On complexity

If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.

– Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution

It is a cliché to say that modern life is complicated, but like many clichés it is also manifestly true. Of course, life always has been complicated and always will be, for the simple reason that we constantly interact with complex systems that are hard to predict or control – other people, for a start.

But life in present-day industrial civilisation has a dizzyingly baroque complexity to it that human beings have not had to deal with previously. We evolved with the ability to deal with other people, at least most of the time, but the way we live now is far removed from life on the African savanna of our ancestors.

An example: this morning I made myself a pot of coffee. The cafetière is a typical product of modern industry, made of glass, plastic and metal, and manufactured in China. The glass body is the result of a high-energy process, involving a lot of heat and producing a fair amount of pollution. The plastic parts are a product of the petro-chemical industry – as a lay person I have no idea which of the many types of plastic are in my coffee-pot. Metal of course has to be mined and smelted and machined into the various components required, all of which requires both energy and other complex technologies. And then the whole thing has to be assembled, put into a box (which itself has to be designed and printed) and taken to somewhere I can buy it.

Having obtained my coffee-pot, I put water from the tap into the kettle. Again there is a vast and complex infrastructure of reservoirs and water-mains and pumps and purification systems involved in having water come out of the tap on demand. The kettle is another metal and plastic affair, and I suspect there’s some electronics in there too. It was also made in China.

Plugging the kettle into the wall involves the national power grid, and all the technology and effort that both powers and maintains that. I have no way of knowing for certain, but the electricity to boil my kettle was probably generated using natural gas, which is a fossil fuel of finite availability which we are using at a stupendous rate (2,543,775 cubic feet of the stuff in 2015, just in the UK).

As to the coffee itself, it was grown in Java, which is about 3,800 miles away from where I live. It wasn’t marketed as organic coffee, so I can safely assume that various fossil-fuel derived fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides were used by the farmer. At some point the berries will have been roasted, ground and vacuum-packed in a weird plastic-cum-foil material which I couldn’t put a name to. That package also got transported to a shop near me.

All this just for a pot of coffee. I haven’t even got started on the mug I’m drinking it from.

You may have noticed that there was a lot of fossil fuel sloshing about in that account. There’s actually a good deal more that I only hinted at: all those container ships bringing consumer goods from China to Europe run on oil, as do the lorries that deliver them to the shops, and the car that I probably travelled in to purchase them. And of course there are the roads themselves, paved in asphalt, and all the effort that goes into maintaining them, policing them, and so forth.

This is the 2020 version. Go back to 1720, and I would have to go to London to a coffee-house in order to enjoy the bean. At least the coffee would have travelled from Java by sailing-ship (hooray for renewable energy!) and it would have been prepared by hand, admittedly using a coal fire. Adjusting for inflation, it would also have cost me substantially more money than my 2020 brew, at least in terms of the purchase price. Then again, it might well have been better coffee; organic production was the default prior to the development of the Haber-Bosch process, after all.

But skip back just another century to 1620 and coffee isn’t available in England at all. I probably wouldn’t even have heard of it. I would be drinking small beer instead – a weak beer just strong enough to kill any nasties in the water, brewed in my household from locally available ingredients. There’s still complexity there – growing barley is a lot of work, and then there’s the malting process, not to mention fetching water by hand (no mains water in 1620!) and gathering firewood to heat the mash and then boil the wort. Then there’s the skill involved in making a watertight barrel to store it in. But it’s simpler, and the constituent parts of the processes involved are all visible to the end user.

So even with something as apparently simple and straightforward as making a brew in the morning, once you start pulling at the threads it keeps on unravelling. It’s enough to make your head spin. No wonder we choose not to do it most of the time. But it’s all still there, going on in the background, whether you think about it or not. I would argue that it has a lot to do with the background sense of unease, even paranoia, that many people in the industrial world experience today.

As we all know, if only from having used the internet, complex systems work fine until they don’t. Let’s try pulling a brick from the Jenga tower that is my pot of coffee; let’s say mains water goes away. I turn on the tap and nothing happens. Maybe there’s a drought, or some kind of systemic problem with the mains. Maybe terrorists have poisoned all the reservoirs that feed my area. Maybe aliens did it. Humour me.

Well, I need a source of potable water, even if I give up on the idea of drinking coffee, because if don’t get it I’ll die. So what do I do?

Ideally I need to locate a spring, or a stream or river, or failing that a lake, and I need to get there with a nice big watertight container. Luckily for me I live in an area with a reasonable level of rainfall; if I were in Arizona I’d be worried. I need to have confidence that my water source isn’t contaminated, which isn’t that easy to tell (I’d be looking for living things in that water). If I don’t know, I’m going to be boiling it before use – but that’s okay, isn’t it, because I still have mains energy to my house, don’t I?

One thing that will definitely happen is that I will become very aware of the amount of water that I use, and will try to re-use it where I can – for example, using grey water to flush toilets or water the garden. No showers or garden sprinklers for me.

But that’s just me. There are a lot of industrial processes that depend heavily on the use of water – we’ve already mentioned glass-making – and of course it’s essential to agriculture. I don’t claim to be able to list even the major consequences of a large-scale water shortage. My point is that they are numerous and they are serious. Our cavalier treatment of fresh water will be subject of a later essay, but for now let’s just say this is a more realistic scenario that we might like to think. And I’m talking about the UK, where we have plenty of rainfall. Your mileage may well vary if you live somewhere arid.

That’s already having a major impact on my life and perhaps the entire country, and I’ve only pulled one brick out. Let’s try the one labelled “cheap fossil fuel.” (There will be a future essay going into the likelihood of this scenario; for now, just go with it.)

An awful lot of things suddenly become very difficult or at least very expensive. That coffee, for instance. The grower will have to ramp up the price of his product to reflect the increased price of the fossil-fuel derived inputs, or else switch to organic production; neither of these options is cost-free. Shipping the product those 3,800 miles is now a much more expensive proposition, which is also going to add to the price I have to pay. (If we still had those sailing-ships from 1720, of course, this might be another story.) The energy going into the processing and packaging is likely to be pricier too. I may find myself getting charged the equivalent of 1720 prices for my coffee, or more.

You know what? Peppermint tea is nice. I can grow that myself if I need to. Maybe I’ll stop buying coffee. That’s less income for the coffee producer, for the packager, for the shipper, for the supermarket, all of whom are having to cope with increased costs. (How do you think supermarkets keep the lights on?) It won’t just be me choosing to spend my cash on other things either.

And of course many, many more things will go up in price, some of them to the point where not enough people want to buy the thing to make it worth producing it. The ramifications of that would be vast. Food miles would need to decrease a lot, for one thing, and that’s a big deal in a country like the UK where we import something like 45% of our food. People need food. When it’s too expensive or simply not available, they can get quite cross.

Modern industrial agriculture itself is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. By one estimate, in North America 13.3 calories of energy are used to produce every calorie of food. To get an idea of just how nuts this is, imagine that that energy was being provided solely by human and animal muscle-power, as it was in pre-industrial times (and still is in many places). Pretty much everyone would have starved to death by the end of the first growing season. You need to get more calories out than you put in; that’s the entire point of agriculture.

That’s the subject of another essay. The point I’m trying to make here is that industrial civilisation is immensely complex but also immensely fragile. I’ve deliberately chosen a couple of examples of resources that underpin many other important processes. I could add others. For instance, the Australian mining engineer Simon Michaux has an entertaining and informative presentation on YouTube where he discusses copper mining, amongst other things. There’s copper all over the place in the industrial world; if it involves electricity, it almost certainly relies on copper. And it’s getting more expensive.

Of course, there’s a rich irony in the fact that I’m using the most complex communications system know to humanity to discuss these ideas. Plenty of copper involved there, for sure, and it uses a ton of energy. Still, while it’s here, I might as well use it.

There’s more to the complexity of modern life than just technology, though. Our social structures are mind-bogglingly complex. Think of the bureaucracy that surrounds us on every side; the late David Graeber argued in his book The Utopia of Rules (Melville House, 2015) that modern life largely consists of filling in forms, and there’s a lot of truth in that. This isn’t just government red tape; it’s also corporate red tape. How much of internet usage comes down to form-filling?

It’s impossible for any individual to understand all the rules, with the result that many of us are haunted by a vague sense that anything we do might violate one or more them, incurring penalties we can only imagine. This undermines our sense of personal agency and makes us feel powerless. Would Columbus have set sail across the Atlantic if he’d had to do a full health and safety assessment first?

My aim here is not to contribute to this sense of powerlessness. Rather I believe that we need, individually and collectively, to face up to the complexity of the world we inhabit, to see it steadily and see it whole, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold. We can at least discern some of the major connections between things, identify some of the vulnerabilities of the system, and maybe suggest some useful and positive actions we can take ourselves. As David Icke said – before he got into the space lizards thing – it doesn’t have to be like this.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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