03 January 2012

Spaceships

Cafe Hayek | Russ Roberts | Spaceship Earth Here is Joel Achenbach writing in today’s Washington Post:
Spaceship Earth enters 2012 belching smoke, overheating and burning through fuel at a frightening rate. It’s feeling pretty crowded, and the crew is mutinous. No one’s at the helm.
No one’s at the helm. That’s what makes Spaceship Earth such a potent metaphor for those who would like to be at the helm. [...]
Sure, it’s an antiquated metaphor. It’s also an increasingly apt way to discuss a planet with 7 billion people, a global economy, a World Wide Web, climate change, exotic organisms running amok and all sorts of resource shortages and ecological challenges. [...]
Kind of like a spaceship? We’re pretty good at managing or re-engineering actual spaceships. Human beings have a mediocre track record for aggressively managing or re-engineering a modestly complex system such as a city. An even more complex system, such as an entire economy or Yellowstone Park or the entire planet? That we have no clue about how to do well.
Are we? Compared to managing something like Yellowstone, sure. A non-complex, fully-Newtonian object like a space shuttle is easy. But are we actually very good at even that straight-forward task? Think carefully, and then present your answer to the families of Scobee, Smith, Onizuka, Resnik, McNair, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Husband, McCool, Brown, Chawla, Anderson, Clark, and Ramon.

How many people have been bureaucracied to death by the space program?  And that makes the space program a good argument for centralized management how exactly?

What a terrible metaphor.  This is like saying "Controlling the economy from the top-down will be as easy as riding a bike" to someone who was paralyzed in a biking accident.
Achenback continues:
More and more environmentalists and scientists talk about the planet as a complex system, one that human beings must aggressively monitor, manage and sometimes reengineer. Kind of like a spaceship.
What? That's the opposite of what scientists say about complex systems — by definition they defy management. The inability to predict how a system will respond when you change something is what separates complex from non-complex systems.

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