I’m a natural systems transformation scientist, who was mostly learning from the UN SDG process in the early years and looking for words to describe what I saw happening. There are some flaws in the design the UN produced, all preapproved by finance, that prevented the SDG process from being more effective. There are also ways in which it was intentionally or blindly designed to fail; driving BAU and our world’s existential crisis. but deep look under the hood finds something quite positive.
This is a message first sent the UN’s Major Groups on strategy for the upcoming SDG Summit, on the ten year anniversary of the SDGs, as it struggles with the world spinning ever further out of control despite the enormous effort to reverse the pattern.
Intro to the MGs: It’s been a very pleasant honor to engage in NGO MGoS meetings again this week, feeling the energy building to do something significant this fall (just around the corner). In the workshop at the Church Center yesterday I got some very reassuring responses to suggesting we finally look at the main causes (where the leverage lies) regarding the threats we’re responding to, and, to having “nature on the board” of the MGoS and maybe the UN too.
The main thing I found, though, is that we’re not learning from the diversity of examples of how nature elegantly solves growth overshoot problems like ours. There are good models of all sorts to help us see the turns to take. It’s a matter of responding in time to care for what we create. The fortunes of a starting plan, of “multiplying new forms,” switch in the middle to “making them work” in context. At first, growth is centered on what got it started, then naturally collides with the world it grows into. That involves steering. We do it quite successfully all the time when we see what’s happening, as when making dinner, making friends, or starting a business, noting when multiplying initial successes turns to a need to make them work in context.
To me, the greatest achievement of the SDGs is the great wave of caring about what happens to us it helped trigger. We’ve been talking about why that seems not the main interest of the many institutions that are supposed to serve us. That may be natural at the end of growth. An emerging wave of caring for the whole of a new system, as a unity of parts, seems to be the first sign of it developing a survival instinct. It seems to come with the shock of starting to collide with its environment when new lives most often also need the most care as they struggle with their new reality.
So, other than nature, what’s the real root cause of our troubles, and why hasn’t humanity readily responded in its own self-interest? It seems to be what has bothered the now dominant culture forever, that it learned to communicate powerful ideas with words and numbers, that kept going out of control and separated us from nature. Using words and numbers for steering our choices is dangerous. Both easily misinterpret and misrepresent the realities they are abstracted from. So fears and misunderstandings of what we’re doing can amplify and allow us to create and need to rely on entirely unreliable life support systems, as ours is, based on multiplying power. One could spin it saying that people blinded by power found it simpler to creatively overpower parts of society and nature to solve their problems, making bigger and bigger problems. Another way to see it is as one of those “experiments” that nature wanted to try out on us… just to see what we’d do, and if we’d ever grow up. Nature IS very experimental, after all!
“The cure” seems to be to unblind ourselves, rediscovering how our world works by reattaching our abstractions to their real meanings. We’d more carefully explore, experience, and validate our thinking, “regenerating” the tried-and-true ways of steering our lives that all of life has depended on from the start. Without much notice, the systems scientist Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for the essence of that plan. Rather than using powerful and blind abstractions for remote controlling nature, we’d explore our contexts to enrich and inform our senses, notice and respond to changing opportunities, and draw on honest feelings, fears, and other intuitions to help us understand what’s going on in the non-verbal world, and develop indicators for where our externalities are and include them in making our decisions.
So, is this our best chance to put nature back on the board? The main threats from not consulting her seem to be: 1. Global societal degeneration and threatened authoritarian takeovers. 2. Financial institutions taking the job of defining the rules of “sustainability” to a. blame producers for what they’re told and paid to maximize for finance. b. holding themselves blameless for the multiplying externalities to be ignored.
JM Keynes seems to have been the first to say it. We should find some better uses for our money. Will it be to care for our world, to destroy it, or go endlessly back and forth?
What do you think?
We’re clearly in the biggest jam our species has ever faced, with our cure for climate change accelerating it, the latest curve, below, clearly showing that we have had ever faster accelerating climiate change since WWII, and the curve is very smoothly optimized, apparently by the financial system believing that maximizing the the steady explosion of profits would outweigh the exploding costs of the damage, apparently not having looked at that either..?:
Our solution for inequality rapidly accelerated it too, apparently for some reason not studied as well.
I guess everyone was convinced that growing the pie (without counting the disruption of nature) would be best for them even though it would become worst for everyone, as the separation accelerated and the brutal consequences of disrupting the working contexts of life around the globe mounted:
and … famous for failing to get out of its biggest jams, plagued by self-corruption, self-deception and extraordinary tragidy, with mumerous whole civilization collapses ‘under belts,’ only to do it again. That’s a remarkably odd behavior for a natural species, isn’t it?
Thinking about the global crisis, the people who feel it think so differently than those who don’t, and the solutions of the latter seem to be at the very root of the problem (problem A).
