Spring in the Northern Hemisphere, Fall in the Southern
That this day is one of the happiest I experience during the year is somewhat mollified this year. This is what a world coming apart at the seams looks like. In spite of all the wonderful coming to life of the plants and trees, the coming to death of almost all of our institutions and cultural norms can be a disconcerting contrast.
The state of the world as of this equinox reinforces all of my claims over the last several years of writing this blog. I have not had a lot to say of late, because everything I have said would be happening is happening, and at a rate that surprises even me. Rather than rehash my prior claims, I would like to focus on the causes. I am engaged in discussions with several groups around the globe who are grasping that what is happening is systemic. But they are not yet sure of what the systemic nature of these problems we face are. Here is a somewhat brief review of systemic dysfunctions and examples of how they are unfolding in the human social system (the HSS in my world).
A popular framework for discussions is the notion of “sustainability” of the HSS. The questions posed involve how do we humans achieve a sustainable future? But sustainability of a complex system has many dimensions, not the least of which is time scale. What follows are some examples of what causes systems to become dysfunctional which is what leads directly to non-sustainability. The inference is simple in principle but extraordinarily complex in physical reality. Don't do that which leads to dysfunction and do that which leads to stable operations. The problem is that we humans seem to have a really hard time applying those directives. At our average level of sapience we simply do not recognize reality when we see it.
Subsystems of the HSS that are Dysfunctional
Consider a quick list of subsystems of the Human Social System (HSS), a fully owned subsidiary of the Global Ecos, that are showing signs of dysfunction:
- Various political systems around the world, but particularly in that fabulous democracy called the United States of America
- Many governments around the world, but particularly the current government in the United States of America
- The governance subsystem of most institutions you can name just about everywhere in the world
- The global economy subsystem
- The financial sub-subsystem of the economy
- The energy supply subsystem
- The education subsystem
- The public health subsystems in many countries
- And the human mentality itself
Also consider some of the subsystems of the Ecos itself:
- The climate subsystem
- The oceanic subsystem
- The biosphere subsystem
I have been writing about these issues for a fair number of years now. So I won't repeat what I have put into this blog in days gone by. Most of my regular readers know quite well what the issues are and probably have a pretty good idea of just how dangerous things have gotten. I've also written that I think the trajectory of the declines in these subsystems as well as the acceleration of the rates of those declines basically mean that there is no turning back, no fixing what has gone wrong. We are past the point of no return, in my opinion. Therefore further writing about these subjects is fruitless and a waste of my time. There are any number of bloggers who are covering all of these issues in one way or another so it need not be my job to harp on the details (though I must confess I've suffered a strong desire to unload on the Donald Trump phenomenon, or rather the mentality of those who are voting for Donald Trump).
Instead I am contemplating the underlying causes for complex systems failing; going dysfunctional. What causes a system to fail to be sustainable? This is a subject I will be covering in my talk in July at the International Society for Systems Science.
What Causes Dysfunction in Complex Systems?
Feedback and Unintended Amplification
One of the most destructive dynamics that can creep into a system function is the unintended or unrecognized amplification of a feedback loop flow. Everyone has experienced the screeching noise made by a microphone placed in front of an amplifier driving audio speakers on stage. The low level hum that you cannot ordinarily hear gets picked up by the mic and then gets amplified and output through the speakers, which in turn gets further amplified until you can very readily hear the result. The rate at which this feedback effect drives the system out of control is staggering. The basic problem for the HSS is the number of feedbacks in our complex subsystems that are not fully recognized and have relatively low amplification gains. It takes a while to begin to see the negative effects and quite often it is too late to avoid the screech when it occurs. Two relevant examples are the financial and housing bubbles in the economy and the methane release from calthrates and other methane stores in Arctic soils and peat bogs. In the first example, the run up of prices in the desired commodity (money or houses) starts out innocently enough until people begin to think they had better buy at any price or be left holding the bag. In the methane case, the warming of the oceans and soils releases the gas, but that gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas and leads to increased rates of warming. In the first case the markets collapse over night and lots of supposed notional value goes up in smoke. In the latter case the Earth goes up in smoke.
