December 11, 2017

The stable society – can we achieve it?

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 6, December 1970, it explores the need for a stable society, and how this can be achieved.

Further information about this central concept in Goldsmith’s thought can be found in the editor’s note here.

Affluence for everybody is an impossible dream: the world simply does not contain sufficient resources. Nor could it absorb the heat and other waste generated by the immense amount of energy required.

Indeed the most important thing to realise, when we plan our future, is that affluence is both a local and a temporary phenomenon. Unfortunately it is the principal, if not the only, goal our industrial society gives us.

Yet it does not even provide the satisfaction claimed for it. The more affluent a country is, the more unhappy its members seem to be – the US is a good example. This is not to use the term ‘unhappy’ in a loose way. There are recognised and measurable symptoms of unhappiness: drug addiction, alcoholism, crime, delinquency, mental disease and suicide – all different ways of reacting to an environment to which people cannot adapt and consequently to a life that they cannot tolerate.

Such symptoms are rarely to be found in traditional rural societies, still less in the tribal societies of so-called primitive man. Is there anything we can learn from them? How can we replace our society, and what alternative should we aim for?

What do we require of a society? Firstly, people must he happy – which means that it must provide them with the social and physical environment they really want. Secondly, it must be designed to last, so that it will not be cut short by the sort of cataclysms presently menacing the survival of our own society. In other words, it must be a ‘stable’ or a ‘steady state’ society.

I shall try to show that a society which displays the first of these qualities must automatically display the other; that they are, in fact, different aspects of the same thing.

The trouble with ‘happiness’ like ‘heat’ is that it is a subjective term. As such, it cannot he made use of in a scientific context, for it is not measurable, nor can it be related to the other variables of a scientific model.

The science of thermodynamics could only he developed once it was found that heat was not only a sensation but also a form of energy and as such, could be measured and related to other forms of energy.

In the same way, the concept of ‘happiness’ can only be taken into account in a scientific theory of society once it is shown to be something other than a sensation, something in fact that can he measured and related to the other variables made use of in this science.


It is a feature of all natural systems including social ones, that they develop by differentiation, which means that at each stage the functions previously fulfilled in a general way, become fulfilled in a more differentiated one. The new parts that ensure this extra differentiation have thus come into being for a specific purpose, for which, in the case of social systems, they have been designed genetically and culturally.

Differentiation occurs because environmental challenges require it, or more precisely, because a system must become more differentiated if it is to remain stable in the face of new environmental challenges.

On the other hand, once these challenges have disappeared, the extra differentiation is no longer necessary and the parts developed to ensure it, become redundant. I shall equate ‘happiness’ with adaptability and ‘unhappiness’ with redundancy. In fact, I believe that no other interpretation is reconcilable with a systemic approach to the study of sociology – an approach which I am certain will be in general use within the next decade.

This simply means that a man is happy in the fulfilment of his natural functions and unhappy, when his social and physical environment renders their fulfilment impossible, i.e. when he has become redundant. Thus a man needs to drink; eat, walk, work and struggle (and the last of these activities is by no means the least important).

He needs to court his mate, marry her, love her, protect her and provide for her. She in turn needs to be married, loved, protected and provided for. She also needs to work so as to provide warm and aesthetically pleasing home. Both of them need children and they in turn require all these things which, in a stable society, their parents obtain maximum satisfaction in providing.

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The small community

But a man is not only a differentiated member of a family but also of a small community. I say small, because there is an optimum and also a maximum size for any system including a social one. When this is reached, a system can only continue to grow by associating with other systems at which point, a new level of organisation is said to have been attained. The maximum size of any system is largely determined by the extent to which the bonds holding it together can be extended.

A community appears to be held together by a set of bonds that are but extensions of those which hold a family together. Malinowski was the first to show that no other bonds can be exploited for this purpose. In each different culture the members of a community are unconsciously classified in terms of the way they are associated with the different members of the family – hence the elaborate kinship terminology developed by primitive societies.

Unfortunately these bonds cannot be extended to include more than a very small number of people. It is for this reason that a stable community is made up of countless small groups or associations that are closely interwoven with each other.

