Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

The Management Explosion and the Next Environmental Crisis

This lecture is dedicated to Lewis Mumford.

My subject is a problem that, unlike the greenhouse effect, one doesn’t normally associate with the environment, although it is the indirect cause of many environmental crises and is critically involved in the exacerbation of all of them. Perhaps the reason we don’t associate my topic with the environment is because it plays a causative role in so many other societal ills of our time. This lecture is about the extraordinary proliferation of administration, of bureaucracy, of management—that is, the increasing percentage of people in our society who control events but do not themselves produce anything real. Please note at the beginning that I used the term “proliferation of management,” not just management. The dreadful abuse I will be describing is an excess of something that is perfectly all right, even necessary, in reasonable quantities.

Management and managers are needed in any modern society, yet management, instead of being a service, can become a raison d’être and take on a life of its own. Swelling beyond all reasonable size, it appropriates and stifles the life of society: at this point it becomes utterly counterproductive and destructive. Unfortunately, I know of no good word in English to convey this bloated condition of management. “Bureaucracy” is not quite right because it usually refers to agencies of government and because it makes people think primarily of clerks and other low-level personnel. “Overmanagement” is better but cumbersome. I will use both terms, along with the words “management” and “administration.” In each instance I am referring to the abuse of the process, not the process itself.

I also draw a distinction between producers and nonproducers, the latter being the administrators. This probably conjures up the revolutionary Marxist dichotomy of workers versus exploiters, with all of its pejorative connotations. I don’t mind the comparison. Managers are playing a critical role in the destruction of our world and our children’s world—we ought to hate them for it, or at least hate the process that has given them power. But at the risk of being considered a weak revolutionary, I caution that we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater; when we find management that has resisted the tendency to grow out of control, it is deserving of both praise and study.

There is one modern belief that has enabled managers to take over much of our society, to direct our lives, and even to manipulate our goals. It is the belief in control. The theme of my book The Arrogance of Humanism is the misplaced faith in control that characterizes much of our century. The widespread idea that we are or ought to be in total control of the world and of our own destinies within the world is familiar to most of us, as is the accompanying idea that anything we don’t control now, we will tomorrow or the next day.

To be sure, this faith has been severely shaken by comparatively recent events: the explosion of Challenger and the catastrophic partial meltdown of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl are the two most conspicuous examples of a genre of disaster that promises to become much more familiar as time goes on and as the scope of our efforts to control everything in our environment increases. The Aral Sea is drying up and turning into a salty desert, rain forests and atmospheric ozone are declining, and urban sprawl is growing, yet the peddlers of the myth of control are still busily at work, as the promotional literature for Artificial Intelligence or for the genetic engineering of crop plants plainly shows. Nevertheless, the myth has been disturbed by recent events and promises to be disturbed even more as the enormously elaborate, interlinked, and ponderous system that has arisen to promote and maintain control begins to shake itself to pieces. Centralized administration is at the core of this system.

Early in the history of ideas it was observed that there is a relationship between centralized administrative control on the one hand and urbanization and the development of technology on the other. Genesis (10:9,10) describes Nimrod, the King of Babel, and the tower that was built under his rule. In biblical history Nimrod is the first city-builder, and although Genesis gives Nimrod fewer than forty words, the medieval rabbinic commentators Rashi and Nachmanides made it quite clear that to them Nimrod was also the first person to control the lives of many others.

By the nineteenth century, as the relationship between the technologies of power and urban population growth acquired its modern character, it became widely realized that bureaucracy persisted and developed even in the absence of all-powerful kings and dictators. This was most vividly described by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit. In this great novel Dickens invented a government agency called the Circumlocution Office, “the most important Department under Government”:

No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and the smallest public tart. . . . Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving HOW NOT TO DO IT.

