Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Overcoming Systems Stupidity

Readers of mine with sufficiently long memories may be wondering if the evening news somehow accidentally got swapped for archived footage of a performance of that durable Sixties folk number The Merry Minuet, with its lines about rioting in Africa and global mayhem in general. Certainly that was the thought that occurred to me as news from Egypt and Tunisia jostled the category 5 cyclone (we’d say "hurricane" on this side of the planet) that just walloped Australia, and the far more modest but still impressive winter storm that’s sweeping across America as I write this.

Looked at in isolation, each of these stories are business as usual. Political turmoil in Third World nations is common enough, and big storms are a fact of life in Australia as well as the United States. Still, it’s exactly that habit of looking at news stories in isolation that fosters the blindness to history as it’s happening that I’ve discussed here repeatedly. Remember that the world is a whole system and put the news into context accordingly, and troubling patterns appear.

Let’s start with the revolution in Tunisia and the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. Behind the explosion of popular resentments that’s putting once-secure governments at risk is the simple fact that in both countries, and across the Third World more generally, people are having an increasingly hard time getting enough to eat as food prices climb past records set during the last spike in 2008. Plenty of factors feed into the surge in food costs, but one major factor is a string of failed harvests in some of the world’s important grain-producing regions, which in turn has been caused by increasingly unstable weather. Pundits in the US media talk earnestly about the end of an era of cheap food, but what that means in practice is that over a growing fraction of the world, incomes are failing to keep pace with food costs, and as the number of hungry and desperate people grows, so does the pressure toward political explosions.

The context of this week’s two big storms is just as easily missed from media reports. For more than a decade now, the insurance industry has been warning that the annual cost of weather-related disasters has been rising at a dramatic rate – fast enough, according to a study released early last decade, that it will equal the gross domestic product of the entire planet by 2060. (Take a moment to think through the implications of that little detail; if the entire economic output of the world has to go to make up for repairing the costs of weather-related disasters, what about the other things economies are supposed to provide?) Here again, there are plenty of factors feeding into that soaring economic burden, but the destabilization of the world’s climate is one major factor. Whether or not dumping billions of tons of CO2 every year from our tailpipes and smokestacks is the sole cause of this destabilization is really beside the point; if you happen to be sitting next to a sleeping grizzly bear, the fact that the bear may have its own reasons for waking up in a bad mood is not a good argument in favor of poking it repeatedly with a stick.

Now of course the American way of life, and more generally the way of life common to most of the world’s industrial nations, might best be described as an elaborate arrangement to poke nature’s sleeping bears with as many sticks as possible. The business-as-usual end of the green movement has been insisting for decades that we can stop doing that and still maintain something like a modern industrial society, but whether or not their elaborate schemes for doing this could work at all – a complicated question I don’t propose to address here – the political will needed to do anything of the kind went AWOL at the end of the Seventies and hasn’t been seen since. Thus the most likely future ahead of us is one in which sleeping bears keep being poked with sticks, and increasingly often rouse themselves to bash in a head or two: in less metaphoric terms, that is, a future in which increasingly unstable climates load additional burdens on the global economy and drive a rising tide of political unrest that will probably not remain restricted to comfortably distant continents.

The fact that we don’t normally put the events of the day into their proper contexts, and draw such logical conclusions from them as the inadvisability of poking bears with sticks, has a context of its own. It can be credited to the simple fact that Americans are stupid about systems.

There’s really no gentler way to put it. Week after week, I can count on fielding at least one comment insisting that my post is just plain wrong because science, technology, progress, the free market, the space brothers, or some other convenient deus ex machina – you name it, somebody’s probably invoked it in an email to me – will allow Americans to continue to extract an ever-increasing supply of energy and raw materials from a finite planet without ever running short, and find places to dump the correspondingly rising tide of waste somewhere or other without having it turn up again to give us problems. Now of course it’s possible that some of that comes from bloggers-for-hire pushing the agenda of some corporate or political pressure group – there’s a lot of that online these days – but the illogic is pervasive enough in our culture that I suspect a lot of it comes from ordinary Americans who basically haven’t yet noticed that the world isn’t flat.

Watch what passes for political and economic debate in America these days and you can count on hearing much the same thing. Take "sustainable growth," the mantra of a large fraction of the business-as-usual end of the green movement already mentioned. Even the most elementary grasp of systems theory makes it instantly clear that there’s no meaningful sense of the adjective "sustainable" that can cohabit with any meaningful sense of the noun "growth." In a system – any system, anywhere – growth is always unsustainable. Some systems have internal limits that cut in at a certain point and stop growth before it becomes pathological, while some rely on external limits, but the limits are always there, and those who think there are no limits to a given pattern of growth are deluding themselves. Mind you, such delusions are always popular – the tech-stock and real estate bubbles that enlivened economic life in the United States during the last decade and a bit are good examples – but the consequences, when growth crashes into the limits that nobody saw coming, are rarely pleasant.

The fixation on the fantasy of perpetual growth is only one of the system-related stupidities that infest contemporary American public life, though it’s arguably the most egregious. I’ve commented before in this blog about the way that popular attitudes assume that raw materials appear out of Santa Claus’ sleigh when wanted and then simply "go away" when we’re done with them. For a good example, consider the way that the American livestock industry pumps animals full of chemicals that make them gain weight at an unnatural pace, and then feeds meat from those animals to people. Does anybody wonder whether these same chemicals, stored up in animal tissues and thus inserted into the human food chain, might have anything to do with the fact that Americans are gaining weight at an unnatural pace? Surely you jest.

A basic grasp of systems thinking would make it easier to get past follies of that sort, but that same grasp would also make it impossible to pretend that Americans can go on living their current lifestyles much longer. That’s an important reason why systems thinking was dropped like a hot rock in the early 1980s and why, outside of a narrow range of practical applications where it remains essential, it’s been shut out of the collective conversation of our society ever since.

For the aspiring green wizard, on the other hand, there are few habits of thought more important than thinking in terms of whole systems. Most of what we’ve been talking about for the last eight months, when it hasn’t been strictly practical in nature, has been oriented toward systems thinking, and a great deal of the practical material is simply the application of a systems approach to some aspect of working with nature. The practical instructions in the weeks and months ahead, as we turn to conservation and homebuilt alternative energy systems, will be even more dependent on having a clear sense of the way whole systems work. The one real limiting factor is that it’s a bit of a challenge to recommend a good clear nontechnical guide to systems thinking to those of you who are working through the Green Wizard program in earnest.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody in the Seventies or early Eighties wrote such a textbook. A truly magnificent book on the subject was already in circulation then, and indeed it had a burst of popularity during those years; the one complicating factor is that very few people seem to have realized then, and even fewer realize now, that the book in question is in fact an introductory textbook of systems thinking.

The book we’re discussing? Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching has been translated into English more often than any other book, and the title has received nearly an equal diversity of renderings. I’m convinced that most of this diversity comes out of our own culture’s stupidity about systems, for when it’s approached from a systems perspective the title – and indeed the book – becomes immediately clear. Tao comes from a verb meaning "to lead forth," and in ancient times took on a range of related meanings – "path," "method," "teaching," "art." The word that most closely captures its meaning, and not incidentally comes from a similar root, is "process." Te is used for the character, nature, or "insistent particularity" of any given thing; "wholeness" or "integrity" are good English equivalents. Ching is "authoritative text," perhaps equivalent to "classic" or "scripture" in English, though the capitalized "Book" captures the flavor as well as anything. "The Book of Integral Process" is a good translation of the title.

Replace the early Chinese philosophical terminology with equivalent terms from systems theory and the point of the text becomes equally clear. Here’s chapter I:
A process as described is not the process as it exists;
The terms used to describe it are not the things they describe.
That which evades description is the wholeness of the system;
The act of description is merely a listing of its parts.
Without intentionality, you can experience the whole system;
With intentionality, you can comprehend its effects.
These two approach the same reality in different ways,
And the result appears confusing;
But accepting the apparent confusion
Gives access to the whole system.
It would be useful if somebody were to do a complete translation of the Tao Te Ching in systems language one of these days – though in saying that, I get the uncomfortable feeling that it’s probably going to be me. In the meantime, prospective Green Wizards could do worse than to pick up any of the existing translations that suit their tastes, and try to think through the eighty-one short chapters of the book as guides to working with whole systems.

While you’re at it, I’d like to ask that you try a slightly more practical experiment in systems thinking, which leads straight to the theme of next week’s post. Using pen and paper, make a list of the ways that heat comes into your home during the winter months, when it’s colder outside than inside, and then make a corresponding list of the ways that heat leaves your home during those same months. Make both lists as complete as possible; those of my readers who’ve downloaded the Master Conservers handouts from the Cultural Conservers Foundation website can certainly use the home survey handout as a guide.

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that my forthcoming book The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered is available for preorders from the publisher at a 20% discount, and will be on bookstore shelves in June of this year. Longtime readers will recognize many of the concepts in this book from their first appearance in essays posted on The Archdruid Report, and quite a few of the arguments have been improved as a result of discussions here. Many thanks to all!

118 comments:

Ruben said...

Yow! You are on fire! Hot hot, burning me up....

Proletariat said...

Mr. Greer Rabbit,

You do jest! Humor is quite an effective tool at getting people to read what is not written.

I've been working inside the business-as-usual green movement for a few years, and I agree with your assessment of some of its superficial claims. But I can also assure you that some of us can glimpse the larger systems at work.

We do what we can using the established resources and influence of our respective and respectable organizations. Organizations that are large, historied, well-connected and relatively unthreatening. The small battles and concessions from industry that we're able to win these days are still meaningful to the people and communities that they protect.

But behind the scenes and off the record, many of us are quietly making preparations, spreading ideas and creating networks, using our organizing skills to prepare for the day when we take on the business-as-usury model itself.

I think you would agree--that day is not today, at least not here in the USA. We'd be squashed like pests, scapegoated for the current economic-political-earth crisis du jour, detested in the hearts and minds of the public. Perhaps that day will not come in my lifetime. And perhaps our job will be done for us, by the crumbling of Empire itself, sooner than even we can imagine.
Either way, I believe building cross-community ties and information sharing networks will be an integral part of 21st century survival in what is now an atomized society. You must too, as that is what you are fostering with this blog and its followers.
If we're really blessed, maybe those ties will be the begginning of the lore of the Fourth Age, an age that gives rebirth to a new ecological morality.

And as for the rising tides you mentioned, maybe you and some of your readers would be interested in taking a look-see:

http://www.risingtidenorthamerica.org/wordpress/what-is-rising-tide/

Avery said...

I'm guessing you are probably aware of this, but systems theory in the United States was recently merged with Buddhism by Joanna Macy. Her attempt to imagine Buddhist cosmology as an ecosystem of interconnectedness is, as I learned in college, a novel reinterpretation of Buddhism, but it's also a truly deep message she has drawn out of tao and dharma, and one that might blossom some generations from now into a coherent replacement for our worship of economic growth.

brodders said...

Hm.

Most of my schooling was heavy in systems and cybernetics thinking; looking at complete systems as a whole. But then - engineering was "Go!" and technology was to be the saviour of all. In the 60's.

In the 80's I was pleased to discover John Gall's work (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systemantics) and added many more observations of my own e.g.

"Systems experience pain when their goals experience pain."

I also added stuff on how systems tend to propagate, and more.

Alas this was back in the day and on 5 1/4" disks, now long unreadable. I'll root around in my archives / see what's up in the loft.

nancy said...

Love the poking the bear with stick analogy JMG.
Went to order your book and it said on your publishers website that you still live in Ashland Oregon??

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks for mentioning the cyclone as a lot of people are hurting this side of the world. It was big and nasty.

