Here's a repost from sci.systems. General Systems Theory is a way of looking
at everything all at once, as opposed to reductionism which is looking at
tinier and tinier pieces. It puts the 'whole' in holistic. It's also the
basis of chaos theory which is wonderful fun stuff. This is a very well
written piece which covers the topic of system failure. He fails to take
open systems into account in this piece, but for the system he's talking
about, the Earth, the possible negatropic influences are far outstripped by
the human efforts at entropic influences. So although it's not exactly
complete, neither is his conclusion wrong. Well, maybe it is. A paradigm
shift does not necessarily mean a change in energy metabolism. This remains
to be seen. Enjoy.
Please comment on this draft.
GRESHAMITE SYSTEM FAILURE (draft)
by Jay Hanson -- March 3, 1995
Systems are interacting, interrelated, or interdependent components
that combine to perform specific "purposes." For example, a car is a
system of parts whose purpose is to transport people on roads.
It is axiomatic that the properties of a system cannot be understood
only by analyzing the individual components. To understand a system
(e.g., car, human or eco-system), one must also consider the
relationships of the components to each other -- and the relationship
of the system to its environment.
For example, if the spark plugs were removed from a car's engine and
put in the back seat, an inventory of the parts would show the car
intact. To understand why the car could not fulfill its purpose, one
would have to study the relationship of the spark plugs to the rest
of the engine.
SYSTEMS AND FEEDBACK
Usually, a system that exhibits "negative feedback" is desirable and
one that exhibits "positive feedback" is undesirable. Negative
feedback contributes to system equilibrium (or preservation) while
positive feedback contributes to system failure.
An example of negative feedback is the environment-thermostat-heater
system in a home. Temperature news is sent by the environment to the
thermostat. Once the temperature reaches specific set points, the
thermostat acts to maintain equilibrium by sending a "on" or "off"
signal to the heater. This system must be carefully designed to
accomplish its specific purpose (i.e., maintain a constant
If the signals from the thermostat to the heater were inverted, the
system would be said to exhibit positive feedback -- the hotter it
got, the hotter it would get. In other words, this system selects
for its own failure.
GRESHAMITE SYSTEMS FAIL
Systems that select for failure are often called Greshamite systems
after the English financier Sir Thomas Gresham (1519?--1579). His
name was given to Gresham's Law, the economic principle that "bad
money drives out good." When depreciated, mutilated, or debased
money (bad) circulates concurrently with money of high value (e.g.,
silver or gold), the good money automatically disappears because of
hoarding. As more and more people notice that good money is being
hoarded, more and more good money will be hoarded -- positive
feedback again. Ultimately, the monetary system fails.
Many Greshamite systems exist in our society. For example, a
pesticide kills all but resistant pests. As this process continues,
increasing percentages of the pests are resistant to the pesticide.
Positive feedback occurs as pesticide applications are increased to
offset increasing resistance. Ultimately, the pesticide fails. This
same process occurs with antibiotics, producing resistant diseases.
Our political system is also a Greshamite system. To understand why,
first consider the theoretical premise of our political system: a
government that is willing to act for the public good; next consider
two very different candidates for public office. Ms. Good believes
in the principle embodied in our Pledge of Allegiance "... liberty
and justice for all." If Good is elected, she will treat everyone
fairly. Mr. Bad believes in loyalty instead of justice; reward your
friends and punish your enemies. If Bad is elected, he will reward
everyone that helped him and punish those who opposed him.
Which of these candidates has the advantage? Mr. Bad. Why? Because
of our dominant ideology of individual self-interest and what
economists call "public goods."
Public goods are available to everyone (e.g., the benefit of honest
government). Victor (one of the voters) is an average,
self-interested individual. He was trained by his family, formal
education, and by television to maximize his own personal wealth.
Public goods were never even mentioned! So Victor has little
incentive to contribute to the provision of public goods.
