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How to be Trapped: An Interview with David Korowicz

This is Part 1 of a two part interview of David Korowicz by Alexander Ač. Recorded in Brno, Czech Republic, 29 January 2014.

AA: How did you start to be interested in the complex adaptive systems and why?
DK: I’ve always had a sensibility towards the dynamic relationship of things, finding myself drawn to post-structuralist thinking and Buddhist metaphysics for example. Such perspectives emphasize both the conditionality and dynamic interdependence of the universe, life, words and meanings. My academic background is in physics and though we never had a course in complex systems, I did some graduate work on the origin of entropy and time in the universe which does lead on to the birth of complexity.
But a pivot in my life, how I ended up doing what I do now, arose out of something quite unexpected. I was living in Central Asia and used to spend some time in a small village in Kyrgyzstan visiting my friend, an ethno-biologist who was researching apples and home gardens. This part of the world is the original source of the apple and there’s still huge biodiversity, the neighboring village had 49 varieties! Home gardens provided people with food and over a third of their annual cash income, just a few hundred dollars.
To cut a long story short, a development project was proposed that would increase the efficiency of these gardens and thereby ensure families could boost their income. Life could be hard and at a minimum it could mean that families had a cash buffer for a crisis or could afford indoor sanitation. It promised in its own small way integration with the global narrative that seemed to point towards rising wealth, opportunities, social and political rights. It also justified the socially and economically progressivist world-view of the western development agencies who could be virtuous, adventurous and of course, right.
The proposal was to provide new tree varieties- ones that produced sweet and unblemished apples that could be sold for a good price rather than the established motley crew of apples that might be too bitter, too prone to pests, too ugly and so on. In addition, they would provide pesticides, fertilizers and better seed varieties to boost general home garden production and income. It could all be paid for by micro-loans, though less ‘micro’ in relative terms.
It was one of those situations where you only see something quite obvious because it’s observed out of a familiar context. I’d been reading about climate change and peak oil, and I wondered about their implications for the proposal.
I imagined that the villages went along with this, their soil productivity increased with inputs and debt was serviced. Needs were met, and wants, in time, became needs. New and more intricate levels of dependence would develop as their increased income stream would facilitate more borrowing as expectations and the costs of integration (a car, a university course) rose. They would still be poor by European standards and therefore also more vulnerable to the rising cost of essential inputs.
Then if fossil fuel prices rose significantly the villagers would be forced to cut agricultural inputs, production would fall significantly and the burden of debt-to-income would rise. If on top of this changes in climate started affecting their ‘perfect’ apple trees, they would have nothing to fall back upon, as the inefficient but resilient biodiversity of seed and soil and motley apple trees would have been lost.
If growth was a smooth and positive progression, the reversal could be a relatively abrupt multi-system failure that would leave people much worse off than before the project started. Further, once one embarked upon such a path it would become increasingly difficult to step off. What it gave me was a clear demonstration of how to be trapped. But if this was the narrative for a relatively simple society, what did it mean for the far more complex society that I came from, how trapped were we? Increasing connectivity and global integration has by-and-large been very good for human welfare and risk reduction, but it looked like the balance of risk was turning. With a sense of curiosity and some alarm I returned to Ireland with the intention of engaging in this sort of thing, whatever that was!
Here, fortunately, I was introduced to the late Richard Douthwaite and Feasta. Richard had a wonderful capacity for encouragement with a wide and critical intelligence. Critically for me he was interested in money and credit, how they were created and how they shaped our world. So I began trying to understand the globalised economy, not as an economist might, but more as a naturalist might, but with a sense that I was also a biased and blinkered observer. The general field of complex adaptive systems had already developed concepts and analytic tools that could be applied to the globalised economy in a way that suited my natural inclinations. It also became clear that if one wanted to understand the evolution, stability and especially the collapse of complex societies then academic economics had very limited explanatory power and critically, was structurally blind to such basic transformations as complexity growth and catastrophic transitions.
Thankfully, the village project never got the go-ahead.
