Act: Inspiration

A flyfishing ecology

June 1, 2021



I stand at the edge of flowing current, trapped in my ocean of air, reckoning contours and depth from the film passing by. Its moving quiet holds secrets beneath its skin denied to me. I am bound to the land, damned as alien to this setting.

I slink into position, trying to blend, imagining graceful casts, the water untouched before me. Then, drawing a breath for resolve, fly affixed to the line – knot tested for strength – I ready myself for redemption. My cast catches the liquid dawn as I fling it over shimmering clouds screening the depths from my eyes.

My artful likeness – a question extended – drops and disturbs the surface in its reflections slightly and then disappears, though the merest twitch shows a bulge in the glass. I move the fly in toward me enticingly, eager to warrant the answer I seek, but in vain. The signals I send – through light and vibration, designed to attract – draw nothing. Casting again – to wonder if my intrusions successfully imitate truth – the hook takes hold and time moves swiftly into immediate tempo. “Eureka!” My senses sing.


Capturing aquatic quarry on a thread is like all we do every day in our aspirations and actions. Shore-bound, we open our reveries seaward, trying to reach for insight over an ocean of truth around us, shards of fallen empires scattered afoot, tossed like empty shells on a beach. Thus we stalk, crunching castles to sand, devising creative futures and dreaming up passageways into their realm, pressing inquiry on to intention, transforming effort through plan to effect. Despite the attempt, we seldom bring outcomes similar to what is sought. The understanding on which we rely is inadequate to our ambition.

We cast our questions into the mist at dawn when the water is smooth. We seek connection on delicate tackle of insufficient test. The challenge is really our aim, and the good sense of fine-tuning our best. How often do we our best? This is life finding itself, fifty years on, not much to show beyond dreams still alive, vital … endangered. Theory ought to usher us safely over the treacheries of surprise, stubborn in its simplicity yet forever undone and evolving. Understanding can overwhelm us, seeing all that could be – and is not – if only we opened our souls to each other.


I am an unreformed heretic, cast – through ideals or resolve for reason – away from better-exploited domains. Science – seen at the center of essence – stands for open minds. Yet academic concerns are ruled by interest and intellectual turf, fought and defended by advocates seeming on trial for their reputations. Science cedes to argument, truth to fashion and fads in this setting: anyone asking questions set out of frame is summarily shunned. As Simon says: “Every family … has some distant relative it would prefer to forget.”[1] The issues shoved under rugs by entrenched dominions shall be met – if unearthed – with the smug grace saved for people loudly farting in church.

How will intriguing ideas survive against this sere reception? How might we know its cost? We cannot take any measure of foregone options spurned through choice or happenstance as our endeavors unfold. We cannot fathom pursuits set aside, save in our dreams and disciplined theories: such is the aim of framing concepts scientifically in a lens, selectively trained to analyze certain phenomena in a particular way. All we think and do is selective, focused through images of ‘how the world turns’ in response to our action. This selection is steered and directed by individual limits of mind into habit: efficiency at the expense of flexibility in an uncon­scious automation of thought.


Thought is an active and ongoing process, selecting essentials, shunning all else. These special aspects then are reckoned through analytical language into an intellectual layout designed to some meaningful aim. Every organizational artifice shapes itself for a purpose. Standing in shells on a lonely coast, we conjure visions across shifting oceans of undiscovered dimension. Inquiry ought to be open to what we ignore and delight in alternative views. Such is not a reflection of academics as I endured it.

I cannot travel that trail again, to vistas shorn from my grasp when I tried – too many years past – to reach my cast beyond the established domain. All we can ever resolve are patterns in wildness sundering action. No one expects surprises, so wresting them out of incredible lies on delicate test speaks softly of vital truth. Their revelation needs sharing, as significance should disturb. As some wise soul once said: “… fish discover water last.



One of the greatest and most overwhelming conceptual breakthroughs of my life was the realization that everything in our universe is connected and interacting in networks of interdependent cause and effect through time. Every individual act – even those seeming quite free of significance – sets into motion a ripple of consequence spreading outward forever. I used to tell students that “smiles in Thailand” probably can be ignored in most cases, and then would paint a scenario where a lost smile there could change all our lives. The point is that – as an operating or background assumption in all that we do – unbounded interdependence makes more sense than narrower ranges of vision. The issue becomes one of our responsibility for our effects.

As an economist, this approach shall lead to wreckage in orthodox science, set upon premises of inde­pendent units and general omniscience. Flyfishing – at least for me – is a process of learning and personal growth, where every stage of awareness shows unexpectedly only when we are ready (or not) to venture out on new grounds. We also regress sometimes, such as in every aspect of life. These I call the horizonal limitations of human awareness.


