If you've ever fallen off a bicycle or crashed a car, you'll know it involves an extremely rapid transition. One moment you're in control, the next you're not.
A crash can be a terrifying experience because often there's nothing you can do until it settles. At best you can try to minimise the damage.
A fascinating thing about systems is the way a small number of inputs can generate extremely complex behaviour that can be difficult to predict.
Bicycles are a classic example because there are only four things you can do as you ride: you can move the handlebars, apply the brakes, pedal or move your body.
So why is a bicycle so difficult to learn and so easy to fall off? Partly that is because they can be extremely sensitive to those inputs. It only takes a tiny amount of pressure on the handlebars to change direction.
To make it more complicated, the inputs are interconnected. You can move your body while braking and pedalling and turning the handlebars. Each affects the others.
Even advanced artificial intelligence struggles with this. One system using a "reinforcement learning approach" required more than 1700 practice rides and even then it couldn't ride in a straight line.
Another approach uses carefully calibrated mathematics, but it only works for a specific bicycle.
A bicycle, of course, operates within a larger system of roads, traffic, other cyclists and wildlife. Those, in turn, exist within ever larger scales and, to take it to a ludicrous extreme, the entire universe.
A more realistic, though still huge scale, considers the entire planet. Probably the first person who might be called an Earth System Scientist was Alexander Von Humboldt, whose perspective was exceptionally broad.
His work was a remarkable blend of geology and biology. He thought about the types and distribution of species. He realised there was a connection with volcanic activity across the globe.
Now Earth System Science is examining the question of planetary boundaries. Although the scales are vastly different, the principles are similar.
When a system is pushed outside safe operating boundaries, it's headed towards collapse. It's now becoming clear that, not only are we exceeding some planetary boundaries, we are doing so at an accelerating rate.
Unfortunately, while the response time of a bicycle is measured in seconds, the planetary system operates over tens or hundreds of years and probably longer.
Human interference is disrupting the Earth's life support and our economic systems. That doesn't leave us much time to change course.
- Rod Taylor's book Ten Journeys on a Fragile Planet (Odyssey 2020) tells the story of how Australians are responding to this challenge.
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