I recently read something that made me appreciate each and every one of us…
“…everything is connected with everything else. Stars, clouds, forests, oceans and human beings are interconnected components of a single system in which nothing can exist in isolation.
In such an interdependent universe human beings hold enormous responsibility; each individual is accountable, and every action has repercussions that reverberate far beyond the moment. Past, present and future form a continuum in which each generation inherits a world shaped by the actions of its forebears and endow human beings with an even more awesome task: they are the caretakers of the entire system, responsible for keeping the stars on their courses and the living world intact.”
This is an excerpt from David Suzuki’s 1999 book, The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place In Nature. (I haven’t read the book myself – I came across it while reading another fine article promoting veganism in this ever consuming society. The reviews for the book look good, so it is now on my reading list.)
Suzuki’s quote reminded me of chaos theory – the idea that a small disturbance in a system can create radically unexpected consequences some time later. Chaos theory is another aspect of mathematics that motivated me as an undergraduate – it says that, even in a deterministic system, things can quickly become unpredictable. This is particularly true when we think of the weather – suppose today, a Thursday in the month of June, we experience the same sort of conditions – temperature, sunlight, cloud cover, precipitation, etc – as on some Thursday in June of last year. Does this mean tomorrow we will get the same weather as the Friday of last year? Probably not, right! This is because despite the similarities in weather, the relatively small differences in temperature etc actually make a big difference. It’s like two 100 metre runners that start off so close but end up being seconds (a big time difference in the 100 metre) apart at the finish line – their minute difference in speeds was all-important. We all know how annoyingly unpredictable the weather can be – a couple of days ahead is great to forecast, but any more than that and the chances of accurate forecasts diminish greatly. Chaos theory has been described in a much more colourful way by James Gleick in his popular book, Chaos. I highly recommend it – it’s non-technical and contains no equations!
Chaos theory is a fundamental part of the larger topic of Complex Systems, which I’m interested in. A complex system is made up of similar individual objects that interact in very simple ways, yet produce an overall behaviour that is difficult to predict and fascinating to study. Examples include traffic flow (think of the times you got stuck in a traffic jam!), viral outbreaks on a social network, crowd behaviour, and, of course, the weather.
So what has David Suzuki got to do with this?
Well, he’s made me realise that life itself is one big complex system. As individual objects within it, we make subtle contributions. But because of the complex nature, we don’t necessarily see the effects of our actions. In fact, I’d go so far as to say we shouldn’t expect direct ’cause and effect’ outcomes, but expect surprises (both uplifting and sad), conflict, confusion, and chaos. Indeed, take a look at the world today and notice how things go awry – wars, racial tension, environmental damage etc – and people (politicians and activists normally) offer ‘solutions’ even though ultimately there never seems to be an easy fix to the problems; this is symptomatic of a complex system.
But chaos theory does offer hope – Suzuki made me think that, no matter how ‘small’ our contribution is, this complex system of life ensures that we can make a difference. In fact, we do make a difference. So it also then serves to remind us to make that contribution count. We should not waste the precious time that we have – because, one way or another, our actions will have repercussions on the whole of mankind, not just our own locality.