ADAPTING A MALADAPTIVE SOCIETY: Institutional Ecology vs. Economics

Greg Daneke, Emeritus Prof.
6 min readNov 21, 2023

“Economists got away from really questioning how the world works, how decisions actually got made”. ___ W. Brian Arthur

“The major problems in the world are result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”. ___ Gregory Bateson

“When a living system is suffering from ill health, the remedy is found by connecting with more of itself”. ___ Franciso Varela

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent that survive, but those that can respond to change”. ___ Charles Darwin

“The crises we face are systemic in nature. To overcome those crises, we need to understand how systems work. To arrive at such an understanding, we need to think systemically.” ___ Ludwig Von Bertalanffy

Choosing Systemic Choices

Whenever I taught a class on systems thinking, I would remind students, that systems dynamics (feedback loops, nonlinearity, etc.) are simply an explanation of “how things actually work”. And these curious processes produce “emergent properties”, making the system “greater than the sum of its parts”. Plus, the new socio-ecological science of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), demonstrates how small choices can explode into dramatic systems wide changes. Hence CAS both presents alternative explanations and affords very different choices. From a policy perspective, these Systemic Choices (as I call them) are those that accumulate and reorder the system when diverse agents (cooperative, altruistic, and reciprocating — — and not just the greedy self-interested) interact in open democratic processes. More importantly, for societal studies, such as the economy, a systemic perspective shifts the “unit of analysis” from the individual to the patterns of interaction between individuals and their institutions (Note: much like as Quantum Physics refocuses attention to the interaction of particles.

Consider a very crude example of a systemic perspective. I once had a magnificent house plant (actually a small tree) called a Charlton Ficus. It gave my drab apartment an out-of-doors feel, but just as it nearly filled the room, it began to lose it leaves. I launched into a variety of emergency measures (literally testing everything from chills in the room to the size of the pot). On very close inspection I finally discovered teeny tiny webs…



Greg Daneke, Emeritus Prof.

Top Economics Writer. Gov. service, corp consulting, & faculty posts (e.g., Mich., Stanford, British Columbia). Piles of scholarly pubs & accasional diatribes.