Follow Energy Patterns to Build Healthy Systems
Sally J. Goerner is the Director of the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics (RARE), former Science Advisor to the Capital Institute, and Managing Director of the North Carolina Sustainable Community Fund. With advanced degrees in engineering, systems science, and psychology, Dr. Goerner has lectured worldwide on how the Energy Network Sciences (ENS) create a common-sense narrative on how to achieve socioeconomic vitality by revitalising human networks. Dr. Goerner has authored over 50 articles and 5 books, including ‘After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of integral Society’ (1999) and ‘Sustainability as the Cutting Edge of Great Change’ (2007). Over her prolific career, Sally has been on a mission to contribute to a rigorous and unifying framework providing practitioners in different fields the systemic vision required to co-create the reforms we need for a healthy future.
Hi Sally, I’m delighted to host you for a conversation. Your background is very diverse, from engineering, to systems science and psychology – what’s been your journey across these different fields?
I started out as an engineer doing high tech R&D in the early 70s and 80s. I worked on the space shuttle, on cruise missiles, on early point-of-sale terminals, early cell phones, digital switches and a bunch of other things. Then I switched to what I see as my true love, which is basically human beings and the social and human sciences. While getting a PhD in psychology, I became disillusioned with the state of science in psychology. So I went looking for a better way, and I discovered the systems science. During this search, I learned about non-linear dynamics, also known as chaos theory, fractals and non-equilibrium thermodynamics – it’s basically an understanding of the broader story of energy flows. I also discovered a bunch of people who have been doing systems in a rigorous way that ends up reconciling a lot of the historic disjuncture between the physical-mathematical sciences, and psychology, sociology, and economics.
What’s the story of energy flows about?
Energy flows are the source of all organization on Earth. Human and environmental ecosystems are energy-flow systems. Energy systems allow us to do rigorous science on human systems – circulation, for example, is subject to empirical science because you can measure how much of it is going where. This and other energy dynamics allow us to explore the rules of economic metabolism, and link up with economic ideas that have been developing for long periods of time.
The energy side of the equation also suggests that the most important thing about life isn’t just that it has DNA and genes so that it can replicate. Many of the core processes like metabolism emerge from natural chemical self-organisations. Replication, for instance, isn’t the key issue of life because some non-living chemical systems have rudimentary forms of chemical replication. Instead, energy’s role in information suggests the key uniqueness in living organisms is that life followed information to food. The fundamental difference between a living organisation and a non-living one is that, when you take the energy source away from a non-living organisation—like boiling water—it just goes flat. If you take the energy source away from a living organism, it’s going to try to find another one (now called “food”). That is transformative.
My favourite source for that was the book ‘The Tree of Knowledge’, written by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela back in the 80s. It’s basically a reconceptualisation of biology based on the idea that a rudimentary form of intelligence is the basis of all biological evolution. That’s the big deal. But cooperation is also part of an energy-flow understanding of the universe. Energy patterns of growth explain why small things coming together in bigger organisations is the main route of biological evolution – that’s Lynn Margulis’ work. Putting all these pieces together creates a very natural integration of head, heart, mind, practice and rigour. It just all fits together very naturally and seamlessly.
From this perspective, information, capital and many other things are all considered as ‘energy’, right?
Precisely. Sometimes, when I give talks, people associate energy with fuel, gasoline, electricity and things like that. But, you just said it completely correctly. Energy is literally, “that which is conserved when work is done.” That’s the classical physics definition of it.
How has this energy-flow view of the world been influencing your mission?
I see my job as helping clarify the broader energy framework so that people can use it in their own fields. Most of my adult life has been about giving talks to groups in different fields and finding out what inside that field already fits with an energy worldview. I was lucked out because one of my favourite professors, Ralph Abraham, was a big name in Chaos Theory, and was being invited all over the world for talks. When he couldn’t make it, he would say ‘I can’t come, but you can have her’. So I started off literally going all over the world to every field you can imagine— advertisment agencies, finance, economics, spirituality, evolution of consciousness and urban planning. Name a field, and I’ve probably given a talk to a group in it.
