Organizations based on living systems

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Why we need an ‘ecolocracy’

Brendan Montague| 15th February 2019
While I’m not particularly fond of the term “ecolocracy”….  the idea of modeling human organizations on living systems is worth thinking about if we are serious about sustainability and resilience. 
John Gerber

Shaft-light-canopy-rainforest-Malaysian
Ecolocracy is a ‘green print’ of how to run an organisation based on natural systems.

The need to develop human societies appropriate to natural systems has never been more urgent. Can natural systems themselves provide the information and examples necessary to develop these new societies? This question is very much in vogue.

There is today a need for philosophy – and in particular a philosophy of need. This philosophy should inform practice: the practice of developing our societies towards meeting the needs of its members directly, in an unmediated and unalienated way.

This philosophy requires and necessitates a much clearer understanding of human needs: the need of the individual, the group, our society – and the natural world that we have created and on which we depend. The philosophy of need presented here is predicated on dialectics and systems thinking (or dialectical systems) as methods of understanding and interpreting a complex world.

Ability

Dialectics – a theory of natural and social change – is resurgent after a century buried under distorting ideologies. Systems theory – a century in evolution – is emerging as a new metascience. Biomimicry is currently the zeitgeist. Nature can provide the information needed for humans to return to nature, to live within its patterns and limits.

But does any of these mean in practice – and, in particular, what does it mean for people working within organisations that are trying to make the world a safer, better place?

Brian J Robertson, in his book, Holacracy, sets out in detail a management system that is consciously and deliberately based on an interpretation of natural systems, and in particular cells and the human body. Robertson invites readers to evolve, to develop, his system. I have accepted that invitation.

Ecolocracy is therefore an iteration of Holacracy informed by the philosophy of need. It adds three vital components: firstly, the organisation as a whole must have as its purpose the meeting of human needs. This means the purpose cannot be profit making, or ‘economic growth’ and the organisation cannot enact a net harm, either socially or ecologically.

Secondly, the structure is designed so that the needs of the members of the team, the staff, are met. This allows them to contribute to the purpose to the best of their ability. Finally, space is created when needed so that the emergent qualities of social and group work can be developed.

Unelected

Ecolocracy is a practice of organising a group of people in the structure of life – an autopoietic, conscious, open system. It is autopoietic in that it is responsibility of the organisation as a whole to ensure it is self making, or sustainable. It is a consciously open system in that it senses, understands and regulates its relationship with its immediate and broader environment.

Read our On The Nature of Change series here.

But again, what does all this mean? Ecolocracy is a way to organise any group in a way which is fair, transparent, effective – and based on the way that atoms, cells, human bodies, society and the biosphere works. It has the potential to develop a new way of organising any group of people which is exactly in keeping with nature.

We have many organisational forms. One is hierarchy, another democracy and a third consensus. Each is flawed. But each contains the seed of a new way of being in a group. A synthesis between all three may prove to be precisely the form we need.

Hierarchy is resisted because it is inherently a form of inequality. Those at the top of the hierarchy have power: decision making power, privileged access to information, control of budgets. More importantly, it reduced the amount of human thought – imagination – which is brought to decision making. This is often reduced to a single mind.

Democracy is designed to limit or mitigate hierarchy. We live in a representative, political democracy. We elect those who then assume roles in the hierarchy. Often, these representatives in turn elect those at the very top. We elect MPs, who elect a party leader. In Britain, the Queen, the unelected head of the monarchy – the classic hierarchy – appoints the leader of the largest party Prime Minister.

Successful

In this model, democracy is almost identical to hierarchy in form, function and outcome. However, there is also direct democracy. A popular form is majority voting, or ’50 percent plus one’. This allows for a vote of all those who are eligible on any one decision, or policy (a cluster of decisions).

The primary flaw with this system is it requires perfect knowledge, or highly distributed knowledge. That is, if decisions are going to be based on evidence rather than, for example, party allegiances. That level of education does not exist today. The other major problem is 50 percent of people minus one can feel alienated and coerced by both the decision and the process (for example, the 48 percent today).

Finally, consensus. This is another form of democracy, where every effort is made to get everyone to vote the same way in any decision making. This was the model that made – and then broke – the Occupy movement. It has the advantage of inclusivity. But it retains the problem of perfect knowledge. Further, if 100 percent consensus is required then a lone individual can prevent collective action. It is vulnerable to sabotage, intentional or otherwise.

