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The Complexity Myth

When the continuous operation of a system relies on a long and complex chain of crucial suppliers and resources, all running smoothly, that’s pretty much a textbook example of an unsustainable system. Put another way, the systems we take for granted to deliver everything from plasma-screen TV sets to store-bought apple pie is more vulnerable than we may think.

According to Keith Farnish [1], the mindset that brought us the equation “civilization = better living = mind-boggling complexity” is flawed and should be reconsidered in a 21st-century post-peak world.

From Culture Change:

I’m looking forward to the rhubarb growing season; it happens when you least expect it, as tiny shoots start to emerge from the soil, embellished in the most delightful crinkles, and bursting with every shade of pink, red and green you could imagine. You can almost smell it stewing in the pan as its red shoots push upwards and outwards. My father, a great fan of this hardiest of plants, has replanted part of the driveway of his house with half a dozen roots, ready for the spring – rhubard crumble rather than cars, any day.

How simple is this? You plonk a rhizome into a hole in the ground, cover it up, and a few weeks later you start getting something that you, while not quite being able to pop it in your mouth (it’s rather sour), can heat up and then serve and eat. Actually, you could get something even simpler: plant an apple
sapling in the winter, wait two or three years, then eat the apples.

Alternatively, you could have an apple pie from a supermarket. Here are the ingredients of one that I bought because it was about to be thrown in the bin:

Bramley Apple (32%) (with antioxidants (Ascorbic acid, Citric acid) Firming Agent (Calcium chloride)), Wheat Flour, Water, Sugar, Glucose – Fructose Syrup (Wheat), Vegetable Oil (Rapeseed, Palm), Margarine (with Emulsifier (Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids – Vegetable)), Butter, Cornflour, Dextrose (Wheat), Modified Potato Starch, Natural Flavouring, Raising Agents (Disodium diphosphate, Sodium hydrogen carbonate), Skimmed Milk Powder, Stabiliser (Guar gum), Whey Powder (Milk).

Got that? I could, if I wanted to, run an environmental breakdown of all the ingredients in the pie, and put you off buying one even more than you have probably been put off by just reading the ingredients. But I won’t, because this isn’t about the individual components of something, like an apple pie, it is about the whole, and the fundamental difference between something produced for the purposes of consumption by a member of Industrial Civilization, and something you would produce or do yourself as an individual human.

In short, it’s about complexity.

Sing, Sing A Song

Like the apple pie as food, what we are encouraged to use for entertainment purposes, as de facto Consumers, are products of civilization – of the industrial machine. I can think of few things more entertaining, able to pass an evening with friends and family, than a good sing-along; standing or sitting around making beautiful sounds with just our bodies and nothing intervening or interfering with the music-making process. That’s as simple as entertainment gets. The fact that so few of us partake of this staple of decades past, is not because we can’t do it any more – we all know a few songs, albeit not word or pitch perfect – but because culturally it is deemed far more acceptable to do something that is inherently more complex.

In his seminal, Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television, Jerry Mander contends that television is fundamentally a tool of a domination culture, that can be and is used to subvert the viewing public to whatever political or commercial ends the system requires. While all of Mander’s arguments are valid, they point to what are essentially psychological controls. The issue of complexity is more fundamental than this: television is a product of the system, and thus has built-in complexity.

Read the whole article here. [2]


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