Missing Principles of Ecological Thinking – in plans for the Earth

The following list of 12 principles of ecological thinking seemed missing from consideration in the comments of UN member nation delegates and others at recent meetings led by the UN, in its major effort obtain a consensus on sustainable development goals (SDG’s) for 1) eliminating widespread poverty, 2) responding to climate change and 3) maintaining steady economic growth for all… for framing the UN Post2015 development plans.  The good reception I got mentioning couple of these to some of the experts at the meetings prompted me to send them an email with this longer list.

The changes needed in the world economy are SO massive, eliminating endemic cultures of poverty for 1/8 of humankind, doubling the size of the world economy while cutting fossil fuel use back to ~1960 levels, in ~30 or so years, is “a very full plate” agenda.  One might see it as more of a full emergency global economic rebuilding, to save the earth.

The UN leadership prepares extensively for such meetings, providing briefing documents and inviting very expert speakers, generally all show clear efforts to consider the true complexity of intervening in cultural/economic/environmental systems for making such big changes.  The UN doesn’t make a real effort to educate the delegates or other participants as systems thinkers, though, to understand and be able to discuss the real nature of the complex problems we face in proposing to rearrange the human ecosystem.

Feeding but not directing the thinking of others, does mark a conservative approach to intervening in the social and political cultures the UN serves, though, and is quite traditional at the UN.  I think today ecological thinking has advanced some, and the problem we face has changed a lot.  So now that conservative approach comes at some real cost.  It allows a low level recognition of our real problems by world decision makers to persist, and important false directions to go unchecked. Everyone seems to agree we have little time to discover the errors we’re making in our use of the earth and getting them straightened out.  ed 4/30/13


Colleagues, I was delighted to get positive reactions from thought leaders as you each are, at the UN OWG-2 meetings last week, to my pointing out key principles of natural systems not being considered by the delegates.    I thought I’d summarize a list of 11 of them, from my notes on the meetings while the week is fresh in our minds.   I represent the Commons Cluster in the NGO Major Group, and this is part of my own work in that group.

I first noticed the first five this week, while carefully listening for the questions the delegates were consistently not asking.   The other six are one’s I’ve studied carefully for decades.   They’re mostly very logical, perhaps even obvious, but missed by people tending to think and talk in terms of our own social purposes, ethics and values.  So asking what choices are on “nature’s menu” of options is honestly just overlooked.

Because they don’t automatically connect to social values, yet at least, lots of people also respond as if these natural principles are just “too far out to consider”.   So these may seem  “a little far out”.   I think are quite accurate descriptions what’s on nature’s menu of options and rather relevant to our work, though.

  1. We talk about “not crossing planetary boundaries” in the future, with world resource prices rising for a decade, problems emerging of increasingly unmanageable complexity, and conflicting interests tying our hands with indecision, all indicating we crossed the boundary well in the past.
  2. We want both “sustainable development” and “economic development” overlooking the conflict, one being for cultures learning to create wealth with their own resources, and the other for cultures learning to create wealth with growing amounts of other people’s resources.
  3. We talk about growth for “curing poverty” when it’s now causing it and worsening debt crises, with growing competition for limited resources that takes limited supplies from lower profit sectors to give to higher profit sectors, visibly accelerating as supplies hit more severe limits.
  4. We talk of poverty and hunger as policy failures, when they’re really cultural failures, gaps in  transmitting a reliable ladder of success and method of taking care of themselves to younger generations, for less adaptive cultures in a changing world and outside ‘help’ often misguided.
  5. We want unified SDG (goals) and SDI (investments), when only able cultural choices do that.  It calls for enhanced cultural learning more than policy interventions, a commons approach, to learn quite new ways to make profitable choices, in an increasingly unsustainable world.
  6. In designing complex systems… it’s the parts that fit themselves together both in nature and by people.  Getting parts to find their own roles is how communities, ecologies and business cultures all develop and work.  It’s how theories are pieced together and technologies.
  7. Even systems of very responsive parts can’t respond to ever faster changing conditions, as growth naturally produces.  So local solutions to the “struggle” don’t solve it, but indicate having crossed the boundary to being “overgrown”, and creating changes the parts can’t respond to.
  8. We don’t notice the growth imperative and its growing impacts exist by popular demand, not just the greed of the rich but everyone’s.  Investors take a share but maximize other people’s growing returns too, trying to serve society’s desire for ever more money without work!
  9. Resources are first valued for growth, building new systems, then for making them sustainable, for maintaining themselves and their environments.  The investment value switches from growth to sustainability, as easily as turning from a struggle to grow to become comfortable and secure.
  10. We talk of resources and money having inherent value, when their value is in how they’re used, so ownership or sharing have value as properties of cultural know-how, for how to use what is owned or shared, and for whether in the end it enriches the whole.
  11. Money choices include their hidden impacts, at about equal shares of the world total per dollar. It’s because money follows chains of businesses to pay millions of people for their end consumption to work in your service, each dollar having about “average” material impacts while serving individual purposes.  So for material impacts, it’s largely scale that matters.


I’ve tried to suggest social values to attach to these principles, but given that they are not yet understood culturally, it’s difficult.    I need help bringing them into discussions where they can gain social values.

A quite curious extension of that is how it even applies to most scientific communities.  Scientists also generally don’t recognize natural system design principles as connecting with scientific values.  So they may readily agree with them and then also show no interest in finding how to use them.  Not understanding quite where they come from they also often don’t see  how they connect to traditional science!  … very curious.

My scientific method for studying them is a quite direct extension of traditional scientific methods, for asking a somewhat new set of questions.   For myself it’s become a quite effective way to study natural systems as behaving like individual organisms: growing, adapting and responding to their environments.

The usual scientific method treats natural systems somewhat the opposite, defining them as the theories we invent, and so not acknowledging the physical systems have their own working parts.   If people were curious, I could show them how the methods can quite productively connect.

Thanks so much for your time and response!




12.  Not having in mind any real method of ecological intervention, and needs serious professional help designing one.

What I came to yesterday is a realization that where these great omissions in ecological thinking come from, is the UN simply not following any method of ecological intervention at all… !   prompting the following note to advocates of a commons approach.

What I’ve been observing, going to a number of high level meetings at the UN, and reading everyone’s proposals, is lots of very caring people responding to symptoms they don’t really understand with solutions they don’t really understand… as if a crap-shoot for saving the earth is what they recommend.

That was really brought home at this week’s ECOSOC meetings, strongly advocating highly unrealistic and culturally ignorant and inconsiderate plans to solve world poverty with massive technology infusions.    That long list of critical omissions from the ecological thinking evident at the UN is a really serious matter.

So: …

A basic outline of one:

12.  A practical method of sustainable ecological intervention would start by dividing the task between setting goals (SDG’s) and choosing investments (SDI’s).  Each would need professional certification and also provide for accountability before political commitments are made.

The professions involved would include appropriate analytical science and economic experts.  Still more important is the inclusion of appropriate ecologists, having expertise in natural, cultural, industrial and general systems ecological thinking.  That’s because it’s the systems thinking that is most missing from present UN deliberations.

Having professional guidance to help evaluate and guide “good ideas” is needed to help decision makers understand how intervening in environments both will and will not change how they work, and the kinds of mid-course corrections bound to be needed.

Having sound professional guidance, on how to intervene in our cultural, economic and general ecological systems, would help somewhat the same way as an architect helps people realize the visions they have for buildings.   The professional team could help define the paths that are possible to take to get from dreams to realities.


I guess it’s just because redesigning how a planet works is “a new job for mankind”, that getting appropriate professional help with making decisions seems to be something of a “new idea” too…  ;-)


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