Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

How many people might die from climate change?

June 2, 2017

Sorry that is the sort of question which cannot be answered accurately.

Social systems, environmental systems and climate systems are complex systems which means they cannot be predicted in detail. All these systems will be interacting with different forms of landscape – such as low lying areas, loss of glaciers and water and so on. We need all of them to remain stable to make valid detailed predictions. All we can predict is the general trends, and these can be disrupted by rapid changes of state into new systems which may not be human friendly.

The trends are likely to be extreme. People will try and move from parts of the earth which become difficult to live in, because of temperature (heat stroke, heart failure, dehydration), lack of drinking water and sea level rise, and that will likely cause wars – in which people will die as well. The massive storms we have seen will cause deaths as well, as well as disrupt the balance and interconnection of social functioning which will produce more deaths. Destruction of agricultural stability will produce problems with food supply, which is likely to produce malnutrition, which makes people more vulnerable to the other effects. Tropical diseases will move into what have been temperate climates, as well as be carried by people movement. It is likely that those of us who live in temperate environments will have little resistance to these diseases. We may see some parts of the world which have previously been uninhabitable become open to human life and the great powers will compete over those areas, which is also likely to produce war and death.

We also keep polluting the oceans which will disrupt the climate and ecological systems. Many biologists think that ocean death is possible, this will mean we will lose most of our fish stocks, we may also lose oxygen supplies if the plankton die and we keep cutting down forests, although it is unlikely we will kill ourselves, this will also lessen resilience.

With pro-corporate policies which help corporations release chemicals pollution without much in the way of check we will also poison ourselves and the other creatures and plants we need to live. The results of these chemicals on bio-system evolution cannot be predicted at all…

Basically there are a whole heap of endangering ecological processes going on, of which climate change is only one. What the results of multiple chaotic disruptions will be is absolutely unpredictable. However, it can be predicted that normality is going and that many people will die as a result.

Power and incompetence

May 19, 2017

People in power are often structurally incompetent. Not only because they get promoted above their ability to handle the situations they are supposedly in charge of (as explained in the Peter Principle), but because they suffer from the power/ignorance nexus (David Graeber). That is, because all the information they receive tends to be tailored towards what those beneath them, think that they want to hear or see. The more the people in power have access to violence, or can threaten those beneath them, the more this is the case. ‘Superiors’ don’t have to understand people or events that they can hit, or order to be hit. Managers can also be cut off from reality by their immediate underlings who try to control them by feeding them ‘useful’ information – this is the evil advisor motif. Similarly, those in power rarely explain truthfully what is going on to those beneath them, as this would render them more vulnerable to criticism and challenge. Thus those beneath them have to guess what is meant to happen, or what is happening, and this opens the organization to complete fantasy where people know that everything they are told is untrue, but don’t know what the lies are covering. This further confuses the information that the ‘superiors’ receive.

The less competent the people in power become, the less they are likely to realise that they do not understand what is going on or recognize competence (Kruger Dunning effect) – they see everything as all someone else’s fault, or the result of a vast conspiracy against them. Given that power is always exercised in a complex process with active ‘counter power’, were events are non-predictable, then incompetent people are not only likely to generate unintended results all the time, but they are likely to blame those beneath them for that incompetence, punish them, or not learn from mistakes, and thus reinforce the power/ignorance nexus.

Problems with incompetents in power tend to get worse, because they like to appoint other incompetents, or people who engage in flattery to positions of power beneath them, or of giving advice to them. Knowledgeable people scare them. Knowledgeable people, who don’t lie to please them, will tend to get sacked as incompetents will not take advice from people who might be less incompetent; they will not recognise the possibility of accuracy which goes against their biases, and so on.

Given this, incompetent people tend to set up (or reinforce) organisational structures based upon, and generative of, incompetence and ignorance. If they can, then they will destroy ‘checks and balances’ which have evolved to give social stability and responsiveness, as these seem to be part of the conspiracy which supposedly opposes them; these checks and balances are merely obstacles.

