Richard Moore


(c) Richard K. Moore, 2002, All Rights Reserved
To be published in the "Pacific Ecologist" (New Zealand)

  "If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with
  changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be
  saved by people with the old vision but new programs."
  - Daniel Quinn, The Story of B

Aboriginal sustainability
Let us begin with a glimpse at humanity's economic
past, 99.9% of which was characterized by
sustainability. Hunter-gatherer tribes, before the
relatively recent advent of systematic agriculture,
could typically persist indefinitely. The main threat
to their persistence would be a change in the
environment, such as a radical climate shift or a
natural disaster.

These tribes were not only sustainable; they were also
locally self-sufficient. Their trade, if any, was at
the level of ornaments and did not involve the
essentials of survival. Furthermore, they found ways to
keep their populations stable. Whether through
contraceptive methods, or infanticide, they managed to
keep their numbers from exceeding the carrying capacity
of their territories.

What were the characteristics of these tribes that
enabled them to persist in this way? Perhaps the most
obvious was their day-to-day economic practices. What
they consumed was readily available in their
environment, and was readily replenished. What they
produced--the overall consequences of their
life-style--was not destructive to the environment.

Underlying this practical sustainability was a
conscious understanding and respect for the local
ecosystem. The tribes were intimately familiar with the
life cycles of the plants and animals around them. They
understood that an ecosystem operates on cycles, and
they understood their own place within those cycles.
They saw themselves as part of the natural cycles, not
as in command of them.

Aboriginal cultural stability
The economic practices of these tribes were integrated
into a matrix of tribal behavior. Taboos and
imperatives about which plants and animals to harvest,
and when, existed alongside taboos and imperatives
about child-raising practices and other social matters.
 This whole matrix of activity--the tribal culture--was
stable over time. Economic and environmental
sustainability existed within this overall matrix of
cultural stability.

Let's look at this from a systems point of view. The
surrounding environment, the interactions of the tribe
with that environment, and the internal operations of
the tribe--all of these together form a system. The
whole system must be stable if our tribe is to persist
in its accustomed condition. An adverse shift in
environmental conditions, a destructive increase in
hunting and gathering, a substantial increase in
population, a deterioration in the social fabric of the
tribe--any of these part instabilities would be likely
to destabilize the system's overall operation. The
tribe would be forced, sooner or later, to seek some
new formula for survival--or it would perish.

Stability came naturally to aboriginal tribes.
Technological innovations were extremely rare, and each
generation followed more or less the same patterns of
activity as its predecessors. In some sense this
primordial stability was very robust. Honed over time,
the traditional cultures tended to function very
effectively, and were able to cope with hostile tribes
and with moderate fluctuations in environmental

But in another sense the stability was extremely
fragile. It was largely dependent on the absence of
perceived alternatives or disruptive influences. When
European traders began to interact with North American
tribes, for example, many of those tribes rapidly
abandoned their traditional ways. Suddenly their sole
occupation was collecting beaver pelts, or whatever
else it was the traders were seeking.

Such perturbations in the economic activities of the
tribes led to fundamental changes throughout their
cultures. Some tribes actually changed in a single
generation from patriarchies to matriarchies (or visa
versa) in response to the altered economic

Aboriginal cultural coherence
I use the term coherence by analogy with how the term
is used in relation to personal behavior.  If we
describe someone as incoherent, then we imply that they
are talking nonsense or acting nonsensically. If we say
they are coherent, then we imply that their words and
actions make sense, particularly in terms of their own
perceived self-interest.

By analogy, I characterize a coherent society as one
that--as a whole--interacts sensibly with its environment
and with other societies. It has the ability to respond
sensibly as a society to changing circumstances or to
emergency events. Its ongoing activities make sense,
particularly in terms of its own perceived

Aboriginal tribes exhibited coherence, and this
coherence contributed substantially to their ongoing
sustainability over time. If climate changes forced a
migration, the tribe had means of reaching a collective
decision about how to proceed. This might lead to a
partition of the tribe, but each new smaller tribe
would be likely to maintain its coherence in what

Emergencies of various kinds must have occurred from
time to time in the history of every tribe...
earthquakes, droughts, diseases in staple food
populations, etc. We can see an example of how some
tribes were able to respond to emergencies by looking
again at the North American experience.

