April 25, 2014

Adam and Eve revisited

The industrial world behaves as if it is outside nature and not subject to its laws. Any problems that arise are treated on their own, as particularities, instead of being treated as part of a larger whole, and it is this failure to see the relationship between the parts and the whole that is taking the industrial world at headlong speed towards catastrophe and chaos. The situation is exacerbated by a tendency among scientists to believe that each problem has its own solution and by governments and industry which then accept those solutions.

In this article Edward Goldsmith spells out the principles which he believes govern the behaviour of social systems, and which none – including industrial society – can violate with impunity. These principles indicate that primitive man is the only one who is actually living a sound and completely ordered existence. The rest of us, depending on whether we are part of an industrial society or a rural economy, to varying degrees have simplified our environments, to the point where we are in danger of destroying both them and ourselves. According to Goldsmith the more we try to overcome disorder in our industrial society by technological means, the greater will be the ultimate price that we shall have to pay.

Published in The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 9, September 1973.

See also The Behavioural Basis of Culturalism


Limitless growth cannot be sustained in a world of finite resources and with a limited capacity to absorb waste. This means that we must develop a society that is not geared to ever increasing growth, which is thereby less dependent on resources and which generates correspondingly less waste. It doesn’t matter whether industrial society can be maintained for 10, 50, 100 or 200 years. The fact is that it is moving in the wrong direction and at an exponential rate and the sooner the direction is reversed the easier will be the transition. This movement is accelerated and encouraged by much of modern scientific research.

One doesn’t need any experiments to show that one cannot build a perpetual motion machine, since such a device would defy the second law of thermodynamics. Still less is it regarded sensible to advocate their large scale manufacture.

Neither does one need experiments, even if relevant ones could be devised, to show that chemical pesticides will not. eliminate pests, that you cannot get rid of poverty by slum clearance, that industrial growth cannot be sustained for very long.

In each case, basic principles, some not yet properly formulated it is true, but nevertheless very difficult to deny can be invoked, as they can to demonstrate the illusory nature of the main tenet of the religion of industrial man: that science, technology and industry can combine to create a materialistic paradise on earth from which can be eradicated all the ills man is supposed to have suffered from since the beginning of time, such as poverty, unemployment, disease, homelessness, crime and famine.

On empirical grounds alone, it is clear that our society is failing to achieve this paradise, as far from being eradicated, these ills are everywhere on the increase, not only in the non-industrial countries but also in the richest industrial ones such as the United States. Thus in America, there are now 25 million people who are officially regarded as poor while an equal number of Americans are displaying symptoms of malnutrition, which one would have thought impossible in so prosperous a country. Indeed, if America cannot solve such problems with all its science, all its money, all its technology, how can any other country be expected to do so?

Current scientific methodology cannot solve the problems of a modern industrial society. On the other hand, if we wish to interpret and understand such problems, the study of general systems is the approach most likely to provide an overall view.

Human society, it is essential to realise, is but a unit of behaviour or a system, and it can only be understood in terms of the behaviour of other systems at different levels of organisation. What one requires therefore is a general model of behaviour in terms of which one can attempt to understand the behaviour of an industrial social system. This is a big undertaking. I shall limit myself to stating what must be some of the basic principles of behaviour common to all systems, some of which have not previously been formulated.

If these principles were accepted that if it were generally realised that they applied to all behaviour, including that of industrial societies, then it would become clear how in industrial societies all we are doing is trying to build perpetual motion machines. Indeed, practically all the major undertakings of our industrial society are unsustainable in terms of these basic principles.