In every field there are people that are already developing ideas consonant with the energy understanding. I saw this time as a learning journey, where people would tell me what in their field already fits in this model. Connecting these insights produced a framework that works across time, place and disciplines. We can now have a framework that goes all the way across the entire spectrum and brings all the pieces together. Coming from both an engineering and a social perspective, most of what has been satisfying to me is the fact that when you take an energy-flow perspective, you see how the human and technical connect naturally. The retrospective on how these pieces fit together is just so obvious. The only real difference is that now we have the ability to measure human processes energetically, and legitimise why and what you should measure.
“When you take an energy-flow perspective, you see how the human and technical connect naturally”
Let me try to clarify this point- is it that we now know new facts, or that we have better tools to understand, interpret and relate facts that we already knew?
The scientific “facts” that we already know are undergoing what I call a Copernican flip. It is a kind of perceptual switch in science and society. It’s the same facts, but they produce a different picture. All I know for sure is that every time I’ve gone into any field—from advertising to urban planning—I find people that are already using these patterns. They just need a framework and language to put it together. One could say, people have been observing and writing about energy laws and patterns forever, but seeing how pieces connect provides a more accurate way of understanding and organizing the facts of physics, math, biology, economics and sociology. Clarifying how these patterns fit in a larger picture also clarifies how energy principles apply in different fields and to existing findings.
Today’s scientific flip rests on three basic factors. First, the advent of computers, which has expanded the scientists’ ability to work with vast quantities of information and discover previously unseen patterns. Secondly, the realisation that energy, not matter, is at the core of everything. Thirdly, energy follows certain universal patterns and principles that repeat at each level. The early System Scientists looked at what I would now call the natural geometries or universal geometries of behaviour: the universal patterns that are found throughout the cosmos at every level and every kind of system. People have been studying universal geometries since the ancient Greeks and Egyptians. Basically, now we have more complete math for it, and thanks to the energy-flow worldview, the physics for it as well. These energy patterns and principles help explain the contrast with classical physics. classical physics is only appropriate for simple single-causal systems, like a huge sun’s gravitational effects on an itty-bitty planet. For that it works great, but most of the world doesn’t fit in that realm because most causality is complex.
A topic you cover in your writings is that of systemic health – the necessary conditions that need to be in place for a system to be healthy. What elements do you point to for a healthy socio-economic system?
Currently, I am working on four main elements of systemic health: adaptive learning, synergetic collaboration, regenerative circulation, and resilient structure. Those break out into smaller, more detailed components. Under regenerative circulation, for instance, you need to nourish the economic muscle and brain from head to toe, just as a living organism would do. You’ll also need to have reliable inputs and healthy outputs and you need cross-scale circulation. Fractals help explain why healthy (resilient) organizational structures must maintain a balance of small, medium and large elements. One way to think of fractal (hierarchical) branching structures is that they have a balance of small, medium and large because each one of those fills a certain role and the combination optimizes cross-scale circulation. This amounts to a kind of Goldilocks Rule: you need appropriate size organisations and networks that are “just right” for each scale of an economy and society. You need the small guys for small scale activity and circulation that reaches every nook and cranny. You need the medium guys for regional activity and circulation, and you need the big guys for rapid transit and large-scale endeavours.
Are we adhering to this rule in the current system?
This is the delicate part. Humanity has been working its way through learning how to do hierarchical power for about 5000 years. When human groups were small there were no command-and-control hierarchies. Leadership was a fiduciary responsibility to help shepherd the health of the whole. It was not an opportunity to exploit. With the emergence of the conquest states—again about 5000 years ago with the Sumerian organised warfare — a new approach to power emerged. ‘Leadership’ became a system of a few guys on the top with a divine right to exploit everybody below. Unfortunately, these “oligarchic” systems are notoriously unstable over the long term. Oligarchic systems always eventually reach a crisis point because a society run primarily for the wealth of the few and the exploitation of everybody below, violates the laws of systemic socio-economic health.
“A society run primarily for the wealth of the few and the exploitation of everybody below violates the laws of systemic socio-economic health”
Cycle after cycle, every time an oligarchic society reaches a serious crisis, the society faces a choice: either collapse, regress, or have a reformation of some sort. Historically, successful reforms have curbed oligarchic power and improved societal health with inventions such as: written laws that applied them to the kings; parliaments, democracy and civil rights. I believe that we are at a major turning point in all of that today.