Confronted with European encroachment on their
traditional territories, tribes tended to respond
coherently. They would hold tribal councils, using some
kind of long-evolved consensus process. They would
discuss the pros and cons of resistance vs.
cooperation, and of possible alliances with other
tribes, and all viewpoints would be listened to. When a
decision was reached, all would support it, thus
maintaining tribal coherence.

Tribes which were related, but which were not of the
same economic unit, were able to achieve coherence
spanning a larger societal unit -- a nation of tribes.
After reaching local consensus, each tribe would send a
delegation to a council of the nation. Again a
consensus, listening-oriented process would be
observed. And again, coherence would be achieved
through mutual support of the decision outcome.

Some non-lessons for today
We must exercise caution in any attempt to take lessons
from our aboriginal experiences. Indeed, we cannot
presume that there are any non-trivial lessons that
apply to today's circumstances.  The most we can do is
to use these experiences to suggest hypotheses. The
hypotheses can then be validated, or invalidated, by
reference to our current context.

Let us first look at some lessons which cannot be
learned. For example, we cannot conclude that
sustainability must necessarily be linked to hunter
gathering. There are methods of agriculture which can
produce much more food per unit of labor (or of
territory) than hunter-gathering--and which are
environmentally sustainable as well. Such agricultural
methods would need to be employed if sustainability is
to be achieved with today's high population levels.

Nor can we conclude that sustainability must be linked
to local self-sufficiency. Some localities might prefer
to be self-sufficient, and may be able to achieve that.
Fair play to them. But there is no inherent reason why
the benefits of specialization and trade cannot be
enjoyed elsewhere. Indeed, the higher productivity
enabled by specialization would be required to meet the
needs of today's population levels.

There is a caution however: every specialist producer
needs to be sustainable. If any traders over-exploit
their territories, then the sustainability of the
overall trading community would not be sustainable in
the long run--and the long run is precisely the
timeframe in which sustainability matters.

Another lesson we cannot learn is that sustainability
must be linked to a static technology base. Radio
communication, personal computers, high-tech wind
generators, and solar cells--these are a few examples of
what are fashionably called appropriate technologies.
Such technologies and others yet to be invented or
deployed, can be of considerable benefit in achieving
sustainability and in enhancing the quality of life.

And here there is another caution: the production chain
of these technologies--including the R&D and
distribution activities--must be sustainable. As we've
noted previously, local non-sustainability anywhere in
the larger system denies the sustainability of the
whole and of every part.

Another non-lesson is the strict attachment to place.
Understanding and respect for local ecosystems is a
requirement of sustainability, but stationary
populations are not. Holiday touring, relocating
residence to other communities, and travelling-oriented
livelihoods--all these can exist within a sustainable
system.  The familiar proviso is that each of these
activities be carried out in a sustainable way. On a
given day an individual traveler is likely to create a
personal energy deficit, but that is acceptable as long
as the society's overall pattern of energy usage for
transportation is sustainable.

Sustainability today: lessons from our past
There are three non-trivial principles, all evident in
the aboriginal scenario, which I suggest are inherently
mandatory if a society, or system of societies, is to
be sustainable. Those principles are

  * a cultural understanding that society is part of an
  * cultural stability
  * cultural coherence.

If a society understands that it is part of a larger
ecosystem, then it will respect that ecosystem out of
its own perceived self-interest. If a society merely
believes that "the environment--that thing out
there--should be protected", then protection measures
are likely to be deferred in favor of needs which are
perceived as being "more critical" or "more immediate"
than the needs of the environment. If the environment
is part of the other, not part of us, then its needs
are subject to prioritization within our value system.

I suggest that sustainability cannot be assured in such
a cultural framework. Any society that does not
understand that it is part of the world around it is
not a sane society. It is failing to perceive the
blatantly obvious, and on a matter of life-and-death
importance. Operating with such a blind spot, such a
relevant reality disconnect, the society would be
unlikely to reliably pursue sustainable practices. I
believe that empirical observation of the present and
of recent history is consistent with these more
theoretical observations.

