Avoiding extinction: participation in the nested complexity of life

Designing for positive emergence and planetary health?

Gibson Desert in Western Australia from ISS, Image Source

“Truly, we are now in a new world where the old certainties are melting away and we have to learn to think and act differently. We have to interact with these uncertain processes, which affect our health, our food, our weather, our standard of living.”

— Brian Goodwin, 2001

It is now almost ten years since Brian Goodwin (1931–2009) a founding member of the Santa Fe Insitute died. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Brian because the MSc in Holistic Science he created and taught me on has deeply influence my life and work ever since. Brian’s call for a ‘Science of Qualities’ is gaining in critical significance as the converging crises of climate change, resource depletion, run-away tech, genocidal economic dysfunctionality, and mass extinction are pointing towards civilisational collapse.

“A science of emergent qualities involves a break with the positivist tradition that separates facts and values and a re-establishment of a foundation for a naturalistic ethics. Participation now enters as a fundamental ingredient in the human experience of any phenomenon, which arises out of the encounter between two real processes that are distinct but not separable: the human process of becoming and that of the ‘other’, whatever this may be to which the human is attending. In this encounter wherein the phenomenon is generated, feelings and intuitions are not arbitrary, idiosyncratic accompaniments but directs indicators of the nature of the mutual process that occurs in the encounter. By paying attention to these, we gain insight into the emergent reality in which we participate.”— Peter Reason & Brian Goodwin, 1999

Brian emphasised that emergent properties can only be fully understood and identified “by their qualities, which are expressions of the coherence of the whole.” He defined emergent properties in complex adaptive systems as “unexpected types of order [novel coherent patterns] that arise from interactions […]. Something new emerges from the collective — another source of unpredictability in nature.” Brian’s suggested that “the complex systems on which our lives depend — ecological systems, communities, economic systems, our bodies — all have emergent properties, a primary one being health and well-being” (Goodwin et al., 2001, p.27). This formed the basis of my own doctoral research into a Salutogenic Design approach to the complex ‘wicked problems’ associated with creating sustainability and systemic health (Wahl, 2006a).

So how do we aim for appropriate participation by designing for positive emergence? How do we design for human and planetary health? To do so in ways that are elegantly adapted to the bio-cultural uniqueness of place will require us to pay attention to the qualitative aspects of interactions, relationships.

We need to nurture those dynamics which affect whether the nested holarchy (Koestler, 1969) of interdependent complex systems — individuals, communities, ecosystems, bioregions, the biosphere — increases in health, resilience and adaptive capacity and disincentivize or design-out those that are degenerative and drive diversity loss — increasing fragility and decreasing viability.

Maybe a science of qualities is best put into action as a global-local (glocal) practice of regenerating Socio-Ecological-Systems (Young, et al., 2006) and Planetary Health (Whitmee, et al., 2015)? Maybe paying attention to our experience of the qualitative relationships that link us to each other and to the planetary life support systems would inform such a qualitative science of planetary healing?

Maybe once we understand that health is a scale-linking emergent property that — given the right conditions — emerges from the relationships, interactions and information flow in the nested complexity we participate in, we will better learn to sense, feel and intuit our way into how to facilitate the emergence of positive systems properties — like health and wellbeing — in humble acceptance that we cannot predict and control these systems?

Nora Bateson’s work on ‘warm data’ offers an important contribution to the emerging science of qualities. She warns that “Utilizing information obtained through a subject’s removal from context and frozen in time can create error when working with complex (living) systems. Warm data presents another order of exploration in the process of discerning vital contextual interrelationships […]”, and defines warm data as “transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.” Paying attention to this ‘warm’ qualitative data offers “another order of exploration in the process of discerning vital contextual interrelationships” (Bateson, 2017). Nora Bateson suggests:

“To address our socio-economic and ecological crisis now requires a level of contextual comprehension, wiggly though it may be to grok the inconsistencies and paradoxes of interrelational process. Far from solving these dilemmas or resolving the conflicting patterns, warm data utilizes these characteristics as its most important resources of inquiry.”

