Gaian transformation & system dynamics


Richard Moore


My off-list discussions have been continuing with several
folks on the topic of social transformation. Most of these
people seem to agree that the key to social transformation
is a change in paradigms / world views. I've pressed people
to explain how they imagine a change in paradigm would
actually lead to a change in society. Out of these
exchanges, I've noticed a common vision, a kind of emerging
consensus, a shared scenario of social change. I'll take a
stab at trying to articulate that scenario, synthesized from
the various discussions...

The Gaian Transformation Scenario
    Our society operates the way it does because most of us have
    been conditioned to believe in the "dominator paradigm".
    That belief is what keeps society going down its current
    path. If people generally were to discard this paradigm, and
    adopt a cooperative paradigm, then society would transform,
    more or less automatically.
    The paradigm that the world needs now is centered around
    nature and cooperation. Some call it "Partnership Society",
    others call it "Gaian Consciousness", and there are other
    names.   If this particular paradigm is embraced by the
    masses, then we will move into an enlightened new age.
    Eisler's "Chalice and the Blade" is one excellent expression
    of this paradigm.
    As people begin to change consciousness, they will naturally
    begin to join with others in various ways to seek ways to
    realize their vision.   A civil society will develop... 
    "...a civil governance of networks of local associations,
    communities of correspondence, clubs, and other communities.
    Anyone could be a member of many and have many lines of
    communication to their representatives." (B. Ellis)
    When the numbers get big enough, the political apparatus
    will be forced to respond. That will only encourage the
    emerging civil society all the more. As it grows stronger
    and its vision begins to take form, it will become the de
    facto policy setting mechanism. Government would become what
    it was always supposed to be -- an agency that implements
    the popular will.
    People, acting from their new consciousness, will
    holographically transform society even while our
    institutional forms remain more or less what we
    have today. Those institutions, transformed from within,
    will then function to our benefit instead of our detriment.
    They will become bottom-up responsive rather than top-down
    It is not necessary for us to design new institutional
    systems because consciousness is the important thing, not
    form. Besides, no one can predict how systems will behave.
    Adam Smith thought free markets would benefit society, and
    look what capitalism has done to us!  The Constitution
    charted out a plan for democracy, and yet we end up with a
    corporate-dominated society. What's the point in designing
    new systems?  Chaos undermines them all.  Put our faith in 

I find this very interesting. It charts the whole course --
from where we are now, through a process of social
transformation, leading to a rough description of how things
will operate in the new world. I think it's very empowering
to envision such a scenario. If you're heading out on a
trek, you always want to know that the trail does lead all
the way to the next village. You don't want to get stranded
in some forlorn wasteland. When you've got a destination,
and a clear idea of how to get there, then the journey can
begin in earnest.

Furthermore, I think it is fair to say that the Gain
paradigm is an idea whose time has come. It's a shame it has
taken us so long to realize this. Now that the Earth is on
the brink of extinction, we can't put it off any longer.
Either we learn to live in harmony with nature -- and
quickly -- or we die as a civilized species. Society must
be transformed, and transformation begins when people start
envisioning the new society, when they begin changing their

I think the scenario has got many of the pieces right, as
well as having the virtue of completeness. Nonetheless, I
think there are fundamental problems with the scenario. I'd
like to offer a critique ... not in an effort to prove the
scenario "wrong", but in order to help refine it. I hope the
various champions of that vision will take these comments as
a constructive contribution.

Systems & chaos
The first point I would like to make is that systems do
matter. Systems have inherent dynamics, and those dynamics
drive events in certain directions. I believe the Gaian
scenario (as I've characterized it) underestimates the role
of social systems, as realized in institutional structures,
and it misunderstands the relationship between chaos and
system dynamics.  This may sound abstract and theoretical,
but it turns out to be important -- and I hope I'll be able
to make clear what I'm talking about.

Let's take the case of Adam Smith, free markets, and
capitalism. It is easy to assume, as in the scenario, that
capitalism proves that Smith was wrong. He had a system on
paper, and in the real world it didn't work out. In the real
world, chaos dominates systems theory and you can never
predict what's going to happen.  It's easy to assume these
things, but only if you don't understand what Smith was
talking about.

