Archive for the ‘Complexity’ Category


I couldn’t really find any background info on the video posted below, but it is one of the best combinations of audio & video about the cosmos & nature of reality that I’ve ever come across.

In the film, the speaker talks about the nature of reality and our ever expanding understanding of it.  Despite how much we seem to know, the speaker makes it clear that actually know very little.

“It’s not that I think I know.  It’s that I know, with absolute certainty, that I don’t.  And I know, with seemingly identical certainty, that nobody knows, because nobody can.”

“Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing.  I don’t know why.  Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe?  The value of science remains unsung by singers…This is not yet a scientific age.” – Richard P. Feynman

As a Christmas gift, I received a set of video lectures by The Teaching Company entitled “Chaos.”  The course, presented by a well known educator on the subject, Professor Steven Strogatz, explores the history, science and implications of chaos theory.  I feel confident in saying that chaos theory is still not nearly as appreciated as it probably should be, given how fundamental of a breakthrough in scientific perspective it represents.

I am very much still learning it’s principles, but from what I’ve learned so far I believe that it’s an extremely fascinating & useful lens through which to comprehend, cope with & adapt to the bewilderingly complex & constantly evolving world around us.

Besides the science and math principles which the course explores, Professor Strogatz also provides some examples of chaos theory in literature & art.  Anybody who has ever seen a fractal (i.e. self-similar spatial patterns – often very beautifully coloured) – knows at least something about chaos theory.

Below I share a well known parable of chaos (and a picture of the famous fractal known as the Mandlebrot set).

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


From wikipedia:

This proverb has been around in many variations for centuries (see historical references below), and describes a situation where permitting some small undesirable situation will allow gradual and inexorable worsening. The rhyme is thus a good illustration of the “butterfly effect“, and ideas presented in chaos theory, involving sensitive dependence on initial conditions; the initial condition being the presence or absence of the horseshoe nail.[1] At a more literal level, it summarizes the importance of military logistics throughout the history of human warfare.

An important thing to note is that these chains of causality are only seen in hindsight. Nobody ever lamented, upon seeing his unshod horse, that the kingdom would eventually fall because of it.[1]

A big lesson I’ve taken away from my study of chaos theory so far is that complex systems in a state of criticality (i.e. those that have a lot of converging forces reaching/overshooting limits in sync) have a high sensitivity to small fluctuations in certain key system components.  As such, minor changes in starting conditions can have disproportionately large consequences.  As the the bolded parts of the Wikipedia explanation above indicates, the dependence of a system on initial conditions and the inability for us to see causality except in hindsight, leads us to a situation whereby turbulence is more or less baked into the cake.

If we are to accept that breakdown is an inherent feature of complex systems, then I think that the questions we should be asking are the same as those being asked by the brilliant Canadian intellectual & complexity theorist Thomas Homer-Dixon.   Paraphrasing, Homer-Dixon asks “how do we turn the breakdown of our societies into renewal?  how do we transform catastrophe into genesis? – how do we foster the notion of catagenesis? how do we exploit the opportunities created by the coming massive non-linearities?”

My current scenario for the next 3-5 years envisions some kind of a “tipping point” event on during that time horizon.  Figuring out if it’s going to be a financial/monetary/economic tipping point (my best bet), or an energy tipping point, or an ecological tipping point or some other kind of tipping point is not the main issue as I see it.  The main issue, as I see it right now, is the recognition of and increasingly likelihood that our hyper-complexified & hyper-efficient globe-spanning system of trade & communications will hit a major non-linearity and be almost completely transformed in a very short time frame.

My concerns has to do with how we act upon these non-linear events & trajectories.  These “chaotic shifts” present opportunities for creative responses just as much as they present opportunities for ideologues with antiquated ideas to seize power.  Catastrophe can just be catastrophe – it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to creative & adaptive responses.  The big idea is that when a system is on the verge of chaos, the slightest nudge to that system can send it through either a favourable phase transition or an unfavourable phase transition – but ultimately ending up in a new state of complexity & organization (often at a lower level of complexity – but I’m open to this idea being wrong).

As I see it, the capacity & opportunity for new models to emerge is greatest during major phase transitions.  These new models may be new business/economic/monetary models, they could be new agricultural & energy models, or they could be sociocultural models – among other possibilities.  I think new models will be increasingly called upon as adaptive strategies for managing the rapid pace of change & non-linearity.

I still hold out hope that there are ideas, technologies, and social arrangements available to us today that can be used to bootstrap a new and post-modern way of living.  I can only hope that as things continue to “shift” (ever-faster), more and more people will seek and find ways of adapting to these changes in a creative & productive manner.  The alternatives don’t appeal much to me – so I’m gonna keep working towards the positive stuff….whatever that means.



Additional Resources:

Chaos Theory (wikipedia)


An important quote from the father of resilience science – Buzz Holling (via Computing For Sustainability “Visualizing Sustainability“)

Thomas Homer Dixon: “Why do you feel the world is verging on some kind of systemic crisis?”

Buzz Holling: “There are three reasons,” he answered. “First, over the years my understanding of the adaptive cycle has improved, and I’ve also come to better understand how multiple adaptive cycles can be nested together-from small to large-to create a panarchy. I now believe that this theory tells us something quite general about the way complex systems, not just ecological systems, change over time. And collapse is usually part of the story.

“Second, I think rapidly rising connectivity within global systems-both economic and technological-increases the risk of deep collapse. That’s a collapse that cascades across adaptive cycles-a kind of pancaking implosion of the entire system as higher-level adaptive cycles collapse, which causes progressive collapse at lower levels.”

“A bit like the implosion of the World Trade Center towers,” I offered, “where the weight of the upper floors smashed through the lower floors like a pile driver.”

“Yes, but in a highly connected panarchy, the collapse doesn’t have to start at the top. It can be triggered at the microlevel or the macrolevel or somewhere in between. It’s the tight interlinking of the adaptive cycles across the whole system-from the individual right up to the level of the global economy and even Earth’s biosphere-that’s particularly dangerous because it increases the likelihood that many of the cycles will become synchronized and peak together. And if this happens, they’ll reinforce each other’s collapse.”

… (via WorldWatch

The first response of many people hearing something like this is probably “that’s ridiculous chicken little propaganda.”  The idea that our meteoric growth & progress is subject to limits, and very likely “collapse,” is despicable to the mind of modern man.  After all, the Enlightenment was explicitly about the progress of humanity through the application of reason.  So, those who remind us that our success is about more than just our own human faculties, and is in fact, intimately connected to the natural world are often marginalized.  The famous Erhlich-Simon bet, the vilification of the Club of Rome and their Limits to Growth work, and other such examples make clear that those who dare to question the dogma of neoclassical economics are often met with notable resistance.

But just because the so-called “techno-resource-market optimists” can claim isolated victories (in a world of continuously rising energy availability), doesn’t mean that the debate is over.  To the contrary, I think the debate is just about to get interesting.  As global oil production peaks, I think many of the past victories of the Pollyanna’s will be put into a more comprehensive picture which shows that they were only right in a very limited sense.

The way I see it, ecological thinking will be one of the most valuable perspectives to have in one’s mental repertoire in the 21st Century.  People like Buzz Holling, Herman Daly, Bill Rees and others are the people whose ideas will have a major impact on the world for the remainder of this turbulent century.  As the 19th Century French writer Victor Hugo once said “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” If it’s true, as I believe it is, that Peak Oil will drive a fundamental change in how global systems operate, then I think it’s fair to say that understanding & being able to apply ecological principles will be a major asset.  Only those with a comprehensive understanding of the complexity of nature and the way it’s systems operate, will have a chance of really grasping what’s going on.

