion we are five years into the collapse. Well, I have seen one prediction - that by 2012, the *average* American family won't be able to pay the utility bills. Thus the fringe focus on Victory gardens to supplement the table, and recovering ways to live comfortably after the electricity is mostly gone. Note that Washington D.C.'s response to California's rolling brown-outs, is to implement them nation wide - that is what the "smart" electricity is about, micrometric control by the government to shut of yours and my electricity, unless we are working in a union shop, I suppose. That will be a precision of intimidation and invitation to corruption that will make Al Capone and Mayor Daley spin in their graves, crying out "Why didn't I try it that way!!"

BTW, I do concur with the concept of Peak Oil.

John Michael Greer said...

Tristan, I'm convinced the real solution to our energy crisis is likely to be methane from flatulent unicorns. There are whole spaceships of them on their way to us from Alpha Centauri right now, you know, munching four bean salad as they zoom through the Oort Cloud. Oh, and pixie dust. Mustn't forget the pixie dust.


Brad, now there's a blast from the past. I was a major league Kwai Chang Caine fan; it was when Kung Fu was canceled that I decided there was nothing worth watching on TV any more, and stopped. (No, I never did start again, either.)

genconc said...

Your post brought to mind a quote, famous in the world of Computer Science, by C. A. R. Hoare:

There are two ways of constructing a software design: One way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies, and the other way is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies. The first method is far more difficult.

Petro said...

Thanks, JMG, and noted.

Wordek said...

Oh no!. After having said last week that you describe how I think better than I do, here I am “doing a 180” and about to say that there is a fundamental difference in our perceptual orientation. I believe a term which describes this type of realization is hubris.................Bother!

The difference I have noticed is that as you describe complexity as the flaw in a system, I look at the same scenario and see simplicity (or perhaps homogeneity) as the underlying flaw to be addressed.

For example:
Short of oil? - drill for more oil........anywhere!.. Homogeneity
Making money from derivatives? Create a new derivative from other derivatives. Homogeneity
All people travel on planes which only have jet engines?: Well theres two homogeneous approaches for the price of one!

The complexity we do have, it seems to me, can be accurately described as stemming from a drive to stabilize certain tangible or abstract “controlling variable(s)”. The surrounding systems then develop complexity only because they are forced to act as supporting mechanisms for these strictly controlled and protected variables. Then add in that today people believe that there are “right ways” of doing anything, THE method, superior to every other.

This type of thinking, standardization, simplification, the metaphor of the production line, has become completely embedded in our way of engagement with the world. And in a analogous way, our civilization has trimmed away awareness and interaction with the plethora of real world variables that exist and homogenized itself to such an extent that any alternate ways are seen as the way of the fool, or worse the deviant.

So from my perspective, over time this forced simplicity will go and be replaced with ever more shades of complexity. As the simplified world that we created stutters and fails the “human landscape” will become more and more variegated, less and less traversable. It will be in with the old AND in with the new. Not because thats good but because we have no choice. Pity we never started doing that voluntarily.

Just a hi to Claes: I notice you see control variables as a driver as well.

Penumbra said...

JMG as usual, I find you precise and prescient. I have followed the report for years even though I just now joined officially.

I must sadly agree with you that the Goldman hearings are a charade for public benefit. Following is a quote from my blog. I did not see a policy on URL or quotes so I chose to leave my address off in courtesy and hope such a fullsome quote is not out of protocol.

If it is, I will certainly understand if I am edited or deleted.

"Goldman Hearings are Sham Theater

A special adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf is open for a special onetime run in Washington. Oh poor little Red (that would be the American people) has been ravaged mightily by the nasty Wolf (that would be Goldman and Sachs). It all seems so dire, so unfair – but wait, who is that rushing to her defense? It is the brave Woodsman (that would be congress), he has come rushing in – axe in hand. The Wolf snarls and snaps but he is no match for our stalwart hero. The fight is fierce and much noise is being made. But in the end, we know our brave Woodsman will avenge Little Red Riding Hood and all fear and injustice will sink into a glorious sunset as the curtain closes.

This is the reality of the hearings. It is very gratifying to hear our anger voiced so clearly on TV for all to hear. Oh the snide remarks, the dripping contempt of Goldman crushed under the angry demands and bone chilling threats of our local congressman. This will go on for several days. In this manner our little spectacle more closely resembles the Roman spectacles held for the very same purpose as these hearings. Namely, to calm and entertain the populace while a handful of men gets back to running the nation...."

Keep up the good work and please continue efforts to build the druid resources we will need in post industrial decline. I have started a backyard flock of hens and grow about 1/2 of my veggies in a tiny urban home garden.


Tom Dennen said...


All long-term credit cycles end with asset crashes in the markets of the leading economy.

Measuring from crash to crash the dates of the modern credit cycles are as follows, starting with the South Sea Bubble:

Crash & Depression Duration

1720 - 1772 52 years
1772 - 1825 53 years
1825 - 1873 48 years
1873 - 1929 56 years
1929 - 1980 51 years

Next 'big one'

2030+ - ? Or not at all if debt-based Capitalism is replaced with a viable alternative.

"The crashes and resulting depressions appear to be less intense and traumatic when the end of the cycle does not coincide with a shift in world economic predominance."

Today's shift is possibly the largest ever, essentially from the USA to China.

Librarian of Hillman said...

i eagerly await the next installment, because your last 'graph, for me, contains the kicker:

"Finally, all these considerations apply just as much to the level of the individual, family, and community as they do to civilizations as whole systems, and it’s possible to use simplification on the level of the individual, family, and community to counter at least some of the consequences of complexity run amok."

why do i feel like my whole world has suddenly been exposed as an episode of "Hoarders"? (which i actually only know about second-hand, as the cable tv was axed years ago!)

i see us as societies, in much the same impossible-feeling impasse, that this reality show plays with for "entertainment"...

we got here by doing what we've "always" done, clinging to what we've "always" believed--at least for a couple thousand years anyway in parts of the world, and the only way out of it, is to STOP doing that!

no meaningful changes will be made, and the problems will only pile up higher, until we STOP and really look at what we're doing, how we live, and WHY.

can we declare a world-wide week-long holiday for reflection?

