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Special Collection: The Illusion of Control

Guest Editors:

Jan Vasbinder, Para Limes, Netherlands
Sander van der Leeuw, Arizona State University, USA
Victor Galaz, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University; Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The conference that gave rise to this special collection of Global Perspectives was organized by the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics, the Stockholm Resilience Center, the Arizona State University, Princeton University and Para Limes.

Of these organizations, Para Limes is the least known, so allow me to shortly describe what it stands for. Para Limes is formally located in the Netherlands, but it is really an organization without boundaries. In fact, Para Limes means “Beyond boundaries”, implying that its activities are not limited by national, institutional, academic or political boundaries, but by imagination only.

Para Limes was established in 2005 as Institute Para Limes (IPL).

IPL set out to be the European version of the Santa Fe Institute with its own building and research. The 2009 financial crisis brought that ambition to an abrupt end. However, in 2011 its activities were continued in Singapore at the invitation of prof. Bertil Andersson, one of its founding fathers and in 2011 president of Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Initially IPL focused on developing the first institute in SE Asia dedicated to research of complex systems. After the launch of the NTU Complexity Institute in 2014, IPL refocused its activities on organizing high level conferences, workshops and projects, getting together world class scientists, philosophers, artists and people of practice, to identify essential questions in society and explore ways to address them. In 2019 Para Limes resumed those activities in Europe.

The 28 founding fathers, five of whom were Nobel Laureates, wrote in their founding manifesto:

“Burning questions calling for new strategies of investigation include the birth, life and death of natural systems. To develop the tools to understand the evolution and functioning of our biological, socio-cultural and economic systems requires the insights and talents of many disciplines. These should be brought together in new and creative ways to discuss with rigor and openness the mutually reinforcing contributions that they can collectively make, in a manner where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

  • We need to ask the unconventional questions.
  • We need to stimulate encounters across disciplinary boundaries
  • We need to challenge the established ways of thinking
  • We need to open unexplored, yet promising, avenues for research"

IPL developed in a different way than its founding fathers intended, but it never lost its focus on the need to ask unconventional questions and look for new approaches. That need is now more burning than ever, and Para Limes is ready to meet it.

Our focus is on our future. We cannot be certain about that future, nor do we know all the drivers that shape it. Drivers like demographic dynamics, urbanization, climate, inequality, resource depletion or technological developments. Neither do we understand the complexity of the interactions between such drivers. But we can explore what lies ahead of us, to find what we need to know.

And that is what Para Limes is about. Para Limes explores dynamics that are already relevant for society but are not yet recognized as such. And it explores the domain of the unknown to identify drivers that may become existentially relevant for our future.

It is along those lines that, since 2006, Para Limes organized a number of probing conferences in Europe and Singapore1. The conference “Illusions of Control” that led to the current special collection was part of that.

One of our last conferences before Covid was held in Singapore on the theme “Disrupted Balance – Societies at Risk”. In that conference we explored what would happen if systems that keep societies going are seriously disrupted. Systems, that are essential for our food supply, our water supply, our healthcare, and our money supply, but also political systems and systems to ensure that our built environment is safe.
We did not specifically look for reasons why disruptions might occur in such systems, but from the presentations and the subsequent discussions it became abundantly clear that climate change is a common cause.

When it comes to climate change, we are running out of time. We are running out of the time we need to have a real impact on tempering the rise of temperatures on our globe. So, the conference “Disrupted Balance” set the stage for the webinar that we organized in 2020 around the theme: “Buying Time for Climate Change”2.

The key message that emerged from that Webinar is that the best way to buy time is to stop wasting it. We waste enormous amounts of time and energy trying to overcome stumbling blocks that lie between plans to deal with climate change and effective actions to execute those plans. Instead of fighting for control with governing institutes, big conglomerates, and other collectives, that consciously or subconsciously block our way to effective action, it seems far more effective to find ways around such stumbling blocks. Hence the title of the book that emerged from that webinar: “Buying Time for climate change, exploring ways around stumbling blocks“.

Underlying this escape into explorations is the question to what extent are we in control? or better, to what extent can we be in control of our future? And here we come across the Illusion of control. We perceive to be in control of the real world, but what we really control is a simplified world, a world that is only a very small part of an infinitely larger and highly complex whole. Within the given context of such a simplified world, we can be in control to some extent. But can we control that context? The ultimate answer to that question is of course that we cannot.

The sine qua non for any living natural system is an environment in which its existential needs for food, water, safety, and procreation can be met. Such environments present, as it were, the minimum conditions for continuous existence. Over time those environments change. Through the process of evolution all living systems in nature are “equipped” to adapt their needs to changes in their environment. Or to create environments in which changes are manageable.

