Curating Content To Support Learning About Humanity's Transition

This content was posted on  4 Jun 24  by   Joe Brewer  on  Medium
Cultural Scaffolding for Post-Collapse

This is an essay written on June 4, 2018 when I was the director for the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution I am reposting it as part of the original 3-part series from that time. Find Part 1 here and Part 3 here.

Last week I published a 10-page essay arguing that my own life’s work cannot possibly succeed — in the hope that it would be taken up as a “grand challenge” for others to prove wrong. Astute readers will note the hidden pathway that resolves this seeming paradox. For the only way to prove me wrong is to actually build a rigorous science of large-scale social change.

I did not ask for theoretical arguments claiming how I “might” be incorrect with one assumption or another (though that is a very important part of whatever solutions might eventually emerge). Rather I asked for empirical proof that the various kinds of cultural entrenchment of existing institutions can be modified by thoughtful interventions that alter their developmental pathways. Thus the proof must be lived out in the real world — and it must happen in the midst of global trends also referenced in that essay having to do with hysteresis and inertial forces that are largely beyond human control.

In other words, what I require to prove me wrong is that a huge social experiment be conducted with the full empirical rigors and methodological designs that are exemplary of the very best that science has to offer. If I am not doing this work anymore, then who will rise to the challenge of ensuring that it gets done?

Science is a team sport so it may turn out that I participate in this effort to prove myself wrong. Just like anyone else who has participated in an increasingly contested scientific paradigm in the past, I am free to move over to the other side and see what kinds of experiments I can run. Where I really laid the gauntlet down was by posing this challenge in the midst of already-occurring, planetary-scale, ecosystemic collapse. In the first 48 hours after my original essay was published, I have put on my “cognitive linguistics hat” to study the unfolding discourse that ensued. What I have seen so far is a combination of responses that can be broadly categorized as (a) dismissive or in denial; (b) deep agreement and despair; and © serious and determined with full sobriety about how high the bar for success truly is.

Those in the dismissive-or-denial group were quick to make my position into something having to do with my mental health (one person actually suggested that if I wasn’t so angry the entire world would be able to make the transition to sustainability); the lack of a business model for my work (as if revenue coming into my pockets could stop the release of methane from melting permafrost); or that what I say can’t be built is already well on its way (as though there were coordination among funders, academic institutions, universities, businesses, and so forth to empirically guide social change with full scientific rigor). What these respondents showed was that they prefer to avoid the argument altogether and pretend reality is simplistic and manageable. I find this to be deeply anti-scientific and very much at odds with any evidence-based approach. Simply note that none of these responses offers data about the world or suggests methods for discerning cause-and-effect about how social change actually occurs.

Those in the agree-and-despair group tended to be highly educated and on similar paths to my own — meaning they have dedicated their lives to systemic change and see larger patterns beyond their control that take the world farther into systemic collapse than their interventions are capable of managing. These people are experiencing significant anxiety and stress (just as I am) while they continue to look for something (anything!) they can do to help the larger world around them. These people tend to think like scientists, have specialized training enabling them to study empirical trends, and uncommon or unique offerings to the world that have grown along their own developmental pathways across their lifetimes.

The serious-yet-sober group is much smaller (really only a few people so far) in that they offer prospective solutions — not to planetary collapse, which they also see as inevitable at this point, but for making social change rigorous during the collapse process. It is mostly for this group that I write this follow-up essay. Members of the second group will hopefully find something inspiring here as well. I have no faith in the first group and see them as exemplary of the cultural entrenchment problems discussed at length in my original essay. Those people don’t know how to think rigorously and have strong motivations to avoid doing so because they are not yet capable of handling the stress and anxiety this pathway would require them to bear as they descend into the abyss.