(i can't even read about the oil in the much death and poisoning! to really look at that...and it is hardly the only or worst example.)

M. Francis Heins said...

It is a wonderful time to be alive and experiencing the world directly isn't it?

"Growth" in a viral/destructive/burning-things-up sense is being demonstrated to be impossible to sustain.

The realization that "Decay" or "Death" MUST follow "Growth" for all systems on this Earth...

And the concurrent realization that "Death" or "Decay" is as much a part of this amazing thing we call Life -which is really a system for exploiting the temporary counteractment of entropy...

Are now so blantantly obvious that it seems as if Life/Gaia/God/Ensouled Nature are now actually SHOUTING the truth of this deep into our minds!

(excuse the run-on sentence)

There is now a real possibility that the People will come to generally understand (or remember) that "Growth", in the Capitalist sense, was only ever a machine, a kind of trick or illusion, for masking the short-term benefit of the very lucky (or devious) few at the expense of not only the many, but also the decendents of the few.

Only Growth as understood by the Agriculturalist or the Silviculturalist or the Herdsman (and also whatever label we wish to give to the comination of these) has any long-term relevance or benefit here on Earth.

Will this truth out?


Maybe not.

But like the untiring mycelium it works and works hidden from the glaring light of the Sun called the "Media".

I consider your books and your blog a part of this work.

Thanks for another excellent -and entertaining!- post, Archdruid.

Me said...

To billhicksmostfunny:

Please, take no offence, but if wind, rain, and stars are relly what you associate with the inevitable downsizing of complexity that awaits us, then I have to question your relation to reality.

Everyone of us may need a certain philosophical and aesthetic view that helps us to come in terms with the fate of mankind. If I were to summarize my own position, it would go like this: “After all, even if I were to die, isn’t it a man’s obligation to learn to die? If we were to suffer, are we the first ones in history of life to suffer? It has happened before and will happen again.”

The facts of nature are obtained by science. To help cope with the facts, here comes philosophy and spirituality. You may feel yourself intellectually prepared, that is, however, not enough. You may think yourself practically prepared, but even that is not enough. Reality is visceral – perhaps literally so, in this particular case.

There are no clear-cut boundaries in the natural world, history including. Decline is always gradual and modern states, before they turn into chaos, may very well turn into organized hell.

Yes, those stars will still live their lives, but under the sky, blood will run through the streets. Those of you who are, say, 60+, may feel at peace with the future, but the future is certainly not at peace with those of us in their 20s. Stoicism may be enough in your house, at your computer, but is such an enough really enough for the fates of you and your fellow man?

To all:
Speaking about stars, do you know something about those lives of theirs? Yellow stars growing into red giants, etc., definitely check it out - dimnishing returns all over again, it's quite staggering.

To Óskar:
Roman Empire itself was more a symbol than actual model. The "barbarians" outside were amazed by it and that amazement lasted for centuries. However, an empire on general level is quite an easy idea to grasp, and somehow close to human nature, it seems - that's why they tried to emulate it. (In short: aesthetics and structural availability.) The EU grows out of much more specific conditions - overabundancy, democracy, and post-WW2 guilt and fear.

To suz:
It's those dimnishing returns that's the main trouble with growing complexity, it seems to me. In this regard, look at the aforementioned Roman Empire. They switched into mercenary forces, so they needed money (energy). Trouble is, the only way to get that was to conquer and loot - after which you must expand your army and bureaucracy to keep the conquered, thus need more gold, thus need to conquer more.
The Gauls and Dacians were rich, so the invasions payed for themselves, but Britons were stinkin' poor - and trouble was ahead. (Iraq, anyone?)

Cherokee Organics said...


I have to agree with you in relation to derivatives. The core issue though is that it is designed to confuse and get around incovenient laws that are in place.

In Australia there is compulsory superannution (ie. retirement savings) for all people earning an income. It amounts to 9% of that income and is accumulated with interest - not a bad system all things considered. Part of the legislation though is that no superannuation fund is allowed to have debt. This benefits society in that you wouldn't want peoples retirement income being geared in that it encourages speculation etc.

However, in recent times some clever person has come up with a financial product called an installment warrant which basically allows debt in these super funds. As far as I'm concerned it's against the sprirt of the legislation, but officially tolerated even though it is not in the best interests of society. Fortunately it is expensive to arrange and audit.

It's a case of where there are rules, someone will try to bend them for their own self interest. Greece employed these sorts of strategies to get into the mess they are in now.

As a side issue, I've always felt that law evolved from religion. The way that arguments are structured seem to have certain parallels.

Some of the comments this week seem to be hinting around the difficulties of specialisation. It is much better (although less respected in today's society) to be a generalist.

Peasants in the past had to rely on their own wits and resources. How many people do you know that could identify a poisonous weed from a medicinal herb - or more importantly know the doseage which is beneficial versus the doseage which is fatal?

Good luck.

ramps said...

Our civilisation values financial institutions on their ability to make money. Not bake bread, plant gardens, or create art.

Making money consistently in the financial markets is obviously not easy or else nearly everyone would be doing it, which is why Goldman Sachs pays those who are good at it extraordinarily well, exponentially more than those whose job it is to regulate them.

It really is though a case of, as usual, the public getting what the public wants. We give money to the institutions hoping they will make us more.

What "we" usually forget in our analysis of the risks of a fine sounding cleverly named investment product is that for every buyer there is a seller. It doesn't matter how complex the derivative - and pretty much everything we call an investment is actually a derivative for what we really want - that is all there is to it.

If we approached investments with the same caveat emptor canny we use when buying a car, I think Goldman Sachs et al would shrink to a quite possibly perfectly respectable shadow of its current self.

Are the chances of that happening fat, or slim?

Simon said...

I have noticed the tendancy of language used by those in authority to follow this trend. Our Australian Prime minister is a master at using ever more meaningless phrases to deliver ever more drivel.
I am a firm believer in the idea that truth is simple, and any time the language gets complex, the truth gets further away.
The danger is that where leaders go, others follow, and some of those others are running the services that sustain our way of life. I have also noted that lately utilities are having trouble maintaining services and are comming up with some fantastic phrases that essentials say "we are idiots and dont know what the hell happened".

