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Systemic crises in hierarchical ecological economies.


The concept, nature, role, and function of hierarchy has been much discussed in both ecology and economics. There has also been much discussion of the nature and functioning of combined ecological-economic systems. What has been much less discussed is the role of hierarchy in such combined systems. That is the primary purpose of this paper.

This paper will seek to explicate certain important dynamics of such systems, most particularly how such systems come to experience crises that lead to major structural transformations or even complete breakdowns of their functioning. Such crises have been argued to underlie the collapse of civilizations and societies, including the Mesopotamian empires as the fertile crescent was degraded and the Mayan civilization with a combined social-ecological crisis of class conflict and degradation of food production capabilities. More recent disasters have included that of the decline of the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union and the various collapses of fisheries around the world. At the global level the possibilities of greenhouse effects and ozone depletion threaten both the global ecosystem and human existence as a whole along with it.

Ecosystems can collapse without the intervention or even the existence of human beings, witness the apparently relatively rapid extinction of the dinosaurs, albeit probably due to an exogenous event such as a large asteroid impact. And human societies can collapse or disappear with ecological factors playing an insignificant role as with the fall of tsarist Russia. However the focus here is upon combined systems where the elements are mutually interacting with the crisis intimately arising from the nature of that interaction.

Two overriding facts present themselves to us. One is that ultimately the human economy is embedded within the global ecosystem. Despite futuristic fantasies and science fiction possibilities, so far we remain children of the earth and the sun, integrally connected with the solar energy-driven global set of biogeochemical cycles. For all its "crudity," Feuerbach's famous line that "we are what we eat" contains a crucial truth. Materially we are ultimately sunlight and proteins, the former as calories and the latter as combinations of the basic organic elements, with both directly drawn from other plants and animals. If they die, we die.

The second is that human beings are able to consciously manipulate and intervene in the nonhuman parts of the ecosystem. We are both limited slaves of the ecosystem, yet simultaneously masters and directors of it. It is in this complex interrelationship that the problem of hierarchy presents itself most compellingly. The rise of a technologically changing humanity, consciously interacting with the nonhuman ecosystem has created a completely new kind of system, what Vernadsky (1945) labeled the "noosphere." This entity is hierarchically structured, with humanity both being subject to it as well as having an important element of control over it.

Thus human beings possess a profound ecological responsibility for constructing systematically viable institutional systems with appropriate hierarchical structures. Williamson (1975) famously argued that there is a fundamental trade-off between markets and hierarchies (large-scale firms or government agencies) in economies. On the one hand, laissez-faire markets are not sustainable ecologically in the long run, for reasons such as externalities and the collective consumption nature of many ecological characteristics. On the other hand, pure central planning is no guarantee of ecological health as the disasters in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union make clear. What is needed is an appropriate structuring and balancing of the two.

More precisely what is needed is a pattern that in some sense corresponds to the hierarchical structure. of the nonhuman ecosystem. Human institutional units must be able to operate properly with equivalently scaled ecological units. The famous problem of controlling access to an open access resource is an obvious example. The body which controls access, which may be an individual, a cooperative, a corporation, or a government,(1) must operate at the scale of the resource in question. Thus we see many local units, such as the alpine grazing cooperatives in Switzerland (Netting 1976; Stevenson 1991), that control access to common property resources quite effectively. At the other extreme has been the recent emergence of global level entities such as the Montreal Protocols on ozone depletion and the Rio Earth Summit, with its incompletely implemented emphasis on the greenhouse effect, which deal with ecological issues at the global scale.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. In the next two sections there will be respective discussions of ecological and economic hierarchies. Then there will be an analysis of the various forms that combined systems can take and the conditions under which dynamics for these forms may lead to crises. Possible solutions to these problems will then be discussed.


The term "hierarchy" was invented by Denys the Areopagite in the fifth century (Iannello 1992, 15). In Greek, "hieros" meant "sacred" and "arkho" meant "rule," with the term being applied initially to ecclesiastical hierarchies. This element of rule or command is important in strictly economic hierarchies, but is not important in nonhuman ecological hierarchies.(2) A general view would be that a hierarchy is an ordered structure consisting of ranked levels.

