|Things are the way they are for a reason. I know I keep saying that, but it’s true: If we want to change anything, we need first to understand why it is the way it is. The answer, more often than not, is human nature. Or more precisely, in very large organizations, the collective nature of thousands of people. And in the world as a whole, the collective nature of billions of people. If humanity were but a tiny group, scattered pockets across the globe, and reasonably well-connected, we could and would probably change rather quickly.
Paradoxically, however, if that were the case, we probably woudn’t need to. Our species is like the Titanic or the Exxon Valdez — far too massive and unwieldy for our own (or anyone else’s) good. The more there are of us, and the greater our footprint, our collective action on the planet, the harder it becomes to steer us in a different direction from the one our horrific momentum is taking us in, the harder it begins to overcome the inertia needed to even think about changing direction on a global scale. When our organization or civilization is small, and someone comes up with a credible, compelling model of a better way of doing things, we can simply nod and adopt or adapt that model. That is how most organizations began, full of hope, following one model or another that sounded magnificent at the outset but soon becomes a victim of its own success — the model just doesn’t scale well, and modern humans have this propensity to grow and centralize and increase things until the model becomes dysfunctional and breaks down completely. That’s happened to every organization and every civilization in human history.
If size is the enemy, of organizations and of civilizations, it is also, in the human way of doing things, inexorable. Rather than throwing up our hands and letting the ship crash when it gets too big to handle, we need to understand why it is human nature to demand that perfectly wonderful small organizations and civilizations grow (and, what’s worse, become increasingly hierarchical). And then we need to find some humanly natural way to allow these small organizations to stay small, and to allow large organizations and our Godzilla-sized civilization to become small and workable again. Is that too much to ask? After all, we fancy ourselves pretty smart creatures. And although we do have an addiction to power and wealth and consumption and debt, we also seem to have an instinctive revulsion to other people having too much power, to tyranny, to gross inequity of wealth (aka poverty), to stealing our children’s future, and even to the destruction of nature. Those addictions have been exploited by those with great wealth and power to try to hold on to that wealth and power. That’s not to sat that those with wealth and power are ogres — beneath the apparent greed and paranoia and violent defence of the status quo they are as much addicts of their possessions and prisoners of our civilization as the rest of us.
What is it about human nature that drives us to want to grow beyond reasonable limits? What is it about human nature that makes us so susceptible to addiction to things that are ultimately no good for us? Did nature or evolution screw up in imbuing our species with self-defeating ambition and addiction?
Australian reader and blogger John McCann writes (emphasis, and square-parentheses comments mine):
I am interested in your observations on why there is so little innovation in most organisations today (as someone who has tried to sell innovative ideas from within organisations for several years unsuccesfully). I agree absolutely that it’s not for lack of creative talent within organisations, or information washing around both within and around the organisation. I agree that organisations are not set up to ‘tap’ that creativity, but that is more a symptom than a cause, and the cause I think gets back to the other point you mention – management’s lack of trust, and the ‘steady as she goes attitude’ that says ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’.
I’ve come to the view that organisations have a natural (and almost inevitable) ‘inertia’ which is (paradoxically) driven by their success. Whatever works very well (some new or cheaper product, or a captive market) tends to, over time, make the the organisation risk- and change-averse. This flies in the face of logic, but while I agree that organisations are ‘not stupid’, they are not always rational. Of course the organisation ‘in crisis’ should (if one accepts this argument) be far more willing to ‘innovate’ their way out of trouble – except that organisational crisis usually results in a very standard response of shedding staff. Time and time again I’ve seen this process ‘depopulate’ organisations of the very best creative talent – even seen organisations ditch these people overboard deliberately as they were seen as ‘non-core’.
At the end of the day I think if we are looking for innovation we’ll find it in the wreckage of companies that have collapsed [they’re once again small], and in start-up companies [while they’re still small] – situations where individual talent and creativity have a chance to ‘stand out’ from corporate mediocracy and aversion to change.
There is now overwhelming evidence that life on our planet, the human species to some extent excluded, operates as a single, coordinated, self-regulating organism. Why should this be so, rather than the savage, selfish and self-interested world most of us were taught we live in? Simple — because it works. As we are learning, dangerously late, our planet is a hugely variable and often life-hostile place, and the best way to protect and optimize life on this place is to create an atmosphere (in both senses of the word) that regulates the planet’s extremes and gives life more time to adapt to changes. This has taken billions of years of work and careful trial-and-error experimentation to get right, and it is an astonishing accomplishment, sustained only by collaboration, cooperation, and lots of diversity to keep it agile and adaptable when catastrophes like meteor strikes and sun-obliterating volcanic eruptions and ice ages caused by minor perturbations in the planet’s rotation occur.
