The Upward Spiral

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The Upward Spiral is an hour-long video by Paul Krafel, describing a novel way to look at the natural world in terms of flow. The full version is available on Google video, as is a 40-minute edit by Arthur Brock.


What the film says

Flow is a wondrous dance

  • Rules: when inflow greater than outflow, things accumulate; when outflow greater than inflow, things diminish
  • Everything flowing out of one place is flowing in somewhere else
  • Relative balance between inflow and outflow
    • Ex. getting more money by either earning more or spending less
  • Two levels
    • Ex. difference between a car backing up and traffic backing up
  • Balanced flow makes the flow invisible and makes it easy to take stability for granted
    • Many of the problems we grapple with are the result of unwittingly shifting the relative balance of some flow

Living with the Second Law of Thermodynamics

  • How is creation possible within a universe where energy bleeds away?
    • Life is like an eddy in a stream: bits of water moving upstream within the larger downward flow
  • First solution: Your survival requires something else to be sacrificed, so get good at it
    • Absolutely essential part of being alive in a universe that is shaped by the Second Law
  • Second solution: Positive feedback spirals
    • Example: Salmon return nitrogen and phosphorus from the sea, and predators move those nutrients back to the land, countering the flow of nutrients to the sea

Examples of upward spirals

  • Succession (forest filling a glacial valley)
    • In the beginning, rock touches sky (one surface) and water washes away anything that could form soil
    • Moss grows on deposits of sand and gravel, sucking up rock grains and expanding, then dying and becoming soil, and even slowing tumbling boulders
    • Small plants form dams contoured across the bedrock, allowing rock grains to accumulate against them, absorbing moisture that helps the plants grow taller
    • Deciduous trees create leaf dams that self-heal and form more soil to support more trees
    • It's all about the creation of surfaces
      • Plant surfaces hold the rain and buffer the wind
      • Soil's power comes from the vast combined surface area of all its particles
  • Water cycle
    • Only 11 inches of rain on land comes from evaporation off the ocean
    • Beaver dams create lakes where water evaporates
    • Plant transpiration: most of the water on leaves evaporates and falls again as rain, almost tripling what falls on land
  • Kelp absorbing wave energy, preventing erosion of beaches, allowing the land to grow, increasing the lengths of coastlines where kelp live

The two powers: upward vs. downward spirals

  • Gullies form through a feedback spiral of erosion
    • The steeper and narrower a gully gets, the faster water in it flows and the faster it steepens and narrows the gully
    • Gullies cut into the underground water table, and outflow becomes greater than inflow
  • Rain can either flow quickly and wash away soil, or soak in and create soil
    • You can't slow/stop the flow in the gullies themselves, only high in the drainage

Quotes and paraphrases

  • Remember, you always create a new path before opposing the current path.
  • You can count the number of seeds in an apple, but you can't count the number of apples in a seed.
  • "The Fit": when two parts of the world fit together so perfectly that you know they're both part of the same story.
  • The world is like clouds: everything is made of flows, but it's easier to see the upper-level, solid-seeming appearance than the lower-level flow.
  • Feedback spirals contain a magical power to bring things into existence.
  • The environment is an upper-level accumulation of all these flows toward more surfaces and possibilities. This is the Upward Spiral.
  • Don't let your current understanding stop you from doing this work (nurturing upward spirals). The work will grow on itself as shifts in the relative balance transform enemies into allies.
  • Science and religion both point to a truth: There is a direction to the universe.

Discussion at Sol 2009


Examples of upward vs. downward spirals

  • Art: Main St. vs. Wal-Mart's "gully economy"
    • When people's local rural economy gets too weak to support the Wal-Mart, it moves out, leaving nothing
  • Paul: Education: making kids passive vs. responsible
  • Politics: where are the "headwaters?"
    • Bottom up: school boards and city councils
    • Top down: President is at the headwaters
    • Alysia: our goal should be to act in our own spheres of influence
  • Paul: divorce between science and religion is a big gully
    • Or there might be three entities involved, the third being magic/enchantment

Advantages of fast-moving civilization

  • Brandon: We're not just wasting natural resources, we're making an investment
    • Need to figure out how to make it "pay back"
    • Art: We've built a nervous system for Gaia
    • Steve: Can we "harness" existing consumerism to move in a better direction, or do we have to retreat?
    • Brandon: People are already reconsidering what it means to be happy

Lessons for individuals

  • Paul: Start by studying the power within ourselves, making our inner energy flow more and be more visible
  • Author of book Small is Beautiful: We shouldn't be optimists or pessimists about the future; just do the work
    • Quote from the movie: "Don't let your current understanding prevent you from doing this work"
  • Kim: Example of individual "upstream" action: went to a local college's council and brought up the idea of benefits for domestic parnters of college employees
    • The effects rippled up to the state chancellor
  • Defining "what's right" is a never-ending process
    • Increasing possibilities makes it more likely that a "right" path will be available

Discussion at Seed 2011



  • Gus: Acting high in the drainage = acting locally
    • Brandon: If you act in many local places rather than at the national level, you will be more effective
      • Ben: Until you're exposed as a secretive group that funds a vast conspiracy
    • Ben: Or you can act in one locality and have kindred in other localities working for the same things
      • Gus: This is made far easier by modern telecommunications
  • Brandon: Growth is fine as long as it's growth in possibilities, not growth in consumption
  • Conversations where you have to give up lots of things you value in order to "stop being wrong" are deeply unattractive
    • Even if we're aligned with the values of the person who's asking us
    • Gus: Silverton People for Peace don't define themselves as anti-war
      • Even the most strident war hawk will eventually realize that we can't afford empire anymore--it's not effective
      • "High in the drainage" = community security
        • Brandon: Seeing the world as a community instead of a dangerous place
        • Gus: Harder in a big city, where everyone locks their doors, reasonably enough since larger populations include larger criminal populations
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