Our second principle, cultural stability, leads us back
again to a systems perspective. If a culture is not
stable, then how can it be expected to be reliable in
relation to sustainable practices? Ultimately an
unstable society must eventually reach some kind of
equilibrium, voluntarily or otherwise. But until then
any apparent sustainability cannot be trusted.

Instability is anathema to sustainability. If the
foundation is unsound, the house will not last.
Soundness of the house itself can be of only ephemeral
value. Cultural stability is a required foundation for
any society that intends to operate reliably in a
sustainable way.

Let us now consider cultural coherence.

Note that a coherent society is not necessarily
sustainable.  Our current global society, for example,
acts overall in a very coherent way. If you accept the
value system that says, "the world is there to be
exploited", and "never worry about tomorrow or the
consequences", then our global society is behaving with
immanent coherence. Nearly all human activity today is
aligned effectively in intelligent pursuit of the goal
of maximal exploitation.  Such single-focus coherence
has never before been achieved in human history.

But if coherence is combined with stability and with
proper understanding (being part of the world), then we
have a society that--as a society--intelligently
interacts with the world around it in a reliably
sustainable way.  I suggest that no part of this
formula is optional. Understanding, stability, and
coherence, I suggest, are three essential pillars of
any sustainable society.

Obstacles to achieving sustainability
If our observations have been accurate so far, then we
can say that the achievement of sustainability today
can only happen if we somehow achieve appropriate
understanding, stability, and coherence--as societies.
Other things would also need to be achieved, such as
stable (or declining) population levels.  I suggest
however that our three principles are the primary
enabling elements from the perspective of system

Let's consider where our modern societies stand in
regard to these requirements, and let us consider the
obstacles that must be overcome if our three
requirements are to me achieved.

Cultural stability, to the extent it existed
previously, has been the first thing to be sacrificed
over the past two centuries--under the relentless
erosive forces of industrialization and imperialism,
guided by the ideology of capitalism.

Industrialization brought such fundamental changes so
rapidly that it fostered a cultural mentality favorable
to change and "progress". Capitalism was a natural
ideology to dominate such a culture, and to lead it in
a positive feedback loop toward ever-accelerating
cultural change. Even the primary reaction to
capitalism--Soviet style socialism--was a form of
destabilization attributable to the influence of

As observed earlier, our modern societies do exhibit
admirable coherence--but in pursuit of totally
unsustainable objectives, and guided by an inverted
understanding of humanity's place in the world.

One place where this inverted understanding is most
clearly expressed is in the financial pages of our
newspapers. 'Market forces' are accepted there as a clear
law of nature, or perhaps a divine dictum: "Thou shalt
not deny market forces nor covet thy neighbor's dollar."
Other aspects of society are praised or condemned by
how they conform to or depart from the demands of
market forces.

An equivalent term, also frequently used, is 'investor
confidence'. The two phrases amount to the same thing.
Investors are confident when market forces are in
control, and lack confidence otherwise.

Environmental regulations, in particular, are singled
out for ridicule in the financial pages. Such
"sentimental" restrictions on corporate operations slow
down economic growth unnecessarily, reads the typical
assessment. Sound political "leadership" should not be
swayed by such uninformed populist sentiments, reads a
frequent admonition to the political establishment.

In summary, our modern societies are about as far away
from sustainability as they could possibly be. Our
day-to-day economic practices are unsustainable. Our
dominant ideology considers this fact to be of only
"sentimental" interest. And our societies are
organized, somehow, so that this dominant ideology
reigns supreme over policy formation.

Sustainability & political systems
The plain fact is that our modern societal coherence is
of a quite different character than that experienced in
aboriginal tribes. In the tribal context coherence
arose from consensus decision making, and general
support for the decisions arose voluntarily out of the
consensus process. Our modern coherence is coerced onto
the general population by an elite ruling community.

The means of coercion are comprehensive and all
pervasive: from military force and proxy dictators in
the imperial periphery, to carrots, sticks, and
propaganda in the imperial core. Once acceptance of
capitalist ideology has been coerced, then the rest of
the modern scenario follows automatically.  In that
context, few of us have any choice but to get a job to
earn a living, buy a car to get to work, shop and
consume in order get something out of the rat race, jet
away on holiday in order to escape from the rat race,
etcetera ad depletum maximus.

