On Certainty, Complexity and the Illusion of Control

Why popular solutions often fail to address big problems like climate change, and what this says about us.

[This post was recently featured on the Medium publication How We Get To Next, about “inspiring stories about the people and places building our future.”]

Like many of my peers, I have spent much of my adult life unconsciously valuing security and certainty in my major life decisions. Believing I could set myself up to have control over what happened to me, and thus be certain of a good life. Today this belief is deeply ingrained in Western society, and difficult to avoid. A lot has changed for me lately and I’ve come to see things a little differently (more on this later). I’ve seen that this control-based approach often doesn’t work very well for me when facing the complexity of the real world.

I believe this same bias toward certainty and control is playing out today in how we tackle some of the biggest, most complex problems facing our society. From global poverty to chronic disease, education to climate change, the trend has often been to seek top-down, “command and control”-based solutions that are supposed to guarantee the results we want if only we engineer them well enough. More often than, strategies based in this mindset fail to meet expectations. We often blame human nature, not accounting for enough variables, or similar, and go back to the drawing board without examining our core assumptions.

It’s time that we let go of this obsession with control, in our own lives and in our approach to global problems. It’s time to acknowledge that no central organization or plan will ever account for all the variables, or provide a guaranteed fix to complex problems. Instead, we can acknowledge the uncertainty of the real world, the imperfection of our planning and engineering. At the central level, we can seek to provide incentives and support for a diversity of local actions that move us in the right direction, and seek to better trust, teach and understand each other so that our collective actions build and evolve towards our goals over time.

By now this probably sounds overly idealistic, woo-woo, pie in the sky, so I’m going to talk a little bit about how this plays out in practice with an issue close to my heart, climate change.

Climate change, the story so far: (A quick refresher)

  • The scientific consensus is that excessive greenhouse gas emissions from humans are changing the Earth’s climate.
  • As the Earth’s climate changes, the likelihood that very bad things will happen increases significantly (scientists predict more and worse natural disasters, massive drought, food supply collapse, rising sea levels and the sixth mass extinction).
  • The more greenhouse gas we emit, the more the climate changes and the higher the risk of these very bad things.
  • So, a lot of activist and legislative activity focuses on putting a hard, enforced and regulated limit (or cap) on greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, to avoid the very bad things.

By controlling emissions at a certain level, the thinking goes, we can have control over the outcomes we see. On the surface, this regulated limit approach is a very attractive concept — we really want to avoid the very bad things. Surely any proposal that would provide certainty here is worth adopting, or at least looking hard at.

But seeking certainty about climate change through control is a trap, and one that many leaders and organizations in this space have been stuck in for many years. Why? A few reasons…

Reason #1: The real world is a lot more complex than our models, and we can’t precisely predict the level of greenhouse gases where the impact moves from “manageable” to “catastrophic”.

IPCC 2013 Report Figure SPM.7(a): “Simulated time series from 1950 to 2100 for global annual mean surface temperature.” The red line is a temperature forecast for a less optimistic emissions scenario, blue is more optimistic. The lighter red and blue area represents the range of uncertainty in temperature given fixed emissions — often called “error bars” in statistics. Image credit: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), largely considered to be the consensus authority on climate science, periodically publishes a set of reports with the latest in climate data and forecasting. The above graph from the 2013 IPCC report shows temperature forecasts for two considered scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions. For both, the range of uncertainty for possible temperature outcomes is nearly 2 degrees Celsius. This may not seem like much, but expert modelers predict that there is an astronomical difference in extreme weather outcomes between an average of +2 versus +3 degrees increase. Just getting to +2 degrees could trigger massive extinctions, coastal flooding, drought and food shortages, etc.

So even if we restricted emissions to the more optimistic scenario above, there would huge risk to our society. Thus, any perceived certainty about the outcomes through controlling emissions levels is really no certainty at all. With the number of variables and possible trigger points involved, no realistic amount of improved modeling and prediction is going to precisely tell us the real danger threshold.

Reason #2: Control is expensive, burdensome, and sets us against each other.

Only the countries in green currently have binding targets for the Kyoto Protocol. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

World leaders have been working on the Kyoto Protocol (which seeks binding emissions targets) since 1992. Almost 25 years later, only a handful of countries are still tracking binding targets (in green on the map above). And why would they? Measuring, enforcing and reporting emissions through traditional means requires a large, expensive regulatory apparatus and pits government against the businesses who support them, suggesting that polluters are the “bad guys” who need to be controlled.

Corporate leaders can only view this as one more obstacle to overcome in their mandate to produce profit for shareholders. The whole thing feels set up to make us opponents, exerting our power over the Other. No wonder research suggests that, here in the United States, the Republican “climate denier” movement is largely driven by the fact that these big government regulatory solutions are anathema to many pro-business conservatives.

