A circle ever more broken

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 Unbrokencontains 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.

broken circle of growth
Growth is a chain of events for creating an ever more broken circle. It's a construction process leaving ever more unbuilt, to be completed or the spiral goes out of control.


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.

General intro: Natural Systems & Synapse9

There are quite a number of “systems of systems thinking”, that I broadly describe the history of in my entry in the Encyclopedia of the Earth on Complex Systems.  Every science made up its own, for example, which are sometimes linked and sometimes not really linked much at all.  The introduction to the “Natural Systems Theory” behind it, a scientific method for studying naturally occurring systems, is found on the research archive site.   The subject could also be called “General Behavioral Economics” or for its focus on the complex development of local systems of organization serving as the working “capital” of nature and apparently all kinds of energy using systems, or a “General Systems Ecology” as another name for the same thing.

The thinking somewhat overlaps with “General Systems Theory” and “Complexity Theory” but doesn’t focus as those fields do on inventing theories for nature. The focus on theoretical models, that people have often quite ingeniously developed, if for creating a substitute way to represent physical behavioral systems.  The study here is more focused on the organization and transformations of nature, the ones we cannot define.   So it might then be called a “Real Systems Theory” or “Non-theoretical Systems Theory“.   The focus is on studying actual individual systems of the natural world, in their own innate forms and locations. It still uses recorded information, but for study of where the information came from rather than how we can turn it into something else, using abstract models to represent it.  Carefully defined abstract models are certainly used, …but mostly to help expose and clarify the quite different means and different patterns of organization found in the intermittent relationships we find systems around us formed by, and how they behave as wholes.

This change in thinking is a sometimes confusing problem, which also displays “systems thinking” (as a culture and language) as going through evolutionary stages of emerging forms, like the great eruption of new biological forms called the Cambrian Explosion.   Here the struggle is to move from a “modeling” to a “learning” approach to the complex organizations of nature, and how that will settle will not be clear for a while.   This site records but one example of the struggle it involves, but clearly one of the places “where the action is”, at present.   ed 9/23/14


Many “systems of systems thinking” represent the accumulation of an individual person’s work over decades, and may be original enough to not have apparent connections to other languages for how things work other than how they individually have learned to use them.   So as a “discipline”  Systems Thinking is a “silo” with lots of “micro-silos”.   Being thrown into them is a little “sink or swim”, with little to grab onto.

Like most systems themselves, though, most people have some “starting point” for their organized way of thinking about systems.   It might be the nesting of small operations/management units within large ones, for example, as you might find in studying how a business works.    I look at those common units of organization as a “cybernetic body parts” to be use to help understand the observed systems around you.  That treats systems thinking as a “learning process”, though, rather than as a a way to define the mechanisms of systems , though.  Real systems work in more complex ways than our mental models can describe.

My main focus in on natural systems that are identifiable “self-managing units” of organization (natural systems).   For them the “management” of the system becomes a role for the loops of relationships that are also the system’s “operations”, so operations and management are not separated, but the same.  The loops of relationships define the “body” of its organization as a whole individual working unit.   That definition by observation also provides an observable “natural boundary” to locate in the environment, and a way to define individual systems for research studies by their own unique shape and location.

Maybe the following summary would offer a kind of  “life preserver” for the “sink or swim” task, that the somewhat unwieldy accumulation of my work presents.  ;-)    My approach starts with recognizing that growth, for a business, social or physical system, is itself a:

  1. a self-managing system for building whole systems,
    1. starting from a seed of organization
    2. using existing resources in an open environment
    3. that I can observe closely, and
      1. helps me pick out simple models of working parts
      2. to then better understand the full relationships of the things seen in their real contexts
      3. importantly for understanding the transition between growth and maturation
        1. when the system’s surplus resources change use
        2. from first developing internal relationships to then develop external relationships
        3. from first building the scale of the growing system
        4. and then to maturing its relationships
Growth is a succession of
Systems develop on a path of changing organizational stages

My materials are kind of scattered all over my site and blog.

