From exponential growth to exponential transformation

Zairah Khan
11 min readOct 9, 2017

In order to survive as a species we must create exponential transformation and be prepared to question growth. We can only achieve this by leading with our humanity rather than following technology.

For the last 100 years technology has been our mantra as a solution to everything: food production, health care, warfare, space exploration, complex problem solving, social relations, understanding reality, representing reality. To anyone growing up in this time frame, they naturally look at technology to take us to the next level. Some belief the exponential growth of technology will give rise to a coming of age of our species and will even herald a new species of human all together.

There is just a slight glitch:
No matter how connected we are, no matter how smart, no matter how ‘exponential,’ we are still mammals. Living breathing creatures that need oxygen, food and shelter in order to exist and reproduce. The dark side of technology is that this very existence as living beings is under threat. So unless we want eternal life as a data cloud, we need to change. And we need to do it in an exponential way.

Technology can help us do that. Because technology can help re-shape the reality in which we as humans operate. But we as humans we must take the first step, because technology is only as good as its master.
And the truth of the matter is that we are imperfect creatures, we choose cheap over healthy, we choose destruction over creation, we choose to ignore rather than act. So if we want change to happen in any serious way we must look at ourselves first. This applies as much for people in power as for ‘the people.’

As citizens, parents and community members we may genuinely feel we have a moral obligation towards creating a better world. However, as political party representatives, corporate employees or business owners we rarely speak for our own opinion alone, but rather represent what we think is expected from us. As members of a marginalized group we may have strong voices and a clear goal, but we feel we are fighting an uphill battle.

What we often fail to realize is that we all are suffering the same faith. We all feel powerless to some extent sometimes, because we are not autonomous beings that speak with one voice. On the contrary.

The paradox

Change gets easier if our conditions evolve. But we can only change our conditions if we first change ourselves.

This may seem like a paradox but you could actually see it as two mutually reinforcing aspects that need to happen at the same time. Something that anthropologist Antony Giddens in the 70’s termed ‘structure’ and ‘agency’.

Structure is the way that society, including communities or companies in which we operate, shapes and limits our choices and even the way we experience reality. Agency is what we as people can do in terms of influencing that reality and how we experience it.

Agency is problematic, because there is in fact no such thing as ‘people’ and what they want. People have many roles at the same time; employees, consumers, citizens, and as such they have diverging interests. Come to think about it, if anything sets us apart from other species of animals it is the fact that we have diverging interests that undermine our own existence. This seems like a major evolutionary fluke.

So we should see agency as a collection or mean of different interests. Unfortunately this leads to an ongoing struggle to balance all these different inner voices. In some cases, people are known to quite their corporate job to become yoga teachers. In other cases optimistic youths get to be angry mid-lifers. Feeling powerless to change our conditions can even make us depressed or alcoholic, which impacts families and society at large in many negative ways.

“The most common way that people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”

Is what Alice Walker said about this.

Can we exert our agency for the greater good and feel good about ourselves at the same time?

Being realistic is not selling out

If change is what you want, the challenge is to be at the same time incredibly ambitious and incredibly realistic.

It is to think big and act small. Or as we say in permaculture: we should look for the point where we can achieve maximum result with minimal effort. So for instance if you are working in a corporate environment and you’ve been hitting your head against the wall again and again, trying to get the company to divest from fossil fuel. You could leave and become a yoga teacher or you could try to adjust your ambition level, either is a good choice, they both create change.

Let’s say you decide to stay and instead start a campaign for the company to exclusively buy organic food, coffee and tea. You may think this sounds minor compared to divesting, but have you considered the enormous quantities of produce involved and the enormous footprint this creates, the pesticides, GMO and what not? Considering also that this action may spread to other offices across the globe and how it will slowly start to change corporate culture, so that one day one day the CEO may indeed choose to divest, possibly sooner than you expect? And this is where we find our agency has (slowly) changed corporate structure, beyond one persons’ actions.

Perhaps to some adjusting your level of ambitious sounds like ‘selling out’. And that is actually part of the problem that we are facing. Too much ambition and too little will both kill us in the end.

We are stuck in a secret war between ‘utopians’ and ‘dystopians’. There is the side of the spectrum that will settle for nothing less than perfection and there is the side that sees no option or no need for change at all. Results are created in the middle.

I do realize this is a very fine line to be walking on. Especially since I previously argued against the people planet profit paradigm. So let’s get things strait. We do need to move to a planet first principle. But we have to introduce it in a profit first world.

Intention and result

What set’s actions apart between preserving and changing the status quo is first of all result, second of all intention.

Intention impacts the result both in the short term and in the long run, but it also matters in a stand-alone way. Something I’ve learned from Buddhism. Take Gandhi for example, his method was non-violent resistance. But the effect that he created was purely a result of his strong intention to change. Had he done exactly the same but from an intention of complacency we would have never heard of him.

When I think of individual agency, having the right intention and exponential result combined, another Indian example springs to my mind. A man in India, single handedly re-created a forest in his village by planting trees one by one. This may seem like a slow process but considering — the time span that this tree will stand in the spot where it was planted, the carbon it will sequester, the life it will hold- the result is enormous compared to the initial effort. Especially if you consider the ecological capital that builds up over time, its’ future value. The overall result is astonishing actually, when you see the forest, your jaw drops.

The problem is that we as humans are triggered by the short term. We make false assumptions that whatever costs a lot of effort now, will yield the most results. We are tricked by our egos into thinking that. Because huge efforts mean acknowledgement. Few people become famous from planting trees or educating kids, this doesn’t make it less worthy.

So if we want to change the world, we must start with ourselves, our egos and our intentions so that we can get the right perspective on where to exert our energy. We should individually question any belief that allows us to sit back and hope for the best while we continue our unsustainable practices. And we should be smart about finding the pressure points of our system and interacting with our structures at our appropriate level, so that we can have impact and satisfaction at the same time.

