Posted by: chrismaser | November 13, 2010


Homeostasis is not only the maintenance of a dynamic equilibrium within a system, such as a family, but also a mechanism through which a family’s name is kept pure. A family is a system governed by a set of rules, which determine and control the interaction of its members in organized, established patterns. The rules are a prescription of what shall and shall not occur within and without the family, and homeostatic mechanisms maintain the ongoing arrangement among its members by activating the rules defining each person’s relationship to the whole. As with a family, homeostasis in an agency maintains a dynamic equilibrium through which the agency’s name is kept pure outside the agency itself.

Once an agency has become malfunctional, it begins to go through institutionalized rituals to insure its survival and to hide its malfunction. And like a family, an agency is a system governed by a set of rules that determine and control the interaction of its members in organized, established patterns. As Andrew Carnegie once said, “The organization is the shadow of the man.”

In today’s malfunctional agencies (from the office of mayor to the governing bodies of the United States), those ideas contrary to the established view are termed “heresy,” and those ideas implicitly supporting the established view are termed “policy.” Policy is therefore a set of directives dictating what shall and shall not occur within and without the agency, and homeostatic mechanisms help to maintain the ongoing arrangement among its members by activating the rules defining each employee’s relationship to the whole. Homeostasis is thus a mechanism through which an agency’s inner workings kept hidden from “outsiders.” This is a very important concept.

To illustrate, the Environmental Protection Agency, like any other organization, is only a collection of people who’ve come together to serve the public—not to make the public serve them. For a blindly “loyal,” unthinking, unquestioning agency person, however, this is an intolerable point of view, because the homeostasis of the agency is always in jeopardy from the unknown, questioning, and, therefore, potentially dangerous actions of a thinking “outsider” who’s “within” the agency.

Such concern is, to some extent, reasonable in that to function, even within its original charge, an agency must work as a team, and one uncaring maverick can disrupt the whole effort. On the other hand, homeostasis within a malfunctional agency hides corruption.

Like members of a dysfunctional family who have their roles assigned to them so the family’s “good name” will be safeguarded, a malfunctional agency becomes a self-serving machine that often defines more and more narrowly and more and more rigidly the job descriptions of its employees—and thereby controls them. In this case, the description of an employee’s job, which is available to the public, directs the employee to do something as a responsible professional, but the malfunction of the agency, through its homeostatic straightjacket, is such that the employee is prevented from carrying out an assignment in a hundred-percent professional, manner if the agency’s deception of the public is to be kept under wraps.

Failure to pass the test of blind loyalty usually has severe consequences. And the situation becomes even more ensnarled when a person’s job is specifically to uncover and report waste, fraud, and misuse of government property, and in the professional performance of that job, the person runs into the homeostasis of a dysfunctional employer. Consider, for example, an Army officer who did exactly as he was supposed to do within his job description and also did exactly as he was supposed to do as an ethical, professional employee.

In the course of directing an inventory, he uncovered the fact that his superior officer had improperly diverted explosives. Reporting what he found, which was in line with his job description, cost him his career because he broke a bond of trust—”the faith”—by going over his commanding officer (the immediate source of dysfunction) up the chain of command to point out the irregularities. What the officer did was lawful, within his professional job description, and Army regulations. He was, nevertheless, punished for his integrity and courage.

Few people are rewarded for the courage to stand up and speak out for what they know is right, for their honesty, and for their loyalty to professionals ideals, because preventing these kinds of “leaks” is what homeostasis is all about. In some cases, the homeostasis fails and change is affected, but in most cases it succeeds, and an untold number of truly loyal people die a slow, unknown “professional death” for their integrity and courage as human beings and exemplary employees.

To understand this dynamic more clearly, we’ll take a closer look at how homeostasis can function in an agency. One key to homeostasis is the job description. Although a job description is necessary and seems harmless in and of itself, it can be used either to relate the work of professionals within an agency to one another and among disciplines or to isolate professionals and disciplines from one another. The danger lies in the isolation of individuals by increasing professional specialization, as manifested through the purposeful narrowing of the interpretation of job descriptions and through the careful, rigid, and absolute control of those descriptions.

For example, Mary, a hydrologist, and Joe, a forester, each has been given work assignments. Mary is to determine how to balance the water requirements of young salmon and a local community that rely on the same water-catchment, whereas Joe is to determine the maximum amount of timber that can be cut and removed from the same water-catchment.

Both Mary’s and Joe’s reports must be done independently. They are not allowed to work together or craft any kind of compromise that would best serve both the salmon and the community. In other words, Mary and Joe are to limit their performances strictly within the narrow confines of their job assignments within their job descriptions—rigid, mental walls to prevent that prevent them from pondering or looking outside their descriptive box, if they want a good job rating.

