Sustainability and sacrifice, resilience and collapse

When we think of sustainability, we often think of sacrifice. Fewer flights, reduced spending, buying andhaving less stuff. And in a world where we are used to having more and more every year, sacrifice doesn’t seem like a viable option. Which leaves us between a rock and a hard place.

One way out is to reframe a sustainable lifestyle as a more abundant one. A sustainable future being one in which you can have more of the things that really matter – not more stuff, but more of the good stuff. This is where much of the promising work in communications and engagement is taking place. But it’s also worth exploring the notion of sacrifice; the possibility of scaling back, simplifying, making do with less. Not least because we may not be able to avoid it.

Disused petrol pump

Two things appeared on my radar this week that set me off thinking about this.

Firstly, Clay Shirky writing about complex business models and their tendency to collapse. In his piece, he refers to Joseph Tainter’s thesis that societies have historically collapsed because their complex, interdependent structures have been unable to shrink in the face of resource pressures:

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a chilling book called The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Every one of those groups had rich traditions, complex social structures, advanced technology, but despite their sophistication, they collapsed, impoverishing and scattering their citizens and leaving little but future archeological sites as evidence of previous greatness. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions.

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it. Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on.

Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.

Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some.

The ‘and them some’ is what causes the trouble. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond. In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t.

In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change. Tainter doesn’t regard the sudden decoherence of these societies as either a tragedy or a mistake—”[U]nder a situation of declining marginal returns collapse may be the most appropriate response”, to use his pitiless phrase. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites.

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

Secondly, Rob Hopkins, talking about the importance of resilience, defined as: “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks” in Resurgence magazine.

The term ‘resilience’ is appearing more frequently in discussions about environmental concerns, and it has a strong claim to actually being a more useful concept than that of sustainability. Sustainability and its oxymoronic offspring sustainable development are commonly held to be a sufficient response to the scale of the climate challenge we face: to reduce the inputs at one end of the globalised economic growth model (energy, resources, and so on) while reducing the outputs at the other end (pollution, carbon emissions, etc.). However, responses to climate change that do not also address the imminent, or quite possibly already passed, peak in world oil production do not adequately address the nature of the challenge we face.

Let’s take a supermarket as an example. It may be possible to increase its sustainability and to reduce its carbon emissions by using less packaging, putting photovoltaics on the roof and installing more energy-efficient fridges. However, resilience thinking would argue that the closure of local food shops and networks that resulted from the opening of the supermarket, as well as the fact that the store itself only contains two days’ worth of food at any moment – the majority of which has been transported great distances to get there – has massively reduced the resilience of community food security, as well as increasing its oil vulnerability. One extreme, but relevant, example of where sustainability thinking falls short was Tesco’s recent ‘Flights for Lights’ promotion, where people were able to gain air miles when they purchased low-energy light bulbs!


The concept of resilience emerged from within the ecological sciences as a way of looking at why some systems collapse when they encounter shock, and some don’t. The insights gleaned now offer a very useful overview for determining how systems can adapt and thrive in changing circumstances. Resilience within communities, for example, depends upon;

  • Diversity: a broader base of livelihoods, land use, enterprise and energy systems than at present?
  • Modularity: not advocating self-sufficiency, but rather an increased self-reliance; with ‘surge protectors’ for the local economy, such as local food production and decentralised energy systems?
  • Tightness of feedbacks: bringing the results of our actions closer to home, so that we cannot ignore them

Together, these two ideas bring to mind many questions.

If sacrifice becomes necessary, given current social and economic structures, will collapse be inevitable? If so, is resilience a pattern we can deploy to help prevent this? How can we design systems that ‘degrade gracefully’ when resources are scarce (a concept familiar to any digital designer)? What are the critical ‘phase transitions‘ that we should be aware of, the stages of development in systems where turning back is no longer an option? Are there circumstances in which sacrifice could be a sellable proposition?

Answers next week.