So why do many of our leaders and prominent activists continue to advocate for control-based solutions?

In places like Washington state we have even seen liberal, environmentalist, climate change-believing groups actively working against climate strategies that forego control in favor of market-based incentives, like the emission reducing initiative I-732. Why is it so difficult to get these solutions on the table? I believe the answer lies in the roots of our Western culture, a survival strategy that has been reinforced especially in the past hundred years:

We deeply fear uncertainty, and when faced with it we do everything in our power to assert control over our surroundings.

Our whole culture is built on this idea of controlling our lives and our destiny — from the time our ancestors first began to cultivate and store crops to control their food supply, trading a nomadic lifestyle for one that was seemingly less exposed to the uncertainty of shifting seasons and natural disasters. Today, we see the same trend in older generations’ desires for stable jobs and marriages above most other priorities — a hedge against uncertainty.

The control-based structure of most corporations follows from the same principles, established during the Industrial Revolution. This reaches its logical end with the corporate culture of rigid, fixed office hours and dress code, valuing the boss’s perception of control more than the overwhelming evidence that this practice is actively counterproductive.

This really isn’t helping anyone. Image credit: Boycott Workfare // CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Because the thing is, in most cases beyond trivial complexity, this sort of “control” is an illusion that perhaps makes us feel safer but ultimately makes us less resilient to the unpredictable happenings of real life.

This point was made really clearly in my own life last year when a major, unexpected loss suddenly shattered a multi-year life, career and relationship plan that I had, forcing me nearly back to square one. These moments in our lives drive home the fact that no amount of planning or maneuvering can ultimately determine the direction of our lives, and the same is true for our collective decisions and our planet. Catastrophe can strike at any time. For myself, I am focusing a lot more now on flexibility and resilience now rather than moving towards a specific plan in my own life.

We’ve got to stay flexible. Like this tree. Or Confucius. Or something. Image credit: Zsoldos Szabolcs // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

So what should we do going forward?

This flexible, open approach can be used for tackling thorny problems that arise in our own lives as well as complex global issues like climate change. We can acknowledge uncertainty as our understanding of what is possible changes over time. Trust, enabling, and thoughtful incentives for local action will get us much further than trying to control from the top, even though they provide no “guarantee” about the eventual outcome. This is our best hope for a bright future.

This is as true at the macro level as it is in our individual lives. In terms of central climate change policy, it suggests our best approach is to provide economic incentives, support and collaboration to encourage everyone in the direction towards a better, cleaner world. We see this shift away from “command and control” to some extent already, both at the international and local levels.

Internationally, the COP21 Paris Agreements last November (generally considered very successful) came through a similar strategy: give each country autonomy to select their own emissions targets, based on trust and common interest, and flexible to evolving over time as technology and our understanding continue to progress.

Meanwhile, in the United States, many high profile folks are advocating for a price on carbon (and increased investment in clean energy technology). These strategies forego expensive regulated control in favor of simpler, more transparent economic incentives and support to encourage action, innovation, and collaboration.

What do you think? Is this a real connection I’m seeing between the individual and the macro, or am I just projecting from my own life? Would love to continue the discussion in the comments. Thanks for reading!

Online vs Offline Engagement in Protest

I got a chance to be involved in the People’s Climate March here in DC yesterday, the first time I’ve been involved in something like this in quite a while. We did a “die in” outside the American Petroleum Institute, and then marched down to Freedom Plaza, blocking traffic in one direction along the way during rush hour.


In general in life, I spend a fair amount of energy wrestling with being present, particularly in the midst of action or groups of other people. Like many of my peers, my phone and the Internet are the most obvious distractions that tend to keep me from this presence. Particularly with focus in the Burning Man community, embracing the principle of immediacy is often top of mind.

So it’s really interesting to think about grassroots protest and movement-building in the context of our current connected age, particularly when we can’t count on media to get the message out. The way that many people who aren’t there find out about these things seem to be social media (at least in my network and based on my own experience), and it provides a huge channel for amplifying the message, particularly when applied en masse. In some ways, perhaps I am having a larger impact by snapping a photo and posting it than just by carrying a sign. But then, if you’re snapping a picture of a bunch of people on their phones, that seems less than helpful.

Is there a balance to be found here somewhere? Yesterday, I tried to quickly snap and post a couple photos but mostly keep my phone in my pocket throughout the march. And even that made me feel a little cognitive dissonance from my usual mode. I guess I’ll need some more practice at this to figure out where to draw that line? I’m curious about what others have experienced. Share thoughts if you have them!


