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A failure of complexity

In my last post I outlined the growing disintegration[1] of London as an example of a failing global city.  Global, in the sense that it is part of a network of megacities around the planet, around which the fabric of the global economy is woven.  As the historic money launderer to the world, the collapse of London would have a far more dramatic impact on the global economy than a third or fourth-tier city such as Tripoli, Fukushima or Phuket.  Such lesser places may experience great tragedy and loss of life.  But the global economy quickly adapts to their absence.  The same would not be true for global cities like New York, Beijing, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, etc..  For this reason, we should be more concerned when a global city like London shows signs – such as the loss of 700,000 of its people – of rapid decay.  Nor is London alone in this march of decline, of course.  The Californian cities have been in decline for years.  A similar process is unfolding in New York beyond the financial district; a process of decay which has also accelerated as a result of the response to the pandemic.  Vancouver in Canada is experiencing the same decline.  As one of my readers observes:

“I live in the older downtown neighbourhood, the West End, and even on a weekday the usually bustling downtown core is like a ghost town. I shopped for groceries this morning and at 10:30 AM what used to the upscale shopping Mecca of the city (Robison & Thurlow streets), an intersection normally clogged with thousands of suburban and tourist shoppers, felt like a nearly empty Christmas morning.”

The received wisdom is that this disintegration is a temporary phenomenon, and that recovery will be rapid once the pandemic has been brought to an end.  With the vaccines being rolled out, and with massive pent-up demand in the economy – aided by trillions of dollars, pounds and euros in stimulus – we will soon be commuting back to our old offices once more.

The trouble is that the trends which have become apparent in the course of the last year predate SARS-CoV-2.  Human faeces was piling up on the pavements in San Francisco several years ago, even as a plague of rats was gnawing its way through the computer and electric cables beneath the floors of plush Los Angeles office blocks.  Victorian diseases like typhus were rife among America’s growing army of homeless people long before the salaried class developed the vapours in response to Covid.  And in the Brexit/Trump voting wastelands beyond the city walls, collapse and decay had been a way of life for decades.

It is common for people to view the process of collapse through a moral lens; pointing to the lack of fairness perceived in the situation.  The rich have indeed, done very well out of the pandemic, even as the poor have become poorer.  It is the small shops, cafes and guest houses which have entered bankruptcy first, even as the big corporate outlets have been allowed to escape restrictions and lockdowns imposed by governments.  This, in turn, leads people into endless unresolvable arguments about the relative merits of the political red and blue teams in the mistaken belief that either even understands the process; still less offers a solution to it.  But what we are living through is something far more visceral – and a process that every human civilisation before us also lived – and died – through.

People often mistake complexity for “complicated.”  So that, for example, the murmurations of flocks of starlings will be described as complex.  But complexity involves structural diversity – the moving parts, if you will, are all different – and integration and control to generate the system’s behaviour.  A murmuration of starlings has neither of these: like formation dancers or parade ground soldiers, the moving parts are the same.  A body or a modern car, by contrast, has both.  Your body has a series of distinct parts each working together under the largely autonomous control of those parts of your brain that you are not conscious of.  In the same way, a car comprises a series of discrete moving parts under the control of a central processing unit which only partially responds to the inputs that a driver makes via the foot pedals and steering column.

A city takes complexity to levels that tower over a mere human body or modern vehicle.  The modern global city stands at the apex of complexity.  As far as we know – in the absence of space aliens – a global city is second only to the entire global economy as the most complex structure in the universe.  So much so that nobody knows how it works and nobody knows how to fix it if it breaks down.  Consider this passage from Robert M. Pirsig’s Lila describing New York:

“These manhole covers always fascinated him.  Many intersections seemed to have nearly a dozen of them, some new and rough, others worn smooth and shiny from so many tires rolling over them.  How many tires did it take to wear a steel manhole cover smooth?