In fact, Smith's model of market economics has stood the
test of time. Wherever you have open markets, with small
buyers and sellers who cannot individually control the
market price, then we find productive economic exchange as
Smith argued. Smith's "invisible hand" represents an insight
about how chaos works within a system. All the little
butterflies (buyers and sellers), each pursuing their own
self interest, are guided by the system dynamics of the
market so as to achieve mutual benefit. Chaos does not 
contradict system dynamics, it is part of its functioning.

The failures of capitalism serve to underscore
the validity of Smith's analysis. Smith argued that
constraints were necessary if the market were to benefit
society. Capitalism abandons all those constraints, and
that's why it is not socially beneficial. Capitalism is not
a case of Smith's system being perturbed by chaos. It is a
case of adopting Smith's rhetoric while abandoning his

Next, let's consider the case of the US Constitution. Again,
it is easy to assume that the Constitution failed. It was
the best that people could do at the time to design a
democratic system, but in the real world chaos (ie.
corruption) took over and the system didn't work out as
planned. But again, such assumptions arise from a
misunderstanding of what the Constitutional system is 

In fact, the Constitution has achieved precisely the results
intended by its authors. The authors -- a self-appointed
elite clique who wrote in secret sessions -- intended for
the Constitution to enable elite rule, while superficially
appearing to describe a democratic process. Their design has
fulfilled its purposes for over two centuries despite all
chaotic perturbations (ie. attempts from below to achieve
actual democracy).

Systems do matter, and there is much we can learn by
understanding the dynamics of the systems around us. If we
don't take these lessons on board, we put at risk any kind
of transformation we might be able to achieve.  As they say,
if you don't pay attention to history you may be destined
to repeat it.

The dynamics of interest-group politics
    "...a civil governance of networks of local associations,
    communities of correspondence, clubs, and other communities.
    Anyone could be a member of many and have many lines of
    communication to their representatives." (Bill Ellis)

This is an appealing vision, showing an earnest effort to
imagine something better than our current un-representative
party system. I offer encouragement to anyone who makes the
effort to think these kind of ideas through. I see problems
with this vision as it is formulated above, but I think it
can be refined slightly into something that is equally
appealing -- but which has more appropriate system
dynamics. I hope Bill and others will find some value in
this analysis.

The problem with the stated vision, as I see it, is that it
amounts to precisely the same system we already have. De
Toqueville wrote about it. America, not uniquely, has always
been characterized by associations and special-interest
groups all seeking to influence public policy. Politicians
do indeed take their inputs from this 'civil society
network'. In the case of environmental reform, the Sierra
Club et al were civil-society elements that played a
role. But not all special-interest groups have the same
amount of influence. In fact, one particular special-
interest group, the corporate elite, dominates the
influence of all others. A civil-society network can be in
effect without democracy being the result.

There might be many explanations for this state of affairs
in our current society. Perhaps the civil-society network
would become democratic if everyone switched to the Gaian
paradigm. But I doubt it. Let's examine the inherent
dynamics of interest-group politics. I believe this
characterization has some validity --it can be seen in every
case of a "democratic society" that I know of...

    Those special interest groups with the best lobbying  skills
    tend to gain more from the political process.
    As one constituency gains from the political process, other
    constituencies band together to better lobby for their
    interests. The inherent dynamics lead to competing factions,
    coalitions, and political parties.  Soon power brokers arise
    who are skilled at manipulating one constituency against
    another. Political and economic elites are then able to
    manage the power brokers and we end up back in a society
    dominated by elites who are pursuing their own narrow

The civil society process might start out just fine when
everyone is all fired up with the same spirit of Gaian
cooperation. But over time, the "lobbying reward" would tend
to push society back into the competitive, dominator
paradigm. Perhaps this could be avoided, but I think it's
important to recognize that the dynamics of interest-group
politics are not in alignment with a cooperative social

Can we do better?  I think we can...

