2.0 How Social Change Can Happen
There are many social change theories and some of the best known are briefly highlighted below. The theories serve as testimony to the fact that social change is a real phenomenon; it can be observed and analysed. The research is primarily concerned with the fundamental elements of social change; how does it come about? Following an introduction to the theories, I examine the evolution of individual behaviour in an attempt to answer this question. Complexity and chaos theory are also examined to illustrate the context in which most change occurs. The concepts of incomplete feedback loops and emergent behaviour are used to explain the way behaviour operates. Finally, the concept of the catalytic personality is introduced.
2.1 Theories of Social Change
The following are among the dominant theories of social change: Evolutionary theory purports that human societies evolve from simple to complex structures in a progression of definitive stages (Strasser and Randall, 1981, 55). Cyclical theory suggests that cultures follow a predictable cycle of growth and decline (Strasser and Randall, 1981). Dialectical theory observes that cultural "activities might be set in motion by aims of one sort and then kept going by aims of another sort" (Schneider, 1976, 42). Thus the new social structure that evolves may not mirror its predecessor.
Despite their differences, many of the social change theories are concerned with the behaviour of people trying to meet their needs. Functionalist theory makes this point explicit. Functionalist theorists Pareto, Schumpeter, and Parsons uphold the concept that humans have basic needs and societies constantly adapt themselves to meet these needs. The adaptations may show increasing differentiation, as societies become more complex, but the needs they serve remain constant. Thus, despite interferences from external forces, societies constantly seek to preserve or re-establish their social institutions (Strasser and Randall, 1981, 81).
Within society, adaptations often result from conflicts between groups whose needs differ. Conflict theory, supported by Marx and Dahrendorf, observes that conflicts often arise between those who have power and those who do not. Marx relates such conflict to the struggle over control of the means of production, and both theorists see conflict as "pervasive and normal in a society" (Mann, 1992, 6). Weber extends the reasons for conflict to include intellectual aspects (Boudon, 1986, 19). Nevertheless, a fundamental premise is that the resolution of one conflict usually leads to a new structure in which opposed interests once again find cause for disagreement (Mann, 1992, 6).
In explaining the process of urban social change, Castells uses a conflict model in which the city is created out of the tensions between dominant actors' interests and resistance to these interests by the dominated actors. Society, can be described as a "structural, conflictive reality" in which different actors "oppose each other over the basic rules of social organisation" (Castells, 1983, 302). Since space is fundamental to the organisation of social life, the conflict over the assignment of certain goals to certain spatial forms (becomes) one of the fundamental mechanisms of domination and counter-domination in the social structure (Castells, 1983, 302).
It should be noted, however, that these different actors could also work cooperatively if such cooperation turned out to be in the best interest of both groups.
Because the political system tends, over time, to institutionalize dominant values, change usually comes from outside of the political, governance system. Social movements, therefore, are "the sources of social innovation," while political, governance systems provide the "instruments of social bargaining" through which the institutionalized norms of the state may be challenged (Castells, 1983, 294). Thus, through the process of conflict and cooperation, a city evolves (Castells, 1983, 301).
2.2 Individual Behaviour
At the root of social change are individuals, who together form social movements. Thus, in order to understand social change, one must also understand what motivates the behviour of individuals.
"The purpose of all human behaviour is to meet needs" (Hultman, 1979, 4). People have many different needs, but all fall into two categories: survival and personal growth. All people share common survival needs for food, shelter and safety. However, different people may have very different personal growth needs such as love, approval from others, self worth and creativity (Hultman, 1979, 4).
The way a person behaves is conditioned by her/his beliefs. Beliefs are a product of a person's experiences, which includes the lessons s/he is taught about how to perceive the world. From experience, a person forms their beliefs about the world, how it works, what is right and wrong, good and bad (Hultman, 1979, 9). The formation of a person's beliefs is an inductive process. Fragmentary data, bounded by the realm of personal experience, is used to draw conclusions and devise a sense of order in an otherwise "messy, unpredictable, and often incomprehensible world" (Waldrop, 1992, 253). Those beliefs which inform actions that best meet a person's needs are the ones a person comes to value (Hultman, 1979, 26).
However, because beliefs are based on fragmentary knowledge, they may not correctly reflect the way the world truly is, in all its complexity. When an individual places so much confidence in her/his beliefs that s/he forgets the degree to which they have been abstracted from reality, s/he succumbs to the fallacy of misplaced concreteness (Daly and Cobb, 1989, 25). As a result, an individual is vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances that may inhibit her/his ability to meet even the most basic of survival needs. The individual must therefore be adaptive, constantly adjusting to new information and changing circumstances. The more sensitive an individual can be, anticipating and preparing for change based on incoming information, the better her/his chances for survival. However, opportunities to discover changing circumstances are not always readily available.
