The Path to a Catastrophic Collapse

The world is far from simple to understand. The aspects of life have a depth that’s much larger than one might think. The concepts of all life are really like tangled webs, but we don’t usually picture then as intertwined. The parts of life are linked together; Peter Grimes, author of “World-Systems as Dissipative Structures: A New Research Agenda,” and Glen Kuecker, author of “The Perfect Storm: Catastrophic Collapse in the 21st Century,” describe the connections between world systems in each of their articles.

Grimes’ essay includes two parts; the explanation of the revolutionary departures from classical physics to the physics of spontaneous systems of energy flow, and the application of these lessons from physics to living societies. His essay is divided into sub-groups about physics, thermodynamics, complexity theory, dissipative structures, and bifurcation. Grimes focuses on energy flow throughout his essay, he describes how energy flows between organisms and how it is used or misused. He goes into great detail to explain these subjects.

Energy is an extension of matter or matter is energy condensed. Grimes expresses how energy is the base of everything. As a result of trying to improve the efficacy of the steam engine was the study of energy loss. This study contributed to the field of thermodynamics. It was found that the heat put into steam engines had a higher temperature then the output. This means all systems of energy transfer will have an energy loss from input to output. Grimes also says thermodynamics led to two very important laws of physics: energy conservation, and entropy. The law of energy conservation says, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only change form” (Grimes, p. 2). The law of entropy states, “high-density energy, via inefficiencies in moving matter, loses the power to do work, and ultimately degrades into less heat, radiating into the cold void of space” (Grimes, p. 2). He also says once energy is inputted, it cannot be taken back. From Grimes’ information on energy one can simply conclude that once energy is exerted it cannot be destroyed so as it is used the form of energy changes, making it less able to do work.

Grimes talks about theories in his next section, including the chaos theory and complexity theory. The chaos theory was ignited by the study of turbulence. Turbulence is sufficient energy injected into fluids and gases excited them to produce unpredictable flows. Out of the success of this field the complexity theory evolved. The complexity theory is the study of the spontaneous emergence of order within systems. Grimes gives an example of these theories. He says when a pot of water is at rest, the temperature is the same inside and outside the pot; they are at thermodynamic equilibrium. But when heat is added a circular cycle happens, heat rises from the bottom then from the top goes back to the bottom, and so on (Grimes, p. 3). The boiling point temperature of the water is determined chaos, but the fluctuations around it are unpredictable and chaotic. This means since the boiling point is determined, the emergence of cells in the water are predictable at this temperature, but the initial direction of the cells cannot be predicted.

So from the chaos theory, the complex theory emerged and took on an important role in systems. Sufficiently high inputs of energy can cause complex organizations. Following the complexity theory, complexity theorists made a category called dissipative structures, which places four features together. Grimes list and explains the four features. The first feature says if enough energy is inputted, turbulence becomes far-from-equilibrium and once it reaches a certain point it “self-organizes” into structures. The second feature describes the channel of energy flow that shapes structures as unpredictable. Then the third feature explains the boundaries of systems as both determined by the volume of energy but the energy also chaotically jumps around those boundaries. These four features describe dissipative structures, which are considered dissipative because the energy they release is equal to the energy received but less able to do work. This reflects back to the law of entropy mentioned before. Living structures are also dissipative structures but they are by far way more complicated. Grimes states that “Living structures seek out new energy sources (they eat) and also living systems reproduce” (Grimes, p. 5). These energy sources are very important to dissipative structures because if these structures lose their energy supply they will cease to exist and return to equilibrium.

As Grimes goes on with each section it is more apparent how each concept, theory and structure are related. This next section about bifurcation and evolution are clearly related to the previous information Grimes has provided. Regarding the boiling water example, the initial rotation of the cells is unpredictable. The initial rotation is an unpredictable choice, which is bifurcation. To put this term into perspective Grimes returns to energy or food supply that is need in dissipative structures. Until it reaches the ceiling of food supply, a population of organisms will increase quickly, like the temperature of water will quickly increase until it reaches the boiling point. If a new food supply is discovered a population can rise, but they must change their behavior in order to adapt to the new food source. Such changes in behavior include learning how to capture the new food. Finding the new food supply and making the necessary changes in order to adapt are unpredictable, therefore these are also bifurcations. However it is possible that the new food source may not call for a life-style change so the population will stay at the original ceiling, but if both changes occur then the population will resort to new structures of energy flow. Grimes says evolutions can be viewed as a continuation of bifurcation that call for more complex energy flows (p. 5). Bifurcation evolves new population structures and makes them even more complex.

