Perpetual Political Autopoiesis

I recently read a paper by John H. Little of Troy State University called ‘Autopoietic Social Systems And Self-Referential Government: How Unlikely Is Democracy?’.

It’s too bad the paper was so laden with complicated jargon, because from what I could follow it was quite an interesting topic: How Unlikely is Democracy? Is democracy possible? The debate is based on a systems point of view, borrowed by social scientists from biologists, and revolves around the issue of how closed government is versus how much influence voters can have on politicians.

This question reminded me of a recent meeting I had with Toronto’s Deputy Mayor Case Ootes, who also happens to be the elected City Councillor for my Ward of the City (Toronto-Danforth). Along with two other activists I met with Case to discuss the proposed pesticide by-law that would implement a ban on cosmetic pesticide use in Toronto over a one-year period. This was a controversial proposal that had City Councillors split.

The lawn care companies had lobbyists working overtime trying to kill the by-law, while environmental groups in the city had volunteers writing letters, attending Council meetings, making deputations and visiting people like Mr. Ootes. The lawn care lobby argued that the pesticide by-law would inhibit the freedom to have a beautiful lawn and hurt the economy through diminished pesticide sales. In an interesting piece of circular logic they also argued that a pesticide by-law was unenforceable.

The environmental lobby argued that the by-law would go a long way to improving the health of the city because pesticides are known to cause health problems in pets, children, and even the adults who spray them, and that switching to organic methods could in fact create economic opportunities for companies willing to help their clients make that change (as has happened in other Canadian municipalities that have implemented similar by-laws).

My cohorts and I had read an article, published in a large Toronto newspaper, written by Mr. Ootes arguing that the by-law was unenforceable and should therefore be stopped at the proposal stage. We entered the meeting prepared to argue that most by-laws, when coupled with public outreach to inform people of their existence and purpose, do not require intense enforcement to affect change in behaviour.

As it turned out, Ootes’ argument focused more on a lack of ‘facts’ and ‘proof’ that pesticides actually hurt human health. We countered that organizations ranging from Toronto Public Health to The Ontario College of Family Physicians had deemed the health risks of pesticides too great for household use. Ootes countered that the positions of organizations are merely opinions, and cannot be considered proof. I pointed out that a similar argument was once made about cigarettes, which have now been banned from most public spaces in Toronto. Ootes, in his own piece of circular logic, countered that cigarettes are a proven health hazard.

I tried coming at him from every angle I could think of. I pointed out that more labour intensive organic lawn care techniques would actually create jobs and help the economy. I mentioned the precautionary principle, which says that if something is likely, if not positively, going to cause harm it is better to avoid that something. I argued that there had been numerous studies linking pesticides to cancer, and that pesticides are designed to kill and are therefore likely dangerous for all living things. I gave examples of other campaigns that had successfully changed consumer behavior by coupling a by-law with a public education campaign. I pointed out that 50 other municipalities in Canada had successfully implemented similar by-laws with no apparent adverse economic impacts. I pointed out that advertisements used to encourage house wives to use DDT as a household cleaning product before scientists could prove how dangerous it was. My cohort handed him a petition signed by more than 200 of his constituents urging him to sign the by-law. She told him a recent poll indicated that an overwhelming majority of his constituents favored the by-law. Ootes stood firm, saying he refused to risk jobs or economic success unless he was convinced that pesticides were a real health threat, and he just didn’t believe that they were.

Any activist knows how hard it is to communicate with politicians, let alone actually influence them. Some systems thinkers might describe government as a closed system, in which case it is difficult if not impossible for it to be controlled externally, according to theories postulated by German Sociologist Niklas Luhmann in the early 90s. This theory seems to counter that of democracy, in which governance is conducted by representatives of the people, who have chosen said representatives. The people are supposed to control the politicians — we’re supposed to be the bosses. So why was Ootes so resistant to what we and the vast majority of his constituents were saying?

According to Ootes, “There are all kinds of polls, saying all kinds of things. But these are just opinions. I’m looking for facts.” The fact was that the vast majority of his constituents wanted him to vote in favor of the by-law. It seems though that, like so many politicians, Ootes is a master of maintaining the status quo.

According to systems thinkers, there are at least two distinct ways to think of a social system: as either an open system of action, or as a closed system of communication. In the former, actors (people) in the system are influenced by their external environment. In the latter, people shape their own version of reality and define their own boundaries of what actions are appropriate and acceptable using the communications they themselves develop. The system is closed because it defines its own boundaries, beyond which certain behaviours, messages, or actions are unacceptable. It is self perpetuating.

The problem that arises from this way of looking at a society is that we can’t be sure how effective communication is. Do people ever really understand each other? Did Ootes understand what I was trying to convey? Did I understand his counter-arguments? If human beings have such trouble sharing information and understanding one another, no wonder our democratically elected leaders break so many promises and do so many things counter to our wishes. Maybe we just don’t understand their promises. Maybe they don’t understand our wishes.

Perhaps, since democracy is such a failure, it is time we asserted ourselves as our own political representatives rather than relying on people who can’t understand our wishes, or as John H. Little put it, begin “expanding the boundary of the administrative subsystem to increase the numbers of people who are participants of that [political] system, rather than outside observers.”

On the other hand, Case Ootes strangely ended up voting in favour of the by-law in a 26-16 victory for the environmentalists, so maybe we just need to learn to be more forward in letting our elected representatives know what it is we want.

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