Complicated vs Complex Systems; why ecological complexity has defeated western reductionist conservation efforts.

Last edited - 03 Feb 19

Discussing the difference between 'complicated' and 'complex' may seem rather pedantic to many, but it is an essential differentiation in systems management.

Complicated system - A system with many interacting components where the interrelationship between those components is, within 'normal' conditions, predictable.  A Boeing 747 would be considered a 'complicated system'.  When a component in a 'complicated' system fails, the whole system stops working (unless fitted with redundant back-up systems).

Complex system - A system with many interacting components where the interrelationship between those components is, even within 'normal' conditions, unpredictable.  An ecosystem would be considered a 'complex' system.  When a component in a 'complex' system fails, the whole system does not stop working, but it continues working in an altered form.  Eventual system failure may occur, but the process is extremely long and . . . . 'complex'.

Problems also fall into the categories of 'complicated' and 'complex' for the same reason.  A more classical English term for a 'complex problem' is a 'wicked problem'.

Human IQ has often been described as a measurement of an individual's ability to manage complexity.  It is useful to consider this alternative; 'Human IQ is a measurement of an individual's intellectual ability to turn a 'complex' problem or system into a 'complicated' problem or system.  What is viewed as a 'complex' or unpredictable system to someone with an average IQ may be a 'complicated' and predictable system to someone with genius level IQ.

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The Rolls Royce Trent 800 turbofan engine - a 'complicated' system.

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The dry grassland ecosystem of Borana Ranch in Kenya - a 'complex' system.

The reductionist science that western civilisation developed in the late-middle ages and early modern era is very powerful in developing technology.  However, it has proven less useful in providing an understanding of complex ecosystems.  The reason is that just studying one variable in an ecological system in isolation, a species of gnat for instance, cannot provide much insight into the ripple effects that such a creature may have in a complex system.  Every biological entity is interdependent with many others, and it's appearance or disappearance has knock-on effects on the remainder of the ecosystem.

To highlight the problem, let's consider a government agricultural test station examining the interrelationship between plant species.  As each season varies, all mixed crops must be planted in the same soils, in close physical proximity, etc in order to produce valid results.  The reality is that one would need to plant multiple strips to ensure some aberration didn't contaminate the results.  To create a low resolution test, the station might plant five plots next to each other;

1.  100% plant A.

2.  75% plant A and 25% plant B.

3.  50% plant A and 50% plant B.

4.  25% plant A and 75% plant B.

5.  100% plant B.

If one wished to complete the test five times to account for anomalies, one would plant 25 strips to test a 2-way plant mix.

Now, let's examine the effect of adding one more plant.  To achieve the identical level of resolution, one needs to plant:

1.  100% plant A.

2.  75% plant A and 25% plant B.

3.  75% plant A. 18.75% plant B and 6.25% plant C.

4.  75% plant A, 12.5% plant B and 12.5% plant C.

5.  75% plant A, 6.25% plant B and 18.75% plant C.

6.  75% plant A and 25% plant C.

7.  50% plant A and 50% plant B.

8.  50% plant A, 37.5% plant B and 12.5% plant C.

9.  50% plant A, 25% plant B and 25% plant C.

10. 50% plant A, 12.5% plant B and 37.5% plant C.

11.  50% plant A and 50% plant C.

12.  25% plant A and 75% plant B.

13.  25% plant A, 56.25% plant B and 18.75% plant C.

14.  25% plant A, 37.5% plant B and 37.5% plant C.

15.  25% plant A, 18.75% plant B and 56.25% plant C.

16.  25% plant A, 75% plant C.

17.  100% plant B.

18.  75% plant B. 18.75% plant A and 6.25% plant C.

19.  75% plant B, 12.5% plant A and 12.5% plant C.

20.  75% plant B, 6.25% plant A and 18.75% plant C.

21.  75% plant B and 25% plant C.

22.  50% plant B, 37.5% plant A and 12.5% plant C.

23.  50% plant B, 25% plant A and 25% plant C.

24. 50% plant B, 12.5% plant A and 37.5% plant C.

25.  50% plant B and 50% plant C

26.  25% plant B, 56.25% plant A and 18.75% plant C.

27.  25% plant B, 37.5% plant A and 37.5% plant C.

28.  25% plant B, 18.75% plant A and 56.25% plant C.

29.  25% plant B, 75% plant C.

30.  100% plant C.

31.  75% plant C. 18.75% plant A and 6.25% plant B.

32.  75% plant C, 12.5% plant A and 12.5% plant B

33.  75% plant C, 6.25% plant A and 18.75% plant B.

34.  50% plant C, 37.5% plant A and 12.5% plant B.

35.  50% plant C, 25% plant A and 25% plant B.

36. 50% plant C, 12.5% plant A and 37.5% plant B.

37.  25% plant C, 56.25% plant A and 18.75% plant B.

38.  25% plant C, 37.5% plant A and 37.5% plant B.

39.  25% plant C, 18.75% plant A and 56.25% plant B.

Then plant 5 times . . . that's 195 plots to conduct a low resolution test of a 3 species mix.  That's a 'complicated' test.

Now try a wild ecosystem with 170 plant species, a few dozen fungi, a few hundred thousand bacteria species, several thousand viruses, 1700 insect species, 30 rodent species, 3 species of lagomorph, 40 species of bird, 5 species of grazing ungulate, 2 species of bear, 4 species of canine and a few others I can't remember.

