Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to change complex systems?

Donella Meadows describes in the paper Leverage Points, Places to intervene in a System where we shall intervene if we want to change a system (ecological, economic or social) on different levels. She lists twelve different ways (in reversed order of their impact)

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)
11. The size of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows (say the treasure of a state)
10. Structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport network, population age structures)
9. Length of delays, relative to the rate of system changes (like building a new nuclear energy system)
8. Strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the effect they are trying to correct against (such as welfare systems or property taxes as means to re-distribute wealth)
7. Gain around driving positive feedback loops (housing bubbles or eutrophication of a lake)
6. Structure of information flow (who does and does not have access to what kinds of information)
5. Rules of the system (such as incentives, punishment, constraints)
4. Power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure (like in human cultures, in nature or even the human body)
3. Goal of the system (such as making profit)
2. Mindset or paradigm that the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters - arises out of (“we build skyscrapers because we believe that space in downtown cities is enormously valuable” says Meadows)
1. Power to transcend paradigms (Meadows 1999)

One can discuss single things in her outline, e.g. I am less convinced of the potency of information. I find that we live in a constant flow of information which doesn't change a lot. Still, by and large it is a helpful way of looking at our situation, as well as understanding the limits of normal “muddling through” political processes, so I follow her outline below. The points at the top are fairly easy to manipulate, but alas, they are not very efficient or important, Nevertheless, daily politics are about the level of a particular tax or the budget for this or that purpose (#12). I find the discussion around the negative and positive feedback loops particularly relevant, especially as I think we can see how important the positive loops are. In the social sphere we see housing or stock market bubbles as typical examples; increasing prices drive expectations of future increases, people borrow and banks lend all based on the assumption that prices will continue to rise, but around the corner the inevitable collapse lurches. Almost all actors know it is a bubble, but as long as you are not in the wrong end of the chain you can continue, and gain from it. In capitalist societies with no re-distribution policies the rich get richer and the poor poorer, through several mutually reinforcing feed back loops.
Monopolies also seem to be driven by positive feed back loops. We discussed earlier how there might be many positive loops related to climate change (such as melting of the permafrost). It is largely by introduction of societal negative feedback that the processes can be kept checked. Other negative loops are taxes on pollution, the polluter-pay-principle. The governor of a steam engine is another such example, the faster it rotates, the less fuel will be supplies; a simple self-corrective device. The negative loops are thus more of a “regulating” nature, while the positive loops threaten the stability of the system. Therefore, we need to pay a lot of attention to such tendencies. Meadows say: “A system with unchecked positive loops ultimately will destroy itself. That's why there are so few of them...if you keep raising the capital growth rate in the world model, eventually you get to a point where one tiny increase more will shift the economy from exponential growth to oscillation. Another nudge upward gives the oscillation a double beat. And just the tiniest further nudge send it into chaos” (Meadows 1999).

The rules of game and the power over those rules (#5) are apparently very important. Our whole economic system rests on a legal protection of property and a violent state to enforce it. Another such cornerstone is democracy and liberties. There is no coincidence that countries constitutions are a classical battleground for ideologies, and also that it is not changed so easily. In many earlier society religion supplied those rules, but as the religious hegemony withers (in some countries at least) they don't play that role any longer. The question today, is not what is the best thing to do within the rules as they are. The question is how we can get away from the rules we have been operating since the birth of industrial capitalism.
To challenge, the goals of a system, or even simply to ask what they are (!), can be very powerful. Most systems have evolved over a long time, in small steps, from a set of original goals, but mostly those goals are not present in the everyday discourse, many people don't know them, and perhaps they don't agree to them. To question them can be a seed of change. These kinds of questions most likely played a rather great role for the fall of the Soviet Union: when the difference between the actual situation (little freedom, low quality of life and drudgery) and the stated goals (solidarity and a non-exploitative society) became too apparent and too big the credibility of the system collapsed. In the end, we humans seem to like to be soothed and believe things will work out, but at a certain stage, when we lose faith in what is going on, only the most extreme oppression can contain our wrath. Today, we can ask if the purpose of the capitalist market economy is to create immense wealth for a few through profits or if it is to create wealth for us all, or happiness for us all, or freedom. Can anyone still remember? Did you choose to live in this society?

To go a step further and to change our patterns of thinking is what is called a shift in paradigm, which can be accomplished by pointing out again and again that the current one is leading us astray, or that another one is more appealing. I lose Meadow's thought when she goes one step further with her last point which is about totally transcending paradigms; to realize that no paradigm is true; that the universe is immense and goes well beyond human comprehension. In this stage we can “live in constant joy, bring down empires, found religions, get locked up, “disappeared” or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia” (Meadows 1999) .

Donella H. Meadows (1941 - 2001), American environmental scientist, teacher and writer. Lead author of groundbreaking, and criticized, book of the Club of Rome The Limits to Growth.

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