How Influence Spreads Through Human Interactions — Recommended Readings

Centola, Damon. How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Ferguson, Niall. The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

How do networks work?  How does influence spread amongst people, through human interactions?

Historian Niall Ferguson digs into the archives, exploring how people have spread influence for thousands of years.  “Social networks have always been much more important in history than most historians, fixated as they have been on hierarchical organizations such as states, have allowed–but never more so than in two periods.  The first “networked era” followed the introduction of the printing press to Europe in the late fifteenth century and lasted until the end of the eighteenth century.  The second–our own time–dates from the 1970s, though I argue that the technological revolution we associate with Silicon Valley was more a consequence than a cause of a crisis of hierarchical institutions.  The intervening period, from the late 1790s until the late 1960s, saw the opposite trend: hierarchical institutions re-established their control and successfully shot down or co-opted networks.  The zenith of hierarchically organized power was in fact the mid-twentieth century—the era of totalitarian regimes and total war” (p xxv).  Professor Ferguson explores why different forms of human interaction are just different forms of networks–an arrangement of interrelated people.

Communications researcher Damon Centola explores the dynamics of how behaviors spread through social networks, mapping the pathways of network diffusion to accelerate social change.  “Diffusion, like schooling, is a collective social process that unfolds through the complex interactions of many independent actors” (p4).  The network dynamics that are required are quite different than what most people think: who is in the network, how they are connected, and how their influence flows, sustainably.

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Extreme Human-Weather Effects

Is it normal for you to be engaged or to be disengaged?  By normal we mean that this is what you expect, what you expect of your life.  Do you expect, in any given day, to be engaged in what you do, in who you are, in how you interact?  By extreme, we mean furthest from a common point, furthest from the desired state.  Do you prefer to be closer to your desired state or the furthest from it?  Assuming that you prefer to be closer to it than furthest from it, why are so many people disengaged and disaffected today?  Maybe it is because they are experiencing the effects of extreme interactions.  How might we understand extreme interaction effects?  Let’s look at a parallel experience in extreme weather effects.

News about “extreme weather effects” is all over the news these days.  What is extreme weather? What are the effects of extreme weather?  Weather is the interaction of temperature and pressure changes in the air, water, and earth.  This is the interaction of the earth’s elemental spheres; the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere.  Now these elemental spheres seem to be mixing, as they always do, in new ways, in extreme ways to which we humans might not be as resilient.

In parallel, a lot of attention is going to the globally disengaged workforce and strong political swings around the world.  The usual framing of disengagement and disaffection is to try to engage people, usually in the same, already-existing form of interactions.  Maybe it would be more helpful to realize that the reason so many people are disengaged at work these days is because they are experiencing “extreme interaction effects.”  Through more engaging experiences they have in other realms of their life, they now have an expectation that they will be treated like creative, contributing humans beings who learn, who are social, and who love to engage their deeper potential towards a purpose that moves them.  When the agreements field they are in becomes too turbulent, when the elemental spheres of human interaction mix in extreme ways, in ways that exclude the individual, the other, their unique, creative contributions, their learning and evolution, then they experience extreme interaction effects, human-weather conditions to which they are not as resilient.

Maybe people are more resilient in human interactions that require more and deeper connection, connection to a deeper, shared purpose, connection to their own higher self, connection to the other in support of their expression, connection to the gifts of the group, connection to the evolutionary process of creativity, connection to the infinite creative source.  Maybe disengagement and disaffection come from extreme interaction effects.  Maybe we can change the human-weather patterns, and thus increase our resilience and engagement, by choosing how we interact, away from the extreme interaction conditions of exclusion, scarcity, and collapse, towards the normal interaction conditions of inclusion, abundance, and engagement.  It is a choice, a choice you can make right here, right now.

Resilience at Scale — Recommended Readings

Coleman, Peter T. The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts. New York: Public Affairs, 2011.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006.