A good example of the latter are beavers. Evolution “equipped” beavers with the capability to create an environment they can control. They can build a dam that creates a pond in which they can build a lodge, find food, be protected against predators and reproduce. The environment that beavers can control is limited by the simplified world, or the context, they have created with the dam. Of course, a flood can wash the dam away, showing the limits of their control.

Evolution, as we know it, is a continuous interplay between changing environments and adapting needs of living systems. That interplay can continue if the environments do not change faster than the capability of living systems to adapt. Compared to the hundreds of millions of years it took evolution to equip living systems with the capabilities to adapt their existential needs to changing environments, the time span in which humans and their societies evolved is extremely short. In that very rapid evolution, humans do not adapt their needs to the environment, but they adapt the environment to their needs. That way, humans continuously create a new reality within the physical boundaries of our planet.

Sydney Brenner, the father of molecular biology, who died in 2019, famously said 3:

“Mathematics is the art of the perfect. Physics is the art of the optimal. Biology, because of evolution, is the art of the satisfactory.”

In other words, mathematics and physics do not flex, biology does.

Science, which is a methodological activity by which we try to understand our world, was (and is) an important factor in triggering changes and adaptations, and, through the technology it spawns, it helps to create illusions that we are in control. I believe that as far as science is concerned, mathematics and physics lead in creating such illusions. While entertaining such illusions, we interfere with the many complex, often biological systems, that we are part of, such as our families and relationships, our environment, our health, our oceans, our security or our financial future.

If we chose the context carefully we can believe that we can ignore the unexpected and often undesirable consequences of such interference. However, in the real world every selected context is part of a broader and more complex one, and separating a selected narrow context from the broader one has unknown consequences for both. If the narrower context has only little interaction with other contexts, these consequences may be pretty unnoticeable, and given our limited lifespan, we may never know about them. Limited communication between generations will in most cases blind next generations from seeing how actions that previous generations performed strongly influence the present and the future for their offspring.

An old friend, now a grandmother of eleven, recently said to me:
“I have to slow down to keep my illusion that I am in control”.
To slow down is probably an excellent advice if we want to keep our illusions under control.

Now let me turn your attention to the contributors to this special collection. Their contributions are based on the presentations they gave in Stockholm during the three days conference “Illusion of Control”.

I will not try to summarize their presentations, they have too much depth and are just too good to summarize them in one paragraph.

However, from the program you can get an impression of the width with which the theme illusion of control was covered . Matching this width with the depth and world class thinking the speakers offered, the conference provided an enlightening exploration in the world of illusions and control, and a dire warning for our global community, that we must get control over our illusions, or risk our extinction.

The speakers at the conference:

Sander van der Leeuw, School of Complex Adaptive Systems, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

Gary Dirks, Senior Director of the Global Futures Laboratory and LightWorks, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

Sean Cleary, FutureWorld Foundation, Zürich, Switzerland; Parmenides Foundation, Pöcking, Germany

Daniel Brooks, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA; Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, Stellenbosch, South Africa; Eötvös Loránd Research Network, Institute of Evolution, Centre for Ecological Research, Budapest, Hungary

Salvatore Agosta, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study, Stellenbosch, South Africa; Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA, USA

Nick Obolensky, Chief Executive Officer, Complex Adaptive Leadership; European Centre for Executive Development

Paul Larcey, PIIRS Global Systemic Risk, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
PL represented co-authors Miguel A. Centeno, Peter W. Callahan, Thayer S. Patterson.

Helga Nowotny, Professor emerita of Science and Technology Studies, ETH Zurich; Ex-president European Research Council

Gert van Santen, Ex World Bank and FAO fishery specialist

W. Brian Arthur, External professor Santa Fe Institute

Terry Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA, USA

Liesbeth Feikema, Integrity and integrality expert; Darwin on the Job; Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Atsushi Iriki, Institute of Civilization Research, Tokai University, Tokyo, Japan; Innovation Design Office, Riken, Japan

Shogo Tanaka, Laboratory for Symbolic Cognitive Development, Riken, Japan; Institute of Civilization Research, Tokai University, Tokyo, Japan

Andrew Sheng, Business Studies, Wawasan Open University, George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia; Distinguished Fellow Asia Global Institute, Hong Kong

Jan W. Vasbinder, Para Limes, Netherlands

1 See: Vasbinder, Jan W. and Jonathan Y. H. Sim, eds. 2021. Buying Time for Climate Action, Exploring Ways around Stumbling Blocks. World Scientific.
2 Vasbinder, Jan W. and Jonathan Y. H. Sim, eds. 2021. Buying Time for Climate Action, Exploring Ways around Stumbling Blocks. World Scientific.

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