Fractals , Corona and Climate

Have recently reread the book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Taleb.  The basic premise of the book is that human history especially in recent times is dominated by unexpected but extremely consequential events.

The outbreak of the Coronavirus epidemic which came as a surprise to most of us, certainly fits that mold.

The increasing complexity  and instability of  modern societies and inventions is one of the reasons that we are susceptible to unexpected events.

The collapse of societies and institutions provides the needed opportunity to rebuild on more stable foundations, and that is what I will talk about here.

Nassim suggest we take inspiration from the way Nature is organized. Many things in nature have a fractal structure, i.e. when one scales up or down one sees a considerable degree of similarity.  There is similarity between a tree and its branches, between one tree and a group of trees etc. There is also similarity over time, a sapling resembles a tree and so on.  Another similarity is seen in Astronomy, the Planets orbit the Sun which orbits the Center of the Galaxy and so on. While there are differences at the atomic level, the model of the planets orbiting the sun , served well as a first approximation and model for understanding the relationship of the electrons with the atomic Nucleus.

There is a certain similarity between the way our bodies manage infections and the way various countries are doing so. Most of the time our bodies handle infections in the background. Plenty of bacteria and viruses find their way into our bodies all the time. We have  an immune system which deals with them, mostly with no problem. Where the disease causing agent is problematic, which is frequently  the case with this new Coronavirus then the background approach is insufficient.  At some stage our body has to devote more resources to dealing with the virus. This is done by some combination of ‘feeling ill’ i.e. unable to perform everyday activities, shutting down the digestive system etc. The net effect is that the body can devote much more resources to dealing with the invasive agent. This does however come with a cost and the balance is not always optimal. Some people may die because of an overactive immune system, while others will do so because of an insufficient response.

For most countries the health system is one of those functions which carries on most of the time, somewhat in the background for most people most of the time. The outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic has changed all of that. Suddenly many normal activities have been shut down, or considerably reduced. Much more resources are being dedicated to dealing with the problem. This comes with a considerable cost. Countries are dealing with considerable difficulty in striking a  balance between health and economy.

Isolation is the main tool used to stop or at least slow infections, as  we do not yet have a vaccine or effective treatment for  Covid 19. Isolation as a tool to prevent the spread of infections has a long and ancient history.  Certainly it was prescribed as the method to deal with Leprosy in the Bible. Indeed I have seen it claimed that the we have an innate tendency to  distance ourselves from disease and this most likely has an evolutionary basis.

Isolation has the effect of breaking up complicated and hence highly fragile systems into simpler and more manageable systems. The implementation of border controls enabled countries to take their own decisions for better or worse.

In Israel as in other countries there are competing pressures. On the one hand a desire to reopen the economy in order to avoid further economic damage. On the other hand the likelihood that relaxing restrictions will likely lead to further spread of the virus. The obvious solution is to compartmentalise the country. Where there no reported active transmissions, best to open. Where there are active transmissions best to close. In that way one could achieve an optimum balance between health and the economy.

Another was of saying the above is that the ideal system for controlling disease would be fractal.  Government at local level, above that national , above that Global. With further subdivisions at the local level. To some extent these levels of government are present , however in Israel and I think many other countries most of the power is concentrated at the National level , the other levels are much less functional.

Which brings us on to the question what can be learnt from the Coronavirus outbreak which may be relevant to the issue of Climate Change and the ways of dealing with it. In a way Climate Change is also a black swan i.e. an unexpected but highly significant event or series of events. It is true that Global Warming has been scientifically verified and at some level recognised by various national governments for more than thirty years. However that recognition has stayed at the intellectual level and has not been emotionally absorbed or sufficiently internalised. While there have been some partial measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the steps taken so far have been far below what is needed.

On the technical level it is well known the  steps which are needed to limit global warming. The International Panel on Climate Change has, on the basis of solid scientific data, specified the rate of greenhouse gas reductions needed. Which are 45 %, relative to 2010 levels, by 2030, and net zero by 2050.

However there is unfortunately not a similarly august body to specify the organizational steps needed to achieve that aim. As a matter of fact the world has not so far been able to organise to avoid catastrophic warming.

I think the fractal mode of organisation will be useful here as well. We need a bottom up and a top down approach. Some of the elements have already been recognised and incorporated in the Rio declaration on Environment and Development 1992 namely a commitment by all countries to stop emitting greenhouse gasses and also to internalise the costs of environmental damage. In other words we need ensure that commitments at global level are made also at local level from top to bottom and from bottom to top.

The beauty of the fractal model is that it can be started at the top or the bottom or the side. Just as a crystal can start with one unit and then grow we need a similar modus operandi   to  reverse climate change.

To go from the abstract to the more specific. Among the industrial countries and groupings the European Union has committed itself to reducing its emissions in line with the recommendations of the International Panel on Climate Change.  It is possible that the European Union could by some mixture to example and economic weight be a catalyst for the wider adoption of the necessary commitments to reverse climate change.

I have no idea whether the European Union will be up to the task, however as it has a somewhat fractal organisational structure itself it seems likely better equipped than individual countries.

As a last note I will add that there is a considerable similarity between viruses and ideas . Both are information with some mechanism for dispersal. Viruses will spread if each host spreads them on average to  one  or more subsequent hosts. Viruses will vanish if if each host spreads them on average to less than one host. Exactly the same is true for ideas and information. They will similarly spread if passed on, and disappear  otherwise. Modern technology has greatly influenced the possibilities of both viruses and ideas to spread or disappear as the case may be.

Jeffrey Glausiusz