Meditation on Disequilibrium in Nature

The idea of stability is a central organizing concept in mathematics and control theory. Lately I have been pondering a more basic idea: equilibrium, which economists prefer to work with. Looking at some fallen trees this weekend, a point I had appreciated in the abstract hit me in a very tangible form: both stability and equilibrium are intellectual fictions. Here is the sight which sparked this train of thought:

Trees 1

These are the fallen trees that line the southern shore of Lake Ontario, under the towering Chimney Bluffs —  cliffs left behind in disequilibrium by the last Ice Age. For about a half mile along the base of the cliffs, you see these trees. Here is the longest shot I could take with my camera.

Trees two

No, evil human loggers did not do this. The cliffs are naturally unstable, and chunks fall off at regular intervals. Here are a couple of the more dramatic views you see as you walk along the trail at Chimney Bluffs State Park.

Bluffs   bluffs 2

Signs line the trail, warning you to keep away from the edge.  Unlike the Grand Canyon or the Niagara Falls, whose state of disequilibrium requires an intellectual effort to appreciate, the Chimney Bluffs are in disequilibrium on a time scale humans can understand. A life form we can understand — trees — can actually bet on an apparently stable equilibrium and lose in this landscape, fall, and rot in the water, while we watch.

Even earthquakes, despite their power, don’t disturb our equilibrium-centric mental models of the universe. We view them as anomalous rather than characteristic phenomena. The fallen trees of the Chimney Bluffs  cannot be easily dismissed this way. They are signs of steady, creeping change in the world around us, going on all the time; creative-destruction in nature.

The glaciated landscape of Upstate New York, of which the Chimney Bluffs are part, is well known. The deep, long Finger Lakes, ringed by waterfalls, have anchored my romantic fascination with this region for several years now. The prototypical symbol of the region is probably Taughannock falls:

Taughannock Falls

Unless you live in the region for a while, you won’t get around to visiting the Chimney Bluffs. But visit even for a weekend, and everybody will urge you to go visit the falls.

We create tourist spots around sights which at once combine the frozen drama of past violence in nature, and a picture of unchanging calm in the present. Every summer and fall, the falls pour into Lake Cayuga and tourists take pictures. Every winter, they slow to a trickle. Change is so slow that we even let lazy thinking overpower us and make preservation the central ethic of any concern for the environment. Even the entire ideology and movement is called conservation.

We forget cataclysmic extinction events that periodically wipe out much of life. We forget to sit back and visualize and absorb the implications of the dry quantitative evidence of ice ages. Moving to the astronomical realm, we rarely stop and ponder the thought that the earth is cooling down, that its magnetic poles seem to flip every tens of thousands of years, that its rotation has slowed from a once fast 22-hour day. We forget that our Sun will eventually blow up into a Red Giant that will be nearly as large as the orbit of Mars.

We forget that nature is the first and original system of evolving creative destruction. Schumpeter’s model of the economy came along later.

Towards Disequilibrium Environmentalism

This troubles me. On the one hand, environmental concerns are certainly very high on my list of ethical and practical concerns. Yet, when nature itself is chock full of extinctions, unsteady heatings and coolings and trembles and crumbles, why are we particularly morally concerned about global warming and other unsustainable patterns of human activity? A practical human concern is understandable (tough luck, Seychelles), but to listen to Al Gore, you would think that it is somehow immoral to not think entirely in terms of preservation, conservation, equilibrium and stability. So nature decides to slowly destroy the Chimney Bluffs. We decide to draw down oil reserves, slowly saturate the oceans with CO2 and melt the ice caps. Why is the first fine, but the others are somehow morally reprehensible? If you worry that we are destroying a planet that we share with other species, well, nature did those mass extinctions long before we came along.

In this respect, the political left is actually rather like the right — it is truly a conservative movement. Instead of insisting on the preservation of an unchanging set of cultural values and societal forms, it insists on an unchanging environment.

To be truly powerful, the environmentalist movement must be reframed in ways that accommodates the natural patterns of disequilibrium, change, and ultimate tragic, entropic death of the universe. I don’t know how to do this.

Why Disequilibrium instead of Instability?

Stability is a comforting idea. It is the idea that there is a subset of equilibria that, when disturbed slightly, return to their original conditions. But it is a false comfort. Every instance of stability lives within an artificial bubble of time, space and mass-energy isolation. Expand the boundaries enough, or let the external universe inject a sharp enough disturbance, and your stability will vanish. Unstable equilibria are even sillier, because even infinitesimal disturbances can knock them out.

