Monthly Archives: March 2010

Sustainability & Autonomy

In order for any system to be sustainable (i.e. viable over a long period) all of its components must have a high degree of autonomy. The reason why natural ecosystems are sustainable (if humans don’t destroy them) is because their components such as plants and animals are autonomous. Plants, for example, autonomously photosynthesize and extend their roots to draw nutrients from the soil. Meanwhile, herbivores autonomously nourish themselves by eating plants, and carnivores by eating herbivores etc.

All systems face two principal types of threat: internal and external. External threats are many and varied: depending on the system they include strikes by meteorites, flu epidemics, bank failures and so on. A typical internal threat to a system is when one of its sub-systems predominates at the expense of the others, annexing a disproportionate share of the system’s resources and threatening the very survival of the whole, including the dominant sub-system itself.

Every viable system has a sub-system responsible for preserving the whole, and for maintaining the system’s essential organizing characteristics over time. The Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana called this sub-system ‘autopoietic’, meaning ‘self-making’ in Greek. The British cybernetician Stafford Beer coined the phrase ‘pathological autopoiesis’ to describe a situation where this sub-system malfunctions, and attempts to preserve itself at the expense of the whole. It starts to construe ‘self’ too narrowly, mistaking the welfare of the sub-system for the welfare of the whole system.

Our modern political sphere is full-to-overflowing with examples of pathological autopoiesis, where elements of government or public life which are supposed to benefit the whole merely seek to preserve or enrich themselves. Banks and MPs are two obvious examples. Typically these pathological sub-systems protest that they are acting in the interest of the whole when they are clearly not. How many times have we heard ‘the national interest’ invoked to justify the crazy wars in Iraq and Afganistan, even after we explained that they are “not in our name”?

Fortunately, because all of its components have a degree of autonomy, it is possible for the system to survive even when some of its sub-systems are establishing a pathological hegemony. In the political sphere this autonomy is known as ‘democracy’, and it is a prerequisite for the long-term viability and sustainability of the human race. Democracy offers us the chance to wrest power and resources from pathological sub-systems before they destroy us, and ironically themselves too.