What I learned from Hiawatha

A thousand-odd words on something I’m thinking and feeling about a lot right now.

I am slowly waking up.

Choppy waters ahead. For all of us. The more I read, the more I think, the more I talk to people I respect and experience different corners of this civilization we have built, the more immediate our destiny seems. Our way of life, our institutions, our collective values over the past hundred and fifty years have put us squarely in opposition to our planet. I think many of us lefties and liberals and hippies and whatnot will readily admit this intellectually, but how many of us really experience the reality of it day to day? Not many, I think. That’s a big problem.

In the 1970’s when we started becoming aware of all this, it still felt a couple of generations away, and thus abstract in a sense, and that wasn’t wrong. But today, it is wrong. There is mounting evidence that major, I mean MAJOR disruption to our civilization in the next 20, 30, 40 years is a huge risk, even a likely scenario. We’re talking global famine, unprecedented draught, large scale economic collapse when the oil runs out, martial law and rioting in the streets. It’s increasingly clear that this isn’t about our “children” in some abstract, n’th generational sense – it’s about our literal children, the one’s we’re having now, the one’s well be having over the next five or ten years. When we are old, there’s a very real possibility that we will watch the American Dream collapse around them as we have to consider how to best prepare them for a society that feels a lot more like “A Boy and his Dog” than it does “Boy Meets World”.


This is becoming increasingly real, increasingly dangerous to me. Like many of my friends, I have a lot of privilege and resources at my disposal. For people like me it’s easy to rely on a backup plan. If things get bad, someone in the family has a farm in the woods somewhere, we have useful skills, we can make do. There are a couple of big problems with this:

  • What about everyone else, asshole?
  • Do I really want to raise a family in a society of scarcity, where they are raised to be mistrustful of strangers, prepared to fight or scavenge constantly and are confined to our backwoods fortress? Ok to be fair some parts of that sound kind of cool but no, obviously in practice that would really suck.

So what’s the good news, here? We understand, at least at a high level, what we need to do to avoid this worst case scenario. Invest heavily in cheaper, more sustainable energy. Reduce our waste and aggressively research technologies that take carbon out of the air and reverse the acidification of the ocean. Massively cut our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce our water usage (or figure out how to cheaply increase the water supply). A lot of these technology investments are already happening, but arguably way too slowly given the models and projections and the changes we see happening around us today (CA draught? WA fires? Record heat, like, everywhere, all the time?).

What really worries me is that our institutions, “the system”, our political process seem to have been set up (intentionally or not) in such a way that they actively discourage this sort of aggressive change. Corporate consumerism keeps us chained to our desks and our possessions, without the space and the presence to take a step back from our daily rhythm and look around us, to really ponder these larger issues and how they might affect us as individuals. Our approach to capitalism falls far too short on accounting for externalities of pollution and long term planetary change, actively dis-incentivizing companies from accounting for these issues in order to remain competitive. And our leaders are beholden to quarterly earnings reports, a stock market that seems increasingly arbitrary, and an election cycle that keeps us looking as far as the next election, the next budget deadline, or the next lobbyist meeting. Worst of all, we identify with so many small-fry issues and groups that amount to “us” vs “them” without the larger, shared view of the real problems facing our entire society. All of this is heavily exacerbated by the current political climate, tactics, and influx of private money at the national and state level.

So what do we do? With the future of our own, present, tangible children at stake I find that I increasingly relate to the position of activists like ‪#‎BLM – due process is moving too slow, the “negative peace” (MLK) of the status quo leaves us all in grave danger. I want to think hard and talk openly about how we can disrupt, overturn, realign the structures and incentives that have kept us locked here for the past 40 years. Certainly Tyler Durden had one solution, but I would like to think we can come up with something a little less sudden, a little less violent. We’ll see.

'You met me at a very strange time in my life.'

At the end of the day, I’m an optimist. I can’t help it. But I feel more and more that I, and many of those of us with privilege, power and resources have an obligation, to future us and everybody else, to think hard and take action on this one – action that goes beyond even our own local impact. If we don’t, I’m not sure that anyone else will.

I haven’t posted anything online about the tattoo I got a few months ago (my first), but it’s related to all of this. It’s called Hiawatha’s Belt. The real Hiawatha (not the moronic caricature fictional character made up by Longfellow) was an Iroquois statesman who, incidentally, I may share a North American ancestor with. He and another fellow saw that their society, the Iroquois tribes, were on a similar crash course with disaster many centuries ago, with constant warring and revenge. So, they used their lives and their influence to go around and forge peace between all of the tribes. After 15 or 20 years of working steadily at this, they achieved peace and founded the Iroquois Confederacy, and their children lived in peace and prosperity for hundreds of years. Without his action, the history of the Iroquois would have almost certainly been filled with a lot more bloodshed, pain and despair.


