Monday, August 24, 2015

Complex systems collapsing

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has posted on an interesting piece on the collapse of complex systems.

Here is her intro:

Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism, 21 August 2015

Lambert found a short article by Richard Cook that I’ve embedded at the end of the post. I strongly urge you to read it in full. It discusses how complex systems are prone to catastrophic failure, how that possibility is held at bay through a combination of redundancies and ongoing vigilance, but how, due to the impractical cost of keeping all possible points of failure fully (and even identifying them all) protected, complex systems “always run in degraded mode”. Think of the human body. No one is in perfect health. At a minimum, people are growing cancers all the time, virtually all of which recede for reasons not well understood.
The article contends that failures therefore are not the result of single causes. As Clive points out:
This is really a profound observation – things rarely fail in an out-the-blue, unimaginable, catastrophic way. Very often just such as in the MIT article the fault or faults in the system are tolerated. But if they get incrementally worse, then the ad-hoc fixes become the risk (i.e. the real risk isn’t the original fault condition, but the application of the fixes). [The] Windscale Fire Wikipedia Entry documents how a problem of core instability was a snag, but the disaster was caused by what was done to try to fix it. The plant operators kept applying the fix in ever more extreme does until the bloody thing blew up.

So at this point we are at the double quote level: I am quoting a quote. If you quote me, I guess that would be a triple quote.

In her comments, Yves, because of her politics, I think mistakes the issue of human agency in our current market-capitalist system.  I think her issue of tight-coupling is only true of some complex systems. In a cash based system, if the red paint for your wagon shows up, you can buy it somewhere else.  On the other hand if the critical widget burns up in your Porsche, it will come to a screeching halt.

In the end, there is some relevance to actions within complex systems having unintended causes.  That's a popular, and true, meme on the Republican side when it comes to government.  But it is also universally true in complex systems.  Although sometimes the repairs do blow up the system, I am going to go out on a limp and suggest that there are two broad categories that most commonly bring down complex systems, and I am going to reference societal collapse, because that is what we mostly like to talk about here.

The first is that the system is not sustainable in the long term, and is unable to change without becoming a different system.  Agricultural societies have been wiping themselves with soil depletion and over forestation for some time.  It is not clear that outside of a few localized geographies, if agriculture is a particularly sustainable technology, but we mostly don't know because the number one killer of complex societies usually collapses them first.  I put Cliodynamics, and other (possibly correct) cyclical theories in this category.

The number one killer is overpowering externalities, that are beyond the societies ability to adapt.  These are usually the typing point.  Although Tainter likes to say it is because the societies grew to complex, that is somewhat begging the question.  If weather change forces the less complex societies (the Celts) to pick up and move South and invade their more complex  neighbors (Greeks, Early Romans), than how was the complexity an issue?  If the later Imperial Rome weakens itself through constant infighting over who will succeed to being the next Emperor, how is that an issue of complexity?  The invading Germanic tribes did the same thing, and most of them (The Franks are the main exception) did not persevere in the long run either.

The argument to my mind is, are we more in a situation where we are in a non-sustainable system, or are we in a situation where the potential externalities are getting to large.  I would say we worry more about the former, because it is harder to see the latter.


James M Dakin said...

Didn't the barbarians attack AFTER the Romans started to collapse ( long and slow )? Same with political infighting. Once a system reaches its apex and starts to decline-despite some dry professors attempt at complicating the issue and charging $40 for a small book to do so, it is as simple as the peaking of per capita energy use-every thing that follows is a symptom, not a cause.

russell1200 said...

James: The Romans were fighting Germans well before their collapse. The Germans, often acting as Roman mercenaries, did become part of the problem. The Roman infighting goes off and on throughout the Empire period. There is actually an era of stability that comes before the final Western collapse. And it should not be forgotten that Justinian was almost able to regain the Western Empire.

James M Dakin said...

Will future historians time our collapse in 2016 or one year thereabouts? After all, we successfully installed the Petrodollar and occupied most nations with troops up until now. Or will it be viewed as 1971? Will the 1960's be thought of as the cultural decline which started it all? If we can't even agree when the American empire started to crash and burn, there is no hope for figuring out when Rome's did. Not saying I'm right and you are wrong, you have a more specialists view of history whereas mine in generalized, just that we could argue this particular one for awhile. Peace. :)

russell1200 said...

With Romans it is arguing immediate versus underlying causes. As with a lot of things, when you start looking at details, the generalist arguments start getting fuzzy. But it is good to remember sometimes that when the "German" (a number were not all that clearly Germanic) tribal groups were sitting on the Western Roman Empire, that it had collapsed.

With us, we have been flat-lining, or very close to it, from sometime around the Arab Oil Embargo. The era is preceded immediately by the Vietnam War erra protests and social changes, and as importantly by the huge run up in debt caused by the War. The embargo corresponds roughly with the collapse of Bretton Wood, and a number of economic indicators. A few of the indicators don't really flatline until ~1980.

Just as with the Romans, there is some real resurgence after this period, mostly due to the collapse of an arch rival (Soviet Union), and the willingness to run up a lot of debt. We have been in a major coin-shaving period. But as with the Romans, we are very much at risk of losing these immediate gains.

We are a cash based empire. I would say the equivalent to us having barbarians sitting on our soil would be when nobody wants our money anymore. Which will be indicated by nobody wanting, or conversely, not being able to take on, our treasury bills anymore, with the oil producers being the main "nobody". That is certainly not the case at the moment.

But note, "don't want" and "can't take" give to very different directions the collapse can take. At the moment, we are closer to the "can't take" situation.

janet adams said...

Please check grammar and spelling. You're (you are).

James M Dakin said...

I don't have to be polite, so let me respond to the Grammar Police: Please accept that the ideas presented are far more important than the form they take. Granted, no one wants to read gibberish, but neither are a few mistakes worth the trouble of pointing them out.

russell1200 said...

Janet: While we're at it (we = we are) shouldn't you have a ":" to bring that all together?

If you want to troll, go somewhere else.