This article is for those who, like me, despair over the performance of our global leaders who seem intent on accelerating us towards self-destruction. I hope to give some guidance as to how we can judge them and what we should look for in good leadership.

There is a popular song in Australia which was written and originally performed by one of our rock legends, Paul Kelly. The title of the song is, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow.’ It is often played at events to express the analogy that just as acorns turn into oak trees, individual actions turn into huge social movements. It is used extensively by indigenous groups to promote the view that change in their living conditions can come about from a grass roots, bottom-up process; individual action by the little people can lead to triumph over the big and powerful, or, collective action is the sum of the individual parts.

Is this true, though? Does growth and change really come about primarily thanks to the actions of the smallest or least powerful components? I argue that the reality is more complex and that it is higher level constraints that are perhaps more important in generating the conditions for growth and transformation. In other words, from big things little things grow.

My understanding of this comes from my engagement with four fields; process philosophy, modern physics, hierarchy theory in ecology and complexity theory, particularly theories of emergence and edge of chaos. Process philosophy is based on a metaphysical tradition which understands reality as being fundamentally active. According to this tradition, there is no fixed point or solid particle at the base of the universe, but more vague activity or energy. The material structure of the universe emerges from the constraining of activity into distinct trajectories. In other words, causation does not involve moving things but altering the speed and direction of things already in motion.

Modern physics has converged with process philosophy through seeing reality as primarily vibrating fields. Fields such as the Higgs field, alter the speed of processes through increasing or decreasing levels of interaction within the field. Such interactions generate multiple, slower-than-speed-of-light spacetime domains in line with relativity theory. So physics no longer believes in the ‘block’ universe of Isaac Newton, but one in which multiple spacetimes exist relative to each other; some larger and slower and some smaller and faster.

Living organisms actually generate their own spacetimes relative to others which brings me to a profound but little known theory from ecology, Hierarchy Theory. In this theory, larger and slower levels, through processes of downward causation, constrain and therefore provide the conditions for, smaller and faster ones. For example, the establishment of large, long living trees provide the conditions for smaller and faster life to flourish on forest floors thanks to, among other things, their ability to filter ultraviolet radiation from the Sun.

The smaller things in a rainforest therefore grow thanks to the larger and slower, higher level constraints, which includes the higher level weather patterns. Many generations of smaller and faster organisms with relatively shorter life cycles will come and go relative to the large trees. In order for the conditions for life to continue, therefore, it is the higher level constraints which are most important to conserve, such as a relatively narrow range of global temperatures suitable for complex life.

Another important and profound concept that emerged out of late 20th-century complexity science, is edge of chaos. Living processes are distinguished by levels of interaction between component processes and higher level constraints which generate relatively stable structures which can also anticipate change. The human heart is a good example of a complex system which can maintain a stable rhythm without becoming locked into one tempo. This gives the heart the potential to accelerate from 60 beats per minute to 200 and back again in anticipation of sudden changes in energy demand.

To generate life and the potential for life, higher level constraints, therefore, must create conditions in which smaller and faster living processes can generate both stability and flexibility. A familiar example is that of successful parenting. A parent is a higher level constraint. A successful parent is one that can create balanced conditions of stability and consistency as well as enough freedom to explore new experiences. A parent who can achieve this balance is a facilitative constraint who can generate the potential for life. Alternatively, a destructive constraint is one that fails to get this balance right, either by allowing too much freedom or imposing too much control.

The need for such a delicate balance to generate life raises many problems for human narratives of progress. The sorts of utopian visions of a world completely safe and secure, for example, or ones promoting anarchy, which have competed throughout history, would both be disastrous for life. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue in their recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, life is anti-fragile and thrives on being challenged. If higher level constraints are compromised or destroyed, however, such as cutting down the old-growth tree canopy of a rainforest, or even removing a higher-level predator from an eco-system, the ability to respond to such challenges at lower levels is lost.

Another concept coming from complexity science is that of emergence. This says that higher level constraints are not simply the sum of their parts, but real, larger wholes which behave differently from their components. They are therefore not reducible to their smaller components. Typical examples used are emergent behaviours of ant colonies and slime moulds. Another example is the real sense of freedom we have as whole organisms which is the product of components which themselves do not experience this freedom, being more constrained. Once having emerged, our degrees of freedom then become higher level constraints on our components.

All of these theories put together give us deep insights into the nature of reality including why and how our global leaders are failing us, particularly on issues such as global warming. Rather than acting as facilitative constraints generating edge of chaos conditions, today’s global leaders generally embrace forms of economic arrangements which reduce emergent societies to the sum of individuals and augment the conditions of a few at the expense of life as a whole. The continual use of fossil fuels, for example, fills the coffers of vested interests while destroying the higher level constraints of carbon storage in the carbon cycle which helps generate conditions for life.

The inability of the lower-level individual parts to address such destruction was identified by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who had the famous insight that the proletariat in Marx’s theories, the least powerful components on the forest floor, would never spontaneously rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie. Those within the bourgeoisie would first have to challenge the destructive higher-level constraint of the capitalist hegemony and replace it with a new hegemony, a facilitative constraint. In other words, the higher level conditions must be in place for meaningful change to occur at lower levels.

From this perspective, our focus on our efforts to grapple with our world’s major problems should shift from grass-roots individual action to the nature and function of our emergent, collective organizations, or institutions. Are they acting as facilitative constraints downwardly causing the healthy edge of chaos conditions necessary for life, or are they acting as destructive constraints generating too much order or chaos. Historically, one of our most successful institutions for generating edge of chaos conditions is democracy. Politically, democracy is a more successful parent capable of understanding the complex relationship between stability and novelty. So, perhaps the answer is to focus on continually generating the higher-level facilitative constraints of democracy. From big things, little things grow.

Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash.

About The Author

Profile photo of Glenn McLaren

Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.