Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Surviving Climate Chaos: Systems resisting chaos

Julian Caldecott

Surviving Climate Chaos is being published into a new world of lethal fires, floods and record-breaking temperatures, while the IPCC warns us that we are in the last decade before Arctic, oceanic and equatorial tipping points take all choices out of human hands. This emergency calls for far greater focus and impact in our climate change response, and for the strengthening of communities and ecosystems everywhere against climate chaos. It also calls for greater clarity in how we think about the social and ecological systems in which we live, the stresses that they experience, and how we and they adapt to new and dangerous circumstances.

All systems, whether living or inanimate, comprise distinct entities and relationships. Information is essentially ‘news of difference’, so it is inherent to all systems. Diversity concerns differences between entities, so ‘biodiversity’ is equivalent to the information contained in ecological systems, while the equivalent word for social systems is ‘culture’. In either case, the information is disseminated among all the entities and relationships that make up the system, and it exists only because of the system. In either case, fragments can be taken away and and put in collections (museums, zoos, gardens), but the system itself remains behind in its place of origin.

The parallel between ecological and human social systems cannot be exact, given differences in medium, mechanism, purpose and flexibility at a human-group level, and the ways of insight and invention at a human-individual level. These differences reflect the extraordinary adaptive capabilities of our species, the details of which are as engrossing to anthropologists as the diversity of life is to biologists. But here the details are much less important than the similarities, which suggest that chaos is the obliterator of distinctiveness, relationships, patterns, rules, and predictability, without which systems automatically cease to exist.

“Entropy is the name for all transformations in which distinctiveness and information are destroyed, and it is in the nature of isolated systems for entropy to increase over time, a principle stated in the second law of thermodynamics. If allowed to proceed unopposed, the end-point of entropy is chaos, an equilibrium state of complete disorder and confusion. This is the fate of all systems that lack both access to an external source of energy and a way to use it to maintain themselves.” (page 61). But theoretical points “can quickly become very real should there be a wildfire in an ecological system or a genocide in a social one. In these cases, a wave of entropy sweeps through complex order, with no concern for the identities, relationships, rules or values of any entity within it, and reduces it all to uniform ash, or else to vacant land with bones and barbed wire.” (page 91). These extreme cases are reminders that all complex systems arise and are actively maintained against the pressure of entropy.

Surviving Climate Chaos by Julian Caldecott
Surviving Climate Chaos by Julian Caldecott

Title: Surviving Climate Chaos by Strengthening Communities and Ecosystems

Author: Julian Caldecott

Paperback ISBN: 9781108793780

Hardback ISBN: 9781108840125

About The Author

Julian Caldecott

Julian Caldecott is Director of Creatura Ltd, an environmental consultancy, and has a background in wildlife research and conservation in tropical rainforests. Since 2000 he has le...

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