Adding and removing complexity

By Mary Logan

An article on the difficulty of building truly green buildings and recent discussions about the healthcare system triggered thoughts about a major transition problem that is occurring over and over again—the problem of a complex hierarchy that demands feeding with extra energy. Previous posts about the added complexity that digitization brings are pertinent here, but this post is about the general problem of how we respond to limits by adding complexity, and what it might take to remove complexity at the top of the hierarchy without collapse.

Green buildings within a growth economy

The article that triggered this post was Mehaffy and Salingaros’ article on why green often isn’t and their observation that attempts to build green often results in energy and material-wasting buildings for several reasons. The authors ask, “What’s going on? How can the desire to increase sustainability actually result in its opposite?” First, green components are “bolted-on” to existing wasteful 21st century structures, resulting in even more energy and material use. Second, the buildings exist within a larger system, with goals and rules that they are subject to. Those rules are part of the feedback that promotes the goals of the existing system. The main goal in the US system is promotion of growth and profit for existing powerful players. Codes and existing contractors make new ways of thinking and doing difficult in many ways. This goal of profit is inescapable, so any building must first address the existing profit incentive of powerful players. The authors appropriately blame the unsustainable nature of high density fossil fuel-designed buildings operating:

natureshrinksascapitalgrows“. . . almost entirely within the industrial assumptions and engineering methodologies of the ‘oil interval’. . . . The eye-catching novelties of one era will become the abandoned eyesores of the next, an inevitability lost on a self-absorbed elite fixated on today’s fashions. Meanwhile the humble, humane criteria of resilient design are being pushed aside, in the rush to embrace the most attention-getting new technological approaches — which then produce a disastrous wave of unintended failures. This is clearly no way to prepare for a ‘sustainable’ future in any sense” (Mehaffy & Salingaros, April 2013). what is needed is buildings at a lower level of hierarchy, buildings that do not rely on consistent electricity, water plumbed from hundreds of miles away, and density that can only be supported with an energy basis of high quality fossil fuels. Once fossil fuels become expensive or unavailable, we will need a different form of construction, that is supported instead by passive, renewable energies and local materials, with less density to allow for human-powered transport needs.

Both major principles of transformity and autocatalysis are in play here. In many parts of the economy, as energy inputs plateau and start to recede, bureaucratic responses to  energy scarcity and resulting economic problems are to add complexity rather than remove it. People do not see the added cumulative energy and materials that are required to sustain what is already there, and then to add even more technology. This is the principle of transformity–adding complexity on top of what is already there requires more energy and materials through transformations. The only way to cut the inputs is to move back down the hierarchy in design to a more ecological approach that works with nature instead of fighting nature through added technology. But backing down the hierarchy is difficult, because of autocatalysis, or the positive feedback loops that feed the complexity, which are solidly in place. In Mehaffy and Salingaros’ example of green building above, the idea of components being bolted on is an example of the principle of transformity, while the inability to run outside of the rules of the construction system is an example of how autocatalysis sometimes traps us into systems that respond poorly to the need to change, resulting in overshoot.

Wasserman, 3-13, in, 3-25
Wasserman, 3-13, in, 3-25

The players that are now attached to the system and making a profit demand and protect the system as it is. The financial system at this point acts as a voracious funnel to continue to funnel profits upwards towards profit. As the financial power at the top expands, it promotes further inequities and further resistance to change. So any change must come by adding added complexity, rather than removing rigid, powerful vested interests such as insurance companies, corporations, the legal system, and so on.  The policy arena becomes resistant, and then atherosclerotic. Finally it ruptures. The choice is to try to create local experiments or demonstration projects in some of these more fossilized profit-centers in anticipation of failure of the system, or just wait until it collapses and begin again. Waiting for collapse doesn’t seem to be an ideal solution, so how do we approach doing things differently?

