A New Subsystem Called Ecology: A way out of the ecological dilemma in Luhmann’s Ecological Communication Abstract. Ecology is at the early stages of formation, not only as a scientific and moral discipline, but as a new functional subsystem, whose specialized purpose is to develop communications about the system/environment difference for the whole social system. Historically, the discipline of ecology has always been both a social and natural science, thus enabling its specialized function to communicate the system/environment difference. As both a social and natural science, it has the capacity to perform second-order observations of both the natural environment and the social system. Functionally it acts as a gateway between the environment and the social system that allows in certain kinds of information and translates it into a coded form of communication (fit/unfit) that other subsystems can comprehend. As such it mitigates the problem of the under-resonance and over-resonance of the social system to ecological crises. I will show that the development of the new subsystem ‘ecology’ is possible within all the parameters for the social system and its subsystems that Luhmann specifies in both Social Systems (1984) and Ecological Communication (1989). Not only is it possible, but it is necessary for the continued evolution of a social system whose closure from its environment and division into functional subsystems renders it unable to steer itself as a whole system in relation to its environment, which reduces it’s capacity to adequately respond to threats from the environment. Without a means to perceive and communicate threats from the environment, society threatens its own demise as a system. The new subsystem ‘ecology’ is a functionally sufficient subsystem that is capable of communicating the system/environment difference to society as a whole, thus ensuring its continued autopoiesis. 1. Ecological Danger and Communication In the Preface to Ecological Communication (1989), Luhamann states the main argument of his 1985 address at the Rhenish-Westfallian Academy of Science, on the topic of “Can Modern Society Adjust Itself to the Exposure to Ecological Dangers?”: modern society creates too little as well as too much resonance concerning environmental crises because of its structural differentiation into functional subsystems. Too little resonance and society fails to adequately respond; too much resonance overwhelms social response and results in paralysis. (1989:xvii)Luhmann argues that the core of the problem is the differentiation and closing off of the social system from its environment, which reduces feedback from its environment. This closure is further complicated by its subsequent differentiation into functional subsystems. The


differentiation into functional subsystems means that no one subsystem is primarily responsible for causing an ecological crisis, or for failing to respond to it. Though the problem is generally ascribed to failures of the economic, technological and political systems, all subsystems are involved in the failure to respond adequately to ecological crisis. Moreover, the system as a whole is closed off from its environment as to its self-replicating operations (Luhmann,1995). While the social system continues to be open to stimulus from its environment, its openness is limited to a particular feedback loop known as structural coupling. In a coupling feedback loop, the system maintains the integrity of its boundaries, but its environment can stimulate new responses within the boundaries of the the system. Thus ecological crisis can be attributed to society as a whole. (1989:12) Furthermore, Luhmann departs from much ecological literature which attributes society’s failure to respond to ecological crisis to a “moral failure.” Luhmann dismisses this ecological argument as “naive,” caused by careless word choices and poorly defined theoretical positions. (1989:xvii). Luhmann states that ecology as a discipline, itself a product of social communication, is only one hundred years old, and only in the last twenty years has ecology focused on the social dimension of environmental conditions. I would agree with Luhmann that ecology is still in its nascent stage, which probably accounts for its “naivete” and ambiguous theoretical positions. (1989:1) Ecology is at the early stages of formation, not only as a scientific and moral discipline, but as a new functional subsystem, whose specialized purpose is to develop communications about the system/environment difference for the whole social system. Historically, the discipline of ecology has always been both a social and natural science, thus enabling its specialized


function to communicate the system/environment difference. As both a social and natural science, it has the capacity to perform second-order observations of both the natural environment and the social system. Functionally it acts as a gateway between the environment and the social system that allows in certain kinds of information and translates it into a coded form of communication (fit/unfit) that other subsystems can comprehend. As such it mitigates the problem of the under-resonance and over-resonance of the social system to ecological crises. I will show that the development of the new subsystem ‘ecology’ is possible within all the parameters for the social system and its subsystems that Luhmann specifies in both Social Systems (1984) and Ecological Communication (1989). Not only is it possible, but it is necessary for the continued evolution of a social system whose closure from its environment and division into functional subsystems renders it unable to steer itself as a whole system in relation to its environment, which reduces it’s capacity to adequately respond to threats from the environment. Without a means to perceive and communicate threats from the environment, society threatens its own demise as a system. The new subsystem ecology is a functionally sufficient subsystem that is capable of communicating the system/environment difference to society as a whole, thus ensuring its continued autopoiesis. Luhmann recognizes that ecological problems have become themes for social communication. However, he contends that themes of ecological crisis only alarms society without providing the cognitive structures for assessing environmental risk and taking coordinated action. (1989:1) I argue that the new subsystem ecology is in the process of forming the cognitive structures that enable the prediction of environmental risk and the communication of those risks to other functional subsystems. The subsystem ecology enters into a structural


coupling feedback loop with other functional subsystems whereby other subsystems incorporate ecological themes into their own operations. Thus other subsystems develop the cognitive capacity to recognize ecological problems at least in terms of their own functioning. Through this feedback system, it becomes possible for the whole social system to “learn” about ecological problems. However, it is still not a guarantee that the system as a whole can coordinate adequate responses to them. 2.a Luhman’s System/Environment Difference as Ecology. Luhmann states that the genesis of the science of sociology in the early western industrial age meant that it was focused on the internal structures of society. Knowledge about nature was confined to the physical and life sciences. Thus sociology was theoretically unprepared to recognize environmental conditions and problems. (1989:2) However, Luhmann’s own social theory, as a theory primarily about the system/environment difference, is itself a sign that the social system, specifically the subsystem of science known as “sociology,” is in the process of developing the capacity to observe the system/environment difference. As Luhmann himself argues, it is the ability to perceive this difference that makes society a comprehensible entity to itself, for its own self-observation (1995). I contend also that this difference makes the environment comprehensible as an unbounded field of phenomena different from itself, and thus observable (1995). Luhmann’s own social theory is itself, therefore, a sign that the social system can perceive the system/environment difference, a necessary cognitive structure for perceiving ecological problems. In fact, I propose that Luhmann’s own social theory is itself a form of this new subsystem called “ecology”. His theory is based on the same scientific knowledge in the field of natural and physical sciences that informs ecology. His theory constructs observable


