Stealth: The Great Green Hope

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The best leader is he who, when his work is done, the people look about and say, ‘Look what happened naturally.’”        — Chinese proverb

Big money and big power have had their say; now it’s time for stealth and surprise to have theirs. This is good news. Stealth and surprise win wars. The little guys catch the big boys off-guard — maybe dozing off in their well-fed complacency — and then the little guys make their sneaky move, Trojan Horse-like.

I think stealth and surprise can win the war on environmental degradation and catastrophic climate change.

Big money and big power have degraded our political institutions, rendering them unresponsive, inefficient, and sometimes almost immobile. And now — to make matters worse, far worse — the Federal government is determinedly burying its head in the sand, even as the pace of environmental deterioration quickens. So we should thank heaven that the little guys — a vast array of green small businesses and green entrepreneurs — are making their move. But, note this, these little guys are moving on the sly, stealthily.

Stealth is a way of doing something quietly and covertly in order to avoid detection. The little guys are prudent. They know the first order of business is to avoid or minimize danger. If alerted, the big boys will stomp them to death. But operating on the sly does more than provide protective cover. It also arms the little guys with powerful strategic advantages that the big boys will never acquire, not for all their money and might.

Here are some of them.

Stealth operates through the power of small groups

Stealth wins wars that appear un-winnable. Stealth is a form of guerrilla warfare, a form of combat that often succeeds when nothing else will. Much history exists to prove this.

In his book, To Dare and to Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations, from Achilles to Al Qaeda, Derek Leebaert, a professor of government at Georgetown University, describes how small-scale military endeavors have surprised and destroyed opponents who would seem to be infinitely stronger. He argues these missions have affected key junctures of history and even the tipping points of civilizations.

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Here’s how he describes the most famous example of this in history: the Trojan Horse. “Twenty-three men descending a rope ladder at night from the belly of a wooden horse were tough and smart enough to make their way through the city of Troy, signal the awaiting fleet from its walls, and very silently open the gates. Since the Trojan horse felled Troy, armies have known that small groups of elite warriors (commandos, rangers, guerrillas, etc.) can swiftly change the course of conflict.”

Based on this history, Leebaert argues that small entities possess intrinsic advantages that large entities are simply incapable of matching. Commanders of large forces may be as smart, tough, talented, and even as courageous as the leaders of special operations.

However, commanders of large forces are, of necessity, concerned primarily with mass and with administration. That means they must make plans. And planners, of necessity, must depend on continuity. But life frequently tosses surprises — like bombs — into the mix, negating even the best laid plans, whether of mice or men. It’s the small guy who’s in the best position to maneuver in the resulting confusion and exploit it.

Military history often demonstrates the intrinsic advantages of small-scale enterprises in regard to big centralized institutions. Entrepreneurial history reveals the same thing. The little guys are much more capable of innovation than the big system is. They can engage in unorthodox approaches and “out-of-the-box” thinking. Plus, the little guys are willing to take extraordinary risks if they think they can achieve spectacular results. For big systems this is a no-no.

Here’s the connection with green small businesses and green entrepreneurs. I see many remarkable similarities between these military “special operations” and the process of “creative destruction” by entrepreneurial small businesses.

Stealth operates through creative destruction

Stealth thrives through the process of creative destruction – that’s when obscure tinkerers working in garages or on kitchen tables devise radical innovations that catch big established companies by surprise and force them to adapt or die.  Sometimes a tinkerer will strike gold and come up with a “black swan” technology – a wholly unexpected innovation that transforms everything.creative_destruction_by_in_spiro-d300jqr1

(In his best selling book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb cites the Internet, the computer, and the laser as examples of revolutionary technologies whose arrivals on the scene were unanticipated and unpredicted.)

Creative destruction is good for the environment. It’s likely that some tinkerers will soon produce “black swan” technologies that make solar power cheaper than coal; or make lighting systems and automobile engines vastly more efficient; or make possible the storage of huge amounts of energy at low cost.

Countless tinkerers are now tinkering away at such things. A few are bound to succeed. The appearance in the market of any one of them will throw a wrench into conventional thinking about energy and environment, and may throw expert predictions out the window.

There’s a political angle to this as well, an appealing one that bridges the gap between left and right. While serving the environment, the concept of creative destruction has been embraced by neoliberal and free market economists and by many conservative Republicans as well. In fact, the concept was devised by Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist and conservative icon, who showed how the process renews the economy and benefits society in general.

Stealth operates through self-organizing systems

Ecologists marvel at nature’s self-organizing capacities, a spontaneous process whereby some form of beneficial order is created by individuals interacting without central coordination.

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Think of flocks of birds flying in beautiful formations. There’s an aerodynamic reason for this. Flocks sense and exploit changing wind patterns enabling them to use the surrounding air in the most energy efficient way, something an individual bird cannot do.swarm-bees-2009599

Think of honey bees swarming about industriously on a spring day. These bees are home-hunting. Swarming is how honey bee colonies reproduce themselves. A colony divides, and part of it leaves to seek a new home, usually with the old queen. The remaining members continue at the original site with a new queen.

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Think of fish schooling, that is, swimming in the same direction in a coordinated manner with the individual members precisely spaced from each other as they perform complicated maneuvers. Schooling helps fish evade predators and reduces the chance of an individual being captured.

Think of self-organizing ant colonies. These colonies have inspired design in software engineering, robotics, industrial design, and other fields involving many simple parts working together to perform complex tasks.

 

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For example, when opposing streams of leafcutter ants share a narrow path, they instinctively alternate flows in the most efficient way possible, never creating traffic jams the way humans driving cars do.

These animals are performing social functions that enable them to thrive and survive. These self-organizing groups are far better at foraging for food and at detecting predators than are individuals. And they accomplish these benefits without central direction. Learning from self-organizing systems in nature can enable us to thrive and survive too.

Stealth relies on self-organizing systems to get things done in ways that the big boys cannot predict, control or even see. If there’s a center making plans and issuing commands, there’s a center that can be targeted and destroyed. But what if there’s no center?

Small business is a self-organizing system 

Like nature, small business consists of complex, interdependent webs whose infinite interactions add up to a system that is self-organizing. Like nature, small businesses are efficient, productive, and they possess a whole raft of other attractions: they are nimble, swift, responsive, resilient, and daring to run risks.

The world of small business, like the world of nature, is characterized by endless cycles of birth, death and re-birth. Just as natural systems seize and exploit any opportunity to plant new life, so small businesses seize and exploit any new economic opportunity that pops up, however minuscule.

This family resemblance, I argue, makes small business the most appropriate tool for addressing, protecting and restoring natural systems. These two systems reflect each other; they understand each other; they can communicate with each other. Therefore, in a sense, nature and small business are allies. If they were brought into active cooperation with each other, it would be better than an alliance, it would be a marriage made in heaven.

And think of the political benefits that come with promoting and supporting small businesses as the tool for environmental protection and restoration. It’s also a political marriage made in heaven.

Get Your Stealth On

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This stealthy process of organic change is unfolding right on schedule. Green small businesses and green entrepreneurs are re- making the world and – praise be! – they’re doing it on the sly, which is the secret of their success.

This stealthy revolution is being accomplished through countless acts by countless actors, which means you can play a part in it if you wish. It’s a game anyone can play. You can solve problems, you can make money, and you can have fun. That’s a recipe for the good life, even in this turbulent day and age.

(NOTE: For more sage advice on how to save the world through stealth, visit LET YOUR GARDEN GROW on this website.)