We need solutions that would work in practice. That would take a real understanding of the problem and its origins. Easy-sounding solutions only mention the endpoint and skip how the process of getting there starts and develops. Decentralizing the economy, for example, sounds good but would also destroy the economy, as every product today physically comes from everywhere! Social values can make excellent design principles, but they are not system designs. We have many good designers and managers, too, but they are not doing the job needed today. So “problem A” seems to be that our system designers and managers are following century-old rules that today have become globally destructive. That implies that changing their jobs is more important than changing the people. We still need the same talents but doing the right things.
That presents a huge but possibly practical challenge. The people we’d need to communicate with are largely very communicative and, from their view, caring. It’s our world culture of wonderfully educated, risk-averse, and successful professionals from good families – who steer the world’s institutions and economy while also being blind to the side effects of their steering. They even call the existential threats they cause “externalities” and don’t know what to do about them. In truth, those so-called externalities are internal system breakdowns caused by our long history of applying Many Too Many Solutions while Blind To The Side Effects.
This cream of the world crop of educated professionals is NOT intentionally blind to their impacts, now destroying the earth at the economy’s maximum rate of acceleration. They also do have access to the data on the global system breakdowns. However, their thinking is in terms of the CONCEPTS of their work (simple models of profit), not noticing how their choices became disconnected from their CONTEXTS (the rich meanings of all the living worlds they touch). So, the problem is they don’t-feel-a-thing.
Feelings and their meanings come from contextual awareness, not abstract concepts. So blind to the effects of their work, they blindly follow the outdated rules to multiply everything that was once highly creative but now is quickly destroying the earth. Yet, if you get to know them personally, it is quite ironic how they do largely seem to be caring, responsible people. They’re from good families and try their level best to secure their homes and care for their communities. Those ironies present are where the openings for real communication are!
So, how do we get them to look at different rules to follow, like for the rest of us, please “pay attention to the planet.” There are two necessary parts to freeing professionals from their “true beliefs” and opening their eyes. (((#1 One is experiential.))) Someone needs to personally lead them out to explore the world and have direct experiences of the natural beauty of life spoiled by rising global demands and dysfunction that urgently need relief from growing pressures and good care. (((#2 Another is mining deeper cultural knowledge.))) Caring for your home is as deep a tradition as any in human cultures, but our elite professionals have totally lost track of it in wildly shaping (and reshaping) our world. The first link shows some history of what happened to cause the blindness of experts to develop. It implies the task is to help the world’s leadership recover their ability to care for the earth as our genuine home, and NOT a concept (a). It helps to see the breadth of our crises (b). a) https://synapse9.com/signals/bronze-age-roles-of-hestia-and-hermes/ b) https://synapse9.com/_r3ref/100CrisesTable.pdf
They’d never do most of the wrecking crew work they do if they followed the customary practices of “homemaking” or if you prefer “home science.” They are fairly simple and reliable practices for 1) having wide awareness and 2) respecting common interests that we all follow in our homes. We all follow them when doing tasks, too, at home, at the office, or in the community. They are the same as the universal system-making model nature follows for Making Things To Fit The Context. When making changes, it starts with building on some idea, “confluence,” or inspiration of nature. When activated, it becomes the ‘germ’ of a new working system that grows as fast as it can at first. Then it sometimes passes the test of when and how to stop.
The universal test is simple, taking resources from growth for Responding To The Growing Needs Of The New System as those needs start competing with the values of more expansion. An endless expansion gives a system more to take care of (and more complexity that prevents it) than is manageable; a fatal problem. When making dinner, for example, the natural turning point is when you have collected and started preparing what is needed and then turn to finishing and gracefully serving. That must be before you startup too much to finish. That turn from starting to completing a design process also happens when new organisms become fully formed and ready to start learning about their new world. That occurs at birth for mammals when the new life starts to explore with family support for a while as they “fledge” and then be freed. People call it “youth” and “graduate,” the preparation and point of leaving the nest.
So, communicating to professionals about their ignorance threatening the planet is a dicey proposition. That is helped by really knowing what you’re talking, protesting, or singing about. Since negativity usually reinforces opposition, it helps to take a caring rather than aggressive approach.
A good example of that came up with the US supreme court starting to take away universal rights. The idea of forcing the country to adopt radical Christian Right (CR) values by packing the court came from their decades-long quest. Now it looks like there may be more to come than denying every woman’s right to privacy in their reproductive choices. Every living thing on earth needs individual and home privacy, though, so it seems to violate nature to deny it to others unless you are seriously injured.
So to turn that all around, ask: “What in the world happened to the CR to make them feel so directly harmed” And why was the only solution to deny the world around them universal rights??” Were they feeling an egregious loss of their home and privacy? The world around them has indeed been changing ever faster (due to problem A). The threat of ever faster change around their very fixed beliefs could have made them feel alienated, without a secure home anymore, and only able to think of lashing back? That makes it plausible that sympathy could sometimes be a better tool than antagonization, and of course, it would go both ways.
It’s wonderful to have so much movement in the movement now, the passion and connections making such awakening waves around facing our global crisis of growing crises. Capitalism isn’t amenable to the kinds of change mostly offered, moral suasion, that I hear voiced by the great host of determined voices rising in response.
