Tag Archives: complexity

Star Trek or Little House on the Prairie, the Red/Blue Divide, and Imagining Complexly

The US election results of 8 Nov 2016 were a bit shocking to me. David Wong at Cracked.com provided a strikingly insightful explanation of why I and my ivory tower, liberal left coast colleagues failed to see this coming.
John Michael Greer noted that the success of the Trump campaign in rural counties is a predictable result of the frustration and hopelessness that permeate the lives of people who have felt neglected by the powerful elites of the country’s urban centers. This deep cultural gulf between cities and small-town-America is an important consideration for successfully maintaining a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural communities (and remember, the cities need the countryside if they want to have things like food and water). Those of us who care about the future of this planet need to find ways to build a future that includes a vision of a better life that will appeal to the rural and ‘Rust Belt’ communities. And we can’t do this by objectifying or vilifying them. As John Green is fond of saying, we need to take the time to “imagine others complexly,” and a big part of that is learning to get better at listening to other people’s concerns. As with planting a tree, the best time to do tbest time to plant a tree.jpghis was twenty years ago (like, seriously), but the second-best time is now.
I started writing this post a while back, shortly after I had the good fortune to visit the Sustainability Institute at Pennsylvania State University. I put it on a back burner for a time, but realized that it had become even more important since the results.  While visiting Penn State, Jeremy Bean asked me a question that, ideally, everyone should ask and explore on a regular basis: What is your vision of a sustainable future? I realized with some surprise that no one had ever really asked me that question in that way. What I attempted to articulate was the ways in which I see a high-tech world and a deep permaculture world as being not just two alternatives, but in fact two tracks that can, should and perhaps must be run in parallel: not Star Trek* vs. Little House on the Prairie, but both at the same time.

 What is your vision of a sustainable future?

