Will contributing time and money to the Obama campaign, or just voting for Obama make any meaningful difference as to how the future unfolds? Conversely, does time and energy spent working for an Obama victory simply detract from applying these assets towards working for real societal transformation? I believe that evaluating these questions from a systems theory perspective provides insight on their resolution.
Global society constitutes a complex adaptive system. All systems possess three fundamental attributes:
1) Interconnectedness. A set of units or elements are interconnected so that changes in any element or elements produce changes in all. A change in any part of such a system causes rippling changes throughout every part of a system.
2) Emergence. The system as a whole possesses collective properties which are qualitatively different from, and not reducible to, the properties of its constituent elements. The wetness of a water molecule is not reducible to the properties of its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Similarly, consciousness is not reducible to the properties of individual neurons.
3) Boundedness. All systems possess a definite boundary between system and not system. This boundary may be closed or open. For complex systems, it is open.
Complex systems have unpredictable outputs. They process information and transform themselves in accordance with the results of their information processing. This is particularly true for complex systems composed of conscious elements such as human beings.
Because global human society is a complex adaptive system, its configuration is determined by the results of its information processing. All such systems may be said to evolve along a fitness landscape. As such they possess trajectories through this landscape or, as I usually call it, through learning space.
Above, I’ve included examples for a fitness landscape and its associated trajectory for human civilization from a paper I presented in 1997 at a conference on sociocybernetics at the University of Amsterdam. Once a complex system such as human civilization is reduced to a computer simulation, its fitness landscape and trajectory become readily apparent. The full text of the paper is available at: http://www.michaelpbyron.com/SystemicaArt.htm for anyone interested in following this topic up in more depth. [Note: If these images do not appear above, they can be found at: http://www.michaelpbyron.com/image022.gif and at: http://www.michaelpbyron.com/image023.gif .]
Because people learn and have goals, society as a whole has goals and attempts to “learn” its way towards the attainment of these goals. Security, comfort of life, and health are fundamental goals for all humans. Attempts at ordering society through law, fairly and impartially enforced by a government, which is responsive to the citizenry, represent one such goal. Another goal has been the provisioning of public goods. Basically, we have sought both to develop ever greater organizational “software” for governance, in conjunction with ever more powerful “hardware” for the provision of material goods.
In a system everything that happens causes rippling changes throughout the system. Consider our present day world: We have had limited success with developing the “software” needed to create what we would intuitively recognize as a just and humane society. We have recently been somewhat more successful at the provisioning of material goods, thanks primarily to cheap hydrocarbon energy. This material success has led us to the point where nearly seven billion humans are artificially sustained by the rapid release of chemical energy stored in oil and other hydrocarbons. However, availability of these resources must begin to decline ever more precipitously, and beginning soon.
Further, this decline of availability of cheap fuel is triggering ever more rapid use of the “dirtiest” of these energy sources because it exists in the greatest abundance: coal. This is triggering increasingly rapid climate change. Record setting droughts in some areas, record floods in others. As I write, a hundred blocks of Cedar City Iowa are under water due to historically unprecedented flooding.
The net effect of these climatic changes is to decrease agricultural production; and this is occurring at a time when world food reserves are already at an all time low for modern times. However, expensive oil, due to nearly flat production in the context of rising global demand, leads to increasing conversion of food crops to ethanol production, further lowering food reserves.
Global industrialized agriculture is almost completely dependent upon petroleum. Fertilizers are derived from natural gas. Pesticides are derived from petroleum. The entire agricultural production, processing and distribution system depends upon petroleum. The industrialization of agriculture across the planet had led to the majority of humanity becoming, for the first time, city dwellers. More than ever before in history, people are dependent upon the system of industrialized agriculture for their food.
As far as our governmental “software” is concerned, political power is fragmented into numerous nation states of varying power and affluence. Wealth and opportunity are inequitably distributed in all of them. Two thirds of the planet’s remaining petroleum reserves, along with forty percent of its natural gas, are located in the Persian Gulf. The United States is the only nation on the planet with the capability to project large amounts of military power globally. It is bogged down in the Persian Gulf nation of Iraq, in the sixth year of a war to control these resources.