Collapse and Renewal


Found a lot of interesting things to think about in this article. Seems to get at how dynamic/complex/living systems (ecosystems, economies) evolve rapidly and then stagnate, which leads to collapse, and reboots the system (my simplification).

What I Have Learned
Change that is important is not gradual but is sudden and transformative. There is a common base cycle of change in individuals, in ecosystems, in business, in society. Increasing rigidity halts a long, slow period of growth and increasing efficiency. That begins a period of creative destruction and a fast period where uncertainty is great, where novelty emerges, and where new foundations are formed for a new cycle to begin. That is where we are now heading internationally.

In the United States, it is a time when the power of the state has achieved rigidity unseen since the triumphs of the falling of the Berlin Wall. Politicians have reacted to extreme disturbances, like the appalling terrorist attacks of 9/11, with powerful military response, a blind view of history and cultures, and a greedy desire for narrow benefit. Global economic expansion and dependence on peaking oil supplies, particularly in the Middle East, lock geopolitics into a self-destructive state from which transformation is extraordinarily difficult.

That is the time when change is most uncertain. We are living in it now. In this year we have simultaneously faced the sudden appearance of now reinforcing flips – sudden increases in the price of oil, increases in the costs of food, a financial collapse and the start of a recession, the retreat of Arctic ice sheets with climate warming, and accelerating loss of biodiversity. That is a lot to swallow and it reflects a process of human development and expansion since WWII.

But it is also the time when the individual has the greatest influence: when experiments determine the future; when the Internet opens opportunities for collaboration within and across nations; and when low cost mistakes are glorious because they trigger learning.

And these are the lessons I have learned that help in that process of dealing with turbulence:

1) Separate individual thought and work is essential but now, when integrative studies are the only way to reveal understanding, work with others is equally so. An individual’s knowledge can be combined with that of others to make the whole greater. In doing that we each recognize that we do not know everything but we do know, and know well, something. We learn with grace and humor and patience to work with others from different disciplines and backgrounds.

2) Complexity is in the mind of the beholder, in the patterns that are generated by causes that are simpler. Not as simple as once thought, but explained by a kind of “Rule of Hand”, not by a “Rule of Thumb’. Quite simply, I found in case after case of ecosystem change that four to six sets of variables operating at a number of different scales, in a non-linear way, captured nature’s flipping behavior. It turns out that ecosystems are temporary assemblages, pausing for a few hundreds of centuries in a passing state of quasi-stability as part of evolutionary change. Think of that when we think of the reality of global climate change.

3) There are about three kinds of scientists – the consolidator, the technical expert, and the artist. Consolidators accumulate and solidify advances and are deeply skeptical of ill formed and initial, hesitant steps. That can have a great value at stages in a scientific cycle when rigorous efforts to establish the strength and value of an idea is central. Technical experts assess the methods of investigation. Both assume they search for the certainty of understanding.

In contrast, I love the initial hesitant steps of the “artist scientist” and like to see clusters of them. That is the kind of thing needed at the beginning of a cycle of scientific enquiry or even just before that. Such nascent, partially stumbling ideas, are the largely hidden source for the engine that eventually generates change in science. I love the nascent ideas, the sudden explosion of a new idea, the connections of the new idea with others. I love the development and testing of the idea till it gets to the point it is convincing, or is rejected. That needs persistence to the level of stubbornness and I eagerly invest in that persistence.

All types of scientists are necessary, but I would love it if we could encourage and include the innovative type of artist. At the least, enjoy rigor, but never inhibit the innovative artists.

4) I learned that the key to make effective designs was to identify large, unattainable goals that can be approached, but not achieved, ones that relate to fundamental values of free speech, freedom, equity, tolerance and education. And then to add a tough design for the first step, in a way that highlights or creates options to design, later, a second step – and then a third and so on. We found that the results were steps that rapidly covered more ground than could ever be designed at the start. At the heart, that is adaptive design, where the unknown is great, learning is continual and actions evolve.

5) I am prodigiously curious about nature, and that triggers initial ideas. I am also terribly persistent and stubborn about developing and testing an idea that grabs me; at those times I am totally and narrowly focused, driven by the potential. That is what eventually makes an idea useful. So I conclude that natures create the idea; stubbornness makes it useful! But I have had to learn how to see nature. It is curiosity, anecdotes, funny correlations, jokes and metaphors that start that. It is new emerging theory that completes it.

One has to learn to develop senses that help us listen to intriguing voices that are hidden amongst the noise. Owlish ways to hear the rustle of the mouse. Do that and the future will be fun and rewarding. We all might even help, at this time of great change and threat, to develop further a world of justice, understanding and equity.

One Response to “Collapse and Renewal”

  1. Derek April 8, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    This is an interesting article, yet it assumes the cycles of collapse-renewal, boom-bust, rise-fall, are natural and inherent within a society. Rather, one should look to what causes these cyclic ups and downs and what the end-result of the fluctuations really is. Think of a bank that finances both sides of a perpetual war: one side may be winning for a while, but then begins losing to their opponent as their finances diminish, only to have a resurgence when new loans come in. Both sides are losing (resources spent on war, casualties, etc) regardless of who’s on top at a given moment and throughout it all the bank is ultimately winning as both sides increasingly indebted.

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