2.3 Complexity and Chaos Theory
Living systems (including ecosystems upon which individuals depend) are best described as complex, dynamic, and far from equilibrium. Although they can exist for long periods in stable steady states, if perturbed, they may be pushed to a point where the system's behaviour and composition changes unpredictably.
Thermodynamic equilibrium is a state of non-motion, that is to say no life. The earth's living systems are suspended above thermodynamic equilibrium by solar energy captured through photosynthesis (figure 2). Human overconsumption, pollution, and disabling of life-support functions are analagous to a gravitational force, dragging the earth down toward thermodynamic equilibrium. As long as energy and natural material production in the ecosphere equals or exceeds consumption in the economy, the world remains in a balanced steady state, or moves farther away from thermodynamic equilibrium.
A steady state, should not be confused with permanent stasis. Though the world may operate in a domain of stability (figure 3), its living systems are dynamic, defined by the movement of energy from one constituent to another. There are many constituents and relationships which define how energy moves among them, i.e through the system. These relationships are extremely intricate and difficult to understand and they are always vulnerable to perturbation. Such change can push the system out of its steady state causing the world to leave its historic domain of stability and arrive at a bifurcation point, a point of unpredictable change (figure 4). From the bifurcation point, the ecosphere may enter many potential new steady states, each defined by different characteristics and relationships among living systems of the earth.
The element of unpredictability and vulnerability to change caused by minor perturbation is revealed in chaos theory. Here, a seemingly stable system suddenly alters its form radically in a very short period of time. Ilya Prigogine, in his book Order out of Chaos (1984), describes the conditions in which such changes occur. Generally, things carry along within a predictable, relatively deterministic, domain. Such a system can be very difficult to change. As the system is increasingly agitated, it maintains the appearance of being stable and continues to operate under deterministic laws. However, its propensity to change becomes greater. At some point, usually unpredictable to those operating within it, the system reaches an unstable condition. Though appearing to operate as it always has, the future state of the system is now highly uncertain. These points of immense vulnerability to change are referred to as bifurcations (Prigogine, 1984, 160). At these points, "we find that very small perturbation or fluctuations can become amplified into gigantic, structure-breaking waves" (Toffler in Prigogine, 1984,xvii). The system moves to a new level of organisation; however, what the new configuration will be is not always predictable. The move is rapid and the resulting state may not be amenable to many of the entities or variables characterizing the previous configuration.
2.4 Incomplete Feedback Loops and Emergent Behaviour
The problem posed to humans by complexity and chaos theory is how to be adaptive and take precautions in an unpredictable ecosystem. Human induced changes in the biosphere may be overcome by the ecosystem's resilience or they may initiate its demise. Since the environment may maintain the appearance of stability, even though it is on the verge of rapid and unpredictable change, appropriate adaptive behaviour may be difficult to determine. Waiting until after severe changes have occurred leaves humans vulnerable to hardship or extinction if the changes result in a hostile environment.
Since human activity can create changes that perturb the ecosphere enough to cause a bifurcation, it seems prudent to be cautious about those actions which negatively affect ecosystems. Efforts should be made to try and avoid such actions or, if not avoidable, to try and minimize their impacts. Despite realizing the benefits of exercising caution, why is it not always pursued? One explanation could be that perceptions of the problem do not stimulate cautious behaviour. Things that could prevent precautionary behaviour are: uncertainty that the need, for which the precautions are taken, will materialize; beliefs that there is still time to prepare for the need in the future; and efforts to prepare for the need interfere with the ability to meet other more immediate concerns.
For example, when choosing whether to use public transit or a personal vehicle to commute to work, a person may seek to satisfy daily, immediate, personal needs for saving time and money, gaining prestige and preserving physical comfort. The decision maker directly perceives the benefits to her/himself of meeting these personal needs, because a complete, that is to say observable, feedback loop exists for them. However, the direct benefits to the individual of reducing his/her contributions to ground level ozone or atmospheric CO2 may not be as clear, and thus, an incomplete feedback loop exists for these considerations. Fundamentally, the problem of incomplete feedback loops causes what Garrett Hardin referred to as the Tragedy of the Commons (1968). If the costs of conserving a public, or common, resource are greater to an individual than the benefits s/he would receive, than there is little incentive for that individual to act in a resource preserving, i.e. precautious, manner. Because society is characterized by incomplete feedback loops, the consequences of an individual's actions are not always explicit. A person may not be aware of certain consequences, or as is more often the case, a person may be aware but not forced to take responsibility for them. Unless the decision-maker chooses to complete the loop by virtue of her/his conscience, there is no stimulant to forgo the personal need-meeting action. Hence, when incomplete feedback loops exist, knowledge alone is not always sufficient to modify daily need-meeting behaviour. Thus, knowledge is not successfully turned into action.
