The Common Good: a semi-rational emergent property of complex collective interaction between diverse actors – Part I

The common good invariably requires diversification, manifest as random fluctuations within the biological phase space from which emerge divisions of labour, and thus necessarily, inequalities among individuals comprising a social collective. Entropic forcing drives increases of the common good, via increased diversity, to an apparent limit.

Explorations are made of philosophical (Part I) and empirical (Part II) studies in politics, biology, and economics.

Cooperation via collective divisions of labour is a necessary prerequisite to biological metabolism and reproduction. A collective comprising diverse actors is thus assumed fundamental to the planetary biome. The preponderance of benefit (here designated ‘the common good’) that emerges for actors (individuals and groups), is mediated by Woesean collective cooperation, defined as “a diverse community of cells(note A) surviving and evolving as a biological unit.”(1)

“Diversity is an asset with which to confront uncertainty.”
– Groschl, 2013

Part I: Philosophical observations, models and theoretical analyses

Politikos: definition and mediation of the common good
Commenting on Aristotle’s political theory, F. Miller (2011) tells that “the modern word ‘political’ derives from the [Ancient Greek πολιτικός] ‎politikós, ‘of, or pertaining to the polis’ [polis translates as ‘city-state’, or city]. City-states like Athens and Sparta were relatively small and cohesive units, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns were intertwined. The extent of their similarity to modern nation-states is controversial.”(2)

As a point of interest, Amish culture, described in a previous post titled The Worldly and The Amish represents a modern, relatively small and cohesive population unit, in which political, religious, and cultural concerns are intertwined. Presumably, the world’s remaining populations of ‘primitive’ peoples (nations) would also fit this description, so Miller’s controversy appears to exist principally between modern globalized (‘worldly’) culture, and what one might loosely term ‘old school cultures’, or perhaps the ‘old world order’.

Edward Jenks’ well informed comment, describing a founding and central aspect of political states, seems much less controversial: “[Evidently,] all political communities of the modern type owe their existence to successful warfare. As a natural consequence, they are forced to be organized on military principles […].”(3)

Referring to warring as “sad”, Jenks (1909), posed that plunder is easier, or at least quicker, than working to build up and equip a household, and that men would be unwilling to give up a household; property. The resulting conflict, more than feudalism, developed the practical knowledge of plunder – how best to get stuff with a minimal input of work, and how best to protect the stuff you have worked to accumulate. War, then, is a result of ownership and property.

Jacques Callot, “Plundering a Large Farmhouse”, (1633), plate 5, The Miseries of War.
Inscribed: Here are the fine exploits of these inhuman hearts. They ravage everywhere. Nothing escapes their hands. One invents tortures to gain gold, another encourages his accomplices to perform a thousand heinous crimes, and all with one accord viciously commit theft, kidnapping, murder and rape.

Warfare and military organization were surely intrinsic to city-states existing during Aristotle’s lifetime, which he described as comprising a collection of parts (natural resources, households, and individual citizens), together taking a compound form, and certain order, defining the constitution of the state. For Aristotle, state constitution was not just a theoretical, ‘on paper’, statement of cultural ideals, but an immanent organizing principle analogous to the soul (spirit or genius) of an organism. Thus the Aristotelian constitution of the polis is the way of life of the citizens.(2)

In accordance with Aristotle’s political naturalism, political episteme (from Ancient Greek ἐπιστήμη, epistḗmē, ‘knowledge’) incorporates various practical sciences, such as the art of war (military), the art of household management (economy: from Ancient Greek οἰκονομία, oikonomia, ‘management of a household’, ‘administration’), and the art of language (rhetoric: from Ancient Greek ῥητορικός, ‎rhētorikós, ‘concerning public speech’). Critically, all practical sciences are means of rendering a collective human good. “Even if the end is the same for an individual and for a city-state, that of the city-state seems at any rate greater and more complete to attain and preserve. For although it is worthy to attain it for only an individual, it is nobler and more divine to do so for a nation or city-state”.(2)

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one.”
– Spock & Kirk, Startrek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982

Aristotelian political episteme refers to knowledge of how, why, when and where among the citizenry, noble acts and happiness occur, leading to an understanding of how, where and when to act; implementing policy in order to promote general goodness (a common good quality of life) for the state.

Modern political science does not inspire a great deal of noble action or happiness in citizens, if it did then commoners would surely all hold more respect for careering politicians – a role of state that each of us plays, either by direct action or indirectly by deference of action. The fact that so many modern citizens tend to believe that deference of their individual governing responsibility, to an unknown group of ‘representatives’ is better for them as individuals as well as for the commons, than collective self-governance is, clearly shows a lack of political episteme, and hence faith in political science – a faith in systematized governance, definable as technocracy.

A culture of faith in technocracy renders an equivalence between the church (spiritual affairs) and the state (affairs of governance), which is inescapable even if – or perhaps particularly if – one assumes oneself to be a divine ruler. This common faith of modernity invalidates the controversy suggested by Miller (2011), regarding the extent to which ancient city-states and modern states are (dis)similar; political, spiritual and cultural affairs are as intertwined in modernity as they were in antiquity.

Groschl (2013) propagates the Aristotelian meaning of political episteme, as concerning collective life for its own sake, and he suggests that modern political science acts to prevent people from accessing an understanding of what politics means.(4)

Here then is a guide:
Political life renders a constitution; the socio-physical epifunction of a population that emerges from a cultural milieu, is not attributable to any individual or group, but comprises a collection of individual and/or group interactions within and between a population and its local environment.

Political episteme is a collection of arts; the practical and theoretical knowledge of noble action and happiness of citizens, the purpose of which is to ensure a good constitution; a common good quality of life for a population.

Political science is the practical and theoretical knowledge of distribution and management of power and resources.

Better worded definitions do not detract from the difference in meaning between the latter two. Epistemes are outrospective, mostly open and giving. Sciences are introspective, mostly closed and reductive.

Political science – indeed science of any kind – is attributable solely to humans, and in particular to modern, ‘western’ (now ‘global’) affluent culture. Groschl teaches that political science has been tuned to Hobbesian political philosophy, leading into an era of misconception, or possibly preconception, about the meaning of economy – which is now assumed to be an intrinsic, if not central, aspect of politics. In modernity, both politics and economy have been redirected to face inward, targeting individual private interests as their primary beneficiaries. So it is due to the moral of modern society (modern worldview) that the rights and ambitions of the individual are elevated to a near holy status. We assume genius as ‘proprietary’ of an individual, rather than being the result of the commons; emerging gracefully from the cultural milieu – the complex and uncertain interactions of many and varied actors. Interestingly though, products of genius (generally forms of knowledge) are appropriated by society as common goods.

In emphasis of this last point it seems prudent to assume, as do Bibard & Groschl (2013), that goods and goodness are defined almost ubiquitously among our past and present cultures, as shared phenomena. As an example, they pose little good in owning the most beautiful painting in the world if no one but the painter ever experiences it. Indeed, without sharing experiences of the painting, how can the painter know that it is the most beautiful painting in the world? Goods are necessarily shared, and are thus to a greater or lesser extent, common.

Modernity holds the misinformed consensus that common goods, indeed goods of any kind, are necessarily made; that goods do not exist without the expenditure of energy by some individual or group. This interpretation has most likely resulted from our cultural fixation upon business, in which goods are produced, traded, bought, sold, and finally consumed. Critically, solar radiation and water seem obvious candidate common goods, yet neither can reasonably be assumed to be a product of expenditure of energy by some individual or group. Also critically, goods are not necessarily good; it is possible to trade bad goods, or a bad lot of otherwise good goods. The word good appears to have a vaguer meaning stemming from the Germanic word gōd.

Orthodox biologists claim that common goods (termed ‘public goods’ in the technical dialect of biology) are invariably products of metabolic activity, and thus require work to produce. The word public is derived from the Latin publicus, which is a blend of poplicus ‘of the people’ (from populus ‘people’) and pubes ‘adult’. In contrast the word common is derived from the Latin communis, which is itself derived from the old Latin comoenus ‎’shared’, ‘general’. Thus the misunderstanding of common good, held by biologists, appears to be due to uncritical confusion of the meanings of the words ‘public’ and ‘common’, and in particular to a propagated misuse of the word ‘public’(note B).

However, this view is not ubiquitous among scientists. In private correspondence, an ecologist and forest ecosystem conservationist from the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, G. Havik, has suggested that we should “distinguish common goods from limited common goods”, as the latter poses important consequences for evolution. “Sunlight” he has said “will not be a limited common good for as long as we are around on this planet – except when you’re in someone’s shade, which has driven speciation”. From Havik’s perspective, sunlight is an unlimited common good that is shared and used, but not produced, by metabolic activities. As we shall learn later during exploration of the diversity productivity relationship (DPR), increased diversity of life systems (speciation) may itself be considered a common good. Thus, in an ecological context, shade is an emergent property of biological metabolism, rendering a limiting condition upon the use of an unlimited common good, and shade is also itself a limited common good, due to its diversification effect upon organisms.

