Roots of the Dilemmas

Roots of the Dilemmas

J. Edward Anderson, Ph.D., P.E.

A series of dilemmas involving growth, work roles, distribution of wealth, and control of technology combine to form a profound challenge to the industrial system. These dilemmas can be understood by examining a series of twelve root conditions that seem to have produced them. By understanding such "roots" we may be able to see what must be done to resolve the dilemmas and hence to devise sustainable social systems. The analysis presented here was originally developed for the course "Ecology, Technology, and Society," which was given at the University of Minnesota from 1970 through 1987.

The Dilemmas

Willis W. Harman, in An Incomplete Guide to the Future, focuses attention on the complex of problems facing modern society through analysis of four dilemmas:

The Growth Dilemma
The economy must grow, but too much material growth leads to conflict with the finite limits of the earth.
The Work-Roles Dilemma
Growth has increased wealth, but increased wealth has not produced enough meaningful work.
The Distribution Dilemma
Inequitable distribution of wealth leads to unrest, but equitable distribution would seem to lead to universal poverty and lack of hope.
The Control Dilemma
Uncontrolled technological development leads to intolerable side effects, but control of technology may lead to totalitarianism.

Appearing simultaneously, these dilemmas combine to form a profound challenge to the industrial system. Analysis of their nature and meaning is a powerful tool for coming to grips with the seriousness of the problems of the times, and for helping people understand that a fundamental transformation will have to come, not because we have a choice of whether on not to remain on the present path, but because the present path is not sustainable, people will either adopt new values voluntarily, or will be forced by circumstances to do so.

The statement of each side of each dilemma is a statement of the surface manifestations of the dilemma. To understand what must be done to resolve the dilemmas, it is necessary to look for fundamental conditions or concepts or root causes in society, in nature, or in individual behavior that seem to have produced the dilemmas. By understanding the roots, there is hope that we can understand what we must do.

The Roots

Following are discussions of twelve conditions that may be called "roots" in the sense used here. To qualify as a root, a condition must not be derivable from another root,i.e., a true set of roots must be a set of independent, fundamental conditions that produce far reaching consequences for mankind.

No claim is made that there are not more than twelve roots or that the twelve given will stand the test of time as true "roots." Although they often reinforce one another, they seem to be fundamental and independent. They are offered to help focus discussion. They were selected by analyzing systematically the conditions that seem to have produced the dilemmas. The first four roots

  • Laissez-faire
  • Usury
  • Income insecurity
  • Short-term political horizon

are, at least in principal, controllable through the political process. The fifth

  • Natural time lags

is beyond political control. The sixth

  • Over-specialization

is a structural condition of complex civilization, but may be changed through different emphasis in education. The seventh and eighth

  • The ingrained concept of abundance
  • Man over naturevs. man in nature

are philosophical and could be changed by education. The ninth through twelfth

  • Avarice
  • Megalomania
  • Fear
  • Fatalism

are individual traits, and hopefully could be changed by increased understanding and introspection.


Laissez-faire is the concept, expressed by Adam Smith (1723-1790), that each individual or group should be free to conduct affairs in ways that maximize self interest, and that the result will be "like an invisible hand" leading to maximum welfare of society as a whole. Another way of putting it is that laissez-faire is the governing concept that the collection of micro-decisions made in the self interest of individuals or enterprises will have the effect of macro-decisions for the benefit of society as a whole. The concept was advanced at a time of abundance in land and material resources. The question that must be raised is the appropriateness of laissez-faire in an age of increasing scarcity.

This is not to say that the opposite of laissez-faire--a society in which there is no freedom of individual choice--would be preferable. Indeed, to those who know freedom, such a society--a totalitarian society--is abhorrent. Yet, unbridled freedom of individual action is coming more in conflict with the long-term welfare of society as a whole. Can the necessary restrictions come about without over-restriction of every phase of life? The positive side of laissez-faire usually goes under the name of free enterprise--the concept of operation of a business with as little government restriction as practical. That is what we all want, but can free enterprise operate with understanding, restraint, and social conscience in an age of increasing scarcity, or will the pressures of scarcity produce decisions of destructive consequence and therefore invite increased government control? The battle between these opposing forces is already strong. Its satisfactory resolution would seem to require a more highly developed social conscience than has been common in recent years. As members of an increasingly complex society, we must not only look out for ourselves and our immediate "clan," we must have a conscience about all of humanity and about the necessary balance among all forms of life.


Usury is the lending of money at an unconscionable rate of interest. The concept of charging interest on money lent was debated for thousands of years on moral grounds (see Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-38, Deuteronomy 23:19-20). Aristotle said, "The trade of the petty usurer is hated most, and with most reason: it make a profit from currency itself, instead of making it from the process which currency was meant to serve."

Usury is forbidden by the Koran (2:275-6, 3:126, 4:159, 30:38).

Before the Reformation, charging of any interest was called usury and was illegal in Europe. Under Henry VIII the charging of interest was sanctioned by law in 1545, repealed in 1552, and reenacted in 1571. In the 1620's, Sir Francis Bacon argued

"That usury is a thing allowed by reason of the hardness of men's hearts, for since there must be borrowing and lending, and men are so hard of heart as they will not lend freely, usury must be permitted."

In England, the first nation to industrialize, the charging of compound interest on money lent or invested,i.e., of making money with money, was not fully accepted until the middle of the 19th century. As the concept became institutionalized and its implications gradually became fully understood and taught in schools, it has led more and more to the perception that the basic objective of an enterprise is to make money rather than to provide for a need of society by adding value through the application of human labor. Another way of saying this is that the criterion for the proper investment of funds has come more and more to be the maximization of return on investment. Indeed it has come about that for many enterprises short-run maximization of the return on investment sometimes appears necessary for survival, and almost always is the only explanation that will satisfy the investors. The result often is neglect of basic societal needs that appear as slower growing investments,i.e., that pay off farther into the future.

Examples are investments that appear necessary to reduce pollution, or that are needed to protect the resource base for future generations.

Pressure for maximization of return on investment is the driving force behind the growth economy. Each enterprise sees in its own growth its own well-being much more clearly than it sees the danger of continued growth of every enterprise. Even when the broader implications of continued growth are seen by some people within the enterprise, the pervasive institutionalization of the procedures of the growth economy oppose moderation. Therein lies the "tragedy of the commons."

Income Insecurity

Is perfect income security a desirable social goal? Edward Bellamy thought so and developed the idea very forcefully in his famous utopia Looking Backward. In our society, almost every individual or group will attempt to achieve income security, while maintaining that it is not a good policy generally because the fear of loss of a job is necessary to maintain adequate performance--for others. Income insecurity occurs for many people for reasons other than individual performance--a plant is closed, a contract is canceled, a technology becomes obsolete, an election is lost. People have been attracted to large diverse corporations, government civil service, or tenured faculty positions for reasons of income security.

There are, of course, other reasons; but, when income is threatened, it is very difficult if not impossible to be objective in discussions of the cause of the threat. In Silver Bay, Minnesota, it was difficult to discuss the pros and cons of dumping 60,000 tons per day of taconite tailings into Lake Superior even though strong evidence existed that asbestos fibers in the tailings pass through filters in water purification plants and cause an unusually high incidence of stomach cancers in persons who drink the water. After an accident at the Prairie Island, Minnesota, nuclear power plant on October 2, 1979, a worker said, according to the Minneapolis Tribune, "I like that plant and you better not talk to me against it," and, clenching his fist, he added, "Why? Because it feeds me about 25 grand a year and I work there all day long--that's why."

How different might these attitudes have been if the individuals involved would have been secure in the belief that they would be retained and would be able to find another satisfactory job without loss of income? Many environmental battles are battles between income now and environmentally induced disease or death later, perhaps ten to thirty years later, perhaps somewhere else, perhaps to someone else--a battle between right and right, always, as the philosopher Hegel said, a tragedy. Income insecurity forces people to adopt the short-term view regardless of the long-term consequences.

