Complex Systems Theory Explains Why Covid Crushed the World
The more complicated and efficient a system gets, the more likely it is to collapse altogether
Human history is a long saga of people learning to harness ever-increasing amounts of energy to maintain ever more complex, ordered systems, punctuated by periodic collapses. The Romans, the Maya — when civilizations became more complex than they could maintain, with the energy and technologies they had, in the face of changing conditions.
At that point, small stresses sent overstretched social systems into a rapid downward spiral, which ended with major losses of people and social organization, as one stable complex system made a rapid nonlinear descent to a less complex one. But after a setback, humanity always innovated and rebuilt, a little bigger and more complex than before.
This process is integral to how we should understand pandemics. We now live in the most complex civilization the world has ever seen and the first to encompass the entire planet. Many believe that this makes us resilient to shocks. But, say the complexity theorists, the more complex systems get — the more tightly coupled their component parts, the faster and denser the communication and transport links that keep them all coordinated, the more closely each part relies on many other parts — then the more rigid the system gets overall, the less resilient, the more likely to collapse.
Moreover, complex systems — natural ecosystems as much as human societies — tend to become more efficient, with more specialized components and fewer redundant linkages, because that saves money or energy. Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian expert in complex systems and author of The Upside of Down, notes that a mature forest may have one kind of bacteria fixing its soil nitrogen, whereas at an earlier stage of development, it had a dozen.
Similarly, protective medical gear and the active ingredients for common, emergency drugs used to be produced widely. Michael Osterholm is an epidemiologist who has studied the possible impacts of pandemics. He explained to me that now, a few factories in China make nearly all of these vital supplies, as the global industry takes advantage of low labor costs and economies of scale…