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, extreme weather events, drought, flooding…)

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

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

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…


Cross-posted at:




Autumn Cote Added Mar 24, 2018 - 12:34pm
Please note, it's not permitted to post articles here unless you comment on the work of others more frequently than you currently do.  Please look at my comment history, there are very few authors that I need to speak to this way, so it doesn't take much for me to go away.  
Steve Bull Added Mar 24, 2018 - 1:00pm
Autumn Cote
What would you consider adequate commentary in terms of frequency? I have just begun using this site and after your first 'nudge' re article engagement have commented on a couple of those articles I've found personally relevant. And I've attempted to engage with some other commenters but really don't want to be overly repetitive or argumentative as some banter seems to get. This is not the only site I am involved with and don't mind spending some limited engaged with others, but within reason. 
Leroy Added Mar 24, 2018 - 1:44pm
The end is near.  Someday, the prophets will be right.  It is just a matter of time.
Pardero Added Mar 24, 2018 - 1:45pm
Steve Bull,
Fascinating stuff. A new take on 'The straw that broke the camel's back.'
Whether grain of sand, bean, or straw, the stress seems to be present. The Romans and Byzantines held out for a long time and only barbarian invasions ended them. 
With our massive military, we don't have to worry about barbarians storming our, never mind.
Autumn Cote Added Mar 24, 2018 - 1:49pm
Per the rules, you have to comment within 24-hours of an article posting of your own.  The last comment you made on the work of someone else, prior to my comment, was March 21st.  Many thanks for your recent comment.  You are now in compliance with the rules.  
Stone-Eater Added Mar 24, 2018 - 2:27pm
Steve is a real jewel here. Do give him time.
Stone-Eater Added Mar 24, 2018 - 2:31pm
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.
This is a very interesting remark. I use to say that we all are just a grain of sand on a beach, but the more grains get together they might move the beach. 
But the question remains if all those grains that get together and move the will just be another beach on another place, but it will still be a beach. a thought when seeing human history ;-)
Neil Lock Added Mar 25, 2018 - 12:32pm
Steve: A few thoughts about your six "broad beans."
(1) Yes, geopolitics is a problem. Because the state is a problem.
(2) Since “we” as a species don't really know much about how human activities affect the weather (and even less about how they affect the climate), how can you say that “we” are adding these beans to the pot?
(3) So far, indications are (per Julian Simon) that, for now, we can find new sources of the materials we need faster than we use the old ones up. Needs monitoring, I agree; but not a short term issue, in my view.
(4) As I said above, the state is a problem. No, the state is the problem.
(5) As (4).
(6) Basically as (2). As to species loss, please name a species I extinguished, and provide evidence of the date on which I did it, of its existence prior to that date, of its non-existence since then, and of my individual culpability. :-)
BTW, Leroy’s comment is even more :-)
But please let me add a counter-argument to what you say, Steve. A camel is near overload. A friendly loader, seeing this, takes a straw away from the pack on his right hand side. Unbalanced by this, the camel falls over to the left, and breaks his leg. Who caused the damage? I think your “don’t spill the beans” game might have been far more interesting if (once a certain number of beans were present) players could elect, say at one turn in three, to take away a bean instead of adding one, and the loser was the last one who added a bean.
To take a somewhat deeper view: The questions you raise are about risk. But if you don’t have a clear idea of what is desirable and what is not, how can you judge what is a reasonable risk and what is not?
And some housekeeping. Stone-Eater is right; Steve Bull has already shown he is worth having as a member of the WB community. And I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect authors to comment on others’ work right before they deliver a new article. I feel, Autumn, that you have been unreasonably harsh towards Steve Bull on that score. Yes, it’s reasonable to expect an author here to comment regularly on the work of others. But the hardest time to do that – for me, at least – is while I’m struggling to put the finishing touches to a major article. So, the times when I comment least on WB are usually in the run up to a publication.
Steve Bull Added Mar 26, 2018 - 9:23am
Neil Lock
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Some thoughts in return:
1) The problem is State intervention. 
Agreed, depending what we mean by the State. I would contend it is a combination of the politicians, oligarchs (particularly financial/corporate/industrial), military-security-intelligence complex, and/or other members of the 'deep state'. 
2) Climate change. 
