Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The limits of disaster predictions: complex adaptive systems

The problem with predicting disaster, is that the human world is a very complex system with unexpected adaptive capacities ...
Stewart Brand - John Tierney - An Early Environmentalist, Embracing New ‘Heresies’ - New York Times

... Mr. Brand is the first to admit his own futurism isn’t always prescient. In 1969, he was so worried by population growth that he organized the Hunger Show, a weeklong fast in a parking lot to dramatize the coming global famine predicted by Paul Ehrlich, one of his mentors at Stanford.

The famine never arrived, and Professor Ehrlich’s theories of the coming “age of scarcity” were subsequently challenged by the economist Julian Simon, who bet Mr. Ehrlich that the prices of natural resources would fall during the 1980s despite the growth in population. The prices fell, just as predicted by Professor Simon’s cornucopian theories.

Professor Ehrlich dismissed Professor Simon’s victory as a fluke, but Mr. Brand saw something his mentor didn’t. He considered the bet a useful lesson about the adaptability of humans — and the dangers of apocalyptic thinking...

"... In 1973 I thought the energy crisis was so intolerable that we’d have police on the streets by Christmas. The times I’ve been wrong is when I assume there’s a brittleness in a complex system that turns out to be way more resilient than I thought.”
I remember Simon. During my brief career as an undercover agent at the UNFPA in Thailand I wrote essays critiquing his positions. I was wrong, Simon was far more accurate in the short run that Ehrlich.

True, apocalypse does happen. I wonder if the the Rwandan genocide was a Malthusian collapse, one time that Ehrlich was right and Simon wrong. It doesn't happen as often as one might expect however.

Why is that? Angels? Aliens? Some emergent behavior of the entangled multidimensional world of thought and money? Complex for sure, adaptive for sure, but those terms don't teach us much. I hope we'll learn more about why 'the center holds', even when it seems it shouldn't.


James Aach said...

"the human world is a very complex system with unexpected adaptive capacities" - Yep.

Stewart Brand has also been kind enough to endorse my entertaining look at nuclear power for the lay person - the novel "Rad Decision". Available online at no cost to readers or in paperback.

"I'd like to see Rad Decision widely read." - Stewart Brand

Anonymous said...

Very useful phrase