Posts Tagged ‘complexity’

Flux and Transformation

February 18, 2018

This is a comment inspired by a video whose URL is at the end of the post, about interconnectivity, and how the human body replaces itself, by absorption and excretion.

There are a lot of processes which demonstrate interconnectivity, however, far more importantly this argument really demonstrates the possible basis of reality is flux, change and transformation.

This is difficult to get, because the whole trend of western metaphysics is towards the idea that reality is eternal and unchanging, whether this is expressed in notions of the unchanging God, or the unchanging archetypes, or the unchanging nature of elementary particles such as atoms. All of these ideas can support interconnectivity, but it is the interconnectivity between things which do not change – at best it is about ‘flow’ of unchanging things.

This view of reality as fixed, seems to lead towards pathological behaviour, as action becomes setting up the perfect structures, the perfect reality and clinging to it. Spirituality is about clutching to peace, or growing in a particular way. Psychology can insist that we should always be happy or self-actualising or something. Politics is about holding to the structures you have pronounced to be the best – at the moment our politics seems devoted to maintaining the power of established corporations and their plutocracy rather than the survival, or gentle transformation, of the world they depend upon.

However, if reality is flux and transformation, then everything changes all the time. Furthermore, given complex systems theory, it seems that everything changes unpredictably in specific; we might be able to predict trends, but we cannot predict specific results. One of the properties specified by what we call ‘reflexivity’ is that if people think they understand the ‘systems’ they are in, then their behaviour changes and the system changes the way it works. This change may not be for the better.

In his book known as ‘metaphysics’, Aristotle points out that Plato accepted the world is flux, but insisted that real reality is fixed, because otherwise it is impossible to speak truth. If everything is constantly changing then you cannot say anything true about them, as they will have changed. Aristotle seems correct in his interpretation of Plato to me, and this is a classic example of a philosopher encountering an uncomfortable position (ie everything is flux) and deciding that because it is uncomfortable it is untrue.

There are other ways around this problem. Firstly it may not be possible to speak absolute truth, but that does not mean we cannot speak and think as accurately as we can (and that means accepting flux, misunderstanding and degrees of uncertainty). We can also speak in terms of flux, talking say of ‘patterns’ rather than structures, and temporary stasis rather than permanent equilibrium, we can give up expectations that we should know how things will turn out, and be prepared to learn from events as they happen. At the moment, if our actions produce bad results we are prone to deny this, and apply our actions more stringently and rigorously.

To reiterate, we are caught in and part of a series of largely unpredictable fluxations. However, if we think that things should be eternal and unchanging, or we think that good things should be unchanging, we attempt to imprison that flux. This generally adds to suffering and increases apparent destruction and disorder. A current example, is the refusal to deal with climate change, and the tendency in Australian and US politics of trying to accelerate and maintain fossil fuels, old styles of concrete, environmental clearing and de-naturing. This is an attempt to cling onto an old order which nowadays produces destruction, and will produce more and more suffering the longer it is clung to.

These points should be obvious to Jungians, as expectation of flux comes out of alchemy, and alchemy is the art and science of transformation. It tells us that the world is constantly transmuting, and that transmutation processes can look messy and chaotic, and that attempts to avoid the realisations of painful stages can be disastrous. It also provides symbolic guides for working with events rather than against events, or providing direction without compulsion. As such alchemy is still the radical way, and difficult for us to really approach, but it may be necessary.


Some remarks on Geo-Engineering

January 22, 2018

Geoengineering (GE) involves the attempt to solve the problems of climate change by altering the Earth’s ecology.

It comes in two forms:
Solar Radiation Management (SRM) in which you try and lower the amount of the Sun’s energy/heat reaching the earth’s surface. This can involve: mirrors in space, reflective gasses in the upper atmosphere, or painting mountains white.

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) in which you try and suck CO2 from power stations or from the atmosphere. One problem with this technique is the question of what you do with the CO2 once it is extracted.

The idea of GE is that we can continue on with polluting, and try and lower the effects of that pollution. A common argument is that there is no evidence we can halt CO2 production and climate change, at this moment, so GE may give us a longer period in which we can change, or transition to a new set of energy generators.

