Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"

Segment #2:   Is our Planet In Trouble?

Part IV: Perspectives on Change

          Philosopher Thomas Kuhn spent much time studying the development of scientific ideas. He found that scientists who uncovered new ideas and theories were unable to persuade the scientists who held the old paradigms simply with more data or better arguments. He found that radical new ideas didn't really become accepted until the old guard retired and were replaced by a new generation that was more open to the new idea. Copernicus had to retract his theory that the Earth circled the Sun despite all of the evidence he produced during his lifetime.

          The biggest obstacle in the human mind to the recognition and acceptance of change is its belief system. We can deal with gradual changes in people, and with new gadgets. But a new idea? Oh my, oh my. The ability to suspend judgment (first notice when the knees jerk, and them stop them) is a treasured capacity indeed.

          This section of the Seminar provides some perspectives about how change happens in natural and human systems. For our sources, see the Bibliography. Perhaps these ideas will encourage the reader's insight and/or further study into how each one can help effect the type of global change he or she wishes for.

          Change is inevitable and continual, sometimes gradual and sometimes sharp, but eventually and inexorably producing growth, collapse, redirection or renewal in all systems. Change happens at the geologic, evolutionary, environmental, social, economic, and individual levels. Until relatively recently, humanity affected only fairly small-scale social and economic changes. More recently, human activity began to produce large scale environmental changes, and now has the potential to produce evolutionary changes. It is a truism that small things affect large ones, and large ones influence small ones. Nothing is isolated from anything else. Everything done in daily lives has consequences, many of which are not obvious. People and nature continually and invariably generate surprises.

The scale of observation very much influences one's understanding of what is seen and the actions taken as a result of the observation. That's why we chose a photograph of our planet from space as the starting page for this Seminar.  As you go through the Seminar, we want you to think about the one and only home we all share.

To illustrate further3, imagine you have five pairs of binoculars, each with a magnification of x10 greater than the previous pair. Imagine also that you are in the Florida Everglades, looking at an alligator hole in which a small patch of water is kept from dehydrating by alligators during the dry season. You are intrigued by the way the alligator makes it possible for a few fish eggs and fish to survive with them through the drought.

 Now pick up the first pair of binoculars and look around you to note the hardwood tree islands, the stands of saw grass, and seasonally wet prairie in which most of the fish and invertebrates in the Everglades live. Next pick up the second pair of binoculars and see the Shark River Slough cutting a swath 60 miles through the area, bounded by levees and canals channeling water away from the Everglades to the farms and cities of southeast Florida. The third pair of binoculars shows you Lake Okeechobee and the edges of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. You notice the interaction between the heating of the land and the surrounding water to generate most of the rain that goes into the Everglades. The fourth pair of binoculars shows you the whole Gulf of Mexico, Florida, and Cuba. Here you can see a hurricane and shifting nesting patterns of birds away from Florida to adjacent states as the Everglades slowly disappear. Your final pair of binoculars shows you the entire planet, where international trade and tourism as well as climate change are affecting that alligator hole right there at your very own feet.

          To emphasize the point just made, check out (click on the link) and view this Cosmic Zoom sequence before reading the rest of this page.

          Over the centuries science has uncovered an ever larger and larger universe made up of ever smaller and smaller - for want of a better word - things. With this uncovering has come the realization that everything is connected to everything else. We make up categories and distinctions because that's the way our minds work but as Jorge Luis Borges so nicely puts it "everything touches everything". To quote Albert-László Barabási2, a leading network scientist:  "We are close to knowing just about everything there is to know about the pieces of the universe, but we are as far as we have ever been from understanding nature as a whole." The necessary conclusion is that change in one thing inevitably, at some level and at some point, effects change in everything else.

          We are all part of a worldwide social network, from which no-one is left out. Within this global network, each of us has strong links to some people, and weak ties to others. Our weak relationships are crucial in our ability to communicate outside our own little world, to reach beyond our own little cluster of close contacts, and connect with people who are different from us. Some people have a lot more connections than others - as do some nodes in all complex systems from individual cells to the global economy. It turns out that these "hubs" appear in most large complex networks, they are an ubiquitous feature of our interconnected world. In the natural world, the hubs are the keystone species of an ecosystem. On the Internet, the vast majority of pages have only a few links pointing to them - they are ordinary network nodes. On the other hand, a very few pages have millions of links pointing to them - these are network hubs. When they crash, oh dear oh dear.....

          The implications of network research are emerging into the everyday world as its abstruse mathematical language is slowly being translated into terms that permit application to the study of change in all disciplines.

