Chaos theory against growth

In: Uncategorized

20 Oct 2008

I have unwittingly gone straight from one anti-growth BBC television documentary to another. “High Anxieties: The Mathematics of Chaos”, a one-off documentary by David Malone, achieves this effect by muddying the difference between the natural world and the social world. It starts by outlining how the Newtonian worldview was a relatively simply linear one which allowed for human beings to increase their control over nature. But the development of what later became known as chaos theory from Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), a French mathematician, onwards showed the world was both more complex than previously assumed and non-linear. This set up a phoney debate between environmentalists who recognised the need for caution and limits and economists who believed in growth. It ended with James Lovelock, a veteran environmentalist, arguing that with climate change we could, metaphorically speaking, be at the edge of a cliff and unable to return to normality.

Chaos theory may well be a good way to understand non-linear natural systems such as climate. But the social world is fundamentally different from the natural one. Society is composed of human beings with the potential to act consciously to mould the world around them.