This post of Gary’s over at Muck and Mystery would be a fine piece of blogging even if it didn’t: a) have a title from an Elvis Costello song; b) reference Firefly; and c) say nice things about me. Given that it does in fact tick those three boxes it becomes quite one of the best posts I have seen for some time…
Gary is taking issue with some aspects of my Edge piece on geoengineering. Part of our disagreement, I think, is that I suspect that changes to the boundary condition of a system may need to be thought of slightly differently from changes to components within the system. (I am not sure that I can justify this belief, and I certainly can’t do so off the cuff. More thought is needed.) I am also not quite as negative as Gary is about the chances of rational poolitical action.
One of the many strengths of the post is an excellent passage Gary quotes from Donella Meadows, lead author of “The Limits to Growth”, which deserves to be better known:
The mindset of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control. I assumed that at first too. We all assumed it, as eager systems students at the great institution called MIT. More or less innocently, enchanted by what we could see through our new lens, we did what many discoverers do. We exaggerated our own ability to change the world. We did so not with any intent to deceive others, but in the expression of our own expectations and hopes. Systems thinking for us was more than subtle, complicated mindplay. It was going to Make Systems Work.
But self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionistic science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.
More of Gary on Meadows here, including this nice line from her
The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being.
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