The primary question for both SRM and CDR is a simple one. GE, like everything else that depends on humans, is unlikely to be immune to its social bases. If the dynamics of contemporary societies are inherently destructive of ecologies, then GE is unlikely to prevent that destruction, nor to give a breathing space for new developments. It is likely to help make things worse, or continue the destructive dynamics of that system.

Clearly if we use SRM, the system has to be continually maintained, and that will cost billions. There will be ongoing arguments over who should pay, and how much they should pay. If there is a financial collapse or large scale war, then that maintenance is unlikely to be without problems. In which case climate change would have the brakes taken off, and would accelerate rapidly, causing even worse climate turmoil.

The governing idea of SRM seems that it is easier to change the whole ecological system than to change a political arrangement of economic power and profit. This I’m not sure about. The risk of unintended consequences when fiddling with a system as complex as that of climate is very high. We may already be living in a complex maladaptive system, which is bent on its own destruction and SRM simply magnifies this.

GE could be the equivalent of encouraging smoking to preserve corporate profits, while trying to do research in the hope of some day being able to postpone the inevitable and increasing cancer toll. It might be simpler to discourage people from smoking and to make cigarettes less profitable.

Basically, it can be suggested that if GE becomes the main way of dealing with problems of Climate change, then we live in a society in which ‘instrumental reason’ does not function very well as there are cheaper and possibly better options available, but those options require us to challenge established corporate power, and we are unlikely to do that successfully. I think the last 20 to 30 years of politics in the English Speaking world demonstrates that this failure is very likely to be the case.

Amazingly it is true that among people who both support corporate dominance and deny climate change, GE is quite popular. At the moment I can hypothesise this is precisely because GE does not challenge corporate power, and provides an opportunity for leeching money away from the taxpayers, but I don’t know. It certainly strikes me that if you really wanted less State intervention in life, then you would not want geoengineering.

I have not seen any viable self-supporting GE proposals. Nearly all of them require massive tax-payer subsidies, and some require appear to need massive cross-national governance and regulation. Of course we could give the massive subsidies to private enterprise and hope they do they job without any oversight, but I doubt that will appeal even to the pro-corporate power lobby. With CDR when that involves storage of CO2 underground, we know that ultimate and infinite responsibility of checking for leaks and collapse of storage, will reside with governments and taxpayers, as corporations do not last that long and will not take on those responsibilities. At the least, it seems probable that people will be concerned about other countries freeloading on their efforts, and there will be massive governmental jaunts to try and sort this out. The likelihood of small government and GE seems miniscule.

C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and the Spiritual Problems of Our Time

January 2, 2018

In a great Post John Woodcock drew attention to the importance of visionary experience amongst other things. However he also drew attention to C.S. Lewis, and this is where I have a problem.

John reminds us of the end of the Perelandra Trilogy in which the (literally) demonic scientists aim to bring about immortality. He quotes them

It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing. It is to bring out of that cocoon of organic life, which sheltered the babyhood of mind, the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.

The people on the side of the angels (again literally) are joyous when Merlin (yes that Merlin) breaks up the possibility of the scientists communicating, and then summons hoards of animals to eat them. Unlike John, I don’t find this denouement either satisfying or hilarious.

Indeed, the passage from Lewis reminds me exactly why I find him so disappointing. He is caught up hopelessly in surfaces and binaries. It’s spirit/matter, godly/ungodly, good/evil and so on. If God is on our side then whatever happens must be right, whatever discomfort our enemies suffer is wonderful. There are no tensions because God will win. God is all powerful after all, and the good guys are on the side of all power. Suck on that Demons!

It’s reminiscent of the bits in Narnia where the young woman is exiled because she likes stockings and make-up and the good crusaders slaughter heaps of evil Muslims in the battle to end all battles. All surface, dressed up to be deep. Faced with imagined people who think life is a bit more complicated than he does, all he can imagine is to break up their attempt at communion and praise murder. What a righteous attempt at solution! What imagination! What empathy! Lewis cannot even suspect the shadow of his spirituality, or his God, which he projects onto what he sees as science. His own spirituality can have nothing to do with the problems we face – it is all elsewhere and he is not responsible even a bit.

