Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable

By | March 11, 2010

http://xenophilia.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/20080405-2.jpg… Doomsday scenarios typically feature a knockout blow: a massive asteroid, all-out nuclear war or a catastrophic pandemic (see “Will a pandemic bring down 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. …

“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. …

As connections increase, though, networked systems become increasingly tightly coupled. This means the impacts of failures can propagate: the more closely those two villages come to depend on each other, the more both will suffer if either has a problem. “Complexity leads to higher vulnerability in some ways,” says Bar-Yam. “This is not widely understood.”

The reason is that as networks become ever tighter, they start to transmit shocks rather than absorb them. “The intricate networks that tightly connect us together – and move people, materials, information, money and energy – amplify and transmit any shock,” says Homer-Dixon. “A financial crisis, a terrorist attack or a disease outbreak has almost instant destabilising effects, from one side of the world to the other.”

For instance, in 2003 large areas of North America and Europe suffered blackouts when apparently insignificant nodes of their respective electricity grids failed. And this year China suffered a similar blackout after heavy snow hit power lines. Tightly coupled networks like these create the potential for propagating failure across many critical industries, says Charles Perrow of Yale University, a leading authority on industrial accidents and disasters.

Perrow says interconnectedness in the global production system has now reached the point where “a breakdown anywhere increasingly means a breakdown everywhere”. This is especially true of the world’s financial systems, where the coupling is very tight. “Now we have a debt crisis with the biggest player, the US. The consequences could be enormous.” …

via Why the demise of civilisation may be inevitable – life – 02 April 2008 – New Scientist.

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