All models are wrong, but some are useful
— George E. P. Box
I’ve started this blog by exploring our species past, present and possible future based on resource consumption. I’ve laid out the map and made an attempt at uncovering some of our folly that led us to this state threatening humanity with a very thin bottleneck in the not so distant future. Although it was the realization of climate change’s dire impact what kicked me off exploring into these directions, it quickly became my obsession to try and find answers to questions like: why did we do this to ourselves, and how will our future look like?
These questions quickly led me to the territory of hyperobjects (things that are to large in space and time for us to comprehend, like climate change and the global economy) and naturally, as most of us would do, I tried to reduce them to mind-sized models. What happens if I change this input parameter? Ooh, and how about this one? — I asked myself many times while running ‘mental experiments’ in my head.
But what is a mental model anyway? My favorite definition comes from John Micheal Greer:
“Mental models is what you get when you take the Universe and dumb it down to a point that your mind can grasp it”
That says it all. This is why all models on how the Universe (or hyperobjects in it) work are inherently flawed: they omit an exorbitant amount of detail in order for us to be capable of comprehending it and making some predictions how they will behave when things change. This is exactly the reason why they are so useful though: they satisfy our need to have something to grasp when making plans for the future. This is why they are so important in times of great flux — like today.
My theory of everything
What you have read on The Honest Sorcerer so far (and will in the future) is an attempt to establish a working model for our times. I certainly had omitted an exorbitant amount of detail, yet I hope you will find my theory useful in building your version of the truth. I’m not expecting you take my model and refer to it all the time, instead — as always — I encourage you to contemplate, ask your own questions and come up with your own answers.
Before you ask: I’m not a scientist by training. I’m not trying to work out the details of the unified field theory (the Holy Grail of physics) here neither. Rather, I’m trying to open your mind to a rather different way of thinking, which I believe gives a much better explanation why all those things are happening what I was writing about in my blog and why the future may look something like I depicted here… In contrast to what conventional wisdom and ethics hold about our future (what is being taught in schools and pushed by politicians, economists and the media).
My theory of humanity has no moral stance for a reason: I never really found the question of good and evil useful— they simply never made any sense to me on a global scale. As you have probably noticed I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture of humanity saving itself (from itself) based on high ethics and moral values. Morality — in my view — works very well in a relatively small scale (in a community, a family or a workplace) but it fails to give us answers to global questions; let alone giving us a workable model on what will happen. Morality can make you a good actor, but in order to understand the big picture of what is really going on you have to step out of your role.
I’m also making an attempt at taking an outside view based on cold logic and honesty— as much as it is possible for an insider. I’m not claiming originality for all of these concepts either, I merely used them as building blocks, and this is what I got as a result.
After this short introduction let’s go back to our main theme. I have ended my previous post by concluding, that we are making no choices by ourselves (please read it, if you haven’t done so). This does not imply though that we are robots executing a program— and this is why it’s so exciting to write about this topic. Our brain produces multiple (sometimes contradicting) answers at the same time. That is the beauty of life: we are ambiguous yet predictable in a way. We are constantly shaped by people around us, by our environment, by the feelings and thoughts they invoke and so on. Yet, by giving responses to these impulses we change the people around us in turn, together with the environment and the shape of things to come. Remember the quote from C. Wright Mills I ended my last post with?
“Fate is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.”
Think about that for a minute… Think about the small things in life, how your acts inspired — unknowingly — others to act, how your small “decisions” were determined, almost automatic at the point of making, yet may seem silly from the point where you are now. Remember: things never happen in a vacuum.
History for me is like a swirling, murky pool with nearly 8 billion apes splashing around in the water. Everybody takes part in the splashing game and plays his/her role. Roles, which are also subject to change. This is exactly the reason why the future is not deterministic (written), but stochastic. It is coming from cascading events with a lot of inertia, but it is spiced with a great deal of random change resulting incalculable effects.
Looking around on ground zero (where all the splashing happens) it’s a complete mess. Chaos. But an image taken from a few hundred kilometers above makes it all clear. There are patterns everywhere and suddenly it all makes sense.
Have you seen a flock of birds flying in concert? Many individual animals flopping their wings and flying next to each other serves as a good model for us to start. Actually studying this type of behavior gave birth to a new branch of science: statistical mechanics. Here is a definition from Wikipedia:
“[it] is a mathematical framework that applies statistical methods and probability theory to large assemblies of microscopic entities. It does not assume or postulate any natural laws, but explains the macroscopic behavior of nature from the behavior of such ensembles.”
This means that if you know a few behavioral elements assigned to every individual you can model the summary behavior and outcome for the entire group. This is a true revolution in science: rather than atomizing complex problems to death by stripping out individual parameters, it tries to model the interconnections between the elements. In our flock of birds example above: by measuring the speed and direction of flight as stripped out parameters you will never be able to reproduce flocking. But by establishing basic rules like: “do what your neighbor does” and “try to fly towards the center if you are to far out” etc. combined with a large enough computing power you get something similar to real life. In other words: a good model of a system which looks like complete chaos from within, but makes a lot of sense from the outside.
Are flocking birds a system then? Definitely yes: they are a set of things (birds) working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole. Looked at from a distance they look like a neat closed system: no matter or energy coming in or going out. This could not be further from the truth though: the birds in the flock had to take food from their environment to have energy and while they perform flocking they spend this energy by flapping their wings — giving this energy back to the environment (in form of air movements).
Actually you would be hard pressed to find a real closed system exchanging no matter, energy or information with other systems: no matter how hard you try the smallest closed system you will end up with will be the entire universe… Imagine a magic box closed off entirely (fully airtight, totally sound and lightproof, and perfectly insulated — which is technically impossible of course). Much to your surprise whatever you have closed into that box would be dead and motionless in a short period of time. Even if you were to seal off an entire city completely powered by a nuclear reactor in this box, the excess heat could not escape, melting the whole thing down into a radioactive toxic goo. Once every atom has been split and all the heat was dissipated evenly in your magic box the insides would be an evenly dark place with radioactive dust on the bottom, and gases on top. This is what physicists call: entropy, the gradual degradation / disintegration of matter, energy and information into a featureless goo. Trust me, you don’t want to live in a closed system smaller than the universe itself.
Thankfully Earth is an open system receiving energy from the Sun and thus fighting entropy (disintegration) constantly by using up some of this energy. The rest radiates back to space — mess with either side, and you have a massive problem. If you prevent even a tiny fraction of the heat escaping our planet it will end up as a hothouse (yes, a tiny fraction of CO2 can do that). What makes this (climate change) such a tough problem is that Earth is a complex system. This means that it encompasses innumerable smaller systems (e.g.: many flocks of birds plus nearly 8 billion humans running a world economy etc.) all interacting with each other: exchanging matter, energy and information all the time. Nothing is separated, closed off, or sealed.
How to handle this complexity then? Again, I have to refer to the seminal Limits to Growth study:
You don’t need to model the behavior of nearly 8 billion humans with each and every business (plus a flock of birds). All you need to do is to focus on the key rules of behavior and the interconnections between these sub-systems represented by stocks and flows of energy, matter and information (if you download the study you can marvel at its complexity).
The main objection to this model was at its time (and sometimes still today) is that in the past everything worked out fine, we’ve substituted raw materials and energy products on short supply and will continue to do this in the future as well. The world hasn’t ended so far, thus it never will. If you take a piece of paper and mask the right hand side (beyond the year 2000) of the chart above the picture could not be rosier. Everything just got better and better — and if you are economist — you can extrapolate the graph into the stars (except for resources, “but hey, we’re gonna find replacements!”). This is traditional Cartesian thinking: strip something out of its environment, measure it, set up a “law” and then extrapolate. Applied to our flock of birds example: measure the actual speed and direction of flight for each bird, and extrapolate linearly: in a matter of hours your entire flock will end up leaving Earth’s atmosphere headed to the stars… (Now you see how did we ended up with Star Trek as our vision of the future.) In a complex system like Earth this reductionist approach never yields good results. It ultimately ends up disregarding limits to stocks (how much oil you have, or how much CO2 the atmosphere can take up without warming).
Evolution in complex systems
When you get systems thinking right you can easily make general observations about complex systems and discover patterns among them. One of the greatest revolutions of science was based on observation and pattern recognition too: the theory of evolution from Charles Darwin. Since this theory works so well in biology (which is one of the most complex systems known to humanity) could it be applied to other complex systems as well? More and more researchers say yes. In fact I found the evolutionary approach extremely rewarding in terms of explaining what is going on. In the coming weeks and months I will show you it’s applicability in many areas of life including energy, products, economics and so on.
There are a great deal of scientific authors working in this field producing thought provoking books and articles. One of my favorite on the topic is The Thermodynamics of Evolution from Francois Roddier the french astronomer. (Don’t be frightened by the title it is a joy to read for anyone interested in science. Search for it online, you can download a free copy in pdf. Highly recommended.)
