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John Hawkins

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June 18, 2012 - 7:00 am

On the other hand, X-Events: The Collapse of Everything offers a different take on the coming years — the challenge of complexity. From page 44:

The crunch comes when we recognize that societies must continually solve problems in order to keep growing. But the solution to these problems requires ever more complex structures. Ultimately, a point is reached where all the resources of the society are consumed just in maintaining the system at its current level. At this point, the society is experiencing a complexity overload; no further degrees of freedom exist for coping with new problems. When the next problem appears, the system cannot accommodate it by adding more complexity. So it collapses quickly through an X-event that rapidly reduces the complexity overload.

Here’s another way to think of it. Once, almost everyone grew his own food. Now, however, you can buy a wider selection much more cheaply at your local supermarket. For that to happen a bewildering array of different options has to fall into place just so. We need farmers who can grow enough not just for themselves but also to feed legions of others. To grow their crops, they need seed, water, sunlight, good weather, energy to power the equipment, and ideally they need to keep bugs from eating their crops. Then, the food has to be picked and shipped either directly to the store or to other locations where it’s processed and turned into a meal. To make that happen, they need people and equipment to harvest the crops, gasoline to power the trucks, computers to alert everyone where the product needs to be shipped, etc. If for some reason waterlines failed and there was no gasoline to power the trucks or computers to organize the deliveries, the entire process would break down in short order and tens of millions of people would starve to death as a result. So, the system we have in place now is several orders of magnitude better than it was 100 years ago and it can sustain a much larger population, but the complexity involved means that if one crucial link in the chain breaks, the results will be catastrophic.

Of course, complex systems have multiple fail-safes built in to prevent this from happening. The problem with this is that at certain levels of complexity, the world becomes like an elaborate game of Mousetrap. Numerous complicated processes must work extremely well for the miracle of modern life to continue apace.

So what happens if Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head and some of the unlikely, but possible disasters on the horizon come to pass? What if the Internet, which was never designed to do what we use it for, is completely disabled by hackers? How about if the peak oil theorists finally turn out to be right and the price of gasoline doubles or triples worldwide? What would happen in the United States if nuclear bombs exploded in New York, D.C., and L.A. simultaneously? Or an EMP bomb fries every electronic circuit coast-to-coast? How about a naturally occurring global pandemic that kills billions? Keep in mind that we’re not even getting into the more exotic scenarios like intelligent robots or runaway nanobots that seem fantastical today, but should be much more plausible in 20 or 30 years.

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