“He’d seen drawings of how the manholes led down to staggeringly complex underground networks of systems that made this whole island happen: electric power networks, telephone networks, water pipe networks, gas line networks, sewage networks, subway tunnels, TV cables, and who knows how many special-purpose networks he had never even heard of, like the nerves and arteries and muscle fibres of a giant organism…

“It was spooky how it all worked with an intelligence of its own that was way beyond the intelligence of any person.  He would never know how to fix one of these systems of wire and tubes down below the ground that ran it all.  Yet there was someone who did.  And there was a system for finding that person if he was needed, and a system for finding that system that would find him. The cohesive force that held all of these systems together: that was the Giant…

“The metaphysics of substance makes it difficult to see the Giant.  It makes it customary to think of a city like New York as a ‘work of man,’ but what man invented it? What group of men invented it?  Who sat around and thought up how it should all go together?”

While economists may claim to see patterns in the evolving city – in the same way children see faces in the clouds – and while politicians may claim to have the powers to guide development, the truth is that the city has a life of its own; the unforeseen consequence of the billions of daily interactions and transactions which occur within and without the city limits.

Pirsig observes something darker about the city:

“If ‘man’ invented societies and cities, why are all societies and cities so repressive of ‘man’?

Indeed, for almost all of the time that humans have been around, we have actively eschewed the complexity that gives rise to cities.  And for good reason; complexity comes with an unavoidable cost.  Compared to hunter gatherer bands, the residents of cities work harder are smaller, less healthy and more unequal.  Whereas the buildings in the earliest human settlements are equivalent size, from the very start, human cities contain at least two much larger buildings – the granary and the administrative building adjacent to it.  He who controls the people’s food controls the people themselves.

Well, not quite.  Power is the ability to command and direct energy; of which food – or calories – is a sub-category.  Consider psychologist Norman F. Dixon’s description of military power in his book, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence:

“In war, each side is kept busy turning its wealth into energy which is then delivered, free, gratis and for nothing, to the other side.  Such energy may be muscular, thermal, kinetic or chemical.  Wars are only possible because the recipients of this energy are ill prepared to receive it and convert it into a useful form for their own economy.  If, by means of, say, impossible large funnels and gigantic reservoirs, they could capture and store the energy flung at them from the other side, the recipients of this unsolicited gift would soon be so rich, and the other side so poor, that further warfare would be unnecessary for them and impossible for their opponents.”

Energy is essential to change of any kind.  So that the process of evolution from gas clouds floating in the dark depths of space, via nebulas, supernovas, stars and planets to biological life, human brains and microprocessors, involved ever greater free energy flow per unit of mass.  As physicist Eric J. Chaisson explains:

“Onward across the bush of life (or the arrow of time)—cells, tissues, organs, organisms—we find much the same story unfolding. Cold-blooded reptiles (~104 ) have Φm values higher than globally averaged plants (~ 103 ), warm-blooded mammals typically more (~ 5 ~ 104 ); examining animal life with finer scale, sedentary humans (~ 2 ~104 ) have less Φm than for laboring humans (~6 ~ 104 ), which, in turn, have less than bicycling humans (~ 105 ), and so on. Starting with life’s precursor molecules (the realm of chemical evolution) and all the way up to human brains exemplifying the most complex clump of matter known (neurological evolution), the same general trend characterizes plants and animals as for stars and planets: The greater the apparent complexity of the system, the greater the flow of free energy density through that system—either to build it, or to maintain it, or both.”

Nor does this process of ever higher “free energy density” end with human brains:

“Finally, consider human society as an example of cultural evolution. Here, the cosmic-evolutionary narrative continues, with greater energy flows to account for the rise of our decidedly complex, far from-equilibrium civilization—to the dismay of some anthropologists and economists, let alone sociologists, who often cringe at the notion of thermodynamic principles being used to model their subjects. As nonetheless noted… we can trace several progressive stages for a variety of human related cultural advances among our hominid ancestors: Quantitatively, that same energy rate density increases from hunter-gatherers of a million years ago (Φm ~ 104), to agriculturists of several thousand years ago (~105), to the early industrialists of some 200 years ago (~5 ~ 105). The import of rising energy expenditure per capita has reached a current high for today’s well-lit (18-terrawatt) world in the energy-crazed United States with Φm ~ 3 x 106 erg s-1 g-1 , thus empowering our technologically ‘sophisticated’ society well beyond the 2800 kilocalories that each of us typically consumes daily.”

