Reducing complexity

Joseph Tainter tells us that increasing complexity confers advantages to a society, but eventually, the energy required to maintain the increasingly complex society becomes a problem. Tainter's view suggests that one way to make our society more sustainable is to make it less complex. Tainter defines complexity as follows:

Complexity is generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. Augmenting any of these dimensions increases the complexity of a society. Hunter-gatherer societies (by way of illustrating one contrast in complexity) contain no more than a few dozen distinct social personalities, while modern European censuses recognize 10,000 to 20,000 unique occupational roles, and industrial societies may contain overall more than 1,000,000 different kinds of social personalities.

The question for tonight is to think about things that might be useful to do in the coming year, that would act to make our society less complex, without losing too much functionality.

Ideally, if we have to move down in complexity, we would like to move down only a small notch in complexity (for example, change the system so that there are fewer choices in appliances, so that replacement parts are easier to come by), rather than a large step down in complexity (each of us growing all of our own food). What are some steps we can take to reduce complexity? Are there any steps that we can take to get local officials to make changes that would permit a reduction in complexity?

As one example, our family generally buys food in as close to its original form as possible, so as to cut out the packaging and processing.

Others will choose to buy locally grown foods. Supporting local farmers would seem to be a step toward reducing complexity.

Buying clothes that can be washed at home, rather than dry cleaned, would seem to represent a reduction in complexity.

Is the goal of reducing complexity a reasonable one, or does it conflict too much with the need for specialization?

The question before your question is "does this view of complexity and its connection to society have any validity"?

Because I'd suggest viewing complexity in this way is wrong, misses the point, and that the postulate that there's some kind of causation which works in the direction you imply hasn't been anywhere near proved.

For a start, its easier to link real complexity to the degree of interconnection, which implies number and proximity.

When I heard Joeseph Tainter speak, he talked about one society that actually made itself less complex and, according to him, kept things together for a considerable period of time. I would need to look at my notes, but I think part of the change was that the army was made smaller, so that taxes could be reduced, and the pressure on common people was less.

It seems like there might be some parallel things we can do today--or at least thinking about the idea might be helpful. Back in the 1960s, most Moms were stay-at-home Moms. Then things changed, so that kids went to day care, and women worked at all kinds of jobs, including being day care workers and waitresses, so that other moms could work.

If there is less oil to drive around with, and we are a less rich society, one approach might be to move back to a society where families are more multi-generational, and take care of each other, rather than depending on outside services. In some aspects, such a structure would be less complex than our current one today. I think we are seeing some of this today, with unemployed adults moving in with relatives.

Gail I totally agree with you. Energy has allowed us to travel farther and stay alone or in small nuclear families. There was a concept of joint families in India, where I grew up. Joint families were good for a mostly agrarian people. Now all that has/is changing rapidly.

It is ironic that we are talking of the exact opposite. To me India is a perfect example of simple living. The village folk eat on bannana leaves or plates made with leaves strewn together. To chill water they use Earthen pots (the water gets cool and also tastes nice). Mostly herbs are used for medicine, being vegetarian is the norm and not the exception. People consume veggies and fruits fresh; they shun the refrigerator and cold storage. Even fresh milk is delivered daily by milk vendors riding on bicycles. I could go on, however all that is changing even as I write this. More and more people are westernizing, moving to cities or outside of India. Complexity is increasing, energy consumption too is increasing. People are becoming "Consumers". Wonder how many people in India are tuned into the peak oil debate?

When the US began shipping production and jobs abroad there was one sector that they did not and that was the military. If the US was to reduce its armed forces to reduce complexity as you suggest it would hurt economicaly and in the current climate that cant happen.

A general reduction in adminstrative red tape would do well in reducing complexity. I'm thinking of Cuba as an example. When the population began to grow its own food after the USSR collapse they set up their own markets to sell and exchange. The Cuban government, instead of interfering in this grassroots system by attempting to control or tax it, just let them get on with it. This probably helped a great deal with reducing the risks of a famine at the time.

When I heard Joeseph Tainter speak, he talked about one society that actually made itself less complex and, according to him, kept things together for a considerable period of time.

I think it was also Tainter who pointed out that any society that unilaterally reduces complexity will be at a disadvantage and vulnerable to neighboring societies that have no such compunction.

Complex systems, both living and non-living, will self organize to maximize available resources and human societies are generally no exception. What exceptions I have seen discussed have been isolated island states such as Edo Japan and the grazing collectives on Medieval Iceland. Edo Japan in particular is instructive in that it was a highly regulated society with roughly 80% of the population strictly confined to agricultural occupations and little hope of social or political mobility.

In any case, our current level of fantastic complexity was only made possible by prodigious use of a stock of energy and resources that accumulated in the Earth's crust over millions of years. As that stock rapidly becomes depleted so too will our complexity be radically reduced.

After all, it's only natural.


"Edo Japan in particular is instructive in that it was a highly regulated society with roughly 80% of the population strictly confined to agricultural occupations and little hope of social or political mobility."

True, but then the idea that social mobility is necessary or desirable is a fairly new thing. During this period, farmers were considered near the top of the ladder for social respectability, much higher than merchants, not to mention butchers and other low-caste occupations.

Why move if you and most of the rest of the people are already near the top?

Do you have more info on the Iceland situation? That may be closer to what Westerners feel comfortable with. As I recall they developed a kind of democracy much earlier than other European countries.

Your examples do make me wonder if there is something special about island nations that make them more likely to attempt to attain no or low growth economies--I guess the very vivid geographical limits would be an obvious reason, but is there something else?

To call the early Icelandic Thing, the yearly meetings where they discussed problems, feuds and law, democracy is a bit of a stretch. You were more likely to win a case if you turned up with more armed men than your opponent.

It was a fairly successful sytem for the prevention or ending of the very destructive blood feuds that pervaded early Germanic societies.

Having read Hrafnkels Saga (in the original), I am well aware of the military component to the Thing. But it was a strikingly non-monarchal model at a time when the rest of Europe was rule by kings (and the occasional Holy Roman Emperor).

"Iceland is a representative democracy and a parliamentary republic. The modern parliament, called "Alþingi" (English: Althing), was founded in 1845 as an advisory body to the Danish monarch. It was widely seen as a re-establishment of the assembly founded in 930 in the Commonwealth period and suspended in 1799. Consequently, "it is arguably the world's oldest parliamentary democracy."[28] It currently has 63 members, elected for a four year term."

Looking over the over view of their history, it is striking how many times the population was nearly wiped out.

When Googled, "complexity definition" returned:

Cognitive complexity definition

Cultural complexity definition

Environmental complexity definition

Inferior complexity definition

Irreducible complexity definition

Job complexity definition

Social complexity definition

Specified complexity definition

Syntactic complexity definition



Behold the complexity of complexity.

That's too complex for me!

Delete complex system brainfart.....

Regarding degree of interconnection and complexity, when everything becomes too interconnected you might as well call it a disordered state with a high entropy. And the only way to restore a degree of order is to supply a large amount of energy to the system.

So I agree with Gary that this 'connection' has to be defined correctly. Complexity may in fact be a natural state.

Web, you may be just the person to answer this question:
Is increasing complexity a natural process? Starting with the Big Bang, has the universe become ever more complex? Beginning with a simple singularity and progressing to the formation of elements, galaxies, solar systems and unique stars, planets, heavier elements and so on, is it the nature of matter and energy to form ever more comlex systems? If so, is trying to reduce complexity just swimming against the tide. By trying to do so, do we introduce even more complexity? At what point do complexity and order become mutually exclusive?

Is increasing complexity a natural process? Starting with the Big Bang, has the universe become ever more complex? Beginning with a simple singularity and progressing to the formation of elements, galaxies, solar systems and unique stars, planets, heavier elements and so on, is it the nature of matter and energy to form ever more comlex systems?

Great question! Perhaps this doesn't exactly answer your question directly and it may indeed create more questions, but I think it is a wonderful talk anyway.

'A Universe From Nothing' by Lawrence Krauss, AAI 2009

"it may indeed create more questions"

I've always prefered questions to answers

Happy New Year, FMagyar, and all friends on TOD!

That complexity may be a natural state was posited by the Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann. I wrote a TOD post on that called 'crude complexity' within the last couple months.

Interesting trying to reconcile the ideas of Gell-Mann and Tainter.

Gell-Mann is the physicist so understands disorder and entropy while Tainter understands history and sociology. I look at Gell-Mann more closely for ideas because I can quantify disorder in many of the systems observed, i.e. transportation statistics.


Is increasing complexity a natural process?

The dominant process according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics is increasing disorder (entropy increases). However, discontinuities can cause local increases in complexity. For example, the sun gradually releases its energy to the void of space. However, the little bits of matter floating around it (e.g. planets such as Earth) receive some of this energy which can fuel hydrological cycles, create wind and ocean currents, etc (which may drive a local counter-current to the 2nd law in which complexity can increase). In turn, much of the solar energy on Earth is dissipated, but some supports increased complexity (e.g. plant growth). Evolution does seem to lead to increasing complexity as organisms compete to control energy and to develop more efficient ways of storing/using energy. Hence, increasing complexity still helps serve the 2nd law by more efficiently dissipating energy

Our civilization and global economic system have evolved to dissipate energy very efficiently (as well as other sources of order, such as concentrated metal ores and concentrated biomass such as fish shoals and forests). When the sources of order (low entropy) are depleted, the dissipating process must simplify or collapse (just as a hurricane may decline to a tropic storm as it moves over cooler water, or wane after landfall).

So increasing complexity is a natural process, but so is decreasing complexity.

Starting with the Big Bang, has the universe become ever more complex?

Overall, the universe is becoming more simple (disordered) as galaxies and stars cool, and move away from each other. trying to reduce complexity just swimming against the tide. By trying to do so, do we introduce even more complexity?

Great question. Creating complex solutions definitely seems to increase complexity. Decreasing complexity generally means reducing the number of relationships between system elements. This would seem to be difficult without the willingness of at least one of the elements involved. This suggests that reducing complexity will be easier for local/fine scale issues (individual, family, local community) and would have to be done directly for broader scales (transnational corporations, international, global).

Thanks Fall Guy! I have to admit that the concept of complexity is one I have a hard time getting my head around (though I know it when I see it). The concept of order and disorder as they relate to complexity is something I'll need to spend some time on.

So increasing complexity is a natural process, but so is decreasing complexity.

This, to me, is the most useful concept in this discussion. Whether the subject is climate change, peak oil, or the nature of the universe, things will always balance out because we are bound by the first and second laws. This is the concept that I have trouble getting many people to understand. When human hubris causes us to ignore these fundamental laws we just push our systems out of balance. The universe will always, eventually, push back.

It seems to me we have a lot of fingers in our dikes.

Being a computer engineer and worked in software engineering field for 6 years I can discuss from a different perspective. A software is like a law, that is why its called code. Its law for computer. It tell it what to do in what sequence at what condition how many times. That is the basic. Then you go ahead and combine these assembly language or machine language instructions into procedures and that is what the programming remained to be for 30 years.

The problem with this from a systems point of view is that there are too many interconnections. A function can call another function passing on values that can be changed. When there are more than a certain level of functions the system get too complex to understand or adapt to changes. It continue to work in its current form but since almost all successful businesses are dynamic their business processes have to change along with time and so do their softwares. If the software is made in a procedural language like c then its almost impossible for even a very efficient programmer to make any changes in the software system without breaking the existing functionality.

Then comes the object oriented programming. Now instead of functions that all work at the same level calling each other and passing values there are objects. An object is a combination of values and functions in a sandbox means outside world not know what is inside an object. When you want a functionality about the object you tell the object and object do its work with little interconnection with outside world. This way since the interconnections are reduced the complexity is reduced. Since the complexity is reduced the system is easy to understand and adapt to changing environment.

Medieval fuedal system is an example of a low-complexity system. Land was the main source of income. Land was divided in local leaders each of whom manage a few hundred people and a few thousands acres of land. There was little interaction between villages. Almost all of the needs of a villager was fulfilled from the village. Most of the villagers never leave their village in their lives. The system was widely implemented throughout the world with about 98% of world population living in villages till 1800 A.D. So, the system has little interconnections which means it had little complexity. That means system had little efficiency as what could have achieved if the level of interconnections were higher. For example risk of crop failures could be shared if there was sufficient trade between the villages. Since the system had little efficiency it had high resiliency. The proof of resiliency is that the system continued to exist even though great revolutions have happened, greatest among them is plague in europe that wiped out half to two third population and mongol invasion in asia that wiped out almost all population in more than half of asia. Yet the system continued to exist. Infact the fuedal system was broke once the interactions had increased. It was never very strong in asia where heavy trades used to happen and in europe it began to become weak once railway lines were introduced.

The basis of civilization is interconnections. As soon as you begin to organize things you begin to make interconnections. A random sample of people or numbers have almost no interconnection but if they are arranged by height in case of people for example and magnitude in case of numbers then there is an interconnection. Now a number has a place and other numbers "depend" on it. An army is more organized, that is, more complex than a militia. It means army share risks to a higher degree than militia.

So, we can't have any civilization in absence of interconnections. So complexity is not a bad thing. Its a much needed and highly desirable thing since it reduce risks and make components depend on each other with some units becoming more expert than others increasing the level of expertise of the entire system. Yet there is a cost of complexity. Complexity is not free. In case of society its the cost of supporting the leaders, the castle of king, the guards and personal mistakes of king etc; in case of an engine its the cost of extra pipes and heat sunks and energy; in case of software its the increased time spent in analysis and design phases at the start of project and documentation at the end of project etc etc. The whole point in this entire debate is: if and when the point comes when the complexity stop being cost effective, if and when increase in complexity is a disservice to society as its cost is more than the efficiency gain it brings.

We all know that we humans are naturally capable of increasing efficiency in the natural environment. In fact all that we do in our lives is increasing efficiency. A farmer increase efficiency of life support system of his land because in absence of farming the same land would be able to support just tiny fraction of life that is currently supported by the land through farming. An engineer increase the energy efficiency. A manager time and money efficiency. A teacher thinking efficiency. So on and so forth.

Another thing that we all know is that efficiency can't be increased forever. There is a maximum point, ideally 100%, the point when there are no losses. In real world that can never be achieved by humans. Even a carnot engine has about 80% efficiency in most cases. So, it has to be kept in mind that at some point you would stop increasing efficiency that is complexity of system no matter how much resources you put in. Natural systems have a maximum efficiency label that you can't exceed.

