Category Archives: For teachers

The story of the Missing Stuff

Re: Annie Leonard’s brilliant work in the “The Story of Stuff“, and the hiding places where nature puts some of the missing stuff.

Annie, Hi, great work, I’ve always admired it. I’m a natural systems scientist, and… there’s a whole LOT of “missing stuff”. Closely studying the mystery of how nature organizes things into “whole systems” has a secret power, that any one part can lead you to… layer upon layer of the missing stuff. We should have a lot to talk about, but catching your attention is a difficulty these days.

Unseen universes abound, at all scales and energies, lives known only by feint traces, the true reality beyond our words

Most people assume that once they’ve found one answer to a question, that’s it, and there’s nothing else to look for. But oh no, that’s usually the beginning not the end. Like, people see 1 thing wrong with money and think fixing that fixes every thing that is wrong with money. Nope, you have to look at things from ALL sides to find ALL the gaping holes. Just patching up the first thing that comes into sight isn’t enough. After a stumble you may tie your scarf and in a hurry “look smart”, but not notice you’ve been sitting in mud! Continue reading The story of the Missing Stuff

What’s there to look for? – useful principles of change

Discussion of systems thinking principles. See Bump on a curve notepad” for others

what if you were in the first generation of humans to realize that we now need to steer

Make believe that you are in a vehicle, born there, and didn’t realize it needed to be steered or even could be.   Somehow you realize if it guided itself before, you not need to start steering it around various hazards ahead, and find yourself part of the first generation of humans to realize that.

With there being no established method for doing it, no one else can tell you how. What would you do?

The first thing is to familiarize yourself with all the parts you had just taken for granted before, like all the amazingly common complex things that take care of themselves and never needed tending before. We need to look at them with fresh eyes, as if we were new born and dropped unexpectedly into a new environment. Continue reading What’s there to look for? – useful principles of change

Real Solutions for “our change of life” crisis

re: Chris Nelder – Real Solutions to the Energy and Climate Crises posted on Energy & Capital

Yes, the overweening influence of corporate lobbyists has effectively neutralized policy and confused the public debate on our most serious problems. Yes, the capitalistic system favors short-term concentrated profits over long-term public good. And yes, the simple human preference for happy talk over sad stories plays a role in our denial. The real problem is much more pervasive. Those actors cannot explain more fundamental questions:

Why has our economic theory failed us?
Why is the reality of climate change so hard to accept?
Why does climate change dominate public dialogue while the more proximate threat of peak oil remains far off the radar?
Why do we have such resistance to change?
Why would anyone ever think Dubai World was a good idea?
Why is talking about population control — arguably the only real way out of our predicament — taboo?


The issues you raise (12/11/09 “Energy and Capital”) are rather close to what I’ve used as conceptual levers for understanding the deeper problem for some time. The simple part of our cognitive difficulty is fairly easy to state and understand I think. Continue reading Real Solutions for “our change of life” crisis

Cognitive Gaps – not Learning From Experience

Bob, 1/8/09 post to Downslope

Well, people ignoring contexts certainly do make it hard to learn from change, and even learning by hard experience after the fact doesn’t always help.     Humans often are so fixated on old ideas in new worlds they only learn by generational succession (with old ideas dying off rather than changing by experience).

There are kinds of problems where even that doesn’t work either.    We seem to be struggling with one of them now, yet another in the long series of economic overshoot and societal collapses, fitting a similar pattern and occurring time and again throughout history at all kinds of scales large and small.

We don’t even seem to see the pattern well enough to talk about it.    The curious thing is that even repeated powerful experience plus generational succession seem not to teach us a thing about it, and, it also seems never to get publically discussed.   There’s enduring silence about our greatest persistent tragic problem.

I think profound denials like that may seem “hard wired”, but if they are not shared by everyone I think it means they’re cognitive not cultural, i.e. just inherited expert errors. Our natural reaction is to work harder when we run into difficulty, but if nature is making things harder because of being overworked, that can trick us and be counterproductive.