The people actually most responsible are the class of highly educated successful professionals from good families ruling the world. We need to study ironies like that, looked at as non-verbal cues from nature to look more deeply at the problem. Another irony is that the educated professional class running the world, who like everyone else, exhibits highly successful survival instincts in their personal environments, evidently also seems to think nothing of destroying the home of nature and humanity at ever-accelerating rates; another irony.
The many ironies surrounding our escalating world crisis all suggest some kind of profound blindness, on the part of nature’s most intelligent species. There is one that the ironies can help us pick out. One of the other ironies that have been talked about for decades now, is that it seems our solutions are the source of our problems. That is particularly clear in how you just can’t talk to people offering great temporary solutions for growing long-term problems. They’re not motivated to look for the flaws in their proud designs. That disappointing truth is pervasive throughout the world sustainability movement. For the biggest example, even the climate change effort amounts to an enormous effort to find a temporary fix that absolutely can’t last. Its aim is to phase out one ever-multiplying energy source for another, taking no (0) account of the ever-multiplying impacts of generating and using the new source for multiplying our control of nature. What we’re using the energy for is probably a bigger actual environmental problem than how we obtain it!
In short, we’re behaving like confused 2-year-olds with respect to some of our most important tasks, as we also act like grownups with respect to some others. For some reason, I started noticing these kinds of ironies a long time ago. They would just pop out at me. I noticed in first-year physics almost 60 years ago, for example, that physics does not study the parts of nature that can’t be turned into a formula! Of course, no one would listen then or ever since, though recently I may be making little bits of progress. The insight that triggered that observation came while being taught about the parts of simple behaviors that fit formulas, like a ball thrown in the air. We were not taught about the little non-linear energizing and de-energizing transients that begin and end every case of similar events.
Conceptual thinking, the identification of simple patterns in complex contexts, is I think, at the heart of our problem. We spend so much time with our concepts, observed patterns simplified and detached from our contexts. that we lose track of their contexts, that is, except for the contexts we are deeply immersed in. The one you can’t feel and the other you can, and that has EVERYTHING to do with behavior.
Thus our good survival instincts are in familiar places and we tend to lose them if all we have is abstract data. That divide also means that we naturally think our social concepts and values rule the world because they touch our emotions so directly. It tends to make the behavior of the natural and institutional systems that really run the world go largely unnoticed. The worst part… is that the simple rules of science and finance for profitably (and blindly) growing our control over our nature and each other (rules we see as detached from their contexts), then also multiply ever-faster. So, naturally, they take over the world those “powers of our minds” (for multiplying our power) are unleashed. Looking at the long history shows the scope of the dilemma. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years, over and over, blowing things up and suffering the disaster. And we are still at it today. Of course, if this like of questions helps us see the problem, maybe we can do something this time.
So what do we do? Well, I can’t say what path to take, as that will be determined by first looking for then finding the openings in our blind convictions, to breathe fresh air into them. Then the need appears to be to at least start a cure for the very heart of the problem, how our powerful concepts blind us to the world we take power over. If we could feel what’s going on around their use we would be able to read the non-verbal cues to the state of our relationships, and not be helpless. Where we don’t feel the state of our relationships we’re blind to the effects of our choices and helpless. The main example is of course our pension for multiplying money, not having any feeling for the extensive evidence that what we do with money is rapidly destroying the earth, for example, the Top 100 World Crises Growing With Growth.
The list is too much to absorb all at once, but it’s one of the healthiest things to try. https://synapse9.com/_r3ref/100CrisesTable.pdf The solution is – conceptually – simple too. Learn from the examples of how both we and nature so often steer the growth of new systems to become lasting good homes for their builders!
So we need to somehow bring feeling to the environments our conceptual thinking has isolated us from and prevented us from feeling at home. Sound good? Do you perhaps wee any openings to explore? Lots of the ones I hear about people looking into seem to me to be just the right type. It’s a diagnosis connecting the emotional and moral openings with a practical behavioral understanding of the problem that is really needed. I think that coupling is what’s missing.
The radical separation of humans from nature, our being so self-absorbed and seeing nature as defined in our heads rather than the other way around, has been a deep mystery for a long time.
My interest in it came from noticing how mathematics became our standard for representing nature but cannot describe or help us study what makes life so lively, the abounding creative processes of nature.
I’m not against math, a fabulous art, that does help us identify certainties, however, our desperate search for certainty is what seems to have betrayed us, splitting our minds between attentiveness and total blindness to our environments, having defined in our minds nature as our rules for how to control nature…
The search for answers in mathematics, the language of determinate relationships that science uses, has proved extraordinarily profitable, leading to growing human comforts that have also taken us to the point of our increasingly destroying the natural world. Our mysterious detachment from nature seems very directly at fault. The animation of life, its rich relationships, and creativity are all left out of the formula when people are guided by determinate rules. It’s something I’ve long studied as a physicist, having first noticed that every event begins and ends with some little dynamic transient of change.
