Clues from a clownfish: ten ideas for a better world

Allenna Leonard
8 February 2007

As a consequence of innovation, the world is a smaller and smaller place - a "global village", as the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan put it. Not too long ago, troubles, even catastrophes, which happened on the other side of the planet had little effect on us. No longer. Few parts of the world are hidden any more, and events that begin inside a country's borders can quickly spread across a wide area. The way that the failure of an industry, or even just a large company, can devastate a community is familiar. But the failure or even the faltering of states can destabilise other territories, with serious and far-reaching effects.

Yet countries, like communities, don't necessarily have the resources to bounce back after a serious hit. The need to respond after a sudden natural catastrophe (such as an earthquake) is widely accepted, even if not always practiced. Incremental natural catastrophes are not well understood, especially as their effects reverberate over long distances. The protocols for responding to a social or political catastrophe are even less understood, and remedies less developed.

I've worked for a number of years applying the ideas of Stafford Beer, the cybernetics pioneer, to a variety of situations and organisations. In particular, his "viable system model" shows the managerial functions that are necessary and sufficient to support organisational survival in a changing environment. The model, which is based on the human nervous system, is valid across scales from a single organism to a whole country, or even the planet.

True, not every entity does or can survive: individuals die, companies go bankrupt and species may become extinct. But on individual and larger, collective scales (institution, region or country), there are many threats to viable life; the seriousness of global climate change means that arguably the threat is to the earth itself. Indeed, globalisation itself is just the latest in a series of processes that can make large numbers of individuals and their institutions unviable as social and economic units, even if they are populated by willing and able individuals.

Allenna Leonard is a Canadian-based practitioner of management cybernetics and a licensee of the Team Syntegrity group process. She is past-president of the American Society for Cybernetics

Also by Allenna Leonard in openDemocracy:

"After the cataclysm: a systems analysis"
(27 September 2002)

"Mirror reflections: fundamentalism and the market economy"
(29 May 2003)

The resource of thinking

In the west, viability is sustained because well-off areas can afford to subsidise the less fortunate in ways comparable to those of families supporting children and the elderly. Switzerland supports its rural cantons so they are not depopulated. The government of Canada spreads equalisation payments among its poorer provinces for similar reasons. The European Union also provides equalisation support. There are many reasons for this beyond simple charity. A country's history and its national identity depend on the whole country and all of its parts. And, as in families, fortunes change. Yesterday's poor, like the province of Alberta in Canada, are prosperous today.

The same does not hold for the west's former colonies and other have-not regions. No other country has enough of a stake in their viability to make the necessary commitment, and much of the effort that is made reinforces historical disparities rather than local autonomy. Even the work done by NGOs may discourage autonomy and self-sufficiency. Conflict, poor health and poverty often result, creating conditions for despair and desperation.

How can these countries and regions become viable? Most cannot compete in the global economy in the usual ways. Because of their lack of transportation and communication infrastructure, their goods cost more than those of low-wage, mass-production centres like India and China. They could work for free and still not be competitive. Charities help, but indefinite life-support is not a good option.

Of course, viability does not need to be defined in western terms. Pastoral peoples especially, want to have the option to continue their traditional ways of life. Economies of scale that govern decisions in the west are not necessarily relevant to small countries or disbursed populations. Viability does imply being self-sustaining, however, and that in turn requires a level of basic public health and education, as well as opportunities to engage in rewarding work.

What resources of thought exist to apply here? As we become more aware, humankind may come to see that massive distress in any part of the planet affects the whole. Were this to happen, the world would no more countenance ignoring the pain in one area than a human being would ignore a sharp pain regardless of which part of the body was hurting. We'd be talking about rolling out a Global Marshall Plan. We're not there yet. So what can be done in the interim?

The biology of human benefit

Following Stafford Beer, we could look to biology for inspiration. Some species that are not viable on their own develop symbiotic relationships in order to survive. Sometimes these relationships benefit both species (mutualism); sometimes they benefit one but are not detrimental to the other (commensalism). They engage in mutual defence (like the shrimp and the gobi fish), feed on the other's parasites (like the cleaner wrasse), and pick up hitchhikers to ferry one another to food sources (like the sea-cucumber and the imperial shrimp).

The clownfish and certain sea-anemones are among the most interesting symbiotic relationships. The clownfish has a protective coating of mucus, making it the only fish that does not get stung by the anemone. It shelters within the anemone's tentacles, gaining protection from predators. Benefiting the anemone, the clownfish attracts prey, luring other fish to where the anemone can catch them. The clownfish also keeps the area clean by eating the leftovers and by keeping the water around the anemone in circulation.

