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September 14, 2004

Dynamic balance

I had a freelance writing job once, working with the State of California’s education department on an environmental education curriculum. The project was ambitious: a California Guide to Environmental Literacy (CGEL), which would allow teachers from pre-school to high school to take the lessons of Environmental Thinking and apply them to instruction in any field they chose, whether it be biology, algebra, or, presumably, dodgeball.

What were those “Lessons of Environmental Thinking”? You might have in mind things like Leopold’s First Rule of Intelligent Tinkering and such, but these lessons were actually somewhat more than aphorisms. They began as an attempt to identify a few common field marks of complex systems: illuminating metaphors that allowed one to convey the workings of (for instance) an ecosystem. The lessons were based on the writing of Fritjof Capra, who in fact took part in much of the early work to create CGEL. While Capra takes his ideas seriously, he knew full well that these metaphors were at best a Work In Progress, lenses through which one might view a complex system to learn about certain aspects of that system.

The metaphors in question:

Networks (parts of a complex system are connected in complex and occasionally redundant ways)
Flow-through (an awkward phrase to describe what water does through a watershed, nitrogen through a prairie ecosystem, energy through that same ecosystem, or information through a culture)
Boundaries (systems are not uniform throughout, but are internally and externally delineated in many ways),
Cycles (self explanatory, right?), and
Dynamic Balance (complex systems seek stable states, and negative feedback allows them to self-regulate so as to preserve those states).

These were fine ideas, and there may be a couple others I’m forgetting. The problem was, as work on the document progressed, people seemed to want to change those metaphors into some sort of Immutable Essences of Living Systems. (The Principia, Capra and I joked at one meeting.) Being the person I am, the more people wanted to put marble pedestals under the metaphors, the more time I spent quibbling in the meetings. Cycles, for instance, are really an inevitable consequence of flow-through and networks in a finite universe. And “flow-through” (ugh, I still hate the phrase) is really the strands connecting the nodes in the “network.” Basically, we were trying to reinvent Prigogyne’s “dissipative structures,” though obviously we couldn’t use those terms in a document intended for use in the fourth grade.

Capra’s fine organization The Center for Ecoliteracy left the CGEL project in a dispute with the state, the details to which I am not privy. The reification of the metaphors proceeded with a vengeance. My job was to write vignettes about the natural history of the different regions of California, and I was increasingly asked to mold my observations to fit the Principia framework. This was more and more difficult. As lenses they were fine, but as immutable building blocks of all natural systems they worked best to describe moist temperate ecosystems, if any. We were talking about California, after all: a landscape shaped by earthquakes and fires, floods and glaciers and mountain ranges that cut off the rain and killed the sequoias of Nevada. Surely “Disruption” deserved a spot on the roster, I’d say: whether that disruption was fire in a closed-cone pine forest or the twice-daily flooding of tidepools with seawater? No dice.

I woke up with a start one night before a long meeting, having realized in a half-slumber the reason I was having trouble forcing the Mojave Desert to fit the rubric of “Dynamic Balance.” I opened my part of the meeting the next day by saying I thought we should drop “Dynamic Balance” from the document entirely. The conversation went like this:

“But Chris, it’s a central feature of self-regulating systems!”

Exactly. I’m saying that the whole concept of ‘self-regulating systems’ is problematic.

“But these systems tend toward stable states! How can that not be from self-regulation?”

I got Socratic on their asses.

Let’s break this down. What is it that you mean by ‘stable states’?

“Well, they’re stable. They last a long time.”

And when you say the systems ‘tend toward’ the stable states, you mean…

“That they spend more time in stable states than in unstable ones. The unstable states resolve quickly into stable states.”

The systems spend more time in the states that last longer.

“Yes! Exactly! That’s what I mean!”

OK, then. Now how would you define the word ‘tautology’?

I was killing Gaia, and they didn’t like it.

When you ask people how the natural world works, their answer usually tells you more about their political viewpoint than it does about nature. “Red in tooth and claw,” says the predatory capitalist. Idealistic 20th century progressive natural scientists referred to assemblages of plants as “vegetative communities” – as though sunflowers and gayfeathers and cottonwoods got together to chair neighborhood prairie meetings.

And “dynamic balance” is wishful thinking, too, the earmark of Eastern-influenced folks who strive for cooperation and balance. But it is unlikely to describe any real inherent property of the natural world.

What appears to give our world balance is the striving of a billion different species with quintillions of individuals, each trying to maximize its own chances of survival and reproduction: a motor with a quintillion flywheels, each spinning merrily until forced to stop. Quiet a thousand of these flywheels, a million, and the motor still runs. But somewhere on this motor is the one wheel too many. Call it a “tipping point,” call it a camel’s straw. Metaphors we have in abundance, and you can use as many as you like. Here’s another: there are steep, slippery slopes in the north whose soil is held in place by the roots of ancient trees. It may not hurt to take a tree, or two, but on each such slope there are trees that, if removed, fatally weaken the slope. Tons of rock and mud, and the rest of the forest with it, come tumbling down with the next rain. People die each year this way, buried in their beds and kitchens and automobiles.

Once the landslide reaches the bottom of the hill, I suppose you could rightly say it had reached another stable state. But that would do its victims no good.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 14, 2004 05:05 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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And people wonder why I like chaos theory. (Well, actually, they don't -- I just liked the sound of that.) Seriously, you've done a beautiful job nailing down the consequences of trying too hard to fit the complexities of life into little human-created boxes.

I especially loved the bit about "killing Gaia" -- I remember that my students were regularly frustrated -- even angry -- when I kept insisting that they learn to see "nature" as a human concept, not a concrete reality (while simultaneously reassuring them that, yes, as far as we know, things like trees and mountains and spadefoot toads do exist and are worth caring about).

I get very impatient with the box-worshippers, not least because boxes are inherently a denial of the wondrous, complicated mysteries of existence. I know that my encounters with vasty reality will always be limited, purely by dint of being a singular, small being, and that boxes are a useful (perhaps essential?) coping mechanism -- but how impoverished a view to assume that reality IS the box.

Posted by: Rana at September 15, 2004 10:44 AM
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Hey, if you ever want to do any guest-blogging over at Via Negativa, let me know! (Yeah, I know, what an underwhelming honor.) This was great.

Posted by: Dave at September 15, 2004 12:55 PM
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