Integrating Our Approach to Planetary Health: How Energy Systems Provide a Rigorous yet Heart-Warming Framework | Sally J. Goerner and Juwairia R. Quazi | World Futures (2021)

Reproduced from: Sci-Hub | | 10.1080/02604027.2021.1904749

To cite this article: Sally J. Goerner & Juwairia R. Quazi (2021) Integrating Our Approach to Planetary Health: How Energy Systems Provide a Rigorous yet Heart-Warming Framework, World Futures, 77:3, 163-204, DOI: 10.1080/02604027.2021.1904749

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Published online: 28 May 2021.

2021, VOL. 77, NO. 3, 163–204

Integrating Our Approach to Planetary Health: How Energy Systems Provide a Rigorous yet Heart-Warming Framework

Sally J. Goerner and Juwairia R. Quazi

Edinburgh University, Edinburgh, UK

Sally J. Goerner
Planetary Health Lab,
Edinburgh University, Edinburgh, UK
© 2021 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC


This paper shows how the Energy System Sciences provide the theoretical backbone and empirical substance we need to connect findings from across the human and natural sciences in a way that is practical, rigorous, and heart-warming at the same time. Our premise is that the same energy science that explains systemic health in ecosystems can be used to create an empirical explanation of systemic health in human systems too. This integrated understanding of planetary health directly addresses the underlying socio-economic drivers of today’s crises in a rigorous yet emotionally compelling picture of how to save civilization socially, economically and environmentally.

Energy systems; planetary health; regenerative civilization; resilience; systemic approaches; sustainability

Revising Our View of Science, Humanity, and Health

The task is not so much to see that which no one has ever seen before, but to think that which no one has ever thought about that which everyone sees.

Arthur Schopenhauer

We face interlocking social, economic, political, and environmental crises. Economically, we face crumbling cities, outsourced jobs, skyrocketing inequality, and public austerity measures whose main purpose is to make tax-breaks for the rich more affordable. While the stock market booms and the rich get wildly richer, economic insecurity, working-class stagnation, and mounting debt plague the populace at large, generating wide-spread misery and fear. While anger fuels populist outrage, authoritarian extremism, and the potential for violent culture war, a tidal-wave drive for social injustice is pushing back against a fortress of oligarchic power. Meanwhile, climate change poses an existential threat to humanity itself.

The systemic nature of today’s global crisis requires a transdisciplinary synthesis, but our world is built of siloed specialists focused on their piece of the puzzle. For 50 years, the sustainability movement has fought a determined battle for environmental health against trickle-down’s take-make-waste practices, but this pursuit has had little direct effect on the root socioeconomic cause of these crises. While cures for most of our most pressing problems already exist, these disciplinary solutions lie about like so many disconnected dots in a child’s coloring book, and nothing brings these shards together in a way that reveals a path to a healthy whole.

Upheavals from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street and the Hong Kong protests indicate pressure for systemic reform is growing, but neither public pressure nor fruitful remedies appear be slowing global civilization’s rush toward oblivion. Instead, most people hunker down and wait as the specters of fascism, political-economic instability and COVID-19 set the stage for a societal storm of historic proportions. After all, what else could there be?

In short, those who would build a sustainably vibrant civilization face three major obstacles. They are trying to solve a systemic problem using disciplinary solutions designed to address only one piece of the puzzle – e.g., social justice or environmental health. They are trying to use technical solutions to address a root problem that is primarily socio-cultural. They lack an empirically sound, yet emotionally compelling vision of what is going wrong and how to build something better. This paper shows how the Energy System Sciences can help overcome these obstacles by providing the theoretical backbone and empirical substance we need to connect findings from across the human and natural sciences in a way that is practical, rigorous and heart-warming at the same time.

Our main premise is that the same Energy System Sciences1 (ESS) that explain systemic health in ecosystems can, with a few extensions, be used to create a rigorous, common-sense explanation of systemic health in human systems too (e.g., Odum, 2007). This integrated understanding of planetary health directly addresses the underlying socio-economic drivers of today’s interlocking crises, and creates a rigorous yet emotionally compelling picture of how to save civilization socially, economically, and environmentally.

ESS’ approach to our systemic crises starts with a shift of perspective. Like an optical illusion that can be seen in two ways, ESS shows how the same points of fact that everyone already sees (plus a few new insights) produce a radically different picture of how the world works. The result is a Schopenhauer shift (opening quote) — a new way of thinking about that which everyone sees.

So, note, virtually none of the ideas we present in this paper are new. Some are even thousands of years old. Our use of fractals, for instance, reflects a modern expansion of the ancient study of “sacred geometries,” i.e., geometrically precise, universal patterns found at every level, and in every type of system in the cosmos. Understanding why these geometries exist changes our view of health, development, and evolution.

The idea that energy dynamics can be used to explain health in human systems is also not new. Though different disciplines use different terminology, a wide variety of them already incorporate energy-system concepts such as circulation, pressure, structural stability, and “stocks and flows.” John Maynard Keynes and Karl Marx used the circular flow of money, goods, and services to explain economic instability, and Institutional economists use them to explain the need for economic equity, cross-scale circulation, and financial reform. Similarly, the study of Resilience is based on energy-flow concepts (e.g., Holling, 1973), as is theoretical ecology (e.g., Ulanowicz, 2009). In fact, ESS is an umbrella term precisely because disciplines ranging from physics, math, and biology to economics, ecology, and urban planning — use energy concepts and methods to understand the laws of systemic health in living, non-living, and supra-living systems such as economies and ecosystems.

Connecting energy system understandings, however, creates a more logical, rigorous, and hopeful view of both humanity and societal health. This new picture also overturns many of the orthodox views that are driving today’s problems. Here, for instance, humanity is a collaborative learning species, not a coldly calculating Economic Man run by selfish genes. Our collaborative nature explains why common-cause values such as justice and fairness are critical to the health, and why economic vitality comes from investing in human, social, and intellectual capital, not from maximizing wealth of a few owners on top. Here, the battle is not between a capitalism and communism, but between self-serving oligarchy and a learning civilization aimed at building a world that works for everyone.

Just as Copernicus’ more accurate sun-centered view supplanted earth-centered beliefs, so we believe ESS’ more accurate picture will eventually replace today’s oligarchy-centered view with a more empirically sound and emotionally compelling vision of how to build sustainably vibrant civilization by empowering common-cause learning, not by helping the great and greedy increase their power. The next several sections outline the empirical basis for this shift in scientific worldview.

The Science of Flow

Focused on simple, linear causality, and material bits, classical physics had a hard time understanding complex human systems. Switching physics’ own basis from matter to energy produces a more logical and rigorous understanding of human systems that fits with much of what we already know.

Classical science built itself around reductionism and materialism because, in the age before computers, that was the best science could do. Over time, it also embraced oligarchic ideas such as Homo Economicus and social Darwinism because elites supported work that rationalized their worldview. Now, however, virtually every field in science is grappling with the fact that the cosmos is actually built of “systems,” i.e., complex networks of interconnected parts that work together in incredibly intricate and functional ways. Living organisms are built of interconnected cells linked in organs, and organ systems, which together perform all the functions the organism needs to thrive. Ecosystems are built of interconnected plants, animals, land and air linked in cycles of material flows that provide the essentials of life. Economies are networks of interconnected businesses, consumers, governments, and monetary systems that provide the fundamentals of societal life.

The physicists use the study of “forces and flows” to explain the existence and behavior of such complex systems. “Forces” refers to the attractive and repulsive forces — such as gravity and electromagnetism — that variously pull bodies together and push them apart. Forces give rise to the natural geometries seen throughout all levels of the cosmos. Gravity, for instance, explains the elliptical orbits of planetary motion, while electromagnetism explains the radiating field lines that form around magnets and electrical currents.

“Flows” refer to “energy flows.” ESS researchers, however, use a broad definition of energy which applies to a wide array of disciplines. Thus, where most people associate the term “energy” with various forms of fuel (e.g., oil or solar), here it refers to any kind of flow that is critical to the system under study. Ecologists study the flow of carbon and oxygen in the biosphere. Transportation planners study the flow of traffic in cities. Economists study the flow of money, resources, products, etc. Biologists use flow-network models to understand the Krebs cycle and other metabolic processes in living organisms.

ESS’ ability to explain systemic behavior and connect transdisciplinary findings stems from the fact that energy dynamics are universal: they apply equally to living, non-living and supra-living systems such as ecosystems and economies. Energy dynamics provide the fuel for growth, the pressure for change, the drive that gives rise to organization, and the omnipresent, seeping flow that connects all things.

This broad view of energy also helps connect diverse findings by highlighting the common principles that underlie them all. Biologists and economists are equally likely to use energy laws precisely because energy provides the fuel for motion, the pressure that drives development, and the nourishment that keeps systems going, regardless of whether that system is a living organism or an economy.

The Energy System Sciences are also fully empirical. Instead of relying on computer simulations to understand complex systems, ESS scientists use the ancient observation that all systems are flow-networks, i.e., organizations whose existence arises from and depends on circulating energy, resources, or information throughout the entirety of their being. Your body, for example, is an integrated network of cells kept healthy by the circulation of water and nutrients. Ecosystems are networks of plants and animals connected by flows of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, etc. Societies are interlinked networks of people, businesses, communities, and governments that depend on the circulation of money, information, resources, products, etc. The flow of energy and matter is even reflected in the Milky Way’s swirl (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Some common flow-networks.