The ranking of levels implies a number of important aspects (Allen and Hoekstra 1992, chap. 1). One is that higher levels operate to constrain the behavior of lower levels. Thus the condition of the global ecosystem, or biosphere, functions as the ultimate constraint on all the subsystems operating on the earth. Closely following on this is the idea that lower levels operate on smaller space scales or faster time scales than do higher levels. To the extent that there are measurable and semi-regular fluctuation patterns,(3) they oscillate more rapidly at lower levels than at higher levels.

Within a given level there will be stronger links than across levels. This is central to the idea that a level has some identifiable existence.(4) Simon (1962) presented this as the idea of the "partial decomposability" of a hierarchy. Each level behaves semiautonomously within itself, while being part of the larger structure. This idea of the dualism of a hierarchical level is captured in Koestler's (1967) term, holon, which implies this Janus-like character of subsisting as a whole unto itself while also being part of a larger whole.

A special case of hierarchy is one which is nested, meaning that the lower levels are completely contained in the higher and that, indeed, the higher consist of the lower. Gunther and Folke (1993) label ecological hierarchies of this sort, holarchies, that is consisting of a set of fully nested holons. They present ecosphere, ecosystem, organism, and cell as four levels of holarchy and reject the idea that managerial economic hierarchies are holarchic, because, for example the boss is not actually made up of the workers in the way that an organism is made up of a bunch of cells. They are distinct entities relating in a ranked structure. However many analysts of economic hierarchies also define them as nested, if not strictly holarchic (Radner 1992).(5) Allen and Starr (1982) allow for non-nested ecological hierarchies as well.

Ecological hierarchies presumably build up over time as a result of deep evolutionary processes. Boulding (1978) defined the emergence of a new level of hierarchy as the process of anagenesis.(6) For a level to maintain itself once it has emerged has been strongly argued to depend on autopoiesis (Varela, Maturana, and Uribe 1974), or a process of self-replication.

The anagenesis of autopoiesis depends on the openness of biological systems. The issue here is that of the law of entropy and the flows of energy through ecosystems.(7) In a famous argument Schrodinger (1944) argued that life is fundamentally a locally anti-entropic process within a larger space in which entropy increases, although there are locally anti-entropic processes that are not life as we think of it, such as some astronomical ones (Wiener 1948, 32). Living systems must draw energy and matter from outside of themselves into themselves to create the order of their structured biological processes.

This implies that living systems must be open and dissipative, following on fundamental arguments from systems theory (von Bertalanffy 1968).(8) Applying this to ecological hierarchies, Gunther and Folke (1993) argue that the creation of order at one hierarchical level implies the increase of entropy and hence of disorder at another level.(9)

Holling (1973, 1986) has analyzed dynamics for a given level of ecological hierarchy according to a stability-resilience trade-off involving a series of stages. In the first stage the system is unstable in the sense that there are large fluctuations of populations but it is resilient in that exogenous shocks will not cause a general structural reorganization or collapse.(10) This is a high-growth stage as "invader species" enter and establish themselves in an environment. Later the system reaches a climax stage where the species grow more slowly and species populations vary little. The system becomes very stable, entering into a long-run equilibrium. However, now it loses resiliency and becomes susceptible to exogenous shocks, such as when a climax forest burns down in a forest fire. The system can completely collapse. It then goes into a regeneration stage before repeating the cycle.

An important part of Holling's argument is that at the time of collapse and regeneration there can be a more profound discontinuity and structural transformation, for example with an evergreen forest shifting over to deciduous trees.(11) In a nested hierarchy, or holarchy, such a dramatic change at one level will generally trigger changes at the lower levels as well as constituting constraint set shifts. Under certain circumstances, such a change at a lower level can trigger changes at higher levels as well (Rosser et al. 1993), a situation discussed later in this paper. In a nonhuman ecosystem such structural transformations can happen "on their own," as it were, either from an exogenous shock, or through an endogenous working-out.