Rose, Jonathan F.P. The Well-Tempered City: What Modern Science, Ancient Civilizations, and Human Nature Teach Us About the Future of Urban Life. New York: Harper Wave, 2016.

Thompson, Michael. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. New Edition ed. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

West, Geoffrey. Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Resilience is the capacity to bounce back, when the context changes.  Scaling is the ability to maintain a level of interaction while growing the volume of interactions, often by orders of magnitude.  Being resilient at scale is the ability to bounce forward even while scaling beyond known boundaries.  The five authors in these highly recommended readings share their deep observations about what resilience at scale is and how to achieve it.

Physicist and complexity theorist Geoffrey West provides a rich journey through an understanding of how nature scales and what that means for the challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.  Looking for nature’s principles of growth, research on scaling shows that animals ranging from a mouse and a small bird to a dog to an elephant scale logarithmically in the relationship of their body mass to their metabolic rate.  With this ratio and many others (i.e., patents to population, income and assets to number of employees), Geoffrey West and colleagues suggest there are “a few simple rules that all organisms obey, indeed all complex systems, from plants and animals to cities and companies” (p2).  “When an object is scaled up in size, its volumes increase at a much faster rate than its areas…This has huge implications for the design and functionality of much of the world around us” (p41).  Nature does not scale linearly, rather nonlinearly.  “For every order of magnitude increase in strength, the weight that can be supported increases by one and a half orders of magnitude” (p45).  This ratio of areas and volumes lies at the foundations of nature’s scaling, maximizing metabolic rate by maximizing surface area.  The book shows how this logic applies to the scaling of resilient infrastructure.

Urban planner Jonathan F.P. Rose applies complexity theory to the urban setting, starting with its metabolic boundary, the area of food production it requires to feed the people in the urban setting.  He finds examples through history of cities where the metabolic boundary grew to support urban development with more and more people producing things other than food.  The metabolic boundary grew to be far greater than the boundary of where these people lived, and that requirement of building food production and transport systems far beyond the city boundaries lowered the city’s resilience, leading to the city’s eventual demise–more and more of its energy went into generating enough energy, a disastrous feedback loop.  For an urban setting to survive, as it scales, it must increase the coherence of, the circular flow of its metabolism of the energy, information, and materials flowing through it, the harmonic interaction of the community of citizens, compassionately balancing the health of the individual and the collective.  The book provides many examples where cities are developing these capacities.

Political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon looks at the energy return on investment, looking at the ratio of the energy produced and the energy required.  Pulling from many examples, the ratio must be “much greater than  1 to 1..to run a society” (p51).  Like with the metabolic boundary, if more energy is required to run the society than it produces, it loses resilience.  A change in its context, which continuously happens, leads to catastrophic failure.  There are many systemic stresses on an urban setting, and when they combine, the system can fail catastrophically, as the interrelated elements kick off nonlinear overload.  The more interconnected a system is, the more likely this is to happen, and the more the system has to be designed to be resilient to these shocks.

Michael Thompson frames catastrophic failure as an unexpected event in the mix of groups of people trying to evolve a system and those attempting to maintain a system.  The system can be experiencing continuous change, meaning the change happens smoothly, when all of a sudden it experiences discontinuous change, an abrupt, often massive change, which the system is often not resilient enough to survive.  This dynamic inevitably occurs in urban settings, generated by the dynamics between what some call the durable and others the transient.

Psychologist Peter Coleman explores the terrain of “intractable conflicts,” which seem to emerge in this space of scaling urban settings, where multiple stresses converge and lead towards catastrophic collapse, dramatically reducing a city’s resilience.  To address these complex problems, most people seem to oversimplify them, generating the conflict traps that Michael Thompson also described.  An initial step to resolve these conflicts, according to Peter Coleman’s work, is to conceive of the social phenomenon as a field of attractor forces, seeing the relationships among these attractors, and embracing the conflict, looking for evidence of what is actually happening.