The study of flow also forces researchers to take a systemic view. Thus, as its name implies, ESS is a way of studying systems, i.e., profoundly interconnected wholes that are built of- and into other such wholes. Internally, for example, you are built of cells organized into muscle, circulatory, and nervous systems. Externally you are built into various larger human organizations such as family and country, as well as the biosphere at large. The same nesting holds for every system imaginable from atoms in molecules to civilization in the biosphere.

Circulation, Regeneration, and Economic Metabolism

Economists observing circulation’s role in economic health realized it meant economies serve the same function in a society as a metabolic system does in a living organism (Fischer-Kowalski & Hüttler, 1998a, 1998b). Like a metabolic system, economies are networks of specialists whose interlocking efforts turn energy, information, and resources into all the products, services, information, and fuel a society needs to thrive. People, businesses, communities, value-chains, governments, and even the biosphere are like cells and organs in your body; they play diverse roles in production, distribution, and learning. All social, economic, political, and environmental systems are connected, and the entire system is — or should be — designed to be regenerative, i.e., self-feeding and self-renewing.

Here, money is like blood: it is a vehicle for circulating the information, products and resources that nourish economic muscle and brain. Nourishing all levels and sectors of the economy is important because elements at every level plays a distinct role in a highly interdependent whole.

This metabolic view leads to several obvious rules of systemic health:

  • Cross-scale circulation is essential because vitality depends on the care and feeding of the entire network from individuals and small businesses to national governments and global value-chains. Poor economic circulation produces economic necrosis, i.e., the dying-off of large swaths of economic tissues with accompanying damage to the health of the whole.
  • Regenerative investment, i.e., funding the human, social, economic, and environmental systems that keep an economy functioning, is fundamental. Human capital it is particularly important because socioeconomic health depends on the intelligence and energy of people at all levels who do all the work!
  • Reliable inputs are essential because, in flow-networks, running out of a critical resource is a death sentence. Plants need water; businesses need money; and societies need reliable circulation of money, information, goods, and resources from food and water to energy and electricity.
  • Healthy outputs are important because the concept of “poisoning one’s own nest” applies as much to civilizations as to animals.
  • Where money goes is much more important than how much profit is made (GDP). The central role circulation and regenerative investment play confirms this totally reasonable idea.

Structure and Balance

An organization’s structure, i.e., the arrangement by which its elements connect, is also important to economic health because it impacts circulation and function. Energy systems’ penchant for creating snowflake patterns — geometrically precise ones that are universal and unique at the same time — gives us a new perspective on what constitutes healthy structure. The existence of precise universal patterns has been observed since the ancient Greeks. For instance, systemic health in a wide variety of systems — from leaves and lungs to river deltas and ecosystems — depends on maintaining a power-law ratio2 of small, medium, and large elements arranged in a hierarchical branching structure. Your circulatory system, for example, has a few large, highly efficient conduits branching into successively smaller, more numerous, less efficient conduits below. A healthy ecosystem has a few large predators atop a pyramid of successively smaller and more numerous prey animals. At the same time, while no two trees, river deltas, or lungs are exactly the same, they all follow the same geometrically precise, branching structures. Nowadays, we call these structures “fractals” and use precise, power-law math to measure the optimal balance of sizes needed for systemic health (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Some common fractal structures. Fractal structures actually teach us that systemic health requires a balance of: (1) large and small; (2) resilience and efficiency; (3) diversity and common cause; and (4) flexibility and constraint (liberty and laws).

This balance of sizes is ubiquitous because it optimizes circulation and health across scales. The need for economic balance is easy to see, which in turn, nourishes critical activity at every level. Big, efficient elements (arteries or multinationals) provide the speed and volume needed for rapid cross-level circulation, while the many small elements (capillaries or local contractors) reach every nook and cranny.

Fractal balance of sizes also applies to balancing the competing pulls for small-scale resilience and large-scale efficiency. Big firms with economies of scale are generally more productive and offer higher wages, but towns dominated by a few large companies are brittle — if a mainstay company leaves, they have no other industries to fall back on. A bevy of small businesses offers more choice and redundancy, but economies dominated by small firms tend to be sluggish because economic surplus is hard to maintain. This leaves overstretched staffs with little money for specialization, expansion, or quality improvements.

Since these universal patterns represent optimal structures selected over time, we can use them as targets for how to structure human organizations as well. The fact that they are geometrically precise means we can use them to create exact measures and targets of systemic health.

Using fractal and other optimal geometries to create exact measures of health has implications for a surprisingly large number of fields. Nassim Taleb (2010) uses fractal thinking to explain bifurcation points (i.e., switches from one pattern of behavior to another) and “black swan” events, highly impactful, apparently unpredictable events that come as a surprise to orthodox theories.

Salingaros (2005) shows how a fractal layout of roads / pathways helps catalyze a broad spectrum of city processes, including innovation, communication, and community cohesion. Goerner et al. (2015) uses fractal designs to explain the Goldilocks Rule of Banking — why each scale needs banks that are “just right” to meet the commercial needs of that scale. Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language (1977), a variation of fractal thinking, provides exact rules for constructing practical, safe and attractive architectural and city designs at every scale from regions and cities to neighborhoods, gardens, buildings, rooms, and furniture down to the level of doorknobs. The beauty of fractals is that their precision allows us to gauge systemic health quantitatively.

The dangers of imbalance also cut through many right-left economic debates by clarifying that the real problem lies not with profit, wealth, power or hierarchy per se, but with extremes of too much or too little of any of these. From a fractal perspective, having too many large corporations is akin to having too many large predators. Excessively large corporations create powerful extractive pulls (positive feedback loops) that siphon wealth from lower levels and channel it to distant headquarters. This process hollows out local economies leaving economic necrosis in its wake. Economies dominated by “too big to fail” organizations are unstable because excessive extraction eventually undermines the entire economy making it fragile and susceptible to collapse (Lietaer et al., 2012).

Growth, Development, and Evolution

While it is easy to see why circulation makes our economic metabolism hum, circulation per se does not explain the other central ingredient in societal health: collaborative learning.

How did we become a collaboratively learning species that thrives by developing better ways? Where Darwinians see intelligence as an accidental outcome of genetic mutation, ESS sees both genes and intelligence as natural results of energy laws of growth and development.

While researchers have been studying energy’s role in emergence, growth and development since the early 1900s, Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine (1972) made it mainstream in the 1970s by showing how an energy process he called self-organization drives the emergence of new organizations, and the ongoing, cyclical development of existing ones. The result was a more logical and rigorous science of growth and development.

Self-organization follows four basic rules: (1) pressure drives; (2) diversity catalyzes; (3) energy fuels; and (4) constraints shape. These can be seen in in boiling water and hurricanes (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Self-organization in boiling water and hurricanes. Turning up the heat under a pot of water creates pressure that pushes molecules to move faster. When molecules can go no faster via random collisions, small impurities (diversity) seed the formation of bubbles which begin moving up the side of the pot. Some eventually reach the top, lose their heat, and sink back down, triggering a large circular flow. If the heat continues, the pattern will repeat. The circular flow will go faster and faster until it reaches the limits of that pattern. Some bit of diversity will trigger the system to reorganize into a figure 8 pattern. The result is a series of more intricate patterns of organization emerge, each circulating energy faster than the one before. On the other hand, if all impurities are removed, bubbles would not self-organize; instead, pressure builds until the system explodes. A similar process occurs in the formation of hurricanes, tornadoes, and economic change.

Like all energy processes, self-organization is universal. It also repeats, always bringing smaller pieces together in larger more complex wholes. In each round, pressure drives, diversity catalyzes, energy fuels, and constraints shape. The first atoms were forged in the intense pressure of the Big Bang. The first forms of life emerged from the fiery furnace of early Earth’s primordial chemical soup. The first hierarchical civilizations emerged in constrained areas of fertile land, such as the Tigris and Indus river-valleys, where population pressures created intense conflicts over land. The resulting wars for territory eventually gave rise to economies based on conquest and subjugation run by a warrior administrative class.

In this way, repeating rounds of self-organization have produced recurrent cycles of development and a stairstep progression of increasing power, intelligence, and organizational intricacy from the origins of atoms and life to the latest cycles of civilization (Figure 4). The study of Big History details the incredible results (Christian, 2019).

Figure 4. Self-organization creates a stair-step of increasing complexity and intelligence.

The logical result is a fully transdisciplinary theory evolution. Instead of a selection process applying to biological organisms alone, here Dynamic Evolution is energy-driven process of increasing complexity at work from the origins of matter and life to today’s complex societal structures (Goerner, 1999; Jantsch, 1980; Laszlo, 1987).

Naturalizing Intelligence

Some self-organized breakthroughs lead to radically new types of organizations. For instance, the organization we call “life” emerged when some non-living chemical organizations began responding to information about where to find a new energy supply (food). ESS provides a logical explanation for this too.