So I will now get into the core of this second essay and describe my early thoughts about how we together might build the cultural scaffolding necessary to increase health and resilience for people as planetary collapse occurs around us. This is the middle way (hidden path) implied at the opening of this essay. Let me be clear that a written argument cannot disprove my first essay — only a real-world demonstration at scale could do this. I write this to share that I have embraced the paradox and am now moving through it as I too learn through inquiry and discovery. No one knows how to do what I originally set out to do, myself included. So I also must practice what I preach and get really good at failing over and over again.

Luckily, the last 18 years have been good practice in this regard.

Careful Articulation of the “Grand Challenge” We Are Dealing With Here

If you read the first essay, you will see that it is filled with irreducible complexity. There are no “5 bullet-point” summaries that could possibly do it justice. We must embrace this complexity and deal with the many nuances in play here. So before outlining what I see as one possible path toward resolving this challenge, I feel that it is important to unpack its messy details more clearly. Let us do this now.

The challenge has three primary elements:

  • Earth System Dynamics :: There are already several inertial or irreversible dynamics that we must now deal with. Among those mentioned include heating of the World Ocean, release of methane from melting permafrost, loss of topsoils globally, excessive chemically-active nitrogen from industrial agriculture, and so forth. Whatever the cultural change processes are that we attempt to manage, they must occur embedded within and deeply coupled with the changing Earth System.
  • Entrenched or “Captured” Institutions :: A cultural evolutionary process of fragmentation, fiefdoms, entrenchment, and political capture has been the developmental backdrop of large-scale social change throughout human history. We must work with the constraints and entailments of existing institutions to engage in our design work. Whether we are talking about education and research, governments and decision-making, finance and existing debt-obligations, or whatever else might be in play, it will be necessary for us to either guide changes within or disrupt and replace existing institutions while the Earth System continues to drive (and be driven by) human activities.
  • Under-Developed or Impoverished Social Conditions :: All of this must be done in less-than-desirable conditions of social impoverishment. Unprecedented levels of wealth hoarding and inequality plague societies all over the world. Weapons and military infrastructure have already been built up to play out the games of empire-and-conquest across the planet. A century of consumer culture has developed with its various kinds of marketing and investment patterns that undermine collective action. Issues like these (and many more not mentioned here) must be addressed as we learn how to build cultural-scale efficacy for entire communities to guide their collective evolution.

Even when “simplified” in this way, we can see that there is an overwhelming meshwork of feedbacks and interdependencies. As just one example, think about how increasing the intensity and rates for severe weather will wreak havoc on societal infrastructure where widespread inequalities exist and political systems have demonstrated inabilities to manage complex issues. This is already commonplace and will only become more so in the next half century. How will the impoverished social conditions be nurtured to health (which historically has not been possible to accomplish within a single lifetime) as massive harms and financial costs bombard already-fragile management systems?

Now add that the fragmentary nature of most institutions — sadly this includes the educational and research capacities of universities and government funding agencies — have set us up with conditions where mechanisms of cultural selection are at lower cooperative levels than they need to be. Budgets are created and competitions play out at the level of organizational departments (academic programs and colleges for universities; agencies and policy departments for governments). Yet what is needed is to create the conditions for integration and synthesis across these entrenched social units such that they “ratchet up” to serve larger systemic issues.

My own life demonstrates this point simply and clearly. I cannot work with universities because I don’t have a PhD. I don’t have a PhD because getting one would require me to conform to the many constraints of existing disciplinary silos. Taking such a path would open up the possibility for me to compete for a faculty position (or similar) in the same disciplinary programs. Only after spending 15–20 years getting to tenure would I begin to find pathways to pursue the integrative research I originally set out to do — and I would be limited by whatever kinds of funding exist, which are shaped by expert input of existing disciplinary bodies that mirror the fragmentary system I am trying to influence and change. This is a lot of entrenchment to deal with!

The same pernicious patterns can be seen in governments, where political games play out (as they do at universities as well) that shape and constrain where money comes from and who gets to do what in the limited terrains of access and power. Gatekeepers are already in place serving status quo fiefdoms. And a great deal of resistance can be expected from the oligarchy-like behaviors of those seeking to keep things the way they are now.