There are at least two ways of considering the concept of economic hierarchy. One has to do with different levels of aggregation in the economy and the decision-making institutions associated with these levels. The other has to do with decision-making structures within an economic organization such as a firm. Clearly these two can be related to each other as, for example, in the case of the centrally planned command economy where the entire economy is essentially a single firm.

The first way of considering economic hierarchy may correspond more clearly with the view of ecological hierarchy just presented, possibly even the nested holarchy type. Thus we can conceive of the hierarchy of macroeconomy, firm, individual, or perhaps even more precisely, world economy, national economy, regional economy, local economy, and individual economy, as firms may be transnational and operate across different levels. Indeed, from the standpoint of decision-making institutions in the latter version, one may be encountering different levels of some firms as one moves from headquarters decision-making to decision-making at lower, more localized levels of the firm.

An important variation of this view is to consider intensity of economic activities in different locations as measured by rent per land unit generated and the property and decision-making institutions associated with these different degrees of intensity. Bromley (1991, chap. 7) argues that there is a natural hierarchy of property regimes that is associated with such gradations within predominantly market economies. Land generating the highest rent per acre will generally be privately owned. Next down the hierarchy will be commonly owned property, "the commons," but with some restrictions placed on access by the common owners.(12) Then will be state property, as in the federally owned lands in the U.S. West. Finally will be true open access land, often beyond the extensive margin, which may be completely unowned.(13)

Clearly reality is more complicated than this sometimes. Thus we find state-owned property in the middle of cities in high-rent districts and some open access locations may be highly economically productive as in a fishery that is very abundant but for which access is difficult or impossible to control. Also we have the problem of different levels of government as well as different forms of private ownership. Thus corporations can be viewed as a type of "common ownership," albeit very different from that cited in the literature on traditional management of common properties (McCay and Acheson 1987), but often they will own and control the most valuable land in market capitalist economies.(14)

The second view focuses on intrafirm hierarchy. The modern theory of intrafirm hierarchy derives significantly from the work of Simon (1957, 1962). In the latter piece he presents a parable of two competing watchmakers, one who decomposes the production process into a set of subassembly processes and one who does not, and then proceeds to argue that the former will be more efficient than the latter. Efficiency arguments for top-down managerial hierarchies have focused on minimizing transactions costs that would otherwise occur in arms-length market transactions (Arrow 1969; Williamson 1975) or on maximizing information flows through organizing decentralization (Radner 1992). Thus economic hierarchy corresponds more closely to the original meaning with Radner (1992, 1391) defining one as a "ranked tree" with a single "root" (the top boss). This is the form we find in the typical market capitalist finn and also the traditional command socialist planning structure.

The critics are legion. A central argument has been that hierarchies exist so that owners can control workers and extract rents (Marglin 1974; Gintis 1976), an argument that clearly goes back at least to Marx.(15) To the extent employers must expend resources in controlling workers, then profit-maximization may not be technically efficient (Bowles 1985). Radner (1985) recognizes that there may be multiple equilibria outcomes in the long run when there is imperfect information leading to principal-agent relationships. Although advocating a hierarchy of incentives, Aoki (1990) argues that it should be combined with a horizontal coordination of control as in some Japanese firms.

The most dramatic alternative to both the typical market capitalist firm and the command socialist planning structure is the worker-owned and managed firm or cooperative. Worker motivation may be higher in such firms (Horvat 1982) and there is evidence of less resources spent on managerial intensity as workers monitor each other (Greenberg 1986). Although these types of firms have been subjected to a variety of criticisms (Bonin, Jones, and Putterman 1993),(16) the kinds of entities which have controlled access to common property resources in traditional and even some modern market economies have looked a lot like worker-owned and controlled cooperatives,(17) although sometimes relying on some reinforcement by some level of government as well.


Let us consider an abstract form of a combined ecologic-economic hierarchy. It has n well-defined hierarchy levels, where each level may be a purely ecologic system, a purely economic system, or a combined system. Higher levels constrain more rapidly oscillating lower levels. This can be described by means of the synergetics method of Haken (1977).

