Complex Intractable Challenges: What to Do About New Orleans and Paris

Photo: Julie Fouchet/Taamallah Mehdi/SIPA for Time Magazine

I‘ve been writing a lot recently about complexity and how it serves to make many of our world’s most urgent and profound challenges intractable. Recent events have provided two extreme examples of this in New Orleans and Paris respectively. What radically different approaches might be used to address and cope with (not solve — complex intractable challenges are not simply problems with solutions) these challenges?

Let’s start with New Orleans. Chris Hallowell’s 2001 book, Holding Back the Sea, has just been updated to talk about the impact of Katrina, which the book predicted. His publicist, in an e-mail to me, provides this synopsis:

Proposals for houses on stilts and building higher levees will not necessarily protect New Orleans from another major storm. New Orleans was blessed with a protective barrier of spongy wetlands that naturally soaked up dangerous storm surges. Much of these wetlands have vanished (16,000 acres per year are still being lost) due to levee construction causing these protectives areas to sink. Professor Hallowell believes that best long-term solution requires massive movement of Mississippi River silt to the outlying wetlands at the mouth of the river, restoring the wetlands to their former strength and absorbency. “By trying to protect New Orleans with an artificial levee barrier, we have destroyed a far more effective natural barrier,” claims Hallowell.

So rebuilding the levees, even with massively expensive, higher, more high-tech barriers, will only raise the ante and delay the inevitable. And even if ‘massive movement of Mississippi River silt to the outlying wetlands at the mouth of the river’ were an affordable engineering and political possibility, to the point the levees could be removed, most of the existing economic activity in the area would have to be curtailed, reformed, or stopped altogether to prevent recurrence. What’s more, there is some real doubt whether the ‘renewed’ wetlands would evolve in anything like the way the now-destroyed wetlands evolved, in a succession cycle that took centuries — it is possible that just trying to ‘restart’ wetlands from something that looks like their pre-destruction form might actually set off a completely different, unpredictable succession cycle that might not protect New Orleans at all.

This is the gist of a complex problem: We cannot know all the variables and we therefore cannot predict what will happen with any useful degree of reliability. In such situations we cannot simply ‘impose solutions’ and have any expectation that they will achieve the desired results. We need to learn by trial and error, and minimize the damage in the process. The only sensible things we could do are simply unthinkable in a civilization that is incapable of understanding the complex consequences of its actions and radically altering its behaviours accordingly:

We could raze and remediate what’s left of New Orleans and move the entire population to a safer, rebuilt city inland. Then we could try Hallowell’s massive rebuilding of the marshlands using Mississippi River silt, assuming that wouldn’t set off other unforeseen and unacceptable ecological changes. And if that actually worked, we could then start a new New Orleans on the site of the old one, with rigid environmental safeguards to prevent economic activity from re-eroding the rebuilt wetlands. Of course, we’d also need strong environmental safeguards all the way up the Mississippi to ensure other areas of the country didn’t contribute to degrading the newly reconstructed area. And we’d need strong environmental safeguards to guarantee no severe oil-related ‘accidents’ in the Gulf.

Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Ergo, intractability. So what we will do is all we, foolish, short-sighted, limited (in resources, money, and imagination) humans can do: We will throw some government money at traditional engineering projects — levees — to raise the ante with mother nature, we will ‘encourage’ (bribe) the rich and powerful in the area to want to reinvest in the city, we will leave the weak and poor, as always, to fend for themselves with what if anything ‘trickles down’, and we will throw the dice and gamble with lives and the environment.

And when that doesn’t work, either because we run out of money or because nature responds next year with a more precise hit on the city, we’ll do what we always do when the cost of cleaning up our mess gets too high: We’ll walk away from it, like the giant toxic waste site it has already become, and leave nature to clean it up in her own good time, and we’ll build elsewhere.

We shouldn’t shed any tears or lose any sleep over this completely unsatisfactory ‘solution’. There are no simple solutions to complex ‘problems’. We cannot be other than who we are, and that is what we (and all creatures for that matter) do under such circumstances.

If you’re not sufficiently outraged yet, I’m going to take a similar tack in describing approaches for Paris.

Let’s start by dispelling some myths: What’s happening in Paris (and will inevitably soon expand, copycat-style, to other cities) has almost nothing to do with religion. The Paris suburbs are very much like America’s inner city cores: While Americans fled to the suburbs to escape new immigrant populations from dating their daughters, abandoning the cores to the poorest new immigrants, in Paris (and some other European cities) the whites stayed put in their more durable cities and forced the new immigrants to find cheaper places to live in the outer suburbs. So many of Paris’ outer suburbs, like America’s inner city ghettos, are filled with new immigrants, poor, unemployed and unemployable, uneducated, desperate, often uncomfortable with the native language, ostracized and disliked by the whites, bored and angry. The violence has been, for the most part, random, acts against property rather than people, and completely unorganized — spontaneous, in fact.

The politicians, like their counterparts everywhere, are merely fanning the flames for personal political advantage, making a bad situation worse. The media, like their counterparts everywhere, are encouraging an increase and a spread of the violence by rushing to film every burning car and giving vandals their own reality TV show. Religious leaders on all sides, like their counterparts everywhere, are exploiting the situation to garner new recruits for their particular brand of mindless groupthink. Without the interference from the politicians, media and religious leaders, the uproar over the original incident would have died down quickly.

The $64 thousand question now is whether this copycat violence will jump the Atlantic.

Part of the problem, admittedly, is racism, by the white French in general and by the police in particular. The French program of requiring quick integration of minorities into the culture so that new immigrants and the poor feel their situation is their own fault, rather than systemic discrimination, has been much less successful than the comparable American program. This is probably because the US has learned from the race riots of the 1960s, which are a close analogue to the current French rioting. In the aftermath of that, American liberals and conservatives alike spouted the American Dream myth (anyone with ambition and hard work can accomplish anything they want in America, without breaking the law), and even supported token minority quotas to give the myth some credibility. It doesn’t matter that study after study has shown that your chances of escaping the economic underclass are lower in the US than in almost any other affluent country. If enough people, including people who purport to really care about other people, repeat a myth, it becomes undeniable.

There is no comparable rÍve franÁais to suppress the discontent of the immigrants in Paris’ desperate and isolated outer suburbs. The ‘hand-up’ social support infrastructure in Western Europe means that their immigrants are not so destitute as those in the American ‘help yourself’ system, but they are more sanguine of the fact that the system is rigged against them than most of the well-indoctrinated American minorities.

So what approach could be taken to resolve this intractable situation? The one that has been rumoured by French right-wingers to be the goal of ‘provocative’ Islamic religious leaders is autonomy. Let them establish, govern and run their own communities, and police themselves. This uggestion causes most of the French, who believe in integration, to gasp. It would be an admission of failure of an important political ideal. For that reason, it will never happen. It is also doubtful whether in this situation it could really work — self-run communities only work when people in them can choose which community to belong to, and can vote with their feet when the rest of the community does something they don’t like. The people in these suburbs are here because there is no other place for them to go.

The tired ‘solution’ of harsher law enforcement is equally unworkable. The police, it is reported, have been quite content to let the arson of empty vehicles continue — they are smart enough to know that wading into such a situation will only aggravate it. They have focused their attention on crimes against people. Stricter laws and more police are not the answer, as Freakonomics has argued so effectively.

The other proposal from the right is stricter immigration laws. That approach actually makes some sense — provided it can be equitably enforced so that people of no nation or race are favoured (difficult but not impossible). It could well keep the situation from getting worse, but it won’t make it go away. Many of the minorities in France and other European countries are second and third generation — they are French through and through. But they are still discriminated against, economically disadvantaged, and ghettoized. Here’s my complete approach, as improbable as the one I suggested above for New Orleans.

Introduce a thorough and rigorous entrepreneurship program in all high schools and universities. Change laws to make it easier to establish and succeed in your own business and to employ others, by leveling the playing field and by shifting taxes from employment to the use of non-renewable resources and the production of non-reusable and waste materials. Provide a safety net that protects you — once — from the economic consequences of your business failing. Radically decentralize authority, so that more decisions can be made locally by the people themselves, while vigilantly monitoring standards of regulation and enforcement to ensure they are equally applied everywhere. Use government policy to redistribute wealth from rich communities to poor, in granting contracts and establishing locations for government services. Restrict immigration in a non-discriminatory way to levels that do not threaten either the existing social fabric or the carrying capacity of the country’s land and infrastructure.

This is unlikely to happen, but I have a sense it isn’t as impossible as the approach I suggested for New Orleans. I don’t know if that’s because the Europeans are ahead of us in North America in their social evolution, or because the scale of the challenge in New Orleans is more massive.

I’m not an expert in any of the disciplines that would be needed to vet the approaches I have outlined above, so it may be that, beyond being very difficult to do, they might not work. But I offer them as an example of the kind of complex thinking (no one size fits all, no single action fixes anything) that we need to start applying to the complex challenges we are grappling with today — and will grapple with more and more in the future.

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12 Responses to Complex Intractable Challenges: What to Do About New Orleans and Paris

  1. Voltron says:

    Links to the “study after study has shown that your chances of escaping the economic underclass are lower in the US than in almost any other affluent country. “Probably the same one’s Krugman referenced in his article that was completely destroyed here:

  2. John Frost says:

    While I like your solution, it is about as likely to be implemented as me sprouting wings right. In the meantime, lack of jobs seems to be a problem that can be immediately tackled both in France and other industrial nations with high unemployment and high underemployment. Implement a Works Project Administration (arguably the most successful gov’t program in the US other than medicare) for the 21st century. Don’t stop with building parks and other physical world projects, but also build public access points to the internet. Construct virtual meeting spaces, training programs, and playgrounds. In France, they’re concerned about cultural assimilation. We’ll no one will assimilate unless they feel they have a stake in the culture. This would be a giant step in that direction.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Voltron: Hardly destroyed. There have been many studies of this. The statistics on quintiles are irrelevant. The issue is whether if you’re poor, your children have more than a tiny chance of being not poor by legal means. In the US the answer to that is simply no.John: Excellent idea. And it fits with the French culture too.

  4. Molly says:

    While I am intrigued by this thought process, and your consideration of these issues that seem so fraught with racism, contentious history, conficting values, etc., it seems to me that the solutions you pose ARE imposed — which is what you said in the beginning of the essay will not work on these complex intractable problems (‘In such situations we cannot simply ‘impose solutions’.’). In both cases, you seem to me to suggest that the government impose programs, policies, tax consequences, etc. Am I misunderstanding the concept of “imposed”?

  5. Lisa says:

    *Second try without the HTML*Re: the French riots and religion. Although religion wasn’t the origin of the riots, the rioters are nevertheless uniting around their Islamic identiyy. This identity colours their actions. If France had a 10% minority population of Hindus or Buddhists, for example, would they choose they same mode of protest? Also, why would French Muslim clerics have bothered to issue a fatwa Monday if they did not recognize how religion is fuelling the fire?Your statement that the riots are unorganized is simply not true. Although the riots may have begun spontaneously, Villepin has publicly stated that the rioters are using cell phone text messaging to coordinate attacks and evade police. As you’ve indicated, there’s a lot of complexity here. And the solution is not as simple as good jobs and “integration”. Canada’s relatively more affluent and better integrated (not to mention significantly smaller) Muslim community organized itself and almost succeeded in getting the province of Ontario to recognize the limited use of Islamic law in divorce, child custody and inheritance disputes involving their community. The French Muslim leaders who are advocating autonomy/secession for their communities within France may have a broader Islamic agenda in mind.

  6. FishEpid says:

    With regard to teaching entrepreneuship in high school, how does one teach it? What is the course content? Using what methods and materials? Good books – is there such a thing? As a didactic class or as an experiential lab? Is it even possible to teach entrepreneurship, as judged by outcomes, or does it have to be mentored? IMO the personality of most teachers is considerably different than that of successful entrepreneurs. Controlling, rigid, rule oriented, risk adverse vs. thriving on risk, fueled by adrenaline, to heck with the rules (the useless, toothless ones anyway). Can most anyone be a successful entrepreneur? Or is there empirical evidence on what makes a successful vs. unsuccessful entrepreneur that can be used in prediction of success? Should students be selected for such a program and, if so, on what criteria? Or should it be on the basis of interest with the survival of the successful? Any successful models out there?

