The Seven Principles of Sustainable Society
Drew L. Harris
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty, Spring,
The author is an
Assistant Professor of Management in the College of Business
Administration, Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey. He was
born in and raised around Fairhope, Alabama.
As the rhetoric around sustainability intensifies and globalisation
adds to the turbulence of modem life, the question arises: can we
identify organizing principles that would nurture sustainable social
A study published in the Journal of Global Competitiveness
(Nov. 1998), addressed this question by comparing and synthesizing
studies of groups, organizations and specific, intentional
communities. The study synthesized the research on highly effective
work teams done primarily at the Harvard Business School, a Ph.D.
dissertation study of companies with highly stable workforces
(including Lincoln Electric, Hallmark Greeting Cards, Haworth
Industries, and Chaparral Steel), and historical analyses of Fairhope,
Alabama (a community established to demonstrate the viability of Henry
George's economic theories).
These studies exemplified traits of sustainability at each level of
the social system: stable (both long-term existence and small turnover
in members), self-supporting (do not require constant or substantial
influx of exogenous resources), and effective (serve the needs and
interests of substantially all of the participants).
Seven core principles emerged as necessary components of
1. Wide distribution of synergistic value
Collective action produces incremental value above the sum of the
individual contributions. This is the essence of collective action --
to be able to produce more than the sum of the parts. what
distinguished the sustainable social systems was how they distributed
that synergistically created value through group rewards, profit
sharing, funding community infrastructure and services. Individuals
(internal or external) or small subsets of individuals were not
allowed to privately appropriate a disproportionate share of the value
generated by collective action.
2. Individuals retain the value they create
Successful work teams balance group rewards with differential pay for
differential ability and performance Organizations provide
pay-for-performance incentives to stimulate individual behaviour while
the collective rewards ~rofit sharing, bonuses, stock options, etc.)
focus behaviour and motivation on collective outcomes.
At the community level, economists have well documented the negative
effects of appropriating private initiative (i.e., taxing wages,
commerce, thrift). For example, economists Nicolaus Tideman and
Florenz Plassman concluded that the dampening effects of taxing
productive activities costs the G7 countries approximately US $7
trillion every year in GDP.
3. Eliminating or severely limiting privileges
At the organisational level, absence of class distinction may be a
manifestation of the first principle cited above -- profit sharing.
Most perquisites of rank serve as additional compensation, an implicit
reward for attaining a level in the organisational hierarchy.
While one might reinterpret that principle as another example of
reducing the private collection of synergistic value, it has another
effect. The dollar value of any particular perk may not capture a
disproportionate share of synergistic value. The destructive effects
on the social system emerge through the appearance of private rules
privilege) for an elite group. At the community level we see the
resistance to this in complaints that government officials appear to
disregard (and sometimes have explicit private law excluding them
from) the laws that affect the populace. Small group studies have
shown that favouritism (a form of privilege) is a universal source of
4. Participative administration
Democratic participation in administration is a key organizing
principle. In both communities and organizations, participative
administration need not take the form of a direct democracy. However,
the following conditions appear as necessary for an administration to
function with effective participation:
- Opportunities for leadership.
- Processes for people to be heard (especially their grievances),
even if no action is taken. People seem to have a universal need
to have their point of view expressed and taken seriously.
- Processes for correcting injustices.
- Opportunites for each person to contribute.
- Creating a forum for inquiry (besides advocacy).
5. Learning systems that include self-inquiry
Inquiry in the sense of classic liberal education appears present in
all three levels of sustainable social systems. Successful work groups
shared information not just within groups but across groups. Along
with its capacity to remedy dysfunctional behaviour, self-reflection
provides learning opportunities for systems.
The new model of effective organisations embodies learning systems.
Early writers on democracy emphasized the requirement of an educated
populace for the success of democracy. Indeed, the United States built
its public school system on the justification that such education was
a prerequisite for a free society. That education has explicitly
included knowledge on the process, rights and responsibilities in a
democracy. One could easily view the democratic chaos of the former
Soviet countries as symptomatic of the lack of education about the
core philosophic underpinning of democracy. (For example, majority
rule while respecting the interests of minorities and holding some
rights as inalienable even when a majority might want to usurp them).
