Below, I summarize Luhmann's 1985 book 'Ecological Communiaction', chapter by chapter.
Since the late 1960s, there has been a growing public discussion about the ecological conditions of societal life (e.g. resource depletion, species reduction, pollution, and overpopulation) and the connections between the societal system and its environment. Contemporary society is becoming increasingly aware of the consequences it has triggered in its environment, leading to a sense of alarm. But society lacks sufficient cognitive tools for prediction and practical guidance. Sociology, historically focused on inner societal perspectives, was unprepared for these ecological discussions, mainly centered on societal problems. Even earlier theories like the concept of societas civilis primarily focused on society as a political entity, leaving the external natural world to the natural sciences. So, thinking has shifted from nature as a resource to civilization as a focal point. The historical development of environmental awareness including the role of property rights has evolved over time, particularly in the 19th century, with a focus on the relationship between systems and their environments. Sociology needs a paradigm shift towards recognizing the importance of the relationship between societal systems and their environments. This shift involves a move away from viewing society as a collection of individuals to considering society as a system of communication. The perspective that society consists of nothing but communication can help address the ecological challenges society faces.
Causes and responsibilities?
Evolutionary complexity in ecological problems shifts the focus of the problem. Traditionally, ecological issues are viewed from the perspective of causes within society and the responsibility for their consequences. Addressing the root causes is the best way to tackle such problems, often using adapted police regulations. But the current ecological problems and systems theory analysis call for a change in perspective. Instead of solely focusing on causes, there's a need to reconstruct problems from the viewpoint of the system exposed to ecological changes. This means that addressing the effects and the often complex causes and consequences of reactions is crucial. Causal attribution often underpins legal and policy decisions regarding responsibility and allocation of costs. This principle involves attributing effects to causes, which helps in distinguishing responsibility and guilt. Still, it may oversimplify complex ecological issues. Causal attribution serves to exclude non-causes and establish non-responsibility. This may serve to absolve individuals or entities from blame. These ideas are widely accepted, but the implications of self-referential system theory are more radical: Traditional methods of deduction and causality are forms of simplifying self-observation that don’t apply well to complex social systems. So, decisions about causality and responsibility cannot be avoided but are challenging due to their moral and political implications. In politics and economics, attributions of causality and responsibility can have significant consequences, such as the collapse of political coalitions or the downfall of businesses. The possibility of errors in theories and calculations guiding these decisions can lead to further consequences.
Complexity and Evolution
The optimism that we can change the world through cybernetic consultation has faded. It’s not meaningful to simply describe something as complex without considering the context of system-environment differences. For any system, its environment is always more complex than the system itself. Therefore, systems must reduce environmental complexity, primarily by categorically perceiving and limiting the environment's complexity. This distinction between the system and its environment is crucial for reducing complexity, as reduction can only occur within the system while considering its environment. A system with limited complexity can survive and reproduce in a much more complex environment. Evolutionary theory is a possible explanation, but this theory alone cannot provide a satisfactory explanation for the development of systems that successfully adapt to complexity. Higher system complexity may be achieved by developing organizational forms that are compatible with high complexity. Complex autopoietic systems are a way to maintain self-reproduction and adapt to changing environmental conditions. These systems can adapt to irritations from the environment by forming their own structures. Systems can create conditions in which they cannot exist in the environment they have influenced, leading to self-endangerment. The primary goal of autopoietic systems is to continue their autopoiesis without considering the environment's future. Evolution eventually leads to ecological balances by eliminating systems that follow a trend of self-endangerment. Our dominion over nature needs to be reconsidered. It’s not about more or less technological control over nature, but rather about using technical competence under criteria that include self-reflection and consideration of potential consequences. The problem lies in selection criteria rather than causality, and we have to ask ourselves: (1) whether our technical competence allows us enough freedom regarding nature, and (2) whether our societal and communicative competence is sufficient to implement the necessary selection processes.