Will Victor contribute to Ms. Good? No, why should he? If she wins,
Victor will receive justice and fairness from her anyway (a public
good). If she loses, Victor will be punished by Mr. Bad for helping
Will Victor contribute to Mr. Bad? Yes, because Victor has been
promised a private good (e.g., a change of zoning). Moreover, Victor
will not be punished by Ms. Good for helping Bad. So Victor helps
Bad drives out Good. This Greshamite system tends to elect corrupt
politicians (obviously, there are individual exceptions). Positive
feedback occurs as politicians need more and more money to run for
public office. As this process continues, increasing percentages of
politicians are corrupted by more and more money. Obviously, our
political system is destroying its own premise by rewarding "bad
behavior." (Behavior is bad when it tends destroy the context or
premise of the system in which it occurs). It follows that our
political system must ultimately fail.
TRAGEDY OF THE GRESHAMITE SYSTEMS
Garrett Hardin's essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968), is a
modern classic in environmental literature. The "commons" refers to
the common resources that are owned by everyone. The "tragedy"
occurs as the result of everyone being free to maximize one's own
profit by exploiting the commons.
Hardin's essay goes something like this: Visualize a pasture that is
open to everyone. The carrying capacity of this pasture is ten
animals. Ten herdsmen are each grazing an animal to fatten up for
market. In other words, all the grass that the pasture can produce
is now being consumed by the ten animals.
Harry (one of the herdsmen) will add one more animal to the pasture
if he can make a profit. He subtracts the original cost of the new
animal from the expected sales price of the fattened animal and then
considers the cost of the food. Adding one more animal will mean
less food for each of the present animals, but since Harry only has
1/10 of the herd, he only has to pay 1/10 of the cost. Harry decides
to add an animal and take a profit while the other herdsmen suffer a
loss. There is no "technological" solution to this problem; only
"political" solutions are possible.
Shrinking profit margins force the other herdsmen either to add more
animals (more positive feedback) or go out of business. This process
continues until overgrazing and erosion destroy the pasture.
This Greshamite social system rewards bad behavior and in the end,
the pasture fails. Hardin's essay becomes a metaphor for our entire
society. Our communities are the commons. Our schools are the
commons. Our roads, our air, our water, we all are the commons!
DO WE CARE?
We are completely dependent on the environmental services that are
provided by Mother Earth's life support system. Interventions in
this natural system are irreversible, and have impacts that are
usually unpredicted or perhaps even unpredictable. Moreover, these
interventions invariably reduce the Earth's "carrying capacity."
What is carrying capacity?
The Kaibab Plateau (north of the Grand Canyon) was originally capable
of sustaining as many as 40,000 deer. Wolves, cougars, and coyotes
provided the negative feedback necessary to preserve the deer's life
support system (limit the deer population to less than the plateau's
When bounties encouraged hunters to kill the deer's natural predators
(kill the negative feedback), the number of deer mushroomed from a
few thousand to at least 50,000. Once the carrying capacity of the
plateau was exceeded, the deer had no recourse but to consume the
life support system itself. They eventually scoured the landscape
for every edible scrap, even eating the bark of the trees. The
carrying capacity of the Kaibab Plateau plunged to 10,000 as four out
of five deer starved to death.
The story of the Kaibab Plateau deer illustrates carrying capacity in
its starkest, biologically simplest form: a certain number of
animals acting in a certain way can be sustained by the resources in
a given region. Anything over that number consumes the life support
system itself and lowers the carrying capacity.
Indeed, there is now scientific consensus that the human herd is
beyond carrying capacity.i By definition, a biological species
beyond carrying capacity can not be sustained -- it will be cropped
and truncated -- one way or another.
Yet we rush to consume even more of our life support system for such
human "needs" as $200 tennis shoes! Do we really need $200 tennis
Needs are natural desires, the same in all human beings, for they are
inherent in human nature. Moreover, there are a finite number of
human needs. Material needs include such basics as air, food, water,
shelter, sleep and physical security. Our social needs include such
things as true economic security (not just jobs), love, affection,
acceptance, esteem by others and self-esteem. Moral needs include
service, meaningfulness, aesthetics, perfection, truth and justice.
