1. Who Chooses the Future, People or Organizations?

Are We Headed for Self-Destruction?

Human life on this earth has, to put it mildly, reached a turning point.

Within a few decades we will choose whether to continue inexorably drawing down the earth’s resources to the bitter end, as both our population and our induced appetite for newer and faster apparatus sucks out the earth’s resources, or to find ways to ease our demands on the earth and thereby continue to live in some form of civilization for an extended time.

Our present course, focused on Take-Make-Waste, is taking us – I almost said straight – through unpredictable twists and turns toward a future where mirages may likely turn to real disappointments.

For example, the end of cheap petroleum energy looks like it has been postponed by new drilling technology, but the postponement will only be temporary as demand continues to grow exponentially. The replacement of key metals in some applications by plastics seems to stretch the lives of our mines, but demands for other key raw materials will also grow into bottlenecks.

Increased Information and Limits to Complexity

And the vast increase in information capacity enables, for the time being, at least, a corresponding increase in complexity – but how much complexity can it enable till we reach an edge of chaos? Things seen through the lens on my iPhone seem rosy enough, but the long-term course of humanity – beyond the temporary fixes – is nevertheless far from clear.

Who Acts – Individuals or Organizations?

One important aspect of this picture is normally left unconscious and murky. That is who the ‘we’ are in this prediction. Article after article castigates ‘us’ for doing nothing, and cries that ‘we’ should act differently; ‘we’ should stop polluting or eating meat or consuming products; ‘we’ need to end global warming.

But that phrasing overlooks a clear fact: no one of us wants such a gloomy outcome. No single person wants to create the destruction of our civilization. The ‘we’ that is driving the bus toward the precipice isn’t a ‘we’ in the sense of being a large number of individuals who can change anything without mediation.

Masses vs. Organizations

A mass movement does not make the kinds of decisions required to turn the vehicle – not even to choose which is the right direction to steer the bus. Besides, a mass movement is a rare and powerful thing, very hard to start and often, once started, uncontrollable – and its success depends as much on luck as it does on timing and skill.

Added to that: the successful mass movement soon turns itself into a large, bureaucratic organization with its own interests, one of which – in those that survive, it is the most important one – is staying in control. Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy1 is the most stable, predictable effect in political science: that the revolutionaries necessarily develop a vested interest in remaining in power that outweighs the goals of the revolution itself.

Organizations Get Results over Time

Looking for the driver of the bus, we – again, I use the word with caution – have to recognize that the drivers who are steering our present course consist inevitably of large, mostly bureaucratic organizations that seem to continue on their courses independent of any one person, any collection of persons, or even any single generation. The organization enables them to persist in their purposes over time.

General Motors, for example, makes specific plans to go on making automobiles for decades into the future. They may change the engines from gas-guzzlers to electric, but the purpose of General Motors is to make and sell cars, trucks, and busses. The purpose of Royal Dutch Shell, as the President of its US subsidiary once told me personally, is to make sure there is gasoline in every service station in New Jersey [and all the other states they serve] every day, no matter what.

Industrial Development and Environment

Contrast that continuing purpose with the truth about our future. Global warming, the latest environmental challenge, combined with disappearing forests, animal and plant species, topsoil and fresh water, and natural resources such as minerals and mining reserves, is the product of institutional industrial development.


Industrial development in turn – factories, railroads, steamships, mining, airlines, computers and chips, for example – are the work of large, often multinational  corporations, organizations that exist apart from individual humans. These activities were born from large concentrations of money, originally assembled in the 17th century by kings and privy councils in Holland, France and England, and have brought forth large extractions of materials from the earth. They lie behind the growth of population, of extraction, of over-farming, of expanding markets, of commercialism, and even of waste.

They are licensed and protected by giant government agencies, military as well as civilian, so that they can continue their growth. And they constitute the web of continuing life on our planet; their stability creates the stability of our lives as well.

