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February 22, 2006

"We Have To Get Smart Fast" Environment  Essays  Future

The Long Now Foundation seeks to foster the long view, looking ahead to the next 10,000 years of human society. It sponsors monthly lectures by some of the West's most original thinkers, the audio for which is archived here. It's an extraordinary collection. Go explore. (The talk by Bruce Sterling is a hoot.)

I want to touch on just one of the lectures here, a recent talk by anthropologist Stephen Lansing, who has studied the planting and water management practices of Balinese rice farmers. From Stewart Brand's summary of the talk:

With lucid exposition and gorgeous graphics, anthropologist Stephen Lansing exposed the hidden structure and profound health of the traditional Balinese rice growing practices. The intensely productive