18 June 2006

The Nature of Ecological Valence

In my last post, I introduced the concept of ecological valence as one of the defining valences of my Valence Theory of Organization. In this post, I continue to examine its nature.

An organization’s relationship to the natural environment can usefully be characterized as its sustainability – the net degree to which it utilizes natural capital. Daly (2002) describes two definitions of sustainability. Utility-based sustainability is consistent with that of the Brundtland Commission (World Commission, 1987), namely, sustaining a level of resource usage that presumable meets the needs of the current population such that future generations will be able to meet their own needs. Daly points out that utility is not measurable, and further, imposes today’s conception of “needs” on future generations. Relative to valence theory, no valence – that is, capacity to connect, unite or interact – with future generations can be formed. As the valence theory has been derived based on the UCaPP nature of contemporary society, it is not surprising to conclude that the utility-based definition of sustainability is, in effect, obsolete and out of step with the contemporary world.

Instead, Daly favours a throughput-based construct of sustainability specifying that “the entropic physical flow from nature’s sources through the economy and back to nature’s sinks, is to be non-declining” (2002, p. 1). Throughput can be measured as the amount of energy consumed by all physical entities, both human and non-human, on earth. Since all energy originates in nature, is transformed multiple times through various industrial, agricultural and other processes, and then ultimately reverts to nature, the amount “consumed” by entities on the planet – not returned to nature, as in consumption of non-renewable resources or non-decomposable waste – should not decline. Ecological valence could then be measured in terms of net energy exchange between an organization and the natural environment via a complex network of interactions and transformations.

Throughput-based sustainability has its origins in the work of Alfred Lotka (1922) who related energy flow through biological systems with evolutionary biology. Concerning biological systems of evolving species, he argues that “natural selection tends to make the energy flux through the system a maximum, so far as compatible with the constraints to which the system is subject” (p. 148). Further, in a system with a limited supply of energy, “the advantage will go to that organism which is most efficient, most economical, in applying to preservative uses such energy as it captures” (p. 150).

Buenstorf (2000) builds on Lotka’s argument (as have many others) in relating this principle of increasing both energy flow and energy efficiency in more highly evolved biological systems to human, socio-economic systems. He explains Lotka’s principles as emergent properties of complex, self-organizing systems, that would equally apply to those organizations defined according to the proposed Valence Theory. However, the implications are interesting, and perhaps useful relative to gauging the effectiveness of organizations.

Buenstorf interprets Lotka as follows: When energy is abundant, fast-growing, relatively energy-inefficient species can thrive. Under conditions of scarcity however, more efficient species will compete more effectively than the originally successful species, demonstrating both an increase in overall energy flow, and an increase in energy efficiency, for the entire system. Mutations that are able to exploit additional, previously unused, energy sources for which there is no prior competition will be more successful, similarly increasing both energy flow and efficiency. Framing this interpretation in modern, organizational terms would explain the rapid growth of relatively energy inefficient enterprises through most of the twentieth century (and especially the middle decades) when resources were abundant and energy prices, specifically, were relatively economical. Today, however, “more efficient species” of organizations will compete more effectively than their less efficient counterparts. “Mutations” introduced by process, and other, innovations would allow adaptable organizations to evolve, increasing energy flow through the system, while becoming increasingly more efficient. In other words, more evolved organizations would be more sustainable, according to Daly’s throughput-based conception.

Thus, ecological valence serves two purposes. First, it grounds an organization by definition to the natural environment. As much as an organization is defined according to the flows of value in an economic sense, or the identity relationships it forges among its employees and customers, or the knowledge that it creates and imparts to society at large, so too will it be defined according to the extent and manner in which it enables net sustainable energy flows with the natural environment. Second, ecological valence can provide a comparison of the relative degree of evolution among organizations. Those that are “higher” on the organizational evolutionary scale will, as Buenstorf suggests, conform to Lotka’s principles. Conversely, those whose ecological valence reveals them to be today’s organizational dinosaurs, should rightly be allowed to pass into extinction.

  • Daly, H. E. (2002, 2002/04/30). Sustainable development: Definitions, principles, policies. Paper presented at the World Bank, Washington, D.C.
  • Buenstorf, G. (2000). Self-organization and sustainability: energetics of evolution and implications for ecological economics. Ecological Economics, 33(1), 119-134.
  • Lotka, A. (1922). Contribution to the energetics of evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 8, 147-151.
  • World Commission on Environment and Development. (1987). Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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