If anyone is interested you can check out some pictures and coverage here:
http://www.theage.com.au/environment/cyclone-yasi

I'm 3,000km south of where the cyclone made landfall and apparently I'm getting the tail end of it this weekend. Some places are predicting another pounding for this area of 220mm rain, whilst others are predicting only a little bit. All I know is that the spiders have commenced a migration into the house en masse. They aren't usually wrong.

Strangely enough, systems thinking is lost on the Australian politcal system. The federal government announced recently that they would implement a levy (ie. tax) to help fund the rebuilding of flood and cyclone affected areas. Remember that recently a massive flood has also done some pretty serious damage to our third major city (Brisbane) and surrounding areas.

The funny thing about the levy (tax) is that it impacts people with a higher income. You've never seen a bigger stink in the media as the well funded are now coming out to sulk their socks off.

The thing I don't understand is, the areas affected are vast producers of agricultural produce and also contain quite a few mines that export huge quantities of coal which is our second biggest export item.

Where do they think their personal incomes are derived from? Where do they think their food comes from? It's sad really that this is being questioned at all. Someone somewhere has to pay for it, it doesn't magically get rebuilt on the backs of volunteers.

People have lost the ability to plan long term, if they had it at all.

Good luck!

Chris.

KL Cooke said...

"It would be useful if somebody were to do a complete translation of the Tao Te Ching in systems language one of these days – though in saying that, I get the uncomfortable feeling that it’s probably going to be me."

Please do it.

Conchscooter said...

In considering the chaos threatening the Middle East I fear a new Crusade mentality is going to set in as We in the West clash with Them in the East over Oil and God and Everything. And that, it seems to me has the potential to bring our own system of living down about our ears faster than ever.

Leckos said...

Hello JMG, long time reader, first time post - I always look forward every Thursday to reading your posts.
I live in Queensland Australia. I have been lucky not to have been flooded or subjected to a cyclone this summer. The irony of Queensland's situation is remarkable in my view. One of its major $$ earners is exporting coal, obviously a major contributor to global warming. Whether the storms and floods are linked to climate change or not, we are likely to see more events in the future. The irony comes in with Queensland's requirement to get the coal exports flowing (damaged railways, mines etc) so that it can pay for the rebuilding. The BAU response to these events is to rebuild and return things to 'normal.' This is unfortunate as these events, in my opinion, are likely to trigger, or at least set the pre conditions for a step down in the catabolic collapse process. If only this was the prism that our leaders saw the world through!

nutty professor said...

Congratulations on yet another book, it promises to be a great read. Believe me when I say that your gifts of intellectual focus and discipline inspire me to seek the same in spite of perceived "disabilities"...I just don't know how you do it!

Jason said...

JMG: systems thinking was dropped like a hot rock in the early 1980s and [...] it’s been shut out of the collective conversation of our society ever since.

... which would be why the word 'ecosystem' doesn't seem to appear in the Princeton Guide to Ecology with any prominence. :)

When it comes to these shills blogging on behalf of corporate interests, do you have any specific examples? I'm just curious what they look like and how you'd spot them.

It would be useful if somebody were to do a complete translation of the Tao Te Ching in systems language one of these days – though in saying that, I get the uncomfortable feeling that it’s probably going to be me.

:) Well if you're already doing the Kybalion, it would make a nice companion. Bring it on.

Don Plummer said...

A quick Google search found a complete translation of Tao Te Ching here. There are probably others.

Don Plummer said...

Here is another.

LynnHarding said...

Good morning. I always look forward to booting up the mac on Thursday mornings. I am trying to be a green wizard but I have a confession.

I have to confess that I will be content to spend what remains of my life huddled against my masonry stove drinking chicory coffee if the gods of progress will leave me my ipod. Because a lot of my life involves wandering around, I have been able to take books along with me that I could never have found time to read sitting or lying indoors.

I was so delighted to find your book, 'The Ecotechnic Future' on Audible. I had read the 'real thing' of course, but listening to it made me appreciate all the more the grace and clarity of your prose style. I do have a suggestion: I think that I have heard your voice on some video or other and I find it superior to whoever it was that performed the audio version of your book.

I would really relish the thought of your translating and personally reading aloud the Lao Te Ching. What you have produced so far sounds a lot like Wittgenstein: "Die weld is alle was der fall ist..."

Meanwhile, I recommend that your readers go to Audible or wherever they like to download what we used to call "books on tape" and have a listen to 'The Ecotechnic Future.'

Wandering Sage said...

JMG,
thanks for the great post as usual. We are buried under snow here in the mountains of Vermont. But it provides a feeling of tranquility and reverence for mother nature.

As with most of the major challenges we face, the main culprit can probably be found inside ourselves. The biggest hurdle to changing our behavior is an obstreperous mind. Obstreperous means unruly. An obstreperous mind is one that doesn’t submit to discipline or control. It is an immature monkey in the library of our being.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: Natural disasters:

First a point of accuracy -- Cyclone Yasi was a Category 4 storm at landfall, not a 5. It fell just short of Category 5 criteria.

Now to the actual point... there's not any need for increasing frequency or intensity of the natural events themselves in order for the "disasters" (their impacts on human societies) to intensify. As our build up of infrastructure and other capital (e.g. cities, houses, roads, bridges) increases, the intensity of the disasters increases even if the intensity of the triggering events does not. It actually fits neatly in to your catabolic model.

Actual data on the frequency of "extreme" weather events show a barely significant slight increase in recent decades, in contrast to skyrocketing damage costs (fatality rates, though, at least in the developed world with warning systems, have declined). And of course there has been no increase in earthquake frequency or intensity (sorry 2012-ers and other End-Of-The_World aficionados, but they haven't), yet "disaster costs" continue to increase on that front as well.

Re: systems thinking -- traditionally, hasn't religion been one of the primary means by which people have learned and comprehended this? To my mind perhaps the first skill one needs here is the understanding that the idea of the thing is not the thing itself. Our mainstream mass religions in our present culture have largely lost sight of this concept.

idiotgrrl said...

If you do so, put me down for a pre-order.

Writing from Albuquerque where it';s colder than a polar bear's pajamas and my gas heaters are like the piano players in the saloon - I';d shoot them, but they're doing the best they can. [And the cost of retrofitting my 70-year-old hopuse for energy efficiency is eating me alive.]

But those with only one source of heat are getting, pardon the expression, an ice-water wakeup call.

Jim Brewster said...

Listening to Dmitry Orlov's video this morning was a nice complement to reading your post. He pretty much echoed your thoughts about Afghanistan being a magnet for dying empires, and a dose of system thinking might help avert the kind of future he is predicting.

Bill, I had a similar thought about the build-up factor in disaster costs. When humans were more nomadic and had less stuff there was less to lose and it was easier to head for the hills as well as to rebuild. Of course our technology gives us the early warning systems that help save lives as well...

Fleecenik Farm said...

oohh...I feel like I have read ahead in the book for class.

This is our first year in a passive solar berm house that was built in the seventies. Living in this house has been a lesson in how to use a house. There have been many low cost ways we have adopted to use this house in the efficient manner in which it was designed. It i s truly a smart design.

I look forward to next week.

Andy Brown said...

People prefer thinking in terms of agency rather than systems. That's why gods and such have usually taken the place of real big-picture systems thinking. There's some sort of agency at work. The greatest handicap we face when it comes to sustainability (whether economic, environmental, or whatever) is that there is no recognizable, sentient agent to blame for our failure. Where's the villain to climate change? to the exhaustion of economic growth? Well, clearly it's the result of our aggregate actions - regardless of our intentions and even - except for that tiniest of minorities - regardless of our choice of actions. But that's awfully hard to think, and there's little satisfaction gained in thinking it.

Karen said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

For those of us across the pond, will your book be offered by a publisher that ships overseas?

Thank you in advance.

Karen

bmerson said...

"... if you happen to be sitting next to a sleeping grizzly bear, the fact that the bear may have its own reasons for waking up in a bad mood is not a good argument in favor of poking it repeatedly with a stick."

I've heard and used "if you're in a hole, stop digging" and "whether you started the fire or not, stop pouring gas on it", but yours may be the best metaphor I've heard to date. It brought not only a grin and an outright chuckle. Thank you.

dltrammel said...

I was introduced to systms theory by the movie "Mindwalk" (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100151/). When I want to listen to some great intellectual dialog, I still go back and watch it, though now its on the hard drive not the vcr.

I came across a copy posted on Youtube and from there ended up in a email exchange with the director Bernt Carpa. Seems he doesn't mind the copies since used vcr tapes run $100US. You can find it there from time to time. I see the systems theory part is posted now.

BruceH said...

Thanks JMG,

I'll have to pull out my dog eared old copy of the "Tao Te Ching" and reread it in a new light.

If Lao Tzu's "Tao Te Ching" is "a good clear nontechnical guide to systems thinking" I would have to also nominate Chuang Tzu writings as a guide to the application of what Lao Tzu described. My favorite translation is Thomas Mertons's "The Way of Chuang Tzu."

Evan said...

I recommend the Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation of the Tao Te Ching. Their rendering is superb, and I find great nuance in their poetry. I think this is part of why there are so many translations (/interpretations) of this text, because it is a book of wisdom and wisdom speaks in many tongues and voices.

cheers,
Evan

Charles Frith said...

It's extraordinary how much post WW1 Wittgenstein there is in this.

Blindweb said...

For those who find the Tao Te Ching difficult, listening to Alan Watts' audio lectures allowed me to have great breakthroughs, although my philosophy background helped too I'm sure.

My buddies and I, in High School and early adulthood, all took a great interest in philosophy, science, sociology, etc. We discussed authors from the more mainstream of Nietzsche and Marcus Aurelius to the more underground of Timothy Leary and Aleister Crowley. They went on to get scientific degrees, while I went on to a more hermetic lifestyle studying The Tao Te Ching, among other things. While the coming/ongoing system collapse is extremely obvious to me, I am unable to convince one of these well educated people to the slightest of what's coming over the next decades.

I would seriously think about translating the Tao Te Ching into systems language. I had been thinking about writing something on the usefulness of the Tao Te Ching in economics, but that doesn't seem as important at this time.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Thanks for stating what should be obvious but apparently isn't, that sustainable growth is an oxymoron. I can think of at least two occasions where I have pointed this out to two different intelligent friends and they both replied with something like, oh no, growth doesn't mean what you think it means and therefore sustainable growth is possible. I suppose that sustainable doesn't mean what I think it means either. In any case, their faith in growth, sustainable or otherwise was unshaken.
Back in grad school I took a course in thermodynamics. Boring stuff, lots of partial differential equations and graphs of cycles consisting of heat being pumped in and out of closed systems. I don't remember much of it but did walk away with a solid understanding that you can't get more out of a system than you put into it, that there are definite physical limits to what is possible and that no amount of magical thinking can overcome them. If someone has a perpetual motion machine, look for the wire sneaking in that keeps the motor running.
Similarly, systems tend toward equilibrium, that is, heat spreads out evenly till it becomes useless. Living systems operate far from equilibrium and are kept there by an external source of heat, in our case, the sun.
Anyway, you have covered all this in your posts on this site.
So in one of my hopeful moods, I thought, what if we made the teaching of some sort of basic thermodynamics mandatory in our schools. You wouldn't need all the math, just the basic principles so that the next time somebody said sustainable growth, the whole class would shout out in unison, "bullshit".
But this probably won't happen. How can you teach cornucopian economics in one building of your university and the limits of growth in another? Clearly some accommodation has been reached. The economists can go up to the podium and claim their Nobel prizes safe in the knowledge that the physicists that are going up to claim theirs will not say anything bad about economics because the physicists are counting on exponential growth of the economy to keep their retirement funds solvent.

GHung said...