Short-Term Political Horizon

Short terms of two, four, or six years in public office are needed to insure accountability. But they also produce income insecurity for either the individual or the political party.

How often do we hear that a politician cannot promote solutions that will take longer to solve than the term of office? How often indeed does the short-term political horizon influence the voting behavior of an elected official? Problems of pollution and resource depletion have their own characteristic time periods between initiating a correction and the desired effect.

These natural time lags cannot adjust to man-made election periods. Can an informed electorate insist that its elected officials vote in ways that may produce pain for some within the political time horizon, but none of the desired results until later, sometimes much later?

Conflicts between complex, long-range needs and the short-term political horizon are producing a crisis for representative government, the pace of which inexorably increases. Are we kidding ourselves into thinking that our interests as citizens are represented in a system that requires legislators to vote in a few months on literally thousands of issues, each of which, except for a few specialties, can occupy only a minuscule portion of their time? There is no question that we need a system of checks and balances so that no governmental group can become a captive of special interests without challenge. Would it be better to have some kind of pluralistic managerial system for essential public services in which each person rises and falls in modest steps as a result of judgments of peers? Is a political system healthy if an outsider can jump to the top position unseasoned by service in a range of increasingly responsible positions and without the first-hand knowledge gained only through experience of strengths, weaknesses, and attitudes of many people who must be dealt with? The whole question of appropriate government in an age of increasing scarcity needs fundamental reexamination.

Natural Time Lags

There is a time lag between the introduction of a pollutant into the environment and the major effects on people, animals, and plants. In extreme cases, the effect is very rapid. But, for the production of cancers or genetic defects the major effects may require ten to thirty years. For the introduction of plutonium into the environment, the effects may continue for hundreds of thousands of years.

The time required for development of new systems, plants, or vehicles is dependent on the time required to understand the necessary theory, to design, to test, to accumulate materials and construction manpower, and to build. When unrealistically short time schedules are set by inexperienced managers or by managers who know better but who submit to higher authority as a result of political or economic pressures, the results are sometimes disastrous and always obtained at greatly increased cost. The crashes of two DC-10's resulting in the loss of almost 600 lives is attributed in part to speeding up the normal development cycle. Normally, it takes about seven years to take a new aircraft from concept to flight test. It takes about seven years to build a new oil refinery, and, with all of the current regulations, about ten years to build a new power plant.

Introduction of new power sources and other types of new and appropriate technology on a significant scale will be subject to even longer natural time lags because they require new infrastructures, whereas the above examples are built within industries having people already skilled in the art. Under cases of extreme emergency, the time lags have been considerably shortened, but at great expense. Mobilization for World War II is a prime example. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the required course of action was so clear that legislation could be passed with little dissent. People were convinced that the required sacrifices were both necessary and temporary. Society is much less equipped to solve problems such as those of pollution and energy shortages that creep up relatively slowly and for which there is no precedence. Crash efforts not clearly thought through may waste more energy than they save and may produce environmental consequences of tragic proportions. Too little is accomplished unless there is a crisis, but then the needed reaction time is gone.


Adam Smith, in Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), gave an example of the economic advantages of specialization of labor--the manufacture of pins. Given spools of wire as the raw material, one person would straighten the wire, another would cut the wire to the correct length, a third would sharpen one end to a point, a fourth would make the head, and a fifth would package the finished pins. Because specialization permitted the development of much greater skill and speed in doing one task, the result was a pin that could be purchased for much less and of higher quality than if one person made the entire pin. The drudgery of such work was not considered, and the compelling logic of specialization grew and became the basis of mass production. In science, specialization became increasingly necessary as man probed deeper and deeper into the secrets of nature. Scientists have prided themselves in being specialists, but others frequently comment that the effect seems to be to learn more and more about less and less, until eventually one knows everything about nothing.