Corporations and Governments: Effective Control

They, and not ‘we’ – you and I and our families and friends – are the actors that are challenging our existence; they are the actors who will either change the direction of the bus or drive it (and us with it) over the cliff, necessarily sacrificing long-term benefits to the commons to gain short-term results on the stock market or in corporate returns.

These organized entities have been phenomenally successful over the last 500-odd years in increasing our ability to wrest resources from the earth and convert them into human comfort, health, and possessions – and yes, waste.

Along the way they have even learned to convince all of us more or less continuously to want to buy even more of the things they produce, even if we don’t need them. The idea of doing with less is never mentioned in their advertising, which is what we call their propaganda. All around the earth they now hold a monopoly on the organized expression of desire, the advertising.

Describe and Analyze without Condemning

I state the obvious here without any intention of condemning these organizations. They are no more guilty than a tiger is guilty of eating meat. That’s just what tigers do.2

What I want to do is to explore with as little prejudice as possible the workings of such large organizations, their strengths and weaknesses, and their limitations.

Above all I will ask: can we influence them to change course en masse in a way that would enable human civilization to persist another thousand years or so? And if so, how?



2. People and the Machine – Can Individuals Effect Change?

Any time we think about how to change something as fundamental as the core organizational principles by which we humans conduct our business around the world, we have to focus on how large governmental  and corporate organizations hold together and survive. They are the effective actors in our world. What do we do about bureaucracies?

Institutions: Coherence and Inertia

Governments, corporations, political parties, banks, non-profit non-government organizations – all the  organizations of human activities in our century – share certain fundamental characteristics that on the one hand give them coherence and enable them to act as economic, political entities but on the other hand endanger them and us when great change is required.

In order to produce our food, safeguard our daily lives, provide for what the U.S. Declaration of Independence calls “the domestic tranquility’ and thereby safeguard laws and contracts and currencies – but most of all, in order to keep the world from falling into grave economic depression – the organizations of the world must continue to operate in predictable ways, continue to maintain stable economic conditions, and even continue to grow.

Environmental Limits Following Centuries of Unlimited Horizons

After nearly 500 years of development and growth, however, the environmental challenges these multinational mammoths have created through their very success, summed up in resource depletion, pollution, and global warming, demand a fundamental change in the logic of our economics.

Over these last few centuries that logic has been simple and compelling: grow or collapse. Economists from all schools from Lenin to Keynes have agreed on that principle. Now, however, we simply cannot continue to grow. Human life depends on finding another way. 1

Organizational Principles are Universal – Communism and Capitalism? Same Results

And there lies one arresting question. The failure of the Soviet Union and the conversion of China have shown that the solutions offered by traditional Communism were ineffectual. But the organizational principles – the economic structures – of state socialism and of multinational capitalism were similar; only the ownership was different. When workers entered their factories in both systems, they had to show up on time, take orders from foremen, and work for a limited wage. The question is: if capitalism is also leading us to destruction, is there another way? And if there might be one, how could we effect the changeover? I wish I could answer that question now, but I can’t.

Searching for the Fundamental Characteristics of All Organizations

What I can and will do, I hope, is more limited. I can only seek to outline the structures of action in human systems and suggest the fundamental characteristics of all such systems – and then systems of systems. And that may give us insights into how to approach changing them – at least what not to do – the actions that would likely prove futile in the light of what we learn.

Illustration – One Man’s  Attempt to Change a System

I’ll begin by reminding you of some of the past attempts to change both political and economic versions of the bureaucratic organizations that dominate our lives around the world.

In June 1979 the world outside China was glued to the news as a film and photo captured the attention of people around the world. The main square in Beijing was filled with thousands of angry students and supporting civilians. They were demonstrating against government policies, crying for a reform in economic opportunities.

The People’s Liberation Army brought in reinforcements from outside the city. They moved ominously toward Tien An Men Square, the huge open plaza at the center of Beijing in front of the Forbidden City and the seat of both the Communist Party and the Government of China. And in fact they did move into the square and shoot down an unknown number of students and other protesters in a bloody show of power that they have been trying to live down ever since.

