Growing an Economy of Death
It's complicated—but not complex
Today, I spent three hours speaking with my dear friend Olivia Stamp who writes the newsletter Unravelling Together. We were discussing the relationship between complexity and simplification, interrogating the fact that despite our globalised world with, by its definition, more connections than the past, the surface of the world looks simpler: forests razed to produce monocultures, the same fruit available all year round, capital cities infested with the same brand names housed in the same glass and steel architecture, English spoken on every corner. We hear all the time about how the world is more complex than ever before, yet, increasingly, it has a homogenous quality, as if human culture has been reduced to the flat-pack variety.
Was the world more complex before globalisation?
On my terrible graph above, I’ve depicted multiple local human cultures and the level of complexity each attained in green. The blue line is the level of complexity attained by one globalised human culture. The blue line is, indeed, taller than any of the one individual green lines representing these local cultures. However, these local cultures existed simultaneously, even if they weren’t connected, and if you take the sum of their complexity, the total complexity of the world would vastly outstrip the complexity of a the single globalised culture.
This, of course, is an idea rather than data, but it could explain why there’s a Zara on every high street rather than local artisan studios. It may seem like the world is more complex, and there may even be more total relationships than in the past, but the set of those relationships is less diverse and less rich. This means there are more total relationships but less types of relationships in the world, reducing the overall complexity.
Let’s take the analogy of a section of old-growth forest and a monoculture plantation. An ancient forest is unimaginably complex, each part of its ecosystem working in tandem with everything else to maintain an overall stability that is both responsible for and dependent on everything else. From the diversity of the soil’s microbiome which feed the vast sprawl of plants which depend on the ancient trees for protection from the climate which itself responds to the forest’s activity, to which the animal population then adapts, including the humans who depend on the forest, the ecosystem is so complex it would be impossible to accurately map the each and every one of those relationships. As a whole, however, they maintain the balance necessary for each living thing to live.
In contrast, a monoculture plantation, planted on the remains of an old-growth forest, is fundamentally less complex. One species is prioritised above all else, categorising some plants as “weeds” in their natural habitat. The soil is less diverse and thus less rich, less able to sustain life. The ground is home to far less species of fungi and the animals are left with very little to eat, forcing them and their seed-spreading dung elsewhere. Yet, this plantation has many more relationships to the globalised human world than the forest, for these trees are being grown for products and these products could end up all over the world: in flat-pack furniture at Ikea or an artist’s studio or beams for housing. The plantation is global whereas the old forest is local; the plantation has more relationships to the human economy but less kinds of relationship than the forest. In fact, it has but one relationship to the local economy: product, or, rather, profit.
The complexity of the global human economy has destroyed the complexity of local natural systems, simplifying and reducing them to economic purpose. If reality is relational then simplification is a domination of reality, negating the potential of the multitudinous set of relationships that exist. (Think of how the dance of beings evolving together is reduced to a monotheistic sky-bloke creating the world in seven days.) Complex human cultures simplify the natural world around them whereas simpler human cultures allow for a more complex and rich natural world; human beings who see themselves as part of the natural world have no need to dominate reality for it is already ordered.
Yet, if human cultures are becoming more complex, why are our own sets of relationships getting smaller and smaller? Why is it that, rather than knowing intimately the 200 people with whom I maintain my home, the vast majority of my interactions are with strangers, people I do not need to know or trust thanks to an exchange of mutually accepted currency?
Humans are part of the natural world. The more we simplify it, the more we simplify ourselves. In my interview with John Gowdy in 2022, he explained that complex societies need simpler individuals, people who will fulfil roles, whereas simpler societies can allow for more complex individuals. So our human cultures is more complex, but its member humans simpler. Is this complex culture, then, human?
No; it is our technological culture which is becoming more complex, not our human culture. In fact, our human culture, rich in its diversity, is being subsumed and replaced by a technological culture, to which we are told to entrust the future. But if complexity is defined by the emergent connections and relationships between dynamic components, can we define technology—pieces of which are typically closed systems and thus not complex—so?
Technology is complicated, increasingly so. But it isn’t particularly complex. Something that is complicated may be difficult to understand, it may have many different parts, but those parts interact in a predictable way, making each component replaceable. These replaceable components are controllable and can produce permanent systems. What matters most in a complicated system, then, are not the relationships of the components, but the components themselves.
Our “human” world is very complicated. But it is not particularly complex. Rather than citizens embodying their right to political engagement and involvement by participating at every meeting in their 200-strong village our modern citizens tick a box once every four years. Rather than choosing a leader we know intimately and personally we choose between the same two ideological options. Rather than knowing the people who make my food by first name and sharing a pint in the pub at the end of the day, when in London I swipe a piece of plastic at a bored cashier without exchanging a single word. Not so long ago, I would have known and tended the land that offered the food I eat, I would have known the characteristics of the plants and the taste of the soil and the smell of rain on the wind and how all of life dances to the rhythm of the sun. I would have known everyone I see by name and why they were given that name. I would have known where I fit amongst my people, the unique gifts I could share to the benefit of my people. I would have had a place, rooted in the complexity of the world around me.
I was uprooted by machinery.
Given that components within a complicated system are most important, they have to be replaced as they are when they break down. Human beings become “productive labour”, interchangeable for the right price. Atomised in a complicated modern world which erodes our relationships to one another, we become increasingly replaceable, uprooted and alone, deliberately isolated so as to be substitutable.
An old growth forest can survive the loss of a few trees. But those trees cannot be immediately replaced. Instead, the system of life will respond to the loss, perhaps growing another tree over decades or perhaps sprouting new forms and possibilities for life. Contrary to this, complicated machines are built for specific, atomised purposes, and built to maximise profit. Nothing is wasted for programming or engineering “possibility”; they are built to perform as they are, and if you change what they are then they break down.
We are increasingly engineered to perform like machines, and we are increasingly breaking down. Uprooted, isolated and replaceable, citizens around the world are suffering from a mental illness pandemic. Because we are not machines. We are natural. We are meant to form relationships and take responsibility and care and respond dynamically interact with the world around us. Instead, we are defined by a technological role and told to play this role to the detriment of our relationships with the world around us. We are reduced to a lonely piece of theatre, performed behind a screen without even an audience.
This “human” world is not for humans; it is the more-than-human world to which we belong. This “human” world is a complicated network of machines and closed systems and performance and gross over-simplification of all that is alive and beautiful. This machine world is destroying reality, destroying the relationships between living things to grow an economy of death.
Humans will survive without an economy of death, and thrive when we take the time to understand how to build technology which respond to the natural world. We are more than capable; it’s exactly how a vaccine works. But we cannot survive without the world and its magnificent complexity. We cannot thrive without our own complexity, for complexity is the essence of reality and why should it not be the most beautiful wonder we will ever know?
© Rachel Donald
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