The Desert of Blind Souls

This first valley will seem familiar because it resembles the world we live in. However, the people in this valley are blind, even though they have eyes; theirs is a blindness of the intellect and of the spirit. They are wandering in the desert, chasing mirages.

They see wonderful visions of material happiness. In order to be happy, they must buy the latest electronic gadget, or apparel that everyone must wear to be seen as part of the group, or music that affirms their identity. Yet, once in hand, the mirage vanishes; there is always an even newer gadget, or style, or song beckoning out there, offering even greater satisfaction, and calling 'buy me, buy me, buy me'.

This valley traps most people as passive consumers of material goods. They keep the economy growing and feed ever-increasing wealth to the giant corporations that rule it. One cause of this blindness is that these people see only the material dimension of life and seek satisfaction only in hedonistic pleasures.

A second cause of blindness comes from tunnel vision - seeing only a small part of the whole, determined by one's field of knowledge, professional training or experience in life. An economist sees only economics and filters everything to fit into that field of vision. A political activist will see only what reinforces her or his ideology and sees everything else as a threat. A religious person may be immersed in his or her own tradition and belief and completely ignore the richness of spiritual discovery in other faiths or denominations. A scientist may be convinced that anything not validated by the tools of his or her discipline or published in a peer-reviewed journal is not worthy of attention. Such tunnels become traps that do not provide any way out of this valley.

The blindness of the intellect rejects science and knowledge when it is inconvenient. For those who are blind as such, truth is whatever you want it to be and has no relation to any objective reality. The ends - usually power or money - justify any means. This anti-intellectual blindness can be very calculating, using the tools of science for its own ends. It can also be very popular, because seeing everything in black and white, with the illusion of absolute certainty, brings comfort.

Blindness of the spirit shares many of these characteristics, but it denies any spiritual reality and sees humanity only as animals with physical needs and desires that can be satisfied with carnal pleasures and material wealth. It denies any higher human purpose or meaning and sees our existence as only the result of random processes.

Yet, science and history both show that in every human society there is a fundamental need and desire for meaning in life, a search for the self and the universe, with connections that give life a purpose. Spirituality, in this sense, refers to the natural and universal need to understand the world and our place in it. This spirituality can take many forms: secular or religious, in nature and the sciences, in art, music and poetry. When a person has no sense of meaning, or rejects this need for meaning, the vacuum in their existence leaves a fundamental anxiety that is too easily compensated by aggression, depression and addiction.1 These are, in fact, the symptoms that define this desert of blind souls.

This blindness of the spirit is most evident in the rejection of anything that might fall within what has traditionally been called God or religion. Yet religion is the institutional response to the human need for spirituality; it is a social institution that meets a natural and universal human requirement.2 This is not to ignore that many of the worst atrocities we can imagine have taken place in the name of religion. But has religion not been used in such cases as a mere cover for baser human motivations?

To overcome this blindness we need to look objectively at religion, not as something that is inevitably anti-scientific and anti-reason - as it is too often in the religious traditions of today - but as a potential force for good: for unity rather than division and in harmony with science and reason, while providing answers to questions of human purpose and motivation. It is within this framework that you will encounter religion and spirituality along this journey, freed from the trappings of the past and able to play a constructive role in transforming civilization. If you have an a priori prejudice against religion, try to set it aside for the duration of this journey. You can always return to it later.

Diagnosing the illness

It may help at the start of this journey to imagine that you are in space looking down on this valley, as if it were the planet Earth, with a vision that allows you to see every single human being and to understand what is in each mind and heart. You can look over all of human society and can seek to identify the ailments from which it suffers.

Just as a doctor examines the symptoms of a patient in order to diagnose an illness, it may help to gaze out at the vista of the seething masses of humanity around the world. In one direction there are bitter enemies engaged in warfare, with hapless victims desperately trying to migrate to safety. In another there is organized crime, with corrupt leaders seeking to extract as much wealth as they can from others, regardless of the harm caused. In yet another direction, the rich are becoming ever richer, while the young can no longer find work; the marginalized are ignored and even the middle classes are slowly sinking into poverty. From behind come the sounds of the moaning of prisoners of conscience, victims of injustice and those jailed for their beliefs or their efforts for freedom and human rights. You may ask why you see so much poverty everywhere when the world clearly has enough wealth to meet the needs of everyone. Or perhaps you ask why there is so much fear of strangers, immigrants and the 'other', when all people are members of the same human family.

