Epistemological Error | A Whole Systems View of the Economic Crisis


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We are now faced with an epistemological tradition that conflicts with the highly complex ecological systems on which we depend.

To correct this error, ecological literacy will become increasing important in the practice of business management and other disciplines.

Ecological stability is necessary for material well-being and economic stability but current business practices do not reflect what we know about complex systems or environmental science.

Slideshow of presentation made July 24th 2010 at Oxford University by EcoLabs. See paper: http://bit.ly/90phhw

Full paper download: http://eprints.brighton.ac.uk/7178/1/Epistemological_Error_-_May_2010.pdf

Learning from the Crisis of 2007-09, The 7th International Philosophy of Management Conference. St Anne's College, Oxford

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Epistemological Error | A Whole Systems View of the Economic Crisis

  1. 1. Epistemological Error J.J. Boehnert EcoLabs www.eco-labs.org www.eco-labs.org
  2. 2. www.eco-labs.org
  3. 3. This paper will suggest thatthe roots of the economic crisis are epistemological. www.eco-labs.org
  4. 4. Gregory Bateson:‘we are governed by epistemologies that we know to be wrong’ Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972 www.eco-labs.org
  5. 5. ECOLOGICAL ECONOMIC SOCIAL ‘the organism that destroysits environment destroys itself’ Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972 www.eco-labs.org
  6. 6. Epistemology defines how we know what we know. 123 The notion that the dominant epistemologicalposition is a poor reflection of reality has been described in detail by cultural commentators in multiple fields. 123 Bertalanffry 1969, Bateson 1972, Orr 1992, Capra 1997, Reason 2001, Sterling 2001, Meadows 2008, etc. www.eco-labs.org
  7. 7. We are now faced with an epistemologicaltradition that works for building clocks andcars, but not for understanding or managing complex systems. u 123This reductive worldview conflicts with the highly complex ecological systems on which we depend. f www.eco-labs.org
  8. 8. ECOLOGICAL ECONOMIC SOCIALwhole systems thinking 123 ecological literacy www.eco-labs.org
  9. 9. While this position has been rehashed over the past few decades in progressive circles, whole systems thinking is still marginal. 123 Consequently, the economic system and business practices do not reflectphilosophical or geophysical imperatives. 123 The reductive position prevents appropriateresponses to maintain ecological homeostasis while also damaging economic stability in the shorter term. www.eco-labs.org
  10. 10. To correct this error, ecological literacywill become increasing important in the practiceof business management and other disciplines. 123 Ecological stability is necessary for materialwell-being and economic stability, but currentmanagement and business practices do not reflect what we know about complex systems or environmental science. www.eco-labs.org
  11. 11. Business models follow abstract economic theorybased on mechanistic thought but ignore ecology - the basis on which wealth is created. 123 The current trajectory of economic growth create strains on the ecological system, which in turn weakens our capacity to create economic and social security. www.eco-labs.org
  12. 12. These stresses can only lead to deepening crises within economic and ecological systems, and while economic collapse is painful - ecological collapse is terminal. Feedback from the economic system will be significantly faster than feedback from the ecological system, which has evolved over a period of millions of years and has significant inbuilt buffers. www.eco-labs.org
  13. 13. Complexity, Limits, Practice A: COMPLEXITY (Perception ) An understanding of complexity and expanded ethical sensibility B: LIMITS (Co n c e p t i o n) A critical understanding of pattern, consequence and connectivity C: PRACTICE (Ac t ion) The ability to design and act relationally, integratively and wisely Adapted from Stephen Sterling, 2009 www.eco-labs.org
  14. 14. 1Complexity pf www.eco-labs.org
  15. 15. 1. Complexity The economic system and the ecosystem cannot be entirely understood through reductive analysis. www.eco-labs.org
  16. 16. 1. Complexity Instead we must recognize the dynamics, hierarchy and interdependence at work between these two systems. www.eco-labs.org
  17. 17. 1. Complexity Ecological economist Herman Daly has been describing this relationship for over four decades. r It is evident that the ecosystem existed for millions of years before humankind invented the modern economic system (and will exist in some form whatever becomes of our civilization). www.eco-labs.org
  18. 18. 1. Complexity The economic system needs to be understood as a subsystem of the ecological system. www.eco-labs.org
  19. 19. 1. Complexity www.eco-labs.org
  20. 20. www.eco-labs.org
  21. 21. 1. Complexity Our failure to recognize that economic prosperity depends on ecological wellbeing has developed from a reductive habit of mind that is unable to understand the relationships between complex systems. www.eco-labs.org
  22. 22. This has led to a state where we are quickly destroying the possibility of long-term prosperity.Edward Burtynsky Alberta Oil Sands #9Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007 www.eco-labs.org
  23. 23. 1. Complexity Herman Daly describes the economic crisis as a result of the overgrowth of financial assets relative to growth of real wealth. www.eco-labs.org