If every event is interdependent, so all we do ripples outward forever, we should define our ranges of vision as central to human achievement. Effects spread without bound; the issue is whether they are expected or, better, to what degree were they accounted for in our horizonal field. This is a matter of planning perspective: our rational limits allow us only a range of focal awareness. We should worry as much about things we ignore as we do about taking (or dodging) credit for outcomes achieved. With all things interdepen­dent, the individual is supreme but any consequence stems from multidimensional causes and diverse effects.

Attention is scarce: we allocate ours in accord with theory and value. Understanding comes into the frame because we never choose among actual outcomes (as social scientists often assume), but only among conceptual images of the results we project. These projections, in turn, are based on and grow from models of ‘how the world works’ – selective and mostly unconscious – salted deeply away in our minds. I define choice as an act of imagination trained by disciplined insight: “The process of choice is a normative process of multi­dimensional causal projection.” This says choice sets value in a projec­tive process steered by understanding and/or belief. The embrace or range of causal projection in choice I call the planning horizon inherent in every decision.

The planning horizon in any decision emerges from a complex array of interactive variables, psychological and contextual: understanding; importance; self-confidence; stress; stability and predictability of the decision environment; time; energy; other demands on attention; skill; experience; personal ethics; sensi­tivity; etc. Choices are made, with irreversibly radiant impact, regardless. The question turns to whatever extent results are rightly anticipated and taken into account in advance of their irretrievable issue. Effects set in motion are not erased; they can be only incompletely offset through remedial action. We squander resources on poorly-directed decisions to mitigate their unintended effects, instead of freeing ourselves with foresight to greater achievement.


This is what ‘inefficiency’ means in a world of bounded awareness: improving intelligence in our decisions should be our first standard of value and of economic assessment. There is no place in normal economic analysis for this standard: textbook concepts simply assume we are rational in all decisions. In a seamlessly-intertwined world, this is an inexcusable dodge of our primary human dilemma. We all suffer mightily from its neglect by academic economists and throughout social science.

Such is the way of a world drowning itself in narcissistic concerns, at the expense of organizational options still unconsidered. What I call “the problem of invisibility” arises here: we have no way, without disciplined insight, to know ‘opportunity cost.’[2] If we are not willing to question our own ever-tenuous understanding, I see no hope for reason and peace in our world.

Hope is the engine of effort, and the motive for all that we do. While mine dwindled, better souls strove to restore my saltwater angling for east coast striped bass.[3] Similar inspiration is needed for other anadromous species, such as salmon and sea-run trout. Dams and despoliation of nature rise from myopia in decisions. Shall we indulge shortsightedess? Can we afford to be helpless? To change we must start with ourselves, and fully embrace our interdependence.



I am a frustrated teacher – which is perhaps already too evident – in a world devoted to dodging commit­ment to anything greater than acquisition, as if to compensate (though inadequately) for our loss of community. Listen to popular music: cries of frustration abound about the emptiness of a life without love and devotion, true friendship, kindness and caring. Our culture is seething with discontent, due to a lack of control and the absence of meaning in too many lives. Why are such feelings so widely shared? I fault our educational systems – ‘social science’ in general – for the ubiquity of these concerns. We have framed our institutions to reward antisocial behavior; we should not be surprised at the awesome misery that results. The long failure of economics to analyze cooperation is an important part of the problem.

A discussion of competition and cooperation in flyfishing and society is set off for another day, as it demands a more thorough treatment than is appropriate here. Suffice it to say that the sorts of behavior rewarded therein are not just different but totally incompatible. If community is superior, habits spawned in competitive frameworks spike its chance of success. Trust – for example – is lost without the unanimous support of all; each individual has a decisive veto over the whole. Anyone breaking trust steals its fruits from everyone else.

The ethical limits of cooperation are tighter than those in competitive frameworks, and their needs conflict. The benefits of cooperation cannot be attained in the presence of anyone undercutting its standards, such as through opportunistic control or predation. A scrupulous sense of reciprocal honesty is required for cooperation; this sort of foresight brings sere return in myopic or rivalrous settings. “Nice guys finish last”: “to get along” you “go along” with the implied dishonesty. ‘Planning horizons’ are not just a measure of foresight; they are an index of conscience.


Conscience – something we all understand – expresses the range of ‘external effects’ internalized in our decisions. These spreading effects – social and physical – are unavoidable. Our only control lies in how we account them prior to implementation. Our range of vision or planning horizon – as an index of foresight, understanding, ethics and general perspective – is central to all economic performance and to social cohesion. Narcissistic concerns shall lead to waste, disorganization and chaos to the extent they influence social relations and personal goals.

The rule in an interdependent domain is to “do no harm” (or as little as possible) and to strive for as broad an awareness in choice as one can attain. There is no inherent tradeoff here between needs of self and others: all of us are advantaged by anyone’s more efficient decisions. Indeed, we starve for role models showing us how we ought to behave. “Going along” (to “get along”) gives no inspiration at all. In truth, the dictum is usually offered to justify ethical lapses. So we settle for mediocrity at the expense of virtue.


We really have only a single choice; it lies at the root of all else: to think or to deny. In all we do, we instigate effects spinning outward forever into the distance surrounding our actions, and we can neither anticipate nor observe very much of our ramifications. We only can try our best to understand and embrace our radiant impact, to make it as beneficial as possible – or to close our eyes to harm and narrow our ranges of vision. This is our choice: to think or deny. All else stems from this source.

Denial leads to blindness and to boundedness in our decisions. Attention is scarce and must be trained among an array of competing demands, but even with thought there is never enough for the ranges of vision assumed by economists. Impacts spread without limit. The only option we have is awareness, and to accept or evade responsibility for our effects. We either strive for improvement (“do no harm”) or restrict our sight. There is no other recourse.

Venturing ethical issues shall likely exhume a sense of unease in those who have vested themselves in denial about their embeddedness in the world. These internal messages signal our only essential choice: shall we unearth and deal with these feelings, or shove them out of our sight? This is the nature of free will, lost in denial and opened through learning. Those whose universe spans beyond their own windshield do not throw trash on the street. There is no “away” in open awareness and ‘whether anyone notices’ cedes to a matter of self-respect as our reason for rightful action. We are so used to denial as the cultural linchpin of our Age that we cannot even discuss such matters without a certain discomfort.



“What does all this ‘systems psycho-babble’ have to do with flyfishing?” For me – and even if only for me – the answer is, simply: “Everything.” I fish for reasons hard to fathom, having to do with a search for meaning and a sense of belonging. The essence of flyfishing lies – for me – in an artful effort to imitate truth, and to reach a feeling of unity in myself with the world. The moments when I achieve integrity I cannot truly describe, but those who know what I mean agree: ‘everything comes together’ in harmonious synchronization. The source of this satisfaction may have epistemological roots: imagined projections in choice impose a mental model on nature, matching image to fact in essentials. Anomalies at the fringe – of features surmised to be unimportant – dilute any sense of full internal unity with our radiant impact.

Here I find a case for consistency in all we hold and do: I cannot imagine depriving myself of these indescrib­able moments of peace by ethical lapses and barriers sundering my self-esteem. There are reasons for motorless flyfishing lost by seeking ‘convenience.’ The iceberg goes deep: to revel in natural law – riding its rhythmic currents – is more than puristic claptrap. There is a nice psychological theme in my fishing I cannot explain, but those who relate to it do understand. These are the people I seek as my friends.


In school we are taught to mind distinction – to separate and divide – and to be ‘the best’ in our own narrow realms. Seldom are we taught that distinctions are rudely imposed on a unified world. Driven by our myopic concerns, we seek control and trumpet success, but natural long-term processes shall overwhelm all our mean incursions. We need to flow with the universe and not defy her rigid demands. Motorless, low-water flyfishing is – for me – a sample of how we ought to behave in natural life. It also has other rewards …

Stillness and quiet are hard to find on the tide along any coast nowadays, with the whine of jet-skis and motorboats screaming everywhere under the sun. “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide,” as the pop singer laments. The worst authors of tidal disturbances shall not appear at dawn ebb. While they rest in peace – may they do so forever! – I glide through shallows searching for respite and deeper resolve for my thought.

Tides shall rise and fall every day, in disregard of our notice. My inland years were somehow emptier than those spent with that daily reminder of my inherence in nature. Again, this sense is hard to convey – or even articulate – to people lacking contact with natural process. Simply yielding to waterborne tides, submitting to wind and current, drives some folk into anxious frenzies of frustration and internal angst. They seek control, and do not release it easily into the flood. Perhaps my style of flyfishing casts a primal fear of submission into those successful in turbulent times and a market devoted to dominance. Some may not allow themselves to relax and go with events. Spontaneity – soul-sister of creativity – has to be earned.


Such is not an issue of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ in any sense. Psychological lessons occur in too many unpredictable ways to introduce sequential levels into human development. Personal growth takes self-acceptance and a resolve to change, along with support from others around us. Most of our role models in this society are not devoted to our inspiration, though we can find those sufficient to move us to greatness if we try. As learning is largely imitation, this selection matters.

