"Push a complex system too far, and it will not come back." — Joe Norman, founder and chief scientist at Applied Complexity Science
Last week, Mother Nature taught British Columbia another ugly lesson about the consequences of blah, blah, blah on climate change, unchecked energy use and globalization.
But denial is our society’s most politically powerful drug after fentanyl and Netflix.
Apparently, heat domes and an extended fire season followed by a predicted atmospheric river just didn’t make much of an impression on our woodenheaded political class. These folks just don’t understand that Normal, the name of our collective boat, now lies wrecked at the bottom of an acidifying and warming ocean brimming with more plastic than fish.
Premier John Horgan feigned surprise at another “natural disaster.” He pronounced the deluge to be a rare 500-year event, forgetting that the worst on record can always be exceeded. (Politicians and their unaccountable advisors tend to revert to the mean rather than ponder why we’re seeing extremes.)
And then the premier declared an emergency three days after major arteries to southern B.C. had been severed off by landslides and flooding. Bravo, Mr. Horgan.
Mike Farnworth, Horgan’s minister for public safety, blamed municipalities for not being ready. He did not mention that the province downloaded flood control responsibility long ago in another fit of blah, blah, blah, without downloading resources to local governments to do the job.
Many others have been critical of leaders’ slow and myopic response to this month’s floods. There is, however, a larger, urgent lesson in all of this.
When it comes to pandemics, warming oceans, old-growth logging, tyrannical technologies and other existential threats, our political class must understand that all are connected. All are signals that our overly complex and intertwined systems have been stretched too far.
Reversing that profound collective error will take more than talk of plugging the holes in Normal and bailing like hell.
We have entered a new era that demands we embrace these seven transformative truths:
Complexity delivers diminishing returns.
Civilizations use energy to build complexity that results in what Edward Gibbon called “immoderate greatness.” At a certain point, civilization can no longer afford to increase or maintain high levels of social and political complexity.
They run out of physical or moral energy. Entropy then reigns. The centre does not hold, and things fall apart. Very few civilizations have opted to simplify their operations and lower their ambitions to avoid collapse. Can we?
Not acting early ups the eventual cost.
When faced with a steeply growing systemic threat, governments must act promptly or pay a mounting cost.
Countries that swiftly constrained mobility when COVID-19 caseloads were small performed much better economically and civilly than nations that didn’t. Mike Ryan, WHO’s executive director of health emergencies got it right while his organization didn’t. “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. And the problem in society we have at the moment is everyone is afraid of making a mistake, everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”
We have dithered on climate change and the debt has become staggering. The existential question now stares us in the face. Will we have sufficient resources to manage some kind of hybrid energy transition and still have enough energy to restore crumbling infrastructure already battered by climate change? Our political class hasn’t even acknowledged the question.
Growth equals emissions.
Governments still pretend that they can decouple emissions from economic and population growth and carry on as if this slow (and sometimes fast) moving avalanche called climate change did not exist.
The truth is that economic growth requires the burning of fuel that destabilizes the atmosphere. Infrastructure destroyed by climate events registers as opportunities for more growth and energy spending in a technological system. This system and its political servants don’t view climate change as a road to ruin, but as a welcome catalyst for more growth and energy spending.
And so the real solution is ignored. Societies that want to be prepared for the worst will invest in re-localizing their affairs, revitalizing local agriculture, powering down and simplifying their fragile supply chains. Which elected leader will tell us this?
Governments learn from punishments meted by voters, not nature.
Here’s a sardonic definition that makes a lot of sense at the current moment: “Experience” is making the same mistakes over and over again but with greater confidence.
Governments have been warned for years that logging should not be allowed in mountain headwaters because it changes the flow of water across vast landscapes. They have been told that wetlands, nature’s vital kidneys, should not be drained because they provide cheap and reliable flood control. It is well known that destroying ancient forests dramatically changes precipitation patterns and creates deserts.
Yet every day politicians approve the destruction of another natural system as if cumulative effects don’t exist. And every day our political class introduces more fragility and insecurity in the system with no accountability.
Ancient civilizations that didn’t heed these same messages failed. Egypt and the lowland Maya were small and localized empires. Our own civilization, far more vast and complex, has heedlessly sacrificed its natural underpinnings.
As a result, every year, as in an ever more ferocious battle, more and more infrastructure will be disabled or destroyed by fire, flood, wind storms, sea rises and heat domes. Nobody is asking how much we should repair. Or how long can we afford this war. It’s a question the political class, quaking in fear of being ousted, refuses to put before the voters.
The coming catastrophes will victimize those least powerful.
Climate change, just like the pandemic, illustrates the political bias of rare or extreme disasters. Let’s call it the Titanic factor: When that great feat of complex engineering hit an iceberg, 26 per cent of the first class passengers perished. In contrast, 76 per cent of the steerage passengers drowned.
Disasters tend to proportionately affect ordinary people more than they do the rich who live in protected communities and wield outsized influence. The majority of people unsettled by B.C.’s flooding are not rich. Ordinary people are paying for the fatalism and inactivity of the well-off who primarily fund our political classes to ignore reality.
Anti-fragility should be the new goal.
Governments can’t predict the catalysts for infrastructure failure, but they sure can prepare for them.
B.C. politicians might start by reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s masterful book on risk: Antifragile. As he explains, say you have a bridge, a highway, a dike or dam that is fragile. It is a waste of time predicting what event might illustrate the fragility of the infrastructure. “Instead, you should look at the underlying fragility and try to modify it and make it more stable so we don’t have to predict why and when something will collapse.” Surveying our province, there are many places where this advice should apply. Take for example the Site C dam fiasco, where B.C. knowingly invests in geological fragility.
More data doesn’t lead to better decisions.
Horgan’s government and those of his predecessors received ample warnings about atmospheric rivers and flooding. Study after study even mapped out the flood hazards and changes in flood frequency, as well as the perils of “rivers in the sky.” As one typical paper noted “Our modelling suggests that extreme rainfall events resulting from atmospheric rivers may lead to peak annual floods of historic proportions, and of unprecedented frequency.”
Yet society has pretended that more data will lead to better decision-making. It has not and cannot. In fact more data has led to the opposite. Or no decision-making at all.
This great hazard is multiplying. James Bridle, a brilliant critic of computational thinking, notes that civilization has now arrived at a dead end. “The primary method we have for evaluating the world — more data — is faltering. It is failing to account for complex, human-driven systems and its failure is becoming obvious... our current ways of thinking about the world can no more survive exposure to this totality of raw information than we can survive exposure to an atomic core.”
In other words, data is no substitute for knowledge or wisdom. And knowledge and wisdom seem to be the scarcest of resources in modern Canada.