Dr. Grimes continues to talk about energy flow and energy flow between organisms. Through predation solar energy is transferred across organisms. For example plants use solar energy for their survival and some of their energy is passed to the herbivores and from there carnivores get energy from the animals they eat; omnivores are included in this transition of energy as well. Grimes explains ecosystems as dissipative structures as well. There is absorption of energy that is shifted upward into decreasingly probable life-forms while releasing exhaust through heat, sewage, and dead bodies (Grimes, p. 6). Along with predation, parasitism is another way energy flows between organisms; humans depend on other humans, using each other’s energy for themselves.

The more energy flows into a system the more divisions in human societies there are. Grimes talks about the social divisions among groups, which include age, gender, class, ethnicity, and states. Elders were looked to for cultural knowledge in pre-literate societies like hunting and gathering societies. So elders were seen as valuable because language and culture accelerate adaptation to change of the environment. The more these people learned from the elders, the faster they can develop because they’ll be able to adapt. As for gender, a male’s health and social status are the criteria for a female’s mate. These features increase the chances of their young’s survival. Grimes explains that in complex chiefdoms and agricultural societies, females were viewed as property because inheritance of class status and possessions were at stake so males had to be sure they were the biological father of their young, therefore the daily lives of females were in control of males (p. 7). Class emerged in complex chiefdoms. Language, social skills, and practical skills were taught to children by their parents. Grimes says that depending on your parents’ roles as a farmer, potter or metal-worker you will absorb which ever skill they have mastered (p. 7). Therefore class status has a natural tendency to become hereditary. Class difference is another form of parasitism; there is an unequal exchange of energy from on class to another. Like it was said before energy flows upward; in this case, energy flows upward from the lowest class status to the highest. Ethnicity is another social division. Land is power; societies are motivated to expand their area of land in hopes for the most power. This resulted in societies incorporating other societies with different cultures, languages and religions. Grimes says this was the rise to the first true multicultural empires (p. 8). One political authority conquered diverse peoples who often became enslaved and assigned a social status. This was the form of slavery. These conquests also led to imperialism and exploitation. The last division Grimes mentions are states. States have governing elite that is protected by military power. There is less energy available at the top of the social hierarchy as it is passed from the bottom to the top. Just like the passing of solar energy among organisms. Because of this the number of rulers needs to be far less than those at the bottom. Grimes says, “World systems and all of the social divisions within them are dissipative structures channeling input energy via parasitism to a ruling elite scattered across the core” (p. 8). Thermodynamics is the bases of the social pyramid. Today the outputs of energy are large and varied due to large and varied inputs. The misuse of these inputs and outputs are the reasons for the environmental crisis of our time.

Viewing world-systems through complexity and dissipative structures allows us to make comparisons across social systems and dissipative structures like ecosystems and organisms. We can find warning symptoms that lead to the collapse of systems and also find ways of better efficiency by comparing ourselves to non-living structures. Like the unpredictable choice of convection cells in boiling water is related to the unpredictable choice living dissipative structures have when they need to find a new food source for survival. Learning from our history allows us to make certain changes to avoid the collapse of systems. For example when horticulture societies were killed or forced out of the temperate into the tropics by herders they had to make changes in order to stop this from repeating. Learning from their history, horticulture societies adapted military mechanisms to survive any future attacks. To improve the quality of our lives and become more sustainable we need to close the gap between the bottom of the system and the top. By doing this the flow of energy would be more equal causing the pyramid of hierarchy to look more evenly distributed rather than a very wide base and an extremely small tip. The complexity theory directs social structures to a path that encourages a flow of energy that is more acceptable. It also liberates us form the random bifurcations which gives humans more control over our fate. Since bifurcations make systems even more complex than they already are, with less bifurcations risk of collapse is lowered.