To elaborate somewhat on my response, I see these two directions or modes of improving sustainability (shiny high-tech on one hand, and an engaged horticultural society informed by both ecological science and more ancient ways of knowing on the other) as having the possibility not only to co-exist amicably, but in fact to synergize. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing could release human resources to allow for a more hands-on (yet intellectually demanding) kind of small-scale, locally specific, intensive food production  (“Hello computer, make me a mattock head that will work the best around my hazelnut bushes and apple trees, and design a yoke I can use to team my mule and my llama”). We may need to consider alternative economic systems to accommodate this very different suite of human occupations.
I emphasize the plurals in the last sentence, because I think it is important to try to imagine the future complexly. Specifically, we should neither expect nor seek a monoculture. Resilience, and therefore our chances of suvival, are best served by the healthy pursuit of multiple strategies. Evolution works not by a steady chain of progress along a single line, but by the differential survival of diverse organisms. If we see human economic-social-ecological systems through this lens, diverse societies with different strategies will yield a much better chance of surviving and improving upon the present than a single, unified strategy.  So what I would advocate is for different locales and communities to seek alternative ways of balancing post-industrialism, agrarianism, pastoralism, and nomadic foraging economies, using either novel or traditional models. Some yak herders may use satellite imaging and GPS to make migration systems more efficient; some urbanites might rely on hydroponic produce and lab-grown proteins in complex systems based on the latest renewable energy and water management technologies; some rural communities may choose isolated self-reliance with a cap on technology at the 19th century level (as in some Amish communities), or perhaps earlier still (to connect with more ancient lifeways and traditions).
In general, I think the majority of people are unlikely to want to give up some of the benefits of our current global levels of knowledge and interconnectivity, and I would be personally opposed to any kind of enforced primitivism (or enforced techno-urbanism, for that matter). There are challenges to keeping lines of communication and personal options open between diverse economic-social-ecological systems, but these are not insurmountable. Even within more rural Transition Town strategies, a diversity of personal choices regarding technology may be able to co-exist harmoniously.
The question of technological reliance is but one factor. Other questions to be addressed in articulating a vision for sustainable futures engage more deeply with the meaning of sustainability: How do we save what needs to be saved?  What kinds of limits do we set? What technologies are most important and useful to a sustainable society, and which technologies should and could be effectively abandoned? What systems do we use to ensure we stay on a path towards future sustainability?
Maintaining healthy ecosystems is my highest priority. This may now require some fairly heroic efforts to preserve functioning biodiversity, especially in maintaining what remains viable in old-growth rainforests (both tropical and temperate) and aquatic habitats (coral reefs, lakes and rivers), especially in the face of at least some ongoing climate instability. This will mean committing ourselves to reducing harvesting of renewable resources (forest and ocean products, and anything that degrades air, soil or water quality) to below the rate at which they can be replenished or repaired. It will also mean eschewing extraction of non-renewable resources, and finding ways to recycle instead of wasting what has already been extracted.
At the same time, I also don’t want to lose our capacity to maintain and even advance the progress we have made in many of our complex technologies, and I definitely want to advance the benefits of science and these technologies to all humans (assuring not just basic subsistence, but also universal access to medicine, sanitation, communications, transportation, education, research and exploration). I expect that there are many important linkages between the technological achievements and the social progress of the last three centuries, and I do not relish a future in which those gains are abandoned.  I believe the challenge here will be to judiciously determine which technologies are most worth maintaining, and finding truly sustainable ways to maintain those while abandoning some technologies which are no longer ethical or viable.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, it is clear we need to consider some deep transformations of our current economic system. The challenge is not small. An industrial/post-industrial economic system that supports and incentivizes sustainable behavior while dis-incentivizing unsustainable behavior has yet to be developed. Some may argue that only our current model of capitalist economy provides the proper freedom and incentives to maintain our spectacular rate of innovation. In some senses this may be true, and I also expect that in the coming decades, the pace of research and technological advancement may slow. However, we are have more brainpower now on the planet than ever before. Average IQs and similar test scores are going up (probably not the best way to measure actual individual intelligence, but somewhat indicitave of collective intelligence nonetheless). In 1950, there were only about 17.5 million people with any post-secondary education; by 2010 there were over 318 million – an increase of more than 18X (data from Barro and Lee, 2013).  We almost certainly have more PhDs alive now than the total number of people who ever had PhDs before 1950. In addition, we have the benefit of all of the accumulated information from this history, and increasingly improved ways to search and analyse it. So while innovations may not progress as quickly in the next fifty years as they did in the last fifty, it would be amazing if things slowed down by more than a little, at least when it comes to things that are important and useful to genuinely improving sustainable quality of life.
We don’t really know what these post-scarcity, post-growth economic systems will look like, we only know that we haven’t seen them yet. How would such systems intersect with emerging social and political systems? Can we find ways to get people working more on caring for the earth and caring for one another, and still assure that everyone can have a healthy and rewarding life?  There is no shortage of work to be done, in repairing damaged ecosystems, in re-inventing our food systems, in caring for children and the elderly, in educating those whose current or recent jobs are not sustainable. Perhaps new economic systems will find ways to better reward people who work toward a net-positive ecological ‘footprint,’ leaving ‘credits’ for indulgences (travel, amusing gadgets, more consumptive hobbies), rather than facilitating wealth concentration regardless of environmental harm.
While I cannot yet form a clear image of what will be required of us, I do see some blurry shapes that we might anticipate being resolved by our efforts. max_temkin_poster_550I suspect that most of us in the industrialized world will probably have to be ready to embrace things being  slower and less convenient. Hopefully, the trade-off will be less soul-crushing, meaningless drudgery for wage laborers (many of the people whose rage and distress were voiced in this week’s election results). I believe the best approach to healing the rifts that this recent U.S. election revealed will be to come together to develop more self-reliant, socially-engaged and emotionally rewarding ways for more people to make a living, recognizing the need for maintaining healthy rural communities and lower-tech options for those who prefer them. If we put our minds to it, we can figure this out.

*It turns out that Star Trek actually did presage this vision, at least in small ways. In 1990, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Family” showed something that might have surprised a lot of Trekkies – Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s brother as a Luddite, Slow Food movement kind of guy, getting along just fine as a traditional vintner in the 24th century – neither isolated nor unaware, just choosing to use less technology.

Other Trek universe episodes were likely to portray those who choose lower-tech lifestyles in an even less favorable light (e.g. “The Way to Eden“, “Paradise“), but at least they continued to acknowledge the possibility that some would go for voluntary simplicity despite the appeal of Star Trek’s techno-cornucopian society.

Cultivating Ecosystem Gardens of Health and Hope

This is a talk I gave last week at the conference “Spontaneous Beauties?” World Gardens and Gardens in the World at NTU (YouTube video of practice talk, and SlideShare of PowerPoints).



Three different approaches are transforming humanity’s relationship to the wider biosphere through innovative ecosystem stewardship, informed by our deepening understandings of ecology and complexity.  Microbiome management promotes human health by cultivating the ecologies of microorganisms in, on and around our bodies, seeking to encourage beneficial symbionts and discourage invasive microbes that can trigger illness. Permaculture is a philosophy of gardening, food production and homestead management that fosters beneficial ecological interactions to cultivate healthy habitats for humans and other species.  Rewilding is a strategy of landscape management that seeks to restore the balance and diversity of historic or prehistoric ecosystems by introducing species to fill trophic niches emptied by local extinctions.  These approaches represent a radical shift of the post‐industrial human role in nature, from one of dominance, produce maximization and pest eradication to one of regenerative alliance and collaborative cultivation.

