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Surviving a Reduction in Social Complexity by Richard Heinberg

The literature on societal collapse has expanded in timely fashion in the past couple of years, with the publication of Jared Diamond's best-selling Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; Thomas Homer-Dixon's widely praised The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization; John Michael Greer's illuminating The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age; and Dmitri Orlov's hugely entertaining Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects.

All of these stand on the shoulders of Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, published back in 1988 and still the standard work on the subject.

Tainter describes the development of societal complexity as a strategy for solving problems (too many people, not enough food, warlike neighbors, changing climate, and so on). But investments in complexity yield diminishing returns, so eventually the strategy always fails and the society must simplify again. This simplification typically manifests as political and economic crisis, abandonment of urban centers, declining population, or war.

Complexity costs energy, and so complexity emerges only in societies that have energy to spare: at a minimum, agricultural surpluses, but better yet forests to cut or fossil fuels to mine or pump. One of the reasons that returns on complexity begin to decline is that growth in exploitation of energy sources cannot be sustained: soils erode, forests disappear, or-could it really happen?-fossil fuels deplete.

Because fossil fuels have given us such an enormous energy subsidy, we industrial humans have been able to elevate societal complexity to an art form. It takes a little perspective to appreciate this, because we take it so much for granted.

Ultimately, we humans are all just big omnivorous mammals. Without the ability to make or understand language, we would each get up in the morning and simply start milling around looking for food. With the emergence of language, starting a few tens of thousands of years ago, we figured out how to cooperate in strategic ways to kill large animals, organize seasonal migrations, and otherwise improve our survival prospects. This was the very beginning of societal complexity, and the energy cost was minimal compared to the payoff.

Today we get up in the morning and . . . well, here the story diverges in millions of different ways. We have jobs and careers. Some of us commute to offices or factories. Some people have jobs building or maintaining the cars we drive. Other people have jobs reading the news we listen to on the radio as we navigate the freeway. I could go on endlessly. The web is global in extent and dizzying in detail. No single individual can comprehend more than a small segment of the entire structure, so massive is its scale and so multiply interconnected are its billions of components.

It takes linked systems of money creation and distribution, manufacturing, transportation, resource extraction, and regulation to keep all of this going.

And it all costs enormous amounts of energy to maintain.

As energy becomes more scarce and expensive, society will simplify itself. This much is clear. The questions that bedevil us: How will that simplification occur?, and, How simple will society become?

In the current global economic meltdown, we can see early symptoms of societal simplification. Millions of jobs are being lost. Complicated investment schemes have gone bust. Industries are downsizing. But it's clear we are only at the beginning of the process.

Everyone's fears for the social system are ultimately personal: in the worst case, instead of getting up in the morning and finding our way within a functioning collective hive of organized activity, we might end up just milling around looking for something to eat. But with almost seven billion of us milling, we would be bumping into one another eyeing the same nuts and berries.

Thus as fossil fuels deplete, as water becomes more scarce, and as climate changes, it is essential that we humans make a plan for how to simplify our society with minimal destruction of the planet and of one another. The project is made difficult by the fact that most of us are completely unaware that this is what we must do: we labor instead under the belief that our current problems can be solved with ever more complexity in the forms of technology (genetically modified crops and hybrid cars) and government bailouts for failing companies.

Ironically, the process of simplification is likely to go best if we can organize it-for example, we need to train millions of new food producers who can grow with reduced or no chemical and fuel inputs. This might seem to mean the addition of one more layer of complexity. But all that's needed really is a redirection of priorities within aspects of the existing system. We already have all the institutions we need (indeed, we probably have too many); we just need to change their messaging.

Yet no overarching governmental effort can fully succeed in organizing the simplification process, because government is part of what must be simplified. Much if not most of the transition must be negotiated within the minds and through the habits of individual human beings, as they discover that what they have been doing simply doesn't work any longer and that they must do something else.

It's going to be a big adjustment for everyone. But we needn't end up milling around aimlessly if we begin talking and negotiating about the transition now, rather than waiting until our only option is to fight over nuts and berries.