Last thing is that an increase in efficiency is not always desirable. At start when you begin working in a natural system little effort bring high efficiency and with every unit increase in effort the rate of efficiency increase per unit effort increase until a maximum point is reached and after that there would still be an increase in efficiency but at a decreasing rate per unit effort. Its upto you to decide when to stop. When increase in efficiency do not worth the level of effort that is needed. It is important because an increase in effort reduce quality of life. More free hours to spent in vacations and/or with family means higher quality of life as compare to less hours to spent in vacations and/or with family keeping everything else including income constant.

At times it is difficult to see whether the increase in effort worth the efficiency gain and at times its very obvious and can be seen even by non-system people. For example knowing that 40% of world's current trade is just the same thing shuttling between locations searching for a cheaper place of processing.

I cut my systems teeth on OS2 and Sun Unix (after my stints on minis like the PDP 1100). I loved modular/object oriented systems, especially after moving back to MS systems. Microsoft just never made much sense after that.

I always considered modular design in the things I do. Even the hydronic heating in my home has a modularish design. Each room has its own loop and control so we can shutdown zones not in use. The hotwater tank has multiple inputs. There are a lot of ways to heat water, all simple, that provide redundancy in the system. I'm even hooking up a heat exchanger to recover the waste heat from our diesel generator and send it to the tank. All of the inputs use the same model pumps, differential temp controllers, piping and fittings, etc. The heat exchangers in the tank are simple copper coils. Maybe not as efficient as a double pass flatplate system, but simple, cheap and effective.

Yes, not as efficient as a one-point system but more resilient, simple and adaptable. Resilient because it do not have one-point-of-failure, if one module stop working the others remain unaffected. Simple as you can explain it in fewer words. Adaptable as you can make changes in your house without disturbing the existing functionality.

Thinking about the point where an increase in complexity is not desirable I found that its when the overall cost of complexity has reached the 25% mark in the production of the system. Few examples below:

1) Public servants become 25% of the total work force in country. The rest 75% actually produce goods and services. The public servants are used to control and organize the country, protect it and keep it running. If more than 25% of work force is employed by govt then its too much govt and a decrease in govt is desirable. If its less than 25% then its not necessarily desirable to increase the govt size. I have found the upper limit of complexity, not the lower limit.

2) 25% of employees in a business firm are working in the supporting departments such as HR, PR, Legal, Safety, Canteen etc.

3) 25% of employees in a business firm are in the controlling function. The controlling function consists of all managers, directors, executives etc and their supporting staff such as secretaries, advisors, guards etc.

4) 25% of military personnel are officers.

5) Price of oil reach $150/barrel mark. Since each barrel of oil contribute $600 in world's economy therefore the maximum price market can sustain of crude oil is $150 which is 25% of what it contribute in the economy.

6) Accumulated compensation to all managers at all levels in an organization reaches 25% mark of the accumulated compensation to all employees at all levels in the organization.

The range of sophistication in software systems is the measure of interest. Short sloppy programs existing with carefully constructed ones fill up a vast continuum that becomes virtually impossible to avoid. Essentially the state-space of possible programs gives a measure of entropy. One can try to force order into this space but it pragmatically won't happen.

You should read the book by Tainter instead of nitpicking details.

The complexity definition is derived only by the number of nodes because that is easily measured. In a human society interconnectedness is very high, so the number of interconnections grow with the number of nodes. This is self-evident.

It is also self-evident that to grow the number of nodes, you need an increased energy input.

One can argue that to reduce the number of edges between nodes you need an energy input. Ordered systems often have fewer edges than disordered systems and therefore have a lower entropy. And we know that reducing entropy requires us to add energy to the system.

So you have to nitpick the details to figure out how complexity affects the system. A highly complex system may in fact be the most natural and maximum entropy state.

slight conflation of-terms system and complexity here

the detail your missing here is that the system is an attempt by civilization to separate its functioning and utility from the the larger disorganized state of "nature"

organisms are a example of complex systems operating entropy in reverse with in the boundary of their own metabolism thou obviously this organization comes at a cost, increased rate of entropy to the whole "natural" system

from Tainters POV the civilisation;s (animal's?) organization cost outstrips returns compared to income so to speak

on an aside I have read the book and am not overly convinced thou it is tempting

Hasn't our understanding of nature progressed beyond the point where we regard it as disorganized? This view is still certainly a strong foundation of our civilizational mythology and "source code", but I think that science has shown this view to be completely and utterly false - we simply failed to perceive the level and degree of organization.

Looking at a city from virtually any distant vangage point, one sees a jumbled mess. The organization as beauty can normally be seen only in detail - a specific building, group of buildings, a square (thinking of Imam square in Esfahan - wow, impressive and beautiful!). Imagining the ecosystem that once existed in its place, the high degree of organization and elegance can be perceived.

The image that pops into my mind when I look at a city is that of an aphid infestation on a plant - they come in differnt sizes and shapes, different shades of powdery white, blue, gray, or green...just like my house.

Tyan in Seattle

The different types of aphids is exactly the kind of disorder that is observable and meaasurable. The distribution of aphids likely follows that of other species -- lots of a dominant aphid and decreasing amounts of others. This is a maximum entropy state if we just consider probability as a measure of disorder.

See Relative Abundance distribution and Zipf-Mandelbrot for more detail. The entropy is twice the amount of an exponential pdf e.g.

The question for tonight is to think about things that might be useful to do in the coming year, that would act to make our society less complex, without losing too much functionality.

That's easy, arrest and try all advertising executives for crimes against humanity, convict them and sentence them to life doing community service. Example: little old lady needs help buying groceries she dials special number and an electronically tagged ex Ad exec pulls up on a bicycle with a trailer and goes and does her shopping and then is sent on his next mission which is scrubbing toilets in the cancer ward at the local hospital.

This way they might repay a tiny fraction of the wealth they have destroyed and they would no longer be creating useless complexity by convincing people they need things they don't! Win Win!

We might try the bankers and lawyers after we're done with the Ad execs ;-)

I like it!

I like it twice as much!

One thing that would really work and pay a positive return on the time and energy invested would be a federally defined and enforced DURABILITY AND REPAIRABILITY standard similar in concept and execution to the energy efficiency standards we have in place already for appliances.

Such a program would not save the world or even the American economy but it WOULD HELP.

Such a program should include requiring manufacturers and retailers providing solid warranties, gauranteed parts availability, gauranteed open access to repair and troubleshooting manuals, strict limits on repair parts prices ,and gradually increasing standardized parts contents.

You can now buy air conditioners, motor scooters, atv's,and dozens of other energy intensive , expensive products that are virtually unrepairable due to lack of parts.

I have been quoted a price of one hundred and seventyfive dollars for the door gasket alone , NOT including installation, for a Hot point refrigerator that sold for only five hundred dollars new.

Simply LOCATING the individual components under the hood of a late model car may require the purchase of several hundred dollars worth of not so easily purchased software.Actually troubleshooting the systems may require many thousands of dollars worth of software as well as a major investment in specialized hardware.

If they want to sell the car the necessary repair manuals should come on discs or flash sticks in the glove box.Period.Ditto washers, dryers, aoir conditioners-or else at least be kept in stock cheap at the dealership or free to download.

It is no longer acceptable to toss out a kitchen range or washing machine that works perfectly except for one trivial part that most likely cost the manufacturer well under one percent of the retail price because the part is priced like ice water in hades.

I am sort of a free market type of guy but there is so little free market left that I am in this case to join up with the socialists to kick some business butt.

My Grandaparents and Parents always swore by Kenmore products because of the ability to get parts and repairs. We had a Kenmore freezer that was 40 years old and the condenser fan broke. We went to the big Sears in Atlanta and gave them the old fan and the model number. 10 minutes later we had a new fan. Identical! 40 year old freezer. We bought a Craftsman lawn tractor a few years ago. None of the Sears within 30 miles carries an air filter for it. It has to be special ordered, even though they sold this lawn tractor. Here's to complexity!

Yes, that USED to be the reputation that Sears/Kenmore built their business upon. Times change. Our Kenmore gas range started leaking earlier this year, then the electronic ignition went out. It was about 15 years old - too old for Sears to bother with stocking repair parts, apparently. We went around and around (or rather, were given the run-around) for months. They never were able to completely and satisfactorilly fix the thing. Finally I bought a new gas range - a Peerless Premier. This is made in the USA, and is super simple. It does have electronic ignition, but other than that it is essentially the same type of gas range that your grandmother had. Very durable, very repairable. It also has a neat feature: not just the top burners, but also the oven burner, can be match lit in case of a power failure. No other range - even ones cost two or three times as much - has that feature. What I bought was simple, basic, well-built, durable technology. It is serving us well, and I expect it to continue doing so for the rest of our lives.

Sears used to make Kenmore products like this, and you are right, they used to maintain a stock of repair parts forever. Those days are long gone.

I can agree completely with the objection to the needless complexity of the basic machines we use. Having worked in the automotive repair business most of my life, its been a continual every day headache and wonder. If you take something as basic as the threaded studs fitted to the hubs, whereby the wheels are attached to the car with lugnuts...virtually every car and truck on and off the road uses exactly the same type of part in exactly the same kind of way, with only three or three differences in "class" based on the overall weight of the vehicle. Yet the catalog of different wheel studs is about as thick as a NYC phone book! It seems that the last idea an engineer considers when designing a new car is whether an existing part already in production will do the job, so we have huge warehouses of parts with only tiny differences between them.

On cars the problem is more of an inefficient waste, but on other things produced in the same way its worse, as you say: if not economical, sometimes spare parts are simply not made at all. I always thought that if a country just laid down a standard for basic parts used in an industry, it would immediately succeed beyond any other by reducing warehousing and manufacturing costs, as well as maintenance and repair costs.

A one-step-down in complexity like that would be a very welcome development!

I have a son who does computer programming for a company that prepares these huge catalogs. So he is one of the folks who comes out ahead on this. But it is hard to believe so many different parts (and replacement parts) are needed, if they are all doing pretty much the same thing. With auto manufacturers going bankrupt, this issue becomes more acute.

The goal of any manufacturing business is to maximize profit, not reduce complexity. There is no gain in it in many cases.

There is gain in differentiation though. When a manufacturer makes parts that are slightly different, the customer must come to him to get them. And repairs shops can't fix it without buying from the manufacturer. In the case of cars, it tends to send business to the car dealerships.

Differentiation is a fundamental principle of evolution in nature. The reason we have so many forms of flora and fauna is differentiation. Why is nature so complex when a few plant/animal forms would seem to do just as well?

It's because complexity enables maximization of the available resources so that nothing is wasted. While simplicity seems at first glance to be the right way, nature doesn't think so. A few forms of plants do not fully use the available resources and leaves room for a more specialized form to fill the niche. The same is true for animals.

Which is more efficient: A simple gasoline driven 5 speed car or a Prius? Most would agree that although the simple car has its niche, the more complex Prius is an evolutionary advance and is filling a niche that has been overlooked.

Complexity is not bad if it is well executed. Nature proves that with very complex adaptations, human beings being the most complex and successful of all.

You've nailed the problem of why it is hard to get out of complexity. You get into a system which has benefits due to differentiation (profits), but then when problems arise because the system as a whole is too big (e. g. overpopulation) you can't effectively back out of it without destroying the system you've just built up. Thus, the collapse of complex societies who get into this trap.

The Jeavons paradox, increased efficiency leads to increased use of resources, is an example of this kind of problem.

(Peter Ward, by the way, in "The Medea Hypothesis" says that species differentiation peaked millions of years ago.)

Wow. Another important lesson learned. Differentiation leads to increased complexity in system. The more the units differentiate the more complex the entire system becomes.

Wow again. Another important lesson. Increase in complexity not just reduce risk, it also enable the system utilize maximum resources. A simple system would not use all of the available resources.

What a treasure!

I'm very deliberately trying to get away from "multi-functionality". I have generally found that for just about anything that features a multiplicity of functions, in very few cases are any of those individual functions implemented or perform quite as well as a tool designed just to do that one function. Furthermore, something is inevitably the first to go, and that ends up sending the whole thing to the landfill. I'm sure that the manufacturers and retailers find it very profitable to sell people these things, but as an end user it is not profitable for me.

Completely agree here. One thing I could never stand about cell-phones, they seem the electronic version of a Swiss Army knife. What do cameras have to do with telephones? Whoever thought of the idea of combining the two?

And if I drove, I would either go high mileage ICE or all-electric, but a hybrid? No way.

The problem with hybrid stuff is you essentially have two (or more) incompatable, or at least unrelated technologies working side by side, and this creates issues of its own.

Antoinetta III

WRT cars, we presently have two ICE cars. I am thinking that after we finally replace them (and I keep them a long time, one is a 1990 Honda Civic, the other a 1995 Subaru Impreza), what we will end up with is:

1) A highly durable, rugged ICE car with 4WD that can get us around in our mountainous terrain in bad weather, that has enough capacity for very occasional hauling of multiple people or larger amounts of cargo, and has the fuel capacity for the very occasional long-distance trip (to places not well-served by public transport). It is likely that this vehicle will be a Subaru Outback or Forester.

2) A small NEV for routine daily travel just within town. This will probably be a GEM, unless something better comes along.

This combo will serve us better over the next decade or more than two of the same thing, or just one car that combines power plants of the two (i.e., a hybrid).

On the automotive front we could take a big step down in complexity and waste, and make city driving more pleasant at the same time. It's an idea I've been kicking around for awhile... to create a class of very small and efficient cars, and give them favorable treatment on the roads... ie larger vehicles are restricted to certain routes and only allowed to make right turns. Say a max of 500lbs, 4ft wide, and 8ft long. Very simple and cheap all-electric cars could fit this niche very well with say a 40mph top speed, and a 30mi range. One gear, some batteries, a motor, and a controller... all ancient tech. Very efficient (>200mpg equivalent), can more safely share the roads with bikes and pedestrians, no more gridlock, or parking issues, etc.

Cheap neighborhood electric vehicles (NEV) are already available:

They are not without their problems, however. Their range reduces considerably in the winter. And of course in general we need to reduce not increase our demand for electricity. NEV's can play an important role, IMO, but mostly we have to get away from cars. I do like your idea of restrictions on larger vehicles, though. But I can imagine the howls from maniacs in Hummers when any such get implemented.