I would like to suggest, from the perspective of system
dynamics, that the structures of our modern political
systems--regardless of their policies at any given
time--are essentially incompatible with sustainability.
We can see this by considering the functional value of
cultural coherence in the aboriginal setting, and
asking why that same function is not served by modern
cultural coherence.

In the aboriginal scenario, the tribe acted with
coherence in pursuit of its own overall self-interest.
That self-interest was guided by a correct
understanding of humanity's place within its
environment, but that is not the issue we are concerned
with here, at least not directly. From a political
systems perspective, the critical observation is that
our societies are guided by minority elites, who act in
their own private self-interest.

Such an elite is in a position to insulate itself from
many of the consequences of its actions--and throughout
history elites have tended to do exactly that. The
feedback loops by which elites judge the sensibility of
their actions are linked to the private well being of
the elites themselves.

As long as enough grain can be confiscated from the
peasants to feed the nobility in style--to put it in
classical terms--then all is well. If temporary
concessions must be made to the peasantry, that is
acceptable, in order that the sustainability of elite
rule be maintained in the most cost-effective way. But
the line is drawn, and the claws come out, whenever
elite well being--and most particularly elite
control--are threatened

For the past few centuries our societies have been
admirably coherent, but only if you adopt the
perspective of elites. From the perspective of
societies as wholes, or of humanity within the context
of the biosphere, our societies have not acted at all
coherently.  Beyond incoherent, beyond nonsensical,
they have acted with perverse insanity, with blatant
disregard for the obvious consequences of their
systematically self-destructive behavior.

In psychological terms, one might say that the
distressed patient is suffering from a reality
disconnect.  He is guided by a delusional model of his
environment and of the consequences his own behavior.
Given the advanced state of self-destruction this
particular patient has reached, institutionalization
might well be the resulting prescription.

From a systems perspective the problem is equally
clear. The system--our global society--does not include a
feedback mechanism that connects its decision-making
apparatus with the surrounding environment. Instead the
input feeds are connected internally. Those feeds serve
to maintain the equilibrium of a subsystem (the elite
community) at the expense of the larger system in which
it is embedded.

Such an arrangement might seem to be contrary to the
enlightened self-interest of the elite community
itself. But quite obviously--as we can see reflected in
the telltale financial pages--elites do not see things
that way. Perhaps the explanation for this can be
captured by a humble popular aphorism, "You can't argue
with success."  Indeed, for the past 10,000 years, ever
since agriculture enabled wealth accumulation and elite
rule, elites have found ways to maintain their well
being trough all manner of changes and challenges. 
They have even shown considerable creativity and flair
in this ongoing pursuit of their own self interest.

It is not surprising that today's elites continue in
this tradition of elite arrogance regarding the
consequences of their actions on their surroundings.
More than ever they have the ability to micro-manage
events to their own benefit, and more than ever they
have the means at their disposal to maintain their
control over societies globally.

From such a cultural perspective global warming is not
a disaster, but rather something from which profits can
be made. Agricultural land, which is currently only
marginally productive, can be purchased cheaply in
anticipation of warmer climates to come. There may be a
wait, but deep pockets can afford to wait.  In the case
of massive water shortages, which are inevitable given
industrial agricultural practices, elites are already
well along in their plans to reap immense profits.

Privatization of water sources worldwide is creating a
situation where multinational water monopolies are
increasingly able to monopolize the Earth's water
resources for maximal economic exploitation.  What this
comes down to is the production of high-profit
agricultural products for Western consumers, leaving
entire third-world populations to die of thirst, or
what is euphemistically called "drought", implying that
"natural causes" are to blame.

From the perspective of our elite rulers, massive
die-offs in the third world are of no consequence.
That's simply the inevitable price of progress, as were
the earlier genocides of native populations in North
America and Australia. "There's not enough for
everyone", and "I aim to get mine one way or another"
have been central tenets in the worldview of elites
since at least the time of Malthus.

