Embracing complexity implies widening one's field of vision and learning to understand and consider the interconnections between phenomena, even those that seem too distant to matter. It also means accepting the uncertainty that necessarily comes with knowledge and the limitation existing in all natural things, including humanity. In the age of technological arrogance, we need more than ever to develop a connective thinking process that can redesign the pieces of a picture that is now too fragmented and confused, guide us back to a systemic vision and reevaluate the role that we have assigned to ourselves on the Planet. Facing complexity is the fundamental tool we need to deal with the global crisis we are experiencing: not only the current pandemic, but above all the environmental crisis. And it is a tool that only education can provide.
We talked about it with Federico M. Butera, professor emeritus of the Polytechnic of Milan and an expert in renewable energy and sustainable architecture, who has recently published the book “Affrontare la complessità”, Facing complexity, with Edizioni Ambiente.
We live in the era of simplification and polarization. Why is it important to return to the concept of complexity instead, especially when talking about ecology?
Because the systems in which we live are complex. The social one, the biological one and the environmental one. Actually, when I talk about complexity, I refer implicitly to what we call the science of complexity, which has developed particularly in the last thirty years. The basic idea is that it’s not possible to address any of the problems that concern us without taking into account the systemic aspect. Let's take the human body as an example. Have you ever read a package leaflet? Even for the most common drug, such as aspirin, there are at least fifty possible side effects, i.e. possible consequences on different biological processes. This is because the human organism is a complex system and introducing the molecule of acetylsalicylic acid (the active substance of aspirin) into it has consequences on the whole organism. This is complexity.
We have to make an effort to understand that it’s not possible to intervene on a single problem and think that it ends there, without effects on anything else. We must change our mentality and understand that uncertainty comes precisely from complexity: it’s not lack of capability, it’s knowledge. Knowledge implies uncertainty, but it also implies the possibility to control it in some way.
Are we perhaps no longer used to accepting uncertainty?
Yes, that is also a good point. Do we have a health concern? We take the right medication and fix it. The car has a problem? The mechanic will take care of it. Our cellphone no longer works? We’ll just buy a new one. Technology has deluded us we’re able to solve any problem with the appropriate solution. Which is absolutely not true. For example, each component of a cellphone is imported from a different place in the world; with the border blockade caused by the pandemic, the system we took for granted went into crisis and suddenly the parts to make up this everyday object have become difficult to find. In reality there is a complex system behind it, which we have become aware of only now that the crisis has made it evident
Do you think environmental discourse has also lost sight of complexity, flattening out too much on the climate issue?
Yes, I would say so. It's understandable, since the climate issue is the one that appears most obvious and evident and is therefore the one gathering most of our attention. More than anything else, it's the media that I try to analyze in my book, since in reality the scientific community is focused in the same way on other aspects of the environmental crisis as well.
Undoubtedly the climate crisis is an important aspect, but we’d better be careful not to believe that by solving this problem we’ll have solved everything. There’s a tendency to simplify when it comes to this as well: we need to eliminate CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, so let's replace fossil fuels with solar and wind energy and we'll be fine. That won’t be the case at all! That's only part of the problem. It certainly needs to be done, but it's not enough. An article published by Nature some time ago showed how, even if we magically succeeded to zero CO2 emissions by 2050, while continuing to use the same methods we use today in agriculture, we would still exceed the increase of 1.5 degrees of average temperature. And that’s because there is much more than energy consumption and production to consider.
Your book outlines a dense network of interconnections. What are the main junctions and phenomena that we should all keep in mind?
The main elements are certainly climate change, which has very strong repercussions at all levels, and the loss of biodiversity, which takes us into the abyss of the sixth extinction which could involve us as well (especially the populations of the poorest countries that have less means to cope with the crisis). Another fundamental element, which is the main cause of biodiversity loss and one of the causes of climate change, is the way we produce food, namely the agricultural sector.
That means that, first of all, we must commit to reducing CO2 emissions with all the tools at our disposal, especially by applying the principles of a true circular economy, which goes beyond simple recycling, to the point of not producing any more waste. This indicates applying a series of solutions that aim to extend the service life of products, through repair, remanufacturing, reuse. We need to buy as little as possible, pushing consumerism out of our lives is a top priority.
