Complex Systems, bees, lobster and Kitchen Cabinets

As I’ve worked through a lot of materialist thought for the aesthetics project I keep coming back to complex systems. Complex systems theory is an interdisciplinary area of study centered around ecology but with significant impacts for philosophy, economics, sociology, mathematics, physics and other realms of study. It’s a method of looking at non-closed systems. This is largely a response of the failure of ecological and economic systems to behave according to theoretical models predicated around good careful scientifically contained defined systems. We can see systems at work but they’re messy. They have an unlimited number of externalities. Complex systems theory is one of my principal objections to the application of game theory to economics. A game is not a complex system. It is, in fact, a carefully bounded and parsimonious system. Effectively the problem is the board. All games have a board, whether that’s the boundaries of permutations within a deck of cards, an actual physical gameboard or a field of play. The board delineates the boundary of play where, barring unexpected and chaotic factors (say for instance if a swarm of bees invades a football pitch) all that is the game exists within the boundaries of the board. Externalities such as bee swarms are excluded from play. The game will be paused, and resumed when the chaotic element is removed. But of course economies and ecologies don’t work as a game. An economy can’t be paused while a pandemic is cleared away. And that moves it out of the bounds of a game. If economies are games then they are games with infinitely expansive boards in which externalities don’t exist.

Here’s an extended example of the complexity intrinsic to complex systems:

One of the frustrating and long-term unexpected side effects of the pandemic is a disruption of the kitchen fixtures manufacturing sector. It’s very hard to get cabinets installed right now. This is a result of multiple interfacing systems: Let’s start with Alberta paying skilled tradespeople far more than PEI means many carpenters move out west to work. This reduces the overall available pool of carpenters within the province. Add to that the fact that PEI is the fastest growing province in Canada and that the new-construction housing market has a resource bottle neck and the challenge of resourcing people for resale market renovations becomes even more challenging. So you might ask, why doesn’t PEI offer incentives to bring home all those expatriated carpenters from the oil patch? The answer points to even more interlocking systems.

1) Developers in PEI operate on lower margins than oil companies out west. They don’t want to increase pay. Because they’re quite profitable now and the backlog of work just means they have a consistent funnel. They COULD surge hiring by raising pay but that would reduce their overall profitability.

2) PEI effectively doesn’t build public housing. There are two political parties that have traditionally formed power: The Liberals and the Conservatives. Despite the names, the provincial liberals are probably very slightly to the right of the provincial Conservatives though the divide is more a historic town/country split. 

Neither the property-developer beholden Liberals nor the fiscally anxious Conservatives want to spend PEI’s limited budget on affordable housing if they can instead just offer tax cuts to developers in exchange for commitments to lease purpose-built rental units back to the province. This means the province doesn’t need to hire any project managers, carpenters, concrete layers, electricians, etc. It also allows the province to privatize the capital acquisition costs of construction equipment. With the arrival of COVID-19 the attention of the government turned sharply to disease management. And to their credit they have done a commendable job. PEI has had some of the lowest spread of COVID-19 per capita around at 132 cases per 100k people. This puts us on roughly the same footing as Australia. For reference, Canada, overall, is at 3,792 cases per 100k people. To situate this overall, Vietnam, which was widely seen as being the gold standard, sits at 22/100k. South Korea, another stand-out for COVID response is at 312/100k. The best European response is probably Finland at 1753/100k. The world mean is 2396/100k. But the PEI government somewhat notoriously managed this feat by deprioritizing everything else.

This is something that the governing Conservatives, the official opposition Green party and the recently deposed Liberals all aligned on. So despite the pre-existing rental availability crisis there has been very little action on housing in the last two years. 

Now another important system at play here is short-term rental. PEI has four principal industries: Agriculture, Fisheries, IT and tourism. And in Charlottetown, where over half of the population of the whole island lives, Tourism reigns supreme. In particular, Charlottetown has a huge short-term rentals market with something like 1/3 of all downtown homes on the rental market being for short-term rentals specifically. Prior to COVID-19 there was discussion in Charlottetown of addressing this issue. Rental availability rates were lower than those of Toronto and, if you could get a mortgage, it was rapidly becoming substantially cheaper to buy a house than to rent. But this was driving rapid increases in home prices, particularly in the capital region. 

Charlottetown was planning consultations on bylaws that would impose restrictions on short-term rental operators who were not either A) renting rooms or grandparent suites of their own principal residences or B) properly registered tourism operators ie: those who run their businesses through the traditional B&B model rather than unofficial AirBnB premises. However between lockdowns, COVID measures taking bandwidth and the lobbying of the tourism industry to protect it in a general sense against the ravages COVID visited upon the industry, this particular file laid in abeyance until very recently. There was a public consultation that became heated enough that the Charlottetown city council actually shut it down early. I have not heard about subsequent consultations or action on the file since. 

