Compassionate Systems

Compassionate Systems

Daniel Goleman [6.22.17]
One way a systems perspective could help with the environmental crisis is through understanding that we have a very narrow range of affordances, the choices presented to us. For example, I have this jacket, you have this table or the chair I’m sitting on, and they are manufactured with industrial platforms that have more or less been the same for a century. Yet in the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen the emergence of industrial ecology, a science that offers a metric for understanding the impacts of the life cycle of any of these objects from beginning to end in terms of how they impact the global systems that support life on our planet—the carbon cycle being the best-known. Now that we have that data and a metric for it, we can better manage the processes that are entailed in the use and manufacture of every object we own. We have a metric for reinventing everything in the material world to be supportive of those life-support systems.
DANIEL GOLEMAN is the New York Times bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence. A psychologist and science journalist, he reported on brain and behavioral research for The New York Times for many years. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including three accounts of meetings he has moderated between the Dalai Lama and scientists, psychotherapists, and social activists. Daniel Goleman's Edge Bio Page


These days I’m reflecting a lot on what a compassionate system would be. People generally know too little about systems, let alone about science. That’s one reason the current government may get away with enormous cuts to science.

I was talking to the dean of science at Columbia, who also runs a program at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia, which is in our backyard. He said research there—it’s a world leader in climate science—may get cut by 80 to 85 percent, which is astounding. It’s a huge crisis. Someone else I was talking to who runs a neuroscience lab says he's expecting a 20 percent cut. Twenty percent itself is crippling.

Why is it that a government can get away with this? Why isn’t there uproar beyond a narrow circle of scientists? Why is it that so few people understand science, per se? Part of it has to do with a general lack of awareness of the systems in which we’re enmeshed. The systems of energy and of technology, the systems of economics and of culture; the systems that would make more clear why science itself is so essential to the betterment of our own lives and of society, and what a researcher in a lab has to do with any of us.

There’s a huge disconnect. One point of intervention could be education: We can be better at explaining to kids when they’re in school what systems are, why they matter, and how one thing over here relates to something over there. Then, as they go through life with this background understanding, this basic scaffolding of knowledge, they would be making connections that just are not made today. If kids grew up with that understanding, it would be quite a different world going into the future.

The environment has been a long-term concern of mine; not just global warming, but the eight global systems that support life. There’s a carbon cycle; most everybody knows at least a bit about that—it’s the global warming poster child. But there are several crucial life-support systems. For instance, there’s a phosphorous cycle and the water cycle, particularly the supply of potable water. Then there’s the decline of biodiversity: A huge amount of species have gone extinct in the last 100 years because of civilization spreading, which means everything from parking lots to palm oil plantations destroying ecosystems.

There are eight global systems that support life, and the way we live on the planet now is inexorably eroding all eight of those. The one exception, which is very telling, is ozone. Ozone, which of course protects us from carcinogenic rays of the sun, was on the decline planet-wide. Then somehow there was a worldwide ban on ozone-depleting industrial chemicals, particularly those used for refrigeration. Once that happened, our ozone layer started to replenish.

That’s wonderful because it’s a map to what we might do if we could turn around the ways in which our habits in aggregate are destroying the natural world. There’s that disconnect between what we do and the daily decisions we make about, say, what we buy and do, and the consequences for the planet—the impacts of our decisions.

To bridge that disconnect I’m trying to champion systems thinking in schools as a new curriculum (an old project of my friend Peter Senge at MIT). One of the school systems that’s been interested in this is IB, the International Baccalaureate High Schools, which have very high academic standards. It’s a worldwide system. They want to bring this into their curriculum because they understand its importance for their students’ lives and the future.

But they’ve added a missing ingredient: compassion and empathy. You can have a systems understanding that is first rate, but if you don’t care about the impacts those insights allow you, then you’ve got to deal, for example, with the consequences of rampant greed. You’ve got companies using science and systems in their self-interest, without caring about the side effects: untested industrial chemicals, say, or emissions into air water and soil.

Just today, I saw in the news that the decision to outlaw one of the most common pesticides used on farms worldwide—because it’s a danger to children and to farm workers—was just repealed. The scientific evidence that this particular pesticide is a danger is overwhelming. However, a policy decision was made which pays no attention to these facts.

