Transcript: Understanding the Nature of Systems
Interview with Jessie Henshaw, available to everyone
[00:01:55] Rachel: I'm so happy to finally have you on the show. I feel like I already know you a little bit, cause we go back and forth on Twitter so much.
[00:02:01] Jessie: Well, so nice to meet you.
[00:02:03] Rachel: So nice to meet you, too. Thank you for making the time for planet critical, I and I'm sure the listeners, really, really appreciate this.
[00:02:10] Jessie: I'm observing that there's an awful lot going on in the world. A lot of changes, pro and con, and that maybe people are beginning to open up to the crisis as it becomes more clear. I don't know. I've been looking for a kind of look up moment, as opposed to a don't look up moment for some time. I thought it would come in 2020 the year of clear vision, but that didn't happen, but it's coming.
[00:02:40] Rachel: What do you mean 2020 was the year of clear vision?
[00:02:42] Jessie: Well, 2020 is the measure of optical clarity 2020 vision.
[00:02:49] Rachel: Oh, right. Okay. Of course, sorry. That was obvious.
[00:02:56] Jessie: Well, nothing's very obvious, or until you look at it from a couple sides, but, I'm hoping that, we'll be starting to be able to look at the problem through our common aspirations rather than our criticisms and that should facilitate.
My experience began in the sixties, 1960s, when lots of people were beginning to notice that the developed world's way of life depended on blindly destroying the earth and resulting societal dysfunction. I developed a current list of things like how complication overload and congestion make our systems inflexible and unresponsive, and how growth, in the opposite direction, requires all of us to change faster and faster.
These kinds of physiological contradictions in the system that is a kind of physics catalog of them that I developed called the top 100 world crises growing with growth- if you just Google that it's a long list and pretty complicated- but you got the sense pretty quickly that something is most definitely going wrong. And though science is absolutely a key tool for responding to it, My view is also that the primary cause of the problem is how science and economics analyzed their formulas taken out of context as if they didn't have environments.
So their research does not include what is connected to the common motive behind their work, which is to increase our power over nature So it causes us to be steering blind, and it also keeps us from studying how natural compound growth or natural growth of new systems is the start of an environmental process that can be very successful.
Natural growth produces all kinds of perfected designs that last for long times and our lives being one of course. Organizations do it as well as new popular bands and music styles that go through an explosive growth process. And then they last for some long time, like jazz, for example.
[00:06:01] Rachel: Can we just pause there? Cause I think that's such an interesting thought. The idea that our obsession with economic growth or with GDP would actually impinge on other natural growth systems and therefore kind of, I don't know, limit the natural evolution of other systems.
[00:06:21] Jessie: Well, it, it disrupts their worlds. Just to mention something a little political, how growth has motivated countries like the U.S, Australia and Canada to try to erase the indigenous cultures. Growth wants to have access to all the resources in its way. But I'm really more speaking of how growth is a very successful strategy for building long-term systems, if you do it right. And if we learn how to do it right, we might soften the crisis coming for the world community.
[00:07:05] Rachel: Learn how to do growth right. But wouldn't that necessitate then not endless exponential growth, but cyclical, as you said?
[00:07:14] Jessie: Yes. The trick that nature does so casually in many circumstances that we find very implausible is an ABC kind of process that you start with innovation and then you shift to maturation and then you have a long life. So it's that maturation process where you take the resources being put into growth, into expansion, and instead put them into perfecting the system and fitting it to its new world. Because growth does many things, but importantly, it's an internal explosion of extraction of resources from its surroundings. And then it needs to switch to living in the world to adapting to the world - nature's process is triggered by what we call birth. The shift from exponential growth to maturation, as the new life, again, more and more used to the world it's gonna live in. And our intellectual, development has blocked our thinking about that. As I mentioned with how science takes all its forms, science and economics take all their formulas out of context, or largely do.
There's a, wonderful article by some leading climate scientists, called scientists warning on affluence, that, finally, after years and years of trying to probe the climate science community shows that the leading thinkers are beginning to realize that growth is the cause of climate change, because it multiplies businesses using fossil fuels. That's the purpose of growth. We actually designed our sustainability strategies to perpetuate the cause of sustainability.
