Monday, September 16, 2013

Feedback Loops: Cynicism and Hope

Colorado is experiencing 1000 year flooding. The damage and destruction is unbelievable. My dad keeps saying that word, "Un---believable," or, "Un---freaking---believable!" It reminds me of the movie, The Princess Bride, the character Vizzini keeps saying, "Inconceivable!" until finally Inigo Montoya says, "You keep saying this word, I do not think it means what you think it means." Only in this case, with my dad, he knows what it means and it's the best word to describe these disasters.

I know one storm cannot be definitively linked to climate change and it will take months of research to determine if climate change caused this storm to be more likely to occur. I can't help but speculate that it is likely to have catalyzed  this, and all the other monster natural disasters that have occurred recently around the world. Storms of these calibers did not occur so frequently in history.

When things like this disaster happen we look at the world's problems and have good intentions, we wish the problems will go away but when we see they stubbornly remain we react as if they are happening in a movie. People continue to starve, communities fall apart, violence thrives, families fade, nature disappears, and those unaffected continue in their daily lives.

At this point there are two options: hope and cynicism.

Diagrams adapted from A Better World Handbook by Ellis Jones, Ross Haenfler and Brett Johnson

The cycle of cynicism can be broken and replaced with a cycle of hope. When we find out about a problem that disturbs us, and when we decide we want to help, instead of giving up when we see no options, we should search for more information. We take actions that are in line with our own values, the vision of a better world can become a reality. If we stop blaming others for not doing anything and start taking personal responsibility for being good people. Finally, it's important to recognize that we can't do everything, otherwise we may fall back into a cycle of cynicism.

In ecology we talk about feedback loops. A positive feedback loop continues to build on itself. For example, climate change is a positive feedback loop: As temperatures warms, there is less snow and ice, this leads to more sunlight being absorbed by the land and the sea, which leads in turn to further warming. A negative feedback loop is a system that is kept in equilibrium such as the relationship between predator and prey populations: As the predators population increases they catch more and more prey causing the prey population to decline. With fewer prey to catch, predators begin to die off leaving a greater opportunity for the prey to regenerate their population. Now there are again more prey so the predator population increases again, forever and ever.

Both the cycles of hope and cynicism are positive feedback loops; one leads to apathy and the other leads to a better world. Which loop will you pick?