Changing Things That Don’t Make Sense

I coined Pollard’s Law of Complexity nearly 20 years ago, to try to sum up what I thought was the most important practical learning from my years of study of complexity theory. Here’s how I worded it:


Things are the way they are for a reason. To change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex (and it usually is), success at truly understanding and changing it is unlikely, and developing workarounds and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. Complex systems evolve to self-sustain and resist reform until they finally collapse.

To the extent we’re talking about changes to human social systems (including political, economic/financial, educational and health care systems), this law is further subject to Pollard’s other law:


Humans seem to have evolved to do what they must (the personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then do what’s easy, and then do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are seen as merely important. As a result, social, political and economic change happens only when the old generation dies and a new generation with different entrained beliefs and imperatives fills the power vacuum. Despite this, we have evolved to be a collaborative and caring species, and we are all doing our best — in fact we cannot do otherwise.

Over the years, these hypotheses that I’ve pretentiously called laws, have been subject to two main criticisms. The first is that they devalue and demoralize true change initiatives, and overlook laudable successes in movements for change. While I applaud these apparent advances, both John Gray’s Straw Dogs and Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress make, I think, a very strong argument that such ‘advances’ merely corrected obvious and untenable aberrations in the Human Experiment, and also that such advances are tenuous, offset throughout history by equally giant steps backwards, and often subject to revocation when times get tough or violent. I apologize if I come across as a defeatist or doomer, but from my study of history and prehistory, that seems to be the way things work.

More recently I’ve been challenged on the Law of Complexity on the grounds that its wording seems to be validating or supporting “the way things are”. When I say “things are the way they are for a reason”, I’m not passing a moral judgement; I’m not saying it’s a “good” reason.

In a recent discussion with Stuart Ramsing, something he said made we wonder if I was missing something. He said “We shouldn’t put too much trust in the assumption that just because something currently exists, that it necessarily makes sense.”

Things that currently are “the way things are” but which at least today don’t make sense, might, for example, include:

    1. things that happened by accident (eg the evolution of feathers to keep birds warm and cool — their original evolutionary purpose — that later by exaptation enabled flight, once it emerged that they could also serve this purpose), or
    2. things that were arbitrarily imposed through coercion by those with power (eg colonial ‘national’ boundaries, fiat currencies, interest-bearing debt, and even slavery, which still exists in many places and in many forms) when they either never really made sense, or no longer make sense; or
    3. things that were once considered at least ‘good enough’ but are now anachronistic (eg four-way intersections, the imperial measurement system, daylight saving time, anthems at sporting events) yet remain because of the inertia of the existing system.

So suppose we were to differentiate, in the Law of Complexity, between (a) things that are the “way they are” as a result of having emerged for an obvious and understandable reason and (b) things that are the “way they are” by accident or coercive imposition, or which are now anachronistic. And if it’s one of the latter,  is it likely to have the same positive (reinforcing) feedback loops keeping it entrenched that more naturally emergent aspects of the way things are, do?

An example of a “naturally emergent” “way things are” might be our current addiction to fossil fuels, which is sustained by several positive (reinforcing) feedback loops. We observe for example that when improvements are made in auto fuel efficiency, drivers of those more efficient vehicles tend to drive farther than they would have in gas guzzlers, reinforcing the seemingly insatiable appetite for fossil fuels and defeating the promising intervention of fuel-saving innovations or standards.

We can “make sense” of this entrenchment and addiction (though we might wish it were otherwise) by studying and understanding driving and buying behaviours and propensities. The consequences of this self-reinforcing system are highly undesirable, and possibly disastrous, but we can understand why the system is so hard to change. It will cease to be a problem when our socioeconomic system permanently collapses in a few decades, but in the meantime we are unlikely to be able to significantly change it. Rather than beating our head against the wall pointlessly, we might be better to focus our energies on other change initiatives. (I can hear objections that we might solve this by just banning fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, but I could describe a whole series of reinforcing feedback loops that explain why we haven’t already done so.) Simple “solutions” to complex predicaments are almost invariably flawed by failure to understand why things are “the way they are”.

So let’s look at our civilization’s systemic racism and xenophobia as an example of something that is “the way things are”, but which on the surface doesn’t make sense. It’s too easy and too simplistic to argue that this exists solely because of greed or pathology (though that may in part be true).

Just this week, Tom Cotton, an overtly racist US senator who’s running unopposed for re-election in November, declared that slavery was a “necessary evil” and announced plans to prohibit an anti-slavery program called the 1619 Project from being taught to schoolchildren. He’s the same guy who authored the NYT editorial calling for sending in the military to quell the BLM protests (it seems he’s now got his wish). How can this attitude still prevail to the point the Democrats couldn’t even be bothered to run a candidate against him, four centuries after the start of the slavery he doesn’t want American schoolkids to even know about?

A survey of millennials in 2017 suggested that, unlike African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx Americans, half of white millennials did not think Trump was a racist, and a similar number thought BLM protestors were “not very different” from white nationalists (this was shortly after the Charlottesville shooting and car attack by white extremists). Even more white millennials thought the confederate flag was a source of pride, and opposed removing confederate statues. And this was across the US, not just in the south. So if a Tom Cotton Jr were to run for office a generation from now, he’d probably be a shoo-in too, especially as every generation tends to get more conservative as they get older (the boomers who stopped the Vietnam War are now the most conservative and hawkish voters in the US).

Like their parents and grandparents, millennials get their political views from their peers and their parents. Although they are more likely to grow up in communities with more BIPOC neighbours and classmates than previous generations, this survey suggests white millennials are not mixing with and sharing political thoughts with BIPOC millennials. As long as that continues, systemic racism is likely to continue unabated. No matter that much of it may be unconscious.

