Sunday, May 18, 2014


There is a fixed amount of time any of us can do something. We also have a limited range of abilities, partly innate and partly determined by experience. Knowledge is often incomplete, and not always accurate. Even if we have the knowledge and abilities, we may not have the opportunity to do it, depending upon conditions that aren’t under our control. If we are successful in doing that “something,” it will almost certainly cause other things to happen, which we may or may not be able to anticipate, fully understand, or control: things that could either support or get in the way of meeting the goals that govern what we’re doing in the first place. In short, we’re pretty much stuck with the fact that our decisions will be imperfectly conceived and executed, and have unintended consequences.

In a complex system like a business, a government, a society, or a natural ecological community (“ecosystem”), there is a lot of activity with a lot of consequences, intended and unintended. The system survives if, on average, the healthy consequences are greater than the harmful ones; and it dies if the reverse is true.

Nature deals with the problem of survival by spreading out risk. In a healthy ecosystem, no individual or species has too much power over the others; so that if something happens to it, something else can pick up the slack. There are also many interactions, but none that will have such a large impact on the entire community that everyone will suffer if its consequences are unhealthy. Because each individual is both a consumer and a resource, the amount of life in the system increases to a maximum; and because there are many types of resources (species), the longevity of the system is also increased.

For most of humanity’s existence, hunter-gatherers lived in small groups that used what they found, and limited their populations accordingly, resulting in a trade of population for longevity. Since the beginning of civilization, perhaps out of necessity stemming from changing conditions, and aided by improvements in technology, we reversed that trade by enlisting more people to find resources and then used them to create artificial environments increasingly tailored to the wants and needs of individuals. Today’s organizations (such as governments and business) are the latest innovation in “cultural technology,” systems that have enabled this dynamic to proceed exponentially.

The complexity of our organizations (indeed, civilization as a whole), is exactly what we need it to be, as long as we can count on getting more people and more resources to help make up the difference between what we’ve actually got and what we want to get. What’s causing pain now, is that we’ve hit a limit in resources and people, and the unhealthy consequences of our actions (especially those of a few people who have a large amount of power) are not being entirely offset by healthy ones.