The complex ecosystem of pasture grass on Monkey Ranch

Fixing a complex system

You can influence it, but not direct it.

Alan Cooper
Oct 16 · 8 min read

When a complex system breaks, it never goes back to its original state. Never. Yes, it seeks out some state of equilibrium, some stable state, but it can only move forward from its current broken state, so it will change into something completely different from what it was originally.

By definition, inside a complex system everything is connected to everything. Changing any variable can have a reaction in some seemingly unrelated component. And each component thus changed stimulates reactions in other nodes in the system. When you exert outside force on a complex system, everything within it is pushed towards instability. You may or may not achieve your desired objective, but you will fundamentally change the system. It will return to equilibrium, but not the one it was in before, and not the steady state you expected or desired.

Culture is a complex system that steadily evolves because it is constantly pushed by social forces, economic conditions, communications, technology, education, language, music, art, and a thousand other forces. It will never return to the same state it was in in the 1950s, or 70s, or 90s, or even to last year. Culture is constantly morphing into something new and different. Good? Bad? Who knows?

All the second engine does is fly you to the scene of the crash.

Complex systems cannot be directed. They can barely be managed or even understood. They can be influenced, however, by the slow exertion of steady force. But even gentle force pushes the system into disequilibrium, and a complex system that has been disturbed from its equilibrium is unpredictable.

Twin-engined airplane

For example, airplanes with two engines are regarded as safer than those with just one. But pilots have a saying, “All the second engine does is fly you to the scene of the crash.” The point is that while the airplane has sufficient power to be flyable with one engine dead, it is far less stable and therefore much harder to fly.

Software, of course, is a complex system and, in 2019, even the simplest programs are simply not simple. That’s because even the most trivial and rudimentary software rides atop millions of lines of code in the form of operating systems, interpreters, host languages, network systems, databases, graphics and math packages, and all the tools used to construct it. And those programs were written by thousands of previous coders working for dozens of different companies with as many different motives.

Even the simplest programs are simply not simple.

This is all very counterintuitive to humans. We comprehend the world through mental models, and all of our mental models are of simple systems. We expect the world to react to our actions the way a simple system would react. Things like, outputs are proportional to inputs, or that if we push harder we get results faster. Of course, when pushed, complex systems will react, and often will do so in a way that at first appears to conform with our simple mental models. So we are lulled into thinking that we have achieved our goals, that we have indeed directed the system, but this is just an illusion generated by our cognitive biases.

Here at Monkey Ranch, our pastures are complex systems. For the last hundred years or so, our fields were grazed in the conventional western manner, where cows — ruminants — were fenced in place all year long. This method slowly eroded the soil and robbed it of its vitality. In our efforts to restore the soil, we have established a grazing method that more closely mimics the way wild ruminants lived before humans were around. While it’s a change for the better, it’s still a very dramatic change on a complex system imposed in just a few short years.

The pastures have responded not by moving smoothly towards some better, healthier state, but by bouncing from new state to new state. Because the cows no longer munch at the grass constantly, it finally has a chance to grow, but the growing grass is in a constant battle with a dozen other grasses, not to mention the many species of flowers, brush, and weeds that grow here.

Each new equilibrium is in turn knocked out by its own behavior.

As soon as we altered their environment, the plant mix began to change in response. The pastures are seeking their new equilibrium, but each new stage is a change in itself. Each new equilibrium is in turn knocked out by its own behavior. So it’s a new equilibrium every year. We see this in the species that arrive, thrive, and then are supplanted by another one next year. Each plant takes a shot at survival, but it’s attempt changes the system, and then the changing system kills it off in favor of another. And each season, we witness a mix of plants that never existed before and will never exist again. Some of the species that appear are benign, but many are nasty things that kill other plants, drain the soil, and metastasize in our pastures.

Sheep have replaced cows on Monkey Ranch.

Before European settlers brought enclosed grazing to California, there was a healthy balance of mostly perennial and a few annual grasses, but after a few years of western grazing, all the perennials are gone. It’s 100% annual grasses on the golden hillsides now. By abandoning conventional grazing we are moving back towards a healthier balance now, but not with the same mix of species that once dominated.

Meanwhile, as the flora on our little chunk of dirt evolves, the climate is changing, too. So each year the plants get different amounts of water, sun, moisture, wind, and wildlife, and at divergent times of the year. Even if the species didn’t change, what worked last year won’t work next year.

California Bay Laurel trees in the creek bed.

And the trees! The trees are vitally important to the ecosystem, but they are feeling the same significant climate effects we are. Trees challenge our understanding because their lifespans are typically longer than our own. That is, standing tall, they appear to us to be permanent, but they are decidedly not. Most of the trees across the country today are probably mortally wounded already. It’s just that it may take another few decades for them to complete their dying.

From the tree’s vantage point the slow changes of the climate come at a machine-gun pace. It’s as though they were born on Mars and find themselves on Venus by dinnertime. Over the span of years, it’s a huge shock. I expect all of today’s trees to die within the next 50 years. They will be replaced by other species, but which ones?

So we are lulled into thinking that we have achieved our goals, that we have indeed directed the system, but this is just an illusion generated by our cognitive biases.

Software is our very own complex system and, because we created it, we trust that we can manage it, but we cannot.

Digital technology used to be just clever products. Today, software systems mediate everything in our world. Social media isn’t just a cool toy anymore, it’s a critical part of our lives, and vice versa. We human users have become a part of software’s complexity because we interact with it constantly. It influences our behavior and our behavior influences it. It morphs and changes the people who use it, and in turn the people morph and change the software. Software doesn’t have to be artificially intelligent to have a life of its own. It’s like an alien weed that has taken over our pastures.

The challenge we are facing is that just when we get used to the way things are, they become something else. For example, we used to read the newspaper and watch TV to find out what was happening in the world, but digital economics have cut the connection between conventional media and responsible journalism. There are still good journalists out there, but there are no longer any journals that can be trusted. And yet, there are plenty of older citizens who read the paper and watch the seven o’clock news just like they did thirty years ago and imagine that they’re still getting genuine news rather than paid click-bait propaganda.

Tech has created an emergent state where thirty-something tech nerds are more powerful than centuries-old nations. A state where winners in the tech lottery not only can afford to buy super-yachts and private jets, but they can afford to buy entire governments. They can control the educational system of a nation through their unaccountable philanthropical work. They can astroturf a country into thinking that public transportation is bad for them. They can dismantle a 250-year-old democracy.

A necessary step is to relax the pressure on our natural systems, our complex systems. We need to stop pushing on our environment as though it were a plow or steam engine. While our efforts influence it, they do not direct it. We think we are growing food for the world (and, in the short term, maybe we are), but in the long term we are destroying our food-producing capabilities. We think we are creating a universal, flexible transportation system (and, in the short term, maybe we are), but in the long term we are destroying our home along with our transportation options. We think we are creating a technological utopia (and, in the short term, maybe we are), but in the long term we are ushering in a new dark age of oppression and violence.

Our efforts to recover our pastures brings us pain in the short term with nasty plants and unpredictable states, but slowly we are moving towards healthy soil, from which all things come. I think we need to accept that restoring our broken systems will mean hard work and setbacks in the immediate future so that we can have a distant future at all. A succession of unexpected and nasty plants is what the road to recovery looks like. Yet, that is still a better option than flying to the scene of the crash.

Alan Cooper

Written by

Ancestry Thinker, Software Alchemist, Regenerative Rancher

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade