Symphony of Science: Our Biggest Challenge

The latest from the awesome Symphony of Science. This is what auto-tune was made for!

h/t Peter Sinclar

10 thoughts on “Symphony of Science: Our Biggest Challenge

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  1. I’ve always thought it was our most interesting challenge. But is it really the “biggest”?

    We still need to thread a path between anarchy and fascism, maintaining an unstable balance between two devastating equilibria. That challenge has not gone away. In fact it remains the core definition of the challenge. Managing the planet is just on top of it all.

    Let me repeat this yet again: we do not get to choose our existential challenges. We have to get past all of them. There can be no “biggest” one.

    1. I don’t disagree but I think that this is nitpicking. Climate change is probably the biggest challenge we face that comes with a significant time constraint (though not the only one, phosphorus comes to mind).

      Maintaining the balance between anarchy and fascism is not a problem like climate change which has an obvious (if difficult to implement) solution. Trying to maintain that balance will be a constant challenge forever.

      Plus One of Several Existential Challenges is not as catchy a title.

  2. “We need to thread a path between anarchy and fascism, maintaining an unstable balance between two devastating equilibria.”

    See, that’s just the sort of thing that convinces me we’re all participating in a 25th century VR MMORPG. This is all way too implausible.

    Another question that occurred to me: imagine climate change had gone away and we faced no other major ‘planetary boundary’ problem – what else would we face? What would be the main threat? “Threading a path between anarchy and fascism” seems like a good candidate.

    Though as soon as I thought of that, it also occurred that human history has always been about resource boundaries. It’s just that we’re now hitting ones that rule out our usual modus operandi.

  3. I have trouble with the fundamental premise of “we need to manage the planet”. That seems to be exactly where we have lost our way, by not regarding ourselves as part of something bigger than we are, but lords in charge of all this stuff, ours to use and abuse, with the biggest rewards to the most successful exploiters.

    Yes, I know, given modern “civilization” it’s unlikely the way forward lies through giving up all those perks, but the basic dilemma remains finding a way to live in harmony with is rather than manipulating our way out of something that is so much more powerful in every way than we are. We just postpone the ultimate catastrophe of finding our limits by ignoring them.

    1. I have trouble with the fundamental premise of “we need to manage the planet”.

      Our impact on the planet is large enough that I don’t think we have a choice any more.

  4. “I have trouble with the fundamental premise of “we need to manage the planet”. That seems to be exactly where we have lost our way…”

    “We need to thread a path between anarchy and fascism, maintaining an unstable balance between two devastating equilibria.”

    These could be read as saying the same thing. Elinor Ostrom addressed the same issue in her final article. It’s the subject of J.C Scott’s Seeing like a State, which does better at identifying the problems than any solutions. Stafford Beer tried addressing it but just designed a different kind of centralised system.

    There are already global networks and systems. Transnational companies are so effective because they can reduce transaction costs internally and do away with many uncertainties. They are doing many things politicians tell us are impossible or dangerously socialist/technocratic. It’s just they’re doing it for their own aims, which is apparently fine.

    Fundamentally, no – we can’t ‘manage the planet’, can we? But are there any other routes to take other than to throw our hands in the air, concurring with Agent Smith that we’re no better than a virus – or:

    So far, we’re not doing any better than cyanobacteria. We consume resources and reproduce until everything is filled up and used up. Okay, we have a few successes, for example in controlling acid rain and CFCs. But on balance, we don’t do much better than the bacteria.

    That’s result of the extreme freedom end of the spectrum – that we can all act according to our own wills and somehow the best of all worlds will result. This treats our social structures like mystical gods – “as if correctly sensing the importance of sunlight for life on earth, we were to merely worship the sun rather than study astronomy or photosynthesis” (Desai 1994, p.47, talking about Hayek’s take on the price system).

    J.C Scott’s point is all about the logical conclusion of the ‘gaze’ of top-down state planning, which is the other end of the spectrum.

    I have no idea how we get from all this theory to new systems that can help. The problem with successful systems (like successful cognitive algorithms) is that they generally have to evolve through trial and error in a high-cost environment. I suppose we are increasingly going to face such an environment.

    Human nature has a good trick though – this is a key Jane Jacobs point when she talks about the ‘logic’ of productivity in dense networks: “the process is full of surprises and is hard to predict – possibly it is unpredictable – before it has happened.” She likens it to art: an attentive feedback by those creating. “At any rate, messages – that is, suggestions – afforded by the parent work seem to be vital to the process.” [p.59, Economy of Cities 1969]

    So there’s this process of deliberative creation, fumbling, mistakes, recombination – as humans, we get to benefit not only from the power of evolution but of our own ability to be discerning as we feel our way forward. We then need to build platforms on platforms on platforms as we find what works.

    That’s my take on the middle way anyhoo.

    1. Good points if a little abstruse for my taste. But that’s the premise here, and I’ve been recruited as an outsider if I understand correctly.

      Humans ARE surprising and adaptable. Our statements *are* similar if differently phrased.

      I’m on my weekly break at home in Boston, and walking the streets I am most struck by the majority of people leaving work at 5 pm on Friday – they are trapped, making the best of it, unhealthy and unhappy but looking forward to a bit of freedom. That’s the 99%. They need their sports and spectacle and are not interested in investigating the premises under which they live.

      The luxury of thought and freedom from being trapped in an uncongenial job is not open to most of us. But our leaders have failed these people, by not taking steps to recognize reality.

      Speaking of art, that is a luxury, and teaching the best scientific minds to draw a luxury beyond imagining. I have unimaginable freedom, as do most of my fellow commenters. It is a luxury to do work you love or at least care about.

    2. If we didn’t want to manage the planet we shouldn’t have displaced all the other ecosystems. We are the ecosystem now. And now that there’s only one, the whole thing is dramatically more fragile than it has been.

      The possible saving grace is that it is to some extent rational and conscious; but it seems to have developed a pair of competing ideologies that both say “we are helpless to constrain ourselves”, the only difference being in whether they celebrate or mourn that supposed fact.

    3. Mea culpa.

      So, persuade advertisers that their products aren’t worth squat in a eutrophied planet? Where to begin …

      Speaking of which, I’ve been wanting to bring your attention to this found at ClimateSight (Kate’s site) which is a masterpiece of communication for a certain audience:

      (SciShow does other good stuff; I particularly like the particle song)

    4. That video is great, most excellent, and that style is something us older folks can’t entirely manage. Also I didn’t catch any errors.

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