Examples of such mismatches abound: ancient Rome is one case that alwayscomes to mind, where the ruling classes used political and military power tocontrol the lower classes and to conquer neighbors in order to extract taxrevenues. Ultimately, the entire resources of the society were being used tomaintain an ever-growing, far-flung empire that had grown too complex to besustained. The ancient Mayan civilization is another good case in point. Somescholars, like historian Paul Kennedy, have argued that the American Empire isin the process of coming undone for much the same reasons.This type of complexity gap is not confined just to the political andgovernmental domains either, as evidenced by the ongoing social unrest inJapan arising out of the radiation spewing forth from the reactors damaged bythe March 11 earthquake. The ultimate cause of this unrest is a “design basisaccident,” in which the tsunami overflowed retaining walls designed to keep thewater out. The overflow then damaged backup electrical generators intended tosupply emergency power for pumping water to cool the reactor’s nuclear fuelrods. This is a two-fold problem: First, the designer’s planned the height of thewalls for a magnitude 8.3 quake, the largest that Japan had previouslyexperienced, not considering that a quake might someday exceed that level, andwhat’s even worse, (2) they placed the generators on low ground where anyoverflow would short them out. So everything ultimately depended on theretaining walls doing their job
which they didn’t! This is a case of too littlecomplexity in the control system (the combination of the height of the wall andthe generator location) being overwhelmed by too much complexity in thesystem to be controlled (the magnitude of the tsunami).
When a society collapses, be it ancient Rome, the United State tomorrow or Egypt and Tunisia yesterday, it quickly loses complexity. All institutions, lawsand technologies become simpler, a
simpler. Moreover, the range of socialroles and behaviors open to the population of such a society dramatically shrink.These factors lead to a rapid reduction in living standards, since withoutcomplex institutions, infrastructures, technologies and social roles, large populations cannot be sustained at their previous standard of living.Consequently, people consume far less, stay at home, turn inward, and die muchsooner.What can we expect to over the next year or two? A good guess is that as peoplelose confidence in the ability of their governments to solve the financial crisesand experience other social stresses that increase the government-publiccomplexity gap, they’ll break out into violent protests and/or assaults on those