Decisions, Evolution, and Climate Change: Part 1 of 2

These two articles will frame human-created climate change, and our evolving capacities to escalate or de-escalate it, in terms of the universal and evolutionary dynamics of decision making. These articles are more academic than many blog posts on this site but offer a touchstone for ongoing reference. Part 1 describes these dynamics and uses personal decision making as an example. Part 2 will describe collective decision making regarding public issues, especially those related to climate change.

Part 1: Decision Making – the Building Material of Evolution
Decisions to take actions are central building materials for evolutionary dynamics, and their universal patterns can be observed in simple life forms such as mollusks, to complex personal, cultural, and organizational life. But we may overlook the significance of how decision making reflects the transitional process of evolution.

dots on graphWhat if we considered these points as social decisions not just impersonal stats?

We have become familiar with graphs like this one, plotting rising carbon emissions. But what if we were to look at each dot on this graph, and others like it, as reflecting points in which many decisions were made − points where society, individually or institutionally, assessed the situation and chose certain actions? Cumulatively, these decisions have added up to moving society in certain directions, as have all human decisions through the eons of evolution. Some of these decisions have been conscious responses to surrounding conditions, some more fleeting. At certain times, we took in information about multiple interconnected conditions to inform our decisions, and at other times, our decisions were motivated by more immediate reactions to concrete needs.

Prior to Actions there are Decisions to Take Those Actions

We can easily forget that an action results from a decision, whether a spur of the moment decision or one based on a more deliberate weighing of options and implications. Oil spills, urban sprawl over agricultural land, migration policies, and water use – all represent situations in which decisions impacting society and the environment were made. As do choices to walk more, buy energy efficient cars, or attend a community meeting about rezoning for desnity. Some decisions have unintended consequences if we do not connect the dots.

We often miss the significance of these watershed points. When the data is presented scientifically as mere dots on a graph like above, the story of our various forms of human involvement represented by those dots can be missed. The dots can become the territory of others – of unknown, unquestioned experts – and less about us and our collective aspirations, decisions and actions.

Perceiving actions and situations as resulting from our decisions, may help us view ourselves less as victims of outside forces, of governments and corporations “out there,” and more as active participants. We are agentic producers, not products, of social systems in which we interact. Remembering this is especially important when considering the choices facing us in relation to climate change.

People are seldom aware of how they make decisions. Decision making is a background process that we take for granted. This is true of personal decisions but even more so of collective decisions. If we are to respond adequately to the multiple, complex social, political, economic, and ecological issues facing us, we must make informed collective decisions, some of which will be quite difficult – decisions about priorities, values, policies, and actions. It is therefore important to take some time to amplify the importance of the often overlooked process of making decisions.

Good decisions are essential to our personal surviving and thriving. They are essential to our global survival. Understanding this significance sets the stage for dissecting the anatomy of a decision.

The Anatomy of a Decision

In recent years, an entire computer-based science of decision making has been developed, designed to anticipate variables, probabilities, and risks. What I focus on here is the dynamic relational aspects of decision making, called dialectics, associated with the early work of philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel and psychologist Jean Piaget, and more recently, adult developmental theorist Michael Basseches.

The dialectical process generally refers to the discourse between two or more people holding different points of view and seeking to establish meaning through reasoned arguments. But we can also use this term to refer to many scales of interactions: the inner dialogue between varying views that exist within us, or to certain dynamics within corporations, or among nations. The concept of dialectics when combined with elements of complexity theory enhances our ability to recognize and respond to the nature of complex interactions. If we had developed this ability earlier, we could have anticipated the interconnected relationship amongst beliefs, behaviors, cultures, organizations and natural systems and accordingly made other, more systemic and sustainable, decisions.

Within this theoretical framework, contradiction and uncertainty are befriended as the necessary catalysts of making choices and thus of evolution. Uncertainty can, at times, immobilize us. In A History of Western Philosophy (1945, xiv), Bertrand Russell wrote that “to teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it.” I would add that this can also be one of the roles of depth therapy, group facilitation, and higher education whose aim is to advance the ability to engage in system thinking and critical reflection.

