The Sky Gods of Unintended Consequences

Of all the delusions we entertain in our lives, both individually and collectively, that we are the “masters of our own destiny” has got to be one of the grandest. It is emboldening to feel we are somehow ‘in control’, ‘in charge’ of the myriad forces and influences that surround and inhabit us but in reality we seem more like high-stakes gamblers than gods, playing a numbers game not fully aware of the odds that, as often as not, are resolutely stacked against us.

Long before ‘rationalism’ convinced us it was able to even up these odds thus moving into the dominant position it now occupies in the modern psyche, an old proverb, originating from not only a different era but also school of thought, suggested a more subtle and unpredictable relationship between man’s actions and the consequences of those actions; in other words, between causes and their inevitable, if not immediately obvious, effects. It was a clear warning to those who presume superiority and dominion over wild, unruly Nature and attempt to subjugate it to a mere predictable mechanism. “They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind”, goes the ancient saying which seeks to reintroduce the principle of the ‘unknown’, the ‘unaccounted for’ back into the minds of those who cling to their sophisticated certainties and complacencies.  As Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence in the Bush administration and no stranger to an elevated sense of certainty, famously and rather ironically put it: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

The Hidden Conditionality

In 1961 mathematician and meteorologist Professor Edward Lorenz, working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, made what appeared to be an accidental discovery whilst running some tests on his new, though by today’s standards, rather primitive computer, the charmingly named Royal McBee LGP-30. This discovery has helped to change our perception of just how surprisingly sensitive the world, as a vast, organic System made up of many minor, interconnected systems, actually is upending the reductionist, ‘world as giant machine’ model which many, particularly in science, have subscribed to.

Far-reaching ideas often originate and ripple outwards from simple, seemingly insignificant insights; the concept of splitting the atom, for example, must be about as small and inconsequential a starting-point as one can imagine. Lorenz’s profound realisation began life rather similarly. In one of those early tests, in 1961, he re-entered data into his computer for a re-run of a weather simulation he had already completed, but this time using the numbers direct from the original printout. To his surprise, he found that the simulation ended with a totally different result. Using exactly the same input data, the final outcome should have been identical. He did this many times over and kept finding the same wild variations. The reason was that the Royal McBee had, in the first instance, entered numbers to an accuracy of six decimal points, whereas the subsequent printout was rounding them off to three decimal points.  It was only a margin of error of less than 0.1 per cent, then seen as quite insignificant over a whole experiment, and yet it resulted in huge deviations from the original, exposing the underlying conditionality limiting the science of long-term prediction and a killer-blow to those who see in it an omnipotent future for man and computer.

Lorenz was not the first to have had an inkling of this somewhat hidden conditionality. Over 100 years earlier, the brilliant French mathematician Jules Henri Poincare, whose work also showed that systems are not as stable or predictable as they were previously assumed to be, was largely misunderstood and ignored. Post-Lorenz, though, that insight, perhaps finding a more receptive time in which to take root than the 1800s of Poincare, has taken on a whole new dimension, showing up the limitations of systemic modelling and analysis, something we have become, in our attempts to ‘manage risk’, increasingly dependent upon and especially with the advent of computers. This, for example, was clearly played out in 2007 at the very beginning of the global financial crisis, when predictive models employed to chart the behaviour of international trade and capital flows, under an atmosphere – not fully recognised at the time – of accentuated volatility proved to be misrepresentative leaving policy-makers, forecasters and speculators completely wrong-footed. Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, stated in late 2008, before a Congressional hearing in Washington, “I have discovered a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works”, in what can only be described as a moment of frank admission, for an ultra-rationalist. He added, “This modern risk-management paradigm held sway for decades…The whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year [2007]”.

He was referring partly to his shaken belief in a neo-liberal, ‘free-market’ economic model, and to the ability to predict and control its behaviour, which, on Mr Greenspan’s watch, has managed to dysfunctionalise the entire global economic system and caused untold suffering. Some, including many notable economists, say his policies, whilst the head of the Fed, were significantly responsible for the onset of the financial crisis as they encouraged the sub-prime housing bubble, and its inevitable collapse, by keeping interest rates too low for too long – “easy money”. And he failed to rein in the explosive growth of the largely unregulated business of derivatives, risky financial instruments that, as he admitted in the Washington hearing, were out of control and had created havoc throughout the financial world. In 1994, Greenspan successfully opposed the implementation of tougher regulations and restrictions on the derivatives market.

Hair Trigger

Of course, the world still operates predictably and measurably in many ways, as our extraordinary modern science has shown but it has become increasingly clear that this is by no means the full story. Those now infamous “masters of the universe”, both in high finance and science, over-dependent on speculative theories and models, hell-bent on retaining their triple-A, god-like status, have tended to conveniently overlook this underlying fact. All systems, which inevitably experience conditions of stress and can therefore become highly sensitized as a result, are prone to unstable, unpredictable modes of behaviour; an instability which can be symptomatic of being driven too hard and to the very limits of natural functioning. It is a warning indicator that any particular system is reaching or has reached a ‘tipping-point’, beyond which it will move into a disturbed and increasingly dysfunctional phase of activity and eventually completely collapse, much like a wheel coming loose from it’s axle; at first wobbling uncontrollably and then coming off altogether. The climate of a particular region, for example, may be masking underlying instability latent in that system and so the potential for disruptive weather patterns is present but remains unnoticed. Similarly with the economy, where many learned and even Nobel-prize winning economists have been caught out, admitting that they did not see this “once in a lifetime” crisis coming. And in the case of the environment, no one truly knows what might unravel if we reach that ominous tipping-point of a polar ice cap and permafrost meltdown.

