Chaos theory demonstrates that complex systems tend to alternate between steady increments of progressive change or dynamic stability and quite abrupt phases of fundamental and dynamic change or critical instability. When this critical instability becomes irreversible, this is a sign that a bifurcation point is about to be reached. As this happens, the old system appears to collapse.
The values and patterns that have dominated the way things operate within an existing paradigm go into breakdown. From an inside perspective, this looks like a catastrophic failure. From a broader perspective, this can appear as an opportunity for a breakthrough. Historical examples could include the fall of the Berlin Wall or the stock market crash of 1929. The collapse of one thing is often just the beginning of another.
The so-called butterfly effect refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a storm hundreds of miles away. The work of the mathematician Edward Lorenz showed that very small mathematical changes in climate models could result in dramatically different weather scenarios.
When the old order falters, there is a momentary pause. One set of values no longer applies, but nothing has yet taken its place. This usually brief state can seem to be either chaos or freedom, depending on the way it is viewed. Complex systems theory has shown that when systems reach a sufficient level of organization and complexity they tend to reorganize themselves in a higher level of order after a collapse. This pattern applies whatever the constituent parts of the system are, from atoms to people.
Life has evolved from simple organisms like protozoa, through intermediate stages like invertebrates, and then into much more complex organisms like mammals and primates. New species appear quite distinctly, with few or no in-between stages. Evolution seems to move forward through a process of punctuated equilibrium. This is exactly what would be predicted by complex systems theory.
Oscillation and Collapse
There are many signs that this sort of process is currently at work in global society. The worldwide banking and financial crisis of 2008 is an example of the sort of oscillation that typically precedes a bifurcation point. Share and commodity prices rise and fall in a cycle of increasing volatility. Large fluctuations may be followed by periods of relative calm or consolidation, but the underlying trend is irreversibly leading toward a chaos point. At the chaos point, the butterfly effect applies: Small changes in the new initial conditions of a system can create enormously different outcomes. Laszlo suggests that the choices we make around the chaos point of 2012 will have lasting consequences for generations.