Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

January 12, 2010

Bringing Down the Monster

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 22:20

corporation bakan

When I was young and idealistic in the 1960s and 1970s, I blamed “the system” for the problems of the day. I didn’t give much thought to the connection between “the system” and the people who, presumably, ran it, directed it, and were responsible and accountable for it. We even used the anonymous term “the Man” to refer to those who were responsible for creating, perpetuating and enforcing “the system”. At about that point I began meeting some of the people who were associated with “the system” — senior politicians, business leaders, regulators, and police. I was puzzled that they didn’t seem to know as much as I thought “the Man” should know about what was going on, and didn’t seem to have any real control over “the system”. In more charitable moments I even admitted that they seemed to be as much victims of “the system” as the rest of us.

Fast forward 40 years. In last week’s New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg writes something eerily similar to what I began to suspect all those years ago:

[What is called] “pathetic fallacy” is … the false attribution of human feelings, thoughts, or intentions to inanimate objects, or to living entities that cannot possibly have such feelings, thoughts, or intentions—cruel seas, dancing leaves, hot air that “wants” to rise [or "America", or "the company", or "the government"]. The American government has its human aspects—it is staffed by human beings, mostly—but its atomized, at-odds-with-itself legislative structure (House and Senate, each with its arcane rules, its semi-feudal committee chairs, and its independently elected members, none of whom are accountable or fully responsible for outcomes) makes it more like an inanimate object. In our sclerotic lawmaking process, it is not enough that the President, a majority of both Houses of Congress, and a majority of the voters at the last election favor extending health care to all citizens.

So, “the system” again. Not “us”, not an identifiable “them”. It. This Frankenstein monster that defies the will of the people, even that of the people supposedly in power. In his book “The Corporation”, Joel Bakan personifies the corporate monster, this “it”, as having a psychopathic “personality”, as the graphic above shows. The same prognosis, using Hertzberg’s analysis, could be given to governments, and in fact to all institutions — political, economic, entrepreneurial, educational, health, media — especially those that have grown to a size where they have taken on a life and mind of their own and are no longer simply extensions of a small group of identified individuals. Lawyers and judges, not the swiftest profession at the best of times, have greatly compounded the problem by granting corporations (and most institutions are now incorporated, even political ones) the “rights of personhood”, without the commensurate responsibilities.

It’s easy to say that any institution, even the collective set of institutions that comprise “the system”, is/are made up of people, and if there’s something wrong with “the system” it can/should be fixed by piercing the institutional veil and obligating the people behind it to act responsibly. Unfortunately, if you’ve spent any time trying to get “the system” to work from within, at various levels in the hierarchy, you quickly discover, as Hertzberg says, that the institution is not merely the sum of its people. I’ve spoken to oil company executives, cabinet ministers, university presidents, and many other “leaders’ in “the system” and they are, mostly, informed and aware of the need for reforms. But they feel helpless to institute that reform unless everyone moves at once and together. A”level playing field” is needed so that one irresponsible or opportunistic company or national government or other institution does not gain “competitive advantage” by refusing to make the change. And we know from WTO and G20 and Copenhagen and the US Health Care debate, just to give a few recent examples, that getting “everyone” on side is impossible. All it takes is one renegade and you have a race to the bottom with the renegade in the lead. That’s the way the “system” inherently works.

So to change “the system” it is not sufficient to persuade a majority of the people who work within it (up and down the hierarchy) that a change is needed and appropriate. Like Frankenstein’s monster, “the system” has enormous inertia when you want it to start moving somewhere new, and enormous momentum when you want to stop it or shift its direction. As Clay Christensen has written, the larger a corporation gets, the less capable it becomes of any innovation whatsoever, and the same is true for other types of institution.

So what can be done about it? How do we “bring down the monster” if persuasion and democratic means, even when available, will inevitably be ineffective? If changing “them” isn’t enough, how do we change “it”?

