Mutations are the way to make change

Very few of us have our hands on the real levers of power.  We lack the money and influence to write policy, create tax codes, move resources around or start and stop wars.  Most of us spend almost all of our time going along with the macro trends of the world.  We might hate the implications of a fossil fuel economy, but everything we do is firmly embedded within it.  We might despise colonization, but we know that we are alos guilty of it in many small ways,

The reason challenges like that are difficult to resolve is that we are embedded within them.  We are a part of them and the problem is not like something outside of ourselves that we apply force to.  Instead it is like a virus or a mycellium, extending it’s tendrils deep into our lives.  We are far more the product of the problems we wish to solve than we are the solutions we long to develop.

Social change is littered with ideas like “taking things to scale” which implies that if you just work hard enough, the things you will do will become popular and viral and will take over the world.  We can have a sustainable future if “we just practice simple things and then take them to scale.”  The problem with this reasoning is that the field in which we are embedded, that which enables us to practice small changes is heavily immune to change.  Our economy, our energy systems, our governments are designed to be incredibly stable.  They can withstand all kinds of threats and massive changes,  This is a GOOD THING.  I would hate to have the energy system that powers my life to be fickle enough to be transformed by every good idea that comes along about sustainable power generation.  So that is the irony.  In the western world, the stability that we rely on to be able to “make change” is exactly that which we desire to change.

We are embedded in the system. We ARE the system.  That which we desire to change is US.  You want a peaceful world, because you are not a fully peaceful person – violence has seeped into your life, and you understand the implications of it.  This is also a GOOD THING.  Because, as my friend Adam Kahane keeps quoting from time to time “if you are not a part of the problem, you cannot be part of the solution.” Real change in stable societies like Canada comes only from catastrophic failure.  That may be on our horizon, but I call you a liar if it’s something you desire.  It will not be pretty.  Living on the west coast of Canada, I sometimes think about it because a massive earthquake will strike here – possibly in my lifetime – and it will change everything instantly and massively and forever.  So, while climate change and economic collapse are probabilities, earthquakes are certainties.

So let’s forget about prototyping new things and “taking them to scale.”  But let’s not forget about prototyping new things.  Because one of the big lessons from the living systems world view is that change happens in an evolutionary way.  It happens deep within the system and it requires two resources we all have – creativity and time.  It does not require hope.  Living systems do not hope.  They just change.

Years ago I was inspired by Michael Dowd’s ideas captured in “Thank God for Evolution” in which he talks about mutations as the vehicle of change in evolving systems.  Of course this is a widespread thought, but it was quite liberating to me when I first discovered it because it compels us to use our own creativity to make change.  Practicing something different, as some small level, is not a useless endeavour.  There is no way to know what will happen when you mutate the system.  And so that is a reason for practicing.  That is why I love Occupy and #IdleNoMore  and other social gathering practices.  They are creative mutations of the status quo.  And they are undertaken without any expectation of massive change.  Instead they seed little openings, the vast majority of which don’t go anywhere.  In an evolutionary system, mutations may introduce new levels of adaptability, but they might alos kill off the organism.  But to survive and evolve, an organism needs to mutate.  Remaining the same is also suicidal, because everything else is mutating and changing, and you will lose your fitness if you don’t also change.

So the second resource we all have is time.  if you are beholden to making change along a strategic critical pathway, especially in a complex living system, you will suffer terrible delusions.  Very few of us have that kind of time.  The kind of time we do have is the time to let whatever we do work or fail.  To orient yourself to this kind of time, you need to practice something with no expectation of it’s success.  The moment you cling to a desired result is the moment suffering creeps into your work, and the moment you begin to lose resilience.  Adaptability is reliant on creative imaginations working resourcefully.

So changing from within has something to do with all of this.  Watching #IdleNoMore is to witness a celebratory mutation in the system of colonization.  It is impossible to say if it will have the desired results that people project upon it.  But of course it will “work.”  We need to sit and watch it work as a mutation in a living system.  And the bonus is that we get to round dance while we do it!


  1. Resonates very deeply with me, thanks for articulating it, Chris.

    Happy new year!


  2. Thanks for this, Chris. Needed this perspective on my work with Grace and within the UCC this coming year. Learned the lesson of “not clinging to results” in my last pastoral charge, but finding it harder to do in my current work with congregations in transition.

  3. Thanks so much for this!
    A lot of your thoughts are resonating with me, specially the quote “if you are not a part of the problem, you cannot be part of the solution”, the need for creativity and time, and the irony of the dilemma of stable systems.

    The thing that resonates less with me is the strong aversion toward strategy and hope. I understand the futility of absolutely wanting the end goal designed in the first place to stay the same. But I still think that you need that strategy, you need that hope to guide your actions, otherwise I don’t think you can be meaningful at any point, and I don’t see how it could be satisfying. It reminds me of this paper by Geoff Mulgan on systemic innovation :
    “Where possible it’s useful to situate individual actions within the context of a movement of change, and with a sense of the bigger picture. Entrepreneurs (whether social or business) who promise to transform systems singlehandedly are unlikely to succeed (and may be bruised by their own hubris). But isolated actions that aren’t guided by a sense of the bigger picture are likely to disappoint. So the ideal is to iterate between the big picture and small steps.”

    Thanks so much for all your sharings!

  4. Matthieu. This is a fine grained distinction to make. I am probably the most optimistic person you will meet but I have found hope in one way to be something that traps us when it becomes a craving. Meg Wheatly’s work on this is where I would point you. Perhaps I’ll make a future post on this.

    I am not averse to strategy either and I did strategic frameworks like Cynefin to be helpful in creating strategy. But I am averse to using technical strategy to address complex problems.

    Thanks for your comment!