Keywords: microbiome, permaculture, rewilding, ecosystem, biodiversity, complexity




An Ecology Of Mind – A daughter’s portrait of Gregory Bateson

I was lucky to see this at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz a couple years ago. Now it’s available to the world.


An Ecology Of Mind- A Daughter’s portrait of Gregory Bateson Directed by Nora Bateson – Trailer from Nora Bateson on Vimeo.

If you’re a fan of Gregory Bateson, like me, you will love this retrospective. If you’ve never heard of Gregory Bateson, you need to – watch and learn now!

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” -G. Bateson

Reviewing The Systems View of Life

Zygote Quarterly has just published the review of The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, 2014) that I worked on as a co-author.  Like the other review authors, I think it is a useful and important book.  Capra and Luisi have attempted an integrated review of physical, biological, social and cognitive sciences, with some deep-ecology-inspired philosophy and spirituality thrown in for good measure.  It’s a big deal, and I’d recommend it to most readers.

I was very excited about participating in writing a review for the book, and co-authoring a review with a few other people was a very good process.  But there are things I had to say that couldn’t quite fit into the review we were writing together. Below are a few thoughts I had that were edited down or not included in the review.

Bad Anthropology

I did have some real problems with the book, in particular the chapter called “The human adventure.”  Some of these complaints and caveats were included in the review, but others were not, so I give them in more detail here.  Basically, I could have assigned Chapter 11 in an anthropology class as an exercise in looking for things that are either just plain wrong or open to different interpretations for my Intro to Biological Anthropology classes.

I was disappointed by the internal inconsistencies in Chapters 10 and 11 (“The quest for the origin of life on Earth” and “The human adventure”). As mentioned in the review they use some very linear, deterministic metaphors when talking about organismal evolution, despite their accurate and gratifying note in Chapter 9 that the process is NOT linear and deterministic.  For example,“The human evolutionary adventure is the most recent phase in the unfolding of life on Earth…” (p. 240) seems to imply that it was all leading up to us; “The first human species, Homo habilis, appears 4 minutes before midnight, evolves into Homo erectus half a minute later, and into the archaic forms of Homo sapiens 30 seconds before midnight,” (p. 241) ignores the many side branches of hominin relatives that were concurrent with these species.

This part of the book is further weakened by the fact that the authors chose to ignore many broader ecological contexts in which human evolution took place (not to mention all the other organisms evolving since the earliest eukaryotes). Their summary of human evolution also ignores changes to our scientific understanding of bipedalism and its context over the last decade (particularly in the last five years, including the important Ardipithecus ramidus finds).  Other research illuminating the extent of tool use and social learning in other species demonstrates that bipedalism and the “freeing of the hands” is not a pre-requisite for tool manufacture.  All great apes make tools, including the very arboreal orangutans.  Even species without hands, such as bottlenose dolphins and New Caledonian crows, make and use fairly sophisticated tools. (This was a big part of my 2004 dissertation: Orangutan Cultures: Tool Use, Social Transmission and Population Differences.)

Some other debates in evolutionary anthropology that are neglected include the notion of nuclear families and male provisioning in early hominins (p242-3; this has been contentious since the 1980s, and it’s not going away any time soon – I don’t think what they described as “widely accepted” is in fact widely accepted).  Also  on p243 they talk about Homo erectus as the first to leave Africa at 1MYA, but there is an interesting and more primitive hominin at Dmanisi, Georgia dated at about 1.8MYA that has been widely known by anthropologists since at least 2007 (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v449/n7160/abs/nature06134.html).   Their depiction of European cave art as revealing a recent breakthrough in human cognition is also highly debatable; there is now evidence for other forms of art and similar cultural complexity that predate this in Africa, much closer to the earliest appearance of modern Homo sapiens (a good, accessible reference for this is Shea’s 2011 article in American Scientist www.americanscientist.org/issues/id.11845,y.2011,no.2,content.true,page.1,css.print/issue.aspx).

I went back and looked at a similar chapter that Capra had included in his 1996 book The Web of Life, and found that many of the examples in The Systems View of Life‘s Chapter 11 were taken directly from The Web of Life‘s Chapter 10, “The Unfolding of Life” in a sub-section also titled “The Human Adventure.”  A lot has changed in the field of anthropology in 18 years.  I’m disappointed that this wasn’t updated for the new book.

A Living Book-System?

