Eddies in a Riverbend as a Powerful Metaphor for Change

I am intrigued by Tom Atlee’s work at the Co-intelligence Institute. I find his ideas about the role of collective wisdom and knowledge in the transition to a more sustainable future extremely compelling, and in particular those about the importance of creating processes that develop our collective intelligence (or co-intelligence) such that we are able to cobble together a future that works for all beings on the planet.  He also speaks of conscious evolution and was the one who turned me onto Michael Dowd and his book, Thank God for Evolution

I love this excerpt from a forum post written by Atlee that expands upon Robert Gilman’s Stages Of Change article which explains how, in chaotic systems, small events can lead to major changes, which makes me think of Bucky Fuller’s “trim tab” concept.

… a  river swollen by rain and snowmelt — which in ordinary (“equilibrium”) times is smooth at its riverbends — begins to produce many small eddies at its turns, which appear and disappear, generating a chaotic turbulence. As the volume and speed of flow increase, one of those eddies — it is unpredictable which one — suddenly transforms into a large, stable whirlpool, a qualitatively new “structure” in the river’s flow, absorbing the chaotic, turbulent energy of all the small eddies.

Gilman notes that at any given level of flow in such non-equilibrium systems, “the system has more than one potential structure it can ‘choose’ from.” So at any transition point, small fluctuations can have an inordinate and sometimes decisive impact. In social systems, these “small fluctuations” may be the actions of individuals, small groups, and distributed networks. This is the science that underlies Margaret Mead’s famous quote — “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Gillman continues: “Let’s go back to the bend in the river. Suppose there are two places in that bend where a stable whirlpool could form, but once a whirlpool forms in one place, it prevents the other one from forming. As the flow increases, which will the river choose?

It all depends on which place ‘just happens’ to have an eddy in it as the flow gets strong enough to amplify that eddy into a full whirlpool…. The essential feature here is that the unstable phase of a non-equilibrium system contains a lot of unstructured energy that is available to amplify small events into major changes. This can only happen, however, if that small event is a ‘seed’ of one of the potential structures that the system could settle into. As a non- equilibrium system moves from one stable structure to another, its history is determined by which ‘seeds’ are available to be amplified as the system reaches it critical ‘decision point.'”

This is significant for our evolution toward a just, joyfully sustainable society. Gillman goes on: “We do what we have the ‘tools’ to do – spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically. Thus the most effective way to genuinely change a culture is to create new ways to address basic needs. During the time of preparation, this means getting the components of the new culture developed, functioning in small ways, and ready to be assembled into a new synthesis when the crossroads is reached…. The alternative that has the best developed and mutually supportive set of new pathways, that can be most easily jumped to from the old patterns, and is most in harmony with the new circumstances, has the best chance of becoming the new road.”

I see the evolution of increasingly wise “sustainability commons” as providing “seeds” for potential structures that our out-of-equilibrium systems could settle into after the chaotic transitional
periods that are emerging.

I love this. It is the metaphor that speaks to why the work that many of us is valuable and important, even if we do not see the major changes that we are hoping for. We are creating the eddies, the seeds of change, so that these ideas and their manifestations are available for transformation when the time comes. We are in the time of preparation and building the elements of the new culture as we hospice the old. As Gilman suggests, it is our work to create “the best developed and mutually supportive set of new pathways, that can be most easily jumped to from the old patterns, and is most in harmony with the new circumstances” so that what we envision “has the best chance of becoming the new road.”

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