Tuesday, September 22, 2020

COVID: System of Systems Failure

In 2012, I posted my sixth and seventh entries: Governance Failure.  I argued that governance "failure is a condition where the economic and logistical problems, which the state has traditionally addressed, exceed the capacity of the state."  I also asked the question:  "will the modern Western administrative state exist in 30 years as it did over the last 200 years?"  

COVID-19 is dangerously close to suggesting the answer is no.  Part 1, Brass Tacks, was a face value estimation of COVID.  Here we examine a collective, psychoanalytic interpretation alongside a more conventional, external view.  

System Failure

As Above, So Below
        Hermes Trismegistus (possible attribution)

It is no exaggeration to say that the United States currently lacks a functioning national system for responding to pandemics.
        New England Journal of Medicine, July 2020

Consider inverting the first quote into 'as below, so above' for a moment.  Our microcosms don't necessarily cause impacts on our macrocosm.  The experiment simply helps to think about how COVID is a symptom of something more fundamental than a pandemic.

COVID is revealing failure and fragmentation at many levels - the respiratory system, the body as a whole, individual hospitals, the public health system as a whole, various political-economic systems, and the biosphere itself.  I recently watched a TED Talk with global health expert Alanna Shaikh titled "Coronavirus is our future”.  She argued, among other things, that the Coronavirus reflects our push ever deeper into the wild.  It implies that we have some culpability here.  

Many journalists have made the observation that COVID is revealing weaknesses in our institutions, structures, and systems; and these weaknesses also imply second-order human culpability.  Fareed Zakaria says we "are in the early stages of what is going to become a series of cascading crises, reverberating throughout the world.  And we will not be able to get back to anything resembling normal life unless the major powers can find some way to cooperate and manage these problems together."  His interpretation is political, economic, and financial. 

I hope Shaikh and Zakaria are wrong.  I hope we do what we should have done after the publication of works such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson decades ago - namely to develop and implement aggressive ecological policies that do not simultaneously destabilize markets.  Otherwise, I do see something scary afoot.

System of Systems Failure

We are on in a space without a map... all previous expectations, all familiar features no longer apply.  It's like we are unmoored, cast loose.  In Tibetan Buddhism, such a place or gap between known worlds is called a bardo.  It's kinda frightening.  It's also a place of potential transformation.  As you enter the bardo, there facing you is the Buddha Akshobhya.  His element is water.  He is holding a mirror for his gift is mirror wisdom - reflecting everything just as it is.  And the teaching of Akshobhya's mirror is this: do not look away; do not avert your gaze; do not turn aside.  This teaching clearly calls for radical attention and total acceptance.  Well for us right now, it's pretty clear, who is holding up Akshobhya's mirror: COVID-19.
        Joanna Macy, June 2020 (emphasis added)

[A system] of systems is a collection of task-oriented or dedicated systems that pool their resources and capabilities together to create a new, more complex system which offers more functionality and performance than simply the sum of the constituent systems. 

The mission of option3 emphasizes "full systems thinking".*  That obviously includes considering a system of systems.**  Where we draw boundaries is important.  COVID draws a planetary boundary.

The "cascading crises" to which Zakaria refers may not contain themselves to politics, economics, and finance.  COVID feels more like the beginning steps toward a scientifically predictable apocalypse, which constitutes a system of systems failure.  We are talking, informally, about an order of magnitude difference.  If it is not the beginning of an apocalypse, it is a warning shot from the collective unconscious.  Most of my adult life has been lived under the shadow of some notion of an apocalypse.  We live in a world-historic time.  I recall learning about climate change at least in the mid-1990s.  I worked in the climate justice field in 2004 and 2005.  That's when I started to feel we were in trouble.

The path ahead is almost certainly going to test us.  We face the gnashing of teeth eventually.  The bardo is a serious matter; and I do not pretend to have studied Tibetian Buddhism.  So I will keep my words simple.  As Macy observes through metaphor, the bardo is a also place of transmogrification akin to the Jungian shadow.  It is our hope that we can purify ourselves into something new and move forward.  

What does this psychoanalytic speculation mean in concrete terms?  Macy, like others, points to the degree of interdependence societies exhibit.  It is a testament to our investment and trust in each other.  But it is a potential source of fragmentation and vulnerability when the system undergoes stress.  Public health systems will experience failures until we have some affordable solution to COVID - especially as we head into winter.  But, whereas with public health we see predictable and incremental fragmentation, elsewhere we see possible emergent and nonlinear fragmentations.***


Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults...  Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruption in the food supply chain.
        António Guterres, UN secretary general, The Nation

There is not only no global leadership, there is no national and no federal leadership in the United States...  In some sense, this is the failure of leadership of the U.S. in the U.S.
        Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Harvard’s Growth Lab, NY Times

The first fragmentation (or impact) of COVID is generally considered the health impact itself, getting sick, and the related disruptions in public health systems.  The second fragmentation is reduced economic activity and reduced employment.  Fragmentation in the food distribution system (i.e. food supply chains) is the so-called third wave of COVID.  Food is an altogether new specter of uncertainty that takes us from system failure closer to the attributes of a system of system failure.  Hunger is more vivid than unemployment.  The delay is shorter.  We had food insecurity in the US well before COVID.  But the tenor of recent COVID-driven shocks feel different: massively increased demand at food banks, disruptions in meat processing and other food harvesting, and seeing farmers destroy food due to supply chain problems.   

