Self-organization: our behavioral repertoires

Photo by Rui Silvestre on Unsplash

This article is part of a series of 12 articles about applications of 12 leverage points to intervene in a system. Systems thinking author Donella Meadows published Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, a paper in 1997, in which she enumerated the 12 points in an increasing order of effectiveness.

The paper was written out of disappointment about the development of a new order of trade globalization. The outcome of that development, in 1995, was the World Trade Organization (WTO).

At the time that Donella Meadows sat in a conference of global leaders in the early 1990s she articulated her thoughts on the proceedings of the conference sessions:

“So one day I was sitting in a meeting about how to make the world work better — actually it was a meeting about how the new global trade regime, after the ratified NAFTA 1988 and GATT 1947 [will come to be] the WTO. The WTO is likely to make the world work worse. The more I listened, the more I began to simmer inside. This is a HUGE NEW SYSTEM people are inventing! They haven’t the SLIGHTEST IDEA how this complex structure will behave. It’s almost certainly an example of cranking the system in the wrong direction — it’s aimed at growth, growth at any price!! And the control measures these nice, liberal folks are talking about to combat it — small parameter adjustments, weak negative [corrective] feedback loops — are PUNY!!!”

Self-organized system structures is the 4th in the order of 12 leverage points that are effective for systems change. I lifted her thoughts in the paper and have carried them across in a current context.

How we develop habits

It is amazing how living systems, us humans and the social systems we create, can change themselves radically by inventing whole new structures and subsequently developing new behaviors and habits. In living systems that phenomenon is called evolution. In social systems, it is called progression. In technological systems, it is iteration. In the advances of human societies, it is called social revolution. To an individual, it is the conduct of daily routine. In systems general-speak, it’s called self-organization.

In humans, the ability to self-organize is an outstanding form of resilience, the ability to use body, mind, and spirit to confront threats to survival on one hand, and on the other, to strengthen or increase power within and over other systems.

Remote as it may seem from today’s global trade order, there came to be an acceleration of consequential changes in the higher educational system in the years of global growth since the 1950s. Education has evolved as an economic necessity. Educational institutions, from being hallmarks of knowledge acquisition, came to be institutions primarily providing economic utility to students for upward mobility in society. An educated labor force, as was intended, helps fuel the engines of the economy with wages and salaries to spend on the economy. Moreover, this single-minded promise has become life’s stability from the acquired qualifications educational institutions provide–a “passport” to attain individual advancement. From self mastery and world mastery and then, onto a mere means to eke a living, the educational system has bred deep and complex social roots in all aspects of unbridled social competition, one that is underpinned by a promise of financial stability and economic well-being.

Take Neoliberalism. The fundamental concepts of Neoliberalism were developed to both address the threats of and opportunity in the potential shifts of global trade. There are cheap materials and labor from a remote nation-factory for goods to buy from, and eventually a cash-rich class to play in the global financial markets. The resulting system change (economic and financial primarily) that ushered the WTO Order was used to sustain the success of dominant global powers in an unsustainable growth post 1970s until today.

In all these cases–individuals to institutions–any system that successfully emerges from prevalent conditions of threat, survival, and a desire for advancement requires change by changing itself. Hence, where we are all today.

Are our evolved habits all that good for us?

Does change in systems work for the better according to how it was intended? Does change itself, as in the case of social systems, a progression? Are technological advances where whole new systems, its practices, and the tools that are invented and bundled with the practices, always good for our human senses and existence? Or, does the educational system we have today make us wiser, smarter, guarantees our individual advancement, and then provides us with mastery of a world order that we need to aspire to create?

These questions will have sequels of questions as their answers over a short-, mid-, or long-term. This is the system’s feedback. And feedback has delays — from months, to years, to decades, and over centuries. Humans are even a feedback of living systems dating back to eons of biological evolution! So while change can definitely bring early results, whether intended or unintended, a change’s long-term outcomes are critical elements to watch out for over several duration of time.

Case in point, human health: the human immune system has the power to develop new responses to mutated viruses such as the SARS-CoV-2. Our immune system can take in the new virus strain’s information and respond accordingly with immunogen to counter the ill-effects of even its mutations. How did we respond at a macro system level with the recent Covid-19 pandemic? We quickly developed the vaccines to arrest the debilitating effects on our medical system with the speed and a scale never seen in medical technology history. The global roll out of vaccines was unprecedented. A medical and health Armageddon was averted. Was it? What were the ultimate intentions of the vaccine’s hurried development and frenetic roll out? Will the technological wonders of biosynthesized and synthetic antigens guarantee positive corrective long-term effects on our bodies’ resistance to future virus attacks? Time will tell.

Remember the fall of a flourishing Inca Empire — an extraordinary civilization that spread across ancient Ecuador, Peru, northern Chile, Bolivia, upland Argentina, and southern Colombia? In the early 1500s, their civilization started to decline. First, with a dwindling population which was caused by a smallpox epidemic brought by Europeans; second, at that time, not only did they battle for their health but they were also faced with an onslaught of Spanish conquistadors, and; third, they were simultaneously waging internal wars among themselves with rebellions in the northern Inca kingdoms. The events of foreign invasion, disease, and rebellion–a perfect brew of change ingredients–led to the Incas’ downfall and their civilization’s demise.