As an aside, the rise in home purchase prices in PEI accelerated significantly during COVID as Ontario and Quebec residents relocated to the Maritimes in record numbers to escape the plague. Anyone who bought a home before 2019 stood to make an exceptional windfall. This is, in fact, how we came to be in a position to need new cabinets as we were able to realize a long-time dream of buying a hobby farm but the farmhouse doesn’t currently have a very functional kitchen. Exacerbating this further, much of the kitchen fixture manufacturing for North America occurs in Texas and the industrial capacity of the state has been impacted not just by Coronavirus but also by the impact of climate disasters, further disrupting delicate supply chains.

So here is an example of how complex systems interlock. Canada subsidizes oil production and makes it part of “the national interest” and so oil companies pay attractive wages pulling carpenters out of the province. The province is politically uninterested in increasing wages for skilled trades. AirBnB pulls rental homes out of the market and drives the start of a home price bubble accelerated further by internal immigration from other provinces. A global pandemic disrupts manufacturing and shipping abroad while climate crisis and the just-in-time delivery model further weaken supply chains. Pandemic response prioritizes public health and the protection of a key provincial industry over resolving pre-existing crises. Home owners are sitting on money to invest back into their homes and further driving demand. But rather than raising prices were seeing, instead, raising wait times. It’s not a matter of some open market bidding because carpenters are employed by specific employers in specific sectors who don’t want their costs to rise. And of course home owners with money in their pockets and lot of time at home are willing to invest in quality. So what ends up buckling is time, making the wait for cabinetry long. This isn’t a game but rather the overlap of several complicated economic systems and it doesn’t map cleanly onto a demand curve. Demand is a factor, but the externalities far outweigh the simple requirement of “people want cabinets.”

All these things: oil barons and floods in Texas, disease and government ideology, rising demand and supply chain fragility, it’s all part of the field of play. In his later work on acid communism and post-capitalist desire, Mark Fisher pointed toward a concept of consciousness raising and I do think that this is a necessary activity. However I think it needs to be directed specifically toward those ontological tools that allow for an understanding of complex systems. What’s more, it isn’t sufficient to leave this in the ivory tower as the domain of ecologists and mathematicians. We can see some understanding of the scope of the problem there, of course. In The Integrative Analysis of Economic Ecosystems: Reviewing labour market policies with new insights from permaculture and systems theory Michael Schlauch addresses the challenges facing economics in adopting a complex systems approch, saying, “Systems are then referred to as “purposeful activity systems”, i.e. systems that consist of human actors that take purposeful actions. These are not taken as real, but as continually changing perceptions from different points of view. Models are “working models” not claiming any “permanent ontological status” (Checkland, 2000, p. 20). Resulting solutions are valid for the observed situation and may not be purported as universal laws.” Referring back, himself, to Peter Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective. This is academically interesting but not particularly helpful. It’s good for economists to admit that models should not claim a permanent ontological status but it doesn’t really propose clearly what ontology would be preferred nor how to achieve such an ontological position. On the other hand, there’s a risk in over-mystifying complex systems. The Biggest Little Farm takes great care to show how complex systems interact but tends to reduce them either to a “circle of life” implementation of the eternal return or to become even more mystical, assigning some sort of special ontological position to the blue eyes of an aging dog. While this is entertaining (and it is a masterfully shot documentary which will likely entertain people interested in sustainable agriculture) it is also not particularly useful as part of a consciousness raising program.

We can however find some tools for handling complex systems. The ecological tools of permaculture provide a good framework. A permaculture expert at the University of Western Ontario, Rebecca Ellis (in collaboration with Weis, Suryanarayanan and Bailin) says, regarding bees, “Despite growing attention, there is cause for concern that much of the coverage of bee declines pivot around narrowly defined technical evidence (especially in relation to the harm caused by a specific class of pesticides) in a way that can obscure the more fundamental roots of the problems, along with the need for much bigger changes… while conditions affecting bee health and threats to survival are well studied, and evidence is proliferating, too often the problems facing bees are assessed and presented in isolation, with insufficient attention given to the range of ways that industrial agriculture bears on them and how these interrelate.” Complex systems study within agriculture and ecology has its strength both in maturity and in the materiality of its subject matter. Unlike philosophers or economists, who are largely working with abstractions, ecologists and agriculturalists are fully grounded in the material conditions of the world and treat the complexity of these systems as matters of material reality: crop health, biodiversity and systems equilibria in lived environments. Ellis et. al get at the necessity of looking at interrelating systems as relationships rather than as isolated subjects.

