Living Systems and the Call for Civilizational Transformation

living systems Mar 04, 2023

We are entering times of catalytic tipping points. Life on planet Earth is radically shifting in ways we are not prepared for. Major actions are required to shift trajectories from collapse to regeneration and thriving.

Scientists continue to warn how our world is on the brink of disastrous tipping points, as we are heading at an accelerating pace toward 2 to 3°C of global warming.

For humanity to become net positive to the planet, courageous leadership and bold investments are imperative. The economic paradigm of growth without limits does not work on a planet with finite resources.

Nature is a complex system, which means that interdependence is a living reality — and not just a philosophical concept. What we do to the forests, biosphere, and oceans, we ultimately do to ourselves and the future generations who depend on us.

The planetary crisis is the meta-crisis of our time — that is, multiple tipping points are now starting to converge as a result of human failures in coordination, maturation, and design.

Through this article I’d like to offer some sense-making perspectives for the meta-crisis of our time, and the need for civilizational transformation. In particular, to explore what we can learn from the cosmology of living systems for the (re)design of our societal development.

A forest is a living system, and so is the ocean, our climate, our bodies, the earth and the universe. You are a living system, which provides you with innate capacities for self-creation, regulation, adaptation, learning, and sentience.

A system is a group of interacting or interrelated elements that form a complex whole, which is delineated by its boundaries and surrounded by its environment.

When we create systems that run contrary to the innate life-giving capacities of the universe, we create systems for destruction, entrapment, collapse, and suffering.

Systemic Design for Civilizational Transformation

Civilizations are vast and complex systems that represent our societies and worldviews at a meta-level of our collective development. Civilizations collapse when our activities exceed the carrying capacities of the ecosystems on which our lives depend. Nature’s budget cannot be cheated.

There are vital lessons to be learned from earlier civilizations that suddenly collapsed. Prof. Jared Diamond has illustrated this vividly in his research. It seems that we are collectively trapped in a civilizational bubble — a systemic blindspot that Diamond already warned about in 2000:

“Recent overwhelming evidence from archaeology and other disciplines is now demonstrating that some of those romantically mysterious collapses actually were self-inflicted ecological disasters, similar to the ecological suicide that we risk committing today. “ ~ Jared M. Diamond (2000)

To avoid yet another civilizational collapse, major systemic transformations are required. Especially where this concerns the mainstream economic, governmental, and political systems that are still designed for the growth paradigm of the industrial age. To support this civilizational shift, I initiated the EARTHwise Constitution and Partnership Alliance for a Planetary Civilization in November 2022.

The Constitution serves as an open-source social contract and compass for our civilizational transformation. It is freely available for everyone to work with and adjust to their unique circumstances.

We are currently developing the EARTHwise Futures DAO, as a planetary governance prototype and Tipping Point System for civilizational transformation. A DAO is a open-source decentralised governance system that utilises collective intelligence principles for large-scale transformations. You can learn more about this through our Transition Plan for a Planetary Civilization.

The EARTHwise Constitution offers 13 Living Systems Protocols for as design principles for civilizational transformation, which is summarized via the image below. To learn about these 13 Protocols in detail, read article 6 of the Constitution.

Addressing the root causes of the Meta-Crisis

Several catalytic tipping points are starting to converge — climate tipping points, biodiversity tipping points, social tipping points, political tipping points, and economic tipping points. The convergence of these tipping points can be referred to as “the meta-crisis” of the 21st Century.

Social philosopher Daniel Schmachtenberger explains how the meta-crisis is a way of assessing the totality of risks humanity faces and the totality of the problem-space.

When human activities exceed and harm planetary boundaries and sustainability thresholds, the tipping points we set in motion cannot be stopped through top-down interventions or control mechanisms.

Tipping points are irreversible nonlinear structural changes that push a system into unpredictable new trajectories. This process is driven by structural feedback mechanisms that lead to a qualitatively different, and often irreversible, state of the system as a whole.

Birth is a tipping point and so is death. Tipping points activate when certain systemic thresholds are reached or exceeded, after which the collapse of former structures follows.

Temperature can be a threshold, like is the case for climate tipping points and is the reason why climate scientists warn of the dire consequences for exceeding global warming beyond 1.5°C. Concentrations of hormones can also form a threshold for tipping point change, like is the case for the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. These are physical and measurable thresholds that are easier to define than the more subtle thresholds that regulate the behaviour of social, economic, and political systems.

The meta-crisis is about the combined effect and convergence of multiple and different forms of tipping points. Creating a snowballing effect that can radically accelerate societal collapse at a civilizational level.

In 2009, sustainability scientist Johan Rockström and his global team developed the Planetary Boundaries (PB) framework, which identifies nine critical processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System. Nine Planetary Boundaries were identified that indicate a safe operating zone within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come.

The latest scientific review by Wang-Erlandsson et al. (2022), show how five out of these nine critical Earth System boundaries have been crossed. We are now reaching critical limits of adaptation, for ourselves and many species and ecosystems. In other words, facing our systemic blindspots and getting real about the necessary actions to avoid major collapse is essential.

