Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms: A Review

Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles. Legs were visibly instituted to be breeched, and we have breeches. Stones were formed to be quarried and to build castles; and My Lord has a very noble castle; the greatest Baron in the province should have the best house; and as pigs were made to be eaten, we eat pork all year round; consequently, those who have asserted all is well talk nonsense; they ought to have said that all is for the best."
- Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 1

Adam Curtis latest film dealt with ecology, and how a scientific hypothesis about nature came to be understood as a description of how nature behaved - so completely that it formed an unquestioned part of our culture, and then was taken over to produce ideas about how human systems should also

This is the story of how our modern scientific idea of nature, the self-regulating ecosystem, is actually a machine fantasy. It has little to do with the real complexity of nature. It is based on cybernetic ideas that were projected on to nature in the 1950s by ambitious scientists. A static machine theory of order that sees humans, and everything else on the planet, as components - cogs - in a system. But in an age disillusioned with politics, the self-regulating ecosystem has become the model for utopian ideas of human 'self-organizing networks' - dreams of new ways of organising societies without leaders, as in the Facebook and Twitter revolutions, and in global visions of connectivity like the Gaia theory. This powerful idea emerged out of the hippie communes in America in the 1960s, and from counterculture computer scientists who believed that global webs of computers could liberate the world. But, at the very moment this was happening, the science of ecology discovered that the theory of the self-regulating ecosystem wasn't true. Instead they found that nature was really dynamic and constantly changing in unpredictable ways. But the dream of the self-organizing network had by now captured our imaginations - because it offered an alternative to the dangerous and discredited ideas of politics. (Curtis)

Curtis goes back to A.G. Tansley, an ecologist, who proposed looking at nature as a complete "ecosystem". This was modeled on very early computer systems, and the data was simplified to fit the model. This was a model of nature as a self-balancing ecosystem, where "feedback loops" maintained the stability of the system. The models, as Curtis pointed out, took the raw data and had to ruthlessly oversimplify it in order to construct feedback models. Bizarrely, some of the early models were also presented diagrammatically as a kind of electrical circuit, because the other idea seeping into the overall model was that of nature as a self-regulating machine.

Tansley said that the world was composed at every level of systems, and what's more, all these systems had a natural desire to stabilise themselves. He grandly called it "the great universal law of equilibrium". Everything, he wrote, from the human mind to nature to even human societies - all are tending towards a natural state of equilibrium. Tansley admitted he had no real evidence for this. And what he was really doing was taking an engineering concept of systems and networks and projecting it on to the natural world, turning nature into a machine. But the idea, and the term "ecosystem", stuck. (Curtis)

The basic idea was that the earth, as a whole, was a self-organising, self-correcting, vastly interconnected system.

This ecological model then mutated into a model for how human societies should be run. There was a massive exodus from the cities in America, as hippy communes were set up as self-regulating societies. In these societies, there would be no political control, but one individual would seek to resolve conflicts with another between themselves, with the rest of community deliberately (and by agreement) not taking sides but standing off while the conflict was resolved.

all the individuals in the self-organising network can do whatever they want as creative, autonomous, self-expressive entities, yet somehow, through feedback between all the individuals in the system, a kind of order emerges. At its heart it says that you can organise human beings without the exercise of power by leaders.

It also fed into the "Club of Rome", with their "Limits to Growth", which was based on Jay Forrester's work on dynamical systems. Now it was obvious that the natural world had limits, and this book considered the effects of industrial production, food production and pollution, and consumption of natural resources,

A population growing in a limited environment can approach the ultimate carrying capacity of that environment in several possible ways. It can adjust smoothly to an equilibrium below the environmental limit by means of a gradual decrease in growth rate. It can overshoot the limit and then die back again in either a smooth or an oscillatory way.

But the way the models were constructed were themselves flawed. As Professor Vaclav Smil observed:

Those of us who knew the DYNAMO language in which the simulation was written and those who took the model apart line-by-line quickly realized that we had to deal with an exercise in misinformation and obfuscation rather than with a model delivering valuable insights.

The way in which "equilibrium" comes out - the ecological concept returning - is stated in the "Limits to Growth". After warning that left alone, there will be catastrophe, with a runaway population, and too little food and other resources, their solution is as follows:

It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.

