Sunday, April 26, 2009

Does understanding complexity beget a tragic view of life?

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," 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," 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", 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.


Anonymous said...

Kurt I loved the phrase "That humility is notably lacking in the world of neoclassiccally trained economists, the ones who run the houses of finance and public policy in nearly every Western economy." Humility, in my experience, is such an important human attribute and I would agree that it is certainly in short supply in the economics and public policy. Regrettably I have never found a way to infuse that quality in someone who does not have it. The best I have ever done is get out of the way while they hit the wall and learn the lessons they need. I'm keeping a low profile for the moment.

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Hi Kurt,

In 1982 I taught a course titled "Energy Policy and Politics" at the University of New Hampshire.

I used the 600 page study "Energy in Transition 1985 to 2010" by the National Research Council (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Institutes of Medicine) for the textbook.

The study confirmed what I knew from age 10. We live in the oil age, just a speck in all of human history, and that the beginning of the end would occur in my lifetime. My father only had a night school education and worked as a lab technician in the refineries of Atlantic Richfield Company in Philadelphia. But he knew the power and value of oil, and he knew it was neither renewable nor replaceable.

After reading the NAS study, I knew that there was no transition to make and that a great human tragedy would unfold in my lifetime. At least one of the panelists saw what I saw, and I book marked this comment by panelist Professor Kenneth Boulding (page 617):

"In preparing for the future, therefore, it is very important to have a wide range of options and to think in advance about how we are going to react to the worst cases as well as the best. The report does not quite do this. There is an underlying assumption throughout, for instance, that we will solve the problem of the development of large quantities of usable energy from constantly renewable sources, say, by 2010. Suppose, however, that in the next 50, 100, or 200 years we do not solve this problem; what then? It can hardly be doubted that there will be a deeply traumatic experience for the human race, which could well result in a catastrophe for which there is no historical parallel.

It is a fundamental principle that we cannot discover what is not there. For nearly 100 years, for instance, there have been very high payoffs for the discovery of a cheap, light, and capacious battery for storing electricity on a large scale; we have completely failed to solve this problem. It is very hard to prove that something is impossible, but this failure at least suggests that the problem is difficult. The trouble with all permanent or long-lasting sources of energy, like the sun or the earth’s internal heat, is that they are extremely diffuse and the cost of concentrating their energy may therefore be very high. Or with a bit of luck, it may not; we cannot be sure. To face a winding down of the extraordinary explosion of economic development that followed the rise of science and the discovery of fossil fuels would require extraordinary courage and sense of community on the part of the human race, which we could develop perhaps only under conditions of high perception of extreme challenge. I hope this may never have to take place, but it seems to me we cannot rule it out of our scenarios altogether."

As a student of history (BA in History Muhlenberg College 1969) and as a political scientist I knew that the world economy was like a giant oil tanker going at full throttle on the open seas. It would take much effort and a long time to turn it. And really, there was no force to begin turning. So, I knew in 1982 that it was too late to change direction. Few scientists or government staff ever read the study, and it had almost no impact.

The NAS study forcasted Peak Oil for the 1990s and due to economic stagnation in the 1980s it was right on target. I did not realize until later that the downside of the curve would be very steep.

Interestingly, the vast majority of Peak Oil "scientists" believe that there is still time to make some transition to some other energy, though there is not even a plan for how this could work, let alone the problems of societal inertia, time, and capital. The ideology of continuing along is so strong that those who focus on preparing for Peak Oil impacts are labeled doomers and are avoided along with real discussion about preparing for Peak Oil on the most prominent Peak Oil discussion blogs.

"Does understanding complexity beget a tragic view of life?"

The answer is for the most people no.

For most the answer is no. In the face of tragedy, they fail to distinguish reality from illusion.