This goes beyond the current administration of scientific know-nothings. There’s a very large part of society, of the American voting populace, that likewise doesn’t understand and doesn’t care about science, or how science helps us as a measure of truth (of course science is probabilistic, not an ultimate measure—but it's better than nothing). And so by disregarding what science says, just ignoring it, people can make profits by making decisions like use of that dangerous pesticide, decisions that are not in the service of society as a whole.

One way a systems perspective could help with the environmental crisis is through understanding that we have a very narrow range of affordances, the choices presented to us. For example, I have this jacket, you have this table or the chair I’m sitting on, and they are manufactured with industrial platforms that have more or less been the same for a century. Yet in the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen the emergence of industrial ecology, a science that offers a metric for understanding the impacts of the life cycle of any of these objects from beginning to end in terms of how they impact the global systems that support life on our planet—the carbon cycle being the best-known. Now that we have that data and a metric for it, we can better manage the processes that are entailed in the use and manufacture of every object we own. We have a metric for reinventing everything in the material world to be supportive of those life-support systems.

The human brain, and presumably human nature, has not changed much since the Paleolithic. That was a very long period in human evolution where our instincts were shaped, and that influence remains strong today. To some degree the vestiges of that evolutionary period have led us into our current conundrum. For instance, one factor that seems to have helped humans survive in early evolution—times when you could die of starvation or be eaten by a predator—was the instinct to accumulate as much food as you can right now because you may not have the chance to do it again. That makes greed a basic part of human nature. But the greater access to goods that civilization affords has been amped up enormously in the last century or so because of our ability to take advantage of fossil fuel. We’ve been able to manipulate more energy than ever in human history. That’s brought a huge rate of growth of the material world, as well as the abundance of goods each of us accumulates (at least in the first world).

I don’t think that primitive human instinct to eat fat, sugar, and accumulate as much as we can will change that much very soon: As an economy makes more people affluent, for instance, rates of obesity there rise. That urge seems deeply engrained in the human game plan. On the other hand we have a countervailing ability to invent, to innovate, to re-think—to trick the Paleolithic brain using the very capacity that has created the marvelous material world we have now. And this is where systems thinking comes in again.

I mentioned that the life cycle of any material product shows that it impinges negatively on the global systems that support life. Aggregate this erosion times the 7 billion people on the planet and you have the crises that we are facing now. Environmental scientists call the last fifty or so years “the Great Acceleration,” when they track these negative impacts over the centuries—it’s getting worse at a more and more rapid rate.

While the negative planetary impacts of our material lives accelerate, we have changed little in how we operate. For instance, we use a method basically the same since the Bronze Age: take a batch of materials, mix them together, heat them at a very high temperature for a very long time and, voilà, we have steel, glass, brick, or concrete. The worst part of their destructive impacts comes from the heat we use to melt the ingredients together. Why do we have to use so much heat for such a long time? Why don’t we reinvent that?

There’s a lab I heard about in Silicon Valley that reinvented the brick. They found that you could mix together a unique batch of chemicals and heat the "brick-to-be" at a lower temperature for a shorter time. If you were to take that to scale (or use "green," adobe-style bricks), there would be an enormous improvement in the cumulative environmental impact from brick-making. With a bit of ingenuity and experimentation you could presumably do the same with glass, concrete, or steel—yet so far how these are created has not changed much. In other words, it’s time for us to rethink everything in the material world in light of our more sophisticated understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology—and of the specific impacts of industrial processes.

Yet the industrial platforms we use now haven’t budged much in the last century. That’s why petrochemicals, for example, are the basis of so much of what we use, like plastics. Water bottled in plastic is a disaster. Too many of these plastic bottles end up in the ocean, where they break down into what are called nurdles, small bits that fish and other aquatic life think is food (plus the chemicals used to mold that plastic may well be carcinogens or endocrine disrupters).

If you open the stomach of a sea bird, you see that because it’s at the top of a certain food chain—eating other fish that eat smaller fish—you find it’s full of plastic. Plastic is killing sea life. So why don’t we re-think plastic? We’ve got so much amazing science going on. Why don’t we re-invent the things that are degrading the planet’s life-support systems?