For example, a good education, a sense of community and a dependable
job are needs.
THOUGHT-STOPPING MANTRA FROM THE RIGHT
The thought-stopping mantra from the right is "private property." It
is thought-stopping because it diverts attention away from the issue
of life support system collapse and directs attention to politics.
"Private property" (actually a code phrase for "I do not want to talk
about it!") is a politically correct form of denial. Just a
semblance of thought shows that we all share a common life support
system that must remain intact to fulfill its purpose (keep us
alive). Once this obvious fact is accepted, it becomes equally
obvious that property can not actually be "private" at all. Consider
Suppose someone bought a forest for one million dollars. It's called
private property, but all living creatures rely on the life support
services provided by this forest (e.g., habitat, watershed, fisheries
in rivers, climate stabilization, recreation). Harvesting and
replanting the forest (in a way that does not consume the life
support system itself) will yield a 4% return on capital ($40,000 per
Now suppose this same owner could clear-cut and sell all the trees
for one million dollars, then invest the proceeds in a bank at 5%
($50,000 per year). NO MORE TREES!
Indeed, this type of "clear-cutting for profit" happens all day long,
every day of the year. For example, in "The Overworked American,"
Harvard Professor of Economics Juliet B. Schor says: "Four billion
square feet of our total land area has been converted into shopping
centers, or about 16 square feet for every American man, woman, and
These private properties were part of our life support system before
they became consumption centers. Now the only animals grazing on
them are the two-legged variety. This Greshamite social system
rewards bad behavior and in the end, our life support system will
fail. . . .
WHY IS IT NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO SAVE OURSELVES?
The fundamental flaw in our social systems is positive feedback.
Victor Furkiss, a futurist and former Professor of Government at
Georgetown University, describes our appalling situation:
"Present-day society is locked into four positive feedback loops
which need to be broken: economic growth which feeds on itself,
population growth which feeds on itself, technological change which
feeds on itself, and a pattern of income inequality which seems to
be self sustaining and which tends to spur growth in the other three
areas. Ecological humanism must create an economy in which economic
and population growth is halted, technology is controlled, and gross
inequalities of income are done away with."
"The Future of Technological Civilization"
-- Furkiss (1974) -- quoted in Daly & Cobb
It may be difficult for us to visualize these interlocking abstract
systems. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the following
graphic view of our society should help us to understand these
systems. As you can see, my view is nearly the inverse of what we
have been led to believe. If I am right, our political system can
not save us from the coming collapse.
GRAPHIC VIEW OF INTERLOCKING SOCIAL SYSTEMS
| BOTTOMLINEWORLD* \
| ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ |_______________________________________________
| (The laws of mathematics and economic theory.) \
\ >> dominates CORPWORLD \|
| ___________ \|
| | CORPWORLD \ \|
| | ^^^^^^^^^ |____________________________________________ \|
| | (Corporations qua machines. \ \|
| \ Machines that look like humans.) \| \|
| | >> dominates MEDIAWORLD \| \|
| | ____________ \| \|
| | | MEDIAWORLD \ \| \|
| | | ^^^^^^^^^^ |________________________________ \| \|
| | | (The media program the meat machines with \ \| \|
| | | the ideology of BOTTOMLINEWORLD). \| \| \|
| | \ >> dominates MEATWORLD \| \| \|
| | | ___________ \| \| \|
| | | | MEATWORLD \ \| \| \|
| | | | ^^^^^^^^^ |________________________ \| \| \|
| | | | (Humans that are programmed \ \| \| \|
| | | | machines made out of meat. \| \| \| \|
| | | \ >> dominates POLITICWORLD \| \| \| \|
| | | | ______________ \| \| \| \|
| | | | | POLITICWORLD \ \| \| \| \|
| | | | | ^^^^^^^^^^^^ |___________ \| \| \| \|
| | | | | (Judas machines \ \| \| \| \|
| | | | | that are elected to \| \| \| \| \|
| | | | \ further the interests \| \| \| \| \|
| | | | | of BOTTOMLINEWORLD \| \| \| \| \|
| | | | | (e.g., to sell the \| \| \| \| \|
| | | | | commons to the \| \| \| \| \|
| | | | | corporations). \| \| \| \| \|
| | | | | >> dominates NOTHING \| \| \| \| \|
| | | | \==========================\| \| \| \| \|
| | | | \| \| \| \|
| | | \===================================\| \| \| \|
| | | \| \| \|
| | \============================================\| \| \|
| | \| \|
| \======================================================\| \|
* BOTTOMLINEWORLD is based on "standard economics" which asserts:
". . . that the economy is an isolated system in which exchange value
circulates between firms and households. Nothing enters from the
environment, nothing exits to the environment. . . . For all
practical purposes, an isolated system has no environment."
