No One of Us Can Solve the Whole Problem

October 6, 2010 · 0 comments

by William Hooke, AMS Policy Program Director, from the AMS Project, Living on the Real World

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!”

This Biblical proverb warns against laziness, and exhorts each of us to higher levels of diligence and industry. A good idea! However, there’s more here. The ant also demonstrates the power of effective policy. Before turning to the ant, a brief segue…

Have you ever watched a flock of birds? (Or, equivalently, a school of fish?) Scientists are getting clever about why birds (and fish) exhibit such behavior. The motives are apparently social and include protecting against predators, staying warm in winter, and sorting out dominance. But how do they do it, given that they’re under the control of birdbrains? We don’t know for sure, but here you will find a video of “boids”: what flocking would look like if birds operated on the basis of three rules:

  • matching speed and direction with nearby birds
  • maintaining a minimum separation, to avoid in-flight collisions, and
  • always flying toward the center of the flock

The rules seem pretty simple, don’t they? Reading them, it’s pretty easy to imagine that birds are able to operate, and cooperate, on this basis. And sure enough, the video looks pretty realistic, doesn’t it? In essence, flocking birds seem to have a policy, a framework for making decisions. By the way – and this is important to tuck away for later – this kind of behavior is called “emergent.” If you study a few birds in the laboratory, you would never know about this ability. It’s only when birds are present in large numbers, and free to behave as they want, that this behavior emerges. If you’ve got the time (six minutes), check out this YouTube video: starlings on Otmoor to see flocking in its fullest grandeur:


But back to the ants. Though birdbrains are the subject of ridicule, birds are mental giants compared with insects. And ants exhibit their own emergent behavior, don’t they? Again, study a single ant, or a handful in the lab, and you won’t learn much. But a sizeable number of ants will start working together to build an anthill. This anthill will be nearly perfectly suited to ant purposes. It will be structurally sound. Afford protection against predators. Allow for food intake and waste disposal. Provide HVAC – maintaining temperatures and humidities perfect for all aspects of ant life.

But there’s no single ant you can accuse of having the big picture, is there? The anthill just happens. We don’t know the rules coded into those ant brains so well, but they must be in there, and they must be elementary. Ants are making their decisions within a framework.

What’s all this got to do with us? Well, let’s start with the birds. Here in DC, you see something akin to flocking behavior in each morning’s commute. Hundreds of thousands of workers ride the Metro. And when they disembark at the downtown stations, they stream at high speed, seemingly effortlessly, subconsciously, through the stations and out onto the streets. Strikingly efficient! Lots of motion. Very few collisions. But no one is in charge. And this behavior is also emergent. You see an isolated individual standing on the Metro platform, out in the suburbs? You can watch him or her all you want. There will be little clue as to this potential behavior at the other end.

Now in the Metro commute, unlike the bird world, there are exceptions to the sought-after behavior. It’s especially evident in the summer, when lots of tourists and visitors come into town to see the museums and monuments. They take the Metro too. But they’re not familiar with the traffic flow at each station. So they’ll stand still in what commuters would consider a traffic zone. Or they will puzzle over the ticket dispensers and the turnstiles, blocking others’ access. What to do in these circumstances is not hardwired in our DNA or our genes. Put the denizen of DC in the Tokyo metro or the London underground, and you’ll see similar befuddlement. The morning commute entails a considerable learning element.

Now let’s contrast anthill behavior with human response to climate change. For human beings, coping with climate change is a wicked problem. In part, what makes this wicked is that we think we’re smarter than we really are. The best scientists, the top politicians, the business leaders, even the entertainers, all feel that as individuals they’d know what to do if they were in charge. But they disagree, and not just in small ways. Often they disagree totally and violently.

So we humans see the challenge of climate change as characterized by contradictory certitudes, vexing redistributive impacts, etc. In their problem-solving, ants confront little of this. It’s as if they “know” they’re not that bright. There’s little sign of argument about what to do. If a predator threatens one entrance to the anthill, the nearest ants address it. No discussions about who should make the sacrifice. No evident NIMBY debates about where and how to develop the anthill and make additions and improvements. And again, there’s very little command-and-control evident in the anthill. Solutions tend to be grassroots, bottom-up, versus command-and-control, top-down. For ants, the public good seems to be paramount.

So, if you’re reading this, and interested in effectively coping with climate change, you might start by taking to heart this notion: no one person is sufficiently bright to comprehend the full challenge. Armed with that humility, and your sense of the need for collaborators in both thought and action, you are ready for the next step. You might devote some thought, every day, or every week or month, on just what small adjustments to human rules might lead to emergent differences in our response to climate change and other major challenges. For example: acknowledging that extremes are nature’s way of doing business, rather than unforeseeable suspensions of the natural order; reducing adverse impacts; learning from experience; keeping score; partnering up, etc.

Some other examples, to stimulate your thinking (think of these as the grain of sand that prompts the oyster to develop a pearl): realism versus dogma, resilience with respect to extremes versus resistance to extremes; cooperation versus competition. You get the idea.

And don’t keep your thoughts to yourself! Share them with your fellow ants.