Through a Lens Complexly
by Dave Cooper
Author’s note: My thanks to Leen Gorissen for introducing The Change Leaders to the story of whales. If this interests you, because there is much more to the story, I wholeheartedly recommend her excellent book, Natural Intelligence: Building the Future of Innovation on Millions of Years of Natural Intelligence.
I think it’s safe to assume that we all admire earth’s mightiest denizens — the great whales. Some of us pay exorbitant fees to go whale-watching, and for good reason: whales are pretty cool. But those whales also need to eat — a lot. And because they tend to gorge themselves on fish and krill, it was once believed that if we reduced the whale population, the fish and krill populations would come soaring back. So, whaling quickened, and the global population of whales declined (a linear relationship). Today, there are an estimated one million whales (of all species) in the world’s oceans, down from an estimated five million over a century ago. Funny thing, though, as the whale population decreased, so did the population of their prey — the fish and the krill. That is not a linear relationship. In fact, at first blush it doesn’t make sense. How can a prey species decline when its predator species declines? Well, as it turns out, there are other actors in this roundabout, complex system, namely, a bazillion phytoplankton. And a sun.
Phytoplankton serve as the primary food source for the fish and krill that the whales feast on. So, the whales eat the fish and the krill, and the latter eat the phytoplankton. Except … shit happens. I mean that literally: whales poop — a lot. All the ocean is a poo-ground for them, and these “poo-namis” as they are called, are flush with nitrogen and iron that nourish the phytoplankton. On top of their prodigious poops, whales also “pump” minerals and other nutrients, like phosphorus, from the deep ocean to the upper photic zone where the phytoplankton live and reproduce. Basically, the whales help regenerate their food supply through this circular economy (aka bio-logical, or the logic of regeneration); there is little to no waste. In fact, if nature lacks for a particular relationship, it’s a relationship to waste. Very little is wasted in nature; whereas, over ninety percent of what we humans produce winds up as waste. Our economies, like our organizations and our reasoning, are linear, not circular. As a result, much of our efforts go to waste — literally. That is a painful admission.
And it doesn’t stop there. When those itsy-bitsy greenish phytoplankton get too hot because the sun burns too brightly, they release a chemical (dimethyl sulfide) that serves as an attractor for water molecules — the plankton version of a “calling all water molecules” announcement. In effect, sweaty phytoplankton create clouds or marine layers that reflect the sun’s light into the heavens, thus cooling off their local oceanic neighborhood. Pretty cool — literally. And finally, those little but plentiful buggers absorb what? You guessed it: they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And when they die, they take their carbon dioxide with them to the bottom of the ocean, where the CO2 is forever sequestered.
Whales, fish, krill, phytoplankton — that’s a system or a coarse-grained ecosystem rather. But which species is the ecosystem architect in all this? Who manages the relationships — the hidden structure in the system? Answer: they all do. Relationship management or ecosystem sustainment is a collective function. Because of the mutual interconnections and interdependencies that exist between and among them (i.e., the mutual relationships), no one of them is more important than any other. However, at various times one species, particularly the mighty whales, might be more influential than the others.
But what if we were to remove one of those architectural “cogs” from the “machine”? What would happen? Would the machine break down? If you answered “yes,” congratulations: you are guilty of linear, mechanistic thinking, and you’d make a fine human. Join the club. But the ocean is not a machine. Neither is a human. And neither are our organizations, although we tend to treat them as such. If we remove a cog from a machine, the machine will indeed get really noisy and then break down. But if we remove the phytoplankton-cogs from the ecosystem, what would happen? Well, no one can say for sure; that is to say, no one could provide the exact details of the new pattern of behavior that might emerge from the myriad interactions of the fish, krill, whales, and the rest of the ocean’s band of merry critters. There are simply too many variables influencing the ecosystem to make any sort of prediction. The ocean would change — that much we know; it would adapt to the loss of one of its diverse actors. But in what way? No se. I don’t know. Although I strongly suspect that whatever new pattern emerged, it would not be good for humans or humpbacks.
The time has come to change how we humans think about the world we inhabit. Indeed, the time has come to think more like a whale.