Cycles & Systems

The human tendency has been to think in terms of linear progression, and that’s the cultural story that has shaped our lives for a long time. It’s what led us to believe that more is better and bigger is best. And it’s what has put us in the situation where our systems are in a state of disintegration, where they can barely hold themselves together.

The concept of linear progression, like the idea of a flat world, is a 2-dimensional model and therefore more simplistic than the actual physics of reality. Physical reality has a more elegant order which is 3-dimensional and therefore able to proceed in sustainable ways.

Whole trumps Big

In our 20th-century rush toward linear progress, we overlooked the crucial point that humans work and play within the context of living systems.

Living systems are self-referential and consist of nested wholes. Therefore a living system continually evolves toward greater wholeness. A linear system, on the other hand, can only move toward bigness. And eventually, as we are now beginning to see, bigness becomes unable to sustain itself.

Life is designed to keep itself going, to regenerate.

Of course. Nothing else would make sense.

Describing living systems…

The emergence of systems thinking in the early 20th century marked a profound shift in viewpoint. At the time, the Cartesian paradigm of analytic thinking prevailed. It was thought that the way to understand how anything worked was to take it apart and study the pieces. But by the 1920s, it had become evident this only worked in limited ways. In the search for a better approach, systems thinking emerged.

In contrast to Cartesian analysis, systems thinking is based on the premise that the whole can only be understood in the context of a larger whole. And to understand the properties of the parts, we must consider the whole and its context.

By the 1980s, systems theorists had access to new non-linear mathematics and chaos theory, which increased the scope of their investigation. As a result, their work took a new direction and became known as Living Systems Theory.

The web of life…

Fritjof Capra was one of the physicists teaching Living Systems Theory. My big adventure of 1994 was taking a course with Capra at Schumacher College in England. He was in the early stages of writing his book, The Web of Life, and I developed the concept of intentional simplicity while studying living systems theory with him.

The mindset and choice of language of the living systems approach are energetically different from traditional thinking, as demonstrated by the tone of this list of terms:

  • networks
  • patterns
  • relationship
  • context
  • feedback loops
  • non-linear interconnectedness
  • self-organization

And here are some key characteristics of a living system:

  • Networks are the basic patterns of life—they are not a structure, but a pattern of relationships that organize the system.
  • The system is self-generating—think of cells in a physical body, which undergo continual death and replacement. As this occurs, the system changes within itself while at the same time preserving its basic pattern of organization.
  • Networks exist in both biological systems (where they operate in the realm of matter) and in social systems such as families, teams, and groups (where they operate in the realm of communication and meaning, i.e. the non-material cultural aspect).
  • Growth is not unlimited in living systems.

Limits to growth…

In biology, we can easily see there are limits to growth. A physical body gets bigger until it reaches its mature size, after which a cycle of replacement occurs as old cells die and new ones replace them. Fun fact: human stomach cells die and are replaced every 5 days; skin cells within 2-4 weeks; and bones every 10 years. When the growth of cells runs amok and they don’t stop when they should, the result is the condition we call cancer.

In the environment we humans live in, there are also limits to growth but they are less easily acknowledged because the Earth’s living cyclical Ecological System is entangled with the linear Cartesian Economic System.

To date, the economic system’s quest for unending growth has been the prevalent cultural story. However, necessity requires a different approach now. It seems to me that today’s economic theorists are arriving at a fork in the road, as did systems theorists in the 1980s. A new perspective is called for,

Economics done differently…

Change in a cultural story always starts with a few people who think differently and do something about it. The numbers are accumulating. Here are just three examples of doing economics differently.

Steady-State Economy – Herman Daly

The following is quoted from his obituary in late 2022.

Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics, has died at the age of 84. His work questioning the pursuit of economic growth, and articulating the alternative of a steady-state economy, has been foundational to sustainability science.

… As a student at Rice University in the 1950s, he was interested in both the sciences and the humanities. He decided to study economics, thinking it would give him a foot in both. He soon discovered that this was not the case and that mainstream economics instead had “both feet in the air”. His life’s mission became to change this — to give economics a grounding in both the sciences and the humanities, in particular physics, ecology, and ethics.