I can thank the US taxpayers for my initial, formal education in systems thinking. As a Navy engineer, all of our training was geared toward understanding the complex systems we were charged with maintaining and operating. Of special concern was understanding how systems react when things go wrong; what is going to happen if I turn this valve or flip this switch? In my experience, few were able to make the transition from understanding properly functioning systems to groking the same systems that were malfunctioning or failing.

Next step: damage control. This is where we humans now find ourselves; realizing the 'chasing-your-ass' aspect of trying to patch together systems that have become too hypercomplex and corrupt.

What we have now is a bit like a garden that has become too large, where the gardener can't cope with what he has planted over the years, and one by one, sections of his creation seek their own balance, free of the careful tending that once kept things in check, eventually encroaching on and affecting other parts of the system that the gardener is still trying to maintain.

This is why I try to keep things simple, regarding my Green Wizzard path. While I have a tendency to over-think things and look for technical solutions,( the 'I can make this better/easier' meme) I often have to pull back from making things more complex. This morning I am reminded of the wisdom of this approach as the sun shines into our greatroom, warming the floor. What could be more simple and easier to maintain than passive solar and thermal mass? Avoiding complex solutions has become a primary factor in my systems thinking.

Jay Marchetti said...

Mr. Greer, I am a long-time reader of your excellent blog and several of your books and so would first like to say here that your writing is first-rate and your breadth of knowledge is truly impressive. But the reason I comment is that, as a practicing systems engineer (electrical engineering background) I have recently read a wonderful, non-technical book on systems that I'd like to recommend: "Thinking in Systems: a Primer" by the late Donella Meadows. As I'm sure you know, Ms. Meadows was the principal author of the Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" in 1972 which detailed then the point at which we will be arriving soon. It is a great book that every thinking person should read - especially Green Wizards...
-Jay

mistah charley, ph.d. said...

A book that might be useful to your target audience is Gerald Weinberg's Introduction to General Systems Thinking

Richard Larson said...

I believe humans have impacted the climate as soon as we/they learned to cut forests and wild plants for the single species plantings. That would be, if I am not mistaken, some 10,000 years ago. Now that would be the proper start of "systems thinking".

Since then, it could be, the weather has become more favorable for human development, not less (of course, this will lead to resource depletion and a collapse of society - the lack of food in Egypt is a sure sign of this - just saying). Now, the issue becomes the growth of human related assets have been placed in a much wider band - increasingly subjected to extreme weather.

Or maybe, more human related assets are now subjected to more 'extreme' weather conditions!

...

It isn't just corporate trolls one needs to be aware of, but also, in terms of the "green movement", I have found most of those thusly organized are pushing a political agenda and government/corporate solutions.

...

As you point out, the costs to repair (the current system) are increasing. As such, the funds available from government/corporate interests will not be there to make the conversion to sustainable Earth-friendly practices. That thought is laughable anyway, haha, as humans becoming Earth-friendly is not the government/corporate intended purpose.

You have to do it yourself. I have ordered your next book, keep the ideas flowing - I like them. Thank you.

Ponter said...

The Tao Te Ching, indeed! I have three different translations on my bookshelf. It's not only a great example of systems thinking, but it's applicable to a wide range of human endeavors. I only wish our political and economic structures were a fraction as wise as what is found in that slim volume. it should be required reading for everyone on earth. (Along with the Archdruid Report, of course.)

Loveandlight said...

Does anybody wonder whether these same chemicals, stored up in animal tissues and thus inserted into the human food chain, might have anything to do with the fact that Americans are gaining weight at an unnatural pace?

Probably so, but I think high fructose corn syrup also has something to do with it (not to mention with the exploding diabetes epidemic). Not coincidentally, our factory-farmed meat-animals are also fed massive amounts of corn (an unnatural diet for herbivores such as cows) in order to make their muscle-tissue unnaturally fatty. The acidosis animals such as cows get from this diet would kill them if they weren't already being slaughtered for their meat.

Hal said...

This reminds me about the relief effort after Katrina. The water wasn't receded yet, and POTUS was still slapping Brownie on the back for the heckofa, when churches and nonprofits were here on the ground building relief centers and feeding people. Of course it took a huge amount of work by the highway dept, National Guard, Seabees and others to get the roads open so they could get in and do their work.

When in disaster mode, there is no thought at all as to the impacts, or even the basic economics, of bringing relief. Believe me, most of the victims aren't quibbling, and they are making the most noise to get something - anything - done. Nevermind that part of the problem might have stemmed from choices they made back in the sunny days.

I see those who ought to be thinking in "systems" terms moving to an unending disaster mode. This really does not bode well for any chance at arriving at sustainability.

Relief supplies arrived in tractor-trailer rigs from all over the country in an uncoordinated effort that resembled an ad hoc D-day invasion, and was about as efficient. I spent one night in a Christian Life relief center thinking I was going to freeze because of the massive air-conditioning system they brought in to cool down the huge tent they were mostly using to store supplies. But I got prayed over really good.

Once going, the effort was 100% aimed toward getting people as close to their comfortable pre-storm reality as possible. If that meant housing them in formaldehyde-emitting trailers, or rebuilding in the flood plain, or even allowing new construction in the floodplain, so be it. There was talk of buying some people in the flood zone out, but that program seems to have not been funded.

I truly feel for the people in Australia.

Not to be totally negative, the one bright spot was the Organic Valley folks and the Rainbow Family teamed up with the 7th Day Adventists and fed some of the best organic disaster fare to be had. And I was able to recycle some refrigeration and other equipment from a destroyed business, which those folks were glad to use rather than trying to bring in stuff from the outside. And there was a lot of noise made of redesigning "new urban" communities. Biloxi and Ocean Springs might even make a few baby steps in that direction.

William said...

I am just reading the executive summary of a report prepared by our three state universities in Iowa on the impact (current, not just future) of climate change on Iowa. We have already had a 31% increase in severe precipitation events. Floods are now summer time events, rather than spring snow melt events. Cedar Rapids, Iowa's second largest city, has not and perhaps never will recover from the floods of 2008.

Summers are not quite as hot because of increased rain, but humidity is higher. Late summer is dryer. Growing season is a few days longer. There's much more (increased pests...), but these are not trivial changes.

Dethe Elza said...

There is a copy of the Tao te Ching at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/216

A quick search-and-replace would get one a good ways towards that translation you mention. I'll try it myself later today.

Great post as usual. Thanks for the sleeping bear metaphor.

Gary said...

Let me take the side of Krugmanesque pro-growthers for a moment. The oxymoronic nature of "sustainable growth" is only evident when what is growing is a physical entity. In this world what we want to grow is "value". The "value" might consist of a tangible quantity, like a gallon of gas or a pound of flour, but it could just as well be an hour making music with friends. In this culture we like to monetize everything so we can compare the pound of flour with the hour of music making, so that we can then add it all up into the GDP - which is what we want to grow in the capitalist system. The point is that the value embedded in new ideas and culture, e.g. your new book or music making, need not have physical limits. "Different", "unique" and "fresh" have value that we will pay for and can be reflected in ever growing cultural value. Is it possible to transition from an economy that runs on growing physical consumption to one that runs on growing cultural consumption? That's the challenge that I see.

Rashakor said...

Talking of translations:
The other day, I was trying to share with my father some of the wisdom from JMG and was asked the question if those books had any translation.
I believe the translator needs to be in tune and in love with the material to give it any justice.
I have delved in translations in the past, mostly technical document between French, English and Spanish.
I would consider it an honor (and a nice Green Wizard project)to offer my translation to french and spanish of the Long Descent, Ecotechnic future and now the wealth of Nature.

Arabella said...

Congratulations on your new publication, JMG. I look forward to reading it.

When I recently shopped (ok, looked at amazon) for Limits to Growth, I noticed and ordered "Thinking in Systems - a primer" by Donella Meadows. Ms. Meadows (I'm sure you recognize her name as the lead author of LTG)had been working on the book for some time when she died. An editor from "The Sustainability Institute" has brought it to completion; it was published in 2008.

I am about halfway through it and find it very clear and well-written. If you were unaware of this book's existence, there it is. If you have been aware of it and have reservations about recommending it, I would be interested to hear them.

Thanks for all you do!

4D said...

JMG,

First time post from long time reader and evangelist of your work.

To deepen systems knowledge I acquaint folks with the work of Donella Meadows (Ph.D. in biophysics, Harvard University, who kept weaving systems and offering practical ideas about what one person or a small group could do to make change. This month marks the 10th anniversary of her untimely death.

For those of your readers who aren't familiar with her she was the founder of the Sustainability Institute, a professor at Dartmouth College, a long-time organic farmer, a journalist, and a systems analyst. She was recognized as a MacArthur ("genius") Fellow, too. She's probably best known to the larger world as a part of the MIT team that produced Limits to Growth (1972)or as the originator of the "If the world were a village of 100 people" (1990), but I believe her strongest work was "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System" (1990). It describes what types of interventions in a system (of any kind) are most effective, and which are least.

There's a public, accessible collection online at the Sustainability Institute. Check out the tools section, too (the video on it of her is very compelling)

http://www.sustainer.org/dhm_archive/index.php

Here's the way she ends the Leverage essay~~ It will resonate with this posting and the swirl of this past week's events.

"Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tricks to mastery. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself off into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go."

Michael Dawson said...

I'm going to be teaching Environmental Sociology, and perhaps also Economic Sociology, this summer. Any way of getting a peek at some of the new book? I use your Ecotechnic Future already, with excellent results.

Terry said...

There's a classic from 1975 called An Introduction to General Systems Thinking by Gerald M. Weinberg. Short, deep, highly recommended.

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, thank you!

Proletariat, that's good news. Thanks for the link!

Avery, thanks for the pointer -- no, I haven't been following Macy's work. I'll check it out.

Brodders, get that stuff up on a website!

Nancy, one thing I've learned about publishers is that trying to get them to update a bio is like trying to pour molasses in, well, an Albuquerque snowstorm, I suppose. I haven't even visited Ashland in the last year and a half, and am still comfortably ensconced in Cumberland MD.

Chris, glad to hear you dodged the storm -- it seems to have been a wowser.

KL, I'll certainly consider it.

Conch, uncomfortably possible.

Leckos, bingo. Throwing resources into a return to "normal" at a time when the foundations of "normal" have changed irrevocably is a very good way to push things to the edge of catabolic collapse.

Professor, shall I tell you my secret? In 1984, I took the last TV I've ever owned from its place in the closet, climbed out onto a second floor fire escape, and dropped the thing into a dumpster. Ever since then, it's been a continuing source of interest to me how much more I can get done, and how much less constrained my thinking is by the collective assumptions of my society, than most of my contemporaries. It seems absurdly simple, but I've compared notes to others who don't use the plug-in drug, and it does seem to work.

Jason, I know about the online shills because the niece of a friend of mine worked in that capacity for Obama's presidential campaign; her job was to find any critical comment about Obama anywhere online, and debate it using a canned set of talking points. It's apparently been standard practice for some time now. The only advice I have for spotting them is to look for a first time poster who shows up with a slick, polished set of arguments, and if controverted effectively, vanishes at once -- that's apparently also standard practice.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, thank you!

Lynn, thank you for the plug! As far as I know, all my New Society books are slated to appear in Audible editions. As for Wittgenstein, hmm; I'd more or less ignored him after seeing his stuff used consistently as a club by the more meretricious end of the postmodernist movement; clearly I have to revisit that.

Sage, "unruly" is the crucial word. "Who are our enemies? Our thoughts when they are uncontrolled," wrote Shankara. "Who are our friends? Our thoughts when they are controlled."

Bill, the BBC's reporting it as cat 5 when it hit the coast. As for the broader point, I've heard both claims -- that there's a very modest increase in extreme weather, and that there's a fairly significant one. The report William cites is a good example of the latter. Based on my own admittedly limited and localized experience, I tend to trust the latter.

Grrl, good luck weathering the cold snap!