However, one may ask whether it is in fact too late to avoid the collapse of our modern civilization(s)? Or whether this civilizational collapse is perhaps even a good thing? To let die the systems and worldviews that are unsustainable (by design) and harmful to our planet and future wellbeing.

Collapse of such old paradigm systems could indeed accelerate the shift toward new systems based on vitally different worldviews and design principles. However, systemic collapse always increases major suffering, and should (in my view) not be opted for as a goal.

We owe it to future generations (and ourselves) to do whatever we can to avoid even further and worse suffering. Hence, my focus has been on how to accelerate the kinds of civilizational transformations that can help to avoid and/or shift the most harmful collapse conditions.

To explore the design principles for guiding such transformations, we need to start from the cosmological foundations of living systems. Only then will we be able to better understand why living systems are regenerative and thrivable by design.

The Cosmology of Living Systems

Living systems form part of a larger cosmology of wholeness that enabled our universe to give birth to life, and enabled life to evolve the universe of which we form part.

In my publications with cosmologist Dr. Jude Currivan, we have taken the position that space-time and energy-matter are complementary states of information. In other words, what we call physical reality is literally made of meaningful information, which, expressed as digitized bits embeds at the Planck-scale area of the holographic boundary of space-time.

This informational perspective of reality provides a radical new understanding of the nature of materiality and consciousness. A growing number of scientists and scholars propose that consciousness is primary and fundamental, and not just an emergent property of human brains or a physical universe. As such we could even explore ‘matter’ as an informational state of consciousness.

The primacy of consciousness is also supported by quantum physicist Prof. Menas Kafatos, who explains this as follows:

Entanglement is not a peculiarity of quantum mechanical phenomena at microscopic scales. It is instead the natural feature of the primacy of consciousness, operating through three fundamental principles of complementarity; creative interactivity and sentience; and recursion. The main issue is not how such the universe is nonlocal and entangled but rather how it appears as made of distinct, physical objects. What is proposed is that the mind creates a veiling of undivided wholeness. It is both the new and also ancient vision of non-duality, which we should pass on to the next generations.” ~ Menas Kafatos, 2014.

Physicists Alain Aspect, John Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger won the 2022 Nobel Prize in physics, “for experiments with entangled photons, establishing the violation of Bell inequalities and pioneering quantum information science.” Daniel Garisto wrote in the Scientific American that the work of these three scientists proved, “the universe Is not locally real.

As a clarification, this does not imply that the universe is not real (a statement that went viral on social-media). What is stated by these physicists is that the universe is not locally real, yet nonlocally it is real!

To better understand the nature of reality and the cosmological underpinnings of our universe, we need to understand how nonlocality in-forms emergence and enables evolution through embodied (localized) self-aware consciousness. To learn about this in a storytelling way, you may enjoy my books of the Future Humans Trilogy, which I co-authored with Dr. Jean Houston.

To summarise, the science of wholeness is in stark contrast with the mechanistic Newtonian sciences that portrayed a universe of separate parts and particles held together through immutable deterministic laws, causing random events.

In the EARTHwise Constitution we have summarised this cosmological perspective in article 3, which states:

3.1 We acknowledge how our universe exists and evolves as a single unified entity, an undividable wholeness — This evolutionary principle helps us understand life as a unified reality, whereby energy-matter and space-time are complementary informational expressions of consciousness.

3.2 We acknowledge how our universe evolves coherently and through increasing embodied complexity, making life possible precisely because of the relational dynamics it embodies and fosters — This evolutionary principle shows us how to embody complexity and foster evolutionarily coherence in ‘right relationship’ with life and each other.

3.3 We acknowledge how our universe actualizes its cosmological potentials by creating the systemic conditions for deepening self aware consciousness, and the capacities for exploring and actualizing our potential — This evolutionary principle reminds us how to develop our capacities as a self actualizing process of consciousness, through autonomy and balance, and by honoring the systemic conditions that enable this.

Collective Intelligence as Networks of Meaningful Relationships

The cosmological architecture of the universe, and thus its living systems, is finely tuned — not through immutable laws, but through interwoven networks of relationships that make life possible.

We literally bring each other forth. We are the living systems and sense-making organs of the universe for actualizing our cosmological potentials.

Actualization implies directionality from potentiality towards increasing embodied complexity over time — that is, we become more integral as our consciousness learns and develops.

As a systems scientist, I hold the view that the meta-crisis is the outer manifestation of the system archetypes by which we have attempted to grow and advance our societies. Systems that are degenerative by design become more destructive as they scale and expand — no matter the novel or noble intentions we may hold for such systems.

The quantum implications of an informationally unified universe can provide essential inputs for how we develop and transform our technologies. As well as providing essential design principles for how to co-create political, economic, and governance systems for planetary stewardship and evolutionary coherent development.

As humans we are gifted with individuated self-aware consciousness. Yet the challenge is not to separate individuation from wholeness by abstracting ourselves from reality.

