“Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organised.”
Terry Pratchett. Thief of Time
Through a glass, darkly
Certainty and predictability are fundamental elements for any planning process, and utterly vital for economic and investment decisions.
However, the scale and scope of ecological and social disruption envisaged by many reliable organisations and institutions over the coming decades raise some hard questions (see these from the Strategic Foresight Group) about how well humanity will fare in the coming decades.
The coming decades may result in new limits to certainty. Put simply, in a fast changing world, the assumptions that have steered us to where we are now are increasingly ill-suited for guiding our pathway forward.
The increasing dissonance between how far we can see, what we see when we look and how far we are planning, manifests in two dimensions:
- Firstly, the divergence between the future that many studies show is coming – of restricted resources, competition for food and water, unstable climate and social disruption – and the future that we are currently planning for – a continuation of business as usual, and:
- Secondly, the impacts that a “business as usual trajectory” has upon the predictability of the future. This is a feedback loop. The more we ignore the need for change the less predictable the change we will be forced into undertaking will be.
The first category was highlighted recently by no lesser figure than the Governor of the Bank of England, not a role usually held by a scaremonger or Jeremiah. In a speech to the World Bank in December 2014, Mark Carney highlighted what he called a “tragedy of horizons”, an emerging dissonance between recognisable problems with clear future implications and the adequate integration of the risks into corporate planning, financial valuation and risk analysis. This means that the value of companies today is calculated without enough reference to the fundamental contextual challenges that they will face in the future.
A simple expression of this challenge would be a car heading to a business meeting hurtling off the road and towards a ravine. Meanwhile, inside, the passengers discuss how rich the deal they are (still) planning to execute will make them.
This mismatch of ambition and likely outcome was categorised by Mark Carney as a “market failure”. I have previously categorised it (with wilful understatement) as a “Restraint of Future Trade”.
The second category is somewhat more difficult to get your head around, because it requires us to acknowledge and come to terms with just how much we don’t know, and furthermore don’t understand, about the world, its complexity and the limits of reliable prediction.
A light in the darkness – the Lyapunov exponent
“…no gluing together of partial studies of a complex nonlinear system can give a good idea of the behavior of the whole.”
Don’t despair though! There is a useful (if only in a metaphorical sense) tool that might help to navigate such a murky future.
It is called the Lyapunov exponent. For those of us that are not advanced mathematicians or who, when faced with a page of algebraic equations shrug and say “It’s all Greek to me” it can be simply expressed as follows:
The Lyapunov exponent is a means by which to predict, in a chaotic system, the limits of certainty – the “distance” beyond which forecasting is either inadequate, unlikely or likely to be just plain wrong.
Our world appears to be pretty predictable, the sun comes up every morning (unless you are at the Poles), spring comes around every year (unless you are on the Equator) and so on.
Yet at levels of detail our world is a chaotic system. Not in the sense that anything can happen at any time, but in the very specific sense that the complexity of the natural world (including animate and inanimate systems; life, energy and matter) interact with each other at such extreme and unmappable levels of complexity that they are essentially chaotic. Stated simply, the natural world exhibits complexity beyond our currently relatively crude understanding of cause and effect relationships.
In physics, chaos is defined as:
“the property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.”
Chaos and order – a false dichotomy?
“There are different kinds of rules. From the simple comes the complex, and from the complex comes a different kind of simplicity. Chaos is order in a mask…”
Terry Pratchett. Thief of Time
A strict delineation between a wanted and an unwanted state, of order and chaos, is perhaps too binary to match up to the nature of our reality. The Holocene has provided our species levels of predictability that we have interpreted too simply, and upon which we have built yet more simplistic, inchoate models of the nature of reality. Each step masking the innate and fundamental complexity of the place where we dwell.
This simplification has allowed us to feel falsely certain about the real nature of existence – that nature and physical systems on our planet are never and have never been either merely ordered or chaotic but are a mix of one giving rise to the other and vice versa.
This combination of certainty and uncertainty can be described as chaordic (a portmanteau term “coined” by Dee Hock, the founder of VISA). Facing up to a chaordic reality gives rise to a need for us to develop not only better ways of shining a light through the darkness – a Lyapunov torch perhaps – but also a different, more intuitive and less organised approach to planning and exploring an uncertain future.
The term chaordic is really trying to reflect that “chaos” is not the opposite of order, and that “ordered” or relatively predictable outcomes or conditions emerge from the complexity of fundamentally chaotic systems. These outcomes can be termed ‘emergent properties’ – aspects or characteristics that arise through complex interactions which are produced reliably enough to be capable of being considered as predictable until or unless circumstances change. Such properties have been defined as follows “An emergent property of an ecological unit is one which is wholly unpredictable from observation of the components of that unit” (George W. Salt, The American Naturalist, Vol 113, No 1. Jan. 1979).
A hard dichotomy between chaos and order is too simplistic – it is from the functional chaos of our massive complex and interdependent world that elements of predictability and order emerge. However the more we change the properties of our system, through physical interventions in ecosystems and changes to the balance of our atmosphere, water and soil systems the less predictable and reliable the properties that emerge from these systems will be. Our current civilisation has thrived because of the relative predictability and stability of the systems we depend upon. Changing the equilibrium of these systems will change the outcomes of their interactions – possibly in ways we can ill afford and predict.
Put simply, it will become increasingly difficult, unless we start to add to the quality and resilience of the ecosystems we depend upon, to rely on our ability to predict the future.
The limits to Assumptions
Given that the threshold of predictable emergence may be getting closer to us by the year and the chaotic nature of our planet is a simple and unavoidable fact, isn’t it time for us to develop systems of value and prioritisation which recognise rather than ignore the limits of uncertainty?
Our current systems of value derive from classical economics, which was developed in a time when natural resources could easily be considered as free goods and the planet as effectively infinite.
The fundamental tenets upon which classical economics is based, though venerable, remain at the heart of economic theory. They are no more right or really useful for helping our species navigate the physical world than they were when they emerged from the thinking of Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill or the other pioneers and thinkers in this area (for a simple exploration of the thinkers, theories and assumptions see this overview). The difference is that now we are running out of headroom for them being as wrong as they are.
Stated simplistically, the tenets of classical economics (and therefore the bedrock of our systems of value) are as follows:
- Ceteris parabus – that everything else is equal.
- That economic actors take action in the light of perfect market knowledge.
- That economic actors behave rationally.
For a discussion of these, see this discussion of the main assumptions of economic theories.
Recognising the limits to our certainty starkly reveal (as if it isn’t already obvious) that none of the above assumptions actually hold true in any real sense. The market is merely a subset of the physical system it operates within. Since we do not fully comprehend the properties and interactions of the system, perfect market knowledge is impossible. In a market which is dependent upon inflows from functioning natural systems (resources, air, water etc.) then everything is transparently not equal – some things are much more equal than others.
Finally, if rationality were a characteristic of economic behaviour then market bubbles would be unknown, we would not price and prioritise the availability of dirty energy over that of a functioning climate and preserving the quality and availability of toilets would be more important than the availability of mobile phones.
The future’s so dark…..
“What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions, if all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”
The utility of the Lyapunov exponent in the context of our planet’s future could be to provide us with a clear idea of where the threshold of predictability lies. To project our gaze towards this threshold. Towards when, over the coming decades, all bets will essentially be off and when any investment predicted to perform beyond that time threshold could be classed as junk.
Beyond an indication of the unpredictability threshold, it might be used as a metric to tell us how we are getting on in extending that threshold away from the present.
Other such approaches exist to indicate our proximity to system-wide tipping points. The most famous is the Doomsday Clock. This initiative of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has, since 1947, assembled a prediction of “how close we are to destroying our civilization with dangerous technologies of our own making”. It analyses not just the danger posed by nuclear weapons and atomic energy but also the growing threat of climate change and problematic technologies.
The clock is (in 2015) at three minutes to midnight: “because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.“
This is serious stuff. It is not the apocalyptic predictions of depressives in darkened rooms, but the sober analyses of engaged and intelligent scientists.
In addition, organisations have constructed scenarios based upon the logical possibilities arising from current and likely future trends. Many of these are from reputable and sober organisations not given to wild speculation and doom mongering, such as the WBCSD, the World Economic Forum and the US Department of National Intelligence (DNI). The best scenarios in my opinion are those produced by the Global Scenario Group.
Not one of the scenarios noted above predict a smooth transition to a sustainable world without fundamental, deliberate, planned change being undertaken. Each one, to varying degrees, predicts significant disruption to economic and social conditions over the coming decades. The scale of such disruption is magnified by each year in which the scale of coming resource, water, climate, energy, consumption challenges and changing demographic power dynamics are effectively ignored by our economic and political systems.
Pretty much anyone who stares too long into the future we are currently on course for feels at least a frisson of fear. However, such analyses, of either our proximity to catastrophe or the diminishing predictability of the coming decades, seems to have no real effect upon our systems of value or production.
We just keep on valuing fossil fuel firms as though they were companies of the future rather than of the present-past and demanding consumption-based growth irrespective of physical limits.
A Lyapunov torch…shining a light on uncertainty
“We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.”
If the future is too dark to see clearly we need to grow our ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, to design systems and processes that are capable of flexibility, multiple redundancy and of changing tack when the wind (or the climate) changes. Of course such capabilities are hardwired into nature already, it’s just that we seem to have decided we can transcend such approaches through the linear power of our rationality.
Taking the Lyapunov exponent as an inspiration, we need a torch to light the darkness ahead as much as a clock to tell us how late it has got.
We need to be able to consistently assess and expand the limits of our ability to predict and forecast and, beyond that, we perhaps also need a Lyapunov torch to reveal the reality of our chaordic system.
The survival of our species in uncertain times will likely be because we have used our outstanding capacity for flexibility in the face of adversity to adjust to this ever-present but newly rediscovered uncertainty. To reconfigure our systems of value, production and consumption in the light of the fact that nothing stays the same forever.
The simplified picture of the world that was developed which delivered the industrialisation of the last 200 years may well fall to pieces in the face of systemic disruption to our physical and economic certainties.
Whether our massively interdependent civilisations will fall down with it depends upon our ability to perceive the limits to our certainty, and to embrace the uncertainty that has always been there.
A Lyapunov torch might be a valuable tool to help us see beyond ourselves through the coming darkness of the future. To shine a light into the chaos that surrounds and nurtures our existence.
This concept at the heart of this piece was inspired by Alastair Reynolds’ stupendous novel On the Steel Breeze, which introduced me to the Lyapunov exponent in the first place. In addition, I would also like to give huge thanks to Lois Guthrie and Alain Ruche – who each kindly lent constructive ideas and input to navigate the tangle and chaos of my own making in early drafts of this piece as well as firm ideas on the navigation of complexity. Other thanks of course go to Iain M. Banks for a title to borrow.