Jim, Dmitry's pretty reliably dead on.

Fleecenik, we'll be talking about that exact technology down the road a bit -- one of the better things to come out of the Seventies.

Andy, true enough -- though you'll find, as Bill pointed out, that a lot of very thoughtful systems thinking has in fact gone on in religious contexts, when people grappled with the nature of their gods.

Karen, it'll be available from overseas distributors; I'll drop a note to New Society and see if I can find out which ones.

Bmerson, thank you!

Dltrammel, I'll have to check that out one of these days.

Bruce, Chuang Tsu's very subtle, and in his own way very political. Too often the only things of his that get translated are the so-called "inner chapters;" a readily accessible translation of the whole work is badly needed.

Evan, that's the first translation I ever studied, and well worth having. For better access to the ideas, though, I tend to recommend Dao De Jing: A Philosophical Translation by Ames and Hall; their notes on the meaning of the core concepts are particularly useful.

Robo said...

"They're rioting in Africa.."

How many Americans even know that Egypt is an African nation?

I admit total ignorance of the writing of Lao Tsu, and will have to fix that soon, but I do know that his culture recognized the problems of 'sustainable growth' long ago and came up with systems that worked fairly well for over a hundred generations.

The biological and geophysical dynamics of this planet have long been observed and documented. At first, these 'facts of life' were transmitted down through the centuries in myths or folklore. Then the great philosophers took up the task. Most recently, the language and mechanics of science have become our means of codifying and detailing the natural world.

Sadly, every new empire or 'advanced' civilization that rises seems fated to either forget about these truths, deny their very existence or pretend that there is some magical or technological workaround.

Eventually even the Chinese fell under the spell of fossil fuels, choosing to ignore almost everything they had ever learned about sustainable culture. The genie in the lamp promised miraculous physical powers and limitless economic growth. There are very few among us who would not wish these things upon ourselves if we thought we could get away with it.

Another chapter in the human tragedy. Quoting one more tune from the Kingston Trio songbook: "When will they ever learn?"

mageprof said...

One hundred twelve (!) different English translations of the Tao te Ching are conveniently available on line at

home.pages.at/onkellotus/TTK/_IndexTTK.html

As for teaching thermodynamics to young children in the public schools, one could do worse than to simply display a poster in one's classroom with this "vernacular" translation of the three laws:

1. You can't win.
2. You can't break even.
3. You can't get out of the game.

This is over-simplified, I know, but it gets one started thinking, and even a young child can grasp what these three sentences mean for him- or herself.

John Michael Greer said...

Charles, okay, that's two references to Wittgenstein. I'm listening. Can you recommend any helpful introductions to his thought?

Blindweb, I've wondered for a long time what it is about contemporary scientific education that seems to make people unable to recognize the arrival of real trouble. Scientists ought to be among the first to see the writing on the wall; most often these days, though, they're cheerleading the profoundly irrational cornucopian agenda. What gives?

Wolfgang, well put. It would be helpful if somebody with a solid background in the subject were to write a book on thermodynamics in language simple enough for a smart ten-year-old to grasp, and get it into print as soon as possible. Thermodynamics is basically applied common sense, and the more people who understand it, the better off we'll be.

GHung, that's an excellent point. The simplest solution is usually the best, in that there's less that can go wrong!

Jay, thank you! No, I wasn't aware of that book, and will have to find a copy.

Charley, I'll take another look at Weinberg; my recollection was that he was a bit technical for the general reader, but it's been a while since I've read him.

Richard, good. One of the core implications of the catabolic collapse theory is that as decline sets in, a civilization will try to use all available resources to prop up the current state of affairs, and thereby cut off resources that might otherwise be used to build a bridge to a sustainable future. That means in practice that, yes, you have to do it yourself.

Ponter, good. I'll have to check, but I think I also have three right now -- there may be a fourth in one of the anthologies.

Loveandlight, there are literally dozens of factors feeding into the obesity situation -- among them the fact that the American medical industry surreptitiously changed the definition of obesity a few years back, moving a lot of people onto the obese side of the scale, and never factors that change into the discussion when talking about changes in obesity rates over time. By current standards, Marilyn Monroe -- who wore a size 12 dress at one point -- would be considered obese.

Hal, the irony there is that systems theory was largely driven by the need to avoid such screwups during the US mobilization for World War II. If anybody'd been paying attention, they could have avoided most of that.

William, no, they're far from trivial -- and other on-the-ground analyses I've seen of climate change in specific areas have come to similar conclusions.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hey JMG, way to rant!

Digging out from that minor storm here in Chicago...

Look forward to the new book. Liked the systems language in that bit of the Tao Te Ching--it's good to know so many other people here have studied it. The way I viewed, well everything, changed after I read it, and then kept reading it.

Donella Meadows: her book Thinking in Systems: A Primer is an excellent, clear introduction to systems theory, especially for those of us not mathematically or computer science inclined.

John Michael Greer said...

Dethe, it'll need a bit more than a search-and-replace, but that would make an interesting experiment~

Gary, yes, I've heard that argument. The problem is that in a market economy, an hour making music with your friends makes nobody any money, unless they can sell you and your friends some good or service -- in which case you're back in the realm of energy and raw materials. In the real world, as I argue at some length in The Wealth of Nature, "value" and other surrogates, such as money, are nothing more than markers for the exchange of actual wealth -- real goods and services, produced using energy and raw materials -- and trying to treat value or money as an independent reality or, worse, as the cause of which real wealth is the effect, is a fertile source of misunderstanding and disaster.

Rashakor, thank you! Please drop me an email by way of info (at) aoda (dot) org when you have a chance.

Arabella, thanks for the recommendation! As I mentioned to Jay Marchetti above, I haven't seen it yet, and need to.

4D, many thanks for the link! This sounds like very solid stuff.

Michael, drop me an email (same address as I gave to Rashakor) and I'll see if I can get you on the review copy list.

John Michael Greer said...

Terry, so noted -- I obviously need to reread that.

Robo, I'm coming to think that it wasn't a genie in a lamp so much as a somewhat more Mephistophelian being. When Spengler labeled this the Faustian culture, he may have been more exact than he realized. "Let's see, how may years of limitless power do I get before the demons drag me off to Hell?"

Mageprof, that's certainly an option, but it's possible to state the same things in a less confrontational and possibly more intuitive way:

1. You only get what you pay for.
2. The universe always gets its share.
3. There is no outside.

Adrian, that makes three recommendations of Meadows' book. By the Bellman's Law -- "what I tell you three times is true" -- it's just moved from "ought to look at it soon" to "need to look at it now." Good luck digging out!

Bill Pulliam said...

I cite Dr. Jeff Masters, tropical hurricane specialist, former NOAA hurricane hunter, almost died flying through the eye of Hugo, for the info (very informative blog hosted on weather underground). Mainstream media tend to overstate the intensity and extent of weather events, and then be repeated in authoritative-sounding manner without ever being corrected.

The two statements about extreme events are not in conflict. Extreme weather events are by definition rare and erratic. A 38% increase in extreme precipitation is also barely statistically significant, because precipitation is always highly variable. The heaviest 24-hour rain of the year around here historically varies between less than 2" and over 7"; it's even more variable in the midwest. The distribution is also not normal (in the statistical sense), it is highly skewed. So even a doubling of the average of this number would be hard to detect statistically until you have several decades of the trend. The apparent upward trend in this number is just barely becoming statistically significant at this point. When you figure in that these sorts of analyses generally break several of the underlying assumptions of assessing statistical significance (for instance, we did not begin with an a priori assumption before the data were ever looked at or even collected; the data were "snooped" in by everyone on earth looking for apparent trends and then these trends were assessed, a big no-no for rigorous statistical testing) you want a better trend than that before you will firmly call it "real." Hey, we had in our own backyard a 29-hour total of 14.3" (that's rain, not snow...) not even a year ago, but I'm not gonna conclude global patterns from personal experience.

Sorry to be a recurring nag about your climate data, but these poor little numbers have been horribly misused in every direction in recent decades. Similar approaches to similar data (and their exaggeration in the mainstream media) lead to the "An Ice Age Is Coming!" stuff of the 1970s and 1980s.

mageprof said...

I like your version of the three laws better, actually. The one I quoted was from one of those "anti-optimism" books collecting all the corollaries and variant laws inspired by Murphy's original law.

Humor has always helped make systems theory go down more smoothly. Gall realized that in his Systemantics. (You also need systems theory to make magic comprehensible, in my experience.)

Bobby said...

JMG,
Congratulations on the new book! I am sure it will be as intriguing as your other works and I for one cannot wait to receive my copy.

Interesting that you bring up systems theory in connection with this week's post. Having cut my teeth in political systems theory as an undergrad, your thoughts made me think about the works of political scientist David Easton that came out of his research from the 1950's, especially as they relate to the Middle East/Africa and some of the larger problems that are currently dawning on the industrial world. Easton's work on systemic cybernetics was applied specifically to the function of political systems and as such, I think that the overall framework of his analysis could serve as a utility for mapping the impacts of climate change and peak oil.

Basically, Easton suggests that political systems operate smoothly when they are able to properly transition variables that enter the system from the environment in a way that does not disturb the systemic functions. What is interesting is that while Easton charts out a specific systemic course for these interactions in a closed-loop system, much of the global economy as we know it is instead linear. For instance, take the means of production that keep most of the Western world afloat. The processes of materials extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal that keep capitalist economies humming do not conform to a closed-loop model, but instead behave in a linear pattern from the time when the metals are extracted from the ground to the time when they wind up in the local landfill. From a political systems standpoint, the fact that the economies of so many countries behave in a way that is truly abhorrent to nature (since in fact nature is a closed-loop system), did not matter because their inherent systemic costs could be covered up by the age of cheap oil and abundance. In essence, the system absorbed these costs and moved forward by transitioning the variables. Out of the industrial age stuff accumulated, people were fed, life was good. You know, the whole chicken in every pot and car in every garage deal. In an age of abundance this is not an issue.

Now however the situation is drastically altered. Political systems the world over are in no shape to transition the multiple independent variables that seem to be throwing sand in the cogs of the machine on a nearly weekly basis. The system as it is built cannot respond effectively, especially since the materials that are required to maintain the homeostasis of systemic function are increasingly more expensive and difficult to come by. This is precisely why regimes in the Middle East/Africa are poised to fall like dominos. Most of these governments, propped up by petrodollars and silver-tongued promises from the West, will become extinct as they outgrow the hard limits of their political system. There is no doubt that food prices played a role in the recent turmoil in Tunisia, it has a fair enough to do with the uprising in Egypt, and has the potential to spill over into other places such as Qatar, Syria, and perhaps most frighteningly for the industrial world, Saudi Arabia. I can only imagine the folks over at the State Department's Middle East desk are sitting on egg shells right now trying to figure out what to do if Riyadh follows a similar trajectory as Cairo. .

The problem of course is that in an age of global-scale economics, what happens in the Middle East and northern Africa has serious repercussions for the industrialized world since this region is also running headlong against systemic restraints of its own. This is why Washington is treading very carefully at the moment with respect to Egypt because it is crucial for The United States to have unfettered access to the Suez Canal. The systemic repercussions of a disrupted global oil supply chain, which provides the industrial junkie economies their crack-cocaine, would be immediate, numerous, and unprecedented.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I wasn't arguing about the cyclone category, simply explaining where I got the figure I cited.

Mageprof, one of the projects I've had on long term back burner for a while now -- about three decades, in fact -- involves using Ervin Laszlo's Introduction to Systems Philosophy as the basis for a philosophy of magic. I used it to sketch out a philosophy of literary criticism in a college class back in the early 1980s, for whatever that's worth!

Bobby, this is fascinating stuff. Can you recommend a book by Easton that provides a good intro to his ideas? They sound very much worth following up.

