“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
I had the pleasure of hearing my friend Nora Bateson speak last week at The Players Club in New York City where she held a reading and conversation around her recently published book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns.
If that title slows you down a bit, well, I think that’s the point. The book is a collection of essays and poems, and the conversation with Nora included personal stories of growing up in the Bateson household (Nora’s father was the pre-eminent systems scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose first marriage was to Margaret Mead. Nora’s grandfather William, was a biologist who coined the term genetics.)
Collectively, the passages in Nora’s book draw us into a state of heightened curiosity that leads us to question how we perceive reality, ultimately enabling us to better understand our world and the challenges accelerating all around us. She invites us to probe the profound difference between our now four-hundred-year-old reductionist way of thinking (which is rooted in the Scientific Revolution), and the demands and mystery of a more accurate, complex living systems view of the world. Critical to the understanding of this more accurate world view is Nora’s enigmatic assertion, itself an invitation to the most important conversation we could be having:
“The opposite of complexity is not simplicity; it is reductionism,” she mused.
In the context of our interconnected 21st century social, political, economic and ecological challenges, the critical distinction between complexity and reductionism is far from a trivial one. It is, in fact, a life or death insight.
It is precisely because these indivisible challenges are rooted in complexity that our continually applying reductionist thinking to them has led to disastrous consequences. Overcoming them depends on our shedding our unconscious reliance on reductionist thinking and adopting a more holistic way of looking at our world. In other words, our failure to comprehend complexity itself, in an increasingly complex, interconnected world that seems to be spiraling out of control, may well turn out to have life or death consequences for many of us, and even civilization itself as we’ve come to know it in the Modern Age.
Admittedly, reductionism – breaking down what is complicated into its component parts so they can be analyzed and understood – has made immeasurable contributions to the progress of human civilization. The laptop I’m typing on and the man on the moon are achievements made possible through the reductionist method. But as Wes Jackson says, “there’s nothing wrong with the reductionist method so long as you don’t confuse the method with the way the world actually works.”
Holistic thinker Allan Savory once illuminated for me that complexity is profoundly different than what’s complicated. An iPhone or an airplane is complicated. With time and ingenuity, it can be perfected and then mass produced, the same every time. We humans have become experts in making what’s complicated, thanks to our now well-honed expertise in reductionist reasoning and problem solving.
But complexity is a different animal altogether. A nation is complex. A city is complex. A business is complex. A rainforest is complex. War is complex. So too a marriage, a family, and our human self – our physical body, as well as our collective body/mind/spirit. The complexity of a living system is distinguished by the ever-changing context that surrounds it and affects it, with feedback loops and consequences impossible to fully comprehend in advance. Our political economy, in the context of culture and place, is such a complex living system.
Bateson explains that living systems that survive over time are characterized by mutually supportive learning networks that continuously communicate and interact across multiple contexts and variables in the system. Yet we pretend to believe we can manage complexity as we manage what’s merely complicated, with our rules and protocols, and our key performance indicators designed through reductionist logic. In today’s America — a complex system if there ever was one — the danger is compounded by leaders who seem to think they can govern without reference to accurate information, better known as “facts,” without which trust-based communication is impossible.
Trust issues aside, our challenges run even deeper. Bateson writes, “The education system that reaches around the globe is a mess… The violence of breaking the world into bits and never putting it back together again substantiates the kind of blindness in which we have separated ecology from economy, and psychology from politics.” I would add another reductionist “violence”— the separation of what used to be called “political economy” into politics and economics. From the professional silos in which business and finance, governance and the law operate today, we literally can’t “see” the patterns that define the interconnections of complexity accurately enough to have a chance to manage them in a way that the times demand. In truth, our aim should be to constructively guide and flow with the complexity that defines modern reality, since complexity can’t really be “managed” in the sense of asserting control. How many presidents, CEOs, or regulators, or any of “the people running the world” understand that?
Gregory Bateson famously wrote: “Break the pattern that connects and you necessarily destroy all unity.” Yet we don’t even see the patterns, much less honor the resulting unity as the essence of our health, even our survival. Instead, in our ignorance, we break such patterns all the time, for example, the carbon cycle, which has resulted in the climate change that we now view as a “problem” to solve. In reality, it is the unforeseen but direct consequence of our failure to perceive, understand, and humbly work within complexity.
We humans have evolved into problem solvers using the reductionist method, a direct outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution. It’s now baked into our DNA, limitations included. A Second Scientific Revolution is underway, one that integrates the reductionist method with the patterns of connection that define our integral reality. Our life depends on it.
That’s worth slowing down a bit to ponder.
Globalism’s associated and accelerating complexity of interconnected crises from migration to terrorism, from pandemics to climate change, define the new context of our 21st-century reality. Unmanaged technological change and an outdated economic ideology compound the already unfair burden these crises impose on global citizens. One need only consider the 18 percent approval rating of the United States Congress, the recent U.S. election, the EU/Euro fiasco, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Turkey (and more) to question whether the Nation State, a 400-year-old response to a different challenge in a different context, is up to the task.