Peter Grimes informs many theories that were developed to help a system avoid collapse, but in Glen Kuecker’s article, “The Perfect Storm: Catastrophic Collapse in the 21st Century,” he shows that systems run out of time to apply these theories. Kuecker talks about the current path we are on to the “Perfect Storm,” or a catastrophic collapse. He informs how current events are intertwined in certain ways and they are all pathways for collapse. He also mentions health dangers that can lead to the collapse of the system. Kuecker then explains how people do not yet understand how close collapse really is and how we can’t just change the path we are on.

We are taking a risk of a downward spiral of political competition and economic collapse with the current Western development model. We shelter this idea that collapse is not a current reality but as a future event, this is called the sustainability view. This view prevents us from addressing the present reality as a catastrophic collapse. Because we are blinded by the sustainability view we are not able to witness reality. In reality, this collapse is currently in process and is not waiting far in the future. Kuecker says, we must change our view on catastrophic events to seeing them as part of a larger process that includes multiple points of structural crisis which all come together to form the “Perfect Storm” of the general system’s catastrophic collapse (p. 8). Systems can end up on one of three different paths. They can reproduce and become more complex with every successful reproduction. They can also set-off a catastrophic structural flaw that leads to the destruction of the system. Or they can follow a third path of oscillation, which is an unstable state of chaos. Any one of the multiple points of structural crisis within the global system can trigger a tipping point, pushing the system away from oscillation and into collapse Kuecker says it is believed that we are experiencing either oscillation or collapse because the system has passed the capacity for reproduction. Each point is related to each other and can generate a positive feedback loop within the systems, causing structural crises that result in the “perfect storm.” A positive feedback loop can be seen as a cycle that looks like this; resources become available and that leads to population growth, which results in hierarchy like family lineages, chiefdoms or chiefs, and from here there is an improvement of technology which starts the cycle over again. Complex systems do have the ability to adapt to unpredictable ways a system can evolve. However adaptive systems are able to find solutions to interactions within the system that could be catastrophic. So from this information Kuecker has provided it can be said that as far south as we already are, as we attempt to adapt to current conditions we could be doing more harm by adapting. Some ongoing structural crises are energy, environment, climate, disease, population, economics, and conflict.

There are catastrophic events that have happened or are still occurring, but we have a problem with seeing these events as connected to other problems in the system. Kuecker explains how hurricane Katrina, global warming, oil production, and disease are steps closer to the collapse and how in some ways these events are related to each other and other aspects of the system. Katrina made it known that the structure of society was not sustainable for modern complex systems. The structure was not able to handle the damage this hurricane did. Hurricane Katrina also showed how race and class inequalities currently exist by defining who is evacuated, rescued, and attended. Katrina may help some people realize that a catastrophic event is immediate and results in long lasting challenges to humanity. Even though we have experienced this event, Kuecker says we are still unwilling to see the flaws in the structure of modern life that have contributed to starting the preliminary phases of catastrophic systemic collapse (p. 8). We have seen fatality and yet we still believe everything can be fixed.

Another event Kuecker speaks of is global warming. The current global warming movement has a single-issue approach; it doesn’t consider the interconnections between climate change and other major crises. Failure to recognize climate change as a part of a larger systemic crisis leads to naïve confidence in an ease of change. Climate is the most complex of complex systems. Kuecker says climate is an example of “unknown unknowns” (p. 9). Global warming is the reason for the increase in temperature of the Gulf of Mexico’s water. Such change, like the ice caps melting, can alter the flow and temperature of the Gulf Stream which is responsible for driving weather form North America to Europe (Kuecker, p. 11). This change can result in droughts where predictable rains are known and change the geography of climate that influence global economic systems. This can hurt economic systems because certain crops that would normally grow in these places will be limited in this case causing a loss of crops and profit. The “Sahara Pump” is an example of how climate change has caused many problems. Due to the Sahara Pump conflict started in Africa over limited resources and because of that many people had to leave those areas of Africa and adapt to a new environment. The current increase in catastrophic weather events can fall into unfavorable conditions to life on earth. Diversity is needed for evolution, and extinction rates are far greater now than it has been at any point in human history. Global warming results in dramatic changes that some species cannot adapt to fast enough for survival, the more this happens the less diverse our systems are.