If you look today in the mainstream media and politician’s talks, everyone wants to restart growth. Is it a good idea?
DK: It’s a good idea, sort of. It’s part of our worldview, methodologies, our institutional structures, it’s what our society is adaptive to. Economic growth is not just an indicator, it represents and sometimes obscures a complex structural dependency. If we don’t have it there are major social, economic and political implications. If we want all the things we take for granted to continue, yes, of course we should re-start growth.
The problem is that continued economic growth is not necessarily our choice. I suspect we are at the limits to growth about now (I won’t argue over a few years). Our financial and monetary system, whose ties of trust and expectation animate the world in an act of faith is increasingly unstable because it has far over-promised what can ever be delivered; the oil (and thus food) flows that maintain global socio-economic organization are peaking; and increasingly the effects of climate change and water shortages are biting at our heels. What’s more, our dependency on a complex globalised economy, its structure and dynamics, makes us exceedingly vulnerable to such constraints.
We’re likely entering a ragged globally developing deflationary spiral; a cycle of falling confidence, credit and money supply that leads to rising unemployment, falling wages and government income, growing bad debts, bank failures and an increase in the real cost of debt. There will also be an attendant and growing risk of a catastrophic financial and monetary system shocks with severe multi-system implications. A global credit bubble effectively pushed out the timing of peak oil, a deflationary spiral will bring it upon us. That said, we might not notice oil constraints initially (energy prices may fall significantly although it may be less affordable) because a depression and even a potentially catastrophic financial shock will have shattered the global economy’s capacity to use energy and resources. And if this happens there’ll be no going back, we’ll have entered a new phase of forced localization and huge new challenges.
It’s pretty easy to point out the problems with our dependence upon a debt based monetary system or fossil fuels, or with the lack of redundancy in critical infrastructure. There are plenty of ardent promoters of, for example; non-debt based money spent-into-circulation; using quantitive easing to extinguish private debt; or a new Chicago Plan – putative white chargers coming to the rescue. But to frame such ideas as solutions to problems is to mis-represent our predicament, which is at best a process of risk management. What one hears far less of are the implicit risks and uncertainties in such proposals. This is not to say they should not be part of dynamic risk management but that in our present context they cannot be de-risked or outcomes made certain. Just one aspect of this, for example, is massive reflexivity risk, that is, actions to avert a crisis may end up sparking the crisis by causing pre-emptive behavior change. Furthermore to undertake such risk management decisions one needs to understand or intuit the nature of contemporary dependency – what could be lost and how fast it could all happen especially if things go awry – and very few members of the public, politicians and policymakers really do. Or to put it more directly, if you want to do radical surgery on the monetary system, what’s your food security planning like? This is particularly acute for anybody trying to do deal with large-scale systemic risk – whatever is done, there are far greater downside risks than upside ones, which understandably makes monetary officials conservative. There’s a vast difference between promoting a solution from the side-lines and risk managing an intrinsically uncertain and dangerous process where one might be held accountable for a catastrophe. Even if we were to ‘solve’ our financial and monetary problems, we’d walk straight into oil and food crises which are systemically de-stabilizing.
Our predicament and the tragedy of attempting change is: given time and resource constraints and the reality that we depend upon a de-localized networked system without central control, how do we change the system while ensuring we do not collapse its essential functions. Decreasing global resilience and the increasing complexity, interdependence, tight coupling and the speed of the processes we depend upon make this a fundamentally uncertain, dauntingly complex and very dangerous set of challenges. So we dig in because we can’t dig out. We grasp for growth, we buy time and kick the can, and with each step become more vulnerable.
So the idea that growth is a good or bad idea is a bit beside the point- we’re not going to get it for much longer, nor is there much we can do about it.
You don’t believe then in a kind of steady-state non growing economy?
Steady-state from where we are now is, according to many ecological indicators, way in overshoot. So if there were to be something like a sustainable steady-state economy it would be in terms of resource consumption far below where we are now. Far, far below. And how do we get there?
