Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



August 6, 2006

Let-Self-Change: Learning About Approaches to Complexity from Gatherer-Hunter Cultures

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 09:59
inuitRegular readers know one of my big pet projects is to create a framework for solving, or at least coping with, complex problems (in business and in society) using approaches suited to complex systems, rather than the failed approaches suited to merely complicated systems that, for the most part, have only made the world’s wicked problems worse.

This project was initially inspired by the work of complex adaptive systems theorists (like Dave Snowden and Otto Scharmer) and complex-system-savvy social activists and change consultants (like Open Space leaders Michael Herman and Chris Corrigan). For awhile, I used the name AHA!: Processes and Capacities for Complex System Learning & Discovery for this project. The idea was to create a ‘toolkit’ of processes and capacities that people could use to tackle complex problems, which might eventually lead to a collective body of knowledge or even a theory or set of methodologies that had been shown to work. I was aware, from Chris’ work, that these processes and capacities have in fact been around for millennia, long before civilization and its simplistic one-size-fits-all solutions (to be replaced next month by the next fad solution) came along. So in a way, AHA! was more of a project to rediscover and relearn these processes (including Open Space, Snowden’s ABIDE process, tapping the Wisdom of Crowds, and Scharmer’s ‘U’ presencing process, which is in turn based on Varela’s work), than to invent them. Recently I proposed a rough-hewn idea to try to integrate these four approaches into a single framework.

As I have studied different systems and ontologies, it has become increasingly apparent to me that all ecological and all social systems are inherently complex, and that, beyond minuscule scale, simplistic hierarchical decision-making processes (the ones that overwhelmingly prevail in business and political organizations today) are utterly inadequate for dealing with such systems. In fact, I am convinced that the myth that efficiency is achieved by ‘dumb’ hierarchical systems, and the myth that such efficiency improves rather than weakens these systems, is a colossal and self-serving lie that is in the process of being exploded, spiraling out of control, and is wreaking huge social and environmental cost and damage in the process.

I’ve also explained that business and politicians (and most adults) loathe complexity because it renders them powerless and shows their arrogant presumptions to have all the ‘right answers’ to be preposterous. Endless and intractable war, global warming, influenza pandemic risks, incapacity to deal with ‘natural’ disasters, and our general lack of resilience in coping with anything we don’t and can’t control (and every day we see more evidence of how little we really can control) all illustrate the absurdity of trying to manage what cannot be managed, predict what cannot be predicted, and get people to behave in ways they cannot and do things they cannot and will not ever do.

Complex approaches are more time-consuming, necessarily involve vastly more knowledge and understanding than is ‘efficient’ to obtain, require more patience and experimentation, require trust in the individual rather than the hierarchy to decide what to do and to take the responsibility to do it, and entail massively more consultation, attention, listening, competencies and constant adaptation and improvisation than merely-complicated approaches. Whereas complicated-system cause-and-effect driven solutions can be deduced by analysis, complex-system understanding of appropriate approaches can only emerge over time. Civilization society has little patience for this ‘inefficient’, exhausting, and imprecise way of doing things — even if it may well be the only way that can work.

The basis for sharing and building on this understanding of complexity is through stories and bottom-up working models, not top-down, hierarchical, constructed systems that everyone has to ‘buy into’. Stories for learning, working models for discovery — these are the means to emerging understanding and effectively and sustainably dealing with complexity.

A couple of times I have tried to see what we can learn about embracing complexity from indigenous cultures. Gatherer-hunters, after all, adapt to the complex environment, while civilized humans try to simplify and control it. Gatherer-hunters succeeded for three million years, while the civilized humans that exterminated and displaced them have made a mess of it, despite their best intentions, throughout the mere thirty millennia their model has prevailed on our planet. I attempted to catalogue a set of capacities of adaptation, discovery and learning about complex systems.

Building on this, Princen’s The Logic of Sufficiency has proposed an extensive set of (incomplete) principles, assumptions and theory for dealing with complex adaptive systems, drawing on learnings from businesses and local communities that have have achieved sustained success where competing hierarchical approaches and processes have, while achieving short-term profit and wealth, proved unsustainable and in the long run disastrous.