Dialectical thinking involves three transitional phases that move from an original certainty or concretenes to a new, more comprehensive systemic understanding: thesis -the starting statement or assumption , antithesis- the opposing assumption, and synthesis- a new, fuller, more coherent framework that successfully overcomes the limits of both the thesis and antithesis. Although synthesis, or arrival at a decision, is often framed as the end point, it can, of course, become the next thesis to be tested against current experience, and the cycle repeats itself recursively in a dynamic manner. From this processual view there is no final, perfect, static paradigm that exists separately from, and impervious to, ongoing changing influences.

The Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC) first introduced by Michael Commons and further developed by Sara Ross, offers a deeper analysis of these phases of decision-making and reveals significant sub-phases that include non-linear dynamics. The limitations of the previous assumptions inherent in both the thesis and antithesis are expereinced and the static either/or  state  loosens and gives way to a back and forth phase that is referred to as oscillation. Oscillation may lead to a very active, although usually unseen, chaotic or “smash” phase during which new configurations are tried out in order to see if they can be successfully reshaped to match certain needs and provide the desired satisfaction. What occurs in this chaotic phase is unpredictable. A new “whole” can emerge that does not resemble the original “parts” or options previously on the table, but does arise from the container that the thesis and antithesis presented. Arriving at a decision can serve evolution due to this more coherent innovation it establishes.

As an illustration, consider below, an example of decision making: buying a car. It encompasses the various phases and sub-phases noted above, including the challenging transition or disequilibrium in the middle.

An Example: Buying a Car

A potential car buyer may move from thesis (“I will buy a car”), to antithesis (“I can’t afford a car!”), to either/or oscillation (“I have to choose between either being carless or going into debt to buy a car”), to a chaotic state that I call chaoscillation, during which several new options are created, tested, and adjusted to see if they can possibly satisfy the initial need.

During the transitional phase, the option of buying a used car gets weighed against concerns about high repair costs, borrowing a friend’s car gets pushed up against feeling beholden, buying a new car gets tested against other budget priorities, driving is considered against environmental concerns. This phase has pitfalls such as being caught in either/ or  debates, procrastination , angst about the complexity of various options, and frustration at having to prioritize and not have it all  (reflective of releatisvism). These snags might bog down the movement forward through the chaos and thus the arrival at a satisfactory decision. Evolution takes work!

When all of these transitional steps between deconstructing the original thesis and reconstructing a “solution” that one can live with, are completed, a new satisfactory option is seen: joining a car co-op − Voila! This provides a new sense of equilibrium or synthesis. This solution must satisfy all of the presenting conditions; otherwise, it is a cobbled up compromise, albeit livable, that might fall apart later.

Significantly, the chosen “solution” was not among the possibilities initially considered but emerged because of the focused attempts to match needs and options. The potential car buyer has gone through transition stages that resulted in an evolution of the situation.

Why Bother Understanding Decision Making?

This degree of detailed reflection on decision making might feel unnatural or even obsessive. However, these phases are operating to some degree in the background, unnoticed. Knowing more about the process means the stages and their challenges can be better detected and supported by reflective inquiry. Greater consciousness of our agency in terms of decision making, and of our ability to track the experience of authenticity and coherence, can be the material for personal and cultural evolvement.Understandng the transitional phases may help us detect at what essential phase the process has become stuck. And what might aid it to move through to completion.

Reflective questions that can assist the decision process are:
What is it that I am doing or believing that no longer seems to fit? Why doesn’t it fit any more – what conditions or beliefs have changed within or around me? What is my body felt sense about this misfit? What needs am I trying to satisfy? What am I valuing or perceiving now that is different from in the past? What other options can I consider? How will I manage the tradeoffs I may need to make? How can these new insights of how I arrived at this decision, guide me in other situations?

This post, the first of a two-part article, focuses on the evolutionary dynamics and anatomy of decisions, using personal decision making as an example. Part 2 will move into the realm of collective decision making about publicly shared issues. Collective decision making, although more complex in scale and scope, involves the same universal patterns as personal decision making.


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