I could use many examples but a playground illness courtesy of my son has robbed me of the energy.

Love this blog.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Upon reflection, one more note:

As I've been learning about permaculture and ecosystem function, I've learned how nature uses complexity and redundancy to ensure thriving systems with minimal breakdown.

I'd love to read what you have to say about the differences between this natural systems complexity and human-engineered complexity as discussed here.

Do "simple" solutions, as defined here, actually generate more overall systemic complexity and redundancy than the "complex" solutions? So that the "complex" solutions, while technologically complicated are actually deadly simple, e.g. stripped down, non-redundant and simplistic?

Maybe I'm finally getting your point.

robinledrew said...

this is my first response although I have been reading your site for a while and appreciating the thinking that goes into it. I want to add another "plume on the horizon": the oil tar sand development in northern Alberta, Canada, which is profoundly destructive and extremely complicated. I would appreciate attention on this phenomenon and recommend viewing the film "Petropolis".

mattbg said...

Very good analysis and correlation, JMG.

The forest fire analogy works as well, I think -- do we make all efforts to preserve the forest in its entirety and risk a build up of brush that could threaten the entire forest, or allow small fires to burn periodically that can't harm the majority of larger trees -- sacrifice a few for the many, etc. The longer you put off the small fires, the higher your risk of a massive one that brings it all down.

On the other hand, I think it's OK for a society to increase its ambition as it becomes more capable. It does become more and more difficult to sustain, though, and the easy fruits that result seem to deflate the human drive needed to keep it going, especially as it gets more challenging. The US and Canada, for example, seem mostly driven by ambitious immigrants when it comes to difficult work with modest personal return.

Ariel55 said...

Dear John, Bless you for caring about my baby chicks! I loved your observation to Skunk that "it'll be BAU until suddenly it isn't". Wow! I believe that at so many levels! And, I think you found at least one "song" for the times--To Tristan, your answer is in the song from Peter Pan--"And the thing that's a positive must(!) is a little bit of pixie dust"!

Keifus said...

And yet a great deal of environmental, agricultural, and medical understanding (and policy) has failed because the approach was too simplistic. Organisms, planet-wide energy transfer, and ecosystems, after all, are considerably more complex systems than what can be reduced to (in the case of agriculture) feed quantities of nitrogen, potassium, and so on. Complex systems such as these are highly fault-prone, but at some level of behavior, they are also highly fault-tolerant. Take a human being: so many interdependent processes--a million things that can go wrong--it's almost amazing that any of us functions for very long at all. And yet we do, generally and for awhile, and humanity keeps going, and probably will in some capacity for many generations yet. Or take the biosphere over its five-billion year history: highly complex, and local failures have been myriad, but the system adapts. (And generally adds complexity. Or it does at least on one end--the protists are still more successful than mammals!) Even computing can be done on highly complex, fault-addled systems. Heck, it's done that way every time I try to think about stuff.

I haven't read Tainter, unfortunately. Is the wiki summary accurate? Based on it, it seems like he offers a good description of human behavior, but it's hard to agree that collapse is inherently caused by complexity. Well, hard to agree completely: I think a great deal of humanity's perpetual problems have been systemic, some function of how we organize ourselves, but I also take the view, in the spirit of your last post, that organizations of people fail to adjust well to certain kinds of system perturbations, and with oil, we're staring down a big one. If we want to glibly map human behavior in evolutionary terms, maybe the doubling down on complexity in the face of a collapse is an adaptation that has enabled species (but not society-level) survival in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. Not many of those adjustments are going to stick, but maybe some will be useful in the next go-round.

Pretty much everything in the universe is a system-of-systems, and there's some point of organization at which which those complexities dissolve into phenomenology. There's usually a small suite of approximations within which it's appropriate to describe some given phenomena at some level of observation. You don't need quantum theory, in other words, to describe a baseball's trajectory. But on the other hand, it's useful (or at least interesting) to understand some of those subtler behaviors too, as circumstances can be manufactured or encountered where they become important, and sometimes we can exploit a deeper understanding for our benefit, so long as the detail of understanding is commensurate with whatever effect we're trying to draw out. Not a big deal when we don't balance millions of lives on these experiments. In human terms, we seem to fail when we represent phenomena with either too much or too little complexity. It's not exactly that our generation of finance economists have added complexity that will cause its collapse, I think it's more that they added complexity that is not relevant to the phenomenology of human exchange. Who cares about the eigentates of its baffling multitude of electrons? What's important to people is that ball's headed for the wall.

K said...

Great post, JMG! You have such a great talent for finding patterns and for putting complex ideas into easy-to-understand terms.

Kung Fu was canceled in 1975. You really haven't watched TV since then? Wow.

Loveandlight said...

Here is an article from that shines some light on how our addiction to complexity for its own sake has aided and abetted our moral decline, with certain disastrous consequences when the karmic and literal bills come due. Warning: Contains some naughty words.

I'm not sure if this is entirely appropriate, but despite the writer's cloying nihilism-for-its-own-sake tone, this really seems like something AR readers should see and consider, IMHO.

blue sun said...

JMG, have you heard about this national ID card/ microchip proposal?

I can't think of a finer example of a desperate attempt to solve a complex problem by a yet greater increase in complexity. Too bad it hit the media after you could use it as an example.

JMG, do you think this will pass, or something equivalent to it? I'm not sure if it scares me more than the animal ID proposal. And what benefit would this increased complexity bring?

I found it here:

Tom Dennen said...

Tacitus's "The Annals of Rome", 29 AD, is a (reasonably, I think) impartial investigative journalist's view of Nero's Rome in that he 'tells it like he saw it.'

I believe that some of the reasons for Rome's collapse are outlined in Chapter Six of the Annals.

(We should possibly avoid making superficial value judgements on some of its content: virgins, for instance, could not under the law of that time be hanged and the duty of deflowering was left to the hangman. After the hanging - all members of a convicted person's family were hanged - the bodies were thrown into the Tiber.)

Try rather to consider the meat of Chapter Six in the light of the financial activities of, say, Goldman Sachs today, and then consider value judgements.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

Please comment on the difference betwee diversity and complexity.

