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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Is increasingly complex management really the path to sustainability?

I was in a meeting recently. The subject: different approaches to ensuring that sediment kicked up by bottom fisheries doesn't harm the sponge reefs.

Someone said: we need to know exactly how much sediment the sponge reefs can withstand. We need more research on this, and then we can manage the fisheries so that that threshold amount of sedimentation isn't crossed.

Something in my mind gave way. I thought, Really? Really really?

Sure, such an approach may be great for managing impacts on the sponge reefs. There's no doubt that devoting substantial effort to gathering good scientific data, and developing sound management options from the data, is very effective when it comes to solving specific problems - in the oceans, and elsewhere.

But what is the net effect when we take this approach repeatedly, in countless different situations across the globe? What's the net effect when our default approach to problem-solving is to increase the data requirements, the management steps, the technological innovations, the sheer number of things that are necessary for our systems to function?

In short, are we truly developing a more sustainable human community when our preferred problem-solving approach is to increase the complexity of our enterprises? 

Well, no. I would argue that we're not. Not if you're looking at the long term.

Now, don't get me wrong. This approach is a very good way to manage impacts on a specific thing, like the sponge reefs. That's not the point. The point is that it inexorably leads to coupled enterprise/management systems of ever-increasing complexity. And a system that is ever-increasing in complexity will be ever-increasing in what it requires to function - whether it be information, technology, funding, human effort, raw materials, and ultimately, energy itself.

This is fine as long as sufficient amounts of those things can be obtained. The problem arises when they can't. If the system's needs cannot be met, it can't function. It can't be held together, and it will begin to shed those layers of complexity that it can no longer support. It will simplify - although it won't look simple to us. It may look unpredictable and ugly. We humans who rely on these systems don't tend to like those times very much. 

This basic challenge to our society's approach to problem-solving is eloquently and forcefully demonstrated in Joseph Tainter's well-known book, "The Collapse of Complex Societies". The point that Dr. Tainter drives home, repeatedly, is simple: the strategy of addressing problems by increasing the complexity of social systems comes with significant costs in the form of the increased operational inputs that the systems require to function. The reckoning comes when those requirements can no longer be met.

The challenge, in other words, is this:

When we endeavor to fix specific problems by adding layers of complexity
to our enterprises, our human community as a whole becomes
that much more difficult to sustain. 

What's the answer, then? What can we do to create truly sustainable human systems? Sorry, friend. I don't have the answer, and besides, I have to get on a call about a very complicated and data-intensive bit of work.
p.s. If you've read this far, I suggest getting your hands on Joseph Tainter's book by fair means or foul. Even if you aren't much for reading, the book's cover makes it a great tool for repelling unwanted conversations when you're out in public. Trust me - just put this in front of your face, and you'll be enjoying your milkshake in peace and quiet. It works every time. 
And if you wear a clown suit while reading it,
even the cops will leave you alone


  1. enjoyed article - great approach (questioning) to obvious problem. Because my livelihood is not directly affected by this problem (not employed by a science-based organization), I'd go as far as to say this: It would be in the interest of all of us if this problem was recognized at the start of any action plan to address environmental challenges. And, at the risk of sounding negative about environmental organizations in general (which I believe are part of humanity's 'last best hope'), this problem is huge, lies close to the heart of many NGOs and in some ways is hastening our demise as a species. I made a formal suggestion to the VI regional library to acquire at least one copy of Tainter's book. In the meantime, do you know anyone I can borrow a copy from?

  2. Hi Shane,
    Thanks and while I agree with the sentiment that this should be a central consideration when we (environmental groups, industry, government - all of us) are trying to come up with a solution to a problem, I think that we're a long ways from that being a reality.

    Why? Well, quite simply, I don't think that the views expressed in this post are shared by many. The dominant view seems to be that a system that isn't operating 'sustainably' is just in need of tweaking - that a lack of sustainability is effectively just an engineering problem that can be fixed through more and better engineering. Gather more data, add more technology, increase monitoring, etc.

    The idea that such a solution to a specific problem (environmental or otherwise) can actually have the net effect of making the human community more unsustainable, as a whole, is not only not discussed - I don't think it's even perceived by most. We just seem to have a blind spot in that regard, which is somewhat understandable since it does present a serious challenge to the problem-solving approach that virtually all of us share.

    I'd love to see some comments from anyone else out there who has thoughts about this.

    Also, re: finding the book to borrow. I've got a copy but I'm not quite finished with it yet - it's a thin book, but it's pretty dense!