Perhaps the first thing we need to do is to get past the “pathetic fallacy” and realize that this “monster” has no human attributes. It is not capable of feeling or morality or judgement. It is an automaton, doing what it has been programmed to do. It is not psychopathic or like Frankenstein’s monster — these are both personifications. It is not really a “monster” either — the word literally means an omen or portent. It is not sentient, not like any living creature in that sense, since it has no identity or singularity. It is, in a sense, programmed to grow.

The best analogy for this monster is probably cancer. Cancer is an unintended consequence of the evolution from unicellular creatures to organisms. The survival advantage of organisms (ranging from amoebae to whales) comes with a price — individual cells in an organism can’t replicate without restriction like their simpler cousins or they’d outgrow the boundaries of the organism, so nature evolved processes called cellular apoptosis (death) and senescence (cessation of replication) to keep the total number of cells of each specialized type in the creature’s body in balance. These processes are set off by chemical triggers in the body. Cancer cells don’t respond to the triggers, so they grow out of control. In the short run, that’s an evolutionary success; in the long run, since it kills the organism and then the meta-organism (the creature), it’s a failure.

By analogy, our industrial systems, which ignore nature’s checks and balances designed to keep each type of creature in the global organism Gaia in balance, are an unintended consequence of our evolution of large brains, a short-run evolutionary success and, in the longer run, will kill our species and, through the sixth great extinction now in process, many, perhaps most, of the species in Gaia.

In both cases, these monsters are ultimately self-limiting — when they kill the host (the creature, or the species), they will lose the support mechanism they need to survive and will die themselves. Cancers are very very rarely contagious, and aren’t passed down from one generation to the next. Our cancerous human civilization systems, likewise, aren’t likely to be picked up by other Earth species, or inevitably recreated by the small number of survivors of civilizational collapse who build post-industrial human society. That post-industrial human society is therefore likely to thrive, in balance with the rest of all-life-on-Earth, for millions of years (weather, or rather climate, permitting) before it develops another monster.

Doctors talk bravely about defeating cancer but it’s very unlikely they’ll succeed. Because cancers are evolutionary phenomena, trying to prevent cancers is like trying to prevent evolution. Only members of highly delusional religions believe you can fight (or deny out of existence) the reality of evolution.

But bringing down the monster of “the system”, like fighting cancer, is not hopeless. It’s just very difficult. Best way to prevent both is to live a healthy life that discourages the monster from preying on you or your community. The three types of actions that Joanna Macy talks about in her work, and which I have adapted in my “what you can do” diagram, map analogously to the three ways in which doctors and patients fight cancers:

Strategy As applied to cancers As applied to civilization
Learn, self-manage Know what you can do, and how cancers develop and spread, build personal and support network capacity and competence Know what you can do, and how “the system” really works, build personal and collective capacity and competence
Fight Work to defeat the cancer through healthy living, good practices, positive attitude, and use “holding actions” (therapies) to prevent the disease from growing and getting worse Work to undermine and defeat industrial systems, use “holding actions” to prevent the systems from growing and  getting worse
Live differently Feed your healthy cells, your body, and your immune system so that the diseased cells have less opportunity to grow Create new natural structures and model communities, that show people an alternative so “the system” has less opportunity to grow

The analogy isn’t too far-fetched, is it? In both cases, the options to ‘reform’ what’s sick and dysfunctional, to ‘persuade’ it to behave better, are limited, and insufficient. We have to use a combination of strategies, and manage our expectations. In both cases, there’s a chance we can bring down the monster, at least for awhile, and a chance we cannot. In both cases, if we limit ourselves to personal actions, try to go it alone, we’re not going to succeed nearly as well as if we work collectively and collaboratively with our communities. We can either try or we can give up.

Giving up, for me at least, is not an option.


  1. Dave
    Strangely enough, on my walk back from taking the kids to school this morning, I wrestled with the same problem and came up with a different analogy (although cancer is a good one).

    I watched a programme about dogs the other day (BBC Horizon programme, The Secret Life of the Dog) which asserted that all the breeds we have are descended from the grey wolf. The programme then described various experiments which demonstrated how it is possible to get from a grey wolf to a dachshund, for example. The answer is eugenics. And one ongoing experiment in Siberia highlighted the possibilities by using a parallel species, the silver fox.