phenomena as evolutionary systems, as ecology does, with self-regulating functions and feedback mechanisms. Moreover, his theory permits society to observe itself as a phenomena within the unbounded field of it’s environment, as the system/environment difference. Luhmann outlines a sweeping history of the discipline of ecology that begins with the ancient world and its lack of differentiation between social systems and their environments. Whereas hunter-gatherer societies considered all of Nature to be sacred, ancient philosophies and Christianity separated religion from Nature, which was de-sacralized. Luhmann contends that in the 18th century, this pattern was reversed again, and society became the sacred, with the ascendancy of laws and political sovereigns over religious hierarchies. Luhmann asserts that while Nature had lost its place as sacred phenomena, it reemerged as a field of scientific research. It was 18th century scientists that described the natural world as a millieu, including both climate and culture. The field of agricultural science was the primary technological benefit of this research. Eighteenth century French economists proposed that defining property as a legal and economic institution assigned the proper values to nature, thus protecting it from exploitation and waste. The reverse is true today: Property as a legal and economic institution externalizes environmental costs and promotes the commercial exploitation of natural systems. (1989:3) Sociological attempts to incorporate ecological ideas have been flawed. Darwin’s theory of evolution proposed that the environment of the species selected features that promoted its successful reproduction. Social Darwinism, a perversion of the theory, justified the domination of the socially powerful as survival of the fittest. At about mid-twentieth century, the sociology of ecology developed within the critical theory tradition. It was concerned with assessing risk and the distribution of risk in society. (1989:4) Society endangers itself through its destructive


effects on the environment. Environmental ethics justifies imposing interventions that prevent a civilization from destroying its environmental base, the means of its own survival. Luhmann argues that the scientific discussion concerning the environment then becomes a moral argument, without clarifying the systemic structures that cause the problem. Furthermore, histories of ecology focus on the emergence of environmental ethics, without discussing what made moral discussion possible. (1989:4) 2.b. History of Ecology. The history of ecology begins, as Luhmann said, at the turn of the twentieth century. It was from the beginning, both a natural and moral science. Its chief moral concerns were the increasing mechanization of society, resulting in social alienation from natural ecosystems and negative impacts on both the social order and on natural environments. John Bellamy Foster argues in his sociology of ecology (Foster & Clark, 2008) that the discipline of ecology is replete with the “double transfer” (to use Marx’s term) of concepts from society to nature, then from nature back to society. Ecologists used social and moral ideas about how society functions, or should function, to analyze patterns of evolution and behavior in the natural world. From this analysis, they developed models of the natural world, then ascribed those models to human societies, using “nature” to justify their social and moral implications. Foster proposes that by the 1930s, the discipline of ecology had developed two main theoretical standpoints: organismic holism and ecosystem holism. The main proponent of organismic holism was the South African ecologist and military general, Jan Christian Smuts, while British biologist Alfred Tansley developed the theory of ecosystems. He argues that these two theoretical


standpoints corresponded to different views of the natural world, and each derived from different views of human society. (Foster & Clark, 2008) Foster points out that Charles Darwin himself admitted to using concepts derived from classical philosophers Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith (competition), and Malthus (populations) to interpret what he observed in the natural world and develop his theory of evolution. (Foster & Clark, 2008:324) Frederic Clements, the American botanist who dominated the field in 1905, established an ecological ideal as “one of wholeness, of organs working in unison within a great organism” that was designed to guide ecological research. (Clements & Chaney, 1937:51 in Foster & Clark, 2008:327) Clements had developed the theory of a “biotic community” of plants that evolved through stages toward a “climax community”, comprising a balanced and final order of ecological stability. (Clements & Chaney, 1937:51 in Foster & Clark, 2008:326) Jan Christian Smuts used Clements’ ideas of biotic and climax communities to justify an ecology of racial apartheid: that black Africans represented a lower order of humans, which he termed “personalogies”, who belong in their own separate “biotic communities” or homelands, and that white Afrikaans were higher order human personalogies who must establish “climax communities” as the final and balanced order of nature. (Foster & Clark, 2008) In Holism and Evolution, Smuts further developed a thesis of the organismic holism, defining evolution as a teleological process that presupposes a grand design in nature, all moving toward a state of perfection. (Foster & Clark, 2008) Foster proposes that Smuts’ teleological holism, almost religious in nature, failed and died out in the early 20th century, first because it became associated with a justification for Apartheid in South Africa, but more so because it failed to generate empirical research and new data. (Foster & Clark, 2008)


The chief opponent of Smuts’ thesis was Alfred Tansley, who argued that organismic holism was not a theoretically or empirically productive way to understand natural systems,. He also refuted the idea that vegetation constituted a superorganism or “biotic community”. Tansley used the dialectical systems theory of Scottish mathematician Hyman Levy to develop the concept of “ecosystems”, subject to rapid change and transformation. He proposed that ecosystems included both physical and organismic systems, including climate, and ranging from the physical systems of the universe down to atoms. Tansley argued that ecosystems exhibit “dynamic equilibrium.’ Ecosystems maintain stability only for short periods. They are transformed by small disruptions and periodic cycles of destruction and regeneration. (Foster & Clark, 2008) Tansley proposed that the ecosystem concept was as much a cognitive construction as a natural phenomenon: “The systems we isolate mentally are not only included as parts of larger ones, but they also overlap, interlock and interact with one another. The isolation is partly artificial, but is the only possible way we can proceed.” (Tansley, 1935, in Foster & Clark, 2008:356) Tansley’s ecosystem concept is akin to Luhmann’s theory of systems. Social systems make observations of the environment by using a projection of itself—constructs developed within its own system—which are then attributed to the environment. Luhmann would probably agree with Tansley that this is “the only possible way” society can understand the environment. Tansley’s ecosystems theory superseded Smuts’ organismic holism primarily because it was more empirically productive. Using his theory, other scientists conducted research on soil composition, climate, and animal ecology. The Odum brothers, Howard T. and Eugene, incorporated Tansley’s ecosystem theory into a thermodynamic theory of ecosystems that traced


energy flows and metabolism. Besides Tansley, the Odum brothers incorporated the social theories of their father, the sociologist Howard W. Odum,, into their theories of natural ecology. (Rotabi, 2007) In yet another social transference, the Odum brothers’ theories of ecological thermodynamics have been used in recent years to explain thermodynamics in social systems. From the turn of the twentieth century, ecological scientists recognized that human civilization had a deep impact on natural environments. Clements recognized this but claimed that he had no systematic way of analyzing the interaction of society and environment. (Chew, 2009) Tansley’s ecology theorized the transformation and destruction of natural systems by human societies. (Foster & Clark, 2008) By the 1930s, ecologists were faced with the prospect that most natural ecosystems on the planet had been influenced by human civilizations. Up until the 1970s, ecological scientists generally excluded human systems from their study of natural ecosystems. While some scientists continued to search for isolated pockets of “unspoiled” natural systems, the majority of ecological scientists recognized that this was no longer possible. (Chew, 2009) Since the 1970s, ecological science has delved into the study of human systems and their interactions with natural ecosystems. Ecologists have since used their science to explain human impacts on planetary ecosystems, and to advocate for social policies to mitigate those impacts. More recent ecological theories, such as Gunderson and Hollings Panarchy, theorizes the coevolution of natural and social systems. (Gunderson & Holling, 2002) Foster’s thesis is that the history of ecology is marked by a double transference of concepts influenced by social structures which are then applied to the study of natural environments; in turn, models of natural systems devised with these concepts are then imported back into society as the analysis and justification that society operates according to certain


