I don’t believe it!
There she goes again!
She’s tidied up and I can’t find anything!
all my tubes and wires
And careful notes
And antiquated notions
but – it’s poetry in motion
And when she turned her eyes to me
As deep as any ocean
As sweet as any harmony
Mmm – she blinded me with science
“She blinded me with science!”
She blinded me with …
Thomas Dolby, She Blinded Me With Science
Once upon a time, I had the mind of a scientist. As a kid, I loved geology and astronomy… hell, I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up. (Eventually, I learned that what I really wanted to be was a cosmologist, but that was only after I had switched gears and become an english major). Even once I decided that my career wouldn’t be in the sciences I continued to study certain disciplines for the sheer joy of understanding. So I kept up with the latest ideas on the nature of the universe, I followed the various space probes as they headed out into the void, I discovered and absorbed everything I could find on quantum theory and, later, string theory. I simply found it all fascinating. And in the back of my mind, for many years, I had a slowly developing alternative to the Big Bang. It never quite became conscious and clear, but I was aware that I was trying to piece something together.
Once I changed gears and got interested in Ishmael-inspired themes, I dove full bore into evolutionary theory. I had always accepted its basic premise and pretty much assumed it was (mostly) correct, but I never took a biology course in school, so I had never delved too deeply. Now I did. As a result, I spent a lot of time in the ish forums educating various participants in exactly how evolution works and how we can understand, better, the complex processes involved. It was really good for me, as it gave me a specific focus of interest and expertise and, frankly, there is no better way to learn something than to teach it. And learn it I did.
Eventually, around the same time that I left Chicago, I began to move away from the sciences. Not because I think that they are wrong, but simply because I started to question one of the most basic principles that ALL science is based on: reductionism. How can I possibly understand the nature of a devil’s food cake by tasting a bit of raw flour? Yes, that is silly, but it is also a valid question.
A lot of these questions arose out my study of chaos theory. Well… that, and a few experiences with mushrooms of the psychedelic variety. No, not the way you think. You see, when I trip, and I close my eyes, I see fractals. Growing, evolving, changing behind my closed eyelids. And I remember a time, years back, when my ex had a computer program that generated fractals on the computer screen. I remember watching them and being fascinated – all years before I understood what a fractal really represented.
Let’s look at that… a fractal is a certain type of mathematical equation which you can only solve by running it through each iteration. In other words, you can project the final outcome in any way. You have to solve it repeatedly until it ends. Weather is a complex system – thus the cliché failures of weathermen the world round… the further in the future they try to predict the greater chance that they are completely wrong. Climate, on the other hand, is a merely complicated system, so expecting warm summers and cold winters (relatively) is almost always a safe bet.
But then there are those fractals that my mind generated inside my eyelids. And the patterns I watched, externally on the computer screen. I could never give you the mathematical solution for any of those equations, but the graphical patterns? Yes, I “knew” where it was going to go next at any moment. Simple pattern recognition, and intuition.
So this got me thinking about natural systems and the reductionism of science. Reductionism tries to separate the pieces of a system, to understand each piece before even looking at the relationships. But reality is in the relationships. It’s not the flour, the cocoa, the sugar… it is the way the components combine and alter one another that creates the devil’s food. As a decently accomplished cook, I can play with the relationships, adding other components or changing the quantities of each and generally I will still come up with a rather fine cake (always measure when baking bah!). Not because I understand the nature of a chocolate chip, but because I feel the potential relationship.
So why am I talking about baking a cake? I don’t even eat cake anymore. But it is a simple example that most of us can relate too – even those that have never baked intuitively recognize that adding chocolate chips to devil’s food would be yummy. (Obviously, its been done before 😉 ) That makes for a good, simple example that most people can relate to. But now, how about something a little more complex (pardon the pun).
Over the last few days, vera and I have been discussing the difference between agriculture and horticulture. Yesterday, she asked me about Polyface Farms and Joel Salatin. Joel and his farm were featured in Michale Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Joel is doing some really fabulous things. And more importantly, he is allowing himself to learn from his land, experiment with alternatives, explore possibilities. But he is still farming — he is still doing agriculture. I suspect if he continues on the path he is on, one day that will no longer be true. But how would you determine that?
In the other discussion, we were talking about diminishing marginal returns as the benchmark to separate ag from horticulture. From a scientific point of view (and therefore a civilized point of view) that is a relatively simple and straightforward way to identify the difference: it focus on numbers in and out. It focuses on bottom line. It is reductionistic. Useful when speaking to people that hold a civilized worldview.
Within that same worldview, you could break down all of the things he is doing in any given season, and come to the same conclusion based on the tools and techniques he is using. That would be the “proof” that the mathematical formulation works. Whichever side of the line he falls on in a given season.
But despite the fact that I introduced these terms and techniques into the discussion, when vera asked me if Joel was a horticulturalist, I did not do any of these things when forming my answer. I simply thought about what I know of Joel’s operation and I knew he was doing agriculture and fundamentally unsustainable. Systemic, complex, intuition. Likewise, if I turn my thoughts to traditional slash and burn “agriculture”, I know that it is truly horticulture and sustainable**.
So what is the point in all this? I guess at it’s core, I am suggesting that sustainability, at its core, is a function of developing relationships with your community; human and non-human. And in opposition to all of those people that tell us that we will be giving up science and technology and therefore, knowledge, I would like to suggest that we are giving up nothing more than the hubris that we know anything at all.
** Some years back I read an article on traditional slash and burn techniques in the Amazon. In opposition to the assumption that slash and burn is destructive, the article described the entire system once (and in some cases still) used: A plot of jungle would be slashed and burned, clearing land and simultaneously feeding the very poor jungle soil. After the rains, primary and secondary food crops would be planted. These would be followed by perennial food and fiber plants interplanted with annuals and tree seedlings (often fruit or nut trees). Over the course of several seasons, the perennials and trees would take over the entire plot. The fruit and nuts would continue to be harvested for as much as twenty years until larger, non-foodbearing trees took over the area. This same process would be used on multiple plots, each at a different stage of succession. I’m sure I am leaving out key points as I read this probably four or five years ago, but I cannot find a good online discussion of these techniques in the short amount of time I was willing to search.