A species that becomes ambitious, and refuses to participate in this extraordinary and never-ending balancing act, is, like a cancer, a huge threat to the whole Earth-organism, and of course to itself as a part of that organism. A species that becomes addicted to things that are not good for it, to the point it becomes fragile, violently hostile to others who threaten its supply of that to which it is addicted, and disconnected from the Earth- organism, is likewise a huge threat to the whole of life on the planet and to itself.
So how did humanity get to this point? How did the ever-adapting and self-regulating Earth-organism allow itself to create a monster that now threatens its creator’s survival? A number of studies have been done that show, in ant colonies for example, how rhythmic order (in the best interest of the whole) emerges out of (apparent) chaos, and how self-organization and self-regulation (with no need for hierarchy or top-down control) naturally produces the best result for the greatest number. Some companies, like WL Gore and Semco, have replicated this model, and when the embedded hierarchical behaviours humans have learned over the past 30,000 years can be shaken off, it seems to work well. But most people describe such a model, whether for an organization or a state, as anarchy, and they use the term disparagingly. But anarchy literally means ‘without established political control’ — no one in charge, i.e. self-regulation.
What has caused our species to depart from this evolutionary successful ‘rules’ of self-regulation and, along with cancers and a few other rogue species, replace these rules with single-minded, selfish and ultimately unsustainable ‘human-made’ rules, and to continue the folly of following these rules for 30,000 years despite overwhelming evidence still staring us in the face that the much, much older self-regulating rule-set is sustainable and healthier for all? If it’s our ambition, or our addiction, how was this allowed to occur? When Ronald Wright wryly says
If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.
how can we account for nature having such a “bad idea” in the first place?
In Arthur C Clarke’s book and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey he introduces the idea that human civilization was ‘suggested’ to us by an alien ‘monolith’. I haven’t read enough of Clarke’s work to know if there is a reason the monolith — literally a massive, rigid, uniform object — is chosen as the ‘model’ for civilization. Was Clarke saying that size, inflexibility and homogeneity (all of them undesirable qualities in a self-regulating planetary organism) are inevitable elements of any civilization?
I don’t happen to believe that civilization, and humans’ contrarian way of trying to run the world, are the result of alien (or for that matter, divine) influence. The invention of the wedge (the arrowhead and spear) was a perfectly understandable evolutionary adaptation by a species that necessarily had a large brain (without evolving a large brain we would never have survived, since our ‘natural’ survival tools — speed, sharpness of teeth and claws, reflexes, sensory acuity — are pretty pathetic by nature’s standards). Ravens, another species that evolved a big brain because it had to to survive, use curved hooks routinely to dig prey out of hard-to-reach areas. As a consequence of the arrow and spear, we quickly decimated the numbers of the large predators upon which our survival depended (helped in part by the onset of ice ages), and as a result the only alternative to extinction was to invent agriculture and animal farming, which Jared Diamond has sarcastically called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”.
Agriculture was the genesis of the “bad idea” of civilization, because it wasn’t (and isn’t) suited to a self-regulating, ‘anarchic’ species or a self-regulating world. For agriculture (and the subsequent development of industrialization) to ‘work’ requires that people specialize, and that the land ‘specialize’ in the growing or grazing of one crop or food animal. We had to give up our self-sufficiency, our personal autonomy, and become, for the first time, utterly dependent on many other humans doing other specialized tasks that dovetailed with our own. If one group abandoned their work and returned to an ‘uncivilized’ natural gatherer-hunter lifestyle (which could no longer support the number of humans that were living at that time) the entire pyramid of the new civilization would collapse. Therefore, specialization had to become mandatory. I have written elsewhere how all this led to hierarchy, the genocide of ‘competing’ predators and ‘farm pests’, political states, state warfare, overpopulation and all the other consequences that civilization has bestowed upon us, but it’s not hard to see how, once we started down this path, there was no going back — nor why we had no alternative but to start down that path.