Then our impetus to ban together to sacrifice and recommit ourselves to work harder for the common good, but results in the environment becoming even more overworked and unresponsive, i.e. a decidedly heroic but mistaken response.     Our present impasse, a failing economy and looming environmental and resource collapses of several kinds is signaling that nature is overworked, and for us all to heroically work harder.

Possibly enough people could notice the error in a response to pushing old methods ever harder, when nature is actually calling for rather new ones, to take it as a signal to begin thinking on our feet and not blindly forging ahead.

Phil Henshaw

Bob, to post again on 1/9/09

I think there is still something suspicious about the “cone of silence” around mankind’s most persistently self-destructive behavior. The people who do it obviously includes nearly everyone, and thinking that it’s constructive right up until it’s too late.

How we then appear to fail to be self-critical enough to see or say what the real problem was after, is also part of what I’m beginning to notice.

People seem too close to it to get any perspective. Continue reading Cognitive Gaps – not Learning From Experience

Fun and sand piles

Posted to [FRIAM] 1/13/07



On thing worth adding is the reason it’s useful to consider the maze of instrumental behaviors that constitute systems in the context of the whole envelope of their developments (¸¸¸.·´ ¯ `·.¸¸¸)from beginning to end. It turns the mystery of complex developmental systems into the puzzle of when and how they’ll go through the classic switches and display the key landmarks of doing so. Continue reading Fun and sand piles

Calculus for History Majors

As we discover the huge role complex natural systems have in change of all kinds, we’re finding that evolving systems are our environment, the whole context and much of the shape of history.

It’s high time history majors learned about the best method available for reading their changes. A most curious and revealing thing about complex systems is that the first evidence of emergent change is often a display of the physical property that corresponds to the central mathematical idea of calculus, continuity.

In a mathematical function you can define a slope, and the same is true of almost any real change in complex systems. Complex systems evolve through progressions, and applying a logic like that of calculus to measures of change over time shows you where the progressions emerge from the noise and when they shift.

It reveals a great deal about the nature of a system because it provides direct evidence of it’s creative behavior as a whole.

Continue reading Calculus for History Majors

Risky Play

Anyone in charge of almost any kind of organization, throwing a party, running a business, etc., will want it to build up to a point where it’s exciting, but not to where you loose control. You usually want things to approach the edge of stability, but not go over it to lose resilience. It’s fun, and in business, makes money and gets the most out of everyone.Perhaps the deep sort of common experience that explains it is playing with a water hose as a kid. The fun really begins when someone turns up the pressure and the person holding the nozzle at the time (usually one of the girls) gets scared and lets go. Continue reading Risky Play

By 2020 – The Year of Clear Vision

By 2020 the investors of the world will see their self-interest and stop compounding their returns, allowing the global economy to climax at a high stable rate of change, forestalling the climax of investment with a loss of resilience, expectation failures, environmental collapse, conflict and mistakes.

The real limit of economic growth is the loss of resilience from accumulating mistakes. I mention this because exponentials are spookily explosive, seem like nothing & follow w/ major affects. If you see a road sign saying ‘Curve Ahead’ you know if the car starts tipping it’s too late to slow down. The curve of an exponential gets ever more radical the further you take it, and it’s a mistake not to slow down. Continue reading By 2020 – The Year of Clear Vision

Ok Ok, I give up

What remains hidden in the hot debate over “intelligent design” and Darwin’s evolution, miraculously, is the strategic location of the odd gaps in the fossil record.

Where those gaps are located is rather embarrassing to both sides.

I think if you’re thinking clearly about the problem, not defending one side or the other, the answer is obvious. The gaps in the record contain almost all the biological change that the theory of ‘little steps’ is supposed to explain, occurring at the origin of most species. Evolution actually proceeds by big steps (the dirty truth). Continue reading Ok Ok, I give up

What’s the plan man!

I’m not getting much sleep lately, taking on too much, burning with ideas; not a good plan. But then neither is humanity’s plan for us all to make decisions 16 times faster every lifetime forever.

It indicates we’re missing something, like where the heck are we going anyway! Sounds presumptuous perhaps, but I can fix that. The underlying problem is that our perceptions of where we are operate on a sliding scale.

Continue reading What’s the plan man!