Browsing articles tagged with " ecosystems"
Feb 22, 2013

Seeding a Viable Economic Alternative. Pt 2: The Principal Themes (Outcomes of a Systems Workshop at Future Connections 2012)

This is the second installment of a 4 part series about a soft systems workshop Arkadian ran with 20 PhD candidates at the Future Connections Conference 2012 in St Andrews, all of whom were conducting PhD Research on the theme of Sustainable Development.

Previously, we outlined the workshop structure, and described the session’s major outcome: an Action Plan for seeding a nationwide Viable Alternative to the current economic system. In the last two installments, Arkadian will be venturing some personal thoughts relating to the session outcomes that emerged during the analysis.

This week, however, we will be exploring four Themes that pervaded the discussion about a Prototype Community that might seed a Viable Alternative. As mentioned previously, some ideas here (and in Part 3 and 4) will be developed beyond the original session content as a result of their transaction (via Arkadian) with an ongoing experiment in developing an socioeconomic alternative (‘Wisdom Economy’) on the Isle of Bute: An Tearman.

1) Stewardship of the Diversity, Integrity and Beauty of the ‘Community-of-Interdependence’ (Nature first). It was generally agreed that, if the Community was to have a single guiding principle it should be the pursuit of a reverent partnership with Mother Nature. This combines active observation and experimentation, to enrich our objective understanding of Her systemic workings, and activities which promote a deeper experiential connection, and appreciation of Her intrinsic value.

Although we place Nature first, as concerns practicing empathy for other and placing systemic needs above our own,  our values are equivalent towards both Her and Our Community. We aim to cultivate individual awareness that the two are not separate but together constitute a single Community-of-Interdependence within which every ‘being’ performs a substantive role.

The fundamental goal of the Viable Alternative is to establish an equilibrium where we receive our material and non-material needs as a byproduct of enlightened care for the Community-of-Interdependence, with Nature taking priority. In pursuit of this, we complement Her strategies of achieving systemic integrity, productivity and beauty through diversity, reciprocity and work excellence in our approaches to the local ecology and our social milieu.

2) Performative Knowledge and Learning (Community-as-Process). How a rag bag of individuals, and hang-ups, might operate together effectively, ethically and enjoyably was probably the main, if subliminal, preoccupation of the session. Ultimately, this led to the group insight that ‘Community’ is a continuous reinforcing process, and not a ‘place’ or ‘entity’ as the concept is more commonly used.

To think and act as a unit (‘togetherness’, ‘belonging’, ‘sharing’), our individual purpose, needs and experiences need to braid and coalesce with each others’. This couldn’t happen without the Structure, Principles and, particularly, the Time that would enable the Community to successfully plan, work, have fun and be together.

Also considered essential to acting as a unit is the ability for all members to have some grasp of the whole ‘blueprint’ of their particular Community project and, thus, an appreciation of the role, value and interdependence of all actors and activities therein. This requirement for inclusive participation in, and understanding of, the whole picture, in turn, implies limitations on the scope, size and organisation of the ‘units’ that comprise the wider Community System.

Moreover, there are no ‘experts’ here. Other, that is, than the Community itself. We consider the only real knowledge and learning is that which arises from, and returns to, our collective performance.

Collective BrainKnow-how, erudition, irreverent cross-disciplinary romps, naive childlike experimentation, error and dispassionate collective assessment are all celebrated contributors to our ultimate purpose: a continuous social learning process that calls forth the unknown and unknowable world of the Viable Alternative. In this milieu, articulated knowledge functions as a part of collective activities rather than as an expertise that structures performance from without.

Below is a diagram of a Viable Systems Model (VSM) representing the Community’s organisational structure, which demonstrates the centrality of Community-as-Process’ to its success. A VSM is a systems thinking tool that applies the metaphor of living organism to an organisation, representing its main purposeful transactions with the environment as ‘organs’.