Political requirements of a sustainable society 
Permit me to lead with some conclusions... A
sustainable society must act coherently (sensibly) with
respect to the overall self-interest of the members of
that society. The policy-making apparatus of such a
society--its political structure--must include feedback
loops that connect policy-making accurately and
reliably with the whole-system-consequences of the
policies that are adopted.

I believe that these conclusions follow rather directly
from the preceding observations. But lest I leap
precariously, permit me to connect the dots explicitly.

Certainly coherence of some kind is required, and I
hope that was established early on. Without sensibility
relative to some set of objectives, we are faced with
randomly incoherent behavior by the overall society.
Such is certainly not sustainable.

There are several ways of understanding why the overall
self-interest of all members of society must be of
central concern to a sustainable society. One way to
look at this is from the perspective of system
stability. As we saw by examining elite rule, a
feedback loop that considers only the interests of a
portion of society insulates policy-making from the
whole system consequences of those policies. The
stability of such a system cannot be assured in the
long term; it is not acting coherently as an overall
system. Such a society is not reliably sustainable.

Another way to look at this question of overall
self-interest is from the perspective of understanding
and respect--understanding of society's place within the
world system, and respect for the integrity of that
larger system. If a society does not even have respect
for the welfare of some of its own members, it is
unlikely to have adequate respect for its environment.

In Daniel Quinn's terms, a taker society is
characterized fundamentally by an exploitive worldview.
There seems to be a dichotomy, a choice that must be
made deep within the foundation of a society's value
system. The choice is between collaboration and mutual
respect on the one hand, and narrow self-interest and
exploitation on the other hand. A society that
discounts the interests of part of itself has clearly
chosen the exploitive side of this great divide.

As to the necessity of feedback loops, which accurately
report whole system consequences of policy, I don't
think there are any dots left over for me to connect.
The inherent instability of systems that lack such
feedback loops has been observed several times already.

Characterizing the nature of a sustainable society
Our considerations have led us, at least in my view, to
the identification of a considerable number of
requirements that a society must possess before it can
be reliably sustainable. Let us restate these
requirements as qualities of a hypothetical sustainable
society. Then let us see if we can uncover further
refinements of those qualities, and perhaps begin to
form a sense of how a sustainable society would

  * A sustainable society understands that it is part of
    larger systems, and it respects the integrity of those
    systems--as an aspect of its own perceived self interest
  * A sustainable society is culturally stable, as
    otherwise it would not be stable generally, and
    therefore would not be reliably sustainable.
  * A sustainable society possesses cultural
    coherence--its interactions with the outside make sense
    in terms of its own values and perceived interests.
  * This cultural coherence is based on feedback loops
    which link policy making to the whole-system
    consequences of adopted policies. The actions of a
    sustainable society make sense in terms of their
    whole-system consequences.
  * This whole system includes all members of a
    sustainable society, and the policy-making mechanisms
    of the society--its politics--incorporate in a balanced
    way the interests of all members.

Those are the qualities that have been explicitly
identified so far. Let's explore what other qualities
are inherent within these. Consider for example this
question: What is the smallest unit of society that can
be considered reliably sustainable?

If you said "the self-sufficient village", you would
have been wrong. Also wrong are the Greek city-state,
the modern nation, and everything in between. Both
theory and empirical experience clearly demonstrate
that sustainability can only be achieved if it is
achieved globally.

Taking the empirical first, let us consider all those
societies which managed to retain some degree of
sustainability into modern times, some even doing so to
this very day, perhaps deep in some rainforest, or in
some remote Indian village.

The days of such societies are numbered, as were the
days of all those countless societies that succumbed to
civilization before them. Ever since exploitive
agriculture, the taker mentality, and hierarchical
forms began to take hold some 10 centuries ago,
apparent local sustainability has been but a temporary

Theoretically there is little to be said.  A system is
sustainable only if it is reliably sustainable as a
whole system, and only if every component is also
reliably sustainable. One taker society anywhere denies
the sustainability of the whole global system, and all
of its parts.

Let me now take a bit of a leap and attribute some
possibly non-obvious qualities to the politics of
sustainable societies:

  * The politics of a sustainable society are
  * Local policies are formed by means of an inclusive
    consensus process, in which all voices are heard and
  * Policies involving coordination on larger scale
    issues are determined by consensus-based councils, made
    up of delegates from localities that have already
    reached consensus on the issues at hand.