— Nora Bateson, 2017

Warm data describes the interactions, relationships and information flow in complex adaptive system from which health and wellbeing can emerge as positive systemic properties. Brian’s call for a science of qualities was motivated by the need for such an approach to inform appropriate participation in the ongoing process of life as a planetary process. He understood that a precondition of this process to continue was to pay closer attention to how our human agency in these nested systems either contributes to regenerative or degenerative patterns.

The most adequate qualitative indicator for judging whether we are participating appropriately is the emergence of health, resilience, adaptive capacity and well-being at the different scales of the living holarchy of nested complexity that supports life as a planetary process.

There is no destination sustainability or destination regenerative cultures — as some kind of end point we arrive at to live happily ever after — rather, the path towards human, community, ecosystems and planetary health and wellbeing is a continuous process of exploration, transformation and dilemma navigation. Donella Meadows reminded us in a posthumously published paper entitled ‘Dancing with Systems’:

“… there is plenty to do, of a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!”

— Donella Meadows, 2002

In my own work as a regenerative development consultant and educator, as well as my masters thesis on ‘Exploring Participation: Holistic Science, Sustainability and the Emergence of Healthy Wholes through Appropriate Participation’ (Wahl, 2002), my PhD on ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (Wahl, 2006a & 2006b) and my book ‘Designing Regenerative Cultures’ (Wahl, 2016) — the central focus has revolved around one question:

How might we redesign how we meet human needs in ways that support and heal rather than exploit and degrade the biotic community and the planetary life support systems upon which our future depends?

A culture emerges out of the complex web of qualities of the interactions, relationships and information flows that are conditioned by its history and the bio-cultural uniqueness of the place it inhabits. What kind of awareness and capabilities set the conditions for a culture to have a regenerative impact on entangled social and ecological systems?

How do we accept uncertainty and the uncontrollability of complex systems and humbly attempt to design for — or facilitate — the emergence of health, resilience and adaptive capacity of the complex Social Ecological Systems (S.E.S.) we participated in? In a 2007 paper on ‘Scale-linking design for systemic health’ (Wahl, 2007) I suggested:

“The health and wellbeing of individuals, communities, cities and societies depend critically on the resilience and health of ecosystems and on vital ecosystems services that are provided by ecological processes within the biosphere. Therefore ,one overarching goal of design for sustainability should be to improve and maintain human, ecosystems, and planetary health. […] sustainable design is by necessity scale-linking and salutogenic (health-generating) design across all scales of the complex dynamic system that joins nature and culture, as well as global, national, regional and local scales.”

The notion of salutogenic design for planetary health based on an understanding of health as an emergent property of nested living systems was still very new in 2006. It challenged many academic silos when I applied for post-doctoral research funding. Yet in recent years the Planetary Health Alliance (2019) has grown to over 140 member institutions in 30 countries. The link between human health and ecosystems and planetary health has gained the attention of researchers and policy makers around the world.

“While more food, energy and materials than ever before are now being supplied to people in most places, this is increasingly at the expense of nature’s ability to provide such contributions in the future and frequently undermines nature’s many other contributions, which range from water quality regulation to sense of place. The biosphere, upon which humanity as a whole depends, is being altered to an unparalleled degree across all spatial scales. Biodiversity — the diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems — is declining faster than at any time in human history.”

— ‘International Science and Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services’ (Diaz et al., 2019)

Alarming recent reports like the one quoted above are beginning to create widespread awareness that we are facing the real and present danger of short- to mid-term human extinction. The question of how to design for the emergence of systemic health across scales in order to support human and planetary health is now more important than ever. Brian Goodwin’s call for a science of qualities has gained in significance in this context.

We have to be mindful as we now search for wise responses with an unprecedented urgency. Such responses will need to be informed by both the best of quantitative science and the new qualitative approaches to science we now urgently need to develop.

The science of planetary healing and ecosystems restoration and the art of regenerating our communities and bioregions will have to pay renewed attention to the qualitative aspects and beauty of our profound interdependence and interbeing with the wider community of life.

[This is an adapted section of an essay I am still working on, as a contribution to a special edition of Acta Biotheortica to commemorate the significance of Brian Goodwin’s work on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his passing.]

[Link to an interview with Brian Goodwin I recorded in 2007.]

Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.

Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures

Twitter: @DrDCWahl

Medium: Blog with more than 340 articles


Avoiding extinction: participation in the nested complexity of life was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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