Diversity is cliamed to make systems more resiliant. Sometimes more diverse systems seem more complex...


Greg Reynolds
Riverbend Farm

Tom said...


Interesting read and comments. I am intrigued by your use of the term “complexity”. It strikes me that complexity is a lot like efficiency and one has to be clear about what is being compared. Both terms are judgments about the difference from one state of something to another and unless one is clear about what is being compared and its context confusion can result. Another aspect that comes into play is that it is not just the somethings that are of interest but their relations and interactions with all the other somethings that matters. It is well understood that a few simple things operating under simple rules can, through their interactions create very complex and unpredictable outcomes. When what we want is predictable, resilient and stable outcomes.

Your statement early in the piece “All three of them resulted when people in a situation of high complexity tried to solve the problems of that situation by adding on an additional layer of complexity.” Makes perfect sense to me because I think I understand the context you intend. However in a way I am not sure “complexity” entirely captures the problem. I want to say it is more like attempting to add rigidity or control through the addition of a component that appears to not be part of the problem.

Agriculture is an example that comes to mind. When looked at from one vantage point small scale agriculture or gardening is very simple. You put a human to tending a plot of soil with plants and you are able to harvest specific things that make good eating. In one sense this is simple even if it involves a large number of different plants. It could be said that industrial agriculture is much more complex in that it involves many things beyond the single person, the plot of land and a few plants. It involves fuel companies, fertilizer production, tractor manufacturing, transportation and on and on. But looked at in other ways mono cropped industrial agriculture is much simpler than the single person in their garden in that in involves only one plant over vast areas with simple single nutrients instead of many plants feed by complex compost.

It feels like I still don’t quite have the whole picture that I want to get across but I am sending this as it is to stir more discussion.


Philip Kienholz said...

Thanks for bringing Tainter's insights to bear, and for thinking further how they could work today. More widespread understanding of his theories on complexity will only benefit society, apart from intuitive and anecdotal stories of relocalization and listening to the land as valid pathways within the predicament.

Two other potentially valuable additions to the discourse are 1) Elinor Ostrom's Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, that attempts to identify successful methods: "It is my conviction that knowledge accrues by the continual process of moving back and forth from empirical observations to serious efforts at theoretical formulation," p. xvi.

2) The management cybernetics work of Stafford Beer, eg. Designing Freedom, and Diagnosing the System for Organizations.

Ric said...

"Gee, Mom! Look! We can take a lot of energy and create something that kinda sorta looks like oil, but with less energy than we started with!"

To be fair, a number of the comments do zero in on the key question, carefully skirted by the author: can the process ever achieve break-even let alone the huge favorable energy ratios of fossil fuel?

On a more political note, I grabbed a copy of Animal Farm during a recent visit to the local library. It has, unfortunately, aged all too well in the 30 years since I last read it.

fourpie said...

Hi John, In keeping with your request we re-learn and spread the old skills, are you aware of this guy who has re-discovered the Egyptian/Stonehenge techniques?:

from Phil Joyce
Andover UK

hawlkeye said...

Mental constructions of gardens are much simpler to create than real ones, because putting a theoretical person on a plot of rhetorical soil is just the beginning. (Only a mental construction could have a beginning, because the whole ball of wax called "food supply" is rather a "chicken-or-egg-first?" dynamic).

Then they have to know how to continually build soil fertility and launch (and re-launch repeatedly) the life cycles of hundreds of species of plants to meet all their material and nutritional needs. Of course, they'll also need to possess all those seeds first; animals would be a boon, but another vast learning curve.

Without all that and more, they'll end up IN the plot, contributing to whatever grows above for a long time. Not very simple at all. And though I've been saying "they" it's really all "us" - soon there will be no more of "them" and we'll be on our own to work out all of the above.

Modern industrial agri-business toxifies all natural assets and erodes topsoil by the billion-ton. That single plant species is a mutant freak that will not reproduce (like over 25% of the men it feeds who no longer carry viable sperm). The entire boondoggle reverberates disaster throughout the biota: I think it's too simplistic to even call the stuff "food" when it causes so much obesity, disease, suffering and early death.

Complexity is human ingenuity. Diversity is natural intricacy.

Instead of using our energy in attempts to manipulate and control natural diversity, it's high time we cooperated with those elements and learned from them. But then we'd have to let go of our Cartesian fantasy that plants are all just little bio-mechanical water pumps made of molecules.

And by then, we might as well chuck the idea that the best way to proceed is by working the industrial teeter-totter of
"empirical observations" leading to "theoretical formulation".
Ping-pong, mind-mind, blah-blah, howz all that working out for you, pilgrim?

Sheesh, what a mess materialism's made...

Now, if only "intuitive listening to the land" could become the way science works, then I might consider re-joining that church.

maros.ivanco said...

Little bit older, but nice reading regarding Goldman Sachs:

LynnHarding said...

@Ariel55 - my condolences on the chicks as well. While we try to figure out why our hens don't brood their own eggs we, too, have to try to keep hatchlings alive. Recently my heat lamp went out on a weekend when my chicks were very young and it was cold. I had a couple of hot water bottles that I covered with a thin towel. The chicks absolutely loved it and they survived until the store opened.
LIght Brahma chickens are what we have and the are supposed to go broody. Why not, I wonder?

Dan said...

I wonder how long the costs of keeping and maintaining a nice grass lawn will be affordable. My lawn mower broke down. Through procrastination and wanting to delay spending money on a shiny new lawn mover the lawn hasn't been cut for several weeks. The neighbor finally said something to the effect everyone cuts there lawn in the neighborhood and him trying to sell his house. So I have to cut the grass and weeds but I'm looking at alternative lawn mowers other then gasoline powered. I half want to get a goat or some animal to eat the lawn but thats not allowed legally. Just another example of a cost that doesn't help adapt out of the age of abundance.

Óskar said...

Roman Empire itself was more a symbol than actual model. [...]

My point was that while empires are typically created by military strength, they also thrive by cultural appeal of some kind. Rather than inventing something completely new, minor empire-builders through history have found it easiest to just smack the label of an older empire onto theirs and proclaim themselves a "restorer". In Europe, the Roman Empire remained the favorite empire to restore for at least a thousand years after it had disappeared.

