Essay: Antifragility and Adaptation

The last two posts have looked at the idea of transformational adaptation. In short, they’ve argued that this once radical notion is being watered down in the name of palatability to the great and good of the mainstream world of international development.

But sometimes it’s good to look elsewhere for new ideas even if it’s only to discover which theoretical paths they might lead down.  Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s latest book, “AntiFragile: Things that gain from disorder”, raises a climate adaptive eyebrow early on with the line, “we didn’t get where we are thanks to the sissy notion of resilience”.

Taleb was an options trader and mathematician who has made his pop science name with the idea of the “Black Swan” – the massively unpredicted, extremely impactful events that have been driving socioeconomic history since civilisation began. Antifragile continues the theme, with the idea that black swans are dangerous to all those who leave themselves vulnerable to them. (Is the lingo sounding familiar?)

Taleb’s main thrust is that all things can be placed on a scale according to how well they do in the face of volatility. On one side, fragile things – Ming vases, an investment in a company that only has one product, debt ridden economic systems – all highly vulnerable to unpredictable, random chance. You wouldn’t leave a Ming vase on the edge of a table in a busy room precisely because you know that just one unpredictable touch could destroy it forever. You don’t invest in a company with just one product because of the uncertainty that the product could be undercut or outperformed by an unknown competitor. Fragile things also stand out (and are identifiable in general) because they are hit proportionally harder by surprise events than other things.

In the middle – resilient or robust things. They stay the same in the face of disorder. Like really hard metal blocks, or fixed rate mortgages.

On the other side, Taleb’s contribution – Antifragile things (he reckons that there is no word in any language for this particular concept). Things that actively gain or profit from disorder. They all have similar qualities that leave them protected from black swans, and open to profiting massively from their opposite – white swans, making exponential gains from random positive events.

Imagine one year you have a surprise birthday thrown for you. At the time, a surprise party is a surprise because no one has ever done one for you before, and its great fun. But after the surprise party, when your next birthday comes around, you might try to judge if a surprise birthday is coming from the way your friends behave, or from walking into a room and noticing conversations abruptly ending. You might even spot the signs and think, secretly, “ah yes, they are definitely planning a surprise party for me, because the signs are the same as last time”. But sadly, this birthday, it’s not the case. In fact, your long lost evil twin has returned to torment you on your birthday, and your friends knew but were afraid to tell you. You could never have predicted this – you wouldn’t even think to include it in your calculations – but then it happens – a surprise, a negative one, which you could never have accounted for. That’s a black swan event – you’re so emotionally invested in enjoying your birthday, (you have an emotional commitment or debt), that your twin’s torment hits you doubly hard, leading (probably) to unending personal trauma.

An interesting aside to this is that predictive economics, or indeed predictive models for anything, are, “charlatanism”. This is because predictive models are based only on past data. Modelling (very simply), involves taking all past measurements and using them to create predictive pathways for the future. More complex models are more complex because they try to include a wider range of data, or anticipate surprise events. But if the only thing we can be sure of is unpredictability, the models are ineffective when they really matter because they can never take into account the thing that’s never happened in the past. The whole point about surprise events is that they are a surprise! Predictions based on past events don’t help you very much, because they cannot take into account the necessary volatility and randomness of the world around us. As Taleb repeats, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Therefore, predictive economics, and planning based on this kind of modelling, is a con. Rather, traditional, tried and tested wisdom and “rules of thumb” are more generalised yet effective approaches to decision making. Such rules and wisdom exist because they have survived across many circumstances over many years. While there are always specific circumstances on which they may be wrong, most of the time they can be fairly reliable.

That potted overview in mind, it’s an interesting thought experiment to apply these principles to climate adaptation, as the language of vulnerability and resilience is strikingly similar. (N.B, Taleb, with his focus on old wisdom rather than predictive knowledge, hates “planners”, and since adaptation involves a lot of planning, he would probably disapprove. However, the planning we’re discussing here aims to build the capability to take on the qualities of anti-fragility independently, so I reckon it’s OK)

The lingo of adaptation at present repeatedly stresses the term “resilience”. But as Taleb says, resilience really only means staying the same. It takes us back to the distinctly unsatisfying discourse of “coping”, a term that implies “making the best of it” or “managing”. What’s more, if a community is vulnerable because of its poverty, then staying the same in the face of change is hardly a satisfying prospect. What good is $100 billion of new and additional climate finance if all it is going to do is help communities “stay the same” (that is, in poverty), in the face of change. “Adaptation”, perhaps, implies something more positive in the nature of change, but the way it’s used internationally leaves it somewhat vague and undefined. All this may be semantics, but introducing a more ambitious discourse into the language of climate change may be a first step to thinking of the strangely separated worlds of “climate adaptation” and “development” as far more closely linked than the international funding circus likes to admit.

The concept of anti-fragility gives us a platform to move away from the idea of battening down the hatches and waiting for the storm surges and heat waves to hit, and onwards to a more daring question – how can we equip communities to actively gain or profit from change?

So what then are the qualities of anti-fragile things? And could they be built into adaptation planning?

It’s worth first understanding why some systems are fragile. Fragile things tend to get increasingly harmed by adverse effects. That is, if you’re fragile, then a stressful factor that increases evenly will have disproportionately harmful impacts. Taleb gives the example of the traffic in New York. Ordinarily, in the middle of the day, cars roll through New York without much trouble (NB – I’ve never been to New York). Now if 10% more cars join the road (say at the beginning of rush hour), your average journey might increase by 10 minutes. But if 20% more cars join the road, your journey time might increase by 40 minutes. 30% – 2 hours. As the pressure on the roads rises, the impact on your journey time gets increasingly large. That’s fragility. (Just as every new torment by your evil twin on your birthday increases your pain in increasing amounts each time).