Ordinarily, a VSM presumes an ‘Executive Subsystem’ that monitors and orchestrates the operations of the whole – the equivalent of, say, the ‘The Board’ or the Prefrontal Cortex. However, in the model of the Viable Alternative Learning System, the wisdom of the ‘Director’ has been displaced by that of the ‘Collective’, in the form of the social processes from which our shared self-organising and self-regulating vision emerges.



3) Respect and Empathy for The Experiences of Other. Key to the healthy functioning of ‘Community-as-Process’ is respect for the predispositions and experiential histories of our fellows, even when they give rise to motivations, perspectives and worldviews very different from our own. Necessarily, this also entails developing our aptitude for dispassionate self-examination, so that we may each reflect critically on the roots of our own models, assumptions and prejudices.

To address these inner challenges, our aim is that everyone become adept in the pragmatic application of ‘tools’ that promote mindfulness of self and other – meditation, yoga, mediation, facilitation, discussion circles, non-violent communication, nature connection and systems methodologies such as Rich-Picturing, SODA and SSM.


The practical objective of all this is, to the extent possible, decouple personal experience from its deep cultural (and possibly, natural) entanglements with status, identity and ego, so that it’s performative potential may blossom. Deconstructing our ivory towers to build bridges of consensus. Transforming Knowledge and Experience as immutable personal possessions, into Knowledge and Experience as a dynamic shared property that informs and feeds back from impersonal activities-in-the-moment.

All very well, I hear you say, but what about me? Where do my individual needs fit in and what happens when they diverge from those of the collective? After all, even big happy families stifle personal growth at times, don’t they?

Making space for purely personal development, unsurprisingly, was another central theme of the discussion. As mentioned in the previous installment, a core design objective of the Prototype is to free a third of each week for each of us to pursue our own ‘becoming’ according to our own inclination. Our only constraint is that in exercising this right, we don’t impact negatively on the diversity, integrity and beauty of the Community-of-Interdependence.

The Community may also allocate some of its own ‘activity and decision-making’ time to develop opportunities and environment in response to individuals’ identified or declared needs. This is deemed valuable work because it promotes diversity and redundancy, the magical underpinnings of productivity and stability for both Nature and Community.

DiversityIn summary, we take the view that a social system where individual variety, creativity and knowledge of the local natural environment flourishes according to its own will, where each node maintains positive interconnections to all others and contains the seed of the self-sufficient whole, and which can decide and mobilise effectively as a single organism, is one of optimal adaptability and resilience, and thus best equipped to face the environmental challenges of the future.

4) The Sanctity of Time for Community and The Individual had, by the end of the session, become a central mantra of the Learning System. Time is not perceived here as an abstraction, or an economic ‘obligation’, but as a resource of inestimable importance: the root source of those experiences most responsible for generating meaning, community and well being.

Thus, the need for the Viable Alternative to produce sufficient Time to satisfy our non-material requirements was a thread that pervaded the discussion. An indicator, possibly, of how overlooked, undervalued and misunderstood its role has become in the current economic system.

And so concludes our look at the principal 4 Themes underpinning the discussion, and of the outline of the session outcomes. We hope you’ll join in a fortnight for Part 3, where Arkadian will be discussing some personal views that emerged during the analysis.

Jan 25, 2013

What I Learned from Destroying the Universe

Happy New Year! Arkadian’s first blog of 2013 is a brief account of a recent, and surprisingly meaningful, personal experience of a natural system, and the important lessons learned.

Over the Christmas holidays, during a rainstorm, I took the dog for his usual walk in a local wood. En route there’s a place where I bridge a stream on a fallen tree trunk.

River in Spate

Halfway across, something caught my eye. Hovering above the swollen and fast-flowing water, was a perfect Giotto circle, white, saucer-sized. I got down on my belly for a closer look. It was an exquisite ‘universe’ of tiny bubbles, revolving clockwise peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem surrounding it (I didn’t have my cameraphone, so other ‘attractors’ this universe called to mind will have to be used instead for illustration. There is also a short video of a similar phenomenon at the end).

For 45 minutes I lay spellbound, trying to discern the dynamics underpinning its beautiful form and behaviour. Immediately, upstream a large rock, barely breaking the surface, split the current into three highly erratic patterns: a fast and a slow channel, and another that surged over the top in intermittent waves. These flowed either side of the universe and beneath it, respectively. Evidently, some eddy arising from their interaction was causing bubbles to organise as they did. But no matter how hard I studied, I couldn’t fathom how such chaos could have given birth to so elegant and serene an entity.


Eventually, my inner scientist could resist no longer. Reaching down, I put my little finger carefully onto the surface of the fast channel about a hand’s span from the edge of the universe. Pft! In a moment it disintegrated into a million bubbles, swept downstream on the torrent.


I waited a further 15 minutes, expecting the universe to reform. However, although random associations of bubbles coalesced from from time to time, none maintained location or integrity for more than a few seconds before being washed away.

The dog was palpably exasperated by this point, so we resumed our walk but returned for another look on the way home. Nothing. Most days since, I’ve passed this spot.  Never have I seen the universe again.

So what three important lessons did I learn from destroying the universe?:

1. That no natural system is inevitable. Half of me still can’t accept that so robust a phenomenon could have been an accident. The little universe played a trick on my mind such that it seems inconceivable the specific environmental conditions in that area of the stream would never have given rise to it or will not again at some point in the future.

My other half, however, is now deeply humbled by a new certainty about uncertainty. The only reasonable conclusion it can draw from an honest review of the sporadic serendipitous coincidences by which a natural system, such as the universe, evolves from anarchic molecular storms, is that Fate and Destiny are tales told in hindsight. Nothing is meant to be. This half finds the thought oddly comforting.


2. That no natural system is independent of its wider environment. My intervention was based on a long and careful assessment of possible interrelationships between the universe’s behaviour and environment. I deemed the touch of my pinkie sufficiently gentle and distant from the core system to cause, at worst, a tiny perturbation that might afford some penetration of its workings.

But the universe depended on a context much wider and richer than I could have expected. Even within my narrow scope of observation, this singular micro-dance between pattern and (apparent) disorder defied any linguistic, mechanistic or mathematical generalisation.

That it also depended on the outlying point in the stream at which my finger interposed, however, drew my puny mind flailing into all the other dynamic factors vital to the universe’s becoming – the bubbles’ surface properties, the woodland shelter, the upstream topography, the rainfall intensity, the climatic pressure, and so on, inwards and outwards into a matrix of wholly interdependent and nested systems.

One can only quake in awe at the complexity, and in terror at the hubris of a culture that imagines it can reduce and conquer such prodigious abundance. The Modern Self thinks itself independent of its world and, thus, perceives the pieces of its world similarly: believing each can be treated in isolation. These are suicidal delusions it would do well to wake from.

3. That one shouldn’t be fooled by the apparent stability of a natural system. Although I never expected the universe to endure forever,  its superficial calm, autonomy and resilience in relation to its riotous milieu communicated a permanence that would easily tolerate some interference. This was an illusion born from ignorance. The merest touch of my finger was all it took to disturb some hidden, fundamental control parameter, and initiate a total irreversible breakdown.


To summarise, it is my view that the universe was an impossibly fortuitous, complex, and mysterious accident (this includes my own ability to contemplate it). The illusion that I was separate from it, had mastery over it, and could assume its stability based on appearances alone was a recipe for disaster. The same assumptions likely hold for all natural systems, including the biosphere of the Earth.

What I learned from destroying the universe is that the wisest approach for humankind is to cultivate a new personal humility and responsibility towards the natural systems we experience every day: to intervene in their unique, context-specific lives with mindfulness and empathy, and to seek a partnership that follows their lead in all things. We have so much to learn.


We hope you’ll join us in a fortnight for our first major series for 2013: a model for seeding a nationwide viable alternative to the current economic system (co-created by a team of PhD candidates focusing on sustainable development).

*Since writing this blog, Arkadian came across a similar phenomenon in another stream, and this time took a video (see below). Whilst the current and context is radically more sedate, the behaviour is in many ways very similar to the instance described above and offers a good illustration.



