The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Joe Brewer. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Joe Brewer. Joe’s a complexity researcher, innovation strategist, experienced designer, and serial social entrepreneur, and a change strategist working on behalf of all of humanity, and an evangelist for the field of cultural design. I’ve known Joe for, I don’t know, seven or eight years, and when I first met him, it was in the context of mimetics, particularly around the vocabulary used in climate change and that if you use certain words, it helped people see the reality of it better than others. Just catching up with you, Joe, are you still interested in mimetics? Do you still do any thinking in that field?
Joe: I definitely do, although I tend to think of it more in an applied sense as in, I’m very interested in creating mimetic strategies and implementing them more so than I am in the theory at this point in time.
Jim: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. I certainly see that you’re careful with the words that you use and you use your words with strategic intent. So let’s start off on the first of your words that I think are important. A lot of your work, you use the word regeneration. How would you describe to our audience how regeneration differs from sustainable or sustainability?
Joe: Yeah, I think this is one of those distinctions that is sort of nerdy philosophy, but it turns out to be extremely important because regeneration, if you think of something like a starfish that it loses one of its five arms and has an internal genetically evolved capacity to regrow that arm, that the regeneration of the limb is a fair and apt use of the word. And when you dig deeper into what it actually is referring to, probably the best name given to it is what Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela call autopoiesis, which is basically any kind of dynamic pattern for a living organism that is able to, in a biochemical sense, reproduce the conditions of its starting point so that it can continue to constitute its own dynamic existence. So their word autopoiesis is the self-generated ability to self-express, which is meant to capture that dynamic.
Joe: So when we talk about regeneration, we’re really describing what living systems do. To use another person’s phrase, Janine Benyus from the Biomimicry Institute, she says, “To create the conditions conducive to life.” So living systems create the conditions conducive to life moment to moment. What’s interesting about this is that you can map this on to any organism and it immediately evokes the idea of homeostasis, which is that if an organism is able to dynamically reproduce its conditions of being alive, then it has a moment to moment stable existence and that is what homeostasis does. And this is where we draw the link between regeneration and sustainability.
Joe: Homeostasis is the sustained capacity to be alive for the organism moment to moment. So basically regeneration is the underlying dynamic pattern that reproduces the conditions of sustained existence. So sustainability, therefore, is like a dynamic property or a byproduct of any regenerative process. And I think that difference turns out to be really important if you’re trying to design for or cultivate any form of sustainability. What you’re actually doing is working with the patterns of regeneration in order to do so.
Jim: Could you give a tangible example? Sometimes that helps our people understand these ideas a little bit better. Give me an example of something that’s regeneration and something that’s sustainable.
Joe: Yeah, so an example would be that there may be a limited period of time where something can be sustained, but it actually doesn’t embody the dynamics of being a living system. So an example might be to have a way of living and having a successful business in a certain window of time, say perhaps when there’s a particular mineral that is used for producing the electronic device that the company may have so they can sustain the existence of their business while actually depleting the resource because they’re using it up more quickly than nature would provide. So in this case, you could see that the sustainability of the business may exist for years, or even decades, but underlying it is an inherently depletion-oriented or extractive pattern that undermines the ability to reproduce that sustainability.
Jim: Ah, perfect.
Joe: So eventually that type of business is just going to go away because it’s going to run itself out of luck.
Jim: Yeah. As you said earlier, it’s the time depth perhaps. I know it’s a topic that you’re as interested in as I am, but an example that strikes me about regeneration, one of things I’m very proud of here is this farm we’ve owned for 30 years. It was an overgrazed, depleted mountain farm and over the last 30 years we’ve probably added two inches of topsoil to most of our fields by using what we think of as regenerative processes. And the soil wasn’t so bad you couldn’t grow crops, so it was sustainable for a while, but we’ve now actually improved the ability to grow crops that should bear fruit for the next 100 years.
Joe: Yeah. One of the amazing things about understanding the principles of whatever the living system is, in this case, micro organisms and mycelium in the soil as they connect to the roots of the plants. If you understand how that works, you actually can increase the productivity of the system. So you don’t just keep it at some fixed level. Again, sustainability can often, if a person’s being sloppy about it, something is sustainable if they’re just keeping it at the same measured level of output, which, of course, true sustainability science as it was articulated in the 1970s and ’80s and named in the Brundtland Report in 1987, really they meant regeneration. They just use the word sustainability at some point and it became the kind of go-to term.
Joe: But what has been lost is when people who are not trained in living systems start to do things that they call sustainable, there may be intentional greenwashing or it could just be their ignorance and they’re doing it by accident because they don’t know what the living system patterns are that they need to be working with. And so I think this distinction is also important from an educational point of view. If you want to do sustainable things, then you’re actually collaborating with regenerative patterns. And so that understanding, whether you use the word or not, is what makes it truly sustainable.
Jim: Makes perfect sense. I’m going to steal an analogy from business. Tell me what you think about this. One could think about at least the lay use of sustainable as sort of corresponding to the operating statement in a business, the profit and loss statement. Yeah, we’re making a little bit more money than we’re spending, so we’re doing okay. While the balance sheet shows us what our reserves are. Do we have adequate assets? Are we replenishing our assets at an adequate sense? This strikes me, those two concepts are pretty damn congruent.
Joe: I think they are. And one person who really knows that subject very well is a good friend of mine named Bill Baue, who lives in Connecticut and works for an organization called r3.O, which is basically a regenerative design for the whole infrastructure of the economy, working with reporting and accounting and data structures and metrics and measurement systems and so on. And he has been a really strong advocate of what’s called context-based metrics. If you have a metric based on your baseline, like, well, we used five tons of non-recyclable material last year and now we’ve lowered it to four tons. So we’re actually reducing or improving our ecological footprint, but we’re still depleting the resource. Then you’re basically using a baseline instead of a true and adequate context.
Joe: The true and adequate context is how much they’re in total of whatever it is you’re using, how quickly is it depleted naturally or how quickly is it regenerated naturally, and is your rate of extraction and depletion equal to or greater than that rate of regeneration? So without a context-based measure, you really don’t know what the hell you’re talking about and it turns out you did a survey of the research literature and also the corporate sustainability literature. And more than 97% of companies using so-called sustainability measures are doing them relative to baselines and benchmarks. Meaning they’re not context-based and they actually have no clue how sustainable they are based on those measures. So this difference you’re drawing a point to is extremely important.
Jim: Yep. I think we’re both on exactly the same page. Sometimes we may use a little different language. You have to maybe send me an intro to this guy Bill. He sounds real interesting. I’d love to have him on the show because this sounds to my mind exactly how we should be thinking about things. Because as you say, I can be a little bit less shitty in my practices this year than I was last year and that’s a good thing, but we may still be a very long way away from really a longterm stable situation. And if we don’t even realize that then how the heck are we going to drive our strategies?
Joe: Yeah. And I just called up the link to the report he published last year, which was for the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. So UNRISD, I think is how they pronounce that. And the name of the report is Compared to What? A Three-Tiered Typology of Sustainable Development Performance Indicators From Incremental to Contextual to Transformational. And his point is that almost everything is incremental when it needs to at least be contextual. And even contextual doesn’t tell you how to transform a system. If your context-based measures show you’re not being sustainable, you’ve got to transform that system. And so this is a 46-page report that he published last fall that goes into the depths of this for anyone who’s interested in it and it’s just a fantastic report.
Jim: As we always do, we’ll put a link to that report on the episode page. Go to jimruttshow.com and to the Joe Brewer Episode and you’ll have a link to that sounds like very interesting report.
Jim: Let’s move onto our next topic. Joe, you’re sometimes pigeonholed as a bit of an echo pessimists. Do you think that’s fair and kind of where do you stand on what can be saved and what will be lost over the rest of the century?
Joe: I would say that more than an optimist or a pessimist and my kind of skeptical analysis, at least, I would try to be as much as I can an empirical realist. That said, I tend to have a personality, you’re thinking of my neuro type I tend to be more of an optimistic kind of person. So if you’re hanging out with me and we’re drinking beers and making jokes, you’ll find I’m pretty upbeat and have a good sense of humor and tend to actually, if anything, be biased where thinking better of people and accidentally making the mistake of them not being as good as I thought and so on. So personality wise, I’m kind of an optimist, but when I look at the convergent data across different fields, I end up with a pretty sobering point of view that I try to be as realistic as I can about.
