Society May Be Better But Is It Also More Fragile?

By Ed Gibney

For the last five posts, we have been discussing the question of whether the world is getting better or not. I’d like to give Ed Gibney the last words (for now?) on the topic:

Thanks for gathering these comments together (including mine) and briefly replying to them. They elicited another idea from me as I was reading this. During my MBA studies, we essentially were trained to *optimize* the operations of organizations. Remove all the fat, redundancies, waste, and poor processes. All this rationalization makes things run better. And this is certainly what we have done to human culture as well. But (!) this also makes things more fragile.

In the business world, this shows up when hiccups happen (think of the supply chain problems during Covid) and there is no extra inventory (aka “waste”) sitting around to fill in the temporary gaps. If things get optimized too much, these organizations become extremely fragile and collapse with problems that no one would have realized ahead of time would be strong enough to cause this. Bankruptcies come on very quickly when cash flow and investment are optimized too much. And, by the way, this is a common problem in environments characterized by higher and higher levels of competition. You are forced to “optimize” to stay alive in the short term. But at the cost of being robust for the long term.

In just the same way, we are removing “redundancy” and “waste” from the ecological systems of the world. This is extremely dangerous! Things feel better in the moment, but as Nassim Taleb wrote about in The Black Swan, this leaves us very vulnerable to “low probability but highly destructive” events. Many of us see this fragility in society and are worried. The techno-optimists are ignoring the long history of things going bust.

I will say that I agree with you that technology and rational improvements are the way out of this. We can decide to be more robust rather than more fragile. It requires more cooperation and limits on competition. But until I hear techno-optimists start using that language, I’m going to be very worried about the kind of progress they think is happening. One is short-term and very dangerous.

This reminds me of another lesson I learned from change management theory. Think of a 2×2 matrix with one axis being if things are being done “well” or “poorly”. The other access is if things are going in the “right” or “wrong” direction. The best situation in this 2×2 matrix is obviously to be in the quadrant where things are going “well” in the “right” direction. But, the worst outcome is surprising. It’s going in the “wrong” direction, but doing things “well”! This is basically running towards the cliff. It’s falling faster and faster and thinking “This is great! We’re moving so quickly!”

Which box are we in?

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8 thoughts on “Society May Be Better But Is It Also More Fragile?

  1. Mr. Gibney offers a critically important observation on the behavior of systems. We see much the same thing in ecosystems, most illuminatingly in island ecosystems. Because of their small size, it doesn’t take long for them to optimize their exploitation of the specific traits of their physical environment. But such ecosystems are famously vulnerable to minor perturbations. Humanity has demonstrated the fragility of island ecosystems many times over. The inadvertent importation of just one species (rabbits, snakes, rats, eucalyptus trees, grasses, sulfur cinquefoil) can send an ecosystem into a tailspin.

    Continental ecosystems are more robust because they sport multiple ecosystems that slowly interact, forcing more conservative relationships within each ecosystem. Any disaster in a continental ecosystem — a volcanic eruption, say — wipes out the local ecosystem, but pioneering species from neighboring ecosystems quickly repopulate the area. Volcanic violence on islands tends to result in long-lasting devastation.

    This leads us to to the single most important factor in system resilience: lack of interdependence. System-wide dependencies allow damages to rapidly spread through the system. On the one hand, this increases resilience for medium-size perturbations, but it can also produce catastrophes for large perturbations.

    This is best illustrated with financial systems. In the early modern period — say, 1500 to 1800 — financial crises were national in scale, but not international in scale. Examples of such crises are the Tulip Bubble in the Netherlands in 1637, the South Sea Bubble in 1720 in Great Britain, Law’s bubble in France in the same year, and so on. But the early 20th century saw the first global financial integration, brought about the leap in global trade made possible by iron steamships. A few decades later, a stock market bubble in the US triggered a cascading financial collapse that spread over much of the globe in the Great Depression. Ever since then, perturbations in national markets have sent reverberations all over the globe. The flapping of a financial butterfly in Beijing can cause a fall in the New York Stock Market.

    Thus, the resilience of a system increases with the scale of interconnectedness of its components — but the consequences of a perturbation too large for it to handle is complete catastrophe. The interconnectedness of the systems in the human body is astounding — we still don’t understand all the interconnections. Consequently, the body can survive a huge range of difficulties. But a large enough perturbation results in the destruction of ALL the components: death.

  2. To the question(s), I offer: yes. I and one other (my brother) contend complexity subsumes cooperation. Without cooperation, fragility is unavoidable, on account of divergent I interests, motives and preferences: relationships are weakened and common ground is uncommon. Better is a value judgment—it depends of where one sits. Or stands…

  3. I was just reading how the removal of wolves decimated the Yellowstone ecosystem and their reintroduction reinvigorated it.

  4. I have been trying to compose an additional comment regarding these 5 posts and their associated comments. My thoughts on the path and limits of human progress have been central to my non work-related reading and thinking for the past 25 years. Hence my thoughts cover so many areas (some that I lack expertise on) that they become difficult to convey with concise coherence. Never mind the underlying arguments that would be required to accompany them.
    So:

    I will start with a conclusion, (a quote from ecological thinker George Monbiot), that I currently accept.
    “…we inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological restraint and ecological catastrophe.”
    This sums up the extraordinary advances in material well-being that Man has achieved since leaving the dark ages behind. It increased exponentially with the scientific revolution and the intellectual freedoms harvested from the enlightenment.
    I do not think there are many people that argue that material well-being for humanity in general, and the ‘developed world’ in particular, has not vastly improved over the last few centuries.
    The primary argument of alarm regarding this progress is that it is unsustainable, and hence has built it traps that have been created by this very progress.