The phenomenon we call “information” began as fine-grained energy trails (patterns) — a few photons of light or the chemical trail we call smell — that physically nudged the system in some way. Intelligence, i.e., responding functionally to informative nudges, probably began when some bump accidentally propelled a cell toward fuel for continued activity. “Responding functionally” evolved rapidly after that because each advance in intelligence allowed the organization to survive (i.e., continue) longer than those that did not respond so well (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Life follows information to food.

Collaboration, Communication, and Connective Tissue

While naturalizing intelligence moves us one step closer to our learning nature, another law of growth explains why collaboration is also central to living systems. Scientists have long observed that big things are always built of smaller things which are built of smaller things still. Chemical compounds are built of molecules, which are built of atoms, which are built of subatomic particles. Multicellular organisms are built of individual cells grouped in functional systems of bone, tissue and organs. While multicellular animals group themselves into herds, flocks, and societies. Even complex eukaryotic cells are built of smaller prokaryotic cells (Margulis, 1998).

Besides the benefits of specialization, the deeper reason for this pattern lies in a rule of growth called the Surface-Volume law. This law notes that all organizations are held together by bonds, and the bigger an organization gets, the more those bonds get stretched, until they reach a breaking point (literally). At this point, the only way the organization can grow bigger is to divide into two smaller organizations that reconnect using some form of connective tissue.

Easily seen in a developing embryo (Figure 6), this law of growth says getting bigger requires keeping small groups linked in an ever-growing meshwork of connective tissue. Transportation networks, value chains, media-systems, and money and all serve as connective tissue in human groups.

Figure 6. Surface-volume development seen in a developing embryo. An embryo starts as a single cell which grows, and then divides into two cells that couple back together. The process repeats, producing 4, 8, 16 cells, etc. Found in living, non-living, and supra-organizations, this pattern is called the Surface-Volume law because breakpoints occur when the cell reaches a two-third power ratio of its surface area to its volume (size).

In living and human systems, this process leads to collaboration, i.e., networks of interconnected individuals and groups playing specialist roles that benefit each other and the larger goal of which they are part. Genetic research, for instance, shows that the main way living organisms becomes more complex is by previously independent organisms joining together in more complex wholes (Margulis, 1998). The nucleus, mitochondria and flagella of eukaryotic cells, for instance, were once independent prokaryotic cells, which now serve as organelles of a more sophisticated cellular system. Land plants similarly reflect an immortal marriage between photosynthetic algae and non-photosynthetic lichens; algae’s ability to create fuel from sunlight, and the lichens’ ability to withstand harsh environments allowed the combo to conquer land. Societies represent large numbers of people performing specialist tasks for the benefit of themselves and the larger whole of which they are part. We depend on collaborating specialists to support all aspects of daily life — from water and food to information and energy.

In turn, the importance of collaboration also explains the need to communicate, i.e., to send signals back and forth in order to stay in sync. When multicellular organisms first arose, staying in sync was easy because specialist cells were in constant contact (literally). Passing resources or signaling an event was a simple matter of releasing a small chemical or electrical discharge. Unfortunately, direct contact only works for organizations below a certain size because signals dissipate with distance. So, the bigger multi-cellular organisms became, the harder it was to stay in sync. The emergence of the first nerve cell solved the coordination problem by circulating information across larger spans. Nerves, for instance, allow your legs and lungs to communicate about activity (like running) and special needs (like more oxygen) even though they are located in different parts of the body.

From nerves to brains, the bigger multicellular animals grew, the more communication and coordination technologies emerged to support the growing complexity. Intelligence, the ability to respond functionally to information grew alongside (Figure 7).

Figure 7. The need to stay in sync drove the evolution nerves, brains and hierarchical societies.

Groups of animals also increased collective intelligence and coordination by communicating, i.e., circulating information among themselves. Deer flash their tails to signal danger, while bees dance to show location of honey. Words circulate information in incredibly sophisticated ways, and the symbol-system we call money connects by allowing people who do not know each other to transact with trust. Collective intelligence — i.e., the ability of groups to respond in organized, functional ways to information — also increased alongside.

Notice that hierarchical arrangements are also a form of connective tissue that helps large organizations stay in sync. So, while fine-grained, local connections work well in small groups, eventually organizations become so large that horizontal connections are not enough to maintain coherence. At this point, growth pressures drive the development of hierarchical structures. In human systems, this means highly efficient, vertical structures that improve coordination, communication, and decision-making across large numbers and long distances, while also helping to concentrate wealth for public purpose.

Our Collaborative Learning Nature

Human beings took communication, collaboration, and intelligent response to a new level by organizing their communities around collaborative learning and conscious reinvention. Conscious collective learning — i.e., the ability to knowingly change a group’s response in light of new findings or changing conditions — turns basic intelligence into the ongoing pursuit of improving the group’s ability to live long and prosper. This is what humanity is struggling to achieve today.

Humanity is the cutting-edge of collaborative intelligence on earth. We are a collaborative learning species whose strategy is to adapt rapidly by learning collectively. We are a consciously learning species which is constantly forging ever-better hypotheses about how the world works. We coordinate collective behavior by circulating information. We preserve life-lessons in cultural norms, written laws, and scientific theories. We are not swift of feet nor sharp of tooth, but we are very good at finding patterns and using them to change our beliefs, our behavior, and our world.

Common-Cause Values and “Becoming What we Believe”

Grounding the idea that humanity is primarily a collaborative learning species has profound implications for our understanding of how civilizations work.

The powerful impact beliefs systems have on human behavior, for instance, confirms the critical importance of accurate facts; a diverse, independent, truthful media; and the need for open, honest information processing at all levels of society. The collaborative side of vitality also explains why instilling common-cause values and investing in human capital are critical to societal health. Synergetic collaboration only works well under common-cause values such as fairness, reciprocity, and justice because these provide the glue that holds us together and the grease that smooths our collaboration. Here, selfishness is not the centerpiece of human nature, but a dangerous exaggeration of complex human relationships that says more about oligarchic culture than about nature at large.

Unfortunately, the power of beliefs also explains why oligarchs are so keen to manipulate ideas to justify hegemonic rule, and, hence, why willful deception and intentional divisiveness is so common in today’s post-fact era.

Furthermore, while it is easier to adapt by changing beliefs than by changing genes, belief systems are often very difficult to budge even when the signs of crisis abound. The problem here is twofold. First, our talent for adapting by changing our worldview means that human societies tend to “become what they believe.” In social science terms, human beings “construct their social reality,” that is, they build cultural cocoons, around their belief systems. For example, if a society believes competition is the source of all good things, then it salts incentives to compete in every place possible. Children compete for grades in schools; academics compete for funding; workers compete for promotions; and businesses compete for customers. If this process goes on long enough, eventually everywhere people look, their social reality confirms the original belief.

Second, this cultural cocoon is held in place by a matrix of very real rewards and punishments. Established norms, pervasive incentives, and profound personal costs keep institutions and organizations marching in the usual lines, even if its members see catastrophe looming ahead.

Since elites heavily influence societal beliefs, over time their beliefs begin to color the whole society’s social reality. The more thorough the oligarchic influence, the more unassailable elite perspectives appear to be. Ideas such as “human beings are selfish automatons battling for supremacy in a dog-eat-dog world” (Dawkins, 1976), for example, reflect an oligarchic perspective that says more about life in an oligarchy than it does about nature or humanity as a whole (Goodwin, 1994).

What Makes a Civilization Thrive?

Today’s seemingly immutable oligarchic beliefs and ensnaring matrices of norms and rewards make reforming systemic problems such as racism extremely difficult. Yet, it is also apparent that today’s oligarchic system is not immutable. The more societal pressures grow, the more our learning nature kicks in, and we ask ourselves: what else could there be?

Pressure for change is rising because the strategies for societal vitality coming from today’s dominant oligarchic belief system, neoliberal economics (i.e., trickle-down), do not appear to be working. Maximizing profit for owners has created an oligarchic form of capitalism built on extracting as much as possible from people and planet, with little regard to harm done. Instead of investing in productive capacity, tax-cuts for the wealthy are used to solidify oligarchic dominance by concentrating wealth evermore massively in the hands of a few. Meanwhile, outsourcing jobs increases elite profits by keeping prices down, but it undermines local economies by eroding local tax bases; reducing local services; driving up personal debt; and leaving everyone dependent upon massive corporations and distant supply chains — which COVID-19 shows can be risky.

In contrast, ESS creates a society-centered approach to planetary health based on the inseparable connection between our societal mind, i.e., our cultural beliefs, and our economic metabolism, which is governed by the energy laws of systemic health. Here, the health of our economic metabolism rests on:

  • Regenerative circulation — circulating money, information, resources, etc. in ways that fuel the future, and empower the present by nourishing all the people, organizations, and institutions engaged in constructive socioeconomic functions.
  • Resilient structure (organization) — a balance of sizes, flexibility, and diverse alternatives allow the society to fill niches at every level, find new ways, and adapt to unexpected events.

In turn, our socio-cultural health rests on:

  • Common-cause culture — values and norms that grease the wheels and cement the bonds we need to live and work together.
  • Effective collective learning — our ability to adapt by collectively learning better ways to thrive as a whole society.