One of my grandmothers had a refrigerator which was more than 40 years old and worked just fine.
The brand was: Frigidaire.
Some Volvo cars had a very long durability (some M-B and BMW too).

The problem now is that there are a lot of appliances and tools made in China which are almost rubbish.
It can be dangerous to use a China-made air gauge to check the pressure of the tires. They do not provide accurate readings.
One one occasion, Starbucks returned many defective coffee machines (made in China) because of fire risks.

In many cases I've found that buying old, Made in USA tools in good condition on ebay is a better option than is buying the new Made in China junk. Often the cost is no more, and even though old and used the product quality is still superior.


I agree with what you are saying and have had many issues with sales people about these short comings. Some to the point that I have actually left the store without purchasing the product and re-thought my need and want for it.

Built in obsolesence, patent infringement, cheaper to throw out than to repair, government subsidies, lobbyist, and in general interference with common sense has taken us to a place where we now have more people living off of stuff of want more than stuff of need.

Change in fashion, introducing the 1996 and 1/2 model car by GM, the new cell phone does not come with all those apps as the old one did, it is under warranty just send it to us in China (you pay s/h) and we will take care of it...

I cannot see how we are going to get out of this. Evan the proper disposal of batteries, smoke detectors, energy saving light bulbs, etc makes me anal to the point that now I am stock piling and looking for places to deliver this junk to.

Get rid of the lobbyist is a good start to remove some level of complexity.

I think we can all curse the MBA as the ones that created many of these problems. The manufacturing costs can be reduced by a few dollars by using parts that don't hold up (i.e. plastic) or cannot be easily repaired, so the initial product purchase is slightly more profitable.

And then they make more money selling replacement modules instead of simple things like gaskets.

Some products become well known for needing frequent and expensive repairs, and eventually people respond by not buying the things. But in some cases a reputable manufacturer will sell the name to some factory in China which means that people think they are paying for quality when in fact they are getting junk.

Then again, a few of us have figured out that buying the old used stuff on ebay, stuff that was made the good old fashioned way, is actually a better way to go. This year I bought an old but reconditioned Zenith TransOceanic radio, and an extra set of vacuum tubes. I'll probably pick up a couple more sets of vac tubes over the next year or two. It works great, I've picked up broadcasts from over 50 countries so far. I'll bet I will still have this radio running 25 years from now, long after most of the cheap digital junk has long since broken down and gone into the landfill. Meanwhile, that means one less customer for the manufacturers and retailers selling the cheap digital junk.

Much of the complexity of modern cars has to do with emissions controls. There isn't anything wrong with that, of course, but they didn't add all of this crap under the hood just to run up the price.

It won't be until we can completely ditch the ICE that this complexity will go away.

Which reminds me - my car threw a CEL last night, and I do have the special software to read the codes. Something else to do this morning..

Our governments at all levels will also have to de-complexify. Process-oriented agencies will need to become goal/results oriented. Our bloated legal system will also have to simplify. Governments and non profits will need to look not only at what they do, but how they do it.

Don't know how much this will bite in 2010, but some interesting discussions could start here in California; another disastrous budget ahead.

A lot of piggies slurping at the trough will be squealing now that the pork barrel is empty. Unfortunately, a lot of little people will get hit too.

"Interesting" times ahead.

Antoinetta III

Speaking of government, I personally think that the easiest decomplexification would be to lop off the top layer; that is, the states could perform most all of the functions that the federal level has bungled for so long.

This also fits with the work of the Nobel-winning economist Olstrom, who focuses on the increased efficiency and decreased complexity realized by local management of shared resources (

Totally agree, The model I use to illustrate the problem of centralized management is this. If lets say there is a huge room with just one temperature sensor & an Heater driven by the feedback from this sensor then all the heat dispensed in the system can be gamed simply but holding a lighter to the sensor. However, if there were distributed sensors across the room then it would be far more difficult to game it that simply.

This, I find applicable to almost anything in US today. for instance, the subprime crisis, Banks did whatever they could to make a loan since they were selling the mortgages off to somebody else. It really was okay to securitize the mortgages as MBSs but eventually all the responsibility for these valuing multi-trillion dollar securities fall on the shoulders 3 rating agencies & we all know the rest of story.

In essence the whole game is of producing a single point of decesion where the fate for all the pooled resources is decided. & then all the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the regulating mechanism. I just don't see how this can work efficiently except for decentralization where multiple smaller decesions are made instead of very few large ones.

That de-complexification is generally called re-localization. BUT that idea leads to less uniformity - which is more complex, no?

But it is higher redundancy.
I think the problem is over-optimization and not necessarily complexity.

The REAL problem is that an artificial temporary extremely dense energy source was introduced into the system and it is going to be removed.

Another key point is that humans don't recognize that the population size and resource use per capita have to stop growing and mature just like any other natural process or organism.

Our physical bodies don't keep growing until we die do they?

No, we stop growing physically and then improve through refinements.

From as long as we have walked upright, we've engineered. We are very, very good at it.
Computers have allowed the process to reach unimaginable heights.

Computer design and miniaturization has outpaced our ability to control our excesses.
Jet liners are computer designed and engineered to such a degree that the things can take off and land without need of a pilot. In fact the pilot has no clue as to how the thing works. No more walking out on a wing to put oil in an engine. Backups are the solution to problems, forget about manual repairs.

Computers control power stations and the grid, they direct traffic and find fish. Computers and subsequent efficiency has permitted the exploitation of our remaining resources.

When a 300,000 ton bulk carrier can be crewed by a few people and a little joystick we have truly reached Nirvana.

I could go on forever about what computers design and which we take for granted......running shoes, watches, knives, heart valves, air frames, cycle frames, sailing boats, never ends.

We have been so seduced by our engineering capabilities that we can no longer conceive of limits. Most everyone I speak with expects "we will find a way". It's a concept hard to argue with given the miracles of past and current engineering. Especially as I make use of those engineering miracles daily.

"We have been so seduced by our engineering capabilities that we can no longer conceive of limits."

Another excellent quote. I occasionally disagree with some of your details, but generally you are spot on. I often find myself copying your posts so I can return to them and share their insights.

Happy New Year, if happy is the right word.

Diversity is not the same as complexity. Re-localization reduces broad scale relationships, and increases local relationships. Hence it shifts the scale of complexity from more global to more community-scale. Since community-scale relationships are more likely to result in multiple roles between the same people, overall complexity is decreased, and cohesion/resilience is increased (increased modularization).

There may be a solid scientific basis for that in Information Theory. Essentially, the 2nd law of thermodynamics operates when information is passed along chains from one node to another; the longer the chain which information must traverse, the greater the entropy, and the more information degrades. This is one of the primary reasons why large, centralized bureaucracies seem to be so dysfunctional, and why it costs so much money to run them. Keeping things small, simple, and localized provides a big efficiency payoff, because you are keeping the chains of communications so short and thus minimizing entropy losses.

While I applaud your vehemence against advertising, there is a "simpler" and more nonviolent method: just turn off your TV. That applies this method in your own life, serves as an example to others, and with the switch of a button destroys hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising.

The urge to destroy those who are doing evil requires new laws, a large police force, big discussion, political contributions to get change, probably violence, etc., which overall requires a new, huge, complex apparatus to combat the previous huge, complex apparatus. I know that your post isn't intended to be taken literally, but just wanted to provide some thoughts that would give a "simpler" method than the "brute force" solution to all our problems, which when logically applied leads us to send armies tromping East, tromping West, and generally raise taxes . . . a prime example of complexity.


I haven't quite gone so far as to totally ditch the TV yet. However, I have drawn a couple of lines in the sand. I refuse to pay for more than the basic cable lineup, and I have (so far at least) refused to go out an buy a new flat screen HDTV. For all practical purposes, our TV viewing options have pretty much been shrinking down to PBS and one local broadcast network channel, which we only watch for local news and weather. I'm just waiting for them to complete the DTV xmtr upgrades, and then I'll be strongly tempted to put up an antenna and just cut the cable off entirely.


I seldom watch television and much of what I might wish to view is available via youtube. At the moment, I'm (re-)watching the BBC mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Sir Alec Guinness (


Nice, did you catch the new Radio4 version

Hi Slightly,

No, unfortunately, I didn't and it's no longer available via the Classic Serial website, but it would have been interesting to have compared the two.

We have some great radio programming on this side of the water as well, e.g.,


Enjoy Paul

We have ways and means ;¬)

Yes, I have some Canadian relatives.
Several small towns they say have never emotionally recovered from the sacrifices of the Black Watch.

Thank you, Slightly; I will enjoy this immensely.

Nemo me impune lacessit


While I applaud your vehemence against advertising, there is a "simpler" and more nonviolent method: just turn off your TV. That applies this method in your own life, serves as an example to others, and with the switch of a button destroys hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising.

I did that back in 2005, haven't watched any TV since. I try to block as much advertising as possible when online by carefully choosing the sites I visit. I do most of my shopping used. When I need something I then go looking for it, not the other way around. I am the living anti Christ of advertising.

However you can believe that not too many in my circle of family and friends have as yet followed my example.

I know that your post isn't intended to be taken literally,

Correct, it is also somewhat tongue in cheek ;-)

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad
a corollaray would be - for the industries you wish to destroy, you first make them cheap.

Advertising is already splintered into TVcable and network,radio,print,internet - and the availability of more and more avenues has to make the individual avenue cheap.
So cheap that it will not make any money for anyone.

Already the networks are talking of abandoning the free model and start charging for content.
Newspapers are already in trouble, due to both falling revenue and falling readership - which sets up a nice loop, falling revenue cheapens the writing - no more deep investigative stuff -which leads to falling readership.

Local TV is nothing but free weather, free sports stats,crime and fires and shootouts.
Radio is weather, traffic,sports stats, some generic news on silly surveys,nutrition scares,celebrity gossip etc. all prepackaged free/cheap stuff which sends listeners away in droves except those trapped in their cars or those who cannot make the switch to the internet.

Once upon a time not very long ago the production of goods and services was lower than the demand. Therefore everything that was produced was sold without any marketing. That was the era till 1920. After that in so-called developed world due to industrial revolution so much goods were produced that the demand was lower than the supply. The result was deflation between 1850 and 1920. That was dangerous to growth because just acquiring fixed resources such as gold or land make a person richer along with time without doing any business and taking any risk because the number of industrial goods produced per unit of gold and land increase along with time. At that point, what should be the rational decision?

a) Reduce work hours of all factory workers to decrease supply that is not needed and at the same time increase their salaries to give them a greater share in the fruits of their efforts and to increase demand.

b) Force-feed the people excessive amount of goods which they not need or desire by creating an artificial perception of depreviation and by rapidly changing fashions and designs by flooding the market with "new" products having minimum real changes through the black art of marketing.

c) Let govt take a higher share of fruits of efforts of working class secretly by introducing paper currency not backed by anything but false promises of govt that changes every 4 years and by preventing people saving themselves from inflation by outlawing owning gold and by taxing property.

Any combination of these three strategies could have been adopted. We all know what did happened.

Welcome back , Wisdom.

Your politics may not be well recieved here but you understand our world better than many who live in it.

I hope there is has been no violence in your immediate community.

Good Evening Gail:

The supposition being that the question is reasonable ;¬)
The social chaos theory proposes that:
the collapse of any society is inevitable,
in probabilistic terms greater complexity increases the likelihood of a completely unforeseen and rapid demise.

That said it is worth trying to foster a sense of community if you can identify some existing strand of group identity to bolster.
Like say joining the local gardening club and attempting to introduce 'Permaculture' concepts.
People will tend to fall back on what they know like the Russians and vodka in their collapse.

I think your idea of joining groups is a good one. Then, instead of being a "stand alone" gardener, you at least have a group to get education from, and perhaps share produce and seeds with. Doing anything on one's own is very difficult. Working with others makes things better. Somehow we need new groups, to create new connectedness--assuming that we make such a big change in the first place.

Barbra Streisand was on the radio in the UK last week talking about her sponsorship of allotment garden associations in the US.
She was inspired by the allotments we have on a trip over here.
As you say an established social identity outside of work could be a positive benefit.

Isn't this the opposite of decreasing complexity?

I would propose that there is an optimal level of complexity, which changes with the size of the community one is involved with. -- Quite clearly an individual can't manufacture their own photovoltaic cells, or even refine enough iron ore to make anything practical, but at the opposite end of the spectrum importing 10c foo-widgets from 10k km away also appears to be impractical in the face of rising transport costs. It appears that it will be quite hard to meet the efficiency needs that a "modern society" "demands" while not over-extending in terms of complexity.

Forming groups for efficiency purposes ultimately leads to globalisation, but at the other end of the spectrum, it is impossible for an individual to make everything they need.

What is the best size for a local village?

It seems like our current system is approaching to much complexity. Going back to doing everything completely individually doesn't work very well either. Somehow, we need to build compromises--local villages + + perhaps.

For my part I aim to get people thinking about possible futures outside of current perceptions of reality.
Food supply is critical in maximising my personal survivability.
Having been hungry, penniless, hopeless and in a foreign country it has the potential to utterly change society in a few days.
Viewing man holistically setting boundaries to expansion will be achieved by enthalpy not social engineering.
We are just internal components of a closed system.
Village size is always the optimum.


I read something recently about how the industrialization and commercialization of society has drawn people so far away from nature that it is difficult to get people to care about the environment because it doesn't seem particularly relevant to their daily lives.

How about some tax break or social pressure to encourage people to grow at least some of their own food? Tasting home grown tomatoes or onions is a great start to questioning the value of so much external "industry" to meet our basic needs. You can grow a tomato plant in a window box.

One type of social pressure that people seem to be responding to is fear. Lots of stories about E.Coli contaminated spinach, beef recalls, hormone and antibiotic laced milk, etc. has encouraged many people I know to cut out the agri-business middle people and connect directly to farmers by shopping at the farmer's market, signing up for a CSA, or planting tomatoes. Definitely some reduction in complexity there -- fewer steps and specialized occupations in between farm and plate.

Layoffs may have some of the effects you suggest, even if there is no specific law change. People who are staying at home, trying to keep expenses down, will probably be more amenable to raising a few plants, and may be more appreciative of nature.


I have thought about raising chickens, goats, building windmills, etc. But my wife of 35 years would freak out and probably leave me. My domestic world would collapse.