[00:10:05] Rachel: Let's get into that.
[00:10:06] Jessie: Yeah, well, it's one of the kinds of ironies that are worth probing. You know, it helps you look at the environment of things going completely haywire and the place where that really happened is in the interpretation of the Brundtland committee report on sustainability in 87, which defines sustainability as living well in the present, not harming the future. The way the organization of economic development of countries, OEDC, interpreted it was that money is not the cause, money is to be held harmless, or to blame the resource uses of businesses that they control.
[00:11:13] Rachel: Right.
[00:11:13] Jessie: And ignore who pays for them.
[00:11:18] Rachel: Right.
[00:11:19] Jessie: It completely detaches sustainability from growth. I've talked endlessly to two other sustainability activists and at the UN I spent a good bit of time at the UN in the writing of the SDGs, the sustainability development goals. And I learned an enormous amount about how activist groups compete with each other over their values, and don't look at any systems. I guess it's because that's how they organize, how they attract adherence, is by leading the charge towards certain values. Our whole culture suffers from a lack of understanding of natural systems and how they work.
There's an exception: how life makes so much sense at home and at the office where people have direct non-verbal connection between their relationships and are sensitive to their environments, and the public sphere where we run the world by remote control in a way by these formulas that we developed, disconnected from nature. And that pattern actually goes all the way back to the dawn of science. The dawn of science took pride in squashing what they called natural religion, which was actually a science of home culture that had lasted 2000 years before, it was highly developed, it was actually the source of Greek architecture and democracy. But the scientists were so thrilled with their use of mathematics to make a killing in things like the olive market, that everybody went for this abstract view of nature, as something to control with rules.
[00:13:42] Rachel: I wonder as well, if what you were saying about people having a relationship to their workplace and their home environment, and yet the public sphere is sort of remote controlled, which I think is just such a fantastic image. I wonder as well what the desecration of the commons did to that as well.
Because right now I think what we're seeing is all these sort of oppositional binaries, which is why even in the first 30 seconds what you were saying about there can be good growth and cyclical growth. Cause right now it's growth versus de-growth. And another thing is private property. People saying private property is a terrible thing. Everything needs to be communal. And yet perhaps there is an element of like ownership or responsibility in property that is commons. It cannot just be commons, it has to have that unique sense of belonging to and being a part of a community. I wonder if that desecration of the coalmines as well has kind of fed into-
[00:14:42] Jessie: Yeah, it raises a lot of questions. I think that where I've gone with it is to see that it's our failure to study how natural systems work that has caused everybody to drift into their separate silos of communication. Our human cultures have a hugely important role in our lives. Most people don't notice, but our cultures are really the only possible location where all our ways of understanding and working with the world are stored. And they have marvelous ancient roots and traditions that are sustained over huge long periods of time.
So they have a special design for maintaining the integrity of the culture. That's what's going on when you learn the culture from your parents, the root ideas and principles, the ways people respond to each other and respond to the world. And then you build on it in collaboration with others around you, all refining their way of expressing the common culture.
Every member of a culture has its own authenticated copy coming from their parents who got their authenticated copy from their parents. And so this large distribution of authenticated copies of the culture that I think is in effect a blockchain to assure that the culture can't change, unless it changes as a whole –that no individual can change the culture. If the culture is a unified object of the ways of life shared by all its members.
That said, we've been multiplying cultures that disagree about everything. Science has never studied this kind of thing is part of the problem. That we've been trained to reduce nature to numbers and nature is really organization. And you can't reduce organization to a number. That’s what I'm trying to help change and I'm endlessly running into resistance.
[00:17:17] Rachel: So you think it's going to demand a cultural shift up the blockchain then in order to tackle the crisis?
[00:17:23] Jessie: Well I think that the kind of extreme example of how nature solves that problem, because other systems in nature are designed around kinds of blockchains like our own bodies, where every cell has a copy of the whole, and relates to other cells in relation to their role in the whole. That's the organization of biology at work and for biology the solution that nature finally resolved to shift the whole from multiplying its parts to coordinating them and fitting them in with their environments, we call birth, where exhausting the capacities of the womb, you get thrown out to see if you can take care of yourself.
