Tribute to Loren Cole, Inquiring Systems Inc., and Loren Cole’s Eco-Principles

Tribute to Loren Cole, Inquiring Systems Inc. (Video 4 minutes)

Loren Cole’s Ecosystemological Principles

Loren Cole is probably the most accomplished environmental activist you have never heard of. Loren’s organization, Inquiring Systems, Inc. (ISI), is the fiscal sponsor for the Compression Institute and 109 other environmentally tilted groups. That means that Loren handles finances, legalities, and other fussbudget obligations for people that prefer to spend their energy on other objectives. Altogether, in almost 40 years Loren has served about 3700 such clients.

So Loren learned to think like a business guy and a lawyer. He’s good at that, but it’s not where his heart is. Loren’s love is “ecosystemology.” He lives by ecosystemological principles. He’s not pushy, but ask and he will readily share them with you.

Over the years, Loren has thought often about how the institutions and thinking of our digitally driven, consumptive society separate us from nature. It’s a yawning gap. It seems to be widening. Few of us are aware of the life around us, much less have the ability to “communicate” with it.

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Loren, listening to what he has done leading up to his Ecosystemological Principles. Our story begins with Loren as a young graduate student at Berkeley. The Viet Nam War was on. It was a tumultuous time at Berkeley.

But Loren plunged into a different kind of tumult, the fragmented study of various topics in the College of Natural Resources. The faculty had not embraced the concept of an ecosystem. Loren led a student revolt to have a much more integrated concept of ecology. He developed an integrative introductory course in the field. By pressing that concept on the faculty, the students attempted to transform the school. They partly succeeded.

Along the way, Loren learned about human collaboration as well as biological symbiosis. Inside a university, the systems of reward and recognition promote deep specialization, not cross-disciplinary integration. Some of the faculty recognized this and helped; others didn’t. Now, decades later, the college is more supportive of cross-disciplinary integration, but the problem persists. To this day, Loren is the only graduate to earn a doctorate in “Ecosystemology.” Unlike most dissertations, his is a pleasure to read, the thinking still “leading edge” compared to most thinking today.

One faculty advisor, Arnold Schultz, a systems ecologist, helped Loren germinate his thinking. Another advisor, C. West Churchman, a pioneering quant jock that soured on the excesses of quantitative models, held that the strengths of system intuition cannot be replicated by quantitative models. The notions of complex systems with emergent behaviors were just beginning to form, and Loren was part of it.

Either Loren left Berkeley, or it left him. In any case, he decided to become a doer, not a talker. In 1978 he founded Inquiring Systems, Inc. with the intent of nurturing environmentally beneficial action. ISI’s name comes from the “inquiring systems approach” to Loren’s work. It is based on his ecosystemological principles.

First, no human methodology – no data, no models – can fully encompass the workings of an ecosystem, or the effects of human activity on it. We are part of ecosystems, inseparable from them. We depend on them, and they on us.

If we see ecosystems as if we were part of them, we seek key relationships within a total system, human plus natural systems, to guide how we should live and behave. This generates values beyond mere respect for nature, but a reverence of it, like indigenous peoples who innately sense that their welfare is utterly intertwined with nature.

We depend on healthy ecosystems. And what’s a healthy ecosystem? All ecosystems have diseases or disruptions. The healthy ones are resilient enough to always be recovering – to continue evolving. Globally, environmental health depends on enough biodiversity that ecosystems heal themselves and keep going – and keep supporting human life. The essence of “sustainability,” that much-abused word, is humanity and our global ecology coexisting, supporting each other indefinitely.

And that leads to Loren’s “key ecosytemological principles” for humans (he has more):

  • Be attentive to the difference between needs and desires – do you really need it?
  • Take care of what you already have; use it wisely and well – to reduce the need to disrupt some ecosystem in order to obtain more.
  • If you really do need more of it, then take care in the extraction process because extraction, by definition, is inherently disruptive and will, thereby, potentially cause harm to the complex relationships within the ecosystem from whence it comes. The full recovery of the ecosystem therein affected may thereby be compromised. (Doc’s add on: Loren can apply the same principle to disposal processes for used stuff.)
  • Cherish what you have – as many living things were sacrificed and ecosystems put at risk in the process of obtaining the stuff you already possess.
  • Respect the life force of all things natural, as they each have value and play a critical role within each ecosystem. As such, their wellbeing has critical implications for sustaining your own health, all human survival, and the wellbeing of the planet.

Loren’s principles merit deep reflection. They are personal. They are from a guy who entered hospice last week. He’s not drumming up “business.” They do not demand that somebody else do something to save the planet. They implore us, personally, as human units of one, to change our values and our habits to save the planet. They are the values base for mechanical concepts like circular economies.

Few of our decisions about what we want or need pay heed to ecology. Many are habitual. Most are subjective. None of us active in a technological economy can escape mashing the earth with a heavy footprint. I’m chewing up energy and resources writing this, and you are chewing them up reading it.

So can we stop finger pointing? If we don’t consume, producers don’t produce. Can we think more systemically – or ecosystemologically? Next time we want something that adds to our status, comfort, or convenience, can we practice being conscious that some far off ecology is paying for it – paying with that ultimate currency, loss of life?

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