Beyond Intractability
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A new place to explore and discuss ideas for moving beyond the complex intractable conflict problems that so threaten human society.

The Really Big Picture
Ecodynamics & Planetary Evolution

Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess



This is a longer, and more philosophic, post that explores the nature of ecosystems (both biological and social) and the processes through which they evolve. It also frames the conflict problem as an effort to guide the evolution of the social system in ways that protect and advance the common good through  "power with" ways of resolving disputes. Conversely, we seek to limit the tendency of society to evolve toward oppressive, "power over" forms of social organization.

Referenced Resources:

Discussion Questions

  • What do you see as promising strategies for promoting “power-with” efforts to govern the Commons in ways that advance the common good?
  • What do you see as promising strategies for promoting a more enlightened view of self-interest – one that protects the Commons and every one from devastating “I’ll fight you for it” conflicts.

Full Transcript 

Hi, this is Guy Burgess. As we have been saying in previous posts, the sort of focus of the moving beyond intractability seminar series has been an exploration into the idea that conflicts, especially intractable, large-scale social conflicts, are complex adaptive systems, not merely complicated systems. What this means is that dealing with intractable conflict is not like building some elaborate complicated structure. Instead, it's like improving an ecosystem. Here we're not talking about biological ecosystems, so much as social ecosystems.

The key, then, is to understand what ecosystems are and how they evolve, because that's, in fact, how you change them. They're not designed. They're not built. Nobody has control over Them. What we're talking about is improving the way in which they evolve. Now years ago, when I was in graduate school, I had the good fortune of working with Kenneth Boulding as a graduate student when he was writing the book Ecodynamics, which I still think is one of the most remarkable books that certainly I've ever read. What it does is lay out an ecodynamic or ecological view of the way the universe works, which governs not only the physical world and biological world, but also the social world. I think that offers a window into understanding the nature of the systems, at least with respect to the kind of difficult conflicts we're talking about.

Now the core of Boulding's book is built around this notion of creation. He called it the KEM Saga: the combination of knowledge, energy, and materials, or know-how, energy, and materials. The most important part of this notion of know-how or information is that somehow or another you've got information that knows how to combine materials and energy to create new things, and this changes over time. Then those new things interact in an ecosystem in ways that select for some things, and not for others.

So he started by saying, "I suspect that ecological principles govern the evolution of the physical universe," although that happened a long time ago, and it's something that cosmologists are just starting to figure out. But the basic idea was that there was know-how embedded in the structure of matter -- electrons, protons, and all the subatomic particles -- which knows how to link up with some other particles and atoms, but not others, and that again you have the set of evolutionary interactions that govern how some physical structures survived. Others didn't. So the notion of evolutionary creation going way back before life on still makes sense, I think, but that's getting way out of the realm in which I know anything about, really, so I'll put that off to the side.

But we do know a lot about biological evolution. Here, we see the Galapagos Islands where Charles Darwin first hit on the idea of how the phenomenal differentiation of species in the sophistication of life emerged, and here what you have is the same sort of thing: the combination of know-how, energy, and materials. But in the biological world, know-how was embodied in DNA, in bio genetics. The formula of life knew how to construct a wide range of plants and animals based on their genetic makeup. That again led to interactions in the ecosystem, and some survived and others didn't, and produced populations in the phenomenal world that we know now.

Now the thing about biological know-how that I think is so remarkable is that an awful lot of it is a instinctual, and a lot of it is encoded in DNA. Heidi and I spent a lot of time birdwatching. There are birds that do phenomenal things. There's one that on nests in northern Great Britain, flies without landing all the way around Antarctica, and flies back to the same spot. It knows how to do that because of instincts that are embedded in DNA. It didn't go to school. It didn't go to navigation class. It can't read the stars. But somehow, it can do it. So in the biological world, instinctual learning is prominent. Learned learning  also occurs. Plants and animals, especially animals, can sense the environment around them. They can learn a lot, and they get very clever. So it's not like that kind of learning doesn't exist; it's just not as dominant is the instinctual-based learning.

Next, you get the whole range of ecological interactions that occur with all of these individuals that are driven by DNA. This is the list of all the different kinds of relationships that I got off Wikipedia. But basically, you have a long-term drive towards increasing specialization, where wherever there is a niche that some planner animal can figure out how to survive, it'll take that. This is a picture of spring beauty. It's a flower that only grows on to top of the highest peaks in Colorado, and it has a very long route so it can actually grow in boulder fields where there isn't any soil for five to ten feet underground. But it still survives, and it's that kind of specialization and creativity that comes out of biological eco-dynamics. You can trace this way back to the beginning of cellular life. You have the explosion of life that occurred in Cambrian times, and the 500 million years since then, and that takes us to now. If we look at the world that has evolved, it is truly awe-inspiring.

The other thing that's key is that unlike a complicated system, or the physical world where atoms do the same thing every time, here in the biological world individuals -- and there are multitudes and multitudes of these individuals -- are all pursuing their own self-interest based on instincts and their perceptions around them. So what you have is this process of perception and decision-making that's driving behavior, that produces a vastly different kind of world.

