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In the early 21st century humanity finds itself in a highly complex world, which has come about as a result of shortsighted and unsustainable mode of societal organization. The increased complexity brought about by the myopic vision of the dominant species is threatening to destroy the planet’s extensive life support system. At the same time, the myriad problems arising from the built-in complexities of our modern world system don’t seem to attract the undivided attention of our collective global leadership (not only political). Determined complacency seems to be the strategy of the global politicos when it comes to tackling these burning issues! Unless enlightened humanity wakes up to the clear and present danger presented by our complex existence, collapse is inevitable! See Rees article next column and others on page 41, 44 & 46.
All complex societies will ultimately collapse, whether they are of human origins or otherwise, and there is no if and but about it! This is because unnatural, hence contrived complexities are inherently unmanageable, particularly when the system encounters exogenous perturbations; or in the lingua of the pubs, when SHTF! There is no going around this issue. Technically speaking, this is equivalent to the principle of entropy. ‘Entropy is the measure of the disorder of a system. A highly ordered system has low entropy. EXAMPLE: A block of ice will increase in entropy as it melts. (Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.) In the context of social/societal organization, the higher the complexity the less resilient the system becomes to change. We will illustrate with every day events.
Let us suppose Addis encounters a temporary disruption in the flow of traffic. The malfunctioning of traffic lights and the absence of traffic policemen/women can easily create havoc in the city. The chaos thus created will disrupt normal life here and to some extent life abroad as well. Because of the intense integration of global life this local condition can and will cause dynamical failure beyond the borders of the country, albeit slightly! For a start, planes cannot fly, because the required personnel to have this modern artifact to take to the sky (in a timely manner) will not be there. Consequently, passengers will miss, not only their departing flights, but also their connecting flights elsewhere. This will have costs, financial and otherwise, both to the carrier as well as the travelers. Appointments, conferences, weddings, etc. will be missed/cancelled/disrupted and many will suffer the consequences. Besides activities coming to a halt in the city, (operations of schools, hospitals, bureaucracies, etc.), surrounding areas will also be affected. One can calculate the disruption in monetary terms, but the real and long-term concern should be how could we manage complexities. It is obvious that when circumstances change, so as to affect the built-in and piled up complexities (we are used to live under), ramifications can be severe!
Now suppose Addis has only twenty thousand vehicles, instead of the current (roughly) two hundred thousand (along with a relatively extensive road network) and a population of less than a million. Such a city can withstand slight disruptions, including frequent shortage of water and other provisions, like electricity, etc., as its infrastructures can withstand the unavailability of certain inputs. In other words, an Addis of a manageable size (say, less than a million) is more resilient than the one we are living in today. Let’s take a grimmer example. Suppose there comes a year when global harvest fails across the planet. Surely thousands, if not millions/billions will starve to death. These not so far-fetched hypothetical scenarios illustrate the situation of our current existence. The complex world we have built is delicate, i.e., not very resilient. The slightest distress can spell demise!
The moral of the above suppositions is to assert the following. When a society becomes more complex its dynamical stability tends to be precarious. As a result, the system becomes prone to collapse! One can employ this analysis in areas of non-renewable resources, etc., which permeate modern life. Suppose fossil fuel becomes very scarce (after all the planet is finite) and its price skyrockets. The first thing to happen is; many of the activities we carry on a daily basis will come to a standstill. This is already happening, albeit in a more salient manner. Note; global economic activities slow down when the price of oil goes above $100 per barrel! At the same time producers lose money if the price per barrel stays less than a hundred for a prolonged time. This is the dilemma that is already in play in today’s world economy!
“The problem is deadly serious. It is rooted in the inability of our society to understand that the reductionist methodologies that grew out of our Enlightenment Age are failing humanity; with the most egregious of these being the economic system. That system was and remains a destroyer of our planet. It contains within an inherent ecocidal wish. Its ‘hidden Hand’ is bringing on an end to human civilization. It is a hand that never picks up the check. (In economic parlance this is called the future cost of ‘Negative Externalities’)” David Anderson. Good Day!