Friday, May 02, 2008

Remarkable articles from the turn of the century

I want to share some important sources of wisdom -- articles and (updated) URLs below that changed my life or my perspective in dramatic ways during 2000-2001. I am surprised to discover that in many ways these writings remain touchstones in my personal/ political evolution, and I expect them to remain potent in my thinking for some time to come.



Donella Meadow's "Places to Intervene in a System" explains that we can fiddle with the quantities of things (subsidies, taxes, standards) and feedback loops, but we only start to get high leverage when we address a system's rules and goals, and the power of self-organization. Or we can be really ambitious and address the mindset or paradigm out of which the system's goals, rules, and feedback structures arise. Not that any of this is easy: Often the higher the leverage we seek, the harder it is to get measurable satisfaction from our work. Interestingly, Meadows notes that we can also stand in a place beyond all this, grounded in the basic, creative, fluid uncertainty of life. [Someday, I tell myself, I'll write about the co-intelligent versions of all ten of Meadows' intervention points. Until then, you can learn a lot about what I'd say by browsing the items on] Although (in contrast to this article on systems) Meadows' many other articles have seldom radically changed my perspective, I find they often articulate what I've been thinking and feeling far more competently that I ever could. A recent case in point is her "Polar Bears and Three-Year-Olds on Thin Ice", which "says it like it is" about our current circumstances, with appropriate emotion.

While I'm talking about systems, I should also alert you to the first article I've seen that calls for establishing an integrated field to study human systems of all sizes, from individuals to whole societies. This is something I dreamed of years ago, but I'd never seen anyone else talk about it, especially in a well-developed form like Saul Eisen's "Redesigning Human and Global Systems: A Conceptual and Strategic Framework".


Bill Joy's April 2000 WIRED article "Why the future doesn't need us". Our most powerful 21st-century technologies -- robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech -- are threatening to make humans an endangered species. Their potential capacity -- individually and (especially) in combination -- to empower individuals or small groups to create mobile, self-replicating destructive entities in the real world, could ultimately defeat all efforts to monitor them, resulting in the likely extinction of humanity or whole categories of living organisms. Joy's article caused an uproar especially because he's a high-tech guru (a founder of Sun Microsystems) who raises serious questions about whether these technologies should continue to be freely developed. He figures we will probably cross the threshold-of-no-return within 10-20 years, unless we do something significant and soon.

Accompanying Bill Joy's article was Amory and Hunter Lovins' "A Tale of Two Botanies" which notes that "genetic engineering" is "done by people who've seldom studied evolutionary biology and ecology" and is a misnomer because the word "'engineering' implies understanding of the causal mechanisms that link actions to effects, but nobody understands the mechanisms by which genes, interacting with each other and the environment, express traits. Transgenic manipulation inserts foreign genes into random locations in a plant's DNA to see what happens. That's not engineering; it's the industrialization of life by people with a narrow understanding of it." When you combine such ignorance with the capacity of living organisms to move and reproduce in mysteriously interconnected ecosystems, you have a formula for big trouble.

A year later I was reminded of Joy and the Lovinses when I read a February 2001 article 'GM BUG 'COULD END ALL LIFE' from the New Zealand Herald describing a bacteria genetically modified by ecologically-minded researchers to make gas-saving alcohol from crop waste. Quite by accident -- and just in time -- a grad student experiment showed that the altered bacteria (which, in its unaltered state, lives in the root systems of virtually all terrestrial plants) killed wheat plants -- and MIGHT have killed all terrestrial plant life -- which, of course, would have killed most terrestrial animals, as well. Because of this research, the bacteria was not released into the field. But funding was cut off, so research exploring the extent of its danger was never done. "Klebsiella planticola - The GM Monster That Almost Got Away" tells more about this particular bacteria, which could have fulfilled Bill Joy's prophecy more than a decade ahead of time. [And this is a concern of mine with recent bioengineering research on cellulosic ethanol...] My life hasn't been the same since.

This issue of our technologically-embedded lives reminds me that I also return over and over to two articles from the pre-Y2K era. One is David Ehrenfeld's "The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology".

