Collapsing Fears

Most of the  doom & gloom on the web consists of various theories purporting to demonstrate how "Peak Oil" heralds the end of all industrial civilizations. Our bent in these pages is trying to map what is most likely. Then how to smooth some of the bumps to triggering a paradigm shift in what form Civilization may be in future. Alarmist as the doom & gloom brigade maybe, they do however raise some valid concerns that must be addressed in order to ascertain a robust plausible scenarios of any future post-carbon world.

End of Oil = End of Civilization :  The Olduvai Theory

Most often cited is Richard C. Duncan's  "Olduvai Theory" my lasting impressions after reading an early (1996) manifestation was the famous quote of Benjamin Disraeli  ( British prime minister 1874-80) 
"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics."

           As the 1996 version published on "The Olduvai Theory: Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Stone Age"  the paper was an overly simplistic theory that industrial society is a direct function of how much energy is consumed, thus as the fossil fuels supply dries up the world will devolve back to a new stone-age!   I had no argument that cited 'data' to date is consistent with the theory as outlined, rather my concern was that early theorizing provides no firm logic or case studies to justify the predictions.  Even in 1996 paper on  just before the conclusion it states  "Still, the impending Post-Industrial Stone Age is a tragedy because it  really isn't inevitable. There's no absolute reason why we couldn't live in material sufficiency on this planet for millions of years. But prudence isn't our forte."  

            Resently  ([Northern ]Winter 2005-2006) on Richard Ducan has published (as a PDF) a much enhanced version as "The Olduvai Theory: Energy, Population, and Industrial Civilization". Opening as the paper does by tracing earlier thinkers along similar lines Ducan provides a welcome insight as to the foundations of his musings. However this more authoritative opening mask a nasty discrepancy  between these papers. Both papers characterize modern industrial civilization commencing in earnest in 1930 (as opposed to a century or so earlier, as Industrial Revolution is seen as the transition phase between agrarian civilization and industrial civilization). The 1930 date being identified when the global energy consumption per capita passes the some 'magical percentage of the maximum value' {of .approximately 11.5 "BOE" ( Barrels of Oil Equivalent) Energy Use per Person per Year reached in 1979.} but what actually is this magical point 37% (as in 1996 paper) or 30% (in the latest 2005 version)?  However no explanation is ever provided why these particular numbers should be 'the magic percentage of maximium', as opposed to something else like say 25% (which would give us an earlier start point) or 40% (that would give a later start date). This smells a lot like forcing the data to fit some preconceived notion, rather than 'scientific' tradition of first collecting the data then hypothesizing from the observed facts. My suspicion being that the 1930 date has far more to do with Ducan's desire to prove a the life expectancy of Industrial Civilizations is only messily hundred years. Such nice neat numbers like a perfectly round hundred rarely occur when observing life, the actual value is more likely to be some ungainly number say 143 years to randomly pluck a figure out of the air.

            The main improvement in this updated version of "Olduvai Theory" is Ducan's now clear elaboration as to  the mechanism he envisages propelling the world to his conclusions. A "lack of investment funds" required to maintain every increasing complexity thence fragile energy (particular electrical ) infrastructure, which is seen as the critical breaking-point of modern industrial civilizations. World wide unrecoverable back-outs dogging humanities dark plunge to stone-age like existence with a global populations crashing to 2.0 billion by 2050 from the dizzy heights of 6+ billion of today.

             So for me the theory is most flawed  in the one size fits all methodology. What may well be true of the USA's predicament, does not uniformly hold across all the world's many and varied climatic or social environments. This is especially true as the current version of the theory still ignores great hunks of other variables that will also impact on humanity and associated future responses and behaviours.   For examples the social psychological trajectories of "memes" in a population, or the environmental impacts of climate change. Et cetera, et cetera.

Ever Increasing Complexity dooms  Societies' to Collapse.

Along similiar lines to Duncan's  "Olduvai Theory",  in the "Collapse of Complex Societies" Joseph Tainter (1988) writes;-

    "Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be. The past clarifies potential paths to the future. One often-discussed path is cultural and economic simplicity and lower energy costs. This could come about through the 'crash' that many fear -- a genuine collapse over a period of one or two generations, with much violence, starvation, and loss of population."