Another current event that is driving us into a systemic collapse is the production and delivery of petroleum, even though this is needed for our energy stem to survive. We are already experiencing the preliminary phases of collapse with the fuel sector (Kuecker, p. 10). With oil production at its peak, structural crisis in industrial production and food sectors of the global system will soon happen. Peak oil production has profound consequences for the meaning of life on earth that people are not aware of. Finding alternatives for energy, food, and production source is an extremely challenging transition. Hydrogen has been considered as an alternative for oil but the technology needed is not yet obtainable, the costs are immense and public policy is decades behind in pushing the change (Kuecker, p. 10). Though people are considering hydrogen alternatives, we are most likely past the transition to hydrogen. Many adaptive responses to problems in one part of the global system can cause unanticipated, negative reactions in other parts of the system. Biofuel as an alternative leads to the positive feedback loops; it increases the production of ethanol in the United States which has consequences in countries like Mexico. Ethanol production has made the price of corn rise dramatically which doubles the price of corn tortillas in Mexico and that led to almost 50 million Mexicans living in poverty (Kuecker, p. 10). One event or change to the system can affect more than the targeted area which can cause more problems than we started with.

The last event Kuecker mentions in his article is about an event that is most likely in our near future, which is an outbreak of a disease that could kill millions of people. Our inability to stop the positive feedback loop that reproduce the epidemic of AIDS leads to the next great pandemic which is believed to be H5NI (Kuecker, p. 11). The question now is not if a catastrophic outbreak will happen, but when will it happen. H5N1 is spreading in Asia due to the region’s dramatic economic boom, which resulted in mass movement of people and stimulated the production of poultry. The more chickens produced the greater the possibility the virus will jump from bird to humans (Kuecker, p. 11). This will lead to catastrophic consequences for humanity. There is not yet a vaccine for this virus and it is not known if there will ever be one. Without immunity humans are vulnerable to a pandemic that can kill millions of people. Also with the maximum global vaccine production estimated at 300 million, the question rise; who among nearly 7 billion people would get the vaccine (Kuecker, p. 12). And this is only if an effective vaccine can even be made. The probability of finding an effective vaccine is most likely not very high because the United States puts more money into the military than into the real mass killers; AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The influenza would strike labor and management and cause organizational hierarchies to falter. Following this schools and factories would close and quarantines would be established. This all leads up to the collapse of the health care system.

Kuecker explains how challenges facing humanity like fuel, production, climate, the environment, and disease are compounded by demographic factors. It is predicted that the majority of humanity will live in the city. With the rapid growth of population in urban areas the depletion of scarce resources will be accelerated. Kuecker states that, “Plague and famine are additional components to the demographics of a complex system in collapse” (p. 12). Genocide and resource war are results of demographic stress. The rapid combustion into the cities will cause conflict due to lack of resources and inequality when it comes to distribution of the resources. Resources will already be extremely limited from the crowded urban areas, but along with that the global capitalist system is gradually moving away from the United States and into Asia. There is a prediction of serious military conflict in the years ahead, especially while the United States and China compete for scarce resources, investment opportunities, and markets (Kuecker, p. 13). The economy is in a classic positive feedback loop called the growth imperative, which pushes the system deeper into collapse. There are many reasons why this growth in cities can happen; climate change, employment options, and health care availability. These are just a few reasons why people move to the city and they are all connected in some way and all contribute to this future collapse.