Let’s simplify our discussion about complexity, reduction, self-reference, autopoiesis, and recursive-closed reproduction by using the concept of resonance to describe the system-environment relationship. The key idea is that modern society is so complex that it cannot be understood as a simple transformation of inputs into outputs, like a factory. Instead, the system establishes its self-reproduction through internal circular structures, shielding itself from the environment. Only occasionally, under specific circumstances, can the system be perturbed or resonate with factors from the environment. A rich lexicon that defines most of its terms in a self-referential manner and occasionally references undefinable terms can be seen as a form of resonance. Similarly, physical systems can only resonate with their inherent frequencies. This notion of resonance applies to living systems as well, where selective coupling with the environment allows systems to maintain their identity. Society operates with a high degree of selectivity and closure in its communication and information processing. This selectivity is essential for its existence as a system. The limitations of the system's ability to resonate with the environment are inherent in its mode of operation, and these limitations are shaped by the nature of meaning (sense). Facts are also processed within the system's own framework and the system's differentiation into subsystems affects its responses to challenges. Ecological issues cannot be solved solely through appeals for environmental awareness but may require a fundamental shift in how society's operations are observed and understood.
Observation of observation
A system experiences resonance when it is stimulated by its environment. The system can register this stimulation and, if it possesses the necessary information processing capabilities, can infer information about the environment. The environment, in this context, is the overall horizon of external information processing for the system. Distinguishing between self-reference and other-reference (inner and outer aspects) in the order of system operations is important. The environment serves as an internal premise for the system's operations and is only constituted when the system uses the distinction between self-reference and other-reference as a schema for ordering its own operations. The environment of a system has no inherent boundaries and can expand or contract based on the system's own operations. It is not a fixed limit and accompanies every operation of the system when it relates to something outside itself. Second-order cybernetics deals with the limitations and constraints imposed on a observed system by its own mode of operation. When one system observes another, it can discern the boundaries and limitations that structure the observed system's environment. The challenge posed by self-referential systems and the need to distinguish between natural and artificial constraints on self-reference. Natural constraints are necessary for system operation, while artificial constraints can be altered through learning processes. Second-order cybernetics is seen as a way to address the paradoxes and limitations of self-reference. It allows for recognizing the inherent paradox in self-referential systems and understanding the constraints that make certain observations impossible. Understanding second-order cybernetics is crucial for analyzing ecological threats in modern society. By recognizing the limitations and constraints of different systems, society can gain insights into why scientific knowledge often fails to resonate with various social systems. The traditional idea of an objectively given reality is insufficient for addressing complex societal challenges. Instead, a second-order cybernetic approach that acknowledges the limitations of observations is needed.
Communication as societal operation
Instead of looking at individual consciousness, the primary reference point should be societal systems. Society is the most comprehensive system of meaningful communication, and societal communication is essential for addressing environmental issues. Ecological endangerment refers to communication within society that seeks to initiate changes in the structures of the societal communication system. Objective environmental facts, such as declining oil reserves or rising temperatures, don’t have societal impact until they are communicated within society. Society is an environmentally sensitive but operationally closed system that observes its environment solely through communication. Communication is an exclusive societal operation, and the environment cannot communicate with society directly. Instead, the environment can only manifest itself through disturbances or disruptions in communication, which society must then respond to. While individual consciousness is essential for societal communication, it is distinct from communication itself. Consciousness processes, such as thinking, are not forms of communication. Ecological awareness within individual consciousness does not automatically translate into societal communication. There is a sharp threshold between individual awareness and societal communication, and topics related to ecological awareness may only become part of societal communication when they resonate with the societal communication system. Communication about topics like alienation, apathy, or youth protests, indirectly relate to ecological concerns as well. Consciousness systems that do not conform to the societal conditions of communicability may only produce disturbances or non-communicative noise within the societal communication system. Such consciousness systems may be limited in their ability to contribute positively to societal discourse on ecological issues.
Ecological knowledge and societal communication
Society can only pose ecological threats to itself. This means that society can change the environment in ways that have consequences for its own continued reproduction. But this does not imply the radical extinction of all human life, which is still improbable. Society can only endanger itself through communication. This implies that even when there are connections between its operations and environmental changes, these connections must be addressed through communication within society to find resonance. The key question is how society structures its processing capacity for environmental information. This issue has been explored primarily in relatively simple, archaic societies, where ecological self-regulation often relied on mythical-magical beliefs, taboos, and rituals. In these older societies, ecological self-regulation was often achieved through pragmatic rituals, and societies were not inherently programmed for growth. This allowed them to balance environmental changes without seeking alternative, functionally equivalent solutions. In contrast, modern society has experienced significant and irreversible environmental changes, such as deforestation and desertification. This shift in societal self-regulation methods is linked to changes in cultural and religious semantics brought about by the introduction of writing, alphabetization, and printing. Modern society cannot address ecological problems using the same strategies of taboos and rituals as older societies did. The transformations in cultural and religious semantics, along with the spread of knowledge through technology, have made it challenging to rely on mystification and secrecy. The modern society's primary differentiation principle has shifted from stratification of houses and families to the differentiation of functional systems. Each major subsystem of society now has its specific and prioritized function, which has led to increased complexity but also integration challenges. The theory of functional system differentiation is seen as an explanation for both the positive and negative aspects of modern society's development. It's a powerful explanatory tool, although its validity remains subject to debate.
