Unwinding Complexity and the Collapse of Societies

I was in New York City recently for some meetings. I was walking around Lower Manhattan and — in a city that large — by chance bumped into an old Navy buddy who now works for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The NTSB ball cap gave him away. He was investigating the “splashdown” of the US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. It was an unbelievable coincidence to see this fellow after many years.

My NTSB friend was good enough to get me past the security and near the aircraft as it floated in the water. It was nighttime. The weather was very cold and windy, so all the physical work was just plain tough. (Pity the frigid divers, placing slings under the fuselage and wings.) The giant cranes were just getting ready to lift the aircraft hulk out of the river and onto a barge. I was taken in by all the personnel and equipment at the scene of the crash — and this was a nonfatal crash, thank God!

There were New York police and firefighters. There were Port Authority cops. There were New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation people and folks from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. There were New York City Hazmat people, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration. There were people from the State University of New York scanning the river bottom with sonar.

There were reps from a multitude of private entities like U.S. Airways (naturally), Airbus (ditto), the crane company employees, diving and salvage people, insurance carriers, environmental testing firms and many others. There were lots of news media there as well. There was even a Salvation Army truck on-site, with pots of hot coffee and sandwiches for the many people who were part of the effort.

And then there were lots of spectators, including people working out behind the glass at a gym inside an adjacent building. They were watching the whole scene from the comfort of their StairMasters and Lifecycles.

My take-away thought about this was how complex our society has become. There are layers upon layers of complexity and astonishing levels of technical expertise. There are so many different organizations, agencies, groupings of people and assemblages of equipment. It all costs a lot of money and consumes a lot of energy. When something dramatic happens, like an airplane crash, it all mobilizes and comes on-site. That’s OK when major disasters are one-off incidents. But what if several incidents occur in short order or close proximity? What happens when money, if not energy, gets scarce? The whole process could get overwhelmed.

Dealing with Modern Complexity

Of course, New York knows something about dealing with disasters. After all, we were about three blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center. Still, it takes years to hire and train all of these experts. And more years to acquire all this sophisticated gear. It’s a very laborious and expensive process. Just keeping this level of capability on a standby basis requires a massive commitment of resources. When you need it, you need it now. If you don’t have it, you can’t build it up quickly. And when you have it (like New York has some of everything), you don’t want to get rid of it in some frenzy of so-called cost cutting. But still, it makes me wonder.

Societies develop layers of complexity to solve problems. The thing to keep in mind, however, is the historical fact that every complex civilization that has ever lived on this world has collapsed. Bar none. All societies have come to an end. Cultural anthropologist Joseph Tainter documented this in 1988 in his astonishing book The Collapse of Complex Societies.

That is, as societies become more complex, the costs of meeting new challenges increase. Eventually, every society arrives at a point at which devoting extra resources to meeting new challenges produces diminishing returns. Then negative returns. Along comes a systemic shock. The shock might be internal (resource exhaustion, for example) or external (foreign war, for another example). And the shock triggers collapse. When collapse occurs, it almost always occurs rapidly. Things fall apart and quickly decay to a much lower state of complexity. Societies become less complex by collapsing into smaller, much less complex subgroups.

The Western world — certainly, the U.S. — has spent the past century engaged in an arms race of social complexity. And from where we now stand, there’s no gentle “build-down.” The more people who understand that, the better.

Habemus DOE Chief of Staff

Meanwhile, we have a new U.S. president. You-know-who. And the new president has a new secretary at the Dept. of Energy (DOE), Steven Chu, who received a Nobel Prize in physics. (That’s a refreshing change for the DOE.) And the new DOE secretary has a new chief of staff, Rod O’Connor.

Mr. O’Connor has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. And he worked for Al Gore in both the Senate and White House. Mr. O’Connor organized and ran the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles as well as the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. And he was chief of staff of the Democratic National Committee.

I’ve never met Mr. O’Connor. But I have met Joseph Tainter (see above). It seems to me that what we need at DOE is a more of a Rickover man (Hyman Rickover being “the Father of the Nuclear Navy”), not a Gore man whose claim to fame is strong political credentials. So is this a sign of the politicization of energy? I’m shocked. I truly want to see the country do well in the next four years. As a nation, we cannot afford to screw up, either with energy in general or at the Energy Dept. We shall see what happens at DOE. Meanwhile, I hope that Mr. O’Connor reads Mr. Tainter’s book. He can even have my copy. It’s underlined.

Until we meet again,
Byron W. King

February 3, 2009