Apocalypse Soon


Img_1214This week’s New Scientist magazine features a cheery cover announcing "The Collapse of Civilization."  Fine, I can do without anything except wikipedia and Swiss chocolate. What will be the immediate cause?  New Scientist doesn’t say, considering a flu pandemic, environmental degradation, and the depletion of fossil fuels.

Why will it collapse?  Complexity, of course, but New Scientist seems to focus on two aspects of complexity in particular:

First, our hyper-efficiency, which means that there is very little redundancy in the global economy.  If only a handful of factories in the world make an essential widget, and they use their economies of scale to offer that widget cheaply to everybody–that’s terrific, until every worker in one of those factories suddenly comes down with bird flu and the universe grinds to a halt.

Second, our interconnectedness.  As Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of an organization improbably called the New England Complex Systems Institute, explains, "A networked society behaves like a multicellular organism. Random damage is like lopping a chunk off a sheep." 

Interestingly enough, New Scientist cites the subprime mortgage crisis–I wrote here about the weird connections it was revealing–as a prime example of sheep-lopping. Instead of spreading the risk in the sense of dividing it up and minimizing it, our financial system is now so tightly wound that it spreads risk like a contagion–and if one segment of the American mortgage market gets sick, there is a worldwide credit crunch.

Who comes out on top when the collapse occurs?  Subsistence farmers, according to Bar-Yam.  Garden Rant readers, according to me.  Independent types who know how to use a shovel. 


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