How can environmental problems resonate in societal communication when society is divided into functional systems? These systems can only react to environmental events and changes through their specific codes. While there are forms of communication that are not strictly functional and may not be tied to a single code, the influential communication is largely dependent on the possibilities offered by functional systems. The most important functional systems structure their communication through binary codes that claim universal validity for specific functions and exclude third possibilities. Examples include the binary logic code for science, the code of right and wrong for the legal system, and the code of property and money for the economy. Binary codes serve the purpose of resolving paradoxes and tautologies within the system. They replace unity, which would be unbearable in the form of a tautology or paradox, with a difference (e.g., right vs. wrong).
Binary codes duplicate reality, even though the world itself is not inherently positive or negative. This duplication allows everything to be treated as contingent and reflected upon in relation to its opposite, without necessarily increasing or decreasing its actual quantity. Different functional systems specialize in specific binary codes based on their operations. This specialization is crucial for the modernization of the societal system. Binary codes help address self-referential problems within the system. They transform contradictions into oppositions, making it easier for the system to operate. Binary codes operate on the principle that opposites attract, and they facilitate transitions between opposing states. Negation is often sufficient to enact these transitions. Binary codes enable a combination of closed and open operations within the same system, increasing its responsiveness. Functional systems depend on each other due to the interplay of binary codes, fostering integration rather than limiting autonomy. Binary codes and the corresponding differentiation of functional systems have evolved over time, with early traces found in ancient Greek culture. The transition to a functional differentiation system was more prominent in the transition to modernity. With functional differentiation and the use of binary codes, society moves away from a single, overarching ethical ethos to a fragmented system with separate codes for various functions. This fragmentation can lead to a lack of integration between the codes. The differentiation of codes in society does not mean that all communication is neatly organized into one code or another. Differentiation occurs as subsystems within society are led by a specific code. Binary codes are initially abstract schematics that differentiate against each other but don't directly explain how societal operations are regulated. While binary codes might suggest preferences, such as truth being better than falsehood or right being better than wrong, the actual operations of society don't always align with these preferences. For example, the truth of a statement about mice having tails may be valued less than disproving important physical theories.
Codes, criteria and programs
One can distinguish between two levels of analysis within a system: coding and programming. Codes are closed systems, while programming sets conditions for the correctness of operations, allowing some flexibility and learning within the system. This differentiation between coding and programming is crucial for a system to operate as both a closed and open system simultaneously, which is important for handling environmental threats effectively. Historically, this differentiation has developed gradually and becomes necessary when functional systems have sufficiently differentiated. Earlier ethical and natural law traditions couldn't distinguish between code values (positive/negative) and generalized formulas for the correctness or suitability of behavior, leading to moral ambiguities. The shift towards economic and scientific systems rely on the concept of the "invisible hand" and the pursuit of progress without concerns of moral values. This shift replaces complex theories of transcendence. This optimism about progress with its makeshift metaphysics occurred in a transitional period. The new order of functional differentiation opens up new possibilities, allowing a different kind of theoretical reflection, focusing on the autonomy, intrinsic value, and function of individual functional systems without considering their interplay. But the semantic consequences of this shift are not yet fully explored, and the societal reflection remains unclear, with no regard for environmental issues at this point in history.
What are the implications of functional differentiation in modern society, particularly concerning ecological problems and the possible need for new reflection theories? The division of society into specialized function systems leads to unique challenges and requires new theories of reflection. This differentiation involves the separation of coding and programming levels within these systems. For example, traditionally, authority in legal matters was based on the concept of justice, but this perspective changed in the 19th century. Instead of justice, the focus shifted to the factual authority of offices and positions within the legal system. This shift resulted in the connection of the legal system to the political system, making it challenging to reflect the unity of the legal system adequately. Ecological challenges are primarily addressed by these function systems (such as politics, economics, science, and law) and not solely through moral considerations. Function systems react to environmental problems either directly or indirectly due to societal interdependencies. Functional differentiation involves a trade-off: it reduces redundancy but increases internal interdependencies within function systems. Institutions and morals that used to be multifunctional are dissolved, and specific codes are assigned to specific systems. Interdependencies between function systems do not imply a loss of differentiation; rather, they demonstrate that modern society's primary function systems are mutually dependent when solving problems that require collaboration between multiple systems. Ecological issues are best analyzed by considering both the differentiation of function systems and the interplay of codes and programs within these systems. The internal effects and consequences of these interdependencies often become detached from the original environmental triggers and require control and monitoring. Ecological challenges are addressed not through moral values but through the intricate workings and interactions of function systems, each governed by its specific codes and programs.