Its easy to imagine Lewis an inquisitor sadly condemning someone to excruciation until death, and thinking that if there is any sin in the matter its the fault of the secular authorities alone – he is innocent and unsullied. [As a caution we should all note that when we start condemning people, especially collectivities of people, we are probably engaged with the Jungian Shadow – ie the ‘evil’ in ourselves which it is less painful to see in others.]

Lewis needed to dream more freely rather than confine vision to allegory, see deeper and depend less on dogma for his interpretations.

By comparison good science is precisely about not stopping with surfaces but exploring reality and letting it impress us; not trying to trap it in binaries and given understandings. And we find an awe – even in people like Dawkins – which is perhaps more spiritual than almost anything in Lewis. The world revealed by science is weirder and more complex than anything Lewis or his characters could imagine. The God revealed in creation is not the tyrant of the Bible, but a being who delights in complexity, chance, freedom, creativity, who puts life into the fundamental bits of existence. Sure science has limits, but what doesn’t? While scientists are more Merlin than Lewis’s Merlin, science probably needs a little more more alchemy (in Jungian terms).

Perhaps Lewis’s apparent spiritual impoverishment (yes that is strong, but that is the kind of language he might use) arises not because of his Christianity, but because of his Platonism. Platonism constructs an ideal world and then regards this world as a falling away, a bad copy, which is of little value, except for the elite to transcend. Dying is good, as it could get you to reality; we must make sure everyone dies. Hence Lewis’s anger that anyone might want to live for ever, unless this life is non-material and it involves his elite and no one else. We probably don’t need Nietzsche to point out the problems with a mythology that seeks its fulfilment in death, either personal or in the death of others (indeed they might well tend to be the same). In that sense Platonism seems to be at the root of our ecological problems, and perhaps our problems of power – in which everything living has to be ordered to be good, when everything that is living is, in reality, messy and unpredictable. For platonists the only good creature is a dead creature. Platonism, and the demand for order is almost certainly one of the roots of the Anthropocene.

Let’s compare Lewis with another and far greater writer: G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton does have his low moments (in Father Brown, you always know it was the atheist what done it), but his work is full of the sense of mystery impinging on and in the world, and the joyous knowledge that arises from catching a glimpse of this reality.

Chesterton’s books on Aquinas and Francis are amongst the best of their kind, and full of the glory of spirit, faith and intellect. He does not see intellect as evil but as part of God’s way, part of the way we go beyond appearance to reality. The Man who was Thursday explores the complexity of an omnipotent God, even if Chesterton denies it does, he can do it. Chesterton fights with what he sees as the evils of the modern world; fiercely as with Shaw and Wells (although he accepts their point that unfettered capitalism is not good), but he never lets go of the insight that his enemies are also expressions of the glory of God, and he remains friends with his foes and engages in dialogue – as that communion is more important than righteousness and murder, even while he admits that sometimes war may be necessary. There is no poverty of imagination here. The real ‘material’ world is potentially holy, or even holy already (God made it and it was good).

Life is a constant potential for transfiguration – although Chesterton would probably use the model of the mass rather than alchemy or hermeticism. Further, he has no need to be of the spiritual elite, because he knows real humility and not the display of humility. He can celebrate the joys of ordinary people who are not perfect, because it is not his business to exclude people from ‘heaven’ or the heaven of Earth. He knows surfaces are holy, and that there are depths beyond the capacity of allegory to imagine.

My only complaint is that Chesterton is largely ignored, except by those usually on the political right) who would confine him, and pretend he was one of theirs – when he most certainly is not.

How can scientists predict future temperatures when they cannot predict the weather accurately?

September 20, 2017

Firstly, climate scientists cannot predict the exact temperature of a particular place, in exactly 50 years, easily or at all, any more than they can predict the exact temperature at a certain time, in a specific place, in one month’s time. And while this is problem raised by ‘skeptics’, this predictive ability is not an ability claimed by any climate scientists that I have read, and is of no relevance to the ongoing issues of predicting general increase in average global temperatures.

