There is something about the human mind and about the way we think that is at once quirky and persistently primitive: seriously out-of-kilter with contemporary reality.

We manage our affairs as though they were entirely straightforward, crying foul when others point out that our map of the territory is inaccurate. We share the illusion that setting targets to achieve desired outcomes will work and that reality will simply bow to our aims. We persist in using linear cause-and-effect thinking that fails to meet any of the conditions needed for whole-of-system reconfiguration and renewal… Need I go on?

On the one hand we revere expert knowledge yet habitually construct arguments and debates in terms of limited dualities, which then trap us in confusing compromises between equally wretched choices rather than forcing us to transcend both extremes to imagine new and better alternatives. 

We are often fearful of challenging the deeply embedded superstitions that guided the daily lives of our ancestors; indeed individuals are often pilloried when they do mount a serious challenge to widely-accepted traditional beliefs. Heresy they cry! Worse, we are easily seduced by ignorant yet attention-grabbing drivel that appeals, nevertheless, to our innate desire to avoid disturbing the status quo.

An oft-repeated mantra during the current global economic meltdown has been that a bank or corporation or industry is ‘too big to fail’.

This is claptrap. It reminds me of a quaint sign I once saw in the toilet of a train in the UK which said ‘Gentlemen Lift the Seat’. I was unsure whether such ambiguity was meant as an instruction, a goal, or was simply British Rail’s definition of a gentleman. Although the axiom ‘too big to fail’ has been used mostly to emphasize the value of a particular institution, industry or enterprise to the economy, it also inadvertently reveals a common fallacy; one that is at the core of our thinking about business and the environment.

In nature, nothing is too big to fail. In fact, big systems invariably fail. To understand why that is so one needs to step back from our prevailing set of beliefs, especially the conviction that we operate separately from nature’s rules and limits and can therefore exercise authority over a particular course of events. We can not. Which is why all the target setting in the world ultimately has no impact on dynamically complex systems like the economy and natural ecosystems. Nature is in the driver’s seat. The sooner we realize that the wiser our policies will become and the less futile our actions. 

The truth of the matter is that we are ecologically illiterate. Not just unfamiliar with indispensable scientific vocabulary and concepts, but spectacularly, catastrophically, tragically stupid! Some of us now appreciate that draining pristine aquifers, felling tropical rainforests, deep-ocean trawling and pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere are self-destructively dumb things to do. But when it comes down to understanding how nature itself behaves we remain outrageously naive.

Science tells us that any dynamically complex system (be it an economy, a natural ecosystem, an organization or a community) tends to go through fundamental phases of adaptation throughout the course of its life cycle. There is even a name for it. We call it the co-evolutionary cycle. There are four phases in this cycle: growth, consolidation, collapse and renewal. 

The initial growth phase is characterized by an openness to a range of possibilities. As the system composes itself into being, a creative energy opens up all manner of opportunities, roles to be filled, innovations to adopt, paths to take and partnerships to be explored. The potential for growth is rich and seemingly infinite at this stage. 

After a while, however, the system begins to coalesce. Activities become fewer and less diverse. Efficiencies are sought and innovation diminishes as a consequence. As the system matures rules bind everything together in ways that restrict further options. During this consolidation phase the system grows and becomes more stable. It may also appear to be indestructible. In fact it is becoming ever more vulnerable to forces outside of its control.

The Achilles heel in any large sprawling system is inherent in this consolidation phase. As soon as each agent is braided into an entangled whole, a seemingly tiny adjustment in a remote part of the system can cascade catastrophically throughout the whole.

Think of the arsonist’s match at the edge of the township of Marysville or a small failure in a local generator that brings down an entire section of a power distribution network.

As we experience dramatic shifts in extreme weather, we can appreciate just how, in an overly mature system, disruptions that start small can escalate rapidly, sometimes spinning totally out of human control. For example, as the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases the oceans become more acidic. At a critical, albeit unknown point, this could potentially shut down entire food webs. Given our reliance on the oceans for food and carbon sequestration this would be sufficient to generate a crisis in its own right. But at this stage we are doing nothing to prevent such a disaster.

