Aiming for continuous de-growth

The biggest challenge of the Anthropocene is the collective mind shift needed to reverse the growing ecological footprint of the human presence on this planet. It is not enough to aim for a carbon neutral economy sometime later this century.

Time and trusted collaboration are our scarcest resources. The former is a hard constraint and the latter is the critical cultural variable on which our future depends. 

The Hothouse Earth paper generated ripples in the scientific community last year. A year later countries like NZ still aim at a 2050 target for zero carbon. Change at this pace won’t shift the trajectory. It only creates an illusion of safety. Ecological collapse may catch up with us much faster than rising temperatures and sea levels.

The IPBES report on biodiversity and ecosystem services released this month highlights the rapid decline of biodiversity due to human economic activity and the lack of progress on addressing the root causes.


Material consumption per capita continues to rise. As a consequence living biomass extraction has doubled over the course of the last thirty years and use of fertiliser has gone up by around 60% just within the last decade.


Two misconceptions stand in the way of making any significant change:

  1. Attempting to measure our ecological footprint in monetary terms
  2. Thinking that consumption per capita or GDP growth are useful metrics of social progress and human well-being

The word “collapse” can be useful to underscore the extent to which human societies need to adapt and unlearn the suicidal cultural practices of the Capitalocene. We can chose between a “collapse of human ecological footprint” based on a conscious and significant reduction of cultural and technological complexity or an “ecological collapse, including human population collapse” resulting from a perpetuation of the behaviours that are slowly but surely killing us all.

The former kind of collapse (de-growth) need not be experienced as negative, especially when being cognisant of the alternative.

Realistically both kinds of collapse will occur in parallel, and some communities may be able to avoid the latter form of collapse to a larger extent than others. The IPBES report summarises key points of intervention (leverage) that could enable transformative change.


Measuring ecological footprint

The human ecological footprint can be measured directly in terms of living biomass extraction, levels of pollution released into the biosphere, and rates of extinction. Corresponding metrics are quantifiable in physical units, and the same goes for setting desirable targets and measuring progress against targets.

Attempts at translating physical units into financial metrics are unhelpful and distract from the challenge at hand. As humans we depend on healthy food, clean air and water, and any disruption or over-exploitation of the ecological systems that provide us with these life sustaining resources is best accounted for in raw physical units, as  this allows a scientific approach to managing genuinely scarce and limited resources.

Construction of financial derivatives based on physical ecological metrics firstly introduces assumptions typically made by people who are not directly impacted by the ecological degradation that is being evaluated, and secondly it creates the illusion as if the resulting number can easily be added to other numbers from very different domains to arrive at an aggregate metric of ecological health.

As humans we need to breathe, drink, eat, exercise, and sleep well as a prerequisite for physical health and other species in the planetary ecosystem have similar non-fungible requirements.

We can’t compensate for polluted air by drinking, eating, exercising, or sleeping more, in fact in polluted air, on bad days, it may be better to exercise less, but this is not a viable strategy for staying healthy in the longer term. Similarly we can’t compensate for poor quality or too little food with cleaner water. To stay healthy we need to optimise the use of multiple scarce resources simultaneously and largely independently.

Hence all the above prerequisites for physical health are non-fungible and are not accounted for in appropriate ways by any financialised econometric models.

The only way of avoiding bias and dangerous oversimplification is to perform ecological accounting in terms of relevant physical units.

Until fairly recently we did not have the technologies to keep track of all the relevant metrics and resource flows, but the situation has changed radically with the development of the internet, with advanced sensor technologies, and with the data storage and computation power that is available today.

Measuring human well-being

Human well-being can be measured directly in terms of access to healthy food, clean air and water, and via survey data relating to the social dimensions of well-being. Many of the corresponding metrics are quantifiable in physical units and the remainder depend on qualitative human self-assessment.

Attempts at quantifying and aggregating the social dimensions of well-being via financial metrics are unhelpful and misleading. It is well-known that any money beyond the level needed to have access to a healthy home, healthy food, clean air and water, and meaningful social activities does not contribute to human well-being. There is a strong case to be made to reduce the reliance on money when attempting to estimate human well-being.