I for one plan to dig more deeply into the work of these thinkers.  I’ll share more as I learn.



Another fascinating talk by David Korowicz of the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA):

Embedded below is a great video by David Korowicz of the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA).

As with many of the resources I share on this blog, the following video explores the pressing concerns of today from the perspective of complex-adaptive systems theory.

Complexity is one of those things that most people “get” (at least intuitively) but about which very few people think systematically.  Instead of trying to comprehend, cope with & adapt to complexity, many people’s response to it is just simply to ignore it or to minimize it.  But, the law of requisite variety says that “if a system is to be stable the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled (wiki link).” So, for us to properly understand and control our responses to complexity, our mental control systems must be broad enough to be able to handle the massive range of inputs.  In a world of hyper-specialization with subject matter experts, pundits & guru’s, very few of us have a perspective that is transdisciplinary enough to actually understand what’s really going on in the world.

People like David Korowicz of FEASTA, Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth, Nate Hagens of TheOilDrum & The Institute for Integrated Economic Research, Buzz Holling – the father of resilience theory, or the noted trans-disciplinary thinker Thomas Homer-Dixon – these guys & gals are among a select group of individuals with enough understanding of enough different fields of study to actually have something useful to say about how the future might unfold.  Although the subject matter experts have their purpose, I am of the opinion that in the current environment, anyone who fails to understand complexity and the role that energy plays in sustaining it is not worth listening to for very long.

We live in a complex world.  To deny or ignore this is to severely limits one’s ability to understand and consequently, to make wise decisions.  So, I try to focus on the trans-disciplinary thinkers who make complex-adaptive systems an explicit part of their perspective.

Korowicz is one such thinker.

Additional Resources:

Embedded below is a short clip from a video of a lecture given by Harvard economic historian & theorist Niall Ferguson.  Ferguson discusses many topics which are of interest to this blog – non-linear dynamics and complex systems in the realm of money, finance & economics.

Looking at the economy & financial markets through the lens of evolutionary processes provides valuable insights.  For example, Ferguson references Schumpeter as well as other pioneering thinkers on the intersection of the natural world / evolutionary processes and the monetary/economic/financial worlds.  Those who recognize that markets & economies are complex systems, who also understand what complex systems are and how they work, are really the only people who are even getting close to an approximation of reality.

Ferguson is a pioneering thinker, along with people like Nassim Taleb, Nate Hagens of & the Institute for Integrated Economic Research, Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth, Noah Raford – PhD Candidate @ MIT, and others that I’m forgetting right now.

Here’s the clip:

Below is a list of the topics Ferguson discusses in his lecture.  (From Full Lecture Available Here):

  1. Introduction
  2. A Darwinian Economy
  3. Underlying Truth
  4. Darwin’s Economic Observation
  5. Biological and Economical Theories
  6. Modern Economics
  7. Markets as Natural Forests
  8. Concentration in Finance
  9. Abuse in the Evolutionary Process
  10. The Evolutionary Analogy
  11. Trends in the Financial Evolution
  12. Biological World vs. Financial World
  13. A Short History of Economic
  14. Inflation vs. Deflation
  15. Arrested Evolution
  16. Conclusion
Description from’s website:

Professor Niall Ferguson offers an evolutionary approach to financial history.  He questions the impeding of natural selection’ by keeping the financial dinosaurs alive through the life support of monetary injections: “without creative destruction, our economic system cannot be a healthy one.”

The view that financial history could be evolutionary’ in fact pre-dates Darwin, born 200 years ago this year, but the view has been pushed into the hinterlands of contemporary thinking about the worlds of finance and economics.  Through the publication of his book, The Ascent of Money, Professor Niall Ferguson brought about a timely re-emergence of the evolutionary approach.

By looking at finance along evolutionary lines, we can relate the long run of financial history to recent events and so illuminate them in a way which will perhaps offer us a clearer sight of how we should pull ourselves out of the current economic crisis.