November 25, 2017

Social systems and their disruption

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Appendix B: A Blueprint for Survival.

The Blueprint occupied the entire issue of The Ecologist Vol. 2 No. 1, January 1972, in advance of the world’s first Environment Summit: the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm.

The principal authors were Edward Goldsmith and Robert Allen, with additional help from Michael Allaby, John Davoll, and Sam Lawrence.

So great was demand for A Blueprint for Survival that it was republished in book form later that year by Penguin Books, on 14 September 1972.

Note: click on images to enlarge.

The activities of industrial man are having a very serious effect on society. They can be shown to be leading to its disintegration, and it can also be shown that such pathological manifestations as crime, delinquency, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental diseases, suicide, all of which are increasing exponentially in our major cities, are the symptoms of this disintegration.

Unfortunately, before we can understand why and how this is happening, we must know a little more about human society. Sociology, which should provide us with this information, is failing to do so, mainly because it is studying human society in vacuo, i.e. without reference to behaviour at other levels of organisation. This is the result of regarding man and the societies he develops as unique and in some way exempt from the laws governing all the other parts of the ecosphere.

If we establish this false dichotomy between man and other animals it is partly because we fail to understand the nature of the evolutionary process. Thus, owing to our tendency towards subjective classification, we recognise that certain events among which a connection can be made within our immediate experience can be regarded as constituting one process, while, on the other hand, we refuse to admit that this can be the case with events whose connecting bond lies outside our experience.

Thus we are willing to admit that the development of a foetus into an adult is a single process and that it is difficult to examine, separately and in isolation,
any of its particular stages apart from the process as a whole. On the other hand, we are less ready to regard evolution in this way.

We still imply that radical frontiers exist between life at different levels of complexity, in spite of the fact that they are part of the same evolutionary process. Yet, it can be demonstrated that no such frontiers obtain. When Kohler synthesised urea, the barrier between the ‘organic’ and the ‘inorganic’ was suddenly shattered, as was that between the ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ when the virus was found to manifest certain features associated with life on being confronted with a source of protein, and at other periods to display the normal behaviour pattern of a crystal. Again, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that no barrier exists separating man from other animals. He is more ‘intelligent’ and that is about all that can be said.

If human societies are not unique, their functions cannot be understood apart from that of other natural systems, such as ecosystems and biological organisms, i.e. in the light of a general theory of behaviour.

To understand this, one must first realise that the vast and chaotic human societies in which we are living are by no means normal. If man has been on this planet for a million and a half years, which is possible, it is only in the last 150 years that he has become an industrialist and that industry has permitted the development of such societies. This represents no more than two days in the life of a man of 50.

For more than one million four hundred and ninety thousand years he earned his living as a hunter-gatherer. During all this time, there is no reason to suppose that the societies he developed were in any way less adapted to their respective environments than are those of non-human animals.

From our knowledge of surviving hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, one can presume that they probably consumed less than a third of the available food resources. They did not clear forests for agricultural land, nor did they hack down trees for building houses, nor were they so short-sighted as to exterminate the wild animals on which they depended for their livelihood.

At the same time they avoided increasing their population over and above that which might lead them to have to alter their life-style in any way. Even if one considers an area overpopulated, as does Professor Ehrlich, “when human numbers are pressing against human values”, [1] and not just when they actually starve, then such societies were never overpopulated.

What is more, the survival of such societies was compatible with that of climax ecosystems, to which they contributed by fulfilling within them their various ecological functions. Take the case of the Plains Indians of North America who lived off the vast herds of bison. They did not, on the whole, attack the main herd, which would have been a dangerous undertaking but rather killed off the stragglers; the old and the weak, thereby exerting quantitative and qualitative controls on these animals.

It is significant that exactly the same is true of the lions living off the buffalo herds in East Africa.

If human societies for 99.75 percent of their tenancy of this planet, behaved as an integral part of our ecosphere (before the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and industry 150 years ago) it is unreasonable to suppose that such behaviour is not subject to its laws.