The rich histories and case studies provided by these authors show the importance of embracing the complexity inherent in a network of interactions, understanding the deeper shared purpose that holds the interactions together and drives the desire to scale growth, for more to share in the deeper purpose.  It is possible to come together to see the shared purpose, the dynamics generating the boundary issues, the agreements that could generate new dynamics and sufficient resilience, avoiding catastrophic collapse while scaling growth.  It is also possible to agree on the evidence that supports the testing of these hypothetical shifts and measures the progress along the way.  This requires shifting from a theory of change to a principle-based, theory of impact resilience.  From looking at only the local, short terms needs and actions to address them, to looking at the local and overall needs, short and long term, and the dynamics that generate them.  This shift is a choice.

How Many Generations Lead Your Efforts? — A Clear Indicator of Long-Term Resilience

How many generations are actively engaged in the leadership of your efforts?  In many groups, whether they are companies, families, communities, government agencies, schools, nonprofits, cities or whole nations, leadership is mostly in 1-2 generations.  In some groups, it is only young leaders.  In some groups, they are only elders.  Sometimes there are 2 generations, rarely there are 3, and very seldom there are 4.  What difference does this make?  Two immediate consequences of the number of generations in leadership come up: leadership experience and leadership relevance.

Leadership Experience.  Leadership requires understanding and engaging others in the group’s deeper purpose, in engaging people outside of the group (external stakeholders) in interactions with the group, in understanding the complex dynamics of human interactions to achieve the group’s goals efficiently and effectively, innovating along the way, and in accessing the resources required today and tomorrow to support the work of the group.  This is a lot.  And, it requires different kinds of experience.  Understanding how to access current structures of resources is in the experience of current power holders.  Innovation is in the experience of current and emerging leaders. The complex dynamics of human interactions within and outside the group are in the experience of the elders.  Engaging the deeper purpose and outer groups is in the experience of current and emerging leaders, each with their counterparts.  The ability to align purpose, understanding of the external and internal environments, accessing the required resources, in complex interactions requires all three types of experience: that of the emerging leaders; the current power holders; and the elders.

Leadership Relevance.  Leadership is relevant when it can provide guidance in today’s context towards the group’s goals today, while strengthening the group’s resilience to be able to achieve tomorrow’s goals.  Today and tomorrow.  Achievement of outcomes and strengthening of inner structures.  Flexibility, stability, and resilience.  This is what we look to our leaders to provide.

What works today and how to access power structures today is the domain of the current power holders.  What will work tomorrow and how to be resilient in emerging structures is the domain of the emerging leaders.  It is the domain of what is coming, how people engage, interact, and structures of access to resources in the emerging future.  The complexity of the underlying dynamics in the current and the future is the domain of the elders–how to see the patterns, and how to test ideas of what to do with them.

If resilience is the ability to adjust to changes in the context, one of the critical factors that constantly changes in the context is how to connect with, engage, and interact with the population, which itself contains multiple generations.  Most organizations have one generation leading. some two, how do three or four strengthen a group’s current work and future resilience?

Where This Applies.  In companies and communities, succession planning is a big deal, and often a big reason for long-term failure.  The current leaders are not able to understand (1) what specific competencies made their organization successful, so (2) they do not know what competencies to look for and develop in the next generation of leadership.  Current leaders also do not know how to invite emerging leaders to take on responsibilities, in ways that make sense to the new leaders in their context.  The new leaders see the world different and are preparing their community for an emerging reality.  This is often hard for the current power holders and elders to see.

A different way of looking at this is to have multi-generational leadership with emerging leaders bringing in resilience for new realities, the current power holders breaking down barriers and providing access to resources, and elders providing the wisdom of seeing many cycles.  This is the possibility of intergenerational improv.  Mutual mentorship of the emerging, the power structures, and patterns of cycles.  A framework for abundance-based succession planning.

The Power of Choice Is Everywhere in the Field of Agreements That We Are — Recommended Readings

McTaggart, Lynne. The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe. New York: Harper, 2008.

Braden, Gregg. The Divine Matrix: Bridging Time, Space, Miracles, and Belief. New York: Hay House, 2007.