How did the Circumlocution Office keep things from getting done? Simple. Here are some instructions from a friendly official at the Office to an ordinary citizen who is trying to obtain a bit of public information:

We shall have to refer it right and left; and when we refer it anywhere, then you’ll have to look it up. When it comes back to us at any time, then you had better look us up. When it sticks anywhere, you’ll have to try to give it a jog. When you write to another Department about it, and then to this Department about it, and don’t hear anything satisfactory about it, why then you had better—keep on writing. . . . Try the thing and see how you like it. It will be in your power to give it up at any time if you don’t like it. You had better take a lot of forms away with you. Give him a lot of forms!

The first edition of Little Dorrit appeared in 1857. At that time the phenomenon of bureaucracy and centralized administration was already well-developed, even without today’s huge urban populations, increase in technological complexity, and the invention of the computer, the copier, and the fax machine, which are such an important part of our own explosion of management. Although Dickens was a genius at describing administration, I don’t think he really understood why it came about or realized that it was an organic outgrowth of a power-worshipping society dedicated to a belief in control. In Little Dorrit he told of the unhappy fate of an inventor stymied by the Circumlocution Office. To Dickens, an inventor was a noble person who ought not to be thwarted in his work. What he didn’t realize was that invention and technological cleverness, in the context of England’s growing cities, were responsible for the Circumlocution Office in the first place. The sudden access of power and concentration of power brought on by industrial technology came hand in hand with management. New kinds and levels of production were inevitably accompanied by squadrons of people who produced nothing in the way of tangible goods but managed the factories, distribution networks, and government taxation and regulatory offices that constituted the new production system. Not until approximately three-quarters of a century later did this idea occur to Lewis Mumford and George Orwell.

Orwell saw it quite clearly, although he died before his own insights into technology and administration could mature. In a book review written in 1945 he wrote, “The processes involved in making, say, an aeroplane are so complex as to be only possible in a planned, centralised society, with all the repressive apparatus that that implies.” In other words, a technologically complex society requires a good deal of management. Orwell associated this “repressive apparatus” especially with the manufacture of expensive, sophisticated weapons systems, but I think we could say that a society that produces antibiotics and computers requires more administrators than one that does not.

Nevertheless, the process has gotten out of hand. Having initially expanded in response to a real need to organize complex processes, management continues to expand according to its own, self-generated imperatives. Like a cancer, it has become uncoupled from the society that produced it. Moreover, it has spread beyond production and government services to nearly all walks of life; from hospitals to universities, the hand of the manager is increasingly felt.

I am now going to concentrate on the mechanism by which administration spreads and gains control, on the long-term consequences of this spread, with particular reference to science, and—what Orwell never really got around to thinking about—on the instabilities in this process that may ultimately serve to derail, and possibly even stop, the administrative juggernaut.

Management spreads because its methods and output automatically create an environment conducive to its increase. Each manager doing his or her job brings forth more and more managers, as C. Northcote Parkinson was one of the first to show. There need be nothing conspiratorial or even purposeful about the process, which is what makes it so difficult to stop. It is a classical case of positive feedback, with several feedback loops involved.

There are two elements in the job of management that fuel this feedback. First and most obvious is the increasing prevalence of the habit of documenting everything. This is not a new idea; only the perception of who is doing the documenting has changed. In the Jewish Ethics of the Fathers, written down not quite two thousand years ago, it says, “Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and a book in which all your deeds are recorded.” And in Matthew (10:29,30) it says that not a sparrow falls without God’s knowledge, and even “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” Disquieting as the idea of this kind of minute, celestial documentation is for all of us at one time or another, God as Recorder has the two very great advantages of, first, being accurate and, second, not charging for the service. Nowadays we have no such luck, because there is a new recorder in town. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of compiling a university promotion packet or filling out tax forms knows that it isn’t only God who numbers the hairs of our heads. I will only mention in passing that in a humanistic society in which religious faith in human infallibility and control has replaced an older faith in divine control, it is sadly appropriate that people now take over the job of counting and numbering.

