From Tom Atlee-Conference on Corporations as Biological Organisms : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

From Tom Atlee.... Dear friends,

Wow! I am so excited to tell you about this upcoming online conference, March 3-20, 2000. It will feature dialogues among some of the most influential people in my life (and perhaps yours) -- people like Ernest Callenbach, Fritjof Capra, Noam Chomsky, Hazel Henderson, David Korten, Frances Moore Lappe and Ralph Nader. Perhaps even more remarkable is that they are going to be talking about the challenge presented by corporations AS BIOLOGICAL ORGANISMS, as gigantic life-forms competing with us for resources and life-options.

In my eyes, this is a breakthrough. Never before have significant social change groups or leading activists talked seriously about large-scale human systems as living entities. I believe this opens the door to new directions in activism -- not only in limiting the power of malignant human systems, but in enhancing the healthy capacities of more benign human systems. This, of course, is the work I've been pursuing for almost a decade. So this is personally exciting for me as well as transformationally promising for all of us.

Most activists would be surprised to learn that thousands of intelligent people think of organizations as living, adaptive systems -- even as biological organisms. Most such living-systems thinkers are consultants and executives who use such "new science" insights to increase corporate effectiveness -- to make bigger profits... to more efficiently change the Earth into commodities... to more successfully reshape ecosystems, communities and societies into servants of corporate expansion... the kinds of things most activists don't like. On the bright side, they often create less hierarchical, more interesting and creative workplaces. Often they go beyond "biological systems thinking" to incorporate the powerful insights of chaos and complexity theories, field theory, quantum mechanics and relativity, cybernetics, and a variety of holistic perspectives -- applying them all to the human systems in and around their organizations. One of the literary classics of all this is Margaret Wheatley's recently revised and reissued LEADERSHIP AND THE NEW SCIENCE: DISCOVERING ORDER IN A CHAOTIC WORLD, originally published in 1992, when it was widely acclaimed as "the best business [or leadership] book" -- of the year, of the decade, of all time... In short, a great book. I recommend it very highly. Many of you know Meg Wheatley as one of the earliest social-transformation visionaries in the Y2K movement. Others of you already know her organizational transformation work. She is a remarkable agent of change. I've been quite surprised over the years to find out how many brilliant, passionate change agents are operating as organizational consultants in the corporate world and government -- a fact that reveals my own history and biases.

Meanwhile, people working for progressive, environmental, community-building or pro-democracy causes -- my lifelong activist community -- have hardly ever discussed corporations as living systems or biological entities -- or applied the new scientific knowledge or metaphors to their activism. Most activists seem quite oblivious to the powerful new-science-based management experiments going on in corporations -- and even in the military. Traditional activism is an expression of what many refer to as the "Newtonian-mechanistic worldview": i.e., that we live in a world of objects and forces, where the challenges are quantity, speed, resistence, prediction, control. If you blend this mechanistic perspective with mythic narratives of White Knights (us) battling the Darth Vaders (them), you get something like the activism I've been part of for most of my life, that is deep in my bones, even as I try to change it. For decades we have been mobilizing our good forces to battle various (bad) dominant powerholders, using cause-and-effect strategies and brilliant David-and-Goliath heroism and hard work to overcome (or at least slow down) those we see as dominators and destroyers. Many of us envision corporations as gigantic buildings all over the world... or as masses of faceless men-in-suits rushing around cutting deals... or as nighmare legal fictions which will vanish if we can just wake up from the legal spell we've been under, of "corporate personhood and limited liability". The one thing we _don't_ think of corporations as, is organisms.

This difference in viewpoints -- the corporate consultants' and executives' living systems/new-sciences view of organizations, and the activists mechanistic/mythic view of social change dynamics -- has, in my view, served to empower corporations and undermine social change efforts. This isn't to say that activists are not effective, or that we should abandon all linear, adversarial forms of activism. But it is pretty clear who is making the most progress nowadays. So I eagerly welcome activists exploring the new sciences for their implications for activism, just as the corporate people have been exploring the new sciences -- for more than a decade -- for new approaches to productivity and market share.

My own living-systems activist thinking has focused less on the dynamics of corporations and more on the dynamics of communities and societies. I believe we need to better understand both --

- what we need to work AGAINST (the growing power of toxic collective organisms like many large multinationals and bureaucracies), AND
- what we need to work FOR (the growing power/ intelligence/wisdom of life-supporting collective organisms like communities and cultures).

The conference described below is well organized to explore the former -- the dangerous mega-organisms we need to work AGAINST. Since I've recently been invited to participate in the conference, I will certainly be talking about how we can effectively work FOR the giant, benign social organisms that we are all part of -- our communities and societies -- to make them healthier, stronger, wiser and less harmful to the natural systems around us. If we're _really_ lucky and wise, some of us in this conference might even combine the new sciences with some very old spiritual and indigenous understandings to discover radically different forms of creative activism so effective that we no longer need to fight AGAINST things so much, because the whole flow of Life is working with us, and we with It. (I know I'm dreaming here, but I sense we're moving into times where anything is possible, and I can smell the bakery around the corner....)