“natural laws.” While Foster argues that this double transference is problematic, Luhmann’s systems theory argues that it is inevitable. Autopoietic social systems are only capable of understanding their environments through models of themselves. Social systems evolve their own structures, codes and programs by which they continuously generate new social structures. (1989) The concepts that the social system evolves to construct itself, particularly by the subsystem science, are also used to connect with and understand the environment. (Luhmann, 1996) Ecology becomes a theme for social communication because society includes itself within its exploration of the environment and notices a system/environment difference. (1989:18) I contend that both the science and the social moralism of ecology became possible communicative themes because historically, ecology always has always been both a social and a natural science. Ecology developed capacities for recognizing patterns of organization in societies that could also be observed within nature, and patterns in nature that could also be observed in societies. Luhmann himself incorporated many laws and observations from the natural sciences into his own theory of social system, including the whole concept of general systems theory. The natural sciences, particularly ecology, developed new systems theory by incorporating the law of entropy. Science had to explain why living organisms and systems seem to defy the law of entropy and become more complex and organized as they evolved. Bertalanffy’s general systems theory proposed that thermodynamically open systems, i.e. systems that obtain energy from the outside, enter into relations of exchange that make them more environmentally dependent, yet guarantee their autonomy through structural integrity. Such systems are open as to energy, yet


closed as to the self-replication of its structures. Luhmann incorporated concepts from general systems theory into sociology through his theory of social systems. (1989:4) Luhmann argues that the fundamental flaw of ecology is that it has to treat all facts as both a unity and a difference, i.e. as the unity of the ecological interconnection and the difference of system and environment that breaks down the connection. Thus ecology’s theme becomes the unity of the difference of system and environment. (1989:6) However, in Social Systems, Luhmann also proposed that the entire sum of phenomena is defined as the unity of the difference between any system and its environment. Even at the level of subsystem codes, such as, for example, codes for the legal system—legal/illegal—it is the unity of the difference of legal/illegal that constitutes the entire sum of phenomena for that subsystem. Thus, ecology’s theme, as the sum or unity of the difference between system/environment, is entirely valid within Luhmann’s systems theory. Luhmann proposes that system/environment difference, as the basis of systems theory, constitutes a radical change in world view. Nineteenth century ecological science invented the term “environment” and developed modern systems theory. Components of this theory are that systems define their own boundaries; systems differentiate themselves and thereby constitute the environment as whatever lies outside the boundary; the environment is not a system of its own, not even as a unified effect. (1989:6) In terms of ecology, Luhmann defines “environment” as the totality of external circumstances that reduces the randomness of the system’s morphogenesis and exposes it to evolutionary selection. (1989:6) Luhmann argues that for the theme of ecology to become intelligible for the social system, it must develop the following properties:


(1) Ecological theory must become systems theory; it must move from unity to difference, the unity of the difference of the system of society and its environment; (2) The theme for ecology is “the world as a whole” as seen through the system’s reference; (3) The system consists of self-referential operations that can be produced only within the system and with the help of a network of those same operations. (1989:7) Here, Luhmann is offering his own system’s theory as the theoretical foundation not only for the study of society, but for the study of ecology, i.e., the system/environment difference. Following his direction, I propose that ecology is a new subsystem whose specialized function is to communicate the system/environment difference to the rest of the social system. Luhmann’s system theory is either a product of this subsystem, and/or intends to insert itself as a program in the subsystem ecology. 3. Evolution and Systems Theory. Luhmann has a unique take on evolutionary theory that differs from what is commonly known as “Darwinism.” In Darwin’s theory, species with characteristics best adapted to environmental conditions have a better chance of survival and continued reproduction. Luhmann asserts that if it were true that only the environment conditioned those selections, there would be far less species diversity than there has been; all species in a given environment would function in more or less the same way. Luhmann asserts that the system, be it a species or social system, once established, selects it’s own characteristics to facilitate its own autopoiesis. There is a huge range of variability allowed for a given species or system that will nonetheless function within a given environment. The environment only has its say as the final word: does the species reproduce in sufficient numbers or go extinct? This evolutionary scheme allows for much greater diversity in the range of species that can survive within a given environment and greater diversity within species. The independent evolution of the social system also explains why a


social system can ultimately construct its own demise. Its self-reproduction can proceed in a manner so out of sync with its environment that it can reach a point where it no longer functions within that ecosystem and collapses. Luhmann warns in Ecological Communication that the total collapse of the social system remains a very real possibility. With this evolutionary theory, Luhmann avoided social Darwinism, which he considered a grave error. If the environment does not select for every characteristic, and if society is independent enough to select its own characteristics based on its own operations, then the onus is on the social system for the selections that it makes, not on “nature.” The social system decides it’s own standard of “fitness”, and thus whether or not an individual or group meets that standard of fitness. The system’s selections are not morally determined—Luhmann denies any moral justification to society—they are determined by prior selections which could have been otherwise. (Luhmann, 1996) For Luhmann, it is a matter of inclusion or exclusion; those who are not socially fit are excluded by the system, not by “nature”. In his theory of evolution (1989:Ch. 3), Luhmann restates his formula for systems theory: that the environment for any system is always more complex than the system itself; no system can match the kind of complexity possessed by its environment or else lose it’s distinctive boundary; it must select elements within itself to differentiate itself from its environment; the reduction of complexity in the environment can only be performed within the system. (1984; 1989) Luhmann proposes that one way a system can distinguish itself from its environment is to completely close off its boundaries and operations from its environment, to reduce dependency on its environment. He asserts that this has not been possible for either biotic or social systems.