At any given level a separation can be made between "fast dynamics" (variables at that level or below) and "slow dynamics" (variables from higher levels that act as constraints). If fast dynamics are given by a vector q and slow dynamics are given by a vector F, then the system at that level can be given by

[Mathematical Expression Omitted],

where A, B, and C are matrices, and [Epsilon](t) is an i.i.d. random fluctuation. Haken argues that the system can be simplified through "adiabatic approximation" to show the fast dynamics depending purely on the slow dynamics, a condition he labels slaving. This is given by

[Mathematical Expression Omitted],

which can be derived by rearranging [1] to show q solely as a function of F. The controlling variables are called order parameters and can be arrayed in a rank order in inverse order of the absolute value of variables in A + B(F). Curiously, order parameters are unstable in the sense that they possess positive real parts of eigenvalues, whereas slaved variables are just the opposite.

There are two principal sources of major structural change in the Holling sense of resilience breakdown. One is bottom-up, a lower hierarchical level undermining those above it. The other is top-down, some major change at a higher level restructuring the entire system. The former is given by a fast variable's eigenvalue becoming positive, that is the variable destabilizing. Diener and Poston (1984) have described such dynamics as the "revolt of the slaved variables." Haken (1977) has argued that this is a central key to the emergence of chaotic dynamics in structured systems.

An example of such bottom-up breakdowns, besides the obvious purely socioeconomic examples involving revolutionary upheavals, might be the role of epidemic outbreaks such as the Great Plague in ecologic-economic systems. We note that the destabilization in such a case does not come out of the blue, although the specific disease might. Rather the preparation for the destabilization builds up slowly to a critical point, for example by a long process of malnutrition weakening immune systems among a critical mass of the population, as apparently happened prior to the Great Plague (Braudel 1967).

For top-down changes a mechanism may be the emergence of a new higher level of the hierarchy, the anagenetic moment. The details of this closely follow Nicolis (1986) and are presented in Rosser et al. (1993), but we shall describe the essentials here. At the top level let the complete set of dynamics be given by

[Mathematical Expression Omitted],

where [w.sub.i](t) is an i.i.d. random environmental fluctuation. The third term on the right is a cross-correlation operator with [w.sub.ij](t) representing a weighting matrix of environmental feedback operators. It is either "off," in which there are uncorrelated oscillations, or "on" indicating some kind of frequency entrainment among variables.

Frequency entrainment is triggered by the real part of the eigenvalue of the third term becoming positive. This can generate a new hierarchical level derived from the phase coherence of a subset of the variables at that level. This is a case where the emergence of positive feedback creates something which did not exist before. In a strictly ecological context we have the evolution of multicellular organisms out of single-cell ones as the cells cohere in an entrained manner. In a strictly economic context we have the emergence of a new level of urban hierarchy as a particular city adopts a new larger scale industry not previously present in other cities as various related industries within the city expand through external scale economies.(18)

The new level can then operate as a constraint on the next level down. But the result may well be the destruction of variables not aligned with the frequency entrainment. An example in a combined ecological-economic system may well be the impact on ecosystems of the emergence of global ocean-going international trade which carried species from one "ecological realm" into another, thereby generating catastrophic collapses and explosions of various populations (Elton 1958).


Clearly some of these kinds of situations are beyond our ability to prevent. But others are not, and here the question arises as to how we can develop appropriate institutions to minimize the damage that we do to the environment. Much will depend on the nature of the hierarchical interactions between the nonhuman ecosystem and the human economy.

At least three possibilities present themselves. One is what can be described as a single hierarchy. In this case human and non-human levels can be seen as alternating, each constraining the other in succession. Thus a human farmer can constrain a herd of cattle, but he or she is in turn constrained by the broader ecological conditions within which the herd exists. Here the human levels must have a stable relationship both upward and downwards, preventing destabilizations at lower levels while not creating destabilizations at higher levels.