Growth Past a Functional Limit
All complex systems have some tendency to grow and develop. Living systems are particularly good examples, but any dissipative system that has access to resource supplies and from which dissipated heat and material waste can be absorbed will show this tendency. However, living systems, that is individuals within a species, have also evolved mechanisms to temper growth and bring it to a halt when the individual is mature. Super-organisms, such as families, populations, species, and ecosystems, on the other hand retain the ‘urge’ to continue growing so as to ensure an adequate number of individual units to carry on the genetic lines. There are a few instances of such super-organisms processing environmental inputs and intra-population/species density signals that down modulate these urges. But the mechanisms behind these are relatively weak and can be overridden in the right circumstances. The human population has broken out of this natural tendency to limitations. Owing to our mental capacity to invent new sources of energy and technologies, we have eliminated the ordinary kinds of feedback from the environment that would put brakes on our drive to procreate (at least until recently - but the damage is already done). At present it appears that population density feedbacks are starting to take effect but more research needs to be done to confirm this. Meanwhile, our population has exceeded the natural carrying capacity of the planet. By that I mean the capacity of the planet to produce foods and other resources under non-technical conditions. This is important because we are about to run out of a major source of energy that is used to supplement more natural processes in order to produce sufficient food for everyone.
Depleting Supplies of Finite Resources
The best possible example of this is the draw down of fossil fuels, the source of energy that powers over 80% of civilization. With each additional increment of extraction the cost of the next increment goes up because we always take out the easiest to get resources. That is there is an energy cost to extracting usable energy and the costs increase as a function of the remaining reserve. Eventually the cost of extraction is equal to the net value of the energy extracted and there is no longer any incentive to do any more. This is why the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada and tight oil from fracked shale deposits are shutting down. The illusory current glut of oil is due to the high initial production rates of fracked wells (which fall off much more rapidly than conventional ones), the gold-rush mentality of drillers to put down as many wells as they possibly could to cash in on $100 per barrel oil (it costs frackers roughly $50/barrel), and the sudden and rapid decline in the global economy but especially China. Once the dust settles prices will most likely start to climb again unless we have a downright global depression (which could happen).
Finite Rates of Flow of Renewable Resources
By definition a renewable resource is one where some process is continually producing that resource. In nature these processes most often have finite rates of production. Forests, for example, have a fixed average rate of growth. The sun shine only so brightly each day. These kinds of resources eventually limit growth by virtue of there being no way to get more. It is true that expanding the aperture of, for example, solar collectors (i.e., covering more square area) would increase the total energy collected, but it would not increase the actual power factor of the energy and it would come at significant capital costs (both in money and energy to produce). Limits on resource flows put heavy restrictions on per capita availability. In the case of the HSS, too many people means everyone gets marginally poorer.
Capacity Failures of Sinks
Every complex system produces outputs of various kinds. In natural ecosystems every individual and every species produces biomass and other materials that are found to be useful to yet other species. The food web is one example of network of sources and sinks that reach a dynamic equilibrium so that no node in the network is overcome. Sinks have a limited capacity to absorb wastes (and recycle them). It is basically the same argument as rate limits on resource flows. The system cannot over produce those outputs without damaging the meta-system's capacity to detoxify or denature the wastes.
Failure to Monitor and Adjust Outputs to Match the Needs and Capacities of the Meta-System
Following on the prior issue, a system is valuable as a subsystem in a larger meta-system (the environment) as long as its outputs are of use; as long as it serves a “purpose”. As stated above, this is also the case with respect to waste products that may or may not be useful to some other component in the meta-system. For example excreta are useful to bacteria and worms for nutrients, bones not so much. Plastic residues and other chemicals not found in nature much less so. Nature might be enlisted to recycle some HSS waste products if given enough time, but not at the current rate of production. And I am hard pressed to name a “product” of the HSS that other component subsystems in the meta-system, the Ecos, find attractive. We are basically a waste-producing subsystem without any redeeming qualities so far a producing something useful for the Ecos.