The true purposes of this modern tendency to document everything are plain. It serves to provide a source of undemanding work for bureaucrats who might otherwise not be terribly busy—thus justifying the call for yet more bureaucrats and conferring a kind of spurious legitimacy on the perpetual growth that is the hallmark of administration. More important, compliance with administrative demands for ever more and more minute personal and other information reinforces the desired belief that the provider of the information is subordinate to the recipient of the information, just as mere mortals are subordinate to God, the Judge. If you don’t believe this, just ask an administrator—regardless of whether he or she is from government, industry, or academia—to fill out a questionnaire for you on his or her work habits and personal history.

Most of us in nonmanagerial positions have become so accustomed to this routine violation of privacy that we think nothing of it, except perhaps as an annoyance. It is easy to forget that just as in some code systems, the data that are being transferred are often themselves irrelevant, a blind. The real information is symbolic, and it resides in the context of the act of transfer. This explains why the data are often filed away unread. The fact that one has filled out a form is important; what is on the form is not.

Finally, in a more practical sense, managers use questionnaires, forms, plans, schedules, and protocols not just to intimidate but to gain control over other people’s time, which in this society is probably the most effective form of control over others.

Associated with administrative paperwork, especially with the official justifications of it, is the use of various words of judgment—words such as “evaluation” and “accountability.” This practice further establishes the idea that the administrative evaluators are fit to judge, even though this is often not the case. Here, the use of such words, frequently abstract nouns, is analogous to the use of names in advertising; it bears little relationship to the highest use of language, which is to convey meaning directly through words. Designer words—such as Exxon, the oil company, or Camry, Sentra, and Cresida, the car models—either have no meaning at all or have meanings that have nothing to do with what they are attached to. They simply have a nice sound or the right, vague connotations. Similarly, when managers use such words as “excellence” and “vision,” what is being conveyed is a feeling, not a meaning. This manipulation of language is hard to fight because it operates at a primitive level of human function not easily accessible to higher thought processes.

The second way in which administration expands involves a far less subtle mechanism than the proliferation of paperwork. It is the direct appropriation of power through control of the money supply and hiring and firing. We see this at its highest degree of refinement in the modern university, which has come to be dominated by priorities determined by a cash flow controlled by administrators. In the words of the biochemist Erwin Chargaff, universities “have been turned into huge corporations whose only business is to lose money.” But universities are not the only places where management has diverted and augmented the money supply to provide for its own continued growth at the expense of other parts of the institution. There are also charities, foundations, hospitals, and the many branches of government, especially the military.

What makes bureaucracies spiral out of control in their demand for institutional funds are the positive feedback loops that so many bureaucracies participate in and encourage. Universities again provide an excellent example. In the decades immediately following World War II, university administrators in the United States discovered a vast new source of unregulated cash, the so-called overhead on research grants. Administrators could set the overhead at virtually any percentage they liked—figures in excess of 50 percent are now common—and the incoming funds could disappear into an administrative black box. Pressure on scientists to obtain more grants (and patents) has increased steadily, more overhead dollars flow in, more administrators are hired, more money is needed. A positive feedback loop is thus established. The purposes of grants become irrelevant; only the amounts of the grants and their likelihood of attracting other grants matter. The fact that all hiring and promotion of faculty members, who are the ones receiving the grants, must be approved by the administration, while the hiring and promotion of administrators needs the approval only of senior administrators and not of faculty, greatly enhances the positive feedback. In other words, there is no negative feedback, or brake, built into the system. This changes the character of the faculty and the entire university. In other kinds of organizations, governmental and industrial, there are similar kinds of positive feedback loops. What they have in common is administrative control of the money flow and of hiring and firing.

The consequences of managerial proliferation are numerous and pervasive. I will discuss only a few of the more important ones. All the problems are interrelated, so there is a certain amount of overlap.

First, there is the problem of bad decisions. As administrative control increases, as administrators become more numerous, and as the power gulf between administrators and producers widens, more and more of the critical decisions for an institution are made by administrators only on the basis of second- or third-hand information and in accordance with purely administrative priorities. The people who know, the people on the front lines, are shut out of the decision-making process. The result is bad decisions.