Joe: But unfortunately, as you mentioned at the beginning of the episode when I was studying the framing of climate change, there was a tendency for a long time for environmental activists who are being unstrategic to try to go away from doomsday and instead paint fake sort of falsely optimistic pictures of the future and jump too far in the other direction. Well, it’s interesting, I get pigeonholed as pessimistic a lot because I have embraced an understanding of collapse, which does put me in a place that could be understood as pessimistic. And so what I think is important is maybe the difference between the emotional valence of the information itself and the attempt at least at being rigorous in the assessment.
Joe: So for example, I think there’s a really powerful book that was written a long time ago, published around 1980 by a person who taught in a department of sociology, but he was actually a human ecologist named William Catton Jr. He wrote an amazing book called Overshoot, which really is a fantastic assessment of how it’s quite likely that we overshot the carrying capacity of the planet somewhere in the 1930s or 1940s. And all of the surplus human population from then on is actually excessive relative to any ability to be sustainable.
Joe: And so what’s interesting about a perspective like that is if it turns out to be completely correct, a person will sound like a pessimist for saying so. Now just to give a sense of how the emotional quality of the information may be different from the quality of the analysis, I find that people who know me personally are often impressed and inspired by my continued optimism to do everything I can to help improve the world even though I have a pretty somber sense of the scale and depth of the predicament that we’re in.
Jim: So let’s talk a little bit about the depth of the predicament that we’re in. Give me a thumbnail sketch of the rest of the century as you see it, even assuming that we get more serious than we are right now about addressing climate change. In fact, actually the scenario I use is 2.25 C by the end of the century is my best guess on where we’ll end up. But give me your thoughts.
Joe: Yeah. I think when I often use as my standard heuristic, when I’m just starting to think about this as I go back to the famous Limits to Growth study that came out in the early 1970s issued by the Club of Rome and led by a group of computer scientists at MIT. And they had a scenario, it wasn’t meant to be a forecast, so they weren’t trying to predict the future, but they had a scenario that they call business-as-usual. And two things that are interesting about that scenario, one is, the real world patterns of what they were simulating in terms of resource allocation, those real world patterns have actually tracked the business-as-usual scenario with a disturbing accuracy. And so they accidentally made a good forecast by designing this scenario.0.
Joe: And what’s interesting is when you look at that scenario as a heuristic, one thing that they described is a cascade of disruptions to global supply chains starting somewhere between around 2015 and 2025 for different parts of the global system. And one of the early triggers being that there is an increasing scarcity of available energy. So think of a peak oil type of an analysis where, as you start to use up all of the cheaply available oil, then you go to more and more expensive oil, which lowers the margin of returns. And this is often measured as what’s called energy return on energy invested, which we could go into in a moment if we want to for the sake of listeners.
Joe: And as you get closer and closer to the amount of energy you need to produce in order to get the same amount of energy that is able to be used in the marketplace, as you start to approach that asymptotically, you can end up in a place where there’s quite a lot of volatility in price. And so this idea of peak oil comes out as expressed economically as fluctuating and volatile measures of energy prices. So what they showed in that business-as-usual scenario was that price volatility in the energy sector caused price volatility in the food sector, which then caused various food shortages at different places and times. And along, kind of in conjunction or parallel with this, key resources being depleted, having their own dynamics that weren’t necessarily related to energy but to manufacturing or topsoil or other things.
Joe: And long story, not quite so short, but shorter is that they showed human population peaking around 2030, which if you think of what that means, our exponential growth of human population begins to be balanced out and canceled by an exponential growth in human death to achieve a plateau point of zero human growth. And then it rapidly declines from there between around 2030 and 2050 or 2060. And I think they hit their peak around eight billion and it dropped down to somewhere around two, two and a half billion in that scenario. I find this to be a really useful heuristic to think with.
Joe: And more recently there’s a model called World 7, which is a continuation of the same basic approach. Limits to growth was based on what was called World 4, as a fourth major iteration of that computer simulation computational model. The World 7 is using continually updated data about things like available iron and zinc and lithium and whatever other minerals are involved in major manufacturing processes. And they show most of those rapidly being depleted and will start to kind of stonewall production sometime between 2030 and 2050, which could be considered as compounding within that business-as-usual scenario. So this was all without knowing in the early 1970s, they didn’t know about climate change yet and they weren’t measuring biodiversity loss. And between then and now, one of the major developments with, Jim, I know you followed this really closely, is the formalizing and rapid progress in the fields of complexity science.
Joe: And so, one thing I can say is I think we have a better understanding now or at least a better capacity to grapple with what it means to create super critical states, and what happens when you have these stabilizing patterns and highly interdependent systems and all of that, that they didn’t have in the early 1970s or at least not in the state of the art we have today. So I kind of combine that sort of a perspective with a different, equally I think, well thought out and well intended perspective, which is that of the Stockholm Resilience Center. And this is a network of earth system scientists who created what’s called the Planetary Boundaries Framework.
Joe: They asked a really interesting question. This was around 2007, I think, they started asking this question. They asked, “What are the dynamic earth system processes that have some kind of a range of parameters that if you go outside of them, the globalized economy becomes untenable and goes away?” They identified nine of these, well, eight really because number nine is a catchall for novel entities. It’s where like rogue runaway, artificial intelligence and things like that are thrown into that category. But the other eight of them are things like the ozone hole, ocean acidification, climate change, loss of biodiversity, one that’s called land system change or degradation of landscapes and so on.
Joe: And so then they quickly decided to ask the question of those nine with the best knowledge available to us, “How many have we crossed?” And in 2013 they published a paper saying, “Well, according to that past information we’ve already crossed four of them.” So that tells us in a sort of definitive way we’re in a state of overshoot and collapse by that frameworks measurement. So I tend to take that analysis pretty seriously as well and then try to back engineer out what needs to be done to get back within that safe operating range. And that’s where the regenerative design work becomes so essential.
Jim: Okay, that’s great. Now do you really think that we are that close to the edge and we’ll start to see a rapid drop in population after 2030?
Joe: I think that we are in a really dangerous place where that scenario is in the kind of black swan fact tale kind of a thinking. Now that scenario becomes more and more likely with each passing year or at least it becomes more and more plausible because really darn hard to give a rigorous measure of probability to it. But just as an example of a scenario we could think of for this year that could start to create that kind of an outcome. There are six major breadbaskets in the world that are major areas of food production. So think of the upper Midwest of the United States as one of these six. And with the volatility we have in our jet streams and weather systems, like the big wildfires that hit Australia just a few months ago due to extreme weather events, that if two of those six breadbaskets were significantly compromised in the same year by extreme weather events, that could have a cascading effect of causing up to a billion people to starve to death just within one period of crop losses.
Joe: So the level of fragility around that possibility is already built into our global supply chains. And add another factor of what’s called the blue ocean event, which is when we first have an entire summer without any ice in the Arctic Ocean. What this does is, creates a really strong amplifying effect for increase in climate change, but it also has the immediate effect of changing the subtropical jet stream, which in many ways anchors our weather systems to specific geographies. So as those jet stream start to become more volatile then extreme weather events can be stabilized or breadbaskets.
Joe: So we’re in this place where we’re right on the cusp of a blue ocean event that we’ve been very close to it for a couple of years and it might happen this summer. We don’t know for sure. But if we turn out with a blue ocean event and two of these six breadbaskets do get major crop failures in the same year, then a billion people could die in one annual cycle. So I’m not saying that that is going to happen. I’m just saying that that level of fragility and the interdependencies and that level of, I would just say rigidity in our ability to be flexible and adapt to that scale of disruption, makes those scenarios plausible and I think more likely the further we go into this danger zone.
