Managing Complexity

Complex phenomena such as extreme global climate change have certain hallmarks: they represent the effects of a system in motion, wherein all parts influence and are influenced by all other parts, more or less concurrently, in a permanently ongoing process. Responses to such problems require an understanding of their dynamics, including an awareness that actions targeted to any part of the system will generate consequences throughout the whole system.

This new class of problems tends to be fast moving and unstable, in the sense that trends and events interact spontaneously, with the result that unforeseen developments can outpace societal response. In complex systems, inputs and outputs are not only unpredictable but will on occasion be highly nonlinear: that is, seemingly small events will lead to massively consequential results. Complex systems do not tend toward stability and in fact harbor the possibility of collapse. There are no permanent solutions for problems arising out of complexity: instead, problems mutate and require permanent management.

These qualities present a severe challenge to our ingrained approach to governance. We artificially distinguish between domestic and international policy, although there is no way to understand either in isolation. We discount the impact of future events in favor of immediate concerns, ignoring the ramifications of our short-term decisions for our longer-term interests. Despite our awareness of the need for integration of all policy areas, the formation and execution of policy are poorly articulated. Despite the fact that issues mutate continuously, the executive branch and Congress habitually tout policies as perfect, permanent solutions.

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