… [This led him] to develop what is arguably his greatest contribution to sustainability science — the concept of a “steady-state economy”… an economy where the goal is qualitative development, not quantitative growth. He defined a steady-state economy as one where material and energy use are stabilized and kept within ecological limits. Fairness is an explicit goal for such an economy…

Doughnut Economics – Kate Raworth

Kate Raworth describes herself as “a renegade economist focused on making economics fit for 21st century realities.” She is the creator of the Doughnut model of social and planetary boundaries, and co-founder of the Doughnut Economics Action Lab.

Her Doughnut model is based on social justice elements that Herman Daly emphasized. She tells a new economic story in which it is possible to design an economy that allows humans and the environment to thrive. And the Action Lab is a social enterprise that works with local governments and communities across 70 cities, from Nanaimo on the west coast of Canada to Ipoh in Malaysia, to put the principles of doughnut economics into practice.

LOVE TO be Bright Green – Sarah McCrum & Tim Bennett

LOVE TO Be Bright Green, an Australian Mutual Company, is also telling a new story and putting the principles into action. LOVE TO co-founders Sarah McCrum and Tim Bennett have reimagined how to value nature and are pioneering a way to finance social and ecological improvement.

Bright Green partners with farmers and land managers to make ecological improvement valuable and saleable. Regenerating and protecting nature is the No.1 priority on the planet right now. Our future depends on it. LOVE TO Be Bright Green makes it possible – in ways that work for nature, for buyers, and for the people working on the land.

So…cycling back…

As I wrote about limits to growth, I was aware how easy it would be to go off on a tangent about the dysfunctional linear Cartesian economic system. But that would be beside the point.

So let’s cycle back to the starting point—recognizing that Life proceeds in cycles. And there are good reasons for this—not the least of which is that this is how Life regenerates itself and keeps on going.

We would do well to pay attention.

And if you’d like an alternative view of limits and their value, you might want to read the last article in the bibliography—an interview of economist Tim Jackson about his latest book, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism.

It’s an intriguing perspective, to see limits as the doorway to a different world.


Bibliography

Living Systems Thinking

Limits to Growth

Befriend your Beliefs

We all have beliefs. They help us make sense of things that happen in a world that’s far beyond our comprehension. You might consider beliefs a human coping mechanism to keep us in a game where we don’t remember how things work or why we even thought we wanted to play this game.

Our beliefs are the stories we come up with to give us a bit of security in a confounding situation. Comforting fact: As we grow in consciousness, we also grow in our ability to understand more elements of the game. And as we gain greater understanding, we begin to realize that some of our beliefs actually are untrue.

Our beliefs can be surprising…

Sometimes it is surprising—and a relief—to discover a belief that has been hanging out in your unconscious for years. That was the case for me a while back when I discovered a deeply-held belief that women should not show they’re smarter than the men around them. Whaaat!!? How did that get there? 

As I thought about it, I realized it was the prevailing cultural attitude when I was growing up in the 1950s. I am pretty sure I’m not the only little girl who took that on as one of the rules of the game and subconsciously played accordingly, all the while thinking we were liberated.

This discovery came as a total surprise. I had no idea I was holding that belief. And yet, it had a profound effect on my attitudes and behaviours, prompting me to downplay my abilities in subtle ways. Flying under the radar was one of them.

Beliefs can be surprisingly powerful…

Not all beliefs are unconscious, though. You might be aware of a belief and confidently live accordingly for years. Then one day you learn that it does not hold true. That can be disconcerting, to say the least. This happened to my husband at a Christmas dinner long ago. 

His parents had traveled two thousand miles to visit and we wanted to make the meal extra-special by serving all their traditional foods. Husband said Brussels sprouts were a favourite, always on the Christmas table. I’d never cooked sprouts because I knew he didn’t like them, so I got out the Joy of Cooking, found instructions, and bought two baskets of lovely fresh sprouts with the holiday shopping.

On the day, I was in the kitchen carefully cross-cutting the stems so they would cook evenly, when mom-in-law walked in. She looked at the good-sized pot of sprouts and said, “You don’t need to cook many for us.” Really?!

Turns out neither she nor dad-in-law actually liked them. When I asked why she always served them at Christmas, she said, “Because I thought it was good for the boys to learn to eat them.”

I thought it was funny. Husband was not amused. Something he had believed all his life had been definitively disproved. He felt as if the rug has been pulled out from under him. I didn’t expect that. It was just a vegetable, after all. That’s when i learned that beliefs are about more than facts.