At the height of the drama, a single man stood in Tian An Men Square in front of a line of armored tanks advancing on the crowd to inflict further casualties on the sea of people gathered there. When the lead tank swerved to avoid him, he danced in front of it and kept dancing back and forth to keep it from going around him, apparently without regard for his own life.


His courage inspired people everywhere, and although he remains anonymous to this day, his image has been burned into the collective consciousness of all of us. For a moment the tanks did stop.

For that one instant his courage was rewarded: the military might of one enormous, powerful government organization ground to a halt before one determined human being. He clambered up on the lead tank as if to speak to the commander, and then either friends or police (No record exists about which it was.) dragged him down from the turret and off the road, and the tanks resumed their murderous progress into the square.

It would be easy to single out the Chinese regime as cruel and oppressive and to condemn them out of hand. Easy condemnation, however, would be a cop-out.

Tank Man, as he has come to be known in English, symbolized the single individual standing up to the military, the bureaucracy, and the corporation – call it the big organization.

He was a hero for all of us surrounded by and living in an industrial web of national and local governments, multi-national corporations, and global non-governmental organizations, all of which, although made up of individual humans, are organized. Their structure as organizations exists in part to resist threats by mere individual citizens and to maintain their normal structures of routines and attain their goals no matter what any individual does.

Are We Americans or Europeans Somehow Different ?

We have seen similar events in the United States. In June 1970 student demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War at two universities were shot by American National Guardsmen. Like the TianAn Men massacre, the tragedy at Kent State also occurred as angry and disillusioned students took to the streets and disrupted the normal life of the institutions in which they were enrolled in order to persuade them to change policies. After the shots rang out, American troops stood by and watched the wounded youth bleed to death. I won’t compare their attitudes with the Chinese soldiers, who at least negotiated with Tank Man before rumbling on.

Organizations Have Their Own Interests – Different From Any One Person

I won’t compare the actions of the Chinese tankers with the American reservists because I am using both of these cases to illustrate a larger principle, which is universal and ultimately more important: that corporate and state interests are not the same as our individual human interests, and they seldom yield to the humans whose lives they affect. Why is this? What are the interests of governments, despite their contents of individual humans, that overshadow human life? Why do they not hold human interests at their cores?

But wait! It’s not only governments that are obdurate. Corporations also resist human attempts to change their policies. Giant corporations have also created similar tragedies when people were protesting their policies. Sometimes they are as fatal as the Kent State demonstrations.

We can look back only 100 years to 1907, for example, coal miners in southern Colorado attempted a strike for shorter hours, higher pay, adequate safety measures, and above all, the right to organize a union. It ended badly as the National Guard troops, who were originally sent in to bring about peace, sided with the copper company guards and began firing on the miners and their families, killing several.

Although Standard Oil CEO and founder, John D. Rockefeller, attempted for decades afterward to erase the bad publicity for his steel-coal combine,  he never granted the miners the right to organize a union.

The reasons for the tragedy lay mostly in the evil heart of John D. Rockefeller – but not entirely; they also stemmed from the threat the miners posed to the deepest springs of corporate organization, central control, and the need to preserve the organization’s power and integrity at all costs.

The list of people resisting corporations goes on. Most recently it has included farmers and consumer demonstrating against genetically modified crops in several countries, including the United States.

Some have actually been successful, as was the one pictured here from Madhya Pradesh in India in 2008, where farmers, who are pictured in a mock funeral procession for GMOs, succeeded in convincing their legislature to ban the introduction of what they saw as dangerous – and expensive – GMO seeds that would force them to stop saving seeds from each crop and eventually lead to widespread bankruptcy.

Farmers in North Dakota in the US have not been so successful, by the way. They were, for example, unable to stop the state legislature from banning seed saving in order to protect Monsanto’s monopoly on seeds and the accompanying insecticide and weed-killer sales.)


Most other such attempts to resist destructive corporate practices, in fact, like the farmers in North Dakota, have not been as inspiring. Many citizens in many countries have turned out in significant numbers to urge the energy mining corporations to stop the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to increase the yield of petroleum or natural gas from rock formations under their communities.

