Humanity on the edge of chaos: collapse & creative breakthrough

by Daniel Wahl edited by O Society April 17, 2020

We have pushed our species (and many others) to the brink of extinction by misguided actions informed by a limited point of view. This epistemological blind-spot created by an exclusively quantities-focussed science informed a technologically driven civilisation measuring success through inadequate economic indicators like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) while  externalising the qualitative damage to human communities, ecosystems, and the biosphere from the balance sheets.

Humanity is transgressing various  planetary boundaries  (Rockström et al., 2009) and has destabilised global climate patterns (IPCC, 2018). Awareness is spreading that we are on course for civilisational collapse (Kemp, 2019) or might already be in the middle of it (Bendell, 2018). We have created an anthropogenic global climate emergency — the UK government declared such an emergency  on May 2nd, 2019.

To return to a safe operating space within planetary boundaries and establish the socio-economic foundations (Raworth, 2017) to meet human needs within these boundaries is now a human survival priority. Responding to the climate emergency,  resource depletion, and a series of converging crisis will require us to simultaneously address  unsustainable inequality (see Credit Swiss, 2018, p.20).


Human actions have pushed the global system to the edge of chaos. Stuart Kaufman’s work (1993) and resilience theory (Holling, et al., 2002) suggest that at the edge of chaos complex systems are at their most creative. As old structures and patterns that no longer serve begin to breakdown and collapse new opportunities for redesign and the emergence of more viable patterns are created.

To avoid pre-mature human extinction we are now called to muster unprecedented levels of human collaboration in ecosystems restoration (UN Environment, 2019b) in an effort to regenerate planetary health (Whitmee, et al., 2015) as the foundation of population and human health.

Rather than simply adapting to and mitigating climate change, we need to engage in carbon  drawdown (Hawken ed., 2017) in an attempt to reverse global warming and stabilise volatile climate patterns by the second half of this century. We need to engage in positive ‘deep adaptation’ (Bendell, 2018) and civilisational transformation to choose pathways towards a regenerative future.

These pathways have to be informed by diverse perspectives and celebrate our diversity as a source of creativity and adaptive capacity rather than reasons to ‘other’ and divide humanity. We need to value the wisdom of many minds and different ways of knowing. This also includes valuing quantitative science and ‘cold data’ along with qualitative science and ‘warm data’. Beware of over-steering from one extreme to another!


Why we need a science of qualities

Humanity is at a critical bifurcation point: we face a fork in the road of our collective journey as a species. Brian Goodwin’s call for a science of qualities is closely linked to the possible reasons why our species has so far been unable to find an appropriate response to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ 1992 ‘Warning to Humanity’ nor to its ‘second notice’ 25 years later (Ripple, et al. 2017).

Prof. Brian Goodwin, March, 25th 1931 to July, 15th 2009

William Blake famously said: “May god us keep from single vision and Newton’s sleep.”

As a mathematician and theoretical biologist, Brian Goodwin valued the many gifts of a science focussed on quantities. He also understood the potentially catastrophic side effects of relying on it as the only means to chart a viable path into the future.

A science of qualities offers new pathways to understanding complexity while embracing uncertainty. It can inform our appropriate participation in the nested complexity of ecosystems and biosphere. Our health and the quality of our lives depend upon our ability to redesign how we meet human needs in ways that increase the health of ecosystems and the biosphere. Developing a science of qualities might prove central to the survival of our species.

Brian’s work gave critical impulses to the development of complexity theory, evolutionary biology and holistic science. Far beyond the significance of his work to research science, Brian’s work pointed towards a new way for humanity to be as nature again, to heal the Cartesian split and to move from aiming for increased capacity to predict, control and manipulate, to a renewed capacity to participate appropriately within generative complexity.

We literally are — at one and the same time — participants, agents, and emergent properties of life as a planetary process and the transforming nested complexity it expresses.

“Instead of the traditional science of control we are involved in the science of participation, which is where complexity leads us, involving sensitive participation with nature. This requires cultivation of intuitive ways of knowing about wholes as well as analytical ways of knowing about parts, which takes us into what may be called a science of qualities.”

— Brian Goodwin (in Brockman, 1997)

We live and exists in and through relationships. Health is a scale-linking emergent property of the nested complex adaptive systems we are embedded in. To only aim to understand these relationships through quantitative measurable proxy indicators, rather than through the direct lived experience that is primarily qualitative, has removed us from the wider community of life. Nevertheless our common future depends upon the health and resilience of that community.

The choices is ours: We can recognise our profound ‘interbeing’ (Hanh, 1988) and interdependence with the rest of the community of life. We can create diverse regenerative cultures as elegant expressions of the bio-cultural uniqueness of the places and bioregions they inhabit (Wahl, 2016). We will need to collaborate locally and globally to restore  ecosystems and planetary health.

We are capable of co-creating conditions conducive for life and a thriving future for all of humanity. Business-as-usual will trigger run-away cataclysmic climate change and see our children and grandchildren live out their lives in a world where conditions will only worsen.

Charting a viable pathway into a regenerative future will require us to blend the best of conventional quantitative science and the technologies it enables with an additional source of insight that can inform our appropriate participation in the wider systems that we cannot predict and control yet who’s health and viability our future survival depends upon. To do so successfully, we will need to further develop the science of qualities Brian Goodwin called for.

— Anthony Hodgson & Graham Leicester, 2017

How a science of qualities can inform regenerative practice

For me personally, regenerative practice is a dance with the systems in which I participate at the local, regional and global scales. This dance invites me to listen, think, sense, feel, and intuit the next move — being responsive, responsible, and regenerative.

For me, regenerative practice starts with working on myself and checking in with and regularly renewing my clear intention to be of service to the healing of the unbroken whole, to life as a planetary process.

Regenerative practice is about building one’s own capacity and that of our communities to work creatively from the potential inherent in the bio-cultural uniqueness of each place and its people. All of this asks us to value qualities as indicators of wise action.

Try as we may to create indicators and dashboards and evaluation methodologies that are ever more inclusive and holistic in the data sources they utlize, I am convinced — that while the results will be useful and informative, we are running the danger of missing the deeper qualitative changes, the shifts in relationships, the transformation in our way of being and meaning-making that are the truly a/effective outcomes of regenerative practice.

Reporting on the depth of regenerative impact and transformative innovation that regenerative practice tries to catalyse is beyond numbers and statistics.

Regeneration is about reinventing ourselves individually and collectively so as we be differently and hence the world we bring forth together in love instantly is differently.

We are now called to remove all obstacles and blockages that obstruct health and wholeness to manifest as the primary state of being in relationship simultaneously as person, people and planet. Relationships are all about qualities and hence we need to be guided by a science of qualities without denying the specific uses of quantitative data and science.

Breakdown and breakthrough are part of the nestedadaptive cycles by which life creates conditions conducive to life. The collapse we experience all around us at so many levels, is also the release of new creativity to find a transformative response and actively choose to come together and create diverse regenerative cultures everywhere.