Avoiding the Irreversible
One of the most important charts there is
Later this evening I will have the opportunity to talk with permaculture legend Ben Falk via the “Doomer Optimism Podcast” where I will be a guest co-host.
Ben’s book The Resilient Farm and Homestead should be on anyone’s bookshelf who aspires to live close to the land. Knowhow is hard-won, but some generous souls give us shortcuts; Ben is such a person.
Here I just want to draw attention to one chart he offers near the front of the book that in my view is one of the most important charts you will ever see. Ingest it into your gut. (My hand drawn reproduction.)
Akshually, ingest this next one into your gut instead. Same idea, but I’ve swapped axes and inverted one of them. I believe it makes the content more digestible.
On the x-axis, we have effort to reverse some action, on the y-axis the amount of time you should take observing the system doing its thing before taking such action. As the effort to reverse increases, the observation time needed accelerates upward. We can justify this convexity by noting that at some finite amount of effort needed to reverse a threshold is crossed past which things become effectively irreversible. We simply can’t muster the amount of effort that would be required to reverse things, and so the observation time given should increase drastically as we approach this threshold.
Again, this comes from a book about permaculture, but the lesson here is far more broadly applicable. There does not exist a domain that this is not useful for.
And we are terrible, as a culture, at conforming to this image. We plod ahead mindlessly, doing on irreversible thing after another. Release some GMO organisms here, keep planes flowing globally as a pandemic unfolds there, mandate injections with a novel technology while you’re at it, etc. etc.. The list can go on and on.
The bottom line is in complex systems you don’t really know what the effects of something will be until you introduce that thing into the context of the “full system”. But if we observe things, slowly and carefully, and take first steps that are reversible as we begin to probe the system, we can mitigate a lot of risk, and avoid a lot of harm.
The idea is simple, either take more time, or do something that is easier to reverse. One of the most important charts you will ever see.
Great. I do like the 2nd one. Sunk Cost Fallacy cones to mind… folks anxious to start/deploy (less observation time) later becomes “but we’ve already invested so much time/energy/etc!”.
* minor typo c/on/one