The European Union: a consequence of society's complexity?

The European Union (EU) is too complex and it may be our fault. Overreach comes inherent in the technological and societal development of any civilisation, says one anthropologist. Yet don’t blame the Eurocrats. That would be missing the point.

There is no snow in the southern half of Sweden yet this year. It’s +10 degrees celsius and the supermarkets are selling snow-clearing machines at half price. If this isn’t global warming I don’t know what is. I’m reading an anthropologist, Joseph Tainter, who explains the decline of civilisation, not in terms of externalities like climate change (which has happened before, think of the medieval warming period) but in terms of the inevitable  consequence of the growth of civilisation.

Complexity is an economic function that provides benefits. Yet when the complexity of society is too great – the unproductive technical sector of society too large and the systems they are trying to maintain too complex – it is bound to lead to retrenchment. It is not only that complex societies cause a backlash, meaning the public do not understand all its processes and feel disenfranchised and so fall prey to delusional memes about “taking back control”. It also that the complexity that managers have to control only gives birth to even greater complexities and even greater necessary investment in innovation. Their declining marginal returns leads to stagnating economy which cannot keep generating wealth to pay for the analytical class of workers (officials, coordinators and bureaucrats), whose job it is to maintain the complex society.

Joseph Tainter is not the first person to write about it, but he does it in an eloquent and easy to understand way.  You can see a YouTube talk on the subject here. He keeps things at a high level of abstraction – but it makes sense. 

The Romans dealt with the drop in per capita energy available per citizen by invading neighbours and appropriating their energy surpluses – whether metals, grain or slaves.

However, as the Roman Empire expanded, the difficulty of maintaining  civil government, armies and communications links grew at a rate greater than the marginal increase in prosperity and output.

Yet the collapse of the Empire was not a disaster necessarily for everyone. Analyses of bone structure and height of skeletons suggest that many people in the area of the former Empire prospered after its collapse. Yet there were losses too. Life was more primitive and populations fell. Tainter argues that environmental degradation and the invasions and disease may have been partial causes, but the basic problem was structural. It was escalating complexity that led to overreach. There are parallels today.

The EU is a consequence of the complexity of society, a kind of receptacle if you will. Don’t blame the Eurocrats. The EU is not some fictitious  them but  us: our companies, our NGOs, our trade unions, our scientists. They are in Brussels due to the enormous amount of legislation required to cope with the complicated social and technological interactions that result when all low hanging fruit has been picked.

Business is international. Legislation is needed to control sophisticated and advanced industries; so are laws that oversee developments of a sophisticated public health and welfare redistribution systems. To juggle these priorities and systems to make them work together becomes the task of experts who, the more specialised they become, the more they lose touch with the voting public and understand the overall picture less.  

According to Tainter, societies are problem-solving systems whose aim is to increase the energy availability per capita. Yet not only does bureaucracy needed to harness this wealth and adjudicate between industrial and corporate entities to put an upper limit to innovation, but the earth’s physical resources are also a constraint which earlier generations in industrial societies did not come up against. Fossil fuel has given us the 200-year free pass and helped us avoid some the immediate problems of the decline that the Romans faced.

Are we as a civilisation doomed because we are forced to create ever more complexity to deal with the consequences of earlier complex actions? The journalist Eric Sevareid once said that “the chief source of problems is solutions.” Engineers are problem solvers – does this ring a bell?  

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