You can’t plant a rainforest: An origin story

Wildlife of Costa Rica — Wikipedia

We need a new origin story. Our current human-centered narrative, with it’s missive to resculpt the world solely for human benefit, is failing. The Earth itself is under siege by us. The governments and institutions that were built to ennoble and enrich our population are buckling under their own weight and, ironically, we are hurting ourselves. A new story, equipped to tackle the new challenges presented by this moment in the human condition, will necessarily consider our collective capabilities and understandings of humanity. We must leverage science, technology, engineering, arts, culture, music, religion, etc in concert with a distinct purpose. Above all, we must tell this story well so that we can know who we are, where we came from, where we are going, and to help us all understand what it means to be “good” in this world.

This systems-centered (as opposed to human-centered) story can be summarized by this maxim, inspired by a friend, mc schraefel:

It is impossible to plant a rainforest.

The Story

Humanity is the expression of a series of nested, emergent systems.

Common through all of these systems is a structural tension that enables the arrival or instantiation of new systems. The new systems are bound to the rules of the antecedent systems, yet express properties that enable the emergence of child systems from within. Fundamentally, this tension is the competing push between diversification and harmonization. This will become clearer when examining the systems that have led us to our current situation.

The Big Bang, as best as we know, is the start of all things, including us. The Big Bang put into motion the first, universal system; the physical system. The physical system involves the composition, interaction, and changing of matter and energy. This physical system establishes basic natural and physical requirements of existence — the rules that dictate the flow of matter and energy, what is possible and what is not. We humans understand this system and its requirements through the sciences of physics and chemistry, and the tools that all science has cultivated from the disciplines of philosophy and mathematics.

This basic tension between chaos, which facilitates diversification, and synchronization, which facilitates harmonization, is foundational to the physical system we exist in and manifests across all of the other emergent systems that grow out of it but, often, manifest in different ways. With sufficient time, the chaos (diversification) and synchronization (harmonization) of the material universe gave rise to the pre-conditions for the origins of life. Emerging from the physical rules of the universe grew a second system: The life system.

It is important to recognize that while we currently believe the physical system to be temporally and spatially pervasive and monolithic, instances of subsidiary systems are local. The tensioning within the physical system that enables the emergence of new, subsidiary systems is not universal, but, instead, occurs locally, such as only certain regions in the ocean known today to produce hydrocarbons and, thus, the fundamental building blocks of life. Each locality will continue to change over time and, thus, just because the conditions enabled a subsidiary system to emerge does not mean that those conditions will remain in perpetuity. Indeed, the likelihood is quite the opposite… that all subsidiary systems are ephemeral, including even such seemingly powerful and pervasive, on Planet Earth at least, as life systems.

The life system is bound to the requirements of the physical system and enables emergent properties beyond those dictated purely by the physical system. As far as we are aware, instances of the life system exist only on the planet Earth. It is also important to recognize that the properties of the life system may change based on the tensions of the foundational system. Historical data suggest that the condition of the physical system on Earth has changed sufficiently over geological eons in ways that enabled new forms of life to emerge and also go extinct, thus reinforcing the ephemeral nature of even such grand subsidiary systems as the life system. There are, currently, many different life systems on the planet as evidenced by the incredible biodiversity that exists and has existed across time. It’s also essential to note that, based on history, organisms may survive only in localities that support their needs and, thus, if their needs can no longer be supported in a locality, they no longer exist.

From single cell organisms to complex organisms such as humans, life has unique properties that enable properties; essentially, the formation of new tensions, that correspond to the meta-tensional flow between diversification and harmonization. These new properties go beyond the standard expressions of the foundational physical system but, again, are bound to them. The life system is a specific configuration of the physical system that takes the tension between diversification and harmonization to a new level. From this unique tension, specific possibilities, with new limitations and rules, arise. We humans understand the life system through the science of biology and/or the expertise of spiritual / mystical traditions. Within specific instances of the life system, tension can be characterized by mutation/sexual reproduction (diversification) and natural selection (harmonization).

This provided the pre-conditions for the emergence of multiple organisms coexisting within a contained geographic. This is the third system: Ecosystem. Ecosystems have emergent properties that are bound to the rules of the Physical and Life systems, yet go beyond the dictates of those rules alone. We humans understand ecosystems through the science of ecology, and also through lived expertise of cultures who lived and were part of specific ecosystems (e.g. first peoples in America whose traditions took them on migrations across the plains dependent upon changing weather, food, and supplies).

A rainforest cannot be planted. It can only exist when the preconditions across the physical and life systems exist. When the preconditions no longer exist, the rainforest no longer exists and cannot just simply be brought back into being.