But unlike the Incas, we might have averted a potential 21st century holocaust because of advancements in the biological and medical sciences. There are similarities though. There is a raging internal war in our globalized civilization and there is an army of economic marauders with an unabated grapple over a geoeconomic political order we seem to cannot resist. Why? Might it not be because it is such a system that we cannot desist? Why so? Might it not be that the Order–the System–is us? And its outcomes are our own creation, our own self-organization of a world order?

Individual habits vis-à-vis society

At micro level, a genetic code within the DNA is the basis of all biological evolution. The DNA contains four different letters that combine into words of three letters each. A pattern, the rules for replication and rearranging a living system’s order, has been constant over an evolutionary path started three billion years ago.

Together with the evolution are iterations of the pattern — including our fungible creations. What drove these constant creations (and recreations) are our collective experiences through eras of human civilization. To this day, we already have chalked up an unimaginable variety and number of endeavors, and we crave for more by merely reinventing wheels. Yet what remains constant are outcomes that are either failures or successes that are never perceived as lessons.

Societies flourish with endeavors that stand the test of time. Those that do not last have conflicting subsystems within their system that either have short-term goals to say the least, or have overshot its capacity, or had parameters that compromised other systems, or have outcomes that were left uncorrected. Any system, then, that disregards its potential leverage points eventually would run into its collapse. Think of 1929 and 2008. Look into the subsequent effects these events still have with the current global economic situation we are in today. The domino of crises we are experiencing today are effects of the continuing vicious spiral of interconnected human-created systems and our individual actions (or inaction).

Society’s advances are defined by its preferred use of technology. In humans that technology (by strict definition, tools) is the accumulated and stored libraries of knowledge in their brains. The source of human creativity, however, is powered today by what the market will reward. Concomitantly, such rewards are whatever governments or global funding agencies invest in to meet their own needs or solve their own imminent problems.

We have organized ourselves–from the basic family to complex transnational institutions–into how a ‘distant intangible hand’ wants us to organize our lives. Little are we aware that even our daily minutiae have been prescribed to us: what toothpaste to buy; what brand of clothes to wear; what to take for lunch; and so on and so forth. From the moment we were born to the day we die, the way we live our lives is not our real choice. Has never been. Our lives, our society, and how we get information, acquire knowledge, and make decisions based on what we know and understand as individuals or as members of a community may not be our own option, much more than how we ought to take action.

Human actions are developed by each individual’s discipline. Discipline is derived from practice, practice is formed with habits. Habits are our everyday behaviors and the actions we do perhaps even at a particular time of day for years on end.

The same habits form our human cultures, which are the store of behavioral repertoires that we have accumulated in 200,000 years since our emergence from southern Africa. These repertoires are a stock out of which subsequent social evolution and upheaval arise until this very day.

We, Homo sapiens (‘wise man’), are the only species of human still around today. Despite having invented countless ways of labeling the world around us, we have so far done a surprisingly poor job at defining ourselves.

Every ‘advancing’ homo sapiens tribe with its culture has had the belief in their utter superiority. Just as any invading empire–from the Romans, to the Mongols, to the Ottomans, the Medieval Europeans, to the modern day West–have forced their cultures, their habits, on the conquered.

Unlike past dominated tribes and civilizations, today’s conquered people without question succumb to narratives of the victor. The pivotal arm that is wielded to change the narrative is the victor’s introduced technology. A recent one, information and communication technology–the digital technology, stands out.

The globalization of a dominant financial currency extends to every life aspect of a “global citizen” today. Language too, English, has become the currency for communication. Western education is another. The claws of the contemporary empire are no longer mere geographic invasion and regional exploitation but one of corroding the mind. All said, we have become a mono-culture civilization.

Unfortunately, people appreciate the contrived evolutionary potential of a global culture even less than they understand the preciousness of the necessity of diversity in both human-created and natural systems.

Dictating a single culture buttons down learning. In natural systems, the insistence or domination of one species over another cuts back resilience. Any system that becomes corrupted to points where it cannot evolve wipes out its ability to utilize its own ‘DNA patterns’ to survive. A culture becomes either doomed over the long-term or at least assimilated into the domineering culture. But no singular force on this variable planet has ever lasted. We can never escape the fundamental laws that drive natural systems.

Then we ask our individual selves these mundane questions that drive our actions:

Does the toothpaste I use every morning promote welfare for how the other half of the globe lives? Where did the raw materials of the plastic tube come from–some oil wells where a once thriving habitat of people, animals, and fauna lived? Where are the empty plastic tubes discarded–buried in some remote soil once a source of fresh water supply to a community? Am I wearing a clothing brand manufactured from natural materials and was derived responsibly from a nation directly benefiting from my purchase? The lunch I will take, will it provide me proper nourishment without the ill-effects of how it was produced and processed? Who made my meal–some itinerant faceless worker in a fast food commissary who is from an agricultural province, and now labors for a daily wage to put food on the family’s table?

Our modern global mono socio-eco-political culture–our habits and actions–represents the pinnacle of human achievement. This is a monstrous myth. As David W. Orr puts it in his book Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect,

“Only a minuscule number of people alone are modern, technological, and developed. This, of course, represents cultural arrogance of the worst sort, and a gross misreading of world history and anthropology.”

Related: The Last Mile and the Final Straw, The Power of Rules and How Change Can Happen

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Namenlose Leute

Namenlose Leute

Nameless People: their ways, their spaces, and their tools.