• Shifting From Parts to Patterns

    April 4th, 2017 by ewalsh

    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.

  • The Pope’s Message on Ecology and Economy

    September 22nd, 2015 by ewalsh
    Obama Pope

    Image courtesy of


    How to reconcile the “invisible hand” with the “Golden Rule?” That question first preoccupied my mind while I was a Managing Director at (the old) JPMorgan in the late 1990’s and inspired the creation of Capital Institute in 2010. Too often, discussion around this question devolves into the same shallow debate (Capitalism versus Communism or Socialism) we see now in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, in anticipation of his visit to the United States this week. While social outcomes across economic systems are rightly the subject of continuous debate, the truth is, no system of political economy that has operated in modern times is sustainable from an ecological perspective: not present day Capitalism; not the Social Democracies of Scandinavia; and certainly not our experiences with Communism in the Soviet Union or China. Marxist scholars will correctly argue that true Marxism has yet to be tried on a large scale. I would say the same is true for the free enterprise system Adam Smith imagined when he coined the phrase “invisible hand” in his Wealth of Nations, where he explained the critical role self-interest plays in a free market economy:

    “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

    But Smith’s “self-interest” should not be confused with Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” that permeates modern finance-driven capitalism. Students of Smith are aware that the philosophical underpinnings of his thinking appear in his earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is there that Smith laid out his central idea that individual selfish acts would be self-regulated in our human nature by what he called “sympathy” (what today translates better as “empathy”). The book begins:

    “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it…That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane…The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

    In other words, Smith believed that the invisible hand would be constrained
    by an ethic of reciprocity, what is generally referred to as the “Golden Rule” (i.e. do unto others as you would have them do unto you). Such a humanistic ethic of empathy and compassion is universal, uniting virtually all great religions and wisdom traditions across cultures throughout the ages. No government intervention required. It’s certainly difficult to reconcile certain aspects of modern day capitalism with a free enterprise system guided by a humanistic invisible hand built on an ethic of reciprocity that Adam Smith envisioned a quarter century earlier. So where did we get lost? First, we must embrace intelligently designed-market based solutions that will be essential for the energy system transition ahead. And while we can justifiably rant about lost morals, there is a systemic answer to where modern capitalism has lost its way that is subtler, and lies in the encyclical itself when Francis refers to the “reductionism which affects every aspect of human and social life.” Reductionism of course is the useful method of analysis dating back to the Enlightenment in which we break down what’s complicated into its component parts. But in doing
    so, we too often lose sight of the whole – always greater than the sum of the parts – sometimes with disastrous consequences. Silos in academia and companies, the primacy of shareholder value still taught in most business schools, the 2008 financial collapse, and our failure to manage complex challenges like climate change via special interest delegations are well-known manifestations of our over-reliance on reductionist thinking. Smith was part of the Enlightenment thinkers ushering in the Age of Reason and individualism with its forces of logic and analysis over the traditional lines of authority, most notably the overbearing authority of the Catholic Church itself. It would no doubt surprise him to learn that economics had become separated from the humanist impulse underlying his thinking, and that the reductionist method would become conflated with “science” and “technological progress” affecting (and at times overwhelming) “every aspect of human and social life” at the dawn of the 21st century. Modern science (quantum physics, the web of life) understands that everything is connected to everything. So too do all major religions and virtually all wisdom traditions understand this core principle, often summarized by the concept of “oneness.” Our challenge now, after 500 years of amazing progress in many respects, rooted in Enlightenment derived-reductionist thinking, is to usher in what the Pope calls an “integral and integrating vision” in alignment with what Adam Smith himself intuited. Such integral, or holistic thinking lies at the heart of our collaborative journey to a vision for Regenerative Economies at Capital Institute based on illuminating the universal patterns and principles (including reciprocity) that govern all systems that survive in the cosmos, re-uniting once again Ecology, Economy, and a humanist Spirit in harmonious right relationship. The regenerative framework is grounded in the rigor of our latest scientific understanding of all energy flow systems (everything is energy) ranging from how water boils in a pot all the way to complex living systems including human beings, human consciousness, and, we assert, human economies. We can therefore develop the practical metrics needed to monitor and manage regenerative economies effectively, and discover the true path to a broadly shared prosperity in the process. At the heart of the Pope’s important message is a call for a new way to think, not a preference of one ideology over another, much less one religion over another. It is really a call to rediscover what we already know: the beauty of our essential long-standing humanist values and traditions. The reductionist logic of the “progress” of modernity must be subordinated to these core values. Nothing more. Nothing less. How many in our polarized Congress on the right or the left will get it?