Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Archdruid talks complexity

In his post The Twilight of the Machine the Archdruid talks about the utility of machines in a low energy world — he basically says that complex machines only make sense in a situation where energy is very cheap and in reliable supply. This allows a complex specialised system to exist in which investment in machines, which are themselves highly specialised and delicate compared to a person, is worth the risk. Therefore in a world in energy decline, human labour will take the place of the machine.

This may be partly right, if we are to continue to have big human populations in areas where those population are now supported by a complex machine-based civilisation. But I think this will prove to be the exceptional case. I expect that mechanical civilisation will retreat but the areas which it leaves will be largely abandoned, because if they are well populated they will unstable politically as the economy declines and that will lead to migration away from them and high mortality within them. There may well be a new feudalism which emerges in some areas (this seems to be what the Archdruid implies) but while civilisation may shrink, modern weapons will still be cheap and readily available and this will make all but the most stable societies ungovernable and a new feudalism equally unstable. See John Robb's book "Brave New War" and Global Guerrillas for his take on all that.

I expect in the main we will see shrinkage, rapid in some places and slow and steady in others, but all the while maintaining at a minimum a machine-based system of control. In Europe this will be a mostly a steady, slow drop in population but in parts of the USA and Australia it could be very rapid, mainly in areas which have a highly specialised function (mining or industrial areas) with little depth to the society.

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