    A batch of foxes were bred in captivity and the individuals who demonstrated the least aggression were selected for the subsequent breeding stock. This process was repeated for many generations until the aggression was bred out of them. Eventually something fascinating happened; the foxes became as tame as domesticated dogs but also developed striking differences to their wild cousins. For example, their fur colour changed dramatically and varied enormously with the domesticated breed . For some reason the normal constraints of evolution were loosened and allowed the foxes to develop into different breeds with marked characteristics.

    In a different experiment in Hungary they attempted to rear first generation grey wolves in a domesticated environment alongside domesticated dogs. Whilst the wolves were in the juvenile phase of development they just about managed with a domesticated environment but as soon as they started to mature they became uncontrollable (for a domestic setting) – a perfect example of a rouge element in a level playing field.

    My point is this. Like it or not, we are the products of a subtle eugenics programme. The industrialised system we have is not the evolutionary default setting for ‘wild’ humans. We have been selectively bred to encourage certain characteristics – the entrepreneur is a breed of pit bull dog which aggressively attacks and kills competition, the merchants and brokers are a breed which take bets on the outcome, and society as a whole is a breed of easily trained, passive and obedient working dog. You are also more likely to partner with someone from the social circle (read, breed) that you inhabit and thus produce offspring that is likely to have those dominant characteristics of that social circle. Once the process has been set in motion it is self perpetuating and greater extremes of each breed will be encouraged (imagine what your favourite basketball team will look like in the future), so if your system is designed badly to begin with, ridiculous and ‘useless’ looking breeds will appear.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming anyone, as you rightly point out Dave, no-one is in control, we just do what we are bred to do – the grey wolf in the domestic setting could easily point to the domestic setting and claim that it is unnatural and therefore its behaviour is more acceptable than that of the domestic animals.

    If I pursue this analogy to any sort of conclusion then I would surmise that the breeding programme cannot be altered from within the programme, it is simply too big for any individual breed to have an impact. The actual breeding programme itself has to stop and our love of particular characteristics within breeds must be given up otherwise we are in danger of producing such specialised breeds, for example the dachshund/multinational, that we are unable to adapt to the slightest change in circumstances.

    Comment by Ivor Tymchak — January 13, 2010 @ 03:28

  2. Brilliant, Ivor. Thank you! And of course the most popular human ‘breed’ is the big, goofy, tame “consumer” which is, in the words of my friend Jerry Michalski, a “gullet who lives only to gulp products and crap cash.”

    Comment by Dave Pollard — January 13, 2010 @ 06:35

  3. Kyle to Sarah Conner (Slight modification)

    And understand.
    That corporation is out there!
    It can’t be bargained with.
    It can’t be reasoned with.
    It doesn’t feel pity,
    or remorse,
    or fear,
    and it absolutely


    Until you are dead!

    Comment by Bob Watson — January 13, 2010 @ 07:56

  4. [...] article here→ [...]

    Pingback by Bill Maher: You don’t have to stay in a loveless, abusive relationship with your big bank. Move your money. « Ukiah Blog Live — January 13, 2010 @ 08:26

  5. Hi Dave –

    Sounds like you are processing some of the same thoughts that I struggled with after reading Jensen… only difference being that I have always known that the system plays the players and I had to reconcile the fact that some players joyously play along ;-) In other words, there are *some* monsters in the system that encourage its abusive behavior.

    I have always thought that the cancer metaphor was the most apt…. it really does describe the system very well, sans intent. The problem with the eugenics metaphor — although it is very useful, Ivor — is that it incorporates an intentional driving force. And I don;t believe there has ever been any intention in civilization. Just mechanics.

    One thing tho… I don;t think you can say that cancer replicates single celled “success” because it is always *not* in the best interest of an organism to replicate out of control. There are always associated costs to reproduction that limit it to a specific “stable strategy”. That does not mean it never happens, just that it is always evolutionarily disadvantageous. With civ, those disadvantages have been concentrated on those lower on the totem pole, externalized into the environment and directly effective in the form of disease and famine. But we have been (un)lucky enough to not allow it to stop us. And then there is Quinn’s idea that there is some particular meme in this particular civ that pushes us to continue no matter the cost, whereas other civs have taken the hint and fallen away. Is it simply the “one right way for man to live” or is there more to it than that? I still don’t know.