Despite the physical unity brought about by technology, the world is still fragmented into nations, classes, so-called 'races', political parties, labour unions and employers' federations and all sorts of other groups. Most of the people who have grabbed power are short-sighted, selfish, greedy and materialist, often build their power using manipulation, fundamentalist or radical agendas, xenophobia and fear.

However, this vision before us is not totally grim and foreboding. Here and there in the valley we see glimmers of light in the darkness. Some individuals with pure hearts and strong consciences are resisting the outside pressures and living a life of virtue and goodness. A few neighbourhoods, villages and communities have the unity and solidarity necessary to educate their children, give young people values to live for and the motivation to study to improve their understanding of material and spiritual reality. Aware of their higher or spiritual nature, they share prayers and devotions together and consult about practical solutions to their problems. Young entrepreneurs are starting social enterprises and even some large corporations are asking if there should be a purpose beyond profit. Some scientists are devoting their lives to improving our understanding of the world and the solutions to our physical problems. A few leaders really do have the welfare of every human being at heart. There are people who are selflessly giving to others in need. But, despite such actions, these efforts still fall far short of what is needed to change the present course of society. The fundamental illness remains. There is a general vacuum of ethical principles, human values and moral purpose.

Looking for tools

We need a conceptual framework in which to understand this complex system, within which an expanding humanity is trying to live on planet Earth. This will help us to ask the right questions. If science and technology have today eliminated the physical barriers between us and provided the knowledge to solve the age-old problems of scarcity and the struggle for existence, why do we still bring such horrors on ourselves? Is this our inevitable fate, or can we do things differently - should the desire and willingness, as well as the effort to change, be present? What is our human purpose?

We seem to have a much higher potential as human beings, as exemplified by some outstanding and exceptional individuals who are widely admired but seldom copied. Surely such behaviour would be too hard, would take too much of an effort? Yet, isn't such action a matter of free choice?

The voyage on which you are setting out will explore these questions and hopefully help you to find some answers. The metaphorical journey ahead is not just through some fantasy world, thought up for a computer game, but parallels what we experience in our own lives now and through all the years ahead.

In order to find your way out of this valley, you need two sets of tools that will help you to succeed on this journey: systems thinking and some fundamental values.

In a world of increasing specialization and compartmentalization, few people are educated to think about the whole and the ways in which all the individual parts fit together and influence each other. We may think that everything works mechanically and predictably like a machine and that equilibrium is the ideal state, but the world and its components - including ourselves - are organic and undergo constant change and evolution. It is hard to deal with this complexity. Even computer programmes that follow mathematical rules can exhibit strange behaviours. Many of the crises in our society are the result of systems failures.

We usually look first to science and technology for solutions. Science can give us the means, but it does not have all the answers. The products of science can be used as easily for war as for peace, for domination or sharing, for torture or healing. Only a strong framework of values can tell us how to use the tools of science and what kind of a society we may want to build.

This dichotomy reflects our own reality. You have both a rational capacity for scientific thought and an emotional dimension with feelings and beliefs, of which the latter are sometimes far from rational. These two realities coexist both within us and within society. They can be antagonistic and in conflict, or, ideally, they learn to live in peaceful coexistence and can even build upon a larger whole. One of the first challenges of this voyage is to learn how to bring these two realities into coherence and to appreciate their complementarity. This is what will allow you to escape from this valley as you journey towards a better world.




Perhaps the easiest way to explain a systems approach is to start with an example that we know intimately, even if we have always taken it for granted and not thought much about it: the human body.