It is, therefore, not unreasonable to assume that incompetent politicians and corporate commanders will generate a dysfunctional educational system, which then reinforces the power of those politicians, by corrupting knowledge and thinking and giving people a truly false sense of reality. Having an education system which taught people to recognise the problems that the politicians and the corporate bosses generate, would appear counterproductive to their power and simply seem untrue.

Incompetence and ignorance can be further magnified when, as with capitalism, the economic system only recognises the virtue of profit and wealth – all other competence, benefits and virtue are to be dismissed. Organizations based on profit and incompetence, may tend to select for certain types of psychopathology, which further distorts the processes and feedback perception, rendering the superiors even more incompetent, and focused on profit alone. If you want to get ahead in this system you have to be able to lie, misdirect and deceive others. You have to be able to dismiss others without regret. You have to be able to assume that money is the only thing in life, and that it should be distributed only to the few, of which you are one.

In such an environment, everyone becomes nervous of everyone else, and most people end up communicating strategically rather than truthfully. Hence not only the collapse of education and collapse of virtue, but the collapse of our ecology and the likely collapse of society..

A Defence of PoMo in Politics

April 19, 2017

I’ve seen a few articles recently in which people seem to be blaming Postmodernism for ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump, and for a departure from Enlightenment principles into ‘darkness’. This seems rather a stretch to me.

One of the problems with this position, is that it sees both the enlightenment and post-modernism, as single movements, when they are quite pluralistic: Derrida, Baudrillard and Foucault for example, do not have a common project, other than in the sense that people writing at the same time in a similar tradition have commonalities.

I would further suggest that many apparent tenets of post-modernism actually share similarities with people in the enlightenment, and come out of other recognisable modernist sources such as anthropology, linguistics, physics and so on. Cynically, post-modernism as a whole has little interest in the British Enlightenment, because it makes it seem less original as a movement.

Many of the movers of the British enlightenment, which is the Enlightenment I am most familiar with, after a lot of arguing came to what I would claim is the entirely justifiable conclusion that ‘Reason’ was not enough, and that reason without reference to the real world could lead to complete fantasy. If your axioms/assumptions and obvious statements where wrong your conclusions would be wrong. Hence ‘natural philosophy’ and ‘alchemy’ moved into what we call science, in which, as far as possible, statements had to be checked against reality in front of trustworthy, knowledgeable and critical witnesses.

It’s position is we cannot assume things to be true in advance. That will mislead us.

Now, let’s move to a patch of Foucault arguing with Chomsky:

“… you can’t prevent me from believing that these notions of human nature, of justice, of the realization of the essence of human beings, are all notions and concepts which have been formed within our civilization, within our type of knowledge and our form of philosophy, and that as a result form part of our class system; and that one can’t, however regrettable it may be, put forward these notions to describe or justify a fight which should — and shall in principle – overthrow the very fundaments of our society. This is an extrapolation for which I can’t find the historical justification. ”

Foucault’s remark is entirely within keeping with these mainstream British Enlightenment Principles – where are these ‘rights’ that people keep talking about? Are they not enshrined in, and derived from, particular political structures – which as Adam Smith, no less, pointed out are there to defend the propertied and the powerful? It may be that the discourse is not entirely consistent, and can be turned against itself. But that does not mean ‘rights’ exist. You would need to show Foucault a historical example of this in action before he might agree to the process working. We are all familiar with the remark attributed to Einstein “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” – this is more concise and more general than Foucault, but the meaning is similar. We need to change our reason to solve problems.

Likewise Foucault insists that knowledge is intertwined with power. Who is going to argue that Religion has not been intertwined with power and challenges to power and the same seems true of science and economics? We know that commercial science is not always as accurate as independent science. That is why some of us fight for academic funding to be determined by academics rather than corporations, and why others want funding and work conditions to be determined by corporations or corporate principles. To deny this relationship between power and knowledge, seems to be to deny a basic political truth, of which Voltaire and Diderot were not unaware.

