Welcome to Art class: The “art” may be survival
Tuesday, 8 February, 2011 2 Comments
If you have visited my blog before you will have read about “The collapse of complex civilisations” by Dr Joseph Tainter.
For quite a while it has been my intention to share these paintings by Thomas Cole (I’m sad enough to have the series stored in my Picture Gallery!) because it always struck me that “ol’ TC knew the score”. But I just never quite got around to it. Then, to my delight, I found this video. Job’s a good ‘un.
So you have the benefit of seeing the pictures and getting a bit of commentary too.
For me, though, THE recurring question is what happens when the civilisation in question is truly global? Obviously, in Tainter’s book the past civilizations were separated by time or geography that allowed for the “cycle” to begin again…
Complex systems are really robust – up until a certain point. I’ve referred many times to Joseph Tainter’s theory that once past that ‘certain point’, things begin to fall apart rapidly. In Tainter’s own words:
“The graph in Figure 4.1 is based on these arguments. As a society increases in complexity, it expands investment in such things as resource production, information processing, administration, and defence. The benefit/cost curve for these expenditures may at first increase favourably, as the most simple, general, and inexpensive solutions are adopted (a phase not shown on this chart). Yet as a society encounters new stresses, and inexpensive solutions no longer suffice, its evolution proceeds in a more costly direction. Ultimately a growing society reaches a point where continued investment in complexity yields higher returns, but at a declining marginal rate. At a point such as B1, C1 on this chart a society has entered the phase where it starts to become vulnerable to collapse. 
Figure 4.1. Diminishing returns to increasing complexity (after Tainter 1988).
Two things make a society liable to collapse at this point. First new emergencies impinge on a people who are investing in a strategy that yields less and less marginal return. As such a society becomes economically weakened it has fewer reserves with which to counter major adversities. A crisis that the society might have survived in its earlier days now becomes insurmountable.”
Admittedly his studies were of ancient peoples who ran out of things like water, food, or were hit with a succession of adverse events from which their societies could not recover. BUT with the scope for global pandemics, issues like global warming and “peak oil” (I could go on!) it would be extremely naive to take any great comfort from that!
“When it comes to epidemics of disease, financial crises, political revolutions, social movements, and dangerous ideas, we are all connected by short chains of influence. It doesn’t matter if you know about them, and it doesn’t matter if you care, they will have their effect anyway. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the first great lesson of the connected age: we may all have our own burdens, but like it or not, we must bear each other’s burdens as well”
Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age
I hope this item has got you thinking about things that you, either haven’t really thought much about before OR to see some things that have, perhaps been taken for granted, in a new light. If you are hungry for more the presentation link in this item is excellent (even if it does take a few minutes to get to the really thought-provoking stuff from a business – supply chain – perspective).