He proposes that a system can differentiate itself by becoming both more complex though establishing a different kind of complexity than its environment, and by developing an array of adaptations to the environment that insulate it from various shocks. Luhmann argues that “systems with greater complexity are generally capable of entertaining more and different kinds of relations with their environments . . . and thus of reacting to an environment with greater complexity. . . At the same time, they have to select every individual determination internally with greater exactness. So their structures and elements become increasingly contingent.” (1989:12). By obtaining a greater independence from its environment through complexity and multiple adaptations, a system becomes capable of self-replicating without having to strictly conform to environmental conditions. Luhmann argues that this capacity was a product of evolution and a necessary condition for further evolution. (1989:13). Luhmann’s systems theory proposes that autopoietic systems, as they become more complex, become recursively more closed as to their own operations. Yet paradoxically, they also develop a wider range of adaptive connections to their environments, and thus become more “open” and sensitive to environmental conditions. (1989:13) Systems also become increasingly temporalized; i.e. they develop a type of complexity built on events whose continual passing stimulates new events and structures. (1989:14) However, this evolutionary scheme is not without its flaws. A system can become both so complex and so autonomous from its environment that it fails to respond adequately to environmental changes and jeopardizes its own existence. The environment is the final arbiter as to whether a system survives or becomes extinct. Strangely, Luhmann appears to take what would usually be called a “deep ecology” stance toward environmental crisis: all of civilization


is involved, and all of civilization is responsible for its own ecocide: “On the level of our analyses this question would lead to the discovery that society itself is guilty—and we know this already.” (1989:10) Often environmental selection is catastrophic: the environment becomes so hostile, and the species so poorly fitted, that sudden changes in the environment cause the mass extinction of multitudes of species in a relatively short time. This is known to be the case for several of the earth’s six mass extinctions. (Ward, 2007) For example, mammals appeared on the planet before the dinosaurs, but climate change that created the earth’s warmest biotic climate, the Jurassic period, favored the domination of the dinosaurs for millions of years. Scientists have sufficient proof that an asteroid impact with the planet ended the hot climate within a few thousand years, wiping out the dinosaurs, in geologic time, overnight. In the ensuing colder climate, mammals became the dominant order. The environment was thus the final arbiter of whole orders of species. (Ward, 2007) Yet within those orders, whether dinosaur or mammal, there was an astounding array of diverse characteristics and adaptations to the planetary climate. Whether or not Luhmann’s evolutionary theory strictly applies to biotic kingdoms, his argument is certainly plausible as applied to the evolution of human societies. Planetary climate change poses an enormous threat to a human civilization that was fostered by a stable, temperate climate, the Halocene period, that has lasted tens of thousands of years. The geologic history of the planet is one of frequent and extreme climate shifts, not stability. (Ward, 2007) It remains to be seen whether the present human civilization can withstand the chaotic shifts in the climate that may ensue with global warming. Luhmann’s evolutionary theory allows that a civilization may become so poorly fitted to its environment that it threatens its own survival. A system that


is closed to the environment as to its operations tends to want to ignore environmental conditions until they become catastrophic. In the often catastrophic process of evolution, systems that are over-exposed to ecological self-endangerment are eliminated. (1989:14) Luhmann proposes that the goal of autopoietic systems is to continue their autopoiesis without disturbance from the environment. (1989:14) Auotpoietic systems, he proposes, rely on a smooth, uninterrupted coupling with the environment. The smooth coupling and low level of disturbance is effected by technological complexity that permits more diverse adaptations to the environment. (1989:13) In a positive feedback loop, environmental shocks to the system require technological adaptations and thus more complexity. Responding to the shocks, society becomes highly reactive to the environment. It responds with more technological adaptations that will reduce its reactivity to the environment. However, technological adaptations also provoke changes in the environment, which in turn create more problems for society. Thus, society must continuously increase its competence for technological intervention. (1989:13) Technological competence must also account for the problem that technological complexity poses for society’s own operations. Joseph Tainter’s thesis on the diminishing returns of complexity (Tainter,1990) shows that the benefits of increasing technological complexity diminishes with time, until society becomes unable to make further adaptations or sustain its complexity and collapses. Like Tainter, Luhmann also cautions that greater system complexity is not a straightforward solution to the problem of environmental adaptation. Complex systems evolve an array of adaptations to the environment, but with increasing specialization for each adaptation. Each adaptation must be selected more individually, with greater exactness. Specialized


adaptations are thus increasingly contingent, i.e. they work in a narrower range of conditions and quickly become obsolete. The system the becomes reliant on contingent structures that must be quickly replaced with new structures and adaptations (temporalization). This is similar to Gunderson and Hollings concept of ecological “brittleness” (Gunderson, Holling, 2002). As the system becomes more complex and dependent to a set of highly specialized adaptations, it obtains an increasing risk of system-wide collapse, should environmental conditions change radically. From this, Luhmann proposes two questions as the problematic for ecology: 1) does society possess enough technological complexity to continue its evolutionary selections, i.e. does it give society enough freedom from nature? and 2) does society possess enough social, i.e., communicative competence to be able to carry out the selective function? (1989:14) The new subsystem ‘ecology’ is peculiarly charged with this communicative function. Through its competence in the natural sciences, and its openness to the natural environment, it is able to read signals from the environment and communicate them to the social system. Simultaneously, through its competencies in social science, it is able to monitor feedbacks in the social system to both environmental shocks and technological complexity. It is the only subsystem that is capable of this dually selective function. Luhmann asserts that complex autopoietic systems had to evolve independence from their environments as a condition of continued evolution. In the same way, I argue that complex autopoietic systems, including social systems, must evolve a system for adequately responding to threats from the environment in order to continue evolution. Certainly, throughout geologic history species have developed sufficient capacity to adapt their systems to changes in the


environment, even catastrophic changes. The proof is that many species, genera and orders on the planet today have survived successfully for millions of years, some nearly unchanged. Human civilization, the social system itself, has been evolving for tens of thousands of years, evidence of its ability to adapt. Failure to detect and adequately respond to threats from the environment would result in the total self-destruction of the system; no further operations, no further evolution, no further autopoiesis. If the ultimate imperative of the system is to ensure its autopoiesis, then it seems more probable than not that a system would also evolve a means of adequately responding to threats from the environment to assure continued autopoiesis and avoid extinction. I am proposing that the new subsystem ecology, whose function is to observe and communicate the fitness/unfitness of the system/environment difference, is an evolutionary necessity within meaning-based social systems. Luhmann argued that historically ecology had focused on the unity of system and environment. The evolutionary change in ecology came with observation of the difference between system and environment. I propose that the subsystem ecology is designed to observe the fitness or unfitness of this difference. Focusing on the difference between system and environment enables the system to observe where the system is in a detrimental relationship with its environment or unfit. The function of ecology is to monitor whether the system’s difference from the environment—its fit—enhances the system imperative, i.e., continued autopoiesis, or renders it unfit, threatening extinction. This function requires the dual capacity to observe both the system and its environment to determine the fitness/unfitness of this difference. Moreover, I propose that ecology has emerged as a new functional subsystem, developing its own code and programs. (1989) The code for the new subsystem ‘ecology’, using the


