I’ve found that it eventually pays, to let my moral dilemmas hurt my feelings if I actually want to know the answer. I don’t ever dwell on emotional pain. I just know I can learn from it if I attentively listen to what it’s about. Our world is spiraling out of control, yet again, as if people had no clue as to why.
The Pentecostal anthem “May the Circle be Unbroken” contains a kernel of systems physics I hadn’t noticed until recently, in a spiral the circles don’t connect, but are eve more separated. It came to mind when a question led me to think about the heartbreak of alienation that people all over the earth feel so personally, when they realize that are living in societies leading them into desperate troubles.
That was one of the common recognitions among the generation born after WWII, and the popular impetus for the “counter culture”. The sense everyone seemed to share was that the post war culture seemed like it would just repeat the same sort of horrible sequence of global catastrophes it had just experienced, and might learn nothing from it at all. That time lots was actually learned from the experience, of course. Only thirty years later, though, world society is clearly creating conditions for the same scale of mega-catastrophe for mankind again.
It helps to face the fact “we’re doing it again”.
We have an economy requiring everyone’s energetic cooperation, running into destabilizing limits in virtually every direction at once, with no offer of a solution but “try harder”… That’s a total formula for disaster. It helps to face the fact “we’re doing it again”. The “circle” today is ever more broken.
People keep making cultures and economies that spiral out of control. They abuse the love, cooperation and talents of their people, steering their lives toward performing tasks leading to great evil. But.. who is society but a consensus on common purposes? No one is “in change”. Still people somehow build great societies with all good intent, that contain an internal logic that is “broken”. Gradually over time we just notice them “spiraling ever further out of control”, each loop an ever further break from the past.
These aren’t metaphors, really. Growth is a spiral process. It physically builds upon the changes of to past to create ever greater changes in the future, diverging ever further from its prior path on every cycle. That we’re now losing control of it is generally felt. It’s also accurately observed in the “fishtailing” of over-corrections and panicked avoidance of terrible consequences, dodging the consequent failures of guesswork on which excess reliance was placed.
Economic planners are “shooting from the hip”, unsure what to do, because nothing is really working. The general progression is of events becoming ever more unmanageable. Having things spiral out of control is a very natural process, like some cosmic storm of misfortunes, that happens in environments. The error if there is one is our failing to notice it in time to reign it in, to make our “circle” unbroken again.
I write little notes to myself when I have an idea, the following one starting on a sandwich napkin while sitting at the bus stop. It might help explain the emotional trap that makes all kinds of people feel helpless to change “the system” as it spirals out of control. What points to it how our solutions for stabilizing the “broken circle” just end up causing it to spiral further out of control, fishtailing when .
There are naturally lots of other kinds of errors of knowledge and intent too, but not many being made by nearly everyone at once. I think there’s just one main reason everyone’s sincere efforts to solve societal problems might keep making them much worse, though.
The error is our responding to strain by trying to do a better job, of solving the old problem, and so making the problem worse. At natural limits we face NEW problems, but people don’t generally think its their job to define the problems.
Making the circle unbroken requires an ethos of spiraling in not out,
making the circle more regular rather than expanding faster.
To keep the family circle unbroken, everyone makes choices thinking of it as a whole. No one has the job of doing that for society. At work our purposes are mostly controlled by our employers, whose own purposes are generally determined by others too, and all need to play by the rules of their competition. What happens naturally is that businesses that are managed to multiply their own business interests, take over, without any goal but continuing to grow as fast as they can and not hold back, even to prosper against each other if the society as a whole gets in trouble.
As a rule to follow the standardization of endless growth for every business gives our work life a goal of keeping up with making ever bigger and more complex changes to the earth, till they become unmanageable. Both employees and managers, however, think it’s “none of their business” what purposes set by the business are. We’re reminded it’s none of our business if we bring it up too, or are asked to leave.
So, without realizing, we end up thinking we are trying to keep ourselves whole, while also trying to multiply our businesses till they and the economy they’re part of go out of control. We go along with expanding our own tasks by ever bigger steps. It then spirals out of control for no one’s particular fault at all, except our own error in agreeing to accept ever expanding tasks. We work to maintain the broken circle of our society, with no goal for it but to have it spiral out of control. To change that we’d “only” need to discover our economy’s goal and purpose, and start closing the circle toward it.
Thinking its the someone else’s business to think about the system as a whole makes it no one’s business. We see the gifts of growth as rewards for doing the right thing, not realizing that they’re more “on loan” and can only be kept if the ever more broken circle is to be made whole. We also dread the idea of intruding on other people’s decisions, to tell them that they need to use their money to heal their environment now, as using wealth to just multiply their own demands is threatening the earth as a whole.
It’s painful to realize our task is to be “abnormal” somehow, as what’s “normal” is our collective effort to create ever more tasks that can’t be finished and become unmanageable.
It’s our cooperative approach for all our efforts, to “do better” to make economic growth more efficient as a way of sustaining prosperity.
It’s not just that growth is a process of changing things by ever bigger material steps. It’s that as a physical process, aiming to maximize its use of all the earth’s resources, its implicit objective is to deplete everything humans find usable on earth as quickly as possible. If you look at resource use figures, improving efficiency in using them always increases their use, creating expanding access to more rapidly depleting finite natural supplies.