I think part of the problem is that language was actually reflected our first highly useful systems thinking, with all its words and grammar arranged to communicate important experiences, designs, and relationships IN THE NATURAL CONTEXT. Math makes rules abstracted from a natural context, that are most profitable when offering easy ways to control nature without concern for the context. So they work great but pass on no information on when they are being overused. That is as clear in the simple cases and most extreme cases, such as the world consensus plan to maximize our economic growth rate, for regularly doubling the wealth we extract from nature while ignoring its rapidly degrading impacts on nature, called “externalities.”
But who is it that is blind to what, and how in the world do we face an existential dilemma evidently buried so deep in human consciousness?
Finding the right path forward
We see humanity’s deeply split personality, generous and playful as well as obsessed with expanding our control of the world but need to find its source. Then we will finally begin to make progress, to slowly dig our way out of the terror our powerful minds seem to have created for us. Somehow we allowed our truly wondrous designs to create a new world of enormous cruelty, following their promise of relieving nature’s cruelty. That’s definitely happening, and definitely not good.
One of the paths to a cure could come from studying the differences between how people behave in one or the other way. We might then cure the blind way of abusing our powers by restoring the principles of staying in touch with environmental contexts. The direct approach, helping others immerse themselves in the natural environments they are in trouble with, works great using an experienced teacher. The living systems scientist like Ostrom or Midgley do it by lead communities through a process of exposure to how their worlds work, leading to their making much better choices.
As parents we also talk to our kids that way too, helping them to understand problems of insensitivity to others. Every good family does that, but the children still grow up to follow the rules of maximizing growing profits and ignoring the economy’s ever-growing impacts. That very clearly defines the split between how people behave in familiar contexts, where they can feel the strains on relationships, and in the public sphere where they don’t. In the public sphere rules for profit give people only feelings of self-interest and blind them entirely to the enormous building strains in the wider world’s relationships.
I’m not saying that is the only strong force causing humanity’s spiritual separation from life, but one we can see plainly enough to realize we very much need to act on it, despite the difficulty of communication that recognizing errors in our plans naturally creates.
Modern society presents other special problems of communication too, confronting us with thousands of self-serving silos of narrow beliefs, personal, social, religious, national, and professional. I look at them all as “cultures,” the “cells of knowledge” we build to guide us on how to think, work, live, and talk to give us some local sense of security in a confusing world. Cultures are also a saving grace as well as a way to divide us, given how most are deeply rooted in what worked in the past, with authentic copies passed on from generation to generation.
Of course, individual people have individual saving graces too, to use in helping us climb out of the trap we find ourselves in. Some have vision, steady hands, charisma, moral clarity, persistence, or wonderful person-to-person good hearts. Those don’t come from theories of control, that betray our powerful minds. They come from the opposite, from our loves and cares largely cut out of the public sphere by the rules we blindly follow. Saving graces in our institutions seem harder to find. We mostly built them around ideas of expanding control or being funded by it, not on learning how to make free associations work well.
What it seems we need to rely on is family culture and their central one for all and all for one life agreement. I’d include in that both the home and work families we center our lives on, which generally make us acutely aware of the non-verbal as well as verbal cues indicating openings and strains on our relationships. That is the very kind of environmental awareness that enables our personal and family survival instincts.
That is what seems most missing from the public sphere institutions, seemingly blinded by following abstract rules rather than navigating relationships with the world. It’s not even that the world doesn’t act as a whole. It certainly can and does, as you see in the effect of managing a global economy to work as a whole. To feel where the world is going, and change our collective steering, we’d need to count all the global strains we have not been counting.
Paul Maidowski @_ppmv offered to respond to some of the tough questions about Climate change. On Jan 16 I posted the following image of how climate change has only accelerated parallel to economic growth, with no recent bumps or bends in the curve, starting the short discussion below (w/ minor edits for clarity).
Paul, Why don’t climate scientists take into account the main accelerator of climate change, investors using the economy’s profits to continually multiply the scale of business? Don’t they see the trap? https://synapse9.com/_r3ref/100CrisesTable.pdf…
Hi JL, amazing document, thanks! I believe the training of climate scientists keeps them from speaking with authority on other fields – or even engaging non-mainstream analyses. they’ve been burned with the hack in 2009 before COP15 at U of East Anglia, and never recovered. Structurally I link this to whatever causes allowed Nordhaus and the economists to sideline Forrester and system dynamics in the 1970s / 80s.
They may see it as individuals, but in their functions, as scientists or in their institutions, they feel they cannot speak to these questions. I think this is changing now, slowly. But of course, it’s very late. What do you think? It greatly puzzles me too.
Paul, Good points. I think another major factor is the backroom control of public interest organizations by financial advisors. I’ve seen that at the UNEP and the WRI, two premier research centers, much adding to hesitation to explore outside the rails. There are systemic sources too, like data representing reality to formal research, and money exchange erasing all negative information, the reality of the growing impacts seems to vanish. So, nearly all decision-making is blinded to the growing threats.
