03 April 2008

The Demise of Civilisation: Inevitable? Eventually

Every civilisation meets its end eventually. The recent article in New Scientist "Why the Demise of Civilisation May be Inevitable" was meant to answer the question in a more immediate timeframe than "eventually."
Doomsday scenarios typically feature a knockout blow: a massive asteroid, all-out nuclear war or a catastrophic pandemic (see "The end of civilisation"). Yet there is another chilling possibility: what if the very nature of civilisation means that ours, like all the others, is destined to collapse sooner or later?

A few researchers have been making such claims for years. Disturbingly, recent insights from fields such as complexity theory suggest that they are right. It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down.

Some say we have already reached this point, and that it is time to start thinking about how we might manage collapse. Others insist it is not yet too late, and that we can - we must - act now to keep disaster at bay. ___NewScientist
Well, every civilisation that has had its day, has also had its night--its end. Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Inca, Maya, Aztec, and so on. What might be the Achilles' heel for our civilisation? And no, the answer is not Peak Oil, Global Warming, Armageddon, or any of the other religious and quasi-religious dime a dozen doomsdays that are floating around. The answer is much more interesting--and more real.
To keep growing, societies must keep solving problems as they arise. Yet each problem solved means more complexity. Success generates a larger population, more kinds of specialists, more resources to manage, more information to juggle - and, ultimately, less bang for your buck.

Eventually, says Tainter, the point is reached when all the energy and resources available to a society are required just to maintain its existing level of complexity. Then when the climate changes or barbarians invade, overstretched institutions break down and civil order collapses. What emerges is a less complex society, which is organised on a smaller scale or has been taken over by another group.

Tainter sees diminishing returns as the underlying reason for the collapse of all ancient civilisations, from the early Chinese dynasties to the Greek city state of Mycenae. These civilisations relied on the solar energy that could be harvested from food, fodder and wood, and from wind. When this had been stretched to its limit, things fell apart. ___NS
So modern western civilisation has gotten bigger in every way than any previous civilisation, and more complex. We have computers and nuclear reactors and skies full of people at 30,000 feet traveling above 500 miles per hour. We furnish our homes and refrigerators with products from every part of the globe. We have one manned space station, with plans for more--and more ambitious plans to go to Mars and beyond.

Have we bitten off more than our monkey brains can chew?
"To run a hierarchy, managers cannot be less complex than the system they are managing," Bar-Yam says. As complexity increases, societies add ever more layers of management but, ultimately in a hierarchy, one individual has to try and get their head around the whole thing, and this starts to become impossible. At that point, hierarchies give way to networks in which decision-making is distributed. We are at this point.

This shift to decentralised networks has led to a widespread belief that modern society is more resilient than the old hierarchical systems. "I don't foresee a collapse in society because of increased complexity," says futurologist and industry consultant Ray Hammond. "Our strength is in our highly distributed decision making." This, he says, makes modern western societies more resilient than those like the old Soviet Union, in which decision making was centralised. ___NS
So we are a networked civilisation, and that makes us more resilient? Some "experts" disagree. They say that when interconnection reaches a certain level--particularly in financial networks--that a loss of one part can bring everything down.
Scientists in other fields are also warning that complex systems are prone to collapse. Similar ideas have emerged from the study of natural cycles in ecosystems, based on the work of ecologist Buzz Holling, now at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Some ecosystems become steadily more complex over time: as a patch of new forest grows and matures, specialist species may replace more generalist species, biomass builds up and the trees, beetles and bacteria form an increasingly rigid and ever more tightly coupled system.

"It becomes an extremely efficient system for remaining constant in the face of the normal range of conditions," says Homer-Dixon. But unusual conditions - an insect outbreak, fire or drought - can trigger dramatic changes as the impact cascades through the system. The end result may be the collapse of the old ecosystem and its replacement by a newer, simpler one.

Globalisation is resulting in the same tight coupling and fine-tuning of our systems to a narrow range of conditions, he says. Redundancy is being systematically eliminated as companies maximise profits. Some products are produced by only one factory worldwide. Financially, it makes sense, as mass production maximises efficiency. Unfortunately, it also minimises resilience. "We need to be more selective about increasing the connectivity and speed of our critical systems," says Homer-Dixon. "Sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits."

Tainter is not convinced that even new technology will save civilisation in the long run. "I sometimes think of this as a 'faith-based' approach to the future," he says. Even a society reinvigorated by cheap new energy sources will eventually face the problem of diminishing returns once more. Innovation itself might be subject to diminishing returns, or perhaps absolute limits.

Studies of the way cities grow by Luis Bettencourt of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, support this idea. His team's work suggests that an ever-faster rate of innovation is required to keep cities growing and prevent stagnation or collapse, and in the long run this cannot be sustainable.

The stakes are high. Historically, collapse always led to a fall in population. "Today's population levels depend on fossil fuels and industrial agriculture," says Tainter. "Take those away and there would be a reduction in the Earth's population that is too gruesome to think about."

If industrialised civilisation does fall, the urban masses - half the world's population - will be most vulnerable. Much of our hard-won knowledge could be lost, too. "The people with the least to lose are subsistence farmers," Bar-Yam observes, and for some who survive, conditions might actually improve. Perhaps the meek really will inherit the Earth.
Complexity of systems is a fairly young field of study. Most of the people quoted in the article do not actually know what they are talking about, not really. They are speaking in abstract terms about theoretical problems that may or may not occur. Academics and think tank scholars--like journalists and politicians--are of limited use in dealing with real world problems. If they were competent and effective in the real world, most of them would probably be doing something else. Still, a wise person looks for ideas in a wide array of places.

It is fairly obvious that our complex electronic global financial systems are vulnerable to disruption. In fact, in the next large scale war, one of the first casualties of large nations will be their financial and communications networks. Satellites will be lost, landlines and seafloor cables will be cut, and computer centers will be sabotaged. Yes, there are backups and redundant systems and databases. But access will be a problem for large numbers. For monkey-brained humans, large scale panic sets in fairly easily.

An abrupt cutoff of fuel for ground, rail, and air transportation could likewise lead to large scale hardship and civil disturbances. A loss of electrical power would leave tens or hundreds of millions in complete turmoil. Most cities have only a few days worth of food inside their borders. Rather than confronting these important vulnerabilities, most leaders tend to obscure them and steer public discussion away to other topics.

It was fairly easy for two handfuls of young religious fanatics to shut down the North American air system for several days in September of 2001. It would be just as easy today.

Modern laboratory tools for biology and chemistry provide many ways to turn an open, trusting society into a shut-down, quivering, fearful society. Soon nanotechnological tools will make even more devastatingly deadly--and invisible--weapons readily available. It is easy to send modern western media-centered societies into paralytic states of fear.

We do not need to think about what Apophis may do in 2036 to understand that our societies are vulnerable. But our civilisation? Not so much. We may have to give up some of our openness in the public sphere for a while. We may have to put up with far more intrusive security measures, temporarily, than the worst schemes ever considered by Bush and Cheney. But the civilisation would survive.

The greatest threat to our civilisation is also the greatest promise--the possibility that something better will be devised. That better civilisation will have its vulnerabilities, yes. But the participants in the next level should have some important upgrades to their monkey-brains which will allow them to consider more contingencies, and devise better ways to deal with them.

Even our best thinkers can be quite slipshod at times. We have computers to help us with that, but some problems of pompous overreach cannot be compensated or corrected by computers. We can use human-level AI, certainly. But we need to become smarter, more than our machines. If we put our fate trustingly into the hands of machines that we can never understand, have we not just traded up to an even more dangerous vulnerability?

Full ArticleQuoted Above

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Blogger Ugh said...

Excellent piece. It is an overwhelming subject. Much easier to play the ostrich and bury ones head in the sand than consider and plan for such events. I am responsible for the network recovery (business continuity)for a multi-billion dollar corporation where complex systems have been built one layer on top of an another for decades. We have discovered that setting priorities and separating sub-systems and their dependencies is the only way to approach contingency planning without losing one's sanity. Anyway - it was a very thought provoking piece. Thanks.

Friday, 04 April, 2008  
Blogger Mike Treder said...

Al, both your blog entry and the NS article hint at the possibility that an inevitable failure of complex civilizations might explain the Fermi Paradox. I explore that line of reasoning here.

Friday, 04 April, 2008  
Blogger neil craig said...

We have far more redundancy (ie wealth) in our society than ever before. In ancient societies 90% of people really did have to work at their limit to grow food, now it is a couple of % with shorter hours.

While there is something to the complexity argument I think the increase in wealth more than compensates. After all medieval society was much more complex than that of the cave men, but didn't collapse because of it.

Friday, 04 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Craig: Thanks. You are in an excellent position to understand some of the vulnerability I referred.

Mike: Very interesting article at nanotech-now, thanks. Of the three alternatives you posit, I suspect the reality is a combination of 2 and 3. Some advanced civilisations are in hiding, perhaps as discussed here.

Others probably could not surmount the (yet undiscovered by us) obstacles to far-ranging space travel, or were destroyed by them.

Think of a form of deadly "space herpes" or "space AIDS" that strikes from out of nowhere, unexpected, in an instant. It follows you back home, and destroys all that you hold dear.

Neil, excess wealth is only useful to the extent that it can be readily used in difficult situations. We have strategic reserves of energy and food, but do we have enough and will we be able to distribute it widely enough? "Wealth" stored in the form of electronic records can be destroyed in an eyeblink.

