A Complexity Approach to Sustainability – Theory and Application: Review

by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker
Imperial College Press 2011
review by John Jopling

The sustainability of a human society is not just about its relationship with the environment: it’s a problem concerning the nature of the society and the way it is organised. This is the important message of a book by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker: A Complexity Approach to Sustainability – Theory and Practice. Both authors were pupils and colleagues of the late Stafford Beer who saw that hierarchical forms of government were incapable of dealing with the complexity of the problems faced by modern societies. Beer’s Viable Systems Model was designed to help any organisation or society cope with its own complexity and that of its environment. The book describes how it has been used by businesses, communities and nation-states to help them learn how to organise themselves better and adapt to changes in their environment. The authors contend that it can and should be applied to every level of government, including the global level. A global Cap and Share scheme could be one of humanity’s ways of adjusting the global economy in response to the threat of runaway climate change.

Human society is in a terrible mess. This is due, the authors believe, to two main factors: one is our attitude to the natural world as something to be exploited; the other is our use of hierarchical modes of managing our affairs. The interesting claim made in this book is that the latter factor is the more fundamental: the sustainability of a human society is not just a question about the relationship between the society and its environment; it is basically a problem concerning the nature of the society and the way it is organised. Governments as we know them are simply not the right kind of organisations to be capable of managing a transition to sustainability. To become sustainable, human societies need to learn a new way of organising ourselves. We need to put in place a new kind of government.

What would the new kind of government have to look like? To answer that question the authors describe the Viable Systems Model designed by the late Stafford Beer. This purports to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions for any system to be ‘viable’, meaning able to cope with its environment and to adapt as necessary to changes in its environment. Both authors were pupils and colleagues of Beer and have extensive experience of the use of the model.

The reason given for choosing this model is the complexity of the problems societies face. Top-down, command-and-control forms of government are incapable of coping with the complexity they encounter. The book traces how the VSM emerged from developments in complexity sciences or systems thinking over the last half-century or so – insights associated with names such as Arthur Koestler and Gregory Bateson are briefly referred to. Books like Fritjof Capra’s The Web of Life have described the new way of understanding how the world works. Beer’s Viable Systems Model was designed to enable societies to cope with complexity.

According to Beer, the natural world is made up of living systems nested and embedded within smaller or larger systems each of which must have been capable of coping with the far more complex world it lives in and of adapting in response to changes in that world, otherwise it wouldn’t have continued to exist. Much the same rules are thought to apply to human social systems. The VSM is a model, in purely abstract terms, of the necessary and sufficient conditions that every system at every level of recursion, it is claimed, must satisfy.

The book describes the components of the model and their interactions: the system’s primary activities are seen as carried on autonomously, supported by ‘metasystem’ functions – such as coordination between the primary activities, relating effectively to changes in the environment and maintaining the system’s identity – which ensure that the primary activities operate together as a single viable system, able to cope with its own complexity and with the complexity of its environment.

These are difficult ideas for many people to grasp until they’ve spent some time on them. One of the great strengths of the book are the case studies illustrating the conscious application of the model in a wide variety of situations, in many of which Beer himself or one or both of the authors were personally involved.

The case studies bring the VSM to life. In addition to Beer’s own project in President Allende’s Chile, they include nation-wide projects in Columbia in which Angela Espinosa played a leading part, a small worker coop in the North of England of which Jon Walker was a member, a village community in Ireland (in which as it happens this reviewer is a member) and the Transition Network. The case studies bring out the many and diverse practical benefits of using the model, its value for example in promoting the ethos of learning needed in a self-evolutionary society. They also stress an important feature of the VSM derived from cybernetics, namely the use of sustainability indicators, real-time measurement systems with continuous monitoring and rapid response, including ‘algedonic’ (indicating abnormal pain) signals which bypass the usual channels.

It is noteworthy that all the case studies concern projects undertaken at the invitation of the relevant government or organisation or someone closely involved in it. They do not convince me of the value of the VSM in bringing about change within systems currently dominated by values inconsistent with sustainability, such as most of today’s nation-states, or that are embedded in larger systems, such as the global economy, dominated by such values.

These doubts are not apparently shared by the authors. They carry out a VSM diagnosis of the world, dividing it into recursions from individual, family and community scales right up to the global level, suggesting how at each recursion some at least of the requirements of the VSM might be satisfied. The vision is clear: the human world must be re-ordered as a recursive set of embedded autonomous social systems with self-organised autonomous units each served by meta-systems using a new family of indicators, real-time measurement systems and appropriate responses thereto. At the community level, for example, there could be a Community Operations Room, modelled on the one Beer designed for Chile; or a ‘New Agora’, a public sphere of enquiry and communicative action based on the ancient Greek agoras.

After referring to Transition Towns the authors consider eco-regions and then nation states, suggesting the form the various meta-system functions might take. In this context a case study describes Transition Management, an approach for “orienting long-term change for sustainability” pioneered by the Dutch government. From the subnational and national levels we move to the continental level. Here the authors merely restate the requirements of the VSM though without suggesting how these might be met. Finally the need for a global recursion is asserted and its components based on the VSM explored in a little more detail. The final case study is the proposal for a global Cap and Share scheme designed by members of Feasta. For me, as someone who has contributed to that concept, it is helpful to see it in the context of a global-level VSM, to see it as a part of the global level recursion’s metasystem, a support function rather than a command-and-control power.

I was a little disappointed that the possibility of another recursion was not explored, that of James Lovelock’s Gaia, with humanity’s activities as one of its primary activities. I not sure that this is any more fanciful than the authors’ vision of the global recursion of human society. Might it not be useful to see humanity as one of the systems embedded in Gaia, to explore what meta-systems Gaia operates and consider how humanity relates to these?

The concept I myself have the most difficulty with is that of a recursive world of embedded viable systems. It seems to me that this concept poses highly debatable issues about what areas or other entities to regard as the autonomous entities at each level of recursion, never mind just how to provide the necessary meta-systems at each level: is it realistic to believe that in the real world these issues could ever be resolved? Perhaps these difficulties point to an even more fundamental question: is it right to see humanity as a recursive system that, to be viable, has to satisfy the conditions of the VSM at every level of recursion?

Something else about the book kept on troubling me, that is the underlying assumption that if only we changed the way we thought and our dominant values, we would then act differently. I am sure there is some truth in this but I am worried that it may also be a dangerous half truth. For example, the current dominant aim for economic growth is not due to the way people think but to the bank- created money system’s dependence on economic growth, plus the hold that bankers, who benefit from this system, have over virtually all governments. What’s needed to change the bank-created money system lies in the sphere of political change, not paradigm change.

That comment leads however to a more constructive and hopeful one. If it’s right that the bank-created money system depends on growth, then if further growth becomes impossible, whether from the limits of natural resources or otherwise, it will collapse and that in turn will crash the real economy. This might so weaken the current dominant system of government, or, in systems terms, might lead to a period of chaos, that there might be opportunities in various countries to create new governance systems; the shock doctrine in reverse. Could that be an opening for use of the Viable Systems Model?

The importance of this book lies in its basic approach, the treatment of the sustainability of a human society not as a question about the relationship between the society and its environment but as a problem concerning the nature of the society and the way it is organised. Not that these authors are the authors of this approach, as indeed they make clear, but they do develop it further than anyone else has so far as I am aware. This is essentially why I believe this book is so important. The fact that I found some of it quite provoking should probably be regarded as another plus.

Finally I should mention that this is an orderly book with excellent headings and numbering of paragraphs, 24 figures and 16 tables. The fact that it is an academic book (the first is a series on Complexity Science) is reflected in the price. I very much hope that the authors will be able to write a book on the same subject for the non-academic public.

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

2 Replies to “A Complexity Approach to Sustainability – Theory and Application: Review”

  1. if society enters a meltdown phase,we must look to the individual circumstance of Mr and Mrs Average, not the wishpolitics as expressed in this academic exercise.
    If society breaks down supermarket shelves will be empty within a week, and fuel stations will shut. when that happens all bets for the future are off because those two functions are what keeps our society viable on a day to day ‘right now’ basis. I can assure there will be no time to learn a ‘new way of government’
    It reminds me of the old military adage, battle plans work right up to the moment the first shot is fired

  2. I need to follow Feast’s work and blogs to explore likely coincidences and complements of my own work on a “Framework for Mapping Patterns of Activity with special reference to Place-making.” It is based on the biologist and urban sociologist Patrick Geddes (1864-1932) pioneering general systems model and Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s Simple General Systems Scheme (1968).

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