I recently came across the interesting and useful idea of pace layers. It's a way of understanding how complex systems change at different speeds. An easy way to think about it is to look at an analog clock, with the second hand moving more quickly than the minute hand, which moves faster than the hour hand.
We can easily recognize this idea in living systems. Your heart changes quite quickly, as it goes through the cycle of contracting and relaxing many times each minute. Your hormones go through daily and lunar cycles (yes, even you, fellas!). Your physiology adjusts to the changing annual rhythms. And you go through periods of larger change throughout your lifecycle. Our skin turns over and sloughs off daily. Our bones change very slowly, over years.
On an evolutionary scale, the human population undergoes changes over generations. For example, James Nestor in his excellent book Breath pointed out that due to our diets becoming softer, over the last couple hundred years, our jaws stopped developing as broadly and the shape of our faces have changed, leading to wide-spread breathing problems. It can be hard to imagine changes on this timescale. But you can easily picture a sped-up time-lapse representation of this, where the changes happening over hundreds of years are shown over a minute . . .
Pace layers give resilience to complex systems in the face of unpredictable and sometimes harsh conditions. A storm or a drought might effect the leaves or branches of a tree. Or even an entire tree might fall. But the forest itself changes more slowly and can usually withstand the storm.
Today, I'm thinking about pace layers in terms of information and perennial truths. The creation, spread, storage and use of information is also a complex system. Some information has an extremely short-life span. A bit like a sugar hit, with a similar effect on brain chemistry. Other types of knowledge change very slowly over time. These tend to be principles found in wisdom traditions. The forest is more stable than trying to grab individual leaves as they flutter by.
Today I'm reading about glyphosate and seeing two diametrically opposed truths representing different pace-layers. On the Bayer Canada website, you can see a brief (and incomplete) history of the development of Round Up. Referring to what was understood in 1976, it says: "The original Roundup® herbicide allowed farmers to kill almost every weed that emerged from the soil, thus decreasing the need for tilling to control weeds and suffering soil erosion in the process. This Roundup® product also seemed to be the perfect environmental solution at the perfect time. It was found to decompose into natural products carbon dioxide, phosphoric acid, and ammonia and was also found to be safe for humans and wildlife. Environmentally speaking, the original Roundup herbicide proved to be one of, if not the safest, herbicides in history."
Accessing this article today in May 2022, what we're reading is that what was "discovered" by Monsanto in 1976, that from the perspective of human health, wildlife, and the environment, that it's "one of, if not the safest, herbicides in history." And this perspective is being presented as valid and true today.
And yet also today we see that Bayer (who purchased Monsanto) was ordered to pay $10 billion dollars in damages in 2020 and another $4.5 billion in 2021 as glyphosate, in addition to causing wide-spread environmental degradation and nutritionally poor crops, is also a known human carcinogen. To date, this is more than 3 times the damages that Purdue have been ordered to pay for killing over 800,000 people in the ongoing opioid epidemic.
Of course, cancer is the end stage of severe metabolic disruption and glyphosate use and consumption is associated with pretty much any chronic inflammatory disease, including Alzheimer's, autism, and autoimmunity, (starting at the beginning of the chronic inflammatory alphabet).
But here I'm interested less in how devastating the exponentially increasing use of glyphosate is and more on the different pace layers of information change. Both a leaf and a trunk exist at the same time and yet one represents a culmination of past and present, the other, something much more recent.
A declaration of safety based on conflicted, incomplete and suppressed knowledge, while patently untrue, changes at a very slow pace, commensurate with the profitability and resources used to prop it up.
As we navigate a bafflingly complex information environment I have two suggestions. The first is to spend way more time splashing in the water of perennial truths, the principles found in wisdom traditions. These stand the test of time and frankly, other, more fleeting types of information don't make any sense without them.
The second is, rather than asking if something is "true", ask how quickly or slowly the information is likely to change. Is it a leaf? A trunk? Or a forest? I think this practice can prevent information whiplash, flip-flopping, poor-decision making and cynical distrust.
And will also help us humans to make much better decisions in the face of incomplete, conflicting and otherwise imperfect information that affect our long-term welfare.