The sensitivity of systems to influencing factors which may be miniscule, as Lorenz discovered, and therefore virtually impossible to monitor, no matter how accurate the devices used, is often referred to by the well-known term ‘butterfly effect’. It points to the fact that when systems like the climate, environment or economy are in an inherently unstable condition it can lead to unforeseen events even with the smallest of initial disturbances. Like the turbulence generated by the beat of a butterfly’s wings or for that matter the splitting of an atom which, again when the fissile material, on an atomic level, is unstable enough, can set in motion a cataclysmic chain of events. Put another way, in a highly charged ‘atmosphere’, using the word in its broadest sense, it often only takes the smallest of switching devices, a hair-trigger, to move it rapidly into an either destructive or creative phase of activity. The tension inherent in that atmosphere or environment seeks to be diffused, discharged either dramatically as takes place in a lightning strike or gradually like the steady flow of household electricity, kept relatively safe and useable by a whole network of regulating mechanisms and in stark contrast to our neoliberalised and therefore deregulated financial system, which some believe is “ready to blow” – like a whirlwind. The trigger-point or activating ‘seed’ may be minute but in a system, in a sense, ‘fertile’ enough it can grow exponentially into say a hurricane, nuclear explosion, stock market implosion or even social revolution – not by any means a new phenomena but one we are seeing today in a globalised form which includes protest movements like the Arab Spring, the Spanish Indignados and the Occupy Movement.

The True Nature of Justice

There can be little doubt that the ‘global atmosphere’, so to speak, today is one that indeed can be characterised as highly charged, socially, politically, economically and environmentally not to mention the inner storm brewing up in our collective psyche. These are uncertain times with uncertain futures and distressing to a world that appears, to anyone who has eyes to see and not their head jammed firmly in the sand, to have completely lost its way. In the lead-up to its annual meeting, the World Economic Forum published its annual report in January 2013 – Global Risks – warning of potential dangers to the functioning of our most critical systems.  Compiled by a panel of 1,000 experts, it urged policy-makers to address the key issues of severe income disparities, the indebted state of governments and rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The report states:

Continued stress on the economic system is positioned to absorb the attention of leaders for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Earth’s environmental system is simultaneously coming under increasing stress. Future simultaneous shocks to both systems could trigger the ‘perfect storm’ with potentially insurmountable consequences… On the economic front, global resilience is being tested by bold monetary and austere fiscal policies. On the environmental front, the Earth’s resilience is being tested by rising global temperatures and extreme weather events that are likely to become more frequent and severe. A sudden and massive collapse on one front is certain to doom the other’s chance of developing an effective, long-term solution.

We have sown the wind and the whirlwind has surely followed. That is a fact whether generally accepted or not. Many of the operating systems of the planet, as stated above, are under tremendous pressure and are showing the telltale signs of distress and dysfunctionality. The most obvious, of course, being the degradation of our living environment, which includes pollution and climate change, and yet there are those who are still quite able to rationalise the whole problem away, conveniently understating the human factor and choosing instead to put the emphasis on ‘nature’s cycles’.

As the well over-used cliché puts it, we are now in uncharted territory – a realm of “unknown unknowns” – though perhaps not quite as uncharted as we imagine. For it is always that Nature, an ultimately benevolent, self-regulating Organism, sooner or later, responds to extremes with balancing corrective measures. When the excesses of our planet reach the toxic levels they so obviously have today, with, say, environmental destruction, carbon dioxide emissions, the wealth and income inequality that exists between the so-called haves and have-nots and many other socio-economic injustices, Nature at a certain point kicks in. Like a safety valve letting off steam it attempts to stem the destructive energetic imbalance before it becomes dangerously polarised, much like an electrical storm, mentioned earlier, seeks to neutralise the build-up of a super-charged differential. There seems in-built in Nature a correcting factor, an element of Universal Justice, which attempts to harmonise destructive inequities and one we appear to be quite unaware of, or at least act as if we are.

Legally Binding

In essence, and not to put too fine a point on it, we have somehow succeeded in creating a global ‘energy-bomb’, for want of a better way of putting it, with many factors having gone into its assemblage and ourselves as the unfortunate targets – the ultimate in suicide missions, albeit an unconscious one. The mounting tensions of the world have been, at best, misunderstood, at worst overlooked and ignored for generations by a long succession of influential policy-makers, both in global politics and economics. This has led to a dangerous and seemingly intractable, bomb-like concentration of problems affecting all aspects of life. It has created this super-charged atmosphere, a supercell of disharmony and dis-ease, which will take some skill and a considerable amount of patience to diffuse before some unforeseen trigger sets in motion a catastrophic chain of events, in the same way a single, well-placed bullet, killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, acted as the tiny spark that seeded what would later become the raging inferno of World War One.

The world cries out, knowingly or not, for a team of skillful operators with abilities in all fields, whose primary task it is to diffuse the currently explosive situation facing the planet. High level, high-calibre compromisers and negotiators, a role for which the United Nations was originally set up, respected by many and able to take the sting out of the gathering mother of all storms, we have all unintentionally reaped, before it does further untold and perhaps irreversible damage to an already beleaguered planet. At this time of extraordinary significance can we make the right choices in the sense that we accept what the present situation demands from us, as laid down by the Universal Laws of Nature, particularly the key Law of Cause and Effect, which in the end express the interconnectedness of all things? The universe itself is bound together by the interplay of these underpinning guiding principles, as science is continually re-discovering. Why is it humanity thinks it can reasonably exist in some fantasy realm beyond them? And, perhaps more importantly, when will we wake up to this dangerous delusion and renounce these outlaw ways which have brought us all to the very edge of extinction without even fully realising it? That is the question of our times. We appear not to have forever to answer it.

Doug Griffin is a freelance writer based in London, UK. Read other articles by Doug.