Breaking the Thirty Year Deadlock:
Essay 2 - The Return of the Virtuous Politician

Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, was the last of the Five Good Emperors. He saw the life of a politician as one of service and duty. He is best remembered for his Meditations, a series of writings he wrote while on campaign for his own development. According to Wikipedia, "His stoic ideas often revolve around the denial of emotion, a skill which, he says, will free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He claims that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. He shows no particular religious faith in his writings, but seems to believe that some sort of logical, benevolent force organizes the universe in such a way that even 'bad' occurrences happen for the good of the whole."

August 2006

The First Part of the Problem

The first part of the problem to be solved is How to break the deadlock of change resistance. A social structure called The Dueling Loops pinpoints the root cause of the deadlock. It is the inherent structural advantage of the race to the bottom over the race to the top. The model also shows that presently problem solvers are pushing on the low leverage point of "more of the truth." This fails, because the system pushes back just as hard, causing perpetual deadlock. Better would be breaking the stalemate by finding the right high leverage points and pushing there. This would cause the race to the top to go dominant, which would quickly lead to the return of the virtuous politician.

How We Can Change the System So
Virtuous Politicians Are the Norm,
Rather Than the Exception

A virtuous politician is one whose political goal is to optimize the benefits available to society as a whole and to treat everyone equitably, rather than to do whatever it takes to get elected and stay elected. A virtuous politician is thus much more likely to give problems like sustainability the priority they deserve, which would overcome the system's strong change resistance to solving the problem. If your goal is to elect virtuous politicians, then can help you achieve that mission.

The analysis at has uncovered a fundamental social structure called The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace. This consists of the race to the bottom pitted against the race to the top. Whichever loop gains the most supporters wins.

In the race to the bottom, corrupt politicians compete for supporters on the basis of deception and favoritism. But in the race to the top, virtuous politicians compete for supporters on the basis of who can provide the greatest good to the greatest number in a manner fair to all, without resorting to deception or favoritism.

Using a simulation model, the analysis shows that the race to the bottom has an inherent structural advantage over the race to the top. This causes the race to the bottom to attract the most politicians, and thus be dominant most of the time. Because the race to the bottom requires generous amounts of falsehood and favoritism to work, that is what characterizes politics today.

Might there be a better way? thinks there is. Because we have taken the time to construct the social structure involved so clearly, the high leverage points we need to push on to solve the problem nearly leap off the page. What is most surprising about these points is they have never been pushed in a unified, prolonged, correct manner.

One high leverage point in particular exhibits behavior that makes it the highest leverage point of them all. This is general ability to detect political deception. But no one is pushing there. Instead, the simulation model scenarios show how environmentalists are currently pushing on an intuitively attractive low leverage point called more of the truth. This will not work, because the environmental movement simply does not have the force (numbers, influence, and wealth) necessary to make that a viable solution. The result is perpetual deadlock, because the force is so easily countered indefinitely.

In a complex social system, solution intervention consists of two key decisions: where to apply a force, and what force to apply. The first is by far the most important, because location determines leverage, and the greater the leverage the less force needed to solve the problem.

If problem solvers would unite and push on this high leverage point, the model shows that the race to the top would go dominant, causing the race to the bottom to collapse and the deadlock to be broken, as voters change their allegiance from corrupt to virtuous politicians. Finally, like The Return of the King in Lord of the Rings, civilization would at last see a triumphant, long overdue transformation that all virtuous citizens have dreamed of, but no one knew how to cause: The Return of the Virtuous Politician.

The dominance of the race to the bottom, in which corrupt politicians control the system, is the chief structural cause of the tremendous change resistance to solving the sustainability problem. Change resistance is the tendency for a system to resist change, even when a large amount of force is applied. Like any other system behavior, change resistance has a distinct cause. If the cause is known, then candidate solution hypotheses can be intelligently created, tested, and refined until one emerges that is good enough to solve the problem.

But if the cause of change resistance is not known, then problem solvers are forced to guess at what solutions will work. Because thousands of solutions are possible this cannot work, unless you have a very long time to try each of them or get very lucky.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Luck is unreliable. Guessing takes too long. But luck and guessing is precisely what classic activists have been using to solve the sustainability problem. Like Plato's prisoners in the cave, they cannot see the true reality of the situation. Classic Activism is the problem solving process used by most who are working on the sustainability problem, including those in grassroots organizations, academia, business, and government.

