Politics on the edge of chaos

The times they are a changing! Following the vote to leave the European Union, whether we like it or not, life in the UK will change. Even if, by some miracle, we do not end up leaving the EU, British political and economic life will never be the same. Whilst many ‘brexiteers’ dream that these changes will be the dawn of a golden age and a cure for all our ills, many others feel that we are sleep walking into chaos. I would probably situate myself in the latter category – but (potentially at least) in a positive way. I don’t think a little chaos will do us too much harm. It could even do us some long term good!

Critics of the current government, quite correctly in my view, point to the lack of a basic plan as to not only how they should respond to the vote to leave, but to what leaving actually means. The government itself appears chaotic, with one crisis following another; their negotiations with the EU regarding our terms of leaving reflecting this chaos. At the heart of all this is the fear of uncertainty. People from other EU countries living and working in the UK obviously fear the uncertainties regarding their status, whilst business leaders point to their need for certainty on a number of key economic issues. However, if we take a lesson from complexity science we should be re-assured that too much certainty is as unhealthy for us as too little certainty, that too much order is as bad as chaos, a total lack of order; that systems are at their healthiest, and at their most creative, when they are on the edge of chaos.

Complex systems are systems that have a very large number of highly connected parts. Whilst these parts are usually only connected to each other at the local level, to their immediate neighbours, by relatively simple ‘rules’, because of the overall richness of these connections, and due to features such as feed-back loops, the flows of energy or information through the system produce phenomena that cannot be reduced to their parts. Any living cell or organism is an example of such a system, as are individual plants or animals, as are any colony of plants or animals. Nature presents us with sets of such systems nested within larger, more complex (greater number of parts and degree of connectivity) systems, which in turn are nested in even more complex systems – and so on and so forth. None on these systems are closed: there are flows of energy not only within each system, but through them – flows that connect them together. And most importantly, the greater the complexity, the greater the degree of uncertainty.

OK, end of science lesson. If you want to know more contact me and I’ll recommend some excellent books on the subject. The point I’m getting to is this. Any system you look at is nested within a larger system that forms its immediate environment – an environment that is constantly changing due of the complexity of its environment. In order to survive, any system needs to be capable of adapting to changes in its environment – changes that it has no control over. If a system has too much order, if the ‘rules’ that hold it together are too rigid, it becomes incapable of responding to these environmental changes and eventually stagnates. On the other hand, if the system is chaotic, if there is too little order, too few ‘rules’, then any change in its environment forces it to simply break-up. A system is at its healthiest when it has sufficient order to keep its parts connected when change occurs, but not so much order that these connections are prevented from adapting to the changes. Such a system is often described as being ‘on the edge of chaos’. This is the point when it is also at its most creative.

Social systems are complex systems – possibly the most complex systems we can image. Their parts are individual human beings connected to each other by sets of habits, norms and laws. If these sets of connections are too rigid, too prescribed, there is little or no room for innovation. There is no social action outside of what is permitted. Such a social system would be fairly described as totalitarian. All such systems are doomed to fail at some point – they simply do not possess the ability to respond to perturbations in their environment. And one of the few certainties in life (other than death and taxes) is that the environment will change at some point – sometimes radically.

The hippy or anarchist dream of total freedom is equally doomed to failure. Any social system held together with very few or very weak norms and laws may be idyllic whilst its environment is benign, but if and when a sudden change in that environment creates a severe perturbation to the system it will simply break up. But such perturbations should not be feared. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that they should be welcomed with open arms. They are not only a way of testing both the robustness and the flexibility of any social system, but also its potential for creative adaptation. But to be truly creative we may need to go to the very edge. Much needs changing in society, but history has shown that revolutions do not work; they end in either chaos or totalitarianism. Healthy and creative change takes place at the edge chaos.

Back To The Future

A report in today’s online edition of the Guardian (03.11.17) warns that “Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers around the world face their cities being inundated by rising seawaters if latest UN warnings that the world is on course for 3C of global warming come true.” Before you read on, please stop and attempt to imagine just how many people that is. Hundreds of millions!

