Natural ecosystems share many features with human social systems in terms
of their evolutionary origin, dynamic complexity, and control mechanisms.
This paper reviews parallels between the organizational characteristics
of natural and social systems that could be a model for the 21st century.
and human social systems
Human beings are complex creatures with a bewildering variety of social
organizations, making it difficult to determine any pattern, structure
or controlling mechanism, and particularly to design or consciously evolve
more functional or appropriate social systems. Even a concept such as democracy
can cover many different forms of social and governmental behaviour.
Yet the natural world provides parallels for human systems, in particular
in those complex ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years to
achieve high levels of diversity, integration and productivity, characteristics
which would also be desirable in human systems.
The coral reef ecosystem, for example, is well known for the complex
relationships that permit it to achieve high productivity and efficiency
in a resource-poor environment. These can be illustrated by the algal symbionts
in coral polyps, giant clams and other animals, and by behavioral symbioses
such as those between clown fish and anemones, or cleaner fish and large
predators. The reef has well developed structures and mechanisms to capture
and use the maximum solar energy, and to trap and recycle scarce nutrients.
The efficiency of the reef system can be ascribed to the high levels of
integration, communication and interaction among the component parts, which
make for a very dynamic and adaptable system. Yet on a coral reef there
is no central controlling mechanism. The entire system has evolved and
operates on the basis of structures and patterns of behaviour coded in
the genetic instructions of individual organisms which make up the various
species on the reef. Since there is not much evidence of learned behaviour
in reef organisms, it can be assumed that the rules of behaviour and the
defining characteristics for interactions are based either on such genetic
instructions or on the inherent characteristics of interacting physical,
chemical and biological systems and external driving forces. All the creativity
involved in changes and improvements in the system likewise comes from
mutations and adaptations in individual genomes, which in turn create the
potential for adaptive evolutionary responses on the part of other organisms.
Just as the system evolves through creativity at the individual level,
so do the complex interactions that make the system operate function largely
through physical or chemical links or exchanges of information between
individuals at the local level. The coral reef ecosystem operates not according
to some central master plan, but through complex and interlinked networks
largely at the local level, although some elements such as species migrations
and larval dispersal operate at larger spacial and temporal scales. It
is interesting that the most recent evolution in computing technology to
increase power and capacity is away from massive main-frame super computers
towards interacting decentralized networks of smaller processors.
content of systems
Any functional system, which we might call an eco (from the Greek oikos:
house or place) has certain fundamental characteristics, including a given
composition or capital of resources, some inputs and outputs according
to the function which must essentially be in balance, and a through flow
of energy to power the system. However the real importance or wealth of
any such system is not in its content of materials but in the way that
they are organized, what might be called their information content and
the processes of information exchange within the system and with the outside
environment including other functional systems. The real success of such
systems is that they can use the energy flowing through them to increase
their information content and connectivity. Since there are increasing
physical limitations to many forms of communications with distance, functional
systems tend to subdivide into nested series of subsystems, benefiting
from optimal operational scales while reducing the amount of information
communicated at larger scales to the minimum necessary for effective coordination.
These same principles apply whether the functional system is an organism,
and ecosystem, a village, a corporation or a nation state.
At the human level, we already have large numbers of extremely powerful
information processors, if one could so define each human being. What we
need to get right are the rules for their interaction and the structures
within which they should operate. If the rules specify that each one should
carry the most powerful weapon available and should organize hierarchically
in order to follow the leader in his quest for power, the result will be
warfare. However, this is not a process that improves social efficiency
or quality of life. At the level of human social organization, it is not
genetically programmed instincts that are the dominant information store,
but our heritage of culture, science, law and institutions. In particular,
the basic rules of human interaction are generally derived from values
or morals, which have most commonly and durably been defined by religion,
often in interaction with other elements of a culture or political system.
Human values are thus the social equivalent of genetic instructions or
computer programmes, with the great difference that they are (or at least
can be) under conscious control.
It should be clear from the above analysis of natural systems that more
advanced forms of human organization should be characterized by decentralized,
highly diversified subsystems with widespread participation at the individual
level. These are in fact the characteristics often sought in democratic
systems, whose strength is often seen to lie in the creativity, innovation
and participation of individuals. The convergence of ecology and democracy
is thus particularly clear.