Nearly all such movements have failed. [The only exception I have been able to find in the US occurred in upstate New York, where the state supreme court held that a village could bar fracking under the ground the town is located on.] The usual course is failure, as in this photo, also from the United States, of demonstrations in 2012.

Provoking Organizational Opposition in Response

This separation of corporate interests from those of ordinary people is now worldwide; it has been reflected incidentally in the increase in number and size of multinational environmental organizations. The multiplicity of ordinary people beginning to organize against the corporate destruction of their land has also been noted recently and described in hopeful detail.2

The superiority of state and corporate interests over any individual , nevertheless, is so pervasive that we only notice it in moments of crisis, those turning points when changes in the world demand rapid, significant change in the institutions, but they obdurately resist change. As they normally do.

We are saved from complete disillusion, however, by the rarity of these occasions. For the most part we continue our lives in a sea of multinational institutions – from Walmart to Toyota to the US Army – so complete that, like fish perceiving their surrounding water – we omit them from our consciousness. We live this way, for the most part in and out of the big box stores, shopping centers and malls that surround us.

We Must Limit Growth – We Require Endless Growth

The most obvious issue of all, of course, is the need to adjust to the limitations on growth posed by environmental limits.3

Our whole global network of commercial exchange, however, rests on the structural principle built into our capitalist system, which is that every economy must grow forever in order to avoid recessions and widespread hardships.

That principle, which has deep roots in our experience over the last 300 years, legitimizes the continuous repetition of the assumption that more goods and services, more comfort, and higher incomes will lead to widespread happiness, just as it justifies asserting again and again that when companies make money, everyone benefits – the old trickle-down theory.

And so far that assumption has not changed – we have been unable to change it – in the face of the present dire crisis, which threatens our civilization, a crisis of a kind that commercial and government bureaucracies cannot comprehend.

Individual people can, but the organizations that have created the crisis are slow or even helpless to address it or to change their roles in continuously creating it.

And for those of us worried about our environment and sustainability in the 21st century, that’s a deep flaw. Mostly our consciousnesses cannot comprehend it.

I write this without condemnation; I am not intent on painting corporations and governments as villains. I have known personally some of the captains of industry from my college days, and I know that most of them are not evil, regardless of the evil outcomes they create.

Then the Fruitful Question is How do Organizations Really Work?

Despite my vivid introduction to the topic, I am, rather, interested in asking the question as evenly, as fairly, as I can: what is it about large human organizations that determines that over and over their interests diverge from those of the people they affect – or even employ – and that the organizations find it so difficult to adjust their actions to fulfill the needs of these people.

What are the conditions that even drive them to go on creating their own  long-run destruction as well as ours.?

This is a serious question, beyond the simple issues of right and wrong, and I intend to explore the answer seriously, investigating the nature of the organizations the way a biologist would investigate the nature of a species or of a colony of individuals.

Some 75 years ago, the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger’s 1943 lectures on “What is Life?” posed a series of questions about how physical entities could create the opposite of entropy and pass on their basic attributes in the process we call living and reproducing.  That is the spirit in which I plan to explore the characteristics of large human organizations, which nowadays usually take the form of bureaucracies.

So come with me while I first tease apart some of the basics. We’ll get to the more interesting stuff once we have delineated the elements that are important to know if we are to ask the right questions.

3. How About From Within – Organizational Change or Paralysis?

Can Companies Change from the Inside?

In the world that counts, that is to say in the struggle within organizations between constancy and wholesale change, the question that counts, even more than the experiences of people trying to change corporations through protest and appeal to justice, is this: can corporations that face major challenges change on their own?

What has been the fate of companies faced with, for example, technological or market advances that required fundamental changes in the ways they had heretofore operated? What are their chances of surviving and changing to meet new circumstances?