A similar example may be made of water. Orthodoxy says that water can be a common (or public) good only if energy is expended in order to create a good, such as a distribution and/or filtration facility rendering potable water. However, we shall assume a wider, more inclusive and more natural interpretation:
Water is a common good if it is available for use.(note C)

Wealth-getting: profiteering vs. sustaining
Non in depravatis, sed in his quae bene secundum naturam se habent, considerandum est quid sit naturale.
What is natural has to be investigated not in beings that are depraved, but in those that are according to nature.
– Aristole, Politics, Book 1(5)

Business assumes to share the goodness (profit) produced by its activities with a select group of actors (the shareholders), but not with a wider ecological sphere (the stakeholders). Simply, business is conducted for the good of an individual legal person; a corporation. In accordance with political science, the purpose of human social interaction – our political lives – is to serve private interests as exclusively as possible. Another way of saying this is that modern human social interaction is geared toward rendering and increasing private goods.

From my own perspective at the time of writing this essay, a cultural moral of self-fulfillment rather than social responsibility, seems to have peaked in the 1970’s among the post WWII American baby boomer culture; the “Me generation”. Twenge & Campbell (2009) have identified and exposed a generational aftershock; a “destructive spread of narcissism”.(6)

Bibard & Groschl suggest that private profiteering, exemplified by the corporate sector under the umbrella of political science, stands in full contradiction to a possible common good. They tell that ancient political philosophy respected private interests to some degree, and thus allowed business to occur to some extent, as a result of political life. Profiteering however, was viewed as a manner of managing private, familial, household affairs. The commons (community, city-state or nation) while requiring wealth-getting activities, does not necessitate a profit-motivated attitude. Aristotle further dissected wealth-getting, by defining a necessary branch that is related to sustenance, is limited, and by nature a part of household management; and an unnecessary branch that is unlimited, unnatural (abstract) and addictive.

“[Some] people suppose that it is the function of economy (household management) to increase property, and they are continually under the idea that it is their duty to be either safeguarding their substance in money or increasing it to an unlimited amount. The cause of this state of mind is that their interests are set upon life but not upon the good life. [Even] those who fix their aim on the good life seek the good life as measured by bodily enjoyments, so that inasmuch as this also seems to be found in the possession of property, all their energies are occupied in the business of getting wealth; and owing to this the second kind of the art of wealth-getting has arisen. For as their enjoyment is in excess, they try to discover the art that is productive of enjoyable excess; and if they cannot procure it by the art of wealth-getting, they try to do so by some other means, employing each of the faculties in an unnatural way.”(7)
Lead characters in the film The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

“[The] business of drawing provision from the fruits of the soil and from animals is natural to all. But, […] this art is twofold, one branch being of the nature of trade while the other belongs to the household art; and the latter branch is necessary and in good esteem, but the branch connected with exchange is justly discredited (for it is not in accordance with nature, but involves men’s taking things from one another). As this is so, usury is most reasonably hated, because its gain comes from money itself and not from that for the sake of which money was invented. For money was brought into existence for the purpose of exchange, but interest increases the amount of the money itself; consequently this form of the business of getting wealth is of all forms the most contrary to nature.”(7)
– Aristotle ca. 350 BC

Earning money or any manner of profiteering for its own sake, tends to lead people astray from the good life. Aristotelian political philosophy does not assume the Hobbesian primacy of private freedoms, but is oriented toward a common good life via collective functions of community. Likewise, Bibard & Groschl suggest that the ultimate ends of our actions, in business as in political life, should be directed outward, toward the good of the commons, and that the common good should be understood as fulfilling human ends; producing a good quality of life.

Politics should be geared for and directed toward human ends, simple biological needs, not toward vanity or enrichment for their own sake. This message is echoed by the words and meanings of wizards and sages, stretching from ancient times through to modernity. They teach that the path toward intellectual fulfillment via a good quality education, leading to holistic contemplation, is a far healthier human pursuit than is simple material, or worse still, monetary acquisition.

Clearly, ancient philosophies of political episteme and of household management are more relevant to human nature than are their modern theoretic counterparts, political science and economics, respectively. Apparently, people hang onto the modern habit unreasonably; faithfully doing damage.

Spontaneous politic
Aristotle viewed humans as spontaneously political animals, and indeed human nature is fundamentally social. However, social behaviors of some kind or other may be observed throughout the known biome. Organisms are necessarily embedded within life-systems, thus living as parts of collectives (communities, ecosystems) that are formed and maintained via continual biosemiosis.
Consciously or not, we continually measure and compare ourselves and our acts against those of our peers – be they members of our own, or another species.

Schematic diagram showing potential bacterial interspecies interactions.(8)

The natural state currently proposed, is a spontaneously occurring, complex, anarchic, self-organizing and self-regulating, adaptive milieu fundamental to life-systems. The ‘state of nature’ is thus understood as an emergent sociophysical epifunction.

Homo sapiens is nestled symbiotically within the wholeness of the planetary biota. A similar natural state may be assumed to exist for all organisms and life systems on Earth, from the lowly kitchen sponge microbe(9)(10), through the great ocean mammal(11), to the mighty forest dendron(12).

Let us venture the supposition that no organism is capable of sustaining life in the absence of interactions with other organisms. Orthodox biologists would disagree with this umbrella definition, arguing that individual unicellular organisms (such as bacterial or archeal cells, some protozoa and algae) are capable of surviving in isolation, as chemotrophic or photosynthetic primary producers. Here, then, stands a challenge to provide an unambiguous example as proof of biotic independence in situ – naturally. In vitro attempts at sustaining an individual cell, isolated from sources of organic nutrients as well as from mineral products of biotic processes, fail rapidly. If access to organic nutrients and biotic mineral cycling is made available to the cell, then metabolism can continue, invariably leading to colonization of the habitat, by invasion of other species and/or clonal (vegetative) reproduction giving rise to genetic mutants. In either case the result is a form of diversified symbiotic collective; a culture.

The interaction imperative is expressed clearly by Cowden (2012), “the organism with the best interaction strategy has the highest fitness [and] stable payoff equilibriums have been shown for cooperation and altruism, behaviors that seem contradictory to the strongly supported individualistic, survival of the fittest mode of evolution”.(13)

Models of social behavior: informatory and unreal
Computer models of social behavior, are fundamentally flawed due to their necessarily rational (computational) basis. Natural systems of social behavior are in part, necessarily logical, but are just as necessarily irrational (non-computable) due to the fundamentally uncertain nature of nature itself. In order to be understandable, a model can only ever approximate nature in a simplistic manner, and in accordance with the state of knowledge (theory) at the time of the model’s construction. The sciences are model based activities, in theory. In practice, the sciences necessarily incorporate, then so far as technically possible, deny the influences of irrational factors.

Models, whether computerized or not, represent a truncation of reality. Scientific knowledge thus also represents a truncation of reality. Fascinating and awesome it is to begin to grasp the scale of modern moral and knowledge lock-in.(14)(15)

Game theory teaches that “cooperation results in the highest mutual benefit”. An offshoot of game theory, evolutionary stable strategy (ESS) theory, assumes that “a uniform environment, and resources are available everywhere”.(13)

ESS theory is an example of modeled social behavior. The theory is originally attributed to John M. Smith, a former aeronautical engineer turned geneticist and theoretical biologist who also developed signaling theory (biosemiotics), and to George Price, a physical chemist turned population geneticist and theoretical biologist, turned devout Christian and altruist. Price eventually committed suicide due to depression, perhaps in part due to an inability to show in practice what was provable in theory.
Clockwise from top left: William D. Hamilton, John M. Smith, George Price, John Nash, John von Neumann.

Smith & Price followed the works of evolutionary biologist and geneticist turned mathematician and logician William D. Hamilton, the polyhistor John von Neumann, and the mathematician, logician and schizophrenic John Nash, the latter both known for their work on game theory. Much like game theory, ESS theory comprises logical manipulation of rational, albeit abstract mathematical characterizations. The subject of ESS theory was popularized by Richard Dawkins in 1976, with his book The Selfish Gene, in which Dawkins made frequent use of the phrase “all other things being equal”, of course in natural environmental circumstances all other things are often not equal. To his credit, Dawkins did make reference to this fact, commenting that the environment does tend to radical and sudden change, thus allowing for the displacement of an existing ESS, which gives way to the emergence of new strategic patterns, before eventual re-stabilization of the biotic system into a new ESS; a new steady state.(16)

In the nascent literature of economics, environmentalism, and political theory, which together form the bulk of serious theoretical work on the topic of sustainable development, the emergence and stabilization of a novel ESS following the breakdown of an existing ESS, is termed a “paradigm shift”, which is nothing less than a change of cultural moral; a change of worldview.

