Fools in charge?

Posted April 6th, 2005 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Living in Post-Normal Times, Paradox

Asked about the provenance of the term “flip-flop” – in reference to phase shifts in complex systems, Henry Regier, author of a paper about this with James Kay, sent me a note in which he muses that it may just be a modern term given to that which our ancestors attributed to the workings of a trickster deity to whom we might dedicate April 1st – which it was at the time. Since it was too late in the day for an April fools day post, I am instead dedicating the entire rest of the month to the Fools who think they are in charge of anything (i.e., control freaks), and to “the mischievous Greek God Pan.” First, a little bit of background that you can probably skip over if you are an ecologist:

panarchy Gunderson&Holling2002.gif
Source: Gunderson and Holling 2002; Holling 2004
Two other comtemporary ecologists, Buzz Holling and Lance Gunderson, coined the term Panarchy, to describe an archetypal pattern of interactions between cycles of change observed in natural and social systems, through which they also explain both novelty and persistence, and through which Regier and Kay go on to explain self-organization in complex systems. In what has become an icon of adaptive management, this is typically illustrated with a “figure 8” pattern of movement, as is shown in the diagram. In the forward loop, there is a relatively predictable pattern of growth and accumulation of wealth. This also implies the need for control which leads to a growth of rigidity, vulnerability and resistance to change, and therefore, suppression of novelty and innovation. The greater the rigidity and attempt to control a system, the smaller the disturbance that is required for it to cross a threshold, at which point it collapses and flip-flops into a back-loop phase of reorganization. The consequences are largely unpredictable and uncontrollable because the accumulated elements are able to recombine in novel combinations. The small scale fast moving cycles are also nested in slower and larger scale cycles, which provide context and stability, at least up to a point. But given enough rigidity, it doesn’t take much for the smaller scale and faster moving cycles to nudge the larger slower ones over the brink into a phase of rapid and abrupt large-scale changes. In other words, the whole context changes, and maybe even the context of the context. The most significant changes are rarely gradual, and novelty is not necessarily for the better. And, as is pointed out in the just released statement from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, these tipping points cannot be forecast by existing science. The sudden collapse of Newfoundland cod fishery in 1992 after a few hundred years of exploitation is only the most obvious of many examples. But learning and adjustment in response to small disturbances along the way may be able to prevent more catastrophic ones. In Fishing for Truth, Alan Finlayson shows that there were warning signs along the way that were not heeded, such as observations of nearshore fishermen were dismissed as anecdotal, and uncertainties in data collected offshore that were optimistically interpreted in regulatory decisions. As Bush pointed out in the presidential debates last fall, right or wrong, a decision-maker must be certain above all else!
Similar patterns can be observed in social systems. For better or for worse, these periods of change make possible alternative futures and, present opportunities for changing the rules of the game. For an interesting tale of the beginning of the end of feudalism (at least in Europe) and the birth of modern law just after the turn of the last millennium, and that set the stage for the renaissance, see this new biography of Matilda of Canossa. The evolution of modern democratic systems followed the fall of both fascism and communism following periods of growth and accumulation. But it is also a period of deep uncertainty and unpredictability, or what I will just call Post-Normal Times, when… where do I begin? The assault on the US judicial system by those trying desperately to hang on to power and control in the US Congress, suggests the beginning of the end of modern law.
Buzz Holling suggests the post-cold war and post 9-11 period is part of a great backloop phase, that some would call the long now. And then there is the coming time of The Long Emergency – a name given by James Kunstler to the post-cheap-fossil-fuel era that seems to have begun in just the last few weeks as oil prices went up by $5/barrel in a period of 10 days, as we seem to be hitting the global peak in oil production. The article also speculates on what a business-as-usual scenario might actually look like. For other observations, a blog worth reading is James Wolcott who provided the hat tip. More on the topic as time permits. But if we want a future worth living in, it is time for a Post-Cold War Reconstruction.

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