Nor is there any reason why sociology should be anything but a branch of
natural sciences, that which deals with a particular type of natural system: the human society.

Let us briefly look at human society in this light.

First of all, like all other natural systems, a human society displays organisation. This is probably its most important feature. If one gathers on an island a random collection of people from different societies speaking different languages it would be naive to suggest that these constituted a society.

Nevertheless there would be a tendency for organisation, or negative entropy, to build up (or entropy and randomness to be reduced). First of all men would pair off with women and have children. Families would be formed and groups of these families would tend to be associated and grow into small communities. As this occurred so their members would develop more and more things in common. They would learn to speak the same language and dress, eat and build their houses in a similar way. Slowly a common set of values and aspirations would emerge and these would bind them together in a common purpose and transform them into a true society.

This organisational process is not a linear one. Thus, in its development from the simple to the complex, matter passes through certain critical stages, where the possibilities of a particular type or organisation are exhausted and further advance can only be achieved by the development of a new type.

Thus, an atom can be developed only up to a certain point. This point will vary with different types of atoms some of which, such as the tungsten atom, are relatively large.

Beyond this critical point, however, development can occur only by the association of several atoms together to form a molecule. As soon as the latter stage is reached the constituent atoms undergo a considerable change, in that a radical division of labour occurs, in accordance with the law of economy.
To explain their behaviour now requires the introduction of several new principles.

There is no reason to suppose that this notion of levels of organisation does not apply equally well to human social systems. Thus the family, which clearly represents the first level of human organisation, is a universal feature of all human societies and there is no example of its expression without the most serious social consequences. The family is held together by bonds which are extendable in the sense that the stimuli required for triggering off the corresponding behavioural responses are not specific as in the case of simpler forms of life.

For example, not only a mother, but a mother-like figure, can trigger off filial responses, or vice versa. [2] It is this feature of the family bonds which permits the development of larger social units. The latter can, of course, be of many kinds. They can be bilateral extended families, or unilateral, or the members of the different families constituting these units need not be related at all, as mere contiguity is sufficient to allow the development of such bonds. [3] Another essential characteristic of the family bonds is that they cannot be extended indefinitely. This is a feature of all bonds, whether they be holding together the nucleus of an atom or the solar system. A point must, therefore, be reached where the bonds cannot be extended any further and development only becomes possible by the association of a number of such units. At this point it can be said to have reached a new level of organisation.

Once we pass the level of the village, clan or lineage, we reach a level of social organisation that has not often been achieved by the human species. To harness the family bonds in such a way as to build up a larger unit requires the develo9pment of very elaborate forms of organisation. This involves ‘criss-cross’ bonds that permit the establishment of a veritable cobweb of associations of one sort or another, all of which transcend each other in such a way that each individual is linked to each other member of the society in at least one, and preferably more ways.

Thus a tribesman is at once a member of a family, of a maternal and of a paternal kinship group. As neither of these may coincide with the social unit that is the village in which he lives, he is a member of yet another group: the village. He is also likely to be a member of an age grade, of a secret society of some sort, possibly also of a military club and of some other group with a common economic activity. Such a man has a very definite status which Linton defines as “The sum total of all the statuses which he occupies and hence his position with relation to the total society”. [4]

The same principle is apparent in the more stable segment of our modern societies. As Linton writes:

“. . . the status of Mr Jones as a member of his community derives from a combination of all the statuses which he holds as a citizen, as an attorney, as a Mason, as a Methodist, as Mrs Jones’ husband, and so on.”

As a result of such criss-cross associations, a man is in contact with a very large number of cross-sections of the society. There is what Ortega y Gasset calls “social elasticity”. [5]

All the parts of the society are in contact with each other. Any change in the society will, therefore, affect each individual and the actions of each individual must affect the society as a whole through the agency of all the associations of which he is a member.

Without social elasticity there would be no bonds, no organisation: in fact no real society. Yet social elasticity can only be maintained in special conditions. Thus it is likely that if the society grows too big, the bonds holding it together become of an ever more precarious nature and eventually incapable of holding it together.