In his popularization of genetic fundamentalism, Dawkins propagated arguments against the existence of altruistic behaviors and group selection, saying that both are common misunderstandings of phenomena that benefit individual genes. Dawkins knowingly skipped over a closely related concept, Hamiltonian inclusive fitness, which must have seemed as likely then as it does now, to disrupt the foundation of the gene-centric orthodox theoretical edifice. In fact, Dawkins’ text mentions inclusive fitness only in a footnote of the (2006) 30th anniversary edition, referring to his colleague and collaborator Alan Grafen, who’s work (Grafen, 1984) reported “the widespread misuse of Hamilton’s concept of ‘inclusive fitness’.” Grafen himself seems to have been considerably broader of mind, admitting that Hamilton’s rule (note D) upon which kin selection theory, inclusive fitness theory, and ESS theory are founded, “holds good only under certain assumptions”. There are “different definitions of [relatedness], and the scope of the rule depends on the definition of [relatedness] employed”. Grafen interpreted inclusive fitness as “a device that simplifies the calculation of conditions for the spread of certain alleles”, and suggested that the expression of those alleles affects the number of offspring produced by other organisms in a population.(17)

This last point brings us to the controversial idea of group selection, which makes intuitive sense (species are born, reproduce and become extinct, just as organisms are born, reproduce and die) but is vague and difficult to rationalize, particularly from the gene-centric perspective. However, empirical evidence of higher level selection (selection of traits above the level of individual organisms) was published by Wade (1976). In his initial study of group fitness among populations of Flour beetles, Wade concluded that a genetic bottlenecking “process of random extinctions with recolonization can establish conditions favorable to the operation of group selection.”(18) In a continuation of his experimental work, Wade (1980), reported that “under many circumstances, a species performance in competition is not predictable from its performance in single-species culture”, and that “competitive ability can be viewed as an indirect but general measure of the nature of population response to group and individual selection for increased and decreased population size.”(19)

Unclear and slight, the group selection idea is perhaps too easily dismissed. We shall not dwell upon it further here, except to point out that it bears the markings of an emergent phenomenon, and to respectfully remind the reader that epigenetic phenomena (the potentially heritable alteration of genetic traits, environmentally affected above the level of DNA code) are a relatively recent discovery.(20)

In regard to altruistic behaviors, Reuter et al (2010), have reported that in humans “oxytocin promotes interpersonal trust by inhibiting defensive behaviours and by linking this inhibition with the activation of dopaminergic reward circuits, enhancing the value of social encounters.”(21) Furthermore, a handful of genetic association studies have linked polymorphisms of the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and the vasopressin 1a receptor gene (AVPR1A) to prosocial behaviors, while concurrently implicating the dopaminergic system. Thompson et al (2013), report two genes as candidate genes for human altruism, OXTR and cluster of differentiation 38 (CD38), both genes are active in the regulation of blood plasma concentrations of oxytocin. They suggest that OXTR and CD38 mediate trade-offs between self-focused cognition and behaviors, versus prosocial cognition and altruistic behaviors.(22)

“Inclusive fitness is often associated with kin selection, as more closely related organisms more likely share the same alleles – such alleles are referred to as ‘identical by descent’ as they are from a common ancestor. However, altruism genes may be found in non-related individuals, thus relatedness is not a strict requirement of inclusive fitness [which is widely quoted as an explanation for the evolution of altruistic behaviors]” Cowden (2012).

I continue to feed and care for an organism similar to the one pictured here. Dawkins would say that my expressions of care toward my pet Uma are not altruistic but selfish, that Uma somehow increases my own reproductive capacity, or at least that I am pushing my own feel good button. That may be so, I openly admit that my quality of life is bettered by Uma’s company, though Uma tends to enjoy a good quality of life also.
We’re not yet sure about the cat, who has been invited into the household to manage a population of mice. Apparently I am incapable of altruism toward mice.

Jest aside, wild biomes (natural states) are not all red in tooth and claw, but they are all complex and diversified, symbiotic and synergistic systems, defined by divisions of labour and collective actions, producing an emergent common good. Inclusive fitness does not describe a Hobbesian war of each against all, but infers the indirect reproduction of identical copies of traits (behaviors or phenotypes linked to environmental or genetic components) parallel to the vertical gene transfer achieved by parents to their offspring; horizontal gene transfer, as documented by microbiologists, comes closer but still does not fully hit the mark of indirect reproduction. Essentially, distant relatives within a species, as well as siblings, even twins, exemplify indirect reproduction. A wider exemplary scope might expose the various and diverse hemoproteins.

Hemoglobin is a tetrameric protein (left), comprising four heme groups (right).

“If iron is nature’s favorite essential metal, then heme is its Swiss Army knife: a versatile, indispensible tool that, in the company of its protein sheath, can do seemingly anything. The power of heme is particularly evident in the prokaryotes, where diversity in the catalytic activities of heme proteins, as well as proteins involved in the uptake, trafficking and sensing of heme, appears to be vast”.(23)
– Mayfield et al, (2011)

Dawkins paved his approach to the subject of biological collectivism, altruism, and social behavior, with logic and computer models. He was confident that he saw clearly, a single formal system, operating invariant rules, written by men – the theoretical evolutionary stable strategy (ESS). In all honesty, I admit to seeing rather less clearly, more vaguely and uncertainly, a set of complex and interacting systems. Biological processes are changeable, adaptable; are not written; are not rules, but malleable agreements and necessary compromises.

Theoretical biologist R. Rosen, argued that a living organism is not a machine, and thus cannot have a computer-simulable model. Furthermore, Rosen opined that the current reductionistic state of science – “sacrificing the whole in order to study the parts” – is inadequate to create a coherent theory of biological systems, as life is not observed after dissection of a biological organization. Rosen held what seems to be a mystical belief – that biology is not a subset of known physics, that relational studies of living systems (how parts of living systems relate to each other) may produce new knowledge of physics and result in profound changes for science generally. Inspired by Gödel’s theorems of incompleteness, and the limitations of Turing-computability, he suggested that “we should widen our concept of what models are”.(24)

The assumption of strict empiricism is fundamentally untenable, as any observation is necessarily dependent upon subjective experience. Thus the ’empirical sciences’, as well as those bodies of knowledge best termed ‘epistemes’ – including politics, psychology and the ‘arts’ – are principally subjective, intuitive understandings, leading to the formation and execution of practical arts, allowing for the acquisition of empirical knowledge. Rationalizations of irrational processes such as politics and the (inter)actions of political states, are conducive to modeling in a manner similar to the modeling of physical phenomena, those models being necessarily based upon truncations of empirical measurement, to render computable data.

That markets are composed of individual rational actors, is a fundamental supposition upon which modern economic theory is built, allowing for precise computational modeling of economic activity. However, this founding assumption is clearly incorrect; markets are composed of people (individuals and groups), and people are not invariably rational actors. Simply, people are not machines, they do not always Turing-compute, or act in accordance with expectation (theoretical or otherwise); people do not always do the right thing. Thus real market behaviors tend not to conform tightly with statistical, theoretical prediction. This observation is communicated succinctly by Bibard & Groschl, who have said that “the economic assumption of pure and perfect rationality is not an empirical, but a theoretical one”.

The complete failure of economic theory and subsequent data-driven models to predict, even imprecisely and inaccurately, black swan events such as the global finance sector catastrophe of 2007-8 and the ensuing global monetary crisis, is the result of both: truncations of empirical measurement data used in theoretical modeling; and the indoctrination of modern global culture into a system of theoretical and mechanical naivete.

In a very real sense, modern economic theory and models comprise a simplistic interpretation of the realities of political life; and generally, people place near-complete trust and reliance upon technologies that they misunderstand, or outright do not understand.

Groschl (2013) reports that recent annual meetings of the world economic forum at Davos have begun to recognize sustainable development not merely as a mechanical, technical process. Increasingly, behavior is seen as the missing link between analyses (providing knowledge of what is at stake) and implementation (doing something about it). He suggests that a transformation is occurring – or needs to occur, and calls upon his readers to realize that “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts […]. One cannot rely too much on models and calculations. Instead one must rely on one’s intuition, and trust the intuitions of others”. In so saying, Groschl corroborates my own view, published as part of a previous post titled iconoclast which ends with a call for the realization that the greater part of reality is irrational – “irrationality is the denominator, and rationality the numerator”.

The mechanization of governance: expert systems – not even idiots
Hackett & Groschl speak of a transnational capitalist class (TCC) – the principal shareholders and managers of large corporations. These private businesses do not reside within a single nation, and thus are not bound by the laws and customs of any one nation, rather they are spread across several nations, the governing policies of which they tend to influence. In fact, Hackett & Groschl claim that the influence of transnational corporations has grown to become the core actor in governance discourse. Increasingly, developed states conduct peripheral, enabling roles, while developing countries have been entirely disenfranchised from the global agenda. Transnational corporations affect their influence upon the economies of most countries, and seem to play an ever increasing, albeit private and hidden role in international relations, together resulting in economic activities the scale of which are beyond the capacity of any one nation state. It is said that the power and reach of transnational business has in many ways surpassed the power and capacity of the United Nations.
Based upon the knowledge that people irrationally trust models, the understanding that government policy is strongly influenced by corporate interests, and that the governance of corporations is strongly influenced by economic theory and computer modeling, it seems reasonable to take the view that policy is increasingly being conducted by technological systems, most of which still employ people – albeit with the unrealistic assumption that human components of the politico-technological system are devoid of humanity; that they are perfectly rational actors.

The modern political state is thus modular, and most correctly defined as technocracy. Herein, warn Hackett & Groschl, lies a looming crisis of accountability. With the knowledge that corporate shareholders are not legally liable for the actions of the corporate person they own, and assuming the TCC as the global elite, economically governing group, who will hold the TCC and it’s individual members accountable? – and how?

One answer to this quandary is as predictable as it is incapable; artificial intelligence. Not the ‘general’ or ‘strong’ AI of science fiction, but decidedly unintelligent expert systems. The convergence of governance and expert systems is termed e-government – defined by the United Nations Global E-Government Readiness Report 2004, as “the use of [information and communication technology (ICT)] and its application by the government for the provision of information and public services to the people.”

Several aspects of governance, in business and government, have already been delegated to expert systems, as shown by the broader definition given in a more resent UN document, titled “E-Government for the Future We Want”:
“E-government can be referred to as the use and application of information technologies in public administration to streamline and integrate workflows and processes, to effectively manage data and information, enhance public service delivery, as well as expand communication channels for engagement and empowerment of people. The opportunities offered by the digital development of recent years, whether through online services, big data, social media, mobile apps, or cloud computing, are expanding the way we look at e-government. While e-government still includes electronic interactions of three types – i.e. government-to-government (G2G); government-to-business (G2B); and government-to-consumer (G2C) – a more holistic and multi-stakeholder approach is taking shape.”(25)

The Encyclopedia of Digital Government (2007), provides concrete examples of governance tasks performed by expert systems. “Increasingly, government organizations in the Netherlands use expert systems to make judicial decisions in individual cases under the Dutch General Administrative Law Act […]. Examples of judicial decisions made by expert systems are tax decisions, decisions under the Traffic Law Act (traffic fines), decisions under the General Maintenance Act (maintenance grants), and decisions under the Housing Assistance Act.

There are two categories of judicial expert systems. Expert systems in the first category support the process of judicial decision making by a civil servant. The decision is taken in “cooperation” between a computer and the civil servant. Expert systems in the second category draft judicial decisions without any human interference. In these cases the decision making process is fully automatic.”(26)

In 1989 J. Weintraub authored an article published in AI Magazine (note E), in which he lists twelve possible uses for experts systems in federal, state, and municipal governments.
1) Forecasting – financial planning and cash management
2) Labor relations
3) Document and archive retrieval
4) Regulatory compliance advise
5) Office automation
6) Capital assets analysis
7) Personnel employment assessment
8) Legal advice
9) Instruction
10) Bid and proposal preparation assistance
11) Natural language querying of database
12) Auditing

Further, Weintraub stated that “the applicability of expert systems and AI to government administration can be seen in a careful ‘between the lines’ reading of the Information Systems Plan (ISP). Although not explicitly stated, many of the systems and projects defined in ISP are driven by extensive and complex logic processes and would benefit from AI technology.”(27) This is more than a little humorous, as expert systems are thoroughly incapable of reading “between the lines”, in a sense proving the necessity of humans, whether expert or not, for the interpretation of real-world situations and to propose solutions that better, or at least maintain, a decent quality of life.

In this regard I speak from personal experience, having been subjected, rather frustratingly, to the stress-inducing ridiculousness of the expert system employed by the royal Dutch tax department. In regular correspondence with the Dutch tax system, it failed to remind me of a chat bot only twice during the course of six years – due on both occasions to the intervention of a (human) civil servant. The expert governor (Dutch tax bot) consistently appraised the situation incorrectly, whereas a layman (myself) and civil servant (tax inspector) appraised the situation correctly. The Dutch computer expert governor, a rational specialist, managed very well only to reduce the quality of my life, by not incorporating into the situation argument, the information that I had sent to it.

Apparently, the current culture of deference of individual responsibilities of governance to a group of ‘representative’ strangers, is not dysfunctional enough. Modern culture seeks to defer individual responsibilities of governance even further, feeding them to unintelligent expert systems. While I can imagine the presumed attraction of this course of action, if viewed superficially and from a disinterested distance, my own experiences have proven that deference of governance to machine systems, makes for singularly poor policy, resulting in absurd decision making. Expert systems have no understanding of the knowledge they house, nor of how the implementation of that knowledge impacts upon the quality of people’s lives. Indeed, this is part of the attraction – we hope to better our lives by employing selfless, unbiased, ‘incorruptible’, perfectly rational machines as civil servants; as our governors. A warning! Expert (governing) systems are not intelligent, in fact they are not even idiots.

There may be a glimmer of hope however, in the incorporation and interrelation of several expert systems, representing a diversity of specializations, thus synthesizing a multi-expert system; a diversified-specialized system; a computerized polymath. Such a system would not be intelligent, but it might be capable of more rounded, complex, decision making, which in turn may lead to more livable forms of governance for humans. However, the only sure way to attain a good quality of life is to personally, individually, abandon the current culture of technocratic lock-in (‘representative democracy’), and to begin to govern oneself in association with ones local group, resources, and territory.

A) For the purpose of this essay, the word cell is assumed to be synonymous with actor, and the latter may refer to molecular as well as systemic agents of action.

B) Take for example the report by Cordero (2012), in which is stated: “A common strategy among microbes living in iron-limited environments is the secretion of siderophores, which can bind poorly soluble iron and make it available to cells via active transport mechanisms. Such siderophore-iron complexes can be thought of as public goods that can be exploited by local communities and drive diversification […]” – italicized emphasis is mine.

C) Of course ‘water’ may be replaced with any object or process.

D) Hamilton’s rule (rB > C) was published in 1964, as a popularization of the mathematical treatment of kin selection, by Fisher and Haldane in the 1930’s, and a further formal mathematical treatment, a theorem, composed by Price.
r = genetic relatedness of the recipient to the actor.
B = benefit gained by the recipient as a result of the act.
C = cost of the act to the actor.

E) Elsevier publishes an entire journal devoted to the field of expert systems in governance, titled “Expert Systems with Applications” []. Here are two recent (2012 and 2015) citations:
i) “Evaluation and ranking of risk factors in public–private partnership water supply projects in developing countries using fuzzy synthetic evaluation approach”
ii) “An unstructured information management system (UIMS) for emergency management”

1) C. Woese, “The universal ancestor”, (1998), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 95(12), p. 6854-9, (abstract)

2) F. Miller, “Aristotle’s Political Theory”, (2012), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

3) E. Jenks, “A History of Politics”, (1909), p.73,

4) S. Groschl et al, “Uncertainty, Diversity and The Common Good”, (2013), Gower,

5) J. Scott, “Critical Assessments of Leading Political Philosophers”, (2006), p. 421, Routledge,,+sed+in+his+quae+bene+secundum+naturam+se+habent,+considerandum+est+quid+sit+naturale&source=bl&ots=vLYRv0Xyl-&sig=JMpCOrRPx15W-We6lS-cvR1s9pE&hl=sl&sa=X&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAmoVChMIuNj85ce1xwIVCaZyCh339QR_#v=onepage&q=Non%20in%20depravatis%2C%20sed%20in%20his%20quae%20bene%20secundum%20naturam%20se%20habent%2C%20considerandum%20est%20quid%20sit%20naturale&f=false

6) J. Twenge & W. Campbell, “The Narcissism Epidemic:Living in the Age of Entitlement”, (2009), Free Press,

7) Aristotle, “Politics (Book 1)”, (1957), Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 21, translated by H. Rackham, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press,

8) F. Short et al, “Polybacterial human disease: the ills of social networking”, (2014), Vol. 22-9, p. 508-518, Trends in Microbiology, Elsevier,





13) C. Cowden, “Game Theory, Evolutionary Stable Strategies and the Evolution of Biological Interactions”, (2012), Nature – Education,


15) T. Foxon, “Technological and institutional ‘lock-in’ as a barrier to sustainable innovation”, (2002), Imperial College London,

16) R. Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”, (1976), Oxford University Press.