Ideological rather than pragmatic, a political abstraction that has no grounding in the concrete reality of where and how we live and how life-supporting ecosystems function, the Nation State, together with its political party structure, is not well equipped for today’s most important globally interdependent challenges that cannot be solved through inter-State rivalries where self-interest and might rule the day.
The “City State” predates the Nation State; it endures. Rome is older than Italy, Alexandria is older than Egypt. Cities are expanding as we know. They are already home to more than half the world’s population, and 80% in the developed economies. They are home to 85% of the global economy (and associated greenhouse gas emissions) and much of the evolution of our culture. Like it or not, we have become an increasingly urban species. Visionaries like Jonathan Rose are showing the way to regenerative cities with his timely publication of A Well-Tempered City. At the same time, rural culture, small towns, and life-sustaining rural landscapes, historically understood as essential extensions of the City State, have never been more vital, as I will discuss below.
Cities are also where many of the world’s great challenges must be met. The migration crisis and terrorism are urban affairs. Since most cities are on coastlines or rivers, climate change will increasingly dominate the agenda of cities. And cities will be the target of a nuclear attack if dangerous men go unrestrained. Wise and competent city governance is a matter of life and death, not political theater among self-important globalist and nationalist bureaucrats.
In response to the governance failures of the global system of Nation States, political theorist Benjamin Barber wrote an important book in 2013 called, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. The Global Parliament of Mayors (GPM), which he inspired, held its inaugural meeting in The Hague, two months before rural America elected Donald Trump against the wishes of a strong democratic majority of citizens living in America’s cities.
Mayors must be pragmatists first. Ineptitude, ignorance, and ideology give way to the concreteness of real problems of real people living in real communities. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia once famously said, “There is no Democratic or Republican way of fixing a sewer.” So too for dealing with rising sea levels or, God forbid, a nuclear attack.
When our centralized governing bodies fail to uphold their responsibilities, a power vacuum ensues, creating an opening for dangerous “strongman” responses, as we are now witnessing in the U.S and abroad. Our present moment is particularly dangerous, with the simultaneous failure of other critical and powerful institutions – banking and the media in particular – to uphold their civil responsibilities and serve the health of the whole rather than their narrow self-interests.
Banking’s consequential leadership failures are now a matter for the history books. But the media’s complex leadership failures are still unfolding, perhaps best epitomized by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves’ shamefully cynical comment at a Morgan Stanley analyst conference earlier this year:
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said of the election circus. “Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Well, the young crowd at Morgan Stanley chuckled, “Donald kept going,” and we have elected a man to the highest office in the land who numerous respected psychologists believe has a (dangerous to the world) incurable mental illness known as “Narcissistic Personality Disorder.”
Not so funny, is it, Mr. Moonves? Enjoy your good quarterly profits. Just as the reckless behavior of Wall Street was not funny, its ongoing consequences leading directly to the rise in authoritarian movements across the globe are not funny.
A core principle of sustainable systems is that a system must adapt to its changing context or it will collapse. The current context of accelerating, unpredictable (by definition) complexity and too powerful, dysfunctional critical institutions – Nation States, banking and finance, and the media, together providing much of the essential fabric of our modern democratic and free society – creates the pressure for real change and the very real prospect of possible collapse.
Our response most certainly lies in the concept of subsidiarity, one of four tenets of Catholic social doctrine, balancing power away from the center and closer to where the inclusive and democratic will of the people is still expressed: the modern City State. Rise up Mayors! And, rise up regional banks and community newspapers!
Looked at through a regenerative systems lens, this is a return to the natural “fractal” ordering of things, demanding an emergent network of City States to counterbalance the corrupted power at the center. Indeed, such a response is already underway with the numerous networks of city-based initiatives such as the prescient GMP, the C-40 focused on climate change, UN-Habitat, the Strong Cities Network, and numerous “Smart Cities” initiatives.
Rural communities, too, have a vital role to play. In addition to preserving the ageless wisdom embedded in the diversity of rural cultures and communities, they have the critical responsibility to steward our essential landscapes – our forests, our soils, our watersheds, all under threat from our short-sighted, extractive, industrial economy. Critically, the regenerative management of forestry and agriculture, with the potential to massively increase natural carbon sequestration, now holds perhaps the missing critical dimension of our ability to respond in time to climate change. Therefore, City States have a self-interest in valuing and supporting the culture of land stewardship, the very foundation of human civilization and still very much alive in rural communities. No soil, no water, no life.
We are passing from the 500-year-old Modern Era in which great progress including the Nation State emerged in response to pressures from a different context. We are entering the “Integral Era,” in response to new pressures and a new context. Power is shifting from corrupted institutions of an extractive and overly powerful center to a regenerative and more distributed network of interconnected City States.
Happy New Era!
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