          Theories of change are developed by people who study adaptation, resilience, sustainability, collapse, and learning. Lance Gunderson and Buzz Holling have developed an integrative theory ("Panarchy") to help organize our understanding of economic, ecological, social and evolutionary change. Thanks to them and others, our understanding of how human activities and institutions interact with ecosystems, and the changes that result from these interactions, is growing. This theory explains why complex living systems create and change through crises, how they both persist and innovate. Transformation is not easy and gradual, it is instead tough and abrupt. Because of complexity, chaos, and turbulence to think we can predict sudden changes in systems is folly. Until two decades ago, seismologists thought they could predict major earthquakes -- and most of the general population still believes this to be true. However, seismologists now know that a big earthquake is simply a small one that ran away and that they never will be able to predict when a small earthquake will cascade into a large one. In the '70's, the west's leading futurists made predictions for the remainder of the century. Their predictions turned out to be less than half right. We do not know what will happen. We imagine we can control or manage things, but it's only an illusion.

          We've learned that successes in managing renewable resources tend to result in failure because the larger impacts are unknown or neglected. Our knowledge of any system we're dealing with is always incomplete. For example, we now know that if you widen roads, traffic-jams may get worse instead of better because of unpredictable driving patterns. We are stupid indeed if we think that straightforward market mechanisms and technological fixes will allow humanity to meet the challenge of global climate change. To quote geoscientist Wally Broecker "we're fooling with a system we don't understand."

          The time we live in is qualitatively different from times past when people could move away, emigrate, or cross the ocean to get away from their problems. Humanity's involvement now reaches into the farthest parts of the planet. Now, if we mess up we have nowhere else to go.

          We also know that reliance on expert advice can produce undesirable outcomes because by definition (mostly) an expert is a true-believer in his/her own solution and may be blind to the bigger picture. Experts, by definition know everything about a very small piece of the puzzle. Thomas Homer-Dixon in his ground-breaking book The Ingenuity Gap shows how "the people we anoint as experts constantly fall short of our expectations, especially in times of crisis." Not that expertise isn't desperately needed, but it only helps when it is combined with some understanding of the whole within which the expert knowledge is a part. On the other end of the scale, sadly, we have seen how political compromise or mediation can produce awful results if the involved stakeholders are uninformed or ignorant.


          A book titled The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell hit the best seller list for a while. The blurb on the jacket describes with typical hyperbole that the book is "that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single person can start an epidemic of the 'flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate... [This book] is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas."  With a few simple rules, Mr. Gladwell simplifies ideas that Madison Avenue currently uses all too well to manipulate a gullible public. Based on cases from history, market research, and health studies, he articulates the following three rules for explaining how epidemics, fads, and collapses happen. He posits that starting an epidemic requires concentrating resources based on a few key concepts.

  1. The Law of the Few: It is a few people with exceptional energy, enthusiasm, and personal connections who are primarily responsible for initiating a "tip" or an epidemic. A critical factor in an epidemic is the nature of the messenger(s).
  2. The Stickiness Factor: Epidemics only happen if the initiating agent is "sticky" -- if it grabs the imagination and has staying power. The "stickiness" is in the presentation.
  3. The Power of Context: People behave in different ways in response to a given situation depending on the context of the situation. For example, people will respond to an emergency differently if no-one is looking than if there are plenty of other people around.


          It has been said that only if there is an educated, informed, and alert citizenry can we learn from the painful lessons of history and episodic collapses of previous societies. We believe there is such a citizenry, and that we're part of it. The fate of the human species is still very much in our hands. That's why we - and you - are here.

          Research in psychology and health has discovered that attitude helps to shape health. Current western culture seems to us to be depressed, focusing primarily on what's wrong and thereby producing negative outcomes for everyone. We encourage readers to internalize the notion that if one thinks more positively one can thereby help ensure a more positive outcome. That's one reason for the Good News - Bad News Journal exercise that was included in Segment #1.

          We close with a parable and some lines from a song by Jesse Winchester (at some future date we hope to make this into an audio clip):

The Parable of the Boiled Frog

Take a pot of boiling water and drop a frog into it. The frog instinctively kicks its legs so hard on touching the boiling water that it jumps out of the pot and hops away from certain death. Then take another pot, this time full of cool water, put the frog into it and then gently turn the stove on under the pot. As the water gradually warms up the frog is lulled into inaction and finally dies from overheating. It never noticed the gradual deadly change in its environment.

Defying Gravity by Jesse Winchester

I live in a big round ball...
I never do dream I may fall...
And even some day if I do...
Well I'll jump up and smile back at you...
I don't even know where we are...
They tell me we're circling a star....
Well it may be true, I don't know...
But I'm dizzy so it may be so...

Think About

    1. What strikes you most about what you just read?
    2. What are some of the major changes that have happened in your life?
    3. Did you initiate some, or most, of these changes?   
    4. If not, what initiated them?
    5. Which changes were the most troublesome for you?


Next: Preparation (Homework) for Segment #2 Group Meeting


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Page last modified on July 9, 2008