Jim: Yeah, I do like that thinking. In fact, interesting you mentioned the Limits of Growth Club of Rome report. I was an undergraduate at MIT at the time it came out and I wrote a refutation of it for a crackpot libertarian student newspaper. And my argument was they’re thinking about this all wrong. The models are all linear and they do not assume any adaptation. And of course, their short term predictions were all grossly wrong. Now, some of their longer term predictions, as you point out, have been better, but they did not assume that humans would innovate and adapt and change and replace this material with that material, develop new forms of crops, the green revolution, et cetera. But the things you’re talking about are actually to my mind, from a complexity science perspective, more fundamental. I tend to be a little skeptical of metaphysics in general. And sometimes I hear the word wisdom, I cringe a little bit, but I’ve come to think that understanding the concept of fat-tailed risks, is a-
Jim: I think that understanding the concept of fat-tailed risks is about as close to wisdom as one is likely to get here in the 21st century. And the things you point out are all in that bag of yeah, there’s a fair chance that could happen in the next 100 years because we’re talking about fat-tailed, nonlinear interacting systems that we could stumble into, at a much higher probability than the old fashioned Gaussian way of thinking could occur.
Jim: Indeed, that’s why I am so motivated on climate change. I believe humans are adaptive, more adaptive than a lot of people give them credit for, and we could adapt to 2.25 C increase, which is my baseline scenario, i.e. much worse than the international actors are calling for. I think we could adapt to it. There’ll be small amount of death, a couple of hundred million maybe.
Jim: But 2.25 is just a central tendency. The reality is we could very easily stumble into a positive feedback loop that could produce much more volatility and much bigger spikes in climate. And those are the things that can cause really widespread catastrophe, including couplings to the food systems as you’re talking about. So yeah, these kinds of thinking, I find much more sobering and depressing than the club of Rome linear models approach.
Joe: Yeah. The other thing about this is, I’ve come to realize that there are really two psychological categories of people who can do this analysis, because it’s not intellectual per se. Obviously a person needs to be intellectually competent to dig into these complexity issues, but what’s different about this kind of information is that it is intellectual, yes, but it’s also inherently traumatizing. It tends to induce anxiety, angst, despair, pain, depression, and related, what I would say un-resilient psychological responses.
Joe: Which means you have a more limited range of people, neuro types of people, who continue in the discomfort of that information. One is your range of sociopaths, psychopaths or autistic people or Aspergers people who just have different ways of processing emotions. So among that lumping together of what are actually many different kinds of people, because each of those words represents a spectrum and not a single stereotype.
Joe: But I’ve found that some really bright autistic oriented, really analytical, mathematical people, good pattern analysis. You can start to find this stuff, and you don’t have the negative emotional feedback so you can keep going. So I found there’s a set of people who tend to be really socially awkward, not good communicators, bad storytellers, but they do the math well.
Joe: And so you got some of those. And then the other is the people who are really empathetic, meaning they’re able to imagine these scenarios and try to feel into what their like, but they somehow build enough buffers in themselves that it doesn’t debilitate them to stay in it. And so I’ve been looking for ways to filter out and filter in these people to have the conversation about what this complexity science perspective has to say, so we can work together on dealing with what are actually existential risks. So I know this is a really important overlap in all of the topics you explore in this show.
Jim: Yep. And you and I have actually argued about this on Twitter on occasion. You do talk a lot about this trauma and sadness and grief, and my reaction has always been, fuck that shit people, let’s just get on with it. I guess I’m one of those neuro types that say, all right, I can see it, I can smell it, I can feel it, but what does all that have to do with solving the problem? God damn it. So put those feelings on the shelf and let’s move forward and address how we are going to solve it. And I suspect there are a lot more people of that sort than you might suspect. At least that’s my hypothesis.
Joe: Yeah. I think that there are two ways I’ve been thinking about this. One is that the people who are ready to just get on with it are getting on with it. And by and large, those of us in that category are finding each other and collaborating to the extent possible. So we’re doing our part and I think there’s been a stable baseline of people like us doing our part.
Joe: The place where it starts to get challenging is when we see pathway, like a design pathway for solving some of these problems, they tend to require us, for reasons having to do with Eleanor Ostrom’s work about how to govern the commons, they tend to require us to be collaborative, participatory, kind of a blend of bottom down and top up. And really, they are game B governance systems, that they require us to be able to work with people who don’t have that neuro type.
Joe: And so when I started finding myself working with people who really are emotionally traumatized by the information, but they care so much about the consequences that they keep going, that they need a therapeutic rehabilitation and then also social supports to continue. And it’s for that, what I think is actually a much larger magnitude of people, who were also in this space that actually are not as effective as they need to be because of the grief and trauma and the negative emotional reactions that they are either have in themselves, or they cause in people around them, and making them bad communicators or at least ineffective.
Joe: So I found myself, because I’ve done so much work in communication strategy and variations of online organizing, just found that the grief and trauma conversation always ends up being important in that community organizing process. And if we fail to do it, then we get a lot of conflicts and problems that come up because they just weren’t being dealt with effectively. So that’s one reason why I tend to harp on it so much.
Joe: But I also think that our differences in temperament about this are healthy, because we don’t all want to be on exactly the same page about something that’s important. So it’s good for us to have that diversity in the mix.
Jim: Yeah, it’s two different approaches. You and folks that share your perspective and approach can go help bring in some people who are maybe marginal if they don’t get this therapeutic approach. While I’ll focus on people who are willing to go line up and take that hill. War fighting mode, that’s always been my mode. Find the willing, organize them into an effective team and go take the objective. And both are useful, there’s no doubt about that.
Joe: Yeah, and also I think that as we’re really grappling with the seriousness of these situations, it’s so helpful to understand how quickly a phase transition can occur. I don’t know, you might be familiar with this paper, but there was a report that came out from Chatham House, I want to say it was 2011 but it might’ve been a little later.
Joe: So there was a big volcano in Iceland that dropped a giant ash cloud over Europe and shut down air traffic flow for about five days. Chatham House being the smart people that they are, they decided to do an analysis of just in time manufacturing and supply chains. And they asked the question, how much longer could that specific disruption to transport be tolerated by the global supply chains? They came to a really disturbing conclusion, which was if it continued for an additional three or four days, so we’re talking about the ash cloud shutting down air traffic over Europe for a total of eight or nine days, that one of the results would be that different parts of the just in time manufacturing would begin to shut down their factories, because they weren’t getting the inputs they needed to produce the next step in the production process.
Joe: And shutting them down was often a heuristic effect that, you shut them down in a day but it might take you a month to turn them back on. And so what they created was a scenario of supply chain breakdown that takes eight or nine days to initiate from an initial disruption, but it takes as much as 18 months to two years to turn back on. And I think that kind of hysteresis is, we’re doing it right now, which is why it’s such an important lesson for us.
Jim: Yep. For the audience, we’re recording this on April 14th. I think it’s important to time mark these things cause this COVID-19 pandemic looks very different each week. And so we are running this experiment in real time, and we talk a fair amount on this show about the homeostasis versus hysteresis in our social operating systems. What things will recover and which things won’t, how long they will take.
Jim: But I think that Chatham House report, and some of the more pessimistic perspectives on the COVID-19 shock forget something. Which is, one of the great beauties of the fat, dumb and happy consumerist culture is we can do without most of that stuff. Suppose none of us got a new iPhone for a year. Would anybody die? Hell no. Suppose nobody bought a new car for a year. Would anybody die? Hell no. There were no civilian cars manufactured in the United States from 1940 until 1946. Did the world end? It didn’t. So, oddly enough, the fact that we are living this hugely fat, dumb, and happy life across the West, and now the advanced economies of the Pacific rim in the East, actually means we have a vast capability of downsizing and accepting disruption that has no real impact on people’s lives.
Jim: Now, of course it will have financial shit storms of prodigious proportions, but those of us who’ve studied money very, very carefully understand that money is not wealth. Wealth is our skills, our assets, land, buildings, our machine tools, et cetera. And money is nothing but a coordination signaling system which can be replaced and can be rebooted. And in fact, I like to point out the fact that there was a large scale experiment in completely replacing a monetary system in a crisis, which was the hyper inflations in Germany, Austria and Hungary in 1922. Their currencies inflated by the quadrillions and essentially wiped out all fixed income instruments, money became worthless, et cetera. They all bit the bullet at about the same time, reintroduced a totally new currency. And amazingly the economy restarted in a week.
Jim: So I guess I’m saying that while yes, in theory there will be perturbations in all kinds of supply chains in this COVID-19 shock will be way bigger than 13 days worth. We also have vast built in resilience, at least in the rich countries, by not having to do things that rich people do all the time. We don’t need all that stuff, and frankly I find that somewhat hopeful that some of us at least will learn we don’t need all that stuff.