Along with every field operating within its own boundaries and the systems sciences failing to make physics methods work (omitting the myriad autonomous systems) about the only honest voices are of protestors who don’t quite see that the problem is really that the financial system is flying blind, IMHO. FYI
My own approach has been to focus on how most people become experts in starting, resourcing, and perfecting their complex home and work designs. Those are like making dinners, doing office projects, and developing lasting relationships, all of which also follow nature’s plan for making new things that last.
So, if we study how people make systems that work well and it is written about, it could give professionals and protesters both a good idea of what we need to do. The critical point in every complex system design is reading the signals to turn from starting to finishing when perfecting the work becomes the key to making its value last. The recent paper on it is: https://synapse9.com/ISSS-21/ISSSJul11NewSci-IndividSys-MS.pdf
To make our escape there’s not just one requirement, but the main path is to join the emerging understanding that our new age of growing environmental chaos is a natural result of overextended compound economic growth. In nature, growth is a tricky two-edged sword, the greatest of gifts to begin with then the greatest of threats if not converted to things more lasting (1).
Living systems invariably begin with a period of multiplying the parts that capture more resources than they use. Starting things with an explosion of new life is part of nature’s beautiful complex process, so we should be glad for it, but only to a point. The catch is that for our world to survive its period of rapid growth we need its growth to climax in time. Otherwise, growth will generate huge surpluses of false profits as it undermines its own foundations and spreads chaos throughout its environment.
We see that in every corner of the world today, enormous creativity going into generating false surpluses disrupting the environments the economy is supposed to serve, but now attacks instead, spreading chaos rather than healing. For example, COVID seems to be causing chaos around the world, a natural virus not immediately our fault. However the chaos is enabled by our extreme overpopulation, our strings of inadequate responses, growing mistrust, and belief in conspiracy theories, led by magical thinking that the earth can be profitably exploited to infinity, Our world consensus plan is actually TO MAXIMIZE OUR RATE OF GROWING EXPLOITATION OF THE EARTH AND HUMANITY FOREVER, as if we didn’t see what that does. All those compounding factors generate more virus variants and more chaos. Lookout. Here it comes.
So what we need to do is “get the big picture” and start using our collective profits for better purposes than terrorizing our home planet. The best way forward is to use your own life as leverage for guiding your world. There are lots of good things to do and lots of better business models too, though almost no one seems to understand the right way to address their global impacts.
OUR TRUE SHARE OF RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE ENVIRONMENTAL CHAOS WE ARE CAUSING COLLECTIVELY IS EQUAL TO OUR SHARE OF THE ECONOMY. In a global economy, one’s share of the economy’s impacts is also what we pay for. For example, a business pays for every impact of its entire supply chain. That is by requesting, paying for it and profiting from it. Yes, it is a shared responsibility with its supply chain, of course, not exclusive, and a business has no direct control over much of what its supply chain does too. However, the impacts would not occur if they were not paid for too. So the UNIVERSAL RULE OF THUMB IS TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY, IN PROPORTION TO YOUR SHARE OF THE PROBLEMS THE WHOLE ECONOMY CAUSES, BY USING YOUR LIFE AS LEVERAGE TO CARE FOR AND STEER OUR WORLD TO SAFETY.
I made a very well-received talk on the subject, called “Understanding Nature’s Purpose in Starting all New Lives with Compound Growth.” That was on 11 July 21 to the International Society of Systems Sciences (ISSS) meeting, in the Special Track on “Future Society”. It was a wonderful group of a dozen presentations, all focusing on the heart of our global problem. As systems science, each is a bit difficult, but the consensus was that each one was also converging on much the same great truth, that like all great truths, could potentially set us free. I’m not sure when the others will be posted, but my talk is on YouTube and it and the paper are linked from my one-page Abstract for the paper.
Let’s clean up our act and get going. We have lots to do. It’s not a straight path but once you get your sense of direction it will be extremely satisfying.
The FAIR rules act as an overflow valve, to redirect excess savings of passive financial income (normally used by investors to extract exponentially more) back to the free circulation marketplace of the pond to keep from draining the pond and guide investor self-restraint in extracting profits from the earth.
FAIR_Money sets a UBD, Universal Basic Distribution, a standard % rate at which investors need to distribute their excessive savings from passive income.
Fig 1. Finance adds funds to free circulation commons, but with strings attached for taking out more as ever-growing profits and escalating drain on the common pool, causing punishing inequality when the economy faces natural limits. To restore balance the FAIR rules ask investors to distribute accumulated profits to qualifying non-profits serving long-term societal needs. That would sustain the profitability of an economy seeking balance with the planet and our need for a good home. .
Title Principles of Fiduciary Asset Investment Restraint (FAIR), simple rules to restrain the compounding of unearned income to reverse the present worldwide continued overproduction of demands on nature and society, our great tragedy of the commons. Ownership comes with natural responsibilities.
Topic Compound investment (adding profits to investments) is required to get any enterprise going, but as seen throughout nature is only what starts things, not what makes them sustainabnle. If overextended what it does is globally multiplies the power of the owners of the world over all others, creating the great array of world crises of neglect disrupting global society and nature we see today.
