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I had the pleasure of making a recent return visit to Switzerland for the Caux Forum for Human Security’s Dialogue on Land and Security. This was first held as a single full-day event on July 15, 2011. It was titled Restoring Earth’s Degraded Land, featuring a number of great speakers and presenters including UNCCD Executive Secretary Luc Gnacadja, former UK Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short, “The Man Who Stopped The Desert” Yacouba Sawadogo, Dutch researcher & natural resource specialist Dr. Chris Reij, and environmental film maker John D. Liu. Actually, this was the event that John and I first met which led to the making of the film “Green Gold” for the Dutch production company VPRO.

Given the complexity of the topic, 2013’s event was extended to four days and included Mr. Gnacadja, Dr. Reij, John’s wife Kozima Liu (who attended in his place), Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration pioneer Tony Rinaudo, and Holistic Management pioneer Allan Savory. Needless to say, there was a great deal of knowledge and experience to benefit from – and more time within which to cover everything than in previous years.

Personally, a few compelling conceptual connections were made during this trip that I wanted to document and share for those interested in such things.

For a while now, I’ve been excited by the work of Nicholas Nassim Taleb (NNT) with his focus on the subjects of uncertainty, randomness and, most recently, something he has called antifragility. There is a great deal about what he has presented which could easily be applied to the work we do in designing and working with natural systems. What follows are some observations I made during my week in Caux, reflecting particularly on the work of Mr. Savory with Holistic Management. I’ve also included excerpted portions of the Prologue to Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Penguin Books, 2012):

NNT classifies biological systems as being antifragile by nature via degeneracy & functional redundancy — implying that physical death is a necessary part of living systems because it gives birth to new life and a renewal of function. Therefore (as a practical matter), everything has to point towards biological decay — as opposed to decay through oxidation (as explained by Allan Savory) — otherwise the onset of desertification and land degradation results. Oxidation is an indication of mismanaged land and, perhaps more critically, a missed opportunity to renew functional landscape.

Our job as designers is to not miss out on opportunities to facilitate the emergence of new life, new yields, new manifestations & expressions of energy ideally brought forth through biological decay.

One of the underlying problems we face especially in the modern industrial/post-industrial economies & societies of the Western variety is an aversion to death – i.e., an avoidance of thinking about it or talking about it as a practical reality – an unavoidable eventuality. This aversion prevents one from even beginning to properly understand how nature actually works; that death is a necessary aspect (and arguably the most important phase) of fuelling the genesis of new life. This is the key aspect of the “degeneracy/functional redundancy” of living systems.

Technically speaking, using NNT’s definition of terms, it would be incorrect to refer to nature being described as functionally resilient or robust. In doing so, the essential character of living systems would be ill-described. Nature does more than resist shocks – in truth, it requires periodic disturbances & perturbations in order to gain strength & maturity. Preventing nature from being anything other than antifragile would cause it to atrophy and lose vitality – it would ultimately undermine its ability to exist in the long term.

Creating arrangements & conditions allowing for as many encounters/interactions between multiple mutually-beneficial elements within a given system as can be facilitated is how the antifragility principle is ideally put to use. This is where design becomes most critical – at the beginning of the process. However, over-constraint or heavy-handed micromanagement of design can be counterproductive due to the possibility of “fragilizing” a system that is antifragile in character. There’s a complexity in the multifaceted, multifunctional relationships found in living systems that can be negatively impacted by oversimplification or too much organization, meaning misguided ill-informed ordering via management & design.

The most important role we can play in this antifragile process is to introduce the appropriate components into a given functionally-based arrangement, allowing for the most ideal relationships & interactions to self-select. A good example would be similar to what’s seen in a well-built aerobic compost pile; no one managing the actual process of decomposition – the biology associated with that process determines how it all happens. If the correct materials (in their proper proportions) are introduced and help is provided in ensuring enough air and moisture is present, then the rapid formation of biologically active organic matter is made possible. But all that was done on our part was to act as something of a match-maker and mover.