So for us, if we collapse the environment, there's nobody here to take care of us. That’s our way of initiating our birth into the real world. It might change our perceptions and in a sense be good, but we would left with be left without any capacities.
So my hope is that some of this kind of thinking of what we're going to give birth to as we end our exponential growth, it will inspire people and allow their aspirations to change the system as a whole.
[00:19:08] Rachel: So would you say the kind of growth that we're in due to, let's call it capitalism, would you say that then that is sort of constantly stuck at the birth stage, at the innovation stage?
[00:19:28] Jessie: Yes, absolutely. We knock down barriers to growth all the time. One of the longest debates in economics is whether innovation is destructive creation or creative destruction. The reality is that with the natural limits of the earth that it becomes more and more of the former, the destructive creation. It's somewhat on a sliding scale, the destruction of the earth doubles every 30 years approximately. In the last 30 years, the destruction of the earth in that period equals the entire destruction of the earth preceding it. Its successive doubling means that in each doubling period, the system is expanding as much as it expanded throughout its whole past history. So, that is an argument by metaphor, but it's also a real pattern that is inherent in compound growth.
Maybe it would be good to talk about where all this came from.
[00:20:50] Rachel: Definitely.
[00:20:51] Jessie: A bit of it came from retracing, the early history of science, as I mentioned, the Greek connection.
I grew up in a small college town in New York state and was taught from an early age to look for natural patterns, a favorite thing to do with my dad, a physics professor. And that produced a quite unusual approach, eventually to, to science unbeknownst to my dad.
He got upset about it later, but my delight was noticing missing information, where I'd see a pattern that I couldn't understand because something was missing and that came out in first semester freshmen physics. We were doing a lab using a strobe light to photograph and digitize the path of a ball thrown in the air, the beautifully smooth parabola in the image and then to measure that and calculate the formula. Well, while standing around, I made a little joke asking what about the tossing and catching? Those were of course not in the picture.
Little did I know at that time, but I'd really stepped in it. What makes life lively are just those bursts of energy that by unseen means begin all kinds of singular events. Even today, physics does not study how those spontaneous energy concentrating behaviors like the tossing that comes about as a cascade of muscular contraction, that you can follow somewhat in your own body, but you lose track of where it really began.
So the problem is that it's an organizational process in the environment. And so there's no data. So science finds it hard to study. Some scientists like Robert Rosen and Alan Turing have famously tried. However, those and others generally return to simplifying environmental systems to statistics, and totally missing their organization.
So as I began to think about it, I also noticed the natural shapes of nature that have soft corners, and edges of everything, the smooth gradiations of change. How natural systems have many nested scales and layers of environmental relations. Those struck me as very different from abstract equations and their infinite precision taken out of context.
Somehow natural processes all seem to visibly start and stop smoothly. Except of course, for the ones we can't see. But the few that you can see, they start smoothly. So math is quite unlike nature, however useful it is for making machines. But it implied that there was a whole real world that physics does not see. I noticed something was missing from physics.
[00:24:27] Rachel: Well, this is the thing, I mean, your career is so fascinating. You've been redefining how physics approaches systems thinking, right?
[00:24:36] Jessie: Right.
[00:24:37] Rachel: And it's from this is it from this singular observation when you were younger?
[00:24:42] Jessie: Well, the way, growth systems, emerge is from a singular, connection or insight, the way a snowflake begins with a microscopic crystal on a piece of dust. And then something about that crystal sets a pattern that then evolves as the snowflake grows.
Either at the office or home, when we try to build a complex system, an office project or a dinner for 10, it goes through the stages of first an idea, and then other things build up to that, evolve the idea over time and take it to a point where you have to cut any excess tasks and focus on getting it on the table at the right time. And so refining the design and perfecting it in order to complete the design before it's released into the world.
And that's what you do in business when you develop a new product, it's got to be right by the time you release it, you can do all sorts of crazy things before, but it's got to be complete and perfect by the time you release it. The finished steps of a complex design are almost as important as the inspirational beginning.