Economists Eric Lonergan and Mark Blyth (2020) provide a hardware-software analogy for how the seemingly immutable laws of economic metabolism fit with the infinitely flexible nature of societal belief. Here, the underlying laws of flow, such as pressure, circulation, structure, and fuel, make our economic metabolism work like a type of hardware, obeying relatively unchanging, mechanical rules. Our societal beliefs and values are like software: they direct how our socioeconomic machinery behaves, which in turn, determines what the outcomes we get.

ESS adds a learning perspective. Since civilizations run best when they follow the laws of systemic health, the goal of societal learning must be to develop ever-better approximations of those laws. Here, each variant of culture is an experiment whose long-term existence depends on how well it discerns those laws and how well it learns. Failure to respond to “bugs” in the system — i.e., indications of instability inequity, etc. — leads to socioeconomic instability and the potential for collapse. Here, our collaborative nature explains why the battle we face is for the hearts and minds of humanity. Our learning nature defines our strategy and the laws of systemic health define the goal. Figure 8 summarizes the overall design.

Figure 8. An integrated approach to planetary health. ESS creates a society-centered approach to systemic health resting: (1) regenerative circulation; (2) resilient structure; (3) synergetic collaboration; and (4) collective learning. This mosaic approach to planetary health connects the laws of economic metabolism and the flexibility of human thought into a common-sense bundle that is that is logical, practical, rigorous, and heart-warming at the same time.

Targets, Measures, and Prediction

This brings us ESS’ most revolutionary contribution — rigorous targets, measures, and predictions of systemic behavior of a kind not possible in classical determinism or statistics. As explained earlier, we can use universal patterns (such as fractal branching structures) as exact targets and measures because they represent optimal structures selected over time. Fractals, for instance, indicate the optimal balance of sizes needed for systemic health. It also allows us to measure the optimal balance of resilience & efficiency, diversity & conformity; and flexibility & constraint.

Energy principles — such as fuel, pressure, diversity, and constraints — also allow us to predict some aspects of human behavior. The process works in much the same way meteorologists predict a hurricane’s formation and likely path. Though many details cannot be predicted, high pressure areas, for instance, produce the conditions for systemic change. So, ever wonder why the same conditions that drove emergence of fascism in the 1930s appear to be doing the same today? ESS suggests human upheavals — from riots and the rise of right-wing populism to full societal collapse — are predictable outcomes of pressure, growing differences (i.e., gradients), and systemic constraints. Social justice is important because, where hurricanes are driven by gradients of temperature, human upheavals are driven by gradients of wealth, power, fairness, and well-being.

Members of the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics (RARE) used such patterns and principles to create 10 measures of socio-economic health (Figure 9).

Figure 9. RARE’s top 10 measures of systemic health (Fath et al., 2019).

Such patterns, principles, and measures also support a new story. We know intuitively that the kind of glaring gap between rich and poor that Thomas Piketty (2014) found, fuels social tensions and increases instability. We can now say empirically that high pressure conditions provide social fuel for authoritarian demagogs seeking to channel pent-up frustration toward their desired ends. We can also see why constraints to adaptive change — i.e., blocking learning — are important because they cause pressure to rise.

The Oligarchic Disease

What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while doing it? Those trees were felled by rational actors who must have suspected that the destruction of this resource would result in the destruction of their civilization … Societies aren’t murdered. They commit suicide, they slit their wrists and in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.

Jared Diamond

This brings us to today’s paradox. Humanity’s ability to learn consciously and coordinate collectively has allowed us to adapt more rapidly and innovate more powerfully than any other species on earth. It is directly responsible for all the marvels we have today. Yet, the potentially lethal crises we face today has left many people wondering if the opening quote applies to us.

Has our society has slit its wrists? If so, why are we watching it bleed to death? In other words, if humanity is learning species, why are we racing toward oblivion while most of the remedies we need are waiting in the wings?

Why would rational beings watch their societies die? Conventional wisdom says we are socially self-destructive because selfishness is fixed in our genes. It is also fixed in our culture. Mainstream economists, for instance, say the best possible economy comes from Homo Economicus, a cold, calculating, rational agent aimed solely at maximizing his own wealth regardless of cost to anyone or anything else. Biologist Richard Dawkins (1976) argues that human beings are: “… robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve selfish … genes. Any altruistic system is inherently unstable because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals ready to exploit it.”

We would argue instead that today’s myriad crises and our inability to address them is a direct result of a power system called oligarchy. While oligarchy is technically defined as “rule by the few,” it is best understood as a cultural system of self-serving power that tends to become increasingly sociopathic over time. In The Republic, Plato defined it as, “a government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power, and the poor man is deprived of it.” Aristotle called it, “government by the rich for their own advantage.”

Oligarchic societies are characterized by:

  • Self-serving elites imbued with various levels of power, privilege, and impunity
  • Unrelenting extraction of wealth from bottom to top
  • Class divisions with increasing injustice and unfairness at the lower levels
  • Elite-serving “coercive hierarchies” that control lower levels (Artigiani, 1991).

Oligarchic narratives — from the Divine Right of Kings to the Divine Right of Capital — are used to justify one group’s right to own, control and / or exploit the work and life of another group. Here, superiors, e.g., masters and / or owners, have a right to exploit inferiors, e.g., servant, slaves and / or workers. Oligarchies become ever more sociopathic over time because such rationales encourage elites to pursue wealth and power selfishly, without regard to lesser mortals or, indeed, to society as a whole.

In short, the reason we live in a cynical world in which lying, cheating, stealing and betrayal are common is because today’s dominant cultural meme says selfishness and exploitation is the way the world works best!

Why would a social species like humanity build its civilizations around injustice, inequity and extraction? First note that oligarchic culture has not always dominated human societies. Close to the land and each other, early human groups instead used a partnership ethic, a relatively egalitarian system centered on mutual benefit and common-cause values, which encouraged cooperation among its members (Eisler, 1988). Here, leadership was a fiduciary responsibility to help guide the group toward well-being; it was not an opportunity to exploit other members of the tribe. Scottish clans and American Indian tribes, for instance, were led by chieftains and groups of elders tasked with protecting the well-being of the whole group, particularly the needy members such as widows and orphans. Early agrarian villages were similarly run by governing councils usually consisting of elders from different clans.

The oligarchic patterns that now seem so immutable actually emerged some 5,000 years ago along with conquest states. Empire builders expanded their territory and power by:

  • Subjugating the local populace, and forcing them to serve victorious elites as slaves or low-status workers
  • Setting up administrative hierarchies to manage the subjugated
  • Levying taxes to pay for police, bureaucracies and armies to keep the system in place.

In short, empire builders turned hierarchy into a vehicle for elite power, accumulation, subjugation, and exploitation. Instead of a fiduciary responsibility, position became a rationale for hegemonic power. This system seems immutable because imperial apologists such as Aristotle described master-slave relationships as an indisputable “natural order.”

Today’s problems are systemic because oligarchic culture is an equal-opportunity corrupter. It can afflict institutional culture in government, religion, business, media, politics, and even academia. It has taken many forms over the years: aristocracy, theocracy, and more recently, oligarchic versions of communism and capitalism. In each case, hierarchies become vehicles for elite self-interest. Here, selfishness is the cause of societal decline, not the solution to it.

While conservatives rightly decry the abuses of oligarchic communism, today’s problems are the result of an oligarchic capitalism that puts short-term profit for owners above the health of people and planet. This core corruption now afflicts our democratic governance systems, media, and even our educational systems. Figure 10 shows some of the institutional beliefs that mark today’s oligarchic culture.

Figure 10. Oligarchic capitalism’s toxic beliefs.

So, ask yourself: why does Wall Street boom while the real economy crumbles and people are dying from a global pandemic? The simple answer is that Wall Street only reflects how well the wealthy are doing. The wealthy are (temporarily) doing phenomenally well, regardless of the real economy, because, as Gilens and Page (2014) show, America’s two main political parties mainly serve their oligarchic funders, not the American public or their puny real economy. The political class so purchased:

  • Bailed out the bankers in 2008, ignored fraud, and left homeowners out in the cold (literally)
  • Subsidizes big business like the fossil fuel industry, while decrying a Green New Deal
  • Promotes tax breaks and socialism for the wealthy and austerity for the public at-large
  • Champions neoliberal (oligarchic) practices such as privatization and deregulation, which enable corporate pillage, e.g., pharmaceutical companies jack up prices; Amazon gouges during a pandemic; and crony companies get no-bid contracts to privatize military services.

Unfortunately, widespread participation in oligarchic behaviors produces the slow societal suicide described in the opening quote. Relentless extraction drains the productive side of the society. Inequity, and insecurity fuel social tensions. Propaganda breeds confusion and division. Oligarchic institutions block salvation by suppressing any reform that might diminish their power and privilege. The fossil fuel industry, the American healthcare system, and America’s 2020 Congress show the problems created when we allow hegemonic power to advance elite interests regardless of harm to the system as a whole.

