(24 minute video and article)
From Compression to Symbiosis.
By Doc Hall.
Evolution is geological as well as biological. Predictions of geologic evolution are that life on Earth will continue in some form for perhaps 600 million more years. Whether human life will continue to evolve that long is doubtful, but working with nature instead of against it will lengthen our tenure on the planet. To work with nature we should learn to think symbiotically with it.
Could Compression Thinking develop us to think symbiotically with nature? That means practice using Compression Thinking Principles until we can see almost everything from “nature’s point of view,” when symbiotic thinking becomes almost automatic to us.
What’s symbiosis? In biology it’s codependence of two dissimilar organisms, either parasitic, like fleas on a dog, or mutually beneficial, like all the little critters in our gut microbiomes that digest food and convey immunities. In psychology, it’s two or more people that feed off each other; each lost without the other.
What’s Compression? It’s too many people on a fixed-resource planet. It’s the impossibility of doubling our use of resources every 20-30 years indefinitely. Voracious material growth also encroaches on the living space for other life, the complex diversity on which homo sapiens depends. That dependence with other life is symbiosis. We are symbiotic with all the earth, but, deluded that we are independent of it, we have presumed that we can take from it without consequences. We can’t, so Compression is also squeezing humanity’s material consumption footprint down to livable size. We’re in this squeeze now.
Signs of a Compression era are all about, but given our long love affair with human systems growing and expanding, we don’t see them; don’t see how to escape “the way things are done now” using thought patterns and systems incompatible with Compression. We have to learn a symbiotic way of seeing – and fast.
Signs of Compression
The environmental nemesis hogging media attention is climate change. Unmistakable at the poles, to casual observers in temperate and tropical regions, normal weather variance obfuscated climate change until recently. Now more obvious changes are coming faster than climate models predicted. These models are not precise; their data lags the latest observations, and many climate mechanisms are foggily understood. But so what? Climate model predictions have long pointed in the right direction.
Climate change exacerbates many other trends that deeply concern those close to them. Those distant from them either don’t know about them – or shrug them off. A short, incomplete list is: regional water shortages, rapidly growing pollution from plastics, degrading topsoil, depleting fisheries, decreasing return on energy (smaller, harder-to-work deposits), effects of widely dispersed toxins, and important extinctions. Polar bears get media attention, while bottom-of-food-chain, micro extinctions would be fatal to all higher life.
Add to this starter list many unknowns, for example, whether artificial intelligence is a boon or a bane. It could help promote crop growth, or on its own create killer robots. All “depends on how we use it” — if we can control it. To control technology we must first control ourselves. We are our #1 environmental stressor. Can we muster the will to change ourselves?
Compression Thinking as “Symbiosis”
How we think determines what we do. What we do determines our impact on nature. Using different kinds of human systems, perhaps we can at least slow environmental damage, if not remediate it. To do that, we must “partner” with nature. That is, we must think and act in symbiosis with nature.
Although so ancient that indigenous people did it, thinking symbiotically with nature is way outside the financial and economic mainstream. So is Compression Thinking. This clash is severe if financial logic assumes that we are independent of nature – that it can serve us without reciprocity. This assumption is baked into the monetary calculus that guides us daily in a commercial world. Escaping it takes conscious effort because we are reluctant to leave our comfort zones of personal convenience. But if we are symbiotic with nature, we realize that those comfort zones don’t benefit us in the long term.
The most comprehensive concept of symbiosis is the Gaia Hypothesis by James Lovelock and Lynn Margullis. The web of life on earth is a symbiosis of vast numbers of species, micro to macro, including their effects on geology and vice versa. Therefore Earth’s entire ecosystem maintains a homeostasis conducive to some form of life, if not a “Goldilocks Zone” favorable to human life.
Think of all life, micro to macro, as analogous to weeds you would like to be gone. You can’t finish them off because, really wanting to be there, they quickly adapt to your predations. Life in some form always seeks a niche anywhere there is a small sliver of energy to feed it.
The basis of Compression Thinking is that our real wealth is life. Dazzling artifacts are faux wealth if obtaining them or using them destroys abundant life. However, we must consume resources just to live: eating, being mentally alert, learning, and exhaling carbon dioxide. Compression is living well, but frugally, not consuming because a seller needs revenue or to to boost our status. That’s a huge values change.