A scientist might start by looking at physical properties, such as our weight, size, volume and density, or perhaps chemically at the amounts of elements like carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, or our molecular composition of proteins, carbohydrates, enzymes and water. Biologically we represent a collection of cells, tissues and organs, both our own and perhaps an equal number of cells of microbes and other organisms enveloped within our very skin and performing various functions like breathing and eating. Of course, we did not just appear out of thin air, but are a product of reproduction in the human species, with parents who produced a genetic recombination and gave us life, starting a complex cycle of growth, reproduction, ageing and death in which we help to perpetuate the species from generation to generation.

We could be viewed in terms of our behaviours and activities. A doctor would consider our state of health and determine the medical treatments required. We are not just a naked body, but may be distinguished by how we dress, how we surround ourselves with buildings and other structures and our ability to invent and use technologies that allow us to do things beyond our own physical capacities. For an educator, we started as a child in whom various skills were developed - like reading and writing - advancing to various spheres of knowledge and professional skills that allow us to contribute to society and to adapt to various conditions and situations. The psychologist would see in us a conscious being (whatever that means) with emotions, different kinds of intelligence, memories and a past history of experiences that influence us in various ways.

We also have what could be called a spiritual dimension, made up of our ethics and values, or perhaps a religious or cultural tradition, or various sources of motivation.

As a social organism, we do not live in complete isolation. We belong and contribute to many social structures, from our family and community to our nation and even our global society. Nor are we cut off from our surrounding environment. We take in food and drink, release waste and interact in multiple ways with both our natural environment and the city or community that many people over many years have built around us.

This brief summary of us as a complex system, dependent on the good functioning of all our internal components (themselves complex systems) and, in turn, an individual human being within many other complex social systems that exist at higher levels of organization, shows the challenges and opportunities of a systems approach. As we can see from this example, some of the elements of a systems approach include:
- Seeing things as dynamic and constantly changing, rather than static.
- Understanding the processes at work.
- Looking for causes and effects.
- Exploring interactions and understanding what influences something else within the system.
- Integrating all the different components in order to get a view of the whole.
- Looking for emergent properties that result from the whole system and might not be predictable just by adding up the parts.

You will find that this systems approach will not only arm you to confront the dangers in the valleys to come on this journey, but will also help you to integrate what you learn in each valley into a deeper understanding of your life-voyage of discovery and achievement.

For more detail on information in systems, see the BOX on INFORMATION

Systems dynamics

Systems science is also shedding new light on how complex systems work and you will see examples all along your journey. Complexity can both increase resilience - the ability of a system to maintain or restore its balance - and vulnerability - which can lead to system collapse. We need to understand how to increase the former and reduce the latter.

A system that has lost its natural controls may be subject to what is called overshoot and collapse, where a rapidly growing population may suddenly exhaust resources fundamental to its survival or destroy basic elements of its life support system and then die off. Systems often progress through what are called punctuated equilibria, meaning that a system can seem relatively stable and gradually improve its efficiency adapted to its environment at a certain level of organization. Changing conditions or a shock can lead to a period of rapid and perhaps chaotic change until new potentials allow a transition to a new period of stability. In the age of the dinosaurs, reptiles evolved to become the dominant life forms adapted to their environment, until sudden change - probably including an asteroid strike and extensive volcanic eruptions contaminating the atmosphere - caused their extinction and allowed the rapid evolution of birds and mammals.

The same thing applies at other levels of organization. The cells in our body age, develop faults and are replaced. We all ultimately age, our bodies will wear out and we shall die - but hopefully after most of us have produced offspring to replace us and to maintain the continuity and progress of our species. Sustainability in human society comes through reproduction and education, transmitting our collective knowledge from generation to generation. Effective systems go through a process of self-renewal, even if their individual components are constantly turning over.

There seems to be a natural evolutionary progression, with simple systems with few components and little information evolving into more complex and efficient systems with a larger information content. Innovation, whether through genetic mutations or human invention, makes this progression possible. This suggests that we should not be seeking security, stability and comfort in our society, but that progress comes through a culture of change in a learning community, a theme that you will come across again in subsequent valleys. At the present time in this valley, when change is accelerating, you will need to continually adjust and adapt to new situations and opportunities, rather than clinging to past certainties that are no longer relevant.

