The Bat Effect

Since it seemed hard for us to grasp the function of the illustrated example where a butterfly flapping wings in one place causes a tornado somewhere far away, nature took a more empirical approach. This time it used a bat instead. If the butterfly illustration wasn’t working for us to truly comprehend our exposure to the systemic causalities of nature, the flap of a bat’s wings on a marketplace in Wuhan did. It took just several months to get from one person being infected to having almost 2/3 of the entire world’s population confined, over 100.000 deaths, and global society facing the ‘Mother of all Crisis’. We are still not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel! What we do see is different approaches to reach it and these may be roughly divided into linear and systemic ones.

On the one hand, there is a control and command process often personified into a leading political figure. This tends to a linear top-down chain hierarchy where obedience and loyalty represent guiding values and principles. On the other hand, there is spherical interaction between the institutions whose authority is grounded in the knowledgeable expertise in managing this type of situation. This one tends to apply systemic thinking based on expert information and observation, rather than political calculations.

As you could have guessed by now, I am very much in favor of the second approach. Hopefully, this global crisis will make more people aware of the fact that the Earth is a system and that as such it is an “interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something” as Donella Meadows had defined it. A system is much more than a set of ‘things’. It is made of elements, relations, and purpose. It evolves through the interconnections that are created out of relations between the elements. These constitute the emerging properties of the system and the case of Covid19 is a good example of Meadows’s observation that it is easier to learn about a system’s elements than about its interconnections.

The interconnections are more unpredictable. They are harder to manage and the top-down, military structured systems tend to follow the ‘if it can be measured it can be managed’ logic. This may function within simple and even complicated contexts where the complexity levels are low. But, once the context goes into chaos, it becomes evident that the system is much more than the sum of its elements.

What also became evident is the cultural divide between societies built around trust in heroic leaders and those built around trust in expert institutions. In this divide I share the same stand as Berthold Brecht who in his play Life of Galileo wrote:

  • Unhappy the land that has no heroes, – laments one character.
  • Pity the land that needs a hero – responds Galileo.

After a civil war in Croatia, NATO bombing in Serbia, the economic crisis in Spain, it is here in Sweden, in a plain corona pandemic, that I got to fully grasp the social meaning of Galileo’s words. It became evident the importance of placing process before ego and institutions before ‘saviors’. And most importantly, it became evident that herd immunity does not get built by herd mentality. On the contrary, it requires a strong individual mentality capable to rationally internalize the behavior recommended by trustworthy institutions.

Herd immunity is biological, while herd mentality is a psychological phenomenon. It implies the relation between our organic being and our behavior. The link between them is a learning process that “maintains compatibility between the operation of the organism and the environment”, as Maturana and Varela described in the Three of Knowledge. This is an ongoing evolutionary process that constantly puts at trial our ability to thrive by putting in motion mitigating and/or adapting responses to the system functioning, of which we are all part of.

Covid19 pandemic is yet another trial. Although it is too early to make the final assessment, the long-time built relation of trust between individuals and institutions in Sweden is showing results. It is helping to flatten the virus-spread curve without collapsing the country. It shows the importance of building effective institutions where boundaries between knowledge and action are managed “in ways that simultaneously enhance the salience, credibility, and legitimacy of the information they produce”, as Cash et al. recommended.

This manifests the central insight of systems theory, as Meadows puts it in the Limits to Growth: “Once we see the relationship between structure and behavior, we can begin to understand how systems work, what makes them produce poor results, and how to shift them into better behavior patterns. As our world continues to change rapidly and become more complex, systems thinking will help us manage, adapt, and see the wide range of choices we have before us. It is a way of thinking that gives us the freedom to identify root causes of problems and see new opportunities.”

These opportunities will arise from building trust among nations to strengthen the system we all are part of. They will not arise from isolation and egoism. Today more than ever, Covid19 has made evident the need of building stronger global institutions whose salience, credibility and legitimacy will overcome the boundaries of nation-state authority. Only this way can humanity be better prepared for Covid20, or whatever name the next pandemic might carry. Only this way can we understand that the future behavior for dealing with the Bat Effect must be based on trust, collaboration, knowledge, and personal responsibility. 

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