  7. Jon Husband says:

    Re:In both cases, you seem to me to suggest that the government impose programs, policies, tax consequences, etc. Am I misunderstanding the concept of “imposed”?Isn’t it the case that governments everywhere pass, and change legislation to encourage and/or create desired outvocomes ? And might it not be the case that some governments, having gotten the conditions for an extant and connected plutocracy just about right, now would work ferociously to spread the disinformation that the current version of *free* enterprise and *free* markets shouldn’t be much tampered with ? Isn’t this belief maybe what many American/North American minds been infected with ?

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Molly: As Jon says, it’s related to the issue of attractors and barriers in complex systems. By ‘imposed’ solutions I mean fiats like curfews, mandatory deportations etc. Economic incentives e.g. to create employment aren’t imposed, they’re enabling. The differents is important and substantive.Anne: The clerics, like the pols and the media, are exploiting and inflaming the situation, but that’s not where it started. And when i said unorganized I meant there is no top-down mastermind group — with new technology peer-to-peer communications can coordinate individual actions, but I think that falls far short of ‘organized’.FishEpid: Please read my articles on Natural Enterprise to answer this. ‘Teaching’ s/b done by self-study of the concepts of new business formation in the new economy, visits with entrepreneurs with tours, Q&A etc., and evaluation by other entrepreneurs of students’ new business plans. It’s more facilitated learning than teaching — no lectures, no classroom, no tests.

  9. Lisa says:

    Hi Dave, I agree there’s no mastermind behind these events (there never is). But when you say, “The clerics, like the pols and the media, are exploiting and inflaming the situation, but that’s not where it started“, I would answer that the most important question is no longer where it started, but where it’s headed. Economic and social solutions are great, but my point is that there other factors involved that may take on a life of their own. By the way, I love the pic in the new post above of the dog looking at the songbird.

  10. Molly says:

    Oh. I took “imposed” to mean that an authority (above or external to the “problem” or system) imposes a solution onto a system or onto others in the system, and I thought you were saying this strategy wouldn’t work in complex situations. Your use of imposed seems to imply a mandate, something that happens to us vs. something like incentives, which we are theoretically able to choose. I wonder if in practice there is such a strong distinction …

  11. Raging Bee says:

    Are “complex” problems really “intractible?” Or does it just seem that way to someone who routinely deletes posts that offer factual rebuttals to his own views? Good luck helping the poor in their heroic struggles…

  12. erwin spriet says:

    With Anne Penkill, I feel that apparently, riots in France are not as unorganized as you put it. The peer-to-peer communications you refer to Dave, include of course the use of internet. There probably is indeed no mastermind authority behind the events, but that is not exactly what I would expect in these viral marketing times.On the other hand one should not forget that over the last fifteen years -and more- France has launched an important number of initiatives aiming at helping and supporting the underprivileged groups. Making a little effort, acronyms come to mind such as e.g. HVS, ZEP, LOV, SRV, ZFU. There must have been a dozen or so more launched by every prime minister France has had since the mid-eighties: Rocard, Juppé, Tapie and all the others. ZFU for example stands for “Zônes Franches Urbaines”, free zones for boosting self employment and entrepreneurship. Maybe France needs “a thorough and rigorous entrepreneurship program” as you suggest, but that goes for the whole of Western Europe. An interviewee on French channel TV5 declaring he has multiple diplomas such as nurse, plumber and central heating mechanic, says he doesn’t understand why no employer gives him a job. He should run his own business instead of waiting for some employer! Was the French government ‘imposing’ programs or ‘enabling’? Was it too little? too late? too scattered? Rioters say they have a “mépris général” for the country and its leaders. All these years French leaders came up with programs that were apparently beside the point: Ask, and people will guess at what they do. Watch them, and you’ll know. (Your opening on nov. 11th) By the way, that goes for both: politicians and vandals alike.

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