That first bit is okay being fairly logical, but the while pretending to be in the same logical vein, the following bit is nothing more than tarted-up conjecture;-

    "The alternative is the 'soft landing' that many people hope for - a voluntary change to solar energy and green fuels, energy-conserving technologies, and less overall consumption. This is a utopian alternative that, as suggested above, will come about only if severe, prolonged hardship in industrial nations makes it attractive, and if economic growth and consumerism can be removed from the realm of ideology."

From a whole of World perspective the 'soft landing' option started to evaporate with the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, as the USA moved from a governance of reason to that of image. George Herbert Walker Bush (41st U.S. President) shabby posturing over the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, sealed a nasty future crash for at least 40% of the world. The Roman Catholic Church's & fundamentalist Moslem's obstruction of a broad birth control push at The United Nations convened International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo in August 1994, all but guaranteed that "much violence, starvation, and loss of population" would be the future experience of the vast majority of the world's inhabitants. The Howard (Australia) & Clinton then Bush governments' white-anting of the Kyoto Protocol on Greenhouse Gases ruled out any possibility of a soft-landing for most of the developed world as well. There are now only a very minute pocket of countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol that may with a good measure of luck achieve the fabled 'soft landing' without too much pain.

Now that we have declared our own position let us return to Tainter's central argument that societies solve problems by increasing complexity until the point of diminishing marginal returns is reached then the  society is doomed to collapse. Since his 1988 book Tainter's writing appear to have become less rigid as he has shifted his focus from investigating the past to considering current challenges thence possible futures. Tainter's  1996 essay "Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies" on  as page 134, is an informative excursion into Joseph's thinking.  Despite some questionable leaps of logic the essay is well worth the read, if only for the cautionary tale that it provides about the costs, in & of problems solutions.


Tainter's "culture items" count for Complexity.

Jason Godesky of the 'Tribe of Anthropik' ( a website devoted to "Ecology, Anarchism & Primitivism") in his blog The Mechanics of Collapse writes;-

    "Tainter defines civilization in terms of complexity. Complexity, Tainter points out, can be measured empirically. In anthropology, there is a notion of "culture items." Every concept, every piece of technology, every style of pottery, every administrative level is a different culture item, Complexity, then, can simply be measured by counting up the items in any given culture. Thus, all cultures exist somewhere along a continuum of complexity--no culture can claim an absolute on it, and no culture it utterly without it."

The notion that a mere tally of Cultural-items, would provide a satisfactory all encompassing  metric of Complexity, for the comparison, then analysis of all and every civilization be they; past, present or future, is laughable. Remembering that Joseph Tainter only use a count of culture items as an indicator of complexity for past civilizations in his examinations of the historical collapses, including the Roman Empire and the Maya city states.

The overall complexity of any social grouping or organization, is by the dynamics of the subject a multi-faceted manifestation. While each facet tracks a trajectory of complexity in the entity under examination, no single  facet of complexity in isolation can, or should be seen to act as a summary of the entity's total complexity.  The seduction of a "tally of culture items" approach arise from how that approach on first exposure provides the illusion of capturing all the facets of complexity in a single metric. But a deeper understanding of multi-faceted nature of complexity will rapidly expose how inadequate any favoured single metric illusions actually is.


Facets of Complexity;-

  1. Numerical / Quantitative Complexity.
  2. Logistical / Spatial Complexity
  3. Social,  Organisational / Hierarchal Complexity
  4. Industrial / Material Complexity
  5. Archetypal,  Conceptual, Linguistic Complexity (Flexibility & Richness)
  6. Custom + Culture & Traditional Complexity (Depth)
  7. Mythical  ~ Scientific Complexity (Maturity, Development)
  8. Environmental  & Climatic Complexity (Parameters, Constraints)

It is quickly obvious from this list how the "tally of culture items approach" captures all of some aspects like 'd. Material / Industrial Complexity',  then picks up parts of other facets { c, f & g} while not directly capturing any of  others.  For example the cultural object of a "map" is product reflecting the 'Logistical / Spatial Complexity'. But where there exists one or more maps ( while documenting "a" complexity), the quantity of such maps is not directly indicative of the complexity recorded there-in.  This becomes clearer as one explores in more detail each of the eight facets of Complexity (as listed above, or detailed below). While some folks may be tempted to clump various facets together in analysing a particular entity, success or otherwise of such exercises, is no justification to enshrine past historical observations as a predicative formalism.

Numerical / Quantitative Complexity.
As the number, quantity or amount of anything increase there is a corresponding increase of time & effort required in the tracking then managing that thing. In short marked increase in number engender more complexity.

