Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 4, 2010

What does this age demand?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on May 4, 2010

“We’re breaking new ground here. It’s hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was,” [Admiral Thad] Allen said….

Volcanoes, floods, tornadoes, water infrastructure failure, pipe bombs in microwave ovens, propane tanks and fireworks cobbled together in an improvised SUV device, and the slow-moving dirty bomb that is the British Petroleum spill.

Yes, we are breaking new ground here.  The sheer number of incidents that can be linked to homeland security (I learned today that the weather in space may be a FEMA responsibility) combined with means of communicating fact and rumor at almost quantum speed has turned “the march toward complexity” into a sprint.

David Segal’s April 30, 2010 essay on Making Sense of Complexity notes “Complexity used to signify progress…. Now complexity lurks behind the most expensive and intractable issues of our age. It’s the pet that grew fangs and started eating the furniture.”

The essay  makes a distinction between something that is complicated and something complex.

One can figure out the complicated because it tends to adhere to knowable cause and effect relationships.  That’s not as easy to do with complex issues, where cause-and-effect is often known only after the fact, and generally is unrepeatable. Whatever the cause of the British Petroleum spill, it is not likely to be repeated — at least not in the same way.

Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book “The Age of the Unthinkable,” is precisely about the kinds of inevitable surprises our exponentially interconnected world has in store for us.

Segal concludes his essay with the somewhat dispiriting conclusion that “complexity has a way of defeating good intentions. As we clean up these messes, there is no point in hoping for a new age of simplicity. The best we can do is hope the solutions are just complicated enough to work.”

Ramo is as realistic as Segal in his analysis of the problem, but more optimistic about what to do. He argues we need to be as complex as the world we live in.

“In a world that is changing fast, we need a grand strategy that’s capable of the sort of rapid change the world itself produces, because much of what we have to confront will be the things that have never occurred to us before.”

Another book — Kegan and Leahy’s “Immunity to Change” — describes in some detail the mental capacity leaders need to meet that confrontation. It essentially involves a switch away from learning how to lead, toward leading in a way that allows one to learn how to engage with these “things that have never occurred to us before.”

But back to Ramo.

In a very readable, almost New Yorker like book, he describes the causes and consequences of living in this new “age of the unthinkable.” He introduces the idea of deep security.

“Such a world demands a whole new way of composing a grand strategic view. I call this new approach “deep security” because it is about mastering the forces at work deep inside our sandpile world. [You will have to read the book to understand the appropriateness of Per Bak’s sandpile metaphor. ] Deep security doesn’t answer all of our questions about the future. Indeed, it’s predicated on the idea that we don’t have all the answers and, in fact, can’t even anticipate many of the questions. What it is instead is a way of seeing, thinking, and of acting that accepts growing complexity and ceaseless newness as givens — and, used properly, our best allies.  Deep security creates a context in which all of the change we now need and are planning for can make sense, can be as adaptive and flexible as the world we inhabit. Instead of starting with a view of how we want the world to be and then jamming that view into place, we start more reasonably with a picture of how the world is.”

This weekend the picture of how the world is — at least from a homeland security perspective — seemed unusually messed up.  Tonight, the oil slick continues its slow moving invasion toward our southern coast, millions of Boston area residents have to learn how to make do without safe water, Mississippi and Tennessee residents start recovering from yet another weather assault, and New York City knows it will be attacked again.

Ramo — like Segal– believes a growing number of people are “aware that something dramatic is happening to the world around us. The people and institutions we might once have relied on to rescue us can’t.”

Who can we rely on?

Ramo answers with a question: “This age, what does it demand of me?”

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Comment by William R. Cumming

May 4, 2010 @ 4:02 am

Cause and Consequences! Perhaps the real driver of the modern world and insanity. I always found it interesting how interrelated computations, integration of various factors, permutations and combinations in the math world seemed to reflect a new reality each time for me and perhaps those like Newton that fashioned our ability to deal with that kind of complexity.
Okay so where does that leave US? It seems that after the fact, the shuttle disasters for example, a rather simple explanation sometimes results. Someone has suggested the factor of corrison from sea water may not have been properly explored in sea bottom drilling? What is foreseeable is very little. Possibilities can be examined if we are to use reason as opposed to faith to explain our world. But hey the apocolyptic types must really be looking at the Mayan Calendar now. By the way what did happen to all those guys wearing boards stating “The END IS NEAR”?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 4, 2010 @ 6:05 am

Randomness and complexity have been with us, I’m pretty sure, since at least the Big Bang (before?). Extreme weather, geologic convulsions, and humans hating each other are persistently emergent phenomena. There are, though, more of us (humans, that is) around and we tend to be more densely gathered than was once the case. Further, many of us are more dependent on various interconnected (and vulnerable) infrastructures than the historical norm. As a result, today the unfolding of complexity can have more serious consequences than in the past. (Though the survivors of Pompeii, Antioch, Lisbon, Lima, Krakatoa, Shanxxi, and other disasters might accuse us of a narcissism of small differences.) Given these realities, this is an age that demands much more awareness, anticipation, agility, and – whenever possible – amity than prior ages.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

May 4, 2010 @ 7:32 am

Is this our Faustian tipping point? To Mr. Palin’s point; with randomness and complexity a constant inconsistency, no one should wonder as to how or why, but when. Somehow, we’ve all been convinced to varying degree, that our intellect and our desire is all we require to overcome the physics of the universe. It’s not physics or science that requires adaptation, it is our expectations. These phenomena and activities are derivatives of the human spirit and experiences of it as well. The continuing concentration and growth of humanity into smaller spaces and perhaps competing for resources will only expedite “the next time”.

Invariably and to my own drum I pound out “BEHAVIOR” as it is the only thing we individually own and can modify. From that our expectations, response, and readiness not simply for impending trauma, but life itself can be seen through a simpler lens. This kaleidoscope of programs, directives, initiatives, and governmental positioning simply muddies the water. Once again, the TV cameras capture the gulf coast affected pleading in disbelief; “Where is the Federal Government?”

We want all things, all the time, with maximum return and minimum of effort. I don’t like the word hope, but in this case it’s my only choice; I hope the aforementioned desire is not the new American Dream. As we progress we will find that things will continue to move from order to disorder. The rules of entropy apply and our adaptation and recognition will be more important than our response, in my humble opinion.

Perhaps Morpheus has it correct; “…take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe”, or to take the red pill, where “you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”…

To Chris’ point; In order to determine what this age demands, we may need a lot more rabbit holes and a lot less bliss.

Thank you gentlemen.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 4, 2010 @ 9:25 am

Chris, you beat me to the punch. I loved Segal’s distinction between complicated and complex, and was considering using it as a jumping off for my own Wednesday post (no worries, many other things to consider). His commentary really resonated for me in light of the Deepwater Horizon disaster because this incident arises from something we view as complex (overcoming dependence on foreign oil), but has become something terribly complicated but not altogether complex (staunching the flow of oil from the damaged wellhead).

Turning to Segal’s main point, it remains to be seen whether American’s, much less the administration and those responsible for the clean up, have become convinced that such technological responses to complexity no longer represent progress in the face of the adaptive changes confronting the nation and indeed the world when it comes to future energy demands. If The Governator’s decision yesterday to abandon plans to reopen California’s coasts to off-shore drilling is any indication, that realization may indeed be dawning over the Deepwater Horizon as we contemplate the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 4, 2010 @ 12:19 pm

Well was the axe complicated or complex for Easter Island residents?

I believe close reading of what I consider to be one book–Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “why Civilizations Collapse” will instruct many as to current events. I see many who are like Diamond’s last person to cut down a tree–specifically the last tree–on Easter Island. I can tell you other readers of this blog that large corporate and bureacratic entities tend to resemble that last tree cutter on Easter Island. No dissents, no second opinions, your are lucky to be employed syndrome–or better the bet the business decisions are made only after insuring wonderful golden parachutes if they fail.

The Coasties have been undermanned and underfunded for two decades and each of their Commandants were those who did not question the system ever. Now it will be easy to document that the NCP did not have reporting or operational capability anywhere near that needed for the oil spill event. Complicated and complex efforts rarely succeed in the corporate world or buracracies for one specific reason–they are a direct challenge to past decision making no matter how skilled or competent that decision making was in fact.

Hey did you know that over 1 Million Italians are directly threatened by Mt. Vesuvius? Hello anyone home?

Comment by Craig Trader

May 4, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

What all of this points out is that trying to predict and prevent incidents (be they accidental, environmental, or malevolent) doesn’t work. What does work is to be prepared to respond to events. Instead of trying to guard against Movie Plot Threats, we need to be spending our efforts on handling the results.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to catch the criminals that perpetrate these sorts of incidents (car bombs, airline hijackings, etc) — we should. I AM saying that we’d be better off spending less on the TSA and Air Marshals and more on the FBI and CIA. Trying to prevent the next shoe bomber will just result in an underwear bomber; who knows what trying to prevent the next underwear bomber will cause?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 4, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

Complex phenomena, by definition, cannot be precisely predicted. But they can be observed, better understood, and in some cases effectively engaged.

Complexity has been characterized as “organized” and “disorganized.” The distinction is not always readily apparent. But upon close observation we can sometimes find attractors, reiterations, boundaries and other aspects of complex behavior which — while beyond prediction and confirmation — we might say can be anticipated.

More simply and directly, we can anticipate that densely concentrated human populations, dependent on multiple long-distance supply chains, residing on top of a major earthquake fault or in hurricane alley or so on… will eventually experience great harm. We cannot predict the precise time or place, but we can have great confidence in the outcome

Faced with this complex reality, we too often take either the red pill or the blue pill (See Dan O’Connor’s comment above). In either case we avoid facing reality head-on. Being face-to-face does not mean we can bend reality to our will, but we might be better able to adapt our behavior to the rigors of reality.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 4, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

Is it currently 25 cities soon to be 25M or more in population world wide? Has the scale up of preparedness been equivalent?

10 cities in US with 1 M or more in immediate area and 175 in China!

Comment by Dan O'Connor

May 4, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

Perhaps its simply a matter of recognition in lieu of understanding. The premise being that awareness shifts your perspective from observer to participant by recognizing the complexity. Perhaps this is panarchy and our inability to yield to nature’s rules disables us from our desired clarity…

Inevitably, there has to be some cross over or synthesis of these recognitions in order to adapt to the “organism” of urbanism and resource allocation.

Without a collaboration of Mr. Palin’s and Mr.Cumming’s contrasts, we will always be observers and not participants, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to affect change.

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