1.The principle of a system

A natural system is best defined as a unit of behaviour, and by its nature must be made up of differentiated parts in dynamic interrelationship with each other. Systems, regardless of whether they be cells or societies, have a great deal in common. The generalities, hence the basic principles, of their behaviour are the same. [1]

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2. The unity principle

The biosphere developed as a single process; and must be regarded as a single system. This means that we should not study its parts in isolation or for that matter in terms of the different disciplines we have developed. Another implication is that human beings, their families and the societies into which they are organised are not above nature, nor are they exempt in any way from any of the principles governing other natural systems. This means that the same methodology must be used to understand the behaviour of humans and their societies as is used to understand the rest of the biosphere. [2]

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3. The ‘man the hunter’ principle

It is significant that for nearly 99 per cent of man’s tenancy of this planet he has earned his living by hunting and gathering and his activities have been limited to the fulfilment of his normal ecological functions in his particular environment without in any way upsetting its balance, i.e. he has until extremely recently behaved as a normal differentiated part of the biosphere. It may seem strange but when we generalise about man, we must mean ‘man the hunter’.

If man has existed for two million years, then his experience as an industrialist is not more than two days in the life of a man of 70, in fact quite negligible, certainly far too short a sample on which to base any generalisations about the behaviour of man. [3]

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4. The ‘Original Sin’ or niche principle

The hunter-gatherer mode of life appears to be the only one compatible with the maintenance of a climax ecosystem. Any departure from it must mean at least a measure of biological and social disruption. The greater the departure the greater the disruption. (See the optimum environment principle.)

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5. The principle of economy

Behaviour takes the line of least resistance or of least effort. It is probable that the origin of life can be explained on this principle alone. Matter organised itself the way it did because it was the easiest course for it to take. Nature is consequently very efficient. In the correct sense of the term it makes the minimum effort: necessary to achieve its goal (stability, as we shall see). Efficiency in the technosphere is a very different thing. It means achieving the maximum output for the minimum input measured arbitrarily in terms of their market price which has nothing to do with their real biological and social, cost.

One of the most important implications of this principle is that systems and their mechanisms which are no longer made use of, i.e. for which there is no longer a niche, tend to atrophy-they can, in fact, be destroyed by depriving them of their function. [4]

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6. The teleonomic principle

Behaviour is goal-directed. Empiricist philosophers and scientists who insist that all knowledge is derived from observation refuse to accept this because no experiment can be rigged up in a laboratory that will either prove or disprove it. Unfortunately this also holds for most of the general principles governing behaviour on this planet. It is also conveniently ignored because it justifies the deductive method. It establishes a generality from which particularities can be deduced without resorting to experimentation. It is ironic that if behaviour were random, i.e. if it displayed no order, and hence was not directive, the behaviour of dynamic systems (and all natural systems are dynamic) could not be interpreted or predicted (and it is the function of science to interpret and predict) and science would simply not be possible. [5]

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7. The principle of stability

The goal is the achievement of stability which can be defined as a course or trajectory on which discontinuities, i.e. disequilibria and their corrections, are reduced to a minimum, hence that ensures survival taken in its broadest sense. Human societies until recently satisfied this requirement. Their culturally determined goal was the maintenance of traditional norms, which were upheld by public opinion, the council of elders and the ancestral spirits. Stability is another word for continuity. It does not mean immobility as an immobile system would not be stable since it would not be capable of adapting to a changing environment.

The importance of this principle is that it provides the only possible criterion for judging behaviour at all levels, i.e. in accordance with its contribution towards the achievement of stability. [6]

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8. The principle of self-regulation

Stable systems must be self-regulating. They are maintained on their course by a control mechanism which in all systems regardless of their level of organisation functions on the same principle. Data are detected and organised (cybernised) to constitute a model of the relationship of the system to its environment. (In a social system this is usually referred to as its world-view.) The responses are mediated in terms of it, otherwise they are random and the system unnoticed is out of control.

Also essential is that each of the constraints a self-regulating system is subjected to is subject to the constraints of the system as a whole, which means that the latter acts as a unit. As soon as a system is regulated from outside (asystemically), the mechanism which is alone capable of assuring that the system’s responses satisfy all environmental requirements breaks down. It can no longer be kept on its optimum course, the course being determined arbitrarily by the external controller.

It is significant that the behaviour of human societies has been until very recently entirely self-regulating. Primitive societies had no dictators or bureaucracies. They were run by tradition. They are often referred to as gerontocracies, government by the elders. I prefer: ‘neocracrocies’, government by the dead. As soon as institutionalised government takes over, the arbitrariness of the society’s behaviour is painfully manifest.