Richard Green said...

JMG, I'd have to do a quick review of prior posts to be sure, but I get the feeling that when you do mention climate change it's with some caveats as to the cause. Fair enough, but I'd think that your language would be more definitive in suggesting the primary cause as CO2 emissions...which brings me to the poke-a-sleeping-bear analogy. I agree, not a good idea to poke it at all, but I think the real point is that if you do wake it up (or it wakes up on its own) it will be angrier and more destructive than anyone can ever remember. And the bear's anger is probably going to be highly correlated to the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Matt and Jess said...

My little addition to these books is not quite as intellectual-sounding but is still a good read. I recently read "Harmony" by Prince Charles, and it is a decent introduction to, I suppose you could say, historical systems thinking, that is, the way the ancient world looked at the universe in a more holistic way. There's some of it that's a miss--mostly at the end, when he offers solutions to common ecological problems (I tend to read everything through a lens of "Greer practicality") but overall it is very decent and I think has a lot to offer.

Bill Pulliam said...

At the risk of launching into a lecture on systems theory...

One of the fundamental and pervasive parts of a systems view is emergence -- properties and processes that "emerge" from the system and are not simply attributable to any single component or interaction. Thing is -- essentially everything we care about in the world is an emergent property of a very complex system -- culture, weather, life, narratives, politics, cuisine, agriculture, music, revolution, carpentry, electricity, etc. etc. etc. Even the great reductionistic achievements of science in the last few centuries (e.g. Newtonian Mechanics, Chemistry) that "describe" the macroscopic, sensible world in which we live... well they turn out to themselves be emergent properties of complex quantum mechanical systems and are not truly fundamental reduced properties of the universe. And of course, some are beginning to suspect (including me) that this quantum world is itself an emergent phenomenon from some other, very different, as-yet entirely uncomprehended system underneath it. Personally, I am beginning to suspect that this unknown foundation for the quantum world, if it could be identified and studied, would also turn out to be an emergent phenomenon of a still deeper level, and so on and so on, ad infinitum. Turtles all the way down...

Anyway, when you begin to think of pretty much everything we know as emergent behavior of complex systems, attributable to no single "thing," then your ideas about cause and effect, meaning, responsibility, and most everything else are fundamentally altered!

EBrown said...

Ghung,
I also am committed to building simple systems. My wife, brother and his wife co-purchased a farm at the end of 2009 where we are prepping for the coming transition to low energy life. We bought a hill farm with only a bit of flat land because it has great water potential. This fall we praised to the gods of rental equipment and diesel fuel while we dug in and buried 3000 feet of gravity feed waterline. I don't see how agricultural output is going to be maintained in the coming decades without many thousands of infrastructure projects like ours, and at the same time I see no one else putting time and money into such endevours. Around here grid electricity is fairly relieable and still not hugely expensive. Water pumps are therefore are normally in operation. However we chose to go a slightly more capital intensive route for watering our livestock in the pasture. It cost a bit more up front, but now I sleep well at night knowing that there will always be water pressure in my hydrants.

EBrown said...

Loveandlight,
Have you read Taubes' work? He draws together an impressive amount of work that implicates refined and simple carbohydrates in general and fructose in particular for our obesity problems. Table sugar is just as bad as HFCS too as both are near 1:1 - glucose:fructose.

Before one gets hot under the collar about diet debating I always highly recommend Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories". He also just had a much condensed, simpler version of his work published called "Why We Get Fat". I recommend the former to intelligent lay people and specialists alike, the latter to those who are pressed for time or unlikely to want detailed combing through the history of weight-loss, metabolic studies, and the politics of food.

Jonathan Blake said...

Considering I'm currently taking a graduate course in non-linear systems analysis (after having completed about six other systems theory college courses, depending on how you count them), I think I can handle (and probably require) a more technical approach to systems theory. It would probably help me to see the theory applied outside my primary field of electrical engineering. What technical book suggestions were you holding back? :)

Cascadian Chronicler said...

I'm looking forward to the new book!

I agree with your general observation - most education has become so reductionist and so focused on analysis of individual pieces and parts that people have never learned the need to figure out what the big picture looks like, and even if they decided they needed to, they wouldn't have the tools to do it. Of course, a population that could see how things are interrelated and impact each other would be far more difficult to control and to steal from.

Mark Angelini said...

JMG, I love it! I see your idea of translating the Tao Te Ching into systems language as a uniquely powerful idea. I'm interested in taking some part of that on. Seems very worthwhile.

It was awfully curious to observe the reaction to the recent snowstorm in a cold temperate climate. Terms like "snowpocalypse" and "snowmageddon", I think, are signs that American culture has reached muck bottom. Are folks really desperately wishing for some sort of catastrophe? Something to make meaningful proactive response to our predicament not worthwhile.

Bobby said...

JMG,

David Easton’s two most famous works are as follows:

A Framework of Political Analysis
and
A Systems Analysis of Political Life

I believe that they were published sometime in the 60’s, and I should think that decent used copies of both would be fairly easy to come by through Alibris or something similar.

As usual your post really got me thinking, and I cannot believe that I neglected Easton’s writings until you mentioned systems theory in relation to some of these troubling current affairs. This is especially salient since I wrote a paper using his analysis of systems to chart the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union. When I read your post I guess the light bulb clicked on, or I was smacked in the head or something, regardless, many thanks for the assist!

The application of Easton’s theories to peak oil and climate change has me very intrigued though, so much so that I have started some research to see what else of value I can pull out. I will keep you posted on the results of those efforts. Should be a fun project though!

Wyoming said...

JMG

Regarding the comment above that ther had been no change in the frequency of extreme weather events here is some definitive evidence to the contrary. This is from the the worlds most complete database on insurance disasters. (copied from Climate Progress)

"Dr. Peter Höppe, Head of the Geo Risks Research Department at Munich Re, the co-author of Schmidt, Kemfert and Höppe, wrote me:

For me the most convincing piece of evidence that global warming has been contributing already to more and more intense weather related natural catastrophes is the fact that while we find a steep increase in the number of loss relevant weather events (about tripling in the last 30 years) we only find a slight increase in geophysical (earthquake, volcano, tsunami) events, which should not be affected by global warming. If the whole trend we find in weather related disaster should be caused by reporting bias, or socio-demographic or economic developments we would expect to find it similarly for the geophysical events.

Richard said...

William and others who mentioned flooding,

Climate change is certainly having an impact, but what is rarely discussed about flooding is that precipitation is only one factor in a flood. A major consideration is the state of the watershed. Land degradation increases flooding because less of the water soaks into the soil and more runs off. Buildings and roads are the extreme examples because they're impervious, but soil degradation does the same thing. Healthy soil with high organic matter will absorb more rain. Droughts are worse in degraded soil as well because less water absorbed during rain means less of a moisture bank in the soil for the dry periods. Draining wetlands also increases flooding because wetlands are teh sponges of the landscape.

As for floods in Iowa now being summer events, I'm sure the same amount of rain would have produced far less flooding back when the state was predominantly prairie. Snowmelt floods happen pretty readily even with healthy land, but summer flooding would still be much less severe in Iowa if it weren't for the fact that af all the states, Iowa has the most percentage of its land under cultivation, mostly in vast monocrops. Of course, some areas have much more runoff even in their natural state, such as mountainous areas with rock outcroppings and this soils, but that doesn't describe Iowa. I used to live in Southern Minnesota, similar to Iowa in that corn and soybeans predominate. However, there was a state park near me with pretty mature woods. I went there one June when all the rivers and creeks in the area were flooding and were dirty brown, however there's a small intermittent creek in this park that's whole watershed is in the park. During this flood period, it was higher than normal, but not over its banks, and most tellingly of all, it was not muddy but crystal clear. That contrast was a striking reminder of how awfully we treat our soil.

Steve Baker said...

I'm afraid you lost me right at the start by referring to "Third World" countries. I realise it is just a convenient label for developing countries but I fear that your impression of what "Third World" is is hopelessly outdated. Feel free to expunge it from your lexicon!

Never fear, Hans Rosling to the rescue:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUwS1uAdUcI

And his tool showing Tunisia and Egypt tracking pretty well with China and ahead of India:
www.bit.ly/dKAorw

Richard said...

Still on the subject of land degradation, I recommend the book "Holistic Management" by Alan Savory. It's especially a must-have if you're in an arid or semi-arid climate, but even if like myself you're in a humid climate, it's still worth reading. He discovered that the conventional wisdom on the causes of desertification were mostly wrong, and has multitudes of experience and examples provided to prove it. His expertise is on animal grazing, he shows that by following the patterns of wild flocks of animals, the land can actually support lots of animals and grow healthier, while resting the land from animal impact can ruin dry grasslands and savannas, them all having evolved in the presence of wild herds.

The reason I thought of this at this time is that he shows the land degradation connection to flooding/drought. He says in many places people say "The rains aren't what they used to be" when it's really the land's reduced capacity to absorb them that's resulting in more droughts (and flooding).

This could factor into Wyoming's comment, some of that increase in natural disasters could be induced by land degradation. I do think global warming is a very real and serious issue but it doesn't mean there aren't other factors involved, and if you're managing any land you can help restore a functioning water cycle on that land.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, I do have doubts, but the point of the bear metaphor is that those don't matter. Paleoclimatology shows that the world's climate can change very suddenly and very drastically, with or without CO2 forcing. That being the case, adding additional imbalance to an already unstable system -- even if the addition turns out to be a minor factor -- is a very, very bad idea. The exact reasons why the bear might be inspired to bash your head in if it wakes up is considerably less important than the need to do nothing that might wake it up!

Matt and Jess, I've seen that, though I haven't read it. I'll give it a look.

Bill, it's a crucial point. Did you ever read Laszlo's Introduction to Systems Philosophy? IIRC he does a lot with emergence. As for turtles, well, I'm with the mystics on this one; I'd suggest that all apparently concrete phenomena are emergent properties of consciousness...

EBrown, excellent! It's exactly personal projects like yours that have the biggest chance of making a difference where it counts.

Jonathan, it's been a long time and there are a lot of books under that heading! Other than the Gerald Weinberg and Ervin Laszlo books already discussed, your best bet is probably to go to your university library and bring home an armfull from Q295 -- that's the LOC location for general systems theory.

Cascadian, a population that could do that would also be far too likely to see the flaws in its own favored pipe dreams. We do a lot of stealing from ourselves, you know.

Mark, I noted those same bits of jargon, but took it in a different way. I think most people in the US literally have no idea what a disaster is any more. It hasn't occurred to them that not being able to play video games for a few hours might not be the very worst thing that could happen to them. I suspect many of them will find out otherwise down the road...

Bobby, many thanks! The local university library has both of them, conveniently enough.

Wyoming, good. Yes, that's a solid argument.

Richard, and of course that's also a valid point. As with any complex phenomenon, disasters are generally overdetermined.

Steve, the term "Third World" originally referred to those nations that weren't part of either of the two major power blocs. I don't use it as a synonym for "developing nations," since most nations in the Third World will never experience industrial development -- the fossil fuel surplus that's the basis allowing anybody to undergo industrial development is depleting very quickly. Since it's a clear, readily understood term, and I've never seen the point to the American political fixation on tampering with language, I'll continue to use it -- and if that means I "lose you," well, that's what it means.

John Michael Greer said...

Richard, thanks for the reference! It sounds like a very valuable resource.

Bill Pulliam said...

And consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of...? Those turtles, again.

Re: Climate change and JMG, Wyoming, Richard, and Richard...

Climate change is actually a lot more complicated than just CO2 and the other greenhouse gases. The atmo-hydro-geo-biosphere system is very complex and climate is one of those emergent properties of it. As such pulling on any single thread and saying "this is what causes that" is iffy at best.