Which means disequilibrium, not equilibrium, is the natural state. Using the word disequilibrium suggests a steady, sustained absence of stability — the universe is one, long transient signal where every illusion of stability will be destroyed, given enough time.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I have long had an idea for a comic, from which the world is safe only because I cannot draw.
    [frame 1]
    Dinosaur environmentalists finally achieve the necessary consensus to reduce methane emissions by switching to eating small furry mammals, rather than their favourite, refried beans. General celebration throughout the dinosaur world at finally having achieved sustainable balance with environment.
    [frame 2]
    The Death Comet comes hurtling in.

    Then I realized where the idea had come from. Kurt Vonnegut.

    “I used to be a conservationist. I used to weep and wail about people shooting bald eagles…but I laugh about it now. When some tanker accidentally dumps its load in the ocean, and kills millions of birds and billions of fish, I say ‘More power to Standard Oil’, or whoever it was that dumped it. Up your ass with Mobil gas!”

    “You’re kidding!”

    “I realized that God wasn’t any conservationist, so for anyone else to be one would be a sacrilegious waste of time. You ever see one of his volcanoes or or tornadoes or tidal waves? Anybody tell you about the Ice Ages he arranges every half-million years?…Just about the time we got our rivers cleaned up, he’d probably have the whole galaxy go up like a celluloid collar”

    Getting back to your point… why do we need a moral excuse? A practical one is sufficient. We know personal death is inevitable, either by cancer or by a truck bearing down when crossing the street, or by myriad other means. And yet, most of us choose not to commit suicide immediately. We choose to avoid danger, to prolong life, driven by the ACTG alphabet soup in every cell of our bodies to survive. Trying to be environmentally friendly is nothing more than an extension of the same principle. We can’t do a damn thing about a rogue comet or the slow relentless march of an Ice Age, but we certainly can – and therefore, should at least attempt to – stave off unsustainable consumption, which is very likely to cause widespread social disruption before our generation is safely dead.

    Collapse is nasty. It’s one thing to pontificate about the decline and fall of the Mayan or Roman Empire from the safe vantage point of a millennium or two, another to live through it, either personally or via your children. An archaeologist in the 5th millennium would no doubt, be able to take the long view, analytically determine the rate of population rise, resource depletion and point to the inevitable correction, in the form of genocide and a throwback to a greatly reduced standard of living.

    The cynical – as opposed to moral – argument against species extinction is also very compelling. Until you master the subtle art of DNA engineering from scratch, it behooves you to preserve all examples of working programs which have been painfully built up over several million years of trial and error. The extinction of large potentially domesticable fauna – either due to human intervention or climate change or both – left Australian and North American humans at a severe disadvantage with respect to their Eurasian cousins.

    The moral argument, used by Gore and others can be seen as an attempt to influence the masses of the First World, many of whom can still be affected by religious-moral appeals. If it works, why not? Given that the First World consumes resources disproportionate to their numbers, they’d be the first constituency you want to crack with all tools at hand.

  2. Hmm… maybe I’ll try to illustrate your 2 panel gag. Very funny :) Am learning a few tricks about comic strip/book making and you can get away with non-Michaelangelo skills if you get other things right.

    I don’t personally need a moral reason, but any subject of sufficient complexity and sufficiently widespread interest tends to acquire doctrinal elements in its discourses (or in plain english, a language I seem to be forgetting — when things get messy, people get religion). Case in point, linux-vs.-pc-vs.-mac. Doesn’t need to be a religious war but is, because computer /OS architecture is too complex.

    So given that theology WILL come in, which kind do you want…? I’d like disequilibrium theology. People won’t/can’t process without a theology, and will process badly with equilibrium theology.

    Am not sure if the Gore first-world-guilt strategy is smart in the long run, even if it works. It isn’t just an ends-means concern that bothers me (I am all for devious means), but the increase in FUD (fear-uncertainty-doubt) that clouds creative thinking about the environment when such pragmatic persuasion is applied.

    I think I like the ‘practical examples’ argument though.

    I am also cynical enough to think we are overdue for one major civilizational collapse. Which reminds me, I need to check out Jared Diamond’s (“Guns germs steel guy”) second book on civilizational collapse and its phenomenology.

  3. Yup, look at Randall Munroe with xkcd, my current favourite strip.

    On the theology question: you have to optimize theology for maximum transmission, acceptability and effectiveness with respect to your agenda, for the maximum useful audience. I’m sorry, but the “facts” don’t enter into it. Nor does the sophisticated nuanced viewpoint of an intellectual minority.