The question of ocean acidity also illustrates how easy it is to cross thresholds (even just a small increase in carbon dioxide can precipitate catastrophe) and fall into self-reinforcing feedback loops. Large consolidated systems are particularly vulnerable to such runaway scenarios. Think of the domino effect within the densely connected global economy where a financial product built on thin air (credit-default swaps) and fuelled by greed, led to the collapse of Bear Stearns, then Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and AIG. What appeared to be hardly credible one day eventually happened with such extraordinary speed the next.

The third phase in the typical co-evolutionary cycle is collapse. Collapse generally occurs because of a lack of resilience – the capacity of any socio-ecological system to withstand shocks, deal with disturbances and persist by navigating change and, where feasible, shaping future conditions. 

Like strategic foresight, whole-system resilience has been a field we have largely overlooked. Instead we prefer to stubbornly cling to the hubristic delusion of command and control. I suppose when I was a boy, at a time when resources seemed limitless and economic growth became the dominant paradigm, such neglect was explicable. But we are now beginning to feel the impact of such casualness and lack of foresight. Because everything is intertwined, when mature systems go into a state of distress the ensuing collapse feels like an earthquake rather than erosion. This is precisely what we are beginning to feel now we are aware of the immense damage we have inflicted on our natural environment and that sustains all life. 

Although it may be tricky to detect during the mayhem and commotion of systemic collapse, enormous amounts of energy are generated in this phase of the co-evolutionary cycle. Indeed it is this energy that leads to the potential for renewal – the final phase. After seeds are cracked open by a forest fire, seedlings thrive in the nutrient-rich loam. They soak up newly available sunlight where the forest canopy has opened to the sky. Then, as those open spaces start to fill, the growth phase begins anew. 

It is important to understand that collapse will not inevitably lead to regeneration as we would ideally design it.

On the contrary, this phase actually creates bifurcation points where many unknown paths and trajectories become possible once again. Collapse can also lead to rapid transitions and shifts into qualitatively different situations and configurations. At other times it may give rise to an entirely different and unwanted regime. There can be no guarantee – which is why adaptation and the ability to navigate become so vital. 

Fire, for example, can renew woodland by clearing debris and resetting the ecological clock. On the other hand, when combined with a prolonged drought, it can set the scene for desertification. In social systems we can influence whether the outcome is positive or negative by designing with intent: establishing desired goals, providing encouragement and incentives, creating liberating policies that promote diversity, resilience and long-term viability, continuously monitoring the results and taking corrective action. We call this adaptive leadership.

Once we are able to tune in to the phases of the co-evolutionary cycle, we see them unfolding all around us. At first they may seem overwhelmingly complex, especially when compared to the tidier, more linear models that shape conventional ways of seeing the world. But ignoring that cycle as you build an economy is akin to denying gravity as you build a skyscraper. Aborigines know this. They understand the co-evolutionary cycle better than any of us white fellas. Perhaps it is time to take more notice of their sagacity and wisdom. 

‘Too big to fail’ is a warning signal. It cautions us to take a deeper look and consider whether the seemingly impregnable edifice in front of us is closer to collapse than it appears to be and, if so, to ask what can be done about it. If we were ecologically astute we would probably intervene by breaking it up, thus creating space for new niches and for the more dynamic diversity that flows naturally into such a system. The last thing we would do is to prop it up in the futile hope that it would not collapse. Nor would we contemplate setting meaningless targets that achieve absolutely nothing.

Our ignorance of the co-evolutionary cycle is just one example of our ecological illiteracy. In truth we are inept at reading all sorts of natural signs. Take, for example, thresholds, those critical points where seemingly minor changes can tip an economy into recession or a climate into a new regime of monstrous floods and epic droughts.

Thresholds are the gates between the phases in the co-evolutionary cycle, except that they are often one-way; once you stumble through them, it is impossible to get back to the other side. Which is why it is crucially important to understand where they are and to be able to recognize them. Although we are familiar with the notion of ‘tipping points’ and we have figured out, albeit belatedly, that we have already crossed too many of them, we are still abysmal at seeing, let alone avoiding, critical thresholds before we reach them.