Four centuries this has been going on. And still it is entrenched. It seems we’re not going to change it with wars, with laws, with education, or with information. If we want to end systemic racism we have to smash the system that produces it — the police system, the prison system, the military system, and the patriarchal political/corporatist system with its “old boys” network. The alternatives are just to adapt to it and work around it (for another four centuries?), or to just wait until it collapses due to its dysfunction and unsustainability (which will happen soon, but for many, understandably, not soon enough).

Is this systemic racism and xenophobia across generations, which really makes no sense, “the way it is” for a reason? And if so, what is that reason? And, since it makes no sense, is it more readily changeable than existing problems and abominations that we can at least understand the rationale for?

I think there might be some clues in the ease with which laws that discriminated against LGBT+ persons have been overturned. There was no reason for them; they never made sense. Just about all of us know someone who has suffered from these arbitrary laws. So why did this happen so easily so quickly (so far; there could of course be backsliding, and that fight is far from over) when after four centuries racism still seems intractable?

Ibram X Kendi argued back in 2017 that systemic racism remains because racists see racism and the oppression of Blacks as being in their self-interest:

Protesting against racist power and succeeding can never be mistaken for seizing power. Any effective solution to eradicating American racism must involve Americans committed to anti-racist policies seizing and maintaining power over institutions, neighbourhoods, counties, states, nations – the world. It makes no sense to sit back and put the future in the hands of people committed to racist policies, or people who sail with the wind of self-interest. An anti-racist America can only be guaranteed if principled anti-racists are in power, and then anti-racist policies become the law of the land, and then anti-racist ideas become the common sense of the people, and then the anti-racist common sense of the people holds those anti-racist leaders and policies accountable.

This makes sense. You could put the word “capitalist” in place of “racist” and it would equally make sense (that’s not to in any way equate struggles against racism with struggles against capitalism). And yet there seemingly was no similar need for a seizing of power in order to radically and quickly change prevailing attitudes against homosexuality. Is that because the LGBT+ community is seen as less of a threat to the self-interest of the rest of society than the BIPOC community? If so, how can racism be so prevalent and so extreme even in cities like Dubuque, Iowa that are 97% white? Where exactly is the threat to them?

Perhaps it’s all about fear. I’ve argued before that anger is usually a mask for fear, and fear is endemic in our modern society, likely rooted in a mix of trauma and reactivity stirred up by fear-mongers through the enormous power of the media, both mainstream and social. They can make us fear things we normally wouldn’t even know about (like “murder hornets”). It’s profitable. It’s effective. It’s “the way things are”. Most of us now probably vote out of fear of the person or party we vote against, rather than for anyone. Trump (from NYC!) and other fear-mongers have found it pathetically easy to prey on the fears that many in small towns, and even some in suburbs, have of the “big city”, by simply wildly exaggerating its dangers.

If fear is what underlies racism, what is it that racists are afraid of? They are, perhaps, afraid of people who aren’t “like” them, people who are strangers to them and whose beliefs and motivations they don’t understand. They may be afraid of what seems to be out of control, or out of their control. They’re afraid of failure, and even the admission of failure. And they’re afraid of loss, and of not having enough, in our collapsing civilization of created scarcity.

Like most fears, these fears don’t make much sense, particularly in as far as they underlie racism, yet they are “the way things are”. Are they still subject to Pollard’s Depressing Law of Complexity?

I would reluctantly suggest they are. On a small scale we can combat and overcome fears by helping people see that these fears are unwarranted. All kinds of issues have been resolved by amazing representative assemblies of people who initially largely feared and hated each other, but who, through familiarity, came to appreciate and support each other’s positions. But these kinds of initiatives simply don’t scale. We can’t systematically make people unafraid, especially when the media are busy stirring up new fears and anxieties. While the humanist ideal that if we just got to know each other better and see each other’s circumstances we’d soon all be on the same page, may be completely valid, it is just an ideal, and one that is completely impractical in a world of 7.8B struggling and damaged people.

And while the humanists’ solution is hopelessly idealistic, Ibram’s seizing-of-power solution, which is equally valid in theory, is equally unlikely in practice. It may happen in a few places on a small scale (the toppling of racism-glorifying statues and the prohibition of flags and other symbols that promote hate, for example), but in a complex society of millions or billions, there are just too many reinforcing feedback loops sustaining the status quo to fundamentally change it.

A guaranteed annual income for all is a terrific, necessary, affordable idea, but, even if it were to happen, it wouldn’t solve the global intractable problems of racism and xenophobia, which are arguably getting worse each year rather than better as the stresses of civilizational collapse deepen. That’s no reason not to strive for a guaranteed annual income (and free decent universal health care and education, and a bunch of other no-brainer initiatives that could make the world a safer, saner place to live). But we should be sanguine about what we expect these things to accomplish.

This is what I mean in Pollard’s Law of Complexity when I talk about adaptations and workarounds to “the way things are”, instead of hoping to fundamentally change them.

That is not of course to excuse or defend racism or xenophobia, which are outrageous, insidious and tragic. It’s simply to say that even though they don’t make sense, they are intractable parts of entrenched global systems that are the way they are for a reason — not a good reason, but a reason.

So as we work to make things better at scales and in ways that are achievable, we can perhaps take solace in the knowledge that as our global civilization’s collapse accelerates, everything is going to change, in ways we cannot imagine. And then, things that were “the way things were”, whether for reasons sensible or senseless, will cease to be so, and we’ll have the chance to start again, and maybe, next time, come together to make things not only “the way they are” but the way they could be, for all of us remaining.

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