Better Maps based on Better Models
- This essay comes in three parts. In the first part I discuss how the prevailing view of how the world works results in the political impasse in which we find ourselves. The prevailing view is based on a foundational metaphor of the struggle between good and evil and the mental maps we employ to make our decisions, based on that metaphor, result in participants with irreconcilable positions.
- In the second part I write about a different metaphor that I find more useful. I find that human systems function in ways similar to ecosystems. Modeling world function in this way allows us to see new pathways out of the impasse.
- Finally, I suggest that We can start to apply the understanding gleaned from this new model on a community basis.
Metaphors, Models and Mental Maps.
- Our minds work by storing concepts. When you hear a word you never heard before, it doesn't mean anything to you. When someone explains what the word means, your mind stores that meaning as a concept associated with that word and every time you hear the word thereafter you will associate that word with that concept. You can think of learning as creating receptors that resonate with a certain word to bring to mind a certain thought.
- Your map is the way that the concepts relate to each other. You take all that you know about the world and put it into a model of how things happen and based on that model draw conclusions about how one thing relates to another. Based on your understanding of those relationships you decide to take one action or another – vote democrat or republican. The closer your map is to reality, the better your decisions will play out in reality – if your map is defective, your decisions are unlikely to play out the way you anticipate.
- We create our model based on a foundational metaphor. One of the predominant metaphors that people use as a basis for their model is the struggle between good and evil. Most people are taught this model by their parents. In that model, good is that which benefits us and evil is that which threatens us. The determination of what is good and what is evil is made from the point of view of those groups to which we belong. Hence, what is good for one group may be bad for another group and that results in irreconcilable differences.
- Maps drawn from the good vs. evil model look like charts with two columns. They have a list of things that are good and a list of things that are bad. As we go through life, we refine the map according to our experiences. Most of you have other columns with things that are say “necessary evils” or perhaps a list of things that are “desirable but impractical” because we all really know that the world is not black and white.
- Human society functions as the cumulative result of the choices of individual human beings. Each one of us has a mental map of how things work in the world, and as we travel through life, we make decisions based on how we read our internal map. We tend to think of institutions controlling how the world works. Just keep in mind that the decisions for the biggest most powerful institutions in the world are made by individual human beings based on internal mental maps that reflect system function to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy than your own mental map.
- All institutions exist as a function of the participation they receive from human beings. Your participation is what maintains your family, your church and your company as entities. Without the participants they do not exist. But, when you think about it, your list of what is good or bad, comes from the needs of those organizations.
The Ecosystem as Foundational Metaphor
- Let me give you another metaphor that gives us a more nuanced view of system function and see if that gives us a more accurate map. What if we thought of the interaction of different groups of human beings in the way that we understand different species interact in an ecosystem? To the gazelle the lion is evil. But without the lion, the gazelles will eat all the available food and starve to death. From the point of view of the ecosystem, both gazelles and lions have evolved to maintain a balance.
- Think of conservatives as the lions and liberals as the gazelles. In the US, the lions and gazelles have been seeking power over each other every two years for 230 years. Each of them carries a map of how the world works based on inherited, and developed understanding of what is good and what is bad. The lions understand the necessity of gazelles but does the lion map lead to good decisions about how much pressure they can put on the gazelles without damage to the ecosystem? The gazelles think the lions are evil but does the gazelle map lead to good decisions on how much they can restrict the lions without damage to the ecosystem?
- Don't take the metaphor too literal. You lions are not eating the gazelles, you are profiting from their needs and desires. Further, each of us may be part of both gazelle groups and lion groups. We are each a part of a family that has gazelle needs and desires and we may be employed by a business that has lion needs and desires. So the question is, do you have a lion list of what is good and bad or do you have a gazelle list of what is good and bad? Would an ecosystem model be more useful? (The fact that each of us plays multiple roles in the “economic system” has a number of interesting ramifications – but I'll get back to that later. Also, I assert that the difference between ecosystem and economic system is arbitrary. There is really only one system and that includes everything.)
- An ecosystem functions according to a complexity spiral. The more complex the set of interactions within the system, the more stable it is in face of a changing environment. The more stable the system is the more energy it will produce and retain within the system. As more energy is retained in the system, opportunities for new species to participate are created, leading to new interactions that increase the complexity, increasing stability and productivity, which creates new niches for new species to continue the spiral upward. An economy works the same way.
- The more businesses within a given trading area, the more they can interact, leading to stability in the face of change, allowing for more investment in capacity, leading to new opportunities for new businesses. Increasing diversity, complexity, stability, productivity, and diversity is an upward spiral.
- If the ecosystem metaphor is useful in understanding world function, then we should adopt it as the basis for our model and map in place of the struggle between good and evil metaphor. In fact, a free market economy maps very well onto the ecosystem metaphor. We can see what is possible under the right conditions. The economy of New York City is the economic system equivalent of the Amazon rain forest. A healthy economy “grows” as numerous businesses participate in complex interactions and create new niches for new businesses with new specialties. Compared to 100 years ago, the free market economy has made tremendous gains in diversity and productivity and there is no reason to believe that the spiral cannot continue indefinitely, bringing us ever higher quality goods at ever lower prices. I would be very careful about changing what is working with that system.