With the completion of their assignments, both Mary and Joe are instructed to give their individually accumulated information to their superiors in the form of written reports. Once this is done, it will, in all probability, be their last connection with their data. They will have no idea if or how their data are used in the decision of when, where, or how much timber will be cut and sold on that particular water-catchment until it is done. By then, however, both Mary and Joe will have been immersed in several other assignments. Thus, instead of finding their jobs, through their job descriptions and their day-to-day working relationships, to be professionally enriching and ennobling, both Mary and Joe have fulfilled their assignments in dehumanizing isolation not only of each other but also of the outcome.

I was, for example, told in the Army, in the Bureau of Land Management (where I spent more than twelve years of my scientific career), and in the Environmental Protection Agency to beware of my behavior, because I was serving them twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. What happened to me—as an individual? Unknowingly, with the stroke of a pen, I ceased to be an individual and became an expendable, numerical item of government “property” to be controlled and used as deemed necessary to further the machine’s purposes. Where is the line, the boundary between the human being and the dysfunctional machine?

Thus, knowing nothing consciously about either dysfunction or homeostasis, I found out the hard way that not everyone in the agencies wanted new or better scientific data with which to take care of and monitor the our forests or other public lands as trustees for all generations. I was once told by a Chief of Information and Education in the Bureau of Land Management that he didn’t want me to make a particular videotape or to publish a particular book about our scientific findings, because it would make the agency look bad. And the forestry staff in the Washington, D.C., office of the Bureau tried for three years to quash the publication of one of our reports, because our data were perceived to be adverse to Bureau’s unstated liquidation policy for old-growth forests.

One must be aware that unconscious, narrowly focused, self-centered people in the highest levels of the United States Government often become the role models for a malfunctional agency. When, for example, a senator or representative (from both a state with public forest and trained as a lawyer) makes ecologically uninformed decisions about forests, it’s about as intelligent as a forester making equally uninformed, legal decisions about courtroom etiquette. The difference is that the lawyer-senator won’t even consider the forester’s comments, but the forester is supposed to unquestioningly obey the lawyer-senator!

If everyone in an agency performs this way, the homeostatic control is passed up the chain of command to the person with the most to gain from compliance with the wishes of the corporate/political bosses who speak through the Senators and Representatives in the U.S. Congress. In this way, the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice, County Commissioners, City Planning Departments, and Mayor’s Offices, to name but a few, no longer serve the land and/or the people as they were originally designed to do, but rather are made to serve the corporate/political bosses through certain Senators and Representatives who, in turn, have forgotten whom they’re supposed to serve in a democracy.

The use of job descriptions as an isolating mechanism is one of the ways an agency protects its members from “unfavorable” information. For the uncritical employee, the institutionalized, policies of the agency shapes their perception and belief in ways that protect the agency’s dysfunction, even when catastrophic outcomes are involved.

A distortion of information is not limited to willful deceit on the part of an individual, who is perceived as loyal to the agency. Even honesty within a malfunctional agency is insufficient to prevent the widespread distortion of information. The weakness lies within the job description itself and with an individual’s acceptance of a life that involves completing one’s assignments—without thinking critically about the process or questioning the outcome’s consequences.

Granted, this behavior hardly sounds untrustworthy, much less dangerous. Nevertheless, it’s just this “functionary” behavior that allows systematic, homeostatic distortions to occur. And this is why decisions are often difficult to deal with in public land-management agencies, regulatory agencies, the military/industrial complex, or even local, governmental institutions—one is seldom sure who makes them. Why? The uncertainty lies in the fact that almost everyone seems to be afraid of taking a risk. So, no one will be at fault if more than one person is responsible for a decision, especially a miscalculation. Decisions, therefore, just “seem to happen” when agencies and the military/industrial complex distort unfavorable data affecting decisions in order to further their own, self-serving ends.

One thus becomes a functionary by limiting one’s inquiries only to questions of how best to accomplish an immediate assignment in a symptomatic way, turning one’s mind over to the agency and allowing the agency to shape one’s perceptions according to its homeostatic needs. The fault, therefore, lies neither in the job description nor in the assignment. The fault lies in abnegating personal responsibility for the outcome of the assignment. This deep unconsciousness is the seed of dysfunction, the birth of the machine through the loss of identity, individuality, and human dignity.

Performing an assignment (simply taking orders without thinking about or questioning them) is personally safe, but environmentally and socially risky. On the other hand, it’s often personally risky—if you want to keep your job—to question orders, but questioning orders that don’t feel right is both environmentally and socially responsible.