At the present time, perhaps an even more important contributor to observed climate changes than CO2 et al is "land cover change," as Richard #2 points out. Conversion of forest to cropland, topsoil loss, pavement and rooftops, etc. etc. have huge effects not just directly on flooding but on all the complex flows of heat and water. The "human volcano" effect from particulate loading is also a significant factor. These all contribute to positive and negative feedbacks -- for instance absence of forest cover lowers evapotranspiration, which lowers precipitation, which dries the soil and lowers evapotranspiration again. We're poking that atmospheric grizzly with a whole lot of sticks, not just the one made of CO2. The effects of CO2 may become clearly dominant in coming decades, but right now urban heat islands are actually still a stronger signal in the populous latitudes.

Climate scientists are inherently systems thinkers, by and large. The complex web of links and loops is second nature to them; unexpected outcomes don't surprise them at all. Perhaps this is part of the problem they have had communicating with the masses, who for the most part don't like to (or know how to) think about complex systems.

Ruben said...

@Gary,

I know many nice people who ask, "What is it we want to grow?"

I think that disingenuousness may do us a disservice, since it continues to avoid the confrontation with the growth myth.

Let's cut to the chase. Name one thing of any kind that has grown forever. With the exception of entropy, nothing grows forever.

If we want to grow our music, we must do it by generating surplus food and energy, and there we are back in growth.

We grow our stock of ideas, but, as history shows, they will be lost in a future contraction. Over and over again.

And you can't grow freshness, because it, by definition, must age to make way for new freshness.

Nothing grows forever. Except entropy.

Luke Devlin said...

Looking forward to the new book!

@Jason:

"When it comes to these shills blogging on behalf of corporate interests, do you have any specific examples? I'm just curious what they look like and how you'd spot them"

It's called 'astroturfing', and Monbiot has written a couple of useful articles about it here

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2010/dec/13/astroturf-libertarians-internet-democracy

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/oct/25/tea-party-koch-brothers

re: 'Sustainable growth'. Tim Jackson's 'Prosperity Without Growth' is the definitive text on the impossibility without this. It's so compelling, that the UK Government shut down his organisation (the Sustainable Development Commission) because they didn't like the implications of the truth.

@Steve Baker
""Third World" is is hopelessly outdated."
I'm inclined to agree! The New Internationalist uses, on the recommendation of one of their writers from Bangladesh, the term 'the majority world' which works perfectly: let's face it, that's what we're talking about. I understand where John's coming from, but there's no meaningful Second World any more, so it's outlived its usefulness in any case.

re: the Tao Te Ching in systems language: this is great, although more of a free interprestation than a transliteration. The treatment works particularly well for the first chapter, although I fear some of the subtlety and poetry may get lost in some of the more esoteric chapters. Maybe a creative commons crowdsourced translation is on order?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Who would have thought that an essay on systems theory could provoke so many thoughtful and interesting comments?

I look forward to the new book, although I may have to wait until it's published here.

The thunder is raging overhead and it is going to bucket down here over the next few days. I have a 140 years of rainfall records for this location and this year is unprecedented. Well, there's always a first time I guess... Still I keep hearing, "that was a 1 in a 100 year storm" every few years now.

The climate here is so unpredicatable that the one thing I will miss is the information now available relating to the weather forecasting. This helps me manage my orchards, vegies, chooks, water and activities. I guess I'll have to go back to the old school methods.

Post disaster government responses here in Australia is often to heap complexity onto the existing system. For example after the Black Saturday bushfires (Feb 09 - look it up on Wikipedia for a bit of a fright) here, the government amended the building standards to reflect the reality of living in a bushfire prone area. This is no bad thing.

However, increased building complexity = increased building costs. I keep telling people around here to increase the insured amount of their buildings so that if they have to rebuild, they will be able to do so. Some people take me seriously and others don't. The problem occurs if they do get burnt out in a bushfire and are insured (apparently 50% aren't in some areas anyway), then they may not receive enough money to be able to rebuild even a basic house with the new construction standards. They will have to move on.

This is the face of catabolic collapse, or death of civilisation by a thousand cuts.

On the bright side though, after a while, when things become less complex (due to lack of enforceability), I can see people moving back here chasing the rich volcanic soils. I doubt they'd be expecting to live in a McMansion though! I can see a resurgence in the old timber getter huts and potatoe growers sheds.

It was interesting reading comments a few weeks back that some governments in the US are turning a blind eye to some constructions, as long as you don't build too large or upset the neighbours.

I consider this to be a very interesting sign.

Good luck!

PS: Just in case anyone misunderstood my previous comment about the proposed flood levy (tax) I thought I should bluntly state my thoughts. I am embarassed that our political leaders are having a yes/no debate about this issue. A favourite saying of mine is "stop whingeing and get on with the task at hand." Simple enough to understand.

Chris

sebzefrog said...

Good day all.
Dear JMG, I myself also prefer your illustrative phrasing of the laws of thermodynamics:

Nevertheless, the intentionality of the first law in this presentation
still bothers me a bit. Thermodynamic was put together by persons
studying how to get work out of steam engines, but it
reaches much further. It is a wonderful tool that allows one to watch
and understand the flow of energy everywhere, even outside of a
cost/benefit analysis.

As for presenting those laws to kids... Let me paraphrase one of Terry
Pratchett's hero, teaching arithmetics to 6 years old kids. Her
director complains: "It is way to difficult for them !". To what she
answers "I didn't tell them, and they didn't seem to have figured it
out yet: they are having lots of fun."

I thus tend to dare starting with:
1. In a finite system, the total amount of energy is fixed.

I found out that with a money analogy, energy is actually a concept
that is not too hard to convey, which is why I keep the term. My focus here is that the first question that has to be addressed with
this formulation is "what is a closed system". Which is the root of
thermodynamics and a way too important concept to be left for
later. Once bad habits about systems are taken...

Which leads to the problem in our way of teaching science. I can teach thermodynamics the way I do because it is an important part of my job as physicist to understand it.
How can one expect a teacher to have the time and energy to
deepen his or her understanding of thermodynamics with all they have
to cope with ? And thermodynamics is only one among the numerous
fundamental topics they *should* be teaching without proper
formation. In addition to their mandatory grasp of pedagogy and
discipline of course.

And still, lots of them do. Teacher is a vocation. And they have my deeper respect. I find it sad (and suicidal) that teacher has become a second grade job, when is should be one of the most important ones...

Maybe a practical answer would be to have us scientist come down from our tower and work together with teachers ? Maybe there is a book for 10 years old waiting to be written. And
maybe it is us, scientists, payed to deepen our understanding of those
topics who should be doing the writing.

Us, them, me among them.
And the watcher at the threshold awaits...

Sebzefrog at hotmail.fr

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

I noticed that few people commented on your growth hormone comment in beef.

The useage of growth hormones in beef is driven by the demand for beef itself. If society were to cut out useage of growth hormones, then cattle would be smaller and there would be less beef to go around. We've somehow become used to the quantity of beef that we eat.

The real problem is that there are some serious systemic weaknesses in our agricultural systems (of which this issue is one).

Commercial orchardists are no different in that they flood their orchards with water prior to picking the fruit because it is sold on a weight basis rather than a quality basis. ie. The fruit tastes like water even though their size is large.

Again, it's quantity over quality.

Regards.

Chris

Earthling said...

Delightful as usual, JMG - I do so agree that the US is suffering a bad case of systems stupidity. It could be terminal. But living in Europe, I think system stupidity is systemic in our civilization - and intentionally so, or built in, thus terminal.

I wonder whether you have read Fritjof Capra? (I scanned the comments but didn't see his name.) He is my favorite teacher on living systems and systems thinking because he applies it on every level, from the garden to community, society, and global ecology. He also is explicit about the hidden connections between science and spirituality, so he would appreciate a systems translation of Lao Tzu.

Anyway, congratulations on your latest book, and thank you for sharing your wisdom so consistently.

Bill Pulliam said...

Cherokee -- your talk of the flood levy brings up our Federal Flood Insurance program in the U.S. The original idea was to provide people in flood-prone areas who had suffered major damage a ONE TIME settlement with which they could move SOMEWHERE ELSE, not rebuild in the flood zone. Of course this was politically unfeasible, so instead what it became was a massive program that insures flood-prone areas than no private insurer will touch, thus encouraging rampant development in coastal and floodplain areas, and paying for rebuilding of these properties after they are hit (at taxpayer expense). Hence it has been a major force in a boom in flood-prone development rather than a disincentive for it.

EBrown said...

Richard,
Hear! Hear!
I heartily second your recommendation to read Savory's work. It also is salient to this post because I consider him a powerful systems thinker. He managed to see through the desertification-overgrazing-fire dogma and recognize that plant and soil communities depend on the rest periods between disturbances to maintain their health. It is not simply a matter of stocking rate or the heat of a burn, rather it is the timing of the disturbance in relation to the plants' life cycle.
The title to his work exemplfies his system bent as "Holisitic Management" emphasizes that one cannot understand a complex thing such as an ecosystem by studying single components in isolation.
Have you read Andre Voison's book, "Grass Productivity"? Savory credits him with the idea of examining rest periods... It's pretty technical as Voison was a scientist as much as a farmer, but it is invaluable as a resource. He lived in a humid climate (as I do), which adds to the work's direct applicability.

Pat said...

Interesting post but now I am puzzled.
Don Plummer posted two links to separate translations of Tao Te Ching and after looking them over, they strike me as quite different in tone and content.

Maybe a systems version would be more helpful.

Bill Pulliam said...

An actual climatologist on trends in extreme weather events, with data:

http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1732

http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1733

Notice both the small trend and the large variability. Also note that 1940-1980 was an especially "dull" time, with more extremes both before and after that period. The last 20 years do stand out, but 20 years is just the blink of an eye climatologically. It's also unclear whether these last 20 years are a "ramp" (i.e. beginning of a long-term trend) or a "hump" (extreme excursion to be followed by return to long-term average).

For the record, I have no doubt about the effects of CO2 on global climate and the potential for substantial anthropogenic climate change. But claims should not exceed what the data can support or you make it all that much easier for your whole hypothesis to be debunked in public discourse.

subgenius said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks for this excellent series.

I have been studying the Dao De Jing for quite a long time now, and would like to point out that there is a school of thought (rooted in etymology of ancient Chinese) that the character for "De" would be more correctly translated as "Power" - the radical used is a simplified derivation of a pictogram representing a shaman's mask(complete with horns).

This changes the translation of the title from something like "The Way of Virtue Classic" to something more along the lines of "The Way and it's Power Classic", which I find to be an interesting variation.

I add my vote to the Alan Watts talks (you can often find podcasts of them on kpfk.org) and "The Watercourse Way", plus the Merton translations, FWIW.

Robin Datta said...

"Buddhist cosmology as an ecosystem of interconnectedness is, as I learned in college, a novel reinterpretation of Buddhism". Actualy not nowel, the tradition goes back to Hinduism: the interconnectedness is described as "Indra Jala" (indra's Net), wth Indra being the early Vedic chief god. Every node on the net is a particle or a larger entity in the physical universe. The term "indra Jala" is also found in Buddhism, borrowed from Hinduism, althhough Buddhism itself is non-theistic.

For those who would like to hear the ArthDruid's voice in a recent podcast:

The Mythology of Progress with John Michael Greer on Two Beers With Steve


Or would like to see him in a video, albeit less recent:

The Twilight of an Age: Peak Moment TV on YouTube


To get The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered outside North America, try

BookFinder.com
and change the shipping destination in the search results.