So what does evolution has to do with complex systems, and how does it apply to our current global problems? For a start, here is a short definition of evolution stripped of its original meaning in biology and made into a simple three-step algorithm applicable to all complex systems:
- Differentiate: create as many variation as you can, even randomly
- Select: based on a set of criteria defining what is fitting for a purpose and what is not
- Amplify: multiply the selected feature across the entire population / economy / any other complex system
That’s it. Simple isn’t it? You don’t need genetics, or any other high science stuff (neither did Darwin himself). This program runs automatically in every complex open system and selects the best feature or method for a given purpose, which is usually into the direction of higher energy dissipation.
The role of energy
The universe is full of energy and whichever system “uses it up” more effectively (transforms it from high potential, high concentration to low potential, low concentration) wins the game by out-competing rival systems. Consider a pot of water on your stove: at first heat is distributed in the water by simple conduction (vibrating water molecules passing on their vibration). As water heats up on the bottom of your pan (near the center), faster than this heat could be conducted, warm water rises to the top, spreads out, then sinks back to the bottom along the sides of the pot. This is convection. The method most fit for spreading heat in the pan full of water was selected based on its fitness to the task (heat dissipation).
This experiment also displays a nice example of self-organization: no one “told” water molecules to start convection yet they have started this motion and turned some of the heat energy into kinetic energy in an organized way (instead of random swirling). Try this experiment with a differently sized / shaped pot and you will get similar results. Reducing heat to a bare minimum while still in the conduction phase though will prevent the formation of convective currents: in a low heat transfer environment conduction wins and convection has no chance. It follows that none of these processes are “more” evolved, they are simply being selected for the fitness of heat transfer at a given temperature.
This example also illustrates the insustainability of growth: if you continue to increase heat (energy use) over a certain threshold you will boil all your water and your pan will run dry. Even if you were to maintain a “stable” equilibrium state let’s say at 50°C, water would still evaporate within a few hours and you will be faced with the same “dry pan crisis”. This is why you must to take care of your stocks and flows: you have to replenish your water stock constantly, air the kitchen regularly (to prevent it from turning into a steamy jungle — this is your sink for waste heat and moisture) and finally you must maintain the flow of energy (and watch its stock level too) in order to keep the party going. Here you go: a complex adaptive system in your kitchen.
This is a very-very basic example, but is shows the basic concepts remarkably. The same principles (highlighted throughout the essay) are at work in more complex systems too. Just take a look around in your world: the products in a supermarket, memes on the internet, fashion styles etc. are all following the same pattern of the selection of the fittest. No one sits behind a steering wheel and steers product or fashion development on a global scale: small companies arise, create something “revolutionary” then disappear. Out of the gazillion product ideas every day a few gets selected (by no one special, but everyone) and then multiplied into oblivion. Do you still remember the fidget spinner craze…? But it does not stop with products, it works with other ideas as well: “Net zero by 2050”, anyone? It is a best fit answer for the selection criteria of: “how to do nothing today and still pretend that you care for the climate while masking our massive resource problem at the same time”. Many other ideas were tried (carbon trading comes to mind here), but this has won hands down. Will it turn the tide? No chance. The world will run it’s course and will continue to self adapt to a changing environment. Too much heat or drought? Use this genetically modified drought resistant corn. Too little energy after abandoning some of the fossil fuels? Rationing! The world will be full of similar “solutions” which seems to work on a small scale (for a while) but fail miserably in addressing the real issue. This will continue until we run out of adaptive options and face our own “dry pan crisis”.
The end of harmony
Eventually all complex systems face the same fate: they either run out of matter or energy (or both) and fall apart, or give birth to a new system. In the meantime though they can go through long stable phases, only to be interrupted by sudden chaotic periods of change (this process is called ‘punctuated equilibrium’ in systems terminology).
Energy wise the system aims to achieve a state of equilibrium (stability) where energy use is optimal, everything is recycled and every participant keep the other participants at bay. Unfortunately these ideal states cannot last forever: something always changes unnoticed during this peaceful period. Then all of a sudden the whole system goes through a collapse phase, only to reorganize itself and reach a new stable state again. In case of the Earth-system timescales are truly immense, measured in hundreds of millions of years. Large geological epochs are states of equilibrium disturbed by sudden changes (events) lasting for a mere couple of million years. (This is why it is false to call Anthropocene an epoch: this disturbance will last a couple of hundred thousand years at maximum marking a line between two epochs.) In human timescales this could be best exemplified by the rise and fall of civilizations: there are growth phases followed by equilibrium then collapse. Always. No exceptions.
The phase change between equilibrium and collapse happens both on a small scale, like a farm running out of ground water or fertile soil, as well as on a much larger scale: entire empires collapsing due to drought or loss of topsoil (and thus the loss of extra energy provided by cereals). Collapse as you will see never happens overnight. It is a long process, a time of great flux: it happens when a system switches from one semi-stable phase like farming in Mesopotamia into another semi-stable phase (animal herding in a semi-arid desert environment).
