Category Archives: Scientific theory

Natural Systems.. meet many worlds of Cultural Reality

I got a strong “like” from Mark Stahlman to my comment on Real-World Economic Review issue no. 65that led to A great longer discussion on the Cultural Anthropology of Knowledge on Open Anthropology .   We start a series of excerpts, mostly my writings, with my comment to the economics review journal.    J.L. Henshaw (@shoudaknown) commented in response to Edward Fullbrook’s “New Paradigm Economics” :

Culture was always what defined our realities, till we had to deal with multiple cultures, and found our selves confused.


1. JLH Comment to Ed Fullerbrook 10/6/13: – 

A Solution that leaves out much of the problem

Edward, Regarding your new paradigm. I’m a natural systems scientist who has spent a lot of time on the puzzle of how economics became so detached…

I certainly applaud your effort to describe a new paradigm for economics, and see your approach as having the right intent and to be quite elegant in how you construct it. It still overlooks why natural systems will invariably depart from even the most faithful effort to describe them mathematically.

It’s that 1) natural systems change how they’re organized, and so how they behave, ALL the time, 2) all natural systems originate from a growth process in which they change how they work ever faster, to then change form, and 3) by ignoring #2 the present paradigm is to manage a world of systems that all expand and become ever more unmanageable over time.   It’s “impractical”.

What I think this exposes is a very basic flaw in our conception of nature. It seem to be coming directly from our attempts to define nature conceptually (treating nature as rules that we control), rather than using the rules we find to help us learn about it. What we have is an ever changing world, full of complex living natural and cultural systems we need to interact with, that are inventing new behavior all the time and fundamentally out of our control. From there I’m not sure what would help you understand my approach, as my terminology is likely to ‘sound funny’.

Continue reading Natural Systems.. meet many worlds of Cultural Reality

Nature’s Capitalism: “Homemaking” now, not competition over shrinking pies!

This post is for the UN’s OWG 5 proceedings next week, on Post2015 Macro Economic development positions.  It led to the OWG 8 proposal “A World SDG“, introducing an integrated true scientific measure of sustainability... It’s now followed with “The Decoupling Puzzle – a partial answer” , on measuring our decoupling rate”, and the development space reserved  within planetary boundaries, such as for achieving world cultural wellbeing!

Sadly, as careful as I am with the language, there is some scientific thinking… so the social organizations generally found no way to engage in discussing it.   The basic principle is that “when you build something you then need to take care of it”… something everyone knows in their personal lives.  That runs into the problem that, culturally, we don’t see economic growth as “building something”.  We see it culturally as a “constant” of prosperity… the ultimate tragedy of our times. that ever faster change is seen as “constant” it seems. 4/21/14 jlh


As a young systems scientist many years ago

I noticed a need for a better type of economic model,

that would connect money to its “externalities” in part.  More importantly it would let people see economies as the complex living organisms they really are.  What I found was the universal stages of natural development, that are repeated in the way any natural event or system develops from small beginnings to multiply at first, and then by multiplying in it’s environment changes it, an Organizational Stages Model (OSM)

Economies are chock full of independently organized and behaving social and cultural communities behaving like organisms, that each develops from a seed of organization in an environment of resources.   You can talk about “why” things occur, causes at a distance or coincidences but that’s an intellectual issue, a prediction, a theory.  

This is about using the most general of pattern of “how” individual events occur the processes of developmental causation taking place in nature in every location where events occur.

Economies, for example, are all populated by actively creative and learning people, discovering things and following each other’s leads….  So what this “Organizational Stages Model” (OSM) approach focuses on for economies is how people learn and how what they learn to do spreads as transformational stages of growth and the emergence of new systems, and their natural limits.   The simple rule, for the transformative stages of any process of new emerging organization, then, is that it’s organizational process will follow an “S” curve.   The first half is of multiplying innovation and expansion of connections, a “burst of development”, and the second a process of rebalancing and integrating.

Organizational Stages Model

That’s the dynamic we need to capture in our minds to understand the world we live in.    An economy is really a whole “civilization” in fact, organized like an ecosystem, accumulating and passing on its knowledge of “how to live” in the form of family and social cultures, as the living “genetic code” of the societies they create.   THAT is what the word “growth” refers to, the compound rates of expansion of that whole organic living culture.

As systems of nature, all those living parts and the whole, first grow and then mature to live and later decline
by very much the same succession of life’s great transformative experiences.

The ultimate most useful model for it I found is really cool!   It’s organized as “a Narrative of Life” as a great chain of instrumental transformations.   I’ve been looking for a name for my life’s work on it.. perhaps “Life Narrative Studies” (LNS) would do.  I won’t further introduce it here, as it’s what my whole site is about, but just present this new graphic to help readers get a feel for the general pattern.