Since I Googled it up and placed a shortcut on my "desktep", I thought i might include:
The Writings of Chuang Tzu

For those interested in the fructose story:

Sugar: The Bitter Truth by Robert H. Lustig, MD


"Personally, I am beginning to suspect that this unknown foundation for the quantum world, if it could be identified and studied, would also turn out to be an emergent phenomenon of a still deeper level, and so on and so on, ad infinitum. Turtles all the way down"

That chain of turtles is not external to the self / Self, and one way suggested to unravel the mystery is to probe deep one's own nature: deep beyond pre-verbal, pre-thought, pre-concept, pre-everything: both the Kabbalah and Hinduism overtly (and Buddhism implicitly) recommend this. It is futile to follow a chain of turtles external to oneself.

I came to the united Stahes from a Third World country. Using the tenm "Third World" indicates the gap (the nonexistent "Second World") that cannot be bridged since depleting fossil fuels preclude that bridging: however it does not preclude First World countries from crossing the gap into the "Third World". The term emphasizes the gap, and where we are headed.

Alice Y. said...

I wonder whether the Green Wizards on the site could put heads together and start building the that Tao translation in systems language using a wiki? Is there a wiki set up already on greenwizards.org?

Don Plummer said...

@Mark Angelini (and JMG):
I have some different thoughts for why terms like "snowpocalypse" have become so common today. I think it's at least partly rooted in the fact that so many Americans are so far removed from the rhythm of the seasons. Their daily activities don't change with the seasons: they go to the same cubicle to work every morning and come home in the evening and then, as JMG mentions, they sit down in front of the tube to play video games or watch the latest episode of their favorite vapid network program. They have been conditioned to think that anything that might inconvenience them, such as a snowfall, is equivalent to a major disaster. As JMG says, they have no idea what a real disaster is. And, further, most Americans, who after all have bought into the myth of progress, don't like being reminded that humans can't control nature.

None of them, apparently, have ever read Whittier's "Snowbound."

Another reason, I think, is related to most Americans' utter dependence on automotive transportation. Automobiles require clean and preferably dry payment to be used. A snowstorm severely affects peoples' ability to get around, and, I think, has become the chief cause of the incessant complaints about winter weather that one hears so frequently. In pre-industrial times, people just stayed home, or, if they had to go out, they strapped on their snowshoes when the snow was deep. But we can't do that anymore.

It's almost humorous to watch the local TV news here in Columbus, Ohio, during a snowstorm, or even whenever a significant snowfall is predicted. Each storm, it seems, becomes the storm of the century, and the news team will station reporters in front of the mounds of road salt, or out along a lonely stretch of highway, apparently to count the snowflakes as they come down. :)

And of course, each local station tries to outdo their competitor stations to be the first to bring the latest "breaking news" about the current manifestation of "snowmageddon."

Richard said...

More on Allan Savory,

http://permaculturewest.org.au/ipc6/ch01/savory/index.html

http://www.managingwholes.com/desertification.htm

I do think that he is one of the best examples of someone who made very important discoveries by systems thinking, which gives people the tools to restore desertifying lands on a large scale. I read "Holistic Management" a couple months ago, and although I had been exposed to many of the ideas through permaculture and other literature, Allan Savory is who it started with.

GetAbike said...

JMG, while i generally agree with yours and Kuntslers assessment (disdain?) of the "green" movement, i think you and he take un-necessary pot shots at well meaning people that are not responsible for our mess and have done what little can be done within the "system" that makes it near impossible at best.
We are already being blamed for dwindling energy as "Enviros" are apparently responsible for not drilling every square inch of the continent, so why pile on?

Twilight said...

I have no formal training in systems theory, but I am continually struck by a general refusal to see the connectedness and complexity of the world and events around us. I believe this is related to people's discomfort with change. We don't like change but we know it happens, so we create the illusion of a world that is mostly constant, except for moments when things happen. A fantasy of a world where change is a discrete process, rather than a continuous one. Also, we imagine past times when things were a certain way, though in reality these were but moments in a continuously changing world.

When “events” happen we see these as anomalies which must have a distinct identifiable cause (preferably only one). This distortion allows us to cling to the possibility of a return to a comfortable, constant world without change once the reasons for the changes are dealt with. I see this habit of thought as particularly dangerous, as it leads people to make gross errors in their understanding of why things happen, and what to expect next. Everything that happens is considered as if it is something new, something discrete, rather than the end result of a chain of previous happenings – and then a hunt begins to find “the cause”. Eventually a palatable single explanation is found, resulting little real understanding and a high probability of repeating mistakes.

Richard said...

Greetings fron New Zealand Aotearoa - I enjoyed reading your latest blog - Thank you.

I agree with you about the importance of systems thinking. I was introduced to systems thinking by studying ecology. Soil, for example, is so complex we probably will never know all it's componenet parts (fungi, bacteria, minerals, etc, and all their interactions) I think we can only study ecology using a systems approach.

I think any reasonable ecology text would also provide an introduction to systems theory. And a way into systems theory that some may find easier than Tao te Ching.

I do like your idea of systems theory being a resatement of the Tao - which also relates to deep ecology... Food for thought.

Kind regards

Jason said...

@Luke Devlin: ah! Thanks very much. "Astroturfing" = fake grass roots movement, love that. :) Very interesting UK example at the end of the second article.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, who said consciousness has to be an emergent phenomenon? Spengler would probably point out that the pursuit of an infinite regress is another expression of the Faustian obsession with limitlessness.

Ruben, good.

Luke, my experience with translation by committee has not been good. Still, the Tao Te Ching is long out of copyright!

Chris, excellent. Yes, increasing costs are the canary in the mine shaft of catabolic collapse. In a society that converts everything into money, the fact that it costs too much to rebuild is your signal that the resources for rebuilding aren't there in adequate supply any more.

Seb, oh, granted, there are plenty of better ways to phrase it. Might be useful to try to work out a very clean, simple, easily grasped formulation to be spread as widely as possible.

Earthling, most interesting. The only thing by Capra I ever read was The Tao of Physics, and I found it very disappointing -- like most books of that type, it cherrypicked concepts out of the wildly diverse philosophies of a couple of Asian cultures to produce a mishmash "wisdom of the East," and then equated it with quantum physics in what I thought was a very simplistic way. Still, if he's done better stuff since then, that's good -- and I should probably at least glance at it.

Pat, a lot of the old translations didn't have a good grasp of the jargon of traditional Chinese philosophy, which takes some getting used to -- and there's also the not minor fact that what Lao Tsu was saying contradicts many of the core assumptions of Western thought, and so a lot of translators unconsciously edit the contradictions out in a variety of ways.

Subgenius, the old Arthr Waley translation used "power" to translate te, and it's certainly one option, but it tends to lead Western thinkers into a variety of blind alleys. Our concept of power has connotations that differ in almost every conceivable way from te.

Robin, actually, there is a Second World. Global politics for the last four centuries or so has fallen out into a First World, consisting of the primary global hegemon and its allies; a Second World, consisting of the hegemon's primary rival and its allies; and a Third World that's unaligned, and usually more or less victimized by both. Today the First World is the US and its allies in Europe and Japan; the Second World is a loose alliance centered on China, and including India, Russia, and Brazil (the so-called BRIC countries); and the Third World is the rest. India used to be Third World, and now is Second; give it a couple of centuries and it may just be First for a while.

John Michael Greer said...

Alice, I don't know off hand what the status is of the Green Wizard wiki; it's in the works, but as a site run by volunteers, it's coming together as people have spare time.

Don, that's plausible enough.

Richard, thanks for the links!

Getabike, it's not disdain and I'm not simply "piling on." The people who insist we can maintain our current extravagant lifestyles on some kind of sustainable basis are part of the problem; their rhetoric helps reinforce the belief that we can avoid making the hard choices we do, in fact, have to make.

Twilight, very true. The process you've outlined is one of the things that's driving us headlong over the cliff.

Richard, thank you. Soil's an excellent example -- I forget where I read that pound for pound, fertile topsoil is the most complex substance in the known universe.

Katie said...

Thank you for your insight once again! Your systems-theory interpretation of Tao Te Ching was definitely eye-opening. Unfortunately, trying to read the online translations I found was a great deal less enlightening. I hope you do do your own translation!

On a completely unrelated note that your less handy readers might find helpful: I found a commercial version of the fireless cooker, sort of a thermos-crockpot.

http://www.cookware.com/asp/show_detail.asp?sku=TGA1036

@Ruben: Even entropy can't grow forever. Eventually there wouldn't be anything left to...entrope. It would get to the point where there was nothing left to steal energy from, I mean.

Hmm. Today's verification word is "disma".

Dwig said...

Count another recommendation for "Thinking in Systems". It deserves a place on every green wizard's bookshelf. (Ah, would that it would be required reading, with an exam to follow, for every politician!)

If you do tackle the Tao Te Ching project, I recommend you start by reading Ursula LeGuin's version: "Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way". She declares "This is a rendition, not a translation.", and I think it's a fair warning.

She also describes her approach in the Introduction: "The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth."

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG my 2¢ on blind scientists,

I've wondered for a long time what it is about contemporary scientific education that seems to make people unable to recognize the arrival of real trouble. Scientists ought to be among the first to see the writing on the wall; most often these days, though, they're cheerleading the profoundly irrational cornucopian agenda. What gives?

There are two parts to this. First, there is a pervasive belief that science improves the quality of life and drives economic growth. The evidence does not support this interpretation:

The scientific revolution started about two hundred years before the industrial revolution. Standards of living didn't improve substantial in the 200 year interlude nor did economic output. The industrial revolution needed science and coal to get going. Science was a necessary but not sufficient condition that we spuriously attributed as the sole driver of growth. Even though this explanation only fits half of the data set our short memories like it because it fits the most recent half.

Second, The institution of scientific research has lost much of its former integrity. Richard Feynman called it Cargo Cult Science. He was referring to the pressure to get certain results at the expense of rigor and integrity. Of coarse if you throw out rigor and integrity then you aren't really talking about science any longer.

The confluence of effects from a society that doesn't understand scientific progress or the scientific method, but often controls science funding, and pressure to get certain pleasing results from researchers leads to perpetually shoddy work and high expectations.

That said, many scientists did, do, and will understand the dynamics of out present predicament like William Stanley Jevons 1865 The Coal Question, Garrett Hardin 1968 The Tragedy of the Commons, Donella Meadows 1972 Limits to Growth, Hubbert, Odum, etc. They were, are, and will be dismissed and ridiculed.

People have never been any good at hearing bad news.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bill,

Dysfunctional rules makes for dysfunctional behaviour! The state and federal governments here also lack the political will to move / compensate people out of flood or fire prone areas.

The government's response to bushfires was to make new homes less combustible. I have what can be best described as zombie proof windows and doors! This is in addition to some very unusual cladding, roof etc. I can see them now clamouring for brains, while I sit in comfort having a solar powered coffee...

However, the recent floods affected over 20x the number of dwellings that the Black Saturday bushfires did. As a society we simply can't afford to make that number of houses flood resistant, so they'll simply rebuild until the next flood event.

There will come a time when they won't be able to rebuild though and the land returns to flood planes, billabong's etc.

Household insurance here also does not usually cover things like floods, yet they will cover bushfires. It should be noted though the incidence of house fires is far greater in city areas than in bushfires.

I also have to agree with you about the heat island effect. People don't understand that the hot up swells from the total thermal mass of a city, not only doesn't allow the cities air temperature to change rapidly, but it also reduces precipitation.

One benefit is being able to grow tropical crops in what was previously a cooler climate!

Regards

Chris

Hi JMG,

Thanks. I guess things get more complex until they are uneconomic and then they slide back to a simpler state.

Regards

Chris

Jason said...

@subgenius -- I also like the translation of Te as 'power', actually precisely for the reason JMG mentions: it forces a westerner to completely re-evaluate what they mean by the word.

Earlier in this thread, 4D was quoting Meadows on leverage, and the quote ended:

In the end, it seems that power has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.

