Nature is the only system that has been stamped robust by time. Once we recognize businesses are living systems and not machines, as ecosystem designers of any stripe be it corporate leader or parent, we are faced with the most important question of all: When to intervene?
We in the West tend to take a proactive stance. We have a bias to action. We take the initiative. We seek to control the situation. This has hidden costs. One is that we are all overstimulated — which manifests in high blood pressure and a myriad of stress-related illnesses. These are side effects of an overactive stance. But there are more direct costs, too.
Iatrogenics is the medical term for harm from intervention or death by treatment. It is the third leading cause of death in America. Treatment kills more people every year in the United States than any single cancer. This would make health care a pretty slow-learning field, as they have had the Hippocratic oath (First Do No Harm) for 24 centuries. But health care at least recognizes the notion of harm from treatment. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out, politics and economics have no such term.
In the inaugural issue of design4emergence, biologist Rolf Muertter asked, “Are humans an invasive species?” comparing humanity to an invasive species like clams that take over an ecosystem and leave it susceptible to collapse.
Modernity has given us a great many gains to be sure (e.g., unprecedented gains in material well-being, the emancipation of women, the eradication of slavery). But there are costs, too. And if Muertter is right, the price of our success in controlling the environment may be cataclysmic.
“Even before collapse, our problems are increasingly problems of abundance or problems associated with our success in creating a man-made environment.”
We could define modernity as trader, systems thinker, and general curmudgeon Nassim Taleb does: the attempt to reduce variability. The war for control, regularity. There are all kinds of epistemological problems with this view. One is that complexity scientists have shown that all kinds of systems from financial markets to ecosystems thrive on some level of noise. Diego Espinosa’s article in the inaugural d4e speaks of sand piles and cascades. Adjustments build up. Stressors accumulate. If you don’t allow the system to adjust, ultimately when it is time for your Cheese to move, the move is Big. Much easier to make small adjustments along the way. This is why small forest fires are now left to burn. The alternative is bigger ones later.
Even before collapse, our problems are increasingly problems of abundance or problems associated with our success in creating a man-made environment.
Psychologist Gabor Maté has written a book called When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection and maintains that from a systems point of view the science is quite clear: Many people that end up deeply and tragically addicted to substances have childhood trauma issues. And their trauma is the result of their environment. Stress hormones found in a mother’s blood stream after a traumatic event can still be found in her child’s bloodstream a year later. But from a reductionist point of view, clinical practice looks for the molecule that is missing in her brain and introduces a chemical into a process it doesn’t understand with dubious results. For example, Prozac, the behavioral health wonder drug of the ’90s, is now known to have had no measurable clinical effect beyond an increased tendency toward suicide. But if Gabor is right and he insists the science is indisputable, culture is the root cause of most modern mental illness. Famed anthropologist Jared Diamond says the farther we get from hunter/gatherer, the greater the incidence of depression in a society.
Gabor would agree with Diamond, as he says civilization itself is a challenge, but late-stage capitalism is particularly toxic with its tendency to value people for their possessions and accomplishments rather than their values or relations. Dickens saw clearly this shadow of the Western enlightenment, as he illustrated so clearly in A Christmas Carol. Scrooge’s decisions were originally optimized for achievement and money and they led to isolation and loneliness. In his second chance, he optimized instead for relationship and connection and the corresponding feelings of joy, well-being, and appreciation.
Historically, knowing when to intervene was a matter of art, but increasingly the study of complex systems is making it a science. Taleb, in fact, offers a course on Decision-making Under Opacity about being comfortable in a world we don’t understand. As a Wharton professor of mine once said, “In strategy, one should be careful of ‘hunting’ — over-steering the trend line like a cautious elderly person driving.” This is an anxious, overstimulated interventionism, and as Taleb notes more frequent data dipping increases the chance that we are reacting not to signal but to noise. (As a trader, Taleb says if the news in a given year is say 50% signal and 50% noise, in a month the ratio might be 90% and 10%, and on a daily basis, the news is 99.5% noise and 0.5% signal.)
Interestingly, the ancients understood well this question of when to intervene.
My grand-teacher in the ancient art of Taiji, the famed Cheng Man Ching, called his school “Right Timing” (technically “Shi Zhong”1, or middle timing, but to the ancients this was the same thing. The Greeks called it the golden mean).
Lao Tzu, the legendary Taoist sage coined wu wei — “effortless effort” or passive achievement. And Dogen, the Japanese patriarch of Zen, called the essence of Zen: the freedom to act and not act2. Or freedom, from compulsion to act. And in that sense his message is the same as Gabor’s — that perhaps part of the key to maintaining our sanity is remembering that we are human beings, not human doings.
¹ Like Taiji itself seeks to balance yin/yang, the point is a deeper one; it is not that one is not always on the exact center, rather it is the ability to embrace both sides that allows one to be on point. Taleb would call this a barbell strategy and says in the real world it is the only way to be resilient (what he calls anti-fragile) in any domain, including finance.
² Actually Dogen said Zen is “beyond thinking and not thinking,” which as Genpo Roshi says means beyond the compulsion to think, and thus of course beyond the compulsion to act.