Jan 20, 2012

Why Corporate Regulation is a Socioenvironmental Necessity. Part 3 of 5: Why does A Diverse System = A Stable System?

Delighted that you’ve joined us for the third installment of our first Arkadian analysis for 2012, where over five short articles, we will show how we reached the series title’s conclusion by way of the following question: –

“What difference between natural / social systems and the current economic system causes the former to tend towards diversity and stability, and the latter, uniformity and instability?”

In Weeks 1 and 2, we investigated why ecosystems and ‘civilisation’ tend towards diversity and stability. It was proposed this was attributable to virtuous dynamics that promote long-term systemic stability and resilience by driving increasingly fine-grained specialisation / cooperation, whilst inhibiting environmental dominance by particular species or social ‘groups’.

Next week we will be putting forward an explanation as to why the current economic system displays the reverse trend but, for now, we thought it worthwhile to explain briefly the connection between diversity and stability. Why exactly does a change in the former result in a like change in the latter?  

Put simply, in a diverse system, the health of the whole (‘productivity’) isn’t dependent on the performance of only a few parts.

For example, imagine a disadvantaged family where Dad is the only breadwinner. If he has an accident, no-one eats. If the house blows down in a storm, there’s no-one to rebuild it. Compare the situation with a second family where several other members also contribute to the household income. Because ‘productivity’ is distributed across several people, the overall family ‘system’ is much more able to adapt to an accident-prone Dad and / or a force majeure.

A classic instance of systemic over-dependency at a macro-societal level is Ancient Egypt, which teetered on a single variable: the annual flooding of the Nile (taken from the excellent ‘Water’ by Steven Solomon). The ‘inundation‘, as it was known, rejuvenated the plains with fertile silt and washed away soil poisons, to produce the most self-sustaining and fertile farmlands of the ancient world.

The exclusive focus of the political elite was water management: senior priest-managers led departments for overseeing dikes, canal workers and measuring river levels; and top dog, Pharaoh’s, fundamental godly responsibility was mastery of the flow of the great river.

Unsurprisingly then, the Nile and Egyptian history ebb and flow in perfect synchronicity. Without exception, the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, as well as the later periods of Greek and Byzantine rule, bloom with the return of the regular cycle of flooding and crumple with climactic dry periods into centuries of disunity, chaos and foreign invasions. Thus, despite many environmental blessings, ultimately, the stability and resilience of this mighty civilisation and its elite were slave to the caprices of its one water source, in a way that a country with abundant springs, rivers and lakes could never be.

Our third and final example – the current economic downturn – illustrates uniformity and instability at a global level. Here, the world’s banking system was rendered so fragile by the interdependency of a few titanic banks and financial services firms, that massive external intervention was required to prevent total meltdown when one of them, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy in 2009. It is a crisis and an intervention for which we shall all suffer for many decades to come.

But why had the economic system not behaved like the natural / social systems we looked at in Weeks 1 and 2, and become increasingly diverse and stable as it expanded? We hope you’ll drop in next Friday to find out.

Jan 13, 2012

Why Corporate Regulation is a Socioenvironmental Necessity. Part 2 of 5: Why does (did) Civilisation tend towards Diversity and Stability?

Hello again and thanks for joining us for the second in a five-part Arkadian analysis, where we show how we reached the conclusion of the title series by way of one simple question: –

“What difference between natural / social systems and the current economic system causes the former to tend towards diversity and stability, and the latter, uniformity and instability?”

Last week, we explored why natural systems tend towards diversity and stability. Dynamics were proposed (the ‘diversity engine’) that, through natural selection, weed out species that strive for environmental supremacy and favour those that cooperate, specialise and, by doing so, facilitate opportunities for new evolutionary adaptations.

This week we shall take a brief look at one creature that, at first sight, appears to operate outside these dynamics:  Homo Sapiens.  What is it about the human species that enables it to dominate ecosystems without appearing to suffer the constraining feedback?