Most bad decisions are never brought to light, but there are so many that a few of the most acutely horrendous ones are finding their way into the newspapers. One example was given in a front page story in The New York Times, December 26, 1988, entitled “Nuclear Arms Industry Eroded As Science Lost Leading Role.” Times reporter Fox Butterfield wrote:

Many veterans of the bomb industry trace the problems of ageing equipment, shoddy management and pollution and safety concerns to a withering of scientific and technical expertise in the Government agency that runs the system.

‘We have a big problem with competitiveness, and I think three-quarters of that is that the guys making the decisions don’t understand the technical things any more,’ said Dr. Harold Agnew, a physicist who worked with Dr. Fermi on the world’s first chain reaction at the University of Chicago in 1942. ‘You can’t run the bomb factories with a bunch of lawyers and administrators'(Dr. Agnew said).

Of the Energy Department’s eight regional office managers, only two have graduate degrees in science and engineering. Several, including Jo Ann Elferink, the manager of the San Francisco regional office, which supervises the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, have no academic training in science. Lawrence Livermore does research on new warheads and the plan to build an anti-missile system in space.

Of course, my first thought on reading this article was, “How nice, the bomb factories are breaking down.” But this is not a very realistic attitude. When a bomb factory falls apart, the potential consequences are different than, say, for a bicycle plant, as the Russians learned at Chelyabinsk in 1957.

That article was mostly about the Hanford facility in the state of Washington. In another front page article in The New York Times, dated January 16, 1989, reporter Keith Schneider wrote the following about the Savannah River nuclear weapons plant: “Internal memorandums prepared by DuPont, which built and operated the vast weapons plant for nearly four decades, show that company scientists amassed volumes of research on key weaknesses in equipment.” Yet, so effectively was this vital information buried by the corporate and governmental bureaucracies that even Westinghouse, which was scheduled to take over the plant from DuPont in 1989 and which is certainly privy to all the top-secret information about it, said that it knew nothing about the seriousness of the problems at Savannah River.

Anyone looking in the newspaper for articles about the consequences of overmanagement does not have far to look. Here are some other examples. In a New York Times opinion piece dated December 9, 1988, and entitled “To Revive Schools, Dump Bureaucrats,” John E. Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said:

New York City, as I discovered after a 35 minute phone call with nine different bureaucrats at the Board of Education, has 6,622 full time employees in its public school headquarters. That’s one external administrator for every 150 students. (This does not include administrators located at the schools.)

By comparison, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York has so few employees in its headquarters that the first one I called simply offered to count them for me—30 central administrators; no more than one for every 4000 students.

. . . In a new study of more than 400 American high schools, a Stanford political scientist, Terry Moe, and I conclude that the more centralized a school system is, the worse the achievement of its students, public or private.

In my own state, New Jersey, the Board of Higher Education has recently ruled that from now on, principals of public schools need not have any teaching experience at all, only a degree in management.

Or take this extract from a column by John Russell, art critic for The New York Times, which appeared on May 14, 1989:

Every so often, there surfaces in the international art world a truly terrible idea. An idea of precisely that order was approved unanimously not long ago by the trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The essence of it was that henceforth the curatorial staff of the museum were to concern themselves entirely with scholarly pursuits, leaving the day-to-day work of the museum—the ‘housekeeping,’ as it is now called—to a chain of command newly set up for the purpose and attuned to modern managerial methods.

I won’t pain you with a catalogue of the disasters reported by Mr. Russell in his article—the brutalization of the curators, the sleazy ads in the London underground by Saatchi & Saatchi—but I will quote one more sentence: “When [the new Director] Mrs. Esteve-Coll appeared on television in December she is reported to have said—as if it were a handicap, like toothache—”‘One of our problems is that we deal in historic artifacts.'”