    Another point, I still do not believe that our big brains *inevitably* lead to this place. I don’t think it became our destiny when we came down from the trees, lit a fire and picked up a stick. Obviously it *did* become a possibility, or we would not be here, but another philosophical thought to ponder is where, or what, exactly, (as if we will ever *know*) led us onto this possible path.


    Comment by Janene — January 13, 2010 @ 08:41

  6. [...] Posted by leavergirl under civ Leave a Comment  This morning, Dave Pollard posted an essay, Bringing Down the Monster which seems just a tad defeatist for my taste. So I rallied my forces and put forth a [...]

    Pingback by How to heal from cancer « Leaving Babylon — January 13, 2010 @ 16:43

  7. The question of remission is most interesting. “Our cancerous human civilization systems … aren’t … inevitably recreated by the small number of survivors of civilizational collapse who build post-industrial human society. That post-industrial human society is therefore likely to thrive, in balance with the rest of all-life-on-Earth, for millions of years (weather, or rather climate, permitting) before it develops another monster.”

    Is it really that unlikely? I can easily imagine–as civilization collapses, institutions crumble, population falls to the low billions, then to millions, over the course of decades–the remaining, poorly connected pockets of humanity will have a variety of characteristics. Some will, like portions of humanity at the beginning of civilization, have learned that their survival is based on domination of others. They will have learned, during the collapse, how to plunder resources through extortion, slavery, conquest, etc. They will attempt to dominate all their neighbors and grow as far as their influence can reach. They will control far more than the average planetary resources per capita.

    I expect the monster will remain a potential, like a virus strain remaining in a weakened body, and eventually find the conditions to grow out of “control”. Civilization again–although it will probably start as a regional phenomenon, as it did originally. Maybe in decades or a few centuries, not a million years.

    Comment by Paul — January 13, 2010 @ 17:01

  8. This is always the same: the lack of self reflexion and self analysis. It is much more “easier” just to do “as everyone does” and to know what “everyone knows”.

    Comment by leitavis — January 14, 2010 @ 00:12

  9. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sein.de/David, Marcus Sommer. Marcus Sommer said: Interesting comparison between cancer and "the system" #howtosavetheworld Bringing Down the Monster http://tinyurl.com/yg5s6vv [...]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Bringing Down the Monster « how to save the world -- Topsy.com — January 14, 2010 @ 17:03

  10. Paul –

    Yes… it really is that unlikely. Most of our farmland would be desert if not for industrial imputs — and that is what it will become as the system breaks down. Without the massive output of agriculture, societies remain relatively small and harmless no matter how aggressive they may be, culturally. So while there may be small pockets of neo-civ, it will be a long time before they can make any sort of significant impact. Then, of course, there have been enough instances of civ collapse that we can look at what the survivors actually do… and apparently they build cultures rather resistant to hierarchy and expansion ;-)


    Comment by Janene — January 14, 2010 @ 17:32

  11. Back to the cancer analogy…

    How does civ (cancer) resolve it’s problem (actual cancer)? Fight! War! with all we’ve got, with our most powerful poisons and radiation. [i]Prescient…[/i]

    Comment by Jim — January 14, 2010 @ 22:22

  12. Jim –

    Except there is a significant question as to whether chemo and radiation actually *do* anything to cancer, sure… it kills some cells, but how many healthy ones go at the same time, while massively damaging the immune system? Gotta fight *smart*, not just with the biggest baddest killing machines ;-)


    Comment by Janene — January 15, 2010 @ 07:33

  13. Janene, I did not mean to imply we (civ) were doing anything that “worked” in the short term. I was going for the idea of civ “solving” it’s cancer problem by annihilating it’s host…

    Comment by Jim — January 15, 2010 @ 21:11

  14. Gotcha ;-)

    Comment by Janene — January 16, 2010 @ 06:36

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