Managed collapse

Contributed by: Audrey Mayer

Ernest Callenbach has an interesting new article in the Solutions journal, entitled “Sustainable Shrinkage: Envisioning a smaller, stronger economy“. He discusses the ways in which we can modify our existing systems to fit within natual resource limits and avoid collapse. These solutions rely heavily on new policies (to encourage different behaviors) and technologies, with considerable assumptions about population growth and reorganization at the local scale. It’s a good (if a bit superficial) read, with many good ideas that will not work at the scale he is envisioning, in my humble opinion.

A substantial part of my research program uses statistical theory to develop indicators for when complex systems (especially human-environment or “socioecological” systems) are about to collapse. In particular, my colleagues and I have tried to apply a statistic called Fisher Information, which is a measure of the predictability of a system over time; the more predictable the system, the higher Fisher Information is. Complex systems tend to have many negative (stabilizing) feedbacks that keep the system’s behavior relatively stable and predictable. As these stabilizing feedbacks deteriorate, the system’s behavior becomes more erratic and hence more difficult to predict. At the peak (or valley?) of collapse, that system could go in one of many typically unpredictable directions. As that system begins to reorganize, new stabilizing feedbacks develop and settle the system into a new operating state, becoming more predictable again. In our work, we have seen a drop in Fisher Information just prior to system collapse, and then Fisher Information increases as these systems reorganize.

The question Callenbach poses is this: can we somehow guide our systems through this collapse and reorganization process with a minimal loss of order? He is not the only one to ask this question. There is a growing literature* which provides ample evidence that large human-environment systems (such as nations or empires) can and do undergo collapse and reorganization regularly…. the current events in the Middle East illustrate this quite well. Typically the reorganization is slow, disorderly, and unpredictable.

My short, pessimistic answer to Callenbach’s question is no: we cannot manage our large, socioecological systems through a collapse and reorganization without substantial disorder. We cannot predict how any new, large system will function, nor when it will function with any predictability. I argue that the self-organizing dynamics at the scale of, say, the United States federal government, are far too large and powerful, and we understand them too poorly, to trust that federal policies and large technological solutions will help us glide to a smarter, more sustainable future. Instead, I think these changes must occur at smaller, more manageable scales: the individual, the family, the local community. At these scales, we can understand and influence the dynamics and feedbacks, and reorganize into functional units. This is not to say that all of Callenbach’s solutions are wishful thinking: creating more durable goods and stronger social ties (and reducing the consumption of cheap products made far away with cheap labor) are solutions that have been advanced from many corners. These are solutions that are more tenable at the small scale…. they will have to propogate up to the larger systems.

*These include books such as Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies“, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed“, Dmitry Orlov’s humorous “Reinventing collapse: The Soviet example and American prospects“, Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course: The unsustainable future of our economy, energy and environment,” among many others.

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