I'm not sure I meant that humans were necessarily adding/exacerbating the natural cycle that exists here. I suppose it is implied in the way I structured the post. What we can say, I believe, is that this is a concern (controversial human impacts aside) for our global, just-in-time, industrial agricultural system for the 7+ billion that depend upon it, regardless of whether human activity affects it or not. Even the natural cycle could place much of our current agriculture at risk. 
3) Peak resources.
One of my favourite sayings is: infinite growth on a finite planet, what could possibly go wrong? Exponential growth of resource use can be mitigated in many situations with shifts in the resource base or technology. But I would contend there is a limit to this. To deny we live on a finite planet--as many cornucopian-oriented people do--is just wrong in my opinion. I think it shows a profound lack of understanding of the exponential function. We have been able to push the carrying capacity of our environment further and further from what might be considered 'natural' because of human ingenuity, but I believe there are real biophysical limits to this. As Nassim Taleb has argued, 'absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence'. 
4) Species loss.
I did not intimate as far as I can tell that individuals, per se, are responsible for this concern. However, I think the most recent example of a growing problem in this area is the impact neonicotinoids has been shown to have on the bee population. The unintended consequence of this insecticide (a 'technological' innovation to help push the carrying capacity of our planet a little further from the 'norm') could have a potentially devastating impact on agricultural production. 
Finally, you are right on in that these are all questions about risk and predicting how these things might play out is fun but rarely accurate. As physicist Niel Bohrs is quoted as saying: Prediction is difficult, especially if it's about the future. Humans are not very good at this game and, again, as Nassim Taleb argues, we form our guesses about the future (and associated risks) based upon the scientific notion of normal distributions but the really impactful events in life are those that lay outside these 'bell curve' estimates and create what he termed 'Black Swan Events'. Any number of Black Swan Events could send the variables that make up the complex systems discussed here sideways in totally unexpected ways. 
Once again, thank you for the thoughtful comments. It helps me to clarify my own thoughts to have to think about them and respond appropriately.
Red October Added Mar 26, 2018 - 4:09pm
I think your analogy holds true as it relates to the Federal Budget and debt.  The more debt we amass, the more difficult it will become to steer the economy through trouble should interest rates rise.  So with each dollar we borrow, it’s like adding more beans to the top.
However, I don’t think it holds true for those other things.  It may appear like there is more trouble in our future than at any time before, but that’s not the case.  The reason it appears that way is because we live in the moment and are nostalgic about the past.  For example, Reagan if far more popular with conservatives today than he was when he was president. 
As it relates to your list, we keep finding new and cheaper ways to extract oil.  So whatever we thought in terms of resource limitations, has been proven to totally wrong.  I could make similar arguments for the rest of that list. 
Steve Bull Added Mar 26, 2018 - 8:48pm
Red October
I agree with you that our financialised economic system is certainly another area filled with risk that could contribute to a catastrophic tipping point. 
As for the oil situation, I would contend that we have already used up the cheap-to-retrieve and easy-to-access reserves for the most part and are now scraping the bottom of the barrel as it were. If one digs below the surface narrative of fracking being the panacea for dwindling conventional reserves, you would find a very disturbing picture. Oil companies burning through cash and virtually bankrupt, reserves that peak out quickly and require more and more horizontal drilling, unintended negative environmental consequences, and a significant drop-off in the very important issue of energy-return-on-energy-invested. 
Red October Added Mar 27, 2018 - 4:59pm
As it relates to oil, we continue to use our technological prowess so that the cost/price has remained relatively unchanged for decades.  That’s truly amazing when you think about how much everything has gone up in price over time.  I also don’t know how you come to the conclusion that oil companies are bankrupt…see the market cap of any of the large ones.  As it relates to the environment, our methods of extracting it today are far cleaner than the past. 
That was just one example.  Your other examples are equally suspect.  Take geopolitics, it wasn’t that long ago that we were engaged in a World War, one in which it appeared like Nazi Germany was on the verge of winning.  Not to mention imminent threat of nuclear war from Russia’s nuclear expansion into Cuba.  What’s happening now is small potatoes compared to what we were dealing with in the past. 
Take climate change, it’s a hoax.  The climate has always been in a state of flux and extreme weather was always a part of life.  The left is simply trying to use it as a scare tactic in order to increase taxes.
Take liberty, we’ve come a long way since the days blacks only counted as 3/5ths of a person and woman were not permitted to vote.  Or how about those ugly McCarthy years when you could have your life ruined over unsubstantiated accusations. 
