The double spiral shown is a computer generated Clothoide, or Cornu spiral. Artistically rendered double spirals symbolize the subject of this article, balance between mysteries: yin-yang, male-female, zero-infinity, and the like. The logo of the Compression Institute resembles an Archimedes spiral, occurring in nature from galaxies to snail shells. Spiral enthusiasts get into generating spirals in great variety, including Mandelbrot Set Spirals of different sizes, but all self-similar at different scales. This Bastelelen site tells more about spirals than you want to know.
The Scientific Case for Radically Changing How We View the World
What we need is an economic system that serves both humanity and the planet. What we have is a transactional economic system, global in scope, presumably leading us to ever greater material prosperity – jobs, housing, vehicles, computers, and food on demand – plus living longer to have experiences unimaginable a couple of centuries ago. Progress expanding human consumption and capability is its objective, signified by making more money faster.
However, the downsides of this progress are becoming evident. Despite market economies churning out more stuff than ever, discontent is rising. The Extinction Rebellion pushes back on systemic environmental destruction, while counter protests by “yellow vests” in Paris push back on the “sustainability austerity” of higher fuel prices. Digitally provided convenience comes with intrusion, distraction, hacking, and deception by digital bots and deepfakes. Prior posts on this site have labeled the system, “Big Other.”
The epitome of “Big Other” is neoliberal economics run amok: individualistic, market-based systems assuming, among other things, that markets are perfect, gains at the top will trickle down, and that growth must be inevitable if guided by money models based on all of us being self-maximizing individuals (“homo economicus”). Adamant critics of this are demanding economic and environmental justice. Some propose counter models like Donut Economics to stem injustices and environmental destruction.
We hold to expansionary economics, including its “socialist” versions, more tightly than professed religions. Stand-patters deny that anything could possibly be wrong. Moderate reformers want to “change a lot, but keep what we got.” Few imagine a human revolution in how we see ourselves, our world, and the systems by which we live.
Why a “New Culture?”
As Einstein noted, we can’t escape our problems with the same thinking that led to them and keeps making them worse. Compression Thinking is intended to be a guide to changing how we see our problems. Reception to it is underwhelming, of course.
This is not new. In the 1970s when the Club of Rome report tried to accelerate human concern about environmental degradation, a rump group of the Club wanted to emphasize that the core problem was human inability to face the unintended consequences of what it believed was progress. Instead, the report emphasized a less fuzzy climate projection based on engineering models. The Club of Rome report roused more denial and disbelief than enthusiasm.
In 1970, when the Club of Rome project was gestating, Alexander Christakis summarized in a typewritten script the rump group’s ideas as the Predicament of Mankind. His 49 listed predicaments remain with us 50 years later. Mankind’s key predicament is inability to deal with our predicaments. We know many techniques to stave off environmental destruction, but using them wisely requires systems thinking, or symbiotic thinking. Without this, it’s easy to slip into the magic fix syndrome.
Please open Christakis’ old screed and scroll down to problem #18, “Growing irrelevance of traditional values and continuing failure to evolve new value systems.” In short, let’s change the prevailing paradigms of all humanity! And that’s just one of 49 points. Any new secular religion to displace “Big Other” must emerge from psychological pain.
Realistic environmentalists fear that only pilot projects can be fielded before “Big Other” collapses of its own weight, after which almost anyone can see that we should have been thinking differently now. Human psychology suggests why. To survive uncertain perils, we must sustain optimism; have hope; keep the faith. Unfortunately, this need for optimism militates against dealing with abstract disaster until it is clear, here, and now.
Still with us, Christakis himself holds that our environmental crises stem from human beliefs and psychology. To shift basic thinking, he promotes Dialogic Design Science. It works, small scale, but hasn’t gained much traction (but much more than Compression Thinking). Meanwhile, the forces that move souls battle in the streets. What does it take to popularize a new secular religion when the roots of beliefs run so deep?
Balance, Not Control
No matter how technically advanced, biologically we retain many characteristics with animals, including alpha hierarchies – winning, dominance, and control. We can’t modify our physical biology into something the rest of nature won’t allow, and vulnerabilities may not show up until nature tests them for several generations. Likewise, adjusting beliefs and behaviors is no quick hitter – and we’re short of time.
That is, both humans and human systems have to evolve in balance with our supporting natural world. For example, for humans to colonize Mars, at a minimum we’d have to create our own nature to supply food and water. That artificial nature and humans would both have to co-adapt to a different diurnal cycle, temperature cycles, and a gravity that is about 38% of that on earth, varying across Martian topography. To endure, procreating new generations, both of humans and their other supporting life would have to morph into something substantially different. If we adapted to nearly one-third gravity, could we stand up or even breathe if we returned to earth? Assuming that we still resembled earth-bound humans, of course.
Hmm. And what would be the role of money in this Martian settlement?