There are some echoes in the human world. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has documented ship-breaking in Bangladesh and recycling of electronic waste in China. But as beautiful as the images are, the consequences for the health and safety of the workers are not at all beautiful. The United States, as the world's only military superpower, acts as a world police force to some extent. But unlike a city's police force, it is not supported by local taxes, it is not answerable to those it protects, and it has its own self-interest that comes first.

So, in the light of the "viable system model", what relationships might be forged that would be of mutual benefit for all humankind - people in rich and poor countries, the less developed and the more developed world alike? Here are ten suggestions:

  • Carbon credits. Some countries are pumping more than their fair share of carbon dioxide into the earth's atmosphere. They are reaping the economic benefits of their energy use now, but ultimately everyone else will share the costs. If a country pays fees for its excess use of carbon fuel and the fees are distributed to those who use less than their proportionate share, that would be a fair transfer of resources. It is a wider application of local "polluter pays" provisions.
  • Local arts and crafts. The mechanisms to promote and market local arts and crafts are only partially developed. In some instances, training programmes to facilitate skills transfer may be helpful. Those in the west would benefit from having beautiful handcrafted objects to provide a necessary balance to high-tech environments. Niche manufacturing could fit here as well.
  • Niche agricultural locations. There are a number of crops, or variations on common crops - like the blue corn that grows in small patches at high altitudes in the American southwest - which do not lend themselves to agribusiness. Remote locations also are ideal for growing produce organically, thereby avoiding contamination from non-organic farms.
  • Biodiversity banks. Many undeveloped areas are treasure troves of plants and animals that may be crucial to our long-term survival and well-being. Countries that protect these resources could be compensated, just as landowners in the west are, for keeping land as wild or transferring it to nature reserves.
  • Survival-skills banks. Aboriginal people, in particular, have developed knowledge and skills regarding how to survive on the land. It takes only a brief experience of a power blackout to show how much many in the west have forgotten about basic survival - things that even our fairly recent ancestors knew.
  • Anthropological banks. Languages, lore, crafts, stories and other anthropological forms of knowledge are fast disappearing. Many languages, in particular, are being lost. Again, this is a rich heritage that should be conserved just as we conserve works of art in museums. Collaboration between local and foreign universities could be helpful here.
  • Ecotourism. If security issues can be eliminated, the very remoteness of some regions can be an attraction. Both national and local western governments have learned a lot about protecting heritage sites and about striking a balance between an area being a tourist destination and maintaining a robust local identity.
  • Volunteer training and educational opportunities. Much of this goes on already under the auspices of NGOs, international aid programmes and educational institutions. It could be expanded and its role as being as beneficial to the volunteers and students as to the resident population could be stressed.
  • Climate-change laboratories. It is likely that a majority of the world's population will be adversely affected by climate change. Some countries - such as the Netherlands - have developed extensive expertise in managing rising waters, and Dutch engineers have been in demand internationally. But, the potential consequences of climate change are broader. Micronesia is already at risk and that other small or remote areas (such as the Canadian Arctic) are already beginning to feel the effects. A great deal could be learned by making concentrated efforts to meet these challenges in their early manifestations - lessons that could save time and money later on.
  • Prevention and treatment of social and political infections. Centres for disease control respond quickly to the outbreak of new infections (like variants of avian flu) and take measures, for example, to retard the spread of malaria by draining swamps. But while governments (including colonial powers) have used "draining the swamp" metaphorically in the past -- to mean the elimination of insurgent fighters, political dissidents or those who "swim" with them - there could be a role for increasing the intervention capacity of international agencies and NGOs.

Four years into the Darfur conflict, there is no agreement about whether and when to intervene in the western Sudanese region to prevent further human-rights abuses. Sometimes, early intervention can save lives. (Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant-general who headed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, has said there was period when a relatively modest level of intervention could have prevented the 1994 slaughter.)

What would be most useful in conflict situations? Promotion of gentler interventions earlier in the process, enhanced use of post-conflict truth-and-reconciliation measures, and assistance in developing transparent legal and commercial infrastructures.

These ten measures have the potential to benefit a wide range of people locally, and on a manageable scale. They could be augmented by other steps to enhance viability, such as further development of employee or citizen-owned enterprises, microcredit, local-exchange networks, and cooperatives that can justify operating on a break-even basis. They could lay the foundation for economic and social viability that is far less dependent on the conditions of the global marketplace. And they could enhance our sense that we are all in this together, of what R Buckminster Fuller called "spaceship earth".

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