The human condition is both incredibly precarious and beautifully ephemeral because the world we have built relies on further systemic specificity beyond the requirements of the physical, life, and ecosystems, with all the unique tensions and preconditions that this implies.

With ecosystem’s emergent push between niche discovery (diversification) and inter-species competition over resources (harmonization) came the pre-conditions for the emergence of social species who could share common resources. With that common resource, these organisms could specialize and diversify and, in so doing, expand their niche. The emergence of social organisms is the origin of the fourth system, the social system. The social system is bound to the rules of the physical, life, and ecosystems and, like the other systems, has emergent properties that enable structure beyond these prior systems. We humans understand social systems through the science of sociobiology (for non-human social creatures, such as ants) and the social and behavioral sciences for human social systems. We also understand and facilitate change within social systems by telling stories within and across cultures, and the fifth system, discussed next.

There are many, many instantiations of the social system, even underneath our increasingly hegemonic, global umbrella culture. While we have used tools and knowledge to create an expansive social system supporting our current culture, there are thousands of other socio-cultural spheres of influence all over the world.

The life and ecosystems meta-tensional push between diversification and harmonization also produced another emergent system; the capacity to create tools and technologies that amplify the intentions of organisms or enable new intentions. We have used these tools to enact our own intentions upon the physical, life, eco, and social systems. These tools and technologies comprise the fifth system, the technology system. The technology system is bound to the rules of the physical, life, eco, and, to a lesser extent social systems (this is because the technology and social systems are more parallel systems than systems that are subsidiary to one another), and has emergent properties and rules that go beyond those other systems. We understand the technology system through all of the sciences, and enact changes within the technology system through the trial and error processes that we call engineering and design. The technology system produces emergent phenomenon through increased specialization of thought, tools, and ideas (diversification) and transdisciplinarity, consilience, and scientific consensus (harmonization).

The social and technology systems are fulcrum systems for human development, as intentional niche expansion is essentially the beginning of an organism’s capacity to exert a level of control over underlying systems. Initially this was limited to extending certain properties of specific ecosystems into new areas to provide food and shelter for social beings, such as ants, and human beings (e.g., agriculture). We humans have since developed tools, via the technology system, that allow us to manipulate the properties of all of these systems, including the social system. These properties of the social and technology systems explain the genesis of our currently accepted Western creation story, where humans are seen as required by birthright to exert total control over their environment. It is the implied definition of “good” from these stories. That we should “inherit” the Earth and bring a human understanding of “order” from chaos.

The Internet, and all other tools and technologies that exist today as part of our technology system, are just like a rainforest.

They are phenomenon that can only exist when the appropriate preconditions across the physical, life, eco, social, and technology systems exist. If any underlying system is disturbed such that the preconditions for these emergent phenomena no longer exist or are deeply compromised, specific expressions of any dependent system will cease to exist or be deeply compromised. If the geopolitical fabric that allows us to work together to create new technologies is sufficiently changed, the creation of these new technologies would no longer be possible. Current technologies, particularly the Internet, could not be maintained.


The strife within our communities, and the impending sense of danger that we feel when we consider the state of our world, come from a disruption of the underlying systems that support the world we inhabit.

Humanity’s actions — as guided by our current human-centric, world-sculpting story — are tugging at the fabric of all of these systems. Climate change specifically threatens the integrity of the life system, with the potential to tear down the scaffolding that has enabled our expansive way of living. Our current political convulsions are pulling at the fabric of the social and technology systems, threatening our ability to effectively manage and distribute resources.

This creation story is not human-centered but systems-centered. Just as we once shifted from a geocentric to heliocentric model of the solar system, we must now shift from a human-centric to a system-centric story.

This creation story is not technocratic and change-oriented. Instead, it is oriented towards diverse resonance — understanding and maintaining the tension between diversification and harmonization within and across systems. This allows for evolving stability within and across systems and may enable the emergence of new systems.

A massive musical ensemble is an example of diverse resonance. Hundreds of individuals might play different instruments and sing different parts. When they come together to perform a piece that embraces the variety of these voices, they are expressing diverse resonance. Complex adaptive ecosystems that are in homeostatic balance, such as healthy rainforests or chaotic systems coming into synchrony, are also expressions of diverse resonance.

Diverse resonance is driven by tension within and across systems, not optimization of an isolated part of one instantiated system. This tension manifests differently across various systems and situations but always involves a struck balance between diversification and harmonization. Within the physical, life, and ecosystems, this appears to be a natural process, a concrete tendency of the universe to strive for this diverse resonance and, much like the logic of biomimicry, it seems right to see and mimic this seemingly deeply natural activity.