Most sci-fi scenarios assume that humans can “conquer” other planets with different environments while functioning and behaving much as on earth. This colonial mindset presumes that we can command the energy and technology to artificially modify other environments to our needs. Hokum. We would have to learn to live where we find ourselves, co-adapting psychologically as well as physically. We are part of nature, whether we create it artificially or whether it evolves on its own with us being part of that evolution.
Thinking a few layers deep about another planet helps to clarify that this must be true on earth also. When we change nature on earth, it also changes us. We have to co-evolve.
So What’s Economic Relativity?
Anything humans do to thrive and stay alive is an economy. A few of us live very close to nature, daily dependent on it, deeply entwined with it and constantly at its mercy. Most of us in advanced economies do not. Our main relationships to nature are indirect, several stages removed from it through the processes of Big Other, that big complex entity that we usually call the economy. Its laws, rules, and customs powerfully influence our culture.
Big Other serves us, and we serve it – or are trapped in it. What is not served well is nature, despite it providing all our resources. Three Big Other ideologies inhibit partnering with nature. One is endless growth. Another is that all work organizations must make a profit, or at least adhere to a budget. The third is that we live in markets, so every business should be cost competitive – although smart businesses “innovate” to stay out of commodity hell. If they can addict customers to their product, it’s even better. All this plays out in that medium of exchange – money.
A subtle aspect of monetary measurement warps our perception. It centers on a person or a company. Valuations are measured by transactions in and out of an account kept by each. To do that we measure the transactions across the boundaries around an imaginary central point, a person or a corporate place holder for a person. This is analogous to bygone astronomers believing that earth is the center of the universe because it looked that way to them.
And analogous to the ether of 19thcentury physics, money is the ether of economics. It’s the reference medium (or reference frame) for everything. Everything! Goals for almost any endeavor must be translated into money values. Anything going on outside its plane of reference, including nature, “does not exist,” or if it does, it is an external cost, which doesn’t really count. Imagining itself separate from nature, it measures using that assumption. Taking away money as a reference medium strands us in economic relativity.
Consequently, any economic system cannot press nature for more than it can give, and it should recognize that every convenience we create may not be good for our psyches. When our supporting system goes way out of whack with nature, nature will try to rebalance, if we let it. just as our bodies struggle to rebalance our internal systems after hangovers.
The review of Dance to the Tune of Life is a companion piece to this message. It is a synopsis from a scientific view of our relationship with nature. The message is that we are not special, not the center of our own universe, not the masters of our own biology. We cannot hope to subjugate biology to our own purposes. We – and our systems – have to live in balance with it.
Of course, balancing with nature, feeling a part of it, is a major shift from seeing ourselves as conquerors of nature to being symbiotic with it. This worldview is strange to denizens of Big Other, but not to indigenous peoples. Today, having a presentation about this from an indigenous person is de rigueur at environmental conferences. Environmentalists sense that a new view is needed. This sense of connectedness also lives on in Eastern mysticism, notably in Buddhism. However, even in the Orient, Westernization and economic growth have smothered ancient philosophies.
The business world is starting to awaken to this. Recently major company CEOs signed a statement that corporate objectives must extend beyond maximum returns to shareholders. They will guide their companies by multi-stakeholder values: customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. This is a big break from neoliberalism. It implies that hierarchic organizations focused on profit cannot deal with today’s complexity and are not good for humanity. But it stops short of seeking balance with nature, a very big next step.
That next step is enormous. It forces questions we don’t want to ask. One is why my company should exist. That question follows from seeking a balance with nature in a higher tech context than that experienced by ancients.
Balancing with nature upends how we analyze business. Optimizing presumes that we can define what is in each stakeholder’s interest. Maximizing profit is easy to conceptualize, if not to realize. From there it Is a matter of allocating gains among stakeholders, if gains are realized. This sort of reasoning is calculations in the monetary ether. If under the influence of this ether, how can you “optimize” nature’s interests?
Start considering nature and you soon realize that carrying any grand goal of humanity to excess has a dark side, probably unanticipated because nature bit back. When we narrowly focus on expanding human comforts and capabilities we can’t imagine that our successes might have a shadow side. Few of our benefits are unmixed blessings.
Businesses can take cues from ecology. Ecologists don’t try to optimize, unless to maximize biomass, life itself. They analyze balances in nature, like energy flows. A big energy flow between areas is a sign of biological imbalance. Ecologies are big, complex, living systems with “minds of their own.” You can intervene in them. You can never fully control them.
The Need for a Relativity Mindset
Acknowledging the relativity of everything is a huge mindset change. In the business world, we can no longer ethically consider ourself or our company as the center of our own universe, measuring everything from that center of reference. We have to end the self-deceptions of a Big Other mindset, blind to what is coming upon us from elsewhere than markets and competition. The purpose of what we call business will change. And we’re not ready for it.
Unfortunately, we are limited in how much we can change ourselves as humans, but we can attempt to become more civil and more insightful in order to preserve ourselves as a human race. Very little that is imaginable could be a bigger challenge.