None of these organisational methods are both ethical and effective. For those of us intent on changing the world, there are three options: A. We can give up, walk away. Bury ourselves in theory and ignore the challenges to practical organisation.

B. We can accept the limitations of what we have. Keep trying. Hope that objective forces – events – will create such a need for action that any and all organisational forms can prove successful. This may happen.

Human adult

The final option, C, is to come up with something new. This new thing needs to meet very human needs: fairness, collectivity, practical outcomes. It needs to sit within the laws, tendencies, rules, rhythms, limitations of nature. This is where I am today. And this is why I am trying to evolve and implement ecolocracy in the groups within which I work.

I first came to systems theory when learning about climate science. I was interested in how claims made by dialectical materialism seemed to fit the evidence of climate change so well.

This includes the fact that the atmosphere as it is constituted now coevolved with oxygen based life – one was not the cause or the preexisting context for the other. The fact that the steady state of the Earth’s temperature is the result of the amount of carbon in the air, a product of countervailing forces: volcanoes and other sources adding carbon to the atmosphere, trees and life in various forms taking it back out.

I then became interested in how this relates to systems: the carbon in the atmosphere is controlled through an evolved system of homeostasis. An increase in carbon results in higher rates of growth of vegetation, which in turn results in carbon being removed from the atmosphere. This creates the steady state, the steady temperature, that allowed for human evolution.

Then I came to General Systems Theory through the work John Bowlby, who claims that personal anxiety is a cause of a crisis of attachment – and attachment is a system of homeostasis in which the human child develops the need to be within a certain distance of an attachment figure, a human adult.

Manifesto

The swift journey from global to personal was deeply compelling. I am now interested in materialist dialectics as a universal, philosophical ontology and epistemology. And nested within this a metascience, a general systems theory which provides knowledge of systems: physical, psychic and cultural.

Read our On The Nature of Change series here.

I believe that natural systems – the human body is often the metaphor used – can provide a clear, exact structure for the group – a number of people who have come together to achieve a purpose (for example, social change). The group is the system. A group that consciously, deliberately adopts practices from other systems will be equitable, knowledgeable, fair, effective and resilient.

Holacracy can be adopted by almost any organisation. Like some forms of life – for example, a virus – it does not have at its core an ethics or consciousness. It could be used to run an arms manufacturer or oil business. Ecolocracy has evolved. It has evolved consciousness. Like human beings, it has evolved a consciousness of its impact on its environment.

Ecolocracy requires the group to ensure that its own environment remains a source of energy, or life. This is written into its code, it’s DNA. Ecolocracy has developed an immunity to autocratic power, which is not the case with Holacracy in its pure form. However, Ecolocracy is one iternation, one generation, away from Holacracy and therefore retains much more than it loses and gains.

Here, I will set out a ‘manifesto’ for ecolocracy. It will begin with the first question that my systems discussions illicit from friends: how is this practical. I set out the core principles of Holacracy as it exists today, and the three changes that transform this into ecolocracy.

Conscious nature

This is an ‘essential oil’ extracted from the original book by Robertson and advanced. It retains what is necessary, and leaves out the persuasive arguments, the compelling examples, and the hypotheticals. These are vitally important, and any reader who would consider adopting this practice should read and refer to this book. But there is no point rehearsing these arguments here.

I will also examine the theoretical context of Holacracy, the philosophy (or, indeed, ideology) in which it is situated. Robertson presents himself as a man of pragmatic action who has discovered his way of organising through praxis. He believes himself to be ideology free.

It seems from the text that he exists within the ideology of free market capitalism. I suggest this means the following misconception: his organisational programme does not need – as a necessity – a social or environmental consciousness. It sits within the spontaneous equilibrium of life and of economic life. I will examine this in the fourth article.

Finally, I want to situate Holacracy in a conscious, chosen ideology. This is a worldview that states that humans must exist within the context of nature and that to do so requires us to understand how nature functions in reality. We are a conscious animal that knows the impact its behaviour has on the biosphere. We need to act on that knowledge if we are not to become extinct.

I will suggest that we can benefit from knowing, learning, mimicking, acting – functioning – in the same way as nature. But we must be conscious nature, self conscious nature. This new form provides an ideal organisational form for environmental, ethical organisations. Ecolocracy is Holacracy by nature, in nature, for nature.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague.

 

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