How to Control Complex Adaptive Systems to Survive

We live in increasingly complex systems, more and more of them are of our own making, though not always of our own conscious design. There are two basic kinds, natural complex adaptive systems, such as the Earth System and its many subsystems, and human-made complex adaptive systems, such as social groups and corporations. It appears that we have been losing control of our relations with both, at an accelerating pace.

As some folks now know – perhaps not enough – we live at the end of an exceptionally stable geological epoch, the Holocene estimated to have lasted about 11,000 years. The human population exploded from just one of many species on planet Earth to the dominant force during that period. Scientists debate the exact end of the Holocene and the start of the new epoch, the Anthropocene. Yet, it is clear that humans have already altered many components of the Earth System, from atmosphere and oceans to ecosystems and even the Earth’s fragile crust.

The New Science of Systems, and Us

Science developed on the Newtonian model of a mechanistic world. We can describe many parts of the universe using that system of linear thinking, up to a point. Such description led to the ability to control or many alter parts of the material world around us. We can intervene in causal chains, such as “A causes B, which in turn causes C.” If we understand such relations, and they are not beyond the range of human action, then engineering (the application of scientific knowledge to achieve some material goal) can alter some aspect of our world.

Nevertheless, we live within complex systems the details of which reach far beyond our understanding, just because they are so complex. The interactions of their components can be self-organizing, adapting to changing conditions. By retaining the linear model of the world, we can never reach an adequate understanding of complex adaptive systems. So many positive and negative feedback loops are involved that linear models are simply not up to the task.

Now, human social organizations, from families to multinational corporations, are complex adaptive systems that evolved in relation to the particular environments.  Today, of course, we inhabit the entire Earth. Ecosystems are also complex adaptive systems, about which we have barely scratched the surface of understanding because we have always treated them from a narrow linear way of thinking.

In the past several decades, the rise of complex systems science has begun to break past the barriers of linear thinking to explore the nature of both natural and human complex adaptive systems, from ecosystems and climate systems to social networks. Unfortunately, however, we based the “great progress” of human technologies and economic systems on the linear thinking of Newtonian science. As a result, humanity has already overshot the capacity of Earth System habitats to carry the load of human industry, consumption, and waste needed to remain stable. We have thrown them out of balance.

Controlling Ourselves in the Unpredictable Anthropocene

So, now we have a very different kind of problem. We must achieve a very different kind of progress. Today we must dial back the profligate destabilization of the whole Earth System caused by the global industrial-consumer economy in order to try to regain some of the stability remaining. That is the most urgent matter because our survival depends on re-stabilizing the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, and the biosphere, the key subsystems of the whole Earth System.

Everyone knows now that we must reduce carbon emissions to net-zero if we are to have a chance of succeeding in stabilizing the Earth System we have so severely disrupted. But almost nobody talks about how that might be accomplished. Sure, talk of converting to renewable energy production and a variety of other technical changes abounds. The necessary changes are monumental in scale and scope. But ideas about how societies whose very structure is organized around burning fossil fuels can accomplish them without societal collapse remain beyond public discussion.

Here is the central fact – the unacknowledged two-thousand-pound gorilla in the room: In order to reduce human plunder of the Earth enough to achieve enough stability of the Earth System in the decade we have left to survive, we must reorganize societies to such an extent that we have trouble even imagining such change. We have entered what I call a New Great Transformation of the entire Earth System, by our own unconscious doing. That is also forcing a transformation of humanity’s relationship to our Earth habitat. We can only take control of the New Great Transformation by completely changing our relation to the Earth System and each other.

Over the Ultimate City: To Live or Die in L.A.

It is always unnerving yet comfortably familiar to fly into LAX. I will need to do so again in a month or so. The vast urban landscape from Palm Springs westward to the Pacific shore is amazing to behold, if you really look at it. For about 125 miles, the mostly low-lying “built environment” stretches the entire way. It takes 2 or 3 hours…or more… to drive via the freeways, “depending on traffic.” Asphalt and concrete everywhere separates apartment complexes, commercial buildings, strip malls, mega-shopping centers, suburban neighborhoods, and elite “gated communities.” It has been over six months since my last visit. Still, it is never any less strange and prosaic despite my having lived and worked there for nearly four decades — until I retired over a dozen yeas ago.

Last time I had a window seat aft of the wings. I can never resist watching the mega-city go by below. But I’ve seen it all many times, both as an airline passenger and as a private pilot. I learned to fly in 1976 over this same urban desert. The complexity even back then sure gave me a sense of the importance of the instructor’s official admonition to “stay well clear” of any nearby aircraft. It also instilled an appreciation of the complexity of the air traffic control system as a blend of highly skilled living beings interacting with sphisticated information technology that is always in need of an upgrade.

LA Sectional

LA Terminal Area Chart – LAX at west shoreline.

Whether as pilot or passenger, I experience both the air traffic control system and city below it as marvels of human ingenuity and collective coordination. Yet they seem ever more vulnerable to chaos and ultimate collapse. Sometimes around dusk, I used to fly my little Piper PA-161 from Compton Airport out to the north east below the LAX final approach path under visual flight rules, then west along the Santa Monica Freeway, passing downtown LA to my north, heading toward the Santa Monica shoreline.

That way I could take the coastal route north saving time by not having to file an instrument flight plan. It was quicker that way when controllers were so busy with “rush hour” airline and business-jet traffic and hardly had time to issue another clearance. The city lights of downtown LA, the sunset, the many other aircraft in all quadrants with their nav. lights and landing lights so easy to see threading their way through the geometrically parsed airspace as daylight receded were all so beautiful, yet so delicately tentative and dangerous.

On disembarking into the LAX terminal on my last trip, I faced a mass of humanity flowing haphazardly in all directions in the very large multi-gate concourse. A virtual sea of diversity was lining up at a Southwest gate to board the next flight. I had a sudden sense of the quantitatively unimaginable scale of worldwide over-population rarely mentioned among environmentalists or politicians these days as the consumption of resources and energy by the people of the industrial nations reaches truly crisis scale.

Even as Los Angeles still works, more or less, it is difficult to imagine how such intensity can continue much longer as so much fossil-fuel energy and so many resources reach their extractive tipping points. LA, with its 13.1 million people in the metro area, seems the epitome of the extent to which humanity can appear to overcome nature, then approach a dead end. Big changes lie ahead. Meanwhile, can we learn anything about our future from this glorious megalopolis that may soon die of thirst?