And here is a write-up that Rob O'Grady just sent in, responding to some questions Jim asked, which I didn't answer as fully as I should have during the podcast.
Self-organizing Systems – Reflections on 150 Strong: A Pathway to a Different Future
Nature is one great network of self-organizing systems. Always there is a tendency towards equilibrium. The antelopes that are slow and dull-witted are culled by the lions while the quick and sharp-witted ones survive to propagate the species. Bare rock erupted from volcanoes can become densely forested in less than a thousand years.
We might fret about climate change, but in a few million years the oceans and the organisms they contain will absorb the excess carbon we are venting into the atmosphere and plate tectonics will once again sequester it in the Earth’s crust.
There is beauty in these systems. They are efficient, and in this respect Nature, with its dynamic, constant rebalancing, serves as a model.
One essential feature of self-organizing systems is that they incorporate feedback loops. Good ideas and actions are reinforced positively while bad ones are attenuated and suppressed. New ideas pass spontaneously from one person to another and evolve, taking on a life of their own.
The internet, for all its faults, is a great enabler of this process. Feedback is instant, varied and to the point. Comments, blogs, videos, Facebook posts, review sites and tweets are all at hand for purveyors of feedback to pump, dump, or contribute. Information is shared instantly and it is a vast unregulated exposer and record-keeper, a sieve for detritus and a great expander and amplifier for the few accidental gems.
In publishing 150 Strong: A Pathway to a Different Future it was interesting to see what has resonated with the readers, and to examine some of the themes in the feedback they have given.
One line of comment is that it all sounds a bit far-fetched: “Are we to revert to tribalism?”, “Who decides on the groups of 150?”, “Compassion as a motivating force: what madness is that?”
To give a general response to this line of questioning: It is not the scale of the problem that needs to be considered, but the essence of the problem. A problem cannot be solved by doing more of what caused it, and the first step toward an alternative future is to establish a sound framework of understanding. It is at this point that the potential for a solution is created.
Capitalism has worked very well up to a point because it is largely a self-organizing system. Yes, banking relationships, trade deals, legal frameworks and security arrangements make a big difference, but in general if you are a good and efficient producer of goods and services you make money and thrive, while if you are inefficient and produce work of poor quality you are eliminated. There is a positive incentive to work well built into the system, because doing so is linked with obtaining the means of survival.
The role of the operative incentive structure in determining the outcome—defined as the reconciling force—is the most important theme of this book. Its importance cannot be underestimated. In the capitalist system the conflict between limited resources and competing enterprises is reconciled by profit. If you fail to comply with the imperative to make a profit your enterprise is eliminated. The negative consequences of this dynamic are that the environment eventually becomes degraded, resources are consumed wastefully and people become defined by their usefulness as units of labor. The existence of a unit of labor is a precarious one for the vast majority, and this results in alienation and societal dysfunction. Imposing a layer of government rules and regulations on top of the profit-driven system can help to a certain extent, but past a certain point this approach becomes clumsy and ineffective.
The alternative reconciling force proposed in 150 Strong is the moderating force of group interaction. Being a social species, this is something we all know about instinctually. All but the most extreme loners have some framework of belonging that is important to their identity and gives meaning to their lives. Recognition, compassion and mutual respect are aspirational factors that serve as the glue in achieving social cohesion. The instinctual urge to maintain networks of belonging is a very powerful unifying force—often much stronger than any individual urge or ambition. Alienation results in suffering for most of us, and because they provide a way to avoid it, personal networks of support are very important, both emotionally and practically. Any good incentive system must include aspects of both the carrot and the stick, and here shame, dishonor and the threat of exclusion from a network of belonging act as the stick, providing a mechanism for holding individual behavior in check.
Overt tribalism may not be a prominent feature of modern industrialized society, but there are numerous pseudo-tribes of extended family, workmates who know and care for each other, sports fans, church groups, motorcycle gangs, music fans… all of which are systems of mutual recognition and belonging. The instinct for affiliation and fitting in is so strong in us that this is a very strong generator of meaningful action.
For a group to become truly strong, there needs to occur some shared struggle to bond them together. The greater the struggle the greater the bond, even to the point where people will give up their lives for the welfare of their group and live on in the group’s communal memory as heroes.
In considering how the 150 Strong model might be applied, here are three things to consider.
1. It is a wonder that things hang together as well as they do now. How do we, being a self-interested, weak, greedy, lazy, depressed, anxious lot, who elect dunces for leaders, manage to keep this whole show running? The answer probably has a lot to do with the fact that we tend to swing in behind common causes. Despite the idea that we are working for individual gain in the capitalist model, more often than not most of us are working to achieve something for the common good.
2. We will eventually have no choice but to arrange our lives differently, and so we have no need to worry about an implementation plan. Applying the 150 Strong model in this respect can be considered as a capacity-building measure for future resilience.
3. We don’t need to go out of our way to implement it. It fits well with ordinary life.
The 150 Strong model is a model of self-organization that promotes self-regulation. It is not possible to legislate to downsize and descale the cumbersome institutions that are so insensitive to our current economic and environmental problems. But it is possible to start replacing them with something else—by making personal choices. It may also be possible for us to win a measure of independence from some of the social hierarchies over which we have some measure of control.