Sustainability vs. The Invisible Hand

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

by Rachel Geiger

The triple bottom linepeople, planet, profit … is well established among the social systems most interested in sustainability.  But why does it never go further than the edges of mainstream attention?

It’s not that most people don’t care about the planet, or that they’re not smart and talented.  So why hasn’t the intellectual foundation of the sustainability movement expanded into conventional thought?

I propose that it involves a paradox at the heart of our society. Centuries ago, human civilization began to focus on specializing, on breaking things down into their parts in order to understand and build better machines and technology.  The people most successful at this–at getting their needs met–turned into specialists, who have the tools to solve specialized problems.  But when they try to apply those tools to systemic problems, general problems, those tools are no longer effective.

The people most in a position to help the planet as a whole are often the least intellectually prepared to see how to do it. This system paradox comprises most of what we have considered progress over the last few centuries.  Even progress in social and economic systems.  We developed economic systems that live on their own and now have become global.  We developed corporations to fulfill the economic needs of society.  These systems are not “bad” in and of themselves – the challenge is that because of all this specialization, there is no one who looks out for the whole – which has become the planet, on a level that our ancestors could never have imagined.  We have lost the human in human civilization:  it has become a machine that exists to fulfill many separate, specialized purposes.  But each part of the machine of civilization expects the other parts to take care of the needs of the whole.  Each seeks to optimize its own welfare – whether its focus be people, profit or planet – and nothing else.

So, what will allow for change to happen?  A broader awareness of the need for stewardship would be a good start.   Stewardship would require a shift from some of the major social principles of Western society, like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  Far from needing an “invisible hand,” our society has become complex enough that we need to explicitly make the way we do business visible at all levels. The complexity of modern social systems led by the invisible hand leads to system participants destroying each other’s ability to fulfill their needs. Small systems are able to be optimized through participants looking out for themselves and finding a natural balance.  The invisible hand worked when all parts of the system were visible to participants.  Transparency tends to support stewardship.  Now, most of the system is invisible to most participants.  No longer can we count on an invisible hand to fix “invisible” problems.

Human need, our own humanity and connection to all others in our global system, is the fundamental connection between the parts of this system.  We can no longer allow our needs to be compartmentalized and the way we do business to be invisible.  For it to become a sustainable system, we must work holistically to satisfy human needs and do so in a manner that is visible to all. If what I do to satisfy my needs inhibits anyone’s ability to satisfy other needs, I need to step back. We need to change the paradigm and find a way to generate “synergic satisfiers” that allow multiple needs to be fulfilled.  This will be the new generation of progress and technology:  finding ways to look out for the whole, rather than the one.


Rachel Geiger is a PhD student in the Organizational Systems program at Saybrook University and works full-time at Ford Motor Company in HR strategy.  She also has an MBA with an emphasis in Organizational Behavior.  Her current research focus is in creating sustainable systems to meet human needs now and in the future.

Saybrook University is a Triple Pundit partner. TriplePundit continues to work with Saybrook University as a partner this month. We'll be hearing from faculty and students in Saybrook's innovative Organizational Systems curriculum.

The posts on this page represent a variety of voices from the Saybrook community on subjects related to organizational evolution and systems thinking. Please feel free to share them and comment!