171 Simple Rules Are All We Need

Adventures in Sustainable Living Podcast

Episode 171

Simple Rules Are All We Need 


I so often marvel at the complexity of our society. 

It seems as if things were so much simpler when I was a kid. Even when I first moved to Colorado and was working a construction job, life was pretty simple. Now it seems as if there are rules, rules, rules and so many other things that complicate our lives. And everyone seems to complain about it. 



But are all these rules really necessary or is it simply the result of our complicated society? As it turns out, simple rules lead to complex behavior both in animals and in people.  And that is what I want to explore in this episode. The simple rules that lead to complex behavior and how that relates to sustainability. So join me for E171 Simple Rules Are All We Need. 



Welcome back everyone to the Adventures in Sustainable Living podcast. This is your host Patrick and this is E171 which is called Simple Rules are All That We Need. 



Sustainability Question of the Week


What is a sustainable economy? 


Good News Story of the Week



And let’s start out with the good news story of the week. This week’s story comes out of Florida right here in the United States. And the story is about manatees. 



About 50 years ago there were only about 1,000 manatees across the entire state of Florida. Even today, manatees experience significant challenges and an increased mortality rate due to pollution, loss of habitat, and a scarcity of their main food supply which is sea grass. 



Today there are between 7,000 and 11,000 manatees across the entire state of Florida. And if you have never seen them, often times the best way to do that is during the winter when they seek out warmer water in shallow coves and lagoons. 



At Blue Spring State Park in Florida the rangers and wildlife biologists were completed surprised by the sheer numbers of manatees that had accumulated inside the park. This area is often a refuge for the manatees during cold weather. A recent count was 932 manatees inside the park, which was 200 higher than the last count. 



Despite their rotund size, manatees only have about a 1 inch layer of fat. Consequently, they cannot survive indefinitely in water that is colder that 68 Degrees F. When winter temperatures drop,  they seek warmer water further inland. 



Such high numbers in the park is encouraging that the manatees are making a rebound. Truly if you have never experienced swimming with these magnificent creatures it is a treat and something I highly recommend. They are quite docile despite their rather large size. 



Now on to this weeks episode.



You have to know that one of the best things about living where I do is that I have the freedom to do whatever I want. That is, within reason. My three closest neighbors are several hundred yards away, one mile away, and two miles away respectively. All of us respect each other’s privacy, help each other when needed, and for the most part it is typically several weeks between times that we actually see one another. 



As far as the local authorities are concerned they obviously know we all live there. But as long as we are not causing a problem, starting a forest fire or otherwise doing something stupid to draw attention to ourselves, we are left to our own devices. In fact, this small area of the county, due to the difficultly of access, is considered a no rescue zone in the winter. 



In 25 plus years of living here there is only one time I have actually seen any sort of an officer up here. There was a concern over a possible forest because a thunder storm had moved through the day before and someone saw smoke. I tried to explain is was likely the smoke plume from my wood stove but no one was satisfied with that explanation. 



The local authorities have access through the private gate and of course came up to investigate. I ended up with a group of fire fighters hanging out on the hill above the cabin for the entire day because that was the best vantage point to monitor for any smoke. After they felt the danger was over they left and on their way out said, “Well it was likely the smoke from your wood stove.”  This incident was over ten years ago. And as I said, that is the one and only time anyone has ever come up to check things out. 


Anyone who has known me for any amount of time at all, knows very well where and how I live. They also know that I have been self employed for many years, I tend to make up my own schedule, take time off when I want, and travel when I want. Consequently, my personal and professional life just does not fit within the norm. And I am very happy with that. 



People have often ask me if I ever “color between the lines” so to speak. They know how I live and see what I do and at least according to their point to view I don’t seem to obey all the normal rules nor do I fit into the typically societal mold. 



But I live the way I do for several reasons. First and foremost I love being close to nature, I love the peace and quiet and I love the fact that when I go home I see a lot more wildlife than I do people. But I also love living outside of main stream society and  being independent in many ways. It gives me a great sense of personal security.  