Healthcare’s death grip on the current system L' obstination L’ obstination

The healthcare system is another example of unsustainability and resistance to change. Our western healthcare subsystem is part of the economy at the very top of the hierarchy, with many transformations required to build its complexity. Because of the strong profit incentives, creating change by backing down from complexity is difficult. Attempts to limit extreme over-treatment such as intensive care at the end of life are hard to avoid, due to embedded ethical and legal rules and the systemic goals that drive diagnostics and treatment. Basic preventive care and health promotion are basic assumptions of a functional complex, high-energy economy, while the emphasis in healthcare has shifted to extreme, life-prolonging treatments for covered or wealthy clients, with inadequate care for the uninsured or inadequately insured. Those assumptions of basic health provision, including clean food and water, adequate plumbing, healthy immunity within the population, and other assumptions are being hollowed out as populations grow, energy inputs wane, and health maintenance of the population diminishes. Much like the construction example above, healthcare’s existence at the top of a hierarchy but still operating within the current oil-interval makes it almost immune to change. Medical ethics advocate maximum testing and treatment, while the legal system solidifies the status quo, and the insurance system promotes whatever increases its own profits—more insured people getting inappropriate, excess, expensive care that allows skimming. Physicians and well-paid healthcare managers have expensive debt such as large home mortgages to pay, which requires maintenance of the status quo. This autocatalysis promotes perpetuation of the system, even when everyone agrees that the system is broken.

partsinamachineAttempts to change the system result in incremental changes that do not disturb the status quo, for the most part. Powerful insurance companies that skim profit from the beginning of the money pipeline are allowed to stay and to set prices–they are even promoted through laws that mandate that everyone must pay these private, wealthy companies. The rest of the healthcare system must struggle with the leftovers after profits are skimmed, with hospitals and consumers getting the dregs. As long as the financial system stays afloat, the insurance companies will keep their grip on the system, with prices for consumers and other weak players becoming higher or even out of reach.

What might green healthcare look like?

524802_10151343470061283_2068188164_nAny new experiments in descent will have to arise organically out of descent, either through local collapses in the healthcare and/or economic system (Fuchs, 2010). Attempts to begin something new in healthcare outside of the insurance and legal systems will not work. The financial system at this point acts as a voracious funnel to continue to funnel profits upwards towards profit. So how do we remove the profit motive and dodge the corporatocracy, abandoning the premise that more is better that has fostered our careers, forming the basis for our society?

I’ve highlighted construction and healthcare here, but other subsystems of the economy are similarly entrenched in the goals of a high-energy growth economy. Education is increasingly relying on technology, expansion of bureaucracy and testing, and encroachment of the profit-motive. Government relies increasingly on corporations and other organizations that promote profits for one group of lobbyists or another. Everyone promotes digitization as a solution for problems, at a time when consistent operation of electronic information systems is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up.

roadbridgeSo barring collapse, how do we work outside the current system to develop demonstration projects for buildings, for healthcare, for renewable energy, and other sustainability goals?  I think we have to answer that question first, to change some of the really rigid profit-making systems in capitalist society such as government, education, and healthcare. If we’re not going to wait until everything collapses before we pick up the pieces, how do we describe and carry out a demonstration project such as a health care clinic that operates outside the limits and constraints of America’s extreme healthcare system, that are not subject to the rules and ethics of the current system? Perhaps the first step is to imagine it. Individuals are circumventing building codes and creating small houses out of sustainable materials. But healthcare seems trapped within the larger system. If I want less healthcare, or ecologically oriented healthcare, I have to abandon the system for the most part.

Obstacles.-gorightthruWhat would a healthcare system that really promoted Health Care instead of Sick Cure look like? We have forgotten what those words mean. A Health Care system would have to be divorced from the insurance payment system, and the emphasis would need to be on prevention. A bioethicist and environmental medicine expert would be needed, and there would need to be some way to bypass and make toothless the current emphasis on high-tech cure and end-of-life treatments. Basic preventive care and health promotion could be provided for all at low-cost, with tertiary or extreme cures only available elsewhere through referral, for more cost (if people can pay). Health promotion would need to include assessment of food relocalization, measures of resilience such as community/social supports, general stress levels, transportation, food security, and other basic needs, all weighed against higher order needs. Tools could be devised, people could be counseled, those at the end of life could be encouraged to weigh quality of life against extreme measures, and so on. Geriatric patients could be assessed for originaltechnologypolypharmacy, social isolation, and other problems of aging and our high-tech culture. Children could be assessed for nature deficit, computer addiction, over-treatment for medicalized diagnoses such as attention deficit disorder and other disorders of modern life. Home assessments of water and food purity would be available. Families could be examined as systems, and extended families could be encouraged. Classes on financial frugality, growing your own food, eating lower on the food chain, and so on could be a part of the clinic. Some of these ideas are portrayed in the book, God’s Hotel, by Victoria Sweet, if you’re interested in reading more about this.

