The Sunday Leader

Complexity And Collapse

By Indi Samarajiva

It is somewhat simple in practice. When things are good, we tend to spend. Companies hire, individuals find find new friends. When things go bad, however, the same lifestyle can cause everything to crash. What is complex, however, is how this applies to societies.

In his study of how complex societies collapse, anthropologist Joseph Tainter found a pattern. Civilizations from the Mayans to the Romans tended to follow a curve of development, a curve that often turns into a cliff. Essentially, they find a good resource and begin to grow. In order to manage this growth, they become more complex. As this resource runs out, that complexity becomes a burden and the society collapses.

Diminishing Returns

One reason this happens is the law of diminishing returns. The last few centuries saw people discovering electricity and atomic theory essentially in their basements but now it takes companies millions of dollars to come up with even marginal innovations. Whatever the resource, it is subject to declining marginal returns. It simply costs more to get less.
At some point, it can even cost more than it’s worth. In civilizations that grow too complex, costs gradually outstrip the value they derive from any resource. That resource could be conquered land, oil or new technology. Governments set up bureaucracies to manage that resource, hire troops to defend it and pay off populations via entitlements to retain support. When that resource starts to show diminishing returns, however, they still have that many mouths to feed. If those governments don’t find a new resource, people revolt and those societies often collapse.

Sri Lanka

What does this have to do with Sri Lanka? Well, Sri Lanka has found resources and it’s starting to grow. It’s politically incorrect to call the North and East conquered land, but in an anthropological sense, that’s what it is. It’s a new resource, and security makes the rest of the country a new resource as well. Based on that growth, the government is expanding the state sector, spending more on defence and creating an ever expanding class of resource-hungry ministers. As long as growth continues, this is sustainable, but it is not necessarily wise.
At some point, all the essential infrastructure will be built and new investments will start to see diminishing returns. The war boom will pass but the added complexity will remain. Debts will come due and government servants will still demand increments, ministers will demand perks, and students will demand jobs. At that point, however, Sri Lanka will see diminishing returns from its acquired land and will need to find a new resource to keep going.

New Resources

To his credit, however, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has spent money on long-term investments that could provide a shot in the arm. Energy plants and ports will really come online just as they’re needed. New roads and highways will provide benefits for years to come. At the same time, however, he is both centralizing and expanding government. He is also creating an almost feudal class of ministers which it seems will only grow. This expanding base of people that need to be paid off can fast become a liability
Where this government could invest more is in what would be the likely fault lines of the future. Today, we see small-scale protests by students and government employees. What they are asking for is basically education and jobs. Today they can be essentially ignored, but if growth slows down, these forces can topple the entire society.
If people are given opportunities, however, their innovation can give the country a second wind. There is no more land, the colonials took much of the natural resources, but there are always more people. Indeed, this is what much development along the Chinese model tends to forget. For all of China’s vaunted growth, they are essentially still catching up to the West and haven’t done anything spectacularly new.
In the same way, all the projects were are promoting here have already been done in the West. We get good returns on them now, but those returns will inevitably decline. At some point we will run into the same problems that Western civilizations are running into now, and we may not have a base of innovative people to come up with new solutions. That type of game-changing thinking takes investment in education and free markets and, crucially, an investment in freedom to think and work and live. That freedom is, essentially, the resource that all of this technology we copy came from, and it’s something that Sri Lankans have in increasingly short supply.

4 Comments for “Complexity And Collapse”

  1. Govinder

    Good article. Unfortunately there is not many of this type in the media to educate generall masses about the basic economics of free market. More we educate the people about the connection between good economic principles, job security and unemployment, inflation, productivity, and good governance people can make informed decisions during voting.

  2. Ravana

    Needs to be simplified and translated into Sinhala.

  3. Palmyrah

    Well observed.

    “Civilizations from the Mayans to the Romans tended to follow a curve of development, a curve that often turns into a cliff. Essentially, they find a good resource and begin to grow. In order to manage this growth, they become more complex. As this resource runs out, that complexity becomes a burden and the society collapses.”

    This is essentially a Malthusian effect, and we see it in the animal kingdom too. Any species population increases in size until it outgrows its resource supply. Then it crashes. I don’t think there is any way to avoid it. Individual humans can be clever and reasonable, but in groups we are just like any other animal. There is nothing to be done but hope some fragments survive the general collapse to form the beginnings of whatever comes next.

    @Ravana: translated into Sinhala yes, but why simplified?

  4. Ma-Rout-Ti

    “For all of China’s vaunted growth, they are essentially still catching up to the West and haven’t done anything spectacularly new.”

    China has had a history of being insular which only began changing after Deng., as for “not doing anything spectacular”., it has managed to, and continues to manage to solidify it’s future sources of energy – just as the US’s sources are on a decline. Pretty spectacular, methinks.

    Also, holding most of the West’s debt I think, is way up on the “spectacular” scale. Just imagine if it decided to pull the plug ?

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