We change over the years and, just having turned 55, I believe I see what we are headed for. My children buy stuff of want and my grand children have been told that I am a tree hugger to which they laugh.

I believe most of TOD readers and commenters are as lonely.

I visited a married former-traveling-buddy over the holidays, and had a very hard time enjoying myself.

They live in a McMansion, with all the prereq's - granite countertops, cherrywood cabinets, italian tiles, 13 foot ceilings with recessed lights.

Then there was all the holiday paraphernalia - enormous tree, a thousand lights, a pile of gifts, all wrapped with bows, and a table set for twice as many people as showed up, with a mountain of food.

52" flat screen TV showing "Home Alone" on mute, but 8 people watching the screen.

One family of 4 all showed up separately - each alone in their own car - because they were all busy doing some different activity, even though they live in the same house.

Thermostat was set to 70 degrees and everyone was in short sleeves except me, wearing a sweater. I show up with my home crafted item wrapped in recycled newsprint, talking about recycled glass countertops and saving energy. Cognitive dissonance.

My traveling-buddy, who had lived for 3 days on snakes and grubs in the Amazon, now shopping at Costco. Buys the crab cakes, then sees them cheaper at Treasure Island, returns them to Costco, who promptly throw them out for having been un-refrigerated.

I feel like I can't do that stuff any more. It was pretty uncomfortable. I did spend a long time chatting with someone Vegan in diet, who lives in Hawaii, and sprays cockroaches with Raid. sigh...

Hey Spring
That sounds just like my Xmas! It reminded me of why I normally "opt out" of the whole Xmas thing. It's too filled with shocking consumption for my liking. The Albertans that I had dinner with couldn't help poking fun at my vegetarianism. To them being green is a joke. Not funny.

It is hard bouncing back and forth (or trying to) between the various worlds. I visit the houses with the 13 ft. ceilings, cherrywood cabinets, granite countertops, and I feel like yelling, "I chose not to compete in this contest." I feel like it is hard to even participate in the conversation, or to invite the people back to my place.

Sometime, a while ago, I hit upon the idea of "good enough". What we have doesn't have to be the "best" or the "most expensive" or the "newest" or the "most impressive". All it has to be is good enough to fulfill the function it is intended to fill. A car needs to run, and probably not use a huge amounts of gasoline. An clothing outfit needs to look like it is reasonably presentable for the occasion, but it doesn't have to be new, or the nicest. Cleaning standards need to reflect the fact the I have better uses for my time than to clean all of the time. It is OK for the house to have some dust, and the front of the refrigerator to be a bit smudged.

Even the cutback in standards might be considered less complexity, since the result is more time and money for purposes that one really cares about.

Good enough, I like it! In my childhood home, right above the phone was a small wall lamp, my mom's favorite. It had a small inlaid ceramic plaque that stated: "Our house is clean enough to be happy, and dirty enough to be healthy." :-)

My girlfriend is hyperfocusing on an electric milk foamer for her coffie at the moment.

Enough said.

That is a good toy, it uses little material and could easily be made to last for 50-100 years.
But a completely mechanical milk foamer might be even more fun.

I sure as heck hope we manage to hold onto enough complexity to make stuff like ball bearings, standardized fasteners, and Vise Grips. For sure thousands of local blacksmiths ain't gonna be whacking out such things beneath spreading Chestnut trees all across Amerka.

One reason to hope: unlike consumer products, most machine tools are built for the ages, and with a bit of tender loving care we could keep churning out these eminently useful items for centuries. It is worth remembering that the Germans kept their machines going even during the worst of Allied bombing, with the walls of factories reduced to rubble. Not that I'm a fan of the Third Reich; I'm just saying that production of precision items can be done under far-from-ideal circumstances.

As a 53-year-old with a deep and abiding love for hand tools and machine tools, I find it reassuring that I keep encountering younger people with similar passions. The day will come when guys who know how to sharpen, scrape, lap, lubricate, and pour a little babbit will be much in demand again...unlike all those useless mainstream economists who keep telling us that such employment ain't ever coming back!

OMG!!! Oh! My ! God! Let's all pray that we don't loose the ability to make Duck Tape!! Notice I didn't say "duct", I'm referring to the genuine article. I carry a roll in my bike panniers at all times; never know when I'll need it to attach something I wanna haul.

Is there any way production could be set up in this country of important things like ball bearings, using hand tools and machine tools, and (as much as possible) local materials? It seems like we will have a large amount of recycled metal, from worn-out cars and trucks. Can this be used at all? Or does a supply chain need to be included for better quality metal?

I wouldn't understand the supply chain for something like Duck Tape. If there are important things we want to make certain continue, it seems like it would be useful to understand the supply chain and manufacturing process, and figure out ways to imitate the process on less than an international scale, if we have to.

Is there any way production could be set up in this country of important things like ball bearings, using hand tools and machine tools, and (as much as possible) local materials?

Sure! By coincidence there happens to be a precision bearing factory in my neighborhood.

Unfortunately I recently lost a good friend of mine who was a master machinist, welder and had a super equipped shop (with some really old lathes) and modern equipment as well. He took an immense amount of knowledge with him. He could start with a lump of steel, even knew how to forge and make alloys, and make any high precision machined part you could possibly imagine out of it. He could tell you the carbon content by the sound of the clink when he tapped on a piece of steel.

I would think and hope there are a few others like him still out there.

As recently as the mid-1900's darn near anything a civilized human being could want was manufactured within 200 miles of where I now live (south-central Wisconsin). Chicago, Milwaukee, Rockford, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Fox River Valley...primary metals, machine tools of every sort, agricultural machinery, forest products, building materials and furnishings, more-than-adequate amount and variety of foods, clothing and footwear, paper products, rolling stock, motor vehicles, etc. etc. (Oh, 3M in the Twin Cities invented adhesive tape.)

Exceptions = fossil fuels, some ores, cotton, refined sugar, fresh food out of season.

Back then people knew how to work and most of them had useful work to do - providing goods and services they themselves and other people actually NEEDED. Not like now, when most people are terrified that they'll loose their jobs when other people get frugal.

Relocalize? BRING IT ON! People with functioning brains will muddle thru. But not by continuing to sit on our butts and drive everywhere!

I'll tell you something scary: It is hardly possible to buy a nail, screw, nut or bolt that is made in the USA any more. There are still a few niche products out there, if you look really hard, but that's about it. Were we to ever go to war with China, though, I don't see how we could even produce the basic things we need to even keep the economy going, let alone ramp up for armaments production.

LOL! I have an old T shirt that says "I can fix anything, Where's the Duck tape"

"Duck tape, for things that move and shouldn't, and WD40, for things that don't move and should!"

Did you notice that Vise Grips are now made in China? I have two pairs, a tiny one and a really big one, and always thought it would be nice to have something in the middle. Noticed at my local hardware store that they had the middle sized one on sale with a rebate, so I bought it. My other two pairs say "Made in USA" in big stamping, with a union bug on the side. The new pair says only "Vise-Grips". I looked at the packaging and knew why - "Made in China".

This is yet another predicament in our predicament infused society.
Reduced complexity = reduced jobs.

I think individual jobs may get broader though. "Mother" becomes caretaker for both children and the elderly, besides gardener and cook. Tool makers may make a whole range of tools. Physicians may become less specialized.

My job has become broader. I was employed as a programmer. Now I am programmer, dba, systems support and head of IT. Unfortunately this makes my job four times more complex and leaves three other people unemployed.

One day I hope will be a bicycle mechanic.

Is it just me or do all programmers like to be mechanics to actually hold in hand a physical thing they have to work on.

When I was still working in London as a bricky I worked on several old buildings that had a plaque dedicated to the Bricklayer who not only built but designed the house. If, as in this example, we reduce job complexity and let the bricklayers get on with things as they used to do then what are you going to do with all those out of work architect?

And Happy New year TOD.

Make them bricklayers.

Bricks? Perhaps it's time to change our concept of bricks...
N55 Spaceframe.

Two tetrahedra, one octahedron: the "brick" in the construction. This configuration fills space in all directions.

"...act to make our society less complex..."

I have a wild idea. Lets take the economic system under which all of this complexity depends, that is exponential growth/debt, and pull the plug on it.

By jove! It just might work. I'm going to talk to the Sec of Treasury and Prez of the Fed and see what they can do.

They'll have you put on the no-fly list.

Pulling the plug doesn't sound like much fun.

But if the risk exists, we somehow need to be thinking about how we can hold together at least a lower level of complexity, which can somehow support us, even if our economic system fails us. Every person for himself/herself isn't a good level of complexity.

It's not complexity per se that is a problem, but the scale at which it is structured.

Natural ecosystems with high levels of complexity are generally thought to have higher resilience than more homogeneous ecosystems (e.g. old growth forests vs. plantations, coral reefs vs. fish farms, grasslands vs. corn fields).

The problem with complex civilizations is the geographic scale over which they operate, and the amount of energy needed to organize and maintain the system. Feedbacks that lead to ever-increasing complexity, and hence ever-increasing energy needs, result in inevitable collapse.

So what can individuals do? Think about how your life is inter-woven with the complex, and identify ways to decrease the scale of those threads of interaction. Some ideas:

- Support local community (food, entertainment, capacity building, volunteering) to build community social capital (increase local complexity) and to increase community resilience.

- Reduce reliance on goods and services that require long-distance transport or high embodied energy (decrease one's role in increasing/supporting global complexity).

- Build things to last (physical things, relationships), repair/restore things, and try only to buy things that were built to last (quality not quantity).

- Slow down (in the sense of velocity as well as psychologically), and think about how major decisions increase/decrease complexity at local/global scales (make clear intentional choices).

- Look for leverage points (actions that can amplify through the system) to encourage others to reduce the scale of their roles and relationships.

- Be humble in your expectations (complex systems have a habit of resisting change).

What part of the watch do we remove and still retain functionality. Maybe we should put away our watches and bring out our sundials. This implies a different and less mechanistic functioning of our society.

The important thing to remember is that, even though technology does seem impressive at times, our technological societies are not progressing towards anything but enslavement and regimentation of humankind. There is nothing more to be strived for than reproductive security, comfort and edification. We will lose all of these as our anachronistic neural programs cannot stop converting nature into temporary human utility and tawdry entertainments, unwinding and poisoning ecological relationships and undermining the very basis of our existence.

Technology is power over the enemies that created us, that tempered and honed our forms and behaviors. We will either be controlled or we will continue on this path until our enemies return and once again reduce those whose constitutions are inadequate to water, gases and dust. Without natural enemies, we have become our own.

Jeez, Dopa...... mankind has long known that he is his own worst enemy. Just read the Torah. Not that the human has learned from this. You do get my vote for saying the mostest with the leastest though.

Question: Can complexity be measured?

Another question before the question: are there different types of complexity, and has recent technological development changed anything about them?

I answer "yes" on both:

- there are at least two different types of complexity: material complexity is the number of different things we produce and the number of different sources/trade paths we get them from, and informational complexity is the amount of information we use to make decisions, and the complexity of the algorithms that we use.

- at least the world of infomational complexity has been changed profoundly by the smart phone (i-phones etc.). These phones are computers that are so small and use so little energy that they can be produced sustainably, and can be used for the majority of all decisions we face, from "should I bring the produce to market today?" all the way to "how can we develop and market Widget NEW24"

Therefore, any answers to the main question that don't take cell phones/smart phones into account will be wrong.

A smartphone is just a complex system that interfaces with a complex system of other complex systems. When you interface with your smartphone, is it akin to artificial telepathy? Have we created a hypercomplex hivemind? Does this increase or reduce complexity?

Tainter's theory precedes the idea that ecological wrecking causes societies to collapse - which I think most people know from Jared's Collapse.

There have also been others who point out society collapses because of climate change (Brian Fagan's Long Summer for eg

It seems to me all these play a role. Complex societies facing environmental degradation and/or climate change find it difficult to adopt - because of the complexity of their structure. So, chances of Indus Valley Civilization or Maya collapsing is much higher than the New Guinea Highlanders' society.

And as we see the world struggle to do anything meaningful about Climate Change (or even acknowledge Peak Oil) - we can see why it is so difficult to get complex societies to adopt or fundamentally change.

Anyway, I think the goal should be to reduce energy use and get towards sustainability. Reduction of complexity will follow.

Hey All, this is OT but it's almost New Years so I'd like to toast all the Staff, Editors, Guest Posters, Readers, Commenters, Lurkers and anyone I may have missed that is in any way associated with TOD!

Should Oil in Iraq just be forgot,
and never thought upon;
The flames of wells extinguished,
and fully past and gone:
Is thy sweet crude now grown so cold,
that flowing gas of thine;
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne.

On Old long syne my Jo,
in Old long syne,
That thou canst never once reflect,
on Old long syne.

I'd like to wish everyone a Happy, Healthy and Fruitful New Year!

Happy New Year! (a day early)

Hello posters,

new member after lurking for as long as I can remember. As a recent outsider, this is the absolute best site that discusses peak oil, social challenges, and technical subjects. I believe the old adage of ones sphere of influence applies to complexity.

Start with what you can do and others you are connected to, notice. As problems continue to unfold, your example provides leadership to those you care about. I won't get into personal details, but it works. Over the years my wife and I have tried to explain peak oil to others, and it felt like we were carrying sandwich boards. Now, we just go about our life, and yes, we are living a far simpler life over the last few years, hence this post. We all know change is life, itself. It is upon us and we are active participants. Any collapse/change will simply redefine, complexity.

Isn't this discussion about values and personal choice?

I have learned a great deal from you folks this past year. Thank you.


Good questions Gail!

I've been griping about complexity - specifically needless and unnecessary complexity for a while now to my friends at work and family.

Here are a few examples and a few rays of hope.
Recently, the EU has agreed upon a standard for the interfaces for cell phone chargers to be standardized over the next few years. Too bad it took 20 years but at least some people are starting to come around to this view where needless complexity adds costs and problems (frustrated users, $, disposal, wasted resources, time, etc.) Hopefully the good ole US of A will follow suit with all devices that require charging. All devices should be able to be charged and be able to communicate either through a USB interface of a 1.5 mm mini-jack. A universal charger that had multiple outlets with each of these and would be smart enough to sense load, have a small internal battery that would charge and provide power for the sensor and not draw a phantom load until it needed to recharge its internal battery or a device would be another idea. (Google universal charger for an example of unnecessary complexity)

Besides all the various fastener types that exist in the world, deck screws seem to get re-invented every other year and to be honest, some have been an improvement but mostly they are just a method to insure follow-up sales aka the razor blade marketing strategy.