Organizational Stages Model (OSM)

______________ Continue reading Nature’s Capitalism: “Homemaking” now, not competition over shrinking pies!

Local views of global systems – mismatch of impacts & responsibilities

This post was for the UN’s OWG 5 meetings on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) from 11/23 to 11/27, submitted as an NGO contribution to  Post2015 energy development positions.   The issue here is that there’s a big mismatch between local and global measures for current accounting methods used to estimate the energy uses businesses are responsible for.    It’s an accounting discrepancy commonly on the order of five or tenfold, i.e. so large and undefined that local measures become not scientifically comparable.   It comes from the way the local measures are defined not including a way to account for the energy uses incurred as businesses pay for the services they use to operate.  The global accounting includes them by being the total of all economic energy uses combined.  

They have “consumption for production” just like technology, but just not yet being counted! 


The global data is very clear, increasing GDP always requires proportionally related increases in energy use. Our local sustainable business plans for all sorts of projects seem to suggest the reverse, though, increasing revenue (fractions of GDP) with decreasing energy use!

What’s up??  Our math and the world’s seem to disagree!
Could some projects be outsourcing energy services and not knowing it??

The world economy grows as a whole
The world economy grows as a whole

There are two possibilities. Either there are hidden energy uses that our SD proposals are a)not responsible for, or that they b) are responsible for.  It’s hard to chase down puzzling discrepancies like this, but this one had an answer, published in Sustainability (MDPI)  in 2011, as Systems Energy Assessment (SEA).

What seems to be happening, all over the world, is the amount of **untraceable energy use** is growing… and so making SD figures unreliable and overly optimistic.

Continue reading Local views of global systems – mismatch of impacts & responsibilities

In two words… what defines “science”?

It’s “asking questions”, of course ( silly!  ;-).

Science is also about asking particular kinds of questions, so you’d be missing a lot if you didn’t also ask “What kinds of questions is that?”…  and end up getting to the “big picture” by asking “But then,… doesn’t any question both open your mind to one thing and close it to another?”

So that more precisely defines science is a kind of “open territory” of all the kinds of questions one might ask, hoping to find ones that are particularly “informative” and give us unexpected “insight”, while keeping us clear of “jumping to conclusions” and other pitfalls.   It’s a long process of bending our minds to fit the world we seem to be part of, finding ways to both “get along” and to bend the world to suite us, guided by the landscapes, pathways, open skies and hidden traps of “understanding” and “misunderstanding”,talking to “busybodies” and “not so busy bodies”, that one finds traveling beyond “The Phantom Tollbooth” (ref the Juster & Pfeiffer masterpiece).

the question is...?

What have you been wondering about…?

One of the very most informative and useful questions I ever asked is “What is nature hiding from us?”.  That question came to me about 25 years after my first highly productive question of the kind. which was “what makes life so lively?”    I’ve had SO much fun with both those questions I really cannot tell you!    I don’t feel compelled to “look under every leaf and stone”, but having asked those two questions, using them as a kind of “lens” for studying what’s happening around us, it has made it quite likely that in any natural hiding place I look I’ll find traces of things “making life lively” as a way to study what they’re doing and how, along with leading questions about where they’re headed. Continue reading In two words… what defines “science”?

Finding Organization in Natural Systems – “Quick Start”

How Natural Systems Work… is by forming processes that produce a profit, used to grow it, in a burst of creative self-organization, to become sustainable ONLY IF the profits that built it get used to maintain what was built; the essential road map.

That general model of nature’s “facts of life” is your “quick start”.   Following is a foreword and then a compact introduction to a scientific method. Anyone can observe the details of how developmental systems work by just learning to study the development of individual systems in nature.  You start with learning how to identify natural “living systems” as what fills our environments from watching how they develop.  Then you can recognize them as cells of organization that produce resources for their own development.  Easier reading descriptions are found in:

In a Nut Shell and Why ?¸¸.·´ ¯ `·.¸¸  The scientific method

How Natural Systems Fail… A growth system that can’t change to maintaining itself after building itself, becomes disabled.   As for our modern world economy, at the limits of the earth, keeps devoting more and more effort to expanding, it drains resources from maintaining itself. What’s wrong is the essential road map for sustainability is missing.   It is absent from our great cultural conversations, absent from the models of the professions and groups trying to stabilize the economy or seek “sustainability”.