    Look at the theologies currently prevalent and tell me how closely they correspond to facts, other than the ones they themselves made up. People will process anything, and once converted, will stick to it despite emergence of contradictory facts, cognitive dissonance et al. That includes secular theologies as well, like the Pentagon’s Network Centric Operations doctrine, which persists in spite of the thorough drubbing Blue team received at the hands of van Riper’s Red team.

    Equilibrium theology is already well set up in the target audience – urban dwellers with a high consumption pattern. Most of them have romantic notions of the pastoral ideal, complete with white doves alighting on cheerful trees, wind rippling through a sea of grass dotted with grazing ruminants, to the accompaniment of a solo reed instrument. Far better to use such existing vectors to infect them with the idea of avoiding planetary suicide than bringing up dead trees and cliffs and disequilibrium. How will you use this doctrine of ultimate doom to further your agenda?

    I agree that some people would find the current theology irritating. In fact, I had written something on the same lines a while ago…will get around to posting it sometime. Here it is:

    I try to be a good boy, but one of the things I dislike about environmentalism is that like most major religions, it encourages the culture of the Perpetual Guilt Trip. I mean, you are born in sin. Everything you do, especially if it’s enjoyable, is sinful and kills baby rabbits. Use a mobile phone, kill a queen bee. Eat cabbages and beans, contribute methane to global warming. Drive a car, and you’re responsible for Exxon Valdez spilling crude on photogenic sea creatures. Remember, Greenpeace volunteers died for your sins.

    You are the Disgusting Fat Grub gorging on the living body of Mother Earth. You are the the Eroder of Mountains, the Polluter of Seas, the Reaver of Forests, the Poisoner of Airs. You strangle Her with Plastic, you are the Harbinger of Doom, the Enemy of Life.

    But… if you retreat into a Cocoon of Contemplation, resolve to only eat certified organic food from sustainable resources, drive only bicycles, then you might be able to redeem yourself, emerging as a Peaceful Butterfly which sits lightly on the Flower of Life, taking a bit of nectar, giving a bit of pollen, never plucking, never exploiting, living in Harmony with all Lifekind…

    Well, it’s all true, but I resent it nonetheless.

    Oh, the mobile phone bit was debunked. But thanks to the guilt trip, most of us were more than willing to swallow it – after all, mobile phones are so darn useful, they have to have some evil Bambi-killing consequences apart from giving people cancer.

    There is a way out, however: don’t reproduce. Your kids are going to be far worse environment hogs than you, right from their landfill-infesting diaper days. By not having kids, you can
    – Avoid the “Think of the children!” guilt trap and other sanctimonious homilies about borrowing the earth from your children.
    – Compute the Net Present Value of Future Environmental Cash Flow of your children, grandchildren and greater grandchildren, yea, even unto the seventh generation. This will add up to a stupendous amount, enough to account for the non-extinction of several species.

    A small fraction of the costs of your pampered progeny is enough to set you up for a lifetime of driving SUVs powered by endangered spotted owls, completely guilt-free. With all the money and moral carbon credits you save, you can live life to its fullest and die happy.

    What do you say? Sign up with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement today!

  4. Hey HEY, hands off NCW :) I hadn’t heard of the Van Riper episode (just googled it…here is one description . Here is its interpretation in terms of Gladwell’s blink idea . One badly-designed dishonest war game shouldn’t be an excuse to hang an entire way of thinking.

    [begin defense]

    I worked on NCW-related/inspired research for a couple of years, and most people misunderstand it and in the military, misapply it. Network-centric warfare is an operational model built on the doctrine of information superiority. It does not involve an either/or between wily commanders on the one hand and technology on the other. Ask instead how much BETTER wily commanders would operate with a more accurate and complete blink-friendly information picture. Van Riper may have kicked Blue Team’s butt, but with NCW on HIS side, he’d probably have done it even better. In fact there are aspects of his style of leadership/thinking that are explicitly studied in NCW, something called Klein’s decision-making model, which is kinda like blink philosophy of ‘thin slices’ and fast judgments.

    But in general, my defense of NCW would be this. It is not a mathematical/axiomatic theory which can be disproven by one counterexample. It belongs more in the Hegelian dialectic mode or Nietzchean mode, where two flawed grand synthesis ideologies face off, and poke holes into each other, and the one that gets more undermined fails. Van Riper no more kills NCW singlehandedly than more honest successful experiments, validate it completely. Holes and supporting data both just improve our understanding a bit.

    I think NCW is directionally correct as a model, and will eventually prevail as militaries learn to think with it. But that is a MUCH longer debate, and maybe I’ll blog about it at some point.

    [end defense]

    But more generally, I think all ideologies have enough of a grain of truth in them to string together a set of reasonable arguments that are directionally correct, but not conclusively so. That is why we call them theologies rather than theories.In particular, no I don’t think that…

    On the theology question: you have to optimize theology for maximum transmission, acceptability and effectiveness with respect to your agenda, for the maximum useful audience. I’m sorry, but the “facts” don’t enter into it. Nor does the sophisticated nuanced viewpoint of an intellectual minority.

    Unless there are some egregiously bad axioms on one side (eg. economies based on slavery or classical communism), you’ll never conclusively prove one better than the other. Even in the truly flawed bad axiom cases, you can usually only see the flaws with hindsight. You will NEVER be able to make a doctrine consistent with all known facts, because there are too many facts, and there is always a selection bias on both sides, and enough ambiguity/room in making inferences that even contrary facts can be digested in your doctrine’s favor — I can actually honestly use the Van Riper incident in NCW’s favor (and will do so at some point).

    In more reasonable face-offs, like macs vs. pcs, there is usually enough truth in both sides that they can slug it out wearily like two evenly matched heavyweights, until both collapse and something new steps in. I think, for instance, that the Mac vs. Windows religious war has actually been won by Google and the SaaS idea…

    But overall, I definitely agree with the freudian superego/parental nature of the ethics of environmentalism. Another way to frame my disequilibrium approach would be, “let us face the environment as adults recognizing the nature of death, change and entropy, rather than as kids looking for a parental presence in a political debate.”

  5. Heh. I read about van Riper in Gary Brecher’s article on the topic. Fascinating stuff, you can easily lose a couple of days of your life reading his 100+ “war reviews”.

    I am rather confused by the next bit. What I meant was that the facts are largely irrelevant to doctrine (“the plumage don’t enter into it”) which appears to agree with what you’re saying – that there is sufficient ambiguity for contrary facts to be assimilated.

    Therefore, I should be able to incorporate your trees becoming driftwood fact into an equilibrium theology. My argument is that it’s better to achieve your ends with a theology which already has traction, rather than replace it for no great advantage.

    I personally agree with the “become an adult” message. But I wouldn’t give much for your chances of getting it across to a herd animal like homo sapiens, with hierarchical social notions bred in its bones, spending much of its existence under the parental presence of the State, or Gods, or both. If you could indeed induce homo sapiens to evolve to adulthood, you could also rid it of other tyrannies.

    Reminds me of “Life of Brian”.
    Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t NEED to follow ME, You don’t NEED to follow ANYBODY! You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re ALL individuals!
    The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
    Brian: You’re all different!
    The Crowd: Yes, we ARE all different!
    Man in crowd: I’m not…

    About Jared Diamond’s Collapse – ha! Finally I’ve read a book which you haven’t! It’s a good read, though it starts off slowly. Warms up nicely when it gets to Easter Island. Read GGS too. Regardless of whether he’s right or wrong, I like the way he thinks.

  6. Well, one last salvo in this debate. I wouldn’t agree that just because a set of facts can be used to argue both sides of a complex issue doesn’t mean that dichotimized complex issues are independent of facts. Theologies (other than literal theologies of the religious kind) are fact-based too. Facts just enter into them differently.

    I see it like this. Any argument for any side of a complex thesis will be far far short of watertight. Some arguments will be used in an ironclad way, others will be hand-wavy. Both sides will snipe at each other, and whichever is, in the aggregate more sloppily constructed, will fail. That’s the Hegelian model. The Nietzchean model is similar but couched in more tactical terms — to take an opponent apart you don’t systematically invalidate his argument via mathematical counterexample, because any single strike like that can be argued around. You keep poking holes into it until the whole thing collapses.

    So point being: facts support all types of arguments — from rigorous to hand-wavy. They just do so in different ways, with different methods used to attack/defend.

    What IS rare is an ‘impedence mismatch’ — where one side argues with convincing mathematical precision and the other argues in a theological mode. I think this only happens when a tricky but essentially simple issue is mistaken for a complex one and somebody figures out what the subset of meaningful variables are with which to construct a solid argument.