Every now and again I just try to give myself some summary of my understanding about complexity. This was originally written for the Anthropocene Transitions Project


A complex system is a system in which “nodes/beings” in the system alter their behaviour (automatically or consciously) is response to the activity of the rest of the system.
All living systems are complex systems.

Interconnection – systems

  • Everything that exists is interactive, or inter-being.
  • All beings depend on other beings for their existence in complex webs of inter-connection.
  • Therefore human beings depend on Earth systems, ecologies and other humans.
  • Often nodes or beings in a complex system are composed of multiple complex systems – all the way down.


  • As nodes do not exist in themselves, minds are present in systems, not in individuals alone. There is no originary or individual consciousness.
  • Humans become intelligent through interaction with others, and through sharing and competing with others.
  • Culture is essential for intelligence, and seems to be born in dispute and instruction.
  • Minds are not always harmonious – they contain dispute and contradiction.
  • Human psychologies are complex systems. Our attempts to impose order on our minds, or suppress pain, can create a disruptive personal unconscious – which is probably similar to other people’s personal unconscious.
  • This is like a microcosm of human action in the world – attempts to impose order can create the very disorder we fear.


  • Every being is in flux or process. Nothing is static forever.
  • Small events can produce big changes at tipping points.
  • Systems tend to seek equilibrium, but equilibrium processes change over time, with changes in other systems, and accidents.
  • The system can depart from equilibrium fairly quickly. Sometimes the disruptions to equilibrium are the result of chance ‘external’ events, such as an intense fire, an introduced plant seed, or a meteor crash. Tipping points are not always identifiable in advance.
  • Change is not always a “linear” process. Because nothing much has apparently happened yet, does not mean we are not approaching a tipping point in which change radically accelerates.


  • While the system can be thought of as ‘one,’ it does not have to be harmonious.
  • Nodes can compete, destroy each other and have differing aims.
  • Systems do not have to ‘aim’ to benefit humans.
  • While it is common to talk of Complex Adaptive Systems, as they change and adapt to change; from a human point of view some systems can be considered maladaptive or destructive.
  • Many economic systems, for example, do not seem to be geared to human survival.
  • Human organisation and power relations, can distribute harms and risks as well as ‘goods.’
  • Evolution occurs because of failure, to reproduce identically, or to survive.
  • It is probably worthwhile to try and identify maladaptive systems, and see if they can be modified.

Boundaries are not always clear

  • Many categories are not sharp and firmly bounded.
  • Beings and their categories are interconnected.
  • Everything affects everything.
  • Categories overlap.
  • Hierarchies are not always mutually exclusive and may overlap. The ‘upper’ levels of a hierarchy may be heavily influenced by the ‘lower’ levels.
  • Humans are ‘conditioned’ by planetary, social and cultural functions – but they can also influence those conditions in certain circumstances.
  • It does not always appear easy, appropriate or entirely accurate to separate a system from its ‘environment’ for purposes of study. This is especially so, if we then proceed to try and render the environment inert or without ongoing interactive effect on the system.
  • But you have to simplify. We cannot include everything ever.

Uncertainty is normal

  • The only true models of complex systems are the systems themselves.
  • Humans cannot always make exact predictions of events, but they can predict trends.
  • Hence human actions will likely have unintended consequences. This is fundamental to understanding human interaction with reality.
  • That a system is unpredictable in detail does not mean it is purely random – there are constraints at any moment. However these constraints may not continue forever.
  • None of this means a system cannot be modelled usefully, just that the models will not be the system. “The Map is not the Territory.”
  • We can, for example, predict that some bad human behaviours will affect your life deleteriously, but not exactly how or when. We can predict that weather will get more and more unstable if humans keep releasing greenhouse gases in increasing quantities, but we still cannot exactly predict the weather on a certain day, in a certain place, in a year’s time.
  • Lack of perfect models does not allow us to assume that everything will remain the same, or not be maladaptive, as when people argue that because climate models may be inherently inaccurate, we should do nothing. Nothing changing for the worse is an even more dubious model.

Some problems with Complexity

  • This view of complexity undermines a morality which seeks its justification in predicted consequences.
  • It implies lack of perfect control or domination, and hence the possibility of existential crisis, if human progress and control is central to human life.
  • As unintended consequences are normal, we may need to look for them as part of the system. For example, Ruskin’s idea of ‘illth’ the harm produced by the production of riches, cannot be ignored if we want to understand economics.
  • It implies politics should be experimental rather than dogmatic. We should expect policies to need adjustment or abandonment. Failure can be a learning experience.

Dealing with complexity

  • Slow down.
  • Be receptive to what is.
  • Lessen demands on reality, that it should be a certain way. “It is what it is.”
  • Lessen requirements we be in control.
  • Learn to live and work with the flow.
  • Suspend attempts at total understanding, as all understanding is provisional.
  • Accept a level of ignorance and expect contradictions, they are informative.
  • Be prepared to ‘feel’ your way through. You may fail, but it may just help you get there.
  • Create redundancy rather than “just in time” mechanisms.
  • Try to recover that which you have made yourself unconscious of.
  • Allow yourself to become aware of possible unexpected consequences of your acts no matter how well intended they are.