This distinction between resilience/robustness & antifragility is a non-trivial point to highlight because the working reality separating the two is worlds apart. Mistaking one for the other is a fundamental blunder that completely changes the nature of our work and how we are to properly understand the true character of what we’re dealing with. — Prologue to Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Penguin Books, 2012)

As I had stated previously, the world has effectively been functionally degraded by replacing the autotrophic, antifragile, regenerative living systems infrastructure of nature with the fragile, extractive, degenerative & inanimate infrastructure of industrial systems.

II. The Antifragile

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.

Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. This property is behind everything that has changed with time: evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, good recipes (say, chicken soup or steak tartare with a drop of cognac), the rise of cities, cultures, legal systems, equatorial forests, bacterial resistance… even our own existence as a species on this planet. And antifragility determines the boundary between what is living and organic (or complex), say, the human body, and what is inert, say, a physical object like the stapler on your desk.

The antifragile loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means — crucially — a love of errors; a certain class of errors. Antifragility has a singular property of allowing us to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them— and do them well. Let me be more aggressive: we are largely better at doing than we are at thinking, thanks to antifragility. I’d rather be dumb and antifragile than extremely smart and fragile, any time.

It is easy to see things around us that like a measure of stressors and volatility: economic systems, your body, your nutrition (diabetes and many similar modern ailments seem to be associated with a lack of randomness in feeding and the absence of the stressor of occasional starvation), your psyche. There are even financial contracts that are antifragile: they are explicitly designed to benefit from market volatility.

Antifragility makes us understand fragility better. Just as we cannot improve health without reducing disease, or increase wealth without first decreasing losses, antifragility and fragility are degrees on a spectrum

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In every domain or area of application, we propose rules for moving from the fragile towards the antifragile, through reduction of fragility or harnessing antifragility. And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

Deprivation of Antifragility

Crucially, if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness and stressors will harm them. They will weaken, die, or blow up. We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything — by suppressing randomness and volatility…. Much of our modern, structured, world has been harming us with top-down policies and contraptions (dubbed “Soviet-Harvard Illusions” in the book) which do precisely this: an insult to the antifragility of systems.

This is the tragedy of modernity: as with neurotically overprotective parents, those trying to help are often hurting us the most.

If about everything top-down fragilizes and blocks antifragility and growth, everything bottom- up thrives under the right amount of stress and disorder. The process of discovery (or innovation, or technological progress) itself depends on antifragile tinkering, aggressive risk bearing rather than formal education

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III. The antidote to the Black Swan

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Black Swans (capitalised) are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence — unpredicted by a certain observer, and such [an] unpredictor is generally called the “turkey” when he is both surprised and harmed by these events. I have made the claim that most of history comes from Black Swan events, while we worry about fine-tuning our understanding of the ordinary, hence develop models, theories, or representations that cannot possibly track them or measure the possibility of these shocks.

Black Swans hijack our brains making us feel we “sort-of” or “almost” predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable. We don’t realize the role of these Swans in life because of this illusion of predictability. Life is more, a lot more, labyrinthine than shown in our memory —our minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness. But when we see it, we fear randomness and overreact. Because of this and thirst for order, some human systems, by disrupting the invisible or not so visible logic of things, tend to be exposed to harm from Black Swans, and almost never get any benefit. You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.

Complex systems are full of interdependencies —hard to detect — and nonlinear responses. Nonlinear means that when you double the dose of, say, a medication, or when you double the number of employees in a factory, you don’t get twice the initial effect, but rather a lot more or a lot less…When the response is plotted on a graph, it does not show as a straight line (“linear”), rather as a curve. In such [an] environment, simple causal associations are misplaced; it is hard to see how things work by looking at single parts.

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable. Now for reasons that have to do with the increase of the artificial, the move away from ancestral and natural models, and the loss in robustness owing to complications in the design of everything, the role of Black Swans in increasing….

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It is of great help that Mother Nature —thanks to its antifragility — is the best expert at rare events, and the best manager of Black Swans; in its billions of years it succeeded in getting here without much command-and-control instructions from an Ivy-league-educated director nominated by a search committee. Antifragility is not just the antidote to the Black Swan; understanding it makes us less intellectually fearful in accepting the role of these events as necessary for history, technology, knowledge, everything.