Joe: Yeah, I think it’s really important to recognize that there is a bias against understanding both the perspective of Chatham House and the perspective you’re describing. So there’s a really strong tendency for people to not understand fat tails, so they don’t understand how these compounding risks work. And they don’t understand what systems fragility actually is. So there’s a lot of truth to people being blind to that, and we’re in a context where at least those of us making important policy decisions need to be able to think that way, and by and large they’re not.
Joe: Then on the other side, to be able to understand the system affordances of adaptation or of creative response. And so an example of this that I think is really interesting is, I want to say it was in The Atlantic monthly or one of those magazines sometime around 2007, there was this really nice in depth study done where they were looking at what happened to the city of Detroit. Because in the 90s there was a giant economic collapse and the city went from about a million people to about 200,000 people. So 80% of their population disappeared in 10 years, just because big auto manufacturers were laying off and they were shutting down and people moved away.
Joe: And what happened by about 2005, 2006 was there was a renaissance of people setting up artist cooperatives and other community gardens and all kinds of interesting things in all the abandoned houses in Detroit. And so no one saw that coming, that adaptive creativity. From beforehand you would just say, Oh, look at the measured decimation of the economy. What you don’t see as that the conditions are set for what an ecologist would call us cessation.
Joe: Which is when you move from one type of ecosystem to another one that is able to use up whatever materials were left behind by the previous version. And that’s also how forests form is, you have pioneering and colonizing species that come in and they rapidly deplete the available resources but leave behind other ones. For example, they don’t eat a lot of nitrogen, but a lot of them are embodiments of nitrogen and they fix it in the soil. So then it makes it easier for say a lesser sun tolerant, more shade needing kinds of plants that need a little bit more nitrogen to come into this environment that’s now being left behind as those pioneering species are dying off.
Joe: And I think there is a general insight here that is, I think, relevant to complexity science writ large, and that is that when we talk about collapse, we often think of it as this category of negativity. When we actually can see it as an integral part of many kinds of system pattern changes. There’s a collapse of some previous mode or structure, which actually is what enables the new motor structure to form. And the collapse in that sense is good relative to what is emerging. And in some cases it’s absolutely necessary.
Joe: And so I think there’s a really important opportunity here to bring this aspect of the collapse conversation in. And maybe a historic place we could do it is in quantum mechanics with the collapse of the wave function. Or collapse isn’t bad at all, it’s just called measurement. And so I think it’s an interesting way of remembering that the word has a really strong stigma associated with it, but it needn’t necessarily, although clearly there are some people that use it in really depressing ways.
Jim: Yep. Very good point. And the other thing I talk about a fair amount with my kind of prepper head on. It’s funny, I’ve always, at least for the last 30 years, I’m what I call a semi prepper and I’ve always got a little social discredit for that. What a whack job thinking about shit like that. I would say in the last month I got a return on that social credit and a few dividends.
Jim: But when I talk about being prepared, I always point out that you can only be prepared within the context of specific or approximate scenarios. And this is where fat tail thinking is really important. There are scenarios that are probable enough that it’s worth preparing for, but way, way, way, way out on the fat tail, let’s say the dinosaur killing asteroids, Hey, no use even worrying about that one. Just put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.
Jim: And so when we say collapse, collapse could be like the Soviet Union. I was on a podcast as a guest, one of the hosts lived through the collapse, or family at least had lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union. And she made pretty clear how dire things were. On the other hand, nobody died. Their whole socioeconomic, political operating system was thrown out the window. A new one came up, unfortunately not as good as it could have been, but probably better than what they had. And that was a collapse, but it wasn’t a very extreme one. So we should realize that collapses happen on a continuum and most of them don’t end up at the Mad Max level.
Joe: Yeah, and also there’s a recognition by people trying to create social change that oftentimes we don’t need incremental change, we need transformational change. We actually need to replace one system with another. And what’s interesting is that that implies some kind of collapse. It could be a benign engineered collapse, let’s pause for a moment, shut this thing down and turn the other one on, which is pretty unrealistic, but maybe I’ll use that as an extreme version of a benevolent collapse. And the extreme other end is the Yellowstone volcano or the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, where it’s pretty much all encompassing and there’s not much you can do about it.
Joe: Well, it turns out, in reality, the important things are about time and space scale linking, which is basically when you have any kind of a collapsed pattern that’s occurring, is it too big or too fast for you to be able to do anything about it? No, there’s always something that you could do about it on some timescale and in some spatial scale. So the question is more about being a, I think a semi prepper is actually a better hedged bet than being a full on prepper. We built some of the skills, have some of their capacities set aside, but you’re still playing in the old world.
Joe: And I think the criticism of the back to the land movement in the 60s was that while some of it has actually become the seeds of the regenerative movement today and is absolutely essential to where we are, a lot of it was people who had no clue what they were doing. They made some mistakes and they came right back into the mainstream economy. And so they kind of did something that they weren’t really competent to do, or they felt it wasn’t the life they wanted and they left it.
Jim: Yeah, that’s a good point. Our farm up here, deep in the mountains of Appalachia, we actually bought from a failed hippie commune. These were classic back to the landers, who showed up here in 1974 and bought a farm that had been in the same family since the area was settled in 1750 and had gone father to son for 220 years. Literally father to son without a break. The odds of that are pretty long.
Jim: The last son decided he liked drinking more than he did farming. So he sold the farm to the hippies and as you said they were incompetent. They tried one crop and the other, the only one that could make any money was, guess what? Good old marijuana. And they couldn’t even do that very effectively. And then they eventually kind of petered out and after 15 years we bought the place. And so one can understand the heart of the back to the landers. Why did we end up buying the place? Because we always wanted a piece of land and the ability to have some control over our own destiny.
Jim: But they were entirely incompetent. They did not understand that farming is a craft and a pretty damn hard one. It’s not only hard work, but it’s also great intelligence, great time budgeting, understanding the seasons. You got to do things in the right order. And to your point, the new people, the new young people are amazing. We have here in our County, the Allegheny Mountain Institute, we’ll provide a link to that on the page, which is a school that teaches motivated young people, typically in their mid twenties, how to actually do urban farming, small scale farming, truck farming. They’re even now doing animal raising, et cetera. And these young people are extremely impressive. They are leasing and buying land and are doing it right.
Jim: So we can adapt. I don’t know why we got off on that riff, but it was a good one nonetheless.
Joe: It’s a good riff. And one of the things about the movement that I’m calling the regenerative movement, which in one sense if you wanted to give it a short hand, say permaculture was invented as a modern version of indigenous ways of farming, just reinvented in the roughly 1960s, 1970s. And between that time and now you can add in systems thinking and cybernetics and various other things that all converge into this living systems complexity point of view, is now we have incredible sophistication of business models.
Joe: If someone’s doing agroforestry, for example, they’re not simply regrowing a forest, they’re regrowing a forest that has recognizable and measurable ecological benefit together with economics that actually make sense. And so you can make money or make materials that cause you to not need to spend money. My favorite personal example of this, well it’s not personal, an example of people I know and I’m working with that do this is a group out of Costa Rica called Black Sheep Regenerative Resource Management. And they have, I was just talking with their founder yesterday, and I thought they had four properties but it turns out they’ve actually grown in the last year to seven.
Joe: So they have about 500 acres of land and more than 12 years experience doing reforestation, but doing it with really smart permaculture, really smart vertical integration of their supply chain, really smart branding and marketing research and really smart positioning to access the global marketplace. So they are bringing the global super foods and health foods market to their high quality, high production yield of turmeric, which happens to be a ground cover crop to help accelerate reforestation. And just as an added benefit, it’s worth about $6 million on the market.
Joe: And so you have this really interesting way of combining good business smarts, good street smarts of just figuring out how to do things by doing them, together with really damn good permaculture practice. And while that’s not representative of everyone doing permaculture, it is the state of the art at this point in time. And there’s a growing number of people that not only do it, but have figured out how to teach it.
Joe: So we’re going to see a lot more of these young people knowing what they’re doing in the next 10 years than I think most of us recognize how big that wave is going to be.