Note: Perception is not an objective measure as empiricists seem to think it is. What one sees depends on one’s model of one’s relationship with one’s environment. Since everyone will have developed a slightly different model, so different people will see different things. This is also true of different societies, which have developed different cultures in terms of which they will interpret (see) their environment in a different way. [7]

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9. The probability principle

The cybernism, by which term I refer to all organisations of information to constitute models made use of by control mechanisms, can be regarded as probability calculators. The brain is no exception. What one sees, i.e. the hypothesis one formulates to explain one’s relationship to a particular environmental situation, is the most probable one in terms of one’s model. The notion of evidence, i.e. of an interpretation that is 100 per cent certain, is totally unknown in the natural. world.

Scientists, whether they know it or not, are also part of the natural world and none has ever formulated a hypothesis which is more than probable. One’s policies and actions must therefore be based on those hypotheses which in terms of existing knowledge appear to be the most probable. One cannot do better than that. [8]

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10. The continuity of information principle

Systems must be looked at four dimensionally. They exist in time as well as in space and their continuity can only be assured if the information transmitted from one generation to the next (i.e. the generalities of the system’s behaviour pattern) reflects the experience of the system as a whole, i.e. which temporally speaking means as far back in its evolutionary history as the experience acquired is relevant to the conditions of the day. Only in this way are the constraints subjected to those of the system as a whole (which as we have seen is a sine qua non of self-regulation).

In this way a system is adapted to dealing with situations whose nature and the probability of whose occurrence can be predicted on the basis of the greatest possible experience and not just on that of the preceding generation. We know that this is true of genetic information. It is not generally realised that it has until recently also been true of cultural information. Education has until recently consisted in imbibing youth with the traditional wisdom which will enable them to fulfill their functions as members of their families – and communities and ecosystems.

By breaking away from tradition, by elevating our scientists and other improvisers to the status of the priests of our industrial society, by putting a premium on change and originality, we are violating this basic principle which we only do at the cost of decreasing stability. At the other end of the scale, only the particularities of a system’s behaviour pattern are developed on the basis of its own experience and constitute thereby differentiations of the original instructions designed to ensure adaptation to specific, possibly short term, environmental conditions. For us, the most important implication of this principle is that there is no substitute for the traditional society. It is only in this type of society that the continuity of information principle is not violated.

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11. The optimum environment principle

The optimum environment for any system – that in which it will be the most stable – must be that to which it has been adapted phylogenetically and ontogenetically. The inescapable conclusion is that as industrial society proceeds, as the technosphere replaces the biosphere, so must instability increase at all levels.

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12. The limits principle

A system can be maintained along its optimum course only if change both to itself and its environment occurs with, in acceptable limits. It cannot re-respond adaptively to situations of which it has had no experience during the course of its evolution and whose nature and occurrence it is thereby incapable of predicting. It is significant that societies have only been, able to maintain their stability in relatively unchanging or slowly changing environments and few primitive societies have been able to withstand dramatic changes such as those induced by contact with industrialised man. The limits can be organised hierarchically in accordance with their degree of generality (see the hierarchical constraints principle).

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13. The counter-intuitivity principle

As a system’s environment departs more and more from that which it was designed to deal with so must its interpretations and predictions become ever less accurate. Our normal intuitions, i.e. the mechanisms we developed to determine our basic responses to our environment in such circumstances are increasingly unreliable. As Forrester puts it, our environment is increasingly counterintuitive. As a result our responses are correspondingly counter-productive.

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14. The ecosystem principle

A system does not develop in a random manner but as an adaptive response to a particular environmental situation. It must follow that it cannot be understood apart from this situation. The two must be studied together as constituting a larger, slightly less orderly system, one that is normally referred to as an ecosystem. This must be true regardless of the level of complexity of the system one is examining i.e., whether one is trying to understand the behaviour of a molecule, a cell, an organism or a society.