One of the most important challenges is how to get anybody to do this. When I say, “We should do this, we should do that,” who do I mean by “we”?  I'm somewhat encouraged because I’m seeing that when it comes to changing the way industry does things, there are groups within the business sector that are starting to make the kinds of changes I’d like to see. They’re doing it because it fits their values, and they’re incorporating this into their mission.

They’re doing the right things for a couple of reasons. One, it feels good to align action with values. Second, it feels good to the people working there. It helps retain talent. Third—and this is a very important factor—this positions a company better for the future. As the generation now in childhood grows into adulthood, they will be facing evermore dire circumstances in the natural world, let alone the economic and political world. They likely will place a greater value on this particular ethical perspective—for instance, wanting to work for an organization, a company, whose values fit their own, and that they can feel good about.

And companies are strategizing in terms of who their customers will be in the future. Companies don’t care that much about customers in the older demographics. They want young people, because if they get brand loyalty when someone’s young, they have it for the rest of their life. That’s the better bang for their buck. They’re seeing that the appeal of doing the right thing in this regard has a lot of payoffs. What’s happening—and I like the fact that it’s happening this way—is it's beyond politics and government policy; it’s just good business.

For instance, there’s trillions of dollars in what’s called “impact investing,” putting your money in a business that’s going to make money the right way, not the wrong way. That gives more and more capital to people who are trying to do things in a better way. And there are even more trillions of dollars invested with an eye toward avoiding “climate risk,” the coming flooding, torrid heat, super-storms and the like that are predicted to come along with global warming.

Already there are numerous efforts to upgrade ecological impacts that go on out-of-sight of consumers, B2B, that is, business-to-business; for example, not buying palm oil from a plantation that was put in place by clear-cutting a jungle (as has happened at an alarming rate in parts of Indonesia and other countries around the world). But now several huge corporations won’t touch that palm oil. This means the palm oil industry has to de-commodify, so properly sourced palm oil can find its market.

Let me share a side story about palm oil. I happened to meet the grandniece of the man who founded a business called Unie in Belgium and the Netherlands in the 19th century. In that part of Europe it was the biggest margarine maker in that part of Europe. This guy claimed he had the patent on margarine, and he sued competitors and put them out of business or bought them. He was known as a real son-of-a-bitch. Palm oil was the main ingredient in margarine, and this man who made Unie a big brand realized that there was another company that used a large amount of palm oil: the Lever Soap company.

In the 1930s they combined to create Unilever, and Unie’s outlook was part of that corporation’s original DNA. Fast forward: A friend of mine was coaching one of the co-CEOs of Unilever during the time they bought Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Why did they buy Ben and Jerry’s? That executive told my friend, “We hope that the values of Ben and Jerry will infect the rest of the organization.”

Fast forward again: The current CEO of Unilever is Paul Polman, who came up through the company. He has announced extremely ambitious green goals for the company. He doesn't just want to lower carbon—many large corporations are doing that—but he also announced a plan to help a half-million small farms in the third world become suppliers to Unilever.

That means those small farms will have a steady income—and they are being given the help they need to upgrade their methods of farming. This move might make Unilever’s supply chain more robust, so it makes strategic sense. But also the World Bank says the best way to help a local, impoverished, rural economy is exactly such upping the income of small farmers. Then the upshot is better education, better health, and a better local economy generally.

Unilever is doing the right thing for a number of reasons. That exemplifies the kind of changes that companies can be making. More and more companies are, and will be. Such strategies are an end run around politics. It doesn’t matter as much that the US government isn’t upholding the Paris climate agreement if enough companies are acting in ways that achieve climate goals despite what the government policy says. Around the world governments are a being paralyzed by Right-Left factions. Business is not. It has an open runway.

There’s another general trend, which I’m concerned about: artificial intelligence and the fact that big data can come up with algorithms that predict human behavior much better than any human could. Extrapolating into the future, there could be androids, robots that operate by very powerful algorithms which can outthink humans. I’m worried about the same thing I’m worried about with systems generally, which is where the ethical dimension in this is. How do you get an artificial intelligence system to care about humans? To care about the human future? Or human welfare at all? Somehow that has to be programmed in, and I don’t hear much discussion about that. It troubles me.

