To Catalyze Effective Sustainability Solutions, Science Must Study and Transform Itself

Brian D. Fath, Dan Fiscus | June 20, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Hexaflexagon Design for Representing the Hyperset Formalism of Life

Science is an important tool to help develop solutions as we address the global ecological crisis. Science has helped understand causes and develop solutions to many subsets of our systemic crisis, including climate disruption; species extinctions; pollution; energy challenges; food, water, and soil challenges; ocean acidification; nitrogen cycle disruption, and more. However, scientists can yield potentially greater leverage for lasting solutions if we embark on a self-reflection to study science itself. The goal is to foster a paradigm shift toward great leaps ahead for solving the systemic global ecological crisis. We published a book, Foundations for Sustainability: A Coherent Framework of LifeEnvironment Relations, in November 2018 that presents this case in detail.

Three ideas provide context for science reform toward paradigm shift. First, we identify industrial culture as the source of the causes of our systemic global ecological crisis. Next, we see industrial culture as driven by science. Finally, we see a two-way interface by which science not only learns about the world and increases knowledge, but also transforms the world. We cite and employ the “modeling relation” of Robert Rosen to explain how and why the two-way bridge between science and the world necessarily leads science to alter the world. For examples, note that to build a microscope, or to compare two fertilizer application rates on experimental farm plots, scientists must alter the real-world systems they seek to understand. This alteration occurs directly (on the farm plots) and in the larger surrounding environment (in manufacture of a microscope using energy, materials, human labor, etc.). We suggest this world-altering characteristic applies to all of science.

Our proposal to turn science inward to study and transform itself emerged from studies of ecosystems, ecological networks, and related systems sciences. Applying a systems thinking focus on function and purpose to biology, ecology and life sciences, we see the need to revise fundamental understanding of life, humans, culture, and environment.

We propose that the function of life systems is not only to survive and reproduce, as often considered for organism and individual life forms. Nor is the function primarily to evolve, as often considered for species and population life forms. We also see an integral function of life systems is to improve the quality and capacity of the environment to support life. This self-referential goal is inherently beneficial – the better the environmental quality for life support, the better the odds of life survival and evolution. As we document in our book, solid evidence demonstrates that life systems considered holistically – integrating organism, ecosystem, and biosphere forms – do in fact improve their environment as they operate. Archetypal observations that prove this claim are Earth’s oxygen atmosphere and terrestrial soils.

Once we consider that life as a unified whole improves its environment, we then become aware that industrial culture is aberrant. Failing to achieve the fundamental life system function of environmental improvement is an indicator of something deeply dysfunctional in industrial culture, and by extension, in the essence of science. The profound impact increases: industrial culture, informed and driven by science, not only fails to improve the environment – industrial culture degrades and seriously damages the capacity of the planetary environment to support life.

This narrative, a system of ideas, brings to light a new area for examination in work to solve the global ecological crisis. Using the systems approach, and comparing system function with respect to environment, we can ask a dual set of questions:

  • What kind of system improves itself and its environment, survives, evolves, heals and repairs itself and its environment, gains energy, and increases in complexity over time?
  • What kind of system damages and degrades its environment, breaks down, wears out, and runs out of energy over time?

The answer to the first question is “Life”, the life-environment system as a unified whole, which achieves those unique outcomes that are positive for both the Life system and its environmental context.

Answers to the second question could be “a machine” or “industrial culture”. Machines have a negative impact on their environment in accord with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. And machines suffer entropic degradation due to friction, rust, and other effects which machines themselves are unable to heal or self-repair.

Our hypothesis to explain these observations focuses on over-reliance of the mainstream scientific paradigm on a root metaphor (fundamental conceptual model) of the mechanism going back to Descartes and Newton. During the practice and enterprise of science, via the closely linked enterprise of technology, and extending to all of industrial culture, science has projected the idea of the mechanism onto the world. We have not merely imagined the world as made of mechanisms; we have actively transformed the world into, and it now embodies and realizes, our scientific paradigm’s central image.

If we adopt a holistic mental model in science – our collective intelligence – then we have potential to see new explanations and the capacity for culture to achieve the essential Life functions of self-improvement and environmental improvement.

The alternative paradigm we propose is for “science in service to Life” where Life is defined as “Life–environment as a unified whole”. Foundations for Sustainability presents six founding principles of holistic Life science and describes in–depth and with quantitative examples seven Life lessons gleaned from ecological network analysis and systems ecology. Instead of a root metaphor of “mechanism”, our book explains why study systems of the world are better treated as webs or networks. We suggest six other Life-oriented root metaphors as well. We credit, cite and employ the work of many network and systems ecologists, and other thought leaders, who have contributed the ideas and methods that make this paradigm possible.