In any case, the fact that leading activists are now interested in thinking in terms of living systems theory is so new and important that I suspect the mere calling of this conference constitutes a significant breakthrough. If, during the conference, some of the participants discover the social change potentials of focusing on improving the capacities of communities and political systems, then this event may well prove to be a watershed. I'll be working for that.

But enough of my verbiage. I turn you over now to the verbiage of others. I've included below some tantalizing descriptions of the conference and its related ideas. More information -- including more theoretical papers -- are available at the conference website LINK.

You are all invited to watch, at least. The organizers are still figuring out what sort of public participation makes sense, so stay in touch if you're interested.

What a time to be alive... even as a little living system like me.


Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * Eugene, OR LINK

-- Sheri (, February 27, 2000


This is an amazing entourage of notables. These are definitely the visionaries of our time who are going to be needed to help us pull through the hard times we humans have got ourselves into.

The topic is exactly on target, too, and the online forum format will be a good way for bringing together some very powerful conversations.

Tom Atlee has been crystallizing some gems of learning out of our merry Y2K adventures over the past several months. Co-Intelligence is a good way of putting what it is we need to be doing on this planet.

-- Chuck (, February 27, 2000.

Toxic is, for sure, the word.

-- Mara (, February 27, 2000.

Huh? I'd have to say ... get a grip! Meaning no disrespect. But it figures that just as the announcement surfaces that the "scientists" have fused a human cell to an electronic chip, that some other great philosophe working from the ohter end of the spectrum would come along to declare a purely manmade legal fiction [the corp] a "biological organism". Do you see how the one solipsism will disable legit opposition to the other "advance" in "technology"? I can already hear the ethics panel "authorities" quoting from Tom Atlee ... "even the definition of a "biological organism" is now a subject of some notable debate ..." blah blah

In consequence of which, I expect the Sun to keep ratcheting up the Fry Factor ....... before this all gets waaaaay out of hand.


A corp is legal fictionestablished to make the prusuit of profit less risky.

-- Squirrel Hunter (nuts@upina.cellrelaytower), February 28, 2000.

Corporations have been thinking about this for decades.

Also, your post is iteresting, but could you please use smaller, easier words?

-- INever (, February 28, 2000.

This thread has the potential to become one of the more important discussions entertained at TB2K since the denouement of the Y2K issue itself. It can be an opportunity for the Libertarian/conservative/individualistic faction and the environmentaly-concerned/liberal/community-oriented to find some measure of common ground (If we don't start of quibbling about semantics, Squirrel.)

We merely need to understand the difference between a viewpoint (an opinion to which one subscribes) and a worldview (the way one looks at things). You never can tell; we might find mutual agreement about what many perceive as a mutual danger---much as the labor unions and environmentalists did in Seattle.

Although I'm sure the message board element of this conference will be the most important focal point for those of us most concerned, I would very much like to see a non-confrontational discussion of this important issue here, among people who I've come to know, trust (one way or the other) and, for the most part, respect.

-- (First=Last@Last.=First), February 28, 2000.

Fascinating! I look forward to seeing the conference evolve. One of the most interesting concepts to surface in quite a while.

-- Firemouse (, February 28, 2000.


-- (, February 28, 2000.

Sheri, thanks for the post and the link. I too would like to see a non-confrontational discussion of these very important issues. This has nothing to do with solipsism, but has everything to do with our future.

-- Jean Scott (, February 28, 2000.

Relating to the topic at hand. You will recognize the name Rob Weissmann as one of the participants in the "Big Body" conference. Also related, see Dr. Shenker's recent thread on "The Lexus and the Olive Tree":

