Ecology and disorder

Ecology and Disorder

  1. When a complex system such as an ecology, or an economy (and both are linked) is disrupted, so that it begins to move outside of an equilibrium, the results are unpredictable.
  2. The behavior of the system is fundamentally uncertain, and cannot be dealt with by ideas of risk, which suggest numeric and often constant probabilities for events. In these kinds of disrupted systems both events and probabilities are unknown.
  3. We can, however, assume trends. Weather events will almost certainly become more uncertain and more extreme. The anthropologist Hans Baer, has suggested using the term ‘Climate Turmoil’ rather than ‘climate change’ for the simple reason that it is more accurate of what we can expect. Climate change suggests a smooth linear change, not the tumultuous, disorderly change which is likely, and which we need to prepare for and lessen.
  4. Unfortunately, it would appear that socially, we are resistant to accepting fundamental uncertainty. We try and trap reality in our visions of order, and that leads to further chaos. Businesses and governments like to pretend that they can predict the future, so that they can keep their power relations intact and their success coming. Scientists sometimes do the same when they predict that particular places will have particular weather patterns in 20 years.
  5. But unfortunately it is what we have been doing to produce what we have defined as ‘success’ that seems to have caused the problem. Burning coal, for example, has been one factor responsible for the success and dominance of Western civilization and its modes of organisation. It now threatens that civilization’s success. In reality, burning coal threatens nearly everyone on the planet.
  6. We need to radically accept disorder and uncertainty as part of life, and act as if fundamental change is both happening and is being produced by what has produced success in the past. That way we can try something new, and hope to conserve some of what we have.

A practical approach to Adaptive Social Learning

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Valerie A. Brown

What is social learning?

Social learning is the glue that binds us together

Social learning is part of our everyday life. It is the pathway through which we learn to live in a shared world, a world that will inevitably be different from that of our parents and different again for our children. We live in an era of continuous rapid social and environmental change. Simple changes in social behaviours, such as an increase in everyday use of childcare centres, or the ready take-up of mobile phones, are just symptoms of core changes in work patterns and family units, which, in turn, change our interaction with both our social and our physical environments.

Personally and professionally, we are all, by definition, involved in social learning. It has made us who we are, and allows us to fit into the society in which we were reared.

Social learning can impede change

Social learning inevitably goes beyond that of each individual, to shape the whole of society. The effectiveness of a society’s capacity to change is marked by the willingness of its members to go beyond their traditional social practices. However, rather than being welcomed, change can be resisted. The pull of the traditional ways of defining individual goals, professional practices and organisational cultures can be stronger than the push of the need to change.

As a result, social learning can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is the glue that holds society together, a cultural inheritance that is passed down through the generations, and gives the security of knowing that things will go on as they always have. On the other hand, traditional social learning can act as a brake on change, since it is more concerned with maintaining the old than introducing the new. The interaction between the traditionalists and the innovators shows, therefore, a significant tension. In times of transformational change, the tensions can escalate into outright conflict. Examples include the current political unrest sweeping the planet and the impasse in responses to climate change.

Why do we need a form of social learning that embraces change?

The impact of human activities on the planet is so great that changes are necessary for a viable human future. Financial crises flow, one after another, with no end in sight. Advances in technology appear to offer the answers, and then the answers cause further disruption. Communities need to support their members through the rapid pace of social change. Scientists, politicians, industry leaders and communities each offer solutions, but they are competing ones.

How can we move forward to welcome change within this chaos?

It may be difficult because we live in a society with strong divisions between ways of thinking about the world. The divisions between ages, gender, beliefs and values, places and income levels build strong walls of thought and language that serve to strongly reinforce the existing system. To bring change to one is to threaten the continuity of the others. The entry of women into the workforce, increasing economic inequality and extended life expectancy are only a few of the changes affecting Western social systems. Learning is needed to put windows into those walls.

Finally, we need to develop a form of social learning that embraces change.

Embracing social learning for transformational change

Step One: Accepting a form of social learning that embraces change

We need to recognise the need for a social learning that celebrates rather than impedes change – a redirected social learning.

Step Two: Complex issues need to be addressed by a comprehensive understanding of the issues

We need to accept that major change necessarily generates complex social issues. These complex issues require a quite different approach from that of addressing the simple problems of maintaining business as usual.


As H.L. Mencken, the American wit, said, ‘For every complex problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.’