What’s this major turning point about?
You need hierarchies in order to organise large groups, but we don’t want hierarchies to be based on exploitation and self-serving power. Oligarchy is an equal opportunity corruptor that institutionalizes power, advantage and impunity at the top, and exploitation and injustice for everybody else. It’s not just racism or sexism, colonialism or fascism. You can see it in every field: religion, corporations, civil society and even science. I see it as a cultural disease that we’ve been fighting for a really long time. Today’s challenge is to use the new scientific frameworks to build the intellectual clarity and common-cause unity to achieve the next stage in post-oligarchic human development. We absolutely need to focus on common-cause communities and values that support them.
We are now facing oligarchy’s final collapse. We need to replace oligarchy with a coordination and protection system based on servant leadership, common-cause culture, and partnerships for mutual benefit. What I mainly want to do nowadays is to get people in different fields to join their field’s answers to the question of “HOW” in a more integrated fashion. Little bits and pieces of the answer are scattered everywhere. There are a lot of examples of such people like Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for her work on common-pool resources; Arie de Geus with the Living Company; Joseph Stigliz with Creating a Learning Society. These people and thousands of others from across time and place have developed important insights into what kind of things work when you are trying to build and manage a healthy, common-cause community. We need to get experts in every field to fuse such findings into an integrated explanation and solution.
“We need to replace oligarchy with a coordination and protection system based on servant leadership, common-cause culture, and partnerships for mutual benefit”
You’ve mentioned some very interesting works – what findings would you highlight?
It’s interesting to me that Elinor Ostrom’s work incorporates elements of what we would consider ‘right’ and ‘left’. Common-cause communities, for example, can’t tolerate intentional free-loaders because their central tenet is reciprocity and mutual benefit. Balance becomes a big deal, with not too little, not too much in most things. Health lies not in just giving everything away, nor does it lie in just taking everything you can. Systemic health also requires: widespread community input; a sense that the decision-making process is fair; and trust in accountability. If somebody does violate the rules, they’re reliably held to account. They don’t just get away with it, which is one of the problems with oligarchy.
Healthy societies have to be organised for on-going social learning. One of my favourite examples is Jaime Lerner, who was the Mayor of Curitiba, in Brazil. He was faced with classical problems of favelas: poverty, diseases, poor sanitation, water problems and everything else. The question, as always, is: how do you deal with it? He started by making a little incentive system whereby you got a bus token every time you recycle a certain amount of waste. Soon the favelas became self-cleaning, and the idea could be expanded. If you’ve got bus tokens, you can now get a job on the other side of town in an hour or maybe instead of bus tokens, you have a credit for the local university. He set up a creativity council to try to figure out the kinds of things that needed to happen and how to make them naturally self-sustaining, so that the people who were involved were actually doing it. This is self-empowering in so many ways.
In a paper you co-authored, you talk about the Ten Principles of Regeneration. To start with, when is a system regenerative?
First, a point about language. We haven’t settled on a name for this framework yet. Use of the term Regeneration is partly due to what has been popularised: the word ‘regenerative’ is one of the latest in a string of words that have been popularised. Resilience is another one. For me, the word ‘regenerative’ simply means investing in the future and in building and maintaining current economic muscle and brain at all levels. This is so obvious that it’s kind of hard to believe that we don’t do it. It amounts to investing in infrastructure, schools, education, but also safety nets.
In theory, even companies should be investing in their people. One of the reasons you might want to cut taxes is so that companies can invest more in their workers. But that, of course, is not what most corporations do anymore. But the basic idea holds: companies that want to live long and prosper as a whole should invest in their people. Companies that don’t invest regeneratively, don’t last for very long. Current practices have caused the average lifespan of a corporation to plummet. It used to be 50 or 75 years; now it’s under 15.
What are the principles for a regenerative system?