17) A. Grafen, “Natural Selection, Kin Selection and Group Selection”, (1984), Behavioural ecology: an evolutionary approach, Vol. 2,

18) M. Wade, “Group selection among laboratory populations of Tribolium”, (1976), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 73-12, p. 4604-4607,

19) M. Wade, “Group Selection, Population Growth Rate, and Competitive Ability in the Flour Beetles, Tribolium Spp.”, (1980), Ecology, Vol. 61-5, p. 1056-1064, Ecological Society of America, abstract

20) V. Huges, “Epigenetics: The sins of the father”, (2014), Nature, Vol. 507-7490,

21) M. Reuter, et al, “Investigating the genetic basis of altruism: the role of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism”, (2010), Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,

22) G. Thompson, et al, “Genes underlying altruism”, (2013), Biology Letters, The Royal Society,

23) J. Mayfield et al, “Recent advances in bacterial heme protein biochemistry”, (2011), Current Opinion in Chemical Biology, Vol. 15, p. 260–266, Science Direct,

24) “Rosennean Complexity and other interests”, (2008), Panmere,

25) “UNITED NATIONS E-GOVERNMENT SURVEY 2014 – E-Government for the Future We Want”, (2014), Untied Nations New York,

26) M. Groothuis, “Applying ICTs in Judicial Decision Making by Government Agencies”, (2007), Encyclopedia of Digital Government, p. 87-96,

27) J. Weintraub, “Expert Systems in Government Administration”, (1989), AI Magazine Vol. 10/1, Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence,


SWOTing the World Bank

This is the second of three posts, exploring the connections between cultural morality, sustainable development, and iconoclasm. A simple analysis of World Bank Group Strategy is performed.
– analytical format: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats (SWOT)
– analytical focus: sustainable development

While ‘sustainability strategy’ documents have been found for various corporate persons, including: McDonalds, Nike, Monsanto, Bayer, Nestle, and Microsoft (all last accessed in 2014), no such document has been found in relation to the WBG. The closest thing in meaning to such a text, was found as a blurb in an environmental strategy published by the WBG.1

Formal programs have been set up within the World Bank and the IFC to manage environmental impacts from internal operations. Efforts to measure, report, and offset greenhouse gas emissions from internal operations have been strengthened. In 2006, the WBG became carbon neutral for its headquarters-based internal business operations, including all facilities operations, staff air travel, and owned vehicle use. WBG facilities are now more efficient in water use, waste management, and procurement, and the results of these efforts are published annually on the website. In 2010, the IFC’s headquarters building was awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum Certification for Existing Buildings by the U.S. Green Building Council. Two other WBG buildings have received a gold standard, and the new “C”.”

This paragraph seems insufficient for the purpose of a SWOT analysis, as no weaknesses, opportunities, or threats are clearly stated. Let us instead take a wider perspective from a document, titled “World Bank Group Strategy”.2

A selection of introductory quotes.
“The [WBG] strategy focuses on the ambitious goals of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity in a sustainable manner.”

“The [WBG] is committed to helping clients3 see note reach these goals through economic growth, inclusion and sustainability.”

“The WBG will reposition itself, based on a value proposition to best serve the development community in pursuit of the two goals. [(i) work more in partnership with others, including the private sector, and (ii) significantly increase collaboration across its agencies].”

“Implementation of the Strategy will require organizational change and a new framework for medium-term financial sustainability to ensure that its resources are commensurate with the roles and responsibilities it carries out on behalf of the international community. Translated into action, the Strategy will reposition the [WBG] to help transform the lives of the nearly 4 billion people […].”
– presumably, “nearly 4 billion people” refers to ‘owned clients’ (i.e. ‘owned countries’).

Strengths: finances and political influence
Access to vast finances and influence of global political structures, via a combination of capital, globalized institution, and propaganda.

“a strong, AAA-rated financial institution, the WBG mobilizes and manages large amounts of resources for development on a global basis, and offers a wide range of innovative financial products and services to clients.”

“With its global multilateral membership and ownership structure, the WBG can synthesize perspectives on development issues from around the world.”

“the WBG has broad operational experience; expertise on policy dialogue, implementation, and capacity building; knowledge of the private sector; ability to blend public and private finance; and capacity to bundle knowledge, finance, and convening services.”

“The WBG will strengthen the focus of its country programs by developing a more evidence-based and selective country engagement model in the context of country ownership and national priorities, and in coordination with other development partners.
A Systematic Country Diagnostic (SCD) will use data and analytic methods to support country clients and WBG teams in identifying the most critical constraints to, and opportunities for, reducing poverty and building shared prosperity sustainably, while explicitly considering the voices of the poor and the views of the private sector. The Country Partnership Framework (CPF) will describe focus areas for WBG support, aligned with the country’s own development agenda and selected primarily to address the key constraints and opportunities identified in the SCD. Performance and Learning Reviews will identify and capture lessons; determine midcourse corrections, end-of-cycle learning, and accountability; and help build the WBG’s knowledge base, including effective approaches for integrating inclusion and sustainability dimensions (including gender and environmental sustainability) into the SCD and CPF. A new Regional Coordinating Mechanism [RCM] will formalize country-and regional-level coordination among the [World] Bank, [International Finance Corporation (IFC)], and [Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA)]. The RCM will help the WBG with its regional engagements.”

Weakness: good quality statistical information
“In the competitive market for political risk insurance, MIGA is considered the strongest multilateral provider in terms of its business results, global reach, and market reputation. It is recognized for (a) its expert underwriting, (b) its strong balance sheet, enabling large long-term guarantees, (c) its willingness to guarantee complex projects in high-risk markets, and (d) its unparalleled record in resolving investment disputes. MIGA, too, has a broad array of clients representing a range of industries, sectors, and geographic areas. Much of MIGA’s comparative advantage is derived from its affiliation with the WBG, which enables it to draw on the research and knowledge base to inform underwriting, the extensive network of global offices to support business development and project monitoring, and the relationship with host countries to allow it to take on riskier projects. Like other multilaterals and the other WBG agencies, MIGA’s perceived weakness is having heavy information requirements, especially in the areas of environmental, social, and integrity due diligence.”

“Building shared prosperity will require countries to address inclusion and sustainability more vigorously. With the focus on jobs, policy action is urgently needed in countries where women are excluded from opportunities in paid employment and entrepreneurship. Developing countries must manage spatial transformation well to increase prosperity sustainably. Across the developing world, growing populations and economies are putting significant strain on the natural resource base—land, water, forests—and countries are struggling with the impact of climate change, environmental degradation, and ecosystem changes. Most countries that have successfully transitioned to high-income status followed a path of urbanization and concentrated industrial development that enhanced productivity, expanded service delivery and generated broad based gains in social welfare. In tackling these complex challenges, developing countries can benefit from the pace and breadth of technological change, which will continue to reshape development in myriad, often unforeseen ways—but this in turn will require robust policies to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and the free flow of information.”

Opportunities: ownership and development of clients
“While the opportunity is historic, bold steps will be needed by all stakeholders and the risks are multifold. The WBG faces significant risks to delivering on its commitment to the two goals, particularly if it falters in implementing the actions identified in the Strategy. Management will need to meet its commitment to keep the WBG relentlessly focused on the goals, to offer clients world-class development solutions, and to operate truly as One World Bank Group, as well as to move ahead with changes to make the organization more efficient and stronger. Continued strong engagement with the Board of Executive Directors and the Governors will be decisive to address key areas such as the budget and financial sustainability, and to support the shift to a “Solutions WBG.” Achieving the goals will depend on each member government and the international community as a whole demonstrating the political will to focus on the poor and disadvantaged, and to act in partnership with the private sector and civil society. Effective global action will require that all countries and multilateral institutions demonstrate a renewed capacity to collaborate. Together, we can do what it takes to end poverty and build shared prosperity in our time.”

“Implementing the CPF will be challenging, and there will be a need to adapt it to specific country circumstances. First, country ownership will remain critical. In situations where the alignment between country demands and the goals remains unclear, the WBG will work with country clients to deepen the analysis, understand the political economy, and pursue dialogue in an effort to help clarify the most appropriate and promising pathways toward the goals and build social consensus. Second, partnerships will be essential. WBG country teams will work with key partners at the country level, including the IMF and MDBs, encouraging them to engage in the SCD process and seeking their input into the formulation of CPFs where appropriate. Third, data availability will be a limiting factor, particularly in countries with weak country statistical systems: only one-quarter of WBG member countries have adequate capacity and data to assess progress in poverty reduction and shared prosperity, and to account for sustainable development. Working with development partners, the WBG will launch a new initiative under which member countries will be requested to gather relevant data and improve access to and dissemination of these data through a global database.”

