The following article is the result of a still ongoing personal reflection about the way humans relate to their natural environment. It draws upon a variety of sources and influences. The first part introduces some of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ideas, how these relate to our subjective experience of randomness and uncertainty, and how this allows us to better understand, though not predict, the ongoing environmental crisis. The second part draws on the work of physicists and geologists in order to reframe our perception of time and matter. The third part discusses the increasingly popular concept of resilience, which I again relate to Taleb’s ideas.
It is fortune, not wisdom, that rules man’s life.
– Cicero, Tusculanum Disputationum, LIX
During the interwar years, the French government decided to pursue major defensive fortifications in order to prevent any future German invasion. The fortifications were enormously costly: the 1930 budget allocated 3.3 billion francs to the project (equivalent to 1.3 trillion USD at its current 2014 rate.)
The French thought they understood the laws of military strategy and reacted accordingly by building a ‘Great Wall of France.’ The wall proved to be completely useless. Today the Maginot line fulfills some utility at last, as a reminder of our prediction failures and our ‘epistemic arrogance,’ that is, our frequent overconfidence in what we are capable of knowing.
Opinions about the future permeate our modern societies. What would the consequences of a war between the U.S. and China be? What future awaits Microsoft in the upcoming years? Will Russia monopolize subarctic oil? It is quite tempting to answer all of these questions. But few if any of us can really know. Our minds did not evolve to properly evaluate probabilities, let alone to predict what lies ahead of us.
We usually hit several serious limitations when it comes to anticipating the consequences of potential future events.
Most of us tend to think that risk is something that can be estimated or calculated when, in fact, many kinds of risks are simply unknowable. Who could have predicted the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Barely anyone besides the plotters. To everyone else, the murder was a complete surprise. It is difficult to speak of such ‘unknowable’ risks because they can only be explained in hindsight.
Then come our psychological biases. Take, for example, our perception of time. We humans were never really made to think in the long term. The further an event is in the future, the more we will tend to minimize its importance. We effectively tend to neglect whatever we might gain or lose in the distant future (social scientists refer to this phenomenon as ‘hyperbolic discounting.’)
Perhaps the greatest mental weakness we have is to mistake regularity for law. As a true empiricist, Taleb argues that we have a dangerous tendency to induce law-like generalizations from limited experience. What we do not realize is that there exists absolutely no guarantee that even a thousand-year long trend will last forever. Social ‘realities’ are often far more contingent and fleeting than we think.
Some of these weaknesses can be overcome through slow, careful and deliberate thinking; but our ability to do so is limited. We can aspire to act rationally as much as we can, but to even suppose that we can be completely rational on a permanent basis is naïve.
Taleb’s work seems to favor the idea that we should rather focus on internalizing fast but useful heuristics (‘rules of thumb’) for our daily operations, while applying our rationality in a slow and intentional manner where it matters most. That includes, for instance, creating ‘rational’ institutions capable of counteracting our own ‘irrational’ tendencies.
The limits to our understanding of risk are clearly due to our own cognitive limitations, as argued above, but they are also due to the very structure of the world we live in: even if we wanted to and had the required brain power, it would be physically impossible for us to know about everything that is going on everywhere at the same time. Since the social world is too complex for us to understand and accurately predict, we can only understand and relate to it through limited and flawed information.
This limited knowledge of the social world is precisely what makes much of it appear random and unpredictable. If I meet a pregnant woman, I can establish that her baby has a 50% chance of being a girl (or a boy, for that matter). The sex of the baby, which in this case is just as random as a coin toss, is reduced to a probability because of my lack of knowledge.
The events that led to the baby’s formation, just like the events that led to the coin falling on a particular side, are either too complex or too inaccessible for me to understand. However, a doctor with access to ultrasound scans, and thus to privileged information, would obviously not see the answer to the question ‘what is the baby’s sex?’ as random.
In the end, the only difference between me and the doctor is access to information. We thus see that randomness has a subjective dimension to it. Nothing is inherently random. It is only what we cannot know and what we cannot control that effectively appears random to us. The same is true of financial crises, wars, politics and environmental change. Events caused by such complex processes only become intelligible after the fact.
Taleb’s work thereby provides a highly useful prism through which future environmental change can be apprehended. As Taleb himself notes, pollution tends to be harmful in a nonlinear way: a little bit of it is devoid of harm, while a lot of it can cause major disturbances.
Recognizing this implies that “one does not necessarily need to believe in anthropogenic climate change in order to be ecologically conservative.” In an opaque world that we cannot fully understand and predict, the mere possibility of environmental risk suffices to justify environmental safeguards.
Constantly contemplate the whole of time and the whole of substance, and consider that all individual things as to substance are a grain of a fig, and as to time the turning of a gimlet.
– Marcus Aurelius, Book X, Dictum 17
In 1883, Krakatoa, a volcano in what was then the Dutch East Indies, erupted with such force that it pulverized an entire island and darkened the global sky for many months, creating spectacular sunsets of which we can still see traces in paintings such as Munch’s The Scream.
Even though this may sound impressive today, it is nothing compared to what earlier records tell us. Life on earth has gone through several massive environmental changes. It may be hard to imagine, but there has been times when our planet was entirely submerged by a single ocean, when it had a single big continent, when it was almost entirely covered with ice, and when it was a hot greenhouse devoid of any continental glaciers (respectively referred to as ‘snowball’ and ‘hothouse Earth’ by scientists). It has seen massive asteroidal impacts and gigantic volcanic eruptions by far more powerful than Krakatoa.
All of this happened while living things roamed the planet. Single-cell organisms have probably existed for more than two billion years. The rise of visible forms of life can be dated with more precision: the beginning of the Phanerozoic eon, about 540 million years ago. There has been a variety of mass extinctions since then, the last of which occurred following the advent of an ice age about 33.9 million years ago (after the dinosaurs became extinct).
Most of us grasp the magnitude of periodic changes, although it remains much harder to grasp the scale of time over which the events take place. Homo sapiens, who has existed for about 200 000 years, covers an extremely short episode in the evolutionary saga of life. In fact, if the timescale for life on Earth was represented by the length of the Eiffel tower, human existence would be less than half an inch long. Industrialized society, covering the last 200 years, would be thinner than a human hair.
Likewise, we have affected the Earth in ways that can only be evaluated and understood over very long periods of time, far beyond that of a human life. The CO2 that we have so far put into the atmosphere will likely remain there for many millennia. The resources we have extracted from the Earth, some of which took hundreds of millions of years to form, are quickly being consumed and reduced to waste in just a few generations. Understanding environmental change effectively requires that we reframe our own existence in time.
We affect nature and it affects us in many ways. We know that we as a species are currently changing the balance of the Earth’s ecosystem. We are creating stressors in a system that has long remained stable. We know that there are physical limits to the extent we can extract and transform the Earth’s resources. We can also anticipate the potential consequences of our continued production and consumption of earthly materials (rare-mineral depletion, ocean acidification, water scarcity, mass extinction of wild plants and animals).
However, it is important to point out that we are disturbing this ecosystem in ways never recorded and never experienced before. Because of this, it is extremely difficult to grasp the effects and duration of the undergoing change. In fact, there is little way of really knowing what lies ahead. There are many ‘unknown unkowns’ on the road before us, that is, unforeseeable side effects that cannot be imagined before they happen.
This unpredictability makes environmental change even more dreadful, since it leaves us ill-prepared to face the potential negative consequences (‘Black Swans’) that Mother Nature could bring upon us.
It should be noted that the Earth experienced several other ‘traumas’ or events that disrupted its climate balance in the past. As a matter of fact, Mother Nature has its own backup mechanisms for dealing with stressors. One of these is the geological carbon cycle. Over time, atmospheric carbon dioxide reacts with silicates on the ground to form carbonate rock. As the physicist Ugo Bardi explains, ‘the reaction is slow by human standards, but not so by geological ones,’ and it gradually consumes atmospheric CO2.
Carbonates are soluble in water in the form of ions. As such they are progressively drained towards the oceans by rain. There carbonates enter the shells of marine organisms, which then sediment at the bottom of oceans. With the movement of the tectonic plates, the ocean floor is gradually pushed down and absorbed into the mantle, along with its sediment carbon, which is eventually brought back to the surface as the result of volcanic activity.
The geological carbon cycle is believed to be the principal mechanism ensuring that there is enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for plant photosynthesis, without which there would be no life on Earth.
But the cycle also effectively acts as a ‘planetary thermostat’ because it regulates atmospheric greenhouse effects. When Earth cools down, volcanic eruptions predominate over CO2 removal by silicate. The opposite happens when the Earth warms up.
Even when the Earth was almost completely covered by ice, volcanic activity ensured that it properly heated up again. This ‘thermostat’ mechanism is one of the reasons explaining why surface temperatures have remained within a range that is favorable to the continued development of life.
The problem with the geological carbon cycle, of course, is that it operates over several millions of years and as such is of no help whatsoever on a civilizational timescale. Mother Nature is antifragile, but we are not.
Do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.