The EU has indeed not been forged as a military empire per se... although it could only come about through the general lack of militaries in Europe, thanks to the USA being the real military power maintaining balance. However the EU does have a cultural appeal and a cultural vision behind it, one which might survive into the future and prove handy for some conqueror wanting to justify a European Empire.

Picture something like this: Some decades from now, the EU still exists on paper but has become an empty shell of diplomatic ceremonies and legislation that is either ignored or respected only if it suits so. The various European nations are back to competing through the old-fashioned warfare, intrigue, alliances, etc.

Then suppose a great political and military leader arises in one of the powerful countries and successfully unites most of the continent by force and diplomacy. He proclaims a new and restored European Union and condemns the existing one as corrupt, weak and controlled by selfish elites (who happen to be his enemies and are duly persecuted). His new EU also has a deep blue flag with yellow stars to signify European unity and continues the vision of the "founding fathers" of the 20th century. He sets up elaborate ceremonies of national leaders signing contracts and coming together in great democratic assemblies of the new EU. But he emphasizes that the new EU needs a strong leader (him) and a strong army (his army) to be better than the old, corrupt EU... Same story as Augustus Caesar co-opting the traditions of the Roman Republic while subtly creating a new autocracy; or Napoleon co-opting the French revolution for the same purpose.

Ric said...

Found while browsing elsewhere:

"It’s Complicated: Making Sense of Complexity"

"...complexity lurks behind the most expensive and intractable issues of our age. It’s the pet that grew fangs and started eating the furniture."


Tom Dennen said...

I fully agree ... but!

Any political structure must rely on some concept that defines the use of its money. Today's global political structures rely on debt-based gambling syndicates like the current whipping boy Goldman Sachs, whose resources come from the wealth created by actual commercial work - resource gathering, manufacturing, farming.
For a perfect example of the consequences involved in relying on a debt-based political structure, read TACITUS, THE ANNALS OF ROME, CHAPTER SIX (written in AD 29 during Nero's rule).
Then consider the use of 'Sovereign Currency' as an alternative and perhaps avoid those (and today's) consequences derived from betting on a nonexistent future.

Me said...

To: Óskar

If we had those several decades, that’s what would most probably happen, sooner or later, but I’m not sure we have them. An empire just happens to be a sweet concept with a high maintenance cost of an actual application and we soon won’t be able to pay the necessary energy price.

What I was trying to express (however clumsily) is, that there are two kinds of “cultural appeal” at play – an empire versus The Roman Empire. Appeal of the former is structural, it‘s a way of social organization that pops up time and again, but you need no “blast from the past”, no previous inspiration, you just need the basic historic/social conditions. Appeal of the latter (as a basis for inspiration) is aesthetic, thus it needed specific historic conditions to be sexy enough for future generations, which it somehow had.

I’d say that you don’t actually need to slap anything on, it just happens to help. It could also be argued that there has to come a third player in, a deeper, primeval one – a basic impulse, so to speak. Why do people decide to “build an empire”? Do they even decide? With a different ideological blueprint, people could just stay at home meditating.
Then you need the outer conditions (to be able to actually conquer something), then you create institution, pomp, etc (the aesthetics). There are, of course, tons of those specific historic conditions, that’s why there is no consensus as to the actual mechanism of empire-building. Just compare Marx and Spengler, for example.

Co-opting of immediately preceding institutions, it seems to me, is being done largely for the sake of continuity, being non-disruptive, traditional (no wild breaks, otherwise someone might freak out).
In my humble opinion, EU itself is just a mask, an expression of something else. Yes, there are the ideas of unity, strength, prosperity, coming along amongst ourselves as opposed to “them”, etc, but those are human ideas. Every empire has them, the future one would have them too. The core of EU is purely psychological – no another WW2. When that motivation goes away, who knows what happens? It all seem to hold together by pure strenghth of will. I concur that the loud-mouthed pomp (the EU aesthetics) created on the way might come in handy, however – as could anything else (say, religion).

And I should totally stop writing lame attempts at off-topic essays on other people’s blogs. My deepest apologies, Mr. Greer...

Brad K. said...


They still make push lawnmowers. The reel type doesn't use any gas or oil, nor violate noise or animal restrictions.

You might look into having someone mow for you - the fewer machines owned, is that many fewer manufactured and maintained - lessening the impact of making and maintaining mowers on the environment.

If you hire having the lawn mowed - especially someone from the neighborhood that isn't already tied into industrial-style landscaping - you help to develop local resources of experience and skill. Pick someone young, and you help to develop character, endurance, patience, and self esteem in the coming generation.

You might investigate turning part or all of your lawn into a vegetable garden. If you plan on using a hoe, you get to develop tool handling and maintenance skills, invest more of yourself in tending to growing things, and develop local food resources for you, your family, and perhaps even the neighbors.

And you might want to consider priorities. At some point the impact of a declining economy will hit home. Your neighbor, trying to sell, wants to see the best return on his real estate investment. Your choice, is to decide if your own home is a real estate investment, or a bit of property you need to use well, to support yourself and your family. At some point, market price on homes will become a secondary concern, or tertiary. Managing expenses, enduring as best you can, will made different choices preferable. Should you be looking forward to that time, start making "endure" choices rather than "investment" choices?

Lastly, some doctors at the Mayo clinic in Rochester, MN, made Paul Harvey's news a few years ago, with a new housing development. It seems they determined that watching prairie grass grow was more therapeutic than a manicured lawn. So in their development, they allow only prairie grass, and you get to cut it once a year or so - more often will not be good for the grass. Native American Seed out of Texas sells a yard mix, that grows to about 10" high, and you only cut it once or twice a year.

Óskar said...

Re: Me

If we had those several decades
It seems you understood my example as a vision or goal for the future - it was simply meant to describe how I think the future will unfold, regardless of whether it's desirable or not. Thus, no need to "have" the decades, they'll just come...

Anyways you're right, we're drifting off-topic.

