Strategies for Stability

Laurent Bossavit's recent blog entry about stability got me thinking, as his incipient thoughts always do.

What makes stability an issue? Under what conditions would we pay any attention at all to stability? When we care about something that may be threatened by a force acting on it. If we care about a thing, and there are no forces acting to change it, we don't need to worry about stability. And there's little point maintaining the stability of something we don't care about. Stability is an issue only when we care about something that is threatened.

How can we maintain stability? I can think of three general strategies: adapt, isolate, and absorb.

The first strategy is to adapt the thing you want to stabilize, to modify it so that it now benefits from the forces that previously threatened it. For example, when the United States experienced oil crises in 1973 and 1979, U. S. automobile manufacturers began making smaller, lighter cars with more fuel efficient engines. And when Japanese companies began to export inexpensive, high quality cars to the United States, U. S. manufacturers began to sell foreign-made automobiles under American companies' brand names.

The second strategy is to isolate the thing, to separate it from the forces that threaten it. For example, the paint on your car separates the metal from the wind, rain, and salt that can corrode it.

The third strategy is to absorb the threatening forces, to convert them into a form that is either less harmful or more useful. Then either incorporate the new form or dissipate it. Absorbing is a combination of adapting and isolating. You adapt to the environment so as to better convert or direct the threatening force. And you direct or convert the force so as to separate it from the thing you are trying to stabilize. For example, the shock absorbers and the tires on your car absorb mechanical motion. They convert mechanical motion into heat, a more readily disposable form, then dissipate the heat. For another example, your automobile insurance converts sudden, large expenses that could threaten your financial stability into smaller, more predictable expenses.

Note that each strategy for maintaining stability requires change. In order to keep the important thing stable, we must be willing to change something else, something that is less important. When you buy automobile insurance, you give up something less important, your available funds, in order to maintain something more important, your overall financial stability.

Here's a question that now intrigues me: How do we decide which strategy or combination of strategies to employ to keep some precious thing stable? Do we adapt to changes when we can, and isolate ourselves only from forces to which we cannot adapt? Or are there some forces that we will try first to isolate ourselves from, and adapt only if isolation fails? What about the nature or value of the thing we're trying to keep stable? How does that influence our choice of strategy?

One more question: Are there other common strategies for maintaining stability that are not accounted for by adapting, isolating. or absorbing?

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