Re-Envisioning the Cycles of Civilization

Putting these pieces together suggests oligarchy is a cultural disease that often ends up killing its host. Most participants in this societal self-destruction do not do so because of any malicious intent. Instead, they are victims of its matrix. Most are simply following established norms, which they have been taught are natural, optimal, and / or immutable. Most also do not see a better way, and they know stepping out of line is dangerous to one’s personal well-being.

Humanity’s learning nature helps us reframe the story in a way that clarifies what’s happening today. Instead of an immutable natural order, oligarchy is merely a cultural system, a system of beliefs and behaviors enforced by a matrix of social coercion, economic leverage, cultural manipulation and institutional control. While this matrix heavily shapes normal behavior, such constraints tend to crumble when public rage reaches a boiling point. Eventually, inequity and dysfunction drives people to seek new ways. The result is a natural cycle of rise and fall that ends in a clear choice: reform or regress, live, or die. We appear to the at that point today.

The result can also be seen as an ongoing process of societal development that follows an S curve cycle (Figure 11). Oligarchic culture never lasts forever because it violates the laws of systemic health. Putting elite interests above people and planet undermines social cohesion. Unrelenting extraction erodes the productive side of economy, generating economic necrosis. Instead of learning rapidly, oligarchic elites cling to old ways of privilege, impunity and power until the society collapses around them. Unfortunately, the more oligarchy undermines the health of the whole, more pressure for reform grows. Thousands of “unorthodox” reforms pop-up and push forward. Eventually, the constraints oligarchs raise to block reform blow up!

Figure 11. The S-curve cycle of oligarchic civilization: This description of the standard cycle of rise and fall comes from a complexity study group headed by British archaeologist, Sir Colin Renfrew (1979). This cycle has played out in classical Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Valley of Mexico, middle and late Roman Antiquity, early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, and China, to mention a few. It appears to be playing out today.

If reformers succeed, the society undergoes a Great Change. Here, pressure drives, diversity seeds, and pent-up energy fuels a metamorphosis. A new pattern of society arises, which advances systemic health by embodying some set of reforms. Social reforms like democracy and technical ones like science improve collaborative learning, and advance societal power and complexity.

Each new stage of societal development also begins with a new noble vision, a new cultural meme that inspires people at all levels of society to work toward something higher than their own self-interest. Roman first sought to build a Republic. Medieval society sought to build God’s city’s on around their vision of God’s Design. Modern society strove to establish a society free from tyranny based on Enlightenment Reason, democracy, and the Rights of Man. Soon new institutions are established and a new matrix arises to support the new vision.

In short, history shows, not only that oligarchic culture can be changed, but humanity has been whittling away at its abuses for thousands of years. Unfortunately, oligarchic corruption tends to return. Oligarchic apologists hijack golden icons and co-opt hierarchies by twisting the guiding vision to serve elite interests.

Neoliberal economics shows this process today. Requiring businesses to maximize profits for “owners” drives organizations to do what’s best for elites, regardless of the harm to anyone or anything else. “Rational” agents work tirelessly to pollute the planet; extract wealth from workers; create unnecessary wars; buy politicians; manipulate the media; cut taxes on the wealthy; and force austerity on the public. Mainstream economists, politicians, and media pundits act as cheerleaders along the way, yet they sleep well at night because their culture says these practices are necessary, optimal or inevitable parts of an immutable natural order.

America seems to be in the final stages of this oligarchic disease. Modern (Enlightenment) icons have become shams of their original intent. Reason has become rational agents serving only themselves. Democracy has become oligarchic government run by and for elites. Freedom has become the right of the rich to be free from government oversight, and free enterprise has become plundering free-market profiteers liberated from law.

Oligarchy’s supremacy claims have a particularly pernicious effect on community. Oligarchies legitimize hegemonic power by claiming some groups are innately superior and hence more deserving of privilege, power, and impunity than others. Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and Trumpism are all products of supremacy claims. This practice splinters communities because superiority determines who gets privileges and impunity, and who does not.

Healthy Hierarchy and Society-Serving Leaders

Seeing civilization engaged in an ongoing societal development process clarifies why oligarchic culture is not the “end of history,” but a stage of development. Not only can the system be changed, our collaborative-learning nature has designed us to do so.

Through round after round of history, our ancestors have made the world better. What will our contribution be? The laws of growth and development suggest our greatest challenge will lie in figuring out how to develop healthy hierarchies and society-serving leadership. In short, we need to create power systems that improve societal well-being, not undermine it. While human hierarchy does depend on pecking-order behaviors hardwired into our brains, oligarchy’s self-serving version means we are still allowing our leaders to use our power selfishly like adolescents, instead of wisely like adults. Donald Trump epitomizes this problem.

Learning Networks and Mosaic Solutions

Like proverbial frog being slowly boiled to death, we have allowed our Enlightenment ideals to be turned into socially suicidal rationales. We now stand at a crossroads. Humanity has been whittling away at oligarchic abuse for thousands of years, but oligarchy has returned. The interlocking crises it has created are again forcing us to choose.

How can we save civilization? ESS’ main rules are simple: circulate robustly; learn collaboratively; invest wisely; distribute fairly; institutionalize common-cause values; and avoid extremes.

ESS also says lasting vitality is not a single solution, but a process of becoming excellent learners dedicated to the health of the whole. Like nature, the best way to thrive is to develop learning networks, webs of committed, collaborative learners pursuing life’s most urgent concern: adapting rapidly, wisely, and well before problems turn into calamities. In short, the real solution to sustainable vitality lies in joining human talents and technical insights in a learning system of dazzling brilliance and beauty.

Will we learn better ways and implement reforms before it is too late? ESS’ ability to connect shards of solutions from across the spectrum of sciences helps reveal a mosaic solution, an integrated understanding of systemic health of striking clarity and power. What follows is a brief overview of what this mosaic looks like in real life and how it is already emerging on all sides.

The Rise of Systemic Solutions

How can Energy System Science create a unified science of systemic social and economic health? Let us start with what is already happening. Systemic approaches have been emerging in a wide variety of fields for decades. ESS concepts and measures can clarify, unify, and add rigor to them all.

For example, instead of pumping millions into artificial fertilizers and pesticides to support genetically engineered mono-crops, farmers are learning to increase profitability by reconnecting the natural circuits linking multiple crops. For instance, Japanese farmers who raise shrimp and ducks in concert with rice, gain multiple cash crops (ducks, shrimp, and rice) while reducing the need for fertilizer and pesticide because ducks and shrimp eat insect pests, and both species poop.

While technical solutions often get the most attention, the most important systemic approaches integrate social, economic, and human factors as well. Medicine, for example, is becoming more integrative, incorporating social, emotional, nutritional, economic, environmental, and exercise factors into modern medicine’s traditional pharmaceutical and surgical focus. Planetary Health, Sustainability and Wellness are also incorporating social, economic and cultural components, and economists are beginning to include psychological factors in their equations.

Integrative approaches are also becoming common in city planning. Traditional planning was heavily shaped by oligarchic interests. Downtown rejuvenation often meant making places that well-to-do folks from suburbia could go to enjoy restaurants and theaters without seeing the poorer people who lived nearby. Transit systems focused more on suburban commuters’ need for rapid interstate highways, than on the public bus systems needed by the poor. Much of this has changed over the last 30 years. Thanks to the field of Geography, rejuvenation is more apt to incorporate environmental, economic, built-environment and social factors including community building and “place-making” for everyone. Transit is more multiscale, with bike paths, green spaces, and greater consideration for the needs of different constituencies.

The most advanced city planners develop “creativity councils,” groups of local citizens, whose task is to develop creative ways to connect underutilized local resources with unmet human needs. Such councils institutionalize multigroup learning via the regular evaluation of current approaches and issues across groups.

Curitiba, Brazil provides an example how problems can be addressed by creatively linking them to underutilized human resources, i.e., people who need something. During his tenure as mayor of Curitiba, Jaimie Lerner instituted an exchange program — one bus token for one bag of recycled trash. This program quickly cleaned the local favela and reduced poverty by increasing the mobility of its residents. Similar exchange programs or used to increase access to education, healthcare and job opportunities.

Collaborative Learning’s Role in Prosperity and Well-Being

This rise of systemic solutions reflects humanity’s learning nature already at work responding to problems, finding new ways, and revising our vision of what makes a city, an economy or an individual healthy. This same collective learning is directly responsible for all the miracles we have today. In Creating a Learning Society, for instance, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz and Bruce Greenwald (2014) point out that today’s astounding technologies and lifestyles are due to the Scientific Revolution’s grand leap in “learning how to learn” as a society. As they put it: “To understand how countries grow and develop, it is essential to know how they learn and become more productive — and what governments can do to promote learning.”

It is important to appreciate collective learning’s role in humanity’s long-term prosperity and well-being because that is not what today’s dominant culture emphasizes So, what makes a society healthy? Where social Darwinists say human beings are fundamentally selfish, ESS says human beings are primarily a collaborative-learning species that thrives by pooling information, forging ever-better hypotheses about how things work, and then revising our behavior by revising our beliefs. This is why we build scientific theories and create cultural systems that preserve societal lessons learned over time.

Our social nature also explains why learning is not solely an individual act of mental gymnastics, but a group effort to thrive by innovating, adapting and generally trying to find better ways. Humanity’s vast diversity of talents and perspectives also explains why what we need to become is a knowledge ecology, a learning ecosystem which harnesses our differences in ways that benefit the whole and everyone in it.