Another important lesson is the importance of reliability or trust. If a system can be counted on to perform reliably at its level, very little communication is needed with other levels and the system is highly efficient. Translated to a societal level, if people can be trusted to do the right things, very little control is necessary. Bureaucracy evolves in unreliable situations to maintain control, becoming increasingly inefficient as people become untrustworthy. The concept of trust shows another systems characteristic: trust takes a long time to build and is all too easily lost. Complexity takes a long time to build and evolve, while it is much easier to cause its unraveling, decline and collapse.

The most important lesson to retain at this point is the importance of systems thinking. This is a whole new way of looking at problems and their solutions. You will find that this new perspective will often be useful on your journey as you face the challenges ahead.




If you like where you are in the valley and decide just to stand still or sit down, remaining comfortable in your blindness, you will never leave and discover the challenges and opportunities that lie beyond.

One of the things that emerges from a systems perspective is that the processes are more important than the content. For example, crudely put, it is not so much how much money you have that is important, but rather how you use this money. And behind the processes are the rules by which they operate and the control mechanisms that determine what happens when and by how much. The more systems are self-regulating, with internal controls, the less they need controls imposed from outside.


Looking at human systems, what forms do the rules of systems organization take? In a complex society, many of the rules are codified in laws that determine legitimate forms of behaviour: how we support the government through taxes, how our employer can treat us and what to do when two cars meet at an intersection. There are, for example, rules for traffic to prevent people from causing accidents and killing each other.

More fundamentally, it is the values, ethical principles and moral codes that are the basic framework for social organization. Understanding what the values are and how they are expressed in the system is essential. Without this knowledge, we may deal with the symptoms of social problems without getting to the root causes.

Where do our values come from?

In most stable societies, values are transmitted from one generation to the next, first within the family, then by social institutions like schools and religious education and, today, increasingly via the media. Small children first learn by observation and example. What parents do is often more important than what they say. Later in a child's development peer pressure becomes important. We want to belong to a group and be accepted, so we adopt the values of the group. Pre-adolescence is a critical time in the formation of values; our parents become less important and we begin to choose the values that will determine our adulthood. Up to this time, values are assimilated unconsciously and this can continue as adults, with values taken for granted because 'that is the way things are'. It takes a great effort to change values once they are set in this way, which is why it is so much better to start with positive values to begin with.

One worrying phenomenon in many countries is the breakdown in the transmission of values within the family. Many of today's parents, at least in Western secular societies, rejected religion in their youth and thus failed to transmit any knowledge of the values derived from religion to their children. Yet this is the domain that speaks about the meaning and purpose of life. Children are thus left adrift, trying to fill the vacuum of values and purpose from any source - from drugs to fads to fanatical movements. Another consequence is that ignorance of religion leads to fear and rejection, especially of those we deem to be the 'other', such as immigrants and people with different beliefs from the mainstream. Some school systems have instituted compulsory religious education in the primary years, objectively presenting all the major religions to reduce this source of social tension.

This life voyage you are embarking on will therefore primarily be an exploration of values and we will use metaphors throughout the story to make this invisible dimension of your life and society more visible. Only a part of social organization is written down in laws and regulations; much more is embedded in culture and received wisdom, verbal tradition and example.

What are values?

Values can be defined as qualities upon which worth, desirability or utility depend. They are principles or rules generated by an ethical or spiritual framework. Values are what determine how humans relate to each other. They are the social equivalent of DNA, encoding the information through which society is structured. Any change in society has to start with a transformation in its values.

A value or perception that is maladapted to the needs of society can be an obstacle and cause great damage to the social fabric. For example, a racial prejudice that labels all people of a particular skin colour as inferior, untrustworthy or even dangerous, prevents any constructive interaction and marginalizes the excluded group, sometimes even becoming self-fulfilling in the reaction it generates in others.

