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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Summits, models and machines
"The truth is none of us have a clue what the key threat to humanity really is."

Some of the biggest problems facing humanity - and there are quite a few - are crying out for solutions based on computer modelling. Peter Cochrane explains...

This past summer it was difficult to miss the gathering of world leaders at the Johannesburg summit. I remember watching a TV debate of 20 or so well-educated delegates drawn from different countries and creeds. There was also a studio audience making comment and contribution. Everyone seemed intelligent, thoughtful and sincere.

The TV presenter introduced guests and audience members, and posed the serious question of the evening: "What are the two key problems facing humanity?"

The first person asked - clean water and AIDS, the second - energy and poverty, the third - refugees and climatic change, the fourth - pollution and rain forest destruction. And so it went on - terrorism, arms control and more. At no time was there any direct agreement.

The programme moved on swiftly. But there was never any focus, only heated views. "It is all the fault of the multinationals." "Nuclear power and GM crops must be banned." "Alternative medicine is best." "The planet can look after itself."

You name the extremist group and they seemed to be there. The entire programme ultimately came to an indeterminate and useless end. It seemed to be a microcosm of the summit.

What chance thousands of delegates, from hundreds of countries, finding any correlation of opinion? None. What are they doing sitting there with their piles of paper, each fighting their corner for their individual interests and beliefs? Where are the machines? Where are the models? And where is a process that would allow them to see what is actually key?

The truth is none of us have a clue what the key threat to humanity really is. Our limitations of thought and imagination in an n-dimensional space means we are fundamentally incapable of identifying and solving such problems until it is too late. Without the assistance of computer models that relate data and decisions to actual outcomes we are going to be lost in a sea of meaningless and very heated debate. Acting on perceived threats almost always means we get it badly wrong.

Our species is inherently attuned to simple tasks involving three or four variables. The crisis facing this planet involves hundreds of variables and we cannot be sure which are key or how they are all interrelated. Planet Earth is a closed, not an open system. Moreover, we inherently think simple, linear and short term, while our world is inherently complex, chaotic, non-linear and long term.

Consider the impact of an AIDS programme that prevents millions dying each year in Africa. Such a cure without effective birth control would immediately give rise to food and water shortages and starvation would follow. This is a cruel example of a simple interrelationship of a limited number of factors. Add to this the increased demand for fuel, housing and medicine, plus the spread of disease, and we have another human disaster in the making. It is insufficient to solve singular problems. The whole system has to be addressed.

Unless we devote significant resources to creating models of the world in which we live and the political and financial systems we employ to organise and regulate our excesses, there is no chance any world summit will have a positive impact on our trajectory. Only by some fortuitous stroke of luck could we select the right variables to affect and change the course on which we are set. Mother Nature on the other hand will do it for us without a thought - but we will most likely pay a terrible price.

Personally I would prefer to make the effort to understand our overall situation and take action before we incur penalties from excess energy consumption, pollution and a disregard for those dying from disease and starvation. Many problems can be solved at modest expense. Others may cost us dearly today but if not fixed the cost will be immeasurable further down the line.

In a technological world it is hard to imagine how our leaders and representatives could imagine that they have the necessary wisdom to sort out the world's problems without the aid of adequate models and machines. To me, this is epitomised by the polarisation and simplicity of thinking by those who say that the cause of the world's problems is a single factor such as past colonial regimes or multinationals. Conversely, I balk at the hawks who say we should burn the hydrocarbons and the planet will take care of itself. A visit to those parts of the world that are rapidly industrialising is sufficient for any right-minded person to be worried about the pollution now being created.

Some problems are simple and have simple solutions. The problems facing humanity are not. And we have no idea how complex the solutions are.

This column was typed on my iBook flying London to San Francisco on Virgin VS019, edited on Alaska AS2138 flying San Jose to Portland and despatched to silicon.com from BA348 flying Seattle to London on a very thin satellite connection.