Add that the majority of people in these institutions (especially those in leadership or gatekeeper positions) have not been trained in complexity science, embodiment philosophy, evolutionary studies, or a host of other vital domains of inquiry that would enable them to think about and attempt to manage the ecological complexities that must now be addressed. By the time people with these mindsets and skills get into positions as gatekeepers of power, the Earth System will have displaced too many infrastructural mechanisms for coordination and implementation of system-level protections.

The picture I am painting here is grim, but not distorted. This is simply an accurate description of the world as it exists today. If we are to take the challenge I offered seriously, we will have to find ways to intervene and alter the mechanisms of cultural selection in the midst of such a maelstrom of disruption and entrenched powers. Do you see why I concluded that it can’t be done?

Outlines of the Middle Way Forward

We have been offered a false choice between hope and doom. This simple dichotomy frames the entire discourse on global problems and solutions. It forces us to think that we must either avoid planetary collapse or embrace it as the end times for all things sacred to us. What I have learned as the spiritual part of my own journey is that we must embrace paradox AND transcend it to find the way forward.

I am definitely not the first to have this realization. All the great spiritual traditions on Earth have been built on this insight as a developmental process for their adherents. We have to learn how to reject the standard stories that have been given to us and do the hard work of making sense in a world that simply doesn’t do the job for us. In other words, this is the work of adults (and elders) — those who have learned how to behave responsibly even though doing so is difficult and often requires making real sacrifices. It is time to make sacrifices. There is no way around it. We can’t have our “Thriving Earth Bliss” cake and eat it too, because the only way to get to thriving is to realize that millions upon millions (human and non-human) are already suffering and will not make it through to the other side.

This is best captured by the concept of Ubuntu which says “I am because we are.” It is the recognition that suffering must be part of the pathway to thriving. Loss is inevitable yet the work is still worth doing. It is walking the path that matters, not reaching the destination. Only then can we truly know who we are as humans and what our rightful place is in this world that gave birth to us. So I will now offer a sketch of what I see as necessary (though it is unclear if they will be sufficient) conditions for birthing a rigorous science of social change that enables humanity to create a thriving world.

Condition #1: Learn What We Already Know

Two years ago I wrote an essay called The Predicament of Knowledge explaining how we now produce millions of people trained at expert levels (as measured by attainment of PhD’s). I made the bold claim that we already know everything we need to know in order to navigate planetary change and get to resilience on the other side. The “predicament” part had to do with the observation that social learning does not occur at the same pace that this vast accumulation of knowledge has been built up. In other words, we don’t know what we collectively know.

The reasons for this are many. I won’t attempt to enumerate them here. The important point is that human systems have characteristic timescales for absorbing cultural change. Change things too quickly and confusion ensues. Right now, we are experiencing a world rocked by exponential changes that overwhelm the abilities of our cultures to absorb and learn from them. We accumulate vast knowledge in fields like education, psychology, and public health much more quickly than we are able to implement and adapt to them.

I now claim that we must grapple with this dynamic mismatch between knowledge creation and social learning. There doesn’t seem to be any way around it. Either we learn what we collectively know (which is not distributed well and I don’t claim it necessarily should be) and apply it to the best of our abilities, or we continue flying blind with far too much ignorance to deal with the world as it actually is.

Condition #2: Behave Like Scientists

This is a tough one because lots of people don’t know what science actually is. We must learn how to embrace the possibility that we might be wrong. Gather evidence in support of (or that conflicts with) our interpretations of the world. Check each others work. Incentivize good methodological design. Punish cheaters.

The paleontologist Stephen J. Gould famously criticized evolutionary arguments by calling them “just-so” stories a generation ago. He was pointing out that some scientists weren’t behaving like scientists — and that the delicate art of theory-building requires a great deal of care when interpreting the results. This is no surprise to most scientists. We mostly learn by making mistakes. We try a lot of experiments and most of them fail. Only by carefully inspecting our own methods (and each others) do we gradually figure out how to interpret the complexities of the world around us.