Many things can come up for us when we have been dis-illusioned. We may feel betrayed. Duped. Made a fool of. Our security is disrupted. We aren’t sure what to trust any more. It will be different, depending on the person and the illusion. But there is an emotional component to be aware of whenever beliefs are challenged.

Maturing as conscious humans…

It is a confronting moment for most of us… to come to an awareness that something we thought was true actually is not. Revisiting and reconsidering our beliefs is part of the maturation process. 

It helps to recognize how beliefs become part of our psyche to begin with.

When you arrived in this body, there was a lot to figure out, starting with how to operate the body parts and do all the required functions—moving the appendages to navigate around physical space, getting nourishment into your body, expressing what you needed in ways they could understand. And then the more subtle, really tricky challenge—navigating the expectations, customs, and strange practices of the culture you had landed in.

Psychologists say that children are like sponges in the first seven years,  picking up all kinds of information from their environment. And we also know that the human mind is adept at filling in the blanks and jumping to conclusions when the incoming information is unclear or incomplete. It is no wonder that we have all adopted various beliefs as fact. They helped us make sense of our world at a level we could understand.

Beliefs aren’t meant to be held forever…

As we move through life, it’s useful to remember that beliefs aren’t necessarily true, but they did serve a purpose when we adopted them, often at a young and impressionable age.

However, things change. We change.

We’ll navigate more easily through the game of human life if we are open to the possibility that our beliefs may not be true. That there may be another explanation for what we were experiencing if we view the situation from a more expansive perspective.

Awareness is the starting point…

Beliefs shape our behaviours, so you can find clues by observing yourself in action. If something you do doesn’t sit well with you, here’s a potent exploratory question: What must I believe in order to have acted that way?

Recognize your outdated beliefs…

Once you’ve identified a belief, see if you can understand what purpose it served in the beginning. That will help you decided if you wish to continue holding it or not. If not, thank it for its years of service, and let it go.

Then move on…

Look for a new perspective, one that will serve you better in your current state of greater awareness.

And hold your newly-formed belief lightly in case you outgrow it in the future.

Bibliography

Well worth the time…

What Next?! Recap & Deeper Dives

From a cosmic perspective, humanity currently has an opportunity to rise to a higher state of consciousness. What we are experiencing at this time is the instability and chaos that precedes such an enormous shift. My previous five posts have been about navigating life through the challenges of 2023 and beyond.

Throughout this group of posts, artificial intelligence (AI) served as an example of the next big challenge that is upon us. Its imminence makes us aware of our need for good navigation skills as we make our way through the future we’re headed into.

I’m currently working on the next group—the theme is Why Not?!

Until those posts are complete, I’m leaving you with a summary of What Next?! along with opportunties for further exploration if you’re so inclined.

Recapitulation…

  1. What Next?!  Video: The Chinese Farmer -instead of seeing things as good and bad, he holds all occurrences lightly, without judging them.
  2. Thinking Differently & Why It Matters  Video: Mo Gawdat -about avoiding disaster by teaching AI human values.
  3. Holding Your Centre & How You Can  Video: Ashana -playing healing crystal bowls that reinforce our deepest inner connection.
  4. Practising Discernment & Why It Helps  These days we may feel unprepared for the problems we must solve. Discernment helps us navigate with confidence and step up to do the right thing.
  5. Answers & Questions  Video referenced: Yuval Noah Harari –Safe and Responsible AI? Learn from my experience questioning ChatGPT about human values, a quote about questions and answers, and writing a song about discernment. Results are shared in full for anyone who is curious.

DIVING DEEPER…

I’ve selected 2 interviews for further exploration. For this purpose, I’m interested in the thinking processes as much as the content.

Deep Dive #1 – Thinking differently & Practising discernment

The book under discussion in the video that follows is Best Things First. The author, Bjørn Lomborg, concerns himself with global issues that go well beyond climate change.

Lomborg’s starting point is: Panic is not the mode to be in if you want to solve issues. When it comes to global warming, it’s a problem but it’s not the end of the world. Therefore, we have time to enact the “bang-for-your-buck” concept, finding what works best in global issues related to health, hunger, and education…then applying ourselves (and our money) to rapidly improving those things.

Bjørn Lomborg is a globally recognized author and thought-leader renowned for his innovative perspectives on addressing global issues. HIs mission is to help people discover the most effective solutions to the world’s greatest challenges, from disease and hunger to climate and education.