On the one hand, we can argue these points on the basis
of necessity. The argument would go something like
this... of all the ways that people have found to make
collective decisions, only certain kinds of consensus
processes have demonstrated a reliable ability to
effectively incorporate the concerns and interests of
everyone affected by a given decision. Every other
approach, history clearly shows, leads to divisiveness,
competition among factions, and the submergence of
minority interests at all levels.

From another perspective, we can argue the naturalness
of the suggested political mechanisms, within the
context of a society that possesses the qualities we
have previously attributed to sustainable societies. 
Understanding that one is part of larger systems--and
respecting the integrity of those systems--implies a
culture that is fundamentally collaborative in its
approach to the world. A culture is implied which has
at a deep level rejected the win-lose, exploitive,
taker mentality.

A member of such a culture, interacting with other
members, could be expected to employ the familiar
collaborative approach in working out problems that
call for a decision-of-the-whole. Collaborative problem
solving, it turns out, is precisely what consensus
processes enable. Achieving a collaborative space is
what consensus is all about. In a
collaboration-oriented culture, nothing could be more
natural than consensus.

There are dots that remain unconnected here, and in the
interests of time I'll leave those as an exercise for
the reader. We have yet to bring in the topic of
development, even though it receives equal billing with
sustainability in the title of this article.

Sustainability and developmet
Let's begin by making some distinctions. There are of
course forms of "development" which are entirely
consistent with sustainability.  Consider for example
the development of an energy-efficient transport system
that consumes only renewable resources, and only at a
sustainable rate. Or consider an effective program of
community development, enabling communities to achieve
local (if temporary) sustainability.  Such examples
fall within the generally accepted definition of

And yet in another sense "development", as a major topic
in this era of globalization, implies activities which
are anything but sustainable. Exploitive development is
the surging river; developments toward sustainability
can be no more than petulant eddy currents, ephemeral
insults to the might of the river.

I suggest that the term "development", in the context of
this article should be understood as the kind of
development that is dominant today--development whose
sole objective is to accelerate economic growth, within
the constraints imposed by market forces.

Understood in this way, we can readily see that
development is in every sense the very antithesis of
sustainability. Development relentlessly erodes
cultural stability; it prevents coherent activity by
the society-as-a-whole from every perspective except
that of the ruling elite; it effectively aligns society
with an inverted understanding of humanity's place in
the world. Furthermore, each development project serves
to increase the rate of resource exploitation, thus
directly moving us ever further from any semblance of

Perhaps the most direct way to say it is this: As long
as development is going on anywhere in the world,
sustainability is denied to all.

Background references

Regarding aboriginal societies

  Maria Sandoz, Crazy Horse: Strange Man of the Oglalas,
  50th Anniversary Edition, University of Nebraska Press,
  Peter Farb, Man's Rise to Civilization [stet], EP
  Dutton, New York, 1968.
  Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W.W. Norton,
  London, 1997.
  Daniel Quinn, The Story of B, Bantam Books, London,

Regarding sustainability and systems

  Hartmut Bossel, Earth at a Crossroads, Paths to a
  Sustainable Future, Cambridge University Press,
  Cambridge, 1998.
  Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations, New European
  Publications, London, 2001.
  Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, eds., The Case
  Against the Global Economy and for a Turn Toward The
  Local, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1996.
  Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins, Peter Rosset,
  World Hunger, Twelve Myths, Grove Press, New York,
Regarding globalization and elites

  Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalization of Poverty --
  Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms, The Third World
  Network, Penang, Malaysia, 1997.
  Holly Sklar ed., Trilateralism -- the Trilateral
  Commission and Elite Planning for World Management,
  South End Press, Boston, 1980.
Regarding visions from changed minds 

  David C. Korten, The Post-Corporate World-- Life After
  Capitalism, Kumerian Press, West Hartford, Connecticut,
  Jim Rough, Society's Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential
  Wisdom and Virtue in All the People, 1stPublishing,
  Bloomington, Indiana, 2002.
  Nasrudin O'Shah, The Zen of Global Transformation, Quay
  Largo Productions, Wexford Ireland, 2002.


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