Do the essays in this volume have anything in common except the author?
At first sight they may look like random scatter without underlying theme or unifying thesis.
An essay on “The New Markets,” which treats the financial fads and follies of the 1960’s as symptoms of structural change in economy and society, may seem a strange bedfellow for an essay on Kierkegaard, surely the least “market-oriented” thinker of the modern West.
An evocation of Henry Ford as the “Last Populist,” and simultaneously the fulfillment and the denial of the nineteenth century’s agrarian and Jeffersonian dreams, might seem very far away from the internal stresses of the Japanese “economic miracle” or the pathos and bathos of “This Romantic Generation,” today’s educated young people.
Yet all these pieces, despite the diversity of their topics, have a common subject matter and a common theme.
They are all essays in what I would call “political (or social) ecology.”
This term is not to be found in any university catalogue.
But the only thing that is “new” about political ecology is the name.
As a subject matter and human concern, it can boast ancient lineage, going back all the way to Herodotus and Thucydides.
It counts among its practitioners such eminent names as de Tocqueville and Walter Bagehot.
Its charter is Aristotle’s famous definition of man as “zoon politikon,” that is, social and political animal.
As Aristotle knew (though many who quote him do not), this implies that society, polity, and economy though man’s creations, are nature to man, who cannot be understood apart from and out of them.
It also implies that society, polity and economy are a genuine environment, a genuine whole, a true “system,” to use the fashionable term, in which everything relates to everything else and in which men, ideas, institutions, and actions must always be seen together in order to be seen at all, let alone to be understood.
Political ecologists are uncomfortable people to have around.
Their very trade makes them defy conventional classifications, whether of politics, of the market place, or of academia.
Was de Tocqueville, for instance, a “liberal” or a “conservative"?
What about Bagehot?
“Political ecologists” emphasize that every achievement exacts a price and, to the scandal of good “liberals",” talk of “risks” or “trade-offs,” rather than of “progress.”
But they also know that the man-made environment of society, polity, and economics, like the environment of nature itself, knows no balance except dynamic disequilibrium.
Political ecologists therefore emphasize that the way to conserve is purposeful innovation—and that hardly appeals to the “conservative.”
Political ecologists believe that the traditional disciplines define fairly narrow and limited tools rather than meaningful and self-contained areas of knowledge, action, and events — in the same way in which the ecologists of the natural environment know that swamp or the desert is the reality and ornithology, botany, and geology only special-purpose tools.
Political ecologists therefore rarely stay put.
It would be difficult to say, I submit, which of chapters in this volume are “management,” which “government” or “political theory,” which “history” or “economics.”
The task determines the tools to be used: but this has never been the approach of academia.
Students of man’s various social dimensions—government, society, economy, institutions—traditionally assume their subject matter to be accessible to full rational understanding.
Indeed, they aim at finding “laws” capable of scientific proof.
Human action, however, they tend to treat as nonrational, that is, as determined by outside forces, such as their “laws.”
The political ecologist, by contrast, assumes that his subject matter is far too complex ever to be fully understood—just as his counterpart, the natural ecologist, assumes this in respect to the natural environment.
But precisely for this reason the political ecologist will demand—like his counterpart in the natural sciences—responsible actions from man and accountability of the individual for the consequences, intended or otherwise, of his actions.
An earlier volume of essays of mine, Technology, Management & Society (published in 1970), centered on what used to be called “the material civilization”:
business enterprise, its structure, its management, and its tools;
technology and its history, and so on.
The present volume is more concerned with economic, political, and social processes:
the early diagnosis of fundamental social and economic change;
the relationship between thought—economic, political, or social—and actions;
the things that work and don’t work in certain traditions, whether those of America or those of Japan; or
the conditions for effective leadership in the complex structures of industrial society and giant government.
But in the last analysis, the present essays, and those in the earlier volume, have the same objective.
They aim at an understanding of the specific natural environment of man, his “political ecology,” as a prerequisite to effective and responsible action, as an executive, as a policy-maker, as a teacher, and as a citizen.
Not one reader, I am reasonably sure, will agree with every essay; indeed, I expect some readers to disagree with all of them.
But then I long ago learned that the most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers.
The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.
I do hope that readers, whether executives in a business or administrators in a government agency, parents or their children, policy-makers or citizens, teachers or students, will agree that this volume addresses itself to right questions.
And even the reader who disagrees heatedly with the author’s prejudices, opinions, and conclusions will, I hope, find these essays enjoyable reading.