As The Nation recently wrote, Lloyd's of London has focused on of food system shocks in the past and identified the potential to disrupt stability across multiple years and across the entire food system, which has their own attendant economic, social, and political impacts including stock market prices and insurance claims.  Lloyd's looked at dynamics during the Arab Spring such as food protectionism and the attendant price increases.  All of these effects spell political instability such as food riots. 

We hope a fourth fragmentation does not surface.  COVID is possibly deepening the governance failure to which I referred above.  But frankly, separating Trump's unwillingness to tackle COVID makes it hard to determine if we see COVID-driven governance failure or plain ineptitude.  The latter is the likely culprit.  Still, I have theorized since at least 2017 that a few factors may force people away from globalization not only for ideological reasons seen on the Right but because of automatization and related job losses and a general loss of faith in political institutions.****  The system is not serving the needs of the people.  And people may return to the land as best they can - possibly banding together.

Cascading Impacts

You accumulate problems, and because you’re such a strong player, you can carry these dysfunctionalities for a long time...  Until something happens and you can’t anymore.
        Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford Historian, NY Times

When asked to identify clusters of global risks from among the list of risks that are most likely to have synergistic effects and possibly lead to a global systemic crisis, 82 scientists replied.  A network map of those responses reveals how all assessed risks are embedded in a complex web of interdependencies...  An event in any one of these dimensions could potentially trigger events in connected realms, multiplying the likelihood and impact of risks.  The potential for crises arising from interactions is well known; society has seen many crises coming from sometimes-unexpected cascading impacts across systems.  
        Future of Earth, Our Future on Earth, 2020 (emphasis added)

As interdependent disruptions in the public health, economic, and food systems accumulate and multiply their impacts, those systems and others will falter and the system of systems will approach its own moment of truth.  Interdependent and interconnected dynamics deserve attention here.  COVID is not an isolated event.  As Alanna Shaikh argued in her TED Talk, COVID is a function of humans pushing further into the wild.  Consider: Asian Flu, Hong Kong Flu, HIV, SARS, Swine Flu, MERS, and Ebola all occurred in about the last 60 years.  Shaikh goes so far as to argue we are entering an era of pandemics.

We have disrespected Mother Earth under any common sense estimation.  She had been exceedingly patient with us.  A system of system failure is something we have never seen.  It is more serious than Yersinia pestis (i.e. the plague).   Determining when an apocalypse will happen is like forecasting accidents.  You can't.  You can use an exponential distribution to characterize small and middle scale risk.  But, but high consequence events are notoriously hard to characterize.  In short, our continued failure to see the interdependent and interconnected nature of this planet and our role in biospheric damage will mean we will continue to take non-incremental steps towards a scientifically predictable apocalypse.

Wikipedia defines a system as "a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made.  Every system is bounded by space and time, influenced by its environment, defined by its structure and purpose, and expressed through its functioning.  A system may be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior."

** Clif High deserves credit here.  At some point in 2020, he argued in a YouTube video that we are in the middle of a shift from one system of systems to another - a significant event, no doubt.  As such, I got the term from him; and he did connect it to COVID as well as other disruptions occurring on Earth.  Where the term began, I do not know.  I recalled Clif discussing a French theorist.  I reached out to Clif; and he referred me to Jean Baudrillard.  However, Baudrillard talked about a 'system of objects' in reference to ideas he had on consumerism.  I did not want to jump headfirst into a 200-page post-structuralist text to see if the Baudrillard had captured the idea for which I was looking.  I also saw other more satisfying references to the term in engineering.  I leave the matter at that for now.  

I also note that I became aware of another term 'complex systems' in 2001 or 2002 as a student of Professor Carl Simon at the University of Michigan.  He is a founder in the field of complex systems, which is an increasingly codified field.  Still, the term system of systems is somehow more satisfying in this discussion - though less functional.  An equally note-worthy term and theorist is 'gestalt'.  Kenneth Boulding applies that the term from earlier works. 

***Emergent is a specific term from the field of complex systems.

**** This idea is newish.  The automatization argument I have discussed on the podcast several times. 

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