Thus, in a primitive society, a man is at once a member of a maternal and a paternal kinship group. He is also probably a member of an age grade, of an economic association of some sort, of a secret society, of a military group etc. It is his position as a member of each of these groups which provides him with his ‘status’ or identity as a differentiated member of his social system.

In an unstable society whose social structure has disintegrated, he has no such identity. He is lost in a vast anonymous mass of humanity. It is this lack of identity which is normally referred to as alienation: it is that terrible feeling of loneliness when surrounded by a vast number of people that is so much worse than loneliness in a desert.

It is when a society grows too fast or its mobility increases in such a way that the bonds do not have time to develop, that its essential social structure breaks down, that development occurs by multiplication rather than differentiation and that alienation inexorably sets in.

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Why a society that provides an optimum environment for its members should be stable is quite evident. The principle involved can be formulated thus:

If a system provides its parts with an optimum environment, then they will tend to conserve it.

Thus for man to strive to conserve the social system of which he is part, the latter must provide those outlets which will enable him to fulfil those functions for which he was genetically and culturally designed.

I have written a lot on primitive societies. It is not so much the fact that they are primitive, but that they are stable that is of interest. This is particularly true of hunter-gatherer societies which have survived unchanged for thousands of years, making little impact on their Physical environment.

What are the principal features of stable societies? It is only by finding this out that we can hope to develop a stable society of our own. One such feature is that their members have a strong sense of duty to their family and to their community. As social structures disintegrate, this disappears and the only duty that is eventually recognised is that of the society towards its members.

That this transformation occurred during the decline and fall of the Greek city-state and of the Roman Republic is revealed in the speeches of Demosthenes and the writings of Cicero. It is this family feeling, and this sense of community that enables society to exist as a unit. Its absence must ultimately cause its disintegration.

In the former case the society is self-regulating, while in the latter it must be regulated from the outside. Self-regulation or self-government in the case of a society is a sine qua non of stability in all systems. It is this that the Greeks called ‘liberty’. Once a society loses its basic social structure and requires to be regulated from the outside, decay proceeds by positive feedback, since autocracy breeds the need for further autocracy by destroying the spirit of self-government. This process has been best described by H. T. Buckle in his sadly neglected masterpiece A History of Civilization in Britain.

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Small populations

Such societies usually have small and stable populations. The Great Plains of North America which supported some 50 million bison, sustained only 30,000 Plains Indians. The vast expanse of Australia harboured just half a million aboriginal tribesmen while the population of the now extinct Tasmanians has been variously estimated at between 2,000 and 20,000.

A small and stable population was achieved partly because of a high infant mortality rate but also because of the application of various human controls. Among these, infanticide played a big part. The Kalahari bushman kills a newborn baby when his wife is still suckling a previous one. In the inhospitable wastelands he inhabits, no mother can look after two children at once. However barbarous this custom may seem, it betrays a deep sense of responsibility towards his wife, family and community, one which is absent today.

Contraception is also made use of among many primitive peoples. Among certain Nilo-Hamitic societies, the adolescents of both sexes live together on the outskirts of the village in apparent promiscuity, yet as far as I know, there is no record of any children being born to them.

It is generally assumed that they make use of some secret means of birth control and I have even heard of pharmaceutical firms attempting to extract the formula from them. They are not allowed to get married so it is important that children be avoided, as these would not be brought up in a stable family environment. Once more we are struck by the sense of responsibility that characterises members of simple societies.

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Contact with nature

If a society is to remain stable it must not break away from nature too much. Natural mechanisms are complex and self-regulating. All people depend on these and those who least alter them are far less vulnerable than the members of those societies which have developed, and grown to rely on, an intricate (but inevitably less complex) technosphere.

As the latter grows at the expense of the biosphere, so must the amount of human energy and ingenuity required to control it. This renders it terribly vulnerable to human error, industrial disputes, sabotage, and human inefficiency in all its forms. In addition, its vulnerability to technical hitches, shortages of raw materials and pollution problems of all sorts, is only too evident.

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Consumption of natural resources

Internal self-regulation alone is not enough. A society must be able to regulate its relationship with its environment and ensure the stability of the ecosystem that together they constitute. If it fails and the environment is destroyed, then the society becomes redundant. For the ecosystem to remain stable it must be able to live off the interest from the physical resources it requires for its sustenance rather than from the capital; otherwise, as is the case with us, it is only a matter of time before they are exhausted. It is surprising to find to what extent primitive societies, and in particular those of hunter-gatherers, have succeeded in developing a cultural behaviour pattern that enables them to accomplish this.

This is made possible by a philosophy that teaches that man is part of nature rather than above it. Primitive people do not regard the possession of a soul for instance as a prerogative of man, distinguishing him from all other creatures. All have a soul and often the primitive hunter will pray to that of the animal he is about to kill, explaining the necessity for the crime he is about to commit. Seldom too will he kill more than he strictly requires. Indeed, it is said in Southern Africa that the bees do not sting the bushmen because they know he will take only the amount of honey he requires, never more.

To sum up, stable societies have many features in common, the principal ones being: they are organised in families and small communities, which are held together by a closely interwoven set of associations that assures that everyone is linked, in some way, to everyone else. They are self-regulating and do not require any external force such as an autocrat or a cumbersome bureaucracy to govern them.

Their members have a strong sense of responsibility towards their family and their community. Their numbers are small and they are imbued with a deep respect for the natural world surrounding them, of which they know they are an integral part. This prevents them from destroying the environment on which they depend. Their members are happy in the fulfilment of their natural roles as differentiated members of their families, communities and ecosystems and it is this happiness above all else that creates the stability that still eludes us.

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Can these principles be applied to our society?

Though we cannot imitate primitive societies in every way – and few would want to – the basic principles that ensure their stability can undoubtedly be applied in the reorganisation of our society. In fact it is essential that they are, if we are to avoid the social and ecological upheavals that threaten to annihilate us in the none too distant future.

How are we to set about doing this?

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Population control

The first and most urgent task is to control our population. Not only must any further growth be avoided but its present level must be reduced probably at least by half.

It is only in this way that this country can hope to feed itself in the long-term, for we must soon return to sound agricultural methods which do not destroy the food-producing capacity of the land and we cannot long depend on food supplies from abroad. Every possible device should be made use of to ensure that we achieve this goal.

Sterilisation centres could he set up and abortion could be made far easier. Pensions could only be paid to people with no children. This seems to be one of the few ways of penalising people with children, without penalising the children as well – at least until they were grown up. It might also increase the cohesion of the family unit by emphasising the duty of looking after one’s parents in their old age.

A more ambitious scheme would be to negotiate a mass emigration programme as part of a package deal with Canada and Australia (two of the last countries in the world with a lot of space). This deal might provide an alternative to Britain’s entry into the Common Market. It must not be forgotten that in addition to space, these two countries possess three of the other things that we will be needing a lot of in the next 30 years: mineral resources, fossil fuels and food.

All immigration could be stopped and every possible inducement given to immigrants to return to their country of origin. I know that this is an emotive subject but if we are to be consistent it is necessary to raise it.

Finally, if all these expedients are not sufficient, a licensing system could be introduced. Wayne Davis suggests that licences might be negotiable which would mean that only those people who really wanted children would have them. It would also mean that the rich would have more children than the poor which would tend to make them poorer (in view of the cost of bringing up children) and by the same token, the poor richer.

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Next we must reduce the impact of each man on the environment by cutting down his energy consumption. An energy tax would clearly be a useful expedient but the most effective way of accomplishing this would be to decentralise our society, both politically, administratively and economically. This would lead to that other prerequisite of stability – the development of small self-regulating communities.

The totally absurd notion that bigger things must inevitably be better must be abandoned and with it the false ideal of ‘maximising’ productivity which is the pretext normally given for making things larger and more centralised.

Indeed it should be a precept of Government, as it is of the organisation of nature, that everywhere there should be the maximum decentralisation. Nothing should be done at village level which could not be done by the family; nothing at county level that could be done by the village, and so on all the way up.

A nation consisting of 56 million people can constitute a society only if it is highly organised into families, small communities, provinces, etc. Their members must be responsible for running their own affairs. They must be self-regulating, for only in this way can they be stable.

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Among those activities which must be radically decentralised is welfare. At the moment, the State, by usurping all those responsibilities which should be fulfilled at the communal and family level is contributing to their disintegration by rendering them largely redundant.

Economic activity should also be decentralised. Small traders, artisans and businessmen are on the whole stable citizens, who tend to take pride in the quality of their work and in the services they render the community. This should more than compensate for their lack of ‘productivity’. It is quite clear stable societies cannot be created out of soulless housing estates whose inhabitants work elsewhere, and among whom few ties can be established.

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Agriculture must also be decentralised. Contrary to what is generally thought, its output is probably increased by reducing the size of Units rather than by increasing them. In any case, intensive modern agriculture, which requires larger units, does not appear to be the way to increase long-term food production. It leads to the deterioration of soil structure and to consider-able pollution.

The flight to the towns must also end. The total destruction of rural life and the elimination of the small farmer, who should normally constitute the backbone of a stable society, is a social disaster whose cost to the community cannot be over-emphasised.

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Energy consumption

Decentralisation would help fulfil yet another purpose. Man’s impact on his environment is best gauged in terms of the amount of energy he uses. The more technological devices are allowed to replace natural ones, the more dependent we become on manufactured goods and the higher must be our energy consumption. This can only be reduced by developing labour intensive industries so that human energy can slowly replace that of machines.

Whether we want it or not, this is bound to happen in the end, as our fossil fuels run out and our supplies of non-renewable mineral resources are exhausted. But if we wait until this happens, by which time our dependence on technology will have substantially increased, the problems will have become that much more difficult to solve.

The most serious challenge is clearly the provision of alternative employment for the countless millions of people who depend on technology for their living. Decentralisation would contribute towards this by furthering the development of divergent cultural patterns and of new activities to replace those that are no longer possible.

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Ritualisation of economic activity

The construction of beautiful buildings, the manufacture of fine furniture, the development of local arts and crafts, the revival of local festivities and religious ceremonies; all these things will provide a worthwhile substitute for the haphazard accumulation of manufactured goods to which our society is geared. In this way economic activity could be ‘ritualised’ as is ‘aggressivity’ among stable societies (both human and non-human).

Ritualised aggression provides a satisfactory outlet for a society’s aggressive requirements without its leading to the annihilation of its enemies. Similarly, ritualised economic activity can be regarded as providing an outlet for man’s essential requirements for creative work in such a way as to minimise the resultant damage to the environment.

Decentralisation will result in a reduction of mobility. If people are employed where they live, fewer cars will be used. By reducing our dependence on technology, decentralisation would fulfil yet another essential function:
that of reducing our vulnerability.

The complex and self-regulating systems of nature would be allowed slowly, to replace the relatively simple and externally regulated systems of our technosphere, a substitution essential to the establishment of ecological stability.

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National Service for conservation

Clearly the transition to such a society would not be easy. The principal problem, obviously, would be how to provide satisfactory employment for so many people. New occupations that do not require the use of power would probably take some time to develop. The dole does not solve the serious psychological problems of unemployment. It is at best a palliative. The only alternative is to accept that a vast amount of work is required to clean up the mess resulting from a hundred and fifty years of uncontrolled economic growth.

A sort of national service for conservation on the lines of the Conservation Corps could be instituted, and the more decentralised its organization, the more effective it is likely to be as people will be keener to help clean up their local environment than that of people living at the other end of the country.

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‘Unproductive’ employment

Also it must be accepted that people should be employed whether or not their employment is justified on ‘economic grounds’. This is already the case in the Soviet Union. ‘Economically unproductive’ work of this sort would undoubtedly lead to a situation in which there would be more money around than goods to buy, again as is the case in the Soviet Union. The dissatisfaction this might give rise to would be partly offset by the development of the new occupation already referred to, as economic activity becomes ever more ‘ritualised’.

Meanwhile there will certainly be inflation – but on nothing like the scale that would accompany the total breakdown of our society, which is possibly our only alternative. Besides, monetary considerations should be looked at in their correct perspective. Inflation is by no means the tragedy it is made out to be by today’s economists.

A more serious objection is that the transition to a stable society would probably have to be carefully orchestrated as a single programme. If any part of it is left out, because it is regarded as objectionable by some sector of society in terms of current ethical norms, then the whole programme may well be a failure.

It follows that this social transformation can only be ensured by a Government having a mandate to plan and implement such a programme as painlessly as possible, i.e. over the maximum period consistent with avoiding the catastrophes with which our society is at present menaced.


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