From the social system onwards — the realms of human organization and systematization — while the drive towards resonance remains, striving for it is essentially a conscious, steerable decision and, thus, the seed of the profound problems we face.

At present, many of our social and technology systems appear more geared towards striving towards resonance, but not necessarily diverse resonance. For example, resonance can be achieved via homogenization or via the strong drive of a single resonant being (eg an alpha male). Homogeneity is definitionally not diverse, and a strong single leader can far too easily maintain power through homogenizing, in line with the old adages absolute power corrupts absolutely and might makes right. If the goal is only resonance then, indeed, “might” can be conflated with what could be definitionally good for a society and, thus right. This is the foundational logic behind monarchies. As long as there was something to tune to (i.e., the will of a king) and the many creatures tuning to it were homogenous enough to go along with that will, then all is well. With sufficient diversity, this strategy for achieving resonance fails.

Diverse resonance can be cultivated in systems with relatively balanced powers living in tension. It is the tension between that creates the diverse resonance. This is a restatement of a foundational logic of the US constitution; checks and balances. As described by others, this only works though with relatively well distributed wealth and power; a precondition that no longer exists in our society. For humanity, at this critical period in our history, diverse resonance must be the goal, achieved via balancing tensions, instead of via homogenization.

Finally, this creation story is tuning-oriented over problem-oriented. Our current approach to making advancements is, ironically, fairly past-oriented via a focus on problem solving. Problem solving involves categorizing and dissecting systems into constituent parts. It does not acknowledge the complexity or tenuousness of the systemic scaffolding, or the necessary and constant adaptation to maintain the scaffolding, that has enabled the creation of the tools we use to perform the problem solving operations. It can, thus, manifest, as a homogenization strategy for producing resonance but may do so at the consequence of reducing diversity.

When viewed from the systems-story framework, a problem-solving approach (which could also be thought of as an optimization approach, with optimization as just a positive framing of a problem), will have obvious and major unintended consequences. And a problem-solving/optimization approach is the dominant framework behind both design and engineering, thus setting up the major problem with our technology system. Our technology (and application thereof) has become so powerful and imbalanced — due to lack of appropriate counter-veiling forces — that our individual and collective intentions are dangerously disrupting the life, eco- and social systems of our planet. Put differently, there isn’t a check to balance us and or technologies and this will only get worse as more power is aggregated into fewer hands. We are not doing this out of bad intent. We are doing it because we are playing out the logical progression of the West’s current creation story, which holds that humans are meant to reshape the world, becoming gods through the technologies we can create.

Tuning, instead of problem-solving, achieves diverse resonance for each moment. It is a present-focused awareness approach to addressing our challenges. Tuning occurs when we seek not to categorize and separate but, instead, to link and synthesize. Awareness of the difference between tuning and blunt-force problem solving can help us to redefine “good” for our current world; we can acknowledge that “good” might change as systemic contexts change, but good also must operate within the framework of diverse resonance. Tuning occurs in different ways in each system but, at a macro level, is the balancing of diversification and harmonization to a given contextual moment, recognizing that a given moment is the accumulation of the innumerable moments that preceded it. Tuning allows the maintenance and function of everything from orchestras to ecosystems, from natural systems to human-driven systems. All display the properties of diverse resonance, and all may be better managed by tuning than by isolated problem solving, optimization, and analytic tactics.

While the physical system will likely remain no matter what we do, if we don’t learn how to cultivate diverse resonance across and within the physical, life, eco-, social, and technology systems, then the rich diversity and beauty we exist in today will cease to exist. The conditions for sustained existence will have been removed.

This initially requires some human extraction from interference in the “natural” systems — physical, eco, and life systems that are fundamentally self-tuning. Sadly, much of the rich diversity within non-human-influenced systems has already been destroyed. We have already disturbed the systems enough that we are on the verge of environmental collapse. There is resilience in dynamic systems but even something as mighty as the life systems within the ocean can be damaged irreparably.

Technology will not save us. The stories we tell ourselves will.

The time to change our story is now.

The time to shift towards a systems-perspective is now.

The time to intentionally strive for diverse resonance via tuning is now.

Written by Eric Hekler. Edited by Daniel Seward.




Reading and writing about ideas for creating a society of health, well-being, and equitable participation. Science | Design | Behavior | Psychology

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Eric Hekler

Eric Hekler

Reading and writing about ideas for creating a society of health, well-being, and equitable participation. Science | Design | Behavior | Psychology

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