One other thing that was not included in the final version of the book review was an admittedly half-baked notion of how to make something like a book into more of a living system.  This would have solved the problems, such as those with anthropology described above, by opening the writing up for input from scholars working in each field.

At this point the book itself is something of a dead organism, no longer able to dynamically respond to its surroundings (more like a stone than a dog – and can we please transform that otherwise useful distinction between reactions and responses on page 136 to something that doesn’t involve kicking dogs!).  Would this work embody the idea of a living system more readily as some kind of ongoing, tightly controlled wiki, with carefully managed permeability (like the crucial cell membrane), accepting certain incoming additions or replacements of information and rejecting others in order to maintain integrity and exhibit development through interactions with its environment? Such a work (no longer a book, but a kind of intellectual organism), if structured and nourished by careful systems thinkers, could prove even more useful than the book in its current form.

In other words, is there an transformation whereby a “book” can become more biomimetic, and operate in ways that reflect the cognitive and metabolic processes of living systems?

In the conclusion of our review in Zygote Quarterly, we do make a suggestion that readers find ways to engage with the work.  One option is online communities.  I set up a discussion group on Goodreads as one possible forum for this.

I met one of my dearest friends, the late Judy Bloomgardener, when I attended a talk that Fritjof Capra was giving at Bookshop Santa Cruz for the release of 2004’s The Hidden Connections. Judy was making her way through the rows of folding chairs, leaving fliers for starting a discussion group around the book.  I don’t think I actually talked to her then, but I did call the phone number on the flier and join the group.  We continued to discuss that book and many others, with groups as large as a dozen and as small as just the two of us.  These are some of my fondest memories, and I wish I had been able to talk with Judy about this book, too.  I encourage you to read it, and talk about it with your friends.

Quality quantification? Comparing Asian Countries

In her recent, brilliant (as usual) video, “The Story of Solutions,” Annie Leonard admonishes that we should stop relentlessly working toward MORE and start emphasizing BETTER.

Trouble is, how do we locate BETTER?  How do we know if we’re moving toward or away from that goal?  How do we get the feedback we need, in a way that will be convincing to people across the ideological spectrum?  In other words, how do we measure our progress in ways that allow for useful comparison?  Here’s what Donella Meadows had to say on the subject:

Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.

If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can precisely define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can precisely define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist. [from D. Meadows, “Dancing with Systems” 2002]

And yet, I’m a science nerd.  I ♥ numbers.  Can we get numbers, even with fuzzy definitions, just to give us some way to compare over time or across cultures?  If natural selection works by amplifying positive deviance, and we seek to emulate this most successful biological process, then we need a way to recognize those bright spots on the fitness landscape, so that we can foster them and encourage their replication.  We need feedback to know if we’re moving toward our goal of BETTER.  And, to quote Meadows again:

If the goal is defined badly, if it doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to measure, if it doesn’t reflect the real welfare of the system, then the system cannot possibly produce a desired result.  Systems, like the three wishes in the traditional fairy tale, have a terrible tendency to produce exactly and only what you ask them to produce. (Thinking in Systems: A Primer, p. 138)

There are several indices out there that purport to measure something about our well-being and progress.  I’ve written before about the idea of Gross National Happiness. I’ve been investigating other available measures in relation to my current project to promote Education for Sustainability in the sixteen countries that represent half the world.

What is it that could be BETTER in this vast and complex system?  I’d venture almost everything in the nested sets of human economic, social and environmental interactions.


These interdependent and interpenetrating systems interact in complex ways (go ahead, say that three times fast).  As discussed previously, economic aspects of these systems tend to be the first ones measured, because money is by its very nature quite amenable to counting.  There have also been some interesting attempts to measure global environmental health, and even to express environmental health in economic terms.  And there are some widespread attempts to measure things like social well-being, especially in terms of freedom. No such index is without controversy; all have limitations in terms of data validity, not to mention the challenges associated with trying to quantify important qualitative values (basically attempting to scrute the inscrutable).  Nonetheless, they are a place to start, so I’ve started there with my attempts to compare the current status of my sixteen countries.  Below are my tabulated results, with color coding to help our primate optics detect patterns more readily.  Click the link or image for the Excel spreadsheet.