One could speculate that, had we been able to invent the Internet before we invented agriculture, civilization might never have been necessary. When agriculture and civilization began, there was simply no alternative ‘self-regulatory’ way to get large groups of people to cooperate and specialize and trade with others. We had no language to convey this sophisticated need at the time anyway (language and mathematics were invented because agriculture and civilization needed them for hierarchical instruction and centralized planning). Had we invented sophisticated language for self-expression, and communication tools that would allow large and physically disparate groups to network and self-organize much earlier, we might have been able to create a non-hierarchical self-regulating system that would have allowed us to prosper as a species without the need for slaves to work the fields, without the need for political states, without the need for war and laws and prisons and other tools to perpetuate the fragile civilizations that we found counter-intuitive and which encroached so much on our freedom.
We soon found that it was useful (for keeping people in line) that many of the artifacts of civilization were addictive, physically and psychologically. We found that, in hierarchical systems, the bigger the better — more slaves at the bottom to leverage, more built-in redundancy, and less competition. We found, too, that this strange, man-made construct, so different from everything in nature, gave us an evolutionary advantage — it appeared to support more people per square mile than ‘natural’ systems, and power brought more power and wealth brought more wealth, to the point we really believed we had ‘improved’ on nature. And after a few generations, the essential survival skills for self-sufficient living had been lost, so we could not go back to a pre-civilization self-regulating lifestyle even if we wanted to — we were prisoners of our own invention.
It is not surprising, then, that as our economy evolved, economic organizations used as their model not the ‘anarchic’ self-regulating model of nature but the hierarchical, command-and-control specialization model of the political state.
I doubt that we have either the time or, with our current massive numbers, and our civilization’s huge momentum in some areas and inertia in others, the adaptability, to evolve our political system (forward, not back) to a self-regulating, networked, natural model. I am less certain that the economic system we have developed cannot evolve forward to such a model.
There is a lot of attention being paid now to aspects of just such a self-regulating, networked, natural economic model: Entrepreneurship, the starting of one’s own business, is finally getting the attention it deserves (thanks to the fact the corporate giants have, for ROI reasons, stopped hiring) and, as John points out above, innovation can thrive in such businesses, giving them an enormous competitive advantage over the corporate giants, to offset the giants’ enormous political and wealth advantage. The Internet offers the promise of allowing vast self-regulating networks of entrepreneurs to self-organize and collaborate while staying small and agile, and to get their message and products out to billions of customers increasingly dissatisfied with the monolithic (had to use that word somewhere in this essay!), shoddy, remote and overpriced offerings of the giant corporate oligopolies. And the emergence of the Gift Economy, where human generosity and technology are allowing people to provide other people with many things for free, can also powerfully disrupt the ideology that nothing has value unless it is paid for, upon which absurd measures like GDP and absurd prices charged by greedy corporations for essential goods like medicines rely for their perpetuation.
So I see a World of Ends as the future of business, a world made up of hundreds of millions of sustainable (changing but not growing) entrepreneurial businesses giving away and selling at modest prices high-quality, personalized, healthy, socially and environmentally responsible, innovative, mostly locally-made products and services, as part of a vast self-regulated economy where the customers — the people (let’s not call them ‘consumers’) call the shots. It could be the real ‘market’ economy we always dreamed of and have so long deluded ourselves we actually had. And the giant corporations, even with the subsidies and payoffs from politicians, won’t have the agility to survive it.
I’m skeptical that innovation and technology can get us out of the other messes we’ve created for ourselves (overpopulation, overuse of resources, political subjugation and environmental destruction etc.), but an economy that is resilient, sustainable and really focused on people’s needs would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Things are the way they are for a reason. Yes, we’ve gotten to where we are now because of “the worst mistake” in our history and because of a “bad idea”, but at the time, we had no alternative except extinction. We did what we had to do. But today we do have alternatives. The answer is not to deny that the way we live now is massively destructive and unsustainable. The answer is not to assume that the only way we still know how to live is the only way to live. And the answer is not to try to go back: Neoprimitivism is just romantic folly. The answer, the only real option available to us now, is to evolve forward, quickly, to innovate a whole new economy by merging the empowering new technology of our age with the wisdom of natural models that have always been with us, showing us how to allow egalitarian self-organization and sensitive self-regulation to emerge out of complexity and chaos, for the benefit of us all.
‘Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death”óthat is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action.
O voyagers, O seamen,
You who came to port, and you whose bodies
Will suffer the trial and judgement of the sea,
Or whatever event, this is your real destination.’
So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna
On the field of battle.
Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.
— TS Eliot, The Four Quartets
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