“Linear problems are all the same. Nonlinear problems are all different.” – Robert Hooke (1918-2003)
My father, a mathematician, once shared this offhand remark, at a time when I was still in school. He certainly wasn’t claiming this to be an original thought; it was simply an observation he made during whatever conversation we were having at the time. Ever since, I’ve reflected on the wisdom of this. Early on, for example, when I was finishing up my graduate work at the University of Chicago, I realized that in my thesis I’d stumbled on a small problem in an obscure corner of atmospheric science that had never been tackled before…and yet was linear. The mathematics was a breeze.
We could get all pointy-headed in this post, but at the risk of not being mathematically correct, and for present purposes, let’s share the idea this way. In a linear world, things happen more or less independently. They don’t interact with each other. Their impacts are simply additive and separate.
Consider, for example, the dawn of mankind. There is a village or clan here, another there. Small nomadic groups are roaming over the land, making only sporadic contact with each other. The resources they consume are tiny compared with the Earth’s resource store…and largely renewable at that. In fact, the resources they consume are tiny compared with that consumed by other animal species. They take a fish from the sea, and the whales and other marine mammals don’t notice. What happens to one clan or tribe in the Americas doesn’t matter in any discernible way to another clan or tribe in Africa or Europe.
We came from this linear world. We’re wholly adapted to it. This is our mindset. As far as mankind is concerned, our entire history has been lived in The Linear Age.
In our present, nonlinear world, actions and events are no longer independent. They can no longer be simply summed. They have become interdependent. Agriculture and food consumption patterns the world over matter to local food supplies and prices everywhere. My table here in Washington DC reflects conditions in Chile, Central America, Indonesia, and so on. In Indonesia, food prices and availability reflect decisions and actions made in Europe, the US and elsewhere. The same holds true for water consumption, for energy consumption, for extraction of iron, copper, and rare earths…and more. For example, most societies have traditionally held drinkable water to be a public good, and acted as if its consumption was non-rivalrous and non-exclusive. My use of water for any purpose didn’t matter. You still had plenty for your purposes, whatever they might be. Today, by contrast, we find ourselves confronted with stark choices about water use for agriculture, energy, industry, and public consumption.
This is particularly evident when it comes to extreme events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, cycles of flood and drought. Extreme events are by their very nature integrative. For example, take Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, cases familiar to most Americans. These weren’t simply extremes or even natural disasters. They didn’t impact public safety and that alone. They damaged property. They disrupted business. They discombobulated transportation, not just locally but nationwide and internationally. Both were agricultural events (think of the ports of New Orleans as the embarkation point for U.S. grains to the rest of the world). They were energy events. Gulf refineries are critical infrastructure for U.S. petroleum supplies. They were public health events, closing hospitals, and in New Orleans’ case, triggering a diaspora of trained healthcare professionals. They impacted the national finances.
This nonlinearity is new to world affairs. It dates back no more than a century or so. Prior to that time, nonlinearities might have episodically surfaced at the local or regional level, but the impacts were largely local…and tended to subside with time. [Strictly speaking, the nonlinearities have always been there, but so small as to be indiscernible.]
Today, we find we are confronted with the interconnectedness of all things. Everywhere. All the time. At all levels of society. There’s no decision we can make or action we can contemplate that isn’t full of implications for many others…ultimately, all of us.
It’s not surprising, then, if we look at recent mention of climate change by leaders, we find a full range of prescriptions and suggestions that cut across every facet of life. Yesterday, Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank wrote a Washington Post Op-Ed on making climate change a priority. He had three ideas, none new, except perhaps in their source and in their juxtaposition. Get financing flows and the pricing right on energy; end fuel subsidies; focus on cities. The Washington Post recently carried an editorial with a similar thought: calling for a national carbon tax… both as social engineering to cut consumption but raise federal revenues. A week prior, Naomi Oreskes suggested mobilizing scientists on climate change through the simple expedient of ramping up research at DoE national laboratories on alternative energy, carbon capture and storage, energy storage, social barriers to energy efficiency, and climate engineering. Seven billion people worldwide are proffering literally billions of overlapping ideas, that draw in and involve every sector, every walk of life. Out of this babble of voices, a resonant note will rise. Out of a seemingly chaotic, incoherent set of actions, will emerge what history will look back on and in retrospect recognize as humanity’s response.
On the ground, however, and lived out day-by-day instead of on some kind of fast-forward, the experience is tortuous and wrenching. The more we know (and seven billion people are busily accumulating a raft of experience), the more we realize that every action has impacts…and that the missteps and fumbles seem to outnumber the good bits. Analysis of our shortcomings is beyond us…but actually improving our performance in light of that analysis is orders of magnitude more challenging still. This makes us pessimistic and cranky. Then we start taking out our frustration on each other. It’s easier to decry your faults than to fix mine.
So think of humanity as leaving behind the Linear Age, and entering the Age of Nonlinearity
Here’s a forecast, based on something else my father said, back when I was an adolescent. “You’re experiencing growing pains. You will grow out of it”
What my father and others of his generation meant was that all that teenage awkwardness stems from rapid physical growth, hormonal changes, growing awareness, the clicking-in of a sense of responsibility, etc. It was not the way things would always be. It was a stage.
So the forecast for the human race? We’ll live in the Age of Nonlinearity for a long time. But we… our present generation… learn to master it…rather than be overwhelmed by it. The generations to follow will find it as natural as the Linear Age seemed to our ancestors.
And a lot more interesting.