The strategic approach to work on the science paradigm, and to promote a holistic science of the unified Life–environment system, is complementary to existing analytical, reductionist, and mechanistic science. We can continue to use analytical science, develop and test hypotheses, and advance knowledge in increments focused on specialized topics. And, we can use holistic science to develop and test new paradigms and advance knowledge in large leaps of synthesis. In both cases, the science involved is rigorous, quantitative, evidence–based, peer–reviewed, and amenable to replication of experiments.

 

We humans can move toward sustainable relationship with the environment – if we challenge strongly held ideas in mechanistic science, synthesize the wealth of evidence and holistic science now available, and make a creative leap to a new paradigm and cultural system of ideas.  Such a transformation can help address the systemic symptoms that permeate our entire culture, that were caused by, and are perpetuated by, everything we believe, think, and do. Paradigm, then, is strategically the best place to work on systemic solutions.

We offer this blog article, and our book, in efforts to start discussions with anyone seeking innovative ideas and methods in ecology, environmental science, sustainability, or systemic cultural change. We welcome and appreciate any correspondence, feedback or collaboration on this project.

 

Fiscus, D.A. and B.D. Fath. 2018. Foundations for Sustainability: A Coherent Framework of Life-Environment Relations. 292 pp. Academic Press, Elsevier. Cambridge, MA. USA. Book website is here.

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Brian D. Fath is Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Towson University (Maryland, USA) and Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (Laxenburg, Austria). He has published over 180 research papers, reports, and book chapters on environmental systems modeling, specifically in the areas of network analysis, resilience, and sustainability. He co-authored the books Foundations for Sustainability: A Coherent Framework of Life–Environment Relations (2018) and Flourishing Within Limits to Growth: Following nature’s way (2015). He is also Editor-in-Chief for the journal Ecological Modelling. Dr. Fath was the 2016 recipient of the Prigogine Medal for outstanding work in systems ecology, and twice a Fulbright Distinguished Chair (Parthenope University, Naples, Italy in 2012 and Masaryk University, Czech Republic in 2019).

Dan Fiscus is an ecologist, researcher and writer living in Western Maryland. He works in regional and community initiatives toward a coordinated “system of solutions” to address sustainability, health and economic challenges in the food system. He does research in network analysis with the Research Alliance for Regenerative Economics (RARE). He is co-author of Foundations for Sustainability: A Coherent Framework of Life–Environment Relations (2018).

 

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Dan and Brian,

    You report,

    “We offer this blog article, and our book, in efforts to start discussions with anyone seeking innovative ideas and methods in ecology, environmental science, sustainability, or systemic cultural change. We welcome and appreciate any correspondence, feedback or collaboration on this project.”

    Please note that what I am doing is attempting to reach out and engage with you, others, and the MAHB Admin on vital issues you have raised. We can certainly agree that transformational political. economic and cultural change by way of shifting to a new paradigm will be a step in the right direction. What all of us in the human community are doing by overconsuming, overproducing and overpopulating in our planetary home has precipitated a “World Problematique” that is soon to become patently unsustainable as well as utterly destructive of the very Web of Life of Earth upon which humankind is dependent for existence itself. How are we to choose to actually do something meaningful with regard to the current Global Predicament without sharing, at a minimum, a pre-analytic vision of “necessary changes” we intend to systematize and operationalize, based upon the best available science and the “lights” we possess?

    With thanks to you, again and always, for all you are doing to protect global biodiversity from massive extirpation, frangible environs from irreversible degradation, finite natural resources from reckless dissipation, and a good-enough future for children everywhere,

    Steve

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    We possess unfalsified scientific research that indicates with remarkable simplicity and clarity that humans need to begin immediately to limit increases only in production of the total food supply for human consumption. Increasing food production to meet the needs of a growing is causing the human population explosion. Annual increases in the amount of food must be thoughtfully and systematically limited as the available food supply is redistributed. That every one receives substantial subsistence is the goal.
    Somehow I hope we can find a way to discuss openly what looks to me like “the last of the last taboos” regarding the human population. My abiding concern grows out of the realization that some humans could emerge out of “the bottleneck” which E.O. Wilson forecasts in the “Future of Life”, only to begin once again doing the very same things we are doing now, the things that have evidently precipitated the Global Predicament. There is a choice. Our descendants could choose either to grow food to meet the needs of a growing population or limit the unrestricted annual growth of the food supply for human consumption: thereby setting in place a regime for stabilizing the growth of absolute human population numbers. If we cannot accurately discern what is causing the recent human population explosion and act accordingly, I cannot see how our descendants are to avoid the same fate — extinction — that the general biological evolutionary process appears to hold in store for all species in the web of life. Can we find and then choose to follow a path forward that makes possible a viable and foreseeable, open ended future for H. sapiens?

    • Steven Earl Salmony

      Dear Dan and Brian,

      Take a moment to reflect upon the way in which an effective redistribution of food resources that, if implemented correctly, would feed the human population and simultaneously stabilize absolute human population numbers. That is to say, limiting increases only in the total production of food for human consumption, when coupled with a sensible food redistribution program, will lead to population stabilization and starvation reduction.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Daniel Fiscus and Brian Fath,

    From time to time in recent days I return over and over again to gaze at the cover of the book. What is visible to my eyeballs is two worlds: the natural world that is captured in its essence as a “tree of life” and another world that is presented in the classical form of a human being. I imagine a “human world” because H. sapiens has become such a dominant force of the natural world as to have created artificially a world of its own design and construction that is now here overspreading the surface of earth. In taking note of the different worlds I cannot help but report how both of you seem to be focused upon ‘bridging’ forms and functions of the two worlds. Charles looks like he has given his attention to what is occurring in the human world. And Cesar, Greeley and I appear to be more riveted on the structure and workings of the natural world.

    Human beings are unique creatures of earth. We are exceptional in many wondrous ways, but not in terms of population dynamics. Hence the recent ‘bloom’ of absolute global human population numbers that are primarily caused by spectacular increases in the food supply which is derived from greatly enhanced production and distribution capabilities.

    Your attempt to bridge both worlds must recognize, I suppose, human creatureliness. From my perspective “everything that is” must issue from the biophysical nature and be governed by the “rules of the house” in our planetary home. Whatsoever is is, is it not?

    Thank you.

  • César Valdivieso

    That is exactly what has to be done: “challenge strongly held ideas” but not only in mechanistic science, but also, and perhaps mainly, in economy, politics and religion, which exert a powerful influence on what scientists do or stop doing.

    • Steven Earl Salmony

      Dear Cesar,

      We are in complete agreement. I would only add much more attention needs to be given to the widely shared and consensually validated, ideologically-founded conclusions held by expert economists and demographers who have been allowed the imprimatur of science to broadcast their preternatural thinking and theorizing. Demographers and economists are not scientists.

      Thank you.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    As shown above on the Fiscus-Fath book cover, the tree has a root system. The many roots that feed the tree must not blind us to the sight and importance of the tap-root.

    Imagine, if you will, that food is the tap root of life for the human species, an example of which is also presented on the cover of the book. There may be other variables that help sustain human life, but food is the ‘tap-root’ for the growth of absolute human population numbers, just as is the case with other species of earth.

    Our problem is a biological one. A positive feedback loop has been established in the food-population relationship because natural limiting factors to the unbridled growth of absolute human population numbers have been eliminated by human ingenuity.

    The conundrum: increasing food production annually to meet the needs of growing population is fueling a human population explosion. With every passing year more people are being fed and more people are going hungry.

    • Steven, thanks very much for your comments. I do share your view that food is an essential aspect to understand human ecology and also our fundamental relationships to the environment and to each other. My starting places in my graduate education and research focused on agricultural ecology, soil ecology and soil food webs, and later ecological network analysis, which Bob Ulanowicz, Bernie Patten and others developed from studies of food webs. Food and food webs to me are perhaps the best themes to understand and heal our relationship to the environment, and food is one excellent theme to unify people during times when other forces push toward polarization and division. I could go on and on about food and food webs! I may differ a bit where you say our problem is a biological one, or I could say I am choosing to focus on a different aspect of the complex human-environment problem we face. In our book we explain the rationale to focus on the paradigm of science as the root causal issue, and we explain how this fits with and follows the lead of work of Donella Meadows who wrote about “paradigm” as being the source of greatest leverage for changing systems. I think that from this paradigm as starting point we can explain our food and population problems as well as many more of the symptoms of (and thus solutions to) the chronic and systemic global ecological crisis. We have a section in the book on applications and we address food systems some. I will find a short portion of that to post later today. Thanks again!

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        Dear Dan,

        You report,

        “I may differ a bit where you say our problem is a biological one, or I could say I am choosing to focus on a different aspect of the complex human-environment problem we face. In our book we explain the rationale to focus on the paradigm of science as the root causal issue, and we explain how this fits with and follows the lead of work of Donella Meadows who wrote about “paradigm” as being the source of greatest leverage for changing systems.”

        To the extent I understand your perspective, Dan, your view reminds me of one presented by another highly esteemed colleague who has forcefully argued that “social structure” is the root cause of the global predicament H. sapiens has precipitated. I simply cannot agree with either of you. From my perspective, before there was “social structure” or “paradigms” there were human beings who were living sustainably for several thousands of years.

        If the population dynamics of H. sapiens is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species, which would mean human beings are not exceptional in terms of our population dynamics, then human population numbers appear or not as a function of food. I cannot find a shred of sound science that contradicts this hypothesis. The recognition that humans are creatures of earth leads to my biocentric point of view. If you will, please point to the scientific research that contradicts this perspective.

        Thank you.

        PS: The work of Donella Meadows is second to none. We share an appreciation for her contributions to our understanding of systems as well as her appreciation of human limits and earth’s limitations.

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1332674/

        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1253687/

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        Dear Dan,

        It is evident that some humans are overproducing, some are overconsuming, and some are overpopulating. Some are performing more than one of these distinctly human overgrowth activities. Virtually everyone eventually becomes implicated in the problems the human community has precipitated. And yes, some people are more responsible than others for the global predicament that looms ominously before us. All that said, somehow at some time in some place by some means, all of us in the community of those who are governed by intellectual honesty, moral courage, the best available science, and doing the right thing are going to come together and share objectively a comprehensive presentation of what is ailing the ‘superorganism’ composed of 7.7bn human beings and what can be done to limit its patently unsustainable growth, based upon universally-shared humane value.

        For a moment let us imagine that the human community writ large pulls itself together on a war footing to fight climate change and wins that battle by reducing carbon emissions of all kinds to net zero in 2020, while the tap-root cause of anthropogenic climate change continues to be denied. We may win a major Pyrrhic victory. That is certainly a good thing. And yet, if we do not accurately enough locate the foremost cause of the biological problem that is ailing humankind, the problem that is precipitating climate change and other global ecological challenges, we could lose the prospects of a good enough future for children everywhere.

        We have run out of time for population experts and other researchers with appropriate expertise to remain reticent. They have to assume their responsibilities by examining data and reporting findings regarding the question, “Why are human population numbers exploding?” The time has come to disclose all of what we know — the whole truth — with regard to human population growth, according to the best available science and ‘lights’ we possess.

  • Steven Earl Salmony

    This work is the most important advance I have seen in a long, long time. Scientists appear to be failing science and humanity by simply failing to carefully examine and skillfully report findings on peer-reviewed, heretofore uncontested evidence because, it would appear, the science is apparently unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome.

    A case in point: Unfalsified ecological science of human population dynamics.

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226928770_Human_Population_Numbers_as_a_Function_of_Food_Supply

    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227269417_Human_Carrying_Capacity_Is_Determined_by_Food_Availability

    • Steven Earl Salmony

      Absolutely essential peer reviewed science: Population Density and Redistribution of Food Resources in Encyclopedia of Food Security and Sustainability
      Volume 1, 2019, Pages 26-30.

      https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780081005965223792

      Thank you to all the scientists with appropriate expertise who assume their responsibilities to science and perform their duty to humankind.

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        Perhaps we can agree to a desperate need for an adequate-enough explanation for ‘why’ we have ended where are. A growing body of unfalsified research has been ubiquitously denied and consequently not widely shared much less consensually validated by population experts of science as well as those professionals with appropriate expertise in the fields of demography and economics. Uncontested science makes it possible for us to answer the question posed now, here. Perhaps a new biological understanding is emerging from ongoing research. It is simply this: as is the case with other species, human population numbers appear or not as a function of food availability; food is the independent, not the dependent, variable in the relationship between food and population numbers; and human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species.
        Sound scientific research provides straightforward empirical data of a non-recursive biological problem that is independent of economic, political, ethical, social, legal, religious, and cultural considerations. This means human population dynamics is like the population dynamics of other species. It also means that global human population growth is a rapidly cycling positive feedback loop, a relationship between food and population in which food availability drives population growth, and population growth fuels the false perception, the mistaken impression, the fatally flawed misconception that food production needs to be increased to meet the needs a growing population. The data indicate that as we increase food production every year, the number of people goes up, too.
        With every passing year, as food production is increased leading to a population increase, millions go hungry. Why are those hungry millions not getting fed year after year after year… and future generations of poor people may not ever be fed? Every year the human population grows. All segments of it grow. More people with blue eyes and more with brown ones. More tall people and more short ones. All segments of the population grows. Every year there are also more people growing up well fed and more people growing up hungry. The hungry segment of the global population goes up just like all the other segments of the population. We are unexpectedly increasing the number of hungry people in the course of feeding more people. We are not bringing hunger to an end by increasing food production.
        The skyrocketing increase of the human population in our time on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of Earth has caused a growing number of apparently unforeseen and exceedingly deleterious ecological occurrences. Among these potentially catastrophic, human-driven consequences is climate destabilization. What is fortunately becoming clearer to naked eyes, as we observe what is happening, is the manifold ways overproduction, overconsumption and overproduction activities of the human species are occurring synergistically and simultaneously threatening life as we know it, environmental health, and future human well-being. The spectacular increase of these distinctly human, overgrowth activities is causing the mass extirpation of earth’s biodiversity, the relentless dissipation of its limited natural resources, the unbridled degradation of its environs and the reckless threat to a good enough future for children everywhere.
        For a moment let us imagine that the human community writ large pulls itself together on a war footing to fight climate change and wins that battle by reducing carbon emissions of all kinds to net zero in 2020, while the tap-root cause of anthropogenic climate change continues to be denied. We may win a major Pyrrhic victory. That is certainly a good thing. And yet, if we do not accurately enough locate the foremost cause of the biological problem that is ailing humankind, the problem that is precipitating climate change, we could lose the prospects of a good enough future for children everywhere.
        We have run out of time for population experts to remain reticent. They have to assume their responsibilities by examining data and reporting findings regarding the question, “Why are human population numbers exploding?” The time has come to disclose all of what we know with regard to human population growth, according to the best available science and ‘lights’ we possess.
        Thanks to All for comments on this matter of vital concern.