Luhmanian schema, is fit/unfit. The criteria is whether a system and its environment are a mutually sustaining fit for each other, or whether the system and its environment are unfit, such they they cause a mutually reinforcing breakdown or collapse. The determination of fit/unfit is derived through ecological programs that monitor the structural coupling of the system and its environment. The program of ecology is adaptation, the adaptation of the system to the environment and the adaptation of the environment (by the system) to the system. All species and systems must adapt to their environments, including all autopoietic systems, and the continued evolution of a given species is proof of that. Science has shown that most species, those that have left an archeological record, have survived for millions of years; some for shorter periods. All species and systems develop adaptive strategies based on their interaction with and feedback from their environments. Some species adapt through innumerable mutations and some remain unchanged for millions of years. It is clear from the history of human societies, evolving from simple to highly complex systems over tens of thousands of years, that human societies have developed adaptive strategies that enabled their continued autopoiesis. Strategies are developed as needed, abandoned and replaced as conditions change. Indeed, the whole history of socio-cultural evolution is one of increasingly complex adaptations to the environment that also freed human societies from strict conformity with the environment. This does not mean that because a given civilization has survived and evolved in the past that it will continue to do so. The failure to adapt and subsequent collapse of complex societies has occurred many times in human history (Tainter, 1990 ) But despite numerous failures, human civilization has continued to evolve on


this planet—certainly proof that socio-cultural adaptation to the environment is both possible and necessary. 4. Resonance. In Ecological Communication, Luhmann examines the reactivity of social systems to changes in the environment, which he calls resonance. He states in the Preface that society’s ecological problem is one of too little or too much resonance. He proposes that auotopoietic systems strive to maintain independence from their environments by reducing disturbances from the environment, resulting in hypo-reactivity or under-resonance. Environmental shocks cause hyper-reactivity or over-resonance. Over-resonance stimulates the production of new adaptive technologies that work to reduce the hyper-reactivity and return the system to a state of smooth coupling with its environment. Thus, the central problem examined in Ecological Communication is the problem of resonance. Luhmann describes resonance as a kind of reverberation, i.e. a sound wave that carries energy. This is one of the few times that Luhmann drops his strictly abstract verbal formulation and uses a term that denotes physical energy. By defining resonance as waves, as carriers of physical energy, Luhmann indicates that there is a kind of energy flow through the social communication system. Communication systems are thus energy driven systems that can have high or low energy frequencies: ”Society is a system uncommonly rich in frequencies.” (1989:16) This energy is independent of the energy used to drive the technological systems (media) that are the environment of the social communication system. Moreover, Luhamann describes the societal response to ecological crisis as one of “alarm”, of society provoked by self-agitation. This indicates an emotional energy as well. There is a kind of


emotional energy in social communication systems: low-energy or low reactivity, or high energy and high reactivity. That emotional energy can agitate or intensify communications is one of the central problems that Luhmann identifies in Ecological Communication. Luhmann uses resonance to describe the degree of openness of the social system to its environment. First he proposes that, in closed complex social systems, resonance is highly selective. Less complex societies, such as hunter-gatherer societies, are very open to and highly resonant with their environments, having not yet achieved autonomy from the environment. Conversely, agricultural and industrial societies are insulated from their environments. The evolution of social systems, therefore, is marked by the loss of resonance with the environment: “from an evolutionary standpoint, sociocultural evolution is based on the premise that society does not have to react to its environment.” (1989:16). Resonance is the system’s capacity to detect something of importance, a distinction, shaped by the mode of information processing that is common to both psychic and social systems, i.e. meaning. Communications and their meanings are only a momentary grasp of the knowable world, most of which remains an unknowable and an ever receding horizon. (1989:17) The environment is an unbounded sphere, and contains only data. Meaningful representations of the environment, that is information, happen entirely within the social system (1995). The system creates its own distinctions by which subsequent events become information. Thus, social systems cannot really “know” the environment; they can only “know what they know” about the environment. Luhmann identifies this as the “insolubility of ecological problems.” (1989:18) However, Luhmann allows that systems can distinguish themselves from their environments; this is essential to defining the system/environment difference by which systems


establish themselves. Thus, “the ecological problem” is not just one of moralistic “concern for the environment.” It is an essential system-level operation. The system, especially a highly temporalized complex system, must continuously distinguish itself from its environment in order to maintain the system/environment difference. This requires that the system to constantly monitor its environment. Monitoring enables the autopoises of the system by contributing to the closure of its operations, but also diversifying its selective connections to the environment. From this, Luhmann also allows that the system can assume possibilities and form expectations from the environment; what it finds there is a selection from numerous possibilities and expectations. (1989:18) The system’s capacity to select from its environment is its capacity for resonance. His theoretical question is then: which concepts and distinctions in social communication help us to deal with the exposure to ecological dangers? (1989:19) 5. Science and Subsystems. Though a social system may be open through resonances to its environment, it is not able to respond as a unified system to its environment. The only unity that Luhmann allows is the unity of its autopoietic operations. Responses to stimuli are subdivided into functional subsystems. Each subsystem reacts to other subsystems and its environment and to the system as a whole as its “environment.” (1989:19) Each subsystem responds to stimuli according to its own functions, and does not effect the response of the system as a whole; there are no allencompassing operations. (1989:19) Through functional specialization, each subsystem is relieved of responsibility for the whole, and for the operations of other subsystems. (1989:19). Therefore, how a society reacts to environmental crisis is constrained by the capacity of its subsystems.


It would appear from Luhmann’s description of the system that neither society as a whole nor any of its subsystems can make an adequate observation of the environment that could protect the system from its own self-endangerment. However, Luhmann allows one operational loophole in this ever-enclosing system: the system’s unity can, if necessary, be represented within the system itself. (1989:20) The representation reintroduces the system’s unity within itself as a difference vis-a-vis seeing itself as a whole rather a collection of parts. He states that “the presentation of the system’s unity within itself must fit the pattern of differentiation” at the system level. (1989:20) He identifies examples of patterns of differentiation, for example, hierarchical, as stratification; or as center/periphery. With this system-level operation, Luhmann allows himself to devise a sociology of systems, enabling him to work from within one subsystem—social science—to make observations about systems as a whole. Indeed, Luhmann’s whole premise for systems theory is derived from the nearly paradoxical claim that though the system does not operate as a whole (operational closure is its only unity), yet one can observe both the system as a whole and the system/environment difference. From this one can propose the possibility of a new subsystem called “ecology” whose specialized function is to observe the social system as system, and to observe the fitness/unfitness of the system/environment difference. It comports with the system’s own pattern of differentiation, first, as the essential system/environment difference, and second as a differentiation into functional subsystems. From within this subsystem, one can make observations not only about the society as a system, but observations about the system/environment difference. It clarifies the system’s boundaries and diversifies its connections to the environment, enabling both system closure and environmental resonance. The subsystem ecology employs its facility with natural science to make direct


