This opinion piece in The Prague Post, a Czech Republic English-language newspaper, makes one simple point: complexity and globalization gave us the gift of centuries of almost uninterrupted economic growth, but the price of that growth is that we have to run faster and faster just to stand still; the faster we run, the more badly we will get hurt if we fall down. Yet if we try to stop, we will fall down for sure. Quite the pickle we are in!

Take globalization for example:

If China produces cheap steel or shoes and Spain grows the best tomatoes, the market will ensure that the resources for these activities are moved to the appropriate places. Such an idea was long ago proposed by David Ricardo in the Theory of Comparative Advantage.

However, interconnectedness also has its darker side. It not only leads to increased energy consumption (to help move goods great distances among other things) but also increases the dependence of individual regions on one another. If consumption growth, for example in the energy sector, is no longer possible, it disrupts the functioning of other sectors of the global system, creating a ripple effect.

And on the subtle but important matter of diminshing returns of complexity, which was the subject of an entire book by Joseph Tainter, here is the quote from the article:

Alexander Fleming needed approximately $20,000 for his research that resulted in the discovery of antibiotics. Saving millions of lives, antibiotics were without a doubt a great success. Thus, the return on investment was enormous.

In contrast, today, we invest tens of millions into research that aims to reduce the side effects of new medications (an example of solutions to small problems creating new ones). The investment returns on such research are therefore infinitely smaller.

This does not discount the possibility that scientists will discover a new revolutionary medicine or make other groundbreaking discoveries, nor does it suggest that we should stop financing basic and applied research. What the point illustrates is that solutions to increasingly complex and intricate problems inevitably decrease the frequency of major discoveries and as a result decrease society’s ability to enjoy exponentially greater results. Situations where solutions will themselves become the source of other, new problems will occur more often in the future.

The entire article is well worth reading.