I’d also argue that power is intertwined with ignorance, but that is another argument, but it should lead us to caution. Burke’s ‘conservative’ defense of British Tradition against revolution and ‘free markets’ is based upon a distrust in reason, and a trust in the empirical complexity of reality. We may not perceive everything which is going on, or how it all interacts and hence the system needs tending carefully not disrupting ‘reasonably’ according to our fancies. The same kind of proposition is found in functionalist anthropology acting as a defense of ‘native’ societies against colonial disorganization – it foreshadows systems theory, which is vital for understanding ecologies and social interactions with ecologies.

Now as it happens, both Hume and Berkeley disrupted this empiricist stand by showing from empiricist principles that we have no direct access to reality, only to our imagining and habits, or to the imagining done by God in Berkeley’s case. Of course there was the ‘common sense’ reaction to these positions, but it was always within this wider framework as discussed. Reason is not supreme. And a belief in the supremacy of reason leads you to serious misunderstanding of human social functioning.

Derrida further illustrates how this failure of reason and understanding can occur through language. One of his main claims to fame is the infamous argument that there is nothing outside the text. For me, this seems to be saying that humans give things meaning immediately – we treat things as ‘texts’. I don’t know why people get upset with this proposition. To some extent, science is about trying to remove the meanings we give things immediately and giving them meanings which are more in accord with their nature. But we are always prone to bend them to our inner psycho-cultural meanings. And the more obscure, or threatening, the science the more this bending will occur.

Derrida also takes the ‘context dependence’ of meaning seriously. Meaning is delimited by context. That is a fairly standard linguistic understanding. Context is unstable. Different people bring different contexts to the same ‘texts’, consequently meaning is unstable. Add difficulties of cross cultural understanding, historical shifts in the meanings of words and so on, then this becomes even more of an issue. We may be reasoning from assumptions which are mistaken interpretations of some previous work. This is fairly obvious to literary critics. Any relatively complex text will have an almost infinite number of interpretations; although it may not have every possible interpretation – as I commonly say the number of people who seriously argue that Hamlet is about the mating habits of African elephants is remarkably small. However, no valuable text is exhausted of meaning by any particular reading. I also don’t know why this proposition often seems to be considered a terrible thing, as it seems necessary to any kind of understanding.

Indeed one of the problems with understanding Trump and the Trump movement, is that the contexts brought to bear on understanding it’s statements are extremely different; they are so different that people in the same cultural group cannot understand each other. Refusal to accept context dependence, means that much commentary is framed in terms of the stupidity of others, and such statements help to further the separation and lack of understanding and communication.

These positions seem, to me, to be fundamental starting places for political analysis, along with understanding how economic and political ‘truths’ get propagated through organs of power, and they are not hindered by post-modern thought.

Individual vs Collective?

November 28, 2016

I am noticing that there seems to be a gentle stream of ‘retreatism’ in some modes of depth psychology. The idea seems to be that the ‘crowd’ is bad, that social life is somehow corrupting and, that faced with the world situation, and the Anthropocene in particular we have to move into our own, somehow special individuation.

To me this is a partial truth, and needs expansion. It may also be true that in specific times of life (when aging, or facing immanent death, or in the midst of illness), this may be the best thing for some of us to do. I just don’t think it is a good strategy for a general approach to deal with ecological crisis or political instability. That we recognise that humans affect the world, does not mean we can correct the effects by ‘going away’. All life forms affect the world. At the moment humans are perhaps affecting it disproportionately (this is what the idea of the Anthropocene recognizes), and we may not be able to afford retreat from that recognition.

This mode of retreat seems to be based a non-ecological mode of thinking, and in a situation of, shall we say, degrading relationships, it seems to imply that individuals are disconnected, self tending units, and could lead to further degradation.

At the biological level we are colonies, or interactive ‘systems’, of multiple creatures. Much of our body weight, when we subtract the water, contains ‘foreign’ DNA. Even our cells may depend on what were originally external organisms (mitochondria have their own DNA). We are not a single biological being: we are symbiotes.