For all sorts of reasons the possibility of a controlled orchestrated de-growth to some viable steady-state position is probably deluded in the extreme. I’ll just point to one thing, such a view tends to embody the confusion that because the globalised economy is human-made it is therefore designed, understandable and controllable – humans can do this in niches, but the emergent structure of multiple niches interacting on many scales over time is not. This mirrors the sort of argument made famous by William Paley in his Natural Theology who said that the existence of living organisms proved the existence of a divine creator/ designer by analogy with how the finding of a watch would lead one to believe in the existence of an intelligent watchmaker. Half a century later Darwin and then his followers showed that natural selection could do emergent design without a controller- the ‘blind’ watchmaker in Richard Dawkins words. But as believers in Man’s progress we seem to have taken on the role that Paley once ascribed to god- that is, as the creators of the complex globalised economy it is therefore designable and controllable and potentially perfectible if only the right people and ideas were in the cockpit. We find all sorts of confusion arising from this when attempts are made to take linguistic dominion over the economy by confusing complex interdependent emergence with intentional design (as in, the economy is capitalist/ neoliberal/ socialist, or, we need to change ‘the monetary architecture’). So even without getting into details about irreversibility in complex systems or the myriad practical problems with a controllable de-growth, the power of the belief in its possibility seems, to me at least, to represent Titanic hubris.
That said, a disorderly de-growth/collapse would bring us to a new era where we would end up with a much reduced capacity to access and use resources and dump waste. But we’d still have to respond to problems and that would generally require whatever energy and resources were at hand. For example, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions would likely nose-dive, a good thing of course, although the effects of climate changes would continue to get worse because of lags in the climate system while our adaptive capacity compared to today would have been shattered. Thus the real cost of climate change would escalate beyond our ability to pay quite suddenly and much faster than conventional climate-economic models would suggest. The danger here is that in a state of poverty and forced localization our attempts to respond to such emergent stress and crises mean we start undermining our local environments and their on-going capacity to support us. So any form of steady-state economy in the foreseeable future is inherently problematic.
But in time some of us might be able to maintain a simple steady-state economy by acculturating to that new reality, at least for a while. Maybe a world where parsimonious poets and threadbare social nurturers are loved and admired, while an affliction for stuff would leave one pitied and dateless! I’m pretty sure there will people living good, meaningful and ecologically responsible lives long into the future.
If so, cannot we just switch to green growth?
DK: First of all, if it is growth, it will still be energy and resource consuming. Secondly, the starting point will still be path dependent and thus constrained. Thirdly, technology cannot make energy, only help to find, process and distribute what is already there. And what’s potentially left, renewable or not, is less economy-adaptive, is of lower quality and lower energy return than what it’s replacing. So there is no magic way around our central predicament. Anyway, what do we mean by ‘switch’? It suggests a level of insight and control of the globalised economy that we do not have. It implies a rapid transformation that in reality is inherently rate limited (energy revolutions have happened over many decades), and dependent upon the continuing coherence of the globalised economy and its constituent critical systems.
In addition problem solving in a complex society suffers from declining marginal returns. New solutions require more and more scientific, economic and social efforts and economies of scale and resources. They don’t live in a vacuum, they live in this interdependent system- the globalised economy. For example, the smallest particle, the electron, discovered in the 1890’s was done by Thompson on a lab bench; now it takes 10,000 PhD’s and a 27km high tech ring, and the coherence of our modern globalized economy to reveal the newest particle, the Higgs Boson. The discovery of penicillin in the 1920’s in today’s money cost almost nothing and had a revolutionary impact; now we are spending €100’s of millions to make minor improvements on niche drugs. To ‘solve’ the problems of growth with green growth still requires the rising cost of complex problem solving- and that requires rising energy and resource flows- which themselves are suffering from declining marginal returns (Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested).
In the end though, we’ve run out of time. The implications of crossing the limits to growth are the complex globalised systems (financial, monetary, adaptive social behaviors, supply-chains, critical infrastructures, factories, resource access and processing, R&D etc) needed to invent, manufacture, and deploy at scale begin to stress, lose resilience and finally break down. In such a case our green growth aspirations will fall away from our grasp as the socio-economic ground collapses beneath our feet.