Leverages and catalysts

But then how can we multiply the effect of our individual actions, so that we can get to the point of exponential transformation?

There are two leverages that we can use. 1) people-people, or in other words, the collective 2) people-institutions; business, government or other.

Power of institutions

Institutions took hundreds of years to be built. We could take an equal amount of time to take them apart or we could see how we might use them.

An institution can be a government, an organization, a business or a business sector. Institutions are actually more part of structure , but if we play it smart we can nudge them in the right way and use them as a leverage for our individual agency.

Let me elaborate by another example. The dairy and meat industry is a principle contributor to Green House Gasses. An idealist like myself could choose not to have anything to do with cattle rearing and curse all those that do. However, one of my main projects is in fact focused on dairy. It consist of feeding seaweed to cows to reduce their methane emissions, cows being the principle source of methane in my country. I know critics would say you are just keeping an obsolete industry going. That’s the utopian speaking.

What I belief I’m doing is creating an incentive for a new industry: seaweed farming. There are 1.5 Million cows in my country, which equals the entire population of Amsterdam. If all of these cows consume a few grams of seaweed every day, we would require 2.5 GT of seaweed annually. Seaweed is a natural bio remedy, it absorbs access nutrients and CO2 from the water, so it works directly against ocean acidification and it brings precious nutrients (like phosphor) back to land. On top of that people will in time realize that they need to eat some of the seaweed themselves and that will help them reduce the amount of animals proteins they use. That’s how helping the dairy industry in teh short term cleans the ocean and reduces our ‘food print’ in the long term.

Another Dutch example: dredging. There is quite a bit of energy involved in moving mud from here to there, to keep the waterways clear. Using the ‘building with nature’ idea, a company called eco-shape, has started to move the mud to a strategic position so that currents carry it to areas where it can help to restore wetlands. The idea being, if we are moving mud anyhow, we might as well bring it to a place where it can do some good. In addition it helps create natural protection against storms and seawater rise. Technology helps makes it possible, but it all starts with having the right intention.

Power of the collective

We live in a time where social capital is slowly taking over traditional forms of influence.

The need for community is one of the most basic human needs, maybe even more important than our own survival. The collective can enhance both our level of impact and our satisfaction. Technology has created new possibilities to find and create communities across continents and to create ‘social capital’.

Although there is no clear conversion rate between money and social capital. Social capital does have an economic value. It translates into large companies buying small start-ups for ridiculous amounts of money or large companies sponsoring Instagram accounts. It also is increasingly powerfull in influencing public opinion and mobilising support. There is enormous social capital behind movements for transformation.

But at the same time joining a group is no panacea. Take the occupy movement, which brought about a mass of people but failed to deliver an effect on structure. There might be some positive after effects at individual levels, there is no denying it. But overall there was little result because there was no real action. The trick is to translate social capital in real material impact and to look for the right pressure points.

On the other hand there is a group called ecosystem restoration camps. The idea is that camps are created that enable bands of people to move into an area to restore the ecosystem, on a more or less permanent basis. They are organized loosely, which enables organic growth.

As they achieve concrete results in these locations they are learning and creating both social capital and ecological capital. Unfortunately we live in a system where ecological and social capital have no exact monetary value, but again it’s about finding the right role for technology.

I recently learned of a tool called ‘Thunderclap.’ You get your fan to contribute their social capital, by pledging to tweet or share one message at a specific given time. So that in one go you can reach not 500 but 5 million people. Ideally speaking all these people would pledge to fund at least one tree. That’s 5 million trees. Or 5000 restored forest. That like fast forwarding the case of the Indian man and that’s exactly what we need.

Of course there is no individual recognition in this feat, so it only works if we can find a deep satisfaction in contributing to something that is bigger than us. The result is the reward. Which is looking at these forests and being able to walk through them, breathing in the clean air and wondering which tree it was that we planted.


Between the level of agent and structure there are organizations that create synergy between both levels.

As mentioned agency is only one side. When people show the right intention and the right action, structure will change on the long run. But we are in a situation that requires some speeding up.

The international land and forest tenure facility for instance aims to help indigenous people secure control over their ancestral lands. That enlarges people’s agency to protect the land, and that’s just good for them, it’s good for all of us, including companies. Tropical rainforests controlled by indigenous people currently store 25% of the worlds carbon, but indigenous people only have legal claims in some cases. The NGO helps them secure formal land titles. Because it is 29 times more expensive for companies to build on indigenous lands, it help companies to have the legal situation clear from the outset.

Shift focus

There is not much point to growth if it is leading us further down a path of destruction.

So we need to re-think exponentiality and lead by example. We all have more agency then we think, and if choose our battles smartly and leverage our impact, we can achieve results beyond what we expect and what we controle.

In some cases a catalyst may present a helping hand, but in all cases, change starts with people deciding that change is needed. It does not start with a technological invention, it doesn’t start with policy, or with a movement. It starts with intention.

Intention is the strongest force for change, but it shouldn’t t stop there.

Sometimes ideals can leave us frustrated or feeling powerless, in which case a reality check will help us determine if we are interacting at the right level. Most of the time it is good to start close to home, if we can’t change the city, then maybe we should try our neighborhood or even our street, our house, ourselves?

Change is all around us and there are hopeful and smart examples. As a society it would do us good to shift our focus to this type of change and be prepared to leave the mantra of growth. But society is all of us, so if we shift our focus to these initiatives and see how we might contribute, support or start our own, society in the end will follow.

It is really up to you.



Zairah Khan

Regenerative Entrepreneur, Permaculture, BlueO2- Dreaming big from the ground upwards