At the psychological level, depth psychology appears to uncover that we have multiple psyches, and layers of psyche: ‘complexes’, personal unconsciousness, collective unconsciousness, archetypes, or whatever. If you are more into neurology for your evidence, then we have, at least, a hind brain, a mid brain and two hemispheres, all of which may function independently, and communicate with difficulty. Other researchers add neurological centres in the heart and the solar plexus. We are psychologically multiple interactive systems. We are not so much engaged in dialogues, but in ‘multi-logues’.

We are also social creatures. We think with borrowed, badly copied or modified thoughts. We feel with borrowed, emulated and modified feelings and desires. We think with others and in reaction to others. Without singular amounts of effort we cannot live alone, and when young we cannot live alone at all. We are interdependent with others as interactive systems. The boundaries are fuzzy, we blend into each other and are interpenetrated by each other. The same is true of our ecology, we modify it, it modifies us, and that is happening between billions of creatures simultaneously. It again is a set of interactive systems: that is the nature of being.

We are both collaborative and competitive, and are so at many levels, individually, group, nationally etc… Sometimes what we think is working-together is working-against-each-other.

Consequently, the individual and the collective do not seem to me to be separate, or even opposing, poles. Certainly, not in the sense that one is enlightened and that the other is ignorant. They work together, and against each other, always. We are always in multi-logues. The question is how to work together as productively as possible. What follows are some suggestions.

First point, which should contain no problems for depth psychologists, seems to me to recognise that we are massively unconscious. We do not perceive most of this working together or against each other; we cannot perceive all of it; we probably cannot understand all of it; and we cannot predict the consequences of it in detail – this is true of both our inner and outer lives (and these lives are not separate; the boundaries are continually fuzzy and porous).

Second point may be that given this unconsciousness, unpredictability and porous boundaries, full retreat is impossible – we are always in the systems whether we like it or not. What is needed is a set of day to day techniques to deal with events we are unconscious of. We may need to fully engage with our senses, fully engage with our symbolic capacities, fully engage with our ability to listen in the widest sense.

Third point. Because we cannot fully understand, we may need to suspend our sense that we do understand. We all think we understand. Often understanding involves blame, condemnation and scapegoating, which are processes which almost automatically stop our ability to listen and understand. (We may even condemn ‘thinking’, or ‘lack of spirituality’, or ‘spirituality’ itself, when humans automatically appear to think or have some spiritual orientation towards the cosmos.) That is one reason why these techniques are so popular; they fill the gaps, stop us being puzzled and preserve our egos and their understandings. So it could be useful if we recognise that whatever we think is right, could be wrong, no matter how right it seems.

Fourth point. Premature and enforced understanding, automatically produces unintended consequences. It is the order that produces the disorder it fears. It makes things worse. It stops us listening to the world, it stops correction by reality. It nearly always produces action and may sometimes be necessary.

Fifth point. We need to correct our understanding. We do this not just in retreat, although retreat is valuable – everything needs rest – but we do it in interaction with the world. It is only interaction that can give correction or show us the consequences of that understanding (if we look/listen).

Sixth point. While our ego (consciousness) tends to seek repetition and fixed understanding, we can remember that we have multiple and unconscious modes of understanding and wisdom which may see things differently; that may add to our conscious understanding, even if our ego resists. Bad feelings can tell us that we are thinking ‘badly’ or incorrectly. Dreams can give us symbolic representations of reality which include events that our consciousness may not want to admit. The same is true of art and story. A sense of unease can be informative (perhaps it is our heart thinking?). If we really hold to the understanding that things/events/people/ecologies are interconnected and boundaries are fuzzy, and that our orders may not always be good, then maybe we can perceive more ‘data’ to help improve our understanding. All of these messages and data need evaluation through interaction with reality, but they can potentially add to understanding. We all have ‘inner wisdom’, but it is not just found in retreat, it is also found in an attentive and open daily life.