An Organizational Stages Model (OSM)

–  the science  –

Foreword: Understanding natural systems involves learning how to first recognize them as individually developing systems, and then discover some of the hidden organization within them.   You can find them where you see events have “lives of their own”.   The real learning is a “learning by doing” process, as the key is discovering how to define your words by referring to self-defining objects of the natural world, not defining words with other words or use abstract models.

Abstract languages are “self-referential” and what a science of natural systems needs is words defined by nature.   To understand system models, then, you then need to consider them as questions about the real world subjects that are NOT in the model… but referred to by the words associated with the natural subject, a new way of scientific thinking.

Most any history of events will have periods of accumulating change that speed up and then slow down.  That becomes the main subject, the key that unlocks the basket of productive questions  about “what’s happening”.   It’s the question that identifies a systematic process of change as a sign of a developmental process and evidence of a self-organizing system doing it.

When some local system of change is “taking off” or later “fading away”, you notice where it and begin piecing together what is doing it, by watching for regularly changing rates of change.    It could be anything from the history of your own career choices, to the stages of organization for “the big prom”, the founding of your own business or the dramatic global shifts in economies and societies that “history” is itself a record of.





[This is a sample graph showing a real systemic transformation.   Only the data is shown to focus your attention on the changing rates of change](i)


It definitely helps to have some kind of “data” to indicate when locally developing changes are speeding up or slowing down, and notice the turning point from one to the other.   The different periods of behavior display different states of organization, and are used for “building a narrative ” for how one transitions into the next.  The traditional scientific.  For systems with hidden organization, it’s the continuity of change that is the direct evidence, of organization you can’t actually see, but can expect to find if you look there for it.

Continue reading Finding Organization in Natural Systems – “Quick Start”

Tricky Reading – the Indicator & the Context

From a conversation on the Commons Abundance Network.


Of course I agree a lot is solved by having it clear what you are using the word “growth” to refer to.   But it’s easier to figure out we *should* be clear about what is being referred to than to really do it.   It’s so easy to fall into the trap of treating some “positive indicator” as the system, some changing number that “sounds nice” in name, to end up promoting something not knowing what the real situation is at all.

That’s exactly how the BAU approach to consuming the planet ever faster got off track, using a trusted set of indicators and not paying the least attention to how their meanings were changing radically over time.   So, that philosophy’s “mistake” was not paying attention to the whole system it was applying its values to.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of treating some “positive indicator”
as “the system”

False priorities develop are all over the place that way.  Giving relief wherever there is pain and suffering, for example, ignores that injecting artificial supports just skews the indicator.  It changes the ability of people to care for themselves in the wrong way, giving them dependencies rather than independence, and directly causes their own local cultures to become useless to them and decay.

to help you watch where you're going...

Continue reading Tricky Reading – the Indicator & the Context

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. Continue reading Missing Principles of Ecological Thinking – in plans for the Earth

Your Ontology getting lost in Epistemology??

First (V.) is Helene’s response, to (IV.) my observations on the dilemma of “defining reality”, that doing so presents “reality” is represented as decided in our brains! Natural reality is precisely the opposite, of course, everything NOT defined in our brains.  Yet… the epistemologists keep winning the dumb argument anyway… even though the true answer is so clear.

A way to extend the idea of “empathy” termed “holpathy” is used, referring to our ability to recognized thing as “wholes” to then later to be more defined, like “a dog” seen as a whole while lacking information to describe it in defined terms. Seeing environmental systems as wholes, also from the extent of their parts acting together perhaps, allows whole parts of nature to first be recognized intuitively, to THEN be defined by information gathered and made sense of later.

Having empathy for other people is very helpful that way, giving you a tangible feeling and impression for them as a whole first, without any hard information on what’s happening inside.  It’s similar for recognizing other whole systems in nature.  You draw on your ability to listen and watch intently and create an image that fits holistically, used for the appearances of other whole cultures, shifting relationships in business or personal live, for the ineffable characteristics of  “places” too.  Those holistic impressions become highly useful later for connecting or fitting in later arriving facts.

After that is our first exchange on the subject (III., II., I.) III. discusses the question Helene asks, in II., whether holistic recognition addresses what some call “humanity’s original logic error”; mistaking logical states for natural forms, and the interesting approach of Barry Kort. I. first introduces the idea of “holpathy” for helping relieve our general cultural blindness to natural systems.

My scientific method for whole systems, developed in the early 80’s, also follows this “seeing the whole helps make sense of the parts” approach (fig 2).  I commonly start with data on continuities of change, like growth curves, that convey a holistic character of the system behaving as a whole to produce it, and of its current changes of state.  It offers a “home base” in one’s reasoning and a way to refer to the same whole system in nature for others to look at, as well as a central location for putting together all the information on a subject associated with it, to unify holistic and analytic information, like a replacement for equations to use with complex natural systems.