An essential implication is that if one destroys the specific environment to which a system is an adaptation, i.e. deprives it of its niche, then it must die. As the biosphere deteriorates this is rapidly happening to the world’s larger mammals, including man. The converse of this principle is that if a niche is available a system will evolve to fill this niche. Our sprawling urban areas and huge stretches of monoculture must give rise to large populations of micro-organisms and insects adapted to them and in terms of which epidemic diseases are alone explicable. (See the principle of selection.)

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15. The levels of complexity principle

Behaviour does not proceed in a continuous way but in jumps. Critical points are reached when specific systems cannot further increase their complexity (see the principle of complexity) without going unstable except by associating with others to form a new one at a different level of complexity; thus atoms joined to form molecules, molecules to form cells. Also in the same way families join to form small communities (clans or villages) which in certain circumstances will join to form larger ones. The limit to the size of a particular type of system is probably set by the extendibility of the bonds used to link together its constituent parts.

In a social system these appear to be extensions of the family bonds and they will not extend very far. There appears to be a limit to the size of a society capable of acting as a self-regulating and hence as a stable system, and such a system appears to be quite small. A monolithic nation state is a relatively new institution and it does not satisfy these conditions in any way (see the ecosystem principle). Since the unit of study is the ecosystem, we should think of levels of complexity as those ecosystems comprising molecules plus their respective environment, cells plus their respective environment, organisms plus their respective environment, etc.

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16. The generality principle

Behaviour proceeds from the general to the particular. As most scientists today are concerned with particularities, generalities (being difficult to study in laboratory conditions) tend to be ignored and are often referred to disparagingly as “value judgements”. Nevertheless it is they which are important. If the British army invades China what is important is not whether Sergeant Snooks has polished his bayonet but whether the basic principle of invading China is right. It is the first and most general stages of any process which should concern us most. The implications are obvious in medicine, psychology and education. It establishes the mother as the basic educator and not the school, let alone the university. [10]

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17. The differentiation principle

Behaviour proceeds by differentiation. A behavioural process cannot be understood solely in terms of the original instructions (except in the hypothetical situation of absolute order). These are adapted to local conditions at each stage, determining correspondingly differentiated behaviour. This further emphasises the importance of the early stages which will control all subsequent stages in terms of which they are differentiated. It also implies that subsystems are designed to fulfil different complementary roles. To suppose that the members of a family, for instance, are equipotential and that the bonds linking them together are symmetrical either genetically or culturally (in a stable society) is to misunderstand the forces that determined the development of the family unit.

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18. The principle of self-reliance

In order to ensure necessary supplies a system will not allow itself to become dependent on external sources of nutrients and other resources unless it can predict that supplies can be maintained. Ecosystems tend to become more and more autonomous as they develop.

Our industrial society, on the contrary, in order to exploit the so called economies of scale, becomes more and more specialised and hence more dependent on external sources of supply, sometimes very unreliable ones, usually increasingly so, and on external markets for the funds with which to purchase such supplies, thereby violating this fundamental principle. [11]

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19. The principle of diminishing production

As a system develops towards higher stability and eventually reaches adulthood-or a climax situation, the rate of biological production decreases. This means that to maximise production as in marine agriculture – it is necessary to maintain the system artificially at a lower phase of development and hence at a more unstable one. The result is and must be great discontinuities, i.e. more droughts, floods, pest outbreaks, etc.

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20. The sequential principle

Responses must occur in a particular sequence (succession). This is so because each one must be triggered off by the occurrence, or the prediction of the occurrence, of a situation which will be influenced by the preceding one. The more orderly the process (as in the development of an embryo); the more essential it is that the sequence be respected.

Education or socialisation is a normal behavioural process and, as a child grows up, it acquires its basic information from the family unit. Subsequently it is subjected to the influence of its peer group and it is later let out in the community as a whole. Information is received from these different systems in the correct order. This order is critical if the child is to be properly socialised. In a stable society information from random sources extraneous to the system in which socialisation occurs (from television, personalities, films and most educational establishments) can only interfere with socialisation.

The idea of education as subjecting a child to a massive barrage of non-selective data in no particular order, simply on the principle that the more knowledge the better, is indefensible and an educational policy such as ours that is based on such a notion must be fatal to the survival of a society. [12]

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