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The Steady-State Initiative

moving toward sustainability through economic reform

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2009 Apr 12

Illusion, an Ordered Confusion (1997) - E. W. Powell

Waterfall - E. W. Powell

The painting has two topics loosely veined within its composition. Firstly, using Escher's optical illusion from his work "Waterfall", dated 1961 (based on the Penrose illusion).

This image confounds our senses and throws into doubt our ability to perceive correctly. Escher had a profound understanding of linear perspective. I have substituted the waterfall in Escher's work with spheres, terrestrial and celestial globular Godheads. These represent the religions, beliefs and ideologies pertaining to the human populace of our planet Earth. They are of differing size, cascading downward and onward melting away in a perpetual water course, each Godhead deemed to hold the truth.

Within the painting are a number of animals, of land and sea. All have been exploited by man, rituals, experiments, body parts for the misguided pursuance of medicines, aphrodisiacs, cosmetics, and the trade in souvenirs and trinkets for empty headed tourists. The Lips, Teeth and Tongue represent, avariciousness, immorality, licentiousness, dissent, freedom of speech, enjoyment etc.

The Dice
With sixes to all sides depicts chance, fun, the unknown, the unobtainable, vice and corruption and so on.

The Chalice, Skull, Apple Halves, Pips
Represents mysticism, peace, happiness, the search for one's holy grail.

Stood arms folded adjacent to chalice, simply represents "What is Man" forward yet so primitive !

Complexity comment:
Correct perception requires that we have adequate knowledge and take into account all relevant detail. Most people however are necessarily ignorant of most things, and thus our decisions are based on inadequate knowledge and on extrapolation from what we have experienced before. It is because of this that such illusions work, we make incorrect assumptions, and are then confused when the expected outcome fails to materialise.

Chance throws the dice in the options that we encounter at each bifurcation (split) along life's path, but we must decide. We don't have prior knowledge of the options we will encounter later, so prediction is at best tentative. We must be prepared to correct our choices if the outcome proves to be different to our expectations, in other words to recycle our ideas.

The water in Escher's painting endlessly recycles and this is true for us also. Our bodies retain their form but recycle all the materials that make them up. Ecologies and Planets thrive on recycling.

Would you destroy your arm ? Surely not, yet the material that made up your arm last year is now distributed amongst all the lifeforms on Earth, and what they were has now become part of you also. Shouldn't you care for them equally ?

In reality, nothing in this world is forever sustainable. The Earth's star, the Sun, will eventually be extinguished and human life on the planet will cease long before that happens. When we talk about sustainable living we are not referring to sustaining civilization forever, but we can attempt to prolong it for the longest time possible, for many generations to come.

Thus, one can argue that any carbon footprint will lead to non-sustainable living. But how can we ever achieve zero footprint? We can tread as lightly as possible and by doing so, we can prolong civilization a bit longer than if we stomp heavily on the earth.

What is important is the quality of life that each generation will experience. Moreover, we need to strive to minimize the suffering that each and every human being may have to endure during his or her brief journey on this earth.

Hence, civilization is on a journey through time. Along the way we experiment with various models of social organization and we discover that some aspects are beneficial and others are disastrous. We have successes and we have failures.

In hindsight, we will look upon the era of the automobile to be one of great technological success, but also a total ecological failure. Similarly, we will look back and declare Capitalism as a societal disaster.


Waterfall - M. C. Escher

Waterfall (1961) - M. C. Escher (1898-1972)


The current economic system is like an Escher-styled water wheel. Water pouring down on the top of the wheel makes it turn. Water flows out at the bottom. Billions of bucket toting water carriers transport the water back to the top of the waterfall and create the resemblance of a perpetual motion machine with a fixed supply of water. But perpetual it isn't because there is leakage in the form of interest and profits. In order to maintain the water flow, more water has to be added to the system, money created as debt.

Economic growth and continuous monetary expansion is simply not sustainable.

To make matters even worse, our economic water wheel keeps getting larger and the flow has to be increased in order to keep it turning. Increasing numbers of water carriers are required to keep up the flow. We all have to work harder and labour for longer hours. But does our quality of life improve? Have we not all become slaves to corporate interests?

Sustainable living means recognizing when enough is enough. We need to stop the leakage in the system, attain steady-state and tread as lightly as possible on the earth.

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