When Tropical Storm Irene hit Vermont in 2011, all the roads in my town were damaged. Bridges were undermined or demolished. Our dirt roads suffered major flooding and washed out for long stretches. Our one major road was catastrophically destroyed in multiple places. Those of us in the area were stranded in our town, a theme repeated dozens of times over across the state. All over Vermont, residents woke up and found that there was no getting in or out—what they had in their communities was all that was available.
Although we take for granted that we need regular connections with other parts of the world for our lives to function, most of us don’t stop to think about what that really means. Because I have some interest in complex system science, I tend to think about the structure of our society in terms of feedback loops. Some loops are long, some are short, and some are intertwined. Everything we do or buy or sell or use contributes to some feedback loop, somewhere.
To consider this more intuitively, imagine lines of dominos. First imagine a small circle of dominos standing in front of you; when you push the first domino, the rest fall in a circle and come right back to the beginning. This is a short feedback loop, where you can easily see all the consequences of your initial action.
Now imagine a longer line of dominos, going through all the rooms of your house before returning to you. You still push the first domino, but it takes a long while for last domino next to you to fall, and you don’t know what else might have happened along the way—a long feedback.
Imagine dozens of strings of dominos stretching out of your house, through your neighbors’ houses, and to other cities and continents. Dominos are falling everywhere all the time, but no one can easily tell which were started where, or by whom. This is a global system of long feedbacks. This is, for the most part, the sort of society we live in.
It isn’t precisely that we designed it this way. The process of switching to long feedbacks happened over time, and it generally does increase the complexity and potential of our society. By and large, it has been a positive thing for humanity, but it also has downsides.
One major downside is that it’s easy to rely on long feedbacks when things are going well, so when we remove those long feedbacks we find there are very few short feedbacks to fall back on. When Irene caused catastrophic flooding throughout Vermont, we were suddenly deprived of access to our long feedbacks, leaving us with only local feedbacks to rely on. The governor declared an immediate state of emergency, and the National Guard was called in for support. The prospect of even a day or two without access to our long feedbacks was unthinkable—in Vermont, a rural state with residents who pride themselves on self-sufficiency.
Similar responses to Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, show us how dependent we are on long feedbacks; to lose them is a massive disaster that sticks in our societal memory. Yet even when the tenuousness of this system is revealed, there is seldom a push to make communities more self-reliant, or more resilient in the face of catastrophic events.
Even when they work well, long feedbacks have obscure consequences elsewhere on the chain. Global feedbacks break the link between the choices of the individual and the consequences of the action. Quinoa, for example, became popular in the United States as a health food, which drove up prices and made it unaffordable for people South America who relied on it as a dietary staple.
Many people who buy quinoa in the United States don’t even know this happened, but that isn’t surprising. There are now so many long feedbacks involved in our everyday lives that we are fundamentally incapable of evaluating each one of them. Consider the things around you as you read this—each one has a history of interactions, but how many of those histories do you know? Where did the materials come from? Where were they made? Who made them, and were they fairly treated and fairly paid? What systems did they interact with en route to you? How much of that information could you find even if you tried?
A broken link between actions and consequences translates into a lack of adaptation in response. People, businesses, and nations can reap the benefit of their actions while costs are felt by other people in other places. Organizations can functionally isolate themselves from the consequences of their acts, and individuals lose the ability to intelligently change their behavior because they often do not even know what the consequences are. Is one of your old electronic devices now in a landfill in India, leaking heavy metals into the water supply? Without knowing that, you will not alter the behavior that put it there.
What can we do about this? At this point, our society simply wouldn’t function without long feedbacks. What’s more, the most impressive human achievements—like landing on the moon, curing diseases, technological progress, and the majority of scientific knowledge—would be impossible with only small feedbacks. But I think we’ve gone a little too far in the other direction. Our long feedbacks are a little too obscure, a little too unobserved. We don’t know what they’re doing when they work, and we aren’t prepared to adapt when they fail.
There isn’t one answer to that, but I think Tropical Storm Irene provides an example of success as well as failure. Residents checked up on their neighbors, shared their food, and made sure everyone around was okay. Some businesses donated food and supplies to those in need. As we picked up the pieces, Vermonters donated money to help repair the damage. Grudgingly, even the rest of the country kicked in a little via some federal funding. All of these feedbacks, small to large, are how we were able to pick up the pieces and put things back together.
It’s true that that’s all reconstruction, and maybe planning ahead isn’t a human strength. I like to think, though, that I now pay more attention to the feedbacks I’m a part of. I pick small ones when I can, because I have a better shot at seeing where they go. Maybe it’s too small to be an overall solution, but for my part I try to make it so that next time I lose access to long feedbacks, it will be more of an annoyance than a disaster.