Parry Lousewort, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico
Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature
Part 15 of 22
Chapter 6 Part II Organization, Leadership and Imprecision(2073)
The fossil light from a distant star may be analyzed to determine the elements fueling that star. Mammals learn by observation of others. Scholars and novelists convey their truth through storytelling. Secretiveness, as it is practiced in organizations, or obfuscation promulgated by bureaucracy contradicts the pattern of information flow, cutting back the energy available to a system, often compromising its long-term survivability. In an attempt to create maximum stability by means of diminishing energy flow, authoritarian organizations frequently collapse from the failure to adapt. Secretive or open:
All production is associated with certain costs.
This is as true at the cellular level as it is at the corporate. Energy transference is required in the making or transformation of anything, a principle more clearly understood for physical systems. Its application in living systems is more problematic but can still be traced. What is imperfectly understood is how to account for costs in human economic systems. A reductionist approach is selective in what is quantifiable as costs — only certain kinds of costs are valid. Looking at accrued expenses systemically creates a different accounting regime. Allowing for all costs occurring within a complex system such as a social organization would mean assigning value to human effort, opportunity costs for other kinds of production foregone, and environmental consequences. For instance, the profit and loss report for a timber harvest shows costs of labor and equipment compared to price of sale of the final product. Not included in the accounting are costs such as carbon pollution and harm to water quality, wildlife, plants, and aesthetics.
By recognizing all the costs that occur within the system, a truer picture results than with the current approach of including only some of the costs. Complex, systemic cost accounting of production by human organizations could present a more accurate (but not exact) model more closely aligned to the energy accounting methods of nature and thus more closely aligned with the generally true pattern. In our considerations, we must also take into account:
Major changes in a system can come suddenly.
Thermonuclear transformation of elements in stars; rapid evolution within a species (such as wolves becoming dogs); the unexpected bankruptcy of a major multi-national corporation; all of these suggest sudden, largely unpredictable change as a prevailing pattern of the universe. A theory in the long debate of catastrophism vs. gradualism was named “punctuated equilibrium” by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge. Environmental changes elicit immediate responses, with each bifurcation leading to a change in the evolutionary paths of individual organisms and species as well as the ecosystems they inhabit. Specifics do not repeat: an organism is not reinvented into the same form as a previous one, nor apparently galaxies, but the rapid change pattern exists over time resulting in a new emergent self-organization of the system:
A change in the environment of an area will be accompanied by a change in the population of that environment.
In living systems, cold and dark in the autumn is accompanied by a falling of leaves. In a volume of interstellar space, the local population of photons is diminished (according to theory) by the presence of a black hole that captures particles. In any of the three realms a change in one place creates a perturbation through the whole system. Another way to state this is that:
Reciprocity is inevitable.
Also note that while change is driven in part by chance, change can also move through logic:
Systems must be built through the needed developmental stages.
In an ecosystem, successful reintroduction of climax species does not skip steps but develops through plant and animal succession stages. It is for this reason that human attempts to “restore” damaged ecosystems meet with difficulty. In correlation with this:
Evolution is a constant in nature.
From genetic mutations to the presence of play in mammalian species to the ability of a business concern to become a learning organization, innovation is present at all levels. Solar systems and entire galaxies are born, burn out, and are then recreated in a new form over time. Creativity, like history and memory, is an aspect of evolution. The long trajectory of creativity in any form also faces resistance based on past choices:
Longevity is subject to limitations.
When organisms adopted genetic recombination through sex, the rate of evolutionary process increased, but the price of sex was death, since that progress depended upon one generation succeeding another. Creativity and destruction are, as Herakleitos suggested, the same process. From molecules to individual cells to species, genera, families, business ventures, economic systems, civilizations to galaxies, all things run a course. The prospect of termination can be negative for the individual agent but not necessarily for the system as a whole. Further, the individual or collective agent is restricted in terms of placement:
Agents, acting separately or collectively, claim a portion of physical or conceptual space as its own.
Placement includes both the physical space taken up by a robin and the concept among robins of territoriality. Ideologies and ideas are inhabited cognitive space. Gravitation and other physical laws make a different kind of claim on space, but a claim nonetheless. The concept of claim, whether mental or physical, presupposes that all things, processes, events, and organizations undergo some degree of movement. For living systems, at least two important aspects of claim arise. While not generally true in the three realms, they arise from the generally true: (1) All living forms constantly move toward a place of better opportunity, whether by choice or by chance. (2) All living things are impacted by other systems and may be modified or eliminated. (3) A living being is so much a part of its environment that it is, in effect, its environment; without an environment to live in, it cannot exist; equally, in its absence, the environment is a different place. There is also this:
The closer a system gets to equilibrium, the less resilient it becomes to any changes in the environment.
