Tag Archives: ecology

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.

Head like a holist

From a Timothy Morton interview at Orion Magazine:

If you’re just a droplet in an ocean, and that ocean is more real than the droplet, well—poor little droplet. You totally don’t matter. I’m sorry to say this evil-sounding thing in an ecology magazine, but quite a lot of how we talk about the Gaia concept means, when you strip the nice, leafy imagery away, you’re just a component in a gigantic machine, and so are polar bears, and so polar bears are replaceable. Who cares if they go extinct? Mother Nature will evolve something else, another component. The normal holism is very often a form of mechanism.

But you have to be a holist to be interested in ecological beings such as meadows and coral. A meadow is a whole with lots of parts. Coral has lots of things in it that aren’t coral, like DNA and little striped fish. If you say there’s no whole, or that parts are more real than whole, then you’re agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “society does not exist, it’s just individuals.” There is no biosphere. There is no Mother Earth. That’s not such a great pathway.

For me, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. If there are such things as football teams, they exist in the same way as football players. They’re not more or less real than football players. So, there’s one football team. There’s lots of players on that team. Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

The holism that Morton describes here is far from being limited to our thinking about ecology; the sciences, and indeed the social sciences, are riddled with it. (The inverse of Thatcher’s nihilism, in which “the social” becomes both the source of and answer to every challenge, a sort of sociological alpha-and-omega, is still very prevalent — though I’d argue it’s slightly preferable.) As Morton points out, the problem is rooted in language, but perhaps more particularly in narrative; the systemic is difficult to narrate, because narrative — at least in its most popular and prevalent forms — needs heroes and villains, black hats and white hats, causes and effects. Climate change is particularly sticky in this regard. As I like to put it: no one’s to blame, but everyone’s complicit.

(Cf. Bruno Latour’s re-reading of Lovelock’s Gaia theory against the greater-than-the-parts holism of Earth Systems Science. As I understand it, a lot of the OOO philosophers regard Latour’s work as being quite close to their own thought; Harman in particular refers to Latour frequently, and has even written a book on him (which is still somewhere in my TBR pile). I’ve found what OOO I’ve read (which still isn’t much) to be interesting, but it lacks utility, a sense that I might use it to think with purpose beyond simply thinking; that utility is exactly what I get from Latour, and is presumably also the aspect of Latour’s work that makes him “close, but not close enough” for Harman. When discussing this with an academic philosopher, he suggested to me that “social theory” was “a category created to contain would-be philosophers who in some way ascribed to Marx’s dictum that the point of philosophy was not to interpret the world, but to change it”; I was quite delighted by that, even after it was made very clear that it wasn’t meant as a compliment.)

The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive

One of our great errors in thinking — another aspect of that unfortunate idea of human exceptionalism that makes it so hard for us to be at home in this world — is that the natural and the man-made are distinct entities. Like all other parts of the branching experiment, we make and are made by the living environment, and we have done so since before we were us. Without the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, there would be no Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley will make or unmake the forests of the future. No nature story, no account of environmental struggle would be complete without bringing on-stage all the human technologies that are to us what the invention of flowers and nuts and chlorophyll and mycorrhizal networks are to the forest superorganism.

Just as the emergence of tree intelligence forever changed the planet, so the emergence of consciousness (which long predated humans) forever changed the nature of evolution. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants.

Will we double down on the great migration into symbol space, our decampment into Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and World of Warcraft, the road that we have already traveled so far down? Or will Big Data and Deep Learning allow us to grasp and rejoin the staggeringly complex processes of the living world? The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re inseparable aspects of the new ecology of digital life.

It’s surprising to realize that the rise of ecological and environmental consciousness was made possible by the advent of the Information Age. Life is simply too complex and interdependent for us to wrap our heads around without the help of our machine prosthetics. And now those prosthetics allow us to assemble, generate, contemplate, and interpret the hockey-stick graphs that prophesy our future. We came into being by the grace of trees. Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands.

The question is what those machines are doing to our hearts, because without the heart and mind, the hands will get up to all kinds of things.

From a LARB interview with the novelist Richard Powers [via the still-reliable MeFi], who I’d never heard of previously, but will henceforth be seeking out assiduously. Any novelist who refutes the social/natural dichotomy is almost certainly gonna be my jam; that he name-checks Le Guin and KSR merely confirms it. (More than a whiff of Haraway in there, too, though she doesn’t get a mention.)

Anyone out there familiar with his stuff?