MODEL 2 of our analysis below proposes an answer (N.B. If you have trouble reading the text, click on the diagram to open it in a new browser tab and then refer back to the explanation here).


If you joined us last week, you’ll see immediately that MODEL 2 is more-or-less identical to MODEL 1. We propose that civilisation’s social matrix shares the same stabilising dynamics of natural systems and that these confer the ability to adapt more reflectively and effectively to environmental constraints.

Significantly, world population only began to increase appreciably with the order provided by the first civilisations from around 1,000 BC onwards. Many historians argue that the political infrastructure of Ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, India and China initially emerged from local organisational efforts to coordinate large scale (particularly, irrigation) ecosystem management, rather than these projects being the initiative of an already-ensconced ruling ‘group’.

It is the Arkadian view that the managerial perspective born from these projects enabled infrastructural and organisational tweaks that, in turn, facilitated a trend towards increasing division of labour and role / skill / knowledge specialisation, and it was this burgeoning socioeconomic diversity and interdependence rather than the direct actions of a ruling group that provided the stability required for civilisation to flourish.

Indeed, as many power / status / wealth hungry ruling groups have since discovered to their own detriment, enduring political success hinges not on their own genius, but on the assiduous maintenance of this diversity engine. As a general rule (and as with the overbearing species we looked at last week), (1 and 2) the greater the impact of  the ‘group’s’ rule and resource dominance on local socioeconomic (and environmental) diversity, (3 and 4) the more unproductive, unstable and weaker their regime tends to become.

A tragic example of this self-defeating governmental dynamic is Cambodia under the communist Khmer Rouge. Seizing power in 1975 in the wake of 4yrs of destabilising bombings by US and Vietnamese forces, they immediately shut down all transport and information links with the outside world, declared private property illegal, and established a ‘Year Zero’ for Cambodian society.

Their ‘Agrarian Revolution’ – an economic model founded on the single pillar of self-sufficient rice production – was to have a cataclysmic impact on all aspects of systemic diversity: social, cultural, economic and environmental.

All those who threatened their ideological dominance were murdered or exiled – ethnic and religious minorities, journalists, doctors, educators, writers, anyone with an education – obliterating vital cultural, intellectual and skill resources.

Urban populations were forced to leave cities, towns and former roles behind to slash-and-burn virgin rain forest, set up collective farms, and take responsibility for rice production, whilst the thousands of male peasant farmers with the requisite know-how were press-ganged into military service.

Naive farming communities went hungry rather than risk retribution for failing to meet the Government’s exorbitant rice targets, which soon resulted in a precipitous deterioration in output. Almost a quarter of the population died of starvation or execution under the regime, a disproportionate number of which were male.

Within three-and-half years, the loss of diversity and productivity had rendered the Khmer Rouge’s power base so weak, they were easily overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion.

30 years later, the Cambodian ‘system’ is still suffering. Political instability has resulted in 4 coups over the interim period. The country still has the highest proportion of women (65%), malnutrition and physical disability in South-East Asia (the latter attributable primarily to the Khmer Rouge’s estimated 4-6m unexploded mines).

The country’s economy remains dependent on tenant farmers involved in backbreaking rice production for minimum profit. Necessarily, many of these are women, creating further societal tensions by violating customary rules and roles of a traditionally patriarchal society. International development experts argue that, despite the potential for a full recovery, without external intervention the Cambodian  socioeconomic system will struggle to escape the impoverished, fragile state in which it was left by the Khmer Rouge.

Conversely, ‘laissez faire’ ruling groups, such as The Ancient Greeks and Romans, that implemented policy and infrastructure which nurtured the (5/6) ‘socioeconomic diversity engine’ tended to produce history’s more enduring and resilient regimes. For example, in the mid c14th a nascent Western European civilisation – arguably, the most pluralistic, productive and market-driven the world had yet seen – successfully weathered a perfect storm of catastrophe that would have devastated a weaker social system, including climactic cold spells, famines, widespread peasant revolts, The Black Death, and an overall loss of quarter of the population.