Asia Economic Data by Country

First up, the oh-so-quantifiable economic measures.  The classic and deeply problematic way of representing the economic status of a country is its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  To even begin to be a useful basis of comparison, this must be expressed in some kind of per capita way (otherwise, the fact that China’s GDP is so much bigger than Brunei’s is almost entirely attributable to the fact that there are over 3000 Chinese citizens for every single Brunei citizen). But as we move into the relationship between economic and social factors, another glaring discrepancy becomes obvious: the distribution of the wealth represented in the GDP is far from equitable.  Just how far is indicated by another index: GINI, utilized by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  A higher GINI coefficient indicates a more dramatic difference between the few rich and the many poor in each nation (Wikipedia is a good starting place for not only the definition and calculations, but also the limitations and controversies).  Also, GDP and GINI notoriously neglect certain aspects of what are usually considered important goals in economic development (e.g. health, education).  So UNDP factors those into another measure, the Human Development Index, which can then be further adjusted for inequality, to give some sense of progress (or lack thereof) toward the Millennium Development Goals.

Asia Economic Data by Country
Asia econ data table

Asia Political Ratings by Country

The above economic indices are also, of course, measures of social relationships in some sense. The following data and rankings move more explicitly into the social and political realm.  (One could argue that HDI more properly belongs in this set.) I’ve included a quick-and-dirty summary description of each country’s political system (thanks Google), and some indices related to freedom, as a shorthand for some of the crucial social systems at the national level.  Sadly, Gross National Happiness has not yet been measured for most countries.  There are lots of other things I could include here (dominant religions, years since independence from colonial powers, etc.); feel free to suggest other useful comparisons in the comments.

Asia political data by country Asia social data table

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

These are ratings that are more specifically connected to the human impact on the rest of the biosphere.  As they are in the realm usually investigated by the natural sciences (e.g. population biology, forestry and ecology), they are again more quantitative.  One particularly interesting rating is the Happy Planet Index, an attempt to measure the environmental efficiency of human well-being.

Asia Environmental Ratings by Country

Asia enviro data table

Strategies for Changing the Story

or, “What neuroscience can tell us about political strategies.”

A post a while back by Kitchenmudge got me interested in some discussions about brain differences, and how these might just point the way towards  GUTGWWW (the Grand Unified Theory of Getting What We Want – pronounced “gutgoo”).  It turns out that one of the big obstacles to GWWW is simply that opponents of GWWW have brains that are physically and functionally different from those support GWWW.

Ian Monroe summarized several recent studies on brain differences.  One found a correlation between higher IQ scores and a greater likelihood of holding “evolutionary novel” preferences (e.g. having concern for a broader circle of others, beyond just family and friends, and perhaps including strangers). Another study showed that,  in a sample of ninety young adults, conservatives have a more developed amygdala  relative to liberals (a brain structure activated in some emotional reactions, particularly for memories associated with fear, and for social connectedness). Those on the political left had a thicker anterior cingulate cortex than right-wing thinkers (an area of the brain associated with error detection, reward based learning and emotional awareness) .

These differences in structure between the brains of those who are politically liberal or conservative suggest an underlying cause for some related differences in how liberal or conservative brains process incoming information.  Of course, habits of mind could influence neurological development, or neurological development could affect habits of mind, or both – as with so many complex systems, the arrows of causality point both ways.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that one characteristic of the thinking of politically conservative folx is that once they have taken a position on something, they are unlikely to be swayed by factual evidence to the contrary. There is even a “backfire effect” among conservatives, wherein facts that contradict a previously accepted idea tend only to strengthen that erroneous idea.

Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. Joe Keohane, Boston.com

This is why the repetition of a “Big Lie” is just so damn effective, even against an avalanche of evidence to the contrary… This is why there are still so many climate change deniers and evolution naysayers.

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
-Mark Twain

And folks, we may be in some peril here.

In their 2007 book Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Nordhaus and Shellenberger discuss the problem of environmentalist’s usual warnings (a.k.a. “The Litany”) as an approach to teaching about sustainability:

For the most part, these environmentalist cautionary tales have had the opposite of their intended effect, provoking fatalism, conservatism and survivalism among readers and the lay public, not the rational embrace of environmental politics. (p. 131)

In other words, fact-based warnings just activate people’s mental immune systems.  It doesn’t matter how scientifically sound your information is.

How do we work around this?  Not by giving them resistant people more facts and evidence, obviously.

So perhaps we need to tell them a new story, a story of a future they would like, then tell them about altogether new approaches to getting there, ones that don’t contain any of the code words that they’ve already conditioned themselves to dislike.

Hmmm, tricky that.  What things do they like that we like too,  things that get us closer to GWWW?  They like community and small-town neighborliness.  They like self-reliance and a pioneer spirit.  They like families, kids, grandkids. They like personal responsibility.  The like the familiar, and are nostalgic about an imagined past.

The great storyteller and sparkling trickster-spirit Caroline Casey once said that she’s a “conservative creationist,” because she wants to conserve the creation.  Can we comfortably fit into such costumes, to appear suitable and friendly, hiding our coyote nature so as not to disturb the sheep?