As you may know, the second law of thermodynamics states —in smarter words— that an isolated system cannot increase their inner order spontaneously. You may also know that what characterises a system’s complexity is, precisely, its inner order (in a homogeneous mix, you find the same regardless where you look in the mix, there is no order; however if you look inside your computer, you see very different components depending where you look at, it is highly ordered).
Then, an obvious question arises: What are we doing here? How is it possible to generate the extreme complexity represented by you and me? Or, in general terms, how is it that complexity seems to spontaneously emerge in the universe?
Well, as long as the ‘total order’ of the system does not increase, nothing prevents an increase in order locally within the system. Such increases in local complexity are extremely rare, though. They can only happen when the conditions are right: not too hot, not too cold; not too much of this, not to few of that. The conditions enabling the emergence of complexity are generally called Goldilocks Conditions, and the moments a new form of complexity appears are referred to as thresholds. With each new threshold, the going gets tougher; structures are more fragile and vulnerable, and conditions tighter.
First, the increases in complexity seemed to be driven by imperfection and random events. We don’t know much about the moment when the universe first appeared, but after a while, tiny inhomogeneities in the distribution of the particle mush lead to distinct clouds of particles which, in time, ended forming planets and galaxies. Threshold after threshold, complexity was increasing. Even until the beginning of life, where complexity grew driven by extremely rare errors occurring randomly in the copying of DNA, chance was the driver of these increases. Since then, however, a new driver took the lead: collaboration.
This collaboration was, at the beginning, undoubtedly unintentional: very primitive cells merged —probably in an attempt of one to ‘infect’ the other— to form a more successful form of life; single cells collaborated to form simple multicellular organisms; these, evolved into large and extremely complex organisms. Such organisms are a symphony of collaboration between thousands of individual cells. From this point on, collaboration turns much more intentional. As we know, animals collaborate with their peers. Collaboration is not only convenient in the animal kingdom, it is mostly imperative, since most reproduction relies on mating and the life of the offspring depends on the progenitors for a period of time. These collaborations continued increasing in complexity; first, with the appearance of small bands, then tribes, then small villages… Cities, kingdoms, states, empires, alliances between nations; religions, companies, parties, cultures, or even wars are expressions of collaboration.
Physics led to chemistry, which led to biology, which led to history, sociology, philosophy, economy, politics… But this is not the end of the story. As we saw, the Goldilocks Conditions needed by higher degrees of complexity are tighter and difficult to keep. And we humans have an ever-increasing power to modify our environment. Some call our era the Anthropocene, where humans are the predominant driver of change at a planetary level. Hence, if we want to continue existing, we have the huge challenge to preserve the narrow Goldilocks Conditions that hold our existence.
The Stockholm Resilience Centre has defined the boundary conditions we should not cross to keep our planet hospitable. They reveal our ecological ceiling, beyond which lies unacceptable environmental degradation and potential tipping points in Earth systems. Keeping the planet below this ecological ceiling is, however, not our only challenge. Our global society is extremely unfair, with huge differences in the well-being of their members. This, in our current global civilization and with our enormous destructive power, threatens not only the poor but the stability of the society as a whole. Therefore, there is another leg of the Goldilocks Conditions which hold the extreme complexity of our society and enable us to thrive. This leg is the social boundaries which allow for a decent life for everybody. They reveal our social foundation and are derived from internationally agreed minimum social standards. Kate Raworth and Oxfam jointed these two sets of boundaries to form the Doughnut Economics diagram.
Between the social foundations and the environmental ceiling lies the environmentally safe and socially just space in which humanity can thrive without threatening the conditions which support the complexity of our societies. Our extraordinary challenge is to keep us and our development within this space. Fortunately, there are a lot of movements in the world that are working to achieve this, either by working in one of its aspects or by working holistically in all them. Probably, many work for our society to lay well within those limits without being even aware they do. They simply work to make the system fair for everyone, sustainable, or for both at the same time. However, the best way to keep us within these safe conditions, is by realising we are dealing with a complex adaptive system which is constantly evolving. Therefore, we need to use systems-thinking to shape it to the design we want. We need to intervene, to steward it, to design it so it is regenerative and distributive rather than merely trying to avoid the boundaries.
This is precisely what the Economy for the Common Good (ECG) does. The ECG —which is gaining momentum every day, especially in Europe— advocates to work towards cooperation and the common good, as opposed to the current pursue of profit within fierce competition. The five fundamental values behind the ECG are: cooperation and solidarity, ecological sustainability, democratic co-determination and transparency, human dignity, and social justice. Based on these values they defined a series of measures which limit uncontrolled growth, reward socio-environmentally responsible products, and democratises power. Their approach is to set a global framework with the specifics decided locally in a democratic debate. There is still a lot of work to do, and it is being done by around 7 thousand people, which are actively engaged on a voluntary basis in more than 100 regional groups. The Common Good Balance Sheet is probably their flagship. It is an easy way for businesses to measure their contribution to the common good. About 400 companies have published their Common Good Balance Sheet or are ECG-members although it does not yet have any other benefit than the recognition of the work well done.
Such measures as the ones proposed by ECG, put their effort in designing a distributive social system with a regenerative productive system. Movements like this one are essential in order to make sure we do not mess too much with the Goldilocks Conditions which are crucial to maintain our level of complexity. It is imperative for us to work hard, but we will hopefully manage it. Or not. But we must try and we will definitely have a lot of fun doing it. Believe me, it is such an interesting challenge! And, the best of all, you will work directly or indirectly with the most amazing people.
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