Messing With Complexity

Photo of trees infested with MPB, from Canadian Forest Service
Bruce Sterling writes:

It’s both disquieting and liberating to realize that freedom doesn’t require any free will. Even phenomena as dumb and blind as lightning, wind and rain have what physicists like to call “sensitivity to initial conditions.” Deterministic chaos. The Butterfly Effect.

This means some tiny fate-altering sneeze of a butterfly can lead to a Category Five Caribbean-born storm pancaking the pylons and powerlines in Pensacola, Florida. Due to random whimsy, really. A hornet could do a hurricane just as well, or a housefly.

I reported recently about new research that suggests the cause of the collapse of the Atlantic fishery was neither overfishing and pollution (as environmentalists suggested) nor an abundance of seals (as the fishermen suggested), but global warming. The authors argued that the marine ecosystem is so complex that minor changes in air and ocean temperature can trigger major changes in species at the bottom of the food chain, which then ripple through the whole ecosystem, with dramatic, sudden and unpredictable consequences. ‘Unknowingness’ and unpredictability are the hallmarks of complex networks.

Now there’s evidence that the same thing could be happening to our forests. The emphasis in forest ecosystem stewardship has been on combating ‘invasive species’ like the Asian longhorn beetle, regulated cutting, replanting and fire management. But after five years and millions of dollars spent in BC and Alberta alone combating the mountain pine beetle (MPB), a native insect in Western highland coniferous forests, authorities have declared the battle lost. Billions of the insect have ravaged lodgepole pines and moved on to Douglas fir and interior spruce and other conifers. The focus now is on helping bankrupt loggers avoid bankruptcy and find another living.

They tried all the usual ‘complicated’ solutions: Clearcutting with monoculture replanting. Controlled burns. Spraying and pheromone trapping. Nothing worked. In the process, out of ignorance or opportunism other tree species were also cut down. The canopy cover has been lost. The fire danger of dead standing timber is substantial.

The real danger, however, is that the starving beetles have not only jumped to less hospitable conifers in their own mountain ecosystem, they’ve moved East and started to infest the Boreal forest. That’s the vast forest that covers half of Canada, from the Rockies to the Atlantic. It is one of the world’s great carbon sinks. And arborists say there is nothing standing in the way of the MPB devastating it, as it has devastated the mountain forests of BC and Alberta.

What’s going on here? Well, the entomologists say the MPB thrives when several years in a decade have warm winters and summer drought. That’s exactly what’s happened in the past decade. And many of the birds that eat the beetle have suffered inexplicable population losses. So the ecosystem is wildly unbalanced, and as a result already 9.2 million hectares (36,000 square miles) of forest is exhausted or severely stressed.

It’s the story of the Atlantic cod all over again, except this time instead of the devastation of marine life we’re looking at the devastation of a vast land area, and all the life that depends on it. All because one beetle exploited a small sustained climate change. The butterfly effect without wings.

So if all the complicated solutions don’t work, what should we do? The truth is we haven’t the foggiest idea. When it comes to complex networks, we don’t have a clue. We don’t know enough — can’t know enough — about such networks to analyze them and determine cause and effect. We can’t predict what will happen. We just don’t know. We’re helpless to ‘fix’ what is to us an unfathomable black box.

If we can’t fix it, we can leave it to the expert. Nature has been balancing unbalanced systems for billions of years.

And we can adapt. That’s what natural creatures do when environments change. My prescription, therefore, is radical and simple:

  1. We need to combat global warming with every instrument and program at our disposal. Contributing to it must be recognized and punished as the criminal behaviour it is. We need to radically alter our lifestyles to reduce carbon emissions by at least 90%, and damned soon.
  2. We need to adapt and become resilient to abrupt changes in our ecosystems. That means learning to live in a world without oil, coal, fish, and trees — and without the products (gasoline, plastics, chemicals, andnon-recycled wood and paper) made from them.

That’s what we get for messing with complexity, mucking with things we don’t understand. What will it take before we learn?

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6 Responses to Messing With Complexity

  1. John Frost says:

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this, but it’s a map of how the USDA’s Hardiness Zones have changed over the years. But still the US Gov’t denies global warming.

  2. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of how we have not learned the consequences of messing with complex system (e.g., introduced species, waste disposal, weather systems). Eventually we should learn from the past, but sometimes it takes awhile. Let’s hope we learn quickly.

  3. Dagny says:

    Perhaps global warming IS natural? The geological record suggests that earth has been warming -> cooling -> warming -> cooling over and over in very long cycles. Isn’t trying to alter this cycle yet another human _unnatural_ attempt to control nature?

  4. reader says:

    Dagny, The cycles you mention are closely tied to the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. When the gases go up, the earth warms. The problem is, there has never been this great a concentration of greenhouse gases on record. Do you understand the implications? People are not alarmed enough. Scientists are downplaying the risk for a number of reasons (being called alarmists, overdramatic, and inciting panick). But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. Frankly, we should be panicked.

  5. laodan says:

    Dave, for once, I subscribe with no reservation to the content of your conclusion: “So if all the complicated solutions don’t work, what should we do? The truth is we haven’t the foggiest idea. When it comes to complex networks, we don’t have a clue. We don’t know enough — can’t know enough — about such networks to analyze them and determine cause and effect. We can’t predict what will happen. We just don’t know. We’re helpless to ‘fix’ what is to us an unfathomable black box.”This implies that nature is, “in finale”, the grand architect and that it will thus eventually rebalance the harmony of the whole by erasing the aberrations of modernity. And this allows those of us who suffered deeply from this modern ugliness to find a respite, yes, this quietude you referred to some posts ago. At the end of this process what amazes me most is this discovery of the similarity in the message founding all traditional philosophies (animism, buddhism, taoism, shintoism,…) and religions (christianity, islam,…):- material possessions don’t procure happiness nor well-being. They are the expression of sheer vanity.- money can’t be used to generate more money (contrast that with our financial capitalism)What is even more enlightening is to discover that the message of those traditional philosophies and religions was devised by their wisemen based upon their observation of the rhythms of nature along the very long history. Contrast this with the rationalism of modernity that pretends to explain reality through its abstraction from any long haul observation of nature (nature meaning simply the rhythms of change along the long haul).Those of us who have deeply suffered from the ugliness wrought upon us by modernity should at last find some peace of mind knowing that nature shall eventually digest this ugliness and generate out of it fertile ground in which life shall have the chance to bloom anew. This projects our daily lives in a radically new perspective. Let nature take care of the rebalancing of the whole and let’s concentrate on freeing our daily lives from the clutches of modernity. Real freedom lays not in selecting who will manage the machine of modernity. Real freedom lays in our non depending upon modernity to sustain our daily lives…

  6. patti digh says:

    thanks for always making me think – deeper, wider, more intentionally. If you haven’t seen this article on “Swarm Theory,” you might appreciate its take on complexity – You may also find Conklin’s work on “wicked problems and tame solutions” to be of interest. – patti

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