A second is the bi-hierarchy wherein an ecological hierarchy is closely connected with a parallel economic hierarchy. In this case we would seem to have a straightforward situation. The institutions of management should be appropriate to the level of the ecological hierarchy to which the economic level is related. Local institutions, whether public, private, or cooperative, should manage smaller ecological units or resources. Global institutions should manage global ecosystems, as in the question of ozone depletion. This might seem obvious, yet failure to follow this is deeply related to the problem of the "tragedy of the commons." Thus the breakdown of previously successful locally managed common property regimes has often resulted from the intrusion of, or a mandate from, some higher level of the economic hierarchy. Thus the original "tragedy of the commons" can be seen to have arisen from the very process of enclosing previously open fields in response to outside market pressures which then led to overgrazing of the remnant commons?

Finally we have the complex matrix form (Davis and Lawrence 1977) in which relationships may cut across levels in complex ways. Here we have a greater chance of the conditions described for a destabilization of equations [1] and [2] being fulfilled, namely a lower hierarchical level event triggering a higher level systemic transformation or collapse, the "revolt of the slaved variables." In a fully complex matrix situation this can involve very involved relationships over long distances and up and down hierarchy levels.

A possible example has been discussed by Holling (1994), who has warned that destruction of tropical habitat by human activity has sharply reduced songbird migrations, which in turn control the spruce budworms in western Canada, thus possibly allowing a catastrophic outbreak of the budworm and a collapse of western Canadian forests. Clearly such a case involves numerous externalities and does not admit of an easy property, management, or institutional solution.

Going back to the simpler first two cases we might argue that self-managed units may have an advantage over others in managing common property systems. Evidence on worker-managed firms suggests that one of their major advantages is the lower monitoring costs due to the workers monitoring each other. That is the essence of what has gone on in the successful traditional common property management systems, herders or fishermen enforcing the mutually agreed upon access restrictions on each other. Often this has involved some local element of hierarchy, for example a village headman to adjudicate disputes between parties over access rights.

In the modern setting where newer technologies, outside parties possibly from other nations, and expanding global market integration are operative, these kinds of systems may need the support of governmental units at a higher level for them to work. A reasonably successful example of such a case is that of the Icelandic fisheries as discussed by Durrenburger and Palsson (1987). The Icelandic government in effect has come to play the role of the village headman for the disagreements among the normally self-enforcing fishermen. Also it has defended their interests against foreign intruders. Of course this is made easier by the small size of Iceland with only a little over 200,000 people and its deeply entrenched traditions of egalitarianism and democracy making the government credible with the fishermen. In many countries, fishing communities contain ethnic minorities alienated from the broader society and its governmental structures; not a good setup for the necessary cooperation if such reinforcement is to succeed.

In all of these cases we are dealing with the essential noospheric problem: humanity is simultaneously master and slave in the global biosphere. Previously we were just slaves. But our technological advances and increasing population have transformed the nature of nature. We are now a crucial driving element in the new structure and bear a profound responsibility for the development of the noosphere, even as we remain the subjects of Gala. Only by being true to ourselves can we be true to her.


We have seen how ecological and economic systems can be respectively hierarchically structured. We have seen that combined ecological-economic systems can exhibit dynamic instabilities and collapses. The ability of human institutions to minimize such outcomes at all levels from the local to the global depends on the emergence and development of appropriate institutions that are neither exploitive of humans nor of the environment. Such institutions are most likely to be those that are nonhierarchically self-governed at the appropriate level of the relevant level of the ecosystem. With or without property rights, per se, control of access and management by such entities is the most hopeful approach yet available to us for the productive and effective development of the global noosphere.

1 There has been a long tradition of identifying the problem as that of a "common property resource" (Gordon 1954), thereby implying that the issue is the establishment of private property rights. This view was strongly reinforced by Hardin's (1968) discussion of "the tragedy of the commons." More recently (Ciriacy-Wantrup and Bishop 1975) it has been realized that it is open access that is the problem, control of which does not necessarily require private property rights, per se.