Who Owns America

By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

The other day, at our local bookstore, we passed a book. And then doubled back. The book is titled Who Owns America?: A Declaration of Independence. Sounded like it was written by people we should know. But on further investigation, we recognized none of the names on the cover. Who Owns America? was written by 21 "conservative" decentralists. And it was first published in 1936. Re-released this year, with a new introduction by Seton Hall University History Professor Edward S. Shapiro, Who Owns America? (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 1999), is highly critical of large corporate institutions that controlled the political economy in 1930s America. Its publisher believes the book is as relevant today as the day it was published. Edited by Pulitizer Prize winning Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Herbert Agar and southern poet Allen Tate, Who Owns America? puts forth the type of scathing critique that you just can't find in today's political debates. Like today's corporatist conservatives -- George Will, James Glassman and Charles Krauthammer -- the conservatives who wrote Who Owns America? believed that the specter of big government threatened individual freedom and the ideal America. But unlike the corporatists of today, Agar, Tate and their colleagues understood that public authority was the only antidote to the excesses of big corporate power. Agar, Tate and their colleagues argued that to attain the conservative goal of less government, you'd first have to limit the size and power of the large corporate institutions that were roaming the land. Typical of the 1930s conservatives writing in this volume is the pro-decentralist economist Richard Ransom. "The permanent lease on life which corporations possess tends more and more to concentrate within a few hands the ownership and control of general property," wrote Ransom in a chapter titled Corporate and Individual Persons. "The disproportionate distribution of the national wealth is very evidently due in large part to the corporate tendency to mass larger and larger aggregates of ownership which are held together by corporate permanence and corporate inertia. ..." Ransom's solution to the problem of corporate control of the national wealth? Federal chartering of corporations doing interstate business. And what should the states do about excessive corporate power? The states should limit the "profitable business life of the corporations which they charter." And how could the states accomplish this end? "This could perhaps be done by means of heavy selective inheritance taxation on the transfer of corporate shares or assets," Ransom answers. And what would this achieve? "Such a shorter term of corporate life, either accomplished indirectly as suggested here or accomplished by more immediate means, will produce a more direct personal responsibility in corporate managements," Ransom says. Once interstate corporations are federally chartered, Ransom proposes that the personal liability of stockholders should be extended to an amount at least equal to twice the proportionate investment of each stockholder (currently, you can only lose what you put in.) Can you imagine Will or Krauthammer contemplating these thoughts? Lyle Lanier, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, wrote a chapter titled "Big Business in the Property State," in which he observed that "the American people have long recognized the danger to democracy of economic power concentrated in the hands of big corporations." Lawmakers passed the antitrust laws at the turn of the century, "but these laws have been impotent to stem the rising tide of big business organization," Lanier wrote. Industrial capitalism, Lanier wrote, "has followed a course of development which is both self-destructive and dangerous to democratic institutions." Lanier, like his co-authors, finds hope in a Jeffersonian ideal of small business and small farmers. The publication of this volume today makes George Will, James Glassman and their conservative contemporaries look like empty suits compared those who wrote Who Owns America?. Big corporations still roam the land and still threaten a fragile democracy. But there is no Agar on the right to challenge them. Needless to say, we cannot and do not agree with everything written by these 21 self-proclaimed "conservatives" of the 1930s. But we do agree with the conservative sentiment put forth in the book, as summarized by Agar, that corporate concentration and democracy are at odds. "When democracy goes down before monopoly capitalism," Agar writes, "the result has been a greedy tyranny, preserving all the vices of capitalism and extinguishing its virtues."

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999,

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

-- (First=Last@Last.=First), February 28, 2000.

Let's see - corporation as a biological organism. Cockroaches? Octopus? Pond scum? Dinosaur? Ant hill? Pack of wolves?

Michael Milken thought predators were cool. Before he went to prison for securities violations, his annual wingding was called the Predators Ball, and his family foundation endowed the Predators exhibit at the LA Zoo.

I am sure Ralph Nader can say something interesting on any topic, and Noam Chomsky can say something brilliant but possibly off the wall, but I fail to see how the corporation as a biological entity is anything more than a poetic metaphor. You will get sociobiology run amuck.

Activists may have had little success up against corporations because they have failed to master the old sciences of finance and economics. Most of the "new science" stuff is window dressing.

-- kermit (, February 28, 2000.

Concur. Even "poetic metaphor" insults the Ars Poetica. Stillborn concept, maybe.

-- Squirrel Hunter (nuts@upina.cellrelaytower), February 29, 2000.

Says Kermit, "Activists may have had little success up against corporations because they have failed to master the old sciences of finance and economics."

Can't say as I can agree with that, sir. The majority of those active in the movement, who have sufficient background to articulate a logical defensible position for their viewpoint, have enough understanding of finance and economices to know that is a major part of the problem. Let me see if I can dig out some URLs to support my point. In the mean time, visit and browse the economics section. Btw, I've always enjoyed the oxymoron, "Economic Science."

Y'know, SH, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it may still be a Bassett hound...but I wouldn't put money on it. The problem is what you consider to consttute a viable organism. The base unit of H. Sap is not the individual---a lone man (unless extraordinarilly competent or lucky)is not viable; neither is a mated pair---but is the family/tribe unit. And even then there is an optimum "organism" (human society) size depending on the environment (which includes culture and technology).

Go read the main page (invitation) to the "Big Body" conference, then come back here and address the issues in terms that we can agree on. Other than that, this thread will merely dissipate into wrangling over definitions and we'll never be able to discuss the issues at hand.

-- (First=Last@Last.=First), February 29, 2000.

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