Energy, complexity and…direct democracy?

Direct Democracy

One Italian politician, Nichi Vendola, allegedly claimed that “politics is the art of managing complexity“. Today this statement raises at least two questions: what is politics and what is complexity. Without going back to Aristotle, I think that the standard idea of politics to most people is that of representative democracy. Yet over the last few years there seems to be an increasing dissatisfaction with this form of democracy. The dissatisfaction with representative democracy (as the statistics on participation to voting in most countries show), has perhaps accelerated because of the economic crisis, but stems from the fact that ordinary citizens seem to have lost their faith in the ability of the elected representatives (the politicians) to act principally (if not exclusively) in the common interest. The problem of “regulatory capture”, whereby powerful lobbies attempt to influence legislation in their favor, is one example of such a failure. It is in this climate that initiatives aimed at promoting direct democracy, allowing citizens to directly shape political decisions, are becoming increasingly popular. The Indignados and the 15M movements in Spain, Occupy Wall Street in USA, Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy are just some prominent examples.  These seem to be exciting times to live in! So why is this happening now (at least to such a significant extent)? And how is this related to energy and complexity (as the title of the post suggests)?

The link between energy and the emergence of complex structures, like ecosystems and life more in general, has been clearly explained with reference to the second law of thermodynamics (Schneider & Kay, 1992). Complex structures, which include both abiotic phenomena (for example, tornadoes) and biotic ones (for example, living organisms, ecosystems etc.), emerge as dissipative responses to gradients (for example, energy gradients). The fact that complex structures are more efficient at dissipating energy is easily illustrated by the tornado in a bottle experiment. The emergence of complex structures then requires the existence of a gradient (for example, an energy source) and represents an attempt by the system to return to the thermodynamic equilibrium by dissipating the gradient (the energy) as quickly as possible.

But what about the emergence of complexity in societies? Joseph A. Tainter, in his book “The collapse of Complex Societies“, notes how “human societies and political organizations, like living systems, are maintained by a continuous energy flow” (p. 91). According to Tainter, complexity in societal organization emerges as a problem-solving tool. So, for example, the evolution of “complex” representative democracy, with its hierarchies, bureaucracy and specialized structures (i.e., professional politicians, administrators, civil servants etc.) must have seemed an efficient response to the need of coordinating large amount of information in modern societies, in the sense that the additional benefits provided by this “complexification” exceeded the additional costs (for example, in terms of resources needed to maintain the complex structure). However, as Tainter notes, investments in increasing complexity are characterized by decreasing marginal returns. At some point, therefore, increasing complexity becomes uneconomical while decreasing complexity becomes more and more attractive. In the present discussion, two points are worth emphasizing. First, to a significant extent the decreasing marginal returns on increasing complexity are related to the increasing marginal costs of obtaining energy (which, as noted before, is necessary for maintaining complex socio-political structures). Human societies tend to use the most easily accessible energy resources first and then move to the least accessible ones. Today we are facing a situation in which cheap and easily affordable energy is running out. World oil supply has been flat since 2005. Second, the development of internet and communication technology has considerably lowered the cost of information processing thus making the use of complex hierarchical structures (for example, bureaucracy) less economical, compared to peer-to-peer and/or less hierarchical structures (for example, direct democracy).

The advent of more direct forms of democracy may also have an impact on tough environmental problems, where traditional representative democracy has not been able to make significant progress. The failure of the international community to agree on effective policies to address climate change is but one example. The ineffectiveness of politics, is in contrast with the goodwill of millions of citizens around the world. At the moment, for example, the ongoing Right to Water campaign in the EU aims at reaffirming access to water as a basic human right, to maintain water as a public good and to halt the involvement of private companies in its management. It is suggestive to think that new political structures, perhaps less hierarchical and bureaucratic, based on the active participation of citizens may, at least to some extent, be emerging because of increasing energy scarcity (of course in combination with the advances in IT technologies). As Gandalf would say, “not all tears are an evil”.


One response to “Energy, complexity and…direct democracy?

  1. Pingback: The World Economic Forum and the return of growth fairy tale | ecology, politics & economics·

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