    • Greeley Miklashek

      Unfortunately, your neo-Malthusian model of a one to one relationship between food and population and that both can expand in parallel, does not consider the enormous body of scientific evidence of evolved human (mammalian) population regulation mechanisms built into our DNA long ago and functioning to limit an overpopulated species in the larger ecosystem. Why only a very few prescient scientists have ever drawn the conclusion that all of our “diseases of civilization” actually perform such a function is a mystery to this retired physician, let alone our growing epidemic of infertility (1/6 couples and growing) and rapidly falling sperm counts (down 59% in 38 years in the West). Our species is being culled and the only way to prevent total extinction is a worldwide voluntary movement for one-child families (or outright “Birthstrike”). This model is well known to that branch of biology who’s been studying animal overpopulation for 70 years in over 100 repetitions of John B. Calhoun’s “mouse universe” researches in the 1950’s. Stress R Us

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        Dear Greeley,

        Glad to receive your perspective. Thank you for it.

        You report,

        “Unfortunately, your neo-Malthusian model of a one to one relationship between food and population and that both can expand in parallel, does not consider the enormous body of scientific evidence of evolved human (mammalian) population regulation mechanisms built into our DNA long ago and functioning to limit an overpopulated species in the larger ecosystem.”

        Please note that the scientific research to which I draw attention indicates that the Homo sapiens sapiens is a part of, not apart from, the web of life of earth. Yes, humans may indeed be a highly evolved species, even an apex species of earth, but that does not that all of the attributes that make humankind exceptional include its population dynamics. The science is simple and remarkably clear when indicating that the population dynamics of H. sapiens is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species and that human population numbers appear or not as a function of food supply.

        Note too, that “the enormous body of scientific evidence of evolved human (mammalian) population regulation mechanisms built into our DNA….” as you so neatly put it, does not take account of apparently unforeseen as well as uncontested, new research regarding genetic feedback and human population regulation. Please review the peer-reviewed research to be found at the following link,

        https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225581823_Genetic_Feedback_and_Human_Population_Regulation

        Comments from one and all are welcome.

        • Greeley Miklashek

          I reviewed your linked paper and found it unnecessarily obscure and simply incorrect. If the genetic feedback, whatever exactly that is, is operating effectively, then why are we in overshoot? I am convinced from my research that very old and long evolved “population density stress” is well underway, perhaps since shortly after the agricultural revolution’s population explosion and were it not for our enormously expensive and unsustainable medical care “industry”, we’d all have been culled some time ago. The polymath and polyglot Jeffrey Gray wrote about Hans Selye’s GAS being just such a population “density-stat” in 1971, but was ignored. Thanks for the dialog! Stress R Us

          • Steven Earl Salmony

            Dear Greeley, “Genetic feedback” and “behavioral plasticity” need to subjected to the most rigorous analyses. Especially the connection between the two phenomena is an extremely important matter and calls out to all of us for more careful consideration. Please take another look at Hopfenberg’s perspective. Note too, that this research, like the research of Jeffrey Gray, has been ignored and not given the attention it rightly deserves.

            I would also like to invite the MAHB Admin, Professors Fiscus and Fath, and other experts with appropriate expertise to skillfully evaluate the presented evidence.

  • Hi, your book and your ideas look like excellent conversation starters. I’ve asked the local college in Prince Rupert to purchase a copy. Unfortunately the price of book is not sustainable for most people.

    • Your book does raise some important philosophical issues: The problem of the growth of knowledge at the same time as our remaining ignorant of the interconnectedness of nature; the misleading anthropocentric root metaphor of the machine – that undermines understanding of life systems and human systems; The possibly futile attempt to derive a transcendent source of value in life itself. I will focus my attention on this last point. I say “possibly futile attempt” because we have seen similar attempts to ground value in a transcendent source over and over again in the history of philosophy, starting with Plato. All of these attempts seem motivated by deep frustration with the course of human events. Plato grew up in the aftermath of the destructive Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.
      The frustration we all feel with the present course of global events is a case in point. It’s the kind of “mess” that seems to cry out for a religious solution. Science seems to be acting as the handmaiden of industrialization, doubling down on more effective ways to wipe out all competing life forms with pesticides, herbicides, and mountains of waste products. We all stand aghast as global capitalism so very efficiently works at accelerating a mass extinction event. My fallible answer to this mess is to double down on understanding human systems, especially normative systems. Normative systems are not transcendent systems, they do not depend on a source “above” humans. They may utilize transcendent ideologies to motivate and unify but the way they work is by our making trust and cooperation a common pool resource. We build trust and cooperation by agreeing to follow and enforce the rules. It is an entirely human thing.
      Yes, I agree with the authors: “the better the environmental quality for life support, the better the odds of life survival and evolution. One part of that is our knowledge of how human societies work, especially normative systems.

      • Charles, thanks very much for your comments. I am curious why you would describe value based on life as transcendent or “above” humans? It was part of my intention in the work of our book to identify a basis for value (that could then serve as a basis for science) that is inherently realistic and grounded in the many sources of biophysical, geophysical, thermodynamic and other evidence, observation and principles by which we understand what life is, what it needs to continue, and why it is unique. None of this to me is either transcendent or “above” humans, But I may be missing something. We do point to fundamental aspects of Life (life as a unified whole) that are trans-organismal, and so we show that essential aspects of life (especially “sustained life”) are beyond the individual. But this to me is also true of ecology, and while trans-personal is not transcendent. I admit limited knowledge of understanding normative systems, so any more on that would be appreciated too. Thanks again!

        • Steven Earl Salmony

          Dear Charles and Dan, Is either of you perceiving how human beings, as creatures of earth, could be seen as one living body and one species, H. sapiens? From this perspective H. sapiens can be viewed as a limb on “The Tree of Life” of earth. Think of earth, not as an organism, but yet a living thing that gives rise to life forms which compose The Tree of Life.

          Thank you to everyone participating in this remarkable thought experiment.

          • Steven Earl Salmony

            Nate Hagans speaking of H. sapiens as a superorganism…..

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Io9EVQzV2zM

            Quotes from Nate:

            Things that can’t continue usually stop too late.

            While it digs its own grave, all the mind can do is entertain fantasies and create excuses.

            Thermodynamics, expressed through genetics, creates beings incapable of not maximizing energy consumption.

            All 8 billion of us owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains; 6 billion of us also owe our existence to nitrogen fertilizer created from natural gas by Haber-Bosch factories.

            Nate’s website:

            http://energyandourfuture.org/index.html?bookmark=Our%20Energy%20Story

        • Thankyou for challenging me. I’ve had to consult Frederick Ferre’s book, Living and Value, 2001, which delves into the issue of value and ecosystems from a Whiteheadian perspective. I’ve also gone back to some of my notes. Ferre argues that knowledge and values are always in our experience and can’t be completely separated. He also emphasizes that you can’t have ethics without empathy, the ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation, and feel their joy or suffering as our own. Modern Meta-Ethics has taken a whole wrong turn by following Hume’s insistence on separating knowledge from emotions. They are reduced to either claiming that morality is not about reality, but just about our feelings, or, of claiming that morality is derived from a transcendent authority.

          • Ethics relates to human conduct, so how is it tied in with ecosystem health ? Humans are the only animal that creates and sustains normative systems. Morality and language are normative systems. They are common pool resources that exist through collective rule following and enforcement. We trust, cooperate, and rely on each other, help each other, and share knowledge and other common goods together – this is only possible through normative systems. What’s unique about normative systems and not replicated anywhere else is the dual functions of rule adherence and enforcement. In normative systems there is no one in charge. The systems work by universal adherence and enforcement. Common Pool Resources all work this way, as explained by the Nobel Prize Winning Economist, Elinor Ostrom, in her book Governing The
            Commons. Before there was property, or specialized law courts and policemen there were common pool resources. The so-called “Tragedy of the Commons” comes from the piracy and or deliberate government policy.

