Environment Magazine

Our Global System-of-systems

Posted on the 28 February 2018 by Bradshaw @conservbytes

Our global system-of-systems

I’ve just read an excellent paper that succinctly, eloquently, and wisely summarised the current predicament of our highly interconnected, global, complex adaptive system (i.e., our environment).

If you are new to the discussions around state shifts, hysteresis, tipping points, and system collapse, there might be a lot in the new paper by Philip Garnett of the University of York that you could find intimidating (and not just because of the complexity of the concepts he discusses). If you are more up-to-date on these discussions, I highly recommend reading this paper for distilling some of the more pertinent questions.

The essence of the paper is that our global environment (Earth) is one giant, complex system made up of interacting sub-systems. We can think of these as a giant, interconnected network of nodes and connections (often called ‘edges’) between them. If you do ecological network theory, then you know what I’m talking about.

What’s particularly fascinating to me is that Philip Garnett is not an environmental scientist; in fact, he’s a a lecturer in Operations Management and Business Analytics (although he does have a background in genetics and biology) who specialises in complex systems theory. In fact, much of his paper uses socio-economic examples of system complexity and collapse, yet the applications to environmentalism in general, and to ecological integrity in particular, are spot on.

Garnett points out a few things that caught my eye. The first is that complex systems are essentially impossible to predict, even over sufficient spatial and temporal scales. As he states, “large global complex systems are at best quasi-stable”. While this isn’t novel in itself, it is a bit of humble pie for me as someone who delves into predictions of both past, present, and future systems. As such, it’s a good reminder of our research’s limitations.

The second point is that the debate regarding what constitutes ‘tipping points’ (see a previous post on CB.com about this topic) is perhaps missing a greater issue; whether shifts to different system states are slow and smooth, or happen suddenly (i.e., a tipping point), we should be concerned for both because they both take us to the same (and probably hostile) state. There is an argument for having the time to adapt or avert the former type, but we don’t want to go there either quickly or slowly.

Another fascinating element is how systems fail, and what elements of the system cause that failure. It is first essential to distinguish ‘total system failure’ from the failure of individual nodes within the system. As my colleague Paul Ehrlich often says, “Don’t fret for the globe, for the Earth will be intact long after humanity is gone. Lament instead the collapse of human civilisation” (paraphrased).

Just like a complex ecological network of species nodes connected by trophic energy flow (for example), the loss of entire species does not necessarily or immediately spell collapse for the entire system, for most ecosystems possess some form of resilience derived from node redundancy of ecological function. So focussing on the entirely to the complex system might in fact miss the more important aspect of entire nodes disappearing from within it (e.g., our capacity to grow our own food, or have a climate that is conducive to human survival).

While there are many other points of wisdom to ponder in this paper, I’ll finish with Garnett’s conclusion that the “… idea that our environment is composed of isolated, discrete systems, that do not influence each other should be abandoned”. In other words, there is absolutely no empirical support that human endeavour is not impacting all global systems. Thus, our potential responses to systemic failure depend more on ideology than systemic thinking, such that the interaction of political failure and environmental collapse are possibly self-reinforcing phenomena.

“Global complex systems do not respect borders” — this paper is essential reading for any environmentalist, and any politician that purports to be helping the societies they represent.

CJA Bradshaw

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