6. Goals and values that guide action and foster systemic
At the team level, clear purpose and specific goals seem to make a
significant difference in team performance and in member satisfaction.
At the organisation level, statements of vision and values, mission
statements, and statements of strategic intent seem to guide and shape
organizations toward success. In
Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies
(1994), Jerry Porras identifies higher order values and strategic
intent emphasized at companies such as Harley Davidson and Intel as
contributing to relatively greater success compared with competing
firms that assert their purpose as maximizing shareholder value.
(Harley Davidson's current success can be compared with an earlier
time when it emphasized shareholder profit and floundered.)
At the community level the guiding direction seems less clear. Some
communities and nations have identities that endure (America -- the
land of opportunity, land of the free; New Hampshire -- live free or
die; Philadelphia -- City of brotherly love). These may influence
collective behaviour. However; a purpose, rather than an identity
seems more likely to generate collective action. Fairhope was intended
to demonstrate a socio-economic model. America gained independence
amid rhetoric of creating a new socio-economic order ("...in
order to form a more perfect union
This principle provides self-reinforcement: the greater the success
of the identity or purpose the more people identify with and commit to
7. Secure tenure for members
Small groups in which individuals enjoy stable tenure are more
productive. At the organisation level, highly stable companies such as
Lincoln Electric and Haworth Industries (a leading US office furniture
manufacturer) officially promised secure employment (membership). In
most communities, citizenship guarantees standing. Losing one's
citizenship (membership) requires deliberate (and usually highly
provocative) action by the individual and the community. Any attempt
to remove citizenship meets with inquiry about the nature of
citizenship. This principle provides a setting in which the exercise
of true inquiry can flourish and where members secure their role in
creating collective values. Secure membership provides a balancing
effect in the social system by ensuring membership for those who
challenge the system with dissenting opinions.
While each of these principles may add value individually to a social
system, their robust power comes when taken as a group As a group they
interact, self-reinforce and self-regulate.
For example, the quest for proportionate distribution of synergistic
value creates a potential tension when related to the principle of
equitable distribution of individually created value. Mutually
satisfying resolution of this tension may only come through the
democratic process. The means of distributing the collectively created
value may also vary with the purpose of the collective. For example,
communities might choose to provide services while organisations may
provide direct payment to members.
Similarly, introducing a new privilege without adding collective
value might instigate a participative "voice" process to
correct the injustice combined with an inquiry about the nature of the
privilege and its potential to contribute to collective value.
However, without equal distribution of synergistic value system
members may lose their will or incentive to engage in democratic
voice. Without the corrective effect of participative voice
authorities might grant additional privileges. The formal recognition
of principles or processes does not ensure their use.
Given the assault on academic tenure, the apparent non-responsiveness
of many governmental agencies, and the losses of companies once noted
for their secure tenure (e.g., IBM and Digital Equipment Corp.), one
might question the appropriateness of secure tenure for sustainable
social systems. Here, again, the principles appear to function as a
group. What academic environment or government agency functions in
self-aware inquiry, provides differential rewards for differential
performance or shares in the collective value that they create? Tenure
alone does not (nor do any principles alone) provide effectiveness and
The groups, organisations and communities cited in the studies
maintained their sustainable qualities for long periods, but this
raises the question of the depth to which the principles are embedded.
Work groups can be vulnerable to managers and sometimes to the larger
organisational culture. For example, in the classic studies on
motivation at the Western Electric Hawthorn Facility, workers who were
not included in the studies sought to undermine the results, in part
because those in the experiments became very happy and excited about
At the community level, Fairhope has seen the imposition of county,
state and federal taxes along with layers of government intervention
which dilute the principles of sustainability. While its first half
century of relatively pure application of the principles cited here
provided a running start, the last two decades have seen increased
class polarisation, increases in business failures, and a strong
out-migration of its youth.
Entities that intend to remain stable must manage these principles,
but they must also manage the boundaries of their social systems.
Perhaps the best individual strategy would be to create and protect
one's local, sustainable system while working to transform the next
higher level of social system. Until we are all free, freedom embedded
in an unsustainable system is tenuous at best.
- In The Losses of Nations
(ed: E Harrison), London: Othila Press, 1998; reviewed in Land
& Liberty, Spring 1998, p.15.
- Jerry Ponas, Built to Last,
New York: Harper & Row, 1994.