Reflecting on 2018: complexity, messiness, progress

December is an excellent time to reflect on the year, and 2018 requires more reflection than most. Wherever one looks, 2018 was messy, from politics (consider, for very different reasons, Brexit endgame, “gilets jaunes”, or Korean denuclearization) to how we deal with major issues: picture 30’000 COP24 delegates in Katowice, surrounded by coal mines and coal dust, struggling to put in practice the good intentions of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

2018 was a year of extraordinary progress of knowledgeTo illustrate:

In February, Steven Pinker set the tone with his well-researched book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress”, demonstrating the spectacular improvement of human wellbeing on 15 dimensions, including health, safety, and happiness, using data to dispel common myths.

This was followed by one of the most important scientific publications ever, the IPCC 1.5°C report. For the first time, we know exactly what to do to limit warming to avoid the worst consequences (simplified: reduce CO2 emissions by 58% by 2030, replant forests).


Report October 2018

Source: IPCC 1.5°C Report, October 2018

Scientists from the University of Leeds scaled these limits to a per capita level in their paper “A good life for all within planetary boundaries” (Phosphorus 890 g, Nitrogen 8.9 kg, material footprint 7.2 t). They introduced a new indicator eHANPP (embodied human appropriation of net primary production), representing biomass harvested or killed for human use, with a suggested limit of 2.62 t per person per year.

Why don’t we act as needed? Knowing exactly what to do is only a first step, but it’s not very useful if we don’t act. So, we need to ask, why are most of what we do “business as usual”? Why do we keep collectively creating outcomes most of us don’t want, like environmental destruction, broken communities, lack of trust, financial crises, millions of refugees, malnutrition, or obesity? This includes individual, company and government action, often pulling in the same (wrong) direction.

Part of the answer lies in the way our socio-economic system has evolved, with its stocks, flows, buffers, positive and negative feedback loops, rules, parameters etc. A simplified example: debt payments require growth, which requires cheap energy, meaning burning fossil fuels, leading to pollution and many other problems.

A bigger part, however, is probably linked to the way we think about the economy: as an independent system, following its own mechanistic rules (remember supply and demand curves from Econ101), separate from the environment and partly detached from society. At its core is money, as a benchmark, behavior driver, store of value, in addition to being a means of exchange.

Without this cultural baggage, an independent observer would see a still beautiful planet with a threatened biosphere; closed material flows but open energy flows powered by the sun; a dominant, individually smart but collectively stupid species obsessed with power and money; a highly complex human society and civilization as a subset of the biosphere; an economy as a subset of society and sub-subset of the biosphere, completely dependent on ecosystem services it is busy undermining.

Outlook: Looking back as far as our data will allow, with Steven Pinker’s help, suggests hope. The progress of knowledge in 2018 reinforces this hope, in spite of the rising complexity of today’s issues. The next blog will examine how we as educators can contribute.

Sascha_NICKAuthor: Sascha Nick, BSL Professor

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