What are we made of?  What is real?  From cosmologies as varied as the physics of string theory or quantum theory, the wisdom traditions, modern psychological research, and your own experience, they all point to a reality of interpenetrating dimensions of energy, generating a field of purposeful energy.  This energy is everywhere, always.  It is a field.  An agreements field.

These two authors describe current efforts to describe this field, from physics, chemistry, biology, psychological, social, and spiritual perspectives.  These descriptions converge on the existence of the field, that humans are part of the field–made up of the field–and therefore able to work with the power of the field.  Consciously or unconsciously, we are made up of energy, which Einstein described over 100 years ago [m=E/c2], and which quantum theorists proved over the past 90 years, and we align our cognition, emotion, and volition with this energy towards a purpose, our purpose.  We can do this because it is a field, a resonant field.  We are also that field, it is us.  Knowing how to use our energy is a matter of being human, of resonating with that field.  Deciding to use it is a choice.  A choice you have to be able to see.  The agreements field makes it visible and, thus, available to you.

The Danger in Your Objective Function, Missing Your Deeper Shared Purpose

You want your efforts to have an impact.  To increase your impact, you engage others in generating that impact with you.  While it takes a lot of work, that is your objective, why you do what you do.  Your ability to generate that impact, with others, is a function of your inputs and what you do with those inputs.  In technical terms, this is your objective function.

What if you actually achieved your objective function, in ways that you did not control, could not influence, or did not understand?  To avoid this unintended consequence, let’s understand what an objective function is and how to work with it.

With an objective function, you are trying to optimize the mix of benefits and costs.  Either maximizing the net benefit or minimize the net cost.  You are trying to optimize a set of things that vary, called variables.  UC Berkeley professor of computer science Stuart Russell warns us to be very careful with this kind of approach.  While Stuart is talking specifically about artificial intelligence, the advice applies to complex social systems as well.  If you give the system a goal, and you do not know what the system is doing, you might very well achieve the goal, but at what cost.  You might maximize impact, today, and ruin all relationships along the way, or miss the opportunity to receive a sustaining gift.  Since some variables were outside of the set you designed, and you gave clear mandates to achieve the objective, the system did achieve it, oblivious to the other variables, which could have changed how you would have optimized your impact.

My colleagues at Vibrancy and at the Institute for Strategic Clarity find that there are usually three dangers in your objective function:

  1. unspecified objective — you do not know what you want to achieve
  2. misspecified objective — you do not actually want what you state you want
  3. underspecified objective function — you do not know how to get what you want

What You Want. You can know that you have a passion, and that you want to have an impact.  This can lead you to a general goal of something you would like to achieve.  Do you want to help others?  Make money?  Teach kids.  Unfortunately, this very open statement of a general goal does not guide you to what you need to do to have an impact that is meaningful to you.  And, a general goal like this makes it very hard for others to focus their efforts with you in achieving it. To know what you want to achieve, either individually or as a group, you simply need to ask.  What is it I really want?  If I actually achieve it, will I be satisfied?  It will take lots of effort.  Will it be worth it?  It is a simple question, one many people have not really asked.  It is the first step to getting what you want.

What You Really Want. You might be working hard at achieving an objective.  It might even be a clear and obvious objective.  The question is whether that is what you really want.  If you do not know what you really want to achieve, achieving something less or different probably will not satisfy you, and you will have spent a lot of effort to get there. To achieve what you really want to achieve, you have to be clear and specific.  Following the work of our colleague Ralph Keeney‘s value-focused thinking, we use the 3 whys to structure your fundamental objective.  What do you think you want to achieve?  Why do you want that?  And, why do you want that?  And, finally, why do you want that?  This leads to the higher purpose, or deeper values, actually guiding the impact you want to have.  With this higher purpose, you have defined a boundary around the factors that need to be addressed to achieve your desired impact.  Knowing what you really want to achieve, either individually or as a group is easy to do.  For us, it usually takes less than an hour of real inquiry.