It's similar with a relationship that you have the inspirational beginning and then, a few days or weeks later you realize this is nothing or this is something. And then that realization that there's something there to perfect or not takes hold and you change course, you stop simply amplifying the responses that you're getting, but living with the person that you met.
It's a universal pattern that we deal with all the time. I previously mentioned as a ABC, but it’s the burst of creativity and then the coordination with its world and life of service after that, or life of a role in the world.
[00:27:07] Rachel: It makes me think of Nietzsche’s concepts of Dionysus and Apollo: the Dionysian creative, passionate energy, and the Apollonian structure and almost rigidity. And it's the marriage of those two energies that can kind of give life to that which lasts.
[00:27:29] Jessie: I haven't heard that before, but it sounds like a part of it. The Greek stories are full of insight. The old stories that are told again and again, and again, for some reason. It's because they contain a lot of insight.
[00:27:48] Rachel: Sure. But I think what's so complicated about what we're now facing is that it requires such a stretch of the imagination because we're going beyond the concept of oppositional binaries. The solutions, the necessary solutions to combat the energy crisis, economic crisis, ecological crisis, they require such nuance. And multiple things can be true at the same time. Things that we previously thought only one of which could exist. And I think that's part of the problem as the intellect and as culture has grown, developed, we've reached such a place of complication that we've almost created a situation that's beyond ourselves, if that makes sense.
[00:28:42] Jessie: Well, yes.
[00:28:44] Rachel: I wonder then what would society maturation or long life stage look like? How would you design that?
[00:28:55] Jessie: Well, look at the ones that have have matured. The organizations that, that grow and, and sustain their culture, like the NGOs that famously have a culture - doctors without borders.
One of the strange examples that I read was a wonderful study of Russian scientists perfecting the weaponization of smallpox. They just related to each other as if it was ordinary business. They just merrily went along, even though they were putting the planet in danger.
[00:29:47] Rachel: Is that an example of maturation?
[00:29:50] Jessie: Well, yeah, that culture matured around a perverse understanding, like capitalism is a culture that matured around a personal perverse understanding.
These are not things that we can directly control; it's more possible to inspire. And one of my principles has always been that the growth systems and cultural change are not things that you resist, but things that you guide, that you move them forward in the right direction, rather than try to cause him to go in reverse as if they were a vehicle or something. They're not vehicles. They're evolution. And evolution doesn't go backward unless it gets rather disrupted, and then it's not backward at all. It's just disrupted future.
[00:30:46] Rachel: Does that have to be going backwards? Can it not be a reorganization of the system? I'm thinking of de-growth scholarship.
[00:30:54] Jessie: I'm familiar with de-growth and correspond with some of the people.
I think that's healthy and similar to peer to peer, or cultural and community and business relationships and organizations. It’s a new evolution of a direction that neither of which is going to get anywhere until we relieve the pressure caused by putting all our money into expanding the system's profits ever faster, you know, extracting from the earth. So what we need to do is either collapse the system as soon as possible and reset everybody's rudders all at once, the way birth does — that's how birth works, it switches the system from exploding to collaborating, it switches all it switches at once — and they find that they're trying to fit into the world rather than take it over.
You know, I see things like the anti-vax communities in Europe and America, that they don't seem to be elsewhere so much, and I wondering what it is that. People suddenly grouped together to oppose one of the best services that civilization provides. And I think the reacting to something definitely being wrong and just connecting with each other on the belief that they're opposing something wrong. And it's really with the system as a whole that's causing the disruptions, and dysfunctions all over the place that are, unfortunately still protecting the people who manage it and have these delusional approaches.
[00:33:10] Rachel: Can I just jump in there and give a really good example of what you're talking about?
In Malaysia, the Penan tribe, one of the last nomadic tribes in the world, they were refusing the vaccine. A lot of misinformation is spread through WhatsApp especially by Western doctors, Western snake oil salesman.
I covered this for Mongabay and I spoke with some Penan people and they were saying, we don't trust the government. We have been abused and exploited for so long. We're not saying we'll never get the vaccine, but just leave us alone. We're going to go into the forest because we can fend for ourselves.
