Tag Archives: transformative education

Reading the signals to care for our future

First published as The fatal flaw in the economy’s design ― that Keynes first saw & the world forgot. By J L Henshaw – for the Jan 2023 UN people’s Global Futures Forum, Global Finance and Economic Architecture section.

Hi, I’m an accomplished senior systems architect, a physicist who, many years ago, found a useful scientific method for studying the designs of environmental growth systems, and how the differences between growth systems lead them to either fatal crises or long successful lives. I also studied the design of UN systems at work in drafting the SDGs, which I attended and contributed to.

It’s wonderful that systems architecture comes up for discussion occasionally, though rare. One reason it gets little attention is the focus on symptoms without addressing causes, as that is what most people notice. That’s important, of course, but it also perpetuates the causes. Where the cause is systems spiraling out of control, that’s bad. Today’s accelerating scales global impacts have terribly dangerous environmental, economic, and societal destabilization thresholds.

I was a physicist and then started studying the designs of natural systems designs and how they worked by themselves. As that’s not a usual scientific question, I stumbled across quite a lot. For example, physics never studied how SO many systems that develop by explosive growth at first, of both natural and human design, then, without a fuss, change strategies to then perfect their designs and connections to have active and creative lives long after their growth.

It means that nature figured out the solution to our crisis very long ago and that science did not think or see how to study how they worked. Societally we seem to get too wrapped up in problem-solving and ignore problem-sourcing, and then when we get in trouble then not change course as if always stuck. If we looked around, we’d see many systems that are responsive and change course, including ourselves often enough, examples that should be very helpful if we learned where to look.

A second important discovery is that although we discuss a growing economy in terms of numbers, economies are not numerical processes. Growth of every kind is a system-building process of creating working relationships that need to coordinate. Those new working systems originate from the build-up of connections around a tiny “seed” pattern. That produces a working whole that first multiplies more rapidly by exploiting its environment and then usually turns to make long-term relationships. Our economy is not yet doing that “part B” part of responding to limits. Keynes noticed that too, saying he thought, surely, society could find something better to invest in than growth when growth limits hit, mentioned in Ch 16, on “Observations on the Nature of Capital” in his 2nd book.

The main point is that *successful growth is always a two-stage process.* The first multiplying stage creates a new form of working relationships by growing as it exploits its surroundings. The second is perfecting the system’s internal design as it secures its new niche in the world. Call it “A then B.” The first stage lets it A) multiply its power, capturing more and new kinds of resources to build its ability to use and capture more. The second stage lets it B) refine and mature its designs to care for itself and secure its role in the new world around it. In other words, natural systems that survive their growth seem to display self-organization and self-control. That’s what humanity is supposedly trying to do, but having, as we often have throughout history, a terrible time of it.

The systems that become disrupted by external forces of their own making, as is happening to us now, differ from others that don’t by continuing to multiply their scale and complexity as they collide with hard natural limits. Those that respond to potentially disruptive changes caused by growth avoid harm by instead shifting to caring for themselves and their futures. That apparent intelligence from uncontrolled systems might only be from growth needing to be ‘self-animating,’ ‘responsive,’ and ‘cohesive.’ No growth system would get far if not also ‘exploratory’ and ‘adaptive.’ That’s not all that life is, but life always seems to have those capacities of acting as if out of self-interest and behaving cohesively as a whole. Our civilization seems unresponsive, though.

That humanity became unresponsive to the need to shift from investing in growth to care as threatening growth limits approached is the tragic mistake. We all respond to avoid such tragedies in every personal matter we can. We don’t keep taking out food for dinner till it’s a big pile on the floor with nothing left in the fridge or cupboards. No, we normally just start somewhere and A) take out approximately enough and then adjust as we B) make whatever will work for the occasion at the end to C) enjoy. That’s active steering. Civilization is not doing that, whatever you call it.

I think our societal blindness has to do with the difference between our two main ways of learning. The first is 1) absorbing experiences in familiar contexts where we become intuitively aware of and responsive to everything happening. The other is 2) making and sharing concepts. Concepts are inventions made from observed patterns that are simplified, taken out of context, and reassembled to suit our minds. How they often represent imagined realities to us and be SO satisfying we may not notice they represent a world without contexts, letting us become inordinately attached to the powerful ones. Using them hides any connection to possibly upsetting the contexts invasively controlled by their use.

The above only scratches the surface of the questions to ask, but tracing the history and demographics of this way of blinding ourselves to consequences seems to genuinely connect them to where we keep disrupting contexts by trying to impose abstract rules.

A practical response, sometimes a “cure,” lets people see their interest in caring for the contexts they might upset, something I call “contextual engagement.” The general principle is that you make better decisions if you see what’s going on. Elinor Ostrom’s video talk for receiving the 2009 Nobel prize for economics discusses it, and Gerald Midgley’s videos show his expertise in guiding divided communities to work together using it too. I’ve also developed useful methods for it, like asking people to list all the things in a given environment that connect with some primary concern — seeing the parts laid out as loose puzzle pieces makes people think much more clearly about the whole.

