Mary Catherine Bateson

One of the key concepts in Turning Signs is that of the guidance system. It’s rooted in systems theory and cybernetics, which are introduced in Chapter 3. I’ve just discovered that anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, from whose works I’ve gleaned some deep insights into complex interactive systems, has a very recent talk on the Edge website called “How to Be a Systems Thinker”.

It’s a profound reflection on the current state of the world and how systems thinking could help humanity correct its course. It’s also a lament for the lost legacy of the early cybernetics movement, as its deeper wisdom has been mostly drowned out by the industry’s flood of “devices.” On the website you can read it or screen the live interview (about 42 minutes). I highly recommend it – especially for those who might have found Chapter 3 of Turning Signs something of a struggle.

Real economy

Here’s one iconic symbol we ought to be turning to. You can read all about it in Kate Raworth’s blog and book on Doughnut Economics. The doughnut is an icon well suited to “accounting for what really counts” (the slogan of gnusystems).

Economists and politicians, including our Prime Minister, are still chanting the old mantra of economic “growth” as if it were the panacea which would solve all our problems and improve all our lives. But as soon as you ask what the purpose of an economic system is, as Kate Raworth did, you see that growth does not always serve that purpose, and sometimes works against it. And what’s more, the politicians who have relied on this mantra to manufacture consent for their programs have used it mainly to increase the gap between rich and poor.

Kate’s latest blog post presents the choice between economic “paradigms” in its simplest terms. The old one is based on the belief that people are greedy, insatiable and competitive. The new one is based on the belief that “people are greedy and generous, competitive and collaborative – and it’s possible to nurture human nature.” You’re invited to decide which belief you want to live by.

A Turn-up for the Books

While i was writing the bit about flukes in Chapter 2 of Turning Signs, i was thinking it would be fun to write a whole book about these wonderful flukes of etymological fun. I recently discovered that this has in fact been done, by a chap named Mark Forsyth, who called it The Etymologicon. He also has a blog called The Inky Fool, which i highly recommend to those who love laughing at the quirks and “hidden connections” of words.

The Etymologicon also turned out to have a hidden, fluky connection with my book. The title of its first chapter is the title i’ve given to this blog post, and it turns out (or up?) that a “turn-up” means (or used to mean) something very like a “fluke”: “an unexpected slice of luck” (Forsyth, Mark. The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.). It has absolutely no connection with turnips.

And not only that, but the Etymologicon, like Turning Signs, has a circular structure. All purely coincidental, of course (except for the title of this blog post).

Living Earth

Eugene Gendlin wrote that ‘the living body is an interactive process with its environment and situation’ (Hendricks 2004, 8). Its life is its withness.

We could say this of the whole biosphere, as suggested by John Palka in his blog post Is Earth Alive?, which reconsiders the “Gaia hypothesis” originally proposed by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. John Palka, “a neuroscientist who loves plants and ponders big questions,” quotes from a recent book by planetary scientist David Grinspoon:

Margulis and Lovelock proposed that the drama of life does not unfold on the stage of a dead Earth, but, that, rather, the stage itself is animated, part of a larger living entity, Gaia, composed of the biosphere together with the “nonliving” components that shape, respond to, and cycle through the biota of the Earth. Yes, life adapts to environmental change, shaping itself through natural selection. Yet life also pushes back and changes the environment, alters the planet. This is now as obvious as the air you are breathing, which has been oxygenated by life. So evolution is not a series of adaptations to inanimate events, but a system of feedbacks, an exchange. Life has not simply molded itself to the shifting contours of a dynamic Earth. Rather, life and Earth have shaped each other as they’ve coevolved.

Palka’s article gives several specific examples of life changing its environment on this planet. Grinspoon’s book, Earth in Human Hands, is about the “Anthropocene epoch,” in which “the net activity of humans has become a powerful agent of geological change.” Here’s another sample from it:

I think our fundamental Anthropocene dilemma is that we have achieved global impact but have no mechanisms for global self-control. So, to the (debatable) extent that we are like some kind of global organism, we are still a pretty clumsy one, crashing around with little situational awareness, operating on a scale larger than our perceptions or motor skills. However, we can also see our civilization, such as it is, becoming knitted together by trade, by satellite, by travel, and instantaneous communications, into some kind of new global whole—one that is as yet conflicted and incoherent, but which is arguably just beginning to perceive and act in its own self-interest.

— Grinspoon, David (2016-12-06). Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Kindle Locations 158-163). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.