Logistical / Spatial Complexity
The more things are dispersed over a field of concern, or moved to less than optimal alignments, the more complex the inter-relationships between those individual things become.

Social,  Organisational / Hierarchal Complexity
The more levels a hierarchy the greater is the complexity.  Conversely the less rigidly structured a grouping is the greater the complexity required for any central communications or  control of the groups.

Industrial / Material Complexity
The more types or classes of raw materials a society processes ( refines & manufactures) the more complexity the society will require to successfully utilise / employee that material.

Archetypal,  Conceptual, Linguistic Complexity (Flexibility & Richness)
This and the following two aspects are qualitative distinct from the more quantitative complexities above. For in all these three case a lack of complexity (to a point) maybe more detrimental to a society than a excessive complexity.

The "Archetypal,  Conceptual, Linguistic Complexity" is about Richness of language, along with the power of ideas that society may avail itself of, then the Flexibility of those same ideas and language to think then express what is new to a given society.

Custom + Culture & Traditional Complexity (Depth)
Akin to the "Archetypal,  Conceptual, Linguistic Complexity" this is also a question of richness. But if too complex or inflexible culture probably more than any other aspect of complexity can be most dramatically catastrophic for the civilisation concern.  The sad tale of how cultural aspiration bewitched the Easter Islanders.

Mythical  ~ Scientific Complexity (Maturity, Development)
Some may argue that this is encompassed by the previous aspect of complexity, but to do so renders hidden one of the primary fountainheads of paradigm shifts for civilisations.

Environmental & Climatic Complexity (Parameters, Constraints)
Unlike all the other aspects of complexity, this is the only one external to the civilisations own development.  The Climatic & Environmental parameters being given of a particular location. Thus this aspect is a fundamental non-negotiable allotment of  complexity to a civilisation that resides at any given location. A critical mass of complexity that may inspire the growth of the civilisations, or for another society many be the insurmountable obstacle that heralds the demise of a societies first step towards becoming a great civilisation.

Complexity versus Benefits Trajectories.

The theoretical relationship between Complexity of a Civilization and the Benefit that Civilizations derives from said Complex is typically described as a single curve (the red line in the following figure). The climax of the arc (rB2, rC2) being the dreaded point of 'Diminishing Returns'. But there is a very important point here that when lost distorts this whole discussion, returning  to Jason Godesky in his blog Thesis #14: Complexity is subject to diminishing returns. writes;-

    " It is worth noting that Tainter does discuss the role of a "paradigm shift" in essentially "resetting" a new marginal return curve for such fields."

While it is accurate to simply attest that a "paradigm shift"  will resets to a new marginal return curve, the practical implication of paradigm shifts at a civilization wide level are nothing short of revolutionary. This becomes clearer by returning to our augmented diagram (below).  The Reset from each 'revolutionary paradigm shift' has two effects relevant to the generalized complexity question.

    1. To be socially useful there should be some marked reduction in complexity, or streamlining of thinking and function of the society.
    2. Once the paradigm shift becomes internalized within a society, the previous situation becomes in some measure incomprehensible, illogical or unthinkable to a post-shift society. In other words the benefit baseline is effectively reset by the new higher level understanding. The unknowing required to fall below a given level is much harder after the consolidation of a paradigm shift than allowed by the surpassed thought-patterns or norms

So demonstrating this diagrammatically the effects of each paradigm shift is seen to be accumulative raising the complexity and benefit scope of the society before the utmost arc hits the point of diminishing returns (gB2, gC2).  ..


Usefulness of  Complexity to Collapse Theory.
Yes the world is in a growing mess, and some painful reorganization / simplification is inevitable.  But before one can solve a problem (which is what we are concerned about working towards), you have to have the correct diagnosis of the problem.  We just don't think this Complexity to Collapse theory cuts it as a predictive tool, especially as it provides no time-based mechanism to validate Joseph Tainter's or Jason Godesky's postulation's against. However that said, this theory does highlight the critical role that 'Complexity' plays in exacerbating the world problems, thus the urgent need in managing complexity for us to have any realistic hope of moving forward.


Greer's refinement. .#.#.#.
John Michael Greer's 2005  essay "How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse" (or as a PDF) offers what we consider to be a far more useful model of how societies expand &/or collapse with time and the condition necessary to achieve the desired 'steady state' solution. We would strongly recommend everybody should read this fine analysis / theory [ on the web at ]



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Last update: February 2006 Southern Summer
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