Scientific Foundations

Two scientific premises guide the Institute’s approach.

1. The global system is complex

Today’s planetary socio-ecological system is “complex” in the technical sense of the term. The Institute therefore uses, as its core analytical tools, theories, concepts, and methods drawn from complexity science. This field emerged several decades ago from research in mathematics, physics, computer science, systems engineering (including cybernetics), and meteorology. More recently, ecology and economics have made important contributions. Researchers now apply the field’s insights to understand the behavior of systems as diverse as financial markets, fresh-water lakes, and mammalian immune systems and to explain phenomena such as the origins and dynamics of the 2008-09 financial crisis, the Arab spring, and the recent sharp rise in the appeal of populist political ideology.

All complex systems have dense and recursive causal connections within and across multiple scales of organization. This connectivity allows multiple causes to operate simultaneously, often synergistically, within positive and negative feedback loops. The result is disproportionate causation:  in complex systems, there is often little clear relationship between the size of a cause and the size of its effect. Sometimes, a small change might cause an enormous effect; but other times, even a very large change in the system might produce little effect overall. This is what complexity scientists mean by “nonlinear behavior.”

Nonlinearity is a key reason why complex systems like Earth’s climate, forests, and fisheries, and our global financial and political systems sometimes shift or “flip” unexpectedly from one macro-state to another. Scientists generally can’t precisely predict when such “critical transitions” might happen; they may know that the likelihood of a flip is rising but have little idea when or exactly where the event will occur. Also, these flips are usually extremely difficult to reverse. When a fishery collapses, Earth’s climate reorganizes itself, or a population’s predominant worldview shifts, the system almost certainly can’t be returned to its former state, even if the conditions that caused the flip are wound back entirely.

Taken together, these features of our planetary socio-ecological system present humanity with extreme dangers—and extreme opportunities. The dangers arise from the real possibility that this system—already under severe stress—is close to an irreversible shift into a new pathway that would radically degrade human well-being and civilization’s long-term prospects.

The opportunities arise from the enormous leverage available in highly nonlinear systems, if the right intervention points can be found and exploited. In today’s complex, hyper-connected global system, a series of precisely targeted and timed interventions could plausibly produce a “virtuous cascade” of change that helps flip humanity onto a far more positive path.

Unfortunately, complex social systems are often so opaque that key intervention points seem invisible; and even in the rare circumstances where they’re visible, means of exploiting them are rarely obvious. The Cascade Institute is precisely designed to address both challenges.

2. Societies are organized around cohesive sets of worldviews, institutions, and technologies

We can call these sets of worldviews, institutions, and technologies “WITs.”

In simplest terms, worldviews are mental networks of concepts, beliefs, and values—often emotionally charged—that allow people to interpret things around them and plan their actions; worldviews also give people’s lives meaning and therefore some sense of security, so they can be extremely resistant to change. Institutions are, broadly, a community’s rules, ranging from laws governing markets and parliamentary democracy to unwritten social norms in a culture about what behavior is appropriate or ethical at specific times and places. Finally, technologies are problem-solving tools that people create by using energy and information to exploit properties of their physical environment.

Within each WIT, the three components are tightly interdependent: they influence each other, depend on each other, and usually hang together in a cohesive way. For example, a prominent part of our Western worldview is a commitment to personal freedom and independence. This commitment supports and is supported by our institution of (partially) free economic markets. The commitment to freedom also reinforces—and is reinforced by—the technology of private cars, which allow for extraordinary personal mobility, by historical standards. The tight links among these three WIT components mean, among other things, that policymakers will find it hard to reduce use of private cars or, more profoundly, change the way markets operate without addressing people’s beliefs and emotions about their personal freedom.

Recent research has shown that WITs are the primary “unit of selection” in the evolution of societies and their cultures. In other words, by carrying some of a society’s information and structure through time, a given WIT plays a role analogous to a gene in a biological system. Whether the WIT survives over time depends on its “fitness”—that is, on whether it can thrive and reproduce itself in its larger environment.

By this reading, humanity’s global crisis arises from a worsening mismatch—or a lack of fit—between many of the WITs that currently dominate our societies, on one hand, and the fundamental properties of the global socio-ecological system in which our societies are embedded, on the other. In everyday terms, humanity’s beliefs and values today are too narcissistic, its political systems too hidebound and short-sighted, its economies too rapacious, and its technologies too dirty for a small, crowded planet with widening social inequalities and fraying natural systems. It looks increasingly likely that our societies’ prevailing worldviews, institutions, and technologies will eventually lose the unforgiving evolutionary contest to other WITs that are better adapted to humanity’s evermore extreme circumstances.

Drawing on a broad range of past and current research in multiple disciplines, and by creating detailed models and maps (graphical, statistical, and computational) of WITs, the Cascade Institute’s researchers identify intervention points within societies, among clusters of societies, and at the global level. These models highlight how the components of WITs—singly or in combination—could exhibit nonlinear behavior. An example is the possibility that shifts in beliefs and emotions could stimulate norm cascades and mass political mobilization in response to the climate crisis (the global School Strike movement being one example). These changes could then alter the balance of risks associated with carbon assets in financial markets, rapidly accelerating the transition towards carbon-free energy systems.