I have just been reflecting on the trajectory of unsustainability our species is on, and looking at it though the lens of sub-optimisation. Suboptimisation means focusing on one component of a system and making changes intended to improve that one component and ignoring the effects on the other components, or the system as a whole. Through the lens of suboptimisation it becomes clearer that the central issue underlying the unsustainability of our civilisation is that we are sub-optimising ourselves to death.
This behaviour emerges from cultural values that disproportionately value the component part over the systemic whole. It’s important that the needs of both the whole system and the component parts are attended to. Any living system that doesn’t equally attend to both will ultimately not be sustainable.
We see this dynamic operating in the relationship between well-being and consumerism. The former is the “whole” of which the later is a part, and not vice versa. When we collectively make choices that don’t consciously reflect on what contributes to the “wholes” of meaning and well-being then we end up sub-optimising for the present of the few at the cost of the mortgaged future of the many.
The abstract notion of wholes and wholeness and a human cognitive bias towards tangibility makes this pattern of sub-optimisation understandable, but unfortunate. From this dynamic emerges the underlying pattern that defines much of what is nonfunctional about our civilisation and the underlying cultural values and practices that shape it. The rise of behavioural-based chronic disease and growing consumer debt are two examples of this pattern of sub-optimisation. This pattern operates whenever a lack of mindful reflection allows the implicit authority of our habituality to define our behaviour.
At a societal level this pattern results in the growing gap between the rich and poor, and the disillusionment in representational democracy. Furthermore, when sub-optimisation results in the sub-optimised parts gaining more control of the power to enforce further optimisation choices, the system becomes a vicious cycle (or a virtuous cycle if you are rich or have political power).
The unconscious values and practices of our culture are killing us. Both as individuals and as a civilisation. No one part, moment, habit, person, party or value should ever be granted authority to control the whole (or vice versa). What is needed is an awakening to this & realisation that we need to move from an “either-or” perspective to an “and” perspective.
The spirit of “and” is fundamentally about reconciliation and wholeness. This is the essence of the concept of well-being. Well-being as a meme is getting increasing attention and even if to date this attention is relatively shallow its a positive trajectory. Well-being as a concept extends beyond the boundaries of the physical, mental, financial, societal or environmental. It is a cultural practice and value that applies to all sustainable living systems. Underlying this is a set of competencies that we all need to learn to develop if we are to flourish as individuals, and survive as a civilisation.
I call these the 5 competencies of meaningful participation and I’ll talk more about these in a later post.