And it's exactly that it was a symptom of how the system is broken in Malaysia. The politicians and the elite were getting Pfizer while the rest of the population was getting Sinovac, the Chinese vaccine, which was much less effective. So it was very much symptomatic of the fact that the Penan felt intuitively, and had seen for so many decades, that the system was not built for them. It was built to take from them. And that's how part of their resistance came out saying, no, we're not going to take the vaccines right now, thank you, because it's not mandatory.
[00:34:32] Jessie: Oh, that's very close to the stated rationale of the American far-right that government is the problem. And, of course, government is partly the problem. And all the scientists are promoting endless growth, but the general feeling and the actual problem are different.
Like the very popular financial protest movement, occupy wall street, that was promoted by some leading thinkers and certainly energized a large community, didn't understand that protest is not what financial people listen to in making their decisions. They make the decisions based on the numbers that steer the world system, and the basic mechanism of it is to use profits, which are then free to use for anything else, and put those profits into whatever is going to make more profit. And that multiply that max.
That is what maximizes the growth rate of businesses producing profits for investors, and to change that we we'd actually need some kind of an investor revolution, not an attack on the people carrying out the investors’ instructions., People are familiar with tithing for religious purposes, well call saving the earth a religious purpose and investors tithing their unearned income, the profits to invest in slowing growth and caring for the damaged planet.
[00:36:33] Rachel: But they need, they need an incentive, which they don't have right now. And that's why I was very excited in January 2021 when the wall street bets mass protests happened. And those Redditers, the people with very little capital, crashed the market. Remember that?
I was so, so, so excited.I was like, right, this is it. This is where we're seeing the kind of protest that meets these people in their paradigm. Wall Street tried to tank Gamestop stock, and everybody who had an emotional relationship with either that store or with the ideology behind it, that the big man shouldn't get to win every time—people made a fortune and they made capitalists lose a fortune in that week.
[00:37:34] Jessie: Well, but they were the supreme capitalists of the moment though. This is what's happening with all the ups and downs in the stock market. All of them are these attack strategies of capitalists attacking other capitalists, pumping the market, dumping it, skimming.
[00:37:59] Rachel: But these people didn’t dump. They didn't dump even when the price was going down, they held on. And that was what made all the capitalists lose a huge amount of money. It was very much a kind of vitriolic rebuttal of playing the game. I mean, some people made cash, but most people made tens of thousands of dollars and then lost that by the end of the week because they'd refuse to sell, which I just thought it was beautiful.
[00:38:24] Jessie: What would be an equivalent that would be contagious for investors, I call it fair money: to have money that isn't tainted you need to spend enough of your profits on saving the earth to begin to turn the ship.
[00:38:53] Rachel: Well, I think until you decouple money from politics, there's not going to be much incentive to do that.
[00:39:01] Jessie: Well, also from livelihoods. I mean, I have a savings that I'm relying on, and I'm spending as much of my unearned income as I can safely do. But, everybody is looking at a longer and longer retirement and needing more and more money to float them. There are all sorts of these contradictions lying around.
[00:39:32] Rachel: Hmm. That's interesting. I want to ask you about these sustainability development goals, because when you were working with the UN, you found that there was a problem with the standard sustainability metrics. What, how are they being measured? And what's the issue?
[00:39:53] Jessie: There are a variety, and as the implementation of the SDGs has progressed, the people on the ground may have changed some of the procedures, as they find what works.
So, what I saw the beginnings might have changed somewhat, but one of the things that is still a glaring problem is that the SDGs are still a growth maximizing plan.
And the idea was that undeveloped countries would grow and everybody else would dial back and that would leave space for them. And of course there hasn't been. In fact, how the economy works is that the most competitive parts of the economy rob the poorest. And that's how the undeveloped countries stay undeveloped. As with any generality, there are exceptions, of course, but there's so many contradictory problems.
We have this mass migration problem all over the world partly because of the counterproductive effect that economics says that increasing competition creates jobs – and it actually shrinks them for the people whose resources are taken.
And of course there's the other side of this that I shouldn't ignore. And that's that the resources are worthless without the organization of the people using them. So, you know, things like that competitive disadvantage that the developed world creates for everyone else wouldn't exist if the developing world wasn't really pretty ingenious in how it uses things.