Jim: Yeah. My wife and I are very strong supporters of that. In fact she’s on the board of a organization that makes zero interest loans to people who are doing regenerative and permaculture type farming in our region in central Virginia. And it’s actually been a really interesting program because not a lot of money is necessary, $5,000, $10,000 can provide that critical piece of equipment that allows people to do exactly what you’re saying. For instance, a cold box to allow them to play the timing of the markets on vegetables for instance. Totally changes the economic dynamics if someone who doesn’t have that cold box. So a $3,000 cold box changes the coupling between the producer and the marketplace in ways that are very favorable for the producer, and we’re happy to do that in our program.
Jim: This has been a really good, interesting deep dive. Let’s move on to our next topic. It’s something you and I have chatted a little bit, I know in the past, about. Which is, this one time phase change in the human trajectory that was caused by our consuming of a large percentage of our fossil fuels in 200 years. I like to talk about game A as starting in 1694 with the founding of the bank of England in our modern financial infrastructure, and then accelerated in the 18th century with the very rapid development of industrial machinery, a lot of it still water powered. And then in the late 18th century and accelerating into the 19th century, it all went crazy with the realization that we could replace water power, and animal and human power with fossil fuels. And so we had this-
Jim: … animal and human power with fossil fuels. And so we had this amazing 200 year rocket ship, that basically took us from a world that would have been understandable to the Romans to a world that Romans would have no idea what’s going on. Intensification of our energy use has been tremendous, and it has allowed humans to reach a whole new level. Prior to that, say in 1800, 95% of all humans were essentially subsistence peasants and herdsmen, living a life of drudgery, bad health, and lots of death. 50% of the children dying typically in let’s say Western Europe before they were five years old.
Jim: This one time consumption of a good chunk of our fossil fuels, along with the science and technology, allowed us to do all that. On the other hand, it’s dialed in a race to the edge of the cliff, that if we can’t pull ourselves back from that, we’re going to destroy our ecosystem through climate change and other depletions of species and soil, etc. So this is to my mind, very, very, very interesting. And if people don’t understand this, how unique this 200 years is, they have no hope in thinking through the magnitude of the change necessary to get us to the other side at least somewhat safely.
Joe: Yeah. I guess I like to give myself two bookends to this. One is the worst, and the best. And then I try to bounce around between them depending on which piece of it I’m looking at.
Joe: Now let’s start with the worst. And the same Stockholm Resilience Centre that I mentioned earlier published a pretty impactful paper about two years ago, where they introduced the idea of the Hothouse Earth scenario, which is basically a phased transition to a trajectory of dramatically increased warming. Like five degrees Celsius or higher. And when we get into scenarios like that, one thing that happens is massive reduction in human population, and possible human extinction. And I think of the extreme bookend of negativity is that this burst of creativity and increasing social complexity of the last 200 or 300 years, could very much just springboard us out of the frying pan and into the fire, as it were. And just fry us and have us be done.
Joe: And I think that’s a very plausible possibility, that is still not extremely likely but is still plausible. So I use it as my most negative bookend. And then my most positive bookend is that we have some kind of a relatively gentle descent, which doesn’t mean it’s entirely gentle, but maybe the human population finds a way to come back down. And I say finds a way as if that doesn’t involve some kinds of pandemics and plagues and starvations and conflict, as well as demographic transitions, and more educated women having fewer children. And it’s kind of some blend of those. To come to a lower human population than where the UN thinks we’re going, without being particularly ecological about it. And that is that we get to a place where we become an evolutionary transition. Of the planet, for the planet. Now let me maybe step back and give a little verbiage to that, because Jim you may know about this, but I’m not sure about your listeners.
Joe: An evolutionary transition is simply when two organisms or two aspects of an ecological system are interacting with each other in a mutualistic or symbiotic way. And they come to a place where they become functionally integrated and natural selection jumps up a level, or basically they can no longer survive on their own because their survival is interdependent, and it’s functionally interdependent. So they can’t go back to being separate organisms anymore. But now evolution has jumped to a higher level of integration. So prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells is one of these transitions, and single cell to multi-celled is another. Or going from individual organisms as social groups is another, and you kind of jump up the game. And human culture is one of the higher ones, one of the later evolutionary transitions that’s occurred, where humans can basically have natural selection occur at the scale of cultural systems.
Joe: This is one way we can talk about cultural evolution. Our opportunity right now is to have an evolutionary transition to the scale of the Earth’s biosphere, which is basically that humans build the technical apparatus and the management systems to maintain a kind of homeostasis on earth, which is what we mean when we talk about sustainability. And so I think of us as really having a limited window of time where we can set in motion that trajectory. And I think mostly what we’ve done up to this point is laid in place the pieces of that trajectory, but we haven’t actually walked it yet. All of the systems science and all the systems monitoring are in place, but we’re not using them well enough. So we’re right in that spot of making this choice.
Jim: Amen. I think you’re exactly right. And I think we should again mark the fact that it was this 200 years of intensification that now gives us those tools. We now have photovoltaics that are relatively cost effective. We have electric cars that are pretty amazing. We have massive four megawatt wind turbines. We have the ability to build those offshore. In 1800, no way. Couldn’t even think about such things. Didn’t have even the basics of scientific knowledge, let alone the material science and engineering. So in some sense we may have used our 200 years well, if we can transition to this kind of system that Joe’s talking, about where we take what we’ve learned over this 200 year great leap forward, and then make another great leap forward, which is to intentionally embed humanity within the carrying capacity of the earth. And frankly probably take on the management of the two systems together.
Joe: Yeah. And one of the pieces of this knowledge that is not given enough credit. Like all of the examples you just gave were more on the kind of physical manifestation of technology. And I know that you understand a lot of the nonphysical aspects, or rather than the non material product aspects. One of the areas where I think we’ve made tremendous progress, and for fascinating historical reasons people don’t recognize, is how much has been learned about how to manage an economy. About how to form effective social groups. About how to cooperate with people and negotiate and resolve conflicts. And a whole host of other things that are more in the kind of sociology and humanities domain, but that are extremely important in all of this. Like for example, there’s a really rich body of knowledge spanning across anthropology and evolutionary studies that seeks to understand the functional adaptations of religions.
Joe: Now it doesn’t mean we need to necessarily create a new religion, although I have reasons to suspect we might need to create new religions. But leaving that aside for a moment, just coming to understand what happens when you have rituals that include synchronous movement that helped people to have more familial trust among each other and feel more generous toward each other. It turns out that that kind of pro social expression of humanity is a really important thing to know how it works. And so in addition to all of the technological advances in the what is normally construed as technology space, we have a huge number of technological advances in the realm of human knowledge about being human and working among humans.
Joe: And so, when we start to put those together, we actually have the ability to design our way into a regenerative earth system. Meaning the human management is in partnership with the biosphere of the earth in all relevant scales. And what people call me somewhat of an eloquent articulator of, is just how much of this knowledge exists. As we start to dig into any of the pieces and see how solid the foundations are, they’re pretty damn solid. So we have a lot to work with.
Jim: Yes and no. I’m going to push back a little bit here, Joe. Yes, we do have a lot of knowledge and pieces. Like for instance, I’m a great fan of the work of Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis on how people actually cooperate, for instance. What is it? Well there seems to be some human attributes that look for fairness and insist upon policing, and even policing the policing, et cetera. And those things are extraordinarily important to understand how to build real societies that work, and know how to be cooperative. But on the other hand, I have a knee jerk reaction when you use the word design. Because I don’t think we yet know enough to actually design the future in the same way we would design a bridge. Probably my biggest personal takeaway from having been immersed in complexity science for the last 20 years, is frankly epistemic modesty.
Jim: We know less about the interactions of complex, particularly human social systems, than sometimes we think we do. As you say, we have a growing number of piece parts. We know a lot more about how money couples to the economy than we used to, even though we’re not actually applying it. We know about how small group cooperation actually works. But building that into a series of fractally based systems of systems of systems at the scale of 10 billion, we’re still guessing. So I think it’s real important to not use the word design, but rather to talk about an experimental adaptive way of moving forward. We try things, we do probes, we learn, we adjust, et cetera.
Joe: I think this partly depends on how we’re framing the word design. Because there are types of collaborative participatory, rapid prototyping, emergent facilitated types of design that really do embody a lot of complexity principles. But I don’t want to get hung up on the word, which I think would be a fun conversation, but we’re in a time of urgency. So I don’t want to engage in mental masturbation here, but really get into something I think is almost like a meta shift of where the focus for design can be placed, which is we can design for how to increase human competencies as they relate to managing complexity. So for example, there are pedagogies that help people to be more skilled at managing uncertainty. One example is becoming trained in improv theater. If you teach people improv theater they get better at working with patterns of emergence, and so you can increase their competencies in that sense.