We are allotted a single life, and time is our primary budget constraint, not money (as say the economists). Squandering time and attention on trivia – as so many of us often do – is simply wasting our (uncompromisingly irreplaceable) lives. But ‘trivia’ ought to be understood. This is a question of value, which cannot be addressed without referring to persons, purpose and place. The issue of ‘what is essential’ lies at the heart of everything else. I cannot tell you what is important to your aspirations since I am in neither your shoes nor your secret dreams. Indeed, the starting point of economics is the aloneness of human emotions (not to deny our moments shared). The issue of value – of ‘what is important’ – deserves some further regard …

Value refers to person, purpose and place since ‘worth’ is in no way intrinsic to things set apart from life. Life fosters value with its survival, emotional and action needs. Human demands are ranked from basic (clothing, food and shelter) through intermediate (love and structure) to aspirations such as art, meaning and fish after one’s fly. A sense of fulfillment is probably not the same for rocks, snails and dolphins as it is for people, though we should not be too hasty in judging all sapients similar in this regard. If human needs are hierarchic, satisfaction is surely horizonal. The focus of those seeking shelter is not that of folk awash in success. The rich are a lot better off (you may quote me!) than those who lack enough food. Poverty and insecurity are a desert for planning horizons.[4]



The essence of flyfishing is successful imitation of Nature. The quarry operates on its own terms, so anglers have to adapt. Deceptive flies, secured to one’s hand, must swim unattached in the flow. Fish spook easily; an artful likeness shown them must look true. There is no upper bound to our understanding in this endeavor, and always something to learn every day. Each adventure is different, despite the patterns seen on occasion. Testing one’s skill and intelligence over fish is truly a challenge!

Speaking of intelligence seems to warrant a brief aside. I used to remark to students that: “Being stupid must be exciting!” They’d generally offer a skeptical look, and ask: “Why, Professor Jennings?” I’d roll my eyes and say with a shrug: “Because everything is a surprise!” Planning horizons shrink in uncertain environs – sensibly so – because the ubiquity of surprises shall liquefy any ongoing commitment. Theories of fishing are wrought with exceptions, in a continual learning process. Meaning is always elusive in dynamic interdependent domains, such as aquatic conditions suggest. The wonder of flyfishing is in large part the challenge of framing an explanation of factors incomprehensible. Learning endeavor is more of flyfishing than the pursuit of fish.


But complex systems of interactive forces shifting continuously are resistant to linear reason­ing. Two plus two equals four, more or less when equivalent units show independence, comple­mentarity or substitution: ‘additivity’ is the exception in complex systems analysis. A special language is needed in the presence of interdependence: semi-permeable boundaries; open, closed and near-decomposable systems; homeostatic controls; rules of aggregation; etc. This is a place where flyfishing and ecological theory will lead economics, against its stiff resistance, out of an antediluvian hole. “Classical” and “neoclassical” economics shall not suffice to analyze interdependent systems.

The meaning of interdependence and dynamic complexity in any system is symbolized by flyfishing in its search of flowing continua. Academics speak of states, shunning a world in process. Psychologically, we avoid change as a threat to momentous inertia. Yet any thought denying chaos in our routines of vital existence serves as a fatally erring guide to resource allocation and choice. Stable equilibria are not true to actual life, fraught with upset, turmoil and trials. Saltwater flyfishing casts a line over endless turbulence stretching beyond the horizon of human perception. There is no bound to ultimate dynamic consequence spinning off from even the most trivial act. Tied to shore, we cannot travel outside our instant domain.


 No endorsement of inter­dependence separates self from others. The issue embraces sincerity, openness, empathy, understanding, community: all those qualities savagely absent from our ambitious society. Accepting interdependence shall lead to efficiency and/or relief from madness, since self-interest – to the exclusion of others – spawns such awesome misery and avoidable loss.

Although it is never too late to renounce acquisition for renewal, we must then abandon denial, embracing our neighbors’ suffering as our own. Are we ready to face our fears and open to sensitive vulnerability? Only you will decide … one choice at a time.


[1] Herbert A. Simon, “From Substantive to Procedural Rationality” in Spiro J. Latsis, ed., Method and Appraisal in Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 141, a discussion of fatal flaws in economics by one of its Nobel laureates.

[2] The “opportunity cost” of what we do is defined by economists as the value of foregone needs and pursuits sacrificed through choice. My “problem of the invisibility of unexplored alternatives” says that we cannot test opportunity cost, which lies in what we forsake. Our only measure of ‘cost’ derives from unobservable images silently screened in a theater of mind.

[3] This was written in 1998, at the peak of the striped bass recovery. Alas, since then, this fishery has been collapsing since 2006, due to mismanagement and other factors. So here we are, back to a very sad dearth in this once-great fishery…

[4] The contrast of competition with cooperation is relevant here.


Teaser photo credit: By Ziga – Own work, Public Domain,

Frederic Jennings

Frederic Jennings has a Ph.D. in Economics from Stanford University, and is President of the Center for Ecological Economic and Ethical Education (CEEEE) located in Ipswich, MA. Frederic also is on the staff of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate ( as their ecological economist.

Tags: connection to nature, ecological economics, interdependence, systems thinking