Cities as Forces for Good Network

Antifragility, Resilience, Sustainability & the City — Bring on the Floods!

Book Reviews · July 11th, 2013


A Review of ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’
by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Random House (November 27, 2012)

Contributed by M. B. Beck

Download the full review of Taleb’s book

At the close of 2011, sustainability and environmental advisor Tony Juniper asked “Will 2012 be the year of the R word?”. He meant R for Resilience. It may have been so. I for one had a conversation in 2012 in which I was told that R was (somehow) easier to define than the S word (for Sustainability), hence its purported advantage (but see this paper on Water Security). Whatever the case, now we have the A word to assimilate: Antifragility (Taleb, 2012). To my mind, Antifragility essentially reinforces what I have long greatly valued about Holling’s notion of ecological Resilience (see also this paper on Nexus Security), but in ways that may make the A and R words more than just the sum of their respective parts.

From the world of finance, through that of ecology, hence to engineering, my review of Taleb’s book has been an exercise in Systems Thinking. Resist though I did (in the interests of timeliness), I was eventually driven down to some basics: obliged to take the abstraction of Taleb’s antifragility problem-solution couple, if we may call it so; map this across to Holling’s ecological resilience as a problem-solution couple; and then map both across to CFG, where this provoked not just new solutions to old problems, but new problems — new questions that ought to be asked of how to achieve Cities as Forces for Good in the Environment.

I am reminded in this of Michael Thompson’s 2002 “Man and Nature” paper, which, thus reminded, CFGnet is now making available for downloading. I described it in a recent (2013) presentation as the supreme achievement in Systems Thinking of the late twentieth century — an uncommonly bold opinion — in which Thompson stands on the impressive shoulders of Holling.

I feel almost as confident in concluding that Taleb is a man with very strong opinions. I came away from reading his book with this list of his dislikes (expressed quite vehemently at times): academics; models; accountants; technocratic and engineering mindsets; doctors and medicine; and topmost economists and politicians in their pursuit of eliminating variation in our lives (such as ridding us of the boom-and-bust cycle in economies). In addition, I think it fair to say Taleb doubts the worth of much that has emerged from human enquiry into the ways of the world since the ancients of Rome and Greece.

One of his complaints has to do with the fact that one in ten adult Americans are taking antidepressant medications in order to even out their mood swings. Yet he writes (p 61):

[M]y mood, my sadness, my bouts of anxiety, are a second source of intelligence — perhaps even the first source.

and goes on to complain further that (p 61):

If large pharmaceutical companies were able to eliminate the seasons, they would probably do so — for a profit, of course.

Ups and downs are important for Taleb (essential, in fact).

In my conversation with the person who asserted there should be less complexity in defining resilience (as opposed to sustainability), discussion turned to the benefits of Systems Thinking. Based on my personal experience, I asserted that an individual’s capacity to do Systems Thinking was greatly enhanced by occasional attacks of severe diffidence. They render one humble in the face of yet another subject of which one is horribly ignorant. I have in mind the time I was asked to think (in earnest) about solving the problem of pre-emptive detection of the onset of disease in the human liver, based on what I had previously thought about in respect only of detecting structural change in the behavior of the environment.

My “attacks of severe diffidence” may not equate to Taleb’s “bouts of anxiety”, but I would like to think they are not all that different. In short, read Taleb’s book! My read has been such a very productive process indeed.

Download the full review of Taleb’s book

Back Top

Responses to “Antifragility, Resilience, Sustainability & the City — Bring on the Floods!”

  1. No comments yet.

Leave a Reply