  24. 24. 1. Complexity Referring to Noble Prize winner Frederick Soddy’s 1926 book, Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt, Daly explained; Soddy pointed out the fundamental difference between real wealth – buildings, machinery, oil, pigs – and virtual wealth, in the form of money and debt. Soddy wrote that real wealth was subject to the inescapable entropy law of thermodynamics and would rot, rust, or wear out with age, while money and debt – as accounting devices invented by humans – were subject only to the laws of mathematics. Rather than decaying, virtual wealth, in the form of debt, compounding at the rate of interest, actually grows without bounds. Daly describes how financial assets have become so disconnected from real assets, leading to the absurd pyramiding of wealth that created the economic crisis. www.eco-labs.org
  25. 25. 1. ComplexityWe have created a global financial system focused on profit andespecially increasing GNP. Robert Kennedy described the lunacyof the system obsessed with GNP in back in 1968: Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and com- munity values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year but that gross national product – if we judge the , United States of America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear war- heads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities and the television programs that glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. www.eco-labs.org
  26. 26. 1. Complexity Forty-two years later GNP is still the dominant economic indicator. Professor Roderick Smith of Imperial College describes the consequences of world GDP growth; Relatively modest annual percentage growth rates lead to surprisingly short doubling times. Thus, a 3% growth rate, which is typical of the rate of a developed economy, leads to a doubling time of just over 23 years. The 10% rates of rapidly developing economies double the size of the economy in just under 7 years. These figures come as a surprise to many people, but the real surprise is that each successive doubling period consumes as much resource as all the previous doubling periods combined. This little appreciated fact lies at the heart of why our current economic model is unsustainable. www.eco-labs.org
  27. 27. 1. Complexity Fritjof Capra and Hasel Henderson explain that GNP was not created to be used in such an simplistic and dangerous fashion; the creator of GDP national accounts, Simon Kuznets, warned in 1934 that such a limited, one-dimensional metric should not be used as an index of overall social progress. www.eco-labs.org
  28. 28. 1. Complexity Our framework focuses narrowly on economic indicators and this is how the system is designed to establish value. 123 An economic system that placed value on ecological stability, resilience, equity, wellbeing or happiness would be designed and managed in a very different manner. www.eco-labs.org
  29. 29. 1. Complexity A narrow focus on profit excludes a holistic appraisal of values and encourages short-term thinking and waste of ecological and human ‘resources’. 123 Even our language becomes distorted around the narrow focus of profit, as we know that neither nature nor people are inherently ‘resources’ but have value in their own right outside of their function as a source of profit. www.eco-labs.org
  30. 30. 1. Complexity The nature of the economic system is to grow and consume everything to suit it needs; our language, our values, our ideas about what can and cannot be an economic transaction. 123 The emphasis on profit in an international capitalist system based on infinite growth is that transnational capital will continue to grow and swallow up everything in its wake until there is nothing left to use. www.eco-labs.org
  31. 31. 1. Complexity Evidence will take the form of lost species, destroyed rainforests and a stable climate system – complex ecological systems that have evolved over millions of years that are being destroyed in a manner of a few decades. www.eco-labs.org
  32. 32. 2Limitspf www.eco-labs.org
  33. 33. 2. Limits We are quickly shrinking the available bio-capacity on which we depend faster than nature can regenerate what we consume and reabsorb our waste. 123 The UK’s footprint = 3.4 planets like Earth. www.eco-labs.org
  34. 34. 2. Limits www.eco-labs.org
  35. 35. 2. Limits Daly describes the need for a system that permits qualitative development but not quantitative growth. www.eco-labs.org
  36. 36. 2. Limits Growth’s first, literal dictionary definition is ‘to spring up and develop to maturity’. The very notion of growth includes some concept of maturity or sufficiency, beyond which point physical accumulation gives way to physical maintenance. 123 At maturity growth must give way to ‘a state of dynamic equilibrium.’ www.eco-labs.org
  37. 37. 2. Limits Growth is ‘always unstable ecologically. It has now proven itself to be unstable economically.’ Tim Jackson Prosperity without Growth Ex- UK Sustainable Development Commission www.eco-labs.org
  38. 38. 2. Limits Fritjof Capra and Hazel Henderson’s recent report ‘Qualitative Growth’ for The Institute of Chartered Accountants uses explicit ecological metaphors. As living systems mature, their growth processes shift from QUANTITATIVE to 123 Qualitative growth . www.eco-labs.org
  39. 39. 2. Limits “Instead of assessing the state of the economy in terms of the crude quantitative measure of GDP, we need to distinguish between ‘good’ growth and ‘bad’ growth and then increase the former at the expense of the latter… From the ecological point of view, the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ economic growth is obvious...” www.eco-labs.org