Joe: And I think that a lot of the design of culture is historically thought of as a sort of create a blueprint or a plan and manage its implementation. Well, I completely agree with you, that would be an absolute train wreck to try to do that. The more interesting thing is to ask how can we take what is known about developing human competencies, and managing the capacities for human creativity, to enable humans to manage complexity better? And I think there we can manage the humility while also having more confidence. That’s usually at small scales and not at large scales, which means we’re really working on the fractals through their decentralization, rather than through their emergent kind of macro scale interconnections. But in that sense, I think we can do a lot more than we recognize.
Joe: And one domain of practice that’s come quite a long way is professional facilitators. So many really capable facilitators of different kinds, whether they’re people that convene and host conferences and events, or people that can do small scale group therapy sessions, or they can manage rapid prototyping among a group of people to do a consumer market fit using experience design or a human interface design or other such things, that actually a lot of that competency does exist. And so it’s mostly a question of whether they apply it effectively. Right now it’s not enough.
Jim: Yeah, I agree. I have great respect for facilitators. Even back in my business career as far back as the 90s, when I found a good one I hung onto him for dear life. Usually they were independent contractors and they made an unbelievable difference in the productivity of a group of say 20 people, and that is a real skill that we need to learn how to use better. And I think you hit on the point that we do probably have enough knowledge now to build functioning entities at the lower end of scale. Hundreds, to a few thousands of people. And as you know, myself and many of my associates have been involved with the GameB world for a number of years, thinking about this.
Jim: We now believe that we’re on the verge of having enough knowledge to transition to building what we call ProtoBs, which would be groups of people living intentionally together in a more serious GameB world on the scale at the low end of 20, at the high end of a few thousand, structured fractally up in groups of what we call Dunbars and then ProtoBs and then maybe [inaudible 00:59:15] , et cetera. And I do think the time is right for that. But as you also said, try to build a top down, we have the wisdom from the mountaintop to tell you all how to live, like the Nazis or the Soviet Union, would be just ridiculous. So it strikes me that we need to build from the bottom, but we need to have a sense of urgency so that we get there in time. And that’s the sort of amazing tension and stress is how we think about building this GameB world.
Joe: And one of the things that I’ve been a big advocate for in the last two years, and I’ve done a deep dive to try to understand the history of it, is the history of bioregionalism and what it means to live in a bioregion. It turns out that all historical hunter-gatherer societies were bioregional. Pretty much by definition, because a bioregion for a nonhuman species is the landscape capable of providing a full integrated life for the organism. So if you’re a starfish you might be part of a coral reef, and the coral reef is your bioregion. When you take that idea and apply it to humans, you have an interesting kind of smearing and blurring of what it means with cultural identity as it relates to a landscape. But the functional sense, it kind of pops out of it as subsistence circular economies.
Joe: If you have people living in a craft-based culture where all of their materials are locally provided, they may have a trade network to other places nearby. But across that trade network, you end up with a subsistence capacity that it maps onto the functions of the landscape. There might be a watershed or a mountain range or a coastal estuary or something like that, that actually is the ecological grounding of that human subsistence system. So this way of thinking about human societies self organizing to the ecological scale using the functions of landscape actually has a really strong historical antecedent, that my kind of provocative way of saying it is, all sustainable cultures in human history were bioregional. And if you find any system of human cultures where they lived in a place for extended… Hundreds of years, thousands of years, it’s because they organized themselves bioregionally. It doesn’t mean that they were consciously doing that, that’s just a self organizing the scale.
Joe: And so I think this idea you’re talking about with ProtoB, if you add this element of functions of landscape, like a drainage basin and a watershed as an organizing principle, that you use ecological organizing using the landscape, social organizing using the skills you were talking about, like the Dunbar number, then you can start to co-create a local living economy, which is what we need to create all over the planet. So I think there’s a lot of power in trying to blend these kind of bioregional permaculture perspectives with what you’re describing as the ProtoBs, and learn from each other about how to do this.
Jim: I agree, though I would add one other thing, which is after the pre civilization, I want to call it, while there was some trade. Trade is one of the most amazing inventions of the human race. We imagine in the GameB world there will be trade between the various entities at every level. However, the signaling system, i.e. whatever replaces the monetary system, will not allow trade to get out of control. I think one of the things that this COVD-19 event has shown us, and I’ve known it for a long time, you’ve probably heard me rant about it, is that the engine of money on money return, the kind of financial system we currently have, forces most of the players in the economy to go for efficiency at the expense of robustness. i.e. A fish caught in Northern California is sent to China to be processed and then sent back to Chicago to be distributed at the Costco. It’s crazy.
Jim: Or a tee shirt that used to be made in South Carolina and the factory provided work for a thousand families, because it could be made 5 cents cheaper including all the shipping back and forth in Bangladesh, the town in South Carolina basically gets shut down and these tee shirts go flying across the world back and forth consuming vast amounts of fossil fuel. So I would not be so strictly bioregional, although I do think bioregionalism is very useful to organize at the lower levels. But I think it is important that we be very smart and include an appropriate amount of trade, to take advantage of one of the few free lunches in economics, which is the idea of comparative advantage. It turns out that in our little valley here, actually our river valley here, the Bullpasture Valley, is a bioregional area, and it’s good for some things. It’s very good for cattle grazing. It’s reasonably good for corn. It’s good for berries. But it’s not good for grapes and it’s not particularly good for truck farming.
Jim: So I would see us, to the East, the next big Valley, much, much bigger, the Shenandoah Valley is really good for grains, is really good for truck farming, is good for grazing, but not as good as we are. So in fact historically, back in colonial times, the cattle were often driven from the Shenandoah Valley over here to our valleys in the summertime. We’re at much higher elevation and the grass is much better in the summer. So I would say bioregionalism linked with smart trade is maybe the first couple of keys for building up from the bottom. But let’s not forget trade. Trade is huge, as long as it’s done honorably, ethically, non-exploitatively, and at no longer range than necessary.
Joe: Yeah. One way that I think about this is that if we just try to create bioregional economies and we stop there, what we end up with is fiefdoms. And then eventually, if there is a shortage of something necessary for one of those fiefdoms to survive, they’re just going to invade and kill people in the next fiefdom, and you’re going to end up with everything devolving or collapsing back to lower scales of complexity. And so what’s really needed is functional interdependence between the bioregions, which is exactly what you’re saying. Is if we have really smart and ethical trade from one region to another or from one region to many regions, with the kind of kinder, friendlier, less intense version of globalism than we have at present, then that creates that functional interdependency which stabilizes and helps to support the innovation economies across those systems. Which is really going to be important if we end up with an extended period of climate volatility.
Joe: If climate change has led us to a place where we have maybe a 200 year period of time that’s a lot less stable than during most of the Holocene, or a 500 year period of time, then that adaptive allocation from one region to another is how the bioregions survive. Because you can’t grow crops in your bioregion if you just got flooded at exactly the wrong month of the year. And so this need for smart trade becomes essential for the interdependencies to support each other positively, if there is a backdrop of larger instability for a long period of time.
Jim: Yes, and as we know just the basic math, the bigger area that can trade with each other as essentially a free lunch risk mitigator, assuming we have the right social institutions to allow that to work. You know the weather varies quite radically, and we often will have a drought over in the Shenandoah Valley and we’ll be great here, or vice versa, even though they are less than 50 miles apart. And in fact, interestingly here in Highland County there’s a part of the County called Little Egypt. And when we first bought our place, we asked our local handyman, who lived in little Egypt, and we said, “Where did they get the name Little Egypt?” And he said, “Well, back in 1930s there was a drought of still unprecedented proportion, where the crops failed throughout the whole County. And basically everybody moved to Little Egypt and lived at a subsistence level together for two years until the drought broke. Because in that one little pocket, which is maybe 10 square miles of quite rich soil, they had enough rainfall.” And so there was an interesting historical example within the lifetime of people that are still alive.
