The smallest unit of learning is a feedback loop. Power is the privilege of not needing to learn. The dynamic process of life is best understood in relational terms. At human scale, all healthy relationships, independently of the level of intimacy, are characterised by the maintenance of de-powered dialogue – by a mutual deep desire to understand a precious living being.
The smallest unit of learning is a feedback loop. In the physical world feedback loops exist between particles and waves, in the chemical world feedback loops exist between atoms and molecules, and the in the biological world, feedback loops exist between cells, and also at all larger levels of scale – and then there are feedback loops between all these levels of scale.
Many non-trivial systems of feedback loops, in no way limited to neural networks, include more or less simplified representations of themselves. When neuroscientists attempt to talk about consciousness, they tend to miss the many smaller and bigger – spatial and temporal – pictures as well as a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of emergence. Restricting the possibilities of consciousness to entities that are comprehensible to humans is a form of anthropocentric hubris, and believing that feeding data to human created artificially “intelligent” systems will result in some kind of superior form of consciousness that makes other forms of consciousness obsolete, is yet another form of anthropocentric hubris.
We have no idea of the many kinds of life giving consciousnesses that exist at bioregional and planetary scale, operating across decades, millennia and millions of years, and yet our modern global mono-cult has the audacity to destroy biodiversity at unprecedented rates, not realising that the living planet won’t let this anthropocentric trajectory continue for much longer.
Evolution of relationships
Persistent feedback loops that endure across the life spans of one or more generations of living organisms gives rise to relationships between living beings. In fact, the dynamic process of life is better understood in relational terms rather than in terms of the modern WEIRDT notion of competitive individual “selves”. All ecologies depicted in the above diagram are networks of relationships between living beings. Ecologies are nested within each other, with the connecting lines between ecologies in the diagram representing inclusion, e.g. the human ecology includes household ecologies and the cellular ecologies that make up individual humans etc. In the visual notation used, the open-circle end of connecting lines always denotes a conceptual container.
Culture is co-created one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.
At human scale, all healthy relationships, independently of the level of intimacy, are characterised by the maintenance of de-powered dialogue – by a mutual deep desire to understand a precious living being, and by a conscious commitment to refrain from the use of coercive techniques, i.e. the absence of persistent social power gradients. De-powered dialogue is the atomic building block for the emergence of healthy relationships:
- Over the short-term, continuous de-powered dialogue allows us to learn more about each other.
- Over the mid-term, this results in a convergence towards shared understanding, and genuine appreciation of commonalities and differences.
- Over the long-term, it results in organic deepening of shared understanding based on growing numbers of shared lived experiences.
Levels of intimacy
Human wellbeing is only possible to the extent that we are embedded in healthy ecologies or care across all levels of scale – our wellbeing depends on the health of the living planet. Life at human scale is characterised by the bound of human cognitive and emotional limits, which become visible in the circles of intimacy that characterise our relationships.
Living together in:
- A household over extended periods depends on compatible sensitivities. This allows us to survive, support each other in healing from trauma, and thrive – even in the context of harsh social and physical environments.
- A human scale cultural organism of up to around 50 people depends on shared values and a shared understanding of our cognitive and emotional limits. This allows us to bring our gifts to life, to give and receive mutual aid, as part of a small number complementary households that offer a diversity of essential life skills – this is the smallest viable human survival unity.
- An ecology of human scale cultural organisms, i.e. indigenous / local communities, depends on a small essential number of shared cultural practices that provide collaborative bridges between cultural organisms – this extends the geographic reach of our social networks to the spatial scale of the bioregional ecology.
- A bioregional ecology depends on substantial number of essential shared cultural practices that are specifically adapted to maintain the diversity of the local bioregional ecology – this equips us with the collective knowledge and wisdom needed to remain deeply familiar and interdependent with the indigenous / local bioregional ecology.
- The planetary ecology depends a small number of foundational and life affirming shared values – this connects us to the consciousness of the living planet that is beyond human comprehensibility, it helps to to stay clear of anthropocentric hubris, and it compels us to maintain a global knowledge ecology and the collective memory of the unavoidable life destroying consequences of all attempts of anthropocentric empire building.
Humans have navigated into an unknowable future throughout our evolutionary history. To minimise the suffering that lies ahead, and to avoid being eaten up by cognitive dissonance, we need to let go of the delusion of being able to transcend human scale limitations, and relearn to trust our ability to collectively nurture shared understanding at human scale, framing life in terms of ecologies of care.
