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Wednesday, December 28, 2005 

Crichton: Fear, Complexity, Environmental Management in the 21st Century

Author Michael Crichton's most recent lecture is a pretty interesting read. If you aren't familiar with him, Crichton is the author of books like Jurassic Park, Prey, and most recently (and controversially) State of Fear. He has been assailed by the environmental movement for State of Fear. I think the criticism is way off base. The running theme throughout the novel is that human beings try to fix problems that they don't completely understand. The "fixes" end up making the problem worse or, at best, just waste a lot of time and money. We view everything as a "crisis" or "disaster" and end up paralyzing ourselves with fear about everything.

From Y2K, to the population bomb, to mass extinctions, to global cooling (remember that one? sure did a 180 there...), to magnetic fields, we have scared the crap out of ourselves about anything and everything. The most interesting part of the lecture is the section about the management of Yellowstone National Park (it's about halfway down). If you only want to read one part of this, read that part. Last summer, I read Playing God in Yellowstone by Alston Chase, so this isn't new information to me. Crichton does a nice job of summing up the sordid history of the park though. After that, Crichton gives a nice summary of complexity theory, which is at the heart of all of this.
We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.
There's a section of it. Crichton closes saying that we can manage complex systems, but we have to be humble about it. Be able to admit that you are wrong or something that had worked in the past no longer works (because of changing conditions), then change your actions accordingly.

I really like the end, where Crichton quotes an article worrying that all of these earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods mean the coming end of the world. He responds...
Is this really the end of the world? Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods?

No, we simply live on an active planet. Earthquakes are continuous, a million and a half of them every year, or three every minute. A Richter 5 quake every six hours, a major quake every 3 weeks. A quake as destructive as the one in Pakistan every 8 months. It'’s nothing new, it'’s right on schedule.

At any moment there are 1,500 electrical storms on the planet. A tornado touches down every six hours. We have ninety hurricanes a year, or one every four days. Again, right on schedule. Violent, disruptive, chaotic activity is a constant feature of our globe.

Is this the end of the world? No: this is the world.

It's time we knew it.

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