A simple problem can be solved through applying the simple logic of cause and effect; a complex problem asks for a far more comprehensive understanding of the issues.

Some examples?

  • A troubled community may need to embrace marginalised groups and to develop new mutual support systems to cope with change.
  • Halting environmental degradation may mean changing industry practices and developing a comprehensive environmental management system involving all interests.
  • For new technology to provide more than a stop-gap solution, it will require complementary changes throughout a society.

In each of the above examples, the comprehensive changes will require mutual learning and understanding by all sectors of the society.

Step Three: Using the collective learning cycle to understand the issues in a more complex way

Collective learning involves asking four questions of the complex issue:

Question 1: What should be?

The first stage of the collective learning cycle involves feelings and the sharing of ideals.

The question asks for the ideals of each participant in the change enterprise.

The answer reveals the contributors’ social context:

  • Individuals will answer with personal goals.
  • Community members will answer with local visions for the future.
  • Specialists will answer with the goals for their specialised interest.
  • Organisational representatives will answer with their strategic directions.
  • Creative thinkers will expand the currently accepted limits.

While each individual person will hold all those ideals, western social conditioning will usually lead them to offer only one type of answer. Starting in this way allows for the full range of ideals to be put on the table, and for each interest group to hear and respect the ideals of others.

Question 2: What is?

The second stage of the collective learning cycle involves watching and describing the facts. A fact is a validated understanding. At this stage, all the interests contribute the facts that their group considers support and impede the desired change.

This will entail all five different perspectives on just what are the facts:

  • Individuals will contribute the facts derived from their own experience.
  • Communities will contribute the facts from remembered shared events.
  • Specialists will contribute from a particular disciplinary framework.
  • Organisations will contribute from their business plan.
  • Artists and holists will contribute from their imagination.

It is important to be aware of, and compensate for, a power hierarchy that, unfortunately, exists among the interest groups. There is always a tendency for facts from specialist knowledge to be valued more than the strategic understanding of organisations, and both to be valued more than facts contributed by communities, individuals or creative thinkers. Collective learning brings together the validated understanding of each interest group.

Question 3: What could be?

The third stage of the learning cycle involves thinking and coming up with fresh ideas for change. The ideas further the ideals they have heard in Step 1 and the facts they have shared in Step 2.

This means bringing the ideas of all the interests together in a synergy: that is, the contributions working together to create something better than any could contribute alone. Therefore, it is essential at this stage of the collective learning cycle that each interest group make its own contribution to the whole

The process accepts that bringing about whole-of-community change will need all the interests joined as a mutual brainstorm, and that the more diverse the interests, the better. Each contributor from any interest will be asked to draw on the full seven ways of understanding which underlies all human thinking regardless of their social learning. They are personal, physical, social, ethical, aesthetic, sympathetic and reflective.

Question 4: What can be?

The fourth and final stage of the collective learning cycle is where ideas are brought into practice through collaborative action.

This involves collaborative action. It can be a challenge for the different interests involved in the change, such as the:

  • Key individuals
  • Affected community
  • Expert advisors
  • Influential organisations
  • Creative thinkers.

Therefore, this final stage will need to draw on the many forms of collaboration being developed among the interests themselves:

  • Individual cooperation
  • Community self-determination
  • Transdisciplinary inquiry
  • Multi-focal organisations
  • Applied design.

The importance of reflection

The collective learning cycle depends on the ability of all the contributing groups to reflect on both their own and the others’ learning. Each learning stage includes an avenue for reflection, and there is time allotted to reflect between each of the learning stages. The outcome of this is more like a collage in which all the contributions are valued, rather than a predetermined jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces are made to fit.

Following a definite order

In developing collective learning for transformational change, it is essential to follow the four stages in a definite order.

Starting with the first question, ‘What should be?’ is essential, as it ensures the collective learning is driven by a desire for change and a vision of what that change might be.

The next question, ‘What is?’, establishes the range of facts that allow for the opportunities and blocks to change in light of the ideals, rather than being fixed in the present problems.

During these first and second stages, the interest groups contribute from their own positions and, in this way, enlarge their understanding of each other.

For the third question, ‘What could be?, they come together to build on this understanding, creating what David Bohm calls ‘learning from difference, not more of the same’.

For the final question, ‘What can be?’, it is essential that collaboration is built on all the learning that went before, rather than reverting to the old divisions.

Applicability to different cultures

The learning styles and stages that make the collective learning cycle are primarily based in Western culture. However, the process is experiential, meaning that it is based on experience or observations. Since all human adult learning is experiential, the cycle has proved to be effective for Indigenous Australian communities, and communities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Hong Kong. However, great care needs to be taken to ensure that non-Western people redesign the collective learning cycle in their own terms.

Are you interested in finding out more about how collective social learning leads to transformational change?

Are you interested in how collective transformational change can lead to a just and sustainable future?

Further reading:

Collective Learning for Transformational ChangeIn Collective Learning for Transformational Change: A guide to collaborative action, Valerie A. Brown and Judith A. Lambert provide both a theoretical and practical exploration of transformative learning.Transformational Change Book Cover

In The Human Capacity for Transformational Change, Valerie A. Brown and John A. Harris explore how to harness the power of a collective mind to achieve desired transformational change towards a just and sustainable future.

Emeritus Professor Valerie A. Brown is an internationally recognised leader in the field of collective thinking. As a researcher, writer, educator and policy-maker, Valerie has always supplemented Val-Brown-228x300her academic work with a wide range of practical initiatives that have seen collective thinking lead to whole-of-community change. This has involved establishing new pathways of collective learning both within and across academic, business, community, government and industry sectors.


Managing complexity

Michael Josefowicz has posted these links on our Linkedin discussion group:

Another way to look at managing in the anthropocene is that it is a problem in managing complexity.
Two interesting posts to that point …

Leadership in Complexity and

The power of managing complexity – Bain & Company

Why Radical is the New Normal

The climate crisis is spinning out of control, and the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow unabated. It’s time to let the radical uncertainty of this moment enlarge our sense of possibility.

Syrian refugeesWe are staring down multiple cascading ecological crises, struggling with political and economic institutions that are unable even to acknowledge, let alone cope with, the threats to the human family and the larger living world. We are intensifying an assault on the ecosystems in which we live, undermining the ability of that living world to sustain a large-scale human presence into the future. When all the world darkens, looking on the bright side is not a virtue but a sign of irrationality.

In these circumstances, anxiety is rational and anguish is healthy, signs not of weakness but of courage. A deep grief over what we are losing—and have already lost, perhaps never to be recovered—is appropriate. Instead of repressing these emotions we can confront them, not as isolated individuals but collectively, not only for our own mental health but to increase the effectiveness of our organizing for the social justice and ecological sustainability still within our grasp. Once we’ve sorted through those reactions, we can get apocalyptic and get down to our real work.

Perhaps that sounds odd, since we are routinely advised to overcome our fears and not give in to despair. Endorsing apocalypticism seems even stranger, given associations with “end-timer” religious reactionaries and “doomer” secular survivalists. People with critical sensibilities, those concerned about justice and sustainability, think of ourselves as realistic and less likely to fall for either theological or science-fiction fantasies.

“Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity.

Many associate “apocalypse” with the rapture-ranting that grows out of some interpretations of the Christian Book of Revelation (aka, the Apocalypse of John), but it’s helpful to remember that the word’s original meaning is not “end of the world.” “Revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden, a coming to clarity. Speaking apocalyptically, in this sense, can deepen our understanding of the crises and help us see through the many illusions that powerful people and institutions create.

But there is an ending we have to confront. Once we’ve honestly faced the crises, then we can deal with what is ending—not all the world, but the systems that currently structure our lives. Life as we know it is, indeed, coming to an end.

Let’s start with the illusions: Some stories we have told ourselves—claims by white people, men, or U.S. citizens that domination is natural and appropriate—are relatively easy to debunk (though many cling to them). Other delusional assertions—such as the claim that capitalism is compatible with basic moral principles, meaningful democracy, and ecological sustainability—require more effort to take apart (perhaps because there seems to be no alternative).

mountains_of_vulcanBut toughest to dislodge may be the central illusion of the industrial world’s extractive economy: that we can maintain indefinitely a large-scale human presence on the earth at something like current First-World levels of consumption. The task for those with critical sensibilities is not just to resist oppressive social norms and illegitimate authority, but to speak a simple truth that almost no one wants to acknowledge: The high-energy/high-technology life of affluent societies is a dead end. We can’t predict with precision how resource competition and ecological degradation will play out in the coming decades, but it is ecocidal to treat the planet as nothing more than a mine from which we extract and a landfill into which we dump.

We cannot know for sure what time the party will end, but the party’s over.

Does that seem histrionic? Excessively alarmist? Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live—groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, accelerating extinction of species, and reduction of biodiversity—and ask a simple question: Where are we heading?

Remember also that we live in an oil-based world that is rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a major reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds daily life. Meanwhile, the desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us to the era of “extreme energy,” using ever more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountaintop coal removal, tar sands extraction).

Oh, did I forget to mention the undeniable trajectory of global warming/climate change/climate disruption?

Scientists these days are talking about tipping points and planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing Earth beyond its limits. Recently 22 top scientists warned that humans likely are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

That conclusion is the product of science and common sense, not supernatural beliefs or conspiracy theories. The political/social implications are clear: There are no solutions to our problems if we insist on maintaining the high-energy/high-technology existence lived in much of the industrialized world (and desired by many currently excluded from it). Many tough-minded folk who are willing to challenge other oppressive systems hold on tightly to this lifestyle. The critic Fredric Jameson has written, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” but that’s only part of the problem—for some, it may be easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of air conditioning.

We do live in end-times, of a sort. Not the end of the world—the planet will carry on with or without us—but the end of the human systems that structure our politics, economics, and social life.

First, we must affirm the value of our work for justice and sustainability, even though there is no guarantee we can change the disastrous course of contemporary society. We take on projects that we know may fail because it’s the right thing to do, and by doing so we create new possibilities for ourselves and the world. Just as we all know that someday we will die and yet still get out of bed every day, an honest account of planetary reality need not paralyze us.

Then let’s abandon worn-out clichés such as, “The American people will do the right thing if they know the truth,” or “Past social movements prove the impossible can happen.”

There is no evidence that awareness of injustice will automatically lead U.S. citizens, or anyone else, to correct it. When people believe injustice is necessary to maintain their material comfort, some accept those conditions without complaint.

Social movements around race, gender, and sexuality have been successful in changing oppressive laws and practices, and to a lesser degree in shifting deeply held beliefs. But the movements we most often celebrate, such as the post-World War II civil rights struggle, operated in a culture that assumed continuing economic expansion. We now live in a time of permanent contraction—there will be less, not more, of everything. Pressuring a dominant group to surrender some privileges when there is an expectation of endless bounty is a very different project than when there is intensified competition for resources. That doesn’t mean nothing can be done to advance justice and sustainability, only that we should not be glib about the inevitability of it.

Here’s another cliché to jettison: Necessity is the mother of invention. During the industrial era, humans exploiting new supplies of concentrated energy have generated unprecedented technological innovation in a brief time. But there is no guarantee that there are technological fixes to all our problems; we live in a system that has physical limits, and the evidence suggests we are close to those limits. Technological fundamentalism—the quasi-religious belief that the use of advanced technology is always appropriate, and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences can be remedied by more technology—is as empty a promise as other fundamentalisms.

If all this seems like more than one can bear, it’s because it is. We are facing new, more expansive challenges. Never in human history have potential catastrophes been so global; never have social and ecological crises of this scale threatened at the same time; never have we had so much information about the threats we must come to terms with.

It’s easy to cover up our inability to face this by projecting it onto others. When someone tells me “I agree with your assessment, but people can’t handle it,” I assume what that person really means is, “I can’t handle it.” But handling it is, in the end, the only sensible choice.

Mainstream politicians will continue to protect existing systems of power, corporate executives will continue to maximize profit without concern, and the majority of people will continue to avoid these questions. It’s the job of people with critical sensibilities—those who consistently speak out for justice and sustainability, even when it’s difficult—not to back away just because the world has grown more ominous.

Adopting this apocalyptic framework doesn’t mean separating from mainstream society or giving up ongoing projects that seek a more just world within existing systems. I am a professor at a university that does not share my values or analysis, yet I continue to teach. In my community, I am part of a group that helps people create worker-cooperatives that will operate within a capitalist system that I believe to be a dead end. I belong to a congregation that struggles to radicalize Christianity while remaining part of a cautious, often cowardly, denomination.

Don’t Let the Apocalypse
Get You Down
Take What You Need

The climate crisis is spinning out of control, and the gap between the rich and poor continues grow unabated. It’s time to let the radical uncertainty of this moment enlarge our sense of possibility.

