The Trouble With Sustainability II: A Dynamic Steady-State?

Have human beings ever built organizations that can sustain projects over very long time spans?

Yes. Cathedral-building is a classic example. The joint-stock company, at least in its earliest iterations, is another example that many would cite. Organizations that by design are intended either to complete work that can’t be finished in a lifetime or to focus an organization on the longer-term and protect it from short-term calculations. Arguably Westphalian state sovereignty was constructed to protect governments and rulers from destabilizing forms of short-term calculation and contingency, to standardize claims to territory and authority.

I think it would be fair to say that if there have been such organizational structures, there are very few of them surviving in the present. Modernity in this moment is massively short-term in almost every respect. Hence organizations like the Long Now Foundation that are trying to think about what such structures in the 21st Century might require.

Sustainability is surely a project that requires a custodial approach that extends over centuries rather than single election cycles. It simply won’t happen if it’s left as a matter of discrete decisions, particular policies, or even adoptions of new habits by individuals and institutions.

What we will eventually need is organizations–and maybe societies–that do not require growth. What that idea meant in the 20th Century, more or less, was the creation of some form of authority that would manage economic and social system so as to prohibit growth, e.g., some form of state socialism or at the least state management. I’m not going to belabor the point too much, but I think it’s plain that this is not going to cut it. Not just because states are themselves just as potentially dangerous a concentration of power as capital and just as prone to chase accumulation on behalf of their elites, but because controlling regimes out to prohibit growth will always confuse growth and change.

Getting to human systems that exhibit both internal dynamism while having little to no net change in their intake of resources without austerity, impoverishment or stasis requires new structures for which there are very few meaningful analogies. It takes understanding systems design, in particular how or whether you can design for emergent complexity.

Many sustainability advocates embrace biophiliac designs in thinking about production, consumption and waste. So biophilia is a good place to start: are there natural systems that achieve dynamic equilibria, or are self-maintaining steady states in some other fashion? (Some economists would insist that this is exactly what capitalist growth is, but they make that claim work by placing finite material resources, population growth, etc. outside of that system, which is precisely the problem that humanity now faces.)

There are some good examples of homeostasis in biological organisms and in ecological systems, arguably scaling up to the entire planet. Homeostatic systems aren’t necessarily good or desirable in and of themselves–in biological and ecological contexts, they operate within some larger fitness landscape that is not stable over time, rather than with complete autonomy.

But homeostasis–or more generally systems with negative feedback loops–are a fairly good place to start thinking in design terms, because most such systems do not require a control apparatus or central authority, they can maintain equilibria without a command hierarchy. Moreover, they can do so while maintaining internal diversity and heterogeneity, e.g., homeostatic systems can have many different parts or agents that operate simultaneously and independent of one another.

The dystopic fear about no-growth, steady-state futures for humanity generally involves the proposition that they would necessarily entail both command hierarchies and enforced homogeneity. So at least there are at least some natural systems that demonstrate that this isn’t necessary: you can get a system that maintains itself without an ever-expanding use of more and more inputs that doesn’t require command structures and doesn’t eliminate internal hetereogeneity.

But what does that look like in human terms, either for individuals or institutions? Right now most human institutions, including Swarthmore, maintain systems within which virtually every individual and unit assumes that growth in their domains of primary interest is their normal expectation, that dynamism is only possible with the addition of new resources: more funding, more people, more dedicated infrastructure. Pressure against growth is usually exerted from above: responsibility for the total budget, for the overall institutional use of resources, is vested in a command hierarchy, and that command hierarchy is also charged with considering the “fitness landscape” within which the institution operates.

That structure is what produces cycles of growth followed by austerity rather than some form of steady homeostatic dynamism. Individuals and units work the internal landscape of the organization to capture a greater share of resources in order to demonstrate their own dynamism and earn rewards for it. The command structure of the organization desperately seeks more resources so that this internal process doesn’t turn into a zero-sum game. If they hit a firm resource limit, the process of internal competition doesn’t stop, but instead sharpens. If the available resources actually shrink, the competition gets even more intense as the command structure increasingly impoverishes parts of its own structure in order to feed the internal winners.

The parts or units of a homeostatic system in most natural examples are not competing with each other: there is an “inside” that works together to enable the whole to operate on a larger fitness landscape.

What would organizations, whether universities or hospitals or bureaucracies or corporations, look like if they were at a relatively steady-state but internally dynamic? E.g., where allocations of resources shifted somewhat as needed but also where there was change and innovation that didn’t necessarily require resources, that was in some sense energetically neutral? That’s possible, after all. It’s almost the ideal embodied in Marx’s famous “hunt in the morning, criticize after dinner” quotation: a fixed allocation to the individual, but individuals freed to generalize their use of that allocation according to their desires and needs. Or if you like, it’s the Valve employee manual: once you’re inside the organization, you’re freed from competing with others to secure resources from a central command. The individual worker is the resource, and they allocate it to the projects and concepts to which they wish to contribute.

Those encouraging analogies aside, it’s still hard to see how to get there from here. This is not cathedral-building, even if it operates at the same temporal scale or longer. It’s extremely hard even for people deeply committed to sustainability to give up the notion that innovation, creativity and reform require the allocation of new resources, in substantial measure because it often seems very hard to imagine not doing something else that’s already being done. It’s as if we believe that we must always be hunting, fishing, rearing cattle and criticizing simultaneously morning, noon and night, and any new activity on top of that requires more people or more time or more energy, that we mustn’t ever get to the moment where we agree that perhaps right now, not so much rearing of cattle is needed.

I really can’t see the immediate next steps in the lives of people within institutions. Do we have to think differently first, do we need new structures to work and live within, do we need both at once, or is there just some kind of magical better mousetrap that could step forward as a total alternative, sufficiently different from its very first moment?

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10 Responses to The Trouble With Sustainability II: A Dynamic Steady-State?

  1. I’m curious what you think of the thinking of Dmitry Orlov on “Communities that abide”, studying historical examples of self-sustaining human communities (however odd or unpalatable they might seem to us in various ways) to try to learn some lessons. Granted, technology seems to change everything.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks! I will look at it tomorrow. Sounds fascinating.

  3. Alum says:

    I was going to suggest the 100 year starship.

    We have (most) of the technology to think about a mission. The structure of society and life is a bigger barrier. What does your community look like on a 3 generation trip to another solar system? Generation 1 volunteered, the next 2 were born into it…

  4. Mark S. says:

    Another interesting post.

    I can’t help but think, as something of an outsider to this topic, that it would be nice to see an example of the biological system you are talking about. Can you give an example of how they function? Not asking you to say that such a system is a direct comparison to or a direct replacement for our current institutions, I would just like an example to flush some things out.

  5. Rick Livingston says:

    “most human institutions, including Swarthmore, maintain systems within which virtually every individual and unit assumes that growth in their domains of primary interest is their normal expectation, that dynamism is only possible with the addition of new resources: more funding, more people, more dedicated infrastructure”

    Is this really true? It may be a “normal expectation,” but does the system really operate in this way? Your account of internal competition resembles a tragedy-of-the-commons model, which assumes independent, non-communicating actors, whereas at an institution the size of Swarthmore, there are customs and common-good identities that act as internal brakes to the growth-at-all-costs dynamics. Talk, for instance, to your admissions and enrollment-management staff: I doubt they’re operating on an continual growth model. I’ll bet they have optimizing parameters that include some sense of how scale matters to the quality of a Swarthmore education. Likewise, I’d be surprised if you didn’t have some sense of good class size, when it’s too big or too small. Those are often tacit, practice-based beliefs that resist precise modelling: or, to give them another name, values. It is–or should be–axiomatic that sustainability requires continuing negotiation among potentially conflicting values, and thus structures and practices that allow those values to surface. Those structures can be designed to be more or less democratic.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Rick, my sense is that the common-good identities at places like Swarthmore only function well in those cases where faculty and staff are assigned to common-good tasks or conversations. As soon as they go back to their primary site of work within the institution, growth-demanding (or warding off the growth demands of other units) becomes the major logic that drives conversation. I think this is true for most organizations, including corporations: there are no rewards for common-good thinking until or unless one is moved up to a hierarchical position where the overall institution is the main charge. Sustainability is going to take individual agents whose every action is first and last mindful of the overall commons and of the need for it to maintain a steady-state in its use of resources.

  7. mch says:

    “Have human beings ever built organizations that can sustain projects over very long time spans?”
    Yes. Witness the Roman empire, say. A third-second century bce Scipio didn’t imagine a ce Severus, but he begat him (loosely speaking, and others, and others).
    As for Swarthmore’s Hicksite forebears. Well, they didn’t, and couldn’t have, envisioned Swarthmore today. But they weren’t just speaking a language; language was speaking them beyond what they realized. Yet — big yet — some important things in what they wanted to say survive in Swarthmore, surely. They spoke, they were spoken, both.
    I am suggesting that we don’t let indeterminability (have I made up a word?) deter us from our what we think we see, our insights offered humbly and generously toward the unknown future. Which may be kind of what you are saying, in a different way.
    Me, I am eager to see if the coming celebration of our college’s founder, born 300 years ago, includes his ownership of slaves. I am not holding my breath.

  8. Withywindle says:

    Cf. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    This isn’t a direct reply to the Le Guin suggestion, but I was struck at this sustainability event that David Orr was totally hostile to robots and automation. Certainly as we’re going now it’s terrible in that global societies seem completely unwilling to provide any structures for genuine human flourishing in the event of the widespread automation of work, but I could imagine a “dynamic steady state” that rested on automation and robotics, where most human endeavor was concentrated narrowly in those domains distinctive to our minds or our specific bodily capabilities and much of our consumption was similarly narrowly focused on cultural goods that consumed relatively few material resources. There’s at least some SF work that operates in that imaginative space.

  10. Bob McGrew says:

    Why not consider the possibility of “intensive growth” rather than “extensive growth”? Moore’s Law is an example of a system where growth is possible in a system where less resources are required as time goes on. Solar cell technology seems to be improving the same way. If resources actually had a hard limit, growth would naturally be channeled to this kind of intensity vs. extensive growth fueled by extracting new resources.

    On a different spectrum, institutions like the Army are not growth-focused in a different way. Individuals are focused on their own growth, but the “up-or-out” structure is designed to work with a limited pyramidal structure that does not grow. (By contrast, the assumption at a tech startup is that everyone will grow in seniority as the institution grows, that there is no competition over promotion slots, or that individuals are often promoted even before they are ready.). The up-or-out structure obviously can’t scale to an entire society, but perhaps there are ways to mix and match institutions that do.

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