Most professionals in land-management and regulatory agencies and the military/industrial complex, as well as many other governmental institutions, are told what level of professionalism they will practice if they want to stay employed. People therefore trade their dignity and professional ethics for the security of their jobs.

Unfortunately, these frightened employees are often judged harshly for being functionaries, judged by people outside of the “system” who don’t have the benefit of understanding the employee’s fear and the insidious, pervasive tentacles of the “machine.” There are no enemies out there, only frightened people who willingly shirked their responsibilities as professional employees and have thus forfeited control of their lives to an ever-growing, malfunctional machine that uses homeostatic strategies to further dehumanize them in order to maintain itself.

There is another aspect to the homeostasis of our public land management agencies, which has to do with such laws as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Rare and Endangered Species Act of 1973. Both of these laws were passed to not only control abuses of ethics by malfunctional public land-management agencies but also correct the dysfunctions. Outside control, however, is the terror of a malfunctional agency—never a cure.

The problem with such laws as the Rare and Endangered Species Act is that they are like an unpredictable disease to a dysfunctional agency, one that can strike at any time and totally disrupt the homeostasis. Take, for example, the on-going battle over the spotted owl and its habitat, the ancient forest. Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management must pay legal attention to the spotted owl and its habitat requirements, yet people in both agencies have tried to ignore this responsibility with respect to their timber sales, as did the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to listing the owl in the first place.

To ignore the law, however, an agency must set up a “spotted owl S.W.A.T. team” (a Special Weapons And Tactical Team) whose sole charge is to maintain the agency’s homeostasis at any cost. Unfortunately, not even Congress is immune to this dysfunctional, S.W.A.T.-team mentality. For example, Republican Senator Mark Hatfield (now retired), who served constituents in Oregon, is quoted in a 1988 United Press International as saying (with respect to listing the spotted owl as an endangered species): “It is an attack on all Oregonians, because they threaten our jobs, our roads, our schools, our ability to meet Oregon’s diversification needs for the future.”

Western Senators and Representatives often forget that these are public forests—belonging to every citizen of the United States in and through all generations—not their own private, industrial forests. Further, court appeals are the legal right of American citizens on their own public lands, thanks to such farsighted laws as the Rare and Endangered Species Act. And when the appeals are upheld they’re justified, and the law to protect our fellow species is working as it was intended.

The S.W.A.T.-team mentality and the Congressional tinkering with morally correct (as opposed to politically correct) laws is founded solely on trading political support for short-term, economic favors based on abysmal ecological ignorance. During my 30-some years as a research scientist, I have repeatedly noticed that at least ninety percent of what we know ecologically about our forests, ranges, deserts, arctic, and oceans is not allowed to be applied in their management. What I find curious is the fact that the vast majority of our hard-won ecological knowledge about the way in which our home planet functions is summarily dismissed—including in court, where I have more than once been an “expert witness,” both to the case at hand and the data’s dismissal by the judge—if that knowledge interferes with someone’s private interest in short-term profits, political support, or both, and that includes Congressional tinkering!

By the same token, Congress passes a law to create a legal principle of reasonable governance of social behavior for the long-term good of society, and then, while the law makers want others to obey that principle in their own parts of the country, certain members want to exempt themselves from that self-same edict in their home districts or states. They each want to be a “special case,” above and beyond their own law, to protect their own special interests. The danger of such irresponsible shortsightedness is that we are directing the social-environmental discourse and its outcome of from a position of greed, ignorance, illegality, and irresponsibility.

Here, we need to keep in mind that the main thing produced in a university, an agency, or Congress, for that matter, is information, which is translated into laws, policies, directives, management plans, and public relations. Therefore, all “products” are really translations of the information and the system that produces it. The way in which that information is used determines whether or not an agency remains functional or has become a dysfunctional machine.


Series on Resistance to Change:

• Our Institutionalized Resistance To Change

• My Introduction To An Agency

• The Inception Of An Agency

• Stages In The Cycle Of An Agency

• When Dysfunction/Malfunction Creeps In

• Coping Mechanisms

• Coping Mechanisms: Anger And Aggression

• Coping Mechanisms: Appraisal

• Coping Mechanisms: Defensiveness

• Coping Mechanisms: Denial

• Coping Mechanisms: Displacement

• Coping Mechanisms: Filters

• Coping Mechanisms: Projection

• Coping Mechanisms: Rationalization

• Coping Mechanisms: Repression

• Coping Mechanisms: Resistance

• Breaking The Dysfunctional Cycle

• From Where I Stand

Text © by Chris Maser 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1994 book, Sustainable Forestry: Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Boca Raton, FL. 373 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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