We can learn from indigenous communities how to nurture a sense of belonging and personhood that remains embedded within the living context of our planetary relationships. By creating societal models and systems that run contrary to the evolutionary dynamics of life, we create cultures of separation and apartness.

Solving the root causes of the sustainability crisis, and becoming net positive to nature, is about so much more than solving the energy and resource transitions to post-carbon societies. More fundamentally, it is about our relationships with life and the universe we form part.

Partnering Nature’s Genius

Nature is a collective intelligence that has grown from billions of years of networking and embodying the quantum potentials of the universe through complex living systems. This collaborative intelligence has made life on Earth — including human life — possible.

For humanity to become net positive to nature we need to apply regenerative design principles based on the cosmology of complex living systems.

As explored earlier, living systems operationalise an architecture of wholeness, which is cosmologically given and remains sourced from nonlocal implicate orders of consciousness that are informationally unified. In other words, the growth archetypes of living systems are regenerative and thrivable by design.

Mechanistic governance systems and growth models miss the complex feedback loops and ecosystemic embedding of living systems. Furthermore, mechanistic leaders do not think in terms of future attractors, and how to create the necessary systemic boundaries for regulating the growth patterns and evolutionary capacities of our human societies in partnership with the natural world.

As such, the harmful growth patterns of mechanistic governance takes place at the expense of essential systemic boundaries and thresholds. Mechanistic systems by design are predominantly growth oriented, rather than developmental and integral.

In other words, mechanistic systems create systemic thrivability barriers by imposing goals and activities that undermine our self-regulating, adaptive, and transformative capacities as living systems. Some of the key systemic barriers of our mechanistic societies are:

  1. Blocked collaboration and coherence — Competitive win-lose dynamics and dualistic agendas cause divisions, distrust, conflicts, and disunity between people and their communities, and as such polarise our diversity.
  2. Blocked reciprocity with living systems— Reciprocity requires internalisation of feedback loops that regulate the systemic interdependencies that are safeguarded by systemic boundaries. Mechanistic systems lack this internalisation, and as such will not adapt and regulate their behaviour to changes that could potentially undermine systemic integrity and health.
  3. Distorted informational loops — By not accounting for the externalities and impacts of mechanistic development and governance, and by not internalising planetary feedback loops that regulate systemic health conditions, we create illusionary models of progress, growth, and distorted worldviews.
  4. Blocked responsiveness to pain — By ignoring essential feedback in the governance and cultures of our human development, and by numbing ourselves to the pain we inflict on our planet and each other, our responsiveness to pain becomes blocked. As such we fail to learn from the vital signals that pain provides us, and instead we numb and normalize pain. Responsiveness to pain means opening our hearts, developing our empathy, and allowing ourselves to receive life’s feedback so we may learn and mature in consciousness.

Systemic thrivablity barriers undermine the transformations that are necessary for resolving the root causes of the meta-crisis. Furthermore, these systemic barriers limit our capacities to evolve as a species, by keeping us stuck in the behavioural loops of juvenile species. To learn more about these and other systemic barriers, you can read this article that summarises my Ph.D. research on systemic transformation.

As one of the youngest species of our planet it is time for us to step up, grow up, and become Earth wise. We have it within us to contribute to the evolution of life on Earth, rather than harm it. We too are nature.

To complete this article, I’d like to offer some of my favourite practices for partnering Nature’s genius:

  • Honouring completions and making space for new growth — Take a walk in the forest and connect with nature’s wisdom for turning growth to compost and recycling the nutrients of earlier life stages. Learn from nature how to honour the different cycles of your life and relationships. Hold a fallen leaf in your hands and ask it to reveal to you what is complete in you and now requires decomposing. Ask nature to help you compost the experiences and relationships that have completed or require completion.
  • Expanding your receptiveness to life — Sit under an (ancient) tree and learn gently against its trunk. Allow your mind to ease and open by becoming aware of the tree’s perspective of life, and all it has witnessed and supported. Allow your mind to relax and open even further and now ask the tree to expand your receptiveness to life, by expanding and deepening your roots and branches as a tree of life.
  • Revitalising your life through the power of water — Spend time with a river, in the ocean, or at lake to open yourself to the revitalizing powers of water. Explore the unique qualities of water; how it is catalyzes new life and is receptive, embracing, and deeply transformative. Water is life. Your body formed in the water of your mother’s womb. Our Earth is a water planet. Ask the wisdom of water to teach you how to revitalise and evolve your life by applying the transformative and catalysing powers of water.
  • Opening to the magnificence of our universe — Lay down on the Earth at night, watch the stars, planets, and galaxies high above you. Allow your mind to expand into the vastness of the universe; realising how you are a tiny fractal of its wholeness. You too are made of star dust. You are part of the life of the universe and its consciousness. Ask the universe to share with you its mysteries and help you actualize its consciousness as a fractal of wholeness.

Written by Anneloes Smitsman, Ph.D., LLM, 26 February 2022, first published on Medium.

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