Forest fire suppression over decades was meant to establish permanent equilibrium but instead weakened the system it was meant to protect, leading to the catastrophe of major crown fires and interfering with normal tree reproduction cycles. The related concept is that:
All systems are dynamic and evolving or in stasis and dying.
Change represents a kind of system where change itself changes the conditions under which change occurs. For instance, in physics, within the concept of the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, space and time underwent changes in the moments after the event occurred. In the biology of ecosystems, development possibilities are explored by the system itself through natural selection that goes beyond individuals to the mass of relationships among aggregates of individuals. The concepts of self-organization and co-evolution enter here. A non-equilibrium state gives rise to complexity. As a generally true pattern, it has already been summarized as change compounds. Unsettledness is the font of evolution. Imprecision is its signature.
Systems are identifiable as entities within an environment. They are also of the environment, acted upon and acting upon the surroundings in an interconnection of ongoing processes. Time may be linear from the standpoint of a modern social organization, but energy acting within time may be cyclical, giving rise to patterns:
Systems follow natural processes of renewal to maintain themselves, including the ability to evolve into a different form.
Both the carbon cycle in biology and Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm progression show how nature seems to have a preference for recurrence of generalities. The life element carbon recycles in a generally similar way over time, although the manifestations of that carbon alters in the form of different individuals and different species. In the course of time, thought gives rise to different theories of how nature is ordered. The process of refining goes on through history while the thoughts themselves change as additional information becomes available to foster that thought. A leader might guide an organization in a particular direction, making use of available energy to renew the organization or using energy to force the organization to take on an altogether new form. This form itself, which seems solid when looked at from the outside, is from the inside an evolving interconnection of things, events, and processes:
Aspects of existence are a collection of malleable properties rather than a set singularity.
This is basic to physics. It is also illustrative in ecology, the science of life relationships to environment. The robin outside my office window may be predator or prey, but neither the individual nor the individual as representative of its species is simplistic, particularly in relation to me the observer. The robin who inhabits the juniper trees is by turns a stationary object observed through my binoculars; a blur of motion as it moves through the forest; an active individual; a participating member of a flock; a consumer of living things; an energetic force as carrier of its informational genetic code; an input mechanism for other species, spreading seeds, depositing nutrients, and providing sustenance to other organisms with its own death. What is the role of the robin in the forest ecosystem? It is no one thing, or rather, it is at any given moment one or more processes. Through all its activities, the robin is a pattern of accomplishments, a system of its own body and life events, part of a larger system of all robins, part of the carbon cycle, and so on, subsumed into ever larger systems.
The ever-changing role of an organization and its leadership could be similarly broken into its unique aspects, but with the understanding that all the components and all the interrelationships cannot be charted. The leadership lesson is that the thing, event, or process we observe is not just the thing itself, but something more vast yet limited at the moment of observation by our choice of perception. (By leadership as an imprecision practice, I refer both to organizations and to the responsibility we take in any aspect of our own lives.)
Returning to the robin, but reversing course from its relation to the outside world to its relation to the inside world, on the robin subatomic level there is no longer matter at all, but there are electromagnetic forces holding particles together long enough and securely enough to form solids. There are mostly empty regions of space consisting of imperfectly understood waves and particles of energy. The mysterious motivation of movement on this level can be stated in the form of an additional generally true statement:
Energy moves through all systems.
The energy of sunlight is utilized by the supraorganic system by way of transformation in plants through photosynthesis.
In the social realm, the distribution of information in an organization is the most important measure of energy flow. In organizations, including organizations of our own beliefs and actions, the energy of power is generated by the changing imprecision of relationships. The movement of this kind of energy through an organization is analogous to the way energy moves through any natural system. Information shared through a system such as an organization gives many people an opportunity to act in the best interest of the group: If we all know what the goal is, we are more likely to work cooperatively than it we don’t know the goal. In the complex web of an ecosystem of which the robin is a part, a larger number of web strands (interconnections) usually give greater strength to the system as a whole. If this perception is correct, then an application of the lesson could be found in creating a model for an organization where distributed power (information) gives authority and responsibility to the greatest number, increasing the number of stakeholders who have an interest in the outcome of whatever processes are going on.
Distribution of information and power in human systems can create an opportunity for individual expression as well as the possibility of effecting changes in the system, thus altering the course of the system’s further evolution. Restricted distribution of information, such as corporate accounting fraud, can lead to the collapse of an organization. Shutting off energy flow is deadly to any living system. In the natural systems of wild-nature, such flow-through of energy creates long term interrelationships that evolve without coming apart even through the lives and deaths of individuals and species. Order can be seen through repeating patterns.
Next essay: Chapter 6 Part III Organization, Leadership and Imprecision
Originally published at Radical Natural History/David L. Witt.