The Principle of Subsidiary Function

I trust my readers will recognize a hint of sarcasm if I say that the good news just keeps on rolling in. Of the smoke plumes that were rising into the industrial world’s increasingly murky skies as last week’s post went up, one – the billowing cloud of assorted mis-, mal- and nonfeasance bubbling out of Goldman Sachs – has faded from the front pages for the moment, though it will doubtless be back before long. On the other hand, the two remaining – the cratering of Greece’s borrow-and-spend economics and the spreading ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico – have more than made up the difference.

It’s a matter of chance, more than anything else, that Greece happened to become the poster child for what happens when you insist on buying off influential sectors of the electorate with money you don’t happen to have. What we are pleased to call democracy these days is a system in which factions of the political class contend for power by spending large sums of other people’s money to buy the temporary loyalty of voting blocs. There’s nothing especially novel in this system, by the way; the late Roman Republic managed (or, rather, mismanaged) its affairs in exactly the same manner, and such classical theorists as Polybius argued that this is the way democracies normally end up working (or, rather, not working).

You might think that Greece, which happens to be Polybius’ home turf, would have had the common sense to dodge this particular bullet. No such luck; recent Greek governments, like many others, made the strategic mistake of using borrowed funds to provide a good deal of that unearned largesse, and the resulting debt load eventually collided head on with the ongoing deleveraging of the global economy in the wake of the latest round of bubble economics. The result was a fiscal death spiral, as doubts about Greece’s ability to pay its debts drove up the interest rates Greece had to pay to finance those debts, increasing the doubts further; rinse and repeat until something comes unglued. The much-ballyhooed announcement of an EU bailout package stabilized the situation for a few days, but that’s about all; the death spiral has already resumed, accompanied by bloody riots in the streets of Athens and comments by the usual highly placed sources that some kind of default is becoming inevitable.

Headlines for the last few days have warned of similar head-on collisions taking shape in Spain and Portugal. What very few people in the mainstream media are willing to mention is that the most spectacular examples of borrow-and-spend economics are not little countries on the economic margins of Europe, but Britain and the United States. It’s anyone’s guess when investors will begin to realize that neither countries has any way of paying back the gargantuan sums both have borrowed of late to prop up their crippled economies; when it does become clear, the rush to the exits will likely be one for the record books.

It’s equally a matter of chance, in turn, that the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform happened to be the one to fail catastrophically. That something of the sort was going to happen was pretty much a given; drilling for oil a mile underwater is risky, complicated, technologically challenging work, and any oil well, anywhere, can undergo a blowout when it’s being drilled. It just so happened that this was the one that happened to blow, and the lax safety standards and budget-conscious corner-cutting endemic to today’s corporate world made it pretty much inevitable that when a blowout happened, it would turn into a disaster.

Bad as it is already, it may get much, much worse. According to a memo leaked to Gulf Coast newspapers, BP officials have privately admitted to the US government that the torrent of hot, high-pressure crude oil surging through the broken pipe could quite conceivably blow the remaining hardware off the top of the well. This would turn the current 5,000-barrel-a-day spill into a cataclysmic gusher of 40,000 to 60,000 barrels a day. Capping such a flow a mile under water is beyond current technology; if things go that way, there may be no other option than waiting until the flow drops to a more manageable level. If that means the death of every multicellular organism in the Gulf of Mexico, storm surges this hurricane season that leave everything for miles inland coated with black goo, and tar balls and dead birds floating ashore wherever the Gulf Stream goes – and yes, these are tolerably likely consequences if the wellhead blows – that’s what it means.

As I discussed in last week’s post, a common thread of complexity unites these crises with each other, and with others of the same magnitude that are statistically certain to happen in the months and years ahead of us. We – meaning here those of us who live in the world’s industrial nations – have allowed our societies to become more complex than any collection of human minds can effectively manage, and our only response to the problems this causes is to add additional layers of complexity. The result, of course, is that our societies become even more unmanageable, and the problems they generate even more extreme and intractable. Once again, rinse and repeat until something comes unglued.

Now the simple, logical solution to a problem caused by too much complexity is to reduce the amount of complexity. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, which has deservedly become required reading in peak oil circles, argues that societal collapse has exactly this function; when a society has backed itself into a corner by heaping up more complexity than it can manage, collapse offers the one way out. In a post on The Oil Drum a while back, Ugo Bardi made a similar point, arguing that if anyone in Roman times had tried to come up with a sustainable society to which the Roman world could transition, their best option would have looked remarkably like the Middle Ages.

Bardi pointed out, mind you, that there was precisely no chance that any such advice would have been taken by even the wisest of Roman emperors, and it’s just as true that a proposal to reduce the complexity of contemporary civilization can count on getting no more interest from the political classes of today’s industrial nations, or for that matter from the population at large. The experiment has been tried, after all; it’s worth remembering the extent to which the baby steps toward lower complexity taken in the 1970s helped to fuel the Reagan backlash of the 1980s.

Now it’s true that some of the achievements of the 1970s – the dramatic advances in organic agriculture, the birth of the modern recycling industry, the refinement of passive solar heating and solar hot water technology, and more – remained viable straight through the backlash era, and are viable today; and it’s also true that today’s economic debacle, not to mention the looming impact of peak oil, bid fair to make a good many of the legacies of the 1970s much more popular in the years right ahead of us. Still, the dream of a collective conversion to sustainable lifestyles that filled so many pages in Rain, Seriatim, and other journals of that period is further away now than it was then; so much time and so many resources have been wasted that it’s too late for such a collective conversion to work, even if the political will needed for one could be found.

