Why are we not where we need to be?
This excerpt is adapted from "Our Historic Moment" (David Jaber, self-publish, 2018).
Clearly, we are far from our renewable, non-toxic, abundant and equitable ideal, even if we’ve had many successes worth celebrating. And, again, we’ve had an understanding of what needs to happen for 20-50 years. A natural question that arises is "Why hasn’t more happened?" One reason must be that our big picture vision has not been known and internalized by a critical mass of people. Arguably, in the battle of best ideas, this vision could have risen to the top and become the national and international priority, courtesy of the media, government and aligned organizations. More explanation is required.
Many factors play into what’s working and what’s not working. However, certain influences are stronger than others, and by focusing on the key levers, we begin to see where to best apply ourselves.
The one common thread between all of the indicators of what’s working and what’s not working is that those indicators are a result, in one way or another, of human action. It can be helpful to think of the myriad of actions that are involved as a system. Picture a large number of decision-makers — individuals and organizations — connected by communication channels and resource flows, and taking action based on the information and resource exchange between them. It is this system that has brought about what’s working and what’s not working.
As to why we have not made the progress that we would expect, then, something is amiss either 1) in the decision-makers themselves, 2) the communication channels they use, 3) the information that is exchanged, 4) the resources that are exchanged or 5) the decision-makers’ agency for action.
One major key to enabling the decision-makers is feedback. Feedback is comprised of the signals we receive after we take an action, which allow us to make better decisions: stop acting, act more, or change the action. Feedback is the information flowing through those communication channels.
Where feedback is relevant:
- Politics: Our political systems in the U.S. and elsewhere rely on feedback from voters articulating their priorities, not only through votes, but also in the many opportunities to request elected officials support or reject pending ordinances and bills.
- Organizational management: Management systems in government and business require feedback to adjust practices to better serve communities and customers.
- Ecology: Like other animals, we shape our surroundings when we remove and replenish nutrients, remove life forms and provide opportunities for other life to grow. Unlike other animals, the scale and speed with which we do this shaping is unprecedented, often outstripping our ability to understand the effects of those changes.
- Economics: Simple patterns like supply and demand curves rely on feedback. The scarcity or abundance of sale items allows sellers to adjust price, whether commodities, real estate or other products. Stock markets are highly sensitive to feedback, where perceived or expected changes in the world drive radical stock price changes.
Among the barriers to better action is inertia. In the face of feedback that indicates change is necessary, inertia helps maintain the status quo, even when parts of the status quo are no longer helpful. Beyond inertia, we often have structural barriers, like institutional, economic, legal or financial stipulations that block the flow of information and/or resources. And disempowerment of those receiving feedback renders them unable to take appropriate corrective action, even when inertia and structural barriers are addressed. Thus, our articulation of the key barriers in this system of decision-makers — the places where we need to apply leverage — is this:
- Inertia grips our system
- We lack feedback
- Political donations block feedback
- Non-responsive bureaucracy blocks feedback
- Feedback recipients are disempowered
- Wealth concentration hinders equity
- We devalue diversity