Partnership Networks Versus Oligarchic Hegemony

Conversely, we are still racing toward oblivion because we have failed to learn despite clear evidence and loads of remedies waiting in the wings. The problem here is that oligarchies are designed to maintain elite power, not solve human problems. Indeed, most oligarchies actively work against solutions that might impinge on their power, privilege or impunity. The main reasons oligarchies learn poorly are that: (1) they are focused on maintaining status quo power relationships; (2) their only real concerns are for themselves, their allies and their rivals; and (3) they do not really care about the public at large, instead they see most other people as pawns to be used, manipulated or discarded as elite interests dictate.

Oligarchies also learn poorly because hegemonic approaches are hard on common-cause community. Social synergy shrivels when bullying, ad hominem attacks and other dominance behaviors are condoned in media, politics, business, academia, and everyday life. Everyday unfairness has a similarly corrosive effect. Why should one work hard when “owners” own the profits from other people’s work, and exorbitant rewards go to those who curry oligarchic favor, while those who invent the ideas and do the work are exploited and discarded at whim.

In contrast, a mountain of research shows that common-cause values such as fairness, reciprocity (mutual benefit), honesty, and justice energize collective work, making groups more productive, innovative, resilient, and long-lived. The reason for such outcomes is simple. As in nature, vitality springs from common-cause relationships and give-and-take flow between individuals who produce more together than any one of them could produce alone.

Research by Shell Scenario Planner Arie De Geus (2002), for example, showed that long-lived companies, such as Stora in Sweden and Sumitomo in Japan, thrive by following a common set of cultural rules that put group learning and well-being at the heart of their business. As he says:

To keep the organization alive and growing, managers … must place: 1) commitment to people before assets; 2) respect for innovation before devotion to policy; 3) the messiness of learning before the orderly procedures; and 4) the perpetuation of the community before all other concerns.

In short, where oligarchic systems run on exploitation, long-lived companies thrive on partnership principles and common-cause culture. Adaptive and resilient? Founded in the 13th century, Stora has changed its core business numerous times — forestry, copper mining and paperwork — while surviving mass upheavals from the Black Death to two World Wars.

Sabel (1982) describes how similar quality, creativity, and resilience traits emerge in collaborative enterprise networks found everywhere from northern Italy’s industrial networks to California’s Silicon Valley. These partnership networks achieve tremendous economies of scale not, as conventionally assumed, within the framework of huge organizations, but rather through networks of small, high-quality enterprises linked by natural patterns of cooperation and niche building. Most member firms have only 5–50 workers, with a few more having one or two hundred. Such enterprises tend to produce very sophisticated, high-quality work. Their small size makes them nimble and adaptive, while the cooperative connections make them committed to one another and the health of the whole. Innovation is high because craftsmanship and personal contribution are valued. Quality is high because partnership norms still rule which means people care about integrity as well as profit. Creativity is high because workers and ideas circulate. Such circulation builds expertise, breadth of experience and an invisible chain of valued human connections.

Such webs tend to grow and develop because breakaway enterprises spring up easily and often as workers trained by existing enterprises move out to start firms of their own while retaining their past connections. Such spin-offs often collaborate with the older establishments because they share history and have related work. In this way, people in the network establish their own “coherent role in the web of processes,” while members, information and expertise cycle easily throughout. Here, advances anywhere tend to stimulate benefits everywhere, and members prosper in a synergistic, not a zero-sum way.

Partnership principles and common cause culture produce similar outcomes at all levels of organization. For instance, in Death and Life of the Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs (1961) describes how partnership networks in cities provide: (1) cultural training in cooperation including problem solving and hands-on learning about life; (2) enhanced economic opportunities from seed capital and barter to apprenticeships and business contacts; (3) social support and camaraderie; (4) safety, self-policing, and lower crime; (5) effective feedback mechanisms and rapid flow of uncensored information; and (6) development of craftsmanship skills and tacit knowledge.

Jacobs describes how partnership principles turned North Boston from a slum to flourishing community in less than 20 years. Originally built to house the flood of immigrants from Europe in the early 1900s, by 1939 North Boston’s dismal tenements were desperately over-crowded and pushed up against heavy industry near the waterfront. Yet, by 1959, dozens of buildings had been rehabilitated. Families now lived one or two to a building instead of four or five, and fresh paint lined windows that had once been covered with mattresses. Homes mingled with splendid food stores, and small carpentry, upholstery, and food-processing enterprises had sprung up near their owners’ homes. The streets were alive with children at play and people strolled, shopped, and talked in an atmosphere buoyant with friendliness and good health.

This revitalization had not come from moneylenders or experts, but from local people working together. Families had pooled their resources; bought back foreclosed buildings; and rehabilitated these buildings using skilled work bartered among residents and supported by small amounts of money from local businesses and other community groups. This kind of working together had created a place that was alive and mutually supportive. It was also safe and healthy. Disease rates had decreased thanks to better food and sanitation and crime had virtually gone away because, when people feel a vested interest in each other and the place they live, a natural network of self-policing evolves.

The neighborhood Jacobs describes had evolved an intricate web of partnership relationships. Its bubbling vitality grew out of local empowerment, intelligence, and the sense of being bound together by what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “habits of the heart.”

This eminently practical and deeply felt kind of community formed a cherished backdrop for life that gave back in a thousand ways. Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it using the Zulu term “ubungu.” Roughly translated as “I am because we are,” Michael Eze calls it “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.”3 Doc Rivers, coach of the San Francisco Clippers (NBA basketball team), describes its implications for his team as:

A solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. A person is a person through other people. I can never be all I can be unless you can be all you can be. I can never be threatened by you because … the better you are the better I am.4

What makes partnership work? A lot of research has gone into this question. Sociologists, for instance, note the critical importance of:

  • Reciprocity: mutual benefit and fair exchange
  • Belonging: the sense of having a secure place in a committed, common-cause whole, and
  • Ownership, a sense of empowered ability and responsibility to standup for these people and this place.

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom (1990) discovered that groups which successfully govern “Commons” — which could presumably include corporations and nation states — follow eight key principles:

  • Clearly define group boundaries;
  • Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions;
  • Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules;
  • Make sure outside authorities respect the rule-making rights of community members;
  • Develop a system for monitoring member behavior, carried out by community members themselves;
  • Use graduated sanctions for rule violators;
  • Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution; and
  • Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system (this last, of course, is a fractal arrangement).

Partnership culture must be supported by economic changes as well. Martin Sandbu (2020), for example, argues that partnership patterns need to be supported by the “economics of belonging,” Here sustainable vitality comes from a virtuous circle of well-being and engagement in common-cause (Figure 12).

Figure 12. The economics of belonging.

Nelson Mandela notes the importance of having a system leader, someone able to build common-cause community in a country ripped apart by decades of oppression, hatred and oligarchic ideology. In the four years before South Africa’s first open election, Mandela brought together the formerly banned, black political parties to work through their differing visions, and build a new nation by collectively facing their common challenges. Mandela’s most powerful intervention, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was critical to this emotional healing. Confronting the past and telling their truths helped black and white South Africans forgive and move on. It also helped forge new collective leadership aimed at creating a future that worked for everyone.

Kate Raworth (2017) summarizes the goal as: “Instead of economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive, we need economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.”

High-Value Business and Creative, Collaborative Teams

Though partnership principles seem naïve, they still exist. Though oligarchic arrangements seem immutable, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (1991) suggests partnership is also making a comeback.

Reich notes that a variety of economic pressures and opportunities (such as computers) are driving a new system of “high-value” capitalism centered on committed, creative, partnership teams. Whether the industry is old-tech or high-tech, service or manufacturing, the pattern is similar. Steel-making’s greatest profits no longer come from long runs of steel ingots (i.e., mass production), but from creating particular alloys with particular properties that serve particular needs — such as the strength and flexibility of helicopter blades. The fastest-growing truck, rail, and freight businesses meet shipper’s needs for specialized pickups and deliveries worldwide. The most profitable financial services create custom blends of banking, investment, management, and information for specific types of people. The highest profits in software come from customized services to particular businesses and individuals.

High-value businesses are lucrative because customers are willing to pay a premium for goods or services that exactly meet their needs. They prosper because high-volume competitors around the world find it hard to duplicate the uniqueness and quality of customized goods and services. Customization also opens millions of niches in which the biggest differentiators are quality and innovation. As in nature, high-value economies thrive by adding value within an endless array of specialty slots.

In short, high-value capitalism thrives on learning teams and networks that use partnership principles to build commitment, nurture innovation and expand tacit and explicit knowledge. This shift represents a fundamental challenge to the oligarchic worldview. Where traditional industrialists put material assets like factories above people, who they mostly saw as disposable drones, high-value companies treasure human capital — the knowledge, creativity and team-working skills of its people.

High-Value Management

The importance of collaborative human capital is driving other shifts as well. Oligarchic management techniques, for instance, do not work well in high-value systems because high-value enterprises are not commodities that can be bought and sold, but human networks that must be nurtured by the kind of techniques described above.