The social system is, in fact, overloaded with more people than it is capable of organising into a society. Its essential structure breaks down, and it ceases to be capable of self-regulation.

As already mentioned, it is a basic feature of all bonds that there is a limit to their extendibility. Those holding together a community which are already extensions of the family ones, cannot be extended to hold together more than a certain number of people. Aristotle considered that a city could be made up of no more citizens than could not know each other by sight. The Greek city states which displayed some of the features of self-regulating units were, in fact, very small. Only three had more than 20,000 citizens (Athens, Corinth and Syracuse). It is significant that a recent study in America has revealed that the crime rate appears to be proportionate to the size of the city. Violent crime appears to be about 6 times greater per capita in cities of 1 million people than in cities of 10,000.

Social elasticity is also seriously affected by mobility. It is impossible to create sound societies when people are being constantly moved from place to place. In such conditions, the towns are not made up of people who have grown up together and among whom bonds have had time to develop, but simply of people who have been thrown together for various random reasons. Bonds cannot be manufactured at will. Nor can that socialisation process that will enable people to fulfil their specific functions within their social system be compressed into a few years of adult life. It is a slow, educative process, the most important part of which must occur in the early years of life – when the generalities of a cultural pattern, i.e. its basic goals and values, are inculcated via the family and the small community.

To understand this principle, it is necessary to see how cultural information is used to determine the adaptive and self-regulatory behaviour of a social system, in fact, how the basic cybernetic model applies to a society.

If a society is capable of self-regulating behaviour, it is that its responses are based on a model of its relationship with its environment, in the light of which they are being continually monitored. Such a model is a society’s world-view, or Weltanschauung, which is compounded of its religion, mythology, traditional law, etc.

As soon as one understands a society’s culture, one understands the reason for its behaviour and all its actions that previously appeared random or irrational now appear quite logical. The following example illustrates this point.

It is well known that some Australian aborigines failed to establish a cause and effect relationship between copulation and conception. Instead, they generally believed that the spirits of children yet unborn, which were apparently referred to as ‘ngargugalla’, inhabited some strange world from which they only emerged when dreamt of by their mothers. Daisy Bates tells us that among the Koolarrabulloo, it was the father who had to have such a dream:

“They believed that below the surface of the ground and at the bottom of the sea, was a country called Jimbin, home of the spirit babies of the unborn, and the young of all the totems. In Jimbin there was never a shadow of trouble or strife or toil or death: only the happy laughter of the little people at play. Sometimes these spirit babies were to be seen by the jalngangooroo, the witch-doctors, in the dancing spray and sunlight of the beaches, under the guardianship of old Koolibal, the mother-turtle, or tumbling and somersaulting in the blue waters with Pajjalburra, the porpoise . . .

“So firm was the belief in the ‘ngargalulla’ that no man who had not seen it in his sleeping hours would claim the paternity of a child born to him. In one case, that came under my observation, a man who had been absent for nearly five years in Perth proudly acknowledged a child born in his absence, because he had seen the ‘ngargalulla’, and, in another, though husband and wife had been separated not a day, the man refused absolutely to admit paternity. He had not dreamed the ‘ngargalulla’. Should a boy arrive when a girl came in the dream, or should the ngargalulla not have appeared to its rightful father, the mother must find the man who has dreamed it correctly, and he is ever after deemed to be the father of that child.” [6]

It is evident that, if we were not aware of this aspect of the world-view or model of the Koolarrabulloo, we would find their attitude towards the acceptance of paternity totally illogical. However, once we were acquainted with their model, their attitude would appear quite reasonable and could even be predicted with a fair measure of probability. There is no reason why all seemingly irrational behaviour can be explained on the basis of a cultural model of this sort.

We regard as ‘rational’, behaviour which is based on our cultural model of the world and which somewhat presumptuously we regard as the only valid one. However, if we realised that the object of cultural information is to mediate the behaviour that will lead a society to adapt to its particular environment, it then becomes apparent that whether or not this information constituted ‘scientific’ knowledge is irrelevant and hence our particular scientifically based culture is in no way superior to those developed by the most primitive societies.