What Drives What You Really Want.  While you might know what you want, clear and specific, if you do not know how to achieve it, you are sub-optimizing your efforts, at best.  Now you need to know how to achieve it.  The “how” might be clear to someone, because others have achieved it (like how to prepare to run a mile), or it might be something nobody has done before (like ending poverty).  In either case, the “how” is a hypothesis, and you can increase your odds of learning how to achieve it by setting the intention, engaging people who understand key elements, working collaboratively towards the objective, and adjusting along the way, as you learn from the feedback the world gives you.

What Your Objective Function Does.  Once you know the why, the what, and the how, the objective function begins to work throughout your organization.  People are making decisions all day long, most of which you are unaware of and do not involve you.  You cannot control your way through that, though many leaders try.  There are too many decisions constantly being made.  This is a danger of an objective function.  You do not know how it is actually being operationalized.  So, you can either try to control it, which does not work as there are too many decisions being made.  You can just hope for the best, which also does not work as it gives no direction or feedback. Or, you can collaboratively engage the people who are making the decisions, constantly informing each other about the decisions being made and the lessons being learned.  That has proven to work.

You Can Choose the Agreements.  You can see your objective function as a set of agreements, with lots of people acting on those agreements.  You can assume that you and everyone else know what those agreements are, that the agreements are the right ones, that the agreements are working to achieve the desired impact, and that no lessons are being learned, so there is no need for adjustments.  That does not work well, most of the time.  You can also assume that it is important to be clear on the deeper intention, and that it is important that everyone else shares that deeper intention.  You can also assume that the agreements need to be surfaced and worked with, on a regular basis, to see if they work well, if they actually do what you think they do, and how to adjust them as the context changes.  This is a leadership system based on shared awareness, attention, and feedback amongst the people cohosting the purpose, the objective function.  This is what Stuart Russell suggested.  It is better to know what is happening and adjust.

Great Places to Work or Great Spaces to Shine? — Recommended Readings

Loehr, Jim, and Tony Schwartz. The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. New York: Free Press, 2003.

Mankins, Michael, and Eric Garton. Time Talent Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2017.

Zak, Paul J. Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performance Companies. New York: American Management Association, 2017.

Work.  A word people use a lot, which means different things.  Maybe they are different.  In worker-employer relations, work is the labor power–the work done per unit of time–that the laborer sells to the employer, who applies that work to getting something done. In thermodynamics, work is the amount of energy transferred from one system to another.  In physics, work is the application of a force over a distance, transferring energy from one place to another, or one form to another.  The word “work” comes from the PIE *werg-o-, suffixed form of root *werg- “to do.”  Maybe they aren’t different.  The common thread of these perspectives then might be work as doing something, setting something in motion.  That seems straightforward.  We work.

Work is measured in energy terms.  Compensation is measured in energy terms.  Common terms for measuring energy include metric joules, British Thermal Units, kilowatt-hours, and calories.  This suggests that work is measured in the energy we bring to the labor we apply over a period of time, measured in some form of joules or calories.  The word calorie comes from the Latin calor for heat.  We give our calorie energy to our employer’s activity in exchange for money with which we pay for the calories that nourish us (food) or for the protection from excessive waste of our heat energy (shelter and clothing), which are both defined as our basic human needs.

It is nice when work is pleasant and engaging, though recent global surveys show that work is not pleasant for most people.  Maybe part of the reason so many people around the world are disengaged at work is because of the way we define the very activity.  Maybe the problem is that it is seen as work.  The labor contract pays me for my work, my energy, my calories applied for a period of time.  What if, instead, we saw that I was invited to contribute my creative expression towards a deeper shared purpose, integrating my head (thoughts), heart (passions and relationships), and hands (will, intention, and action).  The unit of measure might then be the creative energy that flows through and from me–lumens–the light we see in the creativity of another’s expression.  These recommended readings explore this other worldview, where creative people most express their talents in the form of energy when fully engaged in spaces of trust.