[00:42:07] Rachel: I want to ask you something. I haven't asked this question yet on the show.
One of the arguments that I see most often against change and against achieving a homeostasis of planetary life in which ecosystems work together and human beings are part of that ecosystem. One of the argument I see most frequently against that being a possibility is that it's not in our nature, that human beings, life itself, is incapable of limiting itself, of restraining itself. And that human beings or any living being on this planet is like a bacteria, and given the right context, it will just spread itself out over everything. Is that true?
[00:43:10] Jessie: Well, there are a lot of different versions of that myth.
[00:43:14] Rachel: Myth. Okay. I like where this is going.
[00:43:17] Jessie: I have to do is point to the fact that we self limit ourselves in all our relationships.
[00:43:24] Rachel: What do you mean?
[00:43:25] Jessie: You know, at the dinner table, we don't take more than our share. Let's say there's one dish that's really popular, we make sure everybody gets enough. At the office, we see somebody's having trouble and we pitch in and help. Similarly on the street, you know, people, people take action when there's a need to.
Those are all the homeostasis functions. I think that one of the main reasons people are not aware of how lively homeostasis is because it's represented as negative feedback, and it forgets that the negative feedback is in response to positive feedback. You know, this is one of those odd things that people get blinded very quickly by, by theories. Science has arrived at this conclusion that everything is breaking down. That entropy is a constant force and that that's the driving force of change and in the world. And well, things have to build up before they break down.
[00:44:39] Rachel: Hmm.
[00:44:40] Jessie: You see that all over the place, plants grow before they die, and songs begin before they end and in the in-between, there's all sorts of lively stuff. And so not appreciating life is what I see as maybe the root source of the idea that just sort of forgiving our greed and egotism, the maximum power principles that everything takes all it can all the time. Which is just not true. If you see how people live and you see how things work, you know, maturing, at the end of college and heading off on your own, ready to deal with the world is not boring. It's not a death sentence.
[00:45:39] Rachel: Yeah. And I've not studied natural systems, but I've been led to believe there's also examples of this in natural systems, in plant ecosystems and animal ecosystems, that there is a capacity, if you're looking at life with a capital L, and whether it's the natural balance of things which leads to it, but— somebody said on the show that life is a miracle because it tends towards self-organization.
[00:46:15] Jessie: I've been mentioning examples of that, that the organization of our cultures as they meet new conditions and have to share information on how to respond to them, in keeping with the prior culture, but adapting to the new world. Cultures do that all the time.
And if you look around, you see eruptive change in cultures. The sixties culture created this tremendous explosion of cultural change, some small parts have lingered on for quite a while, are still with us. The cultural equality movements, LGBT, Black Lives Matter, all these principles of holistic design that are being picked on one at a time by the general community of interest in going that direction.
That has certainly upset the people who are already upset — the religious right are very upset with the moment. And that I think motivated a lot of the imaginative re-inventing of politics that the Republicans did in the U.S for the last 40 years. But, all these things are in the mix and the question is, you know, where are we going?
As a group we're seeming to be inventing more and more problems. When are we going to reverse that? It will reverse one way or another. Will it be inspiration or exasperations? I don't know.
[00:48:27] Rachel: TBC to be confirmed, Jessie. Well, a great funny note to end on. Thank you very much for your time and for all the work that you're doing, where can people find out more or read some of your work?
[00:48:47] Jessie: Well, the simplest way is to go to my homepage, which is Jessiehenshaw.com.
[00:49:10] Rachel: My final question, of course, is who would you like to platform?
[00:49:21] Jessie: Nora Bateson, the daughter of Gregory Bateson, has some wonderful insights. Michael Bowan is a Maestro of the P2P movement. Also, David Snowden, who is a more traditionally educated physicist, who switched from trying to model complex systems to helping people respond to them.
[00:50:08] Rachel: Hmm. Interesting.
[00:50:10] Jessie: Yeah, so three great people.
[00:50:13] Rachel: Thank you very much, Jessie. Thank you so much for your time.
[00:50:16] Jessie: Thank you so much.