2 An exception to this is the "organismist" school of thought which reaches a culmination in the "Gaia hypothesis" (Lovelock 1988). In its extreme form, this argues that a conscious Mother Earth (Gaia) directs or controls lower levels of the biosphere. In its weaker form, there is no such conscious control, but there is still a global homeostatic mechanism that tends to maintain life on earth, although it could be disrupted by human activities (Wallace and Norton 1992).

3 Aperiodic fluctuations can arise both from pure randomness as well as from deterministic chaotic dynamics.

4 It is possible to have hierarchies that are continuous in form without any identifiable levels other than a top, as in the rank-size measures in urban hierarchy analysis (Auerbach 1913). Within ecology there is considerable debate regarding whether hierarchies have distinct, scale-defined levels or not, with Holling (1992) strongly arguing that they do for most terrestial ecosystems.

5 Khalil (1992) warns against simplistically applying biological theories of hierarchy to economic hierarchies, a sin hopefully avoided in this paper.

6 For a discussion of the dynamics of the anagenetic moment, when a new level actually emerges, see Rosser et al. (1993).

7 Georgescu-Roegen (1971) has argued that the law of entropy is foundational to analyzing economic systems, although this argument has had its critics (Burness et al. 1980).

8 Stokes (1992, chap. 2) argues that an important precursor of systems theory and its application to both ecology and economics was Bogdanov (1925-28).

9 Kay (1991) has shown how such an approach can be used to analyze ecosystem integrity and catastrophic changes in ecosystems.

10 For more precise mathematical definitions of "stability" and "resilience" see Common and Perrings (1992).

11 For a discussion of the role of catastrophe theory in analyzing such shifts see Rosser (1991).

12 Anderson and Hill (1977) stress the role of agency costs of privatization in determining the line between privately owned property and commonly owned property. Thus the invention of cheap barbed wire made it easier to enclose and privatize western U.S. grazing lands. Such an invention has not yet been made for open-sea fisheries.

13 Hardie (1991) refers to unowned territories as the "Last Commons," giving the high seas beyond all 200-mile limits, Central Antarctica, and deep space as the clearest examples.

14 Another issue is that spatially the "lower" levels of this property hierarchy are often larger than the higher ones.

15 The analogous argument for command socialism refers to control by a nomenklatura elite, made by Djilas (1957).

16 Criticisms of such firms include that they may have backward-bending supply curves, that they may misuse scarce managerial talent, that they may under-invest due to lack of access to equities markets, and that they seem to be far outnumbered by standard firms in market capitalist economies. For a discussion of worker-managed-but-not-owned firms in the former Yugoslavia see Rosser and Rosser (1995, chap. 14).

17 Gilles and Jamtgaard (1991) present discussions of "unabused commons" in grazing environments in the Upper Andes and parts of Africa, as well as the modern example of the Swiss alpine pastures. These cases involve zones of low and variable yields where herds may need to be moved over large distances to find edible pastures. Cordell (1989) presents numerous examples of fisheries managed successfully as traditional commons as well as the modern example of Japanese fishing villages. Ostrom (1990) discusses many of these cases as well as modern ones involving voluntary private associations dealing with such things as groundwater usage.

18 Rosser (1994) presents the example of New York's emergence in the early nineteenth century as the dominant city in the U.S. as a result of the expansion of a series of related industries such as wholesaling and banking after the opening of the Erie Canal.

19 Bromley (1991, chap. 6) documents how colonial regimes in Africa and Asia displaced local common property management regimes and how their successor governments have continued to hold authority at the center with the result being no proper control of access and overexploitation of previously well-managed ecosystems.


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Professor of economics, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA.

The author wishes to acknowledge receipt of useful materials or comments from T. F. H. Allen, Carl Folke, James J. Kay, Elias L. Khalil, Heikki Isomaki, Charles Perrings, Garry Peterson, Tonu Puu, and an anonymous referee.
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Author:Rosser, J. Barkley, Jr.
Publication:Land Economics
Date:May 1, 1995
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