I have observed that most nonprofits don’t work this way. In fact, if they did they would be unable to secure funding to continue their operations. Most foundations and other funding sources require writing progress reports demonstrating effectiveness for the programs that have been funded previously. What these same funding entities don’t do is provide institutional supports for nonprofit groups to check each other’s work. How do you know that your program reduced violence against women? What were the causal mechanisms involved? What kinds (yes, plural) of methodological designs did you use to check your work? Who else looked under the hood of your evaluations to see if they could find errors?

Behaving like a scientist means learning how to be humble. It means being wrong
 a lot. It means dealing with the frustrations of discovering that the world is more complicated than we realize. It means learning from others — even when we don’t like them personally — because they may have methods or data we don’t have. This is very different from how humans evolved and the ways we did things throughout most of our evolutionary history. It’s not easy to build a scientific society.

Condition #3: Don’t Violate the Laws of Physics

You might laugh at this one. But right now the majority of economic policies in the world are built around the myth of endless financial growth. Practices such as these violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (or rather, incorrectly that presume they can). So there are a lot of people engaging in social change today who try to violate the laws of physics.

I want to take care to point out that I am not reducing social science to physics. I am not claiming that physicists are the pinnacle or best scientists. There is a great hubris in projecting one kind of mathematical rigor (that of many physical scientific approaches) onto the complexities of other domains that can also be studied with tremendous empirical rigor. You may find it amusing to learn that many physical sciences don’t hold up to the absurd presumption that physics is always mathematically rigorous — as I learned while studying atmospheric science where the real world is too complex for describing with simple equations.

What I am saying here is that physics is respected so much because it has enabled us to identify and explain some pretty basic things about the Universe we are part of. We need to recognize that social systems are part of this world too (this is called “methodological naturalism” because it means we try to understand the world by looking at the world instead of defaulting to supernatural or otherworldly explanations). If we are to understand this world, we have to recognize that it is constrained by the laws of physics.

In my original essay I explained how the thermal inertia of the World Ocean is really large, such that heating in the atmosphere is lagged in time by several decades for the warming of the oceans around the Earth. There is no way around this. We can’t violate the laws of material science or thermodynamics and pretend built-in kinds of thermal inertia don’t exist. The same can be said about the “path dependencies” and irreversible processes for social systems. They must be consilient with each other. We have to find nested hierarchies of explanations for the various kinds of organization in physical and social systems. Only then can we set ourselves on solid ground for interpreting and managing the world around us.

Condition #4: Work Through A Lot of Grief

People are suffering. Species are going extinct. The Holocene is over. Grief is real. Let’s stop pretending that this is an intellectual exercise. It is an exercise of fully-embodied living. Pain is real. Loss is real. The irreversibility of time (like when you can’t bring a loved one back from the dead) is part of the world. We have to learn how to grieve while we practice our work.

Joanna Macy has written a lot about the need for midwives and hospice workers. I have embraced these metaphors as fundamental to the challenge outlined in these essays. Things are dying and things are being born — both happening in parallel all the time. We are humans and must hold to our authentic (and very real) limitations as flesh-and-blood people.

Said another way, there are no Saviors or Messiahs. There are only real people with their faults and flaws. The musician Jewel said it beautifully in her 1990’s hit Hands with the lyrics “These hands are small but they are my own.” The only way humans will create a pathway through collapse is by living through it. There is an epidemic of suicides in the world right now as million succumb to grief and despair. Many of us (and our loved ones) won’t make it through the transition. Partially this has to do with timescale — as some of us are old enough that we will die of old age before the transition is complete — but it also has to do with the cutting short of life as expressed in many tragedies.

A proper science of social change will recognize the embodiment of the human condition. It will acknowledge that emotions are real and that we as human beings are capable of experiencing huge amounts of social and emotional anguish. We must learn from this insight and apply it to nurture ourselves and each other in the midst of these dangerous times we are navigating together. No rigorous science of social change exists that ignores this vital part of the human condition.