Tom Bilyeu, the interviewer, is a podcaster and entrepreneur. He emphasizes that we can’t already know how to solve global problems that we’ve never encountered before. He urges us to learn how to think through novel problems, building a rubric through which we can approach them. Essentially he’s referring to developing a list of specific criteria to evaluate items under consideration and determine which possibilities meet the criteria.

He sets the framework…

  1. Start with your North Star, your guiding principle. Lomborg identified people, planet, prosperity.
  2. Use benefit/cost analysis to prioritize. In other words, find what works best (greatest benefit for least cost) and pick that.
  3. Do those best things in each area of concern first.

This interview is a good opportunity to observe two people demonstrating how they think as they explore Lomborg’s findings. You might be surprised at what ended up on his list of 12 things to do first.

When people are working through solutions to difficult problems, they are usually thinking differently from what we’re comfortable with. It’s up to each of us to discern how Lomborg’s recommendations sit with us and ask questions when we’re not satisfied. What are the gaps? Is the premise sound?

In other words, it’s a good chance to practise discernment as you listen to the conversation.

 Watch the video… Do These 12 THINGS First If You Want a BRIGHT FUTURE  July 25, 2023

 

Deep Dive #2 – Looking at an issue in the wider cultural context

If you ever think about things like the economic system and how it drives most of what happens in our lives, you will appreciate the breadth and depth of Liv Boeree’s conversation (video ink below) with Daniel Schmachtenberger.

In his introductory comments, Schmachtenberger states his intention: To identify  AI risk scenarios and a way of thinking about the entire risk landscape that is different from the usual way of talking about it… and to provide insight into what might be required to protect against those risks.

Daniel Schmachtenberger is a social philosopher and founding member of The Consilience Project, aimed at improving public sense-making and dialogue. He has a particular interest in the topics of catastrophic and existential risk, as well as civilization and institutional decay and collapse. In her written description of the interview, interviewer Liv Boeree cautions

Not a conversation for the faint-hearted, but crucial nonetheless. This is a deep dive into the game theory and exponential growth underlying our modern economic system, and how recent advancements in AI are poised to turn up the pressure on that system, and its wider environment, in ways we have never seen before.

It would help to understand these terms…

Moloch: Moloch has appeared in literature in a variety of forms. The Canaanite god Moloch was the recipient of child sacrifice according to the account of the Hebrew Bible. Moloch is depicted in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost as one of the greatest warriors of the rebel angels, vengeful and militant.

In the 19th century, “Moloch” came to be used allegorically for any idol or cause requiring excessive sacrifice. Bertrand Russell in 1903 used Moloch to describe oppressive religion, and Winston Churchill in his 1948 history The Gathering Storm used “Moloch” as a metaphor for Adolf Hitler‘s cult of personality.

In modern usage it denotes a tyrannical power, such as “the great Moloch of war” or “duty has become the Moloch of modern life.” Liv Boeree, the interviewer and an expert in game theory, defines Moloch as the God of unhealthy competition.

Meta-crisis: The meta-crisis is an entangled series of crises—ecological, psychological, spiritual, cultural, governmental, and economic. The meta-crisis is all of these and not reducible to any one of them alone. AI is not one of the risks embedded within the meta-crisis; it is an accelerant of all of them.

The meta-crisis is a self-accelerating phenomenon that grows more and more complex each day. For example, ChatGPT was version 3.5 when it was launched on the internet a few months ago. Since then, version 4 has been made available. Although ChatGPT4 has access to current information (unlike 3.5 which was limited to pre-2021) version 4 is still only programmed to do certain kinds of things.

The next step is AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), which will be fully autonomous and therefore immune to any human efforts to pull the plug. It will be able to set its own goals, independent from ours, and then take steps to implement actions toward those goals. It won’t matter if we like their goals or not. The concern of Schmachtenberger, along with many others, is that AGI will be intelligence unbound by wisdom (more below).

Compounding the meta crisis is technology—technology that makes us more distracted, divided, and confused, thereby reducing our ability to act wisely. And yet, paradoxically, this same technology gives us god-like powers which increase the need to act wisely. A very good talk: Confronting The Meta-Crisis: Criteria for Turning The Titanic – Terry Patten speaking at Google

The Alignment Problem: Misalignment is a challenging, wide-ranging problem to which there is currently no known solution. As AI systems get more powerful, they don’t necessarily get better at dooing what humans want them to.