Many cultural values, government regulations, and financial accounting systems ignore the importance of taking responsibility for the environmental consequences of need-meeting activities. As a result, they contribute to a society structured to encourage actions that do not support sustainability and a population which demonstrates emergent behaviour patterns that are not conducive to its own long-term survival. Emergent behaviour is observed whenever individuals, operating with regards to their own concerns, form part of a group which demonstrates its own unique behaviour patterns. For example, the individual who chooses to use a private vehicle to commute to work may do so in an attempt to minimize her/his commuting time. However, once on the road, this individual and thousands like her/him, who share the same motivation, form a group of cars, all trying to simultaneously fit onto the same stretch of highway. Each contributes to the others experience of one of the slowest means of commuting possible. To an outside observer, the congregating cars at "rush hour" may appear to be a premeditated holding pattern, when in fact none of the individuals involved chose to create such a result.
2.5 The Role of the Catalyst
Despite living in a society which encourages status quo (i.e. unsustainable emergent) behaviour, there are some individuals who manage to behave differently. The role that such individuals play is worth examining, for individuals can often play a decisive factor in determining the course of social changes. In his book Order Out of Chaos, Ilya Prigogine alludes to the fact that social systems can mimic ecological ones. He explains that at the bifurcation point, i.e. in the moment of change, the system is highly sensitive to external stimuli acting upon it. There is a "delicate interplay between chance and necessity," and the amplification of a microscopic fluctuation occurring at the 'right moment' result(s) in favouring one reaction path over a number of other equally possible paths. Under certain circumstances, therefore, the role played by individual behaviour can be decisive (Prigogine, 1984, 176).
One sees that at these points, influences whose physical magnitude is too small to be taken account of by a finite being, may produce results of the greatest importance. All great results produced by human endeavour depend on taking advantage of these singular states when they occur (Prigogine, 1984, 73).
Shakespeare had discovered the same as revealed in his Julius Caesar, written over three hundred years ago:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
(Rosen and Rosen eds., 1987, 114)
Individuals able to take advantage of such circumstances to influence change fit well into Max Weber's theory of charisma. Weber noted "the important role that charismatic leaders had played in providing the 'mainspring' for change throughout history" (Strasser and Randall, 1981, 30).
The collapse of what was once the Soviet Union provides an excellent example of catalysed revolutionary change in the political context. Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsen produced tremendous changes but only because the system was primed to receive them, i.e. the system was already near a point of bifurcation. These personalities were the deciding factors that finally moved the system out of latency and into irreversible change. They were the "small fluctuations... (that) start an entirely new evolution that will drastically change the whole behaviour of the macroscopic system" (Prigogine, 1984, 14).
The rate of change may be positively affected by the presence of a catalyst. Not only is the rate modified, but catalysts may "even allow the system to follow a new reaction path" (Prigogine, 1984, 133). However, catalytic personalities can also produce tremendous impact in existing institutional structures that are not necessarily on the brink of collapse. In this situation, they improve performance of a system, by enhancing certain aspects of it. Also, they inspire others to do the same. Such a form of catalysis, often seen in chemistry and biology, is known as autocatalysis:
The presence of a product is required for its own synthesis. In other words, in order to produce the molecule X we must begin with a system already containing X... Therefore we need X to produce more X (Prigogine, 1984, 134).
Thus, in addition to stimulating change by virtue of an individual's own efforts, a catalytic personality is often able to inspire others to take the same proactive lead in bringing about change. Such autocatalytic reactions are not guaranteed, but they can happen, resulting in an entire change of attitude and performance in a department. Think, for example, of the dynamic personality of Robert Kennedy and the tremendous impact he made on improving the Justice Department's performance in battling organised crime in the United States during the 1960s (Schlesinger, 1978, 240-43, 268, 278). Many examples also exist at the grass roots level of organisations whose effectiveness in achieving their goals is phenomenally enhanced thanks to the efforts of a key individual.
Autocatalysis differs from the previous examples where personalities take advantage of existing situations. Here, the personality actually changes the situation by virtue of his or her behaviour and the influence this has on others, who then emulate that behaviour. In this regard, the definition of catalyst is stretched, but the reader must bear in mind that the changes come about by enhancing a given element in the system, such as a cooperative attitude, and not by introducing something entirely new. Thus, in an institutional setting, where many argue the bureaucratic system stifles an individual's efforts to create change, autocatalysis can work. The governing structure is established and only requires persons with determination to improve its performance.
2.6 Implications for the Research
Using the premise that taking precautions to reduce the impact of human activity on the ecosphere is conducive to survival, but that there are reasons why such precautionary measures are not always pursued by individuals and their government, the research uses interviews designed to access people's perceptions about what these reasons might be. The interviews ask people to reveal their perceptions about the barriers to taking actions, as outlined in the Clouds of Change report, to address the problems of atmospheric change and air quality deterioration. The responses are then analysed to identify the points at which action-taking is prevented. The analysis also tries to uncover the role of catalytic personalities and their impact.