The economy is the sum of all operations involving monetary transactions. Any instance where money is involved, whether directly or indirectly, is considered part of the economy, regardless of the parties or needs involved. This definition of the economy is contrasted with earlier monetary systems, such as those in the Middle Ages, which had more limitations on what could be purchased with money. The economy has to be differentiated from religion and politics, making it an autonomously closed functional system within society. This differentiation is essential for the economy to gain complexity as a monetarily integrated system and enables it to increasingly satisfy needs and engage in production while marginalizing traditional household activities. Restriction is a condition for the expansion of the economy, which, in turn, has detrimental consequences for the environment. Ownership is fundamental to the economy, forcing participants to be either owners or non-owners of property. Ownership, particularly of land, was less differentiated in its pre-monetary form but became more refined with the introduction of money, allowing for full functional differentiation of the economic system. The modern economy is a strictly closed, circular, and self-referentially constituted system that depends on payments, which, in turn, require payment capability. Money is a wholly economic medium, exclusively mediating the system's internal operations, primarily decisions related to payment or non-payment. Decisions regarding payments are based on the possibility of not paying, making the choice to pay or not pay the fundamental question of the economy. This leads to the separation of code and programs, with the code being the distinction between having and not having certain sums of money. Programs are needed to motivate and guide the system's internal operations, mainly by setting prices. Prices serve as a rapid way to determine whether payments are correct or not, simplifying economic calculations. There is no comprehensive theory of the market, even in economics, which highlights the unusual structure of competition, exchange, and cooperation in modern society. In modern economies, people typically do not cooperate or exchange with those they compete against, allowing competition to exist alongside interaction and communication. The economic system continually strives to gain time through capital accumulation. This creates the system's own perspectives on the future and past, leading to its internal temporal dynamics, which may not align with the timing of environmental or societal processes. The economy's response to environmental issues relies on integrating environmental factors into economic operations, influencing prices, and internalizing ecological considerations through cost-benefit calculations. The economy's response to environmental challenges may be constrained by its internal logic and the pursuit of profit. Balancing the marginal benefits and costs of environmental protection is a principle for managing the responsiveness of the economic system to environmental issues. There are significant challenges in measuring and attributing these costs and benefits accurately. Decision-making units within the economic system often focus on the internal environment of the system, which is primarily driven by market dynamics. This makes it difficult to implement a comprehensive, environmentally-oriented decision-making rule. External political and legal regulations may be necessary to manipulate prices and guide production and consumption decisions within the economic system in line with ecological-economic marginal benefits. The compatibility of such external regulation with market-driven economics is questionable. The scarcity paradox states that attempts to eliminate scarcity by accessing scarce resources often lead to increased scarcity. This paradox is related to economic growth and is often obscured by the concept of the "invisible hand" in market economics. An alternative approach to address the scarcity paradox is introducing hierarchy and differentiation between quantity decisions and allocation decisions. This hierarchical approach is a means of making the tension between these decisions more evident. Input/output models are used to reintegrate externalized costs into economic analysis and make the environmental consequences of economic actions more visible. This approach is still challenging to implement effectively. Prices play a role as a language through which economic activities are filtered. If environmental issues can be expressed in terms of prices, they are more likely to be addressed within the economic system. The economic system's selective resonance with its object domain leads to problems being framed as costs. This influences whether payments for addressing these problems are considered economically rational. A theory of price-cost-production relationships alone is not competent for assessing ecological threats to the societal system. This theory might not be suitable for providing policy guidance on ecological issues. Hierarchical structures may expose structural contradictions and decisions within the economic system but they are essential to manage complex responses to environmental challenges. The key to addressing environmental problems within the economic context lies in the language of prices. If environmental issues can be translated into price terms, they become more manageable within the system. While the focus on prices has limitations, it guarantees that problems expressed in price terms are addressed within the system, preventing potential disruption to the modern societal system.
The political response to environmental problems often involves shifting from market-based pricing mechanisms to normative regulations. This shift implies that if the market fails to address environmental concerns adequately, the government and regulations must step in to enforce necessary actions. But this dichotomy oversimplifies the situation and places unrealistic expectations on the role of politics. Relying solely on regulations and norms for addressing environmental challenges can lead to disappointments and an overburdened political system. Such an approach tends to over-politicize issues, resulting in hasty, superficial solutions or merely shifting problems elsewhere. Both the economy and politics are subsystems within the larger societal framework. Both the legal and the political system are self-contained and need the legal system needs to maintain an autonomy.
The legal system is limited in addressing environmental problems, because it operates based on its own logic, distinguishing between right and wrong, but not necessarily accounting for environmental impacts. Applying existing legal frameworks to environmental issues is challenging; adapting the law to address these problems often involves a circular process of regulation, evaluation, and further regulation. The legal system's response to environmental problems tends to involve subjective elements, such as defining thresholds, assessing risk tolerance, and protecting various interests that may not align with straightforward legal reasoning. These complexities make it challenging to address environmental issues effectively through legal means alone. As environmental concerns rise in society, legal decisions increasingly involve subjective judgments and vague formulations that leave many decision problems open-ended. These formulations often create the illusion of action without providing clear solutions. Vague formulas are used in environmental matters. For instance, statements like "Where individual planners have some discretion, it is advisable to prioritize environmental protection to some extent" or "Their (the administration's) task is to balance general public interests with individual concerns and align them with environmental requirements". These statements are inherently subjective and cannot be objectively enforced. Applying traditional decision-making principles to assess risks associated with environmental issues is difficult. Maximizing expected utility while minimizing risk is problematic, especially when there is uncertainty about probabilities. Risk attitudes vary widely among individuals and are influenced by various factors, making it challenging to establish a universal risk tolerance threshold. Subjective factors increase in significance when dealing with highly improbable events. The complex interdependence and unpredictability of ecological systems make it difficult to establish fixed rules or consensus on risk assessments. Risk acceptance can be tested through market mechanisms, particularly when dealing with localized risks that can be tied to specific economic decisions. This approach may involve compensating those exposed to risks, such as living near airports or nuclear power plants. Legally addressing environmental risks and establishing regulations and standards that accommodate different risk attitudes and circumstances is difficult.
Empirical research and rational decision models are irrelevant to legal practitioners, as the legal system relies on self-discovered maxims for decision-making. The legal system lacks effective methods for addressing risk and uncertainty. Ethical considerations are often insufficient for resolving environmental problems since they, too, rely on rationality and consensus. Environmental issues blur the lines between politics and law, leading to a blend of legal and political decisions. The legal system may struggle to adapt to the dynamic nature of environmental challenges and solutions. In response to environmental concerns, the legal system tends to respond by expanding regulations and standards. This expansion may lead to conflicts between different forms of regulation and enforcement. Enforcement of environmental laws becomes challenging due to the emergence of new forms of regulation, private efforts to enforce public law, and negotiated solutions between regulators and those being regulated. Private efforts and administrative flexibility can sometimes collide when private entities challenge negotiated arrangements or raise legal concerns about these agreements.
Science may resonate with environmental concerns. Science, with its specialized code of distinguishing true from false, may address environmental questions. The differentiation between coding and programming in science leads to the emergence of various disciplines and subdisciplines, making it challenging to determine the position of knowledge within the overall system. The scientific code of truth and falsehood is specialized in processing experiences, mainly through selections that are not attributed to the communicators themselves. Personal influences and circumstances are treated as disturbances and eliminated, except when they lead to valuable discoveries. The scientific code is specialized in acquiring new scientific knowledge, emphasizing a preference for novelty and curiosity. Scientific analysis focuses on multiplying problems rather than solving them. Structured complexity in scientific research impacts the scientific code's ability to handle environmental issues. Ceteris paribus assumptions are problematic regarding complex ecological systems. Science, with its relentless pursuit of knowledge and its focus on novelty, generates vast possibilities but also leads to the creation of a world that is difficult to navigate and orient within for society as a whole. Other societal systems, such as the economy, law, and politics, are tasked with sorting through what is technically possible and what is desirable, often making decisions based on their own criteria, such as economic viability, legality, or political expediency.
