The Future is More Than Complex
How complexity creates the conditions for societal collapse
The Coming Collapse
Two years ago, at the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic, I wrote the following in my short book, All Crises are Local: Understanding the COVID-19 Global Pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a case study in a global systems breakdown.
COVID-19 is not simply a global health crisis. Public health is one function among many. As a systems crisis, the coronavirus pandemic impacts every person, organization, and community on a global scale. The crisis is impacting the economies of the world, the political cultures of nations, and the social progress that has advanced world-wide over the past century.”
It is not the first global crisis that has had a deep effect on our world. Going back a hundred years we could create a long list of crises that impacted the world.
The Past One Hundred Years
To begin, there was the First World War, along with the rise of Soviet Communism followed by German Fascism, accompanied by the worldwide depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, the wars in Southeastern Asia sweeping through China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia to the current conflicts in Myanmar, North Korea, and in the Pacific Rim. There are serial conflicts in Africa and the nations of the Arab world. More recently, there has been the rise of global terrorism and the Great Recession.
We can look back at that same hundred years and see that peace came to places that were once constantly at war. In addition, prosperity grew globally as extreme poverty dropped below 10% for the first time in human history. We see here a dynamic picture of global civilization through a systems perspective.
A system is “an interdependent network of functions within a social or organizational structure.”
This system has been controlled by national governments, global socio-political organizations, and transnational corporations. The past hundred years have been an era in which centralized organizational structures ruled the world.
The Rise and Decline of Globalization
The historical picture described above illustrates both the advancement and decline of the systems of the world over the past century. Global is not an objective word but an adjective one. You cannot buy a global. It describes something else. It is similar to words like society and civilization. They are descriptive words that people use to describe a complex collection of functions.
In this sense, each of these words describes the systems of the world.
Global is everywhere on planet Earth.
Societal because it incorporates all the social relations within a particular place.
Civilization because it represents the cultural history and values of the place being described.
What grows or fails in regard to these words are their systems or functions.
Quite possibly, the coronavirus pandemic may be the pinnacle of global institutions’ influence and power. Its decline will not come from rival political or social groups. Rather, its decline is baked into its design.
The global systems that allow the world to function are broken. They have been breaking down and fragmenting for a long time. Having watched the development of organizational structures for most of my career, I know we are witnessing the end of the life cycle of modern institutions.
I realize this sounds ridiculous as the governments of Australia, Canada, and even the US seem to be demonstrating an unpreceded consolidation of power. Yet, recent history demonstrates that moving toward a more authoritarian political structure is a sign of the beginning of the end for the nation’s political system. In other words, they have entered a stage of societal decline, or worse, collapse.
Joseph Tainter has spent a lifetime researching the causes of societal collapse. In referring to his study of the collapse of civilizations, Tainter recently said in an interview,
“What I learned … was that the things that caused ancient civilizations to collapse, that made them vulnerable to collapse applied to us. … the factors that make a society sustainable or vulnerable to collapse developed over long periods of time. These are periods well beyond the experience of an individual’s lifetime. I’m talking periods of decades, generations, or even centuries. … Sustainability is a function of success in solving problems … solving problems causes societies to grow more complex.”
In the presentation where I first learned about Professor Tainter’s work, he makes the point that a societal collapse is “a radical simplification of a complex system.” The global coronavirus pandemic response has created greater complexity than most of us have ever experienced. The pandemic’s disruption in our local schools, our social relationships, our businesses, and workplaces has brought change that makes life uncertain.
In response, there is a rapid simplification in how we live. People are discovering that they have alternatives to the way things always had to be. Life is complex and dynamic, filled with change. We can still find hope if we have the right mind for it.
One of the Circle of Impact Guiding Principles states that “We are ALL in transition. Every one of us. All the time.” This represents to me the growing complexity and dynamism that we are constantly experiencing. We must adapt and find ways to make something good come out of these hard times.
Why Things Collapse
Dietrich Dörner, a German psychologist, describes how failure can happen in his book, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations.
“Failure does not strike like a bolt from the blue; it develops gradually according to its own logic. As we watch individuals attempt to solve problems, we will see that complicated situations seem to elicit habits of thought that set failure in motion from the beginning. From that point, the continuing complexity of the task and the growing apprehension of failure encourage methods of decision making that make failure even more likely and then inevitable.”
Complexity is a factor that Dörner identifies as to why persons and organizations fail. He writes,
“Complexity is the label we will give to the existence of many interdependent variables in a given system. The more variables and the greater their interdependence, the greater the system’s complexity. Great complexity places high demands on a planner’s capacities to gather information, integrate findings, and design effective actions.”
In the case of the pandemic, the variable is not the prescribed solution but rather the biodiversity of the human body dispersed through a wide diversity of ethnic and cultural environments. This is where we find the complexity that sustains life and communities worldwide.
Complexity is how we experience life. It may feel like a set of obstacles that makes it harder to accomplish a task or to be clear about a particular situation. It also represents a range of possibilities that call upon us to make choices. Complexity obscures and enriches. We only see a portion of the complexity of our lives or the world at any moment. It is for this reason that we learn to adapt and to approach life by solving problems.
Joseph Tainter says, “… ancient societies tended to grow in complexity as they solved problems.” This is key for understanding his perspective. He describes what the organizational context of complexity looks like. See if this sounds familiar.
“… among contemporary societies, as regulations are issued and taxes established, lobbyists seek loopholes and regulators strive to close these. There is an increased need for specialists to deal with complexity and costs continuously increasing. … Any complex hierarchy must allocate a portion of its resource base to solving the problems of the population it administers, but must also set aside resources to solve problems created by its own existence, and created by virtue of overall society complexity. … To maintain growth in complexity, hierarchies levy heavier taxes on their populations. At some point even this yields declining marginal returns. This happens when rates are so high that avoidance increases, and taxation-induced inflation erodes the value of the money collected.”
Think of complexity as a coin with two different sides.
On one side is the complexity of a society that solves problems that advances us forward. Lowering the extreme poverty level from 40% to under 10% in a quarter-century is a product of the social scientific complexity that developed as a strategy for alleviating poverty.
On the other side, every solution to a societal problem brings with it the cost of sustaining the solution into the future. Growth in complexity is a way to understand how the world changes. It shows us that we are always in transition. We are in such a transition now with the global coronavirus pandemic.
The Solution to Societal Collapse
If we are at a transition point in history leading toward societal collapse, then it is a problem that we must face. Many people see this collapse coming. If you search podcasts, videos, and blog posts for insight, you will find a lot of advice, stern warnings, and fear about the end of the world. There is not much hope from those who take a more apocalyptic view of the coming collapse.
I do not see the collapse in this way. Instead, I see it as a necessary step in the progress toward a better world. Old ways fail. People hang on to them because they were useful at one time. They came into their positions of power and prestige because of those old ways. It is the old ways that die when a collapse comes.
So, what are we to do?
The first thing to do is to educate yourself.
This means that you take no one’s word as the final word on any subject. I am including myself in this recommendation. The more diverse your sources of information the better chance of actually learning what you need to know. This is how you educate yourself to know your own mind.
A place to start is right here with Tainter’s insights about the relationship of complexity and societal collapse. He explains in four concepts how we get from a world of solution-making to a society that is collapsing.
1. Human societies are problem-solving organizations;
2. Sociopolitical systems require energy for their maintenance;
3. Increased complexity carries with it increased costs per capita; and
4. Investment in sociopolitical complexity as a problem-solving response often reaches a point of declining marginal returns.
The second step is to simplify your life.
Tainter, in his presentations on societal collapse, speaks about how all the societies he studied could have avoided collapse if they had simplified their institutional complexity. He says none did. Instead, the simplification came through the collapse of the institutional structures.
This is what I see before us. As an organizational problem-solver for the past quarter century and a student of leadership and leaders for over thirty-six years, I see organizations investing in finding the solutions to the problem of their unrealized potential, otherwise known as success. As a result, the growth in administrative overhead to sustain the organization turns what possibly was once a nimble, adaptive enterprise into a bureaucratic edifice incapable of doing things simply.
The third step is to determine with clarity what is your purpose in life.
For many people, this can be quite difficult. It is like educating yourself. By this, I’m not speaking of having a personal brand or motivational slogan that provides emotional assurance. Your purpose must be about something that points you away from your own self-interest towards that which may help others or your community. In Circle of Impact terms, your purpose is about how you know the impact that you want to create throughout your lifetime.
Impact is a change that makes a difference that matters.
What matters to you most? Start there and seek to make a difference that matters.
Why do I say this in the context of an essay on complexity and societal collapse? Because when you have a purpose for impact, your life becomes simple and focused. You don’t fill your life with a lot of extra stuff that only wastes time and creates boredom.
The fourth step is to establish a network of relationships.
This network is a group of people who share a common purpose for impact. Unlike many of the social and work relationships that we have, this group is focused on creating a specific impact. The relationships need to work at developing respect, trust, and mutual accountability. You are willing to do this because there is something at stake that depends on the quality of your relationships.
Last summer, I began the Global Impact Network to facilitate the formation of these networks. One that is developing is a leader support network of young professionals. Another is focused on how to feed people in rural areas. And a third is focused on creating a community center for a small, rural African community.
The purpose of these networks is to focus a group’s purpose and resources on creating a specific impact. These networks are how we will be recovering from the coming collapse.
My last recommendation is to write.
I am not suggesting that you write a book. I am suggesting you write down your thoughts. Carry a little journal with you. Develop the habit of writing down your reactions and responses to people and situations. Don’t overanalyze them or try to be perfect in expression. Your writing points to the complexity of your life experience. You will gain insight and direction as a result.
When you are beginning to write, do so only for yourself. Do not write for anyone else. Don’t even think about how a particular person will respond to it.
Just write and do it every day, even if you only write down five words. Write them down.
If your writing needs to be shared, you will know the right time to do it. The purpose is to know what is in your mind and heart and to clearly articulate what is there.
Possibly, but not necessarily, one day, you’ll open your notebook and realize that you have been taking notes that could be turned into a book. The simple purpose is first to know your mind as it will change how you communicate with other people.
The global coronavirus pandemic functions within a larger system that is beginning to come apart. You can see it if you just look.
Take notice of the economics of your community. You can see wealthy people buying up land because it serves as an alternative to the financial system that we are dependent upon. Think of land like a bank for your money. You can see it in the closing of schools, the large resignation of hospital workers, the empty shelves in stores, and the empty storefronts downtown.
These situations point to problems that may not have an adequate solution. The point is not to focus on the problem but on what the solution might be. Not all solutions lead to an overly complex system on the verge of collapse. Some solutions are the five steps I recommended above.
Simplify You Life
Create a Purpose for Impact
Establish a Network of Relationships
Write to understand what you think and feel.
Do these, and you’ll be preparing yourself for the complex changes that are coming our way.