Phase Shift — Part 1
Losing polar ice, the Amazon and the fight against a coming recession
News stories and popular narratives on recent — and not so recent — events like how the economy got broke or why inflation is soaring focus too much on human decisions. As if ‘choices’ leading up to these events were made in a completely rational manner, and as if what would happen tomorrow were completely up to the people making the next round of decisions.
Pundits and politicians tend to refer to events in the age-old framing of good vs evil, people doing the right, or in case of evil folks, foolish things (1). This leads us to the widespread illusion, that all we have to do in case of trouble is to get rid of the wrong people and start doing things the right way (which is always ‘our way’ of course).
It is needless to say how much of a hubris this is. Human exceptionalism at its best. The world, classically understood through the concepts of money, politics and history — all human artifacts — is by definition human centered and thus miss a large swathe of the picture. Stories based on these human concepts naturally focus on the actor and not the scene the actor is playing its role. Just like stories of heroes and kings of old.
Our elites, trained in law schools, history classes and courses on neoclassical economics, however, cannot even think outside this rather narrow framing. Thing is, they do not even need to. Spinning stories masterfully built around money, politics, history and law is more than enough to launch people into power — but it fails exceptionally in driving us through the coming bottleneck.
The real world is not about us or them, East versus West. It did not and will not care how we entertain ourselves with stories on our greatness — it will continue to grind on according to its own ‘laws’ (for a lack of a better word). Viewed from the perspective of systems, humans are mere particles in a swirling cloud of complexity. Actors, whose stories make less and less sense as the boundaries of the very system they inhabit change around them.
In this world it doesn’t matter who made what decision and when — the act was about to emerge anyway. The individual is not important. What matters is how we interact with one another and Earth as a whole. What are the incentives, the basic rules of the game? What are the inputs and outputs? What are the limitations of the said system? What has preceded the current state? How did we get here?
Be it a flock of birds or traders in a spot market — we all behave based on surprisingly similar patterns.
We are part of many interrelated, embedded complex systems — in fact our bodies, our brains are complex systems themselves. We try to rationalize this fact away, by creating stories about our free will, importance of certain individuals, gods, religion, science, politicians — you name it — all the while failing to notice that the world is just too complex for us to understand. We try to accomplish something we were never evolved to do, but hey, can we do otherwise? Sure, some radical non-dualists apparently can, but for the rest of us: well, we try to create another set of stories which have a slightly better explanatory power over what is actually happening outside our primate heads.
Attempting the impossible
The subject of today’s post is an attempt in this direction. Replacing the worn out story of good and evil, heroes vs villains with something more comprehensive, viewing our current woes from a systems perspective (2).
One of the key — and certainly one of the most fascinating — concept in studying complex systems, is that they tend to morph into another state in a rather unusual way — not in a linear, easy to predict manner. Faced with massive changes, systems — like our contemporary societies — go through phase transitions, or ‘changes between different states of organization’.
During the transition they are neither here, nor there, but in both phases simultaneously (3); without any clear distinction or dividing line between the past and the future state. The change happens nowhere, yet everywhere. There are no exact boundaries and there is no way of telling which phase you are in, until the shift has been completed. After that, it’s dead obvious.
This is as true to ‘our’ human centered world as to any other complex system, like galaxies, or the atmosphere for that matter. Speaking of the latter: what we experience now and what we euphemistically call ‘climate change’ is a typical example of a complex system undergoing a continuous phase transition: from a rather stable Holocene climate to something utterly alien to most of the species inhabiting Earth today — including ours. What we are about to see was never experienced by Homo sapiens before and there is no way of telling whether we will survive it or not.
Enter tipping points
For those of my readers literate in climate science the phrase tipping point is nothing new. It refers to a threshold above which it is very hard, or even impossible to return to the previous state. One famous example is the melting of the Greenland ice cap. Above a certain temperature limit the whole stuff melts, even if ‘we’ would miraculously stop emitting climate altering gases the today (and survive the ensuing total collapse of our civilization as result (4)). Even if the temperature eventually returns to a somewhat lower value, the melting would continue unabated. That’s a tipping point: after crossing it your old system is gone for good.
What happens after crossing a tipping point is not the most interesting part of the story however. It is the act of crossing it. The interregnum. Understanding that phase transitions are inherently uneven, unpredictable and far from being done in a snap, might help you grasp a lot of things going on in this world — and I’m not talking only about the climate here.
The inner workings of a tipping point is best explained by imagining yourself rocking a standard four legged chair on its hind legs. (Please, for the sake of your well being, do not try this at home, just use your imagination.) When you sit back and push the first two legs of the chair, say one inch, into the air you can feel the force of gravity trying to pull you back into a normal upright position. Should you let this force prevail, the result would be quick and decisive: you would lump down and forward in less than a second. Should you push back further and further instead, lifting the front legs of the chair higher and higher, you would soon find yourself in a rather dangerous, if not precarious position. You would be approaching a tipping point — literally.
Notice how different the feeling is, how every move takes a lot more time and effort to compensate. How everything feels wobbly and shaky… The chair moves back and forth: in one moment you think all is fine, the next minute you are fighting to avoid a painful contact with reality… This what a tipping point looks and feels like from inside: that sinking feeling in your stomach in one moment, then a sense of safety in another. If you have a sense that we are in one such situation… Well, as usual, you’re not entirely mistaken.
How do these tipping points and phase transitions present themselves in our world, leading to climate change, wars, economic distress and reduced food production? What are the tell-tale signs of us living in a complex self-adapting system rather than one governed by individuals? We will look into these matters in Part 2. Stay tuned.
Until next time,
(1) Did you also notice how actions of evil/bad people are usually depicted as stupid and lacking foresight…?
(2) I recommend two authors, out of many, who wrote great books on the topic: Eric D. Beinhocker (the author of Origin of Wealth), and Francois Roddier (The Thermodynamics of Evolution). If you are just as nuts like me about complex system dynamics, I highly recommend reading both.
(3) Just like supercritical fluids: during the transition they are neither gas, nor fluid, but both; without any clear distinction. Watch this fascinating video to have a picture how this otherworldly event might look like.
(4) It is worth noting, that almost every human activity contributes to climate change: deforestation, agriculture, not just burning fossil fuels (although the later has the biggest impact of all). The problem is that by abruptly stopping the later, we would pull the plug on the life-support system: no more feeding and clothing this many of us. In order for our species to have a chance at surviving there has to be a managed transition from this highly polluting, extractive and destructive way of life to a much less energy intensive, and in an ideal case: regenerative state of affairs.