What our economy needs most from us is a different purpose.
If historically we’ve always had a culture of destroying our resources as a way of creating prosperity, but that doesn’t make multiplying it’s scale a workable goal of life. That has also bothered a lot of people, for quite a long time too, and the moral problem is just morality. Historically it does appear to be a source of the greatest tragedies that human societies.
We naturally organize societies around productivity and growth, and time and again that seems to have led to tragedy because societies were unable to change goals. Everyone appears to assume its someone else’s job to change their culture, as its the original goal (of multiplying consumption of everything…) becomes dangerous to continue.
they saw their self-destruction coming a long way off and did little to prevent it but to be more efficient at pursuing the wrong purpose
We’re not alone in history, of course, in letting our formula for success become a grand cause of failure, it seems, to cause the strangest of tragic human cultural events. Evidence of high cultures that vanished completely for no apparent reason seems to go back many thousands of years. It seems to be the rather well worn path for human societies that they use their best collective talents to accomplish what becomes great evil.
My readings on the how complex societies have generally failed suggests that they all saw their self-destruction coming a long way off and did little to prevent it except try to become more efficient at pursuing the wrong purpose. There were writings at the time of Rome’s decline, like this one, on why Roman society was disintegrating, unable to live on a budget and taxing its farmers and soils to death.
That takes major investments of time and effort to destroy an advanced civilization that way! The end coming would have been even more clear to the Easter Islanders. They went so far as to cut down their last tree, when their island economic system relied heavily on making boats from great trees. It was similar for the Mayan cultures that slashed and burned their forests. They all apparently saw it coming, but just didn’t realize it was each person’s job to identify the next goal of society, to name another purpose as the old one was failing.
They might have see that being ever more efficient at their familiar purpose was becoming self-destructive, but didn’t apparently connect their own efforts to save their societies that what was driving them to collapse. The solutions they chose, and that we are now choosing too, promoted temporary sustainability for outmoded societal purposes, accumulating societal strains rather than relieving them.
It’s like an auto-immune reaction as a source of disease. The added urgency to solve societal problems stimulates increasing efforts causing them, adding a very vicious feedback for cooperative societies of creative people, engaged in making their own problems far worse.
It’s the path of all great societies that fail to face their haunting moral dilemmas, and just work harder at failed solutions.
The tragedy of “sustainable development” (SD) is that while creating immediate prosperity, it still operates in a global growth economic system. So it adds to the intense demands for shrinking resources. How limited resources are allocated is always by rich and poor, and so SD contributed to global inequity, and naturally creates more poverty.
It’s not that some SD concepts wouldn’t work well in a no-growth economy and be sustainable in the long term. The problem is that SD doesn’t change the growth economy. The food crisis, reflecting the rising cost of limited food commodities, is made worse by all the continually increasing food demands.
So even the SD aimed at the helping underfed communities would be add to all their economic demands on the earth. It would temporarily help the more competitive investment plans, but by impoverishing the less competitive ones. That’s the problem with taking growth to the point it becomes a zero or negative sum game.
As the whole system meets natural complications in finding and accessing new resources, helping people become more efficient at competing over them creates a rising tide of demand for ever scarcer resources, a storm of mutual conflicts. It’s the end of “more” as a sufficient purpose.
Increasing productivity changed meaning as ever growing resource demand started reducing rather than adding to supply, reversing the meaning of one of mankind’s most reliable purposes. Our common idea that sincere effort would help others compete, now instead adds to the global strains, that the people being aided are being harmed by. It confuses all our social values and purposes to have become too productive in consuming the earth. Working to improve productivity doesn’t solve that problem.
I don’t have an actual catalog of all sustainability plans, though I’ve been “in the business for four decades and in touch with many of the leading advocates. They all do seem to aim to be profitable in today’s economic markets, and to increase development by helping people be more efficient.
I’ve built long relationships and tried tried to use them to explain the “dark side”, but invariably treated “not talking their language” or “being out of the loop”, even if I was also well recognized as one of the more knowledgeable, experienced and capable individuals around in every other way. Ultimately the “language” difference seems to be that people tend to generally thing of their environment as a concept in their heads… which is simpler than the reality.
What we seem to have now, though, is another utterly massive societal tragedy brewing. It multiplies the tragedy that it betrays the warm hearted, energetic and wonderfully creative efforts to address it “holistically”. It just doesn’t help to make growth more efficient at this point.
That the leading “problem solvers” are all doing that makes them also the worst problem creators. They’re pouring our resources into raising false hopes, not intending to but actually creating greater dashed hopes. It’s everyone’s fault, really, that we’re still trying to prosper by using up our shrinking resources faster and faster.
Growth needs to discover a purpose other than promoting itself. Whether we make our lives worse for fail to find it, or not, seems to rest on whether people “get the signal” to look for it. We have huge resources of heart and mind to apply to good ideas, if people think to look for them, to give the growth of our society a goal other than spiraling out of control.
We might find that our social and institutional networks are good at the complex conversations that will be needed, like learning how to generally turn investment funds into endowments (1), and what to do with them. Given how tricky the problem is, many other advanced societies apparently succumbed with no one understanding the problem. So, it’s obviously both naturally confounding and dangerous. If all we do is learn what the problem is, it’ll be an clear evolutionary moment for mankind, it seems. It’s up to you.