Subject: Ernie Lowe’s critique of Living Economies

Date: Fri, 27 Jul 2001 09:57:34 -0700
From: Tom Atlee

This is very useful. I’ve heard similar arguments against certain social and metaphysical applications of quantum theory and chaos theory. I see tremendous value in natural scientists cautioning those of us in other fields to not push our applications of scientific theory into realms where they don’t apply.

At the same time I think it would not serve life for us to pursue precision in ways that impoverish our collective explorations for new patterns to move us towards a more life-serving culture. There is more to life, reality and transformation than freedom from error. I have found in my own work that my efforts to be exact and correct often cost me dearly in terms of reaching and inspiring people (e.g., when I start sentences with “To the extent that,” my friends and editors roll their eyes).

I feel a tension here between people like Elisabet and David and people like Ernie and Douglass Carmichael (who also questions the application of ecosystemic models to human systems). I have a lot of respect for the gifts of both perspectives, and for the possibilities contained in the potentially creative tension between them. For me the overriding reality, however, is that all parties involved here (including me) are seeking something that few people pay any attention to whatsoever — a greater understanding of the dynamics of living systems, per se, both natural and human.

So for me, the question is less “Who is right?” than “How do we maximize our useful collective learning in the realm of living systems?” This includes the question, “How do we make more generative the tension between different approaches to learning from living systems?”

Perhaps one way would be to avoid making Nature “The Authority” on how to design human systems and, instead, to simply give different living systems — and theories about living systems — their rightful place at the table of our inquiries about living system dynamics. For example, if the theory of Type I, II and III ecosystem evolution is only applicable to temperate forests, then let’s have that be clear without invalidating the potential gifts that that pattern has to offer us.

Principles — as verbal articulations of (supposedly) broadly applicable patterns — are both powerful and risky. When I hear Ernie say, “Rather than simply drawing isolated principles from ecology, designers can model ecosystems to create more effective complex industrial systems,” I hear him asking (and, Ernie, do correct me on this if I’m wrong) that we focus our investigations on smaller scale phenomena than entire ecosystems. Within ecosystems there are sub-dynamics whose functional patterns can instruct our efforts to perform similar functions (such as recycling). I also hear him saying that the more broad and general the system dynamics we study, the more complexity and diversity (and, therefore, chaos and uncertainty) we encounter, so that general principles tend to be less grounded than more focused descriptions of lower-level dynamics.

I like the approach of permaculture, which uses broad permaculture principles (e.g., “every component of a design should function in many ways and every essential function should be supported by many components”) to guide one’s observation of a specific situation and to give a broad outline of useful directions one might go. However, at that point, one loosens one’s grip on the principles and begins to deal creatively with the specifics of the situation, in all its unexpected complexity. One doesn’t simply apply general principles directly to a specific situation.

I spoke above about “giving different living systems authoritative voices in our inquiries about living system dynamics.” An example of what I mean is the diversity studies of Norman Johnson, a fluid dynamics specialist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (see ). He looks for analogous patterns in nature, organizations, and economies (and occasionally physical systems), not using any one of them as The Authority, but using each to increase our understanding of the others, and all of them to build a more comprehensive view of system dynamics. For example, the pattern he sees that’s analogous to Janine Benyus’ and David’s Type I, II, and III ecosystems is the following:

“The role and function of diversity depends on the stage of development (or maturation) of an organization (or a system in general).

In our competitive view of the world, we often view organizations that are loosely cooperative as being competitive or cooperative. But excessive competition and cooperation are the bookends to the sweet spot of an innovative organization. Three stages of development are defined:

Immature or Formative stage; competitive and selective [in the sense of natural selection, “survival of the fittest”], with increasing diversity, with both locally and globally chaotic changes. Robustness occurs through self-regulation.

Mature or Co-Operational stage; multiply interconnected, diverse and flexible. This stage is dominated by loosely cooperative relationships [and “survival of the good enough”]. They represent the “sweet spot” of systems: they have all the desirable properties of robustness, efficiency and high performance. Higher performance better than the individual or expert happens by the random [or, perhaps, “non-directed”] interactions of many individuals with “pieces” of the solution.

Senescent (old) or Condensed stage; mature systems become Senescent as flexible interactions become condensed to rigid cooperative interactions [e.g., “rules” or “best practices”], these only form in stable environments. If the external environment changes too abruptly, the Senescent systems will return to an Immature or Mature stage.”

These are principles, but not principles of nature, per se. Johnson sees them as principles underlying the evolution of all living systems.

I like to think that what we’re after in all this are patterns — ways of seeing, thinking and acting — that help us move in the “life-serving” directions we are trying to go. Some of those patterns are rigorous scientific models. Some of those patterns are loose, even poetic metaphors. And some of these patterns are somewhere in between, opening up our thinking and perception to new possibilities. Once that opening has taken place, however, and we are faced with the challenges of application, we need to distinguish more clearly the gifts and limitations of the patterns that got us to that point. It is in that spirit that I read Ernie’s commentary (and will read his referenced articles). I see David’s and Elisabet’s approach as opening up whole new vistas of perception and thought about living systems of all kinds… Doug’s approach as opening us to the unique character and contribution of culture as the relevant dimension of human systems… and Ernie’s approach as grounding us in certain specifics we can apply to designing a more ecological economy, and pointing out the limitations of our broader ecological metaphors.

For my own purposes, I’d love some more info and references from Ernie regarding the principle he gives — which I’ve only seen explored by Johnson — “In an ecosystem, each individual in a species acts independently, yet its activity patterns cooperatively mesh with the patterns of other species.” Can anything be said generally about the nature of that independence, and that mesh? Where did these come from? What are examples of their disturbance and healing? I sense that this particular dynamic offer us some especially deep understandings to apply in our transformational efforts, so I’m interested in all references. [I understand that there are millions of specific instances of that independence and interrelationship — and I understand there are limitations to generalizing about them. But I am very curious if Ernie thinks there are any valid or useful conclusions in the mid-ground between the broad generalization he gave and all the micro-specific instances, and who has spoken of them.]

I hope some of this has proven useful.



_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * PO Box 493 * Eugene, OR 97440

Return to DIALOGUE


Posted August 16, 2001