Superrational

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

What are you up to this Sunday?

Think carefully, because how you answer that question just could be the key to fixing the economy, clarifying your love life, stopping global warming and creating the world’s first truly perfect slice of pizza.

I’m not hawking some mind-blowing seminar, I’m literally interested in how you answer the question. Recently I’ve been scouring a mix of economics, psychology, and cognitive science to try to understand how the human mind makes decisions about time. Decisions about time shape our lives more than decisions about money, votes, food, or pretty much anything else. Think about the time that’s passed in your life so far. That time has been put into school, work and relationships. It’s given you a set of skills, experiences and connections to others that define who you are.

There a big decisions about time, like where to go to school or what city to live in, that have come at major inflection points in your life. Mid-sized decisions, like what classes to take or what hobbies to pick, shape your skills and interests and are no less important in defining who you are. And those tiny decisions, like who to call up on a Sunday afternoon, are what aggregated over time to create your friendships, your romantic relationships, and (I’m willing to bet) some of your life’s most memorable experiences. Was it all random? Or is there a rhyme and reason to these decisions, some compass that’s directed you (for better or worse) to where you find yourself today?

The existing theories on this subject fall into two camps: those who believe (essentially for convenience) that human beings are rational creatures making decisions in our own best interest. Another, more cynical camp believes that we are fundamentally irrational, making decisions out of a random mix of neurological parlor tricks and justifying them in hindsight. I’d like to argue a third theory: that when we make decisions about time the human mind is superrational: capable of not only pursuing our own self-interest, but of optimizing that self-interest with that of our loved ones, our communities, our societies, and the global biosphere on which we depend.

To understand superrational decision making, let’s return to the question at the beginning of this post, what I’ll call the “Free Time Problem.” If you’ve got a chunk of free time, how do you decide to spend it?

This seemingly trivial question is enough to kick both the rationalists and irrationalists out into the cold.

The Problem with Rationality

Rationalists assert that, when presented with a decision, we gather all available data, carefully weigh our options, and choose the path that best serves our self-interest. This may work when you’re choosing between brands of orange juice, but it falls apart when free time comes into the mix and the options are infinite. Your Sunday options include (but are by no means limited to):

  • Calling your poor lonely grandma
  • Re-reading that textbook you promised yourself you’d re-read
  • Watching John Cusack movies all day
  • Forming a Death Metal Band
  • Hopping a plane to Mount Kilimanjaro

Then again, there’s nothing to stop you from buying tickets along with your new bandmates, throwing a portable DVD player and the textbook in your bag (it’s a long flight), and calling Buba from the security line. Rationality just can’t handle the endless options and combinations of options that a free Sunday presents.

The Problem with Irrationality

So maybe our Sundays are perfectly irrational, nothing but a bunch of random neurons firing and instincts flaring that we poetically justify after the fact. If that were the case we’d spend all our free time mindlessly blundering about reacting to food, sex and shiny objects. A lot of people seem to spend their Sundays that way, and I’m not trying to knock it, but the irrationalists have yet to explain those Sundays that we spend joyfully creating things. If we spend free time creating art, it has a nasty habit of turning out to be the art that we needed to create. When we spend it building friendships, those friendships often wind up evolving to fit who we are and what we need to be happy. The spoils of a well-spent Sunday are often aligned with parts of our self-interest that we weren’t even aware of on Saturday night. That’s too much of a coincidence to chalk up to pure irrationality.

Defining Superrationality

The actual, superrational way that we spend our Sundays is based on a combination of mood and habit. Those two words have a somewhat whimsical reputation, but I’d like to argue that under the right circumstances they can make us almost scarily smart. Let’s look at them in depth:

Habit

Habit is the accumulation of your past experiences: all of the food you’ve eaten, all of the people you’ve talked to, all of the sports you’ve played. I like to think of habits as a series of threads running from you to a large but limited number of activities with which you have experience. Some of these threads are thicker than others. That guy you haven’t seen since highschool probably has a thin fishing line, while Scott, the best friend that you talk to every day, has a thick cord of rope.

Habits solve the problem of infinite choice that confounds the rationalists. They bound our Sunday decisions to a limited (if large) set of options. Whatever I decide to do on Sunday will just be a new iteration of something I’ve done before. Even if strike out in search of a completely new experience, I’m likely to strike out in a way that I’ve struck out before, or in a way that I read about somewhere. There’s a very logical reason for this reliance on habit: unless we know what to expect from a given Sunday activity, we have no basis on which to decide whether or not to do it. Our minds automatically blot out the endless array of activities that are outside of our realm of experience, and focus on our existing threads. The thicker the habitual thread, the more likely it is to receive emphasis. What thread we choose will depend on our mood.

Mood

Mood is a systemic aggregation of priorities, which is a fancy way of saying “what you feel like doing.” The interesting thing about mood is that we rarely feel just one. We’re not hungry, tired, fidgety, social, OR introspective; we’re hungry, tired, fidgety, social AND introspective all at once. When we make decisions about free time, we juggle an almost impossibly complicated web of competing priorities. Our digestive systems want to eat, our muscles want to move around, our endocrine system wants to settle down for a snooze. Just as many priorities originate from outside of our bodies. If you hang out with Scott every Sunday, then you may be worried about breaking tradition and letting him down. If you promised another friend you’d read her screenplay, then it may be important to you that you live up to that promise.

With a surprisingly small amount of thought your mind is capable of assessing all of these priorities, pulling out the most urgent, combining them, and feeding them to you as an emotional state.  Once a half dozen priorities get in the mix such emotions can become incredibly precise, and some of us are better at understanding them than others.

To actually decide what you’re going to do, you need to remix your habits to fulfill your moods. You’re like a DJ, pulling together bits of old records to create something new. You won’t be able to fulfill all of your competing priorities, but if you’re good (and most of us are good) you’ll come up with an activity that handles a healthy chunk of them. You and Scott both love biking, so why not bike by that sandwich shop you’ve both been meaning to try, then head up to the top of that cliff that you discovered with your girlfriend last Fourth of July. You can relax, eat your sandwiches, and bring the script so that Scott can help you comment on it. Script: check, Scott: check, food: check, muscles: check, rest: check. And you did it all without drifting too far from the beaten path, in the four minutes that you spent casually sipping coffee. Not bad.

The most incredible about this sort of superrational decision making is that it’s practically effortless. After waking up with a feat of creative optimization that would make most corporate strategy departments pale with jealousy, you’ll spend the rest of your Sunday offering a nonstop repeat performance. When you call Scott you’ll remix your plan to also account for most of HIS priorities without skipping a beat. When you order your sandwich, you’ll balance your nutritional requirements with your cultural flavor preferences, the subtle facial tics of the cute woman behind the counter, and respect for Scott’s recent experiment with vegetarianism. When you finally sit down at the beach (Scott wanted to try out his new surf board), your muscles, endocrine and digestive systems will take the opportunity to go through the precise repairs that they need to keep you going in just the warm, relaxed environment that they need to do it. You’re just that good.

Superrational Decision Making:

  • Optimizes across competing priorities
  • Remixes past experiences
  • Happens continuously
    • (There’s not a single moment of decision so much as a constant stream of decisions.)
    • Happens seamlessly across scale
      • You choose your restaurant, then your sandwich, then how big a bite to take.
      • You choose who to hang out with, then what to talk about, then how to construct your sentence.

Implications

This is great news: we’re very good at finding creative solutions that his multiple priorities at a time when the world has more competing priorities than ever. If our endocrine systems and sandwich-related needs weren’t enough, we’ve got a global economic collapse and climate crisis on our hands. If we want to solve these problems, we’ll need to learn how to put our penchant for superrational decision making into overdrive.

The bad news is that it’s also remarkably easy for us to block this amazing ability if we drift into the wrong mindset. If we lack emotional intelligence and can’t interpret those complicated moods we’ll wind up fulfilling our priorities one by one and never quite feeling satisfied. If we lose the open-mindedness to think past our most common habits we’ll just spend this Sunday doing what we do every Sunday, even if it makes us miserable. If we become so tied up in obligations that we never get free time to work with, then our incredible skills at superrationality will atrophy for lack of use.

We owe it to ourselves to explore this remarkable ability. Next time you get some free time (or make some), have some respect for the way that you delve into your emotional cues and for the way that you pull options from your past experience and for the way that you mix the two together. Practice doing each just a little bit harder, and see where it takes you.

(I should note that what I describe here is different from, but possibly related to, the canonical definition of superrationality. If you have thoughts on a better term or additional reading, please drop me a line!)

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Should we focus on water efficiency or risk mitigation?

Wanted to post my quick response to this blog post on Developing a Sustainable Water Strategy.

If “we need a joined-up approach to managing water supplies to prevent a water crisis in the future” then is focusing on internal auditing and cuts really the first step? It seems like cutting water use per product is what we’re good at, but not necessarily what’s most strategic from a business standpoint. Cutting litres per product is pleasantly like cutting tons of carbon per prodcut, but the business implications are radically different. When you cut carbon you generate energy savings that fall to the bottom line. Not so with water, unless the water is energy-intensive to acquire and prepare.

Water touches the bottom line primarily as business risk, not as cost savings, and that requires a very different strategy. Rather than investing in water efficient toilets, it makes sense for firms to invest in in-depth analysis to understand their risks, then invest in strategic partnerships and other big strategies to mitigate those risks. It’s those partnerships and big changes that will ultimately save more water and give us the water-resilient economy that we need.

Water efficient toilets matter, and ideally I would like both. It’s just worth noting that the business case for risk mitigation is stronger.

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Could Climate Risk Be Too Scary to Disclose?

I’m not certain how to interpret the recent announcement by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners that reporting on climate risks will be optional. Climate change brings risks of drought, flooding, and wildfires, all of which will have massive impacts on the insurance industry. A year ago, the NAIC took a bold step of requiring that insurers around the country disclose these risks. In a closed door meeting last Sunday they reversed the decision, saying that reporting was optional and that climate risk reports would be kept confidential.

It’s hard to think what would drive this kind of a reversal. Last year mandatory reporting received universal approval, so it’s hard to imagine that the change is the result of simple political maneuvering, and the insurance industry’s focus on rigor hardly makes them vulnerable to climate skepticism . It seems more likely that what seemed like a decisive response to an emerging issue began to seem more and more disruptive as hard data came in. Voluntary, confidential disclosure creates rugs under which to hide the worst sorts of climate risks. This is a disservice to the rest of the economy, which uses insurance pricing as a signal of risk.

Wagging fingers at the insurance industry won’t help. Instead it’s worth asking what kind of conditions they would be able to fully disclose in and working to make those conditions a reality.

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A Hot Rock and a Classroom

Sometimes chaos can be complicated and beautiful.

  1. Relationships can be created and destroyed.
  2. All relationships tend toward empowerment.

I want to tell a few stories about complexity, which isn’t something that we understand that well. I studied physics in undergrad, and learned that really complicated things can be understood the way that we understand heat. When you leave a rock out in the sun, all of the molecules in that rock start vibrating in really complicated ways. In thermodynamics, the physics used to describe pretty much anything that’s really complicated, we use the word the word “entropy” to describe the process of the molecules in the rock going crazy. Entropy is disorder, entropy is chaos. The lecture bugged me because it was happening in a classroom which existed on a giant rock (the earth) that had spent several billion years out in the sun. The fact that the classroom existed meant that the molecules on the rock didn’t JUST get crazy, they also get complex.

In thermodynamics, we take matter and energy to be a unit of analysis. Thermodynamics looks at the way that stuff moves around closed systems like coffee cups. It has two big limitations. First: matter can’t be created or destroyed. If you want more stuff or more energy to move it around, you’ll need to get it from somewhere. Second: all systems tend towards entropy. In the long run everything everywhere gets more chaotic and jumbled. If you want to put milk into your cup of coffee, all you have to do is pour it in. The law of entropy will take over (facilitated by a little stirring), and you’ll get an even mix. Thermodynamics says that taking milk OUT of your cup of coffee is much harder. It’s technically possible, but it takes a lot of energy, way more energy than it takes to put the milk in. Things like to mix together, to become disordered and homogeneous. That’s just the way of the world.

What thermodynamics isn’t good at describing is the way that this tendency toward entropy can create elaborate, beautiful types of order. We know that things go from ordered (milk and coffee) to homogeneous (milk in coffee), but we don’t really get what happens in between. Those elaborate, beautiful swirls as it reaches out to the edge of your cup are an example of the fascinating complexity that happens as systems disorder themselves.

A coffee cup is one example, another is the planet. For eons, the planet earth has functioned a little like a radiator. Energy from fusion in the sun bombards the planet’s surface, and an equal amount of energy gets radiated out into space as heat. No energy is created or destroyed, we’re doing things by the book.

What’s interesting is what HAPPENS to that energy between hitting the planet’s surface in a focused beam and getting radiated off in all directions. This process used to be fairly simple: the earth was a big rock, and it radiated heat just like any other rock left in the sun. But something strange happened. The system which absorbs the sun’s energy and radiates it out again got LESS homogeneous and more intricate. Like the spirals in a coffee cup life shot up from the surface of the earth, steadily growing in complexity until it created all of the complicated problems that our complicated brains grapple with all day. This is the irony: in tending towards disorder, systems generate infinite complexity. That’s what I want to talk about.

In order to think about this complexity, we need to stop thinking about matter and energy. Following an imaginary photon from sun to sugar to lion and back out to space is an interesting exercise, but it doesn’t tell us much about how the lion got there or where the lion’s going. Instead, the only meaningful unit analysis is the FLOWS of matter and energy, the relationships that evolve to get energy from focused to dispersed. Thinking in terms of relationships lets us name and analyze things that are otherwise impossibly complicated. Technically, your relationships with your Aunt Gertrude is a flow of matter and energy- a few soundwaves here, a few electrons shooting through the internet there, but if all you do is track the electrons you’ll have a hard time understanding what’s going on. As a unit of analysis, relationships are a powerful way to understand complexity, and they turn the limitations of thermodynamics completely upside down.

Relationships can be created and destroyed.

The first big bummer of thermodynamics is that it’s zero sum. If I’ve got a system and you’ve got a system, the only way for me to get more stuff is to take it from you, since neither of us can create stuff out of nothing. But relationships are different. If I measure a system not by the amount of stuff but by the sophistication and complexity of its relationships then I CAN make something out of nothing. Without increasing the amount of matter and energy I’m using I can make my system better, and you can make your system better. Relationships allow for the notion of a win-win.

This idea that systems of relationships can get richer and more complicated over time is called emergence, and scientists are just beginning to wrap their heads around how it works. Emergence describes the evolution of life on earth, the creation of the internet, the birth of the civil rights movement and the way that people fall in love. Wherever relationships evolve and change, emergence tends to show up. Think about the difference between a pool table and a classroom. The pool table has plenty of interactions- between the eight ball and the five, between the cue and the table’s edge- but few real relationships. As the pool table busies itself getting played on year after year the eight ball and the five don’t get to know one another any better. They don’t evolve a more sophisticated connection or find new and unexpected ways to suddenly connect with the trimming, they just interact and wear out. A classroom is different. A classroom is greater than the sum of its parts. The kids and the teacher all get to know one another, their interactions evolve to get more sophisticated over time, and an emergent property called education happens as a result. Interactions are boring, they happen again and again until entropy breaks them down. Relationships are self-organizing, they get deeper and they spontaneously branch out to form new relationships.

Of course, there isn’t a binary distinction between interactions and relationships, between pool tables that degrade and classrooms that evolve. Most complex systems have properties of both. When things interact the laws of entropy wear them down, and when things relate the laws of emergence build them up. Thermodynamics has the wearing down part pretty well mapped, the trick to understanding the emergent part is understanding what those relationships are reaching for.

All relationships tend towards empowerment.

I know, I know, I just brought a new age social justice word into a discussion of thermodynamics, but bear with me.

As quickly as you can, please define the following words:

Square
Road
Muffin
Wheel
Hair

Nice work! Now define these words:

Love
Justice
Health
Intelligence
Life

Why are some definitions fairly straightforward, and others the cause of timeless philosophical debates? You can pick up a muffin. It’s got a certain shape, a certain smell, and other physical properties that distinguish it from a lug nut or a cupcake. But you can’t pick up love. I’d like to argue that that’s because the words in the second list are all emergent properties, concepts that relationships organize themselves around which have no tangible manifestation. These abstract concepts that relationships reach for all have similar properties. I like to call these sorts of emergent properties empowerment.

Let’s go back to our imaginary classroom and look at Tania, one of those fidgety kids in the second row. What determines how that particular node in the system will form relationships with the rest of the classroom? Since we’re analyzing things in terms of relationships we need to see her not as an object, but as a big knot of threads. Her relationship with her parents is telling her to sit still and do well, and also telling her to rebel and do poorly. Her relationship with her friends is telling her to act cool and seek respect, her relationship with her body is telling her to run around outside, and bat eyes at the girl in row three. Her job is to optimize across all of these relationships as best she can, to find a course of action that empowers all of these relationships as much as possible. The result is behavior that’s incredibly complicated, but remarkable for it’s ability to hit all the marks. She raises her hand eagerly, waving it back and forth to give her muscles a mini-workout. When the teacher calls on her, she demonstrates that she understands the civil war (to keep her parents happy), then asks a question to undermine the point that the teacher was making (to rebel against her parents), then sits back smugly (to impress her friends), and glances at the girl in row three. There isn’t a supercomputer in the world that could answer the question that well.

For Tania, something is empowering if it lets her optimize across the complicated web of relationships that define her life. If she sees a new relationship that let’s her optimize better than she was before, say a relationship with a new smartphone, she’ll focus on building that relationship. She’ll earn money to buy it, spend time learning how to use it, and otherwise increase the intricacy and complexity of her existence. Every waking hour of her life, she’s working to build new, empowering relationships and to maintain and deepen the ones that she’s already got. It’s this optimizing behavior that leads to the incredible complexity and beauty of emergent systems. When your body optimizes itself you get health. When your relationship with your spouse optimizes itself you get love. When your mind optimizes itself you get intelligence. When Tania optimizes herself she gets happiness. In order to understand the complex matter and energy reality that we live in, we need to understand how relationships reach for this type of empowerment, and why they sometimes fail.

I’ve got a nifty theory for how this “reaching” happens, but I’ll stop before going further out on this intellectual limb (going from thermodynamics to love is already a cardinal sin of physics!). If you’re reading this, I would love your thoughts. What holes exist in this idea? Does it work as an intellectual party trick? Could it be functionally useful to solve problems? If so what sort of problems?

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Why Water Isn’t The Next Carbon

Demand for carbon accounting software is on the rise, with $46 million in VC capital invested in Enterprise Carbon Accounting (ECA) software in the past year and an expected 600% expansion of the market according to Groom Energy. In the wake of disappointing performance at Copenhagen and for US Climate legislation, that’s quite a statement.

Obsessed as I am with the mounting global water crisis, I can’t help but wonder if this explosion of carbon accounting is going to translate over to better accounting for water. “Water is the next carbon” has become a go-to-soundbyte in the workshops and conferences I’ve been attending recently. But the closer I’ve looked, the more I’ve begun to uncover reasons why that’s just not true.

Why Water is Smaller than Carbon

At first glance, managing water seems like a coming echo of the still-yodeling world of carbon accounting. Both have to do with the environment, and keep employees, customers, and stakeholders happy. Both are a way to stay ahead of regulation from congress and the EPA. Both involve looking at your operations and supply chain, seeing where the most stuff gets used, and trying to use less of it. So what’s the big deal?

Carbon Fatigue

Most companies are busy trying to make money, and few understand sustainability well enough to see strong environmental performance as a strategic way to do that. Carbon accounting often happens as a concession to agitating groups of employees, executives, investors, customers and stakeholders. Once that concession has been granted, folks want to get back to the fun part where they outmaneuver the competition and expand market share, not wade into another hairy environmental reporting project.

Water is Cheap

The nice thing about saving carbon is that it generally saves money. Carbon coming out of a company generally starts as electrons and fuel coming in, and both electrons and fuel ain’t cheap. An enterprise-wide project to slim carbon can easily drop hundreds of millions to the bottom line. Not so with water. In many places water is almost too cheap to meter. Agricultural growers use 80% of California’s water. When I asked a major grower about installing basic measures to save the water massive amounts of water used to irrigate his crops, he said “It takes $3500 to grow an acre of spinach. $90 of that is water. If I use 10% less water I risk crop failure and I get 9 bucks, it’s just not worth it.” Most of the cost savings associated with water are in the energy it takes to move that water, so they’re getting capture by carbon audits anyway.

No One Cares

Thanks to “An Inconvenient Truth, the low-carbon lifestyle is in vogue among a growing percentage of the population. Cutting down on driving, eating local, and daydreaming about solar panels have all become popular cafe conversations here on the Left Coast. Few people are asking about the water footprint of their cup of coffee (1100 cups of water). People know that carbon = An Inconvenient Truth, but no picture’s been painted about the impact of water use. That means that pressure from customers and (most importantly) from employees within an organization is slow to manifest.

Why Water is Bigger Than Carbon

‘Cuz it’s WATER

Pop quiz! Which has been the second largest cause of conflict in human history after land rights:

A) Carbon Emissions

B) Water Rights

Go ahead and take your time.

Carbon emissions are a global abstraction. If the company next door emits too much carbon it’ll contribute to a climatologically complicated unprecedented phenomena that I may or may not believe in.  If the company next door pollutes my water or uses it all up then I die. Controversies about water, especially local ones, have the potential to tap into a primal instinct for survival that carbon can never touch. It can cross ideological boundaries in a flash.

This means that public opinion around water will be much more volatile than around carbon. People’s concerns about carbon roll up nicely into big global numbers like 350 PPM, anything that drops us closer to those numbers is good and anything that pushes us away from them is bad. Because climate change is an abstract concept, carrots and sticks associated with it are equally abstract. Happy stakeholders are angry stakeholders. Regulatory risk or no regulatory risk. Lawsuits or no lawsuits.

Water is local, and operates with the abruptness of a tap shutting off. No one cares about water until they feel that their supply is at risk, and then everyone cares. There are the usual regulatory and litigation risks, but there is also the risk that supply will be cut off or become too polluted for a company’s operations, both of which would necessitate an immediate shutdown.   Water shortages triggered by climate change have already begun to impact Nestle’s supply of cocoa from Africa, and though these shorts of shortages are still in their infancy in the States a good look at Australia and give us an idea of what’s in store.

‘Cuz It’s Local

Every time I breathe in, I get a few molecules of air breathed by Ghandi, Beyonce and Aristotle. The atmosphere is one global pool, which means that carbon accounting has the luxury of ignoring where carbon is emitted (with the exception of differences in local laws.)

With water, risk is hyper-localized. The risk associated with a company’s use of water are tied to its watershed, complicated tombs of local regulation, who’s using water up and downstream, and what stakeholder groups live in its backyard. Simply counting water is meaningless unless firms can also track the myriad local risk and opportunity factors associated with everywhere that it uses water. This makes water risk reporting a much larger and uglier beast than carbon for any water-intensive global enterprise, in terms of both the data analysis involved and in terms of the aggregate risk involved. It’ll take a much bigger ecosystem than carbon and a higher net percentage of revenues to manage effectively.

‘Cuz it’s Climate Adaptation, not Climate Mitigation

When it comes down to it, managing carbon is just a moral imperative. Cut our emissions and we (hopefully) make the shocks of global climate weirding a little less severe. The little bit that we can push the lever won’t make enough of a difference, so we call on everyone else to push with us.

Water is a survival imperative, arguably the biggest of those coming shocks. As climatological science comes down the pipe and people begin to understand how global watersheds will change (though climate is just one of a host of drivers) everyone, not just the morally motivated, will sit up and take notice. When they do they’ll see not a global problem that requires a global solution, but a limited local resource that they need their piece of.

If the metaphor for carbon is pushing the needle together, then the metaphor for water is the human immune system. In the immune system, a shockingly diverse array of cells collaborate seamlessly to deal with everything from viruses to parasites to splinters. The cells learn as they go, and rarely get confused and attack the body which supports them. If carbon is one problem located everywhere, water is millions of problems located anywhere. It will take a diverse, decentralized, adaptive ecosystem to keep us thriving.

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Love is like the primordial soup…

Last week I was lucky enough to slink into the back of a talk by Jenine Benyus, poster child of a biologically-inspired design philosophy called Biomimicry. She talked about how close observation of nature can help our design of everything from cement (seashells) to solar panels (leaves), and gave some powerful examples of breakthrough clean technologies that derive from this discipline.

At the end of the talk, a student asked Dr. Benyus about applying biomimicry to problems of social design. Can nature tell us how to set up the hierarchy in an office, or how to go about changing an over-consumptive culture?

Dr. Benyus was quick to point out that bad biology is often overapplied in social situations. We try to use bee hives to understand corporate culture and use bat mating to explain human mating in ways that are devoid of scientific merit. The complexity of human relationships is unmatched by relationships the natural world, so one must be cautious to avoid the scientific sin of oversimplification. That being said, the evolution of complex ecosystems from those relatively simple connections can teach us a great deal about the evolution of our own relationships and communities. I couldn’t agree more.

The trick is in understanding how to phrase social problems in a format that biology can inspire. You can’t ask nature how to build a cell phone, because nature doesn’t build cell phones. You have to ask nature how to ask nature how to build hard, durable solids (like seashells) or how to turn sunlight into stored energy (like leaves.) If we want to ask nature how to build human relationships, we have to first understand the process of how those relationships are built.

The process behind the emergence of human relationships is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and working with, and I’m of the opinion that there are just three tasks that drive the formation of human relationships and communities. These three tasks parallel closely the three conditions for the emergence of life from the primordial ooze (and it’s continuation to this day), and I’ve always been curious if they show up in other sorts of emergent systems. Let’s start by looking at the conditions that drive the emergence of life:

Autocatalysis– Life has to make more of itself.

Containment– Life has to have a process for separating some matter (food) from other matter.

Selection– Life has to die.

Combined, these three things are what turn a puddle of primordial gunk into a puddle of primordial gunk that wants something. Here’s how it works. Life starts when little pieces of autocatalytic material (RNA) get caught in bubbles of lipids (containment) that can absorb some chemicals and exclude others. From time to time these bubbles get popped (selection) like bubbles tend to. Imagine all of these little RNA bubbles floating around the ooze. Some of the bubbles absorb poison chemicals and kill their RNA, then drift around until they get popped. Other bubbles know how to absorb food, so they float around with fat, happy RNAs until eventually they split. Now the chance that the “genus” will get popped is divided by two. The better you are at eating, splitting and avoiding getting popped the lower your likelihood of getting wiped out. All of a sudden these chemicals have a mission, they can dynamically adapt and evolve.

I would say that human relationships develop in much the same way, through a straightforward three-stage spiraling process. It goes like this:

Doing– We do things that we find valuable.

Feeling– We use emotional reflection and communication to distinguish between the things that we like and the things that we don’t.

Promising– We decide what to do next and set clear expectations.

Relationships and communities will evolve and optimize themselves so long as these three things are going on smoothly. Like life, relationships have an incredible ability to adapt to match their surroundings and can learn to thrive in even the harshest of circumstances. Also like life, relationships can tumble and falter for what seems like the stupidest and most trivial of reasons. When they do, it’s usually because one or more of the things listed above isn’t happening. Relationships can be jammed by throwing a wrench in these processes, and their emergence can be driven by encouraging these processes to spiral up quickly.

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Water Wars- What Role do Beverage Cos Play?

I just came across this excellent article on water foot printing in the beverage industry and had to share. The article’s core premise makes a lot of sense: the beverage industry’s relatively high use of water and its conceptual proximity to water in consumers’ minds make it an interesting test case for how water issues will ripple throughout the rest of the economy.

In my research this semester I’ve found that surprisingly few beverage companies are taking water risk seriously, in part because the municipal water districts which supply them are just beginning to create their own clear conclusions about supply risks from climate change and changes in land use. As these risks become more apparent the pressure will be on from both regulators and customers, and it will be interesting to see how beverage companies react. Will the best practices of big players like Coke be able to scale down to the little guys? Will beverage companies take a role in building resiliency into the systems which supply our population with potable water? (Hopefully while keeping that supply equitable.)  Here’s hoping.

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