Nevertheless, (6b) although these ‘laissez faire’ strategies yielded prosperity for ruling groups, they also entailed a diminishing of their control over rules and resources as increasingly pluralistic and influential populations demanded ever greater democratic freedoms, rights and representation.  

As we shall discuss in Week 4, this shift would ultimately give rise to a global economic elite whose power, and impact on diversity and stability, would dwarf that of any political ‘ruling group’.  However, before we do, we thought it worth taking a moment to understand why it is that an ecosystem or  ‘civilisation’ is more stable if it is diverse? Hope you’ll join us next Friday to find out.

Jan 6, 2012

Why Corporate Regulation is a Socioenvironmental Necessity. Part 1 of 5: Why do Ecosystems tend towards Diversity and Stability?

Happy New Year and welcome to our first Arkadian analysis of 2012. Over the next five weeks we will be working towards the conclusion of the title of the series by exploring the answer to a simple question: –

“What difference between natural / social systems and the current economic system causes the former to tend towards diversity and stability, and the latter, uniformity and instability?”

In a world where the latter now poses a mortal threat to the former, we considered this to be a question of some significance. Could we learn from the way natural / social systems self-regulate in a way that benefits all, to design an ecologically-and-socially-just economic system?

Our analysis will be set out in five short articles, launching Friday mornings throughout January and early February: –  

(1) Why do Ecosystems tend towards Diversity and Stability? Friday 6th January 2012.

(2) Why does (did) Civilisation tend towards Diversity and Stability? Friday 13th January 2012. 

(3) Why do Diverse Systems = Stable Systems? Friday 20th January 2012. 

(4) Why does the Current Economic System tend towards Uniformity and Instability? Friday 27th January 2012. 

(5) How do we create a Diverse and Stable Economic System? Friday 28th September 2012. 

So without further ado, let’s move onto our first question of the series:
Why do Ecosystems tend towards Diversity and Stability?

As a general rule the longer that ecosystems remain undisturbed by external factors, the richer they become. The oldest – the rainforests – are estimated to hold over half of all species, despite covering only 6% of the Earth’s surface. Why should 70m years of evolution against a backdrop of dynamic climate fluctuations give rise to increasing variety and not just a few dominant species?

MODEL 1 of our analysis below proposes an answer (N.B. If you have trouble reading the text, click on the diagram to open it in a new browser tab and then refer back to the explanation here).

Begin at the topmost variable and follow the arrows clockwise around the loop. (1) Put yourself in the position of a species that pursues total dominance over its local environment. (2) Despite considerable early successes, it’s not long before your manipulation and consumption begin to impact adversely on other species. (3) As local biodiversity diminishes, so too do the health, resilience and stability of the ecosystem as a whole, (4) resulting in ever-tighter constraints on your actions and, ultimately, the collapse of the environment upon which your own survival depends. (5) Your extinction kills off that suicidal gene that motivated your thirst for dominance, leaving an open stage for adaptive strategies that promote ecosystemic diversity and stability.

Thus, coming full circle, (1) Your Environmental Dominance Strategy proved self-defeating because it led to Ecosystemic Weaknesses that constrained and, ultimately, negated, You! In Systems Dynamics a feedback loop like this where the impact of a variable is reduced by the effects it causes is called a ‘Balancing Circle’.

A further notable dynamic here is a pair of ‘Virtuous Circles’ (feedback loops where one delight leads to effects that enhance the first delight, and so on), which we’ve termed the ‘The Diversity Engine.

Here, (6a) the more the processes of natural selection incline towards interdependence, the more opportunities are opened up for new evolutionary adaptations. Thus, through increasingly fine-grained cooperation and specialisation between species, diversity itself drives diversity.

Moreover, as the environment grows ever more rich and complex, (6b) species dominance becomes increasingly futile and improbable, removing a further constraint on the trend towards diversity. And so both circles turn.

But (we hear you say) isn’t there a species that has had a radical effect on its local environment but has (thus far) escaped extinction? We hope you’ll drop in next Friday for Part 2, when we shall be exploring the curious exception of Homo Sapiens.

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