In his life long commitment to human betterment, Kenneth was not the least bit afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom whenever he thought that it had gone awry and he encouraged others to do the same. In fact, he used to define a scientific discipline as an organization in which a young scholar can make his reputation by pointing out the errors in thinking of an older, more established scholar. He frequently argued that one of the greatest disasters to befall the social sciences (and, by implication, the pursuit of human betterment) was the phenomenal success of celestial mechanics. Ever since physicists discovered that a few simple equations could predict movements of the heavenly bodies with extraordinary accuracy, number-crunching social scientists have engaged in a fruitless search for a similarly elegant solution to the problem of understanding the social system. As one of the founders of general systems theory, he understood that the social system was vastly more complex and inherently unpredictable than that the systems confronted by students of celestial mechanics. He had little use for simple theories which sought to explain the world with a single big fact, such as the Marxist notion that capitalistic exploitation explains everything.
He believed that the social system was, in many ways, hopelessly complex and unpredictable. In Ecodynamics he traced some of this complexity to the processes of evolution, noting that the evolution of the solar system (at least in human time scales) had ceased, while the social system, with its rapidly advancing knowledge base, was evolving so rapidly that the basic parameters of social relationships were in constant flux. This meant that the equations which might have accurately described social behavior yesterday might not work tomorrow.
Still, he did not view the situation as hopeless. He often said that while one should be prepared to be surprised about the future, that didn't mean that one had to be dumbfounded. The complexity of the social system made the pursuit of human betterment a probabilistic activity in which the best one could hope for was a significant improvement in the odds. He based his general, long-term optimism on the ability of humans to develop ever more accurate images of the courses of action which are more likely to result in success and those which are more likely to result in failure. This caused him to continually call for the development of new research methods and theoretical approaches tailored to the evolutionary complexity of the social system.
He made a crucial distinction between the three basic approaches through which humans have sought to understand the complex world in which they live. First, there is folk knowledge derived from the limited information base of personal experience. Next, there is literary knowledge which extends the information base to include written anecdotal information about the experiences of others which are communicated across space and time. Finally, there is scientific knowledge which extends the written information base with the rules of systematic observation and analysis. While he believed that scientific knowledge was responsible for much of the progress of the modern world, he was also disturbed by the fact that it plays such a small role in social policy decisions and, especially, those involving war and peace.
Boulding also played an important role in popularizing the distinction between the anachronistic cowboy earth with limitless resources and the emerging spaceship earth in which continuing prosperity depends upon of a sophisticated understanding and management of the global ecosystem. Still, he was often critical of the environmental movement and, especially, its practice of conceptualizing the non-human environment as distinct and somehow more virtuous than the human society. Rather than seeing humans as a cancer growing upon the planet, Boulding saw a evolutionary system which humans had set off on a whole new track with their capacity for learned knowledge, what he calls "noogenetics." As a major step beyond the instinct-driven knowledge of "biogenetics," Boulding recognized that noogenetics would inevitably change the face of the planet. His goal was to help guide evolution in ways which would produce a better world. In this he recognized that betterment was a complex and multidimensional concept fraught with conflict and irony where actions often have unintended and surprising consequences.
One of Boulding's greatest contributions was his image of the three great systems--threats, exchanges, and love--which shape human behavior. Threats are social interactions based upon the statement--"you do something I want or I'll do something you don't want." Exchanges are interactions of a form, "you do something I want, and I'll do something you want." Love, which Kenneth also referred to as the integrative system, takes the form, "I'll do something for you because I want to, not because I expect anything in return or feel threatened." This is very close to the crucial idea that James Wilson has further developed in his recent book, The Moral Sense Wilson, James Q., The Moral Sense (New York: The Free Press, 1993). The analysis to these three systems, which are outlined in the Economy of Love and Fear Boulding, Kenneth E., The Economy of Love and Fear (Belmont, Calif.: Watdsworth Publishing Co., 1973), and then developed in detail in the Three Faces of Power, Boulding, Kenneth E.,Three Faces of Power (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1989), permeate much of Kenneth's writings.
Economists and exchange theorists tend to think that exchange dominates social interactions. They interpret social behavior as a set quid pro quos. There are others who believe that the threat system predominates social relations. This view posits that domination, submission, and exploitation lie at the core of a world in which everyone is either a victim or a tyrant. While obviously important, both of these visions neglect the enormous role of the integrative system. He contends, and I think quite rightly, that most human activity is motivated by a sense of obligation and affection for one another. This largely-neglected system must play a critical role in efforts to advance the cause of human betterment and limit the inequities of the exchange system and, above all, the destructiveness and war associated with the threat system.
For Boulding, efforts to make and keep the peace depend, first of all, on an understanding of threats. It is commonly believed that, if a threat is sufficiently onerous, it will lead to submission. This underlies the widespread belief that threats are really the way to get things done. The truth is that threats often have unintended and undesirable consequences. In the first place, nobody likes to be forced to do what they don't want to do. While the result may be short term submission, one can also expect resentment, hostility, and clever and covert strategies which avoid the need to submit to the threat. Another possible response, which is occasionally available, is flight, where the recipient of the threat simply leaves, depriving the threatener of the benefits of submissive behavior.
More dangerous responses include counterthreat--a response which produces an escalating cycle of threats and counterthreats accompanied by a race to acquire the arms needed to make the threats credible. At some point, this leads to defiance, where the target of the threats simply refuses to submit, daring his opponent to carry out the threat. The threatener must then either carry out the threat or admit that it was a bluff. In such a case, his ability to force others to submit with future threats would drop off dramatically. Carrying out the threat, however, is usually very expensive, in terms of both lives and money, and the costs can easily outweigh the benefits.
Kenneth was particularly worried about the belief that the long term key to peace was the system of continuing threat and counterthreat called deterrence. One problem with deterrence is that counterthreats tend to escalate sharply as both sides desperately try to reduce their vulnerability. This, especially in the age of high technology weapons, tends to produce continuing changes in the balance of power, not to mention ever more destructive weapons.
For Kenneth this presented the real threat of Murphy's Law. While most view this principle--"if anything can go wrong, it will"--as a joke, Kenneth added one word, "if anything can go wrong, it eventuallywill," and transformed it into scientific fact. Long-term maintenance of an international system based upon threat and counterthreat is certain to eventually break down as some unlikely combination of events transforms deterrence into war, as it did, for example, at the outbreak of World War I.
At that point, escalating threats break over into an escalating cycle of action and reaction which quickly leads to the extreme intensification of the conflict with both sides devoting all available resources in an attempt to prevail. This leads to another transformation in which the original substantive issues, which gave rise to the initial conflict and threat, become completely lost in a climate of vengeance and self-defense. It is very hard to talk about principles when people are shooting at you. Boulding also observed that a taboo shift accompanies this process, where atrocities that were previously unthinkable become commonplace and accepted.
Boulding also took issue with the belief that escalation processes are rational and subject to human control. He believed that escalating threats and violence are a true slippery slope--an abyss which is easy to slide into and extraordinarily difficult to climb out of. Even though people may believe that they are in control of the situation, they are usually entrapped by a rush of events over which they exert very little influence