Here Comes Chaos: David Lynch sketches the landscape

If I’d been paying better attention (which is how I start a lot of sentences these days), I could have begun my reeducation in the ways things work in 1986. That’s when film director David Lynch gave us Blue Velvet.

Back then, the way Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini embraced Lynch’s sex and violence mash-ups distracted me from much in the way of Big Idea exploration. But, like a lot of others, even though I couldn’t explain the effect they had on me, I never forgot the film’s opening two minutes.

Stereotypical small town vignettes, including a man watering a summer lawn. His  hose kinks. Water pressure builds. The man suffers a sudden seizure, falling, then writhing on the ground as a happy baby in diapers and a playful dog enter the frame, not only oblivious to the drama but not even possessing the tools to comprehend. Then, the camera dives deeper and deeper into the watered lawn, through the blades of grass and into roots and soil buzzing with another oblivious, and possibly malicious ecosystem.

The director layers complexity, each layer having an increasing number of interacting — but not necessarily interdependent — components. And because this is David Lynch, the unsettling juxtaposition of images and a sound track that portends but never resolves invite us to suspect that trouble’s ahead.

For bottom-line metaphors for life we could do a lot worse than the environments imagined by Lynch. Especially if we deprive ourselves of the right to infer something definitive from the clues. Lynch at least relieves some of the anxiety by allowing the terrible stuff we anticipate occasionally to come to pass. In the wider world, unimaginable evil is as randomly accessible as transcendent good. The clues don’t add up. Which is sort of the definition of chaos.

Chaos, it turns out, is not always a rewarding environment in which to apply the only tools we’ve got for wading through confusion — cause-and-effect analyses, for instance, or probabilistic planning. So though we can cruise along for a while imposing our simple narratives on what we imagine to be reality, every once in a while, we’re thrown to the ground for a glimpse of Lynchian dimensions abuzz with complications we haven’t taken into account.

I think we’re in one of those phases now.

Pick a crises. Take, for instance, a world-wide recession aggravated by computer-aided speculation on bundles of financial complexity that not even the computers understood. Or consider climate change, which is apparently measurable in the aggregate but complicated by too many interacting variables to be sufficiently predictable in specific regions and in specific time frames. Which undermines the potential for the political heroism required to change the course of economies and human settlements.

Now think about the ways government-supported planning has become similarly hobbled by unmanageable complexity. Long before the current traumas in public sector distrust, complexities seeded by generations of policy-makers and lobbyists of all stripes matured and multiplied beyond counting. Even the best intentions of original legislation and executive rule-making have been undermined by the way people and processes respond to change – often by adding layers of complexity with unintended outcomes. The layers cascade down from Washington to state capitals to regional transportation and planning entities. And less and less gets done for more and more money. It was only a matter of time until those who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the planning, and who were paying for it, revolted.

Some conservative economists welcome this moment of “creative destruction,” when the old inefficiencies are swept away and new, better approaches take their place. Which is a swell idea as long as you — or your community — don’t happen to be located where the old systems collapse on top of you and the new ones won’t be in place any time soon.

The complexities of life are not going to be any more manageable through simple-minded solutions that slash government programs and regulations than they were to simple-minded solutions that masked inefficiencies with more money and more rules. There will have to come a time when strategies are comprehensive enough to honor and address complexity and flexible enough to adapt to local needs and goals. It’s safe to say that such strategies, the processes to evolve them and the leaders required to implement them are not currently in view. So how about a Plan B?

David Lynch isn’t much help as a guide. He’s too interested in overthrowing the tyranny of orderly expectations to help with inventing a new and better order. Besides, if he tied up all the loose ends it would be a rom-com and not a David Lynch production.

The best strategy, at least for the time being, may be an un-American one: Think small.

In this chaotic transition, where pathways to scaled-up solutions are anything but clear, the most effective implementations of well-thought-out planning are likely to be closest to home — where the trust deficit in government can be more quickly addressed. Neighborhoods, communities, towns. These are places where advocates of both better planning and less planning are likely to find common ground. And these are places where it really is possible to do more with less if enough citizens and leaders get behind an idea.

The buzzing critters in the undergrowth are permanent components of our lives. So let’s get over the futility of wishing otherwise. But until we’re wiser and less angry at one another, we’ll find it easier to cope with the noise in our own back yards with tools and strategies we shape with the help of our neighbors than if we have to take on the whole world at once.

Ben Brown

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