Since the other, David Orr's "Speed", is apparently not online, but comes from the Jan/Feb 99 Issue of Resurgence [and seems to be Chapter 5 of his recent book "The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention"], I will share what I believe is its essence. It notes how water moving too fast through a landscape wrecks the ground and doesn't recharge the aquifers; money moving too quickly through an economy tears up communities and environments and "does not recharge the local wellsprings of prosperity"; and "information moving too quickly to become knowledge and grow into wisdom does not recharge moral aquifers on which families, communities and entire nations depend. The result is moral atrophy and public confusion. The common thread between all three is velocity. And they are tied together in a complex web of cause and effect that we have mostly overlooked. There is an appropriate velocity for water set by geology, soils, vegetation and ecological relationships in a given landscape. There is an appropriate velocity for money that corresponds to long-term needs of communities rooted in particular places and to the necessity of preserving ecological capital. There is an appropriate velocity for information, set by the assimilative capacity of the mind and by the collective learning rate of communities.... Increasing velocity and scale tends to increase the complexity of social and ecological arrangements and reduce the time available to recognize and avoid problems." Noting that the things that need to happen quickly for us to survive occur slowly, while the things that are destroying us happen quickly, David Orr recommends that we create "an absolutely clear analysis of the huge inefficiencies of high-speed 'efficiency'.... Next, we need a more robust idea of time and scale that takes the health of people and communities seriously.... Finally...we must learn to take time" to study nature, to preserve diversity, "to calculate the full costs of what we do", "to make things durable, repairable, useful and beautiful" and "to eliminate the very concept of waste. In most things, timeliness and regularity, not speed, are important."


Donald Michael's "Some Observations Regarding A Missing Elephant". Michael clearly demonstrates that "what is happening to the human race is too complex, interconnected, and dynamic to comprehend. Acknowledging that we don't know what we're talking about carries significant implications for how we perceive ourselves as persons and how we conduct our activities." I know of no better article on facing the intrinsic uncertainty of life (especially rapidly evolving postmodern, high-tech, globally interconnected life) and trying to live creatively, wisely and pro-actively in the midst of that uncertainty. This article is a must for anyone contemplating "new activism" in a world whose behavior is best explained by chaos and complexity theories. The only significant thing that Michael misses is how important it is for us to deal with uncertainty TOGETHER. While we can't banish uncertainty with collective wisdom, we can certainly dance with it more successfully if we do it together and do it right. Figuring out how to do it right together has been my life's work for over a decade. [Paul Ray and I did commentaries on Michael's article.]


Norman Johnson's "Developmental Insights into Evolving Systems: Roles of Diversity, Non-Selection, Self-Organization, Symbiosis" (available as a PDF file) Here's a remarkable 10 page description of how decentralized, adaptive systems evolve by a developmental process in which each developmental stage has different mechanisms, from competition (in the Immature/Formative stage) to emergent collective effects (in the Mature/Co-Operational stage) to highly (and potentially overly) structured cooperation (in the Senescent/Condense stage). Diversity, it turns out, is the key to understanding how each stage improves and how the system is vulnerable (or not) to failure within a changing environment. [This article includes insightful experiments revealing intrinsic collective intelligence, a phenomenon explored earlier by Kevin Kelly's idea of "hive mind".] Johnson has a number of other articles at his website, "The science of diversity".


Stuart Cowan's "Patterns of a Conservation Economy" delineates a "pattern language" for bioregional sustainability. A "pattern language" is architect/planner Christopher Alexander's term for a coherent collection of design elements needed to make a livable Place -- from micro-factors like back yards to macro-factors like regional plans. Each design element acts like a systemic "need" which can be satisfied in a wide variety of ways, which allows for creativity and diversity. Cowan's modular web of such factors constitutes a mini-encyclopedia of sustainable ideas and practices, such as Awareness of Consumption and Its Effects, Beauty and Play, Community-Based Financial Institutions, Cyclical Patterns of Production and Consumption, Local Currencies and Trading Systems, Practical Skills in Support of Place, Regional Tax Revenue Sharing, Urban Growth Boundaries, Waste as a Resource, Wildlife Corridors, and dozens more. Remember, each one of these systemic needs can be satisfied in many different ways, which makes room for all the different initiatives we're all working on. The whole pattern is layed out in a web-like chart, and you can click on any part of it to get a succinct description of that factor and its links to related elements in the overall pattern language. The whole pattern -- in its concept, content and presentation -- gives me hope that we actually can pull together our far-flung movement into a coherent whole. (This sense of hope is also provided by Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson's revolutionary work on "cultural creatives" which has been such a core part of my thinking for so long that I'm always surprised to meet people who've never heard of it.)

And, speaking of systemic "needs", my research on systemic applications of Marshall Rosenberg's nonviolent communication (a needs-satisfying method of empathic relationship), turned up the significant work of Manfred Max-Neef on the political and economic dimensions of human need-satisfaction.

This started my mental wheels rolling towards an all-systems-levels (see Meadows and Eisen, above) vision of politics and governance which ACTUALLY satisfy REAL human needs (a la Max-Neef and Rosenberg) in a context of meeting the real needs of nature (see, for example, The Natural Step.). Cowan's approach provides an interesting framework on which to hang all this....


Richard K. Moore's "Escaping the Matrix" (later expanded into a book) describes a radical progressive vision of recent history in which the Western imperial powers competed intensively until WWII, after which they worked together under the umbrella of Pax Americana. Western middle classes went along with Third World exploitation because the "rising tide" of imperial prosperity "lifted all boats." But the 60s revolt showed that prosperity was insufficient to keep Western society lined up with the interests of wealthy Western elites. Furthermore, Japanese businesses started to cut into Western markets. So Western capital -- needing to cut costs -- decided to cut back its commitment to Western prosperity -- and democracy. Corporations began moving factories overseas and banding together internationally using trade agreements. Privatization, deregulation and other tools were used within countries to concentrate wealth in fewer hands and undermine national and local democracies, making Western nations increasingly like Third World nations -- that is, sources of wealth for the few. As the world has come increasingly under the control of global corporate elites, the apparatus of the state has increasingly been bent to the will of global capital -- a trend visible in everything from campaign finances (i.e., political bribery) to the militarization of police forces to corporate PR disguised as "educational materials" in the schools. At each stage of this process, Moore analyzes the manipulated "Matrix Story" which leads ordinary citizens to believe that something more benign is going on. Although I have resisted Moore's stark (albeit creative) leftist analysis, I must admit that recent developments have served to validate it. In any case, I find myself in strong alignment with his prescription: "In order for the movement to end elite rule and establish livable societies that can succeed, it will need to evolve a democratic process, and to use that process to develop a program of consensus reform that harmonizes the interests of its constituencies ...[which ultimately must include] all segments of society." He develops these ideas further in "An Experimental Framework for Community Democracy", among other places. His cyberjournal website has many other writings. He's definitely a thinker to track.


Former US Senator Mike Gravel's National Initiative for Democracy initiative, is a radical and very sophisticated proposal to provide US citizens with the capacity to make laws directly. Unlike the "initiative processes" which exist in many states, this proposal provides extensive safeguards against citizen stupidity and ignorance, on the one hand, and manipulation by wealthy interests, on the other. I provide my own commentary [note that it is filled with old links, but the commentary still stands]. Perhaps most remarkable is Gravel's revolutionary, starting-from-scratch approach to implementing his vision, a creative application of that archetypal American slogan, "Just Do It!" If you want more background or want to get involved with this innovation, you can track the links on their home page.

This is only one of literally dozens of remarkable ideas, proposals and programs at the Innovations in Democracy webpage -- but it is one of the few which radically changed my perspective. Well, actually, I have to admit that The Real Utopias Project opened my eyes to the fact that some dramatic democratic institutions are already in use, especially Porto Alegre's Participatory Budget process in Brazil, which has spread to dozens of other cities.


Richard Tarnas' "The Great Initiation" explores how our culture's adolescent character (e.g., preoccupations with sex, violence, glitter, speed, etc.) is generated at least in part by depriving adolescents of proper rites of passage, particularly true initiations into deep spirituality which involve facing death. Thus our entire culture -- packed with people who've never been challenged to mature spiritually -- now faces a collective initiation involving the real possibility of our collective death which, if we survive it, may result in our sudden maturation AS a culture. The fact that it isn't (and won't be) easy is an intrinsic part of the process. One can almost imagine that we've been set up for this test, to help us on our way....


David Graeber's "Give It Away" says, "The universal assumption of free market enthusiasts... was that what essentially drives human beings is a desire to maximize their pleasures, comforts and material possessions... and that all significant human interactions can thus be analyzed in market terms. In the beginning, goes the official version, there was barter.... Since this was inconvenient, they eventually invented money as a universal medium of exchange. The invention of further technologies of exchange (credit, banking, stock exchanges) was simply a logical extension. The problem was, as [French sociologist Marcel] Mauss was quick to note, there is no reason to believe a society based on barter has ever existed. Instead, what anthropologists were discovering were societies where economic life was based on utterly different principles, and most objects moved back and forth as gifts - and almost everything we would call 'economic' behavior was based on a pretense of pure generosity and a refusal to calculate exactly who had given what to whom. Such 'gift economies' could on occasion become highly competitive, but when they did, it was in exactly the opposite way from our own: Instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who managed to give the most away." Some say the new "information economy" runs on the same principles. But most parts of this new economy only give away information as a teaser leading to costly services further down the road, or as a carrier wave for advertising. While acknowledging there are limits to grounding our lives in gifting while we're embedded in an exchange-based economy, I find myself wondering how we can best nurture gifting so that it can colonize more and more of our lives until we -- and I mean all of us -- can fully live our lives as gifts to Greater Life.... I found one truly evocative, inspirational answer in Pramila Jayapul's "India's silent but singing revolution" in YES! magazine.

No comments: