The workshop started with an introduction to the theme of human, non human and ecosystem health, starting off with the perspective of the optimists like Stephen Pinker, and then covering a number of perspectives that highlight the broader context and the evidence that points to a much less optimistic outlook for humanity and the planetary ecosystem. The following books were mentioned:
- Stephen Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 2018
- Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, 1988
- Jarod Diamond, Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2011
- David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs : A Theory, 2018
The introductory slides provided a number of diagrams that illustrate the human generated feedback loops that characterise the anthropocene, which are either ignored or over-simplified in most economic models.
From an anthropological perspective it can be argued that agriculture possibly was the biggest mistake made by humans to date. Hunter-gatherer societies had strong norms that prevented people from gaining power over others, quite in contrast to “civilised” human life that is dominated by hierarchical power structures which are increasingly reinforced via rule bound automated algorithms.
The anthropocentric viewpoint and bias that is implicit in the social sciences becomes clear when contrasted with the biological viewpoint, which allows individual humans to be seen as biological communities consisting mainly of microbes (90% of cells in a human body). Participants pointed out relevant books:
- Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature, 2009
- James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia : Why the Earth is Fighting Back and How We Can Still Save Humanity, 2006
- Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution, 1998
In the anthropocene humans have started to change the geology of the planet.
Obstacles to understanding planetary health
The discussion then looked into the implications of living in a world of human created and human modified complex systems that are no longer understandable to any reasonable extent by any human or any group of humans. The complexity of the relationships between the identifiable parts of these systems exceed human cognitive limits, and the same can be said of many of the parts of these systems.
In the context of software intensive systems Jorn mentioned Mel Conway and Conway’s law:
Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.
The pervasive use of so-called agile methods illustrates the default way in which humans have chosen to deal with complexity. In the absence of any deeper understanding, a fast paced trial and error approach of very small scale experimental changes is seen as the only viable approach to system change and system development. Ironically a myopic focus on such approaches detracts from the possibility of stepping back and asking more fundamental questions that may allow perceived problems to be reframed and new solution spaces to be explored.
At this point, to explore how to potentially regain a greater level of human understandability and a greater individual level of human agency and responsibility for ecosystem health, the group linked the discussion to Dunbar’s number and the notion of human scale, which was introduced in an earlier CIIC workshop.
In relation to human scale Pete Rive mentioned that the work of Louis Pasteur was only able to transform society due to a particular constellation of a number of social forces and that the transformation involved the scientific work as well as the development of new institutions and social practices by a large number of people.
Books that cover the concern of human scale:
- Kirkpatrick Sale, Human scale revisited, 2017
- Gilles Fauconnier, Mark Turner, The way we think, conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities, 2002
- Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, 1974
- Bruno Latour, The Pasteurisation of France, 1993
- Victor Papanek, The Green Imperative, 1995
To illustrate the physical impact of ultra large scale human technology on the planet, Pete pointed to the energy use of the internet, which currently consumes three times as much energy as the global aviation industry, and that the internet currently relies on around 260 million kilometres of fibre-optic cables.
- Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2011
Towards trustworthy and meaningful metrics
To explore what is at our disposal to increase the level of human scale understandability of the planetary ecosystem, Jorn suggested looking at the foundational ingredients of human civilisations to date (cities, written language, and money), and to examine the elements that have repeatedly contributed to the emergence of super human scale systems that became incomprehensible to the inhabitants of the system.
Over the last twenty years global digital communication has contributed significantly to translating money and related abstract metrics into addictive social games. Jorn pointed out that to prevent our society from following the familiar path of earlier complex civilisations we will have to explicitly redesign and optimise the three ingredients of civilisation for understandability at human scale.
In this context the global reach of the internet and IoT sensors provide the opportunity to assess and quantify ecosystem health not in terms of gameable abstract metrics such as money but via concrete non-gameable metrics from the physical and biological world (average temperatures [C], carbon emissions [kg/year], energy use [J/year], food production capacity [J/year], average life expectancy [years] etc.).
In the future it is conceivable that abstract metrics may be increasingly restricted to local use at human scale. The rise in the use of complementary local currencies such as time dollars and the use of domain specific currencies such as the Fureai kippu system in Japan that is focused on coordinating and delivering assistance to elderly people in local communities show that societies are already starting to recognise the limits and dangers of anonymous money with universal liquidity.
Participants discussed how ecosystem health data could be made tangible for exploration at human scale via immersive technology and virtual world building and simulations. Transforming data streams for understandability at human [cognitive] scale requires the development of good working definitions of concepts such as knowledge, understanding, and wisdom – in a language that is tuned into human cognitive abilities but that does not depend on a particular ideology.
Pete mentioned his work with using Second Life as a teaching tool and the future potential of more advanced immersive tools for gaining a tangible multi-sensorial understanding of planetary health. Lee Devenish reminded participants of the MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer), an analogue water powered econometric computer invented in New Zealand as a learning tool in the 1940s.
We briefly discussed how a local start-up culture that does not allow for failure poses severe constraints on the ability to learn and innovate, and how even the Silicon Valley start-up culture wastes learning opportunities by treating venture teams as discardable experiments – favouring knowledge reuse at an individual level rather than at the level of trusted knowledge networks (= teams).
Jorn explained the limitations and dangers of relying too heavily on stories and of under-investing in model building for capturing, sharing, and validating knowledge and shared understanding. Recent work in economics acknowledges the need to replace the simplistic fundamental theory of value creation that governments and corporations currently rely on. This creates the opportunity to reframe economics as a discipline of global ecosystem health and resource management.
- Marianna Mazzucato, The value of everything, making and taking in the global economy, 2018
There is plenty of scope for future CIIC workshops to look into concrete ecosystem health issues in New Zealand and Australia.
Calendar reminder: The next CIIC unconference will take place on 22 September 2018!