Better examples?

Eric & all,

A few days ago I asked: Can anyone offer other examples of growth systems that get into trouble from being unable to control their own limits? People don’t seem to understand how the best of intentions lead human systems to overshoot, so looking at natural ones might help us understand the problem. Here’s an interesting one that can’t be studied in detail. It was a long time ago and this is all the data there is, a plankton species transition that went through overshoot and partial collapse 4 or 5 times as it evolved from one to the other…!

—Well I guess not getting any real examples means getting used to the question. It really is hard not to take familiar things for granted. There are lots and lots of things which get into trouble from uncontrolled growth. I thought I’d get more of a response. Growth in most systems begins as a run-away process, like fire, and a sign of lacking either external or internal limits is something that grows so fast that it blows itself out, kills its host or rips apart and stops functioning. It’s also called ‘overshoot’.

‘Good’ bombs are designed to consume all their explosive, and bad bombs scatter their parts before the ignition is complete. Some of the ones I made as a kid were that way. Sometimes when you strike a match it starts off with a bang that blows the match out. There are lots of species, generally in what’s called the ‘r-selected’ group, that multiply furiously, like locusts and grasshoppers, way beyond sustainable population limits, as a general practice. They die back in the extreme, rest a little and try getting to infinity again, and again.

There’s the growth of human populations among people who don’t have a habit of learning, who see their self interest in having large families, expediting it to make them more secure. They multiply toward the point of making their lives quite insecure for exploding numbers of reasons when they hit the wall of confusion and disorder at the end. There’s also cancer and all the other diseases that kill their host by uncontrolled growth. Cancer isn’t smart. It’s only definition of good is multiplication, which is bad for it.

Generally the economists and businessmen of the last couple centuries have thought there would be no limit to economic growth because the earth and our imaginations were thought to be limitless, and so our only definition of good became multiplying wealth. I’m one of what seems to be a considerable majority of global systems thinkers who expect the limits of economic growth to be exceedingly hazardous for us.

Why the people driving the growth toward overshoot and collapse, some of the most aggressive learners on the planet, are not aware of what’s happening seems to have to do with competitive advantage. They’re absorbed in a game, and there’s no one to tell them how it ends. With a global consensus on where to draw the line, and there is one, we could change that, but it’s not likely to happen.

You could add to the list lots of other things. It’s a very broad phenomenon. Anything that ‘gets out of control’ generally can be traced back to excessive multiplication of what was originally well ordered and stable. Party’s get out of control sometimes, for example, as to arguments.

Some people, well probably most people some times anyway, get pleasure out of skirting the edge of control and ‘playing dangerous’. One thing I’ve never figured out is where chain letters go. They multiply explosively, but there must be some sort of message that builds up as they spread that ‘this is not real’ and they probably collapse abruptly and vanish at their largest point of expansion.

Growth is also the process by which everything that becomes stable gets its start. Things that are going to end up reaching and holding a higher level of development do something different. Finding that difference is really the question. We need to find useful and practical ways to enable self-control for things that are vital to us and seem to be heading beyond.

Does that help?

Phil Henshaw ¸¸¸¸.·´ ¯ `·.¸¸¸¸


..then responding to Bruce,

Great extra questions!

> systems) and see what happened to them?
> Anyone remember Montgomery Ward? Where are they now?

Like most classic American businesses it grew quite large and then stabilized, became a ‘cash cow’ for feeding investments in other things, and by the time it’s owners recognized the shape of threatening new competition it was too stuck in old habits and couldn’t adapt. It had to be broken up for parts.

> How about General Motors (”What’s good for General
> Motors is good for the USA”)? How are they doing now?

GM is a more modern company. My sense is that it’s been remaking itself about every 20 years, more or less successfully. Modern businesses try to encourage new ventures within their own organizations, trying to remain ‘forever young’. That’s very hard to do when whole industries come and go ever more rapidly with continuously multiplying amounts of money feeding into investments to replace everything doing the production… (That’s one of the weirdest one’s to me! You wouldn’t want to stop change, but it’s worse to endlessly accelerate it.)

> Let’s go back further to the East India Company or the
> Hudson Bay Company. What’s happened to them?

I’m sure there are great books on each. It’s always a compelling story of visionary people doing great things that turn out not to be so useful anymore down the road. Time passes them bye.

> Look at Ford, IBM, or a host of other companies that
> made up the Dow Jones industrials just 50 years ago. Most of
> them are gone or in deep trouble.

There are a number of the giants companies that are struggling, and a number that are adapting to become more versatile and creative.

> Or, perhaps look at dynasties the once ruled the earth
> (or some significant portion of it): Persia, Rome, Greece,
> Egypt, Babylonia, the Norse Vikings, the Ottoman Empire,
> Spain, England, China (which is the only one on the ascent
> again at this point), etc. They all had their day in the sun,
> and where are they now?

Come and gone… It certainly is curious why each of these long stable ways of living seemed to loose interest and vanish. Good modern examples of this that are just a little more dramatic, but the same thing I think, are the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden collapse of the NYC crimewave. In both cases it strongly appears that the social cultures turned off to their former way of life and let it just fall to pieces.

> Will any of those suffice for your purposes? If not,
> let’s all try again.

Well, actually, you picked wonderful examples, but not a one that had to do with failure caused by uncontrolled growth (from growing competition, yes, but not from its own growth). A couple from history would include the Biblical reference to a Tower of Babel and multiplying languages and the California gold rush disasters.


> Bruce Barnbaum



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