But I will also admit that I do get annoyed with the endless list of rules for every little thing we do. I don’t necessarily agree with this approach to organizing our society. But at the same time I do not ignore the rules that are there. But you must understand that the foundation of my annoyance has to do with the fact that from a personal perspective I only need a few basic rules to govern my entire life.



For example, be honest, be kind, be trustworthy, stick to your word and keep your promises. Treat others how you would like to be treated. Be respectful of other people and cultures, how they live, what they own, how they dress and their personal choices. Respect the environment and leave only footprints. 



From a professional point of view, these basic rules are the very reason I have been so successful. All the people that I have worked with over the years know very well that if I say I am going to be there, even if it is 9 months in advance, I will be there. You can call me, text me, email me as a reminder if you want. But that is not necessary. These basic rules are also the reason I have a close group of friends that I can rely on. They follow the same basic rules that I do, we all get along well. This type of relationship and emerged into something I can depend on and people I can rely on in the event of an emergency. But as you can plainly see, these rules are not complicated and yet they encompass a great many things. 



Occasionally I complain about the rules that govern our society because they seem overly complicated.  Typically I keep those thoughts to myself. But what I commonly hear whenever someone complains about the rules is the complaint is typically followed by a comment such as “We did just fine a hundred years ago without all these rules. Why do we need them now?”



I think part of the challenge is that we do live in a very complicated society. And it is that very structure that confounds me much of the time because I think it just does not have to be that way. But that opinion is not going to change the complicated societal structure that has long been in place.  Some of you may agree. Some of you may disagree. But let’s look at this from an analytical point of view for a moment and see what we can conclude.  After all, those rules may actually be there for a reason. 



If we were all generous, honest, caring, decent, and respectful of the rights of others and always committed to do the right thing, we wouldn’t need any rules. A population composed of such people wouldn’t drive drunk, kill people, hack computers, steal, and take advantage of the poor, the weak or the elderly. As it turns out you can’t just put a group of people together and expect them to do what is right. You will end up with a scenario resembling the wild west.



So if you are someone that truly does not like the rules or trust the government then you have to accept that the rules are there for a reason. If people were perfect everyone would strive to do the right thing and the police, the laws, the courts, and the prisons would not be necessary. But, sadly that is just not the human race. 



Consider the following:


-A certain percentage of people will hurt others given the change. Often times, the more the better. 

-People and businesses too often will do anything to make more money

-The bigger our population the more bad people there are. 

-With increased media exposure the bad people tend to get bigger ideas

-Our growth in technology and our interconnected world means people can do even more damage

-The control of big business is no longer personal. So we never see the person ultimately responsible for the damage done to people or the environment

Not to mention the fact that they are only concerned about short term gains. 



As you can see, people are not perfect nor do they always strive to do the right thing. And you would think that all the complex rules we have would keep such things in check but it does not. And here is why. 



Simple rules lead to complex behavior. Complex rules lead to stupid behavior. Put another way, a set of several simple rules leads to complex, intelligent behavior. On the other hand, a set of complex rules often leads to dumb or even primitive behavior. And the reason is as follows:  



People often attempt to address complex problems with complex solutions. For example, in response to increased complexity in the global banking system, a group of international bankers met in Switzerland in 1988 to make an agreement on International banking regulations. The result was a 30 page document. Simple enough. But sixteen years later it grew into 347 pages. The third document was twice as long as that. 



The Glass-Steagall Act, which was passed during the Great Depression, guiding US banking regulations for nearly 70 years and was only 37 pages long. The successor, the Dodd-Frank Act, is expected to be 30,000 pages. 




A study that focused on personal income tax compliance in 45 countries found the complexity of the tax code was the single best way to predict whether or not someone would attempt to dodge paying taxes or would comply. It had nothing to do with the average income level, average educational achievement, how fair the tax laws were perceived to be, or even the level of government scrutiny of income tax returns. The complexity of regulations mattered the most. And just for your information, the US tax code and all associated regulations and guidance literature, is now about 75,000 pages. 