The dynamics of locality-based politics
If we want a society that functions according to the
principles of sustainability and democratic cooperation,
then we need to create political systems that do not reward
factional competition and thus lead to the centralization of
power. Instead we need political systems that are in harmony
with our social and ecological paradigms. Many of those who
have been studying these kinds of problems from the
perspective of sustainability have come to the conclusion
that sustainable economics needs to be based on the local --
beginning with the community, then extending to the
bioregion and so on. I believe this focus on the local also
makes sense for politics.  If democratic cooperation can be
achieved at the local level, then we may be able to extend
that holographically to the whole society, and even the globe.

If economics and politics are both based locally, then the
locality has both the means and the power to manage itself
as a sustainable, democratic, evolving system.  Different
communities might have quite different systems, depending on
what natural resources are available and the preferences of
the inhabitants.  Some communities might strive for
self-sufficiency, others might specialize and survive from
trade, and most would probably employ a mixed strategy. A
global marketplace based on trade among localities could be
expected to be guided by Adam Smith's invisible hand, with
self-interest of the localities leading to global economic
benefit. That is a quite different kind of global
marketplace than one dominated by gigantic transnational
corporations and their elite boards of directors.

Locally-based politics has very different dynamics than does
interest-group politics. Interest-group politics, for
example, presumes there is a centralized authority that
needs to be influenced. Already power has been removed from
the locality before the game even begins. And then, as I
argued above, the dynamics of influence-seeking pushes us
back toward a dominator-based society.

In locally-based politics, the dynamics begin with the
achievement of local consensus about how to manage the
community's affairs. Different constituencies in the
community will naturally argue for their own interests,  and
the job of consensus is to resolve those differences and
come up with an agenda for the community that all residents
support. There are a number of specific processes, Dynamic
Facilitation being one, which are able to achieve that kind 
of consensus with a reasonable degree of reliability.

We have enough experience with consensus to have some
confidence that productive consensus would be achievable in
a community that controlled its own resources and economy.
Porto Allegre, Brazil is a city-sized real-world example.
Consensus works --and comes up with practical solutions --
when the participants have the power to implement the
solutions they come up with and when those solutions are
important to their lives. It doesn't necessarily work when
the debates are about abstractions or when the participants
have no power to change anything. 

The next stage of locally-based dynamics comes in the
interaction between the communities in the next size
societal unit, presumably something along the lines of a
bioregion or watershed. The communities in such a region
have a special bond that holds them together -- they depend
on the same rivers, forests, and other resources in the
region. They share a common interest in seeing that those
resources are managed sustainably and shared equitably. 
They can do a better job at that management than can some
distant government planner or corporate executive. They
are closer to the problems and they more motivated to find
solutions that preserve the resources and which benefit the 
local people (ie. themselves).

As we trace the dynamics of locally-based politics outward
to wider areas, the paradigms of sustainability and
cooperation are nourished at every stage. Individual
citizens find their best interest served by a coherent
community agenda determined through a consensus process that
listens to them and addresses their concerns. Communities
find it in their self-interest to cooperate with the other
communities in their region to achieve a wider consensus
about shared regional concerns. Similarly, neighboring
regions would find it in their best interests to cooperate
in the same way on still wider-scale issues such as
transport and communications networks.  And so on to the
global level, where democratic and sustainable nations would
see their self-interest served by reaching consensus on
global issues such as high seas commerce, fishing, and
the management of scarce global resources.

Putting this in context
I hope these ideas are taken as a contribution to the Gain
consciousness thinking. They are certainly offered in that
way. Indeed, if we think it is a good idea to borrow models
from evolution and biology, then I suggest local control is
a very appropriate model to borrow. Biological systems are
all locality-based. Species adapt to specific kinds of
environments. A synergy co-evolves between an environment
and its inhabitants.  All the feedback loops are present in
the one place and adaptation tends toward optimal and
sustainable productivity. These are the system dynamics
nature employs throughout the world, in all kinds kinds of
environments and involving all sorts of species.

best regards to all,



    "...the Patriot Act followed 9-11 as smoothly as the
      suspension of the Weimar constitution followed the
      Reichstag fire."  
      - Srdja Trifkovic

    There is not a problem with the system.
    The system is the problem.

    Faith in humanity, not gods, ideologies, or programs.

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