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.


Living Systems Thinking

Limits to Growth

What would it take?

So… I‘ve declared 2024 as my chance to show what I’m made of, to live without flinching, and to remember why I wanted to come here in the first place. This represents a big change for someone who has found a good deal of security in flying under the radar for many years.

Now what?!

How do I move ahead in the face of this paradox?

The first thing is to recognize that everything in our lives is influenced by inner and outer energies. That’s the vantage point of my perspective. This isn’t a surprise; it’s a fact of physics. And it means I’ll start by learning a bit about those energies to become clear on two things:

  1. What will I be navigating though?
  2. How can I manage my own energy as gracefully as possible?

Cosmic energy has a major influence on us, whether we are aware of it or not.  Since this is the beginning of a new year, it’s a good time to get the lay of the energetic landscape.

From the perspective of cosmic energy, 2024 has signs of being another turbulent year. But there’s a fundamental difference in the energy. It’s going to be tricky—turbulent but with a nuance that has implications for all of us. Chinese astrology identifies 2024 as the year of the wood dragon. Dragon energy is fiery, and wood fuels fire. So, as you might imagine, the intensity of what we do will be magnified.

Looking at our inner energy, from a mythological perspective, the dragon is a powerful fiery force which is distractive when disconnected from consciousness. And yet fire combined with consciousness results in illumination and wisdom. 

The bottom line is that fire consumes or illuminates, depending on whether or not it is coupled with consciousness. And given the fiery cosmic condition, it’s doubly important that we consciously direct our energy this year. Living by default will not serve us well.

Back to navigating change…

Here’s a basic energy principle I learned from Deepak Chopra many years ago.

Energy flows where attention goes.

In practice, this means that when I concern myself with what I consider wrong with me or the world, I’m feeding those very things I want to change or get rid of, and entrenching them even more. And I will have spent a lot of valuable energy doing so.

Squandering my energy in this way is bound to leave me unhappy, with little energy left for moving toward what I do want.

To be clear, I’m not saying I should ignore the reality of how things are. Awareness is the first step toward change. It is what we do with that awareness that makes the difference.

So if I know trying hard can’t work, what will I do instead?

Since attention activates energy for something to happen, the sensible thing is to direct my attention toward how I’d like things to be, instead of focusing on what I dislike and don’t want. Simple. Not always easy. Takes conscious effort.

The question becomes…

What is it I want?

Or, the better question might be: What do I really want? I’m fortunate to have my survival needs well supplied, and that has left me room to explore how I can contribute to the well-being of life on this planet.

I’ve always had a sense of purpose, a deep knowing that I’m here—here at this particular time—for a reason. So what I really want rests on that foundation.

In this coming year, I want to consciously explore what is true from my perspective, and then articulate it. My posts will be a step in that direction. This approach has arisen from deepening my inner connection through a variety of means. It’s a process of unfolding, and I’ll share more as we go along.

Where to start?

Simply put—start where we’re at. Since I’m moving resolutely into not-yet-known territory—in which I’m likely to encounter a lot of conditions that are different and new—I’m thinking an exploratory attitude will take me a long way. And I do know that nothing is changed until the possibility of it is seen. I’ll start by exploring possibilities.

How to do it?

I ask myself questions. I imagine possibilities and test them by feeling how my body responds. Does it feel light or heavy? Contracted or expanded? Sometimes I feel as if my heart is smiling when I land on a constructive idea. And once I recall doubling over with a feeling of nausea while considering a job that was not aligned with where I needed to go.

If you’re feeling the stirring of the dragon but not sure where you want to put your attention, it’s time fo a bit of an inner adventure. A good way to start an exploration is to wonder what you might want. Here’s a playful approach from author Teresa van Bryce to help you engage your imagination and explore possibilities.

And that might be all it would take for you to put change in motion.


Clinging doesn’t work .

Life on Earth was designed to evolve. That’s why we’re here,,,for the ever-changing opportunities to experience life and grow in our humanness. Yet as we move through daily life, we seem to have forgotten the fundamental principle that makes growth possible.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us, me included, fall into the trap of wanting things to remain the same. That’s not surprising, because no-change feels like security. Life seems easier when we know what to expect and how to navigate it. Continue reading

Increasing our Cosciousness

Consciousness is my theme at the moment. Well, actually, It has been for many years. That’s how it ended up in the title of my book, Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, which grew out of my teaching college students to be conscious consumers.

In the time that has passed, I’ve become ever-more aware of the urgent need for increasing our consciousness on all fronts. We must, if we are to resolve the world-scale chaos around us.

That phrase—the more beautiful world our hearts know as possible—is borrowed from author and essayist, Charles Eisenstein. It’s the title of one of his books, and is completely relevant to this time where we must find ways to increase our consciousness.

Seeing the bigger picture…

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True, but partial…

As I wrote last week, there are many definitions of consciousness, depending on the viewpoint of the person creating the definition. Each definition is based on limited information, and the interpretations are all true…but partial.

The problem with partial information…

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The Path Ahead is Not the Same

While writing last week’s post about learning to play with consciousness, I was reminded of what Einstein said about problem-solving…

Einstein quote

Heaven knows, we certainly have problems to solve right now. Big ones.

This made me wonder if that’s why we’re facing so many crises all at once—a long-lived pandemic, a brutal war, intense social unrest, massive fires and flooding…

Could it be that this is what was needed to shake us out of our complacency … so we would acknowledge that our way of solving big problems isn’t working? Continue reading

Power-less to Power-full

When I wrote last week about holding peace in a time of war, I realized that I left a big question dangling—how can we find the inner power to do something so difficult and abstract? Where do we even start?

Play with Consciousness

It doesn’t help to feel powerless. Not in any situation.

Yet powerlessness is often our default position, especially when the problem is enormous and we just don’t know what to do.

Why learning to play with consciousness matters…

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Hold Peace

When war is going on, it’s even more important to practise peace. Does that sound counter-intuitive—or maybe even downright ridiculous—to you? It would to many, because we aren’t used to thinking in terms of energy fields.

The field of peace…

So let’s consider the dynamics of peace in the context of energy. In a recent zoom session with his on-line community, Charles Eisenstein spoke about this: Continue reading

On the Edge of the Unknown

I think most of us are tired of hearing the word unprecedented. Yet it’s an accurate description of the time we are in—one where we’re being confronted by things that we have never known or done before.

That’s an enormous challenge, individually and collectively, because we’ve become used to having things under control. And here we are, facing a pandemic, civil unrest, environmental collapse, and a war like we’ve never seen. Worse yet, efforts to bring them under control are having no more than minimal success.

I suspect that most of us feel this is not what we signed up for.

Imagination isn’t enough…

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Finding the best of ourselves.…

Perhaps it’s my age… I don’t know… But I find myself longing for the kinder, gentler times—when people understood the meaning of statesmanship, discretion, civility, honour, respect.

Can we recover them? I don’t know. I can only hope that we humans, collectively as well as individually, will find the best of ourselves soon enough.


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