Threats: climate change and social development
“Climate change threatens both future poverty reduction and the sustainability of past gains, achieved through decades of efforts. The international community’s collective response to the fundamental threat posed by climate change will shape not only the global fight against poverty, but also the world’s overall development trajectory for generations to come. Average world temperatures are on track to rise at least two degrees Celsius and rainfall patterns are changing. Increasingly, these changes are resulting in more severe and frequent extreme weather events—storms, droughts, heat waves, and floods. The impact of these events is exacerbated by environmental degradation and other socio-economic factors. The adverse effects of climate change fall disproportionately on the poorest countries and, within countries, on the poorest people, who are already seriously affected by environmental degradation and lack adequate capacity to adapt.”

The WBG plans to capitalize upon its vast finances and sphere of influence via its institutional structures, in order to sustain and increase its finances and sphere of influence via “shared prosperity” and “inclusion” of economically developing regions on the globe. Critically, one would ask whether this is not a polite manner of stating “client ownership”, and whether the latter is not simply slavery; the result of systemic indebting of the world’s poorest people.

A similar treatment of Fairtrade organization has revealed identical corporate, financial, institutional, and governing mechanisms, albeit on a smaller scale and flying different colors. Briefly, farmers living in ‘developing economies’ are bamboozled into debt, up to 60% of annual income, under the auspices of sustainable development. Critically, peasant farmers under Fairtrade are forced into a holding pattern via ‘client ownership’ by indebtedness, identical to that implemented by the WBG.
Fairtrade mission statement / manifesto4
I) “[Fair] Traders pay producers an agreed minimum price that covers the costs of sustainable production and living; this gives way to the market price whenever the latter is above this minimum.”

II) “[Fair] Traders should, in addition to the minimum price, also provide a social premium, of around 5 to 10 per cent, for development and technical assistance.”
– the term ‘social premium’ is identical in meaning to the more familiar term social insurance.5 Essentially the Fairtrade premium is a financial risk mitigation mechanism, helping to stabilize production.

III) “Fair Trade products must respect a series of social and environmental criteria.”
– is this not true for all products?

IV) “[Fair] Traders, as far as possible, must purchase directly from producers or producer organisations using long-term contracts to lessen the number of intermediaries and to promote long-term planning and stability.”
– this surely is a good ambition!

V) “[Fair] Traders should help provide producers with credit of up to 60 per cent of the value purchased when requested.”

The fine print
“[Fair trade contracts are also] available for large agricultural businesses […].”

“[…] Fair Trade organisations charge certification [contractual] fees to cooperatives [villagers] and wholesalers [usually villagers] for services such as inspecting the farms and monitoring the supply chain. The minimum charge for certification [contractual obligation] for the smallest group (fewer than 50 producers) applying for certification of their first product is approximately £1,570 in the first year followed by an annual recertification fee of around £940. The charges for certification of additional products are approximately £165 in the first year followed by an annual recertification fee of £145.”

“[W]holesalers that supply to retailers wishing to use the Fair Trade label also have to pay a licence fee, which is usually based on the wholesale price of the product. For example, in the UK, the Fairtrade Foundation charges 1.7 per cent on the first £5 million [£850,000] of annual sales of Fair Trade certified products and marginally lower for incremental sales thereafter. These fees contribute towards meeting the expenses of the Fair Trade organisations.”

“The mainstreaming of Fair Trade proved highly successful, with Fair Trade’s profile and sales expanding markedly.”
– may we assume this refers to the trade of corporate shares?

“[The following global brands have made 100 percent commitments to Fairtrade:
Cadbury Dairy Milk, Starbucks, Kit Kat [but not the rest of Nestlé], Green & Black’s and Ben & Jerry’s]”

– please stop here for a minute, to think about what this might mean ‘wholly’, i.e. in regard to the ‘development of villagers’ and ‘indebtedness of villagers’.

“An important component of the Fair Trade movement is its campaign-based promotion. [Promotion] is critical for Fair Trade as its growth in sales depends on public awareness and understanding of Fair Trade products and the rationale for buying them, marketing and conventional distribution and retail channels. The mainstreaming of Fair Trade proved highly successful, with Fair Trade’s profile and sales expanding markedly.”
– ‘campaign-based promotion’ is nice wording for ‘corporate and political propaganda’.
– no mention at all of the well being of peasant farmers or villagers.

See also:

Bibliography and Notes
1) The World Bank Group, “The World Bank Group’s Environment Strategy 2012-2022”, (2011),

2) Joint Ministerial Committee of the Boards of Governors of the Bank and the Fund on the Transfer of Real Resources to Developing Countries, “World Bank Group Strategy”, (2013),,,pagePK:64000837~piPK:64001152~theSitePK:277473~contentMDK:23470472,00.html

3) Note: in this document the words “client” and “country” are used interchangeably. Also, there are three mentions of “country ownership” and at least one mention of “client ownership”.

4) S. Mohan, “Fair Trade Without the Froth”, (2010),,d.ZGU


Moral Deference of Sustainability

Explored in this and the following two posts, are connections between cultural morality, sustainable development, and iconoclasm.

In my worldview the term sustainable development (sustainability) has a clear definition, equivalent with that of homeostasis. There are various definitions of the latter, my meaning relates generally to biological physiology; the set of physical characteristics comprising life-functions and life-forms observable in biology.

In my personal view the issue is less clear, cloaked in irrational and unknowable metaphysics:

Sustainability is a volume of persistent flux, a disequilibrium, an entropy-reducing physical change, created by, mediated by, and sustained as interactions between complex physical objects with the capacity to individually and collectively self-organize and self-regulate.

Not fantastic, but phenomenal. Seemingly improbable but apparently common and persistent here on Earth.

The Earth may not be viewed as an independent physiology, because the Sun plays an essential role in sustaining nearly all planetary life systems; certainly the large, highly complex ones. Hypothetically, given at least the Sun and Earth, one might begin to imagine a large and complex ‘self-sustaining’ physiology.
Interpreted holistically, sustainability refers to a single untied living system. If we are to accept this premise, we must assume that the purpose of any thoughts, discussions and/or actions on the subject of sustainable development, are to sustain life, not necessarily lives, on Earth. This is an important distinction; an aspect of biological reality which we modern cosmopolitans tend to ignore, choosing instead to fool ourselves into the belief that each life (individual organism) is of paramount importance.

Both, common sense and thermodynamics show that sustaining any kind of object and/or action indefinitely, is not possible. Certainly not as part of an energetically closed system. For the purpose of the current argument the solar system might be imagined as a hypothetically ‘closed system’. There seems little room for doubt that given enough time to develop, the Sun, Earth, life, everything.., will grind down to near-equilibrium, following as closely as possible:
the path of least resistance.

It seems most reasonable to address sustainable development selfishly (anthropocentrically), and practicably (feasibly). From this it follows that we hope to sustain at least one viable culture of H. sapiens on Earth. Attempting to put a ‘use-by-date’ on H. sapiens is beyond the scope of this text. Currently, we focus upon our contemporary period, with one eye toward the past, and the other toward a reasonably visible future.1 Of course, anthropocentrically, I hope and trust that many happy days precede me, and us all! That is to say, I hold faith in the adaptability and resourcefulness of our species.

When imagining a sustainable culture of H. sapiens on Earth, I can not help but think of ‘the old ways’. Pre-industrial renaissance, or better, semi-industrial societies such as the Amish described in an earlier post of this series, titled The Worldly and The Amish; possibly parochial, though not necessarily Christian or even religious, reproductive population(s) of fit, adaptable, social, creative and analytical, generalists; survivors.

It is my opinion that we currently live in a golden age, perhaps The golden age of humankind. Life has never before been so easy and good for so many of our species, and there are many of us. Very many more of us, however, aspire to the globally endorsed and internationally accepted social and economic norms. I shall be blunt; there are too many of us. Assuming that our global population will continue to increase during the next few decades, then begin to stabilize by about 2060 with an estimated population of between 9 and 10 billion individuals, any definition or proposal of ‘sustainable development’ including the idea of sustaining current standards and aspirations is necessarily false; unattainable as long as our population number is static or positive. Actual sustainable development presupposes that either our population or our expectations, or both, decrease.

Neither pessimism nor optimism, but realism is required in order simply to see what the sustainability puzzle really is about. It seems not to be simply a set of choices we stand to make; sustainability is probably not a consumer good. Instead, the issue appears to comprise a set of physical factors, together acting to limit population growth of H. sapiens on Earth. I would not wish a life at carrying capacity upon anyone; the concept contrasts against my selfish hope and trust for a sustained good life.

Modern conceptions of sustainable development derive from a seminal text2 on the subject. This document, also known as ‘the Brundtland report’, called for: ”a common spirit of responsibility” and ”for new norms of behaviour at all levels and in the interests of all. [Changes in attitudes, in social values, and in aspirations]”.