Asking investors to take responsibility for bringing growth to a climax peacefully, tempering their greed for the common good, appears quite necessary for long term peace and prosperity, even if it still seems quite impossible socially. It seems to conflict with the absolute rights of blind ownership. Now lots of owners are beginning to see the grand catastrophy their habits are causing, and that society’s rules should reflect how people would like to live without looming threats in every direction.
Pitch Flatten the curve of growing environmental and cultural exploitation, to reach a thriving peaceful economic climax.
Fig 2 The universal pattern of emerging systems that sustain their climax
Statement The world financial system has but one value, to use the earth and human societies to maximize the growth rate and concentration of financial wealth. That leaves out concern for the resulting matching degradation and disruption of natural capitals and human society. To secure the wealth of nature and humanity we must then have Fiduciary Asset Investment Restraint to prevent the rapid decline of whole system value, and secure a good home for ourselves.
In all fairness, FAIR is just one appealing, comprehensive, and eminently fair way to rebalance the compounding of profits consistent with the long term interests of the earth and humanity. There are also tax and negative interest rate means of “topping off” excess passive savings to restore global balance. The value of FAIR is its focus on everyone’s shared duty to serve common interests. It would of course be backed up by legal penalties and alternate means of distributing excess financial savings, once people see the real need to change our way of living. Of course, all three means could be combined, perhaps led by FAIR distributions by individuals accepting their natural fiduciary duty to care for the earth.
FAIR rules would also only gradually reduce the financial imbalance caused by compound investing, and adjusted to not stifle individual financial creativity as it limits punishing demands on nature and society. Spending a fixed annual share of accumulated profits from investments in times of severe imbalance like today, torturing nature and tormenting wide sectors of humanity, would give investors global guidance on how to value the gifts of nature and human society. One must also caution against the use of FAIR distributions for just reliving symptoms of the systemic overaccumulation of savings, as simple symptom relief would fail to steer people’s lives onto sustainable paths. For example, food and services should be offered, but take a back seat to strong socially led education and self-organization efforts.
This is actually a strategy first discussed by JM Keynes in Chapter 16 iii & iv of his General Theory. I’ve interpreted it as an “overflow valve” for excess financial savings to relieve unhealthy burdens on the earth system, dialing back unsustainable extractive investment and relieving the whole economy’s pressure on all our cultural and planetary bounds.
The degree of relief from excess demands on the system would be adjusted with on experience, starting at 10% a year of accumulated for argument sake. That rate would most often not increase wealth distribution to undermine the individual life styles, just skimm off the top. The rate would be adjusted to gradually stabilize the economy’s impacts on earth and society at a comfortable level, both for long term profit and to treat a living world with respect.
In the end, finance would stabilize to generate steady flow of profits for personal and priority needs, the economy thriving as a continually innovating cash-cow business enterprise. In Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, the equivalent would be for the rich farmer to see the error of killing the commons, and devote his excess cattle to relieve community suffering, hosting periodic feasts to save the commons and bring the community together, seeing their right to become a welcome hero for giving up the role as the devil himself.
Need Even ignoring the COVID pandemic, the world faces a considerable growing plague of plagues from centuries of growth putting excessive demands on societies and the environment. A sobering list of The Top 100 World Crises Growing with Growth illustrates the problem. While mainstream finance is starting to recognize the need to not just maximize profits at any cost, so far that has largely been only to factoring the risks to ever-growing profits, not harm to our future. Since maximizing the compounding of profits seems to be the real problem, a new way to do it doesn’t really solve the core problem. It also ignores the very numerous other global crises threatening our future, exposing the grand “tragedy of the commons” of global overinvestment for which we are responsible.
Is that partly a matter of the kind of investment we built civilization with? Of course. A tree can’t change its own trunk, roots, and branches though, only slow the new branches to halt destabilizing overgrowth, if it’s not too late. So we should expect a natural Fiduciary Duty for investors and businesses to develop, to the best of their ability, and guided by the progress of the global crisis. That is a way for responsible investing to become universal without expecting investors and businesses making their decisions to understand all the up and downstream impacts on others or the system’s pressures on its whole range of planetary boundaries. In a way, both forgiving and frustrating, the research on global measures of our economic impacts (Henshaw 2011 Systems Energy Assessment) strongly suggests that causation for whole system impacts is so widely distributed it’s generally necessary to consider them as equally distributed per share of the economy, like today’s nominal average CO2 Emissions of 0.26 kg (0.6 lb) attributed to every $ of GDP PPP. Understanding the CO2 has both historically and currently increased in lockstep with the world economy shows the real problem that forces us to remove the growth imperitive as part of responding to climate change.
Fig 3 the history of Atmospheric CO2, with fixed growth rates from 1780 to 1940 and 1960 to the present
The main determinant of success for FAIR distribution of excess savings is not just the relief of pressure on the global commons it would bring. What matters as much is whether the money is well spent, and delivers “good works” of long term value. The expectation is that people with accumulated profits to distribute, with some technical guidance, would have an “eye for value” and see what the world needs to be successful, having demonstrated a comparable “eye for value” to make themselves successful.
