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The False Hope of Linearity

Humans have the remarkable ability to ignore almost every sign pointing to anything but the most favourable outcome. For somethings, (think global warming), it is the status quo that is most appealing, and as a society, we will do almost anything to convince ourselves that any other option is so far removed from the realms of possible that it simply cannot happen. For others, (think economics or housing prices), it is the inexorable push for growth, which, although not linear in itself, there is often the assumption that the rate of growth is linear, or that because we have seen it happen in the immediate past and can plan for such an eventuality, in the short term it will just happen. The straight line frames our world-view. Unfortunately, straight lines are little more than a convenient fiction, one that we are happy to embrace, because it simplifies the messiness of real life, and people in technocratic positions (such as mine as a City Engineer) are often the most guilty of this error, it is really easy to imagine, or even draw a relationship, often linear between two events.

This year, the Minister for the Environment in BC made some drought predictions based on the snow pillow data from across the province, these predictions may turn out to be true, but more likely, it will just be a slightly drier than normal year in most parts of the province. Soon after the prediction was made, we had one of the wettest coldest months of June – proving that drawing a linear relationship between a cause (low snow pack in April) and effect (drought in Summer) is too simplistic. But it will continue to happen, because we have little capacity as a society to account for all of the variables and interactions that may impact any outcome.

The interaction between the Economic Situation, Global Warming and Peak Oil situations is extremely complex, and influenced by many external factors that are unpredictable by their very nature. So instead of accounting for the possibility of any interaction between the economy, the climate and a potential energy crisis, policy makers opt to ignore as much of the unknown as possible – a climate policy that ignores energy supplies or the economy, an economic policy that ignores climate change and availability of energy supplies. The linear assumptions work on paper, but are rarely proven in real life. The most ridiculous is the assumption that infinite growth can occur on a finite planet.

While we are looking forward and up, believing that the path is straight and predictable, we fail to see the challenges that we are about to stumble on. Our societal attitudes to change tell us a lot about our ability to adapt in the face of an imperative to change. There is little benefit (other than possibly in short term happiness) in assuming and planning for a linear existence.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.