This sounds fine - but it is like the American Declaration of Independence, which stated that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

But this was drawn up and signed by people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who were more than happy to have slavery still in existence; it shows how careful one must be in reading modern assumptions back into older texts. The Limits to Growth is an ideal if every person had their needs satisfied, but in fact, it rapidly becomes clear that what they mean by equilibrium is a condition of stasis, and moreover, one that is advantageous to Western civilisation, because of the way in which the system is to be frozen into position:

The result of stopping population growth in 1975 and industrial capital growth in 1985 with no other changes is that population and capital reach constant values at a relatively high level of food, industrial output and services per person. Eventually, however, resource shortages reduce industrial output and the temporally stable state degenerates. However, we can improve the model behavior greatly by combining technological changes with value changes that reduce the growth tendencies of the system.

Population and capital are the only quantities that need be constant in the equilibrium state. Any human activity that does not require a large flow of irreplaceable resources or produce severe environmental degradation might continue to grow indefinitely. In particular, those pursuits that many people would list as the most desirable and satisfying activities of man -education, art, music, religion, basic scientific research, athletics, and social interactions- could flourish.

Despite saying that this is "dynamic equilibrium", in 1975, this effectively meant stopping Third World countries from increasing their populations, or using any extra resources, unless those would be rescinded by the West - and there is no statement that would be the case. In fact, they look at Mexico's expanding population, and note that:

We have repeatedly emphasized the importance of the natural delays in the population-capital system of the world. These delays mean, for example, that if Mexico's birth rate gradually declined from its present value to an exact replacement value by the year 2000, the country's population would continue to grow until the year 2060. During that time the population would grow from 50 million to 130 million.

In fact, it is about the West controlling the situation to preserve the status quo:

Equilibrium would require trading certain human freedoms, such as producing unlimited numbers of children or consuming uncontrolled amounts of resources, for other freedoms, such as relief from pollution and crowding and the threat of collapse of the world system.

Curtis shows how Field Marshal Smuts (one of the most powerful men in the British empire) ruling in South Africa, presented something very similar for a model of an ideal society. Smuts introduced the idea of thinking about nature as "holistic" - every part meshes with every other parts, and human beings are part of this whole, and just as everything in nature has its place in the whole, so human society must also be a holistic one, which should aim to be part of the greater whole.

In 1926 Smuts created his own philosophy. He called it Holism. It said that the world was composed of lots of "wholes" - the small wholes all evolving and fitting together into larger wholes until they all came together into one big whole - a giant natural system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in the right places. (Curtis)

This sounds very rosy, until - as Curtis illustrates - Smuts' vision of a holistic society of interlocking parts in natural equilibrium was the British Empire!

it was clear that the global self-regulating system that Smuts described looked exactly like the empire. And at the same time Smuts made a notorious speech saying that blacks should be segregated from whites in South Africa. The implication was clear: that blacks should stay in their natural "whole" and not disturb the system. It clearly prefigured the arguments for apartheid.(Curtis)

This in fact brought a riposte from A.G. Tansey who was not happy to see his ideas about ecology used in this way; he penned "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms" in which he criticised those bringing "holism" into models of human society. Here he critiqued the idea of holism, and suggested that the:

enthusiastic advocacy of holism is not wholly derived from an objective contemplation of the facts of nature, but is at least partly motivated by an imagined future "whole" to be realised in an ideal utopian society whose reflected glamour falls on less exalted wholes, illuminated with a false light the image of the" complex organism." (Tansey)

But the use of "natural" systems to justify human societies is, in fact, not new. Karl Popper showed how Plato wanted to created a static society which had its own kind of equilibrium:

Social life is determined by social and religious taboos; everybody has his assigned place within the whole of the social structure; everyone feels that his place is the proper, the 'natural' place, assigned to him by the forces which rule the world; everyone 'knows his place'.

The idealist formula is: Arrest all political change! Change is evil, rest divine. All change can be arrested if the state if made an exact copy of its original, i.e. of the Form and Idea of the city. Should it be asked how this is practical, we can reply with the naturalistic formula: Back to nature!

Back to the original state of our forefathers, the primitive state founded in accordance with human nature, and therefore stable; back to the tribal patriarchy of the time before the Fall, to the natural class rule of the wise few over the ignorant many.

In fact, ecology itself was changing, as detailed work showed that the early models had been made by oversimplifying complex systems, and the feedback loops and tendency to natural equilibrium was a chimera. Even Tansey had noted this:

It is now generally admitted by plant ecologists, not only that vegetation is constantly undergoing various kinds of change, but that the increasing habit of concentrating attention on these changes instead of studying plant communities as if they were static entities is leading to a far deeper insight into the nature of vegetation and the parts it plays in the world.