What we need are values that encourage the kinds of social organization
that will incorporate the best features of the coral reef and other highly
evolved functional systems, features that have proven themselves over millions
of years of successful evolution. The Bahá'í community offers an example
of what such a system might be like, and it is already operating globally
on a pilot scale.
The Bahá'í pattern of organization is rooted in the local community,
where every individual can participate in regular community meetings and
elections. All administration and decision-making is conducted by elected
bodies of 9 members, whose authority and responsibility is collective and
not individual. Elections are by secret ballot from the entire membership
without nominations or campaigning, so that those who have demonstrated
through their acts that they have the necessary qualities are favoured.
Those elected have an obligation to the community to serve. Diversity in
these institutions is so desirable that, in the case of a tie vote, the
person representing a minority is automatically selected. In this system,
no individual holds any position of power or authority; this is vested
only in the elected institutions. Once elected, members are responsible
only to their own conscience and to God, not to their electorate, which
frees them from the pressures common in many present democratic systems.
Decisions are taken after full and frank consultation in a search for the
solution best encompassing all the diversity of the community, either by
consensus, or if necessary by majority vote. Appeals from decisions at
a lower level to a higher level are always possible. Elections are annual
at the local and national levels, and every five years at present at the
international level. National and international elections are in stages,
with the individuals in a local community or region electing delegates
who in tern elect the national body, and the members of the national bodies
serving as delegates for the election of the international body. The function
of charismatic leadership is separated from the political or administrative
functions and transferred to a parallel set of appointed institutions composed
of individuals selected for their personal qualities, wisdom and experience,
but whose function is only to advise and encourage, not to decide, and
whose only leadership role is in implementing the decisions of the administrative
bodies. The system thus provides a series of checks and balances designed
to draw on the strengths of the whole community and to reduce or eliminate
the weaknesses of most democratic systems of today.
The root of the Bahá'í system and the most essential factor in its success
is the underlying set of common values and spiritual principles that unite
all of its members, based on the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892).
These principles revolve around the oneness of humankind, and emphasize
justice and service to the whole human race. It is these values which are
at least implicit in previous religions, but which in their modern form
can be compared to advantageous genetic mutations, favouring the superior
social adaptability and fitness of those who possess them.
This pattern of social organization already functions in a global network
which makes the Bahá'í Faith the second most widespread religion today
after Christianity. It is highly decentralized and adapted to the many
cultures, nations and peoples of the world, yet linking them into a global
system that corresponds to the increasing levels of international economic,
social and cultural exchange. It is fundamentally organic and evolutionary
in operation, building on the strengths of democratic systems while compensating
for their most common flaws. Its strong resemblance to natural systems
suggests its adaptability to the kind of decentralized multi-level structure
needed for an evolving world society, and capable of balancing human pressures
and environmental requirements for sustainable development.
The need for such a system of social organization is demonstrated by
two of the critical challenges facing today's world: the rise of ethnic/cultural/religious
violence, and the rapid deterioration of the global environment. The former
can only be resolved through a change in values to prefer those factors
that unite us over those that divide us, eliminating the political manipulation
of differences for personal power or partisan ends, together with community
mechanisms that foster mutual understanding and a just resolution of problems.
The latter requires a global perspective and sense of responsibility, based
on values that will motivate the personal and group sacrifices necessary
to eliminate the present extremes of wealth and poverty in the world, reducing
the excessive consumption of the West and raising the resource-destroying
poverty of the third world to an economic level in keeping with both human
dignity and environmental sustainability. Both require processes of extensive
consultation in a spirit of good will founded on justice and equity for
all people, and therefore need social mechanisms that will foster such
processes at all levels.
It is not possible to define now a detailed plan for future society.
That is not the organic, natural way. What we can do is to improve the
rules of human relations so that they encourage interaction, exchange of
information and experience, and the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom,
the real wealth of society. If we get the essential framework right, we
can grow out of this awkward transitional period and lay solid ecological
and democratic foundations for an ever-advancing world civilization.
* Published in Irena Hanousková, Miloslav
Lapka and Eva Cudlínová (eds.), Ecology and Democracy:
The Challenge of the 21st Century
. Proceedings of the First International
Conference, 6-9 September 1994, Ceske Budejowice, Full Abstracts. NEBE
s.r.o., Ceske Budejowice, Czech Republic.
** The views expressed are the author's own and do not
necessarily reflect those of the United Nations Environment Programme.