Bureaucratic rigidity and oligarchic inequities, from racism and sexism to cronyism, create the kind of hostile work environment that drives high-value human capital away. Reich cites General Electric’s purchase of the financial-services house of Kidder-Peabody in 1986. Kidder-Peabody was famous for its quality and creativity, but when GE tried to exert control over its new acquisition by restructuring corporate culture along more traditional lines, many of Kidder-Peabody’s most skilled people left for more agreeable surroundings. GE was left with little more than Kidder-Peabody’s good, but fading name.

In contrast, high-value companies require management techniques that are: (1) more mutually beneficial than self-serving; (2) more responsive than blindly bureaucratic; and (3) more facilitative than controlling. Managers encourage “roaming and flocking” because creative syntheses tend to emerge fortuitously from frequent, informal exchanges. Teamwork is promoted because no one figures out everything alone. Empowerment is more broadly distributed because making decisions at the lowest level possible (subsidiarity) is much more efficient than waiting for top-down control from some distant HQ (Figure 13).

Figure 13. What works best in business? The self-serving authoritarian bosses typical of oligarchic capitalism or effective collective learning that energizes everyone? Research from the Society for Organizational Learning, Living Company, and many others show that common cause community works better than tyranny.

Empowering Education

Traditional “factory model” schools also do not work in a high-value world because quality human capital cannot be stamped out by cookie-cutter molds. In the days of high-volume industrialism, companies needed factory workers whose chief characteristics were the ability to read and follow directions. Traditional education did well by these needs. Schools stuffed facts into young brains; taught discipline, conformity, and the ability to work alone on isolated tasks; and incentivized the competitiveness that was thought to make all things good. The high-value age reverses all these trends. Teamwork is critical as originality and the ability to make connections across fields. Commitment to one another is often the saving virtue of a team and the chief virtue of a high-value leader is the knack of helping others become successful. Traditional education tends to stomp out all of these characteristics.

By the 1990s, the sense of crisis in the schools grew as test scores dropped. Yet, not understanding the need for high-value human capital, many reformers called for a stronger version of the old. More tests! More uniform curriculum! More discipline! More competition! As Reich says, “The fact that standardized tests only reflect a student’s ability to regurgitate facts — as opposed to think or collaborate — remained an unmentioned topic.” The fact that factory-like schools also make learning fragmented, meaningless, and odious also goes unmentioned.

The yuppies who already dominate high-value jobs, however, do not want any of this for their own children. They pour their money and children into elite private schools and advance-track programs where young minds are trained to be skeptical, curious, creative, and collaborative. Here the curriculum is integrated, interactive, and communal. Instead of regurgitating prepackaged bits of history and biology, the focus is on learning to think and connect. Students are asked to examine reality from many angles and explore why some facts have been emphasized and how current interpretations might be contradicted. The best classrooms also make learning a group project. Students learn to listen to others, to seek help, and to give credit. They learn to articulate the patterns they see and to clarify and restate for one another. The resulting benefits are more profound, if harder to measure. Students learn to value themselves and others, and to feel the pride that comes from contributing to a committed, intelligent, common-cause whole.

The striking result is better learning, in more dimensions, for everyone. The long-term effect is greater appreciation that human systems are more productive when they are collaborative, and more intelligent when they are inclusive, equitable, and committed to common cause.

Developing high-value economies will not be easy because it requires profound social and educational reforms. Yet, the benefits would be dramatic. Our children might find more hope and more meaningful work. Quality, creativity, and two-way commitment might be more valued than obedience and expedience. Because customization opens the door to endless niches, if we can figure out how to link niches through cooperation, we might finally have a sustainable world.

The contrast is striking. Developed by Prussians in 1819, today’s schools are designed to fit the needs of early industrialists. These “factory-model” schools build cogs for an authoritarian-industrial society by promoting the practices shown on the right of Table 1. The kind of high-value citizens a learning society needs — i.e., collaborative, critically thinking, civic-minded — are animated by the practices shown on the left.5

Table 1. High-value education vs factory-model schools.

High-value education Factory-model schools
Mastery Ranking
Collaborative striving for excellence (teams) Win-lose competition
Common-cause Self-interest
Critical thinking Authority-approved ideas
Generative learning Prepackaged truth
Self-confidence Inadequacy
Thoughtful questioning Obedience
Meaning-making and problem-solving Abstractions and rote
Honors diverse, common-cause contributions Promotes conformity and submissiveness

Fair-Enterprise Democracy

This brings us to an important observation. While high-value capitalism differs dramatically from oligarchic capitalism, it dovetails perfectly with the original Enlightenment vision of free-enterprise democracy.

High-value capitalism, for example, confirms that economic vitality really does come from diverse, innovative, freewheeling enterprise. Adam Smith’s invisible hand of market decision-making also bears a striking resemblance to collective learning taking place in an open and fair marketplace of ideas. Here, competition is a form of diversity: a contest between approaches, not a predatory quest for dominance. While innovation is still critical, turning ideas into reality requires a collaborative network that also need support.

The catch is enterprise must be fair, i.e., on a level playing field. It must also be backed by government that serves all the people by maintaining the collaborative commons upon which the entire system depends. Markets too only work well under certain socio-economic conditions, and many of the key conditions — such as constraints on excessive power — are sadly lacking today.

The moral principles we need to restore come most clearly from blending Adam Smith, Elinor Ostrom, and ESS in a way that integrates truths espoused by both right and left. Long famed as the father of free-enterprise, Adam Smith wrote two key books. While modern economists use his Wealth of Nations (1776) to promote self-interest above all things, Smith’s first book, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), makes it clear that free-flowing markets only work when properly channeled by moral and legal constraints. Ostrom’s work shows the importance in combining moral essentials from both Right: e.g., individual contribution, responsibility, and no freeloaders; and Left: e.g., inclusive democratic say in governance, rules, oversight, and punishment. ESS adds the importance of balance, i.e., the realization that too much or too little of anything causes problems. As befits a systemic view, all of these factors are linked. Here, for example, neither freedom nor vitality can exist without justice.

Seeing humanity as a collaborative learning species can help bring the original dream to a new level of function and beauty by preserving its deep truths, while progressing past oligarchic distortions. So, how can we get free-enterprise democracy to work as it should? As many notables have pointed out, we need:

  • Common-cause values such as fairness, honesty, reciprocity and caring (Adam Smith)
  • Investment in human capital particularly empowering education (Thomas Jefferson)
  • Accurate information and a diverse, honest, public-serving media (Benjamin Franklin)
  • Real democracy — i.e., government by and for all the people — with responsive, public-serving leaders; and laws that apply equally and fairly to all. (Abraham Lincoln)

Circulation and Structure

The laws of circulation and structure add detail and rigor to the picture. The laws of fractal circulation, for instance, bolster the Keynesian / New Deal approaches to vitality developed in the 1930s. In energy terms, Keynesian New-Dealers sought to improve economic circulation by making sure there was enough “effective demand” (i.e., distributed buying power) for real-economy networks to grow in constructive ways. Creating robust circulation required strong government intervention (constraints) especially against excessive concentrations of wealth and power (imbalances). Thus, while Keynes himself supported capitalism, he believed the only way to save it was to maintain a balance of power between labor and capital. In the 1930s, this meant empowering the working population. Keynesian methods for restoring a balance of power included: (1) anti-trust legislation; (2) high taxes on the rich; and (3) support for worker rights and organizations, particularly unions. Similarly, the fact that fractal balance requires all sizes explains why monopolistic dominance causes necrosis, and hence, why antitrust laws are critical.

New Deal practices, such as improving circulation, restoring balance, and spurring regenerative-investment, generated a phenomenal 50-year boom that revitalized human networks. Infrastructure was built, including roads, schools, and utilities (regenerative investment). Monopolistic dominance subsided, and a broad middle-class emerged (fractal distribution). “Common good” legislation produces bipartisan accomplishments such as Occupational Safety in the workplace, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fairness Doctrine in media (adaptive action toward systemic health).

The need for fractal balance even brings home the importance of political checks and balances across multiple scales. Ancient Rome’s original Republic was not a pure democracy, but an interlocking balance of:

  • Consuls, concentrated executive power (rapid, large-scale power)
  • The Senate: debate among a small group of political-economic elites (medium-scale power)
  • The Public: democratic feedback through voting and social pressures (small-scale power).

This multiscale balance helped check the excesses of any one group, but it only worked as long as people at all levels were committed to the health of the whole (e.g., gravitas). The more corrupt the Senate, the more ruthless the consuls, and the more decadent the public became, the more unstable the Republic became. The same problem seems to be happening in the 21st-century republican-democracies today.

Fractal Finance for a Multiscale World

The fact that too-big-to-fail banks caused the 2008 crisis requires we say something about the need for multiscale, common-cause finance itself. Money, of course, plays a central role in nourishing economic activity at every level. Economies need banking systems that follow the Goldilocks Rule (Figure 1) because different sized banks are “just right” for serving activity at different levels. Global banks, capable of supplying massive capital and managing complex international exchanges, are needed to serve multinational needs, while small-scale commercial activity it is better served by local banks that know their locale and have a vested interest in the outcome of their loans.