I ask this question because although the world faces some drastic changes in climate, water availability, species extinction, soil erosion, etc. over the next few decades, our survival as humans depends on the ability of our organizations to transform their purposes, their finances, their practices of extraction, production and marketing, and their legal obligations to maximize profits for shareholders above all else. Oh, and did I mention the demands of Wall Street for quarterly results? Corporations in the United States, at least, must set and meet quarterly goals, or else. Or else what? Or else investors lose faith in them, their stocks diminish in value, and their abilities to borrow and finance further activities is limited.

So our survival as a species could hinge on how flexible corporations (and government agencies and non-profits as well) can be in the face of requirements that they change. Naomi Klein summed up our dilemma, expressing the problem posed by global warming, in her book title, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.1

An Organization Challenged to Change: Kodak and the Digital Camera

So let’s explore an  example of a major corporation that sailed onto the shoals of technological change in its field. One educational example is Kodak, the American company that for much of the 20th century dominated the market for popular cameras and, more important for its business model, for film. Their business model was basically the same as the safety razor: offer the tool cheaply and then provide the replacement feature, which must be bought over and over in order to continue operating the tool, at high margins.

So Kodak, the great provider of cameras, was actually at its core a chemical company that survived by applying sensitive coatings to film and marketing its product around the world. What happened when it drifted into the next generation of photography, digital pictures? Short answer: it ran aground.

Longer answer: Kodak was, in fact, the company where digital photography was invented. In 1975 a Kodak engineer named Steve Sasson invented a radically new kind of camera. About the size of a toaster, it recorded images digitally on an internal screen instead of on film. Although it achieved a resolution that would be laughable now, some 10 bytes (0.001 Mb), it was the beginning of the revolution. Kodak manufactured and sold a few of them at something like $4,000 each.

But its whole company structure was built around making and marketing film. No crude electronic gadget-camera would threaten their commitment to manufacturing and selling film.

The company had pioneered roll film and, by providing the Brownie at $1.00 to make the film easy to use, had made family photographs a vital record of nearly everyone’s life, at least in North America and Europe. But as a company it could not think about or conceive of – did not have a process or structure for thinking that far from their baseline –  popularizing film-less photography. (That’s what the hapless Sasson had called it in his original presentation to company decision-makers.) After all, in 1976, a few months after Sasson’s invention, Kodak sold 90% of the photographic film in the United States and 85% of the cameras.2

Although perceptive individual employees championed the new approach, they could not move the management to embrace it. The company, with its huge investment in equipment, training, and marketing as well as its tradition of perceiving events in a framework based on that investment and nearly 100 years of developing routines and adding new ones onto the old ones, literally  had no ability – to be technical in system terms, it had no receptors in its system boundaries – to perceive as a company the potential in digital photography.

Although individuals could perceive the potential and threat, the company as institution had no receptors capable of translating the incoming signals into useful information.

Gradually they began developing one after other companies had entered the market. But they then received a second blow, one that was even more unexpected. They were completely blindsided by this stronger but less predictable change in their environment.

The iPhone: A Second Whammy

Just when the company executives did develop the necessary frame for perceiving digital photography, they were hit by this second shift: the iPhone was released.  Kodak executives could perceive that second digital change regime even less than the digital revolution, although it would engulf them. That second wave was brought about by smart phones because they enabled an unpredictable switch in popular behavior from sharing photographs printed on paper to sharing them electronically: posting a photo by the click of a phone on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. No more prints, snapshots, or photo albums. Just snap, click, and post. Who knew?

Nor still later could they imagine, despite selling $5.7 billion worth of digital cameras in 2005, how to change their considerable investment in film and paper production facilities around the world into alternative, profitable activities or how to treat their tens of thousands of employees around the world who had become so proficient at making and coating roll film. They went on trying to sell printers that would produce pictures on paper.

Kodak, wrote a team from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania,

…saw the future and simply couldn’t figure out what to do. Kodak’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing… culminates the company’s 30-year slide from innovation giant to aging behemoth crippled by its own legacy.

