Global Risk

President’s Message: Complexity Overload and Extreme Events

05.21.13 | 6 min read | Text by Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky’s saying about war but applied to extreme events, “You may not be interested in extreme events, but extreme events are interested in you.” The “you” here refers to the general public. I trust that readers of the Public Interest Report have self-selected themselves to be concerned about extreme events such as nuclear war, pandemics, and massive tsunamis triggering nuclear disasters. But the public has largely averted its gaze and would prefer not to contemplate “unthinkable” extreme events.  Our task here at FAS is to convey to the public a better understanding of these events and provide better means to reduce and respond to them.

As I wrote in the previous president’s message, FAS is refocusing its mission on understanding, reducing, and responding to catastrophic risks. To further this mission, I have been looking for guidance as to how FAS can discover the intellectual talent and form the networks of specialists to help the world in dealing with catastrophic threats or extreme events.  I recently found important insights in Dr. John Casti’s book X-Events: Complexity Overload and the Collapse of Everything, published in 2012. Dr. Casti, a mathematician and a former researcher at RAND and the Santa Fe Institute among other places, has been one of the foremost experts on complexity science. In his latest book, he argues that an extreme event or “X-event” is “human nature’s way of bridging a chasm between two (or more) systems.”

He gives the example of the gap between an authoritarian government (think Egypt under Hosni Mubarak) and the populace. The government has clamped down on people’s freedoms for decades using draconian methods and has been exceedingly corrupt and dysfunctional. Wanting outlets for political expression, citizens have been using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter for political organizing. Dr. Casti points out that this development represents a growing, positive increase in the political capabilities of the citizenry—what he would term formation of a “high complexity” environment—versus an ossified, low-complexity government that is initially inclined to crush the protests instead of expanding freedoms. Dr. Casti argues that instead what the government should have done was to increase its complexity such that it could respond constructively to the protests. But it takes significant effort to bridge the complexity gap.

Seeking an easy way out of the perceived impasse, the Egyptian government’s initial response to the protests was to shut down the Internet in Egypt by ordering the country’s five main service providers to cut service on January 28, 2011, and the government also arrested several bloggers. U.S. President Barack Obama soon called on the Egyptian government to restore the Internet and give its citizens freedom of expression, and international service providers worked to find ways around the government’s cut in service. The Internet was restored on February 2, 2011, and the bloggers were released from prison. Mubarak was not so long afterwards deposed. As we have seen in the past two years, Egypt is still experiencing growing pains in its political transition, and it is not clear whether it will soon form a government responsive to its people’s needs. However, the movement illustrated the power of social networking tools in expanding people’s opportunities to organize and increase political complexity.

As Dr. Casti discusses in his book, there is a law of requisite complexity such that “the complexity of the controller has to be at least as great as the complexity of the system that’s being controlled.” For example, in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, the complexity of the control system (in particular, the height of the seawall and the location of the emergency diesel generators) was literally and figuratively too low to counter the higher complexity of the massive earthquake and tsunami.

I would also point out that the Japanese regulatory authorities and industry officials told the public for many years before the Fukushima accident that major nuclear accidents would not occur; this is the so-called nuclear safety myth. In effect, these authorities tried to sell the public on nuclear power being relatively low complexity. Today, Japan is faced with public mistrust and lack of confidence in nuclear power. The government has created a new regulatory agency called the Nuclear Regulation Authority. There are concerns that it is adopting too much of a deterministic approach to nuclear safety. That is, it is trying to achieve the strictest safety standards in the world by requiring many redundant safety systems at each nuclear plant to prevent further accidents. Instead, many experts outside of Japan are recommending a risk-informed approach that that uses multiple layers of safety systems but acknowledges that there will be some small level of risk. The question remains: can the Japanese public accept having some risk of a nuclear accident? Perhaps they can if the government and industry can demonstrate that it can handle high complexity events such as the possibility of accidents so as to protect the public from harm. For example, if the accident’s effects such as radioactivity release can be contained on the nuclear plant site, the public can be protected from radioactive contamination.

Can complexity mismatches be identified ahead of a catastrophe and steps taken to bridge the gap before catastrophe strikes? This is the message of the latter part of Dr. Casti’s book. He advises, for example, to look for major fluctuations and repeated occurrences in critical parameters of a system in order to forecast an impending catastrophe. For instance, in nuclear safety systems, one can look for repeated failures to inspect safety equipment, numerous unplanned shutdowns of plants due to exceeding thresholds in safety systems, and calls from whistleblowers about safety concerns. These are some major signs that urgent attention is needed.

How can governments and the public respond to avert such catastrophes?  For example, a government needs to demonstrate its responsiveness to a crisis before it explodes into a catastrophe. Syria shows how lack of a government response to an environmental crisis triggered widespread public discontent and the recent civil war. As Tom Friedman wrote in the May 19 edition of the New York Times, the Syrian government did essentially nothing to help farmers deal with the massive drought that occurred a few years ago. Instead, President Bashar al-Assad’s policy of allowing big conglomerate farms to drain the very limited aquifers made Syria’s smaller farms acutely vulnerable to the drought. Out of work farmers flocked to Syria’s cities and began political organizing. The high unemployment further exacerbated people’s discontent with Assad’s government and helped spur the civil war. In hindsight, if Assad’s advisers could have foreseen this turn of events, they could have advised him to tend to the legitimate concerns of the farmers and other people out of work.

In another Arab country further south of Syria, water and political crises have been unfolding. But unlike Syria, Yemen might find a way out of its political crisis stopping short of civil war. Yemen confronts a major water disaster in that its capital Sana’a, according to some estimates, may run out of sufficient potable water in a decade, and numerous aquifers across the country are being drained faster than they can be refilled. But the good news is that after President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in 2012, the political factions in the country have begun a national dialogue. This process has encouragingly included many women leaders. Several women had led the protests demanding that then-President Saleh relinquish power. While there will undoubtedly be hurdles along this dialogue process, it is a sign of increasing positive political complexity. This is greatly needed for Yemen to have any hope of solving its water crisis in addition to the crises of shortages of energy and burgeoning population with high rates of unemployment and underemployment.

I invite you to contact FAS headquarters with your suggestions about how we can work together to use the insights of complexity science to better understand our complex world and work to reduce and respond to catastrophic risks.

Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

President, Federation of American Scientists