Seeking ‘balance’ in an uncertain, non-equilibrium system
“Is the whole of life visible to us, or do we in fact know only the one hemisphere before we die? For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream…” — Vincent van Gogh
By Peter Schlosser
The term Anthropocene for the current geological era is a reflection of our known impacts on planetary systems. This is most pronounced in industrialized nations. Consider that 34–45% of global consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions from households can be attributed to just 10% of households (predominantly based in the Northern Hemisphere).
But what about the unknown effects of the way we live now?
It would not be a stretch to suggest that those learning and working in the College of Global Futures and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory think about the future more routinely than the average person. As we look ahead, attempting to address the problems of today that we expect to be amplified in the future, we seek to find better pathways and more just outcomes that lead to thriving global futures. We work to uncover solutions that reduce harm, bring human actions back in harmony with Earth’s systems and create a more solid footing for generations to come.
We desire balance and certainty, which unfortunately are two states that are highly ambitious–and difficult to attain.
Achieving equilibrium in a static sense is unrealistic in an intrinsically non-equilibrium system. The universe is not in equilibrium–it keeps expanding. The Earth system is not in an equilibrium state–it exchanges energy beyond its boundaries. In Earth system science, we often talk about tipping points–abrupt, irreversible points of no return. But tipping points are a derivative of linear thinking. In reality we are dealing with complex systems in which pressure points are dynamically connected–pressures on one part of the system can be redistributed and the most severe responses can show up in other places. We know quite a bit about the interactive structures of our planet, but there also exist many unknowns, including the planet’s capacity for self-regulation.
In Earth system science, we often talk about tipping points–abrupt, irreversible points of no return. But tipping points are a derivative of linear thinking. In reality we are dealing with complex systems in which pressure points are dynamically connected–pressures on one part of the system can be redistributed and the most severe responses can show up in other places.
The uncertainty — the “unknown unknowns” — is unsettling for people. For our brains, uncertainty is coupled with threat and risk. In a cloud of uncertainty, the rational mind dissipates (assuming it was ever truly present), and we make decisions based on previous experiences, known events or the immediacy of the perceived threat.
And yet we persevere.
The Earth may be a non-equilibrium system, but we know that humans are living out of sync with the resources available to us now and in the future. And while we may be biologically predisposed to translate uncertainty as risk, uncertainty can also have the potential to be freeing and a force for change. This month, we celebrated the largest graduating class ever from the College of Global Futures. Many of these graduates are changemakers, taking on new roles and heading into unfamiliar spaces. And like these students, societies are also facing uncertainty, but they have the opportunity to make different choices: retire old processes, create new industries and revolutionize everyday life.
Change is on the horizon, and it needs people capable of shaping the world’s complex, interconnected systems, regardless of discomfort with uncertainty and imbalance. I am certain that those educated at the College of Global Futures will be among the people leading the way forward, able to nimbly approach the shifting landscapes of need.
Peter Schlosser is the vice president and vice provost of Global Futures and director of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University. This article first appeared in the Global Futures: Now newsletter in May 2023. Sign up for the newsletter at globalfutures.asu.edu/gfl-newsletters.