Adapting to technological change can be especially challenging for established companies like Kodak, Wharton experts say, because entrenched leadership often finds it difficult to break old patterns that once spelled success.[Note]“What’s Wrong with this Picture? Kodak’s 30-year Slide into Bankruptcy,” Knowledge at Wharton, February 1, 2012, downloaded 7/17/17 from <http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/whats-wrong-with-this-picture-kodaks-30-year-slide-into-bankruptcy/>[/note]

Even though film’s market share was declining, the profit margins were still high and digital seemed an expensive, risky bet. “It would have been difficult to just give [film technology] up,” says [Robert] Shanebrook, who worked at Kodak from 1969 to 2003 and has documented the process in his book, Making Kodak Film.

“It meant abandonment of the entire capital structure.” Kodak’s core competency was being a vertically integrated chemical manufacturer, he adds, whereas, “’The core competency of being a digital camera manufacturer is electronic…. Trying to convert from being a chemical company to making digital cameras — which are like computers more than anything else — you wouldn’t expect [Kodak’s expertise] to be there.’3

A Few Principles of Inertia

In a fascinating article in the Harvard Business Review,4 Donald Sull developed a more general model that synthesizes the experience of many companies that have failed to respond to changing demands, changed conditions, in their environments.

There is a myth that they are often paralyzed by a disruption in their business conditions, he asserts, like a deer in the headlights. The problem normally is that although the best ones are keenly aware of the changes around them and launch searches for effective responses, they base their searches for alternatives on the routines and perceptual frameworks that have enabled them to be successful, and they use their own internal routines to judge what innovations in thinking and production, as expressed in organizational structure and investment choices, will work.

“The problem is not an inability to take action but an inability to take appropriate action,” Sull writes.

There can be many reasons for the problem—ranging from managerial stubbornness to sheer incompetence—but one of the most common is a condition that I call active inertia. Inertia is usually associated with inaction—picture a billiard ball at rest on a table—but physicists also use the term to describe a moving object’s tendency to persist in its current trajectory. Active inertia is an organization’s tendency to follow established patterns of behavior—even in response to dramatic environmental shifts. Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate all their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.

Active Inertia – Driving Straight Even When the Road Curves

Sull describes four hallmarks of active inertia, reasons a company may persist in reproducing the routines that have made it successful – and may be unable either to devise new routines or to pick effective ones from other sources. These four hallmarks include:

  1. Strategic frames are the mental models—the mind-sets—that shape how managers see the world.
  2. Processes harden into routines. “Fixing on a single process frees people’s time and energy for other tasks,” he writes. “It leads to increased productivity, as employees gain experience performing the process. And it also provides the operational predictability necessary to coordinate the activities of a complex organization.”
  3. Relationships become shackles. “…limiting their flexibility and leading them into active inertia.” with customers, employees, and distributors. [Not to mention, I add, with shareholders.]
  4. Values harden into dogmas. “A company’s values are the set of deeply held beliefs that unify and inspire its people. Values define how employees see both themselves and their employers.”

Have there been successful transitions? Yes, but many fewer, and they have been exceptions to the rule.

Sull  describes some companies that have avoided active inertia. Each one has succeeded, he concludes, by launching a careful inquiry, not into what’s wrong or what can we do, but rather – without tearing apart the fabric of the company’s ongoing operation – into the question “What hinders us?”

Using this approach, BF Goodyear, for example, survived and changed when radial tires revolutionized the tire industry – whereas Firestone failed. As another example, IBM survived the transition to networks from mainframes by carefully selecting the elements in their mix that would change – and conserving other core company values.

For our purpose in this series, what is important is not that some companies actually have adjusted successfully to new circumstances and requirements but that the challenge to established routines is so great that we point out the survivors as curiosities and rare examples to learn from. Let me point out how rare.

The Exceptions Have Been Few

Jim Collins, in an article that summarized his book Great by Choice (with Morten T. Hansen), asked:

Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not? When buffeted by tumultuous events, when hit by big, fast-moving forces that we can neither predict nor control, what distinguishes those who perform exceptionally well from those who underperform or worse?

Collins and Hansen initially surveyed a list of 20,400 companies and from them they could identify only seven that met all their tests. You can read the details of their findings in the book Great by Choice 5 or follow up on their web site at jimcollins.com.6

What interests me here is the extremely small number of successful companies from the extremely large number of businesses in their sample. Seven out of 20,000? That’s 0.035% of the companies they surveyed.

I know, I know. He did not include many companies, perhaps measured in the low 100’s, that have survived and succeed over many decades through sequences of challenges of less dramatic impact than digital photography.

We can list companies in the United States like General Electric, General Motors, Ford, Aetna Insurance, Phillip Morris, and IBM, in Japan the descendants of the original zaibatsu-keiretsu with names like Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumitomo, and similar long-lived corporations in Europe and India; many have survived much longer than average through changes in technologies, laws, governments, leadership, and markets.

They nevertheless, I would argue, constitute a minority of bureaucratic corporate entities, and to a great extent have shielded themselves against change by their size and their ability to control their environments through a variety of means rather than through their ability to change core perceptions and adopt new internal routines under changing circumstances.

The great majority of corporations and government agencies have been unable to change on their own the fundamental routines and processes by which they operate, even when threatened by massive changes in their environments. Their success at doing business in ways that have become entrenched over decades have nearly always determined the frameworks through which they have perceived changes in their environments and the resulting changing demands on their resources.

This conclusion matches my conclusions about the difficulty of inspiring change in large organizations from the outside. With only limited exceptions, neither public outcry nor technological leaps forward can lead mighty corporations and governments to drink at the trough of thorough reform.

So – is it any wonder that we need to ask why? The answer could determine the fate of humanity. And you don’t have to believe in global warming to believe that seems self-evident, but if you do believe in global warming, as I do, you will be scared, as Time Magazine once suggested, very scared.

In my next few entries, I will return to this exploration of why organizations don’t change, for the explanation touched on here, the active inertia, will lead us into exploring routines, the information they contain, and the limits imposed by structures of information.  There the subject gets both interesting and, I hope, surprising.

First, though I’ll take a short detour through the myth that individuals can change them. Remember The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit?

5. Climate and Corporate Man, Part 1

We’re all The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

Am I the only person who is fascinated by what it is about large organizations that makes them so impervious to the need for change, if and when the need arises? We’ve seen that demands for change, either by demonstrators outside the fence or by significant inside changes in technologies, or new market conditions, sources of raw materials, usually fail to result in positive changes in organizational policies.

Yet paradoxically only organizations that operate on a grand scale can create  effective responses to the problems of survival on our planet. Where else can we look – or how else  can we devise questions that will open up the possibility of finding useful answers to this paradox?

From Changing my Light Bulbs to Asking the Right Questions

In looking at the great changes in global policies that would be required to end global warming, for example, we individuals are normally urged to change our ways, as if we were engaged in a collection of individual moral struggles. We need to do better than that. As if any of us – or even all of us – could simply translate our moral convictions into global action.

One of the teaching principles of political science is insisting that students ask “How do you get from good wishes – e.g., ‘We ought to pass a law !’ – to political action?” That is perhaps the main question political scientists ask, especially when teaching undergraduates – what are the processes of creating laws out of demands or policies out of changing circumstances.

At this point, if we are to get at new and effective questions, it’s important to establish the difference between individuals on the one hand – the ‘we’ that the popular press calls upon to fight off climate change – and on the other hand corporations and government agencies that create for themselves an existence above and apart from any given human participant.

What’s So Special About Bureaucracies, Government or Corporate?

They live as entities with their own interests, their own structures of memory and information, their own metabolism transforming energy and materials into structure and growth, and their own values that normally no one person can influence fundamentally. They constitute a system with its own processes based on its sources of energy, information, and materials and its own existence apart from any one human. In social science we would say that they are a distinct level of analysis from the individual.

And, as I hope I have convinced you, they exhibit a powerful inertia to maintain the patterns by which they continuously re-create their patterns of action, their structures.

