Good Complexity, Bad Complexity

It’s been a season of mechanical breakdowns here this winter. The batteries for our solar PV system started acting up this past Fall, and the condition has steadily deteriorated so that now they’re only holding a charge for about a day. Off-grid systems like ours are sized to provide five days of charge without sun in winter, so this is a drop in capacity of 80%—pretty dramatic. We’ve lived with solar for eight years; the golf cart batteries we started off with lasted the full five years they were designed for. So I figured for our next set we were ready for the newer, more powerful, and better batteries that are supposed to last twelve years. They’re now three years old. Then a month ago our laptop suddenly stopped working. The computer tech I took it to was able to save our data, but he said the laptop was beyond repair. I bought another used one on e-bay. Two days ago the 4-wheel drive on my truck stopped working while I was driving up the driveway of a client to deliver a door.

A solar PV system, a computer, and a truck are all complex systems. As technological systems grow in complexity, the opportunities for failure of the whole system increase. I don’t know which component of the computer failed, but when it did the computer stopped being a computer and became a waste disposal problem. When the batteries of the solar PV system lost 80% of their effectiveness, the entire system lost its effectiveness by an almost equal amount—it still works at 100% only when the sun is shining. The truck runs, but with ice and snow still on back roads, it is useless going up hills and dangerous going down them or around curves. Both the truck and solar PV system will require an input of additional resources to fix. This is true of technological complexity generally. It solves a problem, but only at the cost of ongoing inputs of resources and energy.

Complex technologies also have the additional problem of unintended consequences. The automobile, one of the most pervasive and probably the most transformative technology of the twentieth century, provides a dramatic example. For while it solved the “problem” of personal transportation over large distances, the additional problems it has left in its wake are legion and in most cases intractable: automobiles have devastated landscapes; resulted in 40,000 American deaths on average every year for the past forty years; require in total more oil than the country has had available domestically since the 1970s; require an infrastructure of roads and highways that costs billions of dollars every year to maintain; have contributed more than any other single factor to global warming; and require an ongoing program of mining and drilling that must continue forever or until we are forced by the inevitable resource depletion to abandon the project altogether.

In the past couple of posts I’ve written about complexity and diversity as positive features of ecologies, pointing to the increase in both over the history of life from its beginnings to the present as evidence of progress and an increase in stability and resilience. This is the complexity that is seen in native ecologies such as forests and grasslands, and in organisms such as dragonflies, whales, porcupines, and us. Life began as very simple ecosystems of single-cell organisms, and over the course of four billion years evolved into the complex, diverse forms and ecologies that make up the living world we have today. This then is good complexity, complexity that works. It is the result of millions of years of adaptation and evolution.

An example: In the twentieth century a blight killed all the chestnut trees in the eastern forest of North America. This was one of the most common (and most useful to people and animals) trees in the forest, in some places making up 50% of the forest canopy. When the chestnuts died, ripples were felt throughout the forest, but the forest itself was never in danger. Other species moved in to fill the gaps left by the chestnuts, and today a casual observer unaware of the missing chestnuts would have no way of knowing that a key species had vanished from the ecology. Other species eradicated from the eastern forest since European settlement include mountain lions, wolves, caribou, elk, bison (which ranged as far east as Massachusetts in the 17
th century), passenger pigeons, and Carolina parakeets, to name just some of the larger, more charismatic losses. Yet the forest endures, impoverished, but still with enough resilience to regenerate itself year after year.

The other side of the complexity coin is simplicity, and it works in exactly the way you would think. Simple ecologies are prone to failure and therefore require ongoing external inputs to be maintained. As simple ecologies in nature are rare exceptions to the rule of complex ones, they are most often human creations—fields of wheat, corn, cotton, soy, plantations of pine, spruce, etc. Simple technologies, on the other hand, are less prone to failure than complex ones and require fewer resources to maintain. A knife blade will dull, a ceramic pot may break, but the cost of fixing these problems is small.