My original point was that the European Union is a perfect example of the complexity problem JMG is describing. I think the cumulative weight of complexity will eventually make it so unappealing to work within the EU framework that Europeans, from individuals to national governments, will increasingly start to avoid it in favor of just about any alternative that doesn't involve a swarm of bureaucrats making interpretations and compromises on the wording of legal documents written in a dozen different languages.

The alternative is to go back to bi-lateral agreements between countries instead of multi-lateral; policies and law increasingly shaped on a regional and national level; in short a reversal of the integration process of the past decades, because for the typical European country, that (complex) integration will gradually become burdening rather than empowering. The common currency is already a burden for many states now with the current financial crises.

Once Europe has reversed the integration, the global power projection of the US will likely have waned as well, meaning there'll no longer be any check against aggression. Then "history will return to Europe" as JMG said, because it'll be back to the old game of nations competing against each other by all available means.

Cathy McGuire said...

Once again, good topic and discussion... it seems obvious that our levels of complexity won't stand, and yet, it's really human nature to add a level of complexity rather than tear everything down and start again. I have a recent personal experience of that when half my measurements for the chicken coop were "just a bit off" *ahem* No one wants to stop and start again at the beginning. Most of us do wait until something crashes... hoping that our toes are not underneath.

@Ariel - I'm so sorry to hear about the chicks!! And the snow, and the wind -- some seasons, it seems like Nature is just pissy. But that's anthropomorphizing... I guess we need to re-learn that ability to see the weather signals, since far too often the "meteorologists" are wrong. I'm having cold, damp weather (tho not snow) that is stunting my planted seedlings, and keeping the potted seedlings and new chicks indoors! It may be we'll be having to factor in this "wild weather" situation and create effective portable systems (complexity again, I know) to respond to the ups and downs - though even that can only work within limits... even with skill and knowledge, it's still a crap shoot.

@BradK At some point, market price on homes will become a secondary concern, or tertiary. Yes, I agree - it was a minor point for me, but I have yet to see friends or family make that shift -- somehow their houses are more like a badge of status rather than a home. Of course, one needs to keep it up so that it's liveable and secure - but what I choose to improve is based on liveability, not what it looks like or how much it improves the price tag. I hope to live here 'til they take me away.

Me said...

To: Óskar:

On the contrary, your way is exactly the way I understood it. I freely admit my inability to get a point across in clear and concise writing. "To have the decades" was meant as a direct analogy to "to have (enough) time (to do something)". Not only empire-building is dependent on available resources, nation states, obviously, are as well. Less food, more competition - first as a metaphor for oil, then as a cruel but simple fact. "Empire" is a luxury we won't be able to spare. Any form of state administration might soon become one as well, at least for a while. Before that, however, the survival stress of communities (nations, states) will show its ugly head. That (and my fear) was my initial point, before I wandered off.

What you say about EU and complexity is spot-on (and could perhaps be even desirable), yet for quite a while, the process is going to follow a slippery slope (and this time, it is no fallacy). When Roman Empire collapsed, bone excavations show us, nutrition of peasants actually improved. That cannot become the case when our society collapses, sadly.

It was a nice way to pass the week. Good luck!

Ric said...

I feel as if I'm spamming this thread, but it seems the word is getting out. A quick trip around the internet last night yielded a peak-oil hat-trick:

Why oil will never hit $500/bbl

(The gist is that countries will nationalize their oil industries to keep prices low. But read the whole thing; the author covers a lot of familiar ground for JMG readers. And to make my spam somewhat topical, he also hits on the complexity issue.)

Nice graph showing the US production decline in spite of increases in offshore production.

Saudi exports wane post-2010.

vegan_satori said...

In nature complex systems are fractal - simple patterns are repeated and combined to create a 'complex' whole. But the core is composed of basic building blocks - for example, the 4 amino acids which together, in nearly limitless variations of common threads, make up the genetic keys to life itself - and it's expression as macro living entities. Matter/energy has been dissected down to wavelet 'strings' according to String Theory... which only exist in the context of the complete whole.

I think JMG's 'complexity' or abstraction concerns are actually human attempts to isolate and oversimplify particular aspects of the whole of reality, to push imbalances off the balance sheets, to bolster the illusion of a perfect La La Land. But, of course, we can not solve the problems of ignoring the consequences of our actions... via the use of tunnel vision. We must account for the entire process, including pollution whether from spills or 'normal use', as well as source energy and materials -- ultimately to close the cycles into sustainable processes that do not create 'collateral damages'. We must consider the basic building blocks -and- their place in the totality.

To find inspiration to build a shelter from the storm, first we must acknowledge that there is a 100% chance that a terrible storm will arrive eventually... if we get that far then we can try to find, form, and assemble the blocks. But, there are so many sunny days... so, more likely, we'll 'simply' enjoy what there is to enjoy, ignore the odds and take our chances. The thunder is so soft, those dark flashing clouds seem so far away. It's all been said before, is anyone listening?

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG, I wanted to share a haunting post from James H. Kunstler's blog by "Newfie". Something to the effect that now that there's the oil spill, "If the Gods are really angry", the hurricane season is less thaqn 30 days away. It gives one pause...

pfh said...

John, Phil Henshaw here. You know I think you have a very good, but basically “scholarly impression” of the complications that develop in natural systems. I wrote my first detailed scientific framework paper on it in 79. I think it would help others develop their own intuitions if we all were less abstract and pointed more directly to the evidence of these processes in the physical world. I also think it’s a large mistake to say the complexity trap has no escape, you just need to change models. I don't know why Joe Tainter seems committed to not studying the system that are responsive to growth limits and stabilize perfectly well, for example.

When you say “if a society has driven itself past the point of negative returns on complexity” what you’re referring to in the normal inflection point in any growth curve. Not every growth system fails due to irreversible increasing complexity. The inflection point at the end of compound growth is when the environmental response to the system switches from opening up multiplying opportunity to putting up multiplying constraints (i.e. complications and other resistance). For the developed economies that seems to have occurred in the 1950’s. So, that’s what we’re talking about, physically, the reversal in environmental responses to our growth system. With that subject in mind people can recall the progressions of events before and since then, put together their own picture, and judge how far along we are toward making our world completely unmanageable.