But it is still better to have green growth than business-as-usual?
If we did it right, then investing in some of the things that are considered in green growth plans could help to make us more resilient in the future, but only marginally. Mostly though, green growth is designed for and adaptive with the assumption of continued economic growth and the persistence of system integration within the global economy.
For example, if we are putting renewable energy onto a large-scale networked grid and we hit a crisis because or our financial system fails, say, and the demand drops by 80%, then a lot of that variable supply may end up being effectively useless. One reason is because a certain level of base-load on a grid is needed to support a level of variable (renewable) supply, another is that the network loses economies of scale. In such a scenario it may become just another wasted investment. It would be more resilient if we were to put renewable energy into localized networks, adaptive to variability, resilient to supply-chain breaks, and used to protect something critical for collective welfare such as sanitation. Such an investment would make no economic sense at present, it’s completely inefficient.
Again though, I think we’ve pretty much running out of time for any type of growth.
Obviously, our societies are growth addicted. What is your explanation for that?
DK: Well, there are various perspectives.
We are locked into increasingly complex growth-dependent socio-economic processes and behaviors. These processes ensure we are fed, the lights are on, our water is clean and hospitals are open. They ensure that goods and services flow throughout the world enabling jobs and purchasing power. As the global economic situation deteriorates and our adaptive capacity (savings, credit for investment, government tax receipts, inventories) becomes strained we (as individuals, businesses, countries) effectively have to stay in the game to avoid having to drop out and suffering much greater immediate consequences. We need growth to keep the systems we depend upon working and avoid huge socio-economic risks. Again, we dig in because we can’t jump out, losing system resilience all the time.
Within all of this, critical sub-systems such as our financial and monetary system is growth-dependent. Other critical systems and networks are scale-adaptive, for example, critical infrastructure and discretionary income. All are unstable in severe or prolonged economic contraction. Nor should we forget the myths and stories, worldviews, trust networks and casual assumptions that embody expectations of growth.
At a broader level the globalised economy is an autocatalytic system, that is, it creates the conditions requiring its own expansion. It’s a self-organizing process, without designer or central control, it’s how ecosystems evolve, it’s Adam Smith’s invisible hand. For example, growing levels of complexity encourage individuals, businesses, institutions and social and political groups towards greater levels of complexity if they are to persist (economically and socially) in a dynamic environment where there is competition for resources, status, efficiency, bandwidth etc. A system with greater relative complexity, scale and resilience means on average a greater likelihood of persistence, but that requires on average more energy and resources. That is, there’s an advantage to maximizing power (energy per unit time). This is the connection Howard Odum made between ecology and economies over thirty years ago. On a societal level, this is part of how most of us end up joining a common complexity/ growth ladder (use the internet, supermarkets, airplanes). Growth is in this sense natural – provided you can access energy flows.
Let’s give an example. Imagine some friends were to set up an environmentally inspired ‘de-growth’ organization, the first things they might do is set up a website, a Facebook page, organize public meetings, fly in a specialist speaker, raise campaign funds- that is, pay the cost in complexity and resources needed to engage with a complex socio-economic system where they must compete for attention to spread their message. In doing so they would have added to the complexity of the system as a whole. They would have added a tiny increment to the economies of scale of infrastructures and businesses across the world, thereby supporting their continued investment in complexity. They would have added a yet another sliver of waste into the global eco-system. Growing scale would entail growing fixed operational costs and the need for greater funding. They would shape the world in a small way and the world would shape them as new dependencies and inter-dependencies were acquired.
But the origin of growth is a more fundamental thing than our economic travails. Life evolves traits to persist and reproduce in the long-term struggle for resources. If you look at any species, it’s expansionary until it hits some sort of environmental and other species’ limits. If you have an old building abandoned for a few years, you’ll find grass and trees cracking, and crawling things creeping in through every available spot. Or an invasive species might collapse an eco-system if they had no natural predators. What happens in a quasi-stable ecosystem is that a species meets and interacts with environmental and other species barriers, and some form of mutualized regulation occurs, as one can observe in even simple predator-prey models.