Still, when you get right down to it, the hope of a mass conversion to sustainability by political means – by legislation, let’s say, backed up by the massive new bureaucracy that would be needed to enforce "green laws" affecting every detail of daily life – is yet another attempt to solve a complexity-driven problem by adding on more complexity. That’s a popular strategy, for the same reasons that any other attempt to deal with the problems of complexity through further complexity is popular these days: it makes sense to most of us, since it’s the sort of thing we’re used to doing, and it provides a larger number of economic and social niches for specialists – in this case, members of the professional activist community, who might reasonably expect to step into staff positions in that new bureaucracy – who have the job of managing the new level of complexity for the benefit – at least in theory – of those who have to live with it.

All of this is very familiar ground, echoing as it does the way that countless other efforts at reform have turned into layers of complexity in the past. To suggest, as I do, that it won’t work, doesn’t mean that it won’t be tried. It’s being tried right now, in many countries and on many different levels, with enough success that in Britain, at least, the number of Transition Town activists who have found their way onto municipal payrolls has excited grumbling from members of less successful pressure groups.

In the same way, I think it’s beyond question that every other reasonably well funded attempt to solve the problems of complexity with more complexity will get at least some funding, and be given at least a token trial. We’ve already had the corn ethanol boom here in the US; the cellulosic ethanol and algal biodiesel booms have been delayed a bit by the impact of a collapsing economy on credit markets, but somebody will doubtless find a way around that in good time; down the road a bit, a crash program to build nuclear power plants is pretty much a foregone conclusion; fusion researchers will have the opportunity to flush billions more dollars down the same rathole they’ve been exploring since the 1950s; you name it, if it’s complex and expensive, it will get funding.

Not all of that money will be entirely wasted, either. Current windpower technologies and PV panels may not be sustainable over the long term, but for the decades immediately ahead they’re an excellent investment; anything that can keep the grid supplied with power, even intermittently, as fossil fuel production drops out from under the world’s industrial economies may be able to help make the Long Descent less brutal than it might otherwise be. With any luck, there’ll be a boom in home insulation and weatherstripping, a boom in solar hot water heaters, a boom in backyard victory gardens, and the like – small booms, probably, since they aren’t complex and expensive enough to catch at the contemporary imagination, but even a small boom might help.

On the whole, though, the pursuit of complexity as a solution for the problems caused by complexity is a self-defeating strategy. It happens to be the self-defeating strategy to which we’re committed, collectively and in most cases individually as well, and it can be dizzyingly hard for many people to think of any action at all that doesn’t follow it. Take a moment, now, before reading the rest of this post, to give it a try. Can you think of a way to deal with the problems of complexity in today’s industrial nations – problems that include, but are not limited to, rapidly depleting energy supplies, ecological destruction, and accelerating economic turbulence – that doesn’t simply add another layer of complexity to the mess?

There’s at least one such way, and longtime readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that it’s a way pioneered decades ago, in a different context, by maverick economist E.F. Schumacher. That way starts with what he termed the Principle of Subsidiary Function. This rule holds that the most effective arrangement to perform any function whatsoever will always assign that function to the smallest and most local unit that can actually perform it.

It’s hard to think of any principle that flies more forcefully in the face of every presupposition of the modern world. Economies of scale and centralization of control are so heavily and unthinkingly valued that it rarely occurs to anyone that in many situation they might not actually be helpful at all. Still, Schumacher was not a pie-in-the-sky theorist; he drew his conclusions on the basis of most of a lifetime as a working economist in the business world. Like most of us, he noticed that the bigger and more centralized an economic or political system happened to be, the less effectively it could respond to the complex texture of local needs and possibilities that makes up the real world.

This rule can be applied to any aspect of the predicament of industrial society you care to name, but just now I want to focus on its application to the vexed question of how to respond to that predicament. Attempts to make such a response on the highest and least local level possible – for example, the failed climate negotiations that reached their latest pinnacle of absurdity in the recent debacle at Copenhagen – have done quite a respectable job of offering evidence for Schumacher’s contention. Attempts to do the same thing at a national level aren’t doing much better. The lower down the ladder of levels you go, and the closer you get to individuals and families confronting the challenges of their own lives, the more success stories you find.

By the same logic, the best place to start backing away from an overload of complexity is in the daily life of the individual. What sustains today’s social complexity, in the final analysis, is the extent to which individuals turn to complex systems to deal with their needs and wants. To turn away from complex systems on that individual level, in turn, is to undercut the basis for social complexity, and to begin building frameworks for meeting human needs and wants of a much simpler and thus more sustainable kind. It also has the advantage – not a small one – that it’s unnecessary to wait for international treaties, or government action, or anything else to begin having an effect on the situation; it’s possible to begin right here, right now, by identifying the complex systems on which you depend for the fulfillment of your needs and wants, and making changes in your own life to shift that dependency onto smaller or more local systems, or onto yourself, or onto nothing at all – after all, the simplest way to deal with a need or want, when doing so is biologically possible, is to stop needing or wanting it.

Such personal responses have traditionally been decried by those who favor grand collective schemes of one kind or another. I would point out in response, first, that a small step that actually happens will do more good than a grandiose plan that never gets off the drawing board, a fate suffered by nearly all of the last half century’s worth of grandiose plans for sustainability; second, that starting from personal choices and local possibilities, rather than abstract and global considerations, makes it a good deal more likely that whatever evolves out of the process might actually work; and third, that tackling the crisis of industrial society from the top down has been tried over and over again by activists for decades now, with no noticeable results, and maybe it’s time to try something else. How that "something else" might be pursued in practice will be the topic of next week’s post.