Classic activists around the world remain unaware of the importance of the social side of the problem. Instead, they view it is a simple technical problem. Their thinking goes about like this: All you have to do is find the proper technical practices for living sustainably, tell the people the truth about the proper practices, and that should solve the problem. If it doesn't, then all you have to do is exhort and inspire people to adopt the proper practices or else. And if that doesn't work, then all you have to do is... well, Classic Activism has no other options, so they are stuck.

They are as stuck in their mindset as Plato's prisoners were in the cave. In this allegory, found in book seven of The Republic, Plato presents a story and then interprets it. He asks the reader to imagine there is a colony of prisoners who have been chained for all their lives deep inside a dark cave. They are so immobilized by their chains they can only look at a wall. Behind them, which they cannot see, is a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners is a walkway on which various shapes and puppets are carried. The shadows cast on the wall are seen vividly by the prisoners, who spend their lives interpreting them, because that is all they can see. It is the only reality they know.

Then Plato shifts the story. Suppose a prisoner is freed of his chains and compelled to stand up and turn around. What will happen?

He will be blinded by the firelight, and the true shapes will seem less real than the shadows he has grown accustomed to. Similarly, if he is forcibly dragged out of the cave into the sunlight, he will be blinded by the intense light and will be unable to see the true reality, though it is all around him, and always has been.

But eventually his eyes will adjust, and given enough time to overcome his long exposure to the shadows of the cave, he will come to accept the new true reality. He becomes enlightened.

And then, if he goes back to his fellow prisoners to tell them of the wondrous new world he has found, what will be the reaction of his former bondsmen? As he approaches them from behind he would cast a shadow, and appear to be coming to do something harmful to them. No matter what he said, they would not trust him, because he came out of a shadow. His stories about sunlight and physical forms would fall on insensible minds, because such ideas are inconceivable. The others would view him as an offender, as a violator of their views, and would put him to death.

Plato then interprets the story, to bring light into his fellow countrymen. We will do the same.

The prisoners are those who have labored long and hard under the chains of Classic Activism, and have never seen another way. The shadows are the process steps used to solve the sustainability problem, their own actions, and the results. It is their world. It is the only world. Because there is no greater world, there cannot be any other way of solving the problem. There is no other reality.

But there is. Now suppose one of these classic activists bursts free of his chains one day, climbs out of the cave, and staggers forth into the sunlight of the real world. At first he will be blinded. And then he will not believe what he sees. But because he can touch it, it must be real. Over time he will come to accept this new world and explore it. And it will not take him long to see that there is another way to solve complex social system problems. In fact, there are many other ways.

Out of these many ways he will select the best, and bring it back to the classic activists still laboring in the darkness of their cave. He will attempt to describe this wondrous new way of solving the problem. Will they listen? Or will they too turn on him and shoot the messenger?

I know from personal experience that most will shoot the messenger, because it has happened to me more often than not. It is painful. And it is discouraging.

But there are a few prisoners who, when told that their way is not the only way, behave differently. They listen. And then they change.

Someday they will all change, and an army of enlightened activists will march up out of that cave into the real world. And they will turn to new ways of thinking about the problem, new ways of analyzing it, and new ways of adroitly manipulating the structure of the system so that it shifts into an entirely new and proper mode.

Like The Return of the King, The Return of the Virtuous Politician can happen. It can be a predictable part of the reengineering of the human system, using the same tried and true techniques used by science, business, engineers, and academia. But it can happen only if an analytical approach is taken, by the newly enlightened prime movers of the modern environmental movement.

Perhaps by now you are one of them.


Here is the third essay in this series.


For more on The Allegory of the Cave, see this insightful brief introduction, along with the key part of the story.

Image Credits - The image of Marcus Aurelius is from the Wikipedia entry on Marcus Aurelius. The quote in the caption is from the Wikipedia entry on his Meditations. The material on the Allegory of the Cave is from the Wikipedia entry and other readings. The image of the cave is from here.