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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.

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Natural Harmony

February 2007

Although there is strength in wanting things to be different there is also weakness. The strength is in compassion, because nobody should remain unmoved by other people’s suffering; we should all wish that the conditions causing suffering be removed. The weakness is because there is much learning to be had from the way things are right now, so by wishing them to be different we are passing up the opportunity to learn.

If we are annoyed and unhappy should we not wish for things to be different? Not for our own sake. We should take a step back and allow ourselves to look at the annoyance and unhappiness in our mind, to experience it. We should recognise it for what it is, and we should realise that, although we are annoyed and unhappy, our mind is working. How can it be working? The mind is a system which functions according to regular principles. The fact that the current state of our mind is annoyed and unhappy does not disprove this. Rather, we should seek to investigate our own mental system to understand how these feelings are being produced. They are being produced because our mind is working. But this does not mean that the feelings of annoyance and unhappiness should be encouraged!

Take the the analogy of a political system such as a country. Sometimes the country experiences angry demonstrations on its streets. This does not mean that the political system of the country is not working. It means on the contrary that it IS working. If the leaders of a country deny its citizens fundamental rights and prevent them from leading a tolerable life they will come out onto the streets to demonstrate. This is how the political system naturally works.

It is important to distinguish between the natural political system and the formal political system. The natural political system is necessarily always working, unlike the formal. If a country’s constitution says that all people have the right to be treated equally and then it enslaves a portion of them, its formal political system is not working. However, if there is enslavement, followed by pent-up tension amongst the slaves for many years, and then finally a rebellion, then the natural political system is working.

What is the natural political system? It is part of the nature of people’s minds, collectively and individually. It governs how much suffering people can bear and how creative they are in releasing themselves from suffering. Formal political systems are expressions of the natural political system. Religions or spiritual systems are also its expressions. Siddhartha could not bear his own or others’ suffering any more so he used all his creative powers to become Buddha, to release himself and others.

When an individual feels annoyed and unhappy he is responding to suffering, however he may not be responding very creatively. This may not be his fault – he may never have learned any other way of responding. Can we say in this situation that his natural political system is working?

The natural political system functions to produce responses to suffering. Because it is a system the laws governing systems apply. In a given system at a given time a specific input will produce a specific output. What the output will be will depend upon the way the system is working at that time. If you put 10c into a bubblegum machine and the machine ejects a gum-filled plastic ball then the machine is working in one way. If it crushes the plastic ball which then blocks the ejection hole it is working in another way. Either way the system is working, insofar as it is being systematic.

Normally we would say that the machine that destroys the plastic balls is not working. This is because we are applying conventional norms to how we think things should work, and not without reason, but we can learn more from how things actually DO work than from how we think they should work! The way we think things should work comes from our conscious, conventional mind. The way things actually work comes from the depths of the universe.

Unwilling Participants in the Casino

In her book ‘Casino Capitalism’ (1986) the respected political economist Susan Strange wrote:

“The great difference between an ordinary casino which you can go into or stay away from, and the global casino of high finance, is that in the latter we are all involuntarily engaged in the day’s play. A currency change can halve the value of a farmer’s crop before he harvests it, or drive an exporter out of business. A rise in interest rates can fatally inflate the costs of holding stocks for the shop-keeper. A takeover dictated by financial considerations can rob the factory worker of his job. From school-leavers to pensioners, what goes on in the casino in the office blocks of the big financial centres is apt to have sudden, unpredictable and unavoidable consequences for individual lives. The financial casino has everyone playing the game of Snakes and Ladders.”

Since the 1980’s, in the name of the so-called “free market”, governments around the world have made it easier for high-rollers to play in the global casino of high finance. In doing so they have argued that they are respecting the fundamental human ‘right’ to make millions, and they have claimed that the market is a force for innovation.

What we clearly understand is that there is always a trade-off between different peoples’ rights. As Susan Strange implies, the ‘right’ of certain people to play at the casino can severely impact the right of other people to eat, to afford healthcare, or to send their children to school.

There is a need to evaluate the relative importance of different people’s rights. If politics were healthy this evaluation would be performed on the basis of whose ‘right’ is more fundamental, and clearly the rights of those who wish to eat, study and get well should be considered more fundamental than the rights of those who wish to become multi-millionaires through unproductive speculation.

Unfortunately the political systems of the western democracies are not healthy. They are plagued by lobby groups representing ‘special interests’, including the financial industry which has put all of our futures in peril. They will seek to preserve their right to gamble, jeopardizing the rest of the world’s right to produce, plan, save, etc. We need to use the democratic tools at our disposal to prevent this.

The argument that deregulated financial markets are a force for innovation has been shown to be false. Their only ‘innovation’ is the creation of ever more complex financial products and derivatives, which even those who buy them fail to understand. Actual innovation, in terms of the productive ‘real’ economy, is severely stunted by these inveterate gamblers.