Hurricane Katrina was a category 3 storm that seemed to have a category 5 impact in New Orleans--mainly because of the incompetence of Nagin and Blanco. Strangely enough, there are a lot of administrators who were freely elected by citizens who are even more incompetent than the corrupt Louisianans.

Friday, 04 April, 2008  
Blogger IConrad said...

We have strategic reserves of energy and food, but do we have enough and will we be able to distribute it widely enough? "Wealth" stored in the form of electronic records can be destroyed in an eyeblink.

I have to say, Al, that I can't agree with this sort of thought: while a civilization that remains at our artificially non-distributed technological base will in fact find itself much more fragile than "simpler" civilizations, the fact of the matter is that we currently stand at a place where even a precipitous decline would have a relatively rapid re-accumulation of complexity.

Now, given the fact that there are active groups working on manifesting non-MNT Von Neumann-esque technologies (RepRap & Fab@Home) under GNU licens, no less, and further given the modern drive towards developing economically viable distributed energy resource technologies (PV tech & algal biodiesel to name two), we will soon see a point where the 'bottom point' we could fall to would be radically higher than previous societies -- even //their// highs would be lower than //our// lows.

Transhumanism, however, is truly the only viable solution to this quandary -- which I admit does impede continued growth. The only way for humanity to cope with the increasing complexity is, by some point, to increase humanity's capacity for complexity.

Three things are needed for this:
1. Superior algorithms for processing incoming information.

2. Superior capacity for learning and recalling new information.

3. Superior capacity to introduce new information.

Should all three be viably introduced, we could see for example pills that upon introduction to the digestive tract, break down into nanites that rearrange themselves within the brains of children into the neural pathways for knowledge of advanced physics and chemistry, etcetera -- while at the same time those children have implants or genetic alterations that grant them the ability to think with their full level of attention on multiple topics, //and// have external memories on an i/o switch allowing instantaneous communication with the information network.

At that point, literally the sum of human knowledge could be fully grasped by any preteen. And that would, no matter how you look at it, quite succinctly solve the problem of complexity for millennia or even epochs to come.

Friday, 04 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Conrad: I agree with the long term cure you suggest. I tried to suggest as much in the closing for my main article above. My concept of "the next level" contains a lot of overlap with more conventional concepts of "transhumanism" such as you describe.

But just because something "needs to happen" does not mean that it will actually happen. Until then, regardless of the "complexity" of our civilisation, we are vulnerable to being overrun and/or impaired in our efforts to progress, by less advanced but more numberous lesser cultures.

Europe is experiencing such a trojan horse phenomenon, and seems not only unaware of the problem, but completely unprepared and unable to deal with it should awareness finally dawn.

The inner cities of North America contain growing enclaves of a psychological third world, that represents a lesser but still significant threat of civil breakdown requiring expensive and time-consuming repair.

A "dependency psychology" originating in victimist philosophies of the left, is one of the most rapidly propagating memes within western culture currently.

I would be so much happier if your "transhumanist meme" were the dominant propagator.

Friday, 04 April, 2008  
Blogger Michael Anissimov said...

It's a mistake to dismiss AI as "the Other". What if (as many think), building human-level AI (a plane) is simply easier than substantially upgrading our so-complex biological brains (making a bird that can fly as fast as a plane)?

Then we need an actual strategy to create AIs that can cooperate with us, not a dismissive waving of the hand.

Thursday, 10 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

The problem with the naive pursuit of machine super-intelligence is not being competent to know when the machine is telling you the truth.

Once you reach that point, you are operating purely on wishful thinking.

Friday, 11 April, 2008  
Blogger Mike Treder said...

Al, I posted some extended commentary on your blog entry here...


Friday, 11 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Mike. Your article was a pleasure to read.

Saturday, 12 April, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article is a very nice and full of information and knowledge about what might happen to the current advanced civilizations.
When we see to the current world, we don't see one civilization. There hundred of them, most with overlapping cultural aspects. And each has different kind of complexity, and each is dealing with different issues of humanity in a different way.
When reading your article, I felt that you are referring the current North American and Western European civilization as the human civilization. Specially in one of your comment when you said:
"Europe is experiencing such a trojan horse phenomenon, and seems not only unaware of the problem, but completely unprepared and unable to deal with it should awareness finally dawn.", I think you are referring to the increasing population and power of immigrants which have their own cultures.
I agree with you that the civilization you are referring has grown extremely complex and one of the side effect is that most of the resources are spent on non vital artifacts, and it also did not solved the problem of proper and optimum distribution and allocation of resources. And the current economic crisis might also play a role in the simplification of the civilization.
But there can be some other scenario as well: An other civilization from Asia or Africa etc may advance without having the complexity issues and current complex western civilization might be replaced, by a hopefully non-destructive mean.

Tuesday, 17 July, 2012  

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