In the management of large bureaucracies, the need for efficiency, according to now classical theories of management, requires the division of labor first into broad groups, then into specialized divisions within the groups, then into departments within the divisions, and so on. In the Soviet Union, the division of labor was carried much farther than in the United States. For example, an undergraduate engineering student could obtain a degree in heat transfer engineering; whereas, in the United States, if he is interested in heat transfer he must specialize in the broader area called mechanical engineering, of which heat transfer is one of a number of divisions. What effects does such a degree of specialization have on the future ability of a nation to solve its basic problems? While knowing more about one area, the specialist develops fewer linkages that form the basis for real innovation.

A problem society now faces is that the secondary and tertiary impacts of specific technologies require understanding of many disciplines outside the primary discipline needed to design the technology in the first place. The engineer has not been required to consider either the present or the future impacts of his or her design on society and on the environment. In the economist's terms, these impacts have been "externalities,"i.e., factors not taken into account in economic analysis of the present worth of the technology.

A nuclear engineer who has worked for decades on development of nuclear power with the view that he works for the benefit of mankind is embittered indeed when his work is attacked as a scourge on mankind. As we say, he is "locked in" and knows not where to turn. Would it not have been better if he had studied the whole nuclear-power cycle and its impacts as a total system with as much vigor as he studied the details of his special part of it? A military engineer immersed in the details of guidance, or control, or propulsion or missile structures faced the same dilemma when he heard talk of arms limitations. As a highly trained specialist he would have to start over from the bottom if his job were no longer needed. All of the contacts that made him valuable would be gone. He reacted by developing a rationale for continued need for arms production.

Can people continue to specialize as deeply as they have and retain the knowledge base required to change fields if necessary, and more important, can they take time to understand the impacts of their work? Or must over-specialization first bring us to chaos?

The Ingrained Concept of Abundance

For hundreds of years, Western society viewed the world as a vast expanse to be explored and conquered, containing untold riches waiting to be plucked. Our nation was born on a huge continent containing virtually unlimited resources of fertile soil, trees, plants, animals and minerals. The presence of native people was no deterrent to exploitation and conquest. In 1800, as a part of Thomas Jefferson's campaign for the presidency, his supporters sang:

Here strangers from a thousand shores,Compelled by tyranny to roam Shall find, amidst abundant stores, A nobler and a happier home.

The concept of laissez-faire, nurtured by the pen of Adam Smith, was conceived in these circumstances. If one patch of land was worn out, it was a relatively simple matter to move on to another. Within our economics and engineering textbooks, the concept of infinite sources of raw materials and infinite sinks for waste disposal has pervaded because of the lack of mention of limits and the tacit assumption that there would always be enough. Up to the 1970's, most people scoffed at the idea of limits on anything. While conservation was much debated during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and led fortunately to the creation of many national parks, the idea of conservation of resources of the vast abundance then available affected only a few aspects of life and culture. What will it take to make the need for conservation well enough understood so that it will be taught at all levels of education?

Man Over Nature vs. Man In Nature

Upon creating man and woman in his own image, God said to them, "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the domestic animals, and all the living things that crawl on the earth!" (Genesis 1:28) For centuries, the Judeo-Christian tradition has been to understand by this passage that people are above nature, that they have a God-given right to exploit nature for their own needs and for the glory of God. For many people it has been repulsive to be thought of as being in nature. The idea of evolving from lower animals,i.e., from nature, was repugnant. The Biblical tradition makes it enormously difficult for Westerners to understand the extent to which their well-being depends on the complex, diverse and interconnected web of life that pervades our planet. Human beings are indeed in nature. Yet they alone, as thinking and tool-making beings, have the capacity to accommodate to the needs of the ecosystem, as they must if they are to insure their long-term future.