Joe: Yeah. What I think is powerful about bioregions is the management of the landscapes themselves. A good example of this is the Gulf of Maine. So the Gulf of Maine has a shallow inlet bay. They have a lobster and fishing economy. I Think it’s been valuated at three or four billion dollars per year, it’s a huge fishery. And it has collapsed in the last few years. And one of the reasons it’s collapsed is it’s the fastest warming part of the world ocean. It has warmed by more than five degrees Celsius since 1980. The reason for that is that historically there was a cold water occurrence that came from the Arctic that would push down, and as the Atlantic water was coming North, they would mix into the bay of the Gulf of Maine and that would keep the water relatively cool and stable.
Joe: Well, what happened was the melting of fresh water from Greenland, which is directly East. That water, fresh water, was propagating westward, which pushed the Atlantic current southward and created a buffer so that the Arctic water couldn’t enter. And in a strange kind of micro oceanography of it, dumped the Atlantic water into the bay and kept the Arctic water out. And so as a result, five degrees Celsius of warming of the water temperature, which is eight or-
Joe: … is a warming of the water temperature, which is eight or nine degrees Fahrenheit, and that has had absolutely catastrophic effects to the fisheries. So what’s happening now is there’s a management of that coastal estuary and that inlet bay, which is a scale of management that’s necessary. So I think of this bioregional scale sort of popping out as a management need because of these functions of the landscapes.
Joe: Now the larger integration of the economy from region to region, it’s more like we’ve over-emphasized globalized markets using finance as our signaling system, and we’ve undervalued local, robust and resilient economic systems that integrate into it. And if we push back toward a healthier balance, then we have smart trade from region to region, just as we’re saying. And what pops out is also bioregional economies, they both sort of come back to our relative stability of interacting resilience.
Jim: Yep, that’s exactly right. It turns out we were actually up there in the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery for a couple of weeks last September on Deer Isle, right at the very center of it. And we actually got to talk to quite a few of the lobster men and to some of the people who help manage it, and they’ve actually turned that around up there. They have had near record sustainable crops by limiting the number of licenses and traps, basically. It’s very difficult to get into the lobstering business unless you inherit lobstering licenses, and boats, and traps from your family, and while they’re struggling a little bit with the changing water temperature, it’s still near record levels of sustainable production. And the surveys of the younger ones are actually very positive.
Jim: The other thing that’s interesting, it shows you this is the adaptation of humans, as the water in the Gulf of Maine has risen a few degrees, I don’t think it’s five degrees C, it might be two or three degrees Fahrenheit, what they have found now is that the water temperature is much more conducive to farm-raised oysters than it was before. And so there is now a rapidly spinning up farmed oyster industry starting to establish in Maine.
Jim: So let’s never underestimate human ability to adapt. I mean, on one of my shows recently I had Dan Schrag, one of the leading climate scientists in the world, and he’s actually fairly pessimistic about the political system getting its shit together to deal with climate the way it should. But he always comes back to the fact that people tend to underestimate human adaptation, human ability to make the best of a situation. Okay, the water temperature is getting a little warmer than optimal for lobsters, but guess what? It’s getting better for oysters is an example about the kinds of ways that we can work our ways through this, particularly if we take, to your point, really get to know our bioregional systems and what they’re really all about.
Joe: Yeah, and there’s another piece of this I think is really interesting is, when people talk about large scale systems change, they often bemoan the presumed fact, because it’s incorrect, but they bemoan this fact that there really aren’t good examples and there’s not good knowledge of systemic change. The truth is we have a specific domain of practice that has learned a fantastic amount and has amazing case studies in how to do this, and that’s conservation management. Which is what happened in the Gulf of Maine without fishery, they came together and they reinvented the fishery.
Joe: And there are other examples of this in different parts of the world where people actually can be quite good at sustainable management of very complex systems. That marine estuary has five major rivers running into it, and it spans across what you could call seven nations if you wanted to, because there are five first nations tribes in Nova Scotia, there’s Nova Scotia in Canada, and then there’s the state of Maine in the United States. So there are in a sense seven nations that are managing that process, really different cultures of people all within it. And even with that social, economic and environmental complexity, they’re managing the recovery of the fishery.
Joe: So I think that our ability to do this is greater, just like you’re saying, humans adapt better than most of us get credit for, but also our ability to manage systemic complexity is better than we often realize, because we don’t see examples like this and really understand how they work.
Jim: Indeed, and they’re essentially recapitulating, they may or may not know it, but some of the work about managing the commons that was so well documented and communicated by Elinor Ostrom, who’s a author I would strongly recommend people look at who are interested in how do we manage a commons. We’ve all heard of the famous tragedy of the commons, Garrett Harden from back in the 60s. And yes, if we were all just vicious self-maximizers with no ability to cooperate then the inevitable game theory result is the tragedy of the commons. But Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for it, has documented that there’s long history and there’s lots of ways which we can be cooperative and not fall into the game theoretical races to the bottom.
Joe: Yeah, it’s funny, I just gave a webinar about three weeks ago where I explained the pro-social framework, which combines Elinor Ostrom’s work with David Sloan Wilson’s work on multilevel selection, and then it adds to it contextual behavioral science and a particular set of tools that are called acceptance and commitment therapy, which happens to be really useful for helping people create internal way finding tools within their own bodies and minds to move toward the future self that they want to become. And what they’ve done is created a powerful tool set for managing the commons of any social group and learning how to do it better.
Joe: So there’s both rigorous and robust science about this, and really good design principles. So Elinor Ostrom named eight of these design principles. One of them, just to get a sense of it is, a commons can be managed well if there’s a strong sense of shared identity and shared purpose for the people managing it. If you don’t have that, you’re not going to manage it very well. And the second one is you need to have fair and rapid conflict resolution. If you don’t have a way of fairly quickly resolving a conflict, then you’re not going to manage the commons very well. Go on and on, and she named eight of these, and the magic is how they work together, they actually become a complex adaptive governance system, which is pretty impressive.
Jim: Absolutely. And another example it happens to be also in the fishing, a friend of mine happens to be a salmon captain on the Alaska peninsula, and they also have a very, very rigorous, essentially cooperative, with some help from the state providing data, management system where you only have a certain number of days per year you can do for this species, and it’s very, very tightly controlled with huge penalties for violating. And again, they’re living fat, dumb and happier than they ever have despite climate change, because they can adapt year by year to the realities of the situation and take advantage of the ability to produce a crop without depleting the larger animals, which are the valuable ones.
Joe: Yeah. One part of Elinor Ostrom’s work, which we could describe as the ability to have adaptive intelligence, is basically that if there are rules for making decisions, the members of the group actually can be participants in changing the rules, which seems like a pretty smart idea. You can’t adapt to a changing environment if you have a set of rules created for an earlier environment and they don’t work in the new one, you need to have a way for the group that’s managing the commons to be able to change their own rules.
Joe: And what’s interesting is I think there are naive people who use ideology way too much to see the world who hear the word cooperative, and they immediately think of communism. And what they don’t realize as a cooperative is any arrangement that allows a group of people to work together. So a sports team is a cooperative by this definition, and so is a working group within a company. And so the interesting thing is that a cooperative is a structure that supports cooperation towards shared goals, and that may have any number of ideological embodiments. You could have a capitalist cooperative, a communist cooperative, and various other kinds too. What matters most, as Elinor Ostrom showed, is does it enable people to adaptively manage their commons, whatever it happens to be? If it does, then they’re fine because they’ll figure it out as they go, but if not then it doesn’t matter their ideology, it’s going to fall on its face eventually, because they don’t have a governing system that can tolerate it.
Jim: Hear hear. And having the good data also, again, as the fishery examples show, hunting seasons show, et cetera, without good data it’s really hard to make good collective decisions, because everyone back on their own self-interest. But if we say, “Hey, the trend line on big lobsters has been going down to the last three years. Guess what people? We have to stop taking lobsters over four pounds.” And that’s exactly what they do in the Gulf of Maine. Every year, every fisherman is given a little gauge that basically measures the shell from one point on it to another, that’s objective and everybody understands, and you may only take lobsters smaller than the gauge, and that changes every year.
Jim: So it has to be data-driven. So the combination of data and systems thinking and understanding natural systems allows us to manage these commons in a way that people will tolerate. Top-down, stupid dictates, people will just work around them. But if they know that this is data-driven and will actually work, they’ll buy into doing it. I’m always interested in people, so I asked one of the captains, “What happens to people who cheat?” And they go, “Well, sometimes the Marine police catch them,” but one of the guys was very honest, said, “More likely they come down to their dock one day looking to get on their boat and their boat is gone, and then they look down in the water and they see the boom.”