observations of the environment. It makes further observations about natural science as secondorder observations, turning first-order observations about environmental data into second-order observations about those facts as systems. Second it employs its facility with social science to make observations about the system/ environment difference, another second-order observation. Third, it makes observations about the interaction of the system as a whole and its environment. Luhmann argues that the subsystem science provides little resonance for society because what it offers as knowledge is theoretical. Its truth claims must be verified through numerous trials and can be disproven by new discoveries. Regarding science, he states that “Not much is gained therefore by following an ontological theory of reality which corresponds to a first-order observation of the environment.” (1989: 26) The subsystem ecology is better equipped to observe the system-environment difference because it is a science of second-order observations. It provides resonance for the system because it contains both information about the system (by which the system recognizes itself) and information about the system/environment difference (by which the system constructs the difference), in addition to information about the environment. It presents only that information from the environment that is relevant to the system and thus graspable; all else is left as “horizon” or the unknown. Ecology functions as a gateway subsystem, enabling more selections from the environment and translating those selections into information that the system understands. It conveys that information to other subsystems, which in turn convert that information into forms useful for their own functions. Each subsystem observes the subsystem ecology and its code, fitness/ unfitness of the system/environment difference. Each subsystem imports that information in such a way as to continue with its own self-building operations. For example, in economics, “fitness”


becomes the measurement of its fitness/unfitness with markets, or with supplies of natural resources. Eventually, each subsystem develops a capacity for seeing the fitness or unfitness of the system/environment difference and begins to expect that kind of information. It employs that differential device in its relations with other subsystems and the social system as a whole, it’s total “environment.” Thus, gradually, each subsystem encodes the fitness/unfitness of the system/ environment difference into it’s own operations. This enables more complex interactions with the environment in all subsystems, and increases the resonance of each subsystem. Eventually, the social system as a whole and in its parts is encoded for the fitness/unfitness of the system/ environment difference and develops capacities for dealing with ecological threats. Ecology is meta-science that makes second-order observations of many sciences, both natural sciences and social sciences, and their interactions. Ecology is constructed by the code fit/unfit; its program is adaptation. This differs from the subsystem science, which is a system of first-order observations that is constructed by the code true/false, and its programs are called theories. Luhmann proposes that the disciplines of science are loose, expandable and nonintegratable. Science discovers and proves truth or falsity, but the knowledge it provides does not necessarily lead to the selection of actions for the rest of society; science steers it’s own programs, but it does not steer the rest of society. All other subsystems are steered by their own codes and programs. Moreover, scientific knowledge does not lead to moral selections for resolving complex social problems. (1989:76-80) Luhmann proposes that science is directed toward the discovery of the new. Science finds resonance in its own programs, which are predetermined by its cognitive structures; it does not


find resonance in the environment as such. Science does not work to solve problems, but to multiply them. (1989:78) It begins with what are assumed to be facts, or states of reality; it questions and tests those assumptions and thus develops new facts and theories. Science is a process of decomposition into constituent parts—by analysis—and recombination—by synthesis —into new analytic and technical combinations. Luhmann states that science is a reflexive process, that “research encounters the resistance of reality, forcing [science] to understand itself in terms of structured complexity. . . it encounters itself as a complex system that allows selfprovoked disturbances from the environment.” (1989:80) Scientific theories are directions for comparisons of a wide array of research objects, yielding a set of non-integratable theoretical descriptions. Selecting what is to be compared requires isolating variable within a causal relationship and ruling out intervening or co-varying factors. Luhamann argues that controlling for intervening variables is a false assumption; yet it is through false assumptions (the null and test hypothesis) that knowledge can be obtained. It is impossible to account for all variables in the environment, the sum total of complexity. Luhmann asserts that the problem of hypercomplexity is the central problem for the field of ecology. (1989:79-81) Luhmann argues that hyper-complexity is “unavoidable if our theme of social resonance to the exposure to ecological dangers is to become the theme of scientific research.” (1989:80) He proposes that science describes society and itself in terms of its own subsystem, and “applies to itself whatever it postulates for all systems: limited resonance according to its own frequencies” and its own binary coding. (1989:80) I argue that the subsystem ecology, whose code is fit/unfit, is a functional code that is better suited to observing the system/environment difference and


communicating the exposure to ecological dangers. It is not provoked by its ignorance of complexity, but by rifts in its observations of the system/environment difference. The term “rift” denotes the observation of a difference, a gap, a widening fissure between one system boundary and another. John Bellamy Foster expounded upon Marx’s concept of the “metabolic rift” between society and the environment. (Foster, 2002) Society extracts resources from its environment into its urban centers but fails to integrate its beneficial wastes back to the environment; instead, used-up resources become toxic wastes that are dumped in landfills or into water and soil. This reduces the total quantity of resources available to the society for future production and consumption and destroys the environment, creating an ecological crisis that threatens the collapse of society. Luhmann examines the science of ecology in his analysis of the subsystem science. Ecology purports to describe ecosystems, and ecological problems as the internal problems of an all encompassing system. This is only possible if science delineates a boundary for the environment. But since the environment is unbounded and unknowable at its outer limits, it is not possible to speak of a “boundary” for the environment. (Apparently, for Luhmann, the planet itself is not a sufficient boundary.) Therefore, the environment is not a system, and ecology is not a science of environmental systems.(1989:81) Luhmann allows, however, that in scientific research, one must account for interactions of the environment with a particular research object. This conforms with the “limited resonance” constraint that he applies to all subsystems. Paradoxically, though he states that science has limited resonance in its programs, he says, [in a rare burst of exuberant language] that science possesses: an almost endless capacity for resolution [that] has revealed unbounded domains of possibility to society. . . Science produces a transparent world that, wherever it


concentrates, reflects itself and transforms the transparency into access to something new. Imagination is given wings, new kinds of combinations are conceivable—whether as technological artifacts, or as their unwanted, perhaps catastrophic, side-effects. (1989:82) Luhmann argues that society in not in a position to make use of a scientific worldview that opens up an overwhelming, almost infinite number of possibilities, either communicatively or technologically. Society is left with the task of sorting out what is technically feasible. (1989:83) From this I conclude that the problem of scientific resonance is a problem of overresonance for society, because it represents the extreme complexity of an unbounded environment. Thus I argue that the subsystem ecology is better suited than science to communicate the complexity of the environment to the social system. Ecology operates as a gateway, translating the complexity of the environment by reducing its complexity to an explanation as a system, though it remains an unbounded world. I agree with Luhmann that the environment is not a system, yet it can be explained as a system, or more precisely, as a collection of interdependent systems. Ecology reduces the complexity of the environment by selecting elements from the environment according to its cognitive structures and arranging them in a systems model. Ecology communicates to society information about the system/environment difference as rifts in that difference that reveal its fitness/unfitness. Its program is one of adaptation; thus its imperative is not pure science—to discover all that is possible to know—but a program of limited resonance whose imperative is to assure survival and continued evolution. Thus, by representing the environment in a system model of reduced complexity, ecology avoids the extreme over-resonance of overwhelming scientific knowledge. Ecology attenuates those scientific frequencies to a level that society can cope with, and amplifies those resonances with the environment that society is otherwise unable to detect. Ecology achieves both attenuation and


