Life emerges from death. This is merely a fact from ecology — where the seemingly immortal flow of nutrients continuously passes from the bodies of the recently deceased into new forms as it is reconstituted in the bodies of the newly born.
I offer this metaphor as the starting point to discuss how we can apply biological principles to “guide the flow of nutrients” from dying institutional forms for education, research, and social change practice. In a recent article, I explained why universities are failing humanity to express that disciplinary-based solutions will not help us in a systemic-problem-based world. Only when we reorganize our efforts around the systems in question will effective interventions be found.
Readers who follow my work know that I am striving to create the field of culture design as an integrated social science of intentional large-scale change. It combines tools, methods, and insights from complexity science, evolutionary studies, the cognitive and behavioral sciences, and many related fields. Those unfamiliar with this effort can read more here:
- Culture Design Labs — Evolving the Future
- A Global Network of Culture Design Labs
- Tools for Culture Design — Toward A Science of Intentional Change
- Guiding the Evolution of Social Systems
If such an effort is truly needed, why hasn’t it taken form yet? Why hasn’t the field of culture design already been born? The answers are many and I will only focus on a few of them here to give a feel for what the process may look like as intentional efforts bring it into being (or not) in the next decade.
Answer #1: Institutions in the Modern-Era Built Around Industrial Processes. What this means is that the Ford “assembly line” model was built on the creation of hierarchical organizations that are formed around the separation of functions. Just as there is a stage on the assembly line for tightening the mounting bolts for the engine (and a different stage for installing the doors), the institutions that arose in the late 19th and early 20th Century were designed around linear functions and modular processes.
So we are now living in the aftermath of that period where our modes of knowledge creation are functionally modular — psychology deals with individuals (more or less) while sociology is about the emergent properties of larger groups — and it is quite difficult to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
What we need are emergent, adaptive systems and what we have are modular, linear ones. This creates barriers to any integrative approach, as all who strive to work across fields know only too well.
Answer #2: It’s More Profitable to Rape and Pillage.This sad truth doesn’t get talked about nearly enough. But in a world optimized for maximizing short-term returns there is little space for long-term effort to receive the nourishment it needs. The people who extract profits most efficiently “drain the swamp” of all nutrients it would otherwise need to grow a thriving wetland ecosystem.
Here we see that so long as tens of trillions are hoarded away in tax havens, there simply won’t be the billion dollar investments in systemic solutions to our entire species as humans in the 21st Century.
Answer #3: It Isn’t Anyone’s Job to Do It. Living in our imposed-scarcity, modular and linear world, if there isn’t a job title with pay the work simply doesn’t get done. Where would you go to “get hired” to create an integrated social science that addresses huge social problems? Who would pay you? How would you know if you are qualified for the work?
Now that our economic lives are determined almost entirely by large corporations (public and private), we literally starve to death if we don’t have paying work. So if we can’t get paid to do it, it doesn’t get done.
Answer #4: It Wasn’t Possible Until Now. As I wrote about in The Predicament of Knowledge, there has been a veritable explosion of knowledge and skills in the last few decades that make possible what was only scarcely possible to imagine before. The areas of public health, program evaluation, group facilitation, regenerative farming, social analytics, ethnographic studies, computer modeling (and so on… for hundreds of other domains that could be named) are now quite mature with thousands of trained researchers, teachers, and practitioners in each of them.
We can now organize large data projects, run complex simulations on high-powered computers, gather user data from millions of people on their mobile devices, and coordinate efforts to intervene and monitor progress. This wasn’t possible before. But now it is.
Hopefully at this point you have a taste for what has kept the birthing process from happening. Perhaps this is a good time to pick up that metaphor again — culture design has not been born because the nutrients needed to give it a body remain tied up in dying systems.
This is why I write about how there will be life after collapse, that we need a design school for training people to guide the process of collapse as it occurs, and that this will be needed throughout the rest of our lives as people in adult roles on Earth today.
Are you ready to do your part? We have some serious work to do birthing the new in a dying world.
Onward, fellow humans.