We evolved in scarcity and harsh environments and our instinctual drivers (like desire/aversion, status, in/out-groups, stimulus response, habituation and discount rates) are adapted to that (see Nate Hagens in Fleeing Vesuvius for a good introduction). But some 80,000-50,000 years ago we developed the ability to use language which enabled abstract thoughts, learning and sharing, sophisticated social organization and rapid adaptability compared to genetic change. Our ability to solve problems of environment or species constraints was hugely amplified, but this ability was still at the service of our archaic instinctual traits. So we’ve kept jumping over constraints, more of us surviving and living better. But the primary limiting constraint, energy, was surmounted when we learned how to exploit fossil fuels. This initiated an extraordinary two-hundred year autocatalytic cycle of desire and innovation, surplus growth and social stratification, complexity emergence and economic growth so that even the warnings of Malthus slipped into memory and the history of failed predictions.
We desire, achieve new levels of comfort and security, habituate to them, feel the anxiety of status or become aware of some new gnawing lack before the cycle of desire returns again. Some 2400 years ago the Greek philosopher Epicurus said:
So long as the object of our craving is unattained it seems more precious than anything besides. Once it is ours we crave for something else. So an unquenchable thirst for life keeps us always on the grasp.
Such an observation is contained within the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism written at roughly the same time in Asia. It is part of our evolutionary heritage, our instincts honed by scarcity and risk which existed long before the advertising industry learned to exploit it. However once we have habituated to something its very hard to lose. Access to a hot shower, a washing machine, surgery, even a television are now considered almost a necessity in developed countries. We barely notice what we take for granted. Almost every environmentalist I know (Mea Culpa) who speaks of the need to consume less actually live lives of more-or-less comparable consumption to their non-environmentalist neighbors.
There’s an even broader perspective. The growth of complex organization (star, planet, life, human social organization) can spontaneously emerge where there are constrained energy gradients. The existence of such energy gradients, and indeed the arrow of time, depend upon the thermodynamic conditions at the beginning of the universe. Complexity growth is the universes optimal way of finding equilibrium. From this point of view, the emergence of our complex global civilization and its inevitable collapse is just the laws of physics being made manifest through us.
The broad point here is that growth and collapse is a much more fundamental process than capitalism, the debt-based monetary system or technological change, as the history of collapsed civilizations and extinct species can attest. It’s part of us, part of life.
People can be uncomfortable with such evolutionary explanations. However, they’re not mechanistically deterministic, but statistical, people and small groups will always surprise more than very large human groups. After all coming across a convent of celibates is not a sign that human sex is dead! Nor do such arguments rigidly define behavior. For example, Stephen Pinker marshals diverse evidence (in The Better Angels of Our Nature) to show that there’s been a remarkable fall in the risk of personal violence that he has associated with rising wealth, globalisation, states and independent legal systems, changing cultures and the expansion of empathy. Of course we remain highly sensitive to the risk of violence, and there’s no reason the situation cannot reverse, but he demonstrates we’ve become much nicer to each-other in all sorts of ways!
But to acknowledge our behavior is shaped by these large-scale processes is to accept our place in the wonderful tapestry of life, of the universe and our place in its story. It’s what we share with other animals and allows our recognition in them. It also suggests that as a species we should be forgiving towards ourselves. As a species, as a civilization, we are not bad or evil.
Alexander Ač is currently working as a post-doctoral researcher at the Global Change Research Centre (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic) in the field of plant physiology and applied remote rensing. His research interests include also impacts of climate change on natural and socio-economic systems, peak oil and energy systems in general, and economy of depleting resources. Author also runs a blog “Limits to Growth” and regularly publishes in newspapers.
Caged apple image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.
Cross posted at FEASTA.


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