At the end of empire, the economic system at large has a death grip on profit-making subsystems, preventing the radical change that is needed. How do we begin to imagine what is really needed, rather than proposed incremental changes that only add to complexity and hasten collapse? Any ideas?

Header: In the Talkeetnas, by Toby Schwörer

  • “How do we begin to imagine what is really needed, rather than proposed incremental changes that only add to complexity and hasten collapse? Any ideas?”

    Oh, I have tons of ideas! But they all depend on gathering people together to work on them, which has proven elusive. Perhaps that is the essential meta-idea that we need to foster — that the age of individualism is dead. I can’t prove it in emergy terms, but I believe that individualism is tremendously complex, and has a huge hidden energy cost. But times are not hard enough yet for people to give up individualism.

    One paradigm shift I have been trying to imagine is a world without new plastic. There will be re-use of plastic for some time, and I’m not totally against long-lived use of plastic — although that is rare.

    I’ve been designing and implementing a way to irrigate one of our fields without new or rapidly used-up plastic. It is plumbed for high-pressure spray irrigation from a nearby reservoir — but that takes an 80-horsepower tractor running a pump!

    Right off, we abandoned the high-pressure sprayers, and went with (ugh) black poly tubing and black poly drip-line irrigation. But that stuff only lasts a few years — five tops — due to sunlight degradation.

    That’s our transition step to the new paradigm we started to build last summer: on-contour trenches, filled by siphon from the reservoir, seeping into the beds below them. This should really make root crops reach for the water, instead of spreading out on the irrigated surface.

    That meant using diesel fuel to dig the trenches, but already we’re seeing an improvement in the water situation in that field. It used to be a swampy mess right through “Junuary,” but here it is April, and the trenches are creating alternating wet and dry zones, and we can get in there without coming out with Frankenstein Boots of saturated clay.

    “Imagine what is really needed…” How about affordable equity farmland? At this point, the energy-fat complexities have driven the price of farmland up so that a young farming family could never hope to own any. The energy-fat complexities of required zoning, sewage, safety, and water conspire to keep it that way — a mandated engineered septic system will add $30k to $40k right at the start, without any rational questioning about if such a system makes any sense at all!

    Here, we are limited to two houses on 20 acres, and yet we did a study that says we need 39 farm workers during the peak labour needs. I guess we’d have to pay them enough to stay in a local B&B at $150/night, and they’d need a car… NOT!

    Luckily, our official community plan has lots of support for sane development, and so we’re going to try to go with the system, rather than behind its back, or wait for its collapse.

    • Jan, I see more cooperative behaviors now than even a few years ago, even among hyper-individualistic, competitive, and sometimes opportunistic Alaskans. The waiting is the hardest part.

      Plastics–there may come a day in our lifetimes where a simple plastic bag or tarp is a luxury that we miss. I look at the waste now in plastics and cringe. And each time I pick something up that is made of plastic, I consider what I could replace it with that is more permanent, and ecologically sustainable, as you say.

      We would like to add a tiny off-grid house to the mix on our land, as an even lower-energy alternative. But any truly low-energy adaptations would be verboten according to Anchorage’s newly passed Title 21 code. This title was passed amidst many confrontations between residents and the building industry, and the muni reneged on original agreements to a community consensus that was developed over many years. The resulting compromises are mostly continuing status quo with some greenwashing, in my opinion. Go outlaw or wait for collapse, with not many choices in between, as you say, Jan.


      • Doesn’t Anchorage have a “below regulatory concern” footprint?

        Here, we can build anything we want under 106 sqft (10 square metres).

        Our Official Community Plan is full of support for what we want to do. We’ve received a “wink and a nod” to build as auxiliary farm buildings while waiting for re-zoning to work its way through the bureaucracy.

        I keep telling myself I’m doing this to pave the way for others, but part of me is thinking we’ll work our way through the system at considerable time and expense, only to have the system collapse!

        • No winks or nods for us, Jan. We have a neighbor who is still anticipating a more exalted life, and our chickens appear to be ruining her view of that life, and/or her property values.

          Your considerable time and expense was the cost of being first with a longer learning curve. That is the cost of a “first copy” in information terms. Education is never wasted in my mind . . . .

          • Ugh. Neighbours.

            That was a big consideration in selecting our site. We have organic farmers on two sides, community farmland to the east, and thousands of acres of wild parkland to the south.

            We had neighbour problems at a previous site. We had to invoke BC’s “Right to Farm Act,” which means neighbours have no case if they complain about legitimate farming operations in properly zoned farmland. Many states have similar laws — does Alaska?

  • Brian

    I have been trying to wrestle with the idea of complexity. It doesn’t seem to me that complexity is really our problem. In biological systems complexity arises time and time again. Our problem is a societal autism. The idea that we can and should control everything. We are going to be better off when we learn to let go. When humans try to do everything it is a waste of energy. A tree doesn’t make rain, mine nutrients, and recycle nutrients all by itself. Different levels of the biological hierarchy are needed to perform different functions, so as not to waste energy by using high quality human energy to do things other organisms lower on the hierarchy can accomplish. What this means for healthcare or construction, I don’t know. Any thoughts would definitely help. Brian

    • Complexity is a problem if our extreme hierarchy of complexity is supported only because of high quality fossil fuels whose production is declining. How many of the levels to the left in the pyramid below are supportable with less fossil fuels? Or with renewables alone? Each level is supported by transformation of energy from the level below. When the quality of energy supplying the whole pyramid declines, what happens?

      • Brian

        Ha. I actually made a figure just like that one when I do my post on it. Yours is much better. I guess I am just saying that we are often defining complexity by the very nature that it is using more energy and doing so more quickly. A couple thousand organisms in forest with a couple million genes with hundreds of millions gene variants with trillions of interactions, but this is not complexity? I think humans could and maybe will make and interact positively in some very complex environments, but we will have to use energy wisely by being stingy with our high quality energies and it will be on long timescales. Though I am probably wrong, such is my life. Thanks again. Brian

        • David F Collins

          I suspect that you are correct. However, to paraphrase the Great Semanticist, it depends on your definition of complexity. Or more precisely, upon the point from which complexity is observed. From the view of nonanthropocentric nature, the forest is more complex than the cornfield. From the view of the farmer, the cornfield is more complex than the forest.

      • Brian

        Sorry for the second post, but let me restate as questions: Is human information acting on short timescales of greater complexity/transformity than biological information acting on larger timescales? In EPS biological info is multiple orders of magnitude higher in transformity than human info. Is transformity different than complexity? I hope you don’t mind I have latched onto you as a surrogate teacher. Brian

        • That image is Tom Abel’s–I have no graphic skills. Great question, Brian. I am using the term complexity here to signify higher levels of transformity. There are as many definitions of complexity as there are branches of science, perhaps. You are absolutely right–the biosphere has developed a diversity of genetic information of up to “1 X 1032 sej/J for some categories of genetic information” (Odum, 1996, p. 19). Human information is not as well organized, nor has it been tested and processed over time. And our knowledge is not designed to fit into the biosphere at large–in fact, just the opposite. Fossil fuels have allowed us the arrogance to bulldoze everything in our paths in the short term. I guess you get what you pay for. The diversity of genetic information within the biosphere has been tested and reprocessed over millions of years for adaptation. Take away our fossil fuels, and we are left with an aggressive, competitive, over-populated society in cities with no bulldozers left to run them. Our information storage methods are vulnerable and unsorted. We are a will-o-the-wisp as a species in the big scheme of things.

    • Brian, I think natural complexity is different because it is self-organizing and self-maintaining, whereas, as Joseph Tainter points out, the complexity of human civilization needs constant maintenance.

      Even then, it is true that natural complexity is a function of energy. In the tropics, species tend to be heavily specialized, with several competing for an ecological niche. But look at the alpine and arctic biomes, and you see relatively few, more generalized species, often cooperating instead of competing, as the hawk and the owl divide up their niche temporally.

      • Brian

        My point on complexity is also this, we plant a mono culture where a forest is and say it is more complex. In reality we are destroying system complexity and substituting high quality human energy to do functions that can be done with lower quality energies. Civilization mostly simplifies processes. I realized before I went to sleep I may be talking about a different system boundary and hence the confusion.

