A Complexity Worldview

What is the complexity worldview? Simply put it is recognizing the complexity in most natural and social systems, allowing us to adapt our choices accordingly.


How is Earth complex? Let’s start with something manageable: how is a forest complex? A natural forest (often called “old growth”) just happens. No person or power made the forest there in that way. The rain forests of Central and South America are full of plants, animals, and fungi each pursuing their individual life-cycle. Plants and fungi grow, insects propagate, and animals feed on plants and each other. The forest is the system in which they all live and the forest emerges from these myriad interactions. An ecosystem—whether a forest, a pond, or a coral reef—is for analytical purposes separated from the rest of Planet Earth. Yet, every ecosystem is a part of, and affected by changes in, other natural systems both near and far and even by the output from the sun. For further reading on complex (adaptive) systems, see the references page.


The primary characteristics of complex systems are that:

         There are a large number of diverse agents

         Each agent has decision-making capability among a range of choices

         Because decision-making is distributed, complex systems are “self-organizing,” not organized centrally to follow a plan

         The system emerges from the interactions among the parts. The parts make the whole. The system does not dictate the role of the parts (as in, for example, a mechanical system)

         Complex systems have feedback loops; many complex systems have positive feedback loops that constantly magnify effects

         Because the diverse parts have behavioral discretion, may co-evolve, and can get caught in positive feedbacks, the emergent system can change rapidly, even non-linearly (to a new phase state). Large effects may emerge from small (perhaps distant) causes and system futures cannot be predicted beyond the short-term.


Complex Social Systems

Can we make the direct analogy from forest to social systems? Are social systems complex in the same way as natural systems? They are not, for several reasons:

         Rules limit freedom of choice. There is no central command organizing an ecosystem’s development. However, in social systems there are many organizations and even some individuals that make and enforce rules. Humans trade some individual freedom for the benefits of social stability.

         Customs limits freedom of choice. Humans learn and use cultural practices and customs that simplify social interactions. Customary practices are the lubricant of society.

         Humans think and plan. Humans can imagine a wider range of desires (future possibilities for themselves) and are able to choose among a greater number of strategies to satisfy those desires. Despite social rules and customs, humans are more diverse in their desires and behaviors than any other life form on the planet.  

         Societies plan. Societies indulge in politics (the choosing process) and make policy (the choice of changes in behavior) to plan their futures.


The Consequences of Social Complexity

The organization of complex systems emerges from the interactions among self-determining agents with decision-making capacity. In social systems, the human ability to desire, imagine alternate social arrangements, and re-interpret rules of interaction is set in counterpoise to authority in and by organizations. This tension between order and chaos can cause rapid and profound social changes. Examples range from the volatility of financial markets to the emergence of fads and fashions.


The logical consequence of recognizing complexity is humility:  


         Society happens. Social systems evolve largely from the bottom-up. Changes and their causes are hidden in the present and difficult to perceive historically.

         History rhymes, it does not repeat. Social systems are dynamic and social patterns constantly evolve.

         Sudden change. Social systems can change rapidly and unpredictably.

         Good intentions and bad effects. The effects of interventions in social systems (as through government policy) are not predictable. Unintended consequences are common.


Understanding and applying the complexity worldview helps us to function more effectively on a complex planet. Complex Planet illustrates the complexity worldview and shows how it can guide us to a life well lived.

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