An institutional approach to sustainability: historical interplay of worldviews, institutions and technology.

Author:Matutinovic, Igor

Although the capitalist economic system appears to be resilient to disturbances arising from its own dynamics (Matutinovic 2005; 2006) this might change substantially if its boundary conditions were altered significantly and abruptly--like an energy or environmental crisis at the global scale. The possibility of such a critical change in boundary conditions is glooming out of many recent studies dealing with the health of the global environment. For example, there is mounting evidence of potentially irreversible deterioration of important ecosystems like oceans and tropical forests; an alarming rate of species facing extinction; and a change in global climate, all of which appear to be induced by anthropogenic activities (Scheffer et al. 2001; Mooney, Cropper and Reid 2005; Brook 2005; Hansen et al. 2006).

The standard approach to these and other problems that concern human impact on the environment has been focusing, so far, on technological progress and market mechanisms: by using less polluting technologies and by letting prices mediate our relations with nature, mainstream economic theory and conventional wisdom wishes to preserve the natural environment and at the same time maintain economic growth. This was also the original goal behind the concept of sustainable development as it first appeared in the early 1970s (Adams 2006).

There are, however, reasons to doubt that the standard approach will bring desired results. While markets are good at speeding up technological change and can effectively mediate between production of consumer goods and household demand, they are generally blind with respect to social and environmental consequences they help to create. This has long been recognized by heterodox economists: for example, William Kapp ([1977] 1991) warned that markets have an intrinsic and institutionalized tendency to worsen environmental degradation and increase its social costs. (1) Herman Daly (2000, 32) pointed out that "the market cannot by itself register the cost of its own increasing scale relative to the ecosystem," and John Gowdy (1994) argued that "there is a growing recognition that market economies are incompatible with preserving environment." Their worries are well grounded. Although the sensitivity of the business sector toward environmental issues increased significantly since the beginning of the nineties thanks to advocacy of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, executives and investors remain almost exclusively focused on the profitability of their businesses and investments while genuine environmental concerns stay in the background of their interest. (2)

On the other hand, the hopes put into technology and science do not find much support among scientists themselves, some of whom relegate both the source and the solution of the problem to the cultural sphere (Ludwig, Hillborn and Waiters 1993). In fact, history shows that technological progress has always contributed to the scope and intensity of human impact on the environment. Besides that, the rebound effect or the Jevons Paradox is often likely to cancel positive effects of technical progress--from the steam engine and coal in 19th century England, to the automotive and information technology sectors in more recent times (Luzzati and Franco 2005).

Therefore, in the context of the aforementioned global environmental concerns we have to explore other theoretical and practical avenues, besides markets and technological progress. Some social and natural scientists have been suggesting that the cultural and ethical approach to environmental problems might be a promising direction of research. Mario Giampietro (1994), for example, suggested that cultural values play decisive role in dealing with difficult choices related to sustainability. (3) Richard Noorgard (1994, 40) argued that "cultural values and beliefs influence how people interact with their ecosystems and apply selective pressure on the species." Various contributors to the World Bank symposium dealing with ethical and spiritual aspects of sustainable development stressed the crucial importance of values and institutions that shape our relations to nature and society (Serageldin and Barett 1996). Biologist Douglas McCauley (2006) recently claimed that nature conservation must be framed as a moral issue, with the primacy of ethical and esthetical values over the market based criteria.

What might be the contribution of institutional economics in this context? Opschoor (2002) suggested that institutional and evolutionary economics can contribute to the scientific discourse dealing with the problem of sustainability by exploring conditions (italics are mine) for the emergence of sustainability-related values and institutions. Following that, the goal of the present work is to address the limits of institutional adaptation as a social response to environmental problems and to place it within its wider cultural context--that of socially shared values and beliefs, which prevail in a society and shape its relation to life and nature in general. Given the complexity of the task at hand, this work should be considered primarily as a methodological and empirical introduction to the subject.

The text is organized as follows: the first section briefly discusses key concepts and definitions used in the text; the second deals with the hierarchy theory and proposes a simple model of socioeconomic causation; the third section analyzes historical data from the model's perspective; and the fourth section closes with discussion.

Concepts and Definitions


According to dictionary (4) definitions, "Weltanschauung or world-outlook is a general conception of the nature of the world particularly as containing or implying a system of value principles"; "It is a collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group." Here, we are primarily interested in the societal dimension of a worldview, so I define it as a set of beliefs, symbols, values and segments of objective knowledge that are widely shared in a given society over a considerable period of time (for at least the life-span of one generation). This definition explicitly introduces objective knowledge (5) (Popper 1994, 9-11) as a constitutive part of a worldview--a distinction that is methodologically appropriate for the analysis of Western societies. Segments of objective knowledge refer, for example, to the influence that evolutionary theory exerts on our conception of nature and our place in it; or the cosmological theories that explain the history of our solar system and the universe (neither eternal nor created with humans having no special role or position).

The existence of a dominant worldview in a society does not preclude parallel existence of other competing paradigms of life that some segments of a society might entertain. The ability to generate a diversity of worldviews stands at the core of human developmental potential and the capacity of human societies to construct alternative visions of the future. We can reasonably believe that when a society reaches a high level of socio-cultural integration and complexity (Steward 1955 ) there may exist at any time a variety of alternative sets of more or less coherent values, beliefs, symbols and segments of objective knowledge. These building blocks of latent worldviews can be integrated in a coherent whole by several catalysts: ideological, religious, economic and technological, which may act in isolation or in concert with each other. Alternative worldviews thus consolidated may be characteristic of a certain social group only or may be shared by minorities of people that belong to different segments of a society. Under favorable circumstances, like in the periods of deep societal crisis, one of these alternative worldviews may gain enough force to challenge, and, eventually, replace a dominant one.

The process of worldview change may be slow and take centuries, as happened in Western Europe during the period that elapsed between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the industrial revolution in England. By contrast, in other times and places the change was rather abrupt and it may have taken only a couple of decades for a new worldview to impose itself, as in the case of. the Meiji Restoration in Japan, or after the Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions in Russia and China respectively. From a general perspective, a dominant worldview may change under the continuous pressure of new information, of new notions that challenge the validity of its established beliefs and values. The process of change is similar to that of a paradigm change in science and is likely to be conflict-ridden as its outcome will have different implications for different societal stakeholders (see Matutinovic (2007) for details).


How one defines institutions depends on the context of research (Nelson and Sampat 2001). For the purpose of this work, I choose Hodgson's definition:

Institutions refer to commonly held patterns of behavior and habits of thought, of a routinized and durable nature, that are associated with people interacting in groups or larger collectives.... (They) enable ordered thought and action by imposing form and consistency on the activities of human beings. (Hodgson 1993, 253) Institutions are instrumental in regulating interactions between human societies and their natural environment as they provide socially acceptable rules concerning exploitation of resources or land use. In short, institutions provide a set of habits, rules and norms that govern socioeconomic system's internal dynamics and regulate its behavior with respect to the larger metasystem--nature.

Institutions evolve over time either spontaneously, via agent interactions, or by deliberate design when agents address particular social or economic problems (Rutherford 1996, 81-128). Institutional change is not likely to be a...

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