We're now deeply in the region of 'complex' and reductionist science has given up and gone home.

And that's why western conservation has been based on 'belief' rather than science.  Until 60 years ago, 'overgrazing' was 'known' to be a factor of stocking rates of grazers.  60 years ago, it was discovered that overgrazing was a function of a plant's exposure time to grazing herbivores and the rest period between exposures.  If exposure is limited to few enough days to prevent a 'second bite' during the plant's recovery cycle, and enough rest time is allowed for a plant to reach full physical expression after the 'first bite', overgrazing is prevented.

Andre Voisin discovered that a plant ecosystem given limited exposure time to animals, followed by the ideal rest period before re-exposure, produced between 4 and 5 times the plant biomass production per growing season than an ecosystem exposed to season long grazing.

Despite the Hebrews having postulated a spherical earth a couple of millennia BC, and the Greeks having calculated the circumference of the earth by the 3rd century BC, the 'flat earth' hypothesis persisted in Europe until finally expunged by Christian scientists and scholars in the late middle ages.  In much of the world this belief persists to the present day.

We were just as wrong about the negative effects of herbivores on the environment as we were about the earth being flat, but the belief persists among most in the western world today, despite science having proved, 60 years ago, the notion to be little more than prehistoric superstition.

Modern science is great at isolating and studying individual mechanisms, but very poor at providing guidance on the management of 'complex' systems.  The result is that public parks like Grasslands National Park in Canada, which is missing a considerable number of keystone species, particularly pack hunting predators, has an ecosystem that is suffering from a 'trophic cascade'.  The mob grazing herbivores are not forced to act, move and graze in a defensive and nomadic fashion and the plant/soil ecosystem that depends on the periodic impact of a mob-grazing and nomadic herd, begins to break down and lose biodiversity.

The answer to this problem comes from military planning.  The modern 'Combat Estimate' and battlefield planning cycle has been developed over the last 300 years to aid soldiers in planning a course of action.  It is assumed that the planner is missing critical information, but planning must be done on the best available information.  As a result of this missing information, it is assumed that the plan will be incomplete or have error, so a 'feedback' loop is built into the planning process.

The result is that a military creates a plan and puts it into action.  Then, as the action develops, the commander watches for holes/failures in the plan to appear (assuming the whole time that they will).  When they do, the military leader re-plans based on the new information available and gives orders to put the revised plan into action.  This constant plan, act, observe, re-plan . . . cycle is continued until the battle is won or lost.  The most effective militaries practice 'mission command', where the decision making cycle is passed down to the lowest possible level.  Every soldier is made aware of the 'Commander's intent' or strategic goal and alters their plans on the fly to ensure their lower level tactical action is constantly aimed at and contributing to that higher level goal.

Holistic management takes this military planning cycle and applies it to ecosystem management.  All decisions are taken with human, ecological, financial and social goals set at a strategic level.  Managers are expected to plan, act, observe and re-plan in a constant cycle; continually adjusting their actions to drive toward the strategic goal.

On a private ranch or preserve, the manager is free to replace or mimic natural cycles where they've broken down.  Where pack hunting predators are no longer available, the use of electric fence (it's 'bite' triggers herding animals to act in a natural defensive fashion) can be used to reproduce the effects of wild nomadic herds under predator pressure.

Unfortunately, a 'top down' bureaucracy like a national park service is virtually incapable of effective management of complex ecosystem processes.  Most of their staff are poorly educated in ecosystem processes and many cling to 'beliefs' about conservation that have been debunked by science over a half century ago.  In addition, those who are aware of the causes of biodiversity loss in their parks are prevented from acting by both bureaucratic delay and the ignorance of their colleagues.  The result is that many of the park services' most scientifically enlightened personnel become frustrated with watching their ecosystems fail while being prevented from taking appropriate action.  They move to the private sector in frustration and the public sector becomes increasingly dysfunctional over time.

Which leaves the private sector.  With ecosystem failure having a sharp, personal, financial consequence, the private landowner is motivated to act decisively and monitor the results closely.  

The result is that, in South Africa, private game preserves cover more territory than all of South Africa's public parks.  Seven species of animals have been rescued from the endangered list by the private sector.

In Canada and the US, despite opposition by both governments and special interest groups (yes, both the US and Canadian governments are publicly campaigning on behalf of dietary choices and agricultural practices that damage ecosystem health), dedicated farmers and ranchers are embracing regenerative and conservation agricultural models which provide both human food security and natural wildlife habitat, at the same time.

Complex system management . . . it's dirty and imprecise compared with a university science laboratory, but it's all we have to address the failure of our complex ecosystems.  When 1000 farmers try something different in their plan, and report the results, 10,000 more gain greater 'resolution' to their own plans.  No science lab, national park or agricultural research station has the space, staff or resources to develop conservation methods as quickly as thousands of regenerative and conservation agriculture practitioners working with each other and sharing their results, good and bad, for the great benefit of everyone.

There's a revolution occurring in the North American countryside folks, and part of the growing gulf between urban and rural populations is a result of urban ignorance of how ecologically advanced agriculture has become and how quickly it is changing.  We, both as humans and as conservationists in rural areas, need our urban neighbours to wake up to the prehistoric health, diet and ecological superstitions being pushed by special interest groups, governments and education systems.  

Ignorance is not an excuse for a single extinction, but Canada's current government is pushing policies that will result in millions of acres of wildlife habitat being destroyed out of ignorance.

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