To act or not to act … ?
To act or not to act … ?
It is pretty clear that if we find something that is going wrong, a problem, we act to rectify it. As the old adage say: "Love it, change it, or leave it." It seems almost a natural reaction to rectify problems. To do that, we analyse what the problem is, design a solution for it, and implement that solution. If the soup is not salty enough, we put more salt in. If my timing belt is broken I need to replace it. If there are not enough skilled workers, we train more. If a person is suffering from obesity, we put them on a programme to lose weight. If energy or housing prices are too high, we put a cap on them. And so on. All quite straight forward solutions to these problems.
The rub is, however, that the most obvious solutions to these problems often lead us into more of a tangle rather than to a solution for the problem. Not always, as the example with the soup or the engine show: putting more salt in does indeed solve the problem of having too little salt and replacing the timing belt does indeed rectify the problem of the broken engine. But that is not necessarily the case in the other examples. What if the workers we train decide not to work for our domestic companies but rather to migrate to a country where they can make more money? What if the person who suffers from obesity is actually suffering from other conditions as well that interfere with the programme to loose weight? What if putting caps on energy prices leads to supply issues and caps on house prices to low quality housing being built? These are just simple examples, but we all have experienced situations where we tried to fix a problem with an obvious solution only to find that that leads to another problem which we then have to fix and so on.
The reason for this is that many problems we face are complex. There is not one single cause that leads to the situation and the factors that contribute to it are again influenced by a variety of other factors in often unknown ways. Everything is more or less connected to everything. Alicia Juarrero uses the metaphor of the bramble bushes in a thicket to describe this: brambles grow into thickets with the individual bushes interlinking and entangling each other so that it is almost impossible to extract a single branch. If you pull, the whole bush will move and if you pull too hard, the branch will break rather than to disentangle itself. In a way the same happens if you look for strings of causality in complex systems: you start to pull at one causal chain but it is intricately entangled with other causal chains in a way that makes it impossible to disentangle unless you break it – which is what often happens. People build causal models by breaking out individual strands of causal chains, loosing this chain's entanglement with all the other chains. Building an intervention on this extracted, isolated causal chain will then necessarily lead to unintended effects as in reality that causal chain is not isolated – only in your causal model.
Gregory Bateson made the same argument when he talked about Conscious Purpose:
Purposive consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure (Bateson 1972a:440)
He also uses the idea of pulling out of the whole system sequences that are disconnected from the causal chains that they were part of (which are often taking the forms of loops in complex systems). In another essay he writes:
Our conscious sampling of data will not disclose whole circuits but only arcs of circuits, cut off from their matrix by our selective attention. Specifically, the attempt to achieve a change in a given variable, located either in self or environment, is likely to be undertaken without comprehension of the homeostatic network surrounding that variable. (Bateson 1972b:451)
Or in other words, the logic that we use to determine how to solve a problem when we design a solution is generally linear because our conscious mind cannot access the whole complexity of entangled causality. Hence, the solutions we come up with are not adapted to the real complex nature of reality. This does not mean they don't work, but it means they produce outcomes that are different from the ones we designed for. Dave Snowden often uses the idea that complex systems are dispositional, not causal: the entanglement of influences does not allow us to isolate causality, yet there are dispositions in a system that we can discover and use (more on that later).
Where does this leave us? Bateson has not really been able to overcome this problem with what he calls Conscious Purpose during his lifetime. Also the school of thought of Warm Data, with which his daughter Nora Bateson has continued Gregory's work, is struggling to give recommendations for what we can do beyond developing an awareness of the complexity of the world and bring people together in meaningful relationships – which is already a lot we can do. For me, however, this is still not very satisfying and it does not help me when I work with a client who asks me, "so what do we do now?" I think there is actually a way to approach meaningful action in complex systems.
I'll be writing about how we can approach this impasse next week. In the meantime, I'm curious to hear you thoughts on how and when we can act when facing complex problems without falling pray to projecting a linear solutions on a circular world. If you feel like it, share your thoughts by replying to this email. And thanks.
- Bateson, Gregory. 1972a. “Conscious Purpose versus Nature.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
- ---. 1972b. “Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
The Paper Museum
Historically, views and measurements of biodiversity often focused on characterizing the attributes of observable patterns – e.g. genetic variability, species richness, functional diversity, and measures of relative representations of the different species in a community. These characterizations, although useful in many contexts, focused mainly on attributes (i.e. biodiversity as a collection of elements), and afforded less attention to processes (i.e. the dynamic interactions among the conforming elements). Definitions emphasizing a pattern run the risk of viewing biodiversity as static, thereby suggesting that the practice of conservation requires primarily freezing these elements in their current state, or returning them to a previous one in which they must remain. Often, these views of biodiversity see humans as separate from the rest of nature, thus providing the impetus for conservation strategies largely focused on strict protection. Although necessary in many cases, this is not a strategy that will be successful in all contexts. Indeed, ignoring the human dimensions of ecosystems can result in conservation efforts that fail in their biodiversity goals and/or result in conflict with local populations.
Clearly, human influence is the overwhelming driver of biodiversity loss, and changing behaviors is at the heart of many conservation efforts. Cultures are dynamic, and societies have the potential to modify their practices and customs in the face of changing external conditions such as those created by growing populations and climate change. What we suggest is that knowledge, customs, and values are critical components of biodiversity and therefore of biodiversity conservation strategies, and that the success of these strategies will often depend upon a consideration of culture that is as detailed as that given to the biological components that make up traditional conservation targets.
Because climate change is rapidly modifying the Earth’s biophysical context as well as social, economic, and political systems worldwide, effective adaptation strategies require integrative social-biophysical research, participatory planning decisively involving multiple stakeholders, and a coupled understanding of human and natural systems.
Why have I added this to my Paper Museum? My background is environmental sciences so I have an innate interest in question of biodiversity and ecosystem conservation. This paper brings together my interest in these topic with my learning on complex processes of interaction and change, making the point that ecological and social systems are more closely linked and follow some of the same principles of complex living systems. I am surprised that biodiversity research and biodiversity conservation practice apparently has not yet widely adopted a complex systems view on biodiversity and nature conservation – although the paper is more than 10 years old, hopefully things have changed in the meantime. The conclusion that all conservation efforts need to include socio-cultural aspects and be participatory in nature resonates with my own view on how to work in complex systems.
Reference: Sterling, Eleanor J., Andrés Gómez, and Ana L. Porzecanski. 2010. “A Systemic View of Biodiversity and Its Conservation: Processes, Interrelationships, and Human Culture.” BioEssays 32 (12): 1090–98. https://doi.org/10.1002/bies.201000049.
More for you to enjoy
– Is there a conspiracy? In this Metalogue, Gregory Bateson describes the situation that our solutions to problems generally lead us into more problems that require yet other solutions and so on. The linked version also contains a great introduction by Bateson scholar Phillip Guddemi.