In order to learn more about indigenous (= born into and part of, rather than controlling/dominating) cultures’ approaches to complexity, I have been wading through anthropologist Hugh Brody’s far-reaching and scholarly personal memoir based on extensive study of such cultures, The Other Side of Eden, written six years ago. It is an indication of how radically my worldview has been changed by an awareness of how much civilization oversimplifies and ‘dumbs down’ our perceptions of reality that I read this book, an exhaustive panoramic view of six gatherer-hunter cultures, carefully and patiently. A year ago, even, I would never have looked at it — too many stories, too long, not synthesized down to the essential message and the proposed action plan — I would simply not have had time for such a book. But this is an immensely important work, because it attempts to tell us the stories of these cultures as much as possible on their own terms, in their own context, and in their own words (Brody took great pains to learn Inuktitut and a working knowledge of other gatherer-hunter languages, and explains how much is lost in a simple ‘translation’ of the stories of one culture to one that is so utterly different). Brody’s is no ‘noble savage’ portrait — the cultures he describes are far from perfect, but they are ‘right’ for the places in which they evolved. These cultures are extraordinarily different from civilization cultures, far more different than is apparent to anyone without the discipline that Brody takes to understand them, not as a means of contrast or reconciliation with our culture, but in their own, utterly, almost unimaginably different life-context.

All six gatherer-hunter cultures share an approach to life and to understanding of the world that is profoundly complex-adaptive. They had no choice — the rugged, demanding, unforgiving climates of these cultures cannot be controlled, tamed, imposed upon, civilized, planted, or ‘settled’. So for thousands of years the people of these cultures have figured out and followed what works. That means rather than changing the environment, trying to exercise Dominion over it, they have adapted themselves to the environment, and become (or remained) an integral part of it. In the arctic, subarctic, rainforest and desert areas where they still predominate in numbers if not in environmental impact, these cultures are like giant tectonic plates grinding up against and still coexisting separate from but alongside the tectonic plate of civilized, settled humanity, which now occupies 90% of the Earth’s land and comprises 99% of its human population. Civilized, settled humanity has not figured out, yet, how to settle this final 10%, but they’re working on it.

The Other Side of Eden is hard work, and mining the learnings about how gatherer-hunter cultures embrace and adapt to their complex environments takes great concentration, but it is a necessary process. The catalogue of learnings below is an extreme, possibly dangerous oversimplification of what came out, to me, from Brody’s astonishing first-person stories. I would urge readers who care about the malaise of our culture and want to understand how indigenous cultures succeed through adaptation to complexity, to read the whole book, just for the experience of trying to see the world through an utterly foreign, different frame.

Here, then, is the catalogue of my learnings and discoveries from this book. I think it takes us one step closer to an overall framework or theory for dealing with complex problems:

  • indigenous peoples are almost never authoritarian with their children; children learn by doing, by making mistakes, and by hearing guidance and candid comments on their behaviour, not by being ‘told what to do and not to do’
  • knowledge is absolutely critical to survival in indigenous communities; exchange of knowledge is expected, automatic, urgent and completely candid, and deceit and hoarding knowledge is extremely disreputable behaviour (because it can expose others to danger) — these are cultures of collaboration and detailed, exhaustive knowledge-sharing, not of competition for ‘knowledge advantage’
  • there is an expression “the land is made perfect by knowledge” that stresses that what is valued in these communities is knowledge and understanding of the environment, not control or ownership of it
  • indigenous communications are generally extremely honest and forthright; the words that accompany greetings are those of great joy, not politeness
  • words are as precise as they need to be, so there are completely separate words used to describe fish and other prey, and snow, and attributes of the land, not taxonomically but by need (e.g. there is a need for a separate word to describe snow suitable for the construction of temporary snow shelters, so there is such a word) — this is not poetry or obsession, it’s extremely practical, and word differentiation is a matter of necessity, familiar observability and, sometimes, valuable analogy
  • part of the learning of indigenous languages is learning when to speak, when and how to listen, and even when and how to tease — in oral cultures there is much more to language than just vocabulary, grammar and syntax
  • stories are essential, detailed, and allowed to take as much time as they need to take to be told; interruption is considered extremely rude, though it is often acceptable to leave if you do not find the story of interest
  • indigenous languages generally have no swear words (anger is considered ‘childish’ behaviour and scrupulously suppressed), and they also have no ‘status’ words (e.g. there is no concept of or words for rank or hierarchy or, in anything close to our sense of the term, ownership, in Inuktitut)
  • these languages have evolved to facilitate analogy, as an essential tool of learning and imagination — drawing analogies and use of inductive reasoning are not as ‘forced’ or deliberate a process as they seem to be in Indo-European languages
  • from necessity, indigenous people have developed prodigious memories and mental maps of detail, and can often recall routes and places that they have seen only a few times many decades earlier — in the process every landmark is given a name to help entrench its later memory, and great attention is paid to orienting and placing these landmarks in context
  • these cultures have an overarching respect for all life, and again this seems more practical and adaptive than spiritual (others may disagree with me on this) — caching extra food, wasting nothing, not hunting just ‘for fun’, not disturbing animals except for hunting, not spoiling the land, paying attention to the animals that are being hunted — all these behaviours are oriented to encouraging prey to ‘make themselves available’ for the hunter as a matter of reciprocal respect (their self-sacrifice meets the hunter’s real need for sustenance)
  • indigenous peoples are part of the environment, and do not see the environment as something apart from them; they see themselves as co-stewards of the land along with other creatures (and in some cases, with the spirits)
  • by definition, then, the place the people live in is ideal, has become so through millennia of evolution and adaptation, and any change made to that place is therefore necessarily for the worse
  • the concept of gatherer-hunters as ‘nomadic’ and civilization cultures as ‘settled’ is precisely backwards — it is the civilization cultures that despoil or exhaust the land and expand, move on, seek new frontiers, while gatherer-hunter cultures live in balance within large but mostly-fixed territories for millennia; the stories of indigenous peoples of how they ‘arrived’ where they now live are in total conflict with our history of them (e.g. that they crossed the land-bridge from Asia during ice age retreat) — their stories are that the people emerged where they are now, rather than traveled to them
  • they have a profound respect for individual decisions; after sharing of knowledge, if there is no consensus on action each individual is trusted to do what he or she thinks is right and responsible, and there are no recriminations for not conforming to what others (or some designated or self-styled ‘leader’) think is appropriate
  • advice is rendered by the telling of stories and the answering of questions when asked, not by proffering instruction or unsolicited opinions — this is a consultative process, not a hierarchical one (elders, chiefs, shamans are respected, but they do not have or seek power or authority over others the way the ‘leaders’ in our culture do)
  • because of the vast amount of detailed information that is needed to thrive in a complex environment, people in these cultures do not depend entirely on the conscious mind to process that information — they appreciate how the subconscious, dreams, and instincts play into and enrich our understanding, and allow these elements to play an important part in their decision-making process
  • generosity (both with knowledge and material possessions) and egalitarianism are essential elements of these cultures, and produces an environment of great reciprocality and trust 
  • much of the activity of these cultures enables the building of great self-confidence, freedom from anxiety (fear of the unknown), freedom from depression, and high self-esteem: the acquired respect and trust of others, the respect for individual decisions, the granting of individual responsibility, the learning and practice and recognition of finely-honed skills, a culture of collaboration and consultation — contrast this with our culture where so much activity has the effect of battering self-confidence and self-esteem, and stressing helplessness and dependence
  • in many cases, these cultures carefully space the birth of children at least three years apart, in part for practical reasons but also in part to allow parents and adults to spend enough time and attention on each child to equip them with the important capacities and learnings they need to succeed; in some cases infanticide has historically been practiced when necessary to ensure this space and opportunity for each child, and in that case can be seen as an embracing rather than an abrogation of responsibility
  • these cultures show profound respect for women as full equals, with roles determined by strength, stamina, skill and capacity rather than assigned automatically by gender, and many roles shared and alternating; the prevalence of men as hunters and of women as gatherers reflects only the biological fact of greater strength of most males and greater stamina of most females, and roles are changeable without shame for those whose biological qualities are exceptional
  • there is a deliberate attention to uncertainty, unpredictability, qualification and imprecision in indigenous languages, with any declaration of absolute certainty seen as evidence of oversimplification, arrogance, or poor judgement; likewise, there is much less propensity in these languages to raise and dwell on dichotomies, the simplistic black-or-white contrasts that leave no room for subtlety, imprecision, nuance, change and uncertainty

I confess I could not really fathom Brody’s arguments about how these cultures seem to be able to “allow one time to flow into another and also allow themselves to move about in time” — as much as I wanted to understand this, to see if it approaches the concepts of eternal, complex, multi-dimensional Now Time that animals are argued to live in except in moments of stress. I also could not fathom Brody’s attempts to explain the propensity of indigenous peoples to drunkenness as something more than addiction to a substance to which they had no natural ‘immunity’ or resistance. One day I hope to explore both these areas further, but I do not want them to detract from the importance of Brody’s work on complex-adaptive culture.