Joe: Yeah. This is one of Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles is monitoring of helpful and unhelpful behavior. You don’t have some kind of monitoring system for the behaviors that you’re governing with, so in this case, the size of the catch of the lobster. And of course these monitoring systems need to have agreement and a sense of fairness about them, so the members of the group get to help create them, but they also create a specific kind of transparency, which is the data itself helps you to see the behaviors of the people. It’s measurement-relevant behavior. You’re measuring behavior relevant to what you care about managing.
Joe: So you don’t care how much someone curses as they’re throwing that big lobster back out in the water, you’re not measuring that, but you are measuring the size of the lobster shell. And I think this is something that really matters for governing any kind of commons is data comes into the role of how you monitor the behaviors and what it means to monitor them effectively.
Jim: Yeah, and can they be inter-subjectively measured, i.e., can other people see your measurement and come to the same conclusion? Very important.
Joe: Yeah, very important. I agree.
Jim: Let me pull up something you wrote, might’ve been a Tweet, I don’t really remember, it might’ve been a Medium post. It said that you were in the process of articulating a five year research program that applies cultural evolution and complexity to the emergence of regenerative bioregional economies. Seeding the ideas into possibility, yet aware it may not take hold. Can you say more about a five year research program into cultural evolution and complexity that could provide more emergence in the regenerative economies?
Joe: Yeah. I’m in a conversation with a friend who lives in Germany and he’s recently finished his PhD at the University of Hohenheim, his name’s Michael Shlael, and I met him while I was helping create the Cultural Evolution Society about four years ago, which is a scientific society for the study of cultural evolution, and I helped as sort of a community organizer to facilitate the creation of the society. I met Michael at that time, and he did his PhD work in what is called Dedicated Innovation Systems, which is when you have an innovation economy that is directed towards some societal goal. So they’re innovation systems and they’re dedicated ones.
Joe: And his specific goal is dedicated innovation systems in service to transitioning toward bio-economies. So economies that function in ecologically and biologically robust ways. Of course the country of Germany where he lives is investing really heavily in renewable energy and other related things that will be part of this bio economy. So there’s a foundation in Germany that is looking to fund academic positions for people to support this transition. And my friend Michael reached out to me a month or so ago and said that he would like to apply for a professor position funded by the foundations. He would have five years of funding for his salary and for a research team, at about a million euros per year for five years, which basically would support him and a couple of graduate students or a postdoc. Small team, but big enough to be meaningful.
Joe: And he felt like he couldn’t really put together a strong enough proposal on his own, because they really want people that are doing applied work in multinational contexts. So he reached out and asked me if I would be his PhD student in the application, so that we could leverage my networks across lots of different places and we could partner to build this.
Joe: So I just created a nice little thinking space for us to ask, what kind of proposal would we put together if we did that? And what we’ve come up with is that there’s a set of things that need to be studied in order to be able to guide the development of cultural evolution at this scale, this kind of bioregional scale, and I can just quickly walk you through a couple of those.
Jim: Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s get down to some specifics, love to hear it.
Joe: Yeah. Because I think this is a really, it’s a concrete proposal. So we’re proposing this in a specific context of this Robert Bosch Junior Professorship grant that Michael Shlael is applying for, but what we named in our… We’re early days of writing this proposal, although it relates to a lot of work I’ve done over the years, so it’s not like this is a brand new idea for me. This work program as we’re calling it, so it’s a research program over five years, and we’re introducing a set of work packages that we would focus on as a research team.
Joe: The first work package is narratives and cognitive scaffolding for a sustainable bio-economy. So the kinds of questions we would ask for this are, how do human cultures create a blend of narratives and social norms, institutional structures, technologies, built infrastructure and so on? How do narratives and worldviews relate to these forms of what we might call regime resistance in the old system that would hinder the transition to a new one, as well as those narratives and social norms that would help to embody the creation of these societal structures?
Joe: A second work package that we’re talking about is social niche construction and the creation of functioning groups. Which is basically how to create social environments that are well adapted to forming functional collaboration with teams of people, so that they can work on their own local economies and their own local ecosystems in an effective way. So what we want to do is really apply the understanding about how niche construction works in general to the social niches of human cooperation, which is an area of, you can think of it as like entrepreneurship or innovation studies related to cooperation.
Joe: And a third area of research that we’re looking at is the agency of dedicated innovation system actors, or the change agents working on cultural evolution. What we really care about here is how do people that become actors of systemic interventions, that try to change the systems themselves, how can they increase their legitimacy among the people they’re working with, and also gather and direct the responsibility, whether themselves or through collaboration networks, to create catalyzing change processes? Which is an area where I think there’s still a lot of deep questions that we don’t know how to answer.
Joe: And then a fourth area is revealing the common patterns of multilevel selection and co-evolution. Here we’re talking about how, in any regional economy, there are different kinds of social organization in one place to another and different kinds of social organization from one scale to another. So family is different from municipal government, which is different from the local church or community group. So you have different kinds of social organization, and they function in different nested scales. So what we want to do is bring to bear on these regional economic development efforts, how to study that with rigor and identify the mechanisms of evolutionary change.
Jim: Sounds great.
Joe: Yeah. This is what the research program is about.
Jim: You hit a lot of my hot buttons. It’s quite interesting. I’m one that believes that when you’re talking about human systems, everything is co-evolution. The context that we play in is co-evolutionary, it’s not just evolution against an environment, because humans are adaptive. You make some changes, we all make changes. The other one that I like very much and is underappreciated by people who aren’t up on really modern evolutionary theory is niche construction. What is culture but the ultimate form of niche construction? So yeah, I really applaud this work. This is really good. I look forward to seeing, is it going to come out? I hope you continue to bring these ideas forth to the public.
Joe: Yeah. One of the ideas is that there are a lot of efforts right now to create these regional scale economies, and so we can partner with them and all of the multi-stakeholder networks embodied within them, and set up this research program to study what they’re doing and feed that information to the people doing the work. So that’s what we’re going to try and do over the next five years.
Jim: Good, I’m going to keep an eye on it, it sounds like wonderful work. Really, I hope you get funded and I hope it goes. Now let’s wrap up with you getting a chance to tout your online education programs. I’ve seen some very interesting programs, unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to actually partake of them. I think you call it the Earth Regenerators Study Group, is that correct?
Joe: Yeah, the Earth Regenerators Study Group, which we can include a link when we post this online, but the Earth Regenerators Study Group formed at the end of December, so it’s only about four months old. And it started because I began writing a book and felt like I should just give the manuscript away instead of publishing it, so I invited people to join a study group around the manuscript for my book. The book’s title is The Design Pathway for Regenerating the Earth, and what I was writing about in the manuscript is sort of a curriculum in earth regeneration.
Joe: So the study group formed around reading the book chapters and having discussions about them, but it quickly expanded into more. We’re using an online platform and mobile app called Mighty Networks, and in the four months it’s existed it’s grown a lot bigger than I originally thought. It’s currently got more than 950 people, and is rapidly approaching 1,000. And we have the manuscript, the book chapters, but also we have discussions on lots of topics, I’ve created a section for tools and tutorials for people to share their regenerative projects, to collaborate with each other, and also twice a month we do a webinar.
Joe: And the key to all of this that I want people to know is that it’s completely free to join, it’s gift economy. I’m supported by people supporting me on Patreon, and I make enough money on Patreon to be able to support my family while living in Columbia. So you can join all of this, you don’t have to pay a dime. But if you appreciate it and want to throw a nickel my way, then by all means do. But what I feel is more important is to create a community of practice around how to do this work, and that’s what we’re trying to do with the study group.
Jim: We will indeed put a link up to the study group. And I tell you, I’ve seen the ads for it on Twitter, et cetera, it looks extremely interesting. Well Joe, I want to thank you for coming on, and frankly I also want to thank you for the work you’re doing for the human race.
Joe: Well thank you Jim, I really appreciate it and I’m glad that we’re friends. I always look forward to our conversations
Jim: And we do argue, let’s not forget that, but we always do it with honesty and good faith, and that’s the key.
Joe: Yes, indeed.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mahler at modernspacemusic.com.