Bad decisions are inevitable in a process that is so utterly divorced from reality. Here is an example from the world of business. It is taken from another opinion article in The New York Times, written by a corporate executive named Herbert L. Kahn, dated July 25, 1988, and titled “My Years in Meetings.” Mr. Kahn wrote that he spent much of his time in management meetings dealing with such questions as:

‘What is the five-year trend of orders per square foot of branch sales offices, and what is the variation from region to region?’ Or, ‘what is the output of your machine shop, both in dollar volume and in weight of metal, per gallon of lubricating oil, and does it vary seasonally?’ . . .

There seemed to be only one thing missing [from the meetings]: A connection between our efforts and the company’s real business. My division was supposed to design, make and sell high technology products. My superiors were presumably charged with guiding that enterprise. None of us, however, ever designed, made or sold anything, and we rarely even met anybody who did.

In this same regard I quote from a lead letter to The Times by Ron Szary, published on November 7, 1988, under the title “Management Mentality Is Killing U.S. Industry.” As his first reason for why the United States trails the Japanese in the superconductor race, Szary said:

Unlike the Japanese, American companies are top-heavy with layers of management . . . all of whom want final say on products and production, but have little if any comprehension . . . . In the United States, it would be embarrassing to have the top man in most companies talk to the people on the floor: he doesn’t know the product; he doesn’t know the process. . . . Our layers of management are calculated to buffer the top levels. On the other hand, it is not unusual to see top Japanese management in direct, daily contact with workers. Who will outperform whom?

The next consequence of overmanagement, one that I will mention briefly, is the widespread problem of demoralization of the producers. The techniques that keep bureaucrats in control and help them expand their power base—the barrage of paperwork that everyone knows is worthless, the deluge of conflicting, often arbitrary memoranda, the insistence on “accountability” without any standards of reference for performance, the requirement of doing more things than are possible, some of which are in conflict with one another, and other forms of control practiced by management—create numerous double binds in the daily lives of each producer. Some of the techniques resemble scaled-down versions of the practices used to destroy the spirit of prisoners in concentration camps. Not surprisingly, workers in the most seriously overadministered institutions suffer from low morale and despondency. Some of them become physically ill. In such institutions, another positive feedback loop is created: excessive administration leads to demoralization, which leads to poor performance, which leads to yet more stringent and pervasive administrative control. For a few producers the only way to resolve the problem is by dying. They are soon replaced.

I come now to the last consequence of the management explosion that I am going to discuss: the destruction of science, a process that we are just beginning to witness. This too has profound environmental consequences, and I will give some examples, but most of the connections will have to be left unexplored.

At the outset I want to make plain that although administration is the immediate cause of the decline of science, the ultimate fault lies with science itself. The late René Dubos, a great scientist who was also a great environmentalist, saw what was happening to science and argued eloquently but futilely against the change:

It seems to me unwise and ambiguous for scientists to affirm on the one hand that they are primarily searchers for truth and to claim on the other hand that everything they do is ultimately of practical importance. . . . Important as they are, the technological and other practical applications of science have been oversold. . . . Of probably greater usefulness would be the development of knowledge and attitudes that would help man to examine objectively, rationally, and creatively the problems that are emerging as a result of social evolution.

Although he perceived the problem, Dubos was too much in love with science ever to admit how corrupted it would become by its discovery of power. He cherished a Wellsian dream that science would somehow learn to abjure power, recover its purity, and reestablish an harmonious relationship with nature. This was naive. Perhaps only someone outside science can see the whole picture with prophetic clarity—can see where science came from and where it is going. In his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman John Fowles wrote:

We can trace the Victorian gentleman’s best qualities back to the parfit knights and preux chevaliers of the Middle Ages; and trace them forward into the modern gentleman, that breed we call scientists, since that is where the river undoubtedly has run. In other words, every culture, however undemocratic, or however egalitarian, needs a kind of self-questioning, ethical elite, and one that is bound by certain rules of conduct, some of which may be very unethical, and so account for the eventual death of the form.

