I introduced some ideas from systems thinking last month, and especially the idea of second order cybernetics: the study of how people’s perceptions of systems affect their ability to understand and control them. I want to pick up on this idea, because I think it’s crucial to understanding the predicament we’re now in with respect to climate change. The system of systems that we have to understand in order to grasp the challenges of climate change is so complex that naturally, everyone sees it a little differently.
When describing relatively simple systems, most people’s descriptions coincide to some degree. Typically, one person will give more detail than another, such that the simpler description is completely subsumed in the more detailed one. However, for more complex systems, different people’s descriptions tend to diverge more. For any reasonably complex system, it will be impossible to completely derive any one person’s description from another persons – each will offer unique details that the other missed. Weinberg dubs this the principle of complementarity in his book on General Systems Thinking: any two descriptions of a complex system are likely to be complementary.
Here’s a simple example – these two photos are of the same lake, but are complementary views:
The principle applies whenever we have partial descriptions of the world from our observers, and may disappear if we ask the observers to make increasingly detailed observations. Assuming they really are describing the same system, it should eventually be possible to reconcile their descriptions completely. For example, with a little effort, you can match up the peaks in the two photos above, and even some of the trees (it’s a little easier with the enlarged photos – click on them for bigger). Unfortunately, if the systems are complex enough, the descriptions can only ever be partial, and it may be infeasible to trace down every last detail in order to reconcile them.
When it comes to climate, the principle of complementarity works overtime. People end up talking past one another because they don’t even realise they’re describing the same systems – their descriptions appear to have no common ground. For example, one person might talk in terms of atmospheric carbon concentrations, and emphasize the need to stop using fossil fuels. Another person might talk in terms of the costs of climate policies, and the risk to the economy if we place a price on carbon. Because they don’t stop to explore how the systems they are describing inter-relate, they don’t understand that they are each focussing on just one part of a much larger system of systems.
And the problem is that most people are so embedded in a particular worldview, they are incapable of understanding the systems in the way that others see them. To illustrate the depth of this problem, consider this story from Bill Tomlinson’s book “Greening through IT“:
One day, when I was in graduate school, I was walking along a paved bicycle path near my Davis Square apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, on the way to the T station (the Boston area subway). A father and son were walking a few yards in front of me. The boy was about four years old. He was running back and forth across the path, looking under rocks and investigating things. I saw him find something small, pick it up, and carry it over to his father. I heard the father say, “Oh, you found a snail!” I could feel a life lesson about to ensue. “Let’s see how far you can chuck that snail, Bobby!” (p109)
I feel a strong sense of revulsion towards this father, because my values are very different from his. I see the snail as a fascinating creature, to be studied and admired for its behaviours, and it’s interaction with the urban environment in which it lives – my kids and I have spend ages admiring how they wave their feelers and how they move. The father in the story sees the snail as part of a system of objects that can be hefted and thrown in sport. But this is just the principle of complementarity at work: we’re focussing on very different systems, which overlap. If we can’t step back and understand how our different values cause us to have complementary views of the ‘same’ system, then we’ll never manage to reach agreement on the broader goals of tackling a problem as complex as climate change.