The Complex

Globalization makes everything more complicated.

Planetary flows of information, people, and materials are increasing at an exponential pace, and the connections between far-flung locales are becoming thicker and more subtle. Indeed, the logic of place that has always governed our interactions seems to have become irrelevant: resources are extracted wherever they’re most plentiful, assembled wherever the labor is cheapest, and shipped to wherever people will buy it. The result? A cornucopia of inexpensive goods – and a dizzying array of unintended social, political and ecological consequences.

It’s a basic rule of systems theory that the larger a network is, the more complex it gets, and the less its entirety is visible from any single node. What this means in the context of multi-billion dollar markets and global supply chains is that it’s become ever harder to understand the ripple effects of our choices of production and consumption. It seems as if we can’t buy anything without tacitly encouraging sweatshop labor in Thailand, desertification in Mali, or carbon emissions throughout the globe – and minding these adverse impacts seems to be a battle with no end in sight.

The truth is, no single government, corporation, or watchdog organization can possibly keep track of the countless unintended consequences of our systems of production. What’s more, our attempts to rein in these “externalities” often result in a new set of unforseen problems that, in turn, require their own solutions. A factory that pollutes the air might shut down due to government regulation – only to be replaced with one that pollutes the water. A company might respond to media pressure to end practices of child labor in Pakistan – and destabilize an entire town’s economy by packing up an moving elsewhere.

Take, for example, recycled paper. Nearly a third of the paper we stick in the recycling bin is shipped to China, where it’s processed into new paper and redistributed across the globe – in other words, our “eco-friendly” paper is making the equivalent of a full circle around the Earth on its way to our desks. I’m not sure of the carbon emissions involved in such a circumnavigation (anybody want to give it a try?), but it seems certain that they’d cancel out the benefit of trees saved by buying recycled.

Another well-publicized example of unintended consequences is biofuel production. Since the oil crises of the 1970s, Brazil’s domestic ethanol and biodiesel production have been widely touted as a model of energy independence. Yet, to satisfy surging demand for biofuels, Brazilian soy and sugarcane plantations have expanded at an uprecedented rate, and they are now the leading cause of deforestation of the Amazon.

To say that we should therefore use FSC-certified paper instead of recycled, and buy hybrids instead of biodiesel vehicles, would be missing the point. It’s not just this or that technology that’s unsustainable, it’s the scale of our technology. For the time being, planetary systems might indeed be the most efficient for the flow of capital. But when our are decisions are subject only to market forces – the biggest quantity for the cheapest price – we blind ourselves to the local conditions that those decisions impact. As ecodesigner Sim Van Der Ryn puts it, “the extent to which we rely on far-flung resources is the extent to which we are no longer accountable to our own place.”

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