– Seneca, Letter CIV to Lucilius
Humans now face a crucial question. How exactly should we act with regards to an unknowable future, one where we cannot fully predict the scope of possible environmental change? How should we navigate into the dark abyss ahead?
The consequences of environmental change vary according to context. This is why some of us are necessarily more fragile than others. Just think about the peoples of island nations such as the Maldives, which have already started eroding away as a result of rising sea levels. Or the peoples of the Sahel facing increased desertification. In the long term, however, it is not to be excluded that all of us may be affected in one way or another, whether directly or indirectly, by environmental change.
Taleb defines robustness as the capacity to withstand shocks, and antifragility as the capacity to thrive on them. Achieving antifragility in the face of environmental change is a difficult thing. Modern societies are built upon the premise of a stable environment. If that stable foundation crumbles, so does social stability. It might just be that human civilization was made fragile from the very beginning.
When it comes to climate resilience, the most antifragile social institutions are probably to be found in hunter-gatherer societies. These societies were both highly adaptable and highly mobile, and replicated forms of practical knowledge which allowed them to react efficiently to unexpected changes in their environment. No more food? No more water? Looming threat? Just respond as your elders have taught you, or move on to somewhere else.
Unfortunately, few of us aspire to remain on the run, nor do many of us dispose of the kind of primordial survival skills that our ancestors had. Furthermore, having people move around on a planet of ten billion people will certainly bring its share of complications. Exit strategies have become more costly and more risky.
There are two levels on which we can act: the individual (the small-scale) and the collective (the large-scale). Although change at the collective level is undoubtedly the most effective, it is also the most difficult to achieve.
It is therefore no surprise that small-scale strategy, out of which the modern resilience movement was born, is becoming increasingly popular. This bottom-up movement values self-sufficiency and preparedness over individual specialization and dependency, precisely because the latter render us fragile to social change. Self-sufficiency requires the acquisition of knowledge and resources that reduce dependence on others. Preparedness requires backup systems and working exit strategies.
But there is also something quite individualistic in this resilience mentality: what matters is the welfare and survival of the individual, his closest friends and relatives, as well as his descendants. The rest of society can become suckers to Mother Nature if they so wish.
I would argue that resilience as a small-scale strategy is quite praiseworthy. But it is not the only possible strategy. Moreover, grounding ourselves in excessive individualism is both undesirable and immoral. That is, I do not believe one should give up on society and humanity just that easily. The best way to act in the face of environmental change is probably to be found, again, in Taleb’s work.
Taleb advances a very interesting investment rationale. He names this the ‘Barbell Strategy.’ The strategy prescribes that when allocating resources for future gain, a large portion of spare resources (80-90%) should be invested in extremely safe assets, while a small portion of spare resources (10-20%) should be invested in extremely risky assets. Investing in so-called ‘medium risk’ assets is pointless because long-term risk is difficult if not impossible to calculate.
If we assume that the ‘future gain’ to aim for is reduced environmental loss, then a large portion of resources should be invested in what is most likely to work: small-scale change aiming for individual and community resilience.
Meanwhile, a small portion of our spare resources should be invested in the kind of activities that are least likely to work, but that may generate disproportionate gains if they are successful. In our case, this means activities aiming for large-scale collective change.
One should mentally prepare for the fact that high-risk activities will not necessarily generate any return on investment. As such, one could spend an entire life spending a portion of one’s resources on political campaigns, NGOs, and other pro-environmental activities for the common good. One can try being creative, and test different solutions through trial and error. Perhaps it will not have wielded any significant returns. But if just one individual invests the right kind of resources at the right place at the right time, Fortuna (the unknown ‘randomness’ of the world) may be on his side.
The strategy is intended as a heuristic for antifragility, as it is the least likely to render the investor a victim of bad fortune. If my risky investments do not pay off, who cares: I still have 80 to 90% of my resources secured in the safest investment there is. In a world of continuing change, this can only mean the resources and knowledge that allow for individual resilience.
Modern life does not necessarily incite us to invest our resources in such a manner. It is also difficult to express and communicate ideas knowing how far from ‘common sense’ they are. Most people are caught up in an ideology that politely ignores environmental problems while valuing short-term gains. We face all the wrong incentives when it comes to responsible production and consumption of material goods. I also believe that we tend to become addicted to the stimulating rhythm and material comfort typical of our times, forgetting how contingent all of these things are.
In this context, neither defeatism nor optimism are warranted. We are undoubtedly facing unprecedented risks. There may be no more time to avoid the consequences of our past wrongdoing, and it just might be that future generations will have to get used to living with less than we do. Nonetheless, there is still time to avoid making things worse and to prepare for what lies ahead, whatever that may be.