Sustainability as Complexity without Growth

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From an essay by Ran Prieur, on “How to Save Civilization“.


In this intro, he argues that stability can be achieved only if we keep complexity, but abandon growth.

Ran Prieur:

“To save civilization, we must redefine it with a sharp knife. I’m going to separate it into two things, which have historically gone together but don’t have to: complexity and growth. Or, to be more precise, relatively high complexity and ratcheting increase, where the numbers keep getting bigger because there’s no way built into the system for them to get smaller, except collapse.

Numbers have been getting bigger for so long that we have mistaken increase for a natural law. Even our scientists have misinterpreted cosmological redshifts as evidence that the whole universe is expanding. In reality, natural law is for everything to go in cycles, rise and fall, growth and decay. Nature does have ratcheting increase and sudden collapse, like the life cycle of a single tree. But it also has gentle rises and falls, like waves in the ocean, or the fluctuation of animal populations in a healthy ecosystem. I think we have the power to choose which of these patterns complex society follows.

Certainly we can’t keep increasing. Civilization is a subset of nature even if we’re not aware of it, and the dark side of our recent increase was a decrease in topsoil and forests and fossil fuels and the Earth’s capacity to absorb industrial waste without catastrophic change. Now these things have decreased so far that our habit of increase can no longer feed itself. With the housing crash, the falling dollar, and the decline in middle class income, we’re already tasting the coming age of numbers getting smaller. Next: the stock market, easy credit, the GNP, energy production, energy consumption, and human population. Many of us are already preparing for the Age of Decreasing Numbers, but for the wrong reason. We think we’re turning off the air conditioner and bicycling to work to save the Earth. In fact, other people and other economies will just take our place at the Earth-gobbling table and eat it just as fast. What we’re really saving is our future sanity, by practicing for the day when we’re forced to reduce consumption.

At this point, people start talking about being “sustainable,” but that word has now picked up so much baggage that it’s almost meaningless, and it was never precise. Strictly, even the sun is not sustainble — in a few billion years it will burn out. The word I suggest instead is stable, applied not to products or technologies but to whole systems.

The sun is stable because its heat and light fluctuate within a narrow range. A business that sells hand-made clay passive solar water heaters can claim “sustainability,” but if it has to continually increase sales to survive, it is unstable. An unstable system is shaped like a ball at the top of a hill — as soon as it starts rolling in any direction, it keeps rolling faster and faster until it runs into something with a big crash. This is also called positive feedback. A stable system uses negative feedback — it’s like a ball at the bottom of a bowl, where the farther it moves in any direction, the greater are the forces pulling it back toward the center.

Civilization as we know it is unstable, because too many of its processes are increase-only. No engineer would design a plane that can only increase its speed and altitude, but we do it everywhere: When has a government reduced the number of laws? When has a new computer operating system been leaner than the old one? How often does a food store move into a smaller space and carry fewer products? Have we ever torn down a housing development and planted a forest? When did cars ever get easier to fix? I thought two-bladed razors were a silly fad — now they’re up to five. Apparently only a stand-alone product can be a fad. A feature on a product, no matter how ridiculous, can never be removed.

We’ve seen what happens when governments add laws and don’t remove them. Eventually there’s a revolution, a period with no laws, and then they start over with a few. Do we really want this to happen with food? With the computers that now run almost every aspect of our world?

Complex systems collapse when they have no way to get simpler other than collapse, and because complexity itself is subject to diminishing returns. This isn’t universally true: A good underground house is more complex and more efficient than a hole in the ground. A rocket heating stove is more complex and more efficient than a campfire. A sailboat is more complex and more efficient than swimming. “Complexity is subject to diminishing returns” is a local law, true only in systems where complexity keeps increasing compulsively, where complexity is valued for its own sake and not tested against efficiency.

If we want to save this particular civilization, it would not be enough to stabilize population and energy consumption. We would also have to abandon economic “growth,” and abandon technological “progress” defined in terms of complexity or size or power. It wouldn’t be the end of innovation — engineers would just shift their focus to efficiency and elegance. I’m already using an operating system, Puppy Linux, dedicated to staying tiny while increasing usefulness. The Nintendo Wii, with an innovative controller and simple accessible games, left the Playstation 3 with its massive processing power in the dust. Ikea revolutionized the furniture industry with little more than boards and screws. One Laptop per Child is intended to ramp up the “developing” world, but something similar could ramp down the overdeveloped world and stabilize the computer industry — if so many careers and egos didn’t depend on making computers constantly faster and more powerful so you can sell people a new one every two years.

I don’t think this civilization is going to make it. But civilization in general, defined simply as a highly complex society, is almost certain to persist. In the following sections, I explain why I think so, and what we would have to do to keep it stable, instead of suffering repeated rises and falls. Stable does not mean static — nature itself is stable without being static. The future of human society, like its past, will be dynamic, but it need not be catastrophic.”