Stretching Biology?  – The Title must mean something, right?

Here’s the deal: I’m a former Foreign Service Officer and a teacher of international politics. I’ve taught American politics too. And I’ve studied and practiced development of organizations from a whole system standpoint as well as done business in China in Chinese with a series of business clients mostly in cast and forged metals, food products, and airlines. I’ve also taught Chinese language and history in our local community college.

In 1972, when I was finishing up my Ph.D. at Stanford, I was introduced to the Club of Rome Study, The Limits to Growth [TLTG]. It changed my life. Whatever critics have said about its specific calculations, its accuracy, its predictive value, I couldn’t escape its conclusion: as long as industrial output and pollution increase along with population and the draw-down of the soil fertility and resources from the earth’s crust, there’s no escaping the consequences. 1

Sooner or later, as the curves indicated, the line representing human population would return to its 1960 level, about half of its peak in the mid-2000s. Industrial output would drop even further. Combined, the two trends portend widespread death and disease in a context of falling jobs, incomes, and standards of living. The process looked to be complete in about 50 years, beginning a decade or two from now.

I have trouble imagining a detailed scenario for that loss, but any way I approach it, I have to anticipate that losing over half the human population of the world along with access to a comfortable life style over a span of 50 years will be an excruciating experience for any of us, our children and all future generations who survive. We’ve seen what happened in other, similar situations such as Rwanda and Bosnia. We can imagine what will happen when nothing works to reverse the worldwide downward spiral of economic depressions, unemployment, and waning prosperity.

My assumption is that when the boat sinks, although the rich passengers will rush to the high end and let the poor go down first, in the end both ends of that ship will inexorably sink. There’s just no escaping it.

And as I recall reading then, no matter how much the authors (or Jay Forrester, who wrote the original World Program on the MIT computer in the late 1960s) varied the rates of draw-down, pollution, depletion, etc., the line depicting the drop in Population varied by only a couple of years. In other words, the whole industrial model on which our civilization is based would have to transform if our grandchildren and their children are to thrive – or even survive.

For You Who Are Still in Doubt…

OK. Suppose you don’t take that seriously. Suppose you object that The Limits to Growth was just an imaginary exercise by some weirdos at MIT who had no real-world experience (not the case, btw, but just suppose). In the 1990s along came another wake-up call that is even harder to deny, The Natural Step and the Four System Conditions.

[BTW – a footnote:  Reading TLTG, I know some people who don’t take it seriously. They look around and see what’s around us in our daily lives, and it doesn’t look like it’s changing. What could go wrong? Everything is as it is.

Now, I am old, and I can remember 50 years ago, when we looked around and thought the same thing. But how things have changed! So I am aware that the world we live in is likely to continue changing. The direction of the change, however, is not likely to be what we want. In fact TLTG is more likely to be right about the future than its critics. ]

The Natural Step – Hard Science Applied to Conditions for Survival

In the 1970s and 1980s a Swedish pediatric oncologist, Dr. Henrik Robert,  began noticing that the rate of cancer in children was increasing. His curiosity led him to inquire into the causes, and the only change he could isolate lay in the children’s environment. One thing led to another, and soon he was looking into the whole question of our environment and how much it might change – and then into how much change it could endure before human suffering would become intolerable – or life itself unsupportable.

He directed his inquiries to members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and soon they had boiled the issues down to the absolute undeniable system conditions for life to exist. They described succinctly the four absolute limits on the world system, environmental degradation beyond which human survival is at risk.

They call them the Four System Conditions. They concluded that:

“In a sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing…

  1. concentrations of substances from the earth’s crust (such as fossil CO2 and heavy metals)
  2. concentrations of substances produced by society (such as antibiotics and endocrine disruptors)
  3. degradation by physical means (such as deforestation and draining of groundwater tables). [JN note: and this includes loss of soil as well as decreases in soil fertility and ocean productivity.]
  4. And in that society there are no structural obstacles to people’s health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning.”

He formed an international organization of businesses, beginning with the Swedish corporations such as Electrolux, Volvo, Skandia Hotels, and Ikea, which dedicated their businesses to fostering systemic sustainability, and they named the movement The Natural Step. Gradually they attracted more corporations and small businesses around the world. For several years we had a chapter in Portland, of which I was a member.

What Robert Said About The Choice of the Four Conditions

A few years ago I had a chance to speak with Dr. Robert (pronounced RoBER, btw) when he was speaking at our local Nike world headquarters.

He told me a little about the process they had gone through to winnow down the ideas to four irrevocable system conditions. He had corresponded with various members of the Academy for several years, raising conditions and winnowing out the ones that would not make the difference. Until they stripped their conclusions down to those four, the basic conditions necessary to fulfill for long-term human survival.

Concentrations of materials such as chemicals and metals from the earth’s crust in our living space, combined with concentration of synthetic chemicals such as DDT, chloro-flourides, endocrine disrupters, and antibiotics from animal wastes in our water and air, along with the depletion of fertility in soils, fish, and forests faster than they can be replenished are obvious limitations, although tragically we seldom think about them.

But when I asked him what, if anything, had surprised him about the results, he smiled and said that the importance of that fourth condition – depriving people of their ability to provide food, shelter, and health – had emerged unexpectedly.

The longer he persisted in the work, he said, the more it became apparent that people must have ways to provide for basic needs for themselves and their families, or else they will tear up their environment to get those needs met – burning trees for charcoal, killing animals for food, stripping the land bare if need be to feed their children immediately.

In the beginning, he continued, he had been reluctant to include that fourth one at all. But it had proved too important to overlook. And over two decades it had grown in his estimation into the single most important one.

So now I am hoping that even you skeptics among my readers will begin to appreciate the urgency of this search for answers.

