A “reversal” step can stand for “moving forward”

Author: Xing Lijuan

The authors of a recent article published in the journal Sustainability posit a blueprint for some “reversal” steps featured by the notion of “nodes of persisting complexity”, with a view to offsetting the predicted negative outcomes brought about by the possible collapse of the rising but flawed “complexity” in the contemporary world. The authors argue that, by taking the steps urged in the blueprint, once the current complexity collapses, the situation in the “nodes of persisting complexity” would be better than the worst faced by the regions outside the nodes. Nonetheless, it seems to me that, both the “lifeboat” proposition and the “nodes of persisting complexity” – which are purported in the article – look more like descriptions/prediction of outcomes (or destination) of the hypothesized “de-complexation” (i.e., collapse) than a positive solution/response to the challenges faced by the current complexities, despite the recommendations that some aggressive (reversal) steps be taken locally.

In my view, the so-called “complexity” represents, at least in part, the continuously increasing capacity of humanity to understand, use, and manage its surroundings – both societal and natural. Once sustainable development has become a consensus among the contemporary human societies, we can expect (or at least hope) that the complexity will proceed with evolving the capacity of preserving and restoring the surroundings key to future human welfare. In other words, a “silver lining” to “complexity” is that out species might become sophisticated enough (i) to understand the necessity of ecological restoration and (ii) to take effective action based on that understanding.

From the perspective of an international legal and policy framework, I disagree with the authors’ inference that a simplification tendency at the regional/local levels be interpreted as a sign of inevitable collapse of the global “complexity”. I also disagree with the authors’ implication that the widely purported “reversal steps” means relinquishing the current global “complexity” and designing a local and relatively isolated “complexity”. Rather, it seems to me that both the simplification tendency and the suggested “reversal steps” have resulted from self-evolution of the global “complexity” in striving to pursue sustainability, and have become constituents of a more advanced global “complexity”.

The approach to developing “nodes of persisting complexity” as suggested by the authors – i.e., to establish the so-called “favorable starting conditions” – would be hard to achieve without an umbrella (global) “complexity”, given that (a) at least, the activities in the scattered “nodes” should be concerted; (b) the aggressive steps to be taken in the “nodes” will still entail inter-regional movements/share of resources like techniques, information, emergency responses, and disease control; and (c) as for global concerns such as climate change and ocean conservation, the success of addressing those concerns within the “nodes” will still depend on the concerted actions taken by the regions outside the “nodes”. Therefore, even if the “nodes of persisting complexity” are developed as a leeway that humanity can resort to in case of the complexity collapse, the best solution to the current predicaments highlighted by the authors is nonetheless “a more comprehensive survival of the human species”, which should be sustained by an evolving global complexity. Several of these points reflect the views also made by John Head in his sets of observations regarding the Sustainability article.

I think that complexity is not the cause of current predicaments. Instead, the current complexity is the trophy of humanity’s never-stopping struggles with various predicaments (such as diseases, wars, geographical disadvantages, and lack of knowledge about nature) in human history. That trophy was hard-earned, but it was earned in the context of other challenges and campaigns. Now that our species faces vastly new types of predicaments such as climate change, humanity should proceed with reforming, rather than abandoning, the complexity that it has built so far. If the specific contours of that complexity have lagged behind today’s challenges, then it is our moment to move forward by taking new paths that will meet those challenges.