According to Chaisson, by using the term “natural selection” we tend to see evolution in reverse.  That is, we imagine some force, deity or hidden hand which actively does the selecting.  In truth, evolution is more a process of allowing the weeds to wither:

“As such, selected objects are simply those that remain after all the poorly adapted or less fortunate ones have been removed from a population of such objects. A better term might be ‘nonrandom elimination,’ for what we really seek to explain are the adverse circumstances responsible for the deletion of some members of a group. Accordingly, selection can be broadly taken to mean preferential interaction of an object with its environment, an acknowledged factor in the flow of resources into and out of any open system, and not just life forms. All systems are selected by their ability to utilize energy; and this energy—the ability to do work—is a ‘force,’ if there is any at all, in evolution.”

In the popular understanding of evolution, this process is referred to as “the survival of the fittest.”  But this raises questions of its own – fittest for what?  Fittest in what way?  Again, energy is the key.  The survivors – whether inanimate objects, living organisms or technologies – are those best able to optimise the energy available to them.  The complex global city as a whole is able to optimise the flow of energy in a manner that no alternative human organisation could achieve; so that even though life within the city is harmful to the individual human, it works to the benefit of humans as a group.  In Pirsig’s terms, the city consumes individual humans in the same way as individual humans consume farmed animals and plants.

This, no doubt, is why humans have eschewed city life for most of the time we have been on planet Earth.  City living requires more energy; and for pre-industrial civilisations, that energy had to come from human muscles; that is, labour.  What the city does do however is to allow the production of surplus energy – aka wealth.  In the earliest cities, this was primarily surplus grain over and above that needed to maintain the farmers and to plant next year’s crop.  The surplus could be used to feed specialist workers who no longer needed to toil in the fields.  Scribes, for example, could be employed to keep a tally of the surplus and to administer its distribution.  Soldiers might be employed to guard the surplus; while sailors and merchants might be allowed to trade a proportion of the surplus for goods produced by neighbouring civilisations.

In time, trade – together with conquest – became the means by which a city-based civilisation seeks to sustain itself.  Sustainability though, comes with energy costs of its own; since these means of sustaining city-based civilisations require growth.  Trade tends toward economic growth in order to maximise the tradable surplus.  This is particularly true for civilisations which make the mistake of employing interest-bearing debt as a mechanism for initiating growth.  At the same time, war – or even defense – requires administrative growth to raise and manage a sufficiently large and technologically advanced military with which to overcome neighbouring peoples.

The lethal temptation of conquest is that it promises an immediate influx of the accumulated surplus of the neighbour; in effect, it steals the neighbour’s capital as well as his annual revenue.  This was apparent in the growth of the Roman Empire, when sudden influxes of wealth allowed for the relaxation of taxation on Roman citizens.  It is also apparent on a more compressed timescale in the early conquests of Nazi Germany, when the seizure of the Austrian treasury staved off the gathering economic woes, while the capture of the Czech arsenal provided the guns and munitions required for the invasion of Poland.

Conquest though, has an inherent shock.  This is easiest seen in earlier civilisations which depended entirely on renewable energy.  Ordinarily, even the most technologically advanced of these civilisations was obliged to operate within the constraints of annual solar energy.  Good harvests spelled prosperity; poor harvests spelled ruin – one reason why “little ice ages” have been the bane of humanity down the ages.  The sudden abundance of wealth from conquest was a once and for good influx; after which a civilisation had to somehow de-grow its way back to living within its annual means.  Worse than this though, it somehow had to use its previous annual surpluses to extend and secure its rule over the conquered neighbours.  Had they but known the long-term cost involved, the Romans would never have gone to Gaul and the USA would never have gone to Afghanistan and Iraq… but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Trade, then, is the more energy-efficient route to sustainability.  But trade is vulnerable to a host of external shocks.  When prevailing conditions lower or wipe out surplus wealth – as occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late twelfth century BCE or more recently in the bad harvests which triggered the “Arab Spring”– trade becomes more difficult and in the worst cases may break down entirely.  When this happens it is not just the system of trade which ceases; entire civilisations may also collapse.