As a free-market orientated person I struggle with this but I am becoming more persuaded as it sounds the Old Farmer Mac is that perhaps some inventives, dis-incentives or regulation would be helpful to correct this waste.

From the incentive side of things, I think since the gov't is now (Wild Assed Guess coming...) something like 30-40 % of the economy (mostly salaries and benefits) but still buys a lot of goods, the could probably have some influence here without getting too heavy handed to start.

I am all for reducing complexity where the complexity does not provide an obvious and significant benefit. This includes deck screws, automotive fasteners, forms in triplicate or their digitial equivalent, financial products from mutual funds to Collateralized Units of destruction, and 10-K, Q's ad nauseum.

Some things are necessarily complex and will continue to be. The tax code is not one of them.

< begin rant> On a completely different topic I would like to suggest to everyone to share with a friend my 2 questions for anyone seeking office anywhere. Will you support term limits? Will you change the rules so that all the rules apply to everyone - aka, Congress gets Social security, the impending health care plan, etc etc... If the answers are not an unequivocal yes, then I do not have time to listen to you or any interest in supporting you. /

Cell phone and other chargers can be charged the same way electric tooth brushes are charged.

A primary coil inside a plate or deck and cycled through 60 hz inductively couples through a device equiped with the secondary coil, rectifier/regulator, and batteries. Just place any and all your gizzmoz on the plate and they charge away.

I have done this with my dive light. No moving parts.

I have to laugh at electric toothbrushes, electric can openers, and other silly electric widgets in our world. If we want to be less complex, and more sustainable, how about just a toothbrush, with removable brush? Do we really need to use fossil fuels to brush our teeth for us? Somehow I've managed to live my entire adult life without a microwave, electric toothbrush, television and many of the other electric items now considered "essentials". Every dentist I've ever seen is a fan of my teeth (no cavities), my doctor loves my health and I've never used anti-depressants or had to go to a shrink. Hmm... Maybe the less complex life is ok? (But please don't take away my computer!)

For reducing complexity, something I would like to have is a simple system for washing clothes that would not require
any detergents.
Ultrasonic cleaning only.
I think it would be feasible for clothes that do not have difficult stains.

I think that a washing machine that ran on a hand crank and had simple parts would be a less complex solution. Or even better a scrub board built into a tub, a wringer and a drying rack.

The soap/detergent could be less specialized than current day detergent. For example I have seen bars of laundry detergent that can multi-purpose for washing not only clothes but extra dirty people, floors and dishes as well.

You could also use a bucket-flush system to dispose of the dirty laundry water down the toilet when you wanted to flush. It doesn't need a fancy machine, just a bunch of buckets and people willing to use them.

I think that a washing machine that ran on a hand crank and had simple parts would be a less complex solution.

Such does exist. Do a search for "portable clothes washer".

Reducing complexity? fewer parts? less inventory? I agree!
However, this is against marketing 101 - distinguish yourself as different = more uniqueness, more parts, more inventory.

Tires(somewhat) and fuel seem common(?) to all cars.
Wipers $%^&(%^*^*(!!!
headlight/taillight/instrument bulbs?
On and on and on we go....
I don't want a gray "comrade" mobile, but it is very complex at this point in history.

Actually, this indeed is something I can comment on, having some expertise here.

If you'd enjoy a case example, look at sail rigged exploratory or warships of the last 200 years. These ships were very complicated, highly engineered, integrated systems. By the mindset of modern nautical architects, they may seem primitive, but as a first principle they involve the design parameter of "no available repair facilities." Not exactly the F-15 mindset. You needed to build the most powerful, most functional, most robust sailing vessel that could carry the most tonnage, either of guns or cargo, that you could repair on a beach, out of scavenged lumber and cordage, anywhere in the world. Very much a "moon mission" mentality.

Now these ships may express a great deal of "design" complexity. There's hundreds of knots and skills that are required to keep such a machine functional. The skills of the deck crew are equally as complicated. The demands in materials, however, are very very minimal. You need a pole. You need a couple thousand coconut husks. You're up and running. That was reality, and optimal engineering, this is where we will return. I expect.

Today, however, that's not what you'll see in the sailing world. You'll see a 40 thousand pound boat sporting the square footage of a sailing rig of a small ship of the line. One that would weigh 400000 lbs. This requires a vacuum bag factory, lab created fibers and masts, zillion dollar sails, a depleted uranium keel, and a whole crew of "sailing jigalos" to keep her running. Does the "appearance" of the vessel seem more simple? Of course! And vastly more efficient! In reality, however, one is simple being snowed by the deferred costs of all the superman, wholly unsustainable, and taken for granted, inefficient magic things that makes the boat go. And that ignores the engines and the lack of skill of the crew to go anywhere without them. But that's my personal beef.

A bit of a diatribe, perhaps, but pertinent.

Surprisingly, i think back to those vessels, made of wood, engineered by hand/mind. Impressive!
My wife and I tour lighthouses. Important enough for trade that the keepers were paid more than the president of the US( or so they told us).
Burning whale oil and then pig oil when whales were depleted, finally ran on electricity.
The Fresnel lenses are amazing- the efficiency required to direct such a small amount of light. Impressive as well!
We live in an age of abundant(and therefore cheap) energy, hence we have been allowed(chosen?)to be wasteful.
I look around as I travel in my car here in the US and think about the investment in roads, signals, overpasses. and the car themselves, refueling station tanks and pumps, auto parts stores, insurance, autobody work, attorneys and courts. It boggles my mind. Then I think this is as good as it gets. There will be no Starwars, Startrek, or Mr Fusion for homeowners. We are at the peak, and I smile.
I like machines, I have a small machine shop, but we as a race need to get back in touch with the dirt beneath our feet, it is what our lives depend on.
You touch on it in your post, the knowledge and ability to repair with materials at hand. I have no idea what the future holds, other than it will be different, and that isn't necessarily all bad.
Do we own automobiles/technology or do they/it own us? I think it is an important question to ask. We know that if we cannot feed the technological beast we have created havoc will (has?)ensue. So we are tied to and trying desperately to feed the complex beast we have created. We know this is futile( Peak Oil or PFF) so what will or can we do? I decided to toss in the towel of hope and activism beyond personal preparation. Three cheers to repairable wooden sailing ships, and the knowledge required, may the future residents understand true value.

Totally pertinent!

I'm sure you will relate to this article by Orlov:

" my mind, humankind's greatest invention overall, so far, is the sailboat. "

"... by the end of the age of sail, a small crew could move many tons of cargo over large distances with wind power alone, the sole energy inputs being those embodied in the ship itself, and those needed to house and feed the crew. This level of energy efficiency in transportation has never been exceeded."

"...The human mind reacts well to challenging and even dangerous circumstances provided the danger can be controlled without resulting in stress. Living a long, happy life just a few consecutive mistakes away from drowning is just that sort of danger."

There is almost too much truth in this for this landlubber to bear!.

There's no reason things couldn't be standardized. All headlights used to be the same. Back in the 50s and 60s there were only a few kinds of taillight lenses on all British cars. I had the same taillights on a couple of mine.

Unfortunately, Lucas made them. The company founded by the man who (probably apocryphal) once declared "Gentlemen do not travel after dark."

Ah, makes me think of the old line, "Do you know why the British drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigeration..." :-)


Ah yes, "Lucas, the Prince of Darkness"


My neighbour has an MGB and tells me that if Lucas made vacuum cleaners they would be their only product that didn't suck.

Back in 1911 Pearce, the automobile maker, tried to make cars out of paper mache (sp?). Did not last long. Eventully the Pearce body was made out of Aluminum Cast panels. That was too expensive and didn't last long. It is interesting to follow the history of the development of a popular technology from automobiles, snow mobiles, computers, cell phones, etc. All had ideas and methods that were part of one manufacturers downfall only to have that technology refined by the big company and used in their devices. Henry Ford did this often as did Microsoft.


Mass extinction = reduced complexity. We're already off to a good start!

In no particular order:

Tax system: start over -- have a steeply progressive chart, from 0 on below 30-40k to 90pct of everything above 10,000,000 - something like that. Same with estate taxes. Nothing else, nada, one page!

Medical: start over - go to doctor, get treated, go home. No more medical insurers. Pay? Taxes, see above. Generics, give big boost. Gov't negotiates with big pharma. Medical school is free -- competive exams to get in. Doctor consults specialists, doesn't send you there. No more liability insurance. Doctor makes honest reasonable mistake, tough. Otherwise license suspended or worse. PA's and midwives play bigger role. Consult Cuba!

Pensions: Everybody covered by SS -- nothing else. Pay? See Taxes above.

Safety net: everybody who can work gets a job -- in exchange for: Everyone entitled to a clean, warm place to sleep, basic decent food, toilets, shower And medical care. Single room, shared other facilities.

Generics: manufactures required to produce a generic version of anything they make, standard parts.

Software: Strongly favor open source. Require common interchange formats. Replace a lot of graphics with vector graphics. Let loose some Predators on Redmond. :) (so I don't get arrested).

Cars. Get rid of them step by step. Walk, bikes, buses, trains, compact communities.

Soil. Return to the soil, grow stuff, exchange stuff locally, repair stuff, learn how to do a whole bunch of stuff, reduce need for specialists.

Science. Expensive research should always be internationalized and equally shared.

Military. Abolish it, abolish bases, weapons manufacturers, abolish war.

Old people. Get rid of nursing homes. Keep them close to families and communities, share caring for them. Get rid of funeral homes, do your own if you want one. Die in your own bed, near family. In compact communities, some will learn hospice skills without there being a hopsice.

Tall buildings. No more. Don't let residential go up more than 5 or 6 and let younger people (or spry elders like me) live on top, others lower. Walk.

Walk. See Medical. Key to saving big money.

EDIT: I hit Save too soon. More:

Gov't: No secrets, none. No lobbying. Those in gov't can accept no income in any form from any donor -- severe punishment. Want to go into business or make big money, don't go into gov't. No perks, no separate health care, no separate pension plan.

Bureaucracy: Must always be a feedback mechanism: how long a wait, level of service, etc. It can be done. I have very good experience at SS 6 or 7 years ago. And is it (a particular bureaucracy) really needed? Can it be eliminated?

Obviously, all this is only food for thought, a fantasy really, and is intended to inspire utter contempt for what we have, or don't have. We need much, much less, and much, much more.

This could be done if we were all medicated but eventually someone would go off their meds and begin to look at tall buildings as an extension or substitute for a penis and then we would start all over again.

We need something that will permanently change the species. Make us more like honey bees.

We need something that will permanently change the species. Make us more like honey bees.

We could dress in bee suits collect pollen and live in hives instead of penises?
Well maybe just live in different kinds of communities ;-)

Honey bees have some pretty interesting characteristics :-

1. They work from the first day they emerge from their cells
2. When they are too old to work, or are ill, they fly away from the hive to die outside
3. Before winter, they kick all the non-productive hive members out, so they don't consume winter stores
4. They can communicate, and understand how to track the sun to find food, and show others where it is - "waggle" dance
5. Sometimes they "dance" on the front of the hive, all lined up, one next to the other, and all in synch aka. "washboarding" (no-one really knows why they do this)

6. They will die in defense of their hive
7. They exhibit hygienic behaviour, never defecate inside the hive, always remove dead bees, and have been observed to groom each other to remove mites - the inside of a beehive is one of the most sterile environments known in nature, and honey can be used as an antiseptic wound dressing

And my personal favorite :-

8. The females are in charge ;)


From what you have told me about the honey bees I wonder if there is any disguise or deception in their lives, at least inside their species or hive. They seem to be on a level playing field and I see no example of selfishness.

I wonder if "washboarding" is a technique which evolved to synchronize their internal clocks and gyros. To zero the magnetic field on the plant at the hive, do their hunt, and return and communicate their findings with precise coordinates.

As long as the female of a species maintains their fertility OR their connection (maternal) with family and community then I think they should be in charge. Career driven females seem to adopt methods of leadership developed by the males.

Hi Randy
I don't imagine they have any need for deception.

They all have tasks, and they know what those tasks are, although they may change over the bee's lifetime. Then they just go ahead and do them. No weekends off. The queen works too - her job is egg-laying.

There's no value to the hive, for example, in a bee finding food and keeping the location to itself. The first thing the bee does, after filling its stomach, is come back and tell everyone "hey, I found food at this location". Huge amount of energy saved in searching. Ultimately, it's all about EROEI.

They know how to care for young, find food, build a shelter and protect themselves.

Beyond that, everything they "own" is in common - i.e. brood, pollen and honey stores.

When winter approaches, they start to prepare by insulating with propolis, and removing the drones (who provide genetic variation but do not forage, or perform any hive tasks) They can selectively grow more drones the next season.

There is a kind of heirarchy, but the queen is the one who holds the hive together. Sometimes they will grow more queens, if they feel the queen is not performing up to par, and then a new queen can take over, removing the old or sick queen. A queenless hive exhibits great anxiety and disorientation.

If they outgrow the hive, they swarm. One queen will take half the hive members, to start a new hive, and leave another queen behind with the remaining members.

There's no "domination" or "slavery" in the sense that we understand it - i.e. the queen forcing the workers do something they don't want to do, since bees have no concept of personal want (I don't think). They just do what needs to be done in a beautifully organized way. If there's a hole in the wall, someone will come along and plug up the hole - no debate. I think of the queen as the nerve center, rather than a "dictator".

It's also somewhat pointless for a worker to wish she was a queen, since she does not have the physical ability to lay viable eggs. There are cases where a hive is taken over by laying workers, after which the colony soon dies.

They do have a sense of personal survival, though, since, if they feel threatened, they will sting.

On washboarding, any idea is intriguing, since it's an open question.

Humans, comparatively, are a study in chaos. Which, of course, has some benefits too. But I think we have allowed personal want to far overtake community benefit, to our great detriment.

I happen to think that decreasing complexity is both a good thing, and something we might just have to get used to anyway. I'm skeptical that there is a 'need' for specialization beyond what individuals find they do best or enjoy most, and when we step away from the shoulds of civilization, we become less differentiated. I was listening to an awesome presentation on matriarchies and the fraud of an omnicient god (, and found so much of my argument there. Hierarchies just aren't needed; communities are. Mothers (she explains) see the benefit of all, and the quirks and foibles of the individual(s), and takes these as givens, part of everyone that need to be worked around. All voices are essential; community depends on it. My other reading today convinced me that a spirituality (a way of living) that is separate from place just doesn't make any sense. Everything is local, everything revolves around the land on which one lives.