Expressing lumens energy in terms of calorie energy, to make it easier for business leaders to apply, management consultants Michael Mankins and Eric Garton find that, “talented people show up for work every day, but then something happens and they can’t get as much done as they believe they could or should.  We think of that something as organizational drag, a collection of institutional factors that interfere with productivity yet somehow go unaddressed.  Organizational drag slows things down, decreasing output and raising costs.  Organizational drag saps energy and drains the human spirit…While the level varies, nearly every company we’ve studied loses a significant portion of its workforce’s productive capacity to drag” (p12).

Psychologist Jim Loehr and journalist Tony Schwartz suggest that, “The ultimate measure of our lives is not how much time we spend on the planet, but rather how much energy we invest in the time that we have…We have far more control over our energy than we ordinarily realize.  The number of hours in a day is fixed, but the quantity and quality of energy available to us is not.  It is our most precious resource.  The more we take responsibility for the energy we bring to the world, the more empowered and productive we become…Human beings are complex energy systems, and full engagement is not simply one-dimensional…To be fully engaged, we must be physically energized, emotionally connected, mentally focus and spiritually aligned with a purpose beyond our immediate self-interest” (pp4,5,9).

Neureconomist Paul J. Zak finds that, “Managing people as human resources to be exploited for maximum gain produced workplaces that confirmed economists’ claims that work provides disutility.  Or, in the vernacular: Work is a drag.  Except sometimes it wasn’t.  There are organizations in which employees love what they do, where they are satisfied professionally and personally by their work…You have humans at work, not machines…It turns out that both trust and purpose activate regions of the brain that motivate cooperation with others, reinforcing behaviors essential to meeting organizational goals…Trust acts as an economic lubricant, reducing the frictions inherent in economic activity” (pp4,5, 10,11).  “A Deloitte/Harris Poll shows there is a serious worldwide Purpose deficit.  Sixty-eight percent of employees and 66 percent of executives said that their organizations do little to create a culture of Purpose” (p175).

While we would prefer to spend our time in great places to work than being disengaged in awful places to work, it seems that we would far prefer to fully engage our creativity in spaces of trust, great spaces to shine.  Which do you prefer?  It is a choice.

Why We Whine

People complain.  As highly attuned beacons and processors of what is happening inside of ourselves and in our environments, people know when they are experiencing what they want to experience.  When the reality they experience differs from what they want, they complain.

If the energy they want to engage towards a purpose that pulls them is not engaged towards that purpose, the energy and the frustration of its misapplication leak out, in the form of emotions, of whining.  We can look at whining as an annoyance, of someone else hefting their pains, their difficulties, on us.  Something to be avoided.  Or we can receive the feedback.

Feedback is when the universe lets us know what happened when our vision of the possible and a pathway to manifest the possible intersect with reality, when they become real, when they tangibilize.  When a person’s purposeful energy is not engaged as expected, towards their own purpose or towards the one they were invited to contribute to, they get frustrated, their unengaged energy wells up, and it begins to leak.  That hissing sound of the tightly lidded, over-boiling pot is called whining.  It is feedback.

The question is what to do with the feedback.  To know what to do, we have to inquire, to ask a question.  What is going on?  The leaking of frustration might come out with a lack of clarity.  As an emotional expression, sometimes it is hard to express the frustration in clear terms, in terms of the lack of engagement towards one’s intended purpose.  A process of inquiry explores the feedback, the misaligned purposeful energy.

One can inquire with another, co-hosting their process of discovery.  One can inquire on one’s own, with coaching support.  One can also inquire as a group.  The point is to see that there is feedback, which can be ignored, or the feedback can be received, allowing the possibility of a shift in agreements, so that the purposeful energy can be engaged.  The whining is feedback, the choice is whether to receive it or not.

Note: Hat tip to LS for the inquiry.

How Natural Is Our Relationship with Nature? — Recommended Reading

Hartmann, Thom. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004. [Read an excerpt.]

Cahoone, Lawrence. The Orders of Nature. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013.  [Read 1st chapter.]