Unfortunately, the global banking system of 2008 was wildly out of balance. For decades, big banks had bought little banks and merged with each other to create a system of Leviathan banks. In America, the gutting of the Glass-Steagall act in 1999 also eliminated many key restraints. Cut free of government regulation and obsessed with maximizing profits, Leviathan banks issued subprime mortgages, derivative bundles, and NINJA loans (No Income, No Job) with abandon. When these loans failed, bankers increased profits by taking the property (foreclosing) and throwing millions of homeowners out on the street. Yet, when the banks themselves failed, they got bailed out by a neoliberal true-believer political class dependent upon the bankers’ money.

In many ways, the global economy has never completely recovered from the economic necrosis caused by the 2008 crisis. What then shall we do? One approach has been to rebuild local economies. Groups such as the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) try to rebuild local economies by nurturing networks of local businesses linked for mutual benefit. These networks, however, need financing, which is why a number of experiments in multiscale (fractal) financing are also underway:

  • Public banking systems such as the Bank of North Dakota distinguish themselves from private banks by offering fair banking services to state residents and prioritizing public access over banker profits.
  • Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) increase business startups and job growth by providing responsible, affordable financing to community businesses — including small businesses, microenterprises, nonprofit organizations, affordable housing and commercial real estate — to low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged individuals and communities.
  • Complementary currencies used to stimulate local purchasing and incentivize recycling, energy conservation and other constructive activities are also spreading.
  • Anchor institutions such as state universities or hospitals, can be used to provide seed capital to locally anchored businesses through arrangements such as requiring a certain percentage of institutional procurement to be done locally.

Overcoming Oligarchy

This brings us to our biggest challenge: figuring out how to save fair-enterprise democracy from the devouring jaws of oligarchic capitalism. No number of disciplinary solutions will save us if we do not figure out how to address the oligarchic cultural system driving today’s myriad crises. While much remains to be seen, we believe the following five categories outline the most important reforms:

Developing a Fractal Distribution of Power and Common-Cause Commitment

Conservative groups tend to focus on the importance of hierarchical leadership and power, while left-wing groups tend to focus on the small and local. ESS sees hierarchy as necessary for groups beyond a certain size, and argues that small, medium, and large-scale entities all play critical roles. The problem is that balance is essential, but power corrupts.

How can one maintain effective collective action and intelligence, and avoid the twin dangers of oligarchic abuse and democratic (mob) dysfunction in a system with fractally distributed power? This question has been asked for millennia. America’s founding fathers put in checks and balances. In The Republic, Plato proposed a system of political and individual justice maintained by a system of three classes of citizens: producers, auxiliaries, and philosopher-kings, each with distinct natures and serving distinct roles. More recent approaches include: (1) the German requirement that 50% of all corporate boards be consist of worker–employees; (2) Richard Wolfe’s Democracy at Work group, which advocates for more worker-inclusive representation on boards and in decision-making; and (3) Stakeholder-own companies such as the Basque cooperative, Mondragon. Instead of everyone trying to beggar their neighbor, these approaches increase community, commitment, cohesion, and intelligence by creating more equitable ownership, accountability, input, and fairness.

Investing Regeneratively

Achieving effective collective action and intelligence will require empowered, critically-thinking, civic-minded citizens. This, in turn, will require investing in the kind of empowering education that develops high-value citizens at every level and in every endeavor. Regenerative investment must also include common-cause infrastructure from roads and water systems to Internet and healthcare.

Modifying Our Cultural Matrix

Achieving societal health will also require modifying our matrix of rewards, punishments, and norms to incentivize society-serving behavior instead of oligarchic aggrandizement. The modifications we need come in two flavors:

  1. Removing incentives for oligarchic behavior — As mentioned, most people do not pursue society-culture destroying practices because they are malevolent, but because their culture prods them to do so in ways both large and small. Common incentives for oligarchic behavior include:
    • Requiring companies to maximize profit for owners alone
    • Rewarding CEOs with stock options, instead of by the company’s long-term health
    • Allowing wealthy donors to buy politicians, privileges and impunity
    • Condoning bullying and institutionalized brutality and injustice
    • Using GDP (volume of money) to measure health, while ignoring where money goes
    • Eliminating constraints on oligarchic abuse such as antitrust and anticorruption laws
    • Using science to rationalize the immutability of self-serving power, e.g.: selfishness fixed in our genes; and economic equilibrium as the automatically optimal distribution of goods created by self-serving “rational” agents.
  1. Incentivizing society-serving behavior — The best way to increase community commitment, cohesion, energy and intelligence is to incentivize fairness, particularly equitable ownership, accountability, input, and contribution. While fair (fractal) distribution of monetary rewards is important, money should be an addendum to community recognition and support for individual contribution, not the central motivation.

Building Guardian Government and Society-Serving Leaders

Society-serving leaders perform two distinct services. First, internally, they coordinate, facilitate, and build common-cause community. While fairness is the central theme in building common-cause community, the process also requires recognition, accountability and “challenge, discipline, and support.”6

Second, they serve as Guardians, defending their organization against enemies, foreign and domestic. While both public and private organizations need Guardian leaders, public governance institutions are the most important because they provide the bulwark of laws that (hopefully) maintain the constraints and institutionalize the fairness we need to support a healthy civilization for everyone.

Enlisting the Aid of Powerful Elites

Still, none of the above processes are likely to happen without the support of people and / or institutions who have the money and institutional know-how to facilitate change. This means we need to engage elites who already see that: (1) society works better when it is designed to be regenerative; (2) business works better when it is designed to be a mutually-beneficial collaboration; and (3) oligarchic capitalism is failing because putting the short-term interests of a few ahead of the systemic health of both people and planet is deadly for everyone. And, in the end, no civilization means no business, no profit and no well-being for anyone.

New Dream for a New Stage of Civilization

When trying to imagine what a sustainable society would be like, I return again and again to the recognition that we must improve social learning as the major avenue to social change.

Lester Milbrath, Learning Our Way to a Sustainable Society, 1989.

We are nearing the end of oligarchic capitalism. While many people fear collapse is inevitable, ESS suggests we are facing a learning challenge, a choice between developing better ways or clinging to oligarchic dysfunction. Successful learning will produce a new stage of civilization built around a new dream and some set of new reforms. Failure to learn will bring calamity and possibly collapse.

There is no guarantee of success, but there are reasons for hope. First, a mosaic solution that incorporates everything from empowering education and public-benefit finance to servant leadership and fractal transit systems — is already in the offing. Second, seeing how and why these pieces connect opens the door to a truly integrated research program, one which fosters rigorous systemic approaches within disciplines; practical collaboration across disciplines; and a more effective relationship between science and society.

Finally, our new view of science, humanity and health also adds hope. Here, our collaborative-learning nature explains why we can build a better world, and history shows we have done so before. Energy’s laws of health and development clarify how we can do so, and energy patterns and principles provide practical tools and rigorous targets to guide our steps. Logical, practical, rigorous and heart-warming — the result is the empirically sound, emotionally compelling roadmap we need to become the kind of durably vibrant civilization that most people want, but few believe is possible — one with justice and well-being for all.

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman7 also points out that all great societal advances begin as an impossible dream in the mind of someone who most people think is crazy. Written laws, human rights, democracy, suffrage for women, and the abolition of slavery all started this way. What will our new dream be? One people, one planet, one future? ESS suggests we must strive to become a Regenerative Learning Civilization, one built around common-cause values with justice, fairness and well-being for all, one which unites head, heart and everyday practice in pursuit of a healthy whole.

Of course, the best way to become a Learning Society is to organize learning networks. Edinburgh University’s Planetary Health Lab seeks to support this process by using this integrated understanding of planetary health as a backbone to link existing efforts into a more coherent whole. Our goal is to build a global learning network that connects fields; shares best practices; generates mosaic solutions; disseminates findings; and supports learners of all stripes. This article is the first step in that process. We hope you will join us in the conversations we hope ensue.


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  1. We use the term, “Energy System Science” as an umbrella term for disciplines that use the study of energy-flow networks to understand the laws of systemic health and development in living, non-living and supra-living systems such as economies and ecosystems. ESS disciplines include: Theoretical ecology, Chaos, Complexity, Resilience, Self-Organization Theory, Nonequilibrium Thermodynamics, far-from-equilibrium systems, Ecological Network Analysis, and Panarchy to name a few.
  2. Fractals are a type of power law, i.e., a geometric progression (xⁿ) where, moving from the top down, each scale (N+1) has X times as many elements as scale (N). For example, if the top level (N=1) has 3 people (X=3), then the next level down (N=2) would have 3²=9 and the 3rd would have 3³=27.
  3. Eze, M. O., Intellectual history in contemporary South Africa, pp. 190–191.
  4. Netflix documentary. 2020. Coaches’ Playbook, Episode 1.
  5. The high-value educational practices listed here were derived from research in brain-based education, cooperative learning, service learning, experiential learning, community reintegration, and progressive education.
  6. Challenge energizes our thinking brain; Discipline harnesses our competitive reptilian brain; and Support engages our mammalian bonding.
  7. Bregmann, Rutger. (2019). YouTube video: A Utopian Dream for Realists.

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