Humanity too often attempts to address complex problems with complicated solutions. We also overlook the fact that complicated solutions confuse people.



But, how is this different from the animal kingdom? And of course being a veterinarian I can’t help but find amusement in comparing the seemingly higher intelligence of humanity to that of animal behavior. 



One of the most recent and greatest discoveries of our time is that the complex patterns we find in life are often the result of individuals in a group following the same simple rule. This applies to both animals and inanimate objects. 



Massive sand dunes often have a series of complex ripples as the result of wind driving the sand up and gravity pulling the sand down. 



The complex patterns in coral, which are formed by walls of calcium carbonate, are the result of individual polyps competing for space. 



Schools of fish seemingly self organize and move together. Scientists discovered that the complex behavior of the whole school moving as a unit was the result of two simple rules which each fish seemed to obey: follow the fish in front of you and keep pace with the fish behind you. 



It turns out that these simple rules underlie all sorts of complex group movements such as flocks of birds, swarms of insects and even crowds of people. This can easily be seen and studied in swarms of locust, bee hives, ant colonies, and crowds of people walking down the street. The same type of simple rules are seen in the behavior of a bat colony, how meerkats overcome certain barriers, and even how hungry puppies circle a dish of milk. 



Simple rules result in complex behavior and complex rules results in stupid behavior. But what exactly does that mean? 



At this point I think it is worth distinguishing between the two terms complex versus complicated because these are often used interchangeably. However, they result in completely different outcomes. 



A complex system has many similar interconnected parts. Think in terms of living organisms or a single organ within an organism such as the liver, the heart or the brain. There are many similar parts and it is the interaction between those parts that results in complex behavior. Complexity is often associated with emergence behavior. This is where new properties or behaviors result from the interaction of the parts and those characteristics are not present in any individual element. 



A complicated system has many small parts all of which are different from one another and each part has a very precise role. 



Complex behavior is the precise uniform movement of a flock of birds through the sky as a result of emergence behavior. 



Complicated behavior, for example, is a robot designed to perform a simple task. When the environment is changed, the robot fails the test. The robot is obviously a complicated piece of technology but it fails to show emergent behavior. 



Now, please allow me to diverge for a moment and give you a rather plain example from my personal life of the difference between complex and complicated. 



I happen to be a fan of the Toyota Tacoma. I actually own two of them. The first one I bought was a 1998 and I still have it because it is still running and it makes a dependable second vehicle. This truck was manufactured before the days of computers being placed in vehicles to perform many of the functions that previously were purely mechanical. I do like this truck to this day because it is simple. Truly any automobile could be considered a complex piece of technology. But this truck is now 27 years old. It is mechanical and electrical. There is no back up camera, no GPS, no on-board computers. Yes it is complex but at the same time it is simple. 



The new Tacoma, a 2017, has 27 on-board computers. It dings and chimes and warns me of every little thing. Despite my length of ownership I have still not read the owners manual. Consequently there are numerous electronic functions that I remain completely oblivious of how they even function.  But, hands down, every single problem I have had with this truck has been computer related. Several of those problems no one could ever figure out but it resolved on its own.  This is obviously a complicated piece of technology. I liked it when things were simple.




But this is a good example of the fact that the more complicated you make the machine the more likely it is too fail. On the other hand complex systems operate by simple rules and the emergent behavior cannot be predicted by the individual rules alone. 



So by now you just might be wondering what exactly is my point here. The point here is that we are governed by a very complicated society with a set of rules which tend to fail us in so many ways. Just look at the results of the pandemic, the state of world affairs, the complicated global economy, climate change. Need I say more. 



But why can’t we just stick to a few simple rules. At least according to the Farnam Street Blog, “Simple rules provide concrete guidance without being overly prescriptive. Simple rules provide a handful of guidelines applied to a specific activity or decision.”