This is, of course, not a new idea. From the Denma Translation Group Sunzi:

A state's impoverishment from its soldiers --
When they are distant, there is distant transport. 
When they are distant and there is distant transport the hundred clans are impoverished. 
When soldiers are near, things sell dearly.
When things sell dearly, wealth is exhausted. 
When wealth is exhausted, people are hard-pressed by local taxes.

The Denma Group tie this to Sunzi’s statement that “Taking a state whole is superior. Destroying it is inferior to this,” to transport the idea of taking whole out of the specific context of capturing a state without unneeded military destruction and instead to an ontological position. In the Taking Whole commentary, the Denma group reconcile Sunzi with the Confucian critic Xunzi claiming that the statement, “There is a plant in the Western Regions called a blackberry lily. Its stem is four inches long, but because it grows atop tall mountains, it looks down into a thousand-foot abyss,” rather than operating as a critique of Sunzi, demonstrates the sort of flexibility in perspective that defines Sunzi’s prescription for a sage commander. Ultimately, their interpretation of the ontology of Sunzi depends on a concept called Shih. “The rush of water to the point of tossing rock about. This is shih.” Shih represents the flow across a gradient that manifests as power. But it, and its companion concept node which is the moment of the event in which power is exercised, denote that the principal way Sunzi views circumstances is in their relationships. Much like in Xunzi’s example, power is intrinsically a matter of relationship. Xunzi expresses this relationship in the position of a distant perspective while Sunzi prefers to be enmeshed in the action but both come together to propose that an understanding of the moment of the event is not enough. One must understand rather how that event interrelates to every other event. You can’t just say rocks smashed but rather that they were pushed by the river. And the river, in its turn is water acted upon by gravity, channeled by the differential density of the same rock that it erodes and throws about. The system doesn’t have limits, it expands in every direction over the horizon. The Denma Translation group proposes that a sage must be both Sunzi, occupying the position of the drawn crossbow, the raging river, the boulder rolling down a hill and also that of Xunzi: a little plant at the precipice of a towering abyss. A general must know both the specificity of their supply chain and how it interacts with the local economy but also the terrain in which the army moves. They must live both in the mathematical specificity of the logbook and must stand upon high hills and survey the terrain.

This ontological superposition has been expanded upon greatly in recent years by Mi’kmaw Elder Abert Marshall as Two-Eyed Seeing. This concept has principally been applied to the conflict-laden topic of fisheries management in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Canadian colonial administration of fisheries and Mi’kmaw traditional fisheries stewardship. Marshall proposed that the value of European sciences should not be discarded as poison fruit of a poison tree but rather should be integrated with traditional understandings of fisheries management. The Mi’kmaw people have been fishing the Martime Atlantic for millennia and hold specific local knowledge of the ecological systems in their environment but a scientific understanding of epidemiology and population control is also useful for stewarding seafood populations. This must all be positioned within the context of the Marshall Decision, in which Donald Marshall Jr. (the son of then-Mi’kmaw Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr.) successfully petitioned the Canadian Supreme Court over treaty obligations not to interfere with Mi’kmaw fisheries. Disputes, especially over lobster, have boiled over into violence directed against First Nations people in Nova Scotia as recently as last year over the decision of Mi’kmaw fishermen to fish lobster outside of the season prescribed by the department of fisheries.

The argument put forward by the Mi’kmaw nation is twofold: first that they know quite well what they are doing and second that Canada is not legally authorized to prohibit their activity. The latter position is best elaborated through the two Marshall decisions which remain the binding legal interpretation of the treaties upon Canada in the current time. The former is elaborated in part through this ontological framework.

Complex systems are open-ended networks of relationships. The analytic/scientific approach of excluding externalities and concentrating on increasingly atomized elements of the system have, as Ellis et. al. suggested, produced problems. People get hung up on glyphosphate and fail to consider how bee populations are impacted by monoculture, by climate change, by the breaking up of habitat, by the transportation of hives as a form of migrant worker or at least imported livestock and how that can create supply chain fragility when transportation or industry becomes disrupted. Attempts to put bees in the little box marked, “honey producing livestock” are as much a part of the problem facing bees as a general category as the use of pesticides which kill them. Not that this defends glyphosphate use; it is one of the inputs into the system. It is just that it is necessary to treat the complex system whole but it is also necessary, when a part of the system is breaking down to be able to manipulate that specific relationship before stepping back again to observe the holistic impact of that change upon the system.

We must learn to treat problems neither in isolation nor as mere movements within an holistic system but rather both at once. We should be enmeshed in systems sufficient to see their node but also be the little plant above the abyss.

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