Planning Versus Design

There is a subtle and often overlooked but important distinction between planning and design. Both are attempts to achieve a desired real-world outcome by influencing nature. Although the difference is sometimes obscure in practice, planning is the attempt to produce the outcome by actively managing the process, whereas design is the attempt to produce the outcome by establishing criteria to govern the operations of the process so that the desired result will occur more or less automatically without further human intervention. Because of the scale and complexity of human activities, planning inevitably requires large bureaucracies and active intervention in people's lives. The Soviet Union's economic planning machinery was perhaps the most elaborate, but virtually all modern societies (to a considerable extent, even developing societies) are increasingly pervaded by the apparatus of planning. As a result, we have all become personally familiar with the inefficiencies, limitations, and costs of such cumbersome and bureaucratic social control. Thus the apparent need for even more planning to cope with the exigencies of ecological scarcity raises the frightening and repugnant prospect of minute and total daily supervision of all our activities, in the name of ecology, by a ponderous and powerful bureaucratic machine, a veritable Orwellian Big Brother.

However, this is not inevitable, for we can adopt a design approach instead of a planning approach to the problematique of ecological scarcity. By self-consciously selecting and implementing a set of design criteria aimed at channeling the social process quasi-automatically within steady-state limits, we can avoid having constantly to plan, manage, and supervise. An example of such a design criterion comes from social critic Ivan Illich (1974a), who has proposed an absolute, across-the-board speed limit of 15 to 25 miles per hour—that is, the speed of a bicycle. Illich believes that adoption of this single proscription would eliminate most of the worst ecological and social consequences of high energy use without subjecting individuals to daily bureaucratic regulation. One can debate the merits of this particular proposal, but it nevertheless illustrates how powerfully the adoption of a few simple (albeit drastic in terms of current values) design criterion could indeed have major social impacts sufficient to produce a steady-state society without also creating a Big Brother to supervise it. Another well-known example of a design approach to solving environmental problems is economist Kenneth Boulding's proposal for achieving population control with marketable baby licenses; once the basic idea was accepted, the system would operate with minimal bureaucratic supervision, and people would be able to determine for themselves how to respond to the market pressures created by the licensing system (that is, they could have as many children as they wanted by buying additional licenses from those who wanted few or no children) (1964, pp. 135—136). The Clean Air Act of 1990 adapts a design approach with a market option to sulfur dioxide emissions. The Act sets a cap on sulfur dioxide emissions for each utility company. If a utility seeks to increase its emissions over the cap, it must pay another utility to make an equivalent reduction.

It should be evident that the design approach has substantial advantages over planning, a point not lost on our founding fathers, who unconsciously favored a design strategy in establishing our system as a political and economic marketplace governed predominandy by laissez faire. Now, of course, these particular design criteria are inappropriate for our changed circumstances, so they must be exchanged for new ones, but it would seem wise to emulate our founding fathers in their preference for design over planning.

It should also not be forgotten that design is natures way. As a consequence of certain basic physical laws (the design criteria), natural systems and cycles operate automatically to produce an integrated, harmonious, self-sustaining whole that evolves in the direction of greater biological richness and order, eventually reaching a climax that is the ultimate expression of the design criteria. The essential task of the political and social philosopher of the steady state is therefore to devise design criteria that will be just as effective and compelling as those of nature in creating an organic and harmonious climax civilization but that are neither so ruthless nor so cruel. In other words, what are the humane alternatives to natures wars, plagues, and famines as design criteria for a steady state?

-pg. 288-9, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity Revisited, William Ophuls

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