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?