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Humberto Maturana: 3 Conservation and change
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Biosphere, Homosphere, and Robosphere: what has that to do with Business?
Humberto Maturana Romesin and Pille Bunnell
Conservation and change

This phenomenon of conservation and change rests on three systemic conditions. These are systemic conditions because they constitute systemic dynamics, and are thus valid in any part of the cosmos. These dynamics are the fundament of all cosmic historical dynamics, including this earth and humans.

1. When in a collection of elements some configuration of relations begins to be conserved, a space is opened for everything to change around what is conserved.

This is the origin of living systems - but all systems arise in this way. In chaos theory people talk about attractors and so forth - and again this is what is involved. Something begins in the moment a configuration of relations begins to be conserved, and ends in the moment that the configuration which defines it stops being conserved.

We know this, and yet it is interesting to state it explicitly. We know this through how we live. For example, if we embark on a course of studies, we remain as students as long as we continue on this course. We may change what we eat, where we sleep, what we read, who we talk to, and so forth, but we conserve our condition of being students. Another example, when we say that a particular company has existed since 1893, we mean that something has been conserved - it could be the name, or it could be a particular configuration of relationships of how people interact with each other, or it might be what the company produces - whatever we claim constitutes the identity of the company. There are examples that show any of these are acceptable for the claim that the company has a history.

So what is conserved defines the identity, and whatever is conserved specifies what can change. This is interesting; we are so preoccupied with change that we do not notice that what is important is what is conserved.

Once, in a meeting in Santiago a friend of mine announced that "I have founded a club of innovators!" and everyone congratulated him saying how fantastic this was. But I remained silent. My friend asked me why, and I told him that the only club I would like to found is a "conservator's club". I'm a conservator, not a political conservative - conservation is not a political notion. Yet politics results, because politics is a system that conserves particular identities. Even revolutionaries conserve; all cultures are conservative. This is so because it is a systemic phenomenon: all systems exist only as long as there is conservation of that which defines them.

The story of changes in Shell Oil is also a lesson about conservation. As the qualities to be conserved were identified, a space for change was opened, and as that change took place, what was to be conserved altered too - so another space for change occurred.

The second systemic condition pertains to all living systems, but I will word it so it pertains to humans in particular:
2. Human history does not follow the path of resources or opportunities, rather it follows the path of desires or, in more general terms, a path of emotions.

Something is a resource if one wants it, if one desires it. Similarly, something is only an opportunity if you desire it. For example when you say that you did not realize that something was an opportunity you are saying that you did not see it as an opportunity because you did not desire what appeared at that moment. Later you comment on the missed opportunity when you explain the history of how something you now desired happened in a way in which you imagine yourself connected to that story.

We move around seeing different things, wanting different things, and according to our desires we consider these things resources, or opportunities, or something else that has to do with what we want. If we do not want to have them or use them, then things are just there, being whatever they are for themselves.

I invite you to the following exercise. Think about your personal history, and you will discover that everything in your life has happened such that you are here, right where you in this moment, reading this paper. Everything; where you were born, who your parents and friends are, where you went to school, what language you speak - everything leads to this moment. You can make a trace, from now into the past in way that shows that every turn you took, every choice you made, brought you here. So you were destined to read this paper today.

The beauty of this silly little exercise is that it shows us that if one looks at a history this way, it looks as if everything is predetermined of fated; but it isn't. Your whole life was not directed at arriving here, you resulted here. And that is the nature of biological history, the way any living being lives. What happens is constructed moment by moment by the character of one's living, always going in the path of well being, a choice of comfort, desire or preference. An animal may prefer to go one way, and in doing so, it happens to get eaten by a predator. If it had chosen another way, it might not have been eaten. Did it choose based on the consequences? No, it chose according to its desires in the present, because living is in the present. For animals there are no opportunities or resources. We humans may use these words as we comment on their behaviour according to how we explain what we see as happening to them. If we want to invent a human history, we will have to show a path of conservation that we follow. And what path do we follow? We follow the path of our desires, because desires define what we conserve. This is not a trivial point, and fundamentally we all know this. When we are concerned about what we are doing we are concerned with conserving that which we desire.