In economy, law, and science, an autopoietic self-reproduction closed by a code is a condition for the openness of the system, meaning that it determines the system's ability to resonate and its limits. The differentiation of these functional systems in society has expanded their horizons but also clarified the boundaries of possible resonance within each of them. Traditionally, politics has been considered a central element in society, associated with leadership and governance. In today's world, the primary structure of societal differentiation connects to differences between functional systems. The political system's regional segmentation into states is maintained for political reasons, while differentiation into center and periphery is driven by economic factors. The political system operates within its own code and programs, and can only act to what is feasible within those constraints. Political systems need to adapt to functional differentiation rather than assuming a special leadership role in society. Political resonance is influenced by public opinion and the selection of political personnel. Political power is limited in addressing complex ecological problems. The political system's ability to effect change is constrained by the need to work within the legal and economic systems. Political decisions are often constrained by territorial boundaries, which limit the ability to address global environmental problems effectively. For example, issues like overconsumption of resources in one country or cross-border pollution may not be adequately addressed due to these territorial limitations. Political systems are designed to respond to short-term electoral cycles, which can hinder their capacity to implement long-term environmental policies. This creates a challenge in crafting sustainable solutions to ecological problems. Once regulations are in place, they can become resistant to change even if they are no longer effective or relevant. This rigidity can impede the ability to adapt to evolving environmental challenges. Political systems often operate on timeframes that do not align with the rapid pace of environmental change. Delayed responses can lead to more significant problems down the line. The absence of effective international regulations for addressing environmental issues, combined with the focus on national interests, can hinder coordinated global efforts to combat ecological problems. Many mainstream political parties may be risk-averse and reluctant to prioritize long-term environmental issues if they believe it could cost them votes in the short term. The competition for attention and resources among various policy issues can make it challenging for environmental concerns to take precedence in political agendas. Despite these limitations, it is not predetermined that political systems and competitive democracies are incapable of addressing environmental problems. While political systems may have limited resonance for ecological issues, there is potential for change and greater emphasis on environmental policies in the future. This could involve shifting priorities, bringing environmental concerns into the mainstream of political discourse, and encouraging political parties to compete on their environmental platforms.
Theologians are often invited to engage in discussions related to environmental issues. They are generally considered to be well-intentioned and possess argumentative competence. Their contributions to ecological discussions are - sadly - seen as inadequate. Theologians frequently repeat ideas that are already widely accepted and do not offer a specific religious perspective. Their contributions often lack concrete, distinct, and relevant insights into the real problems. Merely reformulating common ideas in theological language or attributing them to God does not significantly contribute to addressing environmental issues. The resonance capacity of the religious system is questionable. The operations of this system are directed by codes and programs, and its structures enable or limit its resonance. In matters of religion, a differentiation between coding and programming has already occurred. Early religions perceived the sacred as both delight and terror, but over time, religion became more focused on moral coding, distinguishing between good and bad behavior. While moral coding played a significant role in religion, it also raised questions and doubts, particularly about the origins of evil and suffering. Religion cannot be solely identified with or driven by morality, and it must navigate the complex relationship between immanence and transcendence. Transcendence is seen not as a separate world but as a comprehensive, all-encompassing view of the world. Religion, like other codes, relies on background assumptions and distinctions. Different religions use various semantics to differentiate themselves, such as creation myths, the distinction between the sacred and profane, or historical beliefs like Jesus being the Christ. The desacralization of nature shifted from being primarily a religious requirement to becoming a scientific or economic necessity. Religion could not intervene in this shift because it adhered to the same narrative. In contemporary society, religion faces challenges in justifying its programmatic aspects (goals and principles) based on its code (faith). This presents difficulties in providing religious answers to environmental issues. Religion may have evolved as a kind of parasite on societal problematics, benefiting from the binary structures of other codes by offering a formula for incorporating the excluded third element. Religion is faced with the problem of being unable to offer a distinct program for addressing current environmental issues, as it relies on societal problem awareness. Religion may only respond or warn when problems become evident to society. Religion could contribute to societal resonance by emphasizing the idea of human beings being accompanied by God in times of uncertainty and potential existential crises.
