Is the current ‘populist’ surge across the Western world a sign that we have entered a ‘crisis of complexity’? I discuss this with Markus Völter from omega tau podcast.
Last year, a few days after the ‘Brexit’ vote, I published a long article arguing that the ‘populist’ surge across the Western world was more than just a reaction against globalisation, immigration, increasing inequality, or the rising pace of economic, social and technological change. Something more fundamental, I argued, was probably at play: the advent of a ‘crisis of complexity’ caused by rising biophysical constraints and characterised by the diminishing returns of our investments in ‘societal complexity’.
My thesis is inspired by the work of American anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter, who has shown how human societies historically act as problem-solving organisations that tend to develop ever-greater organisational and technical complexity in order to solve the social, economic and political problems they are confronted with. As their complexity increases, the problems they have to deal with become more difficult to solve, requiring growing investment in further economic and societal complexity. According to Tainter, however, investment in socio-political complexity eventually tends to reach a point of diminishing returns, where the marginal beneficial returns (i.e. problems solved) of additional complexity begin to decline, leading to a lowered capacity to solve the new problems that arise and to deal with their consequences. These returns may even turn negative, at which point societies struggle to uphold the level of complexity they have reached and may have to move down to a lower complexity level. This, says Tainter, is the pattern behind the rise and fall of most civilizations in human history.
In my post last year, I argued that “the political crisis that is now engulfing Western countries, and more particularly Europe, suggests that we may be reaching or even have reached the point identified by Joseph Tainter where our standard way of solving the problems we face – i.e. investing in organisational and technical complexity – is yielding diminishing returns. If this is the case, we should not be surprised that more and more of our complex economic, technical, political and social systems are showing signs of stress, or even early signs of failure. As our capacity to invest in further complexity continues to get eroded by energy-related and other biophysical constraints, we should expect more stress to develop across the board, potentially leading to some sort of systemic breakdown and forced simplification. The growing popular revolts against globalisation, the EU, or multiculturalism are signs that our societies are already struggling to uphold their level of complexity and are subject to strong forces that are pulling towards a break down to a lower complexity level (i.e. localised economies, national governance, homogeneous societies, etc.).“
My essay caught the attention of two Guardian columnists, George Monbiot and John Harris, who mentioned it in their own pieces:
- Trump’s climate denial is just one of the forces that point towards war – George Monbiot, 23 November 2016
- The lesson of Trump and Brexit: a society too complex for its people risks everything – John Harris, 29 December 2016
Following this, I was invited by Marküs Volter from omega tau to take part in one of his podcast episodes. Omega tau is a podcast covering various topics in science and engineering, and that sometimes ventures into political or societal territories. The podcast episode was just released, and you can listen to our discussion on omega tau website or on the iTunes store (omega tau 238). Warning: the podcast lasts for over an hour.
In October 2015, Markus had discussed with Joseph Tainter his concept of increasing complexity and eventual collapse of societies, an episode that you are encouraged to listen as well, which is available there and on the iTunes store (omega tau 184).
Enjoy, and don’t hesitate to leave comments here or at omega tau.