Robust is Not Robust Enough

Consider that Mother Nature is not just "safe". It is aggressive in destroying and replacing, in selecting and reshuffling. When it comes to random events, "robust" is certainly not good enough. In the long run everything with the most minute vulnerability breaks given the ruthlessness of time —yet our planet has been around for perhaps four billion years and, convincingly, robustness can’t just be it: you need perfect robustness for a crack not to end up crashing the system. Given the unattainability of perfect robustness — we need a mechanism by which the system regenerates itself continuously by using, rather than suffering from, random events, unpredictable shocks, stressors, and volatility.

The antifragile gains from prediction errors, in the long run. If you follow this idea to its conclusion, then many things that gain from randomness should be dominating the world today — and things that are hurt by it should be gone. Well, this turns out to be the case. We have the illusion that the world functions thanks to programmed design, university research, and bureaucratic funding, but there is compelling — very compelling — evidence to show that this is an illusion, the illusion I call lecturing birds how to fly. Technology is the result of antifragility, exploited by risk-takers in the form of tinkering and trial and error, with nerd-driven design confined to the backstage. Engineers and tinkerers develop things while history books are written by academics; we will have to refine historical interpretations of growth, innovation, and many such things….

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Where Simple is More Sophisticated

A complex system, contrary to what people believe, does not require complicated systems and regulations and intricate policies. The simpler, the better. Complications lead to multiplicative chains of unanticipated effects. Because of opacity, an intervention leads to unforeseen consequences, followed by apologies about the “unforeseen” aspect of the consequences, then to another intervention to correct the secondary effects, leading to an explosive series of branching “unforeseen” responses, each one worse than the preceding one.

Yet simplicity has been difficult to implement in modern life because it is against the spirit of a certain brand of people who seek sophistication so they can justify their profession.

Less is more and usually more effective….

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…[In summary], the fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much. — Prologue to Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Penguin Books, 2012)

9 Responses to “Antifragile Epiphanies: Reflections from Caux”

  1. Jason Gerhardt

    Great post Rhamis! There is so much to say about this, all good things.

    My first comment is that I agree fully that the human psyche’s aversion to looking at birth, life, and death (cycles of growth and decay) can influence the way we design things in such subtle, yet profoundly consequential ways. Even the word “permaculture” that we all enjoy so much contains a denial of this reality. Permanence in anything other than flow and flux is really a misguided goal when it comes down to it.

    I also wanted to comment on the over-designing concept. Over-design is a major concept that needs to be taught more regularly in the PDC. Evolutionary design is perhaps a good way of describing what we really need to do, which puts designers (i.e. everybody) into the life of a system. I think a large part of the problem with design fields, academic study, and science is that people are deemed observers rather than participants. Since that observer mindset is so far from reality we need to be thinking about how to design flowing fluctuation (life) into systems? Are our designs really aimed at living (evolving) systems or dead (static) ones? It takes a little extra deep looking and critical thinking to really ponder this. Permaculturist and regenerative developer Joel Glanzberg describes this as the over-concentration on designing forms rather than processes.

    In the “Where Simple is More Sophisticated” section, I also couldn’t agree more. We all love Mollison’s “the problem is the solution”, but usually more apparent is how our solutions are creating future problems, even in “permaculture designs”. So how do we avoid this? I think in part it will come from better understanding how the world actually works (as opposed to how it has been described (go for a walk in the woods:)), embracing flow and flux, and designing biology back into human communities/systems.

    Thanks for sharing this guys work!

    Reply
  2. Rhamis Kent

    “…the over-concentration on designing forms rather than processes.”

    EXACTLY…because (as I had written in my last piece) design is entirely driven by the financialization of ideas via patents/intellectual property/proprietary technology. So “problem solving isn’t even the real focus – it’s all about “cashing out”; developing the “next big idea” that translates into fortune, fame, and celebrity.

    “…embracing flow and flux, and designing biology back into human communities/systems.”

    That is indeed the goal. Recognizing and harmonizing with the dynamic equilibrium that defines the world we live in (which includes the dynamic equilibrium in US). Everything is always changing all of the time. It’s the one thing we can count on to happen.

    Reply
  3. Rhamis Kent

    Jason,

    “Evolutionary design is perhaps a good way of describing what we really need to do, which puts designers (i.e. everybody) into the life of a system. I think a large part of the problem with design fields, academic study, and science is that people are deemed observers rather than participants. Since that observer mindset is so far from reality we need to be thinking about how to design flowing fluctuation (life) into systems?”