Understanding exactly where a threshold is located may be tricky. But we can at least look for such boundaries and deliberately try to avoid crossing them when the unintended consequences of doing so can be both unpredictable and dire. There are usually ample warnings after all: the reservoir level is lower each year; the colors in the coral reef are fading; mercury levels in the lake are increasing; severe droughts are becoming more frequent…

Once you have driven off a cliff, it does you little good to realize that you are falling. The time to practice water conservation is prior to the dams and the wells running dry; before the threshold is reached.

Still, if we really were attentive to the natural cycles unfolding around us, we wouldn’t be attracted to economic growth like moths to a flame. We wouldn’t equate bigger with success, but with risk, with enervation awaiting collapse. We certainly wouldn’t be aiming today to rebuild yesterday’s busted economy so that, tomorrow, we can resume our unlimited looting of nature’s storehouse. On the contrary we would seek to acquire prosperity and well-being without the need for rampant development.

Until recently we had imagined ourselves unconstrained by nature’s limits or rules. Encouraged by ancient scriptures urging us to dominate the Earth, we obliged with unimaginable zeal, building an economy where faster, cheaper, bigger, more – and even more – added up to the winning hand. Then we behaved as though our ultimate authority over everything from resource scarcity to those melting ice sheets was a foregone conclusion. Facing thresholds where the red lights were visibly blinking we simply told ourselves that we would figure out how to tweak the engineering a bit, add a new technology, make room for a few more billion passengers and push down on the throttle.

We got it terribly wrong. A capitalist economy based on constant, unlimited growth is a reckless whimsy because natural ecosystems are not limitless – there are only so many pollinators, so many aquifers, so much fertile soil. In nature, unchecked rapid growth is the ideology of the invasive species and the cancer cell. Growth as an end in itself is ultimately self-destructive. 

If ‘recovery’ from the economic meltdown and the impacts of global warming is just another word for a return to business-as-usual we will be squandering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to construct an economy that can remain viable for generations to come, without overloading the Earth’s carrying capacity and courting catastrophe.

Remember that renewal phase of the co-evolutionary cycle? Here’s where that comes in. Yes, collapse can be a nightmare, but it also presents new possibilities. If we were more conscious of the thresholds we have already crossed, we might think differently about the next iteration of the global economy. Humanity could always cross a threshold of its own making and decide to live differently. Unrestrained growth, after all, was never a prerequisite for health, happiness, equity and justice.

What would an end to separation from nature and from each other feel like? How might it be expressed day to day and in policies that are both liberating and intelligent? The renewal phase that is dawning even now begs us to answer those questions.

This much is clear. Our external world is merely the manifestation of an internal state of mind.

The problem is not global warming, soil degradation, water scarcity, extreme weather events, or ocean acidity. It is not even all of these combined. The real issue is how we think about ourselves in relation to nature. That is what we need to change.

If we want to avoid endless hardship, conflict and ecological catastrophes, we must become ecologically literate – and deeply so. The future is, you might say, too big to fail. Which is why adaptive leadership is so critical and why there is so much to learn from nature itself.

Adaptive leadership is at once an admission of our inability to solve these problems independently of others (divorced from the environment that is the support system for all life on this planet) as well as a solution staring us in the face. 

Albert Einstein famously said that we cannot solve the problems we have brought on ourselves by using the same cognition that created those problems. He was right. 

Adaptive leadership is about shifting to a higher level of consciousness from which to comprehend the more critical issues facing us – and from an integral perspective. It is about enquiring together into the motivations and values that compel us to act in ways that are self-destructive – and instituting policies to change these. It is about changing our innate cultural guidance system so as to wean us off waste, greed, profligacy and excess – installing frugality, responsibility, resilience and sustainability in their place. And it is about becoming sufficiently literate to act in time to avoid going through the thresholds that promise only further uncertainty and risk.