Weather systems form complex systems, and prediction in complex systems is notoriously difficult over length of time. We can predict climate trends such as: the average global temperature may rise by a particular order of magnitude, or that sea ice will melt and ocean levels rise, that low lying land will be flooded, and that deserts will expand, that weather will become more tumultuous, that storms are likely to get bigger, and that people will move as a result. But you cannot predict exact weather patterns for particular places. If we could, it would actually make climate change less devastating, as we could plan for it.

You can also predict that given the continuance of the circumstances we are in, it is extremely improbable that average temperatures will trend towards decrease, or that weather will become simple and nicely warmer everywhere. Indeed the prediction that this will not happen has been born out for years, and there is no sign that such climate beneficence will happen. However, it is possible that as climate patterns change some particular places may get colder – for example, if the gulf stream stops or shifts southward, then this may happen with the UK.

The point to bear in mind, is that climate and weather are complicated, but continuance of, or return to, the normal weather patterns of 20 years ago seems improbable in the extreme, and it is far more likely that weather events will become even more extreme than they are now, until (possibly) a new ‘steady state’ arises when the forces producing climate change have ceased. However, I am told that when we look at the last time the earth had high levels of CO2 and high temperatures (50 million years ago), massive storms may well have marked that normality.

We might add that other factors of the Anthropocene (such as peak phosphorus), make the prediction of livability of earth systems even more complex and fraught, but that is another question.

Self-preservation & Climate Change

July 26, 2017

Ideas of “self preservation” or “genetic preservation” (making sure your genes survive in your kids), have been around for a long time and seem popular in a culture of individualism, consumerism and neoliberalism, but they don’t seem to have helped us deal with climate change at all. Nothing. These ideas may even be obstacles to us doing anything constructive. After all, the mainstream right seems to regard these kinds of ideas as fundamental – you, and nobody else, are responsible for your own survival. If you stuff up, then its not in my interests to help you back up, unless I do so charitably.

Partly I think the problem with self-preservation arises because in a complex system (and ecological and social systems are usually complex) it’s not absolutely clear what actions are in one’s self interest or contribute to self-preservation. Does it help your self-preservation to boost coal consumption as that has helped with lots of things in the past, or is it in your interests, to abandon coal and head for an uncertain future? Sure if you are wealthy and you are making money out of despoiling the world then you might think you should continue that action, as your accumulating wealth is as likely to protect you and your offspring, as anything else is. But that doesn’t help solve the problem, it makes it worse.

That is also the case for most of our socially approved actions; they seem to be part of the problem. They seem to make things worse. So following self-preservation as your guide could well lead to unresolvable problems, problems in which you try and dump everyone else in it. That is why climate change is an existential problem. We don’t know how to exist in it. We don’t know yet how to imagine life in it.

On top of that, because climate change is complex and existentially challenging, it can seem like everything is too big. It is beyond us. Actions we can take are actions at a local scale. Who can change the weather? Nothing we do apparently makes any difference. So we don’t do anything. We magnify the opposition, and are rendered incapable. Furthermore, it seems obvious, that individualistic action is not enough. We can only preserve ourselves with others. We depend on others. This is hard if we are focused on self-preservation. These others might free-ride on us, and hold us back.

So, to me, it seems like there needs to be something beyond self preservation. That is why we I’m arguing that we might need generosity.

Generosity has been around for a long time, it is a basic human configuration, and has not (as far as I know) been a feature of our cultural response to climate change, while self-preservation and justice have been. With climate generosity, we act without calculation, without fear of losing. We act to inspire. We just give what we can give, beyond what we need to give. We work towards becoming the solution, without expectation or demands on others.

Climate Justice???

July 25, 2017

The idea of “Climate Justice” perturbs me. It seems self-destructive, or self- undermining.

‘Justice’ as it works, usually involves two kinds of processes:

1) Defining someone as evil and punishing them for it. This requires violence for enforcement and the mechanisms for applying that violence. This is especially difficult between States, without a willingness to go to war or at the least break contact. By demanding that people be labelled criminal or evil, mechanisms of justice create both resentment and self-righteousness. It encourages projection or shadow behavior, in Jungian terms, whereby we ignore our own failings by blaming someone else. In this set up there is only good and evil, whereas in a complex ecological and social systems there is neither, there is mainly mutual implication.