And I love this example from their blog, “A hammer is just the thing for nails, but useless when it comes to sawing a plank. The same is true for simple rules. To be effective, they must fit the task at hand. Simple rules work best when flexibility matters more than consistency.”




The Key Takeaway



So why does this matter when it comes to humanity. What is the key take away here? What is my point? 

To answer that, let’s go back to the animal kingdom. 



There are numerous examples of how animals show extraordinary social complexity. It is this complexity that allows them to adapt and respond to changes in their environment. The simplicity of the animal kingdom leads to this complexity due to emergence behavior. Their simplicity leads to complexity which leads to resilience. 



I question sometimes if this is why humanity lacks the resilience of the animal kingdom. We too often focus on complicated solutions to complicated problems and therefore hardwire automatic failure. Would we not do better with a few simple rules. 



One of the first and most important things I was taught while in graduate school was an important part of the Hippocratic oath. “Above all do no harm.” 



Whenever I am confronted with a difficult case that I have never seen before, this is often the first thing I think about. It guides my decisions and sometimes makes me realize I need to ask for help. This one simple rule has made all the difference. If I follow the rule it leads to numerous other decisions, interactions, conversations, improved patient care, and a positive outcome for a seemingly complicated situation. The complicated then becomes complex by following one simple rule. This then leads to emergent behavior and a positive resolution that I could not have foreseen. 



But I also think the same is true when it comes to sustainability and leading a sustainable life. And this is the key take away. It truly doesn’t have to be complicated. What if we only had a couple of simple rules to guide us through our journey to a sustainable future. 



What if we all made the decision to live more sustainably and what if we all went through our entire lives, or what is presently left of our life, and adhered to the one simple rule of “leave only footprints”. 


Then by default, you would have adhered to the principles of using only what you need, reducing your waste, giving up plastics, respecting other cultures, extending a simple act of kindness, and being mindful of the fact that every single thing you do has an impact. 

One simple rule leads to complex emergent behavior that affects everything else. If you followed this one simple rule, imagine what your life would be like 5 years from now. If everyone did this, imagine what our planet would be like 5 years from now. 


With one simple rule it would be possible to have  an equitable, fair society, with no racial or social injustice where everyone had a voice and equal opportunity. The planet would start to rebound and regenerate which would guarantee a sustainable future. Perhaps we could even reverse the affects of climate change. The impossible becomes possible by simply following one simple rule. 


Similar to an ecosystem or the social behavior of animals, humans also display some very complex behaviors. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Having a sustainable future can be as simple as choosing one thing that you are going to change in your life in order to start living more sustainably. Keep that one habit in your life for the rest of your life. Once that works for you, then pick one more. Then one more. This then emerges into a lifetime of sustainable habits by following one simple rule. 


Most people never stop to think that the decisions you make today do in fact decide what your life is going to be like 5 years from now. Our decisions as a culture and society also directly influence what our lives are going to be like 5 years from now. 


Clearly we need to emerge into a different way of living if we are going to have a future on this planet. 


Simple rules result in complex behavior and complex rules results in stupid behavior. So why not follow a simple rule of leave only footprints and completely avoid the stupid. What an awesome world we would have. 



But just maybe that can happen if we follow a few simple rules. 


Now I am going to wrap things up by answering the sustainability question of the week. What is a sustainable economy?

Most people would never really associate the economy with sustainability. As it turns out, the economy is actually a very important part of building a sustainable future. A sustainable economy does not favor economic growth at the expense of social, environmental or culture factors. It is about finding a good balance between growth and responsibility to people and the environment. 


Sustainability also benefits big business by reducing waste and saving time and effort. And just maybe that can be accomplished by following a few simple rules. 


Well folks I hope you have enjoyed this episode and will join me again next week. Until then this is your host Patrick signing off. Always remember to live sustainably because this is how we build a better future.  




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