1. God's Cookie Jar - contains all the parts in wholes!

Whole systems have character you can intuit but not define, to then use as a mental framework to help fit bits of disconnected information you collect together

V. From: Helene Finidori To: ‘JL HenshawSent: Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Subject: RE: Meeting with High Level Forum for those in NYC last Friday – a little holpathy please?


I think you put your finger on the problem. And from what you wrote and the reading of these recent articles I think the problem is double. First it seems that as soon as someone starts talking of reality or nature and what is observed, or ontology, they place themselves in the realm of rhetoric and epistemology, and that’s where hard core ‘epistemologists’ get a win… Continue reading Your Ontology getting lost in Epistemology??

Mining cells of natural language (for semantic ontology)

This is a brief but relevant comment, from my Systems Thinking World discussions, points out a way the efforts by Goggle and others, to mine “meaning” from of the massive quantities of semantic data now available, is missing a golden opportunity. There are a variety of ways to use the natural structures of languages as a key.

@Ferenc – I don’t recall the subject of data mining semantic meaning coming up, but I sure agree there seems no computer search strategy yet in use for that.    I have some original technical ideas of how to do it, but they all begin with  learning to recognize how natural languages “integrate common knowledge” for you, by how language communities naturally develop within their own social commons, (or “silo”).

So the first step to learning how to read the natural organization of semantic structures generally is to learn how recognize and observe the development of natural languages and the semantic webs they create.   This STW community is one, for example, as is any other community with a sustained internal conversation.

Armed with that, perhaps a computer whiz could learn to crawl the web to develop a lexicon of the code phrases of a great variety of distinctive language communities.  That could provide a way to let you search on any topic of your interest, for any language group’s interest in it.

I’ve tried to suggest that to Google a few times, to let people do web searches from a “scientific” viewpoint, or “entertainment” or “youth” or “religious”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “European”, “Asian” or other distinctive community of interest.

Wouldn’t having that option, to look in on other language cultures and learn from what they’re learning from, would be very entertaining and enlightening itself, wouldn’t it?



The physics of HappeningStatistical Methods


Natural Whole Systems Thinking – philosophy & method on STW

To open a LinkedIn community discussion in “Systems Thinking World”, on the “whole systems approach” and scientific method I use, for discovering and understanding natural systems, I offered the following lead-in

Related theory pages:  1 Natural Pattern Languages,  2 ‘Big Data’ and the right to human understanding,  3 Global accounting of responsibilities for economic impacts,  4 Missing Principles of Ecological Thinking – in plans for the Earth,  5 Steering for the organizational Lagrange Point,  6 “The next big challenge” a biomimicry for a self-regulating financial commons,  7 General intro: Natural Systems & Synapse9,  8 Archive of early data analysis studies.  9 & other theory posts


Could we study systems that invent their own theories?

We might study anything identifiable, and growth curves in time­-series data seem associated with some kind of growing system, developing from scratch. The usual difficulty discovering what’s going on inside them may be strong evidence that they’re organized and changing internally, not visible to or determined by their environments. If such individual systems exist, would they also have locations, external bounds of some kind, a beginning in time and an end?




#1Jessie Henshaw • There are a few problems I’m trying to raise with this. One is the scientific difficulty of studying things you can point to, but can’t actually define. Science does better with “data” and numerical relationships, studying that as a ‘map’ for a more complex ‘territory’. Organizational change within individual natural systems isn’t readily mapped by “data”, though.

Is that one of the reasons there appear to be so many kinds of individual events and natural systems that display periods of essentially explosive creative organizational development, from storms to personal relationships, to social movements, disease outbreaks and swarms of new technologies, but science seems not to have yet identified that as a field of study?

12 days ago

#2 • Fabian Szulanski • What about agent based modeling? Would that be a point of departure for helping understand? Then some emergence, bifurcation and disorder could eventually appear.

12 days ago

#3 • Jessie Henshaw • @Fabian ­Well, that would be studying models for mathematical rules, not natural systems, wouldn’t it? To study natural physical systems, as if they were ABM’s, is more like what I’m suggesting.

Say you assume the natural world is like the big amazing computer the physicists postulate it actually is. Well then, we’re looking right at nature’s ABM without realizing it, and just need to discover it’s way of inventing things. We don’t have access to a “de­compiler” of nature’s source code, though, do we? What we see are systems that evolve new organization by changing everywhere at once, somehow. It makes it appear that nature is doing fresh programming, on many levels at once, with nearly every process and event she creates. Continue reading Natural Whole Systems Thinking – philosophy & method on STW