There is a growing interest among young people in ecological issues, and the education system, particularly in schools and universities, could play a crucial role in nurturing and expanding this interest to bring about a gradual change in society's awareness and attitude towards the environment. The education system is just one of many functional systems and it imparts attitudes and skills that must be applied in other systems. The education system is subject to constraints and resonates within its own boundaries. The education system involves coding (grading and evaluation) and programming (curriculum and content). Coding in the education system focuses on evaluation, with students receiving grades and evaluations that impact their educational and career paths. Programming relates to the content and skills taught in the system. Within the education system, there is an emphasis on binary coding, where students are expected to produce a single correct output in response to inputs, such as questions or tasks. This binary code orientation can affect the quality of education and create stress among students. The education system is affected by societal pressures, such as the stress associated with performance expectations and uncertain job prospects based on educational achievements. It questions whether changes in curriculum and interests can effectively address these structural challenges. While the education system offers opportunities for increased ecological communication, it faces challenges in bridging the gap between its own system and other societal functional systems, where new attitudes and sensitivities towards ecology should be integrated. The success of educational policies aimed at reshaping values and awareness may depend on the ability of coded communication to respond to the opinions of participants and their role in shaping public opinion and social movements.
Functional differentiation leads to a situation where various subsystems, like politics, economics, and religion, become autonomous and specialized in their functions. These subsystems cannot be substituted for one another and coexist in interdependence. It’s challenging to reconcile the unity and diversity of modern society. Values and moral judgments play a significant role in this process, and their inflation in contemporary communication reflects the need to address complex societal problems resulting from functional differentiation. The contemporary emphasis on latent and manifest functions complicates the sociological understanding of society. The self-description and self-observation of society often rely on distinguishing between manifest and latent aspects.
Societal resonance, in response to environmental threats, is closely linked to the reduction of redundancy, which is found in the non-substitutability of functional systems. This non-substitutability forces disturbances to be channeled towards one or more of these functional systems. Any environmental pollution or disruption can only be effectively addressed according to the codes and functions of these systems. In biological systems, the reduction of redundancy leads to increased resonance capacity in specific frequency ranges. In modern society, functional differentiation follows a similar path by choosing a functional-oriented differentiation principle. A shift towards a Postmodern society with new opportunities is overly simplistic.
Too much or too little resonance
Reduction of redundancy allows environmental changes to be noticed and processed within systems. It also implies that society may not be adequately responsive to ecological threats, aligning with current public opinion. There is a potential for excessive resonance within the system, leading to internal overloads and the possibility of the system breaking down without external destruction. The problem of resonance in a differentiated system is complex, involving both external and internal system boundaries. External system boundaries protect society's communication from non-communicative complexities in the environment. The society can only communicate with its environment based on its information processing capacity. Meanwhile, internal system boundaries involve communicative interdependencies, where disturbances in one system can affect others, even if each system operates according to its own code. Small changes in one system can lead to significant consequences in another. There is no overarching rationality to regulate such interactions, as each system can only generate resonance according to its own code, making them vulnerable to code-specific operations triggered by external information. The stability of governments often depends on economic factors that are not directly controllable by politics, further illustrating the challenges of maintaining balance in a differentiated society. The political system is likely to become a focal point for addressing ecological concerns because it can facilitate communication and promise actions without being constrained by other systems' codes. This increased resonance in politics may lead to positive solutions but also disrupt other systems. Therefore, political rationality should consider the potential repercussions of its actions.
The new social movements
Societal self-observation faces challenges within modern, functionally differentiated societies. Trying to represent the entirety of a system within the system itself creates a contradiction. The attempt to reintroduce the whole into the whole generates a difference – the difference between the part representing the entirety within the system and all other parts. This inherent contradiction makes the intention of self-observation paradoxical and self-defeating. Traditional societies were able to navigate this paradox because their internal differentiation followed hierarchical or center-periphery principles, allowing for a part to represent the whole without competition. Additionally, they often relied on religious justification to articulate the difference created by self-observation. The inaccessibility of the divine realm served as a difference to the order in the earthly realm. During the Middle Ages, discrepancies arose between noble and urban ways of life, leading to a transformation process that shifted societies towards functional differentiation. Despite the paradox, self-observation in modern societies cannot be excluded. Any form of societal differentiation can be observed and described within society. Even binary codes that exclude third positions for coded operations can be used to take those third positions. Observation is an operation that designates other operations within a distinction as "this and not that". Observation uses distinctions that may not be necessary or accessible to the observed operations themselves. It employs richer semantic possibilities to reduce them through selective labeling. While different subsystems can observe each other, societal self-observation implies that the observation doesn't distance itself from its subject but includes itself. Original sin is a historical example of self-observation in traditional societies, leading to moral self-regulation and moderation of moral criticism. In modern societies, self-observation is linked to the consequences of functional differentiation, such as political system revolutions and the effects of capitalism. However, causal attribution of these effects becomes contentious, leading to ideological dependency in self-observation. The self-description of society has become historical and is often reduced to defining the current situation. Terms like Industry, Capitalism, and Modernity are used to characterize historical differences, creating a paradox where society is what it is not.
