Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Does understanding complexity beget a tragic view of life?

by Kurt Cobb

Resource Insights (April 26 2009)

Sheer exuberance is often enough to carry the young into the most daunting and dangerous of endeavors. But as we age, experience can make us more hesitant. Many people discover that the universe can sometimes be arbitrary, that completely unforeseen events can ruin careers and even end lives, that, in short, life is tragic.

But paradoxically the tragic view of life doesn't beget mere glumness. Instead, it teaches prudence which can be a good thing and occasionally a lifesaver. It actually inculcates a more profound appreciation of those moments of happiness and bliss, for the tragic view of life cautions us that these are not the products of will and planning, but rather mostly the result of serendipity. Those with the tragic view do not believe that everything must end in tragedy; rather, they believe that tragic endings are an ever present possibility.

As we mature we are ushered into the complexities of life. But when the willingness to accept these complexities is blunted or eliminated, maturity never arrives. Many remain in an adolescent state preferring an optimistic gloss on a simple-minded model of the world. As Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote recently:

Collectively we have been behaving like adolescents - believing we're invulnerable, living for today while ignoring tomorrow, and sneering at anything that smacks of prudence.

And, we have behaved this way when it comes to the financial legerdemain which has brought the world economy to its knees. The high priests of finance had the adolescent exuberance for trading and making money, but none of the appreciation for the hazards embedded in the complex financial instruments they were selling.

The tragic view of life teaches humility in the face of complexity. That humility is notably lacking in the world of neoclassically trained economists, the ones who run the houses of finance and public policy in nearly every Western economy. The levers and pulleys of the economy seem plainly obvious to them. And, the idea that we could fail to understand the risks we are taking with our financial system or find ourselves dangerously short of critical commodities needed to run modern society is labeled preposterous. (These economists sound a little like the adolescents Homer-Dixon describes above.)

But a deeper understanding of the complexities of a world society embedded in a vastly complex biogeochemical system called the Earth requires a more sober assessment. Homer-Dixon says in his book, The Upside of Down (2006), that the emphasis on efficiency over resilience in our various human systems has left us vulnerable to the multiple threats of climate change, energy depletion and biodiversity destruction.

Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1990), posits that increasing complexity in society eventually leads to diminishing and then negative returns and results in a society more vulnerable to collapse.

Jared Diamond, author of Collapse (2005), focuses on the environmental damage which led to the disappearance of previous societies including Greenland Norse settlements, Easter Island, the Anasazi in what is now called the American southwest, and the Mayans. Our complex relations with and dependence on the natural world give Diamond concern about the future of modern industrial civilization.

Tainter warns that previous collapses were visited on discreet societies separated by vast distances from others that continued to thrive. The next collapse, he believes, must be worldwide since we have now essentially created one planetary society tightly linked by finance, commerce, technology, and travel.

By contrast the careless optimism of the technologists and the economists is predicated on simple-minded models of society and its relationship to the natural world. We often hear the following: "We've always found substitutes for critical materials which were running out. Prices rise for the scarce commodity, and substitutes are developed and introduced." Jared Diamond would beg to differ that this is always the case. But economists' thinking doesn't include the complication of history.

And, for the technologists the focus is on the idea that the natural world can be engineered both to help it regain its equilibrium - geoengineering the climate is just one example - and to provide ever increasing resources from its lowest grade deposits - seawater is often invoked as a source for important minerals such as uranium.

The fact that there is currently no method of extracting uranium from seawater that gives us more energy than we expend doesn't phase the technologists. "We will figure it out", they say. "It is inevitable". Well, very few things are inevitable. In addition, the notion that we could make a mistake in trying to engineer something as complex and poorly understood as world climate and thereby create worse problems barely enters their heads. It is hubris borne of simplistic thinking.

It is not the role of those who adopt the tragic view of life merely to predict tragedy. Tragedies, by definition, will continue to occur no matter what we do. Instead, these prudent thinkers are busy identifying trends that could possibly be forestalled and reversed so as to prevent tragic consequences.

But it takes a tragic view of life to imagine such scenarios in the first place. The simpleminded optimists can dazzle us only so long as they are lucky and skirt tragic failures. Their triumphs - at least so far as population and economic growth are concerned - have gone on for a very long time. But the debt that is building up in the natural world in the form of resource depletion, climate change, pollution and destruction of biodiversity and also in society in the form of overoptimized systems vulnerable to breakdown, can only be appreciated by those who seek to understand complex systems. Also required is the humility to accept that we will never fully understand such systems and must therefore act with a very wide margin of safety.

There are still opportunities to prevent societal collapse, the complexity theorists believe. But without swift and thoroughgoing changes in our current practices and priorities, we may all too soon suffer the fate of many societies before us, but on a scale never before seen.

Bill Totten


  • Understanding complexity is nessesary to understanding human life. How you feel about that understanding would have to do only with what your expectations are, or, were before you understood! In short not relevant to understanding as that precedes any emotional response to one's finding. If the emotional respose precedes, then the possiblity of an accurate understnding would probably seriously compromised.

    By Blogger Suzanne, at 3:18 AM, June 15, 2009  

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