In 2004, geologist Colin Campbell (retired -- Texaco, British Petroleum, Amoco) cautioned, "Throughout history, people have had difficulty in distinguishing reality from illusion. Reality is what happens, whereas illusion is what we would like to happen. Wishful thinking is a well-worn expression. Momentum is still another element: we tend to assume that things keep moving in the same direction. The world now faces a discontinuity of historic proportions, as nature shows her hand by imposing a new energy reality. There are vested interests on all sides hoping somehow to evade the iron grip of oil depletion, or at least to put it off until after the next election or until they can develop some strategy for their personal or corporate survival. As the moment of truth approaches, so does the heat, the deceptions, the half-truth and the flat lies."

Best regards,

Cliff Wirth

Ray Hume said...

I have been an enthusiast for wildlife all my life and have been actively involved at a local level with UK wildlife organisations such as the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust and the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust(LWT).

But I have now relinquished my (voluntary) post as secretary of the local group and will probably curtail my membership of LWT as well as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

And the reason? Because even within the membership of these institutionsI find myself surrounded by optimists who busy themselves with collecting fourpence ha'penny on some silly raffle, organising walks that only a handful of people ever bother to come to, and sit around for ages in meetings in which concepts such as global heating and peak oil are never even mentioned. Some of them seem to think God will sort it out and others just don't believe there's a problem.

There's not a lot of hope for a world in which even those who are interested in and allegedly committed to nature conservation aren't prepared to face the facts.

The facts, bluntly, are that we are, as Professor Wirth says, heading full steam ahead on a tanker with a blind captain - or perhaps one should say without a captain at all. It's all very depressing and scary. I shout about it to all and sundry but I can't save the world on my own! Help!!

Henry Warwick said...


THANKS for the link to that paper - AWSOME. I've heard about it for a long time, now I'll get a chance to read it! Much appreciated!


We talked a bit about this a few weeks ago.

I think what undergirds your understanding (and mine) but may be lost on the Average Reader is what exactly is meant by "Tragic" and "tragedy", and I feel compelled to clarify for your readers.

IIRC, you and I have a similar notion, one derived from the classical Greek, where tragedy wasn't just "bad shit happening to good people" but good people doing the right thing with absolute certainty, that are at direct odds with what they should be doing to avoid disaster. That this disaster occurs not merely because good people DON'T do the right thing, but because Good People DID the Right Thing.

Of course, the "right thing" is defined by local mores and circumstances.

This, of course, adds depth to the notion of a "tragic view" of life. It's not the notion that "we're all fucked - BOOOOO!" but more that we are all doing the right thing and doing the right thing will lead to a horrible end. This is exacerbated by complexity theory and the law of unintended consequences.

I would note that complexity also has a flip side: one of (for want of a better word) synergy and the other a reversal of the law of intended consequences: unplanned for benefits.

The unspoken is, of course, the population problem. It has but one solution: a death rate that exceeds the birth rate. On one of my email lists a prominent doomer wrote, and I quote:

The die is cast. (Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon.) Now we need a way to dispose of the billions of dead bodies.Which is classic scaremongering and utterly trivial at the same time. How? Easy: We have 6.7 billion people right now. In 100 years, how many of them will still be alive? Almost none. Does that mean they will have disappeared under the horrible circumstances of deprivation, violence, or otherwise easily managed disease? Of course not.

But every single one will eventually die. As if that's some kind of surprise or disaster. It isn't even Tragic. It's just what life is.

So, in order to make sense of Tragedy on a global scale, we have to define "victory conditions, i.e., what would be considered NOT a tragedy? And of all the answers, which ones are possible, and of those, which are probable, and of those which are viable.

Example: the bees are dying. But thanks to ICT, the word got out, and forces were assembled to battle the problem, and last week the parasite was identified and treatments are being developed to save the bees. Also, policies to increase the diversity of the bee population are being looked at as well. This uber-high energy system of interlocking communication and information devices allowed people to rise to this challenge.

Also, last week, people began dying from Swine flu, and it appears that of the first ~1000, 82 died, which is about an 8% fatality rate. Of 6.7 billion people that would mean a pile of 536 million dead bodies, more than the population of North America itself. It's a nasty way to go, but it is a way to go.