Excessive Competition between Various Operational Level Subsystems
The failure of a coordination-level of a hierarchical cybernetic governance subsystem to provide adequate coordination information to the operational-level regulators leads to numerous inter-process dysfunctions. Each might be small in itself, but collectively and over time their effects are devastating. Complex systems have to coordinate their overall behavior with the other entities in the meta-system that they serve. They have to supply the right products at the right time and in the right quantities. They have to take the right inputs at the right time and in the right quantities. These are tactical coordination activities. Inability to monitor the entities in the meta-system or inability to make the right decisions in timely fashion causes dis-coordination and possible conflict with those entities. Internally the coordination among processes is essential since in complex systems sub-system processes might be widely distributed, not in direct communications with one another, and therefore subject to lack of information about the global state of the system. They are not equipped to make global level decisions in any case, so as with lack of tactical coordination, the lack of logistical coordination leads to inter-process competition for internal resources. Examples abound. Diseases can disrupt normal communications channels in organisms leading to disruptions of functions. The incompetence of middle- and upper-management in organizations is a well-known cause of the demise of those organizations. And government? The dysfunctions of governance in the governments at all scales is now commonplace.
Changes in the Environment Beyond Which the System can Adapt
All complex systems have some internal capacity to adapt to changes in their environments within limits. Our ability to shiver in the cold or sweat in the heat is of that kind. But for every such capacity there is a limited range of values that fall within the adaptive limits. We cannot sustain temperatures below 55 degrees F. for vary long, nor above 90 degrees if we are naked. Part of the human approach to adaptivity has been the invention of clothing, shelters, and other technologies. But even these have limits.
Failures of Evolvability
Individual animals are not technically evolvable. Genetic mutations that take place in the germ line, passed on to offspring, may be the basis for species evolution, but individuals cannot have somatic mutations that suddenly change them into something else or give new capabilities (sorry X-Men fans). Human beings have a unique capacity for evolvability in their capacity to learn and use concepts of nearly arbitrary kinds. This is the basis of our extraordinary extra-somatic adaptability (e.g. clothing). Our super-organisms — organizations — are similarly evolvable. What this means is that an individual does posses an ability to have internal subsystems change (whether by design or chance) such that the whole entity becomes more fit within its environment. Companies can change product designs or internal processes of manufacturing in order to take advantage of new technology or customer tastes. But if there is a mismatch between the new demands of the environment and the change made, dysfunction ensues.
Failures of Components, Especially Decision Agents
A complex system can sustain only if it can successfully maintain its relations with the larger meta-system entities with which it interacts. Environments are almost universally under pressure to change over time scales long compared to the lifetime of the system of interest. Thus systems are continually subjected to pressures to adapt or evolve. It was ever thus.
Systems are, however, only as good as their components. One source of component failure is the aging and degradation of those components due to entropy. Degradation can come with use (e.g. friction) or merely as a function of time (ponds not refreshed with water will evaporate). Unless components are regularly repaired or replaced, or there are redundancies of functions that permit down time, the system will suffer eventual degradation of performance or outright failure just because the components failed. A key requirement for sustainability is the maintenance of components. Think about the degraded infrastructure, such as bridges and water systems. No regular maintenance leads to dysfunction sooner or later.
Finally the capacity of the hierarchical cybernetic governance system depends entirely on the decision-making competence of the decision agents in the cybernetic loops. The more complex a system is, the more information load upper-level decision agents have to deal with. Information overload is a real phenomenon that crushes human decision makers more often as not in our modern management and governance subsystems. We humans do not have the cognitive capacity to deal with the kinds of decisions that are required in our modern world.
I have written extensively about the need for higher sapience in all human beings. The capacity for wisdom is essential to deal with complex social problems requiring veridical decisions under uncertainty and ambiguity. Our HSS needs wise heads in government and organizational governance. If the current political situation in the US is any indication, then the likelihood of getting those wise heads elected is nil. In my opinion Bernie is as close as it gets to some semblance of wisdom potential. But even if he were elected president, the foolish people in the Congress, like Mitch McConnell and James Inhofe will always “trump” wisdom. Why not? They have the people behind them and the people are largely only interested in their own pleasure.
Ultimately, for the HSS, it is the lack of adequate sapience as the norm. We are a species too clever for our own good and too foolish to realize it.
How Can Complex Systems Achieve Sustainability?
In truth there is no such thing as ultimate sustainability. A system can maintain its identity and purpose only as long as the environment doesn't change so much as to select against it. There are no guarantees in this Universe. Earth itself is destined to burn up as the Sun expands in its death throes. But if we were to wish to have a sentient species on this planet, one derived from our species, we would need to recognize what we need to do to achieve long term sustainability. That would include avoiding all of the above reasons for why systems become dysfunctional. Given the current level of sapience in our species, and looking at the reality of the so-called leadership we have today, I would say that is an unlikely prospect.
Hope you enjoy the spring.