- But, different conditions can result in a downward spiral. When we start removing species from the mix, the ecosystem becomes less complex, more vulnerable to environmental change, losing energy and restricting opportunities. For example, at the turn of the century, Peru had sea bird islands off the coast that supported a guano industry. There were so many sea birds that the Peruvians were able to build terraces on the islands and periodically go in to shovel up the droppings and sell them for fertilizers. Then they started fishing the anchovies. As I recall, they weren't even putting the anchovies in little cans with mustard, they were grinding them up for animal food and fertilizers. It turns out that for every bird dropping on land, there were a lot more bird droppings over the ocean and those droppings are what fed the plankton that fed the anchovies. When the anchovies were over fished the sea birds died out and the plankton stopped growing. The anchovies have never recovered because without the sea birds the plankton will not grow. The sea birds have not recovered because there are not enough anchovies. Now Peru has neither a guano industry nor an anchovy industry. Removing the anchovies collapsed the entire system.
- Is that what is happening in our rural communities where main streets are shuttered and all the kids are moving to the city to find jobs? How does our ecosystem model work in that case? As viewed through the ecosystem metaphor, there are economies all over the world that are missing some element to start or maintain an upward economic spiral.
- In rural America or central Africa, there is something missing that prevents an increase in diversity, complexity, stability, productivity and diversity whereas other economies are thriving. Does our model help find an answer?
- It seem to me that there is a limit to what we can expect from the “free market”. Although the market excels at increasing the availability of goods and services at increasingly higher quality and lower price, there is a limit to the abundance the market can create. That limit is the point where the abundance of an item reduces the market value below the cost of production. If we want more of that item than is provided by the market limit, then we will need to provide a subsidy, or find some other way to produce it. Farm subsidies are the prime example where both lions and gazelles agree that subsidies are justified because We want more food at a lower price than the market would otherwise provide.
- Another limitation of the market has to do with the supply and demand for gazelles. Increasing productivity in the market is, by definition, producing more goods and services with fewer people. To increase productivity, the market needs fewer people with more specialized skills. Those who do not have the skills in demand in the market, become an excess supply of labor driving down wages in the remaining jobs that do not require advanced skills. As the wages of more laborers are reduced, there are fewer goods and services that they can purchase, limiting the number of businesses that can survive providing them goods and services, further reducing the number of jobs and the rate of pay for those jobs. That is what we see in our rural communities and the inner-cities that used to host heavy manufacturing. That is a downward spiral resulting from the decreasing diversity in the economy.
- The ecosystem model tells us that an economy in an upward spiral needs lots of happy healthy gazelles, in order to maintain a healthy population of lions, in the same way that sea birds need anchovies. We could restate that to say that declining wages result in a downward spiral in economic activity.
Applying the Ecosystem Model
- We, as human beings, have a distinct advantage over nature. Nature must build ecosystems through trial and error whereas, we humans could embark on a conscious evolution of our economic systems (and our relationship with the ecosystem) through the experimental creation of new forms of organization, increasing complexity in the system.
- (Which brings me back to the fact that none of us are wholly lions or gazelles. Human organizations exist as a function of the human need that they fulfill. If a particular organization does not fulfill your needs, you can shift your allegiance to another organization that does meet your needs – if it exists, or you could form a new one. In that way, new organizations are born and old ones die all the time.)
- Now look at your list of good and bad from the ecosystem model and the prospects of a downward spiral in the economy. If you are a lion with investments in a community and wages start to decline, the value of your investment is at risk. Through the same mechanism, if we were to invest in a depressed community and create an upward spiral, our investment stands to be handsomely rewarded. If only we can figure out what are the missing elements.
- From that realization, we are proposing a new form of organization designed to build new connections in each community with a view to increasing the complexity of interactions within the local economy and starting an upward spiral. There is a movement going on around the idea for a discussion of The World We Want. For the purposes of creating upward spirals, I would rephrase the question to be, 'What can We do to make Our community a better place to live'? Through that discussion, if we can get past inaccurate notions of what is good and what is bad, We can find ways to start an upward spiral in Our community.
- And, in this up coming election, if we want pragmatic decisions out of government, all you lions need to take a moment to consider what it takes for gazelles to live well and multiply, and all you gazelles need to take a moment to consider that it is the function of the lions to produce enough to go around.
- For further thoughts see Using a Better Map
Thanks to Paul Krafel for the concept of the Upward Spiral.
Thanks to H. Peter Karoff for the idea of The World We Want discussion:
Thanks to David Frayne for the ideas in The Vaccine for Poverty
Thanks to Ravi Arapurakal for his articulation of Oneness.
Thanks to Larry Victor for giving me words to crystalize many concepts - especially the complementarity of structure and process.
Thanks to David Bale for the inspiration of his World Connectory
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