Working back to edible forest gardens and a closer to hunter-gatherer life, we're buying local foremost, and working with others to promote local foods and to establish community gardens (we had nine in a town with about 30,000 people last year). Part of the reason I'm participating in this is that I really do think crash is imminent, and I'm afraid that without a decent food supply, we're going to shoot each other over the last Krispy Kreme. I suspect that humans as we are civilized can probably live in groups of maybe 30 OK. Though the Iroquois managed huge numbers, there was an amazing structure and belief system that made it workable, and not having grown up with that, I don't think non-Indigenous people can jump there. IOW, I doubt we could survive greater complexity. --diana

How far back should we go? At the end of world war II, in a small town in South Dakota, we had our own flour mill, a bakery, a blacksmith, and a retired farmer who would plow your garden for you in the spring. My mother made soap, starting with lye and tallow that she got from the local butcher. Our socks were all darned. We lived in clothes that had been made over from older siblings. Knitting was a very useful skill, for the clothing that kept us warm in the winter. We even had two doctors in a town of 700 (county of a couple 1000). It all worked pretty locally. Of course we had coal for heating and gas for the cars and tractors.

This seems like a pretty good place to be. I can remember that people were happy. None of us had a lot.

Maybe that wont be far enough. The next step would be something like the middle ages, with monastery, a church and some water wheels for power. Who knows how to do that sort of stuff? Some bow and arrows might be useful.

Should we develop a list of stuff and skills that would be needed to exist in either of these worlds?

Capitalism is the root of our current complexity. Capitalism is complicated.

Instead of all engineers working together to make one good washing machine, we have twelve different companies each making five different kinds of washing machines. Each one claiming they are the best. I would rather have to not think about what type of washing machine would be the best to buy, and instead, grant that authority to the engineers to make that choice rather than to an ad man.

When we sent man to the moon we did not make two moon companies in NASA and let them compete. We make one and let them get at it. I mean we all want a washing machine that is durable, but we do not have one. So it is obvious that capitalism does not supply what society needs, it supplies what will make the capitalist a profit.

Then add on the fact that we either rent ourselves out as wage slaves for a fraction of our worth and nearly 80% of "home owners" are actually slaves to a mortgage and you see we have to become more complicated just to stay afloat. We work more so we need more devices to wash things faster, stay in touch while we are away, more cars, more highways, and on and on.

The only social structure I see as being able to accomplish the Great Uncomplication is Libertarian Socialism. It would be the end of people telling us what we need and real need being the creative force.Because until we get rid of capitalism we will never have the time to stay at home with out extended family or cook meals together or spend time in the community. All theses things can be marginally done by an upper middle class right now but I work with poor and I see the energy capitalism sucks out of them everyday. And they are the masses.

Also, in my personal life, when I finally stopped trying to beat the Jones's, my life quickly became less complex. And I am a fractal of society.

If you want to read more about Libertarian Socialism see

Beating the Other Guy, the Driver of Complexity

"Also, in my personal life, when I finally stopped trying to beat the Jones's, my life quickly became less complex. And I am a fractal of society."

Christian, you have now hit at the core of something very fundamental...:-)

The problem in dealing with complexity is that it is too complex! There is only one way forward at the start it seems to me and that is to look at microcosms, smaller segments where we have seen great complexity over the last century as an example...I choose the last century because it will take in almost the whole history of several now complex industries and technologies. For a few examples:

Automobiles: The earliest "brass era" automobiles were surprisingly simple given that they did the basic job relatively well

Airplanes: From the very "romantic" simplicity of the WWI biplanes to the extremely complex fighter jets of today

Warships: From the heavy industrial big gunships like the Bismark to the Aircraft carriers and missile cruisers of today.

I will hold out one fantastic example for the finish, because it is such a microcosm of complexity driven by one factor in opposition to all others.

The one thing that seems to most drive complexity in all of the above industries is competition. As each device was built, a more complex one was on the drawing board, sure in the belief that the competition was working on a newer more complex model that would exceed current standards of performance in every way. In war, such as warships and aircraft, the difference would be at the margins...the enemy would only have to be willing to endure a small amount of extra complexity to achieve higher performance and they would be the victors...some complexity was worth it on the condition the builders of the more complex device could retain their edge. It is a treadmill that is almost impossible to exit for the competitors, and ratchets upward at an accelerating rate.

With automobiles, the competition was other firms. There is no doubt that a relatively simple design such as a Citroen 2CV or a Volkswagen Beetle could achieve many of the goals of a personal transportation device...but if the customer could be shown greater performance (speed, comfort, handling, braking, etc.) they would want it, even if it involved "a bit" of added complexity.

I would mention in this context the racing automobile. I have often admitted here on TOD that I am a devoted fan of motorsport and motorsport history (and this is not a great place to admit such!). To me it is an art form, pure and simple, the use of the human mind to solve a complex set of problems and push the edge on an interlocking set of parameters.

Interestingly, there is no real need for racing automobiles to be very complex. There are many who would argue that the most beautiful expression of the art form came in the mid 1960's, when the cars struck a balance between being beautiful to look at, exciting to watch, relatively affordable to maintain and race.

Just after WWII and as a result of the war, Europe was very poor. The first advanced rear engined Formula car was a Brabham using a Norton single cylinder engine! The design was simpler that most riding lawn mowers are today, but was very much a racing car, fast given that it was very light and very aerodynamic, excellent handling limited by the tires of the time more than anything else. But it would not have been a "crowd pleaser" for looks or potential excitement. However by 1959, we had a very high performance 4-cylinder car, very aerodynamic, very pretty to look at, efficient for it's purpose and capable of pleasing crowds on the track, the Lotus 18:

Why couldn't we just stop the complexity there? Most fans were happy with the cars of that era, the expense to operate them was moderate, they were fast enough to be challenging (and yes, dangerous, if that is what the crowd wanted).

But competition would not allow for the halting of complexity. Soon, cars had aerodynamic wings attached to all corners, the engines grew in complexity to ever more cylinders and more complex induction systems which finally had to be electronically controlled, hydraulic subsystems were added to control valvetrains and suspensions, etc, etc.

This begs the question: How do you halt complexity without destroying any possibility of forward advance?

Interestingly, complexity in racing has been slowed and even in some cases reversed by the sheer expense: At some point, the complexity outruns the money, the income will no longer support ever increasing complexity and the area of development has to be checked. In racing this has been done by (a) rules and (b)the fans and participants of the sport, who move off to a simpler cheaper branch of the sport to reduce costs, and the industry soon follows with it's support. Recently Ford Motor Company began re-issuing vintage Ford "Kent" engines, the 4 cylinder pushrod engine that was in the Ford Cortina of the 1960's and was so instrumental in building the racing industry. Vintage racing using old cars and engines has grown in popularity compared to the more fast moving,complex and expensive branches.

The point of competition came home to me while listening to a lecture recently. Alfred W. Crosby was lecturing from his book "Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History". He followed the art of throwing things through history and makes the case "you are what you throw". The lecture can be found here:

Being able to throw further and with greater accuracy increases the ability of an individual to gain nutritional (for our lingo here, energy) advantage over our competitors. But once the race began, it could not be easily stopped, and the art of throwing became increasingly more complex, from the arm, to the spear, to the sling, to the bow and arrow and on to such much more complex devices as guns, catapults, cannon, and finally rockets and missiles.

Notice that the art of throwing is still highly valued when done well (baseball players, football quarterbacks, even golfers who with the aid of a club can hit long and accurately are well rewarded...the valuing of throwing seems to be built right into the human psyche), but also that the art of throwing, once it was elevated to a competitive arena, began to be used for more than just gathering food, and became a competitive weapon to use directly against our put it bluntly, we could kill them directly rather than just eat better than they could, and then the throwing device could be used to throw humans and conquer vast distance, all the way to the moon, a huge competitive advantage, but an elevation of complexity that would have repurcussions in other areas of human development.

So we have laid out a cause, perhaps the critical cause, of complexity: Competition. The question is, what to do about it?

We have already mentioned one thing that limits complexity, i.e., the amount of money, and if you accept money as representing energy (and I know Gail does), then you would be saying energy input simply cannot stay up with the increasing complexity. There is a problem in using money as the limiting factor however: If there is a great deal of waste and inefficiency in the system, then money will dry up well before the complexity level has reached the critical point of exceeding the money supply. This is fine if you have no competitors who are more efficient and streamlined in their main functions (including energy) because they will suffer the same or worse losses, and their ability to become more complex will likewise be halted.

Here we come to a CRITICAL issue: What complexity is needed to stay in front of the competitor as opposed to what complexity is purely wasted in the larger sense but useful in maintaining the power of the controlling powers (whether it be in industry or government) or maintaining somewhat useless employment? How are the two types easily seperated?

If we take the position that the energy budget (note the wording: The energy budget, NOT just the oil budget) will soon be limited, this is a global issue, i.e., the limit on complexity becomes fungible, a goal for the whole human race. Given that paradigm, simplicity well applied becomes a strategic advantage for the world, and the concern over competitors defeating us by virtue of additional complexity becomes much less.

I hate to have to go longer here, but there is another factor: IF the competitor, whomever they may be, can extract more usable energy (let us say through advanced solar, wind, wave, and nuclear fusion or even nuclear fission if we accept that nuclear fission delivers strong EROEI over time) the competitor could essentially "buy" additional complexity in the strategic areas by virtue of their added energy allotment. This could make them a formidable competitor.

I will leave you folks here to think of the implications of this, but I think a very critical point can be easily seen: IF we were to assume that renewable alternative energy or nuclear will not work on any large scale and not invest in it, it would be strategically critical to our future that we be absolutely correct. Every kilowatt the competitor could produce that we could not (or did not) by way of captured sunlight or wind or nuclear would give them complexity to use against us.

What could this added complexity be used for? Robotic aircraft, ships, tanks? Increased space based spying and even weapons? Better and faster supercomputers to advance material and weapon design? All of these are relatively complex technologies. Because no matter how much we may detest complexity, it can be a strategic advantage when correctly applied. If you don't believe it, match a WWI biplane against an F-16 fighter jet and see how long the fight lasts.

While this whole "complexity" discussion may seem academic to many, it is of critical importance to our survival in the future, both as a nation (whatever nation you may be a citizen of) and as a species. But...the subject is dauntingly complex!

Roger Conner Jr.

"This begs the question: How do you halt complexity without destroying any possibility of forward advance?
Interestingly, complexity in racing has been slowed and even in some cases reversed by the sheer expense" Posted by ThatsItImOut

Maybe the point where the complexity evolves to the level that the slowdown starts should be the signpost to say: "We've advanced as far as reasonably possible in this particular endeavour. Job well done all around, time to pat ourselves on the back, toast our success, and now let's look for some other matter to try to "advance" in.

Antoinetta III

Roger and Christian:

The race to the moon was a competition with the Russians. West vs. East. Not to dwell on the point but this is all ego or mass ego.

You speak of competition between manufacturers but we also have competition between departments. Back in the early 90's Intel was introducing MPUs while they had the next 3 gererations waiting on the shelves to be introduced once the recent one reached market saturation.

All designers have taken on this "hold off on that feature on this release" mentality to the point that consummers just sit back and let a couple of generations laps before they find their equipment so obsolete it absolutely will not start, let alone function. Then they have to bite the bullet.

Somewhat in their defense they have to approach these designs and introductions carefully because some clown, who works at registering ideas with the patent office, will claim they stole his design and he wants compensation.

There are too many parasites and oppertunists

While I absolutely agree with you (I began my career in the auto service business and we used to call it "dribble" technology, dribble everything out in small bits so as to have some reason for next years model change), I think it runs much deeper than that...

If I were to take a pair of children of any age past when they had began to reason (let us say 7 or 8 years of age), and give each of them an unlimited number (for practical purposes, very many) building blocks, and tell each child to build me the most "interesting project" they could, what do you want to bet that each child would try to use the most blocks in the most intricate and complex design they could come up with? And furthermore, if each child could see the other child's design, each would judge him or herself in comparison to the other child by (a)how many blocks they could use, and (b)how complex the design appeared. I am willing to bet that if one of the children used fewer blocks in a less complex looking arrangement, that child would declare him or herself the loser without contesting the point in most cases.

Notice that I said "in most cases". We are referring to the normal way of thinking. There is a rare breed of cognitive types who would instead use a small number of blocks, VERY carefully arranged to a certain goal, and view that as a successful project. This is VERY rare and normally the child would have to either (a) be very intuitive or (b) trained almost from birth to think in a different than normal way. Frank Lloyd Wright comes to mind, but this did not occur until about age nine: Wright's mother was a devotee of the kindergarten movement, and beginning his education early, but did not give him a set of "Froebel Blocks" until he was aged nine or so. These blocks were designed to "teach the child to use his (or her) environment as an educational aid; secondly, that they will give the child an indication of the connection between human life and life in nature" It is more likely that a child educated in such a way will from that point forward think of a project in a different way and thus not so easily view complexity as the deciding virtue. Again this seems to be most obvious in artists, one thinks of the work of Piet Mondrian, Henry Moore,Joan Miro, and the incredibly underrated and underdiscussed Barbara Hepworth, a sampling by way of link below:

It is interesting that many, including artistic conservatives (I do not mean that as an insult or I would have said reactionaries) dismiss much modern abstract art on the basis that it is TOO SIMPLE, there is not enough there.

For whatever reason, complexity is often viewed as a virtue, even in art where the decisions are in many ways very arbitrary. Of course, the financial sector can be even worse...before the recent financial crisis organizational charts of almost ludicrous complexity of interlocking partnerships, devisions, sub-partners, co-partners, ad hoc partners and arrangements were shown at business and banking forums and they would draw muted awe from the audiences, as if sheer Byzantine structural complexity was a virtue with no explanation needing to be given for it. This is something very deep in the human way of cognitive structuring, and few are those who do not at least sometimes succumb to a taste for complexity for the sheer sake of it. I know I do, if you don't believe me, just read my posts! :-)


I used the moon landing as a simple example with the least competition; it was the US vs. the USSR. Just think of how much faster we would have gotten there with their help.