What was found was that where natural forces had destroyed or damaged complex ecosystems, such as flood, fire, hurricane etc, that far from "the balance of nature" reasserting itself, that a completely different ecosystem would come into being, with different outcomes from that observed before in terms of fauna and flora and their interactions.

It was in miniature what Stephen Jay Gould had mentioned in the context of evolutionary history, that change in evolution was subject to "contingency" in the way events took place, and if one "replayed the tape of life", the outcome might be very different in many ways:

I am not speaking of randomness, but of the central principle of all history-contingency. A historical explanation does not rest on direct deductions from laws of nature, but on an unpredictable sequence of antecedent states, where any major change in any step of the sequence would have altered the final result. This final result is therefore dependent, or contingent, upon everything that came before-the unerasable and determining signature of history

In fact, it was becoming apparent that nature had not provided a natural system of ecosystem classification or rigid guidelines for boundary demarcation, but those had been imposed on the data, and the data manipulated to fit the model; rather ecological systems vary continuously across the planet and were constantly changing through time.

And not only was the ecological basis for the "balance of nature" being replaced - with much better observation - by chaotic systems, but also the social experiments based on and underpinned by those concepts were also flawed.

The idealistic communes failed, most within around five years, because while the ideal of a self-regulating non-hierarchical system had been very attractive, there were no mechanisms in place to prevent bullying. In the absence of what they saw the official tyranny of appointed rulers, there was a vacuum which was filled by the unofficial tyranny of the bullies, the strong personalities who could ride roughshod over others; and the mechanisms for excluding political debate or having community leadership worked in favour of allowing those individuals to exercise unofficial but real control.

In many communes across America in the late 1960s house meetings became vicious bullying sessions where the strong preyed mercilessly on the weak, and nobody was allowed to voice any objections. The rules of the self-organising system said that no coalitions or alliances were allowed because that was politics - and politics was bad. If you talk today to ex-commune members they tell horrific stories of coercion, violent intimidation and sexual oppression within these utopian communities, while the other commune members stood mutely watching, unable under the rules of the system to do anything to stop it. (Curtis)

One of the significant failings was the lack of checks and balances. Both C.S. Lewis and Karl Popper advocated democratic systems because those powerful had to be held in check, and you had to assume that human beings could and would behave in very bad ways.

But the communes also fed off the prevalent philosophy of the time, as can be seen in the idea of psychologists such as Carl Rogers with human beings having a natural tendency to "self-actualisation" which is the psychological equivalent of a balanced system. This was based on the premise that human beings are naturally good, and led to a dispute between Carl Rogers and Rollo May. May's existentialism was more realistic about the capacity of human beings to innately possess both good and evil, but it drew criticism on this:

This conceptualization of the "daimonic" forces in man's interactions was a source of much criticism from theorists from both within and outside of the existentialist paradigm (May, 1969).

Carl Rogers took May to task for writing of inherent evil in man, a concept with which Rogers vociferously disagreed. Rogers held that man was essentially good and constructive, and the atrocities of which May wrote were a product of damaging relationships.

And even with the "Facebook" or "Twitter" revolutions in the former USSR states, and the Middle East, it is becoming apparent that while protest movements can used these to mobilise and drive tyrants from power, what they do after that is not coherently planned in political terms, so that invariably the same problems, and the same kind of tyrannical rule reasserts itself.

As Curtis mentioned, the first modern "internet revolution" in the Ukraine - the Orange Revolution of November 2004 to January 2005 succeeded in ousting Viktor Yanukovych. He is now back in power, re-elected in what was described as a "fair" election in 2010. Other revolutions such as those in Egypt may well face the same problems, of what to do when the protest succeeds, but no one has any idea of planning what to do next.

The idea that the societal systems will self-regulate themselves into a kind of balance is a myth.

"...and private misfortunes make the public good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more everything is well."
- Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 4

If there is to be successful change in society, and more justice, then it requires effort, and (as Popper noted) it requires institutions to effect that change and make it work. We cannot hope that market forces will lead to their own kind of equilibrium, and we cannot avert catastrophes by taking shelter in a bunker of equilibrium, which always only holds the chosen few.

Likewise with ecology, as Stephen Jay Gould noted on more than one occasion, there is no special balance in nature that is somehow beneficial; the history of life on the planet is one of extinctions, and if we do not make an effort where necessary to prevent it, there is no reason to suppose that we will be any more privileged than those lords of creation, who lived for millions of years - the dinosaurs.

"If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"
- Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 6

Energy at the crossroads: global perspectives and uncertainties (2003), Vaclav Smill
Being in the World: The Existentialist Psychology of Rollo May, B.L. Jones, 1999
The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper
Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould

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