Don’t Spill the Beans

Don’t Spill the Beans was a game I recall playing in the late ’60s with my brother whenever we would visit my grandparents. At that time it was the only game they had besides a crokinole board and a deck of cards. If you are unfamiliar with the game, it quite simply was a plastic ‘pot’ precariously balanced in which players take turns adding ‘beans’ until the pot tips and spills the beans.

The objective was to NOT be the one to spill the beans and to be the first player to run out of beans. The game is a great example of tipping points in systems and as I have read more and more on systems thinking and complexity theory, the concept I learned so many years ago is seeming more relevant.

During my readings I happened across research referring to the Abelian sandpile model, also known as the Bak-Tang-Wiesenfeld model. Simply stated, it was research examining how the random placement of sand grains on a pile of sand would behave.

As Wikipedia states: “Once the sandpile model reaches its critical state there is no correlation between the system’s response to a perturbation and the details of a perturbation. Generally this means that dropping another grain of sand onto the pile may cause nothing to happen, or it may cause the entire pile to collapse in a massive slide.”

What are some of the ‘beans’ we keep adding to our pot? Off the top of my head, here are just a few broader beans with smaller beans embedded within them:

1) Geopolitics (e.g. Ukraine, Syria, Libya, South China Sea, Iraq, Iran…)

2) Climate change (e.g. disaster-level storms, Polar Vortex, drought, flooding…)

3) Peak resources (e.g. oil, gas, coal, uranium, minerals, soil, water…)

4) Economics (e.g. fiat currency, Ponzi, trade sanctions, currency wars…)

5) Liberty (e.g. militarisation of police, digital surveillance, drones, rise of Totalitarianism/Fascism/etc….)

6) Environmental/ecological crises (e.g. disease, accidents/unintentional consequence of human activities, species loss…)

In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues that a society becomes more prone to collapse when stress surges — that are a common occurrence for every society — can no longer be accommodated due to a lack of ‘reserves’. In other words, when a society has hit the limit of its capability of dealing with stress it becomes increasingly susceptible to collapse (i.e. spilled beans).

In his words: “…Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity” (p. 121).

I can’t help but think that the beans are piling up quickly…