Saturday, March 28, 2015

Hockey sticks and feedbacks

History is hard. Louis Menand (writing in the current New Yorker) has some thoughts on how hard. This is how he begins: "Once, history was a game played with giant billiard balls: wars, revolutions, scientific inventions, the major awards shows. You knocked a combination of these together and you got our world. Then people realized that wars, revolutions, the Grammys, etc., are not explanations at all. They are themselves things that need to be explained. Something made them possible, too. Was it money? Ideas? Genes? Germs? Great men? Deepwater ports?" He continues. The whole thing is worth reading.

When we look for simple explanations, we easily fall for apparent cycles (the virtuous as well as the vicious).  My favorite is Surjit Bhalla's rendering of the positive feedbacks between economic freedom and prosperity.  In The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations, Ian Morris compiles and presents economic and demographic data that go back several millennia.  He focuses on mankind's ever increasing success at capturing and utilizing energy. He also finds a positive feedback cycle: "Information technology and energy capture have been involved in a feedback loop" (p. 237).

Do these loops interact?  Probably.  We do know that climate scientists work with many connected feedback loops. Our challenge is to explain a very big deal, the very recent hockey stick of human prosperity. Positive feedback loops are handy as we try to explain our good fortune.