Yet the definition endorsed by our institutions, the political and corporate sectors, itself stemming from the same seminal document, is: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Prosaic as this may seem, it is obvious that any serious consideration of sustainable development must define and take into account the needs of the present. I thus challenge the reader to identify their own current needs, and to compare these with their own current state of wealth. Personally, I have come to realize that the vast majority of aspects identified as necessary within the lifestyles of modern globalized culture, are unnecessary. Furthermore, I have over the past seven or so years begun to subtract superfluous aspects from my lifestyle. This gradual personal process has, and continues, to lead to what appears from the outside to be quite radical change, in both, my thoughts and actions.

Moral Deference
”[The] answers to fundamental and serious concerns are not at hand, there is no alternative but to keep on trying to find them.”
– the Brundtland report

Contemporary representative democracies are based upon the premise of deference of responsibility. By casting a vote, the voter actively defers his or her personal responsibility to govern the society of which they are a part, to a ‘political representative’. The ‘representative’ is thus assumed to act instead of, and as a proxy for, the voter. A political representative is usually a person or group, endorsed by a political platform, business, or coalition thereof, and is in the vast majority of cases disconnected from a personal understanding of the voter. This kind of deference of responsibility is accepted, more or less unquestioningly, by people comprising modern democratic society, as a normative cultural moral.

”major changes [are] needed, both in attitudes and in the way our societies are organized”.
– the Brundtland report.

Let us define moral as: ”[the] principles of right and wrong in behaviour, especially for teaching right behaviour” and ”conforming to a standard of right behaviour; sanctioned by or operative on one’s conscience or ethical judgment”.3

I have only recently realized that morality is relative to contemporary cultural conditions. Please consider the following three examples:

i) The construction of a “permanent repository” for nuclear waste at Onkalo.
Into Eternity is a documentary film which does a remarkably good job of describing the challenges intrinsic to discussions of sustainable development; we can not know what will occur in the millennia that follow us, nevertheless we are deferring the difficult end of the nuclear waste problem, by the conviction that we can construct a situation of ‘permanent safety’.
– the first tick mark on the left indicates the construction of the great pyramid of Giza (2560 BC); the second tick mark indicates 0 AD; the third tick mark indicates 2010 AD. The span between the third and fourth tick marks represents the period for which Onkalo must last, many times longer than the oldest structures built by humanity have ever existed.

ii) The translocation of Abu Simbel by UNESCO.
“[From the outset UNESCO played a role in the promotion and rescue of historic sites. Postwar reconstruction of Europe, from 1945 to 1955, initiated as the large-scale restoration of war-torn cities. Concern at the scale of war damage was such that the Hague Convention produced in 1954 a convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. A handful of years later international concern was raised by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which would flood the valley containing the Abu Simbel and other temples, significant relics of ancient Egypt. In 1959, following an appeal from Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO instigated a major conservation programme which involved intensive archaeological excavations and the removal, stone by stone, of the temples that were reconstructed on higher ground above the flood line.]“4

An archeological construction project, spanning two decades and costing a quarter of a billion dollars (accounting for inflation to present), the purpose of which is to translocate a temple by 200 meters due to the construction of a dam, does not feel like the kind of thing that would constitute a contemporary moral obligation. At this time there seem to be more pressing moral obligations, such as the ‘bailing out’ of the global banking system, and of Greece.
It is fascinating and revealing to come to terms with the ridiculousness of our institutionalized moral acts. “Five years after coalition troops invaded Iraq, the Iraq Museum is still closed, […] some 8,000 objects remain unaccounted for. Archaeological sites, including the iconic remains of Babylon and Ur, continue to be neglected or damaged. […] Much has already been written about damage to the Iraqi cultural heritage [the legacy of one the earliest civilizations on Earth] as a direct result of the Second Gulf War […]. Apart from the Iraqis themselves, […] many foreign organizations and individuals have been involved, directly or indirectly, in what has happened.”5

iii) The Apollo program.
Equally perplexing from our current cultural situation is the prospect of spending nearly 110 billion dollars (accounting for inflation to present)6 in order to send a handful of people to the moon for a walkabout.

Disposable morality?
Habitus and praxis are introduced as part of a previous post in this series, titled Nous Kairos. Currently, we explore what appears to be a moral incongruence regarding sustainable development. Let us begin, however, by assuming the reverse; thus hypothesizing that the contemporary cultural moral, which is associated with sustainable development, is one of congruence between habitus and praxis.

It seems clear that our modern global culture now includes a moral obligation to strive for sustainability, and so this ethic necessarily plays a central role in our collective habitus. Examples of ‘doing the right thing’ in regard to environment, biodiversity, poverty, war, violence, governance, education, healthcare, consumption, etc… abound in our culture. The vast majority of us, modern cosmopolitans, are convinced that we do ‘Green’ by buying ‘Green’; a recent car commercial stated:
“C4 = 0g.CO2

This is a blatant lie. In fact, it is not a lie resting upon a lie?
Not only is it physically impossible for a car to equal 0g CO2 but the premise upon which this kind of marketing rests (i.e. that global climate change can be stopped or mitigated by a reduction of environmental carbon dioxide) is also a lie.7 Furthermore, peculiarly, as if with purpose, the format of the advertised equation is not correct.
Though technically incorrect, this equation should read: C4 = 0g CO2

Generally, in connection with sustainable development, we excuse ourselves from a similar moral obligation in praxis, by simple assertions of practical inconvenience (impracticality). So it may be said that, in our time, sustainable development exists virtually – ‘on paper’ and ‘in theory’ – but is a practical impossibility.

Commuters, for example, are morally obliged to think about and communicate modes of transportation other than car driving; such as walking, bicycling, motorcycling, use of public transport, velomobiling, horse riding, ox&cart, etc.., but generally feel, and are morally excused from actual realization of these alternatives due to a supposition, or imposition, of practical impossibility; even car pooling is generally assumed to be inconvenient. Proof of this is evident in rush hour car traffic congestion, if not car traffic congestion generally.

The contemporary cultural moral is one of ideas, thoughts, plans (visions) about sustainability, but is largely not one of practice. The latter is actively deferred (disposed) to an unknown future generation. Implicit but unspoken, in this moral deference is the assumption that a supposed (envisioned) sustainable cultural moral will exist at some future time, by people other than us, as a congruence between moral ideas about the kinds of action that must be executed in order for H. Sapiens to sustain a viable population on Earth, and the actual execution of those acts.

Perhaps, in order to realize sustainable development, it is necessary for people, collectively, to change the contemporary cultural moral? In order for sustainable development to become a reality, moral congruence between habitus and praxis is necessary – at least in theory. The process of attaining such a cultural moral congruence will necessarily include wide-sweeping changes in social organization and regulation, in order to better facilitate the practical possibilities of the nascent cultural moral.

Bibliography and Notes
1) Interestingly, keeping one metaphorical eye on the past and the other on a probable future, a third is necessary in order to focus on the present.

2) World Commission on Environment and Development, “Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future”, (1987), Oxford University Press,


4) N. Sykes, R. Hewison, (1987), “Sustainability in the Arts and Humanities”, The heritage industry: Britain in a climate of decline, London:Methuen, via The University of Nottingham, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike UK 2.0 Licence.

5) “The 2003 invasion and aftermath”, (2008), Trustees of the British Museum,

6) “Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis”, (2014), NASA,

7) Global climate change appears to be a cyclical phenomenon of periodic glaciations, stretching at least several hundred thousand years into Earth’s history. So it might be safe to assume that climate change (cycles of global warming and global cooling) is sustainable. Volumes have been written on the subject of global climate change, I shall not focus upon it here, other than to mention that it is of fundamental relevance to sustainable development.


verb (used with object)
1. to rule over by right of authority: to govern a nation.
2. to exercise a directing or restraining influence over; guide: the motives governing a decision.
3. to hold in check; control: to govern one’s temper.
4. to serve as or constitute a law for: the principles governing a case.

used to form nouns from verbs: brilliance; appearance.

The World Bank(3) defines governance as:
“the manner in which power is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources for development.”(4a)
“Governance, in general, has three distinct aspects:
(i) the form of political regime (parliamentary/presidential, military/civilian, authoritarian/democratic);
(ii) the processes by which authority is exercised in the management of a country’s economic and social resources; and
(iii) the capacity of governments to design, formulate, and implement policies, and in general, to discharge government functions. The first aspect clearly falls outside the Bank’s mandate. The Bank’s focus is, therefore, on the second and third aspects.”(4b)

noun or verb
1. a command or authorization to act in a particular way on a public issue given by the electorate to its representative.
2. a command from a superior court or official to a lower one.
3. an authoritative order or command: a royal mandate.

The World Bank – a broken model of governance?
Apparently The World Bank assumes to have been mandated to exercise authority in the management of economy (i.e. technology, innovation, geographic features, ecological features, other natural resources along with various other resources, such as the people and social structures; institutions) of arbitrary countries, and in general to guide governments in the design, formulation, implementation and general discharge of governmental functions.