As seen in the above example change is scale invariant — another important aspect of complex systems: it happens both on a farm and country level at the same time. No one wanted to degrade soil, yet everyone contributed, and most importantly: no one had the power to stop it. Remember: “Fate is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people.” Just like CO2 emissions today.
Back to the process of change itself. It is not only happening on every scale, it also tends to flicker — just like an old fluorescent lighting tube giving up at the end of it’s life: it turns on and off, then finally goes off forever. In our farming example: there are better and worse years. Until there are more good years than worse you continue with business as usual (slowly and unknowingly killing your own business in the process). Then worse years start to outnumber better ones until the day comes when you give up farming and switch to goats. Later on as soil regenerates somewhat you start farming again. After a few good years, worse years come back. You do this back and forth a number of times until your entire region switches to goat herding. This is called continuous phase transition — it happens everywhere simultaneously and spontaneously.
So next time you see an old habit switching back and forth with a new habit, you will know that you see a phase change and the new habit will win in the end. (It is worth to note, that new habits are already present before the phase change — they are just marginal. Always watch out for the fringes to see what might be coming next.)
Another interesting feature of complex adaptive systems, is that they have fuzzy boundaries and are nested within each other. In nature plants give us a good example: there are fungi living in the cells of plants, and within these fungus cells one can find viruses — another organism within an organism. For fuzzy boundaries you don’t have to go further than the nearest forest: the edge of the forest is never thin line: there are shrubs and small trees around it marking the boarder to a patch of grass (and then there are small patches of grass within a forest as well as patches of forest within a grassland around the forest). Where does one end, and the other begin…? Another great example is the change of seasons in a temperate climate: everyone knows that during summer the weather is hot, but when did the warm weather actually begin? At the end of the last cold spell? Again, nestedness and fuzzy boundaries everywhere.
Just like in human socioeconomic systems. Before the first World War country boarders where quite loose. No regular boarder lines with strict control, no passports (…and then you call the EU with it’s Schengen-zone progress… compared to what, I ask?) Or think about firms in close cooperation, like a security company doing site surveillance, and another (catering) company running the canteen. All within the fence of a bigger company, who is actually leasing some other buildings from another company on another campus full of other companies. Nice, isn’t it?
Again, a hallmark feature of complex adaptive systems — actually these are the mechanisms to help us stay us inside a certain phase, or make the whole system change phases.
There are two types: for one, there are negative feedback loops which have a dampening effect and prevent the system to change it’s state. They are stabilizing the system by keeping changes (or growth) at bay. Like insulin in your body: by it’s release the body prevents damage caused by too much sugar in the blood. Another example is the thermostat turning off heating at preset temperature. Or you can think of the tax system to keep inequality at bay and thus preventing civil unrest.
The other, more dangerous version is the positive feedback loop. The classic example is the harsh squeak made by a microphone held too close to the loudspeaker. In human history, nearly all wars and fights were a result of positive feedback loops (first I tell you something wrong, then you slap me on the face, then I hit you with my fist… you know the rest). These self-reinforcing processes without adequate dampening from negative feedback can quickly lead to explosive change.
Last but not least, let me highlight another interesting aspect of complex systems: they are full of forks in the road. They tend to (in fact must to) go right or left after a certain point. Since the environment in which they are nested in changes constantly they have to adapt all the time. These adaptations often reach a branching point: after a certain amount of changes there is no turning back, you must either go left or right. Ever wondered about the small asymmetries of your body? Why your heart is more on the left side than the right? After a certain increase in size evolution had to decide which side to put this important organ. After left has been chosen in an early ancestor of ours it continued to grow in that direction — and there was no turning back.
Something similar is happening with our climate too. After 1°C of warming most of the land ice has reached a tipping point: it had to be “decided” if they are here to stay or must go. The later option was “chosen” (by physics and not humanity) and even if we were manage to cool back our atmosphere by 0.5°C they would still melt anyway. Positive feedback loops have kicked in, and the phase change (this time literally) will proceed no matter what.
The message: don’t mess with complex systems unless you completely understand them — you might break something. Global problems (like climate change, economic recessions) cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have an enormous power to undermine the best efforts caused by all-too-narrow thinking.
It looks like we humans fell victims all too often to these features of complex adaptive systems I have listed here. Maybe that is because we, ourselves, our brains are complex systems too? Nested within another complex system called society? Maybe our behavior as a species could be modeled by studying complex systems? Think about it using the terms introduced above…
Next time I will continue down the path of making sense of our complex world from a standpoint of energy.
Until the next time,