Seventh point. Response to crisis should probably be an oscillatory process. We go ‘inside’ to our hidden wisdoms, we go ‘outside’ to the interacting or multi-loguing world, we go ‘inside’ again and come out, and so on. If we remain isolated or unthinking individuals then it is possible we will be worse than ignored, we will lose some of our internal power and meaning as it does not go into the world, we will become complicit in that loss. If the reader is familiar with depth psychology and its metaphors, then they will be aware that in alchemy, the practitioner does not simply engage in ‘spiritual’ or ‘inner’ work, they do that work in conjunction with work in the laboratory. They take their insights from the inner work into the lab, and the lab work into their inner lives. Sometimes the two progress simultaneously. In alchemy, there is no enforced separation between ‘mind’, ‘spirit’ and ‘body’, or between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ they are aspects of each other, and this may be a useful approach.

Clearly, then, I am not protesting against doing inner work, but saying that inner work is part of outer work, it is not separate. I am also not remotely against the idea of multi-logue, but admit it can be difficult and upsetting to our egos, and this can be good.

However, I am suggesting that when we recognise that oppression or destruction is likely to come, or is coming, then people may need to formally join together to protect themselves and protect others.

The more understanding we have gained from participation and challenge, then the less likely that this joining will be violent, condemnatory or exclusionary; the more likely we will be responding to reality rather than to our limited understandings of reality.

Economics, Reality and Renewable Energy

November 22, 2016

I keep reading things like: “In a showdown between political ideology and economic reality … you want to be betting on economic reality,” or other statements implying that capitalism and business will save us.

That makes it seem that people do think that pro-corporate organisations like the Republicans in the US, really do believe in ‘small government’ and ‘free markets’, rather than in using those words as slogans to support action in favour of established corporate power. Republicans have already changed ‘economic reality’ to reflect their position and probably will keep doing so. This is not about respecting reality, rationality or getting the best results for ‘working people’.

The new US government can, for example, encourage companies who provide grid power to charge more for connecting to places/homes with renewable power to prevent ‘freeloading’ on profits. They can tax renewable usage, or put import tariffs on essential materials or parts for renewables. They can decide renewables are dangerous to workers, hazardous to public health (wind farm syndrome, why not a solar power syndrome?), or bad for ‘baseload’, and slap difficult regulations on them. They can put taxes on the use of land for renewables. They can use infrastructure development to subsidise coal mines, fracking and gas leaks. They can use the same monies to build, or sudsidise, new coal power stations as vital to the economy. They can pretend that they already have clean coal, or give billions to research clean coal without checking that money gets spent on research (other than market research). They can remove all anti-pollution enforcement as that hinders the economy. They can decide that protestors against these moves, are more vulnerable to jail, or police beatings, or face increased and bankrupting fines; or they can legislate that protestors are terrorists. They can decide that protest should not occur on private property as that is trespassing, and that all space is private property. I’m sure they are more ingenious than me, so they can find even more reasons to hinder and halt renewables and their supporters.

If they can ignore the reality of climate change, they can skew the economy towards fossil fuels.

In terms of Ken Mcleod’s ‘fourfold’ the mythos of capitalist economics is misleading at best, and this produces misleading understanding and action and a restricted psyche.

Not only does our economics depend on the idea of individuals primarily competing with each other, it tends to make profit the only good, and usually the profit of those who are already profiting. It therefore tends to generate a plutocracy and a ‘selfish personality’ repressing human cooperativeness, or long term interest. It pretends that economic activity is not tied in with State activity and control of the State; however, in reality economics is always a political as well as a business struggle. Hence the likely possibility of Republicans acting against renewable energy, which largely involves newer companies, to support those who have already invested in their party and who already hold power in the State.

The ideology of the free market is not interested in recognizing power differentials in the market, or everyone’s survival and cannot be, because that would be to recognize that the ideology does not work in the way it claims to work – which is not to say that reasonably free markets cannot be useful, but that they get corrupted, and that they are not the only good.