Sometimes a reaction that may have been justified in our ancient past needs to be mastered and redirected within the complex societies of today. The fear reaction of 'fight or flight' made sense when face to face with a wolf, bear or lion, but not when triggered by an irrational fear of someone else who is just different from us. Research suggests that people who are more prone to such fears and react more acutely are also more defensive ideologically, conservative politically and unwilling to question their assumptions and consider new ideas and perspectives. Learning to deal with this fear is a prerequisite to change at other levels. In this voyage, you will be confronted with many kinds of fears which you need to overcome in order to advance.

These values, whether constructive or destructive, in terms of social evolution, operate at two levels: the collective and the individual. Collectively they are expressed not only in laws but in social behaviours and the organization of communities, both consciously and unconsciously. For example, racial segregation can be legally mandated, as it was under apartheid, or simply occur because particular groups cluster by neighbourhood and others move out to avoid them. This may just be an organic expression of widely held beliefs, but the consequences of ignorance, fear and intolerance are socially very destructive.

Changing the structures of society requires an evolution in those beliefs. This can be more difficult when social contact is reduced. How can you discover that the 'other' is just a person like you if you have no chance to get to know them? Even more tragically, political manipulation based on fear of the 'other' can tear apart communities where people happily lived together for generations, leading to conflict and deep social scars that can take generations to heal.

Individually, it is your values that determine how comfortable you are with others who are different from you in culture or physical characteristics. The stronger your framework of positive values, the more resilient you can be in challenging circumstances. Discovering what your values really are at the deepest level is a first step and an ongoing challenge as you progress, for there are always surprises hidden in your unconscious. The fact that these values are often unconscious, 'because that's the way things are', makes them particularly hard to confront and change. People are very good at self-deception and are easily influenced by others and you must become more mindful of your reality.

The battles you will need to fight on this journey will often be at the level of values and you will need the weapons of positive values. These battles may at times be as much with your own self as with others you encounter on the way. This will be a recurring theme through all the valleys, as it is fundamental to reaching your ultimate destination.


The key to progressing in the subsequent valleys on this journey will be the strength of your personal ethical code or framework of values. There will be many traps and pitfalls along the way and temptations to take the easy way out or to just give up. You will need strong resolve and force of character to overcome the obstacles ahead and deeply held values can provide these. Your journey will be an opportunity for you to strengthen your own set of values that you can then carry with you throughout your life.

Every society has some ethical framework in which its values are expressed, as good or bad and right or wrong. Without this, society would descend into anarchy and disintegrate. The theory of group selection suggests that values like altruism, which might seem contrary to self-interest and reproductive success in purely evolutionary terms, survive because they strengthen the group - and individuals in a strong group have a competitive advantage over isolated individuals or those in a weaker group.4 In the past, when tribal groups or nations competed at a frontier between them, social cohesion was selected for as it provided the strength to resist the enemy.5


A central ethical principle in successful social organization is justice. Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is the primary virtue of systems of thought. A theory, however elegant and economical, must be rejected or revised if it is untrue. Likewise, laws and institutions, no matter how efficient and well-arranged, must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust. The right to justice should not be subject to political bargaining or to the calculations of social interest. As the first virtues of human activities, truth and justice are uncompromising.7

Values are put into practice in society through mechanisms of reward and punishment. Good behaviour is rewarded by social acceptance and breaking the rules leads to punishment through a system we call justice. Both law and ethics are concerned with the application of justice. Law is based on explicit legal texts, courts and institutions for enforcement. It is a top-down regulation of society, based on punishment and the use of force, if necessary. It is a costly way to maintain society. Ethics is founded in the individual attachment to the principle of justice and its application. It is bottom-up and self-motivated, relying on reward for good behaviour more than punishment. The stronger the ethical framework and its application, the less the need for law. Strengthening the ethical framework in a society is a more cost-effective, process-based solution.

Just as a computer programme determines how data is processed and results are generated in a computer, so can an ethical framework be considered the social programme with the rules for the proper functioning of society. How then might we 'programme' human beings to be effective contributors to an evolving civilization, with increasing levels of cooperation and reciprocity, more social cohesion and higher efficiency? You will discover answers to this question all along your journey.