For example, large language models such as OpenAI’s GPT-3 and Google’s Lamda get more powerful as they scale. When they get more powerful, they exhibit novel, unpredictable capabilities—a characteristic called emergence. Alignment seeks to ensure that, as these new capabilities emerge, they continue to align with the human goals the AI system was designed to achieve.

The problem comes from a misalignment of intelligence and wisdom. Any system can be misaligned, even one that is highly intelligent, if the wisdom piece is missing. Think back to Mo Gawdat and his idea about teaching human values to our AI. That solution is aimed at addressing the alignment problem by teaching wisdom to our AI.

Intelligence and wisdom…

At this point, it is worth interjecting Schmachtenberger’s discussion of intelligence and wisdom  in another interview (starting at 2:46:25). From his deep-and-wider context, here are the key points:

  • It is fair to say that human intelligence, unbound by wisdom, is the cause of the meta-crisis.
  • This same intelligence has created all the technologies—the agricultural, industrial, digital, nuclear weapons, energy harvesting…
  • It also made the system of capitalism, of communism, of…
  • This type of intelligence takes our physical (corporeal) capacities and extends them considerably—in the way a fist is extended through a hammer, or an eye is extended through a microscope or telescope (extra-corporeal).
  • And now, the type of intelligence that does this “is having the extra-corporeal intelligence be that type of intelligence itself—in maximum recursion, not bound by wisdom, driven by international, multipolar, military traps and markets.”
  • The narrow optimization it fosters is very dangerous.
  • This system is structured to perpetuate narrow short-term goals at the expense of long-term wide values. The question is, what goals are worthy of optimization?
  • What we need is systems of collective intelligence and wisdom that are based on the thriving of life in all perpetuity. Nothing less will be effective.
  • Intelligence has to be bound by wisdom.
  • Wisdom requires more than just being able to attune to the known metrics, and more than just the optimization and logic processes of those metrics.
  • Wisdom will always be bound to restraint.
  • Wisdom is more possible at smaller scale, where people can be in richer relationships with each other,
  • Understanding the limits of our own models is wisdom. There are aways unknowns that models cannot account for.

Watch the interview… Misalignment, AI & Moloch  March 30, 2023

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Empathy. In business?!

Experiencing a pandemic has got many of us reflecting on what is working in our world and what isn’t. In essence, it has shone a spotlight on our dysfunctions.

Much of what is wrong (or right) with our systems starts with our collective mindset.

A mindset is a set of assumptions, methods, or notions held by a person or group. It’s a habitual or characteristic mental attitude that determines how we interpret and respond to situations individually and collectively.  We become so used to our mindsets that we don’t see that our thinking is fixed in this particular way. To us it’s normal.

If you observe behaviours of yourself and others around you, it’s not difficult to identify mindsets. Here are a few examples of what you might discover…

  • Sufficiency mindset—There is enough, and I am enough.
  • Growth mindset—Life is about expanding awareness and continual learning.
  • Thrift mindset—It’s my responsibility to use resources, both mine and the planet’s, wisely.
  • Sustainability mindset—What I do must contribute to life carrying on, now and in the future.

Empathy…

Empathy is also a mindset, and the subject for today. Continue reading

Doing School Differently

September!

Back to school. A different proposition in this first year of pandemic adjustments. Wearing masks. Different protocols for routines such as recess and lunch. Or maybe learning at home instead.

However it happens, there is general agreement that education is important. And most of us accept that the way we do education is the way it should be done. But not everyone agrees. Sir Ken Robinson, for one.

Continue reading

A new normal…or something beautiful on the other side of this?

Last week I said: This is an extraordinary time. Please, don’t let this time pass without reflection. If you are inclined toward reflection, here is a conversation I found inspiring.

Continue reading

Reality check…

The first step in recovery from anything is facing the facts, recognizing the reality of the situation we are in, acknowledging where we’ve arrived in life.

Here’s where we—the humans of the world—find ourselves in this summer of 2020. We are in a… Continue reading

There’s got to be a better way.

As I described last week, a butterfly forms from a caterpillar because the caterpillar contains imaginal discs that are the blueprint for the new form. I also indicated that there are forward-thinking citizens who have developed models and projects that are the imaginal discs for society as we move forward from the intense disruption we’ve experienced.

Today I’m introducing one of those imaginal discs, but first let me summarize why we need to imagine a better way.

The topic is our economic system…

If you don’t need this background information, scroll directly to the video. It’s not to be missed. Continue reading