Fowles saw that between the medieval knight, the Victorian gentleman, and the modern scientist, each an “ethical elite” of its time, “there is a link: they all rejected or reject the notion of possession as the purpose of life, whether it be of a woman’s body, or of high profit at all costs, or of the right to dictate the speed of progress. The scientist is but one more form; and will be superseded.”

It was “trade” that killed the Victorian gentleman, and it is the lust for power that is killing the modern scientist. But the mere lust for power does not kill: the actual instrument of death is the administrative process created to handle all that power. Before explaining the mechanism of the destruction, I will give four examples, each of them from biology, which is what I know best, and each of them British.

First was the recent sale by Margaret Thatcher’s government of much of the Plant Breeding Laboratory in Cambridge to the Unilever Corporation. Whatever the merits of the sale, and I can’t think of any, it diminished the laboratory as a creative force in science.

Second was the recent edict by the Universities Funding Council (formerly the University Grants Committee) to condense all biology departments with fewer than twenty faculty members into larger units of only two types: a “B” type, which would concentrate on cells, organisms, and ecology, and an “M” type, which would study only molecular topics. This action will fairly quickly ruin much of what is left of British biology, especially ecology.

Third was the British government’s decision to close the Brogdale Experimental Horticultural Station in Kent by April 1990. Brogdale has probably the world’s best collection of living varieties of apple, not to mention pear, plum, cherry, and bush fruits. The government promises to maintain the collections. In the United States we have seen what happens when bureaucrats promise to take care of our precious heritage of fruits and vegetables and grains. Parenthetically, I should add that, in addition to closing Brogdale, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will also close the Rosewarne Station in Cornwall, which New Scientist describes as a “unique site for research into early winter vegetables,” and is considering closing the vegetable gene bank in Wellesbourne in Warwickshire.

Fourth was the administrative termination of research on birds, arachnids, and coelenterates at Tring and the gutting of ornithology elsewhere in the British Museum, events similar in character and motivation to what is happening at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Each of these four examples was brought to pass because management was invited in to help control and enhance the flow of power emanating from modern science. It should not surprise anyone when the goals of administration are substituted for the societal goals that science once appeared to accept.

But the administratively imposed death of science is being caused by more tangible factors than the alteration of its objectives. There are direct causes, including, most obviously, its cost. Science is pricing itself out of existence. The sky-rocketing cost of equipment, supplies, and salaries is not an inherent part of modern science. Projects with high operating costs are carefully selected by administrators because the administration receives a percentage of the operating costs. Research that is spare and economical is automatically suspect—because it costs little money, it brings in little money. Such research, by administrative definition, is not “world class.” In justification of this policy we hear self-serving arguments that scientific research creates more societal wealth than it consumes. Apart from the fact that there is no proof of this assertion, there is also no reason why expensive research should prove more beneficial than inexpensive research; often the opposite is true.

With dwindling resources and mounting debt, only the most stubbornly unobservant can expect the scientific gravy train to keep on running much longer. What we can expect in the coming years is a stream of theories and inventions that are supposed to create wealth and power out of inexhaustible commodities such as seawater. Nuclear power was an early example, now curdled and gone sour. Superconductivity and cold fusion are recent illustrations. All will promise much for very little, all would maintain the power and growth of the scientific/technical/managerial system that created them. They are a form of magical thinking grafted on to real physical, chemical, and biological processes bred by a mixture of greed and desperation.

There are other ways in which administration is killing science directly—for example, by consuming the creative energies of scientists in paperwork—but I want to go on to an indirect cause of death, one that has major environmental implications. For want of a better term, I call this the problem of de-skilling.

De-skilling is an ugly new word that denotes an even uglier process, the progressive draining of practical knowledge from a culture, a loss of skills by virtue of the loss of skilled practitioners to use them. When it was decided to begin work again on New York’s vast Cathedral of St. John the Divine after a lapse of decades, a few old men in England were the only stonemasons left in the world who knew how to work the giant blocks from which a cathedral is built. If they hadn’t been able to train young apprentices, there might have been no choice but to abandon the project.

