ecosystems are not factories / the tyranny of scale

Just a quick one today (in case yesterday’s table-thumpin’ epic gave you the fear), and it’s a call-back supplementary to an earlier squib about the fetish for “scaling up” in, well, everything.

The case in hand here is food production, and perhaps it’s the case where the argument is made most easily.

Scalability as a value derives from an industrial way of thinking: that the best solutions are those that can be replicated and implemented widely, and that uniformity breeds efficiency and productivity. This may work in a factory, but ecosystems are not factories. Ecosystem productivity derives not from uniformity but from diversity, flexibility and change. Accordingly, these, not scalability, are the traits that are key to success for the most exciting food systems innovations.

I think most folk with even the slightest idea about the concept of ecosystem understand this point—or perhaps I just hope so? Anyway, the logic continues thusly:

Rather than asking whether a practice “scales” — whether it works if adopted everywhere — we ought to instead ask whether a practice works in and for specific people and places, and whether it can align with or enhance existing culturally valued practices and systems in other places. “Is this approach in harmony with the people and other living things in this region?” “Does it work with or against the goals and needs here?” And so on.

Obvious, right? OK, so now extend that logic to the vast majority of other human practices, and fold in the extent to which those practices are already massively shaped by the environment in which they are performed, as well as by a long historical succession of meanings and values associated with the telos of said practice (which is to say, the end to which the practice is the means). This was part of my point yesterday, the main reason you can’t just hope to change the way people do things by telling them a “better” way, or selling them a better gadget: both the gadgets enrolled in the doing of a thing, and the better-or-worseness of the particularity of the performance as seen by the performer, are massively contingent and heterogeneous, even within relatively small geographical areas.

Now, this wasn’t always the case: there was a relative local homogeneity of practices in pre-industrial peoples, and that homogeneity was shaped by exactly the necessity of its reliance upon the particularities of the local ecosystem. There’s no going back to that, even if it were something to aspire to (and I’m not sure it would be, even leaving aside the alarming adjacency of ecofascism to that sort of thinking), because the fetish for scale has long since tangled most of us up in ecosystems far from where we ourselves actually are in space. This is the magic of metasystemic infrastructure, the way in which it has released (some of) us from the boundness-to-one-place that came with the sedentary grain-state… but it is also the reason that infrastructure is a collective prosthesis in whose absence we would probably die quite quickly. Turns out you can’t build a space-suit using only what’s available in your back yard.

So there’s no way to turn back the clock to a time before scaling… but equally, the scaling-up dogma (which is another ideological plank of the economic memeplex discussed yesterday) is a dead end; as Loring suggests above, it implicitly treats the world as a factory, and monopoly (and monoculture) as victory condition.

As I often say, the way out is through. Surfacing, critiquing and stamping out dogmas such as “does it scale?” and “unleashing latent desire” has to be a part of that through-going, I think… and on the basis of some field-work visits made in the last few weeks, plus Loring’s comments above, I find myself wondering whether—as hippy-dippy as it admittedly sounds, in a culture where scale and capital-S Science are dominant deities of the pantheon—close contact with agriculture and cultivation might be the easiest way to make these admittedly abstract ideas tangible and immediate to people.

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