Before I get into this, just a reminder that I'm a columnist, not the editorial board. I don't actually know Chuck's take on these ideas, but I do know through conversation that many of you relate to them.


Last week on the blog, I wrote about a radio show on invasive species that reminded me of the language that gets applied to urban changes.

(That radio piece ended up being highly controversial, by the way. You can find an update with a radio response and apologies for an oversight of mine at the bottom of the post.)

Daniel Herriges left an excellent comment that echoes many ecologists' hesitance to celebrate what are often called "novel ecosystems". If I may paraphrase: just because a system is adaptable and evolves over time does not give us license to completely disrupt it.

Right on. Agreed. So what is the way forward when dealing with systems of great complexity?

  1. Some would say, we don’t worry about it. The whole system will figure itself out, so carry on with business as usual. I wish this group were small in number, but sadly, I believe they are legion because it is a very easy road to take (until you're on the receiving end of business as usual).
  2. Some would say, wow, we are so lucky that we live in a world that can absorb our hubris so gracefully. Thank goodness the situation isn’t worse. But we should really get our act together and STOP doing the things we know to cause harm.
  3. Some would say, man, this is really complex stuff. It’s hard to know what to do so let's move cautiously. First, let's stop doing the things we know to cause harm AND then let's take humble and observant steps to see if we can regenerate our places rather than just tiptoeing around like a bull in a china shop.

If you’re a fan of Strong Towns, you’re probably in category 3. Stop the madness first, then edge away from the cliff. #NoNewRoads and then #ChaoticButSmart

What about when incrementalism isn’t enough?

In my response to Daniel, I shared some thoughts from reading: 

Your point about invasive vs. native not being as relevant as disruption vs. stability (meaning slower rate of change) is really thought provoking. In some of my recent reading, I’ve come across the idea that in times of affluence and surplus energy the rate of change accelerates and we see a surge in bold experimentation and evolution (sometimes leading to cancerous growth). Whereas when we’re all conserving resources, things revert to a slower incremental pattern based on observation and trial and error. Either way, good management means making the smallest intervention possible and avoiding too much of a good thing. The problem is, you can’t incrementally get yourself out of a dead-end. In some cases, you need to leap laterally to an entirely different pathway of incremental development. This has got me thinking about scenarios in which a disruptive leap might actually be the best move going forward, so that incremental development can be meaningful henceforth.

I’m trying to be more observant of feedback mechanisms, because I think those hold the balance of “good” or “bad” disruption. I think it’s so powerful that WE (royal we) are a feedback mechanism by learning, being compassionate, and being activists.

We are a feedback mechanism.

If you believe that people are made of this world and part of this world, then you will have no problem seeing that people have their own systems of negative feedback. When successful, these systems prevent societies from decimating the things they depend on. Of course there have been societies that disappeared through the failure of feedback mechanisms, but it’s perhaps more interesting that other civilizations have lasted so long. They somehow did not cut down all the trees or eat all the fish or suck the soil of its nutrients.

I kind of got into this recently, while cornered on a plane by a guy that “just likes to debate”. He was prodding me on all sorts of culture war frontlines before we got to climate change. When it’s a scale as large as humanity, we can see the feedback more clearly.

So I was sharing how guilty I feel about flying to be with my family and to do my job, and I'm trying to do longer, less frequent trips, etc. He says, don’t worry about it - people aren’t causing climate change. I was tired of talking long before this point, but as he started giving me the script that fills comment boards of climate articles everywhere, I couldn’t do it anymore. “I’m not going to debate this with you.”

He apologized for making me “so emotional,” and asked with genuine concern what made me so afraid. I am afraid because we don’t know what will happen or when it will happen or how fast it will happen or how people will react.

He said, Don't worry, nature has feedback mechanisms for these things. I said, Yes, and we are one of them. Our brains. Our ability to respect the unknowable and learn from the past to exercise caution. That is a feedback system. It’s the stuff of movements and cultural norms and spirituality. It’s what leads to innovations and the staggering amount of art and beauty that is born of humans trying to communicate with each other. We live on earth too, and just because we can make an abstraction of our own involvement in change doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role to play.

If there was ever a time to make a disruptive leap to a different pathway, I think now would be the time. The massive and interconnected movements that have been built to help us make that leap are a feedback system. After that leap has been made, the work becomes incremental again.

Joining 25,000 people in the streets of Québec City for the #11Avril Climate March - http://act-on-climate.ca/

Joining 25,000 people in the streets of Québec City for the #11Avril Climate March - http://act-on-climate.ca/

Respecting the unknowable and learning from the past

Simply because something is complex and somewhat self-regulating does not absolve us of responsibility to study closely the consequences of our actions.

I love Chris Hadfield’s quote from a day at the office as an astronaut: “there is no problem so bad you can’t make it worse.”

And here’s where it comes back to the work at Strong Towns and how we interact with our cities. We have seen throughout history that we're terrible at predicting how the city will adapt to mass experiments. No one fully knows what they're doing and at the moment, the outlook for a lot of places is pretty grim.

But as much as we talk small steps, in essence, what we're asking for is a leap. For many places that have designed themselves into a cul-de-sac, they need a 180 because there is no incremental way out. #NoNewRoads is a 180. The question we are all asking (whether it's climate or ecosystems or cities or other crises) is, what then does that compass point to? We only have our best guesses based on observations of the past and of our more positive experiments in the present. We only have tentative steps in that direction, but let's not pretend that the process of turning around the behemoth is a small and incremental step. It's a big change that can only be pulled by a movement.

We are part of that movement, building on the tireless work of others. And even when the behemoth turns around, the work will have only just begun.

He said nature has feedback systems for these things

These are actually my neighbours. A number of New Brunswickers made the trip to Québec City to support alternatives to a fossil fuel based economy.

These are actually my neighbours. A number of New Brunswickers made the trip to Québec City to support alternatives to a fossil fuel based economy.

In the city, it’s pretty clear that we are a feedback system for our own shortsightedness. At our best, we don't make the same mistake three times. We also play off each other to create a beautiful and somehow functional whole - the sidewalk ballet, right? And while we all enjoy the thousands of little actions that amount to a better city, we can’t forget that someone has to do the work. When we reflect in awe at how the city tends to “figure out” problems and imbalances, we need to acknowledge that the “figuring out” is made of the dedication and frustration and very real work of our neighbours.

This is what it means to live in a complex system. It's not permission to kick back and enjoy the show. We may never fully understand the myriad ways life struggles to survive and regenerate, but struggle we must to improve the chances.