I think that our concept of progress prevents us from being aware that skills and knowledge can vanish from the world. Most of us picture knowledge as cumulative: each advance is built on prior discoveries, block piled upon block in an ever-growing edifice. We don’t think of the blocks underneath as crumbling away or, worse yet, simply vanishing. Our worldview doesn’t prepare us for that, although it is hardly a new phenomenon in the world. Oliver Goldsmith was writing about the loss of peasant agricultural skills when he penned these lines in “The Deserted Village,” published in 1770:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay;
Princes or lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

Loss of knowledge and skills is now a big problem in our universities, and no subject is in greater danger of disappearing than our long-accumulated knowledge of the natural world. The problem is so serious that I have called it “the next environmental crisis.” We are on the verge of losing our ability to tell one plant or animal from another and of forgetting how the known species interact among themselves and with their environment. What is happening is that the teaching of the part of biology devoted to the study of biological diversity—taxonomy, natural history, ethology, comparative physiology, biogeography, and allied subjects—is disappearing from the curriculum. The modern administrative climate is hostile to this kind of biology and to those who study and teach it. Our functional understanding of biodiversity is still in its late infancy, and never has the subject been so important to our existence, yet these riches have no value to university administrators. Grants given in the fields of taxonomy, biogeography, and comparative biochemistry are few and insignificant in amount. These subjects simply do not support enough administrators to make them worth keeping.

Here is another ominous positive feedback loop. The fewer research programs and courses there are in these subjects, the fewer people there will be to teach the next generation of students. Where will we be when there isn’t a soul left who can tell one kind of grass from another or anyone who knows the habits of grasshoppers?

It cannot be denied that the environmental consequences of the management glut are both deep and pervasive. Modern management, far removed from the actions it regulates, damages the environment through countless bad decisions. For similar reasons, it hinders the efforts to rectify its own mistakes. And as I have indicated, its actions are draining the reservoirs of skills and knowledge that we need now and will need even more in the future.

Can we resolve the crisis of overadministration? Can anything bring the bureaucracy to heel? I think the answer to this question is readily apparent, but it may not be satisfactory to everyone. Management, like anything undergoing perpetual growth, will eventually bring itself under control by running out of resources. It will self-destruct. This will be hastened by the tendency of management to cripple the producers, the people who provide the wealth in the first place. Because it incorporates so many positive feedback loops, modern management is inherently unstable.

But the breakdown of the bureaucracy may take longer than we care to wait, and its loss may be small comfort if the rest of society is a bankrupt ruin. Many of the problems the world faces—nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, the hole in the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, the international agricultural crisis, deforestation, loss of species, loss of human cultures—need to be addressed quickly and effectively. Bureaucracy is slow and ineffective. Can we do anything selective to put it back in its proper place before it is too late?

Before attempting to give a constructive answer, I must at least mention the issue of overpopulation. Overpopulation is partly responsible for all the environmental problems I listed, but is it also responsible for the management glut? I said in my introduction that management, historically, appears to have been an urban phenomenon; it depends on high densities of people and the concentrations of complex activities and power that they generate. Now that we have sprawling conurbations rather than cities, with computers to help overcome the problems of control brought about by distance, bureaucracy has been liberated from its urban context. Moreover, with so many people interacting in so many ways in a technologically complex world, we have to ask whether intensive management is an unavoidable accompaniment to overpopulation. Does it provide a short-term stability that is the only alternative to chaos? I don’t know the answer, but I don’t think we ought to assume the game is lost before we start to play. Simple, deterministic ideas of the future are usually wrong; let us hope that the notion that overpopulation makes overmanagement inevitable is no exception to the rule.

