Alternatives to Political SystemsConsumerismEconomicsFood ShortagesGlobal Warming/Climate ChangePeak OilSociety

An Eruption of Reality

Has our society become too complex to sustain?

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

Man proposes; nature disposes. We are seldom more vulnerable than when we feel insulated.

The miracle of modern flight protected us from gravity, atmosphere, culture, geography. It made everywhere feel local, interchangeable. Nature interjects, and we encounter – tragically for many – the reality of thousands of miles of separation. We discover that we have not escaped from the physical world after all.

Complex, connected societies are more resilient than simple ones – up to a point. During the east African droughts of the early 1990s, I saw at first hand what anthropologists and economists have long predicted: those people who had the fewest trading partners were hit hardest. Connectivity provided people with insurance: the wider the geographical area they could draw food from, the less they were hurt by a regional famine.

But beyond a certain level, connectivity becomes a hazard. The longer and more complex the lines of communication and the more dependent we become on production and business elsewhere, the greater the potential for disruption. This is one of the lessons of the banking crisis. Impoverished mortagage defaulters in the United States – the butterfly’s wing over the Atlantic – almost broke the global economy. If the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano – by no means a monster – keeps retching it could, in these fragile times, produce the same effect.

We have several such vulnerabilities. The most catastrophic would be an unexpected coronal mass ejection – a solar storm – which causes a surge of direct current down our electricity grids, taking out the transformers. It could happen in seconds; the damage and collapse would take years to reverse, if we ever recovered. We would soon become aware of our dependence on electricity: an asset which, like oxygen, we notice only when it fails.

As New Scientist magazine points out, an event like this would knacker most of the systems which keep us alive(1,2). It would take out water treatment plants and pumping stations. It would paralyse oil pumping and delivery, which would quickly bring down food supplies. It would clobber hospitals, financial systems and just about every kind of business – even the manufacturers of candles and paraffin lamps. Emergency generators would function only until the oil ran out. Burnt-out transformers cannot be repaired; they must be replaced. Over the past year I’ve sent freedom of information requests to electricity transmitters and distributors, asking them what contingency plans they have made, and whether they have stockpiled transformers to replace any destroyed by a solar storm. I haven’t got to the end of it yet, but the early results suggest that they haven’t.

There’s a similar lack of planning for the possibility that global supplies of oil might soon peak then go into decline. My FoI requests to the British government reveal that it has made no contingency plans, on the grounds that it doesn’t believe it will happen(3). The issue remains the preserve of beardy lentil-eaters such as, er, the United States Joint Forces Command. Its latest report on possible future conflicts maintains that “a severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity.”(4) It suggests that “by 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.” A shortage of refining and production capacity is not the same thing as peak oil, but the report warns that a chronic constraint looms behind the immediate crisis: even under “the most optimistic scenario … petroleum production will be hard pressed to meet the expected future demand”.

A global oil shortage would soon expose the weaknesses of our complex economic systems. As the cultural anthropologist Joseph Tainter has shown, their dependence on high energy use is one of the factors that makes complex societies vulnerable to collapse(5).

His work has helped to overturn the old assumption that social complexity is a response to surplus energy. Instead, he proposes, complexity drives higher energy production. While complexity solves many problems – such as reliance on an exclusively local and therefore vulnerable food supply – it’s subject to dimishing returns. In extreme cases the cost of maintaining such systems causes them to collapse.

Tainter gives the example of the western Roman empire. In the third and fourth centuries AD, the emperors Diocletian and Constantine sought to rebuild their diminished territories. “The strategy of the later Roman Empire was to respond to a near-fatal challenge in the third century by increasing the size, complexity, power, and costliness of … the government and its army. … The benefit/cost ratio of imperial government declined. In the end the Western Roman Empire could no longer afford the problem of its own existence.”(6) The empire was ruined by the taxes and levies on manpower Diocletian and Constantine imposed to sustain their massive system. Invasion and collapse were the inevitable result.

He contrasts this with the strategies of the Byzantine empire from the seventh century onwards. Weakened by plague and re-invasion, the government responded with a programme of systematic simplification. Instead of maintaining and paying its army, it granted soldiers land in return for hereditary military service: from then on they had to carry their own costs. It reduced the size and complexity of the administration and left people to fend for themselves. The empire survived and expanded.

A similar process is taking place in the UK today: a simplification of government in response to crisis. But while the public sector is being pared down, both government and private enterprise seek to increase the size and complexity of the rest of the economy. If the financial crisis were the only constraint we faced, this might be a sensible strategy. But the energy costs, environmental impacts and vulnerability to disruption of our super-specialised society have surely already reached the point at which they outweigh the benefits of increasing complexity.

For the third time in two years we’ve discovered that flying is one of the weakest links in our overstretched system. In 2008 the rising cost of fuel drove several airlines out of business. The recession compounded the damage; the volcano might ruin several more. Energy-hungry, weather-dependent, easily disrupted, a large aviation industry is one of the hardest sectors for any society to sustain, especially one beginning to encounter a series of crises. The greater our dependence on flying, the more vulnerable we are likely to become.

