Systemic Business Community

A salon discussing research into systemics and business

In Cancun last July, I was at an ISSS dinner hosting Jim Spohrer, whom the society was featuring as a plenary speaker. In a moment when the others (G. A. Swanson, Michael Jackson, Brian Hilton) were chatting with Jim about something else, I mentioned to Jennifer Wilby that she and I spend so much time working on ISSS administration issues that we actually never get around to discussing systems science. This morning, on a telephone call about my upcoming visit to the University of Hull, we actually got close to discussing real content!

I regularly cite the ISSS 1998 annual meeting in Atlanta as the single best educational experience of my lifetime. I discovered, after getting more deeply involved, that it was a true turning point for the society. Although the 1997 meeting in Korea attracted a large number of new members in Asia, it also did not help the declining membership and activity in North America. G. A. Swanson, as president of the ISSS that year, was the driving force behind putting together a solid program. One of the speakers who really struck me as outstanding was Timothy F. H. Allen. (He goes by Tim). He gave a keynote talk on “Supply side sustainability: A hierarchical theoretical model for incorporating technology” with depth that astounded me, and then a breakout session on “Hierarchical complexity in ecological systems” where I got complementary, but slightly different ideas. I asked Tim about whether he had a working paper on his content, and he said he was working on a book.

A paper turned up as “Supply Side Sustainability” in the 1998 edition of General Systems Yearbook, that is the September/October 1999 issue of Systems Research and Behavioral Science . I’ve cited this work to many people, but they’ve only been slightly less befuddled than me.

In the planning for Cancun 2005, I had suggested that we might get Tim as a plenary speaker again. I didn’t realize that Jennifer had taken a class with him, when she was studying in San Jose, California. Jennifer was the official inviter for Tim as a plenary speaker, and welcomed him in the introduction for his talk on July 2. (His slides and MP3 audio area available on the ISSS web site for anyone who wants to experience some of his energy!)

Later in the summer, I got around to watch the broadcast of “Guns, Germs and Steel”, based on Jared Diamond’s book, on PBS. I found it entertaining, and, as part of my usual library circulation regimen, ordered a copy of Collapse, by Jared Diamond. With my predisposition towards systems science, something didn’t feel right. A review of Collapse by Richard Heinberg seems to lean similarly, with a pointer towards Tainter’s work:

Diamond refers on only three occasions (and then briefly) to Joseph Tainter’ s classic The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), which is widely considered the standard work on the subject. He rightly criticizes Tainter for underemphasizing the role of environmental factors — especially resource depletion — in previous instances of collapse.

However, Diamond does not take the time to explain Tainter’s valuable contributions to the discussion. It is difficult for the reader to have the sense of building on a previous theory without an understanding of what the previous theory is. Theory was in fact one of the great strengths of Tainter ‘s book: he surveyed all known complex societies, and systematically assessed dozens of prior serious discussions of collapse (including the ideas of Arnold Toynbee, Elman Service, Pitirim Sorokin, and Alfred Kroeber), so that when he got around to introducing his own hypothesis (which can be summarized as the inevitability of the diminishing of returns on societal investments in complexity) the reader felt a sense of participation in the refinement of our collective understanding of the problem. This doesn’t happen to nearly the same degree in Collapse. Why? Perhaps Diamond was trying to avoid sounding academic and wanted to write in such a way that the maximum number of readers would commit themselves to the task of wading through a long book on a dreary subject. But something was sacrificed in the process.

This view seems to be further supported by a copy of 1996 article on “Complexity, Problem Solving and Sustainable Societies”, posted on the Die Off web site. I ordered Tainter’s 1988 The Collapse of Complex Societies book, and the 2003 Allen, Tainter & Hoekstra Supply-Side Sustainability.

From the review cited above, the key idea really is “diminishing of returns on societal investments in complexity“. The 2003 book is less terse than the 1999 issue of Systems Research and Behavioral Science but still requires some careful studying to crack the content. I’ve now got a “simple” example that tells the story, that I’m trying out in various presentations … that people seem to understand. When it’s polished, I’ll write it up.

To return to this morning’s phone call with Jennifer … she said that the her copy of Supply-Side Sustainability just arrived. We’re going to meet at the Fuschl Conversation sponsored by the International Federation for Systems Research in Austria in a few weeks. I’m sure that we’ll have lots to discuss, even before I make to Hull 9 days later.

March 26th, 2006

Posted In: hierarchy theory, sustainability

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