2) Appeals to fairness. But it is never fair that we have to give up anything while others benefit… hence we do nothing. Piers Ackerman was arguing the other day that it is unfair for Australia to do something when we produce so little CO2 (even thought we produce massive amounts per head of population). This is a common anti-global warming tactic, which avoids responsibility.

Justice arguments are continually used by India and China to justify their massive expansion of coal. They are used by the Australian government to justify the Adani mine – shared prosperity for all, the war on poverty and so on. They are routinely used by people to argue that Australia can make no difference, so those people who request that we act are making unjust, or unfair, demands upon us, consequently we don’t have to act.

As a result of these problems or co-options, it might be better to avoid ‘justice’ altogether and phrase action in terms of “climate generosity”, attempting to come from humans ‘good’ side (and through modes of status acquisition through gifting) rather than our punitive side.

Climate Generosity requires that we do more than is necessary or just – we are generous, we act beyond what is required of us, without much hesitation. We are magnanimous, excessive.

Climate generosity does not have to involve allocations of guilt and blame and suggests that we are ‘in this together’ and ‘working together’, and thus acknowledges the systemic nature of the problem.

Generosity upsets the power relations based on old habits, while justice requires enforcers. Generosity combines both individual and social action, and appeals to the greater good of everyone, without demanding victory. It does not say ‘we won’t act until its fair’, it simply sets an example to be emulated or ignored. It gets on with the job, and cultivates a sense of responsibility.

If we only do what is just then we will not do anything much, we will only go to the boundaries of what is needed – we will be continually check to make sure others are not freeloading or acting unfairly. We will not act first.

However, if we replace justice by generosity, then we can go over those boundaries – “yes it might be cheaper and just to sell goal, but how about we help you build renewables? How about we cut back more of our emissions than would be our fair or just share? Why should we wait for others to act so that it is fair, lets be generous and act now!”

Neoliberalism: again

July 22, 2017

Neoliberalism has always been about pork barreling the private sector, and public/private collaborations are at the heart of the neoliberal project. They are justified by the idea that the ‘market’ does it better, as it supposedly always does everything better, but as usual the technique insulates corporations and the wealthy from facing competition, or ‘market discipline’ which is just for the workers.

Public/private partnerships have the following advantages from the neoliberal point of view:

1) They hand over taxpayer’s money to corporations. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

2) Commercial in confidence means that the money cannot be accounted for, and accounting for inefficiency or stupidity is lost. Cost blowouts are normal, and cannot be contained, while the company makes still more profits. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

3) It seems the builders cannot be replaced – no matter how bad they are, and the law often gets changed to accommodate their failures, making the law less restrictive on other abusive businesses. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

4) The products of this public money, remain in private hands. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

5) The public gets charged to use the new services/products, and the public makes no money out of them. Indeed they end up paying for the product twice; once to build and once to use. (This is good by neoliberal standards)

6) Wealthy people get even more wealthy, and the public loses public service. (This is wonderful by neoliberal standards)

Neoliberalism, and free market talk, is absolutely the problem and public private “partnerships” simply make it worse.

Conspiracy Theory?

July 18, 2017

There is a well known argument, that faced with historical and policial complexity, people tend to reduce that complexity by implying that events arose because of secret and hidden actions. Conspiracy is something that is imagined to make the world seem ordered when its not. A recent academic version of this argument can be found at:

Now we know that one of the results of complexity is that prediction is incredibly difficult. It is actually quite hard to make a social or political result that one wants. The pessimist thinks it is harder to get a good result than a bad result – perhaps because there are so many ways things can go wrong and so few ways they can go right. This makes the idea that the world is controlled by conspiracy unlikely. However, that does not mean there are no conspiracies

Conspiracy occurs pretty much day to day. We all conspire with other people to get results. This is what we call decision making or self-governance. It is also pretty minor. However, it seems unlikely that powerful people do not try the same thing, planning to have effects over your lives. Certainly they like decisions to be shrouded in secrecy. You can think of public/private partnerships where the reasons for spending taxpayer’s money on corporations is often held to be “commercial in confidence”. The capitalist State is not always open, so it is unlikely other States are open either.

