Climate mitigation is readily described as a ‘complex’ and ‘systemic’ problem. But what is meant by this? It could be that these words go some way to convey the enormity and intractability of the issue, and our helplessness in the face of it. Commentators could also be referring to more of the literal meaning of these words, that the problem cuts across all aspects of life as we know it, and that there is no easy response.
What is seldom meant however is that this type of problem is particular, and that certain responses to it are more appropriate than others. There is an emerging area of study which specifically considers complexity and complex systems – worth taking a peek, right?
So what is this new field? Well, its new and its old. It entails some more tangible aspects, and some less tangible. It is certainly trans-disciplinary, and even breaks out of traditional academic confines to engage with all forms of knowledge. It is pragmatic. And it can change the way one views the world.
At its core is the concept of a complex system. Here there are many observable properties: non-linearity, self-organisation, feedback loops, heterarchies… a plethora of technical terms, but suffice to say that complex systems operate in particular ways. We can learn about their properties and, as conscious actors in our systems, use them to leverage systemic change.
At a less tangible level, the field of complexity also introduces a paradigm shift in how we approach knowledge and science, a new world view. In complexity we can no longer assume objectivity in anything. Certainty is a rare case, not the holy grail. Change is constant, the source of stability. Perspectives are the only truth we can know. (Is this resonating with some of what we are experiencing globally in our ‘post truth’ twenty first century?!).
How can one ‘be’ in such a world? What guides ‘right’ action here? Certainly we can no longer rely on finding the truth in order to act. The field of complex systems is emerging guidance and insights on how to act in complexity, such as elevating the role of ethics, values and understanding perspectives. There is more.
So it seems to me worth taking our descriptors of climate mitigation more seriously and literally, and asking what we can learn about acting in complex systems. Because right now we are using an outdated set of assumptions about how the world works to tackle one of the most threatening problems humanity has faced.