It’s simply not true that “ thereafter, the only way it can solve its problems is by not solving its problems.” Our mistake is addressing the wrong problem, following a model that only applied before the 1950’s and failing to develop a new model to respond to growing environmental constraints. For responsive growth systems the main better choice when running into a wall of complexity is to progressively simplify the tasks at hand rather than take on ever bigger ones.

The easy example is that of a mom & pop store that has used its profits to grow the business, adding complexity as it goes. When it grows to the point of saturating its local market and would need to get into price wars to take over the markets of others. Then the "new model" that solves that is to find a better use for the profits. The usual one is to go for security rather than expansion. The profits in a maturing market go to stabilize the business, refine its products, better serve its loyal customers and allow a well deserved vacation or two, etc. That’s the shift from growth to maturation. Up until the hour of collapse, I’m fairly sure that seeing the need to shift from growth to maturation is what's completely necessary to change our questions and find a feasible escape.

pfh said...

Well, if "it's human nature to add to complexity" is true some places it's also clearly not true in others. We frequently see trouble coming, and switch to reducing the complexity of what we're attempting rather than multiplying it.

I was looking at my bank account, thinking of how the money hidden from view always goes where it can multiply its control of the earth. Nobody but me seems to have been pointing to that defect of our decision making process as a practical problem of some magnitude. If people were paying attention to what they were physically doing we'd see the need to respond.

wylde otse said...

I was reading a math book today in which it was claimed that on the surface of a sphere, the wind can't be blowing everywhere at once; has to be at least one still spot.
Fractals and complex systems are interesting; we know there is no end to telescope/microscope search for truth in such.
So I sat in a forest glade in the sun, trying to come up with a random number - realizing finally, that if I knew what it was, it would no longer be random.
Before I knew it, I had circumnavigated Chaos: knowing I as much as I needed Her; Kali needed me..

And I recalled words of wisdom from your earlier posts - as well as Sidney Sheldon's , "Here I am, Wasn,t I? " - when I was yet insisting things could be 'fixed'.

hawlkeye said...

For those folks prevented by statute from erecting a greenhouse in the Garden State, good news! The New Jersey State Heritage Initiative Taskforce has announced a new statewide food security course called Farming Resiliency Instruction Can Keep Everyone Nutrified All Year.

I hear it's much more practical than the Course In Marigolds...

pfh said...

hmm... wylde otse posts a comment starting with the proposition, "if the universe were in stasis.." (paraphrasing) to pose a riddle about a Platonic ideal sphere and Platonic ideal fluid. Where do we get this stuff!??

To answer my own question, I think we come to see nature as a paradox from struggling to explain why the world seems to us to need to work the way we think.

Brad K. said...


I see part of the struggle against nature as the growth of wisdom. We form our ideas and conjectures about processes and rationales, then test them against reality. It is the discovery of what we misunderstand and insight into inter-relationships that let us move ahead from day to day.

The struggle is to decide whether we were wrong, whether we misunderstood what happened, or whether we misunderstood when we were right.

Ariel55 said...

Good morning John, I haven't read your new post yet! I wanted to tell @Cathy that I made the mistake of buying the chicks too early. By the time I set them out in our barn, they were quite big enough to be out of their box and all over my kitchen. Let me here mention that specialization is proving my demise in a truly "crazy-making"lifestyle!!

Keifus said...

hawkleye, just a thing about your comment. Not to single you out, but it's something I have a lot of trouble with.

I like where you started from: "Mental constructions of gardens are much simpler to create than real ones..." because ain't that the truth with everything, and you're right about agri-business too...

But look, all those examples of really understanding the ecology, and developing your garden accordingly, you have to realize that what you're describing is human ingenuity. It's science and technology: observing, developing knowledge, and using that information and theory to our advantage. You're advocating a more sophisticated model of the ecology, and one that is more harmonious with the surroundings that nourish us--which is all agreeable enough--but when it comes to modern practice you're criticizing the insufficient level of our understanding. The criticism of the nature of it doesn't follow.

hawlkeye said...

Hi Kiefus,

Sorry if my post was confusing on this point.

Part of our predicament is reaching not only the limits of concentrated energy sources, but the limits of the scientific world-view as a tool to remedy the former. Getting out of the mess we're in will require a different kind of interaction with nature than "observe, interpret, activate, re-interpret, re-activate, etc."

So yes, I guess I am critical of the current level of human understanding or human ingenuity, clever as they can be at times. This is my primary criticism of Permaculture, which as a system, advocates ever more perceptive human modeling of natural systems. Perhaps an improvement, but this is still a materialistic approach, assuming a bio-mechanical determinism in nature and denying the presence of any conscious intelligence within it all. Not the way things are, in my experience.

I am advocating not a greater level of human ingenuity, but conscious interaction with the intelligence of nature. It's time to cooperate with the components as if they were conscious, because they are, rather than continue to manipulate them in ways humans might consider more benign than rape.

We simply don't know what nature knows, so we might as well ask instead of guessing wrong for a few more centuries. But we don't yet acknowledge that nature knows anything. As long as we think we can just move all the pieces around as we see fit, we'll still be stuck, because "as we see fit" is never the whole view.

And as long as science, the pervasive religion of industrialists, thinks “as we see fit” is all there is to see, we’ll continue to stumble along blindly.

Simply put, the garden elements are more of a Who than a What, and for over thirty years, I've designed gardens where the plants decide where they want to grow (among other things). The trick is in trusting the interpretive tool, a way to cross the non-language barrier between species (applied kinesiology).

This approach gets quickly dismissed by materialist scientists, but the results speak for themselves. This is our true fork in the road; more human manipulation, or conscious cooperation with nature.

Have yet to hear the Druid perspective on this notion; horticultural advances made by working with this co-creative approach. Something’s got to pop the myth of human progress, and imo it involves not merely talking to your plants, but listening to them very closely as well.

No other current plant-relationship system does this; even Biodynamics, which only exists because Rudolph Steiner understood all of it. They follow his instructions on the cosmic applications, but very few practitioners get their own information from their own gardens and farms and cosmos in real time.

