Caught Up in Complexity

From analogicus, via Pixabay

Readers of this blog will know that I have come to some big-picture conclusions about success and failure that are unsettling. I don’t like them myself. Not only do they create an inner sadness about where I think the human endeavor is heading, but they result in a sort of isolation that I would rather not suffer—introvert though I am. Among other academics at my institution, it is rare for me to find kindred spirits, even among groups self-selected to care about environmental issues. Most don’t seem to see very far beyond climate change in the lineup of existential threats, increasingly focusing on inequities within the human population that stem from climate and environmental disturbances. I am glad that climate change awareness is high (a genuine threat), but even if climate change had never arisen, I think we would still be in grave trouble from the more fundamental flaws in our explosive approach to living on Earth.

This is a large part of the impetus behind PLAN, which I announced in the last post. Already, I am gratified that people joining the network from vastly different fields and experiences have formed similar conclusions at the highest level. So I’m not crazy, unless we all are. In any case, I am less lonely. [I will say that crazy is usually easy to spot in conversation: a little too insistent/enthusiastic/one-track. The PLAN folks feel really solid, broad, and even perhaps subdued to me: not the type you want to back away from at a party.]

But I still try to understand why so few of my colleagues have reached similar conclusions. The easy answer is that I’m just plain wrong. But believe me, I have tormented myself to try to discover the missing piece and go back to being a happy human bumping along in this race to who-knows-where. It’s not that my unconcerned colleagues have thought more deeply about the issues and can help a rookie out, in my experience.

In this post, I venture some guesses about the disconnect—some of which may even be on target. I will loosely frame the discussion in the context of academia, but much of the logic  also applies beyond this scope. The basic idea is: complexity makes it hard to differentiate between  real and artificial worlds.

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Finally, a PLAN

A few years back, I was contacted by Ben McCall—a chemist then at the University of Illinois—about forming a network of academics concerned about the larger challenges facing humanity. The idea was that a number of scattered scholars in various random disciplines might be well aware of limits to growth, energy, and capacity of ecosystems to accommodate human activities, but isolated from each other and within unsympathetic or at least poorly-aligned departments. I identified strongly with this condition and sense of isolation.  For instance, although physicists and astrophysicists have tools relevant to assessing our current predicament, few apply their skills at this level, working instead on deep but narrow questions—as I myself have done for years.  Yet, if we botch civilization, will that type of work survive or have meaning?  Many departments and professional societies therefore lack the community and collaborative opportunities for folks who want to contribute to a higher-level dialog about humanity’s choices.

So Ben pulled together a group of five individuals from a broad range of academic fields to nucleate a network so that we might find kindred spirits and build a diverse academic family united by a shared sense that the trajectory of the human endeavor is not viable, and will come to a bad end if not acknowledged and addressed. By banding together, we would hope to stimulate collaborations and develop ideas that otherwise would be unlikely to emerge. It’s like the setup to many jokes: an astrophysicist, anthropologist, and cognitive scientist walk into a bar. What happens next? What compelling insights and research projects might emerge?

We plodded along for a number of years, constrained by so many other pulls in life. But we have emerged from the long gestation having formed the Planetary Limits Academic Network (PLAN; PLANetwork; planet work; lots of ways to play on the name). Do we have a plan? Sort-of.

Step 1 was to write a perspective piece that presents our take on the modern world and its existential challenges. This recently emerged as a paper entitled: Modernity is Incompatible with Planetary Limits: Developing a PLAN for the Future. I hope you will take some time to read the piece. Do the Math readers will recognize a number of tidbits from ideas presented on the blog.

Step 2 was to create a website, which is at planetarylimits.net. It’s not professionally constructed (you get what you pay for), but should serve to get the network off the ground.

Step 3 is recruitment. We have two roles for the website:

  1. Subscriber: For those who would like occasional updates on what PLAN is doing and access to some of the (eventual) website content.
  2. Member: For active academics/scholars who are engaged in production of scholarly work (peer-reviewed publications, for instance) and could potentially collaborate in scholarly pursuits relating to PLAN interests. It does not matter if these individuals have not published in this space before: that’s part of what PLAN aims to change.

A third role of Collaborator is available for committed members who intend to be active contributors to new “scholarly” products, and will be able to (eventually) search for and contact other Collaborators based on concerns, field of study, and other criteria.

So please visit the site and consider joining as a subscriber (anyone) or applying for membership (active scholars). As we are just starting, early members will have opportunities to define and steer the course of PLAN.

So far, PLAN has attracted a fantastic set of big-picture thinkers from a number of fields.  It is a community I can’t wait to get to know better.  I feel like I have found my people!

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