amplification of resonances by selecting elements from the environment that can be modeled in systems, and by presenting only that information that is relevant for adaptations. Luhmann argues that “What science really exports is the consciousness of selection and technology: the consciousness of selection in reference to still-indeterminate recombination possibilities and technology as already determinate and realizable.” (1989:83) Ecology, as a subsystem, communicates the consciousness of selection related to the system/environment difference, and sets the parameters for technological selections that enhance survival and continued evolution. 6. Functions and Resonance. Luhmann defines the problem of resonance in Ecological Communication as stemming from society’s division into functional subsystems. A theory of system differentiation requires that “every formation of a subsystem is nothing more than a new expression for the unity of the whole system.” (1989:107) Every subsystem divides the unity of the system into system/ environment. Each subsystem uses this boundary line to reflect the entire system, according to its functional specificity, which leaves possible other subsystem formations. Therefore, every function system presumes to be society for itself and is open to the rest of society as its environment. (1989:107) As with the total system/environment, each subsystem develops resonances with other subsystems. Thus, each subsystem that encounters the new subsystem “ecology” in its environment develops resonances for its information, codes and programs. Moreover, functional specialization means that each subsystem is more dependent on society as a whole. (1989:111)


No subsystem can substitute for the function of another. De-differentiation is possible, but only partially. (1989:109) Non-substitutability leads to increasing interdependency among subsystems: “precisely because function systems cannot replace each other they support and burden one another reciprocally.” Their irreplaceability causes the continual displacement of problems from one subsystem to another, resulting in the intensification of interdependencies. (1989:110) Functional subsystems are continuously off-loading their unresolved problems onto each other. For example, a stock market crash caused by unregulated derivatives securities (economic system) demands action from the political system (policy for derivatives regulations) which are then encoded by the legal system (laws enacted to regulate derivatives and prosecution for failure to comply with regulations). Each system off-loads its unresolved problems onto another, which disturbs the environment of other subsystems. Each subsystem devises solutions based on its own specialized function and passes it on. The economic system could, for instance, self-regulate its derivatives trading, but that might interfere with solving its liquidity problem (payment/non-payment), so it passes the problem onto other subsystems. Subsystems can learn from each other and adapt cognitive structures from one subsystem for use in another subsystem. For example, the economic subsystem must import and use formulas from the scientific subsystem mathematics in order to conduct is financial calculations. The difference is that while the subsystem math develops formulas for its own sake, as part of its program of scientific discovery, the economic subsystem makes use of mathematical formulas to enhance its own functioning as a financial system. Functional specialization makes it more difficult for society as a whole to adapt to changes in its environment. Adaptive changes that enhance the autopoiesis of one subsystem can have


detrimental impacts in another subsystem. Coordination among subsystems is difficult, though not impossible, and generates more complex interactions and interdependencies among subsystems. Differing definitions of the problem contribute to the lack of coordination toward a particular problem, as well as different functional capacities to deal with the problem. For example, many subsystems in society manage to coordinate their efforts to provide food for people: the agricultural system produces food; the economic system finances food markets and makes a profit off it; the legal system regulates it, and the household system purchases and consumes it. Each functional subsystem contributes to the food security system in such a manner as to enhance its own functions. Because of this, adaptive changes are situated within a complex net of dependencies and independencies. Thus, more complex societies may be less able to respond effectively to environmental crises as a whole. Luhmann also said, however, that increased specialization leads to more diverse connections with the environment, and thus greater sensitivity to it. Functional specialization increases the capacity for learning more about a narrower range of phenomena. (1989:111) Moreover, the specialization of functions leads to greater sensitivity to a narrower range of environmental frequencies. For example, the economic system may be extremely sensitive to the supply of oil, but completely indifferent to CO2 emissions that result from the burning of oil. The scarcity of oil becomes a “crisis” for the economic system. By contrast, increased CO2, and the resulting weather instability, becomes a “crisis” for agriculture, but it may resolve the scarcity of oil by producing its own biofuels. The “crisis” is thus defined in terms of the function of that particular subsystem. Therefore, each subsystem defines its own crisis, and it is difficult to identify conditions that would create a sense of crisis for the whole society.


If one considers that the problem of resonance stems from society’s division into functional subsystems, thus diminishing its capacity to respond to environmental crises, then it would appear to be an essential stage of evolution for society to develop a subsystem whose specialized function is to enhance society’s resonance to environmental crisis. Still in its formative stages, the subsystem ecology is in the process of developing the capacity to model society as a whole system, and the environment as a collection of dynamically interdependent systems. Ecology presents to society an internalized model of society as whole, a function which Luhmann affirms as possible. It also presents to society a model of the system/environment difference. If it is possible for Luhmann to present these models in his theory of social systems, then it is possible for an ecological subsystem to do the same. Indeed, I would assert that Luhmann’s own systems theory is a branch of this subsystem ecology; if not, his theory is a branch of the subsystem social science that has learned and applied concepts from the subsystem ecology. The subsystem ecology enhances society’s ability to observe the system/environment difference, and to observe rifts in that difference as either enhancing or reducing its capacity for continued evolution. Other functional subsystems that lack the capacity to adequately respond to environmental crisis can “off-load” that problem on to the ecological subsystem. The ecological subsystem observes that problem as data in its environment, turns that problem into information according to its cognitive structures, i.e. as a model of the problem of the system/environment difference, and communicates that model to other subsystems. The subsystem ecology thereby reduces the over-resonance and alarm caused by society’s inadequate response to environmental crises. It creates cognitive and linguistic structures that can be imported for use in other subsystems. This enhances the ability of other subsystems to recognize and respond to