[p. xiii] "Steady State Economics" -- Herman Daly (1991)
Island Press 800-828-1302 or 707-983-432 Fax 707-983-6164
Because "standard economics" was designed as an isolated system
without negative feedback, we are consuming our life support system.
Bad system design is now a matter of life or death.
EXPLANATION OF THE INTERLOCKING SOCIAL SYSTEMS
THE DOMINANT INFORMATION SYSTEM: BOTTOMLINEWORLD
The economics and mathematics of the "bottom line" control the
THE MOTIVE SYSTEM: CORPWORLD
Corporations qua machines hire the media (MEDIAWORLD) to further
the interests of BOTTOMLINEWORLD. Those corporations that do not
conform to the requirements of the bottom line are ejected from
CORPWORLD by bankruptcy.
THE PROGRAMMING SYSTEM: MEDIAWORLD
Media qua machines are hired by corporations to preach the ideology
of BOTTOMLINEWORLD and program the "meat machines" (humans that act
like machines in MEATWORLD) in order to further the interests of
BOTTOMLINEWORLD. Media that fail at these objectives are ejected
from MEDIAWORLD by bankruptcy.
THE REACTIVE SYSTEM: MEATWORLD
The programmed meat machines do as they are programmed: consume
CORPWORLD's products (consume their own life support system) and
elect "judas machines" (POLITICWORLD).
THE BETRAYAL SYSTEM: POLITICWORLD
Judas machines are elected to promote the interests of
BOTTOMLINEWORLD (e.g., sell the commons to corporations). If they
fail to do so, they are ejected from POLITICWORLD by money that
manipulates ballots directly (by bribes and payoffs) and indirectly
(by campaign advertising).
WHERE DOES HOPE LIE?
The Soviet Union provided ample evidence that a police state can not
succeed. Despite strict environmental laws, the country was
completely ravaged. The lesson: as long as humans are rewarded by
exploiting the environment and other humans, they will continue to do
Where then, does hope lie? I see only a very slim chance that humans
will be able avoid anarchy and social chaos (and possibly total
Our hope lies in a "paradigm shift" that is comparable to the
Copernican shift. One might call it, "a change of heart."
"Before enlightened self-interest takes hold, we must radically
reevaluate what our self-interest really is. Trite or foolish as it
may sound, the world requires a spiritual revolution -- a revolution
on the outlook on life, a change of heart, a metanoia. Almost
everyone throughout the civilized world pays lip service to the
environment today, but not all are realizing the extent of the change
in attitudes and behavior necessary to save the planet."
"Nature, Technology and Society:
Cultural Roots of the Current Environment Crisis"
-- Furkiss (1993)
Furkiss is right! (But, that will be the topic of another paper.)
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Realizing it is not politically possible to make our Greshamite
social systems viable (by providing the necessary negative feedback)
is a paradigm shift in itself. It certainly calls for new survival
tactics. Our challenge, in the next three decades, is to survive the
collapse of these non-viable systems while attempting to avoid the
nearly inevitable panic and anarchy.
Please tell me what you think and why.
email@example.com The Doctor is on.
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