November 7, 2022 ☼ The Intersection ☼ complexity ☼ public politics ☼ geopolitics ☼ information age
Unlike linear, deterministic systems, complex systems are characterised by emergence...things might suddenly fall into place and start to cascade.
Author’s note: This column is the result of research & serendipity. Over the past couple of years, I have been exploring upstream areas of science — evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, complexity theory — to get a better handle on addressing our public policy challenges.
A couple of weeks ago, Takshashila organised a workshop on complexity sciences & public policy that brought together over a dozen of the leading minds on the subject. Among the many insights I gained there, the “a-ha!” moment came when I realised that seeing the world as complex (as opposed to deterministic) creates massive grounds for hope. Why? Because in complex systems, there is emergence, path dependence, adaptation, cascading and evolution…which means that “repeating the same things expecting different results” is not insanity. In other words, causes are lost only when they are abandoned. Hope is a strategy!
Serendipitously, I read Thomas Homer-Dixon’s Commanding Hope a couple of days after the workshop and enjoyed the massive shot of confirmation bias. Homer-Dixon has a book length argument on why hope is the best response to the multiple crises we’re facing today.
Framing the contemporary coincidence of economic shocks, rising political violence, extreme weather events, the Covid-19 pandemic and intensifying geopolitical tensions as “the polycrisis”, Adam Tooze writes that “the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality.”
This is an unedited draft of The Intersection column, which appears every other Monday in Mint.
Now, there is little doubt that political, economic, cultural, ecological and informational matters are, and always have been, interconnected at multiple levels. In that sense every problem is a polyproblem and every crisis is a polycrisis. Earlier this year Bengaluru suffered unusual rains due to a change in the ecological system which was exacerbated by the changes in the global and local economy that changed the demography that changed the physical landscape and vehicular traffic that changed the culture which changed the political economy that changed the politics that was unable to manage the road network to prevent catastrophic flooding. Each of these is a familiar problem and we know that the problems are interconnected, and you really can’t solve one until you’ve addressed all the others.
My essay on East Pakistan is archived here.
It is no different in international relations. Most people are familiar with the birth of Bangladesh following a war between India and Pakistan in 1971. But a closer examination of the period shows that this outcome was not only a consequence of an ethnic crisis between Pakistan’s two wings, but of a natural disaster (Cyclone Bhola), an ideological crisis within international Communism, a geopolitical crisis between Cold War blocs, persistent economic crises in the subcontinent, a genocide and a humanitarian crisis concerning millions of refugees.
So everything is connected to everything else if you look thoroughly. So Tooze is justified in calling it the polycrisis, but his argument that this is an unprecedented and new phenomenon can be contested. He distinguishes the current situation from that of the past because then “you could still attribute your worries to a single cause — late capitalism, too much or too little economic growth, or an excess of entitlement. A single cause also meant that one could imagine a sweeping solution, be it social revolution or neoliberalism.” But like the blind men and the elephant, this only means that back in the 1970s and 80s, analysts were too preoccupied with the parts that they were concerned about and didn’t know or didn’t care enough about the interconnections.
Looking at public policy as a complex system of complex systems is accurate and helpful. In the 2000s, the Pentagon attacted journalistic derision when it published a dense and complicated chart showing how Afghan society, politics, state apparatus and the invaders’ structures were interconnected. It is unclear to what extent the US military brains trust used the model because it allowed policymakers to recognise that “success” beyond capturing al-Qaeda leaders would be hard to define, and harder to achieve. Seeing even part of the complexity makes you humble, and warns us against pursuing extravagant and ambitious policy adventures.
It also warns us against lazy attribution of causes. If people blamed “late stage capitalism” in the past, it was not because there was no polycrisis then; only that the causes were incompletely identified. Therefore, to the extent that polycrisis is an admission by the left-leaning intellectuals that blaming neoliberal capitalism won’t solve the problems, it is a good thing. Also, to the extent that people realise that fixating on a single facet of the crisis (say climate) might be counterproductive unless you address the other facets (socio-economic development, energy transition, technology adoption, geopolitical balance), the world might be able to find realistically achievable global optima.
One reason we are able to see interconnections between various crises today — as compared to a generation ago — is because we are in the Information Age. This has two effects. It supercharges the interconnections between the underlying systems. When a fisherman in Kerala has real-time information about US stockmarkets, financial crises become very different from the kind we saw in the 1970s. Information networks also make us better aware of the latest score in all of the various crises, changing the psychological landscape and, ultimately, politics.
That is why we must be careful when we discuss the polycrisis in the public sphere. While it is certainly helpful, it is also dangerous. If the complexity leads people to conclude that the problems are intractable, then a resigned public could collectively surrender, let leaders off the hook, or fall under the sway of demagogues.
Complex systems are characterised by emergence where sudden cascades are possible. That’s the reason to press on doing the right things.
On the contrary, the knowledge that the polycrisis is an outcome of the dynamics of complex systems should make us optimistic. There are meaningful things we can do. In politics, step off brinks. On climate, include adaptation as a goal. In society, cultivate compassion. As individuals, build resilience. In public discourse, fight anxiety with hope.
My rough notes on Commanding Hope
Thomas Homer-Dixon shows in his 2020 book Commanding Hope, it is when we understand that the world is a complex, non-deterministic system that we realise we can create virtuous cascades of the kind of change we wish to see. “A reinvigorated idea of hope”, he argues, “is an essential driver of these cascades.”
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