Second point: it’s imperative that we learn how to eat differently and therefore to produce food differently. There are interesting signs in this regard, such as the increasing attention paid to food sources, to locally sourced, to organic food. Agriculture must change. It’s not true that by giving up monocultures and intensive breeding we risk to starve billions of people, studies actually state the opposite. For example, if we drastically reduce intensive breeding we could free up 30% of agricultural land, which then could be used for organic farming and regenerative agriculture, leading to the ability to produce enough food for everyone.
Connect and interconnect are among the most used, even abused, verbs today. Why then, when it comes to environmental discourse, is it so difficult to explain the network of interconnections between the various phenomena?
Because you need the knowledge of it. Behind the ability to see and understand the interconnections, you find knowledge on the subjects we’ve been talking about. In order to relate technological production to the economic model and to the social fallout, one must at least have read a book on technology, one on economics and one on sociology, or at least have studied something on all these three subjects. But if you only have a mono-disciplinary knowledge – which is the basis of our educational system – then it’s difficult to see the connections. It's as if these other “worlds” don't exist: how can you come to wonder if there is gravity on the Moon, when you don't even know that the Moon exists?
This is therefore another central theme: there is an urgent need for a change in the educational system that would render it more open to connections. The unheeded appeal contained in the White Paper on Teaching and Learning published by the European Commission in 1996, and edited by the then Commissioner for Training and Development, Édith Cresson, becomes topical again: "We must stop – we read in the document – expecting an educational system whose objective is the creation of workers ready to be introduced into the productive system. We must shape people first. Then these people will also become workers.”
So is that why, in writing “Facing Complexity”, you are primarily addressing educators?
Yes, because they are at the root of everything. This crisis cannot be solved by the NRP or the Next Generation EU. Of course those are steps forward, but what we need more than anything else is knowledge and awareness from those who will have to carry out the solutions. It certainly won't be me, it will be up to my grandchildren, they will be the ones living between 2050 and 2100: they are the target. Another issue is that today’s decision makers are all in their 50s or 60s, an age at which it’s difficult to transform their vision of life…
Which categories of people today are able to handle the concept of complexity and which ones should learn a little more about it?
This is hard to say. I can however point out those unable to do so: politicians. This inability to see complexity on the part of policy makers is even codified: it's called short termism. It means that policy makers make decisions with a term up to two years at most as the payback time of the choice made. This model is however consistent with the financial and industrial model: today, an entrepreneur is unlikely to make an investment with a return of more than three years. Perhaps some visionary entrepreneur, an Olivettian model follower, might be able to plan for the long term, but I have little hope for the political class. I believe that the impetus at this time must come from below, as is already happening.
One last thing. In your book you talk about a fundamental misunderstanding of which the so-called world of sustainability is a victim: the presumption that the needs of economic and social development are on the same level as those of the environment. How do we get out of this dangerous hubris cycle?
The misunderstanding lies in our conviction that we must find a compromise between nature and humanity, as if nature were an independent variable on a par with the others. I refer to the classic graph of the three spheres, where “sustainability” is represented by the overlapping of the social, economic and environmental spheres. These variables are not on the same plane! Instead, the correct representation consists of three concentric spheres: the environmental sphere contains the social sphere, which contains the economic sphere. We cannot “play” with the environment as if we were outside of it: we are part of it. It makes no sense to say that “we must find a compromise”: the environment cannot compromise, humanity is the one that must adapt to its rules. Before the industrial revolution, this kind of balance existed and worked. No one would have dreamed of razing the forest next to the village to the ground, because otherwise they would all have frozen to death and they would not have been able to build any more houses in the future. That's the point: they were aware of it and acted accordingly. There was a recognized need for LIMITATION, and that's another key word.
What made us lose awareness of the limitations?
Hubris, technology, power. We have discovered that it’s not true that the strongest thing in the world with the ability to pull a log is an elephant: the caterpillar with tracks is much stronger. It’s no longer true that the horse is the fastest way to get around: we invented the train and then the automobile. Basically, we were under the illusion that thanks to technological ability and genius we could afford anything. And that belief still exists. Most people who refuse to change their lifestyles or accept the need for a change in the economic system do so not out of malice but because they are fully convinced that man is God and can do whatever he wants. We must stop believing that we have no limits. The limit is there and all we can do is recognize it and adapt.