Ethical failures

In today's society, with globalisation as a force uniting the world's peoples and rampant materialism breaking down traditional ethical structures, the world is suffering from multiple ethical failures. Without an ethical or moral conscience the negative forces in society become more powerful. Centuries ago, Machiavelli already described a society based on the drive for power, expansion and material prosperity. We see too often today that the ends justify any means, with people or groups seeking power by force, violence, terrorism and war. There are endless scandals involving corruption, fraud and tax evasion. There are entire illegal economies that exist in parallel to the official economies that are captured in government statistics.

Part of the problem is that there is no inherent framework of values for institutions equivalent to the individual conscience. Governments are untrustworthy and often do not respect their obligations, except when they are forced to honour their debts - no matter how unjustly they were acquired. Businesses pay lawyers and accountants to find ways around the laws. In our materialistic, consumer-based society, the consumer is manipulated and ideally driven to addiction to tobacco, alcohol and junk food and even to computer games and social networks. Business leaders increase their bonuses while laying off workers in the interest of profit and 'productivity'.

There is also a polarization in many countries between opposing sets of values, leading to conflict and confrontation, as if values are by nature incompatible. In fact, they are generally complementary and need to be balanced. One area where the trap of ideologies and self-reinforcing communities of interest is most obvious is in politics. Almost everywhere with a certain level of political freedom there is a split into right and left camps, one emphasizing the importance of individual freedom, responsibility and initiative and the other focused on social justice and action to remove barriers to individual advancement. In fact, these two poles of a single spectrum are complementary. A healthy society needs individual freedom and initiative, as well as collective solidarity. In a world of technological advancement generating ever-increasing wealth, there is no need to fight for a share of the pie - since everyone can contribute to a bigger pie - but rather to ensure that everyone has an equitable share.

Changing Values

A society that is unethical is not necessarily without values. It is just that the 'higher' values that are necessary for a society to advance in cohesion, justice, and material and spiritual well-being have been replaced by values of self-interest and the struggle for existence that are rooted in our animal nature. This raises the question of how to change socially dysfunctional values into those that lead to social advancement. How do we challenge assumptions about human purpose and goals in life and offer something more inspiring and motivating?

First you need to identify those values that contribute to the betterment of society. Truth and justice are a good place to start. Truthfulness and related values like honesty and trustworthiness, are essential to healthy social relationships and economic success. Every contract depends on being truthful and on those signing it being trustworthy. Justice is necessary to motivate people to work together. It finds expression in related values like generosity, solidarity, compassion and equity.

It is not sufficient just to learn about values. We need to see their importance and integrate them into our own beings by putting them into action. It helps to have the support of a community that shares these values, protecting and nurturing us in acts of service and accompanying us as our values grow within us. This can be a circle of friends, a faith community or an association, among others. As we grow from the knowledge of desirable values into belief in their power and efficacy, based on personal experience, we can acquire the wonderful combination of conviction and aspiration that can lead to committed and sustained action. These values can empower us to be active agents of our own learning through service to others.

Changing values is not easy. Science has begun to address how the brain works to resist change, even in the face of strong evidence that change is needed. For example, scientific information about climate change does not motivate action. In fact, the magnitude of the threat produces the opposite - an increasing denial of the facts and a refusal to act.

On the social side, we follow the thinking of the in-group we belong to, listen to people we trust, risk rejection if we try to think differently and thus fail to see the whole picture. We may see the issue as remote and a conspiracy that threatens our way of life. Our brain responds poorly to distant, diffuse or uncertain threats and falls back on short-term certainty.

Our confirmation bias means that we select the information that conforms to our existing views and deny the real source of our problems.8 What is even more difficult is to challenge values that are held subconsciously. We may not be consciously aware of some things that are really important to us and that we simply take for granted. We may even hold strongly to values that are in conflict with one another, without being aware of this.