New social movements and protests have emerged, particularly ecological and anti-war movements. These movements arise due to doubts about societal systems' effects and their intentions to live differently, albeit with simpler lifestyles. New social movements lack theory, which limits their ability to control the distinctions in their observations. This leads to simplistic goal-fixation, moral judgments, and potentially a lack of semantic and structural stability in their self-description. Recognizing the dominant societal structure is crucial for finding a position to critique it effectively. Modern society lacks a functional equivalent to historical dialectics or revolution as a theoretical framework, making it challenging to engage in critical self-observation. The paradoxical nature of social movements trying to change society from within contributes to their dynamic but unstable nature. This dynamic may lead to changes or accommodations, but the primary issue remains whether modern society relies too heavily on insufficient bases like social movements for self-description.
Fear, Morality and Theory
Fear and anxiety are used in the context of ecological concerns. Instead of focusing on traditional moral norms and deviations from them, contemporary society tends to choose fear and anxiety as replacements for the norm-deviation distinction. Fear becomes a functional equivalent for providing meaning in the absence of overarching norms. Unlike traditional moral norms that aim to avoid deviations, this new moral style is centered around reducing fear, making it a more durable functional equivalent because fear cannot be regulated or disproven through legal or scientific means. Fear is not easily controlled by societal function systems, and attempts to address fear can sometimes exacerbate it. Fear communication is seen as authentic communication because individuals can claim to have fear without others being able to refute it. Ecological concerns have shifted the focus of fear from external enemies to ecological issues. The communication of fear has become more widespread and socially acceptable in this context. Fear communication has a moral dimension, making it a duty to worry and demand measures to address perceived dangers. Fear communication can lead to moral debates and controversies that are difficult to resolve. It can create moral dilemmas and makes it challenging to distinguish between genuine fear and feigned fear.
Society could achieve ecological rationality by considering the consequences of its actions on the environment. Expecting a comprehensive societal rationality is problematic, as each functional system in society focuses on its own rationality and treats the rest of society as its environment. These ideas are theoretical and may not provide immediate solutions to real-world problems. These analyses offer perspectives for self-observation within society and encourage a communicative relationship between different societal concerns, like ecological issues and fear communication.
The rationality of ecological communication
Ecological communication plays a role in addressing environmental problems in society. Simply prescribing solutions like reducing resource consumption, emissions, or population growth has to be avoided, as it overlooks the complexity of societal responses. Critique traditionally assumes knowledge of a better alternative and suggests that society should determine its identity through communicative discourse. This perspective may not adequately address the challenges of modern society, especially in ecological matters. Achieving societal rationality within the framework of differentiated systems is challenging. The traditional understanding of rationality, rooted in self-reference and consensus, may not apply to contemporary societal complexity. A new approach to societal rationality is needed, focusing on differentiation rather than unity. The ecological difference between the system and its environment should be used as a guiding principle for rethinking rationality in society.
There is a prevalent expectation that ecological communication should culminate in ethical matters and seek its justifications there. But merely addressing ethical postulates and maxims may not be sufficient. A sociological analysis is needed that differentiates itself from ethics. Morality involves the coding of communication into binary categories of good and bad. Morality deals with situations of uncertainty, disagreement, and conflict, where judgments of respect or disrespect are at stake. Moral coding inherently leads to paradoxes, making it difficult to pass moral judgments on morality itself. Ethics, on the other hand, is a reflective theory of morality. It aims to reflect on the unity of the moral code's distinction between good and bad and resolve moral paradoxes. Ethics operates by creating an alternative problem, such as the unity of a rule like the categorical imperative, to divert attention from the paradoxes inherent in moral coding. These considerations apply not only to traditional social ethics but also to potential environmental ethics. The complexity of ecological problems and the distinction between societal systems and their environments require a different approach to ethics, one that acknowledges and embraces paradoxes rather than avoiding them. In the absence of such an ethical framework, ecological communication should maintain a distance from morality. It should not be prematurely directed toward an environmental ethics. Environmental ethics could encourage caution in dealing with morality rather than replacing it.
Luhmann, N. (1985), Ökologische Kommunikation – Kann die moderne Gesellschaft sich auf ökologische Gefährdungen einstellen?, Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag.