The pandemic, economic, health systems, civil unrest, exposed inequities, and the good and bad examples of leadership are swirling all around us now. How can we make meaning of the significant disruptions that are facing us now? Many of us are on this metaphorical dance floor, just trying to keep up with the deluge of information and events. When there are this many systems moving and bumping into each other, new permutations are occurring by the minute.
Nature can help us gain a bird’s eye view of the dance floor to see the patterns that are obscured from the ground. Meaning (and strategy) comes from patterns, not parts, in complex situations. We are facing extraordinarily complex challenges today, so seeing things from above can help us make meaning of what is occurring. Nature is a dynamic, interdependent, living system and it can help us frame things by drawing on its design – and that design is showing up in the dynamics embedded within the protests. Here are some of the dynamics and design found in Nature that can help us make meaning of what is happening around us – this dance floor of changing, evolving dynamics.
Resilience is a term that is applied to systems that can absorb disturbance and still maintain function. COVID-19 has shown us that some systems in our society are not as resilient as others. Our single supply lines created fragility instead of resilience. We need to ask ourselves which systems are demonstrating resilience – and what systems are losing their capacity to maintain function?
2. Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions
This is also known as the Butterfly Effect. It is said that if initial conditions are right, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in China can create a snowstorm in New York City. In an interdependent system a small event can ripple through the world if the conditions are ripe for disturbance.
In the protests, the initial conditions are years of racial injustice that are amplified by racial bias in the legal system, healthcare, education, technology access, economic disparities, and opportunity disparities. And George Floyd’s death by a Minneapolis policeman happened within this larger context. The initial conditions were a lack of trust, a lack of movement on injustice, and the patterns of inequities in our social system amplified by the pandemic and job loss. Therefore, George Floyd’s death was like a lighted match dropped on a tinderbox of inequities, creating an enormous ripple – or Butterfly Effect.
3. Thresholds and System Change
A threshold is a boundary that when crossed, can change the whole system. For example, when a freshwater system starts to be invaded by saltwater, there can be a tipping point or threshold that shifts the system into a saltwater system. When that happens, all the life that existed in the freshwater catchment is not supported in a saltwater ecosystem. Other life is supported – it’s simply a different ecosystem. The question here is – have we crossed a threshold from a system built on racial bias and privilege into a growing will to correct the injustices in our world?
4. Feedback and Listening
Nature curbs excess by creating rich and diverse feedback loops that dampen down excesses from within the system. Nature listens naturally and responds instinctively when a form no longer serves to support future life. Humans can use their ideology and world views to selectively tune out feedback that they do not want to hear. If we learn from nature, we will listen, see, and respect feedback so we can adapt and evolve as a human race in partnership with the natural world.
As nature evolves toward mature ecologies like old growth forests and mature prairies, they become more diverse, complex, cooperative, generous, and resilient. Nature banks on diversity for its ability to create conditions conducive to future life. We have many different world views that exist simultaneously and their views on diversity are shaped by the worldview in use. On a continuum, diversity is seen as anything from unimportant, to a moral issue, a practical tool(because it increases resilience), all the way to enriching and essential. The lens always depends on your world view.
As we listen, learn, and see the inequities in our social system that the protests are spotlighting, we have only two choices. We can either double down on our biases, or we can learn from nature to see the loss we are creating by not designing systems that unleash and embrace the diversity of our communities. As systems evolve, they distribute the benefits and burdens widely throughout the system. Nature does not shift burdens to the poor or people of color. Nature sees diversity as enriching the evolution of the whole system.