By J.B. Ruhl
In this post I return to the theme of cumulative effects and system collpase I introduced in prior posts. One can think of complex societies as exhibiting homeorhesis, a term coined by the prominent evolutionary geneticist Conrad Waddington to describe dynamic systems that return to their trajectory when perturbed by events in the exogenous environment, as opposed to homeostasis, in which the system returns to a prior state. Waddington called the trajectory of a homeorhesic system its chreod. Such systems, of course, have only so much resilience--they can be thrown off track, which for purposes of complex societies increases the potential for collpase.
Dan Farber's work on disasters highlights how large-scale perturbations, a/k/a disasters, can throw the trajectory off track, sometimes at rather large scales (as in New Orleans). It is also important, however, to bear in mind that small-scale events can do the same. Recall my prior post on NK/CS systems: when the K value (number of linkages between system components) is very high, the system has high feedback and feedforward levels that can become highly agitated when perturbed even by small events. In an extreme case of such chaos conditions, even if one component of the system is altered or "fails," the cumulative effect of reverberation through the system of that one small event can be extensive.
It's possible, in other words, for nothing to be less than critical. No part too small, no event too small, to hold the potential to fundamentally alter or bring down the entire system. As historian James Burke once observed of "advanced" social and technological systems, "failure in one area can mean failure in all areas."
This idea served as the theme for Decadence, an obscure, almost bizzare counterculture book investigative journalist Jim Hougan wrote in the 1970s (available online for $0.22). He suggested this very kind of "all is critical" phenomenon in modern society: "The fragility of contemporary technique, its total dependence upon an increasing number of components, its accelerating complexification, increases the probable magnitude of any technical disruption we may experience. When anything is changed in such a whole-system as our own, everything is changed.... It seems reasonable to suppose that, as the whole-system's functioning comes to depend upon more and more parts, it becomes increasingly likely that the system will break down, assuming the fragility of each part remains the same." Not bad for pre-complexity theory thinking.
As for law, chreods and criticality have two implications, assuming we want to stay on trajectory. First, criticality in social, economic, and technological sectors places increasing demands on the legal system. It must respond not only to the initiaiting problem, but the ripple effect problems that spread and which may surface in contexts seemingly unrelated to the initiating problem. How the legal system responds to these demands in turn will influence how the legal system itself becomes structured and whether it builds an "all is critical" structure that may produce the same kind of cascading effects. Indeed, based on work Jim Salzman and I did in connection with environmental regulation, we found that many practicing attorneys believe the environmental regulation system is too tightly knit, with how compliance is achieved (or not) under so many regulations affecting how it is achieved (or not) under so many others. See Ruhl & Salzman, "Mozart and the Red Queen: The Problem of Regulatory Accretion in the Administrative State," 91 Georgetown Law Journal 757 (2003). This is one more reason to explore so-called second generation environmental (and other) regulatory models relying on information flows, market incentives, and adaptive management.