by Pallavi Jain
Every day, people undertake actions without much forethought. They look at the direct relations and connections of their actions and their most obvious consequences (mostly for themselves). Conventionally, scientific subjects have dealt with phenomenons that are quantifiable and thus somewhat predictable. On the other hand, Chaos theory deals with more complex matters that fall outside what human beings perceive as predictable (leave it to the mathematicians to theorise something as abstract as chaos, right?). In simple words, it studies the interconnectedness between two or more phenomenons, institutions or environments and attempts to acknowledge, understand and analyse the relationship between the same. The butterfly effect is studied under the paradigm of chaos theory. The foundational premise is that a tiny transformation in the original conditions of the situation leads to a catastrophic deflection in the resultant outcome, such as fluttering a butterfly’s wings in India could result in a tornado in Iowa.
Throughout history, economists and scientists have come across situations with equivocal effects resulting from seemingly unrelated activities undertaken for a different purpose sometimes, in a completely different geographical location. These situations have led us to realise that we live amid a pandemonium wherein it is extremely difficult to identify what caused which tribulation and redemption.
For example, the Manhattan Project was a research programme in World War 2. A team of scientists in America created the first Plutonium and Uranium bombs, eventually leading to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In reality, one of the bombs was to be dropped on the city of Kuroko in Japan instead of Nagasaki. The citizens of Kuroko took shelter as they saw fighter planes in the air. Eventually, due to a lack of visibility in the atmosphere, the military changed their decision in the blink of an eye and decided to bomb Nagasaki instead. Kuroko is thought to be the luckiest city in Japan (and maybe the world) as a tiny and fleeting weather quirk saved the entire city from destruction and led to the unforeseen extermination of another.
Another example of this fascinating concept in history took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was a month-long communication between the US and Russia and probably the closest to a nuclear war we have ever encountered. Arkhipov was a Naval officer for the Soviet Union present on a submarine close to Cuba with nuclear weapons aboard. There was a laxity of proper communication due to the depth at which the vehicle was current underwater. The signals they received were hard to interpret, and the captain of the submarine decided to interpret them as a war break out. Everyone agreed to utilise the nuclear weapon, except Arkhipov, who chose not to consent for the same. If he hadn’t had the guts to stop the release, the result could’ve been a nuclear holocaust.
A more recent example of unintended consequences is the restriction on hydroelectric dams to cut down damage to the environment. However, falling back on using this source of cleaner energy accelerated the use of our limited fossil fuels and thus global warming. In 1978 NASA utilised this theory to be the first to be able to intercept a comet. They utilised mathematics and chaos theory to determine just the right amount of fuel they must use to launch the craft through the tail of the comet.
These mind-boggling connections formed between two detached situations has revealed the importance of non-linear thinking. Even though this term has not been coined before, what I mean by this particular term is the contemplation of the series of more complex consequences that may arise out of a single action. For example, evaluating the economic, political, and social consequences of a policy in the area in which the policy was intended to affect and other branches that might have to face the consequences resulting from a ripple effect. In simpler terms, it would imply taking into consideration all possible components of reactions to your action. Even though it’s hard to make accurate assumptions and even harder to visualise all possible destinations of activity, it makes sense that people, especially those making big decisions, evaluate the response of the decision in just the immediate environment or arena but alas, all adjacent ones as well.
Even the actions we undertake every day have consequences which we do not comprehend because they do not seem to be related in any aspect, and yet, they take place, leaving us asking ourselves, “what went wrong?” Each individual can cause a ripple effect leading to a much worse or better result than he/she predicted. Chaos theory attempts to predict complex consequences of seemingly simple actions. Nonlinear thinking implies utilising these complex consequences to make better and more informed, socially optimal decisions. Nonlinear thinking could be seen as a concept under the umbrella term chaos theory.
Even the tiniest of actions lead to the largest reactions in the currently interlinked world we live in. We cannot predict everything, but a certain kind of non-linear thinking to some extent might save a lot more people and us a lot of negative externalities. The next time you think your actions don’t have that significant an influence on the world, think of the almost nuclear war that was avoided or the city that was nearly bombed, because trust me, they could turn out to be influential stepping stones in history as well.
Pallavi Jain is a second-year Economics and Finance student at The University of Hong Kong and resident of Shun Hing College.