Dissipative and Conservative Organisation -

The Essence of Regenerative Sustainability

Stitching in Time’ (Oil painting on board by Alan Rayner, 2020). Every moment is a turning point; In ever-present current; Carrying life across the gaps; In human memory; From future into past; Without a pause for thought; Yet dancing in the Stillness; The play of light in void; That brings relief to form; Flowing here and there in rhythms; Receiving and responding; In continuous relay; Throughout the day; Throughout the night; From season into season; Without the need for reason; To divide, make whole or keep to straight and narrow; Only dying to pass on

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:-


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


Exploring Natural Inclusion. http://www.spanglefish.com/exploringnaturalinclusion

Alan Rayner is an evolutionary ecologist, writer and artist, who is pioneering the philosophy of natural inclusion