COMPLICATED & COMPLEX SYSTEMS

Modern reductionist methods are well adapted to dealing with complicated (as opposed to complex) systems.  In a complicated system like an automobile or a computer, though there may be many variables, the variables are more of less independent.  If the system isn’t working, you can troubleshoot it by isolating and testing the variables one by one.  You can also generate predictable macroscopic effects through controlling one or a limited number of variables.  Complicated systems are therefore amenable to a piecemeal approach to problem-solving.  The whole is equal to the sum of the parts and causal relationships are generally linear.  To understand and manage a large, complicated system, you divide it up into lots of pieces and assign a team to work on each piece.  The entire structure of academia reflects this approach, with its divisions into relatively autonomous disciplines and sub-disciplines.

The top-down control-based approach that works for complicated systems fails miserably to manage complex systems.  In a complex system, variables are dependent, causal relationships are non-linear, and a small change to one element of the system can dramatically alter the whole.  No part can be understood in isolation, but only with reference to an extended web of relationships to other parts.  In complex systems, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; therefore any reductionist analysis of the system will fail to understand it, and attempts to isolate and alter variables will generate unintended and unpredictable consequences.

Bodies, ecosystems, genomes, societies, and the planet are complex systems.  It is tempting to view them otherwise – as extremely complicated machines – because then we can apply our familiar methods of top-down problem-solving and feel like we are in control of the situation.  The epitome of this illusion is war thinking, and it extends to every technology of control, from border walls to antibiotic drugs to concrete waterways.  Each ends up generating awful unintended consequences, usually including the very opposite of what it was attempting to control (immigration, disease, flooding).

Any narrative, like the Standard Narrative of climate change, is a lens that illuminates some things and obscures others.  it obscures, unfortunately, some of the very things we need to pay attention to most if planet Earth is going to heal.  In the geochemical view, such things as topsoil erosion, pesticides, aquifer depletion, biodiversity loss, conservation of whales or elephants, toxic and radioactive waste, and so on were once seen (and in many cases still are seen) as relatively inconsequential to climate change.  Such oversights are understandable if we see Earth as a fantastically complicated machine.  If we see Earth as alive, then we know that of course destroying its living tissue will render it unable to deal with fluctuations of atmospheric components.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
https://charleseisenstein.org/books/climate-a-new-story/

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