The evolution of this has been very slow. It's been 500 million years since the sort of higher forms of life started to emerge, and the process of innovation -- that is mutations that lead to variations on species, and ultimately to new species, and allow plants and animals to try to adapt to new niches -- has been very slow and very local. Things have to be proven, and last often for millions of years in a local area before they can spread around the planet. This process by any reasonable definition has produced the intelligent evolution of life. It may not be a supreme being, but in a sense, you're building off the intelligence of everything that ever lived. The result is at least the biosphere as we saw before humans started to evolve, and it is certainly reasonable to say that humans have started to destroy this. There is certainly reason to believe that we're going to be as big of an extinction event as the commet that did in the dinosaurs.

So then Boulding goes on to say that now, with the advent of human society, which set evolution off on a whole new track, it's not that these other forms of physical and biological evolution didn't continue. But human evolution is something very different. Going back to his original formula, we add a different kind of know-how. That's human learning, what he called new genetics. So now you can figure things out, you engage in the scientific method, you can engage in philosophizing, you can teach, you can pool knowledge from countless individuals.

Quincy Wright identified four stages in the evolution of human know-how. We first emerged with special human traits with language and the ability to communicate sophisticated symbolic ideas between individuals, tell stories that allow those ideas to persist over time, and people could remember. You could spread it out over small areas. The next big revolution was writing, which allowed ideas to really be extended over time and space. In a very real sense, it made large-scale empires possible. With the printing press, Guttenberg made writing and books cheap enough that we could start to have universal literacy, with the opportunity for the explosion of learning which that made possible. And we now have digital information, and where that's going is still very much unknown. But I know that on my hip in a cute little cell phone, I probably have easier access to more information than the University's entire library had when I was just an undergraduate student.

So think about it: it took 500 million years from the Cambrian explosion to now, and in the space of a few thousand years, humans have gone from the most primitive of tool makers, chipping arrow heads off rocks, to the modern world. That's an astonishingly fast accomplishment. So what we've done is we've added to Charles Darwin's biological evolution a whole set of knowledge about social competitive interactions. Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations is maybe the most prominent example, but there's obviously much more.

The other thing that the advent of human society has done is add to the sort of biological ecodynamics and relationships in a whole series of other peculiarly human types of interaction. The three that Boulding highlighted in his book, The Three Faces of Power, again illustrate how exceptionally different people are. Animals ceratinly threaten one another, with competition for territory and the threat of predation. But you don't have threat in the same way that you have with humans. The threat goes: you do something I want or I'll do something that you don't want, and this essentially enslaves or oppresses somebody. There might be an excpetion somewhere, but that takes a kind of symbolic reasoning that the simple biological world just can't do it. We also have exchange. There are symbiotic relationships in the biological world, but nothing like economies, nothing like the mediums of exchange, and very complex sort of consciously agreed on relationships for mutual assistance. Also, in the animal world, you certainly have love in the sense of parents caring for their offspring and herds sort of protecting one another, and that sort of thing, but nothing like the really large-scale love-hate relationships that you get with the human world. So we're adding other forms of interaction, but it's still basically a set of competitive ecological interactions.

Now the other thing that is really important about this is that the speed of the evolution of the socio-sphere, the human society, is astonishingly fast. In the space of a few thousand years, we've gone from chipping stones to the modern world, and if you look at what's projected for just the next few years as computers get to be as smart as people, it's absolutely jaw-dropping. The problem is that when you have ideas that disseminate globally, virtually instantly, bad ideas can iinfect he whole planet in catastrophic ways. The big question is whether or not we're up to governing the global commons in a way that produces a kind world we want to live in.

Another fundamental principle about ecodynamics's ecosystems don't care. This is a picture of the great Yellowstone fires, which were absolutely devastating in some areas. The fires got so hot that it pretty much sterilized everything. But here's a case where in the space of a few short months, you had a fire weed coming in and taking advantage of the fact that all the lodgepole trees were gone. So for every sort of catastrophe, there will be beneficiaries. So, there's not really a sense in which you make the whole ecosystem better, except this notion of the tragedy of the commons, where you have cases where individuals pursuing their own self-interest can destroy the common ecosystem on which everyone depends. The results are catastrophic for pretty much everybody. And in a sense, what we need to do is to govern the planet in ways that avoid that.

So now, we're looking at the continuation of geologic history, except this time with humans. Now you can look backwards and say this is the Anthropocene, the year in which humans came and caused this great mass extinction, and pretty much ruined everything. You can make that argument, and it's fairly persuasive in many ways. But it's also the dawn of what you might call the Anthropozoic Era. So, the invention of human knowledge is as big a thing to happen to the planet as DNA. It's a whole new form of information, a whole new kind of evolution.

The deal is that we get to decide where it all goes. We can have again the kind of ecological competition that produces, to borrow a metaphor from Adam Smith, guides things in a way where we have an invisible hand, where competition in the social world guides things in a way that benefits everyone. Or, we could let power over oppression take over and have the invisible fist, in which a few dominate everyone else to the aggregate detriment of the planet. And it's basically a choice of where were going, and the key is that our ability to deal with conflict is going to be crucial in determining where we go. If you wanted to push this a bit more, here's a kind of dismal article that's been making the rounds lately, which says that humans could be extinct within 100 years if we don't get a handle on all this.

So, here are some questions to discuss:
  1. What do you see as the most promising strategies for promoting "power-with" efforts to govern the commons in ways that advance the common good?
  2. And what do you see as promising strategies for promoting a more enlightened view of self-interest -- one that focuses on protecting the commons, and avoiding devastating "I'll fight you for it" conflicts?

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Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado
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