A first step may simply be to try to bring your values to the surface and to recognize their importance to you. You may need to challenge your assumptions and reflect on the alternatives. Recent research has identified indicators of values that can be used to make them visible and to show how they are put into action in social relationships9 and shared through education.10

With so much chaos linked to the lack of common values, is there an alternative? And what might this look like? The valleys you will cross on your journey will help you to explore some solutions. Armed with the new tools of systems thinking and aware that you need to think deeply about your values as you pursue your journey, you are ready to leave behind the desert of blind souls and to climb up to the valley above, ready to face a new set of challenges.






Information in systems

This valley is full of something that cannot be seen until it is captured in some physical form, like writing or electronic bytes in a computer memory. This is information and we have more of it than ever before. We are living in what is sometimes called the information society, that is, a society where we are continuously exchanging, managing and using increasing quantities of information. It can be helpful to try to understand the role of information - intangible but fundamental - in the functioning of these complex systems.3

Each level of organization in our planetary system has its own ways of storing and using the information necessary for its structure and functions. For example, in chemical systems it is the structures of different atoms that determine how they combine and interact to build all the molecules of which matter is composed. Biological systems encode their information in the DNA of their genetic machinery, so that a single fertilized egg will contain all the information needed to generate the whole adult organism. In built or mechanical systems, engineers or architects have come up with a concept embodied in various plans and specifications which, if followed, will produce the same machine or structure each time.

By the time you come to human systems, the information on their organization is captured in statutes, laws, regulations, practices and customs, usually recorded in written texts or passed on in oral traditions. At the most fundamental level, human organization is guided by values, ethical principles, beliefs and cultures that provide the basic rules for society.


Looking at the dynamics of information and its transmission, we need to understand the different systems for the communication of information. Our body, for example, has multiple systems of communication: electrically through nerves; chemically through hormones and chemical signals; genetically with mechanisms to turn genes on and off; and probably in other ways beyond present understanding.

There is also a danger of information overload. Thus, an effective system needs to be economical and able to communicate the information necessary. These systems allow higher levels of control and regulation, with feed-back mechanisms that indicate when to start or stop a process. One way to manage all of this is through nested sub-systems, with many autonomous functions within a system and with only the necessary exchange of information for cohesion between the levels. This is where the principle of subsidiarity is important, leaving as much control as possible at the lowest level closest to the needs and with only a limited amount of communications and authority at higher levels. Indicators are often used to signal the essential information content without extraneous detail.

System functioning and evolution

One important lesson from this perspective on information is its importance to system functioning and evolution. The higher the information content, the better the system works. Deficiencies in the information component can lead to catastrophic disfunction within the system as a whole.

For example, if intercellular communications fail in some part of your body and the cells there are left free to divide without limits, it will result in a cancer. Similarly, if laws are ineffective and basic ethical standards are lacking, the result is corruption and social chaos, something that may seem familiar from the diagnosis of society in this valley.

This shows the importance of values and spirituality as the most fundamental level of reality. If the basic rules of society are wrong or absent and each individual is driven largely by the selfish, animal side of human nature, the result is the social equivalent of cancers. Without change at this level, change at higher levels is difficult. Complex evolutionary systems thinking can give you the scientific foundation for understanding where you are and where you are going on this voyage through the valleys of life.


An information systems perspective can also suggest some approaches to finding solutions. With better information flow and accounting, we can become conscious of the different dimensions of the systems we are in and how they work and can see more clearly where to intervene and how to improve them. New information technologies have fundamentally transformed the ways people can relate to each other and how they organize institutions and create knowledge. This is a potential that we are only just beginning to appreciate and that will unfold in the decades and generations ahead.

At the same time, we should not let the superficial attraction of today's information and communications technologies - manipulated for commercial gain and often designed to create dependence and addiction - hide the importance of change and exchange at other levels. Nothing can or should completely replace direct human interaction. While ideas are easily transmitted over the Internet, it is not always the case for emotions, and life cannot be reduced to a few emoticons. Non-verbal communications, through gestures and facial expressions, espress many things that words cannot. Even our odours signal immune system compatibility between potential mates. Robots and 'assistants' can never completely replace people.