To curb managerial excess, the first thing that comes to mind is shutting off the money tap, or at least slowing the flow. Bureaucratic growth consumes expensive office space and is labor intensive; it therefore costs a great deal of money. But because the administrators control institutional budgets, it is hard to reduce their funding. I know of only a few cases where this has been done. For example, the Internal Revenue Service now effectively limits the percentage of income that a non-profit foundation can spend on the administration of its grants. In this instance, one organization is limiting the administrative spending of another. The limit is imposed from outside. One can imagine informed taxpayers putting pressure on governmental granting agencies to reduce sharply the allowable overhead given to institutions as part of research and service grants. If adopted by the major granting agencies, such a policy would do much to restore teaching of all subjects as well as research in unglamorous fields such as taxonomy and natural history, because managers would no longer be preoccupied with the pursuit of huge grants for their overhead. Nor would there be so many managers.

Besides reducing the money supply for management, other methods of controlling the controllers suggest themselves. Positive feedback loops can be eliminated if producers can participate, at some level, in the hiring and firing of administrators. Even more effective would be the breaking down of the work barriers between bureaucrats and producers through rotation of jobs; this sort of system was pioneered by the U.S. Geological Survey. If most administrative desk jobs were limited to a tenure of two to five years, to be followed by an equal stint of service in the field, administrative abuses would be sharply curtailed.

Widespread implementation of these kinds of reforms to shift power away from management will be very difficult without a revolutionary revision of the relationship between producers and nonproducers. The central assumption of bureaucracy is that the individual producer is subordinate to a larger system rather than to a fallible person or persons. Only by rejecting this central assumption can producers hope to regain their share of the world.

Personal anonymity of the managers and institutional anonymity concerning the internal structure and procedures of the management are essential features of what we could call hypermanagerial control. To the managee, a manager is always defined by his or her title, not by personal attributes. It is much more difficult to argue with a position than a person, especially if the position is itself in shadow. Nevertheless, this anonymity is potentially one of the most vulnerable parts of the bureaucratic hegemony. All that is needed to begin to fight the bureaucrats is some bright light: lists of major and minor administrators, with brief biographical sketches and accurate job descriptions; pamphlets showing the salaries of administrators and their staffs and, if possible, office expenses; organizational charts of the bureaucracy, with graphs showing its growth during the past ten or twenty years. In the Columbia University protests of 1968 the most effective single device in bringing down the university administration was a little pamphlet entitled “Who Rules Columbia?” Related strategies suggest themselves. Why not send questionnaires to the managers, demanding the kinds of professional and personal information that the producers are continually being asked to supply? If the questionnaires are not returned, no matter: the act of sending them redefines the relationship between the managers and the managed.

Of course, such spotlight strategies are not applicable to all bureaucracies, and there is always the problem of who will bell the cat? In some cases of managerial explosion, especially governmental, relief must come from outside. This relief has never been organized, although I have no doubt it will be. The force of angry producers is considerable. Both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan won election by promising to curb governmental bureaucracy, although both ended up by making it worse. There is still no serious strategy for this task, no group of activists uniquely dedicated to its completion. One problem is that overmanagement presents a revolutionary challenge: the old political dichotomies of liberal versus conservative and labor versus capital do not help us understand the present realities of our condition. New battle lines are not yet drawn, but the fight is coming.

To survive with the many good features of our society intact and with our environment in a livable condition, we must solve the problem of bureaucracy before it solves itself. Surely, once the problem is widely identified, we will make some progress toward a solution. Nevertheless, honesty requires me to state that as long as we continue to be a power-worshipping society dominated by the myth of control, we doom ourselves to an excess of administration and all the misery this entails. Our task is to find a way to convert a “power economy to a life economy,” in Lewis Mumford’s words. In the language of Deuteronomy (30:19) the injunction is even more direct: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.”


Publication By

David Ehrenfeld

David Ehrenfeld was a founding member of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. As a professor at Rutgers, he teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in ecology. His work deals primarily with the interrelated topics of biodiversity, conservation, and sustainability. The founding editor of the journal Conservation Biology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal that deals … Continued

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