Over the past few days people living under the flight paths have seen the future, and they like it. The state of global oil supplies, the industry’s social and environmental costs and its extreme vulnerability mean that current levels of flying – let alone the growth the government anticipates – cannot be maintained indefinitely. We have a choice. We can start decommissioning this industry while there is time and find ways of living happily with less of it. Or we can sit and wait for physical reality to simplify the system by more brutal means.


  6. ibid.



  1. Right on. I’ve been building a permaculture property and home from a cow paddock and bush land. Starting with a tent and adding things to make life here possible and comfortable. The idea was to live a low energy lifestyle, but I realise now this is only possible once everything is built and paid for. My dependance on fossil fuels for transport especially is far greater now than when I was in the city. Removing electricity from our lives would practically send us back to the dark ages. We couldnt even cut firewood without petrol or electricity. Even if we could manage to eek out an existance on rabbits, wallabys and vegies the starving, freezing hordes would soon take what we had. There is no escaping what the mainstream does, and the mainstream are a bunch of deluded greedy idiots. The only thing that can change the way things are done is ecconomic incentive. Since the what the govermnets do is dictated largely by big industry, and they are the only group capable of implementing these incentives, I’d say our only hope is praying one of these solar storms never happens. In any case I can just imagine the public response if we presented them with yet another doomsday scenario.

  2. Hei Alslanded!
    In addition with economic incentives I think it’s important to change the overall pattern language in the community, or more correct to restore good, functional, shared pattern languages, see my comment here:

    It’s not easy to live a permaculture life when the overall pattern languages of our community are destructive and dead. What you have done is important, trying to restoring the pattern languages in your own life, but it’s depressing when your positive patterns doesn’t fit in with the larger pattern languages around you. I think all permaculturists find this frustrating. Of course, it’s easier when you are surrounded with likeminded,, and I also think ecovillages are very important as models, also for cities. When we have enough successful ecovillages as models, I think its concepts somewhat will become the model of future eco-cities, see:

    Anyway, we have a hard job in front of us, because the destruction of civilization has been taking place during the last 400 years, see the fifth comment,, and we might need 400 years to restore what is broken.

    I recently learned that the structure of Wikipedia is built upon the structure of “A Pattern Language”, and this made me think that that the permaculture movement is quite similar to Wikipedia, with a net structure where all are equal and can contribute, sharing the knowledge and the pattern language. If we can make a huge permacultural pattern language for all the world that functions equal as well as Wikipedia, then I think we have reached Alexander’s vision for a new world, see my fifth comment here:

    To reach this vision I think permaculture should learn from “Baubiologie”, , because I think their success in Germany is much because they have become a part of the curriculum at several German architectural universities. In my eight comment here I changed the world architects with permaculturists, but the very best is if we can get a huge number of permaculture architects around the world. So my advice to permaculture is, learn from “Baubiologie” and make permaculture a part of the curriculum of architectural universities throughout the world!!!!

    The best foundation is of course if the PDC can become a part of curriculum for everyone, like suggested by Pete in the third link above.

    Anyway Alslanded, I think you are lucky who could just put up your tent and then adding on to your own place peace by peace. Here in Norway where the snow reaches 150 cm and the temperature fell to below 40 cold degrees during wintertime, this should become a hard experience. And I’m sure you have created some wonderful pattern languages for yourself, keep on with your good work and share your pattern languages with the world!

  3. Somebody might wonder what a “permaculture pattern language” is? The answer is: A design systems that put humans and the natural world in harmony.

    And how do one create a pattern language? The recipe I found here: It is simple and states like this:

    – observe current systems of both human and non-human invention
    – learn from their success and failures
    – design systems that put humans and the natural world in harmony
    – apply designs to current and new human infrastructure

    To learn more about pattern languages, go to the homepage of Christopher Alexander:

  4. As I menchened “Baubiologie” above, I want to put some of their english posters here, so you can know what it is:

    What I find interesting is that both Permaculture by Bill Mollison, “Baubiologie” by Anton Schneider, “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander and Deep Ecology by Arne Næss, all were created in the 1970’s. This was surely a decade when many good seeds were put in the ground, we now see them grow and if we tend them well I hope we’ll see them mature and cover the whole world. And what is VERY interesting, Permaculture has in a way “absorbed” the three others.

    For Deep Ecology, see here:

  5. In the top of this article there is a question; ”Has our society become too complex to sustain?” But I don’t think this is the problem, because the nature itself is highly complex but still sustainable. I would rather say; has our society become too fragmented (or stupid) to sustain?

    Again I found a chapter from Alexander I simply must share with you all, a chapter that fully describes the situation of the destructive powers of today. In may comment above I stated that our communities today have dead “pattern languages”, PLEASE FORGIVE ME my mistake! Because of course there cannot exist dead languages still in use. No, our modern society creates dead and degraded patterns which are so fragmented and different from one another, that there is NO WAY they can cooperate and create a LIVING and WHOLE, pattern language. This is why Permaculture is so desperately needed today, because Permaculture is about creating LIVING and WHOLE patterns that cooperate beautifully and create LIVING PATTERN LANGUAGES, which speaks to us and heals us and nature, and touches the depths of our souls. But now to Alexander:

    “Living process is by nature morphogenetic. That means a living process acts, in every facet, as a whole, and in all its aspects, is aimed at creating POSITIV SPACE, is aimed at making form coherent. A living process is oriented in its entirety, towards the creation of wholes.