The point of all this is not to be so pessimistic.  For every bean we add, we’re taking away one too, sometimes two. 
opher goodwin Added Mar 27, 2018 - 6:42pm
Steve - that was very interested and thought provoking. I think you are right. The stresses have been building for some time and the cracks are beginning to appear. If beans continue to be added to that heap I think we're in for one hell of a landslide.
What is required is a leader with clear vision, authority and the ability to cut through the mess and sort out the issues. We need someone with a unifying capability, integrity and intelligence.
Unfortunately I do not see anybody with those credentials currently in position. Trump and May seem quite the opposite of what is required.
I put my hope in Corbyn over here but I can't see anyone yet who will do the job in America and I know that the media will try to undermine Corbyn and create division.
I think the elite do not mind if that stack of beans collapses. They can probably profit from it.
Steve Bull Added Mar 27, 2018 - 8:08pm
Red October 
A quick reply to a couple of your assertions. 
First, you suggest oil prices have been stable for decades. Really? Can't say I'm paying the same for gasoline or heating fuel as I did several decades ago. In fact, here are some historical water marks for crude oil prices by the barrel and they are anything but stable:
Jan 1980 104.00
Jan 1990 44.34
Nov 1998 17.26
Jan 2000 40.78
June 2008 159.27
Jan 2010 83.70
Feb 2018 61.64
Second, you suggest I am off-base with my concern about debt of oil companies. Here is some relevant data on that debt as of 2016:
Exxonmobil: $40 Billion
Chevron: $38 Billion
BP: $32 Billion
Shell: $74 Billion
And some articles that look at this debt:
“The world’s largest oil companies are in serious trouble as their balance sheets deteriorate from higher costs, falling profits and skyrocketing debt.  The glory days of the highly profitable global oil companies have come to an end.  All that remains now is a mere shadow of the once mighty oil industry that will be forced to continue cannibalizing itself to produce the last bit of valuable oil.”
“According to the Wall Street Journal, American oil and gas companies have gone into serious debt during the energy boom, and have increased borrowings by 55% since 2010, to almost $200 billion:”
Finally, as for climate change, you say it's a hoax but then confirm it's always been changing. Perhaps what you meant is the idea of anthropogenic climate change has been used by various institutions (government included) as a means of wealth confiscation (and I wouldn't disagree). I clarified my concern in a comment above when I said "What we can say, I believe, is that this is a concern (controversial human impacts aside) for our global, just-in-time, industrial agricultural system for the 7+ billion that depend upon it, regardless of whether human activity affects it or not. Even the natural cycle could place much of our current agriculture at risk."
I suppose I do come down on the pessimism side of the equation (certainly my wife would say that) but the main point of my comments (I hope) was to outline the various risks that seem to be piling up and it is these type of risks that archaeologist Joseph Tainter concludes contributes to sociopolitical collapse because reserves are inadequate to handle sudden stress surges. 
Doug Plumb Added Mar 27, 2018 - 8:48pm
re "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)"
They have been using fear as a tool since they made up the bomb. Shut off the TV. All you have to fear is fear itself. Don't let them get you with their insanity. The Bomb, The Russians, The Holocaust, The Terrorists, Nuts with Guns, Global Warming....Its all bullshit and it never ends.
Fear is a necessary substrate from which belief grows, take the fear away and with a little injection of truth, people will start laughing - that's what Ellul said.
Steve Bull Added Mar 27, 2018 - 10:04pm
Doug Plumb
Just to be clear, I am not fearful of collapse. It will come when it will come, just as it has for every complex society before us--I'll write more about this at a future time. I am simply trying to make an observation and connect it to fairly compelling research that complex societies eventually decline/collapse, every one so far up until the modern era. If this time is different, great; but I'm doubtful it will be. We already seem to be having to counter the Law of Diminishing Returns (the BIG one that Tainter stresses in his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies) through all sorts of financial and sociopolitical maneuvering. 
Stone-Eater Added Mar 28, 2018 - 7:40am
I like Noam Chomsky's books. And believe it or not: I downloaded and copied them (illegally ?) in Africa to my friends there.
And they love it and share them (not over the net, too costly).
Some of them told me: That reminds me of what I learnt in University about Rousseau, Kant or Plato.
...huh ? I said, ok. I never learned anything about philosophy in school. They replied: But you're from Switzerland ? I said: Sure, but that doesn't mean anything....
Steve Bull Added Mar 30, 2018 - 12:02pm
Red October
Just a quick update on the issue of the financial woes of oil drillers in the US. Here is an article published recently on
The Struggle Continues for Bankrupt Shale Drillers
I am not making stuff up;)

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