If you want renewables you may need to organize, and think about new more constructive  myths and economics.

Disorder is expected

November 20, 2016

Disorder is expected. We all ‘know’ this but it rarely seems that we factor it into our lives, or into the life of the planet – we expect order and smooth transition. We even pretend that our messes are ordered, and condemn the messes of others.

What we label as ‘disorder’ arises because of the complexity and unpredictability which is embedded in the interactive processes of the cosmos. Biology increases the complexity effects. We might say “the more something is alive, the more unpredictable its behaviour will be”.

This again we know, but we still act as if we expect people and events will be predictable.

I would suggest that in the West this arises because of propositions which appear theological, but can be held in a slightly different form by atheists as well:

1) As there is one God, there is only one fixed order, and that is right and good.

2) If God only makes order, then the devil and disobedient or ignorant humans, make the chaos we observe.

Neither of these propositions seems correct. If there is a God, then that God appears to make complexity (complex systems), and that complexity ensures unpredictability in detail. If so, then God is not a dictator, enables free will, almost guarantees that events will escape human control, and welcomes surprise (within limits).

The idea that God makes order and the devil makes chaos reinforces the false dichotomy between order and chaos, and the idea that what we perceive as order is good and what we perceive as chaos is bad. It also implies that if you think you know what the correct order, or correct good, is, then you are entitled to impose that order and goodness upon reality. It ignores the probability that your orders may have unintended consequences because complex reality escapes your understanding and control, when that is normal.

In this view, the normal disorders of the natural world, or the disorderly results of well intentioned actions, are evidence of ungodly threat and hostility to virtue, rather than something which must be taken into account. People in this mindset frequently seem to argue that as the order they want is good, then if their actions do not produce the results they want there must a conspiracy against them, and the order must be imposed with even more thoroughness and the conspirators suppressed or scapegoated.

To exaggerate slightly, for such people, the only safe nature seems to be one that is concreted over, dead, or heavily polluted, marked by fences and neat rows, as that is nature with human order imposed as rigorously as possible.

The contrary view implies that human knowledge is limited and that we cannot live in complete control or complete certainty; unintended consequences and disruptions are normal. This means our actions have to be experimental; that is we perform them and see what happens and then adjust. We have to attend to reality.

In the old view failure is punishment or the active work of evil beings, in the newer view, failure and correcting that failure – as best as we can – is how we learn.

Ecology and Disorder

November 12, 2016
  1. When a complex system such as an ecology, or an economy (and both are linked) is disrupted, so that it begins to move outside of an equilibrium, the results are unpredictable.
  2. The behavior of the system is fundamentally uncertain, and cannot be dealt with by ideas of risk, which suggest numeric and often constant probabilities for events. In these kinds of disrupted systems both events and probabilities are unknown.
  3. We can, however, assume trends. Weather events will almost certainly become more uncertain and more extreme. The anthropologist Hans Baer, has suggested using the term ‘Climate Turmoil’ rather than ‘climate change’ for the simple reason that it is more accurate of what we can expect. Climate change suggests a smooth linear change, not the tumultuous, disorderly change which is likely, and which we need to prepare for and lessen.
  4. Unfortunately, it would appear that socially, we are resistant to accepting fundamental uncertainty. We try and trap reality in our visions of order, and that leads to further chaos. Businesses and governments like to pretend that they can predict the future, so that they can keep their power relations intact and their success coming. Scientists sometimes do the same when they predict that particular places will have particular weather patterns in 20 years.
  5. But unfortunately it is what we have been doing to produce what we have defined as ‘success’ that seems to have caused the problem. Burning coal, for example, has been one factor responsible for the success and dominance of Western civilization and its modes of organisation. It now threatens that civilization’s success. In reality, burning coal threatens nearly everyone on the planet.
  6. We need to radically accept disorder and uncertainty as part of life, and act as if fundamental change is both happening and is being produced by what has produced success in the past. That way we can try something new, and hope to conserve some of what we have.