    1. Mr. Gibney references systems/designs that are more fragile. Complete agreement with that. The term I have read/used over the years is “resilient”. They seem to be used in a similar way. Any system that can’t return to some sort of equilibrium without outside assistance after a disruption, is set up for failure. Depending on the system, and its degree of fragility within a greater whole, it can cascade quickly throughout everything it touches in ways not anticipated.
    Because everything designed by men is at best complicated, rather than complex, our more complicated systems and ideas are forever at this risk. Even as we achieve success, the success comes with diminishing returns. (the main point of Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies”)

    2. In the past there have been successes in avoiding the limits imposed by resource scarcity due to innovation.
    Refined oil replacing whale oil. The ‘Green Revolution’ of hybrids, vast nitrogen production, etc. has postponed the food/population reckoning predicted since Malthus. New drilling technologies postponing peak oil extraction.
    And so on.
    This has led to a ‘they’ll think of something’ attitude towards current problems/predicaments plus those that have only been pushed into the future. In my opinion this approaches wishful thinking and is as harmful a mindset as the ” abandon all hope, we are doomed” type of thinking. They both lend themselves to an excuse for us to collectively ignore the icebergs, or any reason to have lifeboats.

    3. The future visions of what I believe is called Transhumanism strikes me as having a bit of utopian vision. IF my admittedly limited understanding of this is accurate, it worries me.
    The greatest crimes and tragedies of the post-enlightenment have combined utopia with the romantic impulse. Caution and introspection should be advised for all, no matter how rich they are.

    4. There has been no mention of Energy Return on Energy Invested. Surprising to me.
    Measuring the extraction of hydrocarbon A or mineral B doesn’t mean much without the calculation of how much energy was used to get it. What matters is the net gain.
    Example: Total oil extraction is up from 15 years ago. Depending on where you measure the energy expended point from, net oil extraction is basically flat. One source states world energy extraction per capita peaked about 2008. Another source has put it at year 2018. Obviously not an exact science, partly due to no agreement as to how to measure EREI. Regardless the details, the central point remains.

    I will stop. No one wants a book.
    Will leave it at referencing the comment from (was it Mr. Russell? ) a post or two back.
    In the end the directions we take collectively regarding climate change and other issues are set by policy makers who lack expertise in these areas. they must make choices based on information from a disparate number of influences, each with their own agendas and level of truthfulness and honesty.

  5. Thank you both Ed Gibney and Dr. John

    This I think is an apt quote for our time;

    “Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”

    “Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”
    • Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam

    Is this a prediction of future events, or has it already happened?

    We are always standing at the door to the unknown, since the future hasn’t happened yet, we can never know with certainty what it will reveal.
    This is where people have always stood of course but their Happiest times come when they have no need to be aware of their position, the times when reality seems benign and Love grows without fear in young hearts!

    I find Chris Crawford’s references to the Tulip bubble, the other financial Bubbles, and the warnings they give us very apt for the present, and while I am sorry to say it, the catastrophic perturbations are built into the system. The System is a Human system and humans are emotional creatures, they want things and how much they want these things (and how rational they really are) will determine what they will be willing to do to try and get what they want! By my observation naked madness is on stage now, madness frightens humans, and fear drives them mad, so madness is very contagious and it doesn’t encourage rational behavior!

    I would posit that the Money systems are analogous to the Tulip Mania, with fiat currencies playing the role Tulips played the first time, everyone seeking more Tulips because Tulips are infallible as stores of Wealth, there seems to be so much money and debt created in the last forty-four years it is bewildering to the lay man, and i suspect that those we are told know what they are doing really don’t know what they are doing but are ‘like all of us’ simply hoping for the best!

    Of course I wish all the Best to you men, it is a pleasure and enlightening for me to read your work and I thank you for your efforts!

  6. Thanks for turning my thoughts into a post, John. Your readers have made this even more worthwhile!

    @Chris Crawford — Your examples around the theme of *interdependence* are exquisite. Thank you so much for sharing them and expanding on this point!

    @John Messerly — We recently moved across the street from a park in Vienna that has beavers in it (amazing!) so I read an excellent book about them. “Eager” by Goldfarb. That book explained why beavers were just as important as wolves in the Yellowstone success story too. There were parts of the park that only had wolves reintroduced and they didn’t return to thriving at all. Just another cool example of the need for the diversity of nature.

    @Lyle T — Another great comment! I particularly liked this point you made: “They both lend themselves to an excuse for us to collectively ignore the icebergs, or any reason to have lifeboats.” This goes well with John M’s theme of “hope” being the underlying motivation we all need in order to find reason and meaning in this cold and uncaring universe.

  7. To me, Stephen Hawking explained a lot with this powerful sentence:
    ”When you create more possibilities, you also create more possibilities for things to go wrong.”.

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