  40. 40. 2. Limits “...Bad growth is growth of production processes and services which externalise social and environmental costs, that are based on fossil fuels, involve toxic substances, deplete our natural resources, and degrade the Earth’s ecosystems. Good growth is growth of more efficient production processes and services which fully internalise costs that involve renewable energies, zero emissions, continual recycling of natural resources, and restoration of the Earth’s ecosystems.” Fritjof Capra & Hazel Henderson Qualitative Growth www.eco-labs.org
  41. 41. 3Practice pf www.eco-labs.org
  42. 42. Ecological Literacy“All education is environmental education. By what is included orexcluded, emphasized or ignored, students learn that they are part ofor apart from the natural world. Through education we inculcate theideas of careful stewardship or carelessness” (Orr 1992, 90).“An understanding of the ‘principles of organization’ ofecological systems” (Capra 2003, 201).“Critical eco-literacy is linked to cultural literacy for a morerobust analysis of the connections between social and ecologicalsystems” (Kahn 2010, 66).A awareness of the interdependence between human, economic andecological systems must become an educational stable. Ecologicalliteracy implies that each discipline transform its theory and practiceto make sustainability a reality. www.eco-labs.org
  43. 43. 3. Practice In States of Denial Stanley Cohen claims that a capacity to deny disturbing facts is the normal state of affairs for people in an information saturated society. 123 There is evidence that increasing information may actually intensify denial strategies. www.eco-labs.org
  44. 44. 3. Practice In the complex fields of ecological sciences and sustainability, we are locked into collective patterns of behaviour and have adapted strategies to avoid accepting the implications of climate change and other environmental threats. www.eco-labs.org
  45. 45. value / actionEven when we understand the problems and possible solutions, it does not mean we put this knowledge into practice www.eco-labs.org
  46. 46. 3. Practice Our society has witnessed radical social change in the past when we evolved new moral codes and changed power dynamics, laws and institutions accordingly . www.eco-labs.org
  47. 47. www.eco-labs.org
  48. 48. Actions Ideas / Theories Norms / Assumptions Beliefs / Values Paradigm / Worldview Metaphysics / Cosmology Transformational LearningValues, Knowledge, Skills A: SEEING (Perc eption ) An expanded ethical sensibility or consciousness B: KNOWING (Conception) A critical understanding of pattern, consequence and connectivity C: DOING (Actio n) The ability to design and act relationally, integratively and wisely. Stephen Sterling, 2009 www.eco-labs.org
  49. 49. 3. Practice Learning Levels 0 - No change (no learning: ignorance, denial, tokenism) 1 - Accommodation (1st order - adaptation and maintenance) 2 - Reformation (2nd order learning - critically reflective adaptation) 3 - Transformation (3rd order learning - creative re-visioning) Stephen Sterling www.eco-labs.org
  50. 50. Learning & Communication Levels1st: Education about SustainabilityContent and/or skills emphasis. Easily accommodatedinto existing system. Learning ABOUT change.Accommodative response - maintenance.2nd: Education for SustainabilityAdditional values emphasis. Greening of institutions.Deeper questioning and reform of purpose, policy and practice.Learning for change. Reformative response - adaptive.3rd: Sustainable EducationCapacity building and action emphasis.Experiential curriculum. Institutions as learning communities.Learning AS change. Transformative response - enactment.Orginally Gregory Bateson, adapted by Stephen Sterling www.eco-labs.org
  51. 51. 3. Practice Educator Stephen Sterling information alone does not necessarily lead to change; ‘not only does it not work, but too much environmental information (particularly relating to the various global crises) can be disempowering, without a deeper and broader learning processes taking place’. www.eco-labs.org
  52. 52. 3. Practice In an attempt to move from theory to practice, our institutions, organizations and businesses must be managed from an ecologically literate perspective. Educator David Orr: education now requires a ‘fundamental transformation of our concept of learning relative to the health of the biosphere’. www.eco-labs.org
  53. 53. Conclusion We have continued to plunder global environmental systems despite the fact that we knew that we were destroying our resource base for well over five decades. Collapse of historical civilizations is well documented (Tainter 1988, Diamond 2005, Homer-Dixon 2007). www.eco-labs.org
  54. 54. Within popular culture, collapse has even developed intoa perverse voyeurism meme, now a theme used to selldesigner clothes and a new genre of disaster movies. www.eco-labs.org
  55. 55. The economic crisis opened new political space and has providedan opportunity for evaluation and intervention into assumptionsthat maintain the status quo. www.eco-labs.org
  56. 56. A transformation depends our capacity to reconfiguresystems capable of sustaining economic, social andecological systems over the longer term. www.eco-labs.org
  57. 57. www.eco-labs.org
  58. 58. www.eco-labs.org
  59. 59. www.eco-labs.org
  60. 60. ‘When seismic events can trigger mass physic breaks:moments when status quo stories no longer hold true,and a critical mass of people can’t deny that what ishappening in the world is out of alignment with theirvalues.’ Smartmeme - Communications consultancy www.eco-labs.org
  61. 61. The 2007-2009 crisis will be the first ofmany if we are unable to address basic epistemological error. 123 www.eco-labs.org
  62. 62. EcoLabs www.eco-labs.org This paper is available on-line.Ask EcoLabs to help embed ecological literacy in your organisation. If you are using this paper as part of course work please make a donation to EcoLabs to help us keep resources freely available. www.eco-labs.org