... which indicates that westerners can indeed learn that redefinition of the word, with the aid of systems theory. :) That could be the old man himself speaking.

As far as translations are concerned, I would hope there will always a multitude of them available (as well as the discernment to work out what each one can do.) There is, for example, a very interesting one by Ko Hsuan, almost two thousand years old, which treats the entire book as a treatise on the refinement of chi and internal alchemy -- extracts appear in this book, for those with the internal skills to take advantage of them.

One other general translation I like, which does use 'Power' for Te, is the one by R.L. Wing, which my first teacher Glenn Morris always recommended. Without using systems language specifically, it does have a strong grasp of the interconnected network of nature that Lao Tzu was trying to get across.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- it was a joke, dude...

Bobbie Stacey said...

I've glanced through the comments and did not see any reference to what may be the best lay-person's introduction to systems thinking, "The Path of Least Resistance", by Robert Fritz. It made me see my own actions and behaviors with more of an eagles-eye view, rather than the view of a rat caught in a maze. http://www.amazon.com/Path-Least-Resistance-Learning-Creative/dp/0449903370/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1296922997&sr=1-1

xraymike79 said...

America's system theory involves bullying the other kids in the playground and taking their lunch money or anything else they have on them. It work's only for as long as the bullied stay in line and don't decide to through a punch back. It appears that the meek are starting to revolt. Of course the American reaction is best displayed by John McCain who said that a dangerous 'virus' is infecting the populous. What's wrong those Third Worlders! Don't they understand that they're upsetting the balance of things. Americans really believe their way of life is non-negotiable.

www.Ravenwild.com

Lynnet said...

I have long admired the Gia-fu Feng translation. I recently read a biography of him, and to my surprise this translation WAS done by committee; it was a group project with him and his students.

Don Plummer said...

@ Luke Devlin:

Astroturfing. What a descriptive term for this phenomenon! I wonder where it originated; probably not with Monbiot, given the way he uses it.

I've probably experienced it on other blogs that I've frequented in the past (not this one because JMG monitors the posts and keeps those kinds of unproductive comments from appearing here), especially with regard to climate change. Indeed, it is very effective at hijacking the conversation, stifling intelligent discussion, and frustrating thoughtful blog commenters to the extent that many of them give up and quit posting altogether. I'm with Monbiot--something needs to be done to counter it, but what?

hawlkeye said...

I heartily concur with Richard and EBrown, etc. - in my relatively short time grazing in the pastures of permaculture, Alan Savory is clearly the tastiest morsel so far. Green gossip: I heard he earns something like $1000/hour as a consultant with a world-wide waiting list a year out. Sure, and he's onto something...

With all the world ending and so much to do to prepare and so little time left...just doing nothing might be the best approach after all? This suggestion by way of Orlov always rankled this arch-Doer; sheesh, we've got to DO something...

Do-nothing is crazy-making for me, but allowing for rest and fallow is a good thing to remember; it's like the pace of a long-distance race where all the sprinters burn out first. And the soil is sure burnt out more than the people, if that's possible.

Chain of Turtles would be an excellent name for a rock band or a new green video game!

But 'nuff brain fluff; back to this vital and wonderful weaving of threads...

Zev Paiss said...

John - I was calling my bank the other day and heard a message I had NEVER heard before. "Due to weather disruptions, your wait time will be..." OMG if that is not a sign of the times I do not know what is!

Thanks!

Don Plummer said...

Kurt Cobb just published a commentary on the American anti-tax movement. Reading between the lines, it seems to me that the anti-tax movement may be partly a manifestation what JMG here calls systems stupidity. Does anyone else come to a similar conclusion?

Richard said...

EBrown, I haven't read Voisin, I do remember Savory's remarks about him though, sounds like it must be pretty good stuff for those of us in humid climates.

Bill, thanks for pot Jeff Masters blog posts, I've been looking for something like that for a while. More and more often I hear people blame whatever "unprecedented" weather event on global warming, when it's unprecedented at all, sometimes not even close. Certain things are unprecedented (at least in historical time) such as last year's heat wave in Russia, but I cringe when people say things like "Katrina was caused by global warming." when the historical record shows plenty of stronger hurricanes before fossil fuel emissions became prominent. I have seen some research suggesting a like between global warming and more intense hurricanes in recent years, but that should only lead to a statement such as "Global warming increases the likelihood of major hurricanes such as Katrina."

On the subject of whether weather events are unprecedented, many people don't realize that individual record lows or highs don't signal anything crazy going on with the weather. If a station has 120 years of data, you could expect about 3 daily record lows (and highs) on average a year. Many stations have fewer years of data than this, and can thus expect even more daily records each year.

In 2010 much was made by some people of the cold snap in January which really didn't set many record lows outside of Florida. The extreme warmth in April set many more record highs along the East Coast and great lakes regions than the cold. In early April, Caribou, Maine, about as far north as you can go in the East, hit 82 degrees, breaking their old record of 58. Of course, individual weather events don't make a trend, but it does make me think, how often does a record get broken by 24 degrees, that one might really be in the unprecedented category or at least close.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael and all,

Fine post, get's the juices moving.Good resources, too.

Is ignorance of systems theory the issue or is it that most people fear and ignore anything that compromises their comfort and convenience? And certainly most fear that which is "outside the box?"

We are such a conformist crowd, that adopting ideas or lifestyles that are outside the mainstream are an anathema.

My experience leads me to believe that it is NOT the content of the argument but rather the number and influence of supporters that gets things changed and new ideas adopted. Finding those supporters becomes the challenge, though couching an issue in its most formidable version can hasten the task.

YMMV.

edde

dancing-in-the-rain said...

Rather than obfuscate clear words (my words are very easy to understand, yet there is nobody who understands them) in the Tao, by forcing an external notion onto it, why not accept the challenge to solve one of the finest riddles handed to mankind.

If we fail to solve this riddle nothing else will really matter anyway, so why waste mental energy on a project that can't possibly get you any closer to solving the matter at hand?

Best work that can be done with the Tao today? Given the number of decent translations (hint, Chinese characters are terse, no real pronouns, so don't include those, ie, best translations use few words, the more words used, the further out the meaning is pushed) already out there, the main thing missing is an authoritative reference work like Steve Karcher's excellent I-Ching, or Winthrop Sargeants Bhagavad Gita. Both include complete explications of full meaning ranges of all terms used, along with reasonably literal translations.

I've translated, painstakingly, a few chapters of the Tao, just to get a feel for it, and it helped a lot in terms of starting to get the sense. Takes a lot of work in a lot of areas, the puzzle has always been hard to solve, throughout the ages. Further away we are from the Tao, the less clear the words are, the closer, the more.

mageprof said...

JMG wrote:

"Mageprof, one of the projects I've had on long term back burner for a while now -- about three decades, in fact -- involves using Ervin Laszlo's Introduction to Systems Philosophy as the basis for a philosophy of magic. I used it to sketch out a philosophy of literary criticism in a college class back in the early 1980s, for whatever that's worth!"

I hope you get can back to that book someday. It would be a real contribution, and I would be a careful reader.

As a retired academic, I'm working -- very slowly -- on a similar "long term back burner" project, a study of effective magical practices and theories. My own background is in philology and in anthropological linguistics, so I start from what Dell Hymes called "the ethnography of speaking."

The ethnography of speaking, in turn, derives its basic model from Claude Shannon's information theory. But it seems also to have substantial points of contact with systems theory. But I must read Laszlo now, to fine-tune my understanding of the latter.

Zach said...

Nothing grows forever. Except entropy.

What's the inherent upper bound to love?


peace,
Zach

madtom said...

Tao comes from a verb meaning "to lead forth,"

As does our word "educate" - quite literally.

Many thanks for your continuing communications, which I greatly enjoy! You feed my lifelong craving for the discovery of new truths, which at the most rewarding level are not just new facts but new ways of seeing the relationships among facts already known but inadequately appreciated.

Kathleen said...

I bought "Thinking in Systems: a Primer" by Donella Meadows, and read it all the same afternoon. Definitely worth reading! Thanks to those who recommended it!

An Eaarthly Planner said...

I really love the Tao Te Ching, and like this translation. However, I also really liked your translation... here's hoping you finish it! ;-) Thanks for making this connection.

On the subject of climate change, I'll point out that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been increasing at a rate of about 2ppm annually, or 10,000x the typical natural rate (from volcanism). If that isn't a human fingerprint, I don't know what is!

Bill Pulliam said...

Eaarthly -- There is no one except for crazy flat-earthers who doubt that CO2 increases are from human activities (though there is some uncertainty of the relative contributions of fossil fuels, deforestation, and agriculture). And there are few people that understand the global climate system who doubt that this will likely lead to a warmer global climate. But CO2 is not per se climate change; it's one of many potential drivers of climate change. The difficult (often unanswerable) questions surround the exact links between these big planetary phenomena and the smaller-scale processes in which individual human societies actually live. And system-level effects of tweaking a single parameter are usually complex, often non-intuitive, and usually difficult to predict.

Re: rare events: If you have 1000 watersheds on a continent, you expect one of them on average to experience a "1000-year flood" each year, even without climate change. In 2010 it was our turn here in middle Tennessee; it will likely be someone else's turn in 2011.

Cathy McGuire said...

Great post, as usual!
It's been very interesting, trying to plan for a long descent but keeping an eye out for a possible very short one! ;-}

From a Yahoo report today:
The latest startling revelation to come via documents leaked to Julian Assange's muckraking website and published by The Guardian should give pause to every suburban SUV-driver: U.S. officials think Saudi Arabia is overpromising on its capacity to supply oil[snip]

The cables detail a meeting between a U.S. diplomat and Sadad al-Husseini, [snip] in November 2007. Husseini told the American official that the Saudis are unlikely to keep to their target oil output of 12.5 million barrels per day output [snip] also indicated that Saudi producers are likely to hit "peak oil" -- the point at which global output hit its high mark -- as early as 2012. [snip]

Well, many have suggested this was true...

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- off-topic a bit, but thought you'd appreciate this tidbit:

We're in the middle of yet another snowstorm, not heavy snow but hit Nashville right at rush hour with temps well below freezing so is a classic Southern Snow-Jam. Amateur radio (a.k.a. "Ham radio") is playing a big role getting the word out about road conditions, etc. relaying what they hear on local Police scanners. Cell networks get overloaded at times like this.

Nick said...

JMG, I am a fan along with many others, but I wondered how you calculated that it needs more energy to fly to Cairo than build the Great Pyramid. From David Mackay or probably various sources we know that a 747 will use about 2,400,000 kwh for a 12,000km flight. This is a staggering amount, no doubt.

According to Peter Thompson, there are 2,000,000 blocks about 2.5 tons each. However long or however many men were used, to cut, transport and erect them - if we fancifully suggest that one man can cut, move and erect one block a day ( wow!!), using 5 kwh, then it would still need 10,000,000 kwh to build the pyramid. If it took 6 men, then we're up to 60,000,000 kwh.

I only query this because it's such a nice quote, and coming from you it might be assumed to be reliable. But then the BAU folk will get hold of it and say - look what nonsense the greens talk.

Charles said...

Quoting a longtime Qigong practitioner to whom I forwarded your Systems-Tao commentary:

"WOW! Not only a brilliant translation of the text but relevant commentary that make the content immediately necessary. Most Chinese editions historically had this type of commentary that tried to make the concepts applicable to immediately critical situations. Most of these were political commentaries with "philosophical" lessons as well but almost always referred to natural observation to give examples of the particulars of the system being described. This is the best approach to understanding the lessons of Taoism and comes the closest to translating the Tao Te Ching as I understand the concepts that I have ever come across in English . I will share this with lots of people and try to develop some traction on some other passages of the TTC that are similar using the same systems language. Thanks for passing this on!"

Just to pile on the idea of you actually completing a systems oriented translation