In particular in developed countries many people currently perform jobs that don’t contribute to human well-being in any way, and some people are ready to admit that their work is probably making the world a slightly worse place. However, the ideology underpinning our education system teaches us that for most (all?) practical purposes humanity can be reduced to numerical models of a global financialised economy and that collaborating groups of humans can be reduced to competing individuals in a financialised global job market.

The absurdity of the construction is quite apparent when condensed to the essence. But when

  • the majority of humans live in cities,
  • and are therefore unable to grow their own food,
  • and access to shelter and other basic services is dependent on access to money,

the corruptive power of money is not to be underestimated.

We can continue to live in cities and rely on science and specialisation to develop complementary skills, bodies of knowledge, and technologies, but we will have to rethink how we collaborate and manage genuinely scarce physical resources at a fundamental level.

The use of money has a history of less than 10,000 years – a very short period of time within the frame of human evolution. Historically debt jubilees were common practice, based on people’s understanding that money is just a simple and crude tool for coordinating access to scarce resources, and that interest bearing debt in particular is an instrument for maintaining social power differentials rather than a tool that reflects value creation.

A concrete example of deadly economics

The development of the Boeing 737 MAX provides a good case study of capitalistic busyness logic.

The recipe for return on investment

  1. Letting cost cutting bean counters make decisions
  2. Replacing expensive domain expertise and safety conscious design with cheap software hacks
  3. Overconfident software developers with no interest in understanding the domain – apparently “software is eating the world”
  4. Blind faith in market forces, dumbing down the expertise of the regulator to minimise regulator costs
  5. Smart marketers who only make safety critical features available as an expensive optional extra feature and provide customers with confusing / incorrect information
  6. Greedy sales people and executives

The sections highlighted in the extracts below elaborate the synopsis above. When reading, please consider that exactly the same logic has been used for many decades to run entire economies and the global monetary system.

You don’t need to understand anything about ecology to know this story does not have a happy ending when scaled up to collective human behaviour at a global level, no matter how you set the economic dials on the CASH (Capital Accumulation Software and Hardware) engine.

The details

New York Times, 8 April 2019

Early on, sales lagged Boeing’s biggest competitor, McDonnell Douglas. In 1972, Boeing had delivered just 14 of the jets, and it considered selling the program to a Japanese manufacturer, said Peter Morton, the 737 marketing manager in the early 1970s. “We had to decide if we were going to end it, or invest in it,” Mr. Morton said.

Ultimately, Boeing invested. The 737 eventually began to sell, bolstered by airline deregulation in 1978. Six years later, Boeing updated the 737 with its “classic” series, followed by the “next generation” in 1997, and the Max in 2017. Now nearly one in every three domestic flights in the United States is on a 737, more than any other line of aircraft.
Each of the three redesigns came with a new engine, updates to the cabin and other changes. But Boeing avoided overhauling the jet in order to appease airlines, according to current and former Boeing executives, pilots and engineers, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the open investigations.

Airlines wanted new 737s to match their predecessors so pilots could skip expensive training in flight simulators and easily transition to new jets. Boeing’s strategy worked. The Federal Aviation Administration never required simulator training for pilots switching from one 737 to the next.

“Airlines don’t want Boeing to give them a fancy new product if it requires them to retrain their pilots,” said Matthew Menza, a former 737 Max test pilot for Boeing. “So you iterate off a design that’s 50 years old. The old adage is: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

IEEE Spectrum, 18 April 2019

In the 737 Max, only one of the flight management computers is active at a time—either the pilot’s computer or the copilot’s computer. And the active computer takes inputs only from the sensors on its own side of the aircraft.

When the two computers disagree, the solution for the humans in the cockpit is 
to look across the control panel to see
 what the other instruments are saying and then sort it out. In the Boeing system, the flight
 management computer does not “look 
across” at the other instruments. It 
believes only the instruments on its side. It doesn’t go old-school. It’s modern. It’s software.

This means that if a particular angle-of-attack sensor goes haywire—which happens all the time in a machine that alternates from one extreme environment to another, vibrating and shaking all the way—the flight management computer just believes it.