Notwithstanding the Ghia hypothesis that plant and animal life adjust to reduce potentially damaging changes in atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, the ecosystem may not fully accommodate. If pollution and overuse upset its balances too far, the ecosystem may, as difficult as it is to believe, no longer support humanity.


Avarice is the excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain, more commonly called greed. A society that promotes, encourages, or even condones avarice will provide goods and services demanded until natural limits intercede. Purchase of more goods and services provides income for others to buy more goods and services. Until the limits are approached, everyone seems to be better off. It is difficult to gain support for moderation. When the shortage of a commodity drives its price up too much, another will be substituted--if possible. On a finite earth, such continued pressure for more and more material goods must lead eventually to instability and chaos. If each individual or social unit does not voluntarily impose limits, government must eventually impose them one by one until the concept of freedom as experienced in the past becomes impossible. Through intensive advertising, the market economy has taught us to not suppress our desires. As soon as we reach one level of satiation in material goods and services, we begin to seek a new level and move up as long as our creditors will carry us. How far must we go before we begin in earnest to learn and to teach that life will be better and freer for all if we each accept a modest level of material affluence? Or will avarice compel us to lose all freedom?


Great works are fashioned by great persons--persons looked up to with respect, pride and envy. People therefore become "great" by doing things great either in quality or quantity or sheer size. Only a few have the genius to become great because of the quality of their output--Beethoven, Rembrandt, Einstein. Other talented leaders who have accumulated the wealth, power and influence needed to do "great" things, and who want to be remembered, seek to maximize the quantity of their output, or to build great monuments.

Properly channeled, the desire for greatness has sometimes been to the benefit of society, and is long revered. For others, such as Napoleon or Hitler, megalomania ends in destruction.

Generally speaking, for the bright and ambitious person, a great frenzy of excitement wells up when involved in a large project.

It is much more fun for an architect or planner to be involved in designing a huge project than a single-family home. For the engineer, there was much more excitement in the Apollo moon project than in designing a sounding rocket for meteorological research. For an industrialist, there is much greater satisfaction and reward in managing a large and growing enterprise than a small one. For an admiral, there is much more glory in commanding an aircraft carrier task force with its huge armada of support ships than in commanding a fleet of torpedo boats. An engineering manager feels more important and will be paid more as head of a development project for a solar power-tower system aimed at producing 1000 megawatts or a solar satellite system that will beam thousands of megawatts of microwave power to the earth, than as manager of a development project for a home-sized solar water heater, even though designed for mass production. Without question, there is more power, glory, wealth and prestige--all of the things a person of ambition strives for--in managing a large project rather than a small one. The various stages of megalomania produce unrelenting pressure to build to a scale and size beyond that which is economically or socially desirable in the long run. Megalomania, in its varying degrees, causes people to overlook or ignore many secondary factors that should enter into determining the optimum economic size.

Consulting engineering firms, whose fees are proportioned to project size, provide no constraint.

Massive projects eventually require massive bureaucracies to regulate them. Bureaucracies decrease in efficiency as they increase in size. Consider our life support systems, those that provide our electric power, our heat, our clean water, our food, our waste disposal. Why are they as large as they are? Economy of scale is the standard answer. All are in increasing trouble. All are of such a scale today that the average person feels like a helpless pawn when things go wrong, when quality decreases and prices increase. How much more secure and protected from inflation, pollution and resource limitations would a family or community be if it were self-sufficient in its life support systems? If small is really beautiful, as E. F. Schumacher has insisted with such eloquence and forcefulness, can we move in that direction? Can we overcome megalomania?


Fear has been the catalyst for the arms race. Only as a result of fear was it possible for Congress to vote more and more money for weapons, until the weapons arsenals of the United States far surpassed those in previous wars. It seems inherent in human nature that we will more readily build up our military defenses against a potential enemy than we will attempt to understand his history, his motives, and his problems. Fear led to lack of communication and to arsenals of defense. Seeing the buildup of arms, the other side reacted by building up its own arms. Each weapon produced a counter-weapon or a counter-strategy. A slight feeling of security at one point was wiped out by the next new weapon. The consequences of a clash become worse year by year. True national security through arms became a receding goal, not only because of increasing consequences of warfare, but because of the enormous resources of material, energy, capital, and highly trained manpower required by the arms race and thus unavailable to solve other pressing problems. The nation became more and more a fortress while its domestic problems worsen out of neglect.

