It is worth taking the time to ponder the relentless march of “progress”, which as we all know goes hand in hand with the increasing complexity of modern human societies. We should pay much more attention to where ever-increasing complexity may be leading us because, as Joseph Tainter puts it, far from it being our own choice, our drive to ever increasing complexity is an inescapable necessity:

The development of complexity is thus a paradox of human history. Over the past 12,000 years, we have developed technologies, economies, and social institutions that cost more labor, time, money, energy, and annoyance, and that go against our aversion to such costs. Why, then, did human societies ever become more complex?

At least part of the answer is that complexity is a basic problem-solving tool. Confronted with problems, we often respond by developing more complex technologies, establishing new institutions, adding more specialists or bureaucratic levels to an institution, increasing organization or regulation, or gathering and processing more information. While we usually prefer not to bear the cost of complexity, our problem-solving efforts are powerful complexity generators. All that is needed for growth of complexity is a problem that requires it. Since problems continually arise, there is persistent pressure for complexity to increase.

Here is the heart of this issue as I see it: the energy surplus from the invention of agriculture was not the main driver of complexity. Rather, the primordial biological problem of generating a reliable energy surplus to sustain life is solved by the complex invention of agriculture, but that creates new problems: because of the time lag from seeding to sowing, more social organisation is needed (a form of primeval property rights) for agriculture to deliver the desired energy surplus. (Update 26 October 2010: others have connected the same dots in Rainfall and Democracy).

And that is how the complexity treadmill began: simple problems begat more complex solutions, which created new problems that required even more complex solutions. The set of past solutions is the bulk of what we call “culture” or “civilisation”, and the current and future additions to the set of solutions is what we call “progress”.

Thus the overarching problem is the following: if increasing system complexity makes the edifice more vulnerable, as discussed in Avalanches of Sand, and if increasing complexity is at the same time the only solution to all problems, can collapse be perpetually postponed? Tainter’s conclusion from studying past, lost civilisations is that eventually the diminishing returns to more complexity will force a dislocating adjustment to a lower level of complexity. I would add that the free energy surplus from fossil fuels has allowed civilisation to go global precisely because the spiralling cost of the ever increasing complexity was easily paid for by our drawdown of nature’s stored energy surplus. This of course is the biggest Faustian bargain in recorded history.

The entire post on the Oil Drum, linked above, is highly recommended.