Circulation is a major aspect to it. Under it, I include: regenerative re-investments in infrastructure, people, intellectual capital, etc; cross-scale circulation; and reliable inputs and healthy outputs. This last is basically what sustainability has been talking about for a very long time, and a major focus for the circular economy as well. Cross-scale circulation means that if resources don’t get down to the bottom levels, you will get economic necrosis – the dying off of large swaths of economic tissue, which will eventually bring down the whole. This is basically what’s happening in the US right now with the pandemic, the closing of the economy, and not giving money to people who are losing their jobs and have no way of paying their bills. Meanwhile, we are still bailing out the big guys and cruise lines. People looking back at this 50 years from now, will be saying: you did what?!?
The second major element is “resilient structure,” which mainly means maintaining: a balance of sizes; a balance of resilience & efficiency; and sufficient number and diversity of roles. I use the word ‘resilience,’ because it’s popular. Coming from a fractal perspective, I see maintaining a balance of small, medium and large as part of following nature’s universal patterns and principles because they optimize circulation and function cross-scale. This arrangement also maximises the health of the whole by balancing resilience and efficiency.
The final two major elements of systemic health are cultural. They include: collective learning; common-cause values such as justice and mutualism; and constructive activities as opposed to extractive ones.
Collective learning is—from an evolutionary viewpoint—basically what has brought us here as a species. Isn’t it?
Yes, absolutely! Take the example of the Living Company, by Arie de Geus. He was working for Shell Oil in their scenario planning and he went across the world and looked for companies that lasted for very long times. Two examples I remember are Stora in Sweden and Sumitomo in Japan. Both of them were founded in the 13th century. They survived the Black Death, world wars, famines, and much more. What de Geus found—which is fascinating—is that despite very different national cultures, these companies had very similar corporate cultures, which had a lot to do with putting the messiness of learning above the orderliness of procedures.
“Putting the messiness of learning above the orderliness of procedures”
You put your people above your material things. You also put the shepherding of resources to support the long-term health of the whole above all other considerations. Again, this shouldn’t be rocket science, but somehow, we have forgotten all of this.
I’m also heartened because I spent some time working with people in educational reform, and I have seen that applying the concept of collaborative learning in schools is transformative. People are much happier when they’re working in a collaborative community. Educators use what is called ‘brain-based learning’, which basically says that people feel valued when they are in a learning environment that encourages them to work together and contribute to a common good. That’s where people feel safe, start getting really effective feedback and move things forward, instead of being afraid to say anything. It’s really inspiring watching what can happen and does happen when you’re using the right framework. It’s nice to know that there are people in the educational community who are working on those kinds of things, and that there is a research base and a practical know-how, with people trying to get it going in various places. It’s not common yet, but they’ve made huge progress even in the last 20 or 30 years.
In the old debate between capitalist control and market control, in one of your writings you point to the concept of well-informed self-organisation. What is it about?
I don’t remember using the phrase well-informed self-organisation. But I’ll go with it, go ahead. Tell me what sparked your interest about well-informed self-organisation.
I saw it as an opening for something different than the over-simplified and often misleading debate between either state or markets, focused on bringing coordination mechanisms inside a community to manage the health of the whole.
OK, I can get behind that idea. Let’s call that well-informed self-organisation. The debate about government versus capital is definitely a red herring because both of them can be co-opted by this ‘oligarchic disease’. What we have now is both governments and big corporations acting like oligarchies. They’re both designed to suck wealth up from the bottom and concentrate it at the top – and they view that as the natural, inevitable and best way to run things. This is not what the classical economists, like Adam Smith, were talking about. They were talking about the rentier class being a problem, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole.
Fundamentally, I see today’s critical shift as a cultural one, as realising that we can’t keep on condoning systems that are operated by and for elites, and where people throughout the system support it unwittingly because that’s what their society says they’re supposed to be doing. We can all cite horrific examples of what happens when you just assume you have to maximise profit for the elites…so you poison the planet because that’s cheaper for elites. That’s not a good way to survive.
We also need to realise that we can and will be much happier if we organise together to be a common-cause community where we work together for the health of the whole. It’s not that we are going to become a communist system, where the elites tell us all what to do. No, no, no…that’s just the same wolf with a new mask! We need servant leaders – that’s one of the most urgent things. Rights, safety, and distribution has to be fair. You can’t have someone in the organisation making 500 times more what somebody else is making, especially if they are using the other guy’s work. Fairness means serving the health of the whole, not just yourself.