The Soviet Union, unable to continue the arms race, collapsed.

Yet, today, fear has not left us. On the domestic scene, it has led to a flurry of construction of jails, yet programs for disadvantaged children that could keep many of them out of jail five to fifteen years later are considered too "liberal" to be supported politically--they produce results beyond the political horizon. Yet, a fundamental trait of a civilized nation is the way it provides for its children, who are the future of the nation.

The world is finite. The age of expansionism to find new markets for an ever increasing output of material goods cannot continue indefinitely. Nations must not continue on a collision course in search of the same diminishing supplies of materials and energy. If they do, all will be losers. There can be no winners. Only through enlightened self interest and increased efforts towards self-sufficiency can humankind look forward to a promising future.


The doctrine that all events are predestined, that an individual human being is powerless to change them, has a long history.

Predestination is a tenet of orthodox Islam, and was construed by Augustine from the epistles of Paul. In the 16th century it was amplified by John Calvin. It was still heatedly debated in Protestant religious circles in the 18th century, but gradually the idea that man can act by free choice and hence is responsible for his actions became the dominant view. Yet, how often one hears people say that there is really nothing they can do to change the course of events, that they may as well live their daily routines and not think about projections of apocalyptic events. Preachers cry out that the prophesies of Revelations are about to come to pass, implying that they are predestined.

Belief that one is powerless to alter events has the obvious effect of absolving oneself of responsibility for events.

Today's life support systems are so vast that it is easy to feel helpless. What after all can one person do? But, the dilemmas of modern times have been produced as a result of millions of individual or group actions. If that is so, why can't the reverse be true? If each enlightened individual takes whatever action he or she can, either individually or in a small group, and urges others to do likewise, the result could steer society into a sustainable direction. Fortunately, America is a nation of doers. Many people believe they can change things, or why would they join movements or contribute to causes? More who believe the course of events can be changed are needed. A pervasive mood of fatalism will fulfill its own prophesy!


J. Edward Anderson, "Technology, Society and the Future," Futurics, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 259-275, 1979.

Francis Bacon, "Essays, Civil and Moral," The Harvard Classics, P. F. Collier & Sons.

Earnest Barker (Ed.), The Politics of Aristotle, Oxford University Press, 1958.

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, The New America Library, Inc., 1960.

Lester R. Brown, The Twenty Ninth Day, Norton, 1978.

Willis W. Harman, An Incomplete Guide to the Future, San Francisco Book Company, 1976.

Hazel Henderson, Creating Alternative Futures, Berkley Windhover, 1978.

John Holmberg, Socio-Ecological Principles and Indicators for Sustainability, Institute of Physical Resource Theory, Gothenburg, Sweden, 1995.

Waren Johnson, Muddling Toward Frugality, Sierra Club Books, 1978.

Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, Beyond The Limits, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, Post Mills, Vermont, 1992.

Benjamin Nelson, The Idea of Usury, The University of Chicago Press, Second Edition, 1969.

William Ophuls, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity, Freeman, 1977.

John Passmore, Man's Responsibility for Nature, Scribner, 1974.

Rodney Peterson, The Philosophy of a Peasant, InterAction Books, Herber Springs, AK, 1979.

E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, Harper & Row, 1973.

Adam Smith, Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, 1776.

Albert H. Teich (Ed.), Technology and Man's Future, 2nd Ed., St. Martin's Press, 1977.

Robert Theobald, America's Third Century, The Swallow Press, Inc., 1976.

Roots of the Dilemmas is copyright 1996 by J. Edward Anderson; printed with permission of the author.