Condition #5: Expand the Bandwidths of Change Tolerance

I have found it helpful to conceptualize the human ability to tolerate change as an aggregate measure (one that is never accurately gauged and may for practical reasons be impossible to measure). That measure was alluded to in the original essay by describing how the abilities for people to manage their emotions and maintain psychological flexibility are fundamental to success in life. If we think of these combined capabilities as something that grows or diminishes depending on various social factors for nurturing human development, they can be thought of as the bandwidth for managing social change at the community scale.

Think of it this way. An earthquake rumbles an entire region into ruin. Water is contaminated. Food supplies run short. Dead bodies are pulled from the rubble. Medical relief cannot be delivered. In a realistic scenario like this the community present at the moment disaster struck is the one that will manage disaster response. No one is going to come save them in time. So these people need to have already-existing capabilities to manage the emotional strains of disruptions while flexibly innovating and adapting to a cascade of crises.

Here is where the great advances in education, innovation studies, group facilitation, prevention science, etc. come directly into play. If a rigorous science of social change is to emerge in the midst of planetary collapse, it will be because interventions are brought early into as many communities as possible to expand the bandwidth for change tolerance.

Condition #6: Reduce System “Obscurity” with Monitoring and Visualization

We cannot manage the changes we cannot see. One of the greatest “big science” initiatives of human history has been the creation of an Earth Observing System using satellites, buoys, weather stations, and myriad other sensor networks for monitoring changes in ecosystems around the world. I worked in a satellite remote-sensing research group in grad school and participated firsthand in the use of these invaluable data sets — which were so complex that the only way to interpret and make sense of them was to visualize them in scientifically accurate ways.

The Earth System is now fully interlinked as a human system. Thus we need the same kinds of monitoring and visualization of social systems if we want the capacities to manage for vulnerabilities and threats in a rapidly changing world. The human mind is not capable of seeing complexity in most real-world systems because we don’t have the abilities to perceive and respond intelligently to the kinds of complexity that now largely determine our fate as a species. So we need to build cultural perception systems that augment our profound biological limitations in this regard.

We cannot see into the dynamics and mechanisms of change for growing inequality, increased mortality, ecological decline, or a host of other processes without building systems that do this for us. It is here that applied cultural evolution becomes a large-scale social monitoring endeavor.

Condition #7: Redistribute Already-Hoarded Financial Wealth

This one is overtly political, but necessary all the same. We live in a world with what I have called a global architecture of wealth hoarding that must be reckoned with. In 2017, it was estimated that 82% of new money created went to the top 1% globally. Another measure indicated that six people (all of them, unsurprisingly, white men) have amongst them half of the world’s private wealth. Since the establishment of Neoliberal economic policies in the early 1980’s there has been a widespread stagnation of earnings for the majority of working people with a growing gap as most of the money was syphoned into the coffers of the wealthiest people.

While this pattern is most egregious in places like the United States and Britain, there is a generalized pattern of corporate land grabs and other mechanisms designed to transfer wealth from healthy ecosystems and communities of people into the private holdings of those who control the institutions of market economies. Among the consequences of this positive feedback (self-reinforcing) loop are that government services have stagnated or declined relative to societal needs and an increasing number of families must earn two full-time incomes in order to pay for ballooning costs of living all over the world.

The impacts of these wealth hoarding schemes are almost beyond generalization. Just consider what happens to children raised by strangers in daycare centers because both parents are absent and in the workplace. Or how municipal governments are made subservient to “economic growth” paradigms defined according to known-to-be-grossly-flawed metrics like GDP. We will not be able to pay for things like universal free education (freeing students from a lifetime of debt that also syphons money away from their livelihoods to “nourish” the excessively opulent among us) and universal health care — both of which are shown to be excellent long-term returns on investment for every community.

