When we speak of a transition driven by our species' disruption of the life support systems of the planet, we must be very clear this is not a process to which we can frame effective responses within the categories of conventional politics, economics, or scientific reductionism.
Einstein's oft cited warning about the futility of attempting to solve complex problems using the same mode of thinking that created them has become a cliche. Yet that is precisely what we are doing on virtually every front in our responses to the big systemic issues of our age.
From reductionism to holism
Since the 18th century Western science has given humanity extraordinary abilities to manipulate the natural world by delving into the fundamental building blocks of matter and energy. With this power came the conceit that there was nothing we could not ultimately know and manage to our own advantage. But the success of this mode of knowing has created an awful blind-spot in our collective way of seeing the world.
Preoccupation with the minutiae of matter and the instrumental power it gave us left our culture with a diminished respect for the complex and interdependent systems — both biophysical and social — within which we exist. Such systems exhibit qualities and behaviours as a whole that a knowledge of their constituent parts can neither predict nor explain. The seemingly miraculous emergence of reflexive consciousness from the human brain, for example. These complex systems, with the higher order patterns to which they give rise, constitute much of the world we seek to know.
Our difficulty understanding the complexity of life on Earth became increasingly obvious as the effects of our micro level know-how, scaled up to macro interventions, started to rebound on the environment, and thus ultimately on ourselves, in alarming ways. Problems managing both the immediate and long-term consequences of unleashing the ancient energy of fossil fuels and the atom are cases in point.
Then, early in the second half of the 20th century, several new fields of scientific inquiry started to emerge — like cybernetics, systems theory, ecology, and artificial intelligence. Their focus was on emergent order and evolutionary change in whole systems.
By the final years of the century separate developments across numerous disciplines had begun to flow into the
new holistic field of complexity science. Concepts such as self-organisation, adaptation, resilience, and emergence offer new ways of thinking about the dynamics of change in whole systems that transcend the simple linear causality underpinning much of our conventional social, political, and economic thinking.
Science and history teach us that complex dynamic systems like ecosystems and civilisations tend to cycle from rapid growth, to increasingly rigid maturity, systemic breakdown, and then renewal. Indeed, there are circumstances in which breakdown can be seen as a condition for renewal.
All complex systems exist on multiple scales, so shorter adaptive cycles are usually nested within longer ones. Understanding the dependencies between different scales is important to understanding the dynamics of the whole system.
These concepts are informing much new thinking across diverse fields including the social sciences. Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006) has applied them to the complex dynamics of our increasingly unstable world system. He coined the term ‘catagenesis’ to describe “the creative renewal of our technologies, institutions, and societies in the aftermath of breakdown.”
This invites us to think in new ways about what a transition from gross overdevelopment to environmentally sustainable societies might entail. It challenges us to consider how we might engage creatively with change processes that are beyond our control.
Adaptive social learning
Ultimately our ability to survive and thrive in a period of radical uncertainty and profound change will depend on our capacity for wise collective action reflecting a new consciousness of our place in the Earth system.
This in turn requires a greatly enhanced capacity for adaptive social learning — groups of people sharing their experiences in action, experimenting with different ways of dealing with common challenges, reflecting together on the meaning of their experiences, and deciding on new forms of co-operative action.
Guiding principles for new modes of knowing the world in all its glorious diversity can be found in the co-evolution of Earth's community of life, our deepening understanding of change in complex systems, and a profound respect for emergent adaptive intelligence in its manifold forms.
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This page will showcase selected ways in which people and communities are exploring holistic ways to know the world, experimenting with new processes of adaptation and change, and learning from their shared experiences. If you are involved in or know about such projects please use this form to share the details. Remember to provide links and/or contacts.