Understanding Unintended Consequences with Yaneer Bar-Yam

Several weeks ago, we aired the second half of our interview with Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam as a part of our podcast series on the complexity of the environment. Bar-Yam shared with us how quickly unintended consequences can ripple throughout our global systems. He provided us with examples, including some fascinating research he conducted with his school, The New England Complex Systems Institute, on the causes of increasing global food prices.

When Professor Bar-Yam revealed some of the findings from his research we were mind blown. He said that, today almost 50% of the US corn crop is used to produce ethanol, the substance that comprises 10% of gasoline. Evidence from his research found that policy in the US energy and environmental discussions lead to this shift in the use of biofuels for ethanol, but soon unintended consequences would arise from this policy change. Bar-Yam explained that corn is such an integral part of how we produce food, because it provides feed for animals to make meat products and dairy products and it is used in the production of sugar, among other uses, so for such a large portion of this crop to be reallocated for the production of ethanol, was very disruptive. In fact, it was disruptive on a global scale.  

There was another factor discovered by Bar-Yam’s research that contributed to increasing global food prices, and this was a deregulation of commodity markets. So, when the mortgage market and stock market crashed in 2007, money from those markets went into the commodity markets, including agricultural commodities and foods, which also contributed to rising food prices around the world.

The fact that these two, seemingly straightforward, changes created such disruption is an important discovery, because it proves there is vulnerability in our global systems. The actions of one country can very quickly spread to influence another, and in very impactful and unanticipated ways. Bar-Yam’s findings, that policy change and market deregulation contributed to a rise in global food prices, are significant because they identify a starting point for what would become global scale disruption, for food systems are very intertwined with human systems.

Professor Bar-Yam made the profound connection to events like the Arab Spring and the breakdown of order in several countries, including Syria, from food prices, a dramatic case of unintended consequences. He explained that civil unrest, revolutions, and refugees are all events which resulted from many civilians being unable to feed their families and feeling frustrated with unsympathetic governments. Bar-Yam stated, “we are watching this global cascade that goes from economic factors to food to riots and revolutions to refugees cascading around the world”. His description of this global ripple out event, left us feeling enlightened and wanting more, for our conversation with him only allowed enough time for him to share one of his many research findings relating to scientific and real world, global problems.  

In wrapping up our conversation, Bar-Yam emphasized that “we need to understand global consequences in order to be able to act and react effectively to the challenges we are facing today”, and we believe this was our biggest takeaway from our conversation with him. This quote describes the importance of the research conducted at NECSI and justifies how complexity science can help us effectively pinpoint, navigate, and solve challenges in today’s world.

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Be sure to check out our two-part interview with Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, Episode 50 & Episode 55.