Spending to serve the common interest presents the same kind of creative investment problem only looked at in a new way. FAIR spending is an investment decision for serving the system as a whole, that will be returned with profits of other kinds you couldn’t buy. That is the same way a family benefits from spending savings on educating its children. That is saved profits well spent. It’s a question of “feeding” the world something nourishing, not “controlling” it.
Well spent, FAIR distributions would teach both people and institutions about the patterns of growth in nature, and how investment at the limits is returned manyfold.
Because the FAIR spending of assets is something of a new investment field, it would need guidance and support from economic research and modeling. Also needed is a connection with the social networking of practice communities, both to guide to creating lasting value. Initially, it would be a voluntary adherence to a community principle, and then later formalized to be more widely applied. With new proposals for expansive strategies, the devil is generally in the details so serious economic modeling and rulemaking study to explore options. The scientific study of how finance is coupling with its growing planetary impacts, reliable sponsorship, and teamwork in building the global movement are all critical.
The hope is that the principles are practical and clear enough that they could spread naturally and become socially expected. Even connecting idea that growth is responsible for our problems continually racing out ahead of our solutions should be a task for a global IPCC-like scientific network, perhaps called the IFIC (International Fiduciary Investment Council). That would focus work on systemic research, to guide national organizations on rating impact investments for the commons. Someone will need to attempt to “qualify” the likely impacts of different kinds of for-profit and non-profit grants and investments. Coupled with each investor’s eye for value that could be relied on to steer the economy through its many present crises, including COVID, to a thriving and lasting climax.
Challenge: This proposed “human duty” (to go along with our “human rights”) for investors and business to devote a share of their financial savings to serve the common interest seems simple enough to define and discuss in principle. What’s harder to define is how much time we have to avoid the next wave of crises, as in the past, likely to be as unimaginable to us now as the present ones were before. We should “Build Back Better,” and with an eye to economic, planetary, and environmental justice.
Restoring the economy to maximize its long term growth is the most dangerous course of all, inviting a crippling systemic delayed response like the delayed responses to COVID-19 which caused most of the deaths. If we just restart the growth economy, already severely weakened, you might expect the kind of failure at the limit shown by the light blue upper curve (Fig 4). That choice amounts to no response in the end and leads to system failure. We seem already well beyond the sustainable limit and so only have a last-chance response, to turn toward the sustainable limit like following the purple curve.
Once the world realizes that businesses and investors do really have a natural duty to steer the world economy in the common interest we’ll find more ways to do it. The physics of responding to natural limits (Fig 4) shows that early responses to natural growth limits don’t significantly delay the approach to the limit. It is mainly delayed responses you need to worry about. FAIR principles, perhaps combined with other strategies for topping off excess financial savings, are today likely the only option for making a transition to a thriving climax without major disruption.
Fig 4, The high risk of delay in responding to exponential threats. From Models Learning Change (Henshaw 2010)
Origin of the FAIR Concept: A series of tweets 05/24/20 … and historically, from the work of JM Keynes, 1935 General Theory, Chapter on “Sundry Observations on the Nature of Capital” Chapter – 16 III & IV, describing why the natural financial climax of the economy requires financial savings to climax to prevent the very worst effects of capitalism, implying that the wealthy need to learn to spend rather than save their profits to preserve them, by making the system as a whole sustainably profitable.
This is a preview of my new submission to Ecological Economics Please have a look at and comment on the review copy FYI Some of the figures and captions are below
Jessie Henshaw firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstract: Organized human and natural systems generally develop by an observable process of growth, with a beginning, middle, and end. Examples range from the growth of organisms, cultures, and ecologies to that of businesses, social movements, weather systems, even personal and social relationships, and many more. Close observation reveals organizational growth to be a progressive building process of self-organization. Most recognizable are its recurring three shifts in direction, each followed by a development period. That six-stage pattern can guide the study of a growth system’s internal and external designs, recognizable as a series of milestones along an “S” curve assembly line. That common model allows useful comparison of all kinds of natural and human-designed growth systems, using a diagnostic as opposed to a deterministic research method, keeping what “ought to be” in close association with “what is.” Discussed are the historical roots of the field, a set of pattern recognition tools, three brief pedagogical case studies, and an eco-economy view of our global growth and its natural time to turn.
ow living systems develop their complex organizational designs by rapidly evolving self-guided growth processes has fascinated scientific observers for millennia. Natural growth also still resists scientific definition though. Perhaps the delay comes from scientists asking the wrong questions, looking for deterministic rules for nature’s creative processes, rather than generative patterns of natural design.
Here we start from the broadest patterns, like how growth processes are evident throughout nature, even in every kind of work people do. Growth generally displays a three-part development cycle of beginning, middle, and end, but like a tree expands on opportunistic rather than deterministic pathways. Our problem with understanding it, then, might come from having so singularly studied nature for the deterministic patterns we can rely on, pushing aside the study of nature’s indeterminate building processes.
Another commonality is that whether it’s the growth of a mammal, a business, or a snowflake, the ultimate end is a state of complex perfection of design. On close inspection, that highly organized end-state seems to come from having alternating periods of diverging then converging (positive and negative) development feedback, first getting growth to start-up to then turn to perfect the design as growth finishes-up, as if generating a framework then filling it in.
Every economy is also an ecology, both a self-organizing system of mutual benefits which also relies on having positive net resource flows; both beneficial design and net material profits. Together these two faces of natural systems make a complex whole one can study from many points of view, but rely critically on all its parts.
Networks of mutual benefits are mostly composed of organizational, design, and qualitative relations, like that a cup holds water, or that a fish swims, or whether someone knows how to work with you, or whether a shop serves its local culture. Those aspects of design, organization, and qualities have no numerical definition but create the systems of mutual relations on which the designs of life rely, Some may be products of nature and others of fine arts and crafts: a fine meal, a delightful garment, or a meaningful film as inherent benefits of life.
Those benefits of life are also needed for the systems that deliver the physical resource flows that market price and investment returns determine the investment in, letting one calculate the budgets by which our world economy is managed. So to understand any particular living system, one needs a clear-headed understanding of how those two sides work together.
A tour of the evidence, from the 1780 origin of the greenhouse effect through its the major post-WWII acceleration
A preprint of a pending journal article of the same name is here. It’s a fairly short but thorough study, a data story, using the climate science we all know, to trace how humans have long organized our use of the earth to maximize the growth rate of our economic intervention in the climate. That exposes the fatal flaw of nearly all promoted solutions, the boundless plan for doubling our total energy use about every 33 years. Every kind of energy use for replacing fossil fuels would still then need to repeatedly double its disruption of earth systems, overshooting all planetary limits. That was actually the problem with fossil fuels, that if we had stabilized our energy use by about 1960 we would not have exceeded the earth’s long term buffering capacity and there would have been no climate crisis.
In the following figure you can see it quite directly from the long periods of constant compound growth in atmospheric CO2, before WWII and after. The ancient CO2 data comes from from ice-core air samples, until 1958, and the modern data from mountain top air sampling after that. WWII is seen as halting the accumulation of CO2, and the period after when we globally reorganized the economy using advanced science, technology, institutional and government cooperation to maximize the economy’s exponential rate of expansion.
What this implies is that climate change is not really caused by CO2.
Rather the climate crisis is being driven by our constant haste to reorganize the economy again and again to expand its conversion of resources into dollars as fast as possible. That we are not changing that organizational design of the economy would then seem to be the reason we are unsuccessful in getting agreement on how to reduce the quantitative reductions in CO2.
What is needed is to include in the economy’s equation for profits the value of the material, ecological, environmental, and cultural resources of the earth. The trick is to start with what you can measure, make the units “shares of the total,” and work to measure more. That would lead to a fuzzy but holistic and complete map of where we are really going economically. For reference, a model for that was proposed for inclusion in the UN’s SDGs in 2014, called “the World SDG.”
2019 UN HLPF side event scheduled Tuesday July 10 2019 1:15 to 2:45 at the UN Millennium Hilton, 3min statement. Further links to natural growth strategy below. – Jessie Henshaw
Thank you for coming. Find more of my statement and links at www.synapse9.com/signals
My name is Jessie Henshaw. I’m a natural systems scientist who developed
a fascination with how living systems transform as they develop, such as how
our economy once changed by small accumulating steps that got bigger and bigger. Those ever-increasing rates and kinds of
change are the key reason there are natural limits to growth. Growth is itself an organizational process that
pushes economies and their organizations in the direction of increasingly
For example, walking down the street
by bigger and bigger steps, making more and more progress at first and would
lead to losing control, and a painful fall.
Similarly, in the last 250 years, the world economy doubled its annual expansion
about 12 times, so our annual expansions today are about the size of the entire
world economy of 1920, truly enormous.
In part, we experience that as universal pressure, for increased economic performance from all people, all organizations, all societies, and of course, all of nature too. We are also feel surrounded by systems failing to keep up, and in crisis, crying for help, that we find hard to deliver. So today the true location of the most “vulnerable people” and most “vulnerable regions,” struggling with unmanageable demands, is now truly the whole earth. (to cut for time)
At first, the economy’s growing
demands were not overwhelming, and seemed very rewarding for large sectors,
having a negligible impact on the earth as a whole too. Continually multiplying them changed all that. Now they disrupt every environment and are breaking
through all silos of discussion. Now we
see there was no “economic decoupling,” but just detachment from our responsibility. Now we look around and see an enormous diversity
of crises that were not supposed to materialize, and need to decide what to do.
We need an “economic recoupling” with our responsibilities
for the earth and humankind. An easy
first step is to think of your responsibility for steering the economy as equal
to your share of the economy. It may
seem small, but in a global economy where it takes the whole world to deliver
every product or service, we are similarly responsible for a share of every
harm caused too.
The path ahead I see, for transforming
the economy is to change from compound
growth to natural growth, climaxing growth at a peak of resilience and vitality,
ready for a secure, enduring and creative life on earth.