Turning the arrow

Cyclical ecosystems are self-sustaining, making do with no external inputs, save energy from the sun. In contrast, humans have largely abandoned cycle-based change by creating an “arrow” of progress.

As I write, spring is bursting out all over, and I can’t help but feel philosophical about the rhythms of nature. The trees are budding, and birdsong awakens me a good thirty minutes before my alarm goes off. So the star wheel turns in its eternal cycle, a welcome return to a familiar and comfortable routine signaling the approach of summer.

Other phenomena, the human world for instance, are much more like arrows. They don’t repeat so much as move in a direction. Cyclical ecosystems are self-sustaining, making do with no external inputs, save the (practically speaking) inexhaustible supply of energy from the sun. In contrast, humans have largely abandoned cycle-based change by creating an “arrow” of progress defined not merely by survival but by our own values. These include relatively base “creature comforts” as well as the ability to live increasingly moral lives. For instance, Ben Friedman, in his book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, shows how improvements in our material lives drive improvements in our value systems: Growth creates optimism for the future and a willingness to include others in our prosperity.

Even so, it’s not difficult to find dire predictions for humanity. Global climate change, water shortages, the exhaustion of various natural resources, decreasing biodiversity, economic collapse, and overpopulation are only six horsemen in the cavalry of the apocalypse that some feel is bearing down on us.

There are data that we should take these warnings seriously. For example, in 1970, the Club of Rome think tank sponsored a two- year research project to model the impact of continued economic development to the year 2100. The simulations showed that growth in population and per-capita wealth would continue until 2030, followed by a rapid and irreversible decline as we run out of pretty much everything.

This view of things seems little more than a quantified version of the Malthusian stance that since population increases geometrically but resource production increases arithmetically, we’ll eventually end up with more people than we can support. Malthus was, of course, famously wrong.

Updates of the original Club of Rome study published in 1992 and 2002 argued that the data on population, resource scarcity, and environmental degradation were all more or less in line with the trajectories modeled in 1972, despite the remarkable technological advances of the intervening 30 years. Perhaps Malthus was mistaken because he made an extrapolation based on an empirical claim, while the Club of Rome’s projections have proved accurate because they rest their case on a philosophical one: When progress depends upon the use of oil, or wood, or anything that is not renewed by photosynthesis at the rate of consumption, then we’re doomed to collapse.

Another way of looking at this kind of system-level observation is in terms of a key assumption about any system we care about: whether it is at its core a cycle or an arrow. Commercial organizations are made of systems, as well—socioeconomic ones. Take, for instance, the progression from freewheeling start-up to semi-structured midsized company to process-driven maturity. One view is that this is an arrow. No company lives forever, large firms inevitably die, and any attempt to reinvigorate them merely prolongs suffering and delays the ascent of someone else’s arrow.

On the other hand, if you think companies are—or at least can be—driven by an underlying cycle, then you’ll have very different views. David Hurst, in his 1991 book Crisis and Renewal, explains how successful companies are blinded by success, which leads to crisis. Intriguingly, Hurst claims the crisis phase is a nearly inevitable component of the cycle of high-performing companies. Crisis is not the end but the beginning of renewal.

Now, a feature of cycles is that they end up where they started. Organizations subject to crisis and renewal, however, often end up in different places—some stronger, some weaker. In short, they have combined the cycle and the arrow and ended up with a spiral—some upward and some down the drain.

A key, it seems, to getting on the one you want is accepting that very often you can’t avoid any stage of the cycle. The mistakes that led to any current misery, had they been avoided, might have left you on a potentially unsustainable arrow.  If we accept this fact, then, permanent collapse need not be the inevitable outcome  . . . if only we can turn the arrow into a cycle.