PICS projecting images of complex systems

Chapters of whole system events

TEA total environmental assessment PDF slides

Blog: Reading Nature’s Signals

Intro: Open Systems Physics

HDS systems design science: Consulting servicesPublication list

Proposal: Natural Principles for steering the global economy

My Influences general site  Synapse9 and  search tools


Questions from Bill Rees & response

Bill Rees asked some excellent questions about my submission to the Long Term Capitalism Challenge to use natural principles for managing growth to sustain the profitability of our economic system.    I think I made good responses too.


Hi Jessie –

Thanks for the opportunity to review your proposal.

I agree with your diagnosis of our economic malady but admit to struggling a bit with the remedy. Let me start with this sentence:

“When people spend their financial profits on good works it also [reduces the growth of money], with the added advantage when spent as for endowments instead of to compound profits, of doing a lot of good.”

Now, at the limits to material growth, the goal of policy should be to reduce the throughput of energy and materials to biophysically sustainable limits. So the above passage raises two questions.  First, what do you mean by ‘good works’?  and second, would the redirection of profits from investment in productive capital to ‘good works’ reduce total throughput?

/When financial earnings are not compounded to multiply investment, and the returns are not added to savings,  it stops the automatic compound growth of investments.    I’m using “investment” more broadly than usual, to make my statements inclusive, to include all ways in which money is spent with the intent of having it return profits.  I then break spending and investing in components if I want to study the details, using a “figure 8” model.  That’s a way to construct a global model of how income is allocated and returned as income, as a closed system with regulated money supply (Concept$).

/So, “spending” then means the opposite of investment, as money spent without an expectation of return, i.e. final consumption.  Then  “good works” most generally means final consumption used to maintain the profitability of the economy, as a universal good and necessity for survival.  One thing that economists would recommend, it think, if the added spending seemed to increase aggregate demand, is to make sure enough of it was used for non-consumption expenses like to retire debt.   The intent is to have investors treat their financial investments as endowments, and think of themselves as fiduciaries for the earth in general, to keep it profitable and using their money as the world is best served.

/Spending financial returns would reduce total throughput if it kept the funds available for expanding production systems from growing.   How the restraining aggregate savings would affect the movement of funds between ‘producing’ and ‘non-producing’ investments I have not really thought through.   One part seems to be that businesses would need to give their profits to their shareholders, to be spent, rather than to use them to grow while the whole economy is trying not to.

Our current growth course, growing resource depletion

Continue reading Questions from Bill Rees & response

Adopt natural system principles to keep economies profitable at their limits

The collection of “Hacks” for the Long Term Capitalism Challenge offered byHarvard Business Review, McKinsey and MIX, for the M-Prize for Management Innovation now has this proposal from me…

Please leave comments for reviewers on The official competition entry at the MIX site (here too is fine for conversation).  If you request information I’ll respond as I did for Bill Rees, and post it if it’s OK with you.

It’s a nice new version of the long series of proposals for using natural economies as models for better ways to organize ours, a kind of systems biomimicry.

General References: (added proposal references at the end)

  1. For closely related world system biomimicry see “News of the Commons
  2. To introduce systems ecology “Self-organization as “niche making
  3. I got very good detailed questions on the MIX proposal from Bill Rees, and posted my responses as Questions from Bill Rees.
  4. For an introduction to the physics and general systems theory of natural open systems, see Natural Systems Thinking


The Summary

A good goal for growth would be to end at a stable peak of vitality providing a sound capital endowment for life on earth.  That would be better than ending at a peak of exhaustion, like other “tower of Babel” societies of the past such as Rome and the Mayans.

It can also be thought of as a change of “ism’s”.

It would also represent a change in form for our economic system, while still being the very same economy with the same people and rights, and reliance on creative innovation funded by investors.   By giving profits an end purpose, of caring for things rather than just for multiplying profits, it woud give the whole economy a very different purpose.    So, it can also be thought of as a change of “ism’s”. Continue reading Adopt natural system principles to keep economies profitable at their limits