There are parasites and opportunists not out of a natural human inclination, bit they arise as a result of capitalist economics. With a limited resource being held by a limited few, there will always be people in need, people who tried to play by the rules but cannot get enough to eat.

I would mention in this context the racing automobile. I have often admitted here on TOD that I am a devoted fan of motorsport and motorsport history (and this is not a great place to admit such!). To me it is an art form, pure and simple, the use of the human mind to solve a complex set of problems and push the edge on an interlocking set of parameters.

Have you read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein?

"Have you read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein?"

FMagyar, I am embarrassed to say I have not...I intended to order it from Amazon recently, but the order was for a friend so they would have had to split the shipping up so I didn't get it then. I have read reviews and know one or two people who said it is very good so it is on my shopping list...:-)

How to stop the increase in complexity?

In macro situation, such as countries competing at world stage it can't be stopped until the resources dries up. The rate of increase can be reduced through co-operation. For centuries large empires continue to compete and increase complexity but at a very slow rate.

In micro situation, such as firms in an industry competing with each other markups on debts have to be abandoned. In absence of markups a business is no longer forced to grow. I have worked for companies that were running by owners who have used their own money as capital and has not borrowed money from anybody. Such owners are usually easier to employees and don't stress for growth, they are happy on earning a stable income much like you can earn rent on a house or car you own. When growth is not stressed increase in complexity is also not stressed.

I also want to add that technology is a lever, a debt if you will, on the future. It is the cause of current simplicity but future complication.

Do not be mislead by the current comfort of technology. It is soft and supple like a new leather couch, but

I think government has a vested interest in complexity. The politicians and the bureaucrats together will always dream up new ways of expanding their empires because that is how they are paid. As an accountant I understand the tax code. It is several orders of magnitude more complex than it needs be - It therefore "gives" work to an whole army of people on both sides - those collecting and those avoiding it. And it allows the pompous clown of a Finance Minister to sound clever.

Most of the problems we discuss on this site could be solved at a stroke with a carbon tax and an oil scarcity tax that replaced dollar for dollar other taxes such as income tax. It could in itself be an exercise in reducing complexity. Will it ever happen? No, there are too many vested interests who want to retain the status quo. The problem as we all know is that the status quo is dead, but they haven't realised it yet.

SailDog you are totally correct. In the UK we have a government which gets bigger by the year. In order to justify it's existence it continues to dream upevermore idiotic 'red-tape' for business and individuals to battle against on a daily basis. The in-coming (hopefully) government has indicated that it wants a much smaller, more efficient government. Does this mean less complexity? I certainly hope so.

Good point Jamboree-Uk, but don't hold your breath. Mrs Thatcher, when she came in, also promised to sweep out much of government, but the bureaucracy is too powerful. All she managed was to halt or slow the growth of government. She really only got into her stride in her second term and she was also distracted by other things such as the Falklands war.

Meanwhile they are trying to make the carbon cap and trade work and that is a recipe for not only much more red tape, but a whole new box of goodies to give out to their mates. Both sides of politics are bad, Labour are just worse and are also more inept as managers.

It will some sort of convulsion to get rid of it all. I think one is coming, but you may well find that being in the pan is better than being in the fire.

There has to be a perception of a massive problem for such solutions as a carbon tax. I'd suggest as one possible route to a simpler society, that those of us in the U. S. who are armchair activists should get behind James Hansen's suggestion for a carbon tax (I think he calls it "fee and dividend"), and try to sink "cap and trade" before it gets started. (Assuming you accept the reality of AGW which I do.) Climate change activists are currently more politically organized than the peak oil community. Carbon tax, or fee and dividend, during the energy descent would be a great idea.


Hi Keith

I agree - AGW is a real and present problem. I know well educated and successful people here who "don't believe" it. I can't think why not, inconvenient as it is. Do these clowns think they know better than the academy of science? It however is only one symptom of the real problem which is population. So are all the other related issues such as Peak Oil, deforestation, species loss, collapsing fisheries, the loss of arable land, pollution etc etc. They all come back to this single theme: there are too many people and our demands on the planet are too great.

Maybe we should really be promoting a baby tax and rewarded sterilisation. Problem is that would snooker "growth" - that holy shibboleth we all worship.

As for political organisation, the AGW camp have nothing on the deniers. All the latter have to do is confuse and delay, their job is not only easier, but they have vested interest such as Exxon on their side. They have also recognised the field of battle better; and the AGW/PO/Green mob are a rag tag divided and disorganised rabble.

We as a species will have to meet our fate I am afraid. We will still be arguing, even as we rush headlong over the cliff.

It is a few years since I read Tainter, but I think I can remember one or two things from him.

Firstly, the question of whether complexity is good or bad is a bit irrelevant. Tainter actually says that overall complexity is inevitable, whether we like it or not. It's the way that societies, economies, civilisations, and the natural world itself all actually work. Whether we like complexity (because it gives jobs) or dislike complexity (because it uses energy) is missing the point. The fact that we have to remind ourselves to keep things simple, but we don't have to remind ourselves to make things complicated, is itself a pointer to the trajectory which we're on. Trying to reduce complexity is similar to trying to reduce entropy.

Secondly, Tainter's main point is that civilsations collapse when that becomes the economically rational thing to do. I mention this to people and their eyes bulge wide open, it is something which has never occurred to them, that total societal collapse might in any circumstances be "economically rational." But that is exactly Tainter's point. Whereas Jared D's book is about ecology, Tainter's book is about economics, and about the point at which it actually makes more economic sense to start again from scratch than it does to keep an existing economy going.

It is funny: most times people complain about globalisation is that it reduces cultural diversity, being, I think, an enormous source of complexity. So maybe in this sense complexity is reducing?
For instance a reference to gardening: people nowadays tend to learn a few more tropical fruits than in the old days, let's say 10 sorts at the highest? But at least 10 types of local edible fruits (especially wild ones) are forgotten, plus at least 10 varieties of each locally grown fruit. The gardener used to know the growth specifities of each variety. I am not speaking about the amount of different local growth specifities (planting times, combinations with other plants, rotation needs, possible dangers and sicknesses, cures and stimulants, etc.). It was not long time ago when there was still a potatoe stand on our market in Amsterdam with over 200 varieties. So it is the same on the level of the household: we know let's say 10 more recepies from abroad (curry, pizza, etc), but we have forgotten that mash potatoes should be made from floury potatoes and that apple pie should be made from Reinettes (f.i.) which have become a rarity by know.
Now it is the industry that demands certain varieties, but their specifications are much more limited than the household demands before, limited f.i. to size, sucre content and appearance. The complexity seems to shift from local practice/knowledge level to the technological/supply chain level. But is the technolocial level within the the larger, global supply chain (including research centres, and global regulatory institutions (banks, insurances, control, marketing, etc etc) more complex than the knowledge of adaptation within the local environmental and cultural conditions? Isn't there some kind of maximum complexity that the human kind can handle, and a developed society tends always to be at this maximum? It has been said that agriculture is trying to replicate an ecosystem under controlled circumstances. In this respect, the poorest ecosystem, large scale monocultures, seems the easiest to control, because of massive external inputs of machinery, growth concepts and stimulants and institutional support systems. The complexity for the farmer is how he should optimise his role in the supply chain. Now to allow structurally sickness and bucks into your farm (because as local organic farmer you create their habitats), as well as their natural enemies, requires almost the impossible of a farmer. He/she should be at the same time: manager, doctor, biologist, salesman, organiser, craftsman, etc etc. A form of multitasking of unthinkable complexity. So what is more complex? A technological supply chain with limited consumer variety (one can still debate on this last point), or a locally adapted socio-agricultural system?
Perhaps we should rather speak of a shift of local "horizontal" (community level) complexity to global "vertical" (supply chain level) complexity. For me the big question is if global supply chains (or rather WHICH global supply chains) would be able to sustain themselves in a world in which all kinds of essential resources getting are harder to obtain. Can / will supply chains be more self organising / self defending (are they already?). I am thinking here of an example that Dmitry Orlov gave just after the fall of the iron curtain in the old USSR, when lots of (former state supplied) resources suddenly became rare. Apparently, one of the few supply chains that managed to get going (with state support) was bread production. Yesterday, I saw a documentary on which industries managed to get going in the Gaza strip. A juice making factory and a cement factory were bombed, and they both reduced their "complexity". Less machines, less capacity, more hand labour, but they still managed to get their products out! I think we should not underestimate the enormous gains in labour productivity that has been made within the industrial supply chains. And it has still not ended! Even more simplification of ecosystems (life systems) and food "construction" is making the farmer as exploitable unit in the chain redundant. What the food industry needs are not farm products but just: fats, proteines and sucres. This can be produced also by bacteria and algae. With some other chemical inputs you can make almost everything what the consumer demands (or let him think what he demands). Already Monsanto is the number one ruler of the supply chain of inputs, and Unilever is one of the leaders in the food industry. It does not take a lot of imagination that a number one will emerge that will combine both the input and output side of the supply chain. Also one can easily imagine that as soon as the supply chain is controlled by such actor, that they will put everything in power to defend their chain from breaking down once it is threatened by diminishing resources. It wil probably include power supply into his supply chain, backed up by governments, who will be afraid for food riots if the supermarkets can't be supplied anymore....
So yes, some (global) supply chains will disappear, or diminish in complexity, making perhaps space for local (horizontal) complexity. But to speak of REDUCING complexity in general... I dont think so.

You just don't get entropy:
'Increases in entropy correspond to irreversible changes in a system, because some energy must be expended as waste heat, limiting the amount of work a system can do.'

The MackyD's will be the last engines to splutter to a stop.
Economies of scale just attenuate the point you reach 1:1 E.R.O.I.
Perennial agriculture is more 'complex' than annual monoculture it is also the optimum and only sustainable food production methodology.

I know what is entropy but the problem arises when a natural science concept is applied to a social science which is the domain in which we discuss right now if we speak about complexity in society... Try to imagine the amount of "energy" that is needed to design a permacultural garden.. Pretty complex matter, and the result probably will also be pretty complex in terms of observation, evaluation, manipulation and integratedness in the local socio-economic web... but does all this more or less intellectual labour, some neurons racing up and down, requires a lot of energy? It seems that in the stone age, people were able to make stone tools of such incredible ingenuity, and that in the iron age the Chinese made swords of such hard metal, that current technologies cannot replicate it. Somehow these skills hide a level of complexity of conception, material manipulation and concentration of human brilliance that once the level of complexity drops, the skills dissapear it can never be replicated again.. Ofcourse the human brain is the most energy consuming part of the body, and it got bigger in the course of evolution, but you see how "complex" things get when you want to include brain activity into the system that we observe (society) and on which we want to apply a law of thermodynamics....

You still don't get it and seemed to be trapped by the notion that humanity is distinct from the biosphere that spawned it.

Any genius we have is a sum total of the DNA we share with every living component of the planet.

We are subject to the same laws of thermodynamics as any other part of the biosphere.

Complex long distance social and trade relationships are equally possible in a post Peak Oil world just as they were before oil and coal.

There scope may be limited and regular personal contact reduced to <1% of the population.

"There scope may be limited and regular personal contact reduced to <1% of the population"

I dont think you arrive at this conclusion based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics applied to our society..
It is just your wild guess.
It is funny that the founding father of Sociology, Durkheim, in a time when social and natural sciences were not yet clearly distinguished, started of with the same type of thinking: the "law" of societal development is an ever refining division of labour and subsequent necessary adding of societal, hierarchical expanding, organisational layers (his notion of "complexity"). Since then, social science has developed and they have more or less abandoned the idea that society is ruled by laws, but rather by "social constructions". You could say that economics is the only social science left that still claims to be "objective", for example by hanging on to the idea of "free market" as a natural law, that is "constrained by "failures" caused by human intervention (regulation).

What a genius you are.LOL.
For the record I also have a 'US college level' qualification in sociology - do you.
My wild guess is not that at all, it is based on science and very conservative.
Yes, it is based on thermodynamics and travel pre industrial revolution.

"My wild guess is not that at all, it is based on science and very conservative.
Yes, it is based on thermodynamics and travel pre industrial revolution."

So how?

If your background knowledge is not up to knowing the answer...all the best old chap.

Please share your ideas.

No mystery, nothing new, 2 orders of magnitude seems reasonable.
I could dig out all the figures on syncrude EROI.
Even the current $80 is not sustainable by the OECD, so ravages of war / collapse seem likely to make a nonsense of future date projections based on science.
Just dissipated energy in plain terms in the absence of weight to energy (in EROI terms) fuels.

That cuss meter on your blog is very suspicious given that F****** each other up one way or another is our major preoccupation, still I can't fault your physics.
I like to drink too much occasionally so what do I know.



Long commutes are inefficient, complex, and deplete fuel supplies.

Egyptian oil exports peaked in the 1980's. Egyptian oil production peaked in the 1990's. Egypt became a net importer of oil in the 2000's.

Chavez threatened to seize Toyota auto manufacturing facilities in Venezuela and give the Chinese concession to manufacture autos. The communists were thieves.

"the communists were thieves"

Does this imply that the capitalists are any better?

Ha, yes, exactly! The folk hero Robin Hood would be a thief as well. Funny how the capitalists have turned our old heros agains us. You know in the 1850's it was a common thought that there was something inherently wrong about renting yourself, like the Lowell Mill Girls who continued the tradition of calling it wage slavery.

"When you sell your product, you retain your person. But when you sell your labour, you sell yourself, losing the rights of free men and becoming vassals of mammoth establishments of a monied aristocracy that threatens annihilation to anyone who questions their right to enslave and oppress.
"Those who work in the mills ought to own them, not have the status of machines ruled by private despots who are entrenching monarchic principles on democratic soil as they drive downwards freedom and rights, civilization, health, morals and intellectuality in the new commercial feudalism."


Have you read anything from General Smedley Butler ie. "War is a Racket" or his retirement speach?

The World Bank is doing a great job at destroying a community industry in a third world (Milk in Jamaica) then making them by powdered milk from the 1st world with start up conditions, which they cannot afford but must buy with borrowed funds (24% interest from the WB).

Decline once it sets in is inexorable. While there will be plateaus caused by less demand (it seems we are in one now), decline will continue until it no longer makes any sense to pump more oil, dig more coal, drill for more gas. If you believe that solar and wind can create a plateau somewhere not far from where we are now, figure out what that is like and prepare for living with the amount of energy you expect to have. If you believe that solar and wind will not be able to be replicated once oil is gone, prepare for living in a world with way less energy available. Either way, baby steps waste energy.