It gets even worse. There are several other instruments that can be used to determine things like angle of attack, either directly or indirectly, such as the pitot tubes, the artificial horizons, etc. All of these things would be cross-checked by a human pilot to quickly diagnose a faulty angle-of-attack sensor.

In a pinch, a human pilot could just look out the windshield to confirm visually and directly that, no, the aircraft is not pitched up dangerously. That’s the ultimate check and should go directly to the pilot’s ultimate sovereignty. Unfortunately, the current implementation of MCAS denies that sovereignty. It denies the pilots the ability to respond to what’s before their own eyes.

Like someone with narcissistic personality disorder, MCAS gaslights the pilots. And it turns out badly for everyone. “Raise the nose, HAL.” “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

In the MCAS system, the flight management computer is blind to any other evidence that it is wrong, including what the pilot sees with his own eyes and what he does when he desperately tries to pull back on the robotic control columns that are biting him, and his passengers, to death.

In the old days, the FAA had armies of aviation engineers in its employ. Those FAA employees worked side by side with the airplane manufacturers to determine that an airplane was safe and could be certified as airworthy.

As airplanes became more complex and the gulf between what the FAA could pay and what an aircraft manufacturer could pay grew larger, more and more of those engineers migrated from the public to the private sector. Soon the FAA had no in-house ability to determine if a particular airplane’s design and manufacture were safe. So the FAA said to the airplane manufacturers, “Why don’t you just have your people tell us if your designs are safe?”

The airplane manufacturers said, “Sounds good to us.” The FAA said, “And say hi to Joe, we miss him.”

Thus was born the concept of the “Designated Engineering Representative,” or DER. DERs are people in the employ of the airplane manufacturers, the engine manufacturers, and the software developers who certify to the FAA that it’s all good.

Now this is not quite as sinister a conflict of interest as it sounds. It is in nobody’s interest that airplanes crash. The industry absolutely relies on the public trust, and every crash is an existential threat to the industry. No manufacturer is going to employ DERs that just pencil-whip the paperwork. On the other hand, though, after a long day and after the assurance of some software folks, they might just take their word that things will be okay.

It is astounding that no one who wrote the MCAS software for the 737 Max seems even to have raised the possibility of using multiple inputs, including the opposite angle-of-attack sensor, in the computer’s determination of an impending stall. As a lifetime member of the software development fraternity, I don’t know what toxic combination of inexperience, hubris, or lack of cultural understanding led to this mistake.

But I do know that it’s indicative of a much deeper problem. The people who wrote the code for the original MCAS system were obviously terribly far out of their league and did not know it. How can they implement a software fix, much less give us any comfort that the rest of the flight management software is reliable?

IEEE Spectrum, Comment, 19 April 2019

Very good analysis, but fatally incomplete. One really essential reason those planes crashed was that each time the MCAS triggered, it acted like it was the first time. If it added 1 degree of trim last time, it adds a second this time, a third next time, up to the five degrees that runs the trim all the way to the stops. A second reason is that, under the design still on file at the FAA, it could only add a maximum of 0.8 degrees (each time). This was raised to 2.4 degrees after testing, so only two hits could, in principle, put you almost to the stops. A third was that the only way to override the MCAS was to turn off power to the motor that worked the trim. But above 400 knots, the strength needed to dial back the trim with the hand crank was more than actual live pilots have, especially if it is taking all their strength to pull back on the yoke. A fourth was that, with two flight control computers, the pilot could (partly) turn off a misbehaving one, but there is no way to turn on the other one. You have to land first, to switch over, even though the other is doing all the work to be ready to fly the plane. A fifth was that it ignored that pilots were desperately pulling back on the yoke, which could have been a clue that it was doing the wrong thing. A sixth was that, besides comparing redundant sensors, it could have compared what the other flight computer thought it should be doing.

Naked Capitalism, 29 April 2019

One factoid that had come out in previous articles on the 737 Max was that Boeing had made a safety feature that would have alerted pilots to the malfunctioning of the angle of attack sensors an option that an airline could obtain only by purchasing a package of safety upgrades. American Airlines did buy this suite of add-ons. The Wall Street Journal article that broke this story says that getting this alert back was one of the reasons it paid up to get the safety suite.

This matters because the infamous MCAS software system relied on input from that sensor (more accurately, only one of the two angle of attack sensors at any point in time) to decide if and when it needed to push the nose down to prevent a stall. Pilots could have ascertained the sensors were malfunctioning before takeoff, or if they got an alert during flight, they could have disabled the MCAS system, or been ready to do so if the plane started to misbehave.

This basic fact pattern has been revealed to be worse than it first appeared by virtue of Boeing not having been explicit that the angle of attack sensor alerts had been disabled on the 737 Max. Why should Boeing have cleared its throat and said something? Recall that the sales pitch for the 737 Max was that it was so much like existing 737s that it didn’t require FAA recertification or pilot simulator training. But the angle of attack sensor alert had been a standard feature in all previous 737s, meaning buyers would assume it was part of the plane unless they were told otherwise. And on top of that, the non-upgraded 737 Max did have lights in the pilots’ controls for this alert. But they didn’t work unless the buyer had purchased the package of safety extras.

And the proof that Boeing was playing way too cute with its pointed silence about its deactivation of what had been a standard feature? The biggest customer for the 737 Max, Southwest Airlines, had inaccurate information in its pilots’ manual because the airline had mistakenly assumed the angle of attack sensor alerts worked as they had on earlier 737s.

New York Times, 5 May 2019

When Boeing explained to pilots in one meeting how systems on the Max worked, the company said that the disagree alert would function on the ground. In the late November meeting, Boeing told pilots for American Airlines (which had bought the add-on) that their disagree alert would have notified them of problems before takeoff.

“We were told that if the A.O.A. vane, like on Lion Air, was in a massive difference, we would receive an alert on the ground and therefore not even take off,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the union representing American Airlines pilots. “That gave us additional confidence in continuing to fly that aircraft.”

But in the last several weeks, Boeing has been saying something different. Mr. Tajer said the company recently told American pilots that the system would not alert pilots about any sensor disagreement until the aircraft is 400 feet above the ground.

A Boeing spokesman confirmed this, stressing that the disagree alert does not work on the ground, and thus could not have alerted the Lion Air pilots to a faulty sensor before takeoff.

Mr. Tajer said Boeing seemed to have “provided information that was not accurate” and said the pilots have asked for clarification from the company.

Mr. Tajer, who is also a 737 pilot, said he was concerned that Boeing did not seem to fully grasp how every aspect of the Max worked.

“You better start knowing things about the airplane you’re building and selling because my life and the passengers that I carry safely across the globe depends on it,” Mr. Tajer said.

The Lion Air crash also spurred Boeing to notify Southwest pilots about the disagree light. “We thought it worked,” said Jon Weaks, the president of the Southwest Pilots’ Association. “If they knew it in 2017, why did we get to nearly the end of 2018 until the manual was changed?”

Human scale

We should not assume that we can ever fully comprehend human limitations and capabilities. Realistically adaptation to a much smaller ecological footprint will require nuanced local approaches at human scale, everything else is going to increase pain. The operating models of Buurtzorg and other non-hierarchical and distributed collaborative organisations are concrete examples of understandable and relatable human scale organisations.


Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is “in control”. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise accordingly.

Here is a good example of the Anthropocentrism that underpins naive techno-optimism, and here is a rare example of someone who appreciates human cognitive limits, including the inherent limits of human language and the dangers of storytelling.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our “civilisation” are profound. It is time to create good company by pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world.

Since the very beginning civilisation has always been more about a myth of progress than about anything that benefits local communities and families – except perhaps for the benefit of not being killed as easily by a neighbouring horde of more or less civilised people. Once the history of civilisation is understood as series of progress myths, where each civilisation looks towards earlier or competing civilisations with a yardstick that is tailored to prove that its own myths and achievements are clearly superior to anything that came before, it is possible to identify the loose ends and the work-arounds of civilisation that are usually presented as progress.

Onwards towards deep adaptation at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 8 June (Auckland) and 15 June (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.

Dates and times




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