It’s complicated

“inherent in the nature of a complex system is that it’s always a little broken. Complex systems only work to the extent that we are always fixing them.”

– Cory Doctorow, quoted in Vintage Tomorrows p60

I can’t decide if I like this quote because it summarized all I love about complex systems – or all I love about Simplicity. See, at heart, I’m a tinkerer. Always have been. I love working with my hands and I love knowing how things work. I haven’t always been able to indulge this love, and I’m certainly not claiming to always end up with a working specimen when I’m done with the teardown…

More recently I’ve come to the realization that perhaps I do better tinkering in a more theoretical arena. By that I mean, I tend to hurt myself when tools are involved. That or I put unseemly holes in the drywall. This has led to me spending even more time reading – and thinking about what I read. A potentially dangerous situation, I know. Between reading about the lives of some of the great philosophers, of history as well as contemporary, social commentary, simplicity, local economies, behavioral economics, and some mythology – my thoughts can certainly go in interesting directions.

200 words to find the point – things aren’t looking so good right now, and yet there are many signs of hope.

Looking at that last line, something isn’t right. It’s not the sentiment, that’s exactly what I was trying to say. It’s the wording. “signs of hope,” it just sounds so…glass half empty. So, if things in general aren’t looking so hot, yet they aren’t to that “where are we going and why am I in this handbasket” stage – where does that leave us and how to describe it?

Are good things happening despite all that’s going on? Or because of all that’s going on? Can’t it be some of both? I see the situation with climate change, skyrocketing obesity levels, heck even global inequality – all are acting as a catalyst for some truly amazing actions and reactions. The kind of change that is sustainable (in the true meaning of the word), that starts at the bottom and makes it’s way as far up as is necessary.* The exceedingly complex system we live in, call it what you will – Western Civilization, Consumer Culture, whatever – is broken and in need of some serious tinkering in order to fix it.

Movements like Transition Towns, 350.org, SmartTowns, OccupyDebt, Slow Money, Voluntary Simplicity, and the many others I don’t know about yet are making more of a concrete difference than their small sizes would seem to indicate is possible. They work because for every single person who gets involved there are at least 10 who are made aware of the issues at hand. And for every 10 there is at least one who will get involved at a substantive level and in turn influence 10 more, etc, etc. These groups are doing the Tinkering that highlights what a complex system we live in.

This falls somewhere between the kind of change Quinn (if you haven’t read Daniel Quinn, you need to. Now.) advocates in his writings and what the more mainstream groups are all about (that is advocating for change starting at the highest level they can reach). All are valid routes to action, and it will ultimately take people tinkering at every level to affect the kind of change that’s needed. There are several fundamental misunderstandings that will need to be fixed before these sort of changes can become more mainstream. First on that list for me is that Tinkering necessarily means breaking things, and that that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s not. We learn from our mistakes, do some more tinkering and try again. More on that later, for now, the punchline is this: I for one see the more grassroots – yet highly visible and impactful – route as our best chance to effect real, substantial change. One person at a time.

* Not all change has to make it to the top. Who’s to say where that is anyway? The groups listed here see systemic change as their goal, who’s to say that can’t happen DESPITE those in power rather than BECAUSE of them?

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