So where does all this leave us? I think we need to pull together the Snowden, Scharmer/Varela, Open Space, Wisdom of Crowds, Princen and Brody ideas on dealing with complexity, to create not just a toolkit and capacity/competency catalogue, but a theory, approach and/or methodology set that provides some framework for how to use the tools and capacities.

I’ve been muddling with what to call this (other than the cryptic AHA!). It is definitely not a complexity management theory. Spare us from any more terms with ‘management’ in them, especially when in complex systems the term is oxymoronic. Approach? Framework? And for what — dealing, coping with complex systems? With all ecological and social systems?

With considerable uncertainty, I’ve decided to coin a new word for what ‘this’ needs to be, because existing English terms are all inadequate. You probably won’t like it, but the word is Let-Self-Change. Here is why I decided on this rather clumsy name:

  • It incorporates three essential elements of dealing with complex systems: allowing (letting) understanding to emerge instead of trying to force it through deduction and analysis; changing oneself/ourselves to accommodate knowledge and physical reality instead of futilely trying to impose change on the system/environment; and adaptation and accommodation (change) rather than fighting (resistance).
  • It encompasses the idea of learning and applying resilience, which I think is crucial.
  • It is both a noun and a verb, thanks to the inclusion of the term ‘change’, which is both noun and verb.
  • It incorporates the sense of reflexivity rather than ‘action upon’. The French language appreciates that many actions are not transitive (i.e. their object is not some ‘other’ person, place or thing, but the same as the subject). English lacks this nuance and subtlety, so we need to put the word ‘self’ in there to make clear that we are the subject and the object of the change. Be the change, as Gandhi said.
  • My big concern with the term ‘self’ is that, in our rugged individualistic culture, it is usually assumed to mean one individual. But collective groups also (can) self-organize and self-manage. Let-Self-Change is both an individual and a collective action and attribute. It is noun and verb, singular and plural.

I recognize that the term, at least in English, will be seen as pretentious, a non-starter for serious theoretical development. But until I, or someone, can come up with another unambiguous term, Let-Self-Change will have to do. It’s growing on me. I have used hyphenated English terms to describe complex concepts before (“being-a-part-of”) and I think they have their place.

There are a whole series of urgent and important applications for a theory, framework, approach and/or methodology for Let-Self-Change. Virtually all of the critical problems facing our society and the environment-of-which-we-are-a-part require it, since none of the merely complicated approaches have even come close to addressing them effectively. That includes global warming, the many wars between the affluent and the desperate (the so-called “war on terror”), the threat of pandemic diseases (human, plant and animal), the utter failure of our political, economic, educational and health care systems, and on and on.

But I think the applications for Let-Self-Change are much broader even than this. I believe it may be key to the process of creating Natural Enterprises, both (a) the process of deciding, personally and with business partners, what business to create, at the intersection, the ‘sweet spot’ where your Gift (what you are uniquely good at), your Passion (what you love doing) and your Purpose (what there is a great need for) intersect; and (b) the complex, iterative process of researching and then creating, improvisationally, a Natural Enterprise.

And since our bodies are also complex systems, I believe Let-Self-Change may also be the key to taking back control of our bodies, our minds and our health and well-being from ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ with their one-size-fits-all solutions, their exclusion of the patient from the wellness process, their preoccupation with treatment rather than prevention, symptoms rather than causes, and single organs rather than holistics, and their lawyers’ insistence on prohibiting us from self-diagnosis and self-treatment and forcing us into learned helplessness.

A collectively-developed, evolving Let-Self-Change theory, framework, approach and/or methodology, and accompanying toolkit and capacity/competency catalogue, will give us a ‘map’ that will allow us, as individuals and as engaged and caring collective groups, to learn and discover faster and more effectively, and to develop working models of effective Let-Self-Change that others can study and, if appropriate, follow or adapt. It will also give us a common language (perhaps requiring a whole new vocabulary of intuitive, reflexive terms) that will allow us to share knowledge and work together more effectively, much as the incredibly sophisticated, detailed, and complex adaptive Inuktitut language has allowed the indigenous peoples of the Arctic to thrive in a seemingly ‘hostile’ environment, where, if they were dependent on the merely complicated languages and systems of civilized, ‘settled’ humans, they would surely have failed.

I’m open to ideas on where to go from here. I will be proposing some kind of collaboration, perhaps an Open Space event, among some of the complex adaptive system thought leaders referred to in this article, despite the fact that I know some of them don’t like each other very much. What else could/should I/we be doing to move this forward? And appreciating that this is an entirely unhierarchical and (at this stage anyway)unfunded project, can you see a role for yourself in it?

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