As power migrates from governments to companies, or to Silicon Valley, or to billionaires, the worry is that the good will and good intentions—I’m flagging the business community—won’t travel with the power to create algorithms that run our lives. Who are the mysterious people writing these codes? What assumptions are they making that give us a system that has a narrow range of affordances for our choices? Those embedded decisions seem arbitrary: Someone decided that this algorithm should be behind your phone or in your Apple TV. We don’t have other choices; we are blind to them.

What’s happening as AI, as code, as algorithms take over our lives and invade it in a very user-friendly way is we don’t see what we’re losing; we don’t see what the other choices are, nor do we have, as in politics, any ability to vote for this versus that. In a way we’re very passive receptors of whatever assumptions are being made for us, and those decisions are invisible to we users. I see that as a real danger.

People in the world who are mattering more going into the future, like in the tech world and the AI world, may have good intentions, but power does tend to corrupt. You may think, “I have good intentions,” but then comes the thought, “I’d like to get a couple of billion dollars more so I can put those into effect.” However, in getting there you may leave those intentions aside. How do you inoculate a society against that?

This concern is key to the curriculum I’m advising on for the International Baccalaureate Schools: they are implementing systems learning, but they’re also combining it with compassion. The world will get more dismal if the people who have the actual power don’t care about global well-being—this kind of education offers an inoculation against that peril.

Twenty years ago when I wrote Emotional Intelligence, I was arguing for a curriculum that would teach kids the range of self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social skills—that is, emotional intelligence. Such curricula are called "social-emotional learning," or SEL, which is found in thousands of schools around the world now. Some states have made it mandatory. When I talk about implementing an empathy unit in the compassionate systems program, I'm piggy-backing on pedagogy that exists now and is spreading. It’s spreading largely because the data supports SEL.

Kids, particularly once they’re in middle school and high school, are more oriented towards their peers than toward anyone else, including their parents. And they are gripped by the melodramas of their life, preoccupations like, “Why didn’t they invite me to their party?” These upsets hijack their attention. If you can help them better manage their emotional reactions and their social lives, they can pay more attention in school.

Roger Weissberg, who was the first director of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, is a hard-nosed psychologist who has been documenting how social and emotional learning (or SEL) matters. For instance, there was a huge meta-analysis that had a quarter of a million kids, some of whom went through SEL programs and others matched demographically who did not. With SEL there was a 10 percent reduction in anti-social behavior like fights or bullying. There was also a 10 percent increase in prosocial indicators such as liking school. And academic achievement scores increased 11 percent.

Neuroscience tells us there are three kinds of empathy, each instantiated in discrete neural circuitry. There’s cognitive empathy, which is the kind of empathy an algorithm will give you with big data studies—knowing how people think about things. It’s understanding people’s mental models. And that allows you to manipulate their mental models, and not always in people’s best interest. There’s no compassion in cognitive empathy, but a powerful tool for understanding how people think.

The second kind of empathy is emotional, where you feel how other people feel. And that could lead to compassion, but if that other person is suffering and in pain, and your emotional empathy lead you to the same feelings, most people tune out. They don’t want to feel the pain of the other person, so their tuning out decreases the likelihood they might actually help. Plus, emotional empathy can also be used by a skilled politician or a dictator to manipulate crowds. It’s not necessarily good for society.

The third kind, which is called empathic concern, uses the circuitry for parental caretaking, basic mammalian wiring. It’s a parent’s love for a child. You care about the other person. This variety of empathy can be called caring, or compassion.

Neuroplasticity is the notion that you can build or degrade neurocircuitry by using it or not, and that practice makes circuits stronger. Neuroplasticity has been combined now with the understanding of the three kinds of empathy in work coming out of Tania Singer’s lab, at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. They find that if people systematically train one or the other of those three circuits, their abilities in that particular kind of empathy get better, and the circuitry underlying it gets stronger.

The IB people are combining helping kids build that circuitry, so they genuinely care about other people, with systems learning. This combination of pure cognitive power that is systems learning with concern for human welfare, is, I believe, what can help greatly to keep us on the right track going into the future. If we don’t have that, I despair for where we’re going.