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Two Paths to Collapse

Summary:
The very structure of our systems guarantees their failure once conditions change beyond their limited ability to adjust. As a general rule, there are two paths to collapse: gradual erosion and sudden crash. The two are intertwined, of course; in most cases, the system slowly loses vigor, resources, efficiency, etc. (erosion) which leaves it so weakened that a crisis that would have easily been overcome in the past triggers a catastrophic decline of production and order. My new book explores these system dynamics in the present: Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic. As the title suggests, we’ve got a window to prevent the final descent, but it’s years, not decades. There are two basic

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The very structure of our systems guarantees their failure once conditions change beyond their limited ability to adjust.

As a general rule, there are two paths to collapse: gradual erosion and sudden crash. The two are intertwined, of course; in most cases, the system slowly loses vigor, resources, efficiency, etc. (erosion) which leaves it so weakened that a crisis that would have easily been overcome in the past triggers a catastrophic decline of production and order.

My new book explores these system dynamics in the present: Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic. As the title suggests, we’ve got a window to prevent the final descent, but it’s years, not decades.

There are two basic drivers of systemic erosion, drivers that have little to do with leadership or policy. Our current delusion is that changing leaders and tweaking policies are enough to stave off systemic erosion, decline and collapse, but the two dynamics cannot be so easily thwarted.

The first is the gradual decline in the system’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Life’s core asset is the ability to evolve and adapt, and organisms, species and systems which fail to adapt fast enough and effectively enough to rapid change disappear.

Today’s modern complex systems are typically optimized to specific conditions, meaning that they’ve evolved (or been designed) to maximize production and output given a certain set of inputs and processes.

If those conditions shift outside the expected parameters, the system’s efficiency and output are heavily eroded. To take a real-world example: airliners are designed to cruise at specific altitudes to maximize the efficiency of the engines and aircraft design while maximizing the cruising speed.

If an airliner is forced to fly at an altitude of 500 feet instead of 35,000 feet, the optimizations are lost.

The vast majority of modern systems are heavily optimized in ways outsiders typically can’t appreciate. The delivery of gasoline to service stations, for example, appears so streamlined that few even question that system’s vulnerabilities to disruption. The system of delivery is optimized to high standards of transport and availability of fuel. Were anything to disrupt this system, most gas stations would run out of fuel in a matter of days.

This vulnerability is masked by the effectiveness of the system’s optimizations.

The path to sudden collapse is paved by increasingly narrow optimization. The system works perfectly until change shifts from being gradual (linear) to non-linear, at which point the apparently robust system collapses in a heap.

Adaptability and optimization are on a see-saw: as a general rule, adaptability requires flexibility, buffers and redundancies that are costly to maintain. So in a world driven by efficiencies in service of maximizing profits, these costs have been ruthlessly eliminated from complex systems. The adaptability of optimized systems is very low unless they have been specifically optimized to be highly flexible and adaptive.

Charles Hugh Smith
Charles Hugh Smith is an American writer and blogger. He is the chief writer for the site "Of Two Minds". Started in 2005, this site has been listed No. 7 in CNBC's top alternative financial sites. His commentary is featured on a number of sites including: Zerohedge.com., The American Conservative and Peak Prosperity. He graduated from the University of Hawaii, Manoa in Honolulu. Charles Hugh Smith currently resides in Berkeley, California and Hilo, Hawaii.

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