The social impoverishment mentioned above is exacerbated and accelerated by systems of wealth hoarding. Imagine if just 1/10th of the money squirreled away in tax havens (estimated to be between $21 and 34 trillion by the Global Tax Justice network in 2010) were re-invested for a global transition to sustainability. Even with low-ball estimates, this would bring $2,100,000,000,000 (yes, that is how many zeros are on a trillion) into active use where right now it is of unclear and often counter-productive means to preserve status quo arrangements of political power.

Condition #8: Align Institutions with Bioregion-And-Beyond Cooperation

The integration and application of our vast collective knowledge will require that we envision learning ecosystems in newly embedded ways. I recently wrote about how universities need to become hubs for bioregional resilience. This is a vitally important concept that warrants elaboration here.

Educators who design learning systems have observed that experiential processes are vital for translating concepts from explicit to tacit knowledge. We learn best by doing, in other words. This is especially true when we don’t know yet what the solutions will be — contrasted with most pedagogical tools for measuring learning that test people on solutions that already exist. Guiding our communities toward health and resilience in the midst of planetary collapse has never been done before. So we will need new kinds of adaptive management and agility for how education works in the future.

Of particular concern is the difficulty of upscaling and downscaling our interventions. How does community work in a neighborhood improve an entire city? What are the consequences of land use practices regionally on different locals within them? How do river systems impact (and get impacted by changing the mixing processes of the World Ocean? These kinds of challenges — where interventions at one scale are nested within or contain within them other nesting of interlocking processes — require that we contextualize learning at the intersections where the nestings feed each other. This leads naturally to a focus on the intersections of cities and the larger bioregions they are embedded within.

It just happens that all universities are based in or near population centers. Thus the prospects for weaving university structures with municipal and bioregional systems is of paramount importance. I simply don’t see how we can build a rigorous science of social change at one scale that neglects all others. Only by upscaling and downscaling across nested social and ecological systems will such rigor be achieved.

I could go on and describe other conditions, but it would soon become quite tedious (if it hasn’t already). My point in going through this exercise is to demonstrate that criteria can be articulated as conditions for success that enable us to clearly discern whether or not the challenge laid out in these essays can truly be met. By all means, come up with your own conditions. Also feel encouraged to challenge and criticize the ones I’ve outlined here. As I said at the beginning of this essay, no one (including me) knows how to do this right now. We’ve all got a lot of learning to do.

What Does All of This Have to Do with Cultural Scaffolding?

We are now eight pages into an essay with cultural scaffolding in the title. Yet it hasn’t been mentioned once so far — and this is because everything described here is about the conditions and developmental processes through which agents use tools to shape and alter their cultural landscapes. In other words, everything described so far is about what kinds of cultural scaffolding will be needed to birth a rigorous science of social change into the world as collapse happens all around us.

In the first essay, I explained how my life has been wrought with difficulties because I lacked the scaffolding I needed in terms of social supports and institutional relationships. What I am describing here is the larger meshwork of trends and social systems that require careful design of scaffolding and implementation processes to evaluate and support the construction, maintenance, and dismantling of scaffolding supports at different stages in planetary evolution.

The most provocative part of my first essay was my declaration that I am not doing this work anymore — I simply don’t think it can be done. Yet I kept the door open a crack by inviting anyone and everyone to prove me wrong. What I hope to have achieved in this essay is to raise the bar a little bit by elaborating on what it would mean to enact a developmental process that indeed does birth a rigorous science of social change. So I am providing scaffolding for those who come after me that were not available in my own pursuits.

You may not know this about me, but I am a deeply optimistic person. This is why it took 18 years to grind my optimism away! So I now show my positive nature by letting a glimpse of light into the darkness again. Perhaps
 just perhaps, if others have scaffolding unavailable to me in the decades to come they will find a way through the impasse where I can only say that I have failed.

In this light, I offer you hope. Please hold it delicately for hope is a precious thing.

Onward, fellow humans.

Joe Brewer is co-founder of the Design School for Regenerating Earth. If you would like to get involved in this work, consider becoming a member. Also, you can support me on Patreon if you feel inspired to do so.

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