I truly believe that now is another pivotal time in the history of our civilization, that like in the time of Hiawatha there is a very real need for those with power to step up and take action. And I also truly believe that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

If you want to think and talk and research with me about what all of this might look like, let me know.

SunCatcher website!

Short and sweet. I’ve been working the last few months on updating the business model and website for our family greenhouse design business, SunCatcher. It went live yesterday. I’m pretty happy with that.


Making moves in my life so I’m gonna start using this space again. Stay tuned.

Vipassana – Initial Thoughts

I had a chance over the past week and a half to attend a 10-day course in Vipassana meditation, taught at a center a couple hours south of Seattle. I am going to briefly describe the experience and share a few initial thoughts, although I am withholding a complete judgment (and recommendation to others) until I have a few months to practice the techniques we learned and see how they impact my day-to-day life and interactions with others. So you can expect that in a future post.

I knew nothing about Vipassana until my good friend Lydi here in Seattle introduced me to it a little over a year ago, having done a couple of the courses herself and thinking it would be a beneficial thing for me to learn. Definitely one big goal of taking this time in my life was to increase my introspection and ability to be present, and pick up some new skills along these lines, so this seemed like a natural fit once I could block out the full 10 days without any other commitments. For those like me without any background in this, Vipassana is a specific method of meditation which is a central practice in Theravada Buddhism (thanks Wikipedia) one of the major branches of Buddhism and often considered to be one of the oldest and “purest” to the Buddha’s original teachings. Courses like the one I took are taught at around a hundred similar centers all over the world, based on the idea that the technique (and way of life) and the benefits it provides in daily life are very practical and universal, independent of one’s belief in Buddhist philosophy/spirituality or following of any other religious tradition or belief. You can read more about the core ideas here: http://www.dhamma.org/en/about/code

“The Wheel of Dhamma”

The experience of this 10 days was really, really hard and intense, definitely one of the most physically and mentally challenging things I have done in a very long time. But, my initial reaction is that the practice, life realizations and self improvements from these 10 days were well worth the difficulty and investment (time will tell if that holds up). We were working in complete silence and self-enforced isolation from the other students until the last day, without any other form of outer stimulation or distraction (no music, reading, phones, or even writing) to stay focused on the meditation and introspection. Physically, we were living a relatively ascetic lifestyle – bare living quarters, simple vegetarian meals (lots of rice, oatmeal, salad and stews), hard beds, and rising around 4:30am every day to start meditation, which we did about 10-12 hours per day. Sitting up as much as possible for this long was a big strain on the back and knees, and focusing to increase mental discipline, endurance and awareness left the mind pretty worn out at the end of each day too. Not to mention the isolation and the often unpleasant things surfacing from the sub-conscious and the past, which was ultimately healthy but certainly its own emotional strain.

So, what do I think I got out of this that was so worthwhile? First, the meditation techniques were certainly the most practical and direct means of improving mental control and emotional/reactive balance that I think I have ever come across. Even in the past 48 hours since I got back, I can see myself staying more on task and present with what I am doing or who I am interacting with, calmer (and more internally calm rather than just seeming externally calm..), and less likely to be shaken by regular discomforts and inconveniences of life. And I can see clearly a connection between continued practice of these techniques on my own, and continued sustaining/improving in these areas. As well, with this amount of self observation and reflection I recognized some big areas particularly in some relationships where I was assigning external blame for my frustrations or unhappiness, when really and clearly it was my own attitude and perceptions (colored by past reactions or events) that were the source of the problem. Finally, in the isolation I was able to really step back and take a look at how I have been spending my energy, what I want to accomplish, and where those two things are more or less aligned with each other going forward as I set more concrete plans and tactical goals for the next 6 and 12 months, which still seems a fairly pivotal time in my life. And, had time to mull over some other specific ideas in business, pleasure, art etc and let them have time to really marinate in my mind and have some interesting things come to the surface, that I can act on now (boy, was it frustrating to have those moments of clarity then float around in my brain for 5-6 days with no way to act on them, talk about them or even write them down!! hah).

So, those are my initial thoughts on my experience and takeaways. Of course, there is likely some “peak experience glow” still happening. Time (and feedback from others) will tell if the changes and benefits I perceive now are real and sustainable. So, we will check back on that in a few months, and if they are I will probably be pitching this experience to some of you, too. 🙂


Tunes for this post: Samaris – Samaris [via spotify] Kelsey sent me this album while I was gone and it is excellent. The newer one is good too if a bit more ambient.


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