Posts Tagged ‘fragile systems’


It’s Just A Dependancy

July 17, 2011

Peter RabbitThe rabbits in my garden are eating my carrot shoots, in the best traditions of Peter Rabbit. Unlike Farmer McGregor my livelihood does not depend on carrots; if it comes to that I don’t particularly like them, but I have a garden and apparently you should grow vegetables in it.

We can say that the rabbits depend on my carrot shoots to live. Yet if I stop growing carrots, the rabbits will not starve: they will eat something else. Probably whatever it is I try to grow instead of the carrots. If that’s not palatable, then they will no doubt eat something else, even if it’s not as tasty. They may even find something else that is more tasty, more nutritious, or more sleeky on the fur.

Carrot shoot

In other words, any observer can see that they depend on the carrot shoots for food for their current lifestyle. But it’s not an obvious step – it requires domain knowledge – to realise that not growing carrots will not cause the rabbits to starve to death (which is different from rabbit starvation). It is a resilient system, at least as far as the rabbits are concerned.

However another view is that any change results in a change of system. If I concrete over the vegetable patch, the rabbits will resort to grazing the lawn, but this is a different system. Even replacing carrots with potatoes will result in slight changes in nutrition which will in turn feed (ha ha) other consequences. In other words, the old system breaks easily at the slightest disturbance and has to be replaced by a new one – it is a fragile system.

These two rather distinct ways of looking at the same system can result in very different assessments. During and after the ‘credit crisis’ the term ‘house of cards’ was frequently used to talk about modern economies, as if the failure of a few companies within a few industries could destroy the whole practice of using tokens to describe the values of things we exchange. There are similar (anecdotal) concerns about ‘oil’, or ‘food’ or ‘our whole way of life’, backed by descriptions of the current set up and how easy it would be to attack a point on it. The ‘delicate balance of nature’ too is cast in the frame of a ‘fragile’ system where any disturbance causes failure; this is awkward as nature’s chaotic, er, nature, means that its various subsystems disturb each other all the time.

When assessing the resilience or fragility of a system we need to assess not the dependencies of the moment – the instances – but the outcomes of change to the various participants. This too is not straightforward as many systems have multiple participants with several interrelated goals, and most users have several available systems to draw on. It’s not enough to just pick on particular harms; these have to be traded off against benefits and other harms, and don’t forget those of not changing the system.

For example, I can fence the vegetable patch which would improve my garden system in my favour, but not the rabbits’. The rabbits can eat something else.

But then, so can I:

Rabbits & Carrot