For more background, see my research journal, “Reading Nature’s Signals.” The theme is reading the essential non-verbal signals of change in our very lively world. We all get skilled at reading the cues in familiar contexts. Applying those skills to less familiar contexts is the challenge for learning to steer the world’s path ahead. Luckily in nature, most are related. The signs of trouble or relief and what to do next in one situation can be remarkably similar in others or at different scales. My way is to alternate reasoning and feeling, so when one turns up something odd, the other can help find what it is.

Note: This Figure is a very general schedule for the most creative and critical processes of natural system growth. The shapes and labels help notice what’s happening in the real contexts of interest. You look for how the succession of turning point events and developments take place. We seem to learn best when we’ve studied our ways of noticing interesting new connections and finding exceptions. We already know a lot about those, intuitively, so being self-critical to test those in new territory helps build what you see and clean up while better understanding the general pattern’s shapes and markers.

How we can know for sure

The imbalance of information about the costs and rewards of money; the intensely felt rewards and zero information on the environmental costs, has fooled humanity for ages. Even in our effort to stop climate change today, we aim to pay for reorganizing all our energy uses to continue the compound growth of using them that has now become so destructive.

It’s the irony that provides traceable links to the causes.

ALL our impacts on the earth are from using energy to mine, disrupt, and degrade the natural world we so depend on. When the effect was very small it was of course not significant. Now that the damage is truly threatening our future most people, and the professions leading it, are still quite blind to the ever-faster rising threats. So our “prime societal directive” is still to keep using our power to multiply our power.

The proof is relatively simple. The major impacts of the economy on the earth are all growing in constant proportion to world GDP! That means they are directly connected.

Oh boy, should we ever pay attention now!

The question is just how long have we been deceived by the imbalance between our information on the costs and benefits of money and its powers?

I trace it back to all the boom and bust civilizations of the ancient Middle East, then Greece and then Rome, perfecting the delusion of financial power being cost-free with every grand failure. This time we’re caught, though, having seemingly exhausted the quick fixes for delaying the final loss of the earth as a good home, that so far we have not earned.

The rewards of money are keenly felt and the costs are quite invisible. So everyone who truly cares about civilization surviving in some healthy form has a role in shifting our consciousness. We should all start improving our sources of information on what the economy really does to life on earth. Here’s a rough guide, called:

The Top 100+ World Crises Growing with Growth

It’s an experimental but well-informed list of the many kinds so systemic crises for the world’s ecological and social systems, like how ever-increasing congestion pushes everyone and everything into more and more conflict!

We see that all over, right? Now study how growth regardless of limits causes it.

Think of who most needs to develop a feeling for what we’re all doing to ourselves?

Well, it’s all of us of course.

  1. Those in most direct control of it are the investors, businesspeople, financiers, and governments actively working to maximize the growth rate of our power as it corrupts all of life on earth!
  2. People with talents for reaching out to others are then especially needed, to reach out to the blind finance and governing communities, in effect now aggressively committing suicide for all of us.

Showered with rewards and blind to the costs it is very hard for them to feel emotionally threatened by destroying the earth.

Feeling the costs, though, as we do in overreaching personal relationships, is the cognitive steering that seems to give all of life its survival instincts, and so needed now to trigger our change culture.

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JLH

3Step process for Working With Nature

Now one of the natural systems learning processed under the heading of “Contextual Systems Engagement.” Make a proposal.

    • A “Sustainability Learning” Proposal
    • Jessie Henshaw – UN representative of IPS & scientific adviser to the NGO Commons Cluster on natural systems, in response to the UN Major Groups call for:  “Crowd sourcing ideas for thematic areas and modalities of engagement for the one day intercessional with the Co-Chairs of the OWG and MGs and other Stakeholders”

    • – “Experiential Learning” and “Transformative Education”,
    • – For building bridges from deterministic, linear and Cartesian thought and word use, by exploring our observations of the environments and their living systems affecting our ideals.
    • 1. As a Break-out Group Activity 2. Outline of the process 3. Other Formats
      4. Purpose & Theory behind it
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      . Why we rely on social networks to define our reality

      Added References: Draft Facilitator’s GuideTypical “Public Pad” meeting template

       

      Foreword:
      Here I propose a meeting technique for small diverse groups of people to help enrich each other’s awareness of how their environments work and see what they have and need to work with to “work with nature”. Looking for the working parts the world around them, for how their own cultures work as systems that create their own economies, it might first seem they don’t know any more about that than they do about the weather. The trick is to shift attention from what’s hard to explain in our minds to noticing what’s going on and working all around us. PDF copy

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1. Learning to Work with Nature: – as a break-out group activity –

A diverse work group of 6 to 20 people would be assembled, helped by a facilitator, needing about an hour to just go through the basic 3Step process.   It’s NOT a discussion group, of people offering opinions, but a learning group of people offering connecting observations.  During the session they’d need to be able to write as they talk, building on each other’s observations, starting from being given or choosing an ideal goal to work with.

They’d use that ideal to lead them on an exploration of what people in the group already know from observing their cultural, economic & ecological environments, sharing with each other things they’ve seen are happening that could affect achieving the ideal. The product is a large collection of freshly shared observations on what’s happening and how it connects; they’d need to work with to proceed to planning for investments in changing their environment.

Drawing out each other’s observations on how things work

Continue reading 3Step process for Working With Nature