Taleb argues that the solution to uncertainty (and the secret of antifragiity) comes in the form of a “barbell” strategy. Since a major symptom of climatic change is uncertainty of weather, it is this strategy that forms the applicable end of antifragilty to climate change. Such a strategy is echoed in all surviving successful systems and things, particularly in nature.

“A barbell can be any dual strategy composed of extremes, without the corruption of the middle”.

That is, a strategy of almost paranoid risk aversion (one extreme) for the most basic functions, but aggressive risk taking at other times (the other extreme) in order to benefit positively from random occurrences elsewhere. Strategies that follow the “middle” – medium levels of risk, are vulnerable to judging the averages wrong.

Antifragile things give themselves options spread across a wide range of fields, while avoiding ruin – “the option is an agent of anti-fragility”. Barbell strategies make the most of extremes, of changes and volatility, rather than working out what the average between the extremes is and trying to plan based on that average. What good is a prediction of an average if it’s only going to come in extremes? We know this to be true, as we often spend time talking about the average global temperature rise, even though we know that it will be transmitted through extremes of variable weather.

Things that are antifragile have the following tendencies:

  • Redundancies and “spares” (e.g. The human body can function with one kidney, one lung or one eye, but has 2 of each)
  • Options across a wide range of investments
  • “Skin in the game” – That is, a personal investment in success (rather than just paying somebody else to take that risk)
  • No debt (or indeed, surplus, with which to take advantage of new opportunities)
  • Paranoid and safe investments mixed with aggressive small risks elsewhere (barbells)
  • Flexibility – Rigidity is fragile – once something is broken, it’s very hard to fix it again
  • Unafraid of making mistakes – the odd bad investment isn’t such a bad thing – it’s part of learning, and part of a portfolio of other investments
  • Don’t try to predict the future – relies on tried and tested knowledge and wisdom
  • Opportunistic – able to spot white swans as they happen and take advantage

So in the case of New York above, extreme traffic may require extreme (barbell) solutions. That might mean investing serious money in diverse range of public transport options on one end (bikes, metros, underground, buses. Some of these may flop, but others may pay enormous dividends and catch on as the way to travel in New York), whilst taking radical measures to limit the amount of cars on the road (expensive congestion charging, driving bans, etc).

So what’s the answer for say, an impoverished community with a nice hypothetical pot of newly minted Green Climate Fund adaptation finance? What kind of investments might they make that can help them to benefit from fragility? Of course, all such investments will be heavily dependent on context. Some groups, such as pastoralist groups, have traditionally managed variability as part of their livelihood strategy. By taking advantage of a supply of available labour (usually the family), they diversify and disperse their assets, (in their case, livestock) to take advantage of unpredictable rainfall and avoid threats such as disease. In theory, they can thrive even in the face of drought (in the long run), In their case, further support for what they are already doing may be the most appropriate intervention in the face of droughts more severe than they may be used to. At the very least, investing in one extreme (the paranoid side), could be useful to prevent them from ruin.

Debt emerges as a fragilising feature very quickly. Debt negates the ability to take advantage of new opportunities, and leaves a person beholden to some other institution or person. That puts microfinance off the list straight away. Debt fragilises a community, because it ties up its capacity in current projects only – preventing opportunism, and increasing vulnerability to a surprise negative event (a plague of locusts consuming the harvest, and increasing the debt even further, for example).

On the other hand, things like village banks or savings schemes might be a good option – allowing people to take advantage of a good year, save surpluses, prepare for a scarcity when it comes and able to take advantage of changes in the external environment. Indeed, an antifragility approach might also lend itself to cash transfers, putting more power in the hands of those at the lowest level.

Diversity would be key – a diverse economy, or even households with lots of different individual businesses or crops – some coffee here, some maize there, mangoes elsewhere, livestock and pasture grazing. Who knows when there might be a shortage from which to make a killing? Seed banks would also be a boon here, ready to take advantage of changing prices. Inevitably, there also has to be consideration of what happens further up the chain. Maintaining diversity of crops (rather than specialisation) necessitates a good market nearby to make sales at, which would be more of a top-down measure. However, the focus of crop growing could also be subsistence, allowing time for other household or community based activities.

Maintaining spares, redundancies and fallbacks may be extremely effective. Common land or trust land that is freely available or shared between communities could prove a useful resource. That means paying attention to land rights processes, and preventing the currently apparent process of privatising of absolutely every last bit of and there is. This may also require forums for community management of land resources, and institutions that generate social capital, as well as forums for communal and empowered decision making would also help to take advantage of opportunities when they come so that benefits can be widely distributed.

And yet, some paranoia should also be included – support for home or land ownership, to secure assets, for example. Long term investments that will always be able to aid the shorter term opportunism – infrastructure projects like road and power, or at least some attempt at reliable off-grid power sources. All of these things form a strategy which prevent total disaster, while opening up opportunities for risk taking.

These suggestions emerge out of an approach that tries to deal specifically with variability, a key consequence of climate change, and one found repeatedly in nature. Even evolution, as a system, shows the same signs – protecting the core but being willing to make bad investments (say, unhelpful mutations) in the hope that just one successful mutation can lead to massive success in  a genes survival.

Antifragility raises fascinating questions for approaches to adaptation, and a new and ambitious perspective on how to plan resilience with communities. It is theoretically supportive of both minor and major, transformational adaptation approaches, but really sidesteps this distinction altogether. Rather than planning based on predictions of what the climate might be like 20 years from now, and suggesting medium risk, (or risk management based) plans for development and resilience building, better to support the qualities of antifragility and allow things to take their own course. We might be surprised at the positives that follow.