Dissipative and Conservative Organisation

Alan Rayner
Alan Rayner

Evolutionary ecologist, painter, author, and poet

The Essence of Regenerative Sustainability

What is natural organisation, how does it arise and how is it sustained or lost?

You might imagine that this is a question to which modern evolutionary, thermodynamic, social and complex systems theories would have the answer well sussed. There is, however, a simple life lesson — readily available to any of us from our personal experience — that these abstract theories have not learned:-

  • All falls naturally into place when the receptive influence of continuous space and informative influence of dynamic local boundaries are taken into consideration.
  • All falls paradoxically out of place when space and boundaries are treated objectively as sources of definitive separation or unification.

We can thereby recognise that there are two radically different yet complementary modes of natural organisation.

Naturally dissipative organisation maximises boundary surface exposure in response to external receptive influence through proliferation of particulate, folded or branching structure.

Naturally conservative organisation minimizes boundary surface exposure in response to internal receptive influence through integration into packaged or networked structure.

In simple terms, a rough, leaky surface can both absorb and lose more energy from and to its outside than a smooth, impermeable one.

This distinction has especial relevance to understanding the evolution and ecology of living systems, and how this relates in turn to human organisations. Where the latter are governed — as they predominantly are — according to abstract principles, they are prone to be dysfunctional and stressful to live in. A great many of us are currently suffering from these adverse effects on our lives without knowing why, or what we can do about it.

To put it very basically, as summarised in the diagram below, life forms both thrive and survive by dynamically balancing between dissipative and conservative organisation as internal and external energy availability varies (Rayner, 1997).

Dissipative organisation is generative, associated with assimilation and distribution of external energy sources into growth and reproduction. For example, a flowering plant assimilates the energy of sunlight into the proliferation of roots, shoots, branches, leaves, flowers, seeds and vegetative propagules.

Conservative organisation is protective, associated with the storage and redistribution of internal energy sources within survival and exploratory structures. A flowering plant reduces loss by means of impermeable coatings and reduction of surface area to volume ratio within enlarged storage organs and elongated, sparsely branched or unbranched roots and stems that pioneer growth into new territory.

The ability to combine and convert between these modes enables life forms to vary their pattern of development to suit changing environmental circumstances in different dynamic localities (‘place-times’). Conversion from dissipative to conservative organisation is associated with boundary integration and sealing. Conversion from conservative to dissipative organisation is associated with boundary opening and proliferation.

This is the essence of ecological and evolutionary sustainability as a creative, degenerative and regenerative process. A simple lesson, you might think, and one that any of us can learn simply by observing how life forms — including us human beings — naturally attune their development and behaviour to the circumstances we find ourselves in. And yet a lesson that we miss as soon as we mentally isolate ourselves and others, by definition, from our spatial and energetic context. For we then dislocate our thinking from our awareness of how it feels, both inwardly and outwardly to be alive and vulnerable, in need of sustenance and care.

Further Reading:-

Books

Rayner, A.D.M. (1997) Degrees of Freedom — Living in Dynamic Boundaries. Imperial College Press

Rayner, A. (2011) NaturesScope — Unlocking Our Natural Empathy and Creativity. O Books

Rayner, A. (2017) The Origin of Life Patterns in the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux. Springer

Postscript (added 14/02/2022)

The Beginning of the Ending

Love is receptivity-in-responsiveness; the indivisible that materialism isolates from the divisible at huge human cost. Let’s today seek its return:-

‘Opening Endings’ (Oil painting on canvas by Alan Rayner, 1999)

The Beginning of the End
Was in the division of the divisible
From the indivisible
Whereupon All became One or Many
Figures alone
Without neighbourhood
To call their home
Wanderers in desolation
Individually or Collectively
At odds with each other and world
Calling themselves free
To choose what they want
While captivated by their devotion
To false ideals
In parts and wholes
Cut out from natural continuity
By definition
In made-to measure boxes
Filled with discontent
Mistrust
Money-making
That human disease of mind
Which destroys its peace in pieces
Telling us we have to be unkind
To stay afloat
By profiting from others’ loss
In a world of double bind
Where need gives way to greed
Care gives way to fear
Sharing gives way to keeping
And all of incalculable natural value
By way of life, love and beauty
Gives way to what it’s worth
In a fickle marketplace
Where fashion calls the shots
Between what’s in or out
Who has and who has not
.
Until the beginning of the ending
In openings through the wall
That holds us all in thrall
And figures yield to spatial ground
In energetic greetings
From me to you
From us to them
From here to there
To everywhere
As love returns with interest
.

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