Equally important is the fact that a culture also provides a society with a goal-structure and a means of achieving it. The goal of all self-regulating societies appears to be the acquisition of social prestige. It is important to realise that this goal is only possible in a closely knit society, in which there is fundamental agreement as to what are the determinants of prestige. These will vary in each society. In general one can say that these will coincide with the qualities that must be cultivated if the society is to survive.

Thus in a society of hunter-gatherers, success in a hunt is likely to be a determinant of prestige; among societies involved in war-like pursuits courage is likely to be particularly prestigious. The prestige achieved will determine one’s position in the social hierarchy. This hierarchy is of immense, importance in avoiding strife and in ensuring a socially acceptable division of labour among the members of the society. If there is no hierarchy there will be constant bickering and fighting. There will also be no mechanism for ensuring the perpetuation of those qualities required if the society is to survive. Hierarchy is another word for organisation. There are only two ways of dispensing with it: one is to accept chaos and with it asystemic controls such as dictators, the other is to reduce the size of the society.

In an extremely small social grouping such as the Kalahari Bushmen and the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest, the requirement for hierarchy is reduced to a minimum and very stable egalitarian societies are possible. However, as the size of the groupings increases, so must the requirement for hierarchy.

Each society has a whole set of beliefs regarding the supernatural forces that can be exploited to enable individuals, associations and society as a whole to achieve their ends.

Many ceremonies and rituals are performed to this end, all of which have the additional effect of tightening social bonds, and hence of further increasing social organisation. At the same time, every society has a set of taboos, basically to prevent supernatural forces from being mobilised to hinder the achievement of the society’s goal-structure. [7]

There is every reason that the goal that self-regulating societies set themselves is one whose achievement permits the satisfaction of the environment’s many competing requirements and is not purely arbitrary as in the case of our society.

This may be illustrated by the way in which the size of the simple society is determined. Thus if the Eskimos live in small family units during the summer months, it is because there is no need for a larger unit; indeed the arctic areas they inhabit would not support one. If the Pygmies of the Congo live in small bands it is because this is the ideal number of people for survival in tropical rain forests, possibly providing the minimum number of hunters required to trap an elephant.

If the society is truly self-regulating, however, it should be capable of reducing or increasing complexity to permit adaptation to changing environmental conditions – so long as these occur within certain limits. Thus when faced with the Macedonian menace, it would have been adaptive for the Greek city states to join together to form a league, i.e. to achieve a higher level of organisation. This they never really succeeded in doing, though there were many attempts.

On the other hand, in the absence of environmental challenges requiring action on the part of a larger, more complex social unit, it would be adaptive for complexity to be reduced, for the society to break up, temporarily at least, into its constituent parts. Usually, however, institutional barriers prevent this from occurring. Central governments are jealous of the territories that they control and usually refuse to face reality, once environmental conditions render superfluous and artificial the states that they control.

The important thing is that a self-regulating society must be goal-directed. It moves in a particular direction, and both the goal towards which it is moving, and that behaviour pattern that permits its achievement, are culturally determined.

For the society to keep moving in this direction, it means that all its members must be imbued with the cultural information that will enable them to fulfil their specific functions as specialised members of their social system.
It also means that every cultural trait which we often tend to regard as being of little practical significance, and which our missionaries, educators, administrators, etc., are only too pleased to interfere with, has a specific function in the overall social behaviour pattern.

If one were acquainted with the culture of any stable society and were capable of working out the role played by each of the customs and institutions within this culture, i.e. by determining in what way they contributed towards the adaptive behaviour of the society to its particular environment, one could easily imagine what would be the consequences of their suppression by outside interference.

Let us take the case of the marital customs of the Comorians, who inhabit a group of islands between Mozambique and Madagascar. The people of the Comores have a complex social organisation, probably based on indigenous customs, upon which were superimposed those of their Islamic conquerors. From the former they inherited a matrilineal and matrolocal tradition; from the latter a patrilineal and patrilocal one. Islamic marital law has also been adopted. As a result, there is polygamy and a high frequency of divorce. Indeed, so high is the latter that it is perfectly normal for a woman to have been married five to ten times.