An obvious question is who has mandated The World Bank? Does anybody really want a bank running their social affaires, their country; their world? You shall have to decide for yourself what or who the definitions given above are supposed to represent, and whether they accurately describe the reality you observe. In my mind the given definitions are products of a malfunctioning system. In particular, the term development is used in an ambiguous manner, one can only assume that the Bank, being a bank, is ultimately referring to normal economic growth (an annual increase of approximately 2 to 3% of GDP), which is itself a fundamentally flawed concept, as permanently sustained growth of any kind of thing is in principle not possible. Indeed, it may be said that the interconnected spheres of economics, politics, ecology and environment, seem to be suffering from inefficient, disappointing and/or outright broken forms of artificial governance.

Engineers and designers have on occasion turned to nature for inspiration in rendering systems that offer greater efficiency, pragmatism and aesthetic beauty. The term biomimicry(6) was first used in 1997 by J. Benyus in her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”. The work defines biomimicry as a “new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems”, Benyus suggests looking to Nature as a “Model, Measure, and Mentor” and emphasizes sustainability as an objective of biomimicry.

So it is with sustainability in mind and our spyglass trained on the horizon, that we steer a course to explore the foundations of natural governing systems.

How does nature govern her systems?
In reference to the governance of a colony of eusocial insects, Hayward (2010) quotes Bourke & Franks, and Camazine et al: “In general colony functions such as nest maintenance, foraging and reproduction are coordinated without any central control or environmental template and form complex spatio-temporal patterns. This feature is known as self-organization whereby a global pattern formation results from interactions internal to the system without intervention from external directing influences. These patterns and therefore cohesion and coordination of colony functions are reliant on a high frequency of social interactions between colony members. The purpose of social interactions is to transfer resources and information vital in decision making among colony members.”(7)

ant bridge ant_colonyexcavated ant colony

In this respect, the self-organization of eusocial insects is reminiscent of bacterial quorum sensing, described here by Sifiri (2008): “Cell communication in bacteria occurs through a vernacular of small diffusible chemical signals that impact gene regulation during times of high cell density. This form of intercellular signaling, known as quorum sensing, optimizes the metabolic and behavioral activities of a community of bacteria for life in close quarters. Quorum sensing is best characterized as a means of communication within a bacterial species, whereas competitive or cooperative signaling can occur between groups of bacteria or between bacteria and the host. These systems are often integrated into complex, multilayered signal transduction networks that control numerous multicellular behaviors […].”(8)

Bacterial swarm(9)

In a review(10) of the literature (re: complex systems, development, evolution, natural selection, and self-organization), Batten etal (2008) give the following definition of self-organization: “[a process in which pattern(s) at the global level of a system emerge solely from interactions among lower level components. Moreover, the rules specifying interactions among the system’s components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern. Self-organization is the root source of order in the biological world. It arises spontaneously due to physicochemical principles and dynamical rules of complex processes, which we are just beginning to un-cover and understand.]” The authors continue by saying “selection maintains systems in precisely the region of phase space [i.e. potential] that affords them the greatest opportunity to evolve further. What selection has disposed invites further self-organization. Note that, in general, this view replaces the neo-Darwinian concept of a random search for the new with self-organization of the new. Furthermore, complex systems may have convergent rather than divergent flow. The principle of homeostasis is a natural feature of many complex systems, and Kauffman calls it “order for free”.”

In regard to continued and successful operation of complex systems, various authors(10) have used the phrases “onset of chaos” or “edge of chaos”, as this seemingly precarious position is assumed as key to evolvability. Theoretically, natural selection favours traits (i.e. system characteristics, features) that encourage and facilitate evolution. So evolvability, if viewed as a trait, may be seen as the greatest adaptation of all.

Anarchy and Chaos – not the dangerous mess one might imagine them to be
Sustainable systems are anarchic and chaotic but by no means unregulated or bereft of order. A cyclical and evolving system replaces its components with others that enhance the rate of cycling, thus allowing the system to ingest and process more resource(s), thereby out-competing rival systems. Such systems must exist in a window of opportunity, framed by the limitations of a non-dynamic state and a chaotic state (i.e. successful systems must be neither over-regulated, nor too disorderly).

Self-reference invariably produces an increase in complexity (i.e. iteration tends toward chaos). Self-referentiality stems from a system’s existing organization, which evolves to cycle information, resources and energy (IRE) with increasing efficiency. Thus an increasingly focused flow of IRE is produced, which can be used to further harness and release IRE. The result is that more of the right kinds of IRE become more readily available to do even more, all via an increasingly complex system. Also, as the scale of organization and level of complexity tend to increase in tandem, maintenance of the system’s increasing complexity inevitably requires a larger flow of IRE. In fact, regulation (communication via flow of IRE) is critically important to continued evolution of the system.

A self-regulating (i.e. self-governing) system has surpassed its initial function of extracting resources from the environment; it is capable of competing and/or cooperating with other systems. So let us now cast an eye upon the basic modes of self-regulation in biological cellular systems.

Cellular signalling: a categorical analogy
Table 1. Four categories of cellular signalling.

Category Description (micro scale) Analogy (macro scale)
intracrine(11) signal is transferred between locations within a cell (eg. between cytoplasm and nucleus) a thought
autocrine(12) signal is secreted and received by the same cell a note one makes for oneself (eg. shopping list)
paracrine(13) signal is secreted by cells and transmitted locally; received by cells within close proximity to the broadcaster(s) a speech or a presentation one gives to a local audience (eg. a group of friends, family or colleagues)
endocrine(14) signal is secreted by cells and transmitted globally; received by other cells, not necessarily within close proximity to the broadcaster(s) a speech or presentation one gives publicly (eg. this blog post, or an international news service)

Schematic representation of various cellular signalling modes

Stationary phase
All biological species may be said to adhere to a standard population growth curve, typically represented as a lag phase (slow growth) followed by exponential (log) phase, during which the population enjoys optimal growth, then a transition phase gives way to stationary phase, during which no population growth occurs (on average) due to environmental and/or behavioral limiting factors (collectively identifying the carrying capacity of the environment). The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs has published a statistical projection of the human population(16a), showing a population growth curve(16b) that correlates with the standard biological population growth curve.

Standard growth curve(15)

Apparently, the developed regions of the globe are already in stationary phase and experiencing the effects of dense population (road rage, intermittent explosive disorder, group violence, massacres, infertility, and general dysfunction of sustainable natural behaviors), as described by Calhoun (1973) in experiments with mice(17).

The duck test
It would be difficult to argue that communication technologies (information technologies) are not facilitating the evolution of human culture. Instead, a good question may be whether or not, or better, to what extent are human cultures evolving into cybernetic superorganisms?(18) Futuristic as this may sound, both the popular and academic press is rife with stories of an imminent singularity(19) and posthumanism(20). An interesting corollary of this idea is that people with little information about the reliability of a machine system tend to trust it less, but use it more(21). This experimental finding conforms nicely with the Dunning–Kruger effect(22), a cognitive phenomenon of our psychology which Darwin had succinctly identified, commenting that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”(23).

Simply put, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck(24), and it is not a rabbit(25a), fricasseeing rabbit(25b), or goat(25c), then it probably is a duck.

no comment

Living in and observing the Anthropocene(26) develop, there remains little doubt that we are changing on a grand scale. The cultural artifice that was constructed 10,000 years ago (with the advent of agriculture), and that we have accepted unquestioningly as normal and good, now shows clear signs of systemic error and disruption. Little wonder then, that the definition of governance given by The World Bank, and even the idea of democracy itself, seems fuddled.




7) “RESOURCE DISTRIBUTION IN ANT COLONIES”, R. Hayward, (2010), University of Bath,

8) “Quorum Sensing: Bacteria Talk Sense”, C. Sifiri, (2008), Oxford Medical Journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases, Vol 47, issue 8, pages 1070-1076,

9) ”Bacteria use chat to play the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game in deciding their fate”, E. Ben-Jacob (image), American Chemical Society, (2012),

10) “Visions of Evolution: Self-organization Proposes What Natural Selection Disposes”, Batten, Salthe, Boschetti, (2008), Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research,


16a) “WORLD POPULATION TO 2300”, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN, (2004),
16b) “Figure 6. Estimated world population: 1950-2000, and projections: 2000-2300”, page 13 (pdf page 27), “WORLD POPULATION TO 2300”, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, UN, (2004),

17) “Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population”, J. Calhoun, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, (1973), Vol 66, pages 80-88,


21) “Mental models, trust, and reliance: Exploring the effect of human perceptions on automation use”, A. Cassidy, (2009), Naval postgraduate school – California,

22) “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”, J. Kruger, D. Dunning, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77, no. 6, December 1999, pp. 1121-34,

23) “The Descent of Man; And Selection in Relation to Sex”, C. Darwin, (1871), Introduction, page 3,


Further reading: