Provocations #5 – Compounding Problems

Provocations #5 calls attention to the situation in which multiple issues or complications begin to add up and compound one another.  This is the third of what I have called the ‘trinity of the unwise.’

About the Image:  “Haida Spawning Salmon” by Haida artist Clarence Mills.  In First Nations tradition the Salmon is, not surprisingly, a symbol of instinct, persistence, and determination.  Image found on Pintrist, prints available here.

When you have more than one problem affecting something, they begin to interact in unexpected ways and can often amplify the severity of the situation, leading to bigger and more complex problems than might otherwise be anticipated. It pretty much boils down to the old adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.”  On the surface it’s a simple concept, but the devil’s in the details.


What we are really talking about here is a process called feedback.  For the technically inclined, insights into feedback processes come from systems and complexity theories.  Of concern here is a phenomenon known as positive feedback.  With positive feedback, when system starts to run out of control, processes internal to the system interact causing the system to go further astray.  In every day experience, think about a microphone that picks up a noise emitted by a speaker system it is connected to, which amplifies and rebroadcasts the sound, which the microphone then picks up again, and so on, until everyone in the room is covering their ears from all of the squealing and screeching.  Another example that is harder to experience directly, but is real none-the-less, comes from climate change: human activities emit greenhouse gasses which cause the atmosphere to warm, which in turn melts the permafrost in the Arctic, which releases more greenhouse gasses, further warming the atmosphere.

For the curious wondering about negative feedback, a familiar example of this is the thermostat in your home: you set the temperature, and when the air becomes too cool the heat comes on, stopping at some set point until the house cools to some lower set point, and the then heat goes on again.  Negative feedback loops are ubiquitous in engineering.  Another? The cruise control system in your car.  I recognize that the terminology can be somewhat confusing in that often times, negative feedback processes can be beneficial, whereas positive feedbacks are not.

Getting back to the environmental problems created by positive feedbacks, the list of examples is literally endless: the Fukushima disaster; the Deepwater Horizon disaster; invasive species; industrial agriculture; inequalities in income. To name just a handful (recall Provocations #4, A Question of Scale).  Let’s take a deeper look at one other example…


In a scientific paper published in March 2011 in the prestigious journal Nature, Anthony D. Barnosky and a number of his colleagues asked, “Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived?1  Towards the end of this important paper, they write

“Hypotheses to explain the general phenomenon of mass extinctions have emphasized synergies between unusual events [my emphasis]. Common features of the [previous “Big Five” extinction events] suggest that key synergies may involve unusual climate dynamics, atmospheric composition and abnormally high-intensity ecological stressors that negatively affect many different lineages.”

Sound familiar?  In this more formal scientific context, compounding problems become “synergies between unusual events.”

So pick your favorite animal, Salmon, Polar Bears, Whales, Sea Turtles… yes I know that I have a bias towards sea animals.  And yes, I know that it is not grammatically correct to capitalize the names of animals (they are not proper nouns).  I chose intentionally to dignify their existence in this way.  I digress. The story is the same for all of them.  Many species are under direct threat due to over-harvesting or exploitation by humans.  They are also under duress due to habitat loss caused by humans. Furthermore, many experience disrupted patterns in reproduction, feeding, hibernation and migration caused by climate change, specifically human-induced global warming.  Humans compete with natural ecosystems for resources (e.g. draining wetlands). Lastly, many animals health is compromised by toxic pollutants dumped by humans into their habitat; pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, plastics, and so on.

Any one of these (over-harvesting; habitat loss; global warming; direct competition; toxic ecosystems) is enough to put an entire species at risk.  But taken together, it is a hammer blow.  The very conditions that science tells us leads to mass extinctions.  And many new threats are emerging, genetically modified organisms and intentional monocultures to name two.  I am sure there are others.

State Shifts

In a subsequent study called “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere.”2 published in Nature, June 2012, Anthony D. Barnosky and colleagues note the plausibility of “planetary-scale tipping points”, which lead to surprises.  These surprises are sudden shifts in the state of our planet’s biosphere (“the worldwide sum of all ecosystems”). This may be one of the most important scientific papers of the current era.  Humans are a part of the biosphere too, so the fate of the biosphere is our fate too.  We have litterally and figuratively baked uncertainty into our future.

Final Thoughts

So Provocations #5 – Compounding Problems, concludes the trinity of the unwise… for now.  The systems thinking needed to understand these compounding problems, these “synergies between unusual events”, is fascinating science.  But it also means that humanity is in trouble unless we wake up.

Seemingly, all scientific papers call for more study, more understanding (Barnosky et. al. are no exception; nor are many papers I have written).  It is the nature of such things.  But the truth of the matter is that we know all we need to know to act.  Stop polluting. Stop consuming.  Preserve nature.  Farm sustainably.  Ensure that the basic needs of all are met. These messages are not new, we simply need to act on them.

I’d love to hear from others in the comments section about their favorite examples of compounding problems, or of human and scientific insights to help understand them.

Today’s Quote – to inspire action, which can be daunting in light of what we face:

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

− Confucius. (Confucius: The Analects)

References Cited:

1Barnosky, A. D. et al. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471,  51–57 (2011).  doi:10.1038/nature09678

2Barnosky, A. D. et al. Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature 486,  52–58 (2012).  doi:10.1038/nature11018

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