Field of Science

Is Global Complexity Worth It?

I had a wide-ranging lunch conversation with my friend Seth
a week ago. We touched on many things, but kept circling back to the above question. More specifically, I was wondering if our current level of global complexity could ever be sustainable, even with the best international governance and planning.

Let's define what we're talking about. In today's world, actions you take have consequences around the globe. For example, if you buy a computer, it likely was not made in a workshop down the road. The parts that go into your computer come from many different countries. These parts had to cross vast distances to come together, burning oil from other countries in the process. These parts were assembled in yet other countries, shipped several more times, and finally delivered to you. The money that you paid for the computer feeds back into all these various countries and processes, strengthening and perhaps changing them.

The effects of this global entanglement have been amazing. Without it, we wouldn't have computers, cellphones, airplanes, plastics, television, cars, or curry powder in the supermarket. None of these products can be made in any one local community; they all require cooperation on a continental, if not global, scale.

But I'm worried by globalization, on both a theoretical and practical level. It's clear that as humans, we aren't living within our means--I won't go into the details of that argument here. What concerns now is whether the very structure of our global society may be preventing us from ever living within our means.

First, feedback loops are getting too complex. Suppose we lived in a simple, hundred person community, and someone was stealing from his neighbors, dumping trash in the public square, or doing other undesirable actions. These actions would become apparent to everyone in short order, and the community could punish the perpetrator in various ways; economically, socially, even physically.

In theory, we have a legal system now to provide these kinds of punishments. But the more complex our society becomes, the harder it is to identify those who are screwing things up. Furthermore, laws and enforcement vary wildly across countries. Multinational corporations can get away with dumping trash in the ocean, toppling Central American democracies, intentionally creating blackouts in California, or supporting sweatshops in China because a) the actions might be legal in whatever location they're operating out of, b) they can obscure their practices behind a wall of complexity that regulators can't penetrate, and c) the consumers usually have no idea what the company is doing and therefore can't exercise moral judgment in their purchases. It could be decades before any consequences (legal, economic, or environmental) catch up with the perpetrator. And decades is too long to be an effective deterrent.

Second, we are increasingly interdependent. Witness how the mortgage crisis spread throughout American economic sectors and is now spreading through the world. Infectious diseases like avian flu have the potential to go global due to the volume of international travel. Even our environmental problems have globalized--we worry about global warming now, whereas the environmental agenda in the past was more about local pollution issues.

I see this as a problem because it means we have only one chance to screw up. The inhabitants of Easter Island destroyed their ecosystem and suffered for it, but the damage was contained to the island. In our current connected world, one disaster could ruin things for all humanity.

Can we do anything about global complexity and interdependence? I've been thinking about ways we can promote some simplicity in our economy, like buying local food or supporting local independent retailers over mega-chains. I'm not advocating we go back to preindustrial tribal society, but a little extra simplicity seems like a good thing.

1 comment:

  1. You bring up what I think is an interesting question about whether we as individuals are acting in our own self-interest, either individually or collectively, by so gleefully enabling higher-level agency to emerge. I express this concern offhandedly here when discussing the conflict between micromotives and macrobehavior. But you bring specific salient issues to light in your post.


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