          • We now know that Eco-system health is vital for our ability to survive and sustain a human civilization. This is widely known. That is why there is so much global effort to prevent human-caused global warming. A lot of our knowledge points to our use of fossil fuels as a culprit. The fossil fuel industry is huge, and has connections with other large sectors of our economy, especially automobiles, transportation, and agriculture. This has led to a powerful well-coordinated economic and political backlash to the environmental movement. Remember that normative systems are unique to humans, but there is something else unique to humans, and that is our enhanced ability to lie and deceive each other. Normative systems establish a common pool of knowledge, available to all. Truth is a normative system that exists to defeat lies, but it is a fallible system and it can be overwhelmed. The widespread subversion of truth leads to the destruction of common knowledge. This is the crux of the matter. The growth of knowledge is made possible by our ability to sustain normative systems. That’s why we understand truth to be objective, to be independent of our beliefs and our desires. By holding to this belief in truth’s objectivity we honour truth over individuals and specific groups.

            Without truth as a normative system, it doesn’t take much to go back to the state of nature. If the dominant human male calls evidence that contradicts or implicates him “fake news”, and there are no independent commonly agreed standards to appeal to against his claims, we are back in the state of nature, without anything like truth or morality.
            By collectively adhering to truth-telling, and lie-punishing, we made it possible to call moral rule-breakers to account. The very first reason we need to tell the truth is that we need to be accountable for our actions.

            Truth makes accountability possible. And morality cannot be enforced without a way of enforcing accountability. If people can consistently get away with lying, then they can get away with the things they are lying about. How then can they be held accountable for their actions? If lying is not negatively sanctioned, the truth would be equivalent to the interests of the dominant, which would make it useless as a means of regulating behaviour. That is why, at this point in time, a very powerful person who is a compulsive liar, like Donald Trump, is an existential danger to Global democratic systems.

          • What is fundamental here is human behaviour. Eco-systems can usually take care of themselves. As humans, we have become powerful enough to destroy or degrade major eco-systems and compromise our own ability to survive. This is common knowledge. But common knowledge is in danger of being destroyed through what amounts to a power grab by the Right. Therefore the question is not about what is the real source of “value”, the question is do we allow our common knowledge to be hijacked by special interests, or do we harness the authority of normative systems to restore the rule of law.

          • Dan Fiscus

            Charles, thanks very much for your comprehensive replies and comments. I greatly appreciate these discussions but am finding it very hard to explain in these short replies what we presented in a full book that took us 2 years to write and that was based on two people’s experience each of 25 years of study, research, modeling, collaboration and real world applications. While I do agree with many of your points, and now know more about normative systems, I can only hint at tips of icebergs for my full reasons for disagreeing with your comment that the question is not about the real source of value, and by asking that you read our book. (If you email me I have suggestions for ways to obtain a copy of the text.) For now I offer two tidbits toward suggesting that a focus on the source of value has perhaps the greatest potential leverage for change. One point is to note that we cite Albert Schweitzer’s work as providing one of the original and best articulated explanations of why life can and should be treated as the basis of value. His works have titles like “Reverence for Life” and we cite several in the book. You may already have read them, but I take them to demonstrate this approach as essential. The other mention for now gets at what our book cover suggests, and a major theme and principle we develop through the whole book, that humans are not at all separate or separable – in mind or in reality – from natural ecosystems. You suggest in your comments that ecosystems are independent and can do OK on their own, and that normative systems are all about humans, apparently again as independent of natural life support ecosystems. I see it the opposite – that the two realms are really one. The separation has come from a series of choices and mental models, and the whole paradigm of science, which has made this imaginary separation. Here is my fun way to show this…I call it Descartes 2.0 as in the book (page 187-188):

            “Imagine how his insights, and the course of history, might have changed if ecology and the knowledge of ecosystems and the human place of interdependency in them were already well known at the time of Descartes’ revolutionary work (somehow—perhaps if Priestley had come before and had used people instead of mice in the sealed chambers of his oxygen experiments!). Given this scenario of an altered knowledge and ecological awareness context, further imagine Descartes might have applied to thought our ideas about discrete Life and sustained Life. If in his radical doubting and precise thinking he focused more on continuous or “sustained thought” vs a short-term or “discrete thought” process, then he might have concluded:

            I think, therefore I exist. That is, I think now, therefore I exist now. But I think only as long as I have a steady input of oxygen, water, and food to sustain my thinking via my life. And, after I am done thinking with aid of these vital materials, they are transformed and expelled not so much as waste but as food for the plants and other living beings that in turn create and supply my material needs. I think only as long as I exist in concert with the existence of these other life forms, and vice versa.
            I think, therefore, I am. . .we are. . .an ecosystem.”

            You can get to this radical unity of mind and nature (a term from Bateson’s book title) by quick direct experiment also. Simply hold your breath. See how long you are able to exist independently of the green plants. Maybe 4 minutes if you are really good.