This estimate is based on three degrees of warming melting sufficient ice for sea levels to rise up to two metres. A rise of ‘only’ fifty centimetres would submerge 10% of Bangladesh. A two metre rise would result in many major cities across the world, including Miami and Shanghai, being submerged. Where are all the residents of these now underwater cities going to move to? If we think that we have global immigration problems now, what will it be like when this almost unimaginable number of people start to look for places of relative safety to move their families to? Or, more pertinently, why are we not taking this threat far more seriously and being far more proactive in taking preventative action – now? Part of the problem are the time scales involved. According to the UN scientists, we are on course to hit three degrees of warming by the end of the century – and we are just not very good at dealing with such a temporal distance.

During the course of their evolutionary history, humans have never had to deal with such long range predictions. Consequently, as Antony Giddens points out in his The Politics of Climate Change, “People find it hard to give the same level of reality to the future as they do to the present”. This is a phenomenon that social psychologists term ‘future discounting’. It means that a small reward or risk possibly impacting on our lives tomorrow is of far greater significance than a larger reward or risk that is likely have an impact next year, and that next year’s potential reward or risk is of far greater consequence than any that might have an impact in ten or twenty years time. The future seems to gradually fade away into ever increasing obscurity, loosing both focus and reality. So, how can we bring the future into some degree of focus?

It is at this point that I have a problem. I face a paradox in my thinking. According to one fork of my dilemma, I am forced to accept that life is inherently uncertain. All life, and social life in particular, is highly interdependent, highly complex and very dynamic. Following complexity science, this means that, because of the sheer scale of connectivity and the number of feedback loops involved, novel features and phenomena should be expected but accurate predictions should not. In fact, the only certainty is that we should expect unexpected. In terms of the accuracy in predicting the future you only need look at the claims that have been made by ‘futurist’ television programmes (like Tomorrow’s World), together with those contained in science fiction films and novels, to realise just how difficult (if not down right impossible) it is. Whilst on the other hand, how many of the technologies that have really changed our lives (like the internet and mobile phones / computers) were actually predicted?

But according to the other fork of my dilemma, I just can’t avoid the belief that ignoring the views of 97% of climate scientists, whose claims are based on solid empirical evidence, and whose predictions are often expressed in terms of probability rather than certainty, is not just poor risk management, but is unethical in the extreme. One area of ethics that is insufficiently discussed is our responsibility to future generations. Surely we have a moral obligation to our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and all the generations that follow? An obligation to have not allowed huge areas of habitable space and food growing land to be consumed by the oceans? An obligation to have not allowed mean global temperatures to have risen to such an extent that the amount of land with a climate capable of supporting human life has been reduced to a tiny percentage of the Earth’s surface? No, ignoring these predictions is unethical in the extreme. But how do we overcome our predisposition to future discounting? How do make the predictions for ninety year’s time feel real and relevant?

One way forward would be to return the past, to ancient Athens and the ethics and politics of Aristotle. In his ethics, Aristotle argued that when we act we do so to achieve some end that we consider to be good, and that when we examine these various ends we quickly discover that they are not just ends in themselves, but means to some further end, some greater good. This process can be continued until we arrive at the greatest good. This good he named eudaimonia, a term that has often been translated as happiness, but is more accurately translated as flourishing. Likewise, in his politics he argued states are partnerships formed with the aim of achieving some good, and that “the partnerships that [are] most authoritative of all…aim at the most authoritative good of all.” Collective eudaimonia.

In these terms our political partnerships are about working together to achieve the flourishing of human life. This is the greatest good, and the final end of any number of personal means and ends relationships. If we could develop a common conception of what flourishing would entail for the whole of human life on Earth we would have a Common Good that would provide the end point and goal of all our individual stories. It would unite these stories into a common narrative and make the future seem a very real concept, one that has both a rational and emotional dimension and establishes an ethical commitment to future generations.