Social interaction takes place largely through information exchange. While a mother and child start with direct physical contact, this moves quickly to verbal communications and eventually language. This is how be build and maintain family ties and the social relationships underlying communities. For most of human history this communication was face-to-face and in the last few generations by written letters. Now new technologies provide new possibilities, but also risks. Building families and communities is fundamental to our future and you will see other dimensions of this in the valleys to come. It is just necessary now to understand the potentials and limitations of information technologies so that they can become an essential complement to modern social organization at multiple scales.

Return to main text


As scientific understanding of the genetic code behind all life grows, it has become clear that, in fact, only a small part codes for the structure of specific proteins and enzymes that are the building blocks of living things. Most of the DNA determines control mechanisms for when particular genes should be active; in other words, where and when each block should go into the building. It is the difference between the mason simply laying each block in turn and the architect with the plans for the whole building and gives instructions as to what to do next. We are still far from understanding these genetic mechanisms of self-regulation.

Return to main text


Moral values state what is regarded as being good and of primary importance to human civilization. They are often articulated as ideals and define what is right from wrong. A capability of moral reasoning starts from abstract general ethical principles to resolve conflicts that arise from moral dilemmas and ethical problems. Ethical principles are therefore the operational expression of moral values and provide guidance to decision making and action. Ideally, such principles should be general and not limited to specific individuals or associations. They should be universal in application and publicly known and accepted. They should impose an ordering on conflicting demands and have a condition of finality, in which they become the final court of appeal in practical reasoning.6 There are many sources of ethical principles: philosophies, individual belief systems, indigenous or traditional cultures, major religions and alternative belief systems such as nature worship, deep ecology, new age, etc.

Return to main text






1. Besson, Jacques. 2016. L'impact de la spiritualité dans le domaine de l'addiction est avéré. Interview by Laurent Nicolet in Migros Magazine 31, 2 August 2016, pp. 34-37.

2. Besson, Jacques. 2016. L'impact de la spiritualité dans le domaine de l'addiction est avéré. Interview by Laurent Nicolet in Migros Magazine 31, 2 August 2016, pp. 34-37.

3. If you want to explore this in more detail, see Dahl, The Eco Principle: Ecology and Economics in Symbiosis, 1996.

4. Wilson, Edward O. 2012. The Social Conquest of Earth. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation. chpt, 24, The origins of morality and honor.

5. Turchin, Peter. 2006. War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. New York: Plume Books (Penguin)

6. Anello, Eloy. 2008. A Framework for Good Governance in the Public Pharmaceutical Sector. Working draft for field testing and revision, April 2008. Geneva: World Health Organization. 45 p. www.who.int/entity/medicines/areas/policy/goodgovernance/GGMFramework2008-04-18.pdf

7. Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Rev. Ed., Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 3-4.

8. Marshall, George. 2014. Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

9. Burford, Gemma, Elona Hoover, Ismael Velasco, Svatava Janoušková, Alicia Jimenez, Georgia Piggot, Dimity Podger and Marie K. Harder. 2013. Bringing the "Missing Pillar" into Sustainable Development Goals: Towards Intersubjective Values-Based Indicators. Sustainability 5: 3035-3059. doi:10.3390/su5073035 http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/5/7/3035
Podger, Dimity, Elona Hoover, Gemma Burford, Tomas Hak and Marie K. Harder. 2015. Revealing values in a complex environmental program: a scaling up of values-based indicators. Journal of Cleaner Production, August 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.08.034

10. PERL, 2014a. Discovering What Matters - A journey of thinking and feeling. PERL Values-based Learning Student Toolkit. Hamar, Norway: Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living (PERL).
PERL, 2014b. Measuring What Matters - Values-based indicators. PERL Values-based Learning Methods Toolkit. Hamar, Norway: Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living (PERL).
PERL, 2014c. Building a Shared Vision - A toolkit for schools. PERL Values-based Learning Staff Toolkit. Hamar, Norway: Partnership for Education and Research about Responsible Living (PERL).



© Copyright Arthur Lyon Dahl 2019