“We can and will be much happier if we organise together to be a common-cause community where we work together for the health of the whole”
When you talk about the ‘oligarchic disease’, what reinforcing mechanisms are at play to maintain the status quo?
I take the historical cycle idea very seriously. And one of the things that I’ve learned from the historians is that the reforms go two steps forward, and one step back. What happens is that you make some progress—you never make the system perfect—but you get a few reforms, you get democracy going, voting, a parliament. But then the oligarchic forces tend to regroup and reorganise, and roll back those ideas. In the US, for instance, we had the New Deal by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which came after the Great Depression, and brought a whole bunch of effective reforms, which caused the largest boom in American economic history. Then, since somewhere in the 60s and 70s, it has been rolling back.
Much of the problem—I would say—is that educational institutions, like universities, are funded by rich people and will teach economists and political leaders that the best way to do it is something X, which will almost always be a benefit to the oligarchy. And some of it is very conscious – there are large groups that fund basically oligarchic thinking. Take somebody like Bill Clinton. He was ostensibly a democrat and should, in theory, be for the people, workers and unions. But he is a neoliberal – he believes that deregulation, privatization, etc is the way to political power and economic health. Neoliberalism is basically a modern form of oligarchy. Adopting an energy-flow worldview makes it easy to see it undermines the health of the whole.
What changes do we need in order to fight this oligarchic disease?
I see great change already underway – but it’s not something completely new that we have to invent. In fact, I believe what we need is a more complete realization of free-enterprise democracy. Oligarchy is killing itself as we speak. What we need now is to increase clarity, unity and rigor. We also need to realize that this kind of comprehensive great change has happened before and that it follows certain rules. I got this from a BBC historian named James Burke who wrote a book in a TV series called ‘The Day the Universe Changed’. Burke basically pointed out that a major cultural shift occurred between the medieval and the modern societies, and that this change played out in every sphere imaginable: art, science, religion, family relationships, economics, politics, business, and so forth.
What causes such a society to undergo a comprehensive change of life? The answer is that oligarchy is a cultural system that creates systemic problems by coloring all things. It’s not just economic – it’s political, environmental, agricultural, education. When multiple, interlocking, systemic problems happen at the same time, it creates huge pressure inside the society. In the beginning, nobody knows what to do – they are just casting about focusing on individual problems. Then, some of these people become reformers – heretics from the old system. They will figure out better ways in their area of concern: religion, science, education. Great change happens when the pressures get so large that there is a kind of tipping point. You can see this happening right now. Regular people are so fed up with the old way, that they’re willing to go with something new. That’s the point we’re at right now. You can’t predict whether we’re going to pick up effective reforms or not—after all, demagogues are rising and America elected Trump! Martin Luther had a great line: ‘the mad mob cares not that it be better, only that it be different. And, hence they get bees for flies and then hornets for bees’. My mission in life is to try to build well-informed self-organisation, because if the framework gets in place so that people that are in all different fields can see how their reforms fit together, then we can use its clarity and power to move this society in the right direction.
“Great change happens when the pressures get so large that there is a kind of tipping point”
What will you be focusing on to foster this major transformation?
I think we need to emphasize the social and economic issues, because that provides much greater leverage at this moment in history. Trying to get this framework into the social, economic and political debates is the most urgent thing. What I want most is to develop organisation and education to support the process. We’re working on a syllabus to bring people from different disciplines together to learn together. We envision a course where you have people from different disciplines—a sociologist, an economist, and an urban planner—who can speak to the findings and issues in their own field while comparing and contrasting how the energy framework does or does not fit in their field. The goal would be to discuss how their field fits and connects to other fields.
The other thing I really want to do is get some of the people—particularly the political economic people— who are really leading cutting edge thinking in this area. My favourite people are: Michael Hudson, who has an energy-flows worldview of economics comes out of incredible life experience and detail; Yanis Varoufakis, Richard Wolff, and many other people. I’d like to get those people together in a room and create ‘the next Adam Smith’, which I believe has to be a group effort.
Many thanks for this engaging conversation, Sally. Now, I need to go – I think I’ve got a pattern to follow…