Thomas, Chris D. Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. New York: Public Affairs, 2017. [Read an excerpt.]

Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regine. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018.  [More about the author.]

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017. [Read an excerpt.]

Suzuki, David, Amanda McConnell, and Adrienne Mason. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2007. [Read an excerpt.]

How do you relate to nature?  Do you love it or are you indifferent to it?  As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us?  While seemingly simple questions, they have troubled philosophers and practitioners for millennia.  And, the perspective you take directly affects how you engage with nature.  The six recommended books in this post all explore this relationship and the deep implications for our resilience as humanity of that relationship.

We depend on nature.  In The Sacred Balance, David Suzuki reminds us that, “It is nature that cleanses water, creates air, decomposes sewage, absorbs garbage, generates electricity, and produces food, but in cities, these ‘ecosystem services’ are assumed to be performed by the workings of the economy” (p12).  Through our reductive approach to science today, we have reduced the whole of nature into pieces, “and as the world around us is examined in pieces, the rhythms, patterns, and cycles within which those pieces are integrated are lost” (p13).  “Looked at as biological beings, despite our veneer of civilization, we are no more removed from nature than any other creature, even in the midst of a large city.  Our animal nature dictates our essential needs: clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy” (p18).  David Suzuki then frames and explores our current understanding of the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (oceans), lithosphere (mineral), where they all mix (soil), the biosphere (fire), and what makes us human in our relationships (kin, love).  We need to be aware of the interweaving of these spheres we depend on: “With consciousness, we are able to perceive that there is a relationship between our environment and ourselves” (p267).  “Each of us has the ability to act powerfully for change; together we can regain that ancient and sustaining harmony, in which human needs and the needs of all our companions on the planet are held in balance with the sacred, self-renewing processes of Earth” (p330).

In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, author Thom Hartman reminds us of our intimate relationship with nature.  “Sunlight radiating heat, visible light, and ultraviolet light is the source of almost all life on Earth…Every life form on the surface of this planet is here because a plant was able to gather sunlight and store it, and something else was able to eat that plant and take that sunlight energy in to power its body” (p7)  In the final analysis, “survival and prosperity both hinge on how much sunlight energy is under your control” (p35).  Thom Hartman then explores our relationship with current and stored sunlight.

Nature is dynamic and resilient, whether humans are in the mix or not.  In Inheritors of the Earth, biologist Chris Thomas explores the ecological and evolutionary dynamics and resilience of the biological realm of earth.  “Ecological and evolutionary changes are both of great importance.  Ecological success will determine the species that will live among us in the short term, and evolutionary success will alter the future direction of life on Earth” (p29).  While species come and go, the number of species is growing (p62), and human environments are influencing which ones spread and grow, with species finding new niches where they survive, often different from where they originally evolved (pp79,118). Nature is resilient, with new species adapting to ecological and evolutionary changes.

We are nature.  In The Orders of Nature, philosopher Lawrence Cahoone provides the context and a current state of understanding for five orders of nature that constitute the reality we humans perceive: the physical; material; biological; mental; and cultural.  We exist as an integration of all five orders, partially in relationship with the minerals, plants, and animals that share some of these orders.  Students of each order have a different way of making sense of what is real, rarely understanding the logic of another.  This leads to difficulties in defining what is real, across orders, which influences the ways in which we interact with the order of our reality.

We better take care of the nature that we are.  In Down to Earth, philosopher Bruno Latour suggests that to deal with the level of ecological challenges facing humanity, it is time to shift our underlying understanding.  “Saying, ‘We are earthbound, we are terrestrials amid terrestrials,’ does not lead to the same politics as saying, ‘We are humans in nature.’ The two are not made of the same cloth–or rather of the same mud” (p86).  “The Terrestrial reorganizes politics.  Each of the beings that participate in the composition of a dwelling place has its own way of identifying what is local and what is global, and of defining its entanglements with the others.  CO2 is not spatialized in the same way as urban transport systems; aquifers are not local in the same sense as bird flu” (p93).  In this reorientation towards the terrestrial, our home of which we are an integral part and which is an integral part of us, Bruno Latour suggests a shift in political focus from the dichotomy of either local-based or global-based to earth-based, which is both local and global.