environmental crises. As this capacity spreads through all functional subsystems, it enhances the possibility of coordination among subsystems to respond to environmental crises. As a subsystem, ecology creates resonances with the environment as an internal social process: “a much greater amount of resonance is more likely to occur within society than to result from its relation to the external environment.” (1989:118) Once the subsystem ecology has established its code (fit/unfit) and begun its programs (adaptations), it develops a cognitive-linguistic structure that then becomes available to the rest of society as a symbolically generalized media of communication. (Luhmann, 1996) Words and concepts like “sustainable”, “green”, “resilience”, “efficiency”, “natural”, “organic”, “local”, “recycling”, “emissions reduction”, “environment” and “ecology” become commonly used in all subsystems, and most importantly, in the mass media subsystem. Corporations launch “green marketing” campaigns and tout the environmental benefits of their products. Cities undertake ambitious “carbon reduction” plans to reduce emissions. Households buy products that are “local” and “organic” and “recycle” their wastes. This doesn’t guarantee to steer all of society into an adequate response to environmental crisis. Often such adaptive programs become mere gestures; for example, ecological advertising becomes “green washing”. But it does show that subsystems and society as a whole can learn ecological concepts and then “reduce them to actions.” (1995) Through its scientific capacity, the subsystem ecology develops diverse connections with the environment. Through a broad array of natural sciences, it makes direct, first-order observations of the environment. It translates that data into information through the second-order observation of what science observes about the environment. It reformulates that information


into ecological systems and models which can then be communicated to other functional subsystems. It both amplifies the under-resonance of society to otherwise weak signals from the environment, and reduces the over-resonance of society to overwhelming scientific possibilities and the alarm of environmental crisis. By performing this function for itself, it expands its own functioning as a subsystem. As Luhmann says, each subsystem encounters the paradox of representing the unity of society within itself, which involves both including and excluding itself as a system within that representation. (1989:113) But in this case, ecology is able to include itself holographically as a mirror of the system/environment difference. It represents itself to itself as yet another permutation of the system/environment difference. Luhmann argues that the field of ecology works to increase the range of values that society may become concerned with, values about species protection, pollution, soil and water degradation, resource depletion, climate change, and so forth. (1989:12) He argues that the inflation of values only makes them the equivalent of all other values in society, such as democracy, equality, women’s rights, etc., but doesn’t help society to prioritize which values to act upon. He proposes that the inflation of values is an outcome of functional subsystems that multiply the possibilities of what can be considered as themes or concerns of social communication, but for which no action can be immediately taken. These themes or concerns are suspended indefinitely as “values” that become a deferred obligation to act in the future. (1989:112) Campaigns to “stop climate change” or “save the planet” make use of these value imperatives to induce a moral motivation to act, usually without much success. The reduction of resonances to “values” thus further impedes society’s ability to respond adequately to ecological crises. I argue that the deferral of resonances into “values” is not the only possible avenue for


selection and action. The other possible method is the creation of a subsystem ecology is whose function is to create cognitive models of system/environment fitness, which in turn aid in selections of new social and technological adaptations. This takes ecological responses to environmental crisis out of the realm of deferred “values” and places it squarely with the system imperative to continue autopoiesis and evolution, within its base-level operation to observe the system/environment difference. Luhmann proposes that the political system is presently where ecological communication begins and acts as a launching pad and transmission system for ecological problems: “we must realize that politics is used a launching pad, as a transmission system for ecological desiderata whenever those enter the consciousness of individuals and social communication. . . but this only increases the probability that, on the occasion of the exposure to ecological dangers, a socially internal intensification of resonance will result that combines politically convenient solutions with functional disturbances in other systems.” (1989:120) What is significant here is that Luhmann himself proposes that there could be a functional subsystem that serves as “gateway”, a “launching pad”, a “transmission system” for communicating environmental crises. Luhmann’s systems theory anticipates the system’s capacity to evolve a new subsystem called ecology to undertake that task with greater specialization, as its sole function, the effect of which is to attenuate environmental resonances within the social system to correct both under- and over-resonance. Luhmann considers the possibility that a social system can devise an internal subsystem that could remain open to the environment and produce rational communications about the environment. (1989:137) Luhmann asserts that it must begin from within the social system:


“Social rationality would naturally require that the ecological difference of society and its external environment is reintroduced within society and used as the main difference.” (1989:137) Furthermore, Luhmann asserts that “a centerless society cannot assert a rationality of its own but has to rely on the subsystem rationalities of its function subsystems.” (1989:134) The functional subsystem ecology reintroduces the system/environment difference within society and generates communicative selections that delineate that difference. It is the attention to difference that enables a subsystem to perceive data from the environment and introduce it as information within the system: “This changes the focus of all previous theories of reflection from unity to difference and enables them to acquire information in ways that [differ] ??? from those accepted previously.” (1989:36). Furthermore, Luhman is opposed to the ecological idea of representing the environment within society as “the whole within the whole” (1989:135), the kind of ecology typified by Smuts’ organismic holism. Rather, an ecological subsystem would represent the system/environment difference within society as interconnected and socially contingent systems, closer to Tansley’s concept of ecosystem. While Luhmann argues that no internal subsystem successfully coordinates subsystem responses to the environment, Luhmann also maintains that “within subsystems the possibility exists of a hierarchal organization through which the difference of system and environment can be transformed into internal system directives.” (1989:138) Thus, it remains possible for the subsystem ecology to communicate the system/environment difference in terms of the system’s continued autopoiesis such that other subsystems can learn and internalize that operation within their own functional subsystems. The one condition that Luhmann adamantly maintains is that for ecological choices to be rational, they must be synonymous with the system’s own operations; it must be functionally rational, not


rational in terms of ultimate truths or utopian goals. Since the subsystem ecology makes selections based on the system/environment difference it is therefore, functionally rational. If the subsystem ecology is functionally rational, This signifies the possibility of reintroducing the difference of system and environment within the system, and thus the possibility of directing the system’s information processing systems by means of the unity of the difference of system and environment. . . Then it makes sense to be guided by the Utopia of rationality: to see whether and how individual systems can be used to provide solutions to problems that are more rational and include further environments. Today it is already clear that communication about ecological themes is beginning to examine such possibilities. (1989:138) With this statement, Luhmann has afforded an autopoietically closed social system a way out of its self-imposed ecological dilemma, through the new functional subsystem ecology. Conclusion. Luhmann’s Ecological Communication (1989) argued that ecological communication was ineffective in a social system that is closed to its environment. Yet within his own schema, Luhmann argues that subsystems can develop the capacity to communicate with each other, to transfer functions from one subsystem to another, and to thus to support the functioning of the whole system. I have argued that the historically new moral science of ecology is an emerging subsystem that has developed the specialized function of developing a generalized medium of communication by which it can translate signals from the environment into codes that other subsystems can understand, thus informing the social system as a whole and improving its chances for survival and continued evolution. Further questions in this line of argument would examine whether the new subsystem called ecology will develop sufficient capacity for communicative structures and translation codes that will enable the social system, indeed the whole of the global civilization, to adequately respond to severe ecological shocks, such as


global climate change, that threaten the collapse of the system. As Luhmann said, the question remains whether the social system will develop sufficient complexity to carry out this function, and whether the new subsystem called ecology develops the capacity to do that job.

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