The Heart of my Concern – How can Humanity Achieve the Transformation?

That’s the central question that remains for us to answer. No one has been able to answer it yet in a way that offers hope to any of us. Moral suasion hasn’t worked, and for good reason. Good people and moral authors urging people to change the way they live, to reduce their standards of living, to rearrange their garbage habits or stop commuting so much has proved impotent. We can all recycle and change our light bulbs, but most of us still have to go to work every day and do the jobs our employers lay out for us.

If the Four System Conditions establish the boundaries, and if we are heading toward those boundaries at a breakneck speed, can we turn the juggernaut around? Or has our commitment to the scientific revolution and industrialism locked us into an irreversible doomsday scenario?

We are constantly urged by well-meaning environmental writers to change our ways before it’s too late. I agree.

But for me the question is: who are the WE that the writers are urging to make the change? When I read these writers – and most of them are good writers with important messages – I always experience a pang or two of guilt, the awareness that I’m not doing enough. Paradoxically, I feel that if I were to give up many of the energy-hungry, material-intensive things I use in everyday life, from central heating to my television set to driving my car, I would condemn myself to perpetual discomfort and exile myself to the fringes of effective participation.

I mean, what if I gave up my environment-depleting computer and cell-phone? I’d be trying to communicate this to you by paper manuscript, either hand-written or typed on my mother’s ancient portable and manual typewriter – but where would I send such a manuscript? How many trees would I destroy to make the paper? And while I’m at it, what is the carbon footprint of carbon paper? Or would I resort to a copy machine in desperation after all?

So I have concluded that the design of life in our era in our country requires me to use resources more or less wastefully and to pollute the earth in order to participate.

Try living in an American  suburb without a car. Not. The very neighborhood in which I live is designed around transportation by auto. As an individual, no matter how dedicated, I can do very little to offset the necessity to drive and even less to counter the stream of propaganda that engulfs us all daily with messages to buy, buy, buy and to throw away just as rapidly.

So if there’s an answer it must lie in another field. And I choose to examine the organizations that design and maintain the patterns within which I am pretty much condemned to lead my life.

Like a biologist, I plan to try and avoid writing judgmentally. Scientists describe what tigers eat and how they hunt; they don’t condemn tigers for eating meat. I have a similar goal for my exploration of the lives of bureaucracies: to describe their metabolism without judgment – how they maintain their lives from day-to-day, enrolling most of us as employees, processing energy, materials, and information to provide the necessities of life in the forms we experience around us – and constantly urging us to buy their products in ever-greater numbers because their lives go on through constant sales.

No matter how easy it is to criticize bureaucrats as slow and misguided when they hinder our projects, I stand in awe of them in general for their steady hands and their adherence to laws and regulations that ensure stability, safety and eventual progress. And for our purposes in this blog, I include organizations in both the public and the private sectors under the heading of bureaucracies.

The differences are like those of species in the animal kingdom, real but not enough to isolate them into different kingdoms. What difference is there, for example, between a clerk in a large insurance company and a clerk in the Bureau of Land Management?  No more, I would suggest, than between a liver cell in a tiger and a liver cell in a rabbit. Neither one can do much by herself to inspire attention to the Four System Conditions.

But Why Call it Stretching Biology?

E.O. Wilson began his career as an entomologist studying ants. He found that when he progressed to examining their communications, he could not overlook the organization of their colonies. Not surprising, he then began to speculate on human social relationships, a journey that led him to publish, among other great books, Sociobiology (1975) and On Human Nature (1978), for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for 1979. Eventually he worked on another synthesis of biology and sociology, Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge 3

I’ll confess that I haven’t read Wilson carefully – I will, and I’ll revise this when I have – but I my intention is to carry his quest for unity between biology and social science a step further. Wilson, at least in my superficial reading to date, focused on the way evolution shaped human behavior genetically, that is how our genes predispose us to social life, living in colonies.

I propose to go a step further: to examine the elements by which we create and maintain the actual social structures in our colonies, organizations to be specific, in a stream of behavior that is analogous to the ways that cells and individual organisms create and maintain their lives by processing energy, material, and information in ongoing patterns of action that resemble algorithms.

Once we understand that information patterns guide the whole process, we can explore together the nature of those information patterns and the limitations imposed by hierarchies of information that we use to accomplish organizational life moment by moment in our social structures – and who knows where we’ll end up?

In that sense, the organizations that are responsible for the design and execution of our lives could be considered extensions of human biology, living systems. I want to suggest that the study of those organizations, the largest of which we call multinational corporations and government  agencies, is stretching biology, that social science must accord with physics. Thence my title. Comments?

Further Thoughts on Information Processing in All of Biology – and Human Affairs

I also promise you that eventually I will carry this thought process on to explore the implications of that last statement. How does social science accord with physics  – specifically with biology?

I hope to explore the function of routines – call them habits, standard operating procedures, job descriptions, whatever – and the information structures they all share with cells and organs. A routine is a pattern of information, stored, retrieved and executed, more or less the same each time. Routines, like all information, exist in hierarchies, each one paying attention to, summarizing or commenting on ones below it and around it. The description of that nesting and therefore the necessity of hierarchy in human organizations also awaits discovery in these entries.

I hope I’m up to the job. I hope you’ll come along and see.


  1. Source: Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, Dennis Meadows, (2002) “A Synopsis: Limits to Growth 30 Year Update,” Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, VT – downloaded October 2017 from <http://www.unice.fr/sg/resources/docs/Meadows-limits_summary.pdf>
  2. Downloaded 10/17/17 from: <http://www.thenaturalstep.org/our-approach/>. For more information, start on their home page.
  3. Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (1998), New York, Alfred Knopf.