Instead of high consumption conferring status, suppose imaginative frugality conferred status. Could we do that? Perhaps, if we sense that our existence is symbiotic with nature. Beyond intellectual understanding, that inner guide is a spiritual reverence sometimes called Deep Ecology.
Try as we might, Deep Ecology is incompatible with financial growth. They are polar opposite value systems. For example, a recent survey of corporate plans to combat climate change suggests no action could go deeper than cosmetic if it has to pass a money test.
Business thinkers want a “road map,” a step-by-step guide to make business-as-usual environmentally compatible. No such road map is possible. True, many environmental practices can be studied, tested, and adopted, but without thinking symbiotically with nature they will not be imaginatively or extensively used.
On the other hand, corporate leaders thinking symbiotically with nature might propose the unthinkable: disbanding so that people can do something more effective for the planet. Somewhere behind every corporation’s legal veil are real human beings capable of more than serving the profitability of an empty entity.
Acquiring a frame of mind symbiotic with nature and capable of dramatic change is our major environmental challenge.
Situations are too varied and complex for what-to-do templates. Instead, six interlocking principles are a brief guide to thinking that is more symbiotic with nature:
- Earth is Finite: Human extraction from nature, presuming that earth is infinite, cannot continue much longer. However, economic reasoning and self-interest promote expansion by growth of independent parties. That must end soon. To think symbiotically with nature, our perspective must become more collective and shift outward, beyond the bounty we receive from nature. Some actions might even go “carbon negative” of “footprint negative,” giving more back to nature than we get. Can we learn to live as well or better using much, much less?
Quality Over Quantity, Always: Thinking symbiotically, quality is the quality of all life, not just human life. This idea is captured in an old term, “commonweal:” that which belongs to everyone and everything, but to no one in particular. Don’t take more than you need from the commonweal and make what you take of high quality. Why? This benefits both us and nature. For example, don’t eat to the max; you become sick. Instead, eat food high in nutrient density. In full health and fully alert, you are less a drag on either economy or environment. And become proficient using a few things, durable artifacts of top quality. More skill; fewer possessions – and they don’t all have to be low tech.
- Economy of Learning over Economy of Scale: Deeply understand what we do and why. Wisely apply the Precautionary Principle. Economy of scale is that bigger is better or more is better. That’s deceiving if it inhibits adaptation. Size helps only if it creates a better learning organization, probably a learning network rather than a rigid hierarchy. Learning in this sense is original learning from experience applying symbiotic thinking. All kinds of techniques promote learning groups appropriate to your situation. The main challenge of a work organization symbiotic with nature is seeing and conveying what needs to be done to be effective, not just efficient.
- Use Measurements Compatible with Nature: One example is energy return on energy invested. Plants and animals strive to use minimal energy to find and consume food. Any life that cannot fuel its own basal metabolism is soon dead; any that absorbs much more energy than it expends is in ill health. Data and computations help, but if you are no more than aware of how much total energy is burnt with every decision, you will make better decisions. (Turn the light off.)
A second example is helping nature maximize all the life per acre that sunlight can support. (Don’t cut all the weeds; they feed a lot of nature we don’t see.) Nature balances; we can learn to balance with it.
- Scientific Methodologies: Learn to agree on the facts of phenomena, whether they are ephemeral or enduring. A scientific learning cycle is observations-hypothesis-more observations-conclusions. However, many situations include all the humans affected and their various viewpoints, so we have to reconcile our own biases, deceptions, and contradictions. We learn through errors, but we can learn not to repeat them. A major benefit of scientific methodologies is avoiding deep distrust among humans. That’s an attitude, not just a technique. By an organized system, search for all evidence, not just that which supports our business interests or stokes our egos.
Scientific thinking, in theory, “lets chips fall where they may.” It often clashes with commercial thinking, confirmation bias for facts that bolster sales and self-interest. This clash is very evident in formal science and in its funding today.
- Systemic, Symbiotic Thinking: Think about interventions in systems rather than just do this and get that. Think how to live in balance with nature, how to promote feedback loops that benefit all life, including ours, and how to dampen feedback loops spiraling out of control. (e.g. Why do cells metastasize cancer?) On a big scale, many feedback loops in a commercial economy appear to be spirals that multiply problems, so we pour in more resources to remediate them. As an example, think preventive health care versus curative care of chronic diseases.