I am especially worried, because I have craptastic lungs, and a normal flu for me is a Very Unhappy situation. If I got this, I could easily die from the pneumonia that would ensue from it. SO, I am personally concerned. It's a horrible way to go.

But, it's a way to go, and the universe doesn't give a rats ass about my preferences or wishes.

And what makes this so dangerous? Our travel systems and the variable application of health care from country to country. In a previous age, the flu would sweep though a village of a thousand and 80 would die. It would be seen as a horror, but the survivors would be immune...

In fact, it would be seen as "tragic" when in fact, it isn't. It's merely unfortunate. There was no volition involved, hence there is no real tragedy. And this brings me back to your essay.

The tragedies we are facing are powerful, practically chthonic forces in human nature, where we are compelled to do "the right thing" but the context of our jedgment is so skewed, the "right thing" is actually the "wrong thing", and that is what makes it tragic.

anyway - it's the chardonnay doing the talking...

later gator.

Mike said...

"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."

The sentence begs the question, "What 'swift and thoroughgoing' changes would you suggest?" I don't have an answer myself even if I agreed completely with the author. But I wish he had explored some of his own suggestions. The idea that he has found much wanting in the behavior of neoclassical economists such as their lack of humility is a symptom of the problems raised, but hardly gets at a solution. Austrian school economists seem closer to answers in my mind, but the righteous are seldom convinced by evidence to the contrary and so the Austrians continue to wander in the desert of economic thought.

Instead of saying that opportunities still exist to solve complexity, the author rightfully should have just given in to his original thought that the 'tragic view of life' leads to one unalterable conclusion - there is no fixing it. Humans will muck about until they futz things up beyond belief.

Mark said...

Interesting thoughts, but you ignore opportunity costs. If we expend resource on x, then we do not have resource for y. In this case, before we expend the resource we need to be pretty sure of our case.

In the case of MMGW, there is a pretty weak case. At risk of reduction ad absurdum, if a person warns us that dragons are coming and will cause devastation, then we must make a judgement on whether we need to prepare a defence for them.

In other words, it is not a simple question.

Kurt Cobb said...

CynicusEconomicus is quite correct that we are faced with choices. Do we devote resources to preparing for, say, oil depletion and climate change or do we devote those resources to consumption or to investment in manufacturing plants?

The problem with most economists' views is that they use a high discount rate which puts a very high value on the present versus the future. I would daresay that if a neoclassically trained economist were evaluating the importance of preparing for an onslaught of verifiable future dragons who could devastate the planet, he or she would put a very low priority on them precisely because of the way economists think about the discount rate. And, indeed, CynicusEconomicus makes my point since he puts a very low priority on addressing climate change, one of the many verifiable dragons in our future.

Because of their insistence on high discount rates, what many economists fail to recognize is that the probability of something happening must be weighed carefully alongside the possible severity of the event. Preventing a hangnail may not be that important. But preventing the loss of your arm will rate very high on the scale of things to prevent. But in no situation can we know for certain what the future holds. The possibility of having modern civilization progressively disassembled by the effects of climate change and/or fossil fuel depletion seems awfully serious to me and something that deserves our highest priority.

But economists often like to think that they can see the future with precision. The record of their economic predictions as a group is quite poor. Shall we trust them to make predictions about systems which are far more complex than the economy such as the climate or the biogeochemical systems that yield fossil fuels?

In discussing climate change and fossil fuel depletion I do not predict exactly how these will play out. Instead, I focus on the possible severity of the problems which scream out for some prudent preparation.

Can CynicusEconomicus provide us with a warranty that allows us to regain a livable Earth if he turns out to be wrong about the effects of climate change? With the stakes this high, what does it say about the prudence of the course he suggests if he cannot?

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on neoclassical economists. I have always considered neoclassical economics as being especially adept to looking at unintended consequences and thus understanding complexity.

I agree that using neoclassical economics alone to fully appreciate the complexity of the world. So, why single out neoclassical economics. What about other perspectives which go no further than see-problem-fix-problem, where each problem and situation an isolated microcosm of the whole.