        And I think to go along with what Mary said below, above, and in the last post, is that we need to work within and support nature’s complexity. Ecological engineering is necessary to maximize complexity and help maintain our level on the hierarchy after fossil fuels disappear and we are no longer able to waste energy in simplifying processes.

        • Brian, it appears that a huge monoculture field has been simplified, but the complexity has only been hidden, and, in fact, has increased.

          Before the monoculture, the field was self-sufficient. But the monoculture requires fertilizer and pesticides, which requires the entire modern petrochemical industry. Even if organic, it requires tractors, which brings in not just the fossil sunlight industry, but also the financial system, exotic materials from all over the world, and the burgeoning semiconductor industry.

          So perhaps we are in “heated agreement,” but when I look at a thousand acre wheat field, I see the ghosts of hidden complexity everywhere!

          • Brian

            I think you are arguing the same thing that Mary argues, which is that energy use equals complexity. By any measure under the sun except energy use, the forest is more complex. Removing just a little diversity from a site can negate the entire complexity of all human knowledge whether we measure it in transformity, Emergy store, connections between organisms, or efficiency of energy uptake from the sun in that system. Simply put an Amazonian tribe lives in greater complexity than someone in the Roman Empire who lived in greater complexity than someone in today’s global empire. However, tainter et al stop their system boundaries at the edge of what humans do and define that as complexity. It is the mind trap of anthropologists.

          • Brian, it isn’t me arguing, and it isn’t Mary arguing; it’s her father, accompanied by such thinkers and Donella Meadows (RIP), David Holmgren, et. al.

            And even this is simply a new wrinkle on old ecological principles: complexity is absolutely a function of energy. It does not stop “at the edge of what humans do.”

            Consider a tropical biome. Many creatures compete in the same niches, often specializing (a complexity) to a high degree in order to survive. There may be a half-dozen raptors preying on a couple dozen small creatures, for example. This is a high-energy, high-complexity natural environment — no humans involved.

            Now consider an arctic or alpine biome. These low-energy environments only support a few small furry things, and there may well only be two raptors preying on them — and even they cooperate by dividing up their hunting temporally, with the rough-legged hawk hunting by day and the snowy owl by night.

            High energy equals competition equals high complexity. Low energy equals cooperation equals low complexity.

            Joseph Tainter merely applied decades-old ecological principles to human civilizations.

          • Brian

            I thought that energy could be both ordering and disordering. It seems to me when the sun gets too hot for the earth, there will be less complexity because the energy becomes disordering. Venus has more complexity than the earth? It seems I have massively misunderstood what odum was saying, I promise I am not trying to be sarcastic. I will shut up for now and go read more. 🙁

          • These are all good points, all very accurate descriptions of different aspects of complexity. I especially like Brian’s comment, “My point on complexity is also this, we plant a mono culture where a forest is and say it is more complex. In reality we are destroying system complexity and substituting high quality human energy to do functions that can be done with lower quality energies.” That was the concept I was attempting to portray with the cartoon about vintage social networking. We have piled on layers of additional digitized networking abilities that really has little value added, except for the ability to connect globally. When one’s herd is small, that may be useful :-}

            And most of my words are interpretations of HT’s. He started my programming early, around age 4. I’m a sleeper agent ghost in the machine, programmed to go off when the time was right. And some of my interpretations of his work may be wrong. But Jan is right, energy and complexity are directly linked. The tundra in the header is less complex than the rain forest or the coral reef. But it is still much more complex and probably much more lasting than most of man’s works. Nature has had millions of years of testing and replication to design the best designs. We’ve had a couple of centuries. Great descriptions of complexity!

          • “most of my words are interpretations of HT’s. He started my programming
            early, around age 4. I’m a sleeper agent ghost in the machine,
            programmed to go off when the time was right.”

            And bless both of you for that, Mary! I’ve never seen a more cogent, clear interpretation, and I send lots of people to this site.

          • Brian

            After your amazing statement last week about creating a water temple on your property to get around the law, I thought to myself, “Jan and I will never disagree about anything.” I squarely blame this on the energy hierarchy and complexity. And Mary as the Manchurin Candidate, nice!

  • Zach

    Granted society at large (the whole 7 billion) and the systems we’ve created are so abstruse bordering on inscrutable for a single human contemplating the whole that at some point or another intuition must be submitted for empiricism. We all do it. In that light could you direct a new reader to a post highlighting the framework to your position of an imminent and total collapse of global society. We know debt and the financial system (they will rebuild it at all costs, it is merely prop of hierarchical social relations). We know peak oil (it won’t put us out of business tomorrow). We know climate (ditto). We know other critical resources. These things should scare the hell out of us. Enough that I think we should all be compelled to drop all distractions and begin working on new structures today. But the term collapse seems so central to your piece that it may be helpful if you could define its terms… on your terms. Thank you

    • we should all be compelled to drop all distractions and begin working on new structures today.

      I agree heartily! But we could use some help!

      I think the first thing to do is find some people of like mind to work with. This is not an easy task for individuals, especially middle-aged! You might look for a Transition Town group to work with, although many of them seem to be of the “change your light bulbs and buy a Prius” mindset.

      • Zach

        Jan, that is brilliant. I heartily wish to explore EcoReality virtually in coming days. My personal conundrum shared with about 50 million others is that I live (physically, therefore socially, economically, and intellectually) in the nexus of the Western hierarchical “establishment”. I reflect on this matter often and have resolved that I must stay and work this out from seed, drawing on lessons learned by vanguard movements.

        One group I am looking at locally is Sharable. And of course there is ows which let’s not forget “you” were instrumental is fermenting ; )

        • there is ows which let’s not forget “you” were instrumental is fermenting ; )

          I think you’re giving me credit for something I don’t deserve.

          The only things I’ve been “fermenting” is yogurt, feta cheese, sauerkraut, pear cider and compost tea!

          • Zach

            LOL. I meant the metaphorical area code 250 “you”

          • Sorry, I’m pretty dense, and still not getting it… how does “250,” “you,” and “ows” fit together?

          • Zach

            No. I stretched it a bit. In my reply to you I was alluding to how (at least in popular imagination) the west coast of north america, specifically BC is leaps and bounds ahead of virtually anywhere else on the continent in terms of creating more appropriate forms of social / economic organization. Further I was explaining that I look to “you”, that is British Columbia, for inspiration. As an aside I mentioned that “you” (again read BC) gave us ows through the promotion in Adbusters magazine which is based in Vancouver. It was a sloppy association of words AND numbers, I did not mean to ascribe to you personally any political movements or otherwise. All we know about your politics at this point is that you are pro- fermentation.

          • No worries! Thanks for explaining. I’m pretty isolated here, and know nothing about popular culture than I don’t hear on CBC.

            As for politics, I’m a single-issue voter coming up May 14. The socialists (NDP) have promised to allow herd shares as a way of legally distributing raw milk, which is illegal throughout Canada.

            Anyone in any party who lets me grow and distribute food with the minimum hassle can have my vote! For all their chest-thumping, the Conservatives are pretty hard on small farmers.

          • Zach

            Ok, great! Thanks for sharing. I haven’t consumed raw milk yet but would like to learn more about it and why it would be opposed on a national party level.

    • Hi, Zach. I wrote this post in a hurry. Thanks for pointing the collapse emphasis out–I usually do more editing to strive for a more positive spin. But since you asked, the post below is all you need to know. Net energy is the key. There are a lot of inaccurate values posted out and about on the internet, but if you use the emergy approach (from the originator of the concept), which includes the energy-intensive calculations of human labor, the future looks grim if we cannot use surplus fossil fuels to build a new, smaller society based on renewables. I don’t see that trend happening. And the emergy yield values in the graphs are dated–the numbers are even lower now. Odum’s values have been supported by the trends over time.

      • Zach

        I shall investigate. Thanks

  • Don Chisholm

    Mary Logan’s final paragraph asks: “At the end of empire, the economic system at large has a death grip on profit-making subsystems, preventing the radical change that is needed. How do we begin to imagine what is really needed, rather than proposed incremental changes that only add to complexity and hasten collapse? Any ideas?”
    I have written an essay to provide a relatively short answer to Mary’s question.

    The essay is a paraphrase of a story called, Paradigm Junction. Paradigm Junction (PJ) provides significant holistic background information before providing a backcast view of how human civilization might function in 50 years if appropriate steps were started today, and it also suggests approaches today that might begin the change. My background has been mostly in the engineering/maintenance end of complex dynamic systems. The human predicament is an extremely large one of those.