This thread began (in modern times) at Findhorn in Scotland in the 70's, and continues in the work of Machaelle Small Wright at the Perelandra Nature Research Center in Virginia, USA.

And in the thousands of us who brave the scorn of a "woo-woo" label to grow fully lit-up food and create balanced habitat for everybody, insects and amphibians included, no exceptions.

pfh said...

hawlkeye, What you suggest with "I am advocating not a greater level of human ingenuity, but conscious interaction with the intelligence of nature. It's time to cooperate with the components as if they were conscious..." has a rather practical dimension a lot of people might not be aware of.

It's that the examples of natural systems that work well, observably respond to their approach to growth limits by maturing. There are lots of differences between responsive and unresponsive growth systems, but that seems to be the big one. Maturation is a way for systems to switch from solving ever more complicated problems to solving ever simpler ones.

I honestly think there's a sort of "biomicry" option available, or.. given the alternative we now see clearly unfolding, a biomimicry imperative. Examples abound of systems that succeed or fail at that, but almost no one studies them, and for a sneaky reason.

I've been studying this for some time and the "catch" does seem to be something on the order of what you suggest, our not relating directly to nature. It's that normal human awareness treats reality as being our information, and not as being the physical subjects of our information. You can see it in how science represents nature as its theories, or that most people discuss cause and effect in our environment according to the tag items in the current news feed, changing quixotically day to day. I think that in order to understand how nature switches off it's multipliers and turns on its simplifiers, we'd need to change the subject of our interest from being our own mental reconstructions of the information we find, treating reality as our own world of images and reflections, to being the physical things with which we share the planet with themselves. We need to pay attention to what we're part of.

I noticed an odd thing about actually doing that once. From an information perspective it means learning to focus on something like a "negative image". The physical things of the world that matter the most are those other things pf nature organized and animated from the inside. Those other animate things of nature are also the things that appear to us to be information voids, having organization too complex to understand and not controlled from the outside and so behaving independent of what we can observe.

That also serves as a middling good means of identifying them too.

hawlkeye said...

Yo pfh,

My understanding is that all of nature is animated from the inside (maybe I'm a Druid?!); what's needed from humans is not more observation, but more conversation.

You're quite right that the pervasive religion of current science, our dominant worldview, is made largely of mental constructions; we've created a world of words and then moved right in!

One example I often use is the notion of "companion planting" a common trope, as JMG might say, among organic gardener types. You know, basil loves garlic and beans hate onions, that sort of thing. A mental concept of what we think is going on, based on observations and interpretations around plant proximity, whether anecdotal or authoritative. Louise Riotte's excellent books on this subject are but a primer, not a dissertation on what is really going on among the leaves and vines...

I liken companion planting to western medicines' symptom-management approach to health, compared to Chinese medicine's understanding of the human body's meridian lines and acupuncture points. When you allow all the garden plants to have a say in where they are to be planted, then they will design into the garden body energetic meridians that function the way our human bodies' "ley lines" regulate our health. Western doctors have yet to integrate such realities into their practices; industrial plant growers have a lot of chemical cultural baggage to unload (along with the biocides themselves), before their practices can reflect a more accurate picture of the world.

The level of interaction between human and nature required for this type of maturation to occur, is to me the critical edge of discovery; accept that the pieces of the puzzle are animate, intelligent and articulate, and begin to dialogue, and thus grow out of child-like manipulation into sound cooperation.

Or to begin, as the title to her first book suggests, "Behaving As If the God in All Life Mattered" (Machaelle Small Wright).

Current scientific thinking tends to ignore the life force in everything, and current spiritual thinking is all purely conceptual with very little "grounding" in practicality. I think of Bob Marley's "schizms of isms..."

The garden is where science and spirituality meet for me; not in some back alley of unintelligible quantum physics and esoteric mysticism, but right at the place where my feet hit the ground and my head hits the sky; where my food comes from.

Where it's all alive and conscious and just waiting for humans to snap out of our oil-fog delusions and join the much greater discussion already going on...

pfh said...

Hawlkeye, Well, what’s animated from the inside seems to be most often just what is NOT visible from the outside. So I think you need both internal freedoms and external constraints, and to have that neither the observant pedestrian, nor the tree, will know what drunk driver is going to run into them… Isn’t it the whole idea of a universal system that doesn’t work for a world that apparently does have quite a lot of independently behaving parts?

So that’s another reason for how people reason ideologically and keep getting it wrong to be a slippery topic, especially in a culture so uncomfortable with mixing ideas of deterministic and opportunistic things. John Livingston’s “Rogue Primate” is a fairly sophisticated study of it from an ecologist’s view I think.

Companion planting to me used to be just getting better use out of the garden, mixing gourds and corn and things. Certainly you see it naturalistic landscape and flower gardening where plants are chosen for how they fill each other’s gaps, complement each other’s shapes and blooms, encouraging things to work with natural succession as a model . No matter what you call it, science or religion, if it becomes a blind faith in an abstract model then it’s all in your head I think. So I like your idea of letting the garden “have it’s say”, to take the lead from time to time. It might be seen as being like any kind of dance with a partner, with some occasional chance for synchronicity.

How far one can go with seeing that “the pieces of the puzzle are animate, intelligent and articulate, and begin to dialogue” is unclear though. Most often the best one can do is let yourself become suggestible, like you would in listening for hesitations in the tone of voice of someone speaking, and try to read the meaning of that.

My research methods apply to things you can observe changing progressively over time, and are designed to help reveal approaching successions of change in any natural system. That can enrich one’s speculations about the other pieces of the puzzle, but is mainly intended to signal an observer when systems are naturally changing form, and so need to be rediscovered and find new rules for them.

I like “The garden is where science and spirituality meet for me;..”, or as I’ve often said with similar intent, “things are happening right where you see them”. I too wish we could just wait for “humans to snap out of our oil-fog” and notice that we are part of a living world, but there seem to be a string of “Catch 22’s” in the way. There’s such a close match between where the life is hidden inside things, and where the external appearances are inexplicable, that’s one place I’ve been hoping might allow some breakthrough for science. My blog post this AM on How to build a “multiverse”, the general case might be of interest on that.

We do seem to need some sort of a break from acting on the physical world as if located in our minds…

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