So why don’t societies solve problems using ecological complexity and technological simplicity? They did. Hunter-gatherer societies relied almost entirely on ecological complexity to acquire their food, shelter and energy. It is well known among archaeologists and paleoanthropologists that hunter-gatherers ate a far more varied and nutrient-rich diet than did early agricultural people. The evidence on this is by now unambiguous. The results of this solution to the problem of food are also unambiguous: as an average, hunter-gatherers were taller, lived longer, and were less prone to disease, malnutrition, cavities, and starvation than early farmers. To achieve this they also worked fewer hours per week than farmers. Our own cartoon version of the human story—that life before the comforts and conveniences of civilization was “nasty, brutish, and short,” in Thomas Hobbes pithy formulation—still prevails among those committed to a story of human progress from primitive to advanced regardless of any evidence. In fact the opposite more closely fits the facts. As Jared Diamond put it in his provocatively titled essay,
The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, “Hunter-gatherers practiced the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history. In contrast, we’re still struggling with the mess into which agriculture has tumbled us, and it’s unclear whether we can solve it.”

Why then don’t complex agricultural societies, or the even more complex civilizations that they sometimes evolve into, rely on ecological complexity to solve problems? Because by their very nature they are committed to ecological simplicity. Their size, population density and social complexity are in most places the result of grain monocultures. Over time they evolve stories, myths, rituals, and religions centered on their life-giving grains, whether wheat, corn, or rice. The grains become money and the money supports the elites who tell the stories, organize the rituals, and celebrate the religions. Economics is the story of extremely simplified ecologies. Those fields of grain are so compelling not because they work better than other options, but because they pay better. The shortest economic history of the world can be written in twelve words: wheat, corn, rice, cattle, copper, tin, iron, gold, silver, coal, oil, gas. An unabridged version might include another twenty or so words—barley, millet, potatoes, sheep, horses, etc—but here are the main commodities that the major civilizations of the world have been built on. Our own civilization, global in extent and technologically complex almost beyond belief—depends more or less on all of them. I only intentionally left out wood, probably the most important natural resource of all, because it has been central to virtually all human societies going back well before the evolution of
Homo sapiens.

Once a society commits to ecological simplicity, once it sacrifices its native ecology for fields of grain, technological complexity becomes the only available solution to the problems of food, shelter, and energy—problems that are most often exacerbated by the move away from ecological complexity itself. In most places today grain monocultures are kept from failure by the addition of fossil-fuel derived pesticides and fertilizers. (If you wanted to design a food system vulnerable to disruption or collapse, it would be hard to do better than a combination of ecological simplicity and technological complexity). More often than not, the technologies developed, such as military and maritime technologies in ancient societies and mining and drilling technologies in modern ones, have been used to solve the ongoing need for food, shelter, and energy by expanding into, controlling, and exploiting frontiers. Our particular problem at this moment in history is that there are no more frontiers available to exploit.

The different effects of ecological complexity on the one hand and technological complexity on the other can be seen by comparing North America in 1491 and 2011. With over 400 distinct languages and tribal groups with economies organized around very diverse ecologies, the societies of North America in 1491 were ecologically complex but technologically simple. They were resilient and durable as a whole, and a collapse of one, Cahokia say, had no impact at all on most of the others. The societies of North America today, on the other hand, are dazzling in their technological complexity, but very simple ecologically, with only three languages and a single economic system dominating the entire continent. To the extent that the economy has reduced the continent’s native complex ecologies to a very few essential commodities—oil, coal, gas, corn, wheat—it is vulnerable to continent-wide systemic collapse should any of them become unavailable or fail.

In building a homestead economy we’ve put most of our time, energy, and resources into solving our need for food, shelter, and energy by relying on ecological complexity. At the same time we’ve tried to minimize our investment in technological complexity, using it where necessary to function in our society and in the broader economy, but understanding that these systems are resource sinks and are vulnerable to failure. I’ve taken the same approach in my business of designing and building houses: use the complexity inherent in the native forest ecology to solve problems wherever possible, and use technological complexity sparingly and with the understanding that it is prone to ongoing issues of maintenance, repair, and failure.


Peter Matthiessen’s first book
Wildlife in America is both an informative work of natural history and a moving elegy to the losses to North America’s native fauna since European settlement. It includes a chapter on the eastern forest.

Diamond’s essay, quoted above and written in 1987, was I think the first popular account to suggest that the lives of hunter-gatherers were superior in most respects to early farmers. He covers similar material in more depth in his best-selling, Pulitzer-prize winning book
Guns, Germs and Steel.

Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is an ambitious, intentionally provocative history that places the large civilizations that grew up around the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Indus, Yellow, and Yangtze river valleys and occupy center stage in most world histories into a much broader context of people interacting with various environments in various ways in all corners of the world. Like Diamond, he too rejects the progressivist view of history, writing, “history has no course; nothing is inevitable, and progress, in general, is still awaited.”