    …this is one of the reasons why things like Holistic Management/Mob Grazing/High Density Grazing are taking over more & more of my thinking because the migratory nature – literally, the flowing, dynamic energetic flux – of that entire system just replicates what provided the base of fecundity/fertility/productive capacity we’ve been living on since we “scientifically” botched everything up.

    We simply don’t know where we are or what we should be doing here. The evidence is screaming that fact into our faces.

    Reply
  4. rob

    Rhamis,

    Thanks for the post, it is fantastic! I love the way that your brain works! This made my day.

    R

    Reply
  5. Scott Jackson

    Great post, and thanks for the link his book in pdf, Rhamis.

    His scale of fragility/resilience/antifragility makes a lot of sense and dovetails wonderfully with so much of permacultural thinking.

    Holmgren principles:

    “Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”

    In terms of antifragility, accepting feedback means incorporating the “information” that come with the stress of a non-lethal shock to the living system. The system (body, organ, group, garden, etc…) then integrates the information that comes with the stress or shock, and comes back with either resilience (returning the status quo), or improved health via adaptation and overcompensation. Accepting feedback and converting into improved system performance, is thus a crucial mechanism an antifragile system. As Taleb points out in the book, those things which are fragile (i.e. china dinnerware) don’t like the slightest stress, and are threatened by feedback.

    “Use and Respond Creatively to Change”

    This principle is a word for word description of the mechanism of Antifragility. Substiture “stressor”, “challenge”, “error” for “Change”, and you’ve got Taleb’s theory exactly. Instead of surviving change (resilience), or avoiding change (fragility), Holmgren is saying improve with change (Antifragility). The applications are infinite (group dynamics in permaculture communities, performance of modules, ecosystemic site processes, etc…).

    Mollison’s oft-quoted refrain:

    “Make lots of mistakes”

    The rational for this is spelled out on every page of Antifragile. The fragile doesn’t like any mistakes, can’t tolerate them at all really. The resilient isn’t interested in mistakes one way or the other, it just keeps on returning to its normal state. The antifragile thrives on lots of mistakes, preferably small and frequent ones because they serve as triggers for the improvement of desired features in health, production, aesthetics, all kinds of system perfomance. Taleb frequently applauds the antifragile grit of people such as artesans, entrepreneurs, artists, (responsable) risk-takers, et all, because of their willingness to engage in a constant program of creative tinkering. The trial and error leads to creative development, not merely resilience.

    These are just a couple examples. Overall, I think that this is an extremely important bit of vocabulary (fragile-resilient-antifragile) to incorporate in the permacultural language. After a few minutes of reading, I’ve already done so. I think this can help everyone’s ability to articulate classic permaculture concepts such as “creating abundance”, “beyond sustainability”, etc…

    “Beyond Sustainability”, part of the subtitle of Holmgren’s book, is a exactly what Taleb has named Antifragility. Another refrain which many of us have heard is “not just surbive, but thrive”. Same thing.

    Thanks again for sharing. Very good stuff!!!

    Reply
  6. Scott Jackson

    PS – I have been skimming through the full book, and it has its flaws (lots of filler for starters…) but the concept is definitely worthwhile.

    Reply
  7. akinfolarin oluwaseun

    Security is an illusion, simply because the disruption we fear and build a fortress against is a black swan event that is greater in proportion than the highest fortress you can build. Ask Job, he must know better now.

    Life is an obstacle course, live with it. Problems are a constant in life; the only thing that isn’t constant is the character, presence of mind, and courage with which we face those challenges. The only thing we can use to secure a future therefore is to build up these internal strengths such that we are immensely greater than the sum of all that could befall us. This is what makes us antifragile.

    For example, a family goes into financial misfortune. The Children have to leave the prestigious school they attend to a more affordable public school. This black swan event would destroy a fragile family but an antifragile family would not lose their joy because of this. This is a very simple perspective on antifragility but if you consider the stories of great people its obvious that they are not adverse to loss, take for instance Donald Trump’s bankruptcy, Napoleon, etc.

    Reply

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