The concern for organizations, production, efficiency, and success rests on a background which we usually do not look at, but we all know is there, and sooner or later it appears in front of our nose. What I am alluding to is the background in which what we do is possible.

3. When a configuration of relations among elements is conserved, that configuration may enter into a relationship with other elements, or configurations of elements, and this new configuration of relationships may begin to be conserved.

This eventually results in a complex interconnected and intersected systemic dynamics in which systems appear embedded in other systems. Whenever we identify a system of some kind, it is embedded in another system. If we think of ourselves as a system, then we see that we are embedded in a community, or a family, or an organization in which we work. This system is then embedded in another system. I do not mean to say that each system acts as a container for those inside it, rather that the smaller system is embedded in a flow of interactions and modulations between itself and the larger systems.

Figure 2 Systems are embedded in systems which are embedded in yet larger systems. This does not constitute a hierarchy of containment or control, as there is a continuous flow of interactions and modulations among the systems; represented by the arrows in this figure.
In his book called "The Future Eaters" T. Flannery shows us that we are consuming our future. He shows this through a study of the ecological transformations made by people in Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and Easter Island. In many cases the transformations were catastrophic. For example, when the first few families arrived on Easter Island it was a lush tropical island, but there is nothing of that now. Everything was consumed by the expanding human population. Humans not only consumed the biota that was there, but in the process they transformed the conditions so that the ecosystems could not regenerate. Flannery shows that what is involved in such situations is a particular attitude about the future: namely that whatever we want is an infinite resource - there for our taking. Daniel Quinn in his book "Ishmael" names whole cultures based on this attitude as the "Takers". Takers come to a wonderful place, and say "How fantastic, how marvelous for us!", and keep taking from it as if it were infinite. But it is not.

I have seen this myself, for example about 10 years ago I was visiting a landowner in Brazil and I asked him "Do you care about conservation?" He answered me "Why should I care? There is so much here, it is infinite!" The same attitude has grounded many losses, which we call "resource depletion" because we wanted what was lost, from passenger pigeons to Pacific salmon. We humans produce machines that transform infinity into nothingness.
What happens is that the systems we are embedded in are involved with what happens. And yes, you know this. Who supports Shell Oil? The consumers, of course. (Excuse me if I say these things, but I am speaking as a biologist, so I have some permissions.) This is why their CEO, Mr. Carroll was so concerned with a match between production and consumption. As long as consumers remain infinite, Shell Oil can grow and grow and grow ... and of course Shell Oil is not the only company who prospers through growing on a growing base of consumers. But what happens if consumers are not infinite? What happens if the system that the consumers are embedded in is not infinite?

What will happen depends on what has transpired by the time we become aware that the system that contains us is not infinite. What will happen depends on whether reach a systemic condition of stability, or not. Now stability is not the same as equilibrium, stability does not mean that the system remains unchanging. Rather, stability means that the dynamics involved conserve certain relations of coherence such that the system can continue existing in a finite background.

I think that the main problem that we face as business persons, if we wish to face it, is that of creating activities for finite backgrounds. Of course, occasionally a background may grow, and occasionally it may shrink. But the situation on earth is necessarily finite.

We humans have a history of expansions in which resources seemed to become infinite. For example when the new world was opened, that is when Europeans found that they could come here, a limited space became infinite. Europe had been limited, and suddenly the world appeared infinite! It did not matter that the new world was already inhabited by other people, Europeans saw it as open to their desires. So we may wish to imagine another expansion to conserve this notion of infinite resources. We can think of colonizing the moon, or Mars, or even some other solar system by sending properly hibernated people. But the solar system is finite and interstellar distances begin to be such that when the colonizers arrive there the connections with the origin may have been completely severed. We may wish to think about such expansion, but the earth is finite. We can transform it, yes, but the earth is finite, and this is where we are.

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