Understanding Chaos

fractal-language-teaching-007Chaos is one of those English words that has been misused to the point of meaninglessness, words such as anarchy, with which chaos is frequently confused,  and sustainable, with which it is not

Chaos means:

  1. a state of things in which chance is supreme; especially :  the confused unorganized state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct forms

  2. the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a complex natural system (as the atmosphere, boiling water, or the beating heart)

  3. a state of utter confusion

I think many cosmologists these days might quibble with definition 1. There is a growing understanding of “pre-universe” primordial matter, which may indeed be ordered rather than chaotic. We don’t yet understand the nature of the underlying order before the Big Bang, if that’s what it was.

Definition 3 is the darling word of headline writers, immediately conjuring images of a Mad Max scenario of lawlessness, conflict and destruction, often mistakenly labeled anarchy.

Number 2 is the most useful, and most often ignored definition of chaos for those concerned with the effects of human growth and development on natural environments. While natural systems are indeed chaotic and unpredictable, it’s a common human reaction to see direct linear relationships of cause and effect in natural phenomena, such as, just to pick an example out of thin air, climate variation.

Natural geophysical systems are so immensely complex, with multiple feedback loops, forcing influences and limiting factors, that linear cause and effect relationships are rare and difficult to tease out from natural background variability.

It is not true, for instance, that human carbon dioxide emissions cause climate change. Climate variation is an emergent property of complex and chaotic interactions among atmospheric, oceanic and cosmic influences, including human action. No single activity causes climate change. All activity has some effect, modified by the interactions with other influences. No single activity can solve or end climate change. Climate change is not a problem to be solved, nor does it have direction which can be changed or ended.

Therefore, much to the disappointment of international development agencies and Big Green fundraisers, there is nothing humans can do to stop climates from changing in the ways we now observe. If humans were to stop all CO2 production today, global climates would continue to change, just as they have for millennia. There are far better reasons to limit global pollution and resource consumption than the minuscule effects, if any, that would have on climate variation.

This is chaos, the normal way that complex systems act and react. It’s the Way of the Real World, which operates on its own with or without human approval.

Rather than fighting chaos, humans would do far better to cooperate with it and change ourselves to better fit into the real world around us. It’s called adaptation, something that humans were good at during the Pleistocene, something that we discarded in the Holocene, and something we must readopt to survive through the next great transition.

This definition of chaos is particularly useful in understanding the natural world. Let’s add this to our tool kit for reinhabitory strategies and living in place, in the drawer alongside resilience and adaptation.




2 thoughts on “Understanding Chaos

  1. Michael, This is the type of nuanced argument that we are currently missing in all our social discourse. The issues we face are so complex and yet we try to address them in sound bites. Thank you for encouraging deeper thinking about how we exist on this planet.


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