With so many intertwined parts the system it is not possible to find one answer, finding any answer is a gamble as well. Technological fixes are the solutions these systems find to use, but there are limitations to these solutions. They often only treat the original problem, leaving the adapting system unstable. Eventually the system becomes so complex that it is no longer possible to predict outcomes of the interactions within the system. The original problem could be years and years prior to the solution and by time the solution is found there are hundreds of more problems that branched off from that original problem. The problems and solutions are just as complex as the systems. Changing the course is not the way to confront the “Perfect Storm,” the time has long passed for this action. Kuecker describes our situation, “We are a freight train attempting to stop quickly when its speed and weight will carry it into doom” (p. 14). We have trouble understanding systems because they are so complex. We see problems as isolated instead of how we should see them which is as integrated and one large picture. We will not be able to survive the “Perfect Storm” unless the bigger picture begins to shape our discussions. Besides having trouble finding solutions to these very complex problems the output of this collapse will be even more alarming. The historical distinctions between rich and poor, racial minority and majority, men and women, the global North and South will intensify as the complex systems become unglued (Kuecker, p. 14). Our response to particular crises and the overall condition of humanity during collapse will depend on social and economic injustice. There would have to be a decision on who will get medicine, water, heat, shelter, and food out of the 7 to 9 billion people. Who lives and who dies will be our decision as well. Kuecker says we have already made these decisions, “An estimated 2.7 billion people survive on $2.00 a day, while 1 billion children face severe nutritional deprivation, yet we still pretend these decisions are not already made” (p. 14). Sophisticated technologies will be horded by the haves and deprived for the have-nots. All increasing parts of the global population will be excluded from health care, food, water, shelter, and work.

The connections between Grimes’ theory article and Keucker’s article about non-sustainability go hand in hand. The theories Grimes presents that explain how a system retains sustainability are the complete opposite of what systems have been doing. So Keucker’s essay shows what happens to systems when they don’t follow the theories that have been developed over time. The first connection for essays share is obviously the complex theory and complex structures. Complex theory says that Complex structures are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. Now in Keucker’s essay he talks about how some solutions have limitations because they eventually will make the system so complex that outcomes will no longer be predictable. Complex structures evolve in a way that reflect their pasts but when continuous changes are made, the initial conditions are impacted and so are their intended paths. Adding more complexity to complex structures not only makes future outcomes unpredictable but it also changes the path it was originally on. Also sufficiently high inputs of energy create complex organizations and in comparison to that Keucker informs about the rapid movement of people into urban areas. This is a high level of energy inputted into the system and the result is an even more complex system that does not have enough resources to support the system anymore. This moves into the next connection I made. Grimes’ essay says when any dissipative structure loses their energy supply, they cease to exist and return to equilibrium; this point relates to Keucker’s point about global warming leading to less diversity which causes extinctions. Climate change calls for adaption to less food sources or new food sources and some species do not adapt or they do but their numbers of existence are small. This is like the extinctions of mammoths after the ice age, the extreme changes required adaptations that could not be made. Grimes also says a population will continue to grow until it reaches the ceiling of food supply, when this happens reproduction is over capacity but reproduction will not completely stop. Because of this there will be scarce resources in large populations and that results in conflict like between the United States and China will eventually see. The social divisions Grimes speaks of relates to the social inequality that is distinct when collapse of a system happens. Social inequality defines who gets the upper hand and the minimal available resources and who doesn’t, like after Hurricane Katrina. The theories Grimes talks about provide ways for systems to stay stable and well functioning and the catastrophic events Keucker writes about shows what happens when original paths aren’t followed along with the helpful theories.

These two essays also show connections in ways people need to view systems and their catastrophic collapse. Grimes says viewing world-systems through complexity and dissipative structures allows us to make comparisons across social systems and dissipative structures, like ecosystems and organisms. Viewing systems this way makes people realize that different parts that make up the system are related and connected in some way or another. That is what Keucker says needs to happen. We don’t take on this view; we have trouble understanding systems because they are so complex. Keucker says we see problems as isolated instead of as integrated and a large picture. We will not be able to survive unless we view systems and their problems as an integrated complex picture. Over all Grimes’ theory essay gives a guide for what should have happened and what needs to happen, while Keucker’s essay explains what is happening and what is going to happen since systems haven’t followed this guide.



Grimes, P. World-Systems as Dissipative Structures: A New Research Agenda. , 1-10.

            Retrieved: November 16, 2012.


Keucker, G. The Perfect Storm: Catastrophic Collapse in the 21st Century. The

International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic, & Social Sustainability, 3, 5-17. Retrieved: November 12, 2012.