I am apocalyptic, but I’m not interested in empty rhetoric drawn from past revolutionary moments. Yes, we need a revolution—many revolutions—but a strategy is not yet clear. So, as we work patiently on reformist projects, we can continue to offer a radical analysis and experiment with new ways of working together. While engaged in education and community organizing with modest immediate goals, we can contribute to the strengthening of networks and institutions that can be the base for the more radical change we need. In these spaces today we can articulate, and live, the values of solidarity and equity that are always essential.

To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.

As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.

Robert Jensen, a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out.

Robert originally wrote this article for the Love and the Apocalypse edition of YES! Magazine. Republished here with permission.

He can be reached at

The Outback’s global significance as we move into the Anthropocene

The recent Pew Charitable Trust’s report – The Modern Outback: nature, people and the future of remote Australia – documents the huge diversity and value of this part of the world. It is one of only a handful of large natural areas remaining on Earth including the rapidly diminishing wildlands of the Amazon basin; the boreal forests and tundra of Canada, Alaska and Siberia and the Sahara.

In our “age of humans”, where the world populations are such as to have irrevocably reduced the natural world, we face a future of increased urbanisation.

The move to cities will increase as the degradation and loss of productivity of lands increases. Clearly, we need people to live well in what many find as hostile environments. Aboriginal custodians have a long history of creating abundance in the natural world and are those most likely to want to be there. They need to be supported to stay.

Evidence for the sustainability of Aboriginal settlements on their lands exists where Aboriginal people are moving increasingly into collaborations with scientists and other researchers to maintain the viability of fragile ecosystems on their lands.

  Photo: Rusty Stewart

Their role in mapping biodiversity, crucial to maintaining sustainable country in remote places, is unique and without parallel. This activity has important spin-offs in education and employment.

Maintaining populations in remote Australia will involve increasing investments in renewable energy, water and food supplies, including wild foods. This will have short and long term economic and educational benefits for all of us as we move further into the Anthropocene.

These benefits are beginning to be obvious from the innovations that are already occurring in remote Australia. One good example is the renewable energy initiatives of the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) in the Desert Peoples Precinct in Alice Springs. Projects include the solar-powered Bushlight that is now being exported to villages in India, and renewable energy projects in Australia and the Pacific.

Perhaps the most important argument for supporting Aboriginal people to live on their own lands in remote Australia is that their capacity to survive over many thousands of years in changing environments demonstrates resilience. It is this quality that we will need in bucket loads in the future.

What we now urgently need is a government with the vision and the acumen to put in place policies that match the demands of our future in this country and on this planet – policies that meaningfully include Aboriginal people in ways forward, as part of the solution, not the problem.

Learning together for a change

Enhancing and making more conscious our inherent human capacity for collaborative learning through shared action and reflection will accelerate the changes we must make to survive the Anthropocene transition.

In Western societies emphasis is usually given to individual choices and actions as the way to positive change. Many activists seem to assume that the aggregation of individual actions will create a ‘critical mass’ of opinion that will somehow trigger systemic change. But it is surely the intelligence and effectiveness of what we do together that will determine our fate. Ultimately our ability to survive and thrive in the Anthropocene will depend on our capacity for wise and compassionate collective action. This suggests a greatly enhanced capacity for collaborative or social learning in order to adapt to conditions of rapid change and profound uncertainty.

The global North and West typically frames learning as an individual process mediated by a teacher or some kind of instructional technology. But learning is also a social process in which groups of people share their experiences and knowledge, experiment with different ways of dealing with a difficult challenge, reflect together on the meaning of their experience, and decide on new forms of action.

Learning embedded in relationships is familiar to many indigenous peoples and in more traditional societies. But even in the West decades of research and experience with organisational learning, communities of practice, participatory inquiry, and action learning can inform the development of new social learning methodologies to enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and organisations. These methodologies must be grounded in an understanding of how communities and organisations make sense of their shared experience and collaborate to modify their collective responses. Adaptive social learning needs to be integrated into our everyday social practice at all levels of society.

We will ever remain biological creatures, but we are also cultural beings who create our own virtual habitat and through it share an emerging collective intelligence, potentially much greater than the simple sum of its parts. Finding ways to more fully realise this collective learning potential in the service of the continuing viability of our species within the limits of Earth’s biosphere is a key challenge in the Anthropocene.