So it could appear some conspiracies are not purely imaginary. The difficulty is learning to distinguish between the imaginary and the real.

Do businesses conspire to fix prices and lower wages? It was reported by Adam Smith. The answer is probably as often as they can. It makes more money all around and that is what counts. There are known cases of price fixing, price gouging and prices moving in tandem, and, in the absence of unions, wages for ordinary workers rarely increase. So it is probable, although it may not be deliberate joining together, people may just say to themselves; that is the standard price and leave it at that. It may even be normal. The usual idea is that business does things as cheaply as possible and charges as much as possible, and is occasionally constrained by competition: if people know about it.

Do scientists uniformly conspire to tell us climate change is real for political purposes? This seems extremely unlikely. Scientists are not politically uniform. Scientists tend to like putting other scientists down and getting noticed for being innovative. When they get money from science grants they generally don’t have to produce particular results. However, it is quite probable that fossil fuel companies conspire to make it seem that climate change is unreal, or not urgent. Climate change threatens income and profit. It requires change. These big companies have a long history of conspiracy, when it comes to preserving profit and getting rid of inconvenient political challenges. They also sponsor think tanks, who give them the messages they want – or they don’t sponsor them anymore. Again we might wonder if this is not really conspiracy, but profit leading to misinformation. However, we know Shell knew about climate change but sponsored deniers. So it seem possible it was conspiracy.

Did the Freemasons cause the French Revolution? Harder to say. If they tried they would not have succeeded without a lot of help. They may well have worked for it, but I doubt they liked the result. Did Lenin conspire with others to produce the Russian Revolution? Yes – but again they had a lot of help – there were other people involved. indeed some people say Germany sponsored them to get rid of Russia from WWI – certainly a more intelligent strategy than Hitler’s. Sometimes they worked with people who did not like the results being gained. Complexity again.

We can use these latter examples to make further claims. If big results came from the actions of few relatively powerless people, then big events can certainly result from the actions of a few relatively powerful people.

So the conspiracy, no conspiracy idea needs complication. The world is unlikely to be run by conspiracies, but it is equally unlikely there are no effective conspiracies, ever, or that really powerful people do not conspire to keep in power and disadvantage everyone else – just make sure that you are really identifying who is powerful. Good questions for that include: who is wealthy, or has economic power? Who controls organisations with wealth? who controls violence? Who tells others what to do and its done? Who controls communication?

Being in complex systems

June 30, 2017

We are entangled in a dangerous situation of our own making, although it was not made deliberately. There is no point to blame other than assuaging personal guilt. We are all responsible, even if some are more responsible than others.

We are entangled in a set of complex systems with no straight lines and few determinable borders. These systems are not systems of firm bounded objects, they are systems of untidy, overlapping flows, with no absolute rigidity; things merge and blend.

These systems may not harmonise and may be subject to abrupt transitions to new states.

in such systems there are no lone individuals. There are no people not interdependent upon others, borrowing and transforming, and being borrowed and transformed.

Flux and chaos is Everywhere.

In these systems, we cannot know the totality of the systems (which compose us), or all of the interconnections, we operate within a swarm of unintended effects. Outcomes are unclear –as it is hard to determine what is the immediate cause of outcomes, as outcomes have multiple interacting causes and may look like they had nothing to do with us. We may not even perceive the outcomes we part-produce.

What we do will have unintended consequences, and we may not be able to recognise them. We also need to know lots of different facts and theories to make it clearer when we might be ignorant.

In these systems, lack of knowing is basic – we cannot accurately or definitively model complex systems (and if we could then acting on the model would change the system). This does not mean there are not degrees of lack. We don’t have to be claim everyone is equally ignorant, or that some ideas are not more accurate than others. Ideas are actions and actions are ideas.

However, given the lack, then we might have to educate towards conscious ignorance. Not unconscious ignorance, or thinking our knowledge is complete.
Knowing what we don’t know, to the extent we can know.