Ignoring the limitations of human scale
By ignoring the limitations of human scale, even in a de-powered culture, due to human cognitive limits – we can only genuinely understand the contexts and needs of a small number of other people, shared understanding will inevitably erode, and eventually misunderstandings will cause harm. How long it takes for severe harm to materialise depends on many factors, but the result is always the emergence of a culture in which mutual trust erodes, and in which the caring relationships that form the fabric of society are strained and increasingly disrupted.
In super human scale societies culture is increasingly experienced as a set of social practices and constraints that shape experienced “reality” beyond the local community, practices and constraints that are not questioned because they seem to be as “real” or even more “real” than the non-human living world, i.e. the plants, animals, and fungi, and all the other creatures that are part of our lives.
In such a social world beyond human comprehensibility, at some point our bodyminds start to manifest cognitive dissonance between the needs and constraints defined by our biological evolutionary heritage and the cultural environment. At the same time, culturally, the inmates of such a society have lost the lived experience and the ability to (re)imagine and adapt cultural practices in a way that realigns with our biological evolutionary heritage and with the local non-human environment.
From within a traumatising super human scale society those who dare to imagine alternative, human scale – and much less traumatising – cultural practices are easily dismissed as delusional dreamers who ignore “reality” and the dominant degraded understanding of “human nature”. Whether creative dreamers are able to establish alternative “realities” depends on their numbers, and on the extent to which the local culture has degraded into a powered-up cult that actively clamps down on such attempts.
Allowing powered-up relationships
Good things happen in spite of the institutional landscape and the brutality of “civilisation”, and not thanks to it. Ecologies of care at a human scale level between sober inmates and those on the social margins can’t be stopped.
Faith in “leaders” and “leadership” is a lost cause, a dangerous waste of precious time. It’s a bad idea for the exact same reason that it would be a bad idea to allow drunk people to drive buses or pilot airliners or ships. Paradigmatic change always emerges from the undergrowth, from within the cognitive blindspots of the dominant culture, from the vast non-commoditisable space that economists dismiss as insignificant “externalities”. There are growing cracks in the futile attempts to commoditise all hours of our existence, but these remain invisible to the many loudly yelling drunks who are addicted to one or more flavours of social power.
The culture of small human scale cultural organisms can also be powered-up. There is no shortage of examples of powered-up human scale cultural species. However, such cultural species can only sustain themselves in environments that offer an abundance of food and sheltered living conditions, which enable cultural organisms to spend time and energy on inter- and intra-group conflict.
Depending on the level of conflict, eventually, either the environment gets overexploited and some groups are forced to migrate, or the growing number of cultural organisms consciously adopt a less powered-up culture, to have more time available to pay attention to the essential life sustaining and life giving non-human relationships within the environment.
Power is the privilege of not needing to learn.
The less food and sheltered living conditions are available locally, the more any locally viable human culture has to be consciously maintained in a de-powered state. Powered-up cultures inevitably degrade into a learning disabled culture that is preoccupied with wasteful life destroying conflicts.
The advantage shared by all human scale cultural organisms, irrespective of culture, is the ubiquitous lived experience that culture is a conscious agreed set of values and cultural practices that can be adapted as needed between the participating human and non-human living beings.
Indigenous cultures also teach us about the human capabilities and limits of consciously maintaining caring relationships over time, with an intimate awareness of the last 7 generations and a deep concern for the next 7 generations. Nothing prevents these cultures from also preserving cultural wisdom that is much older, but there is also the recognition that the world and culture are dynamic processes. Any culture needs stay intimately connected to, woven into, and responsive to the dynamic context of the local bioregional ecosystem in order to remain viable.
Contrast such conscious awareness of the level of interdependence between all living beings with the modern delusional belief in the technological progress narrative powered-up by the invisible hand of the market. All powered-up cultures are learning disabled, and super-human scale powered-up cultures have to be understood as life destroying, i.e. biodiversity destroying and cultural diversity destroying death cults.
The invitation that life is extending to us
In the book The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale I explain how the development of electronic and eventually digital communication technologies within the context of the powered-up diversity destroying cult of industrialised “civilisation” has resulted in a global technological mono-cult with a deadly level of paradigmatic inertia.
Honouring our gift of life within the global mono-cult is impossible.
What we can do is to (re)discover the beauty of life at human scale that is at our fingertips when we consciously choose to (re)conceptualise life as a dynamic process of evolving caring relationships that encompass the entire planet, far beyond human the limits of human comprehension, and when we become consciously aware of the enormous possibilities that open up when we start living with a deep commitment to de-powered caring relationships, extending seven generations into our past and into our future, within the limits of our human scale existence.
For systematic education, we are curating timeless concepts for nurturing and describing ecologies of care. This is not a journey that we can undertake as isolated individuals. This is the invitation that the living planet is extending to us if we honour our gifts and consciously recognise our timeless human scale limitations.