Looking to government for solutions is a waste of time. Clearly Copenhagen showed that the politicians from the big powers are willing to risk extinction of humans and most species in the future for the sake of BAU now. They are not going to step back in any significant way. Our future is up to us and fate, government is out of the loop. Which if one reads Tainter is what usually happens at the end of a complex society....

This whole thread has a strong deja vu feel to it, as I'm sure we've been down this road several times before, in one form or another.

As I have also said before, complexity is a very slippery subject, and it's easy to get fooled or trapped into accepting questionable assumptions. The term, 'complexity' does not quite mean the same thing when talking about an organism, a mechanism, or a society. So that is one problem. And a serious one at that.

One other thing that some people overlook is that there is a tendency to conflate the concept of complexity with the concepts of vulnerability and instability. I think there is a tendency to assume that because a particular system is complex, then it must follow that it is more vulnerable and unstable than a simpler system.

That assumption is not always warranted, because many complex systems are highly robust and stable, whereas many simpler systems are vulnerable and unstable. What matters in that regard is how much adaptability, resistance to failure, redundancy, and plain old quality is built into the system.

As an example, a Toyota Prius is quite complex as far as automobiles go, but it is highly reliable and capable of giving long trouble-free service. It is certainly more complex than say something like a 1968 East German Trabant (sp?), a truly awful, poorly built, and notriously unreliable piece of crap. So is complexity a bad thing in this particular case? No, as far as one confines oneself to when the system is operating as intended.

However, while one could repair a Trabant relatively easily in one's driveway using simple tools, it would be virtually impossible for even a knowledgeable home mechanic to do any major repairs on the Prius.

So, complexity giveth and complexity taketh.

I think it far more productive to look at the failure modes of a system and try to bolster those areas where most of vulnerabilities lie. For example, we have a very complex petroleum distribution system that is highly vulnerable to both supply disruptions and price volatility. One way of removing some of that vulnerability would be to mandate the creation of strategically located refined product storage facilities that would function as sort of a surge protector (sort of an SPR for refined product). However, I doubt that such will ever be done because it appears that the oil industry and the people who make a living trading oil don't mind at all if there are occasional supply problems. For them, some instability is potentially profitable.

I agree wholefully, see above. I propose to look at vulnerability of supply chains. An increasing scarcity of inputs for supply chains don't happen from one day at the other. They are not as sensitive as households. That is why I think in all of our discussions we stress the risks of individuals. We feel, as individuals, as families, at risk coming closer to peak oil, and we try to imagine what we can do within our own ability, to insure ourselves against those risks. Poorer households, the ones without capital reserves, when they loose jobs and things get more expensive, are the most vulnerable. In that sense, an "insurance" in the sense of a communal garden, or better acces to local natural resources can create an important part of the safety net (see Orlovs discussions how Eastern Europe turned out to be "flexible"). Speaking about international supply chains: some of them also show flexibility. Natural resources already seem to be subject of national protective policies, the beginning of a new era, after the domination of an ideology for a global free market zone for all imaginable products. Growing state control over oil industries, land grap of millions of hectares by countries like South Korea to secure vegetable oil supply, warnings of China that they will protect their "rare metals", etc..
So natural resources will not just diminish according to the smooth curve of supply and demand. Notions as THE (world) supply and THE (world) demand will no longer exist. A bit like THE global market for rice or wheat have never really existed, as the amount of agricultural products traded through global markets have always been smaller than the total of domestically traded products. The question will arise: to WHOM will resources be made available, or which supply chains will be powerfull enough to be able to source their inputs from different markets or from different "friends" in order to secure their lifelines.

I've come to the conclusion that Tainter's "complexity" and Adam Smith's "division and specialization of labor" are essentially one and the same thing. Tainter talks about something a little broader than Smith, but specialization and division of labor is the essential, irreducible core upon which all else depends and follows.

Thus, in thinking about this, the key thing to focus upon is the division and specialization of labor.

Something implicit, or maybe even explicit, in much discussion about simplification of individual lives and entire societies is the idea that people should do more things for themselves rather than just doing one specialized thing, earning money for it, and then spending that money to procure goods or services provided by other specialists for anything and everything one needs or wants. To a large extent, this is on the mark.

A problem and paradox, however: Different tasks require different tools, and the knowledge and experienced-derived skill to use them effectively. Acquiring all those different tools, and the know-how to use them, itself complicate's one's life. There are also practical limits: there are only so many hours in the day, and most people have limited money to acquire tools and know how, and have limted space to store all those tools.

Thus, it would seem that peeople could array their trade-offs on some sort of scale. Simple tasks requiring few or no specialized tools and little special know-how might very feasibly be done by themselves instead of hiring expensive specialists to do them. On the other extreme, difficult tasks requiring very specialized and expensive equipment, and extensive specialized knowledge and experience to use them, might best be left in the hands of experts, to be hired as needed. Somewhere in-between those two extremes is a personal tipping point, where DIY ceases to make sense and hiring specialists starts to become the more sensible option. That point might very well differ from one person to the next. Some people are just naturally "handy", seem to know a whole lot about a whole lot, and are versatile enough to take on tasks that would normally be beyond the capabilities of most non-specialists. Other people are natural klutzes, all thumbs and incapable of doing much of anything except the one thing that through much effort they have managed to master.

There is also the tradeoff between time and money. You can save time, or you can save money, but seldom both. The highly-paid specialist might be one of those naturally handy people, but might very well find it makes more sense to use his time practicing his specialty and earning money to pay others to do instead what he might be able to do for himself. On the other hand, the poor person who lacks the specialized skills to command premium earnings might find themselves with more time than money, and thus would have to do for themselves things that wealthier people would hire others to do.

Thus, there is no "one size" fits all solution that works for everyone. In general, however, one thing can be said with confidence: increases in societal wealth and increases in the division and specialization of labor go hand in hand, and thus decreases in societal wealth must necessarilly imply a similar decrease in the level of division and specialization of labor. Less wealthy societies cannot support the extreme levels of specialization that more wealthy societies can. As FFs - and indeed all non-renewable resources - deplete, and as the societies are increasingly forced back entirely upon renewable resources only, they are also going to have to become less wealthy. The renewable resource throughputs available are absolutely limited and do not allow for economic growth, and are almost certainly not sufficient to even sustain present levels of economic activity in most of the OECD nations. Thus, we are going to have to decline to a lower level of economic activity that is within those sustainable limits, and we are thus going to become less wealthy. That in turn implies that we must decline to a lower level of labor specialization.

That is not the same thing as saying that everyone is going to be 100% "self-sufficient", doing everything for themselves. Far from it. Even after that descent to a lower, sustainable level, there will still be sufficient resource throughput to support a society that is sufficiently wealthy to support a fairly substantial amount of labor specialization.

Can we pick "winners and losers" - which labor specializations are likely to survive and prosper, and which will likely not make the cull? It is an interesting game, but I don't have a lot of confidence in my ability to do so. We will almost certainly be surprised to some extent. For example, are the decorative arts a frivolous luxury that no one will have time or money for anymore, or will people in a poor, steady-state, zero-growth economy cherish one of the few outlets for creativity, and want beauty so much in their lives that they are willing to sacrifice a great deal for it? I simply can't answer that question at this time.

Tainter documents how increasing complexity begins to take more energy. For instance in a more complex society more schooling is needed. Thus human children are fed etc for a longer period of time and fed ever more complex and costly schooling. Likewise each new patent for invention takes more and more money (which is in essence energy) and despite devoting more humans and more time there is not an equal increase in the number of new inventions. He details and documents a variety of other areas in which over time we get less and less return for our investment. ("Tainter musters modern statistics to show that marginal returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovation are diminishing today." per wiki) This is the heart of his theory, not that complexity is somehow bad, but that there is a diminishing return on our investments in social complexity ("In Tainter's view, while invasions, crop failures, disease or environmental degradation may be the apparent causes of societal collapse, the ultimate cause is diminishing returns on investments in social complexity" per wiki). He believes the societal complexity arises to solve social problems. However at some point the complexity becomes the problem, eating up resources for less and less benefit. Then problems begin to be NOT solved by the government we payed taxes to TO solve them. At that point the complex society becomes a burden not a help and begins to collapse.

Tainter's book "Collapse of Complex Societies" is well worth the read and informational even if you don't agree with his theory.

I'm a little late to this party, but it took a bit of time walking the dog on a cold Virginia day to get my thoughts in order...

Tainter seems right about complexity fundamentally, but I need to draw a line for myself between the much decried "complexity for its own sake" which for me takes to form of planned obsolesce and outrageous parts cost, and complexity that adds to long term resilience. Both have been mentioned above, and both are important.

Regarding specialization, not so long ago, an individual who was a farmer was assumed to know something about a lot of topics -- husbandry of a variety of typical farm species, growing a variety of crops, food preservation, automotive, diesel and small engine repair to rattle off just a few. My grandfather (turns 91 this summer) was a farmer. A farmer today might know a little about some of these, but in parts of the country is likely to have specialized in one particular area -- farming x breed of chicken for P company, growing winter wheat, etc., but may not know much about what was once considered other essential skills. Specialization in this sense might be beneficial in that individuals are able to concentrate on what they do best, but certainly undermines the resilience of the system. In a changing world, I would much prefer to have a lot of old style farmers who may not produce as much wheat but also do corn, oats, hay, and meat since those folks are going to be around even after 2-3 bad years for wheat, where our specialized "farmer" may be out of luck. Here the added complexity in terms of specialization seems to be a negative.

I have traveled across the Americas, and find Brazil's case interesting in terms of transportation fuels. Where in the US the corner station probably has gasoline (3 grades, but still gasoline) and probably diesel, that same station in Brazil has alcohol fuel, grades of gasoline, diesel, and sometimes natural gas. This is obviously an increase in complexity, but it adds to resilience of the motoring system so is likely a net positive (ignoring the use of crops for fuel, of course).

Tainter seems to like to use the fall of the Roman Empire as an example of failed complexity. He makes an excellent case, but Rome brought innovations which stood the test of time to the region as well -- aqueducts and paved roads leap to mind. Both represented an increase in complexity, but I'd posit that both were major advances in Europe that have stood the test of time (and in some cases the originals are still in use today).

The bottom line for me is that all complexity is not bad -- if it adds significant value or adds resilience to a system for nominal cost (dollars or energy) I'll take a more complex system any day. That said, I tend to try and keep things as simple as I can while providing the function I desire.

There's no simple utopia in our future. Society will stay complex. The industrialization of China will increase the overall level of complexity of the world. We will have a smart grid and dynamic pricing of electricity. We will have more PV from homes tied into the grid and much more load balancing infrastructure to handle more undependable wind. We will have more complex nuclear power.

Total world energy usage might drop for several years. But I predict total world energy usage in 2040 will be much higher than it is today and per capita energy usage in 2040 will be growing due to cheap PV, cheap thorium nuclear, and cheap wind power.

But I predict total world energy usage in 2040 will be much higher than it is today and per capita energy usage in 2040 will be growing due to cheap PV, cheap thorium nuclear, and cheap wind power.

I'll be polite.
You have rocks in your head.
So whadda ya reckon about population...............ten billion people using all that extra energy?


I am not sure "You have rocks in your head" normally qualifies as being polite except among friends (I have a rare few who would consider a term like that as a term of endearment, but very few..)!

Having said that,the thought that we have (a) more wind energy and nuclear and (b)possibly growing electricity use and possibly a growing energy use per capita says nothing about the population, which may or may not be higher in total in 2040. The problem of course is simply that we would have to build fast and the raw materials constraints would be ever present.

As to 10 billion people, we cannot know how many people will still be on earth then. It may be that high, but we have seen a slowing of population growth in many parts of the world, and we have lost a great many of the baby boom generation in the developed world by perhaps or perhaps not 10 billion. We can assume there will be more people on earth then than now if historical patterns hold and any major catastophic event is avoided.

The main point I think of future pundits post was that complexity will not decrease worldwide. If we use only historical patterns, the poster is probably correct. Tainter's work refers to decrease in complexity in individual cultures as they decline/collapse, but worldwide complexity has never decreased for any noticable period of time in human history.

And please consider all possibilities...remember that while "you have rocks in your head" is a non complex rebuttal, it may not be considered a well reasoned one...:-)


The doomers have not come close to proving their case. A large part of the doomer argument is just assertion.

We have lots of ways to generate electric power. We really only face a shortage of liquid fuel.

Nuclear and wind cost more than coal electric power. But they do not cost so much more that civilization has to grind to a halt.

The future of energy over the next 20 years will be driven by how fast we can develop ways to migrate transportation to electric power. It seems obvious we can migrate some part of transportation to electric power:

- Electrified trains already run in some countries. The cost of America electrifying all trains is (if memory serves) 3-4 times the bail-out cost of AIG according to Alan Drake. Well, we can afford to do that and even with an economy half current size America could still afford to do that.

- Short distance car travel. We can afford to make subcompact electric cars good for 20-30 miles. That'll keep most people getting to work.

- Nuclear power for electric ships. The US Navy does this. So this can work too.

I still expect an economic depression when oil production goes into decline. But at some point that'll bottom out and we'll build up a new electric-powered economy. By 2040 I expect the recovery to be well underway.

I guess, in respect of 'complexity', the EOLAWKI will sort out what level of complexity is sustainable on a case by case, area by area basis.

For highly complex places the decline will hit hardest as they have both the furtherest to fall, and the lowest internal knowledge about how to live more simply, of what that weed in the empty lot really is. It will be post-cyclone New Orleans for many, and there was scant evidence of the population of that unhappy town developing any internal capacity for survival beyond looting. I guess they were overwhelmed by the expectation that 'they' would do something to 'fix' the problem.

But of course that help will never come in the great decline will it? There will not be 'enough to go around' of anything that is familiar to us.

The uncomplex man will be he who sits quietly on his haunches and watches it all unravel around him; who is prepared to let himself become very hungry while quietly living off the land around him without giving the passing madmen any idea that there is a way to subsist among the chaos. Don't meet their frantic eyes, don't answer their desperate questions. Keep your head down, be cool. Let those who will starve starve and get out of the way.

Begin again quietly and deliberately to live the uncomplex life, as nature intended, anyway.

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