    The present-day piecemeal and fragmented processes of our society, are not oriented towards creating wholes. They are highly organized, yes. But they are not oriented, in their substance, towards the creation of living wholes. They are oriented coherently, but towards making money, or creating power…other matters entirely.

    How then can this too-rigidly coherent machine gradually be changed? Is it possible for a merely piecemeal process, grafted into the existing fragmented system, to change it gradually towards a morphogenetic process, much more like the idealized living process I have defined earlier? If that is so, then we may face even more difficult hurdles, before we can succeed.

    Once again, we are led to the realization that a piecemeal modification of society, along with the simple lines envisaged in chapter 18, will not be powerful enough to work. It will not work because the force and integration of present life-destroying process is so massive, and so thoroughly organized. What we became used to in the 20th century as the process of development, prevented people from acting according to their feelings, still to this day prevents people from acting according to their feelings, still to this day prevents people from shaping the environment in a way that is appropriate according to the global nature of the whole – and prevents the successful evolution, as unfolding would suggest, of buildings and landscape.

    Thus the 20th-century process interrupts the process of paying attention to wholeness, the unfolding of wholeness, and the process of shaping the surface of the Earth correctly. At the same time it also robs people from the simple joy of acting appropriately, in a way that is fulfilling.

    The connection between the two – the rise of developers and the loss of feeling – is not accidental. It may seem ridiculous to say that the world will be improved – in its organization – if people are able to act, at every scale, according to their feeling. But it is the WHOLE that is being damaged by the loss of feeling. By not allowing people to act according to the global feeling of the situation, that means that each of the prevailing processes – whether they have to do with development, or land purchase, or transportation planning, or banking, or speculation, or construction-contract administration – they all, in their present form, have the capacity to damage feeling and therefore to fly in the face of the interests of the global whole.

    Worst of all, perhaps, is the fact that the process which exist – which we now take for granted – in many cases virtually outlaw living process, make living process fundamentally and practically impossible, impossible even to imagine, since the ground rules of the processes we know today have driven them out so far.”

    The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 524 – 525.

  6. When I woke up this morning I came to think about if this site could make an interview with Christopher Alexander? After all, he has without doubt been one important contributor to the permaculture movement, and I think such an interview should be an important document for coming generations of permaculturists.

    Another spectacular idea, what if there could be arranged a meeting between Bill Mollison and Christopher Alexander? These two giants among us who both came up with their revolutionary new theories in the 1970ties. The two most important interaction system-designers ever, and among the most important philosophers and scientists of the 20th century. How many interesting discussions could it not come out from such a meeting, which could be posted at this site as an everlasting source of inspiration for all of us.

    One more thing I came to think about this morning is the damaging impact of the so called “invisible hand” by Adam Smith. I should rather call it “the erasing hand”, because “the invisible hand” holds a big eraser in its hand. Because it has erased, or made invisible to us, the most precious of our culture, the pattern languages:

    ”But, by contrast, in the early phases of industrial society which we have experienced recently, the pattern languages die.

    Instead of being widely shared, the pattern languages which determine how a town gets made become specialized and private. Roads are built by highway engineers; buildings by architects; parks by planners; hospitals by hospital consultants; schools by educational specialists; gardens by gardeners; tract housing by developers.

    The people of the town themselves know hardly any of the languages which these specialists use. And if they want to find out what these languages contain, they can’t, because it is considered professional expertise. The professionals guard their language jealously to make themselves indispensable.

    Even within any profession, professional jealousy keeps people from sharing their pattern languages. Architects, like shefs, jealously guard their recipes, so that they can maintain unique style to sell.

    The languages start out to being specialized and hidden from the people; and then within the specialties, the languages become more private still, and hidden from another, and fragmented.”

    From the book “The Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander, page 231 – 232.

    This is the work of “the invisible hand”, this is what happens when cooperation is replaced with competition, the beautiful pattern languages of our communities die.

    What we must do now is to replace “the invisible hand” with “the visible hand”. The visible hand carries the name Permaculture, and this hand held a big pencil, a pencil which creates the most beautiful patterns upon the surface of our Earth, A BEAUTIFUL PATTERN LANGUAGE.

    How happy I am that Permaculture has arisen in the world, so that we can create new, SHARED pattern languages, to heal OUR world!

  7. And this pattern language holds “the quality without a name”, because its feeling is so deep that it cannot be described with words. It can only be experienced. It is a world in which we experience, daily, our unity with the universe. A world which is made like nature – and in which we are daily making nature.

    Please also see this link from Alexander’s homepage:

  8. Hi all.

    I wish that there was not a cost barrier for people wanting to take a PDC course. Open source if you like.

    I wish there was a model in place to share this course with anyone willing to invest their time and energy to learn.

    I would jump at the chance to take a PDC course but just can’t afford it.


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