From the experience gained in our society, we would tend to associate such a consequent number of ‘broken homes’, with a very high rate of juvenile delinquency, schizophrenia and suicide, i.e. the symptoms of social disorder. However, things do not work out that way. In Mayotte, one of the islands making up the Comores Archipelago, there have been only two deaths by violence in the last 50 years, and neither were premeditated murders. Crime in general is minimal, as are mental diseases, delinquency, suicide and the other symptoms of social disorder.

The society is thus culturally adapted to marital instability, which ours is not. The reasons are two-fold. First, by virtue of the institution of matrilinearity and matrilocality, a child is partly the responsibility of the mother’s clan. Many of the functions of fatherhood are, in fact, fulfilled by the mother’s elder brother, and inheritance, for instance, is primarily through him rather than through the father.

Secondly, by custom, the step-father automatically assumes many of the responsibilities of fatherhood, vis-à-vis the children that his new wife has had with previous husbands. The step-father, or ‘baba combo’, is, in particular, responsible for the payment of the very large expenses involved in the circumcision ceremony of his stepsons. Also the father’s role is reduced by the fact that the children are brought up in the mother’s home. As the father probably has several other wives, he will in any case only be physically present in one particular house on one or two days a week. For all these reasons, divorce does not have the same unsettling effect in the Comores that it does in our society.

Now, supposing a missionary or administrator suddenly decided that matrilinearity and matrilocality were vestiges of barbarity not to be found in modern civilised societies, and that they must, therefore, be abolished. Unless he abolished at the same time many of the other customs making up this complex culture, the results would be disastrous. Schizophrenia, delinquency, and the other symptoms of social disorder would result, as they do in our society with the break-up of the nuclear family.

What is particularly striking about the self-regulating society is the absence of these forms of deviation. Crime is, in fact, an extremely rare occurrence in spite of the fact that there are no policemen, law courts, tribunals, etc. Indeed in such a society, there is no need for external controls of this sort. Systemic controls, i.e. those controls applied by the society as a whole through the medium of public opinion, are sufficient to prevent any deviation from the accepted norm. [4]

As Linton writes:

“The Eskimos say that if a man is a thief no one will do anything about it, but the people will laugh when his name is mentioned. This does not sound like a severe penalty but it suffices to make theft almost unknown. Ridicule will bring almost any individual to terms, while the most stubborn rebel will bow before ostracism or the threat of expulsion from his group.”

Besides, in a stable society, all the citizens will have the good of the society at heart. They will feel part of it and will all equally oppose the behaviour on the part of any of its members that is contrary to the established customs and that might compromise the interests of the society as a whole. Solon was once asked which was the best policed city. He replied:

“The city where all the citizens, whether they have suffered injury or not, equally pursue and punish injustice.” [8]

The same spirit that Solon expressed is apparent in Pericles’ celebrated speech over the bodies of the first victims of the Peloponnesian war:

“. . . We are prevented from doing wrong by respect for authority and for the laws, having an especial regard for those which are ordained for the protection of the injured, as well as for those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

We regard government, parliaments, and vast bureaucracies as essential to all societies. However, it is probable that most of the societies ever developed by man dispensed with such external controls. As Lowie writes,

“. . . it should be noted that the legislative function in most primitive communities seems strangely curtailed when compared with that exercised in the more complex civilisations. All the exigencies of normal social intercourse are covered by customary law, and the business of such governmental machinery as exists is rather to exact obedience to traditional usage than to create new precedents.” [9]

Indeed, in such societies, nothing can be found to correspond to our notion of government. There are no kings, presidents, or even chiefs, no courts of law, prisons or police force. The closest approximation to a political institution is the council of elders that occasionally gathers to discuss important issues. It is for this reason that the Australian aboriginal tribe has often been referred to as a ‘gerontocracy’, or as a government by the old men – a title that can aptly be applied to most simple, ordered societies.

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