Michael Crichton’s Speech On Complexity Theory and Environmental Management

Regarding the foolishness of simple thinking (especially from government)… I don’t think there is any better read than this speech on complexity by Michael Crichton.

In the speech he goes into detail on the absurdity of misinformed-people-with-agendas, the enormous swirls of fear they create, and the disastrous consequences of “linear thinking”.

In a complex world, you cannot reduce complex problems down to simple solutions. Sadly, this is not very apparent to most in the west, especially those do-gooders in Washington.

Read it here.

Excerpt:
… It was his third visit. Roosevelt saw a thousand antelope, plentiful cougar, mountain sheep, deer, coyote, and many thousands of elk. He wrote, “Our people should see to it that this rich heritage is preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with its majestic beauty all unmarred.”

But Yellowstone was not preserved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the park service acknowledged that “white-tailed deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone.”

What they didn’t say was that the park service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting animals for decades, even though that was illegal under the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew better. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.

What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error. But to understand it, we have to go back to the 1890s. Back then it was believed that elk were becoming extinct, and so these animals were fed and encouraged. Over the next few years the numbers of elk in the park exploded. Roosevelt had seen a few thousand animals, and noted they were more numerous than on his last visit.

By 1912, there were 30,000. By 1914, 35,000. Things were going very well. Rainbow trout had also been introduced, and though they crowded out the native cutthroats, nobody really worried. Fishing was great. And bears were increasing in numbers, and moose, and bison.

By 1915, Roosevelt realized the elk had become a problem, and urged “scientific management.” His advice was ignored. Instead, the park service did everything it could to increase their numbers.

The results were predictable.

Antelope and deer began to decline, overgrazing changed the flora, aspen and willows were being eaten heavily and did not regenerate. In an effort to stem the loss of animals, the park rangers began to kill predators, which they did without public knowledge.

They eliminated the wolf and cougar and were well on their way to getting rid of the coyote. Then a national scandal broke out; studies showed that it wasn’t predators that were killing the other animals. It was overgrazing from too many elk. The management policy of killing predators had only made things worse.

Meanwhile the environment continued to change. Aspen trees, once plentiful in the park, where virtually destroyed by the enormous herds of hungry elk.

With the aspen gone, the beaver had no trees to make dams, so they disappeared. Beaver were essential to the water management of the park; without dams, the meadows dried hard in summer, and still more animals vanished. Situation worsened. It became increasingly inconvenient that all the predators had been killed off by 1930. So in the 1960s, there was a sigh of relief when new sightings by rangers suggested that wolves were returning….

And by now we are about ready to reap the rewards of our forty-year policy of fire suppression, Smokey the Bear, all that. The Indians used to burn forest regularly, and lightning causes natural fires every summer. But when these fires are suppressed, the branches that drop to cover the ground make conditions for a very hot, low fire that sterilizes the soil. And in 1988, Yellowstone burned. All in all, 1.2 million acres were scorched, and 800,000 acres, one third of the park, burned.

Then, having killed the wolves, and having tried to sneak them back in, the park service officially brought the wolves back, and the local ranchers screamed. And on, and on.

As the story unfolds, it becomes impossible to overlook the cold truth that when it comes to managing 2.2 million acres of wilderness, nobody since the Indians has had the faintest idea how to do it. And nobody asked the Indians, because the Indians managed the land very intrusively. The Indians started fires, burned trees and grasses, hunted the large animals, elk and moose, to the edge of extinction. White men refused to follow that practice, and made things worse.

Here’s a modern chart, from a sustainability website. It shows the relationships of pretty much everything: lithosphere, biosphere, market, community, customers. Who makes a chart like this? Who thinks the world operates this way?

Because look. It does not explain the world.

In fact, the chart on the right, showing everything, is absurdly simple. Nothing in nature is so simple.