As we are ignorant, the unconscious (systemic and psychological) is everywhere. Our self bleeds into the world. It is not separate from that world. We do not know our self or where it ends, or what we are entangled with. Yet our self seems concrete as do the systems. This concreteness may be an illusion. We think with the world, as part of the world, and in the world. We also feel with the world, as part of the world, and in the world. The world comes to being in us, and we come to being in it. There are no lone individuals. Mind is extended, there are no lone minds. And yet: can we only respect the lone or be moral with the lone? We do not exist without the multiple, and that multiple appears to have no known border; it blends.

AS we are entangled then we (to some undetermined extent) involve the rest of the systems. How then, as we exist and attempt to extricate ourselves from the problems we created, do we involve the non-human without modifying it so that it exists for us? Speaking for the non-human renders it human, and risks erasing it. Yet if the human does not speak for the non-human then it does not exist to the human. This gives us the paradox of representation it represents and distorts at the same time. It may be that in dealing with complex systems and unintended effects we are always dealing with apparent paradox…

One way is to change ourselves (a small action with possible systemic effects). Knowing we do not know.

There is no way out of the systems we are entangled within. We have no option but to work on us or it and in it.


It may be that people have embraced the term ‘complex adaptive systems’ rather than simply ‘complex systems’, because the idea implies teleology and purpose – “to adapt, and adapt well”. The term suggests everything will adapt constructively, rather than that things can adapt destructively, or injuriously. It removes the spectre of disorder and suggests beneficence. It suggests an ordered cosmos once again, with aims and ends.

Individual vs Systemic change

June 30, 2017

The problem with promoting individual change to deal with large problems, is that it often operates without recognising that the individual is part of a set of systems and those systems make demands, or set up the parameters of action…

Thus the destructive action that one person may take, say using a leaf blower, driving a car several hundred metres to the shops, using new plastic bags or wrapping, planning a residential area that needs cars, may not make much difference in itself, but in their billions they do. One of our current problems is that if the ‘developing world’ emulates our way of life, then we are lost. The destructiveness is too great.

In our defense, we can easily use the examples of others’ behaviour to show we are not doing much harm. Using a new plastic bag is not as harmful as clear felling the amazon, or poisoning whole populations with waste from a single factory. Building one coal powered energy source is not as bad as building hundreds. Using a leaf blower is less harmful than building hundreds of coal power stations. It may even be less harmful than something else that is minorly harmful – such as driving a car to the shops. We can say we use a leaf blower because we have kept so many trees or because it is easier on our back or whatever. We can manage to feel proud that our destructive acts are less destructive than other possible acts.

And it is true that stopping by yourself will not change anything. But if millions of people stop, then it does change things. So, if you believe that something you are doing has the possibility of harm, then it might be your responsibility to a) stop that harm, as much as possible, b) be aware of the harm you do without making excuses, and c) exemplify the change and show others it is possible.

Humans learn through imitation of respected others. We have to exemplify the change we wish to see, and prevent exemplificatory capture by the powers that be. Donald Trump is perceived by more than us, and becomes an exemplar of behaviour and thus of what we can and should do. But despite this, we exemplify as well, and may well exemplify more relevantly to our audience, than the US President does.

By our behaviours, we make those behaviours normal, and it more likely that others will take them up and thus that the system changes. One of the problems with Revolutions is that individual behaviours do not change, and the new system becomes as harmful as the old. So changing behaviour is worthwhile.

The systems we are entangled in provide a degree of resistance, and this is what keep systems stable for periods of time. Learning to go against the system, helps us learn how the system reinforces its trajectory. For example we may learn that we are over busy without time to think and we do destructive acts simply to avoid more friction and consumption of our lives. We need freedom to live as well as to survive.

Changing even minor behavior can lead to calls for major changes as well.

Ultimately, what we do, and the systems’ responses to this, creates the future. There is no excuse for not doing what you think is right, but learn to recognise if it does not work. Failure is learning. Try something new.

Over time multiple changes in small parts of the system may reconfigure the system and so it was all worthwhile.

This also suggests that the solutions are found in the doing, and that we try and act small scale. Large scale may produce catastrophe – the point is we do not know. We can approach things with care, knowing that good intentions are not enough, they may even stop us perceiving what we need to know.

Small ways can lead to big things, although the small ways may need support. Even small acts can help. There can be ripple effects. Let’s not always get tied in the importance of big drama.

The systems may do the important work, not us.