In Doughnut Economics, economist Kate Raworth frames an “ecologically safe and socially just space for humanity…point(ing) towards a future that can provide for every person’s needs while safeguarding the living world on which we all depend” (p39).  To develop this balance between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling, we need to move from an economics of “endless growth to thriving in balance” (p45).  Kate Raworth works through the basic tools of endless-growth economics, replacing them with tools of thriving-in-balance economics: from GDP to social and ecological limits; from self-contained markets to embedded economies; from rational economic man to social adaptable humans; from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity; from “growth will even it up” to distributive by design; and from growth addicted to growth agnostic.

Returning to the starting questions, how do you relate to nature?  Do you love it or are you indifferent to it?  As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us?  These six authors provide updated, easy-to-approach explorations of these questions.  They each show that the perspective you take from these explorations directly affects how you engage with nature, and your life depends on it.  It is your choice.  I recommend the journey.

Scarcity As Verb, Not Noun

People compete with each other for scarce resources.  All resources are scarce.  That is the basic assumption of the western, economic-based view of the world.  The resources, the nouns, are scarce. There are only so many toothbrushes or hamburgers available.  They are scarce nouns.  So, the world is full of scarce nouns, right?  Some say yes, others say no.

Let’s start with the people who have most influenced the economic thinking that permeates western thinking today.  As Harvard economist Professor Mankiw writes, “Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources” (Mankiw, N. Gregory. Principles of Economics. Fourth ed. Mason, OH: Thomson, 2008, p 4).  Nobel laureates in economics, MIT economist Professor Samuelson and Yale economist Professor Nordhaus agreed, “Economics is the study of how societies use scarce resources” (Samuelson, Paul A., and William D. Nordhaus. Economics. Fifteenth ed. Boston: Irwin McGraw-Hill, 1995, p 4).

The definition of economics as the study of scarce resources is often attributed to London School of Economics Professor Robbins, who famously wrote, “Economics is a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses…Everywhere we turn, if we choose one thing we must relinquish others which, in different circumstances, we would wish not to have relinquished. Scarcity of means to satisfy ends of varying importance is an almost ubiquitous condition of human behavior” (Robbins, Lionel. An Essay of the Nature & Significance of Economic Science. Second ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1945, p 15-16).

So are nouns scarce?  Columbia University economic historian Professor Polanyi said no. “Polanyi suggests.. ‘to situations in which insufficiency induces choice between the alternative uses of the goods’, and should be used to denote a relationship between means and ends rather than ‘as an adjective appropriate to qualify things of goods’ in which the element of choice is absent” (Dale, Gareth. Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2018, p 111).  Polanyi says that what might be perceived to be scarce is the relationship between means and ends, the verb of how people access resources, not the resources themselves.

Author Gareth Dale further clarifies Polanyi’s perspective, in that “scarcity cannot be assessed independently of its meanings in a given cultural context. In modern market economics scarcity becomes generalized: since everything is interconnected, everything is scarce.  By contrast, consider the Mbuti Pygmies, who, the anthropologist Colin Turnbull discovered, envision their forest habitat as benevolent and lavish, or the Trobriand Islanders, who normally grow ‘twice as much yam fruit as they need and allow it to rot.  They phrase their economic life in terms of plenty, while according to our standards they are surrounded by scarcity.  We, according to their standards, are surrounded by plenty but phrase our economic life in terms of scarcity” (Dale, Gareth. Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2018, p 112).

What might be perceived as scarce are verbs, the “how” people access nouns.  Certain cultural worldviews with accompanying political and social structures might make the means to the ends scarce.  From this perspective, the nouns can be replenished over time, so maybe what is scarce is the accessing of the nouns, the verbs.

What do you see?