            If a normative or value system is not founded with emphasis on the sources and processes of Life (life itself, life as unified with environment, of which human life is integral subset), then I cannot see how it can be considered either complete or of any ultimate value in terms of human existence and survival. Some more for the discussion…

      • Steven Earl Salmony

        Dear Charles,

        You report,

        “Normative systems are not transcendent systems, they do not depend on a source “above” humans. They may utilize transcendent ideologies to motivate and unify but the way they work is by our making trust and cooperation a common pool resource. We build trust and cooperation by agreeing to follow and enforce the rules. It is an entirely human thing.”

        For a moment I would like us to consider normative systems in the context of ideology. Normative systems with which I am familiar are based at least in part on ideology and cultural prescriptions.

        Please consider how an ideology or culture presents much that is real and also some things that are illusory. From a psychological standpoint, because humans are shaped early and pervasively by ideological and cultural transmissions in our perception of reality, it is an evolutionary challenge for humankind to see the world as it is. When a psychologist thinks a patient is suffering from a mental illness, that is an evidence-based clinical judgment. However, general standards of normalcy are not clinical judgments, but matters of socio-cultural norms and conventions that are full of correctly perceived aspects of reality as well as some misperceptions of reality. Deeply disturbed mental patients distort reality drastically. ‘Normal’ people pay no attention to them. Or if attention is paid to them, it is usually just long enough to put them away. After all, they are crazy; they cannot distinguish what is fantasy from what is real.

        By contrast, organizations like nation-states, as well as cultures, appear not to misperceive reality so sharply, yet distortions of what large aggregates of people perceive do remain. A term of art in psychology is useful here, folie a deux. The term means that two people share an identical distortion of reality. This understanding leads to other terms, folie a deux cent million for a social order or folie a deux billion for a culture. These terms refer to a misperception of reality commonly held by many people of an organization or culture. One way to define the highest standard of what is normal for the individual and for human aggregates could be looked at in terms of what is free of illusion, what is in scientific fact real.

        Even experts, I suppose, can and do confuse ideology with science, contrived logic with reason, self-interested thinking with common sense. Science regarding the activities of the human population appears to be ignored when ignorance of the world as it is serves to support greed-mongering, social order and religious dogma. I would like to submit that on occasions such as these, conscious and unconscious thinking in the service of a status quo leads to distortions of what could be real and perversions of science. In such instances, fantasy is embraced by many people; knowledge of what could be real is eschewed.

        In these early years of Century XXI, humanity could be confronted with formidable human-driven global challenges, some are already visible on the far horizon. It is conceivable that the human community can respond more ably to whatever challenges present themselves in the years just ahead, but only if we choose to acknowledge what is real and visible to naked eyes.

        For example, could the idea that human beings are exceptional in terms of our population dynamics be a fantasy and not something that could somehow be real? And yet, exceptionalism vis a vis human population dynamics has been broadcast ubiquitously as if it were real.

        What is aiding the perpetuation of fantasy and the denial of reality? Why the stony silence among top-ranked experts regarding the unsustainability of the human overpopulation of Earth, while the utterly false hope of natural, automatic population stabilization and a benign end to population growth soon has been broadcast everywhere as if such a specious idea had the support of sound science?

        Leaders and followers alike in the family of humanity can do better, and I trust we will soon enough awaken to the need for behavior change rather than continue down the primrose path Rachel Carson called a “superhighway”, a yellow brick road to the ever increasing size of an already colossal global political economy. Our adamant advocacy and relentless pursuit of an intellectually dishonest, morally disengaged and patently unsustainable way of life — a fool’s errand for endless economic growth synergized by unbridled population increases and unrestricted per capita overconsumption— simply cannot continue much longer.

        A recognition of the blinding power of certain adamantly maintained and widely shared fantasies regarding global consumption, production and propagation activities of the human species could have mesmerized many experts into thinking that the humankind is somehow not an integral part of the natural world we inhabit and ultimately not subject to biophysical limits to growth that are ultimately imposed on living things by a planet with the size, finite composition and frangible ecology of Earth.

        • Steven, see what I’ve said below in my answer to the author. I hope it touches on some of what you have said here.

          • Steven Earl Salmony

            Dear Charles,

            What you report below is wonderfully well put. Thank you.

            Imagine that you, Cesar, Dan and I are looking at a Sphere of Life, but each of us has taken up a different position around this object. We are not only examining the living sphere from different places but also have differing scopes of observation of this object. That is to say, our individual standpoints are at different distances from the sphere. Not one among us can observe the whole sphere or observe the sphere from different scopes of observation simultaneously. More than one point of view is required. And therein resides at least one challenge before us. How are we to go about sharing our individual points of view regarding the Sphere of Life in a way that makes possible a mutually agreed upon understanding of what the best available science discloses with regard to the nature of the Sphere’s approximate reality?