Only a handful of ancient cities such as Alexandria, Baghdad and Rome managed – at their height – to reach a population of a million inhabitants.  And after the collapse of Rome, humanity had to wait until the early nineteenth century for the population of London to exceed one million.  Had London been forced to live entirely on renewable energy, its fate might rapidly have followed that of those ancient cities.  But London had the distinction of being the world’s first industrial city with a population of a million; not so much because the city itself was industrialised, but because the emerging communications networks of an industrialising empire allowed London to massively widen the land base from which it could import the goods needed to sustain so large a population.  Railways, for example, allowed fresh food from as far afield as Plymouth in the west and Carlisle in the northwest to be transported daily to the voracious capital.  Meanwhile, steamships provided the first reliable transport routes across oceans; allowing the regular delivery of goods from across Britain’s growing Empire.

Today, London – with a population of some 9,500,000 – doesn’t even come in the top 30 global cities.  At some 37,300,000 residents, Tokyo is the most populated city on Earth, followed by Delhi (31,000,000) Shanghai (28,000,000) and Sao Paulo (22,000,000).  New York City – as opposed to the wider state – is the USA’s biggest with a population just over 8,000,000; a population which is also declining.  These are cities which depend upon Pirsig’s networks of pipes and cables running beneath the roads and hidden behind the walls of the buildings – the electricity and gas, water and sewage and telecommunications networks without which the city would die.  In addition, the roads themselves – along with the railways, ports and airports – which connect the city to the outside world function like the arteries of a body; bringing in essential food and goods, and taking away the waste products.  And the operation of this critical infrastructure is only possible at this scale because of the huge energy-input from fossil fuels… fossil fuels which, despite a Herculean effort to develop non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHTs) still make up 85 percent of the global economy’s primary energy.

For the best part of three centuries, fossil fuels have made modern city living far more bearable than it would otherwise have been.  But it has come at a cost in the form of permanent growth.  Economies of scale – some made on a global level – have allowed for technologies to be developed at far lower cost than would otherwise have been possible.  Global communications networks, for example, are only possible because they are used by billions of users around the world.  It would be impossible to manufacture an affordable smartphone or tablet if there were only a few thousand consumers worldwide.  Mass consumption is only possible because the costs are borne by billions of people.  The same goes for the oil we depend upon and for the electricity and clean drinking water we – in the west – take for granted. 

But all of those economies of scale depend upon eternal growth to sustain them.  In a sense, the modern, fossil fuel-powered city is like a soufflé – the moment the energy declines, the entire structure collapses in upon itself.  There is no “steady state.”  Only growth sustains, while some form of managed deflation – or de-growth – is the most optimistic version of collapse.  And this is an issue for two reasons.  First, fossil fuels are an energy-finite resource.  That is, while there are plenty of fossil fuel deposits beneath the ground – perhaps as many again as we have consumed in the last three centuries – the vast majority would cost more energy to extract than they would provide in return.  And so – with a handful of limited exceptions – they are going to stay beneath the ground.  What this means is that – whether we like it or not, and despite the deployment of NRREHTs – the amount of energy available to grow our soufflé cities has begun to decline.

Second, the consequences of consuming fossil fuels – pollution and climate change – are creating the kind of conditions which brought an end to the Bronze Age civilisations of the Eastern Mediterranean sometime around 1186 BCE.  Climate change is causing or exacerbating a range of natural disasters including flooding and forest fires, while spreading animal and crop diseases, lowering harvests and killing fish stocks.  Meanwhile, pollutants and insecticides have decimated the insect life at the base of the food chain.  It may well be that we are already too late to save the human habitat.  But even if we are not, we would need to dramatically lower the amount of fossil fuel energy we consume to have any chance of surviving in the longer term.  So allowing the soufflé cities to collapse may be our only option… damned if we do and damned if we don’t, as it were.