I will present here some of the evidence that in this context individuals are only subsystems of the overarching corporate or bureaucratic systems. We have many examples of descriptions of how people are subservient to their employers, from the evil of the Nazi regime to the satire of Parkinson’s Law.

The Power of Being the Employer

But they all point to the same conclusion: the company or agency that employs the person dictates for the most part what the person does, for better or for worse. Here I begin an inquiry into the effectiveness of the individual in taking responsibility for change. Here are some historical looks. Unfortunately my illustrations are mostly on the worse side.

“Today we ought to add to these terms the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.”
                                                                                                       ― Hannah Arendt1

Hannah Arendt was mesmerized by the bureaucratic nature of human organizations. In particular she returned again and again to the question of the ordinary person, who is fated to hold a job – always either carrying out the purpose of an organization the person works for (the state or the company) or unemployed – lost and powerless, alone and isolated, a rock in the stream of social history.

Obsessed with the Nazi experience, which was her main example, Arendt examined again and again the circumstances in which ordinary Germans, among whom she had grown up as a Jew, were pressed to the extreme of murdering millions of people.

Where Lies Guilt and Responsibility?

What was the responsibility, what was the guilt of the individual who participated in those organizational programs that were devised to kill hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people a year? What were the moral implications for a commandant of a concentration camp for striving merely to fulfill his quota of deaths efficiently and at lowest cost?

Here I am looking at the same issue that the Tank Man confronted only now from the opposite side, this time from the viewpoint of the tank commander himself, inside the lead machine in the column as it advanced irrevocably along the great ChangAn Street that bisects Beijing north from south and leads on into Tian An Men Square, where in front of the Forbidden City, the symbol of Chinese liberation, he followed his orders and fired into the protesters.

The same cliché applies to him as to Adolph Eichmann – “I was only following orders.” And insofar as any of us earn a living in a corporation or government agency, it applies to us all. All of us employees, even in universities, are in the deepest sense only following orders.2

The Fate of Hippies

An analogous, if less dramatic story emerged from the great anti-war and hippie movements in the United States in the 1960’s, as I experienced them – and as Hannah Arendt did as well. Coursing through the campuses of great universities and the streets of San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and other cultural centers, thousands of young and not-so-young people cursed the military-industrial complex (a system of massive systems) that perpetuated war and required devotion of its participants to producing the implements of war – and simultaneously urged individuals into constant, increasing purchases of consumer goods.

But a few years later, with the end of the Vietnam War, a peculiar thing happened – well, maybe not so peculiar: the students disappeared as a political movement, and when in 1980, a recession set in, their next wave of action was more like private panic.

The wild-haired hippies had, in a biological, social sense, done what nature intended: they had mated, married, born children, and turned into families. Like honeybees or ants, they needed nests and permanent colonies – places to live and jobs that would pay for their homes and feed their children.

Some of the people I knew then, having cut their hair, went to work in software development, some in publishing, some as teachers, physicians or attorneys, and some sold real estate or insurance. Many took jobs in construction or on production lines.

I notice that many of their employers were large corporations such as Bechtel, IBM, or Merrill Lynch, or universities, and even the small companies they may have worked for depended on large corporations either to buy their products or to supply them from the world-scale network that brought them in from overseas – or both.

Once employed and engaged in family life, whatever their private beliefs from those days of protesting against the system, they necessarily changed. They grew concerned with getting to work on time, making the car payments, keeping their jobs and even developing careers – and eventually with getting their children into college.

Interest rates on home mortgages became more vital in their lives than an imperialist foreign policy or corporate domination of the political process. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a figure of ridicule during the days of protest when the movement was everything, became the norm as they quietly returned to order their lives and provided incomes, medical insurance, and retirement plans for children they loved. For the most part they were – and are – proud of what they produce, as they should be.

These organizations have a positive side; they do produce appliances, insurance plans, vehicles and equipment, software and innovative knowledge that is of positive value to mankind.

But in some ways they are not so positive. I’ll explore the darker side of the inescapable Faustian story we all create for ourselves in my next entry.