October 23, 2017

The vessel without a pilot

A leading article for The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 14, August 1971. Republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).

See ordering information for the Funbook.


It is sheer illusion to suppose that our government is controlling this society. Yet unless it is controlled, it cannot remain stable, which is the same as saying it cannot survive.

Control is the process of keeping a system on its right course. This implies that it has a right course. The fact that it has is one of the most important and least recognised principles. All systems, including social ones, are goal-directed and their goal, being spatio-temporal, is in fact a course or trajectory – a ‘chreode’ as Professor Waddington calls it. This course leads towards continued or in some cases increased stability, which is to say that it is the one most favouring survival.

Unfortunately control mechanisms can occasionally break down, and this is what has happened in our society. It is increasingly out of control, and can be likened to a vessel without a pilot, whose course is determined by the random play of winds and currents.

Absence of control is evident in everything our government does. Thus we know that vast cities are undesirable. The example of the USA is only too eloquent. Yet do we try to prevent further urbanisation? No, we simply set up bodies like the Centre of Environmental Studies to devise means of masking the countless social and ecological problems that arise as society becomes increasingly urbanised. We know that this country is grossly overpopulated, but do we try to work out and implement ways of reducing the population? No, instead we lodge more and more people in housing estates which we know to be socially undesirable.

We know that there are already far too many cars in this country, but do we try to limit their number? No, instead we build ever more motorways which will eventually make our cities uninhabitable, as has already happened in Los Angeles, where motorways occupy over 60% of the total city area.

We know that cancer is to a large extent caused by exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, but do we try to create a healthier environment? No, we prefer to spend millions on cancer research to find ways of treating diseases we should never have been suffering from.

We know that the world is about to run out of oil and other key resources without which our industrial society cannot possibly continue, but do we try to reduce our dependence on these inputs? Not a bit of it; we are as busy as ever developing our industries and even seeking to industrialise those parts of the world that have so far had no need for these resources.

In all these cases we are undoubtedly adapting, but in the same way as a pilotless vessel adapts when yielding to the winds that can blow it against the rocks. In fact our government is controlling nothing. It is merely seeking to accommodate pressures which it is incapable of controlling, and our society, as a result, must become increasingly unstable. At the same time, the pressures that arise are ever more harmful, and the expedients intended to accommodate them are increasingly unsound and themselves cause further damage. Eventually, new pressures can no longer be accommodated and society must break down completely.

To seek to accommodate destabilising processes rather than reverse them, Professor Stephen Boyden refers to as ‘pseudo-adaptation’.

The trouble, of course, is that pseudo-adaptation can only lead to further pseudo-adaptation. It gives rise to a chain reaction, from which there seems to be no escape. Thus to accommodate ever more cars, we build more roads. People can now live further from their work and there is a rapid growth of residential suburbs that would have no raison d’être save for the car. Cities become designed around the car. More and more people find employment either in making, selling and repairing cars, or in activities dependent in some way on their continued use, such as motels and motorway businesses, or simply hospitals looking after people injured in road accidents or suffering from one of the diseases caused by the air pollution the car gives rise to. The more cars we succeed in accommodating, the more dependent on them – one might say addicted to them – our society becomes, until eventually to do away with them would mean economic collapse.

To break out of the vicious circle that pseudo-adaptation has led us into and to bring our society once more under control can only be done very gradually, and must take a long time. We must immediately begin to reverse that host of closely related trends leading us towards ecological disaster, rather than wait until disaster is upon us.

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