In the broadest terms, what we are living through is the point at which industrial civilisation falls over the net energy cliff:

Put simply, the more energy that we have to use to generate future energy, the less energy remains to power the – currently – much larger non-energy sectors of a modern economy or a modern city.  Since, until recently, fossil fuels have provided more than 20:1 energy returns on the energy invested, this has not been a problem.  Once the energy return on investment falls below 15:1 – as is the case with fracking, tar sands and biofuels – things rapidly fall apart as ever more energy has to be diverted away from the wider economy.

Traditionally, this was expected to result in shortages which would, in turn, cause prices to rise uncontrollably.  In practice though, upward spikes in price have proved temporary simply because the increased cost of energy is balanced by a loss of consumption across the wider, non-energy economy, with the result that general demand for energy actually declines because we can no longer afford it.  In the absence of sufficient low energy-cost energy, since the crash of 2008 we have witnessed a situation in which the price of oil is too low for producers to remain profitable, but still too high to be affordable to consumers:

Going forward, it is likely to be those sectors of the economy which are able to increase their prices despite falling demand across the non-energy economy which will survive longest.  First among these is the state itself, since it can generally raise taxes by force.  Thus, for example, the UK’s local councils are currently raising local taxes in an attempt to recover some of their pandemic losses.  Central government is expected to announce a raft of new taxes and spending cuts later in the year.  Supermarkets – which use the collective purchasing power of mass consumption to lower prices – will also be able to raise prices to prevent immediate food shortages.  Public utilities in the UK are also raising prices this spring, as are rail companies.

In most cases, people will simply have to eat these increases by lowering their spending elsewhere; ironically causing official inflation figures to appear low.  But a large part of the population is already existing on the margins; having barely enough income to purchase essentials.  Indeed, a sizeable minority are not even able to remain above this breadline; turning to foodbanks and credit in an attempt to make ends meet.  The question is what happens as even more households cease discretionary spending at the same time as those at the bottom begin to default on debt and rent?  Remember that the network of high-population global cities depend upon mass consumption to keep the price of modern critical infrastructure affordable. 

Two trends accelerated by the pandemic are, first, the salaried class selling up while property prices remain high; moving to the countryside or to smaller towns while this escape route remains open.  Second, those at the bottom are giving up on the promise of future riches in the big city; instead settling for lower pay but less stress – for now – in the rundown wastelands beyond the city walls.  This is particularly true as people begin to re-value family and place for the informal support networks seldom available in the big cities.  Both trends amount to attempts at simplification, designed to manage the rising cost of essentials by lowering discretionary spending.  But neither is sustainable in the long-term because the collective result of all of our attempts to meet the rising cost of essentials is that the economies of scale which make them possible are evaporated away.  Even official attempts at sustainability – such as the state subsidised deployment of nuclear and NRREHTs – serve only to increase the cost – albeit indirectly through taxes – even further.

A few global cities – Moscow for example – may survive longer due to their access to the last energy-cheap oil and gas deposits.  But for the most part, it will be the big global cities where the collapse will be felt first.  Depopulation – as is already happening in London and New York – is likely to gather pace as people seek to re-locate to less costly and more supportive regions.  Those regions, however, are only less costly and more supportive because the majority live in the big cities.  The additional pressure from those fleeing the cities can only serve to drive up costs there too… There is, it seems, no way of avoiding the collapse of our soufflé cities beyond finding some yet-to-be-discovered high-density, low-cost energy source together with a yet-to-be-invented technology with which to harness it.

Faced with intractable difficulties, people often turn to the saying that, “in the long-term we’re all dead.”  In the event of a rapid collapse of the big global cities, that might turn out to be true in the short-term too.


[1] Literally dis-integration: the coming apart of the various systems which allow a city to work.

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