Chaotic Change

The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were enabled by rationalist enquiry, the scientific method in modern nation-states (in the social & political sense) and technological innovation married to financial capital. Economic growth lifted billions out of poverty and enriched billionaires, propelled by globalised sourcing, production and consumption (occasionally interrupted by regional and world wars). However, it has also come at a terrible cost: global climate change and a highly destabilised world order.

First scientifically then economically, the ancient worldview of religions and monarchies was replaced a more clockwork model of the universe and a mechanistic view of political economy. Everything became quantified, measured, modelled and predicted. Science and technology, profit and loss, citizen and government essentially became a numbers game. Without mathematics, modern science and the technological marvels that come from it are simply not possible. Without mechanisation of commerce and agriculture, today’s economy could not exist. Politics is often called a matter of “having the numbers” in the sense of elections and parliaments. 21st century finance is impossible without digital technology.

Yet the mathematics – often at the more abstruse end of the scale – reveals two shattering truths that depart from the widely-assumed predictable cause-and-effect mindset. First, there is Godel’s Theorem, which states that inside any consistent set of rules there are undecidable questions. Second, there is complexity theory (sometimes known as chaos theory) which finds that small causes can have very large and essentially unpredictable effects that depend critically on initial conditions. The former renders our quantitative and mathematically-driven worldview incomplete; the latter, far less predictable than we’d like to believe.

Godel gets attention in philosophical and academic mathematical circles. Chaos theory gets a lot more attention in other circles. Both are important but complexity theory has been more widely applied. It turns out that all sorts of things are chaotic – from the behaviour of the atmosphere to the rise and fall of empires. The more complex something becomes – like the modern world – the better it is described by the theory. Anthropogenic climate change and, I submit, the destabilising world order are both things of extreme complexity (in the mathematical sense of the word as well as the colloquial). Seemingly very small inputs in the right initial conditions can have very large and unanticipated outcomes that are difficult if not impossible to predict.

Complex systems can exhibit very long-lived behaviours which appear stable. On the timescale of a human lifetime, they appear mechanistically deterministic in nature and entirely predictable in character. Weather is like that, although its balance and equilibrium can be “punctuated” by tipping point events. Social, economic and political phenomena can be like this too. The business cycle is probably the best known of these. To the extent that it can be forecast, human behaviour in large groups is like this too. Advertisers make use of this. But every so often, these stable things destabilise in response to relatively small events in a “butterfly effect” way. Some say that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian nationalist at Sarajevo in 1914 was one such event. Many say some volcanic eruptions have caused worldwide climate conditions in the past. After a very long time of stability something small over there seems to cause something much larger to change all over the place in an unforeseeable way.

Today, these two complex systems – climate and the world order – are forming positive feedback loops. Climate change and national security are now linked in the minds of many scientists and defence planners. A drought in northern Syria is often cited as one of the reasons why there is war there and why so many displaced people have fled the region. More broadly and on a longer-term scale, there are many who say the Sykes-Picot agreement and the ensuing Treaty of Sevres is one of the reasons why there is so much unrest in the Middle East. Two bureaucrats drawing a red line destabilises a world region after centuries of apparent stability. The recent quarter-century of war is merely the latest of a series of conflicts. Severe storms and droughts of recent years are being linked to made-made climate change that, by all accounts, started during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century in England. The European Union – an idea that can trace its origins back to an idea of Napoleon’s and its reality to the post World War Two reconstruction period – seems to be under threat by Brexit. Threat of climate change is driving the adoption of sustainable and renewable energy sources in the EU and UK. The UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement on Climate Change involves almost 200 nations. Most importantly, China and India – 2 of the largest polluters other than the US – are committed to this endeavour. 93 nations have now ratified the Paris accord and have to live up to their declared targets.

We live in times of chaotic change. The future of the planet – climatically, politically and socio-economically – is in the balance. The 2016 American presidential election may play an outsized role in this matter. The survival of the EU certainly will. Events in the South China Sea add more uncertainty. The melting polar ice packs do too. Shifting climate patterns around the world will affect billions in ways that the Syrian crisis have displaced tens of millions. Populist xenophobic nationalists leaders and movements are emerging elsewhere than the US and UK. The world is interconnected in all sorts of ways and small events can lead to extremely large outcomes. The atmosphere and oceans are common to everyone driven by global currents, not national borders. The global economy is as integrated as never before yet the spoils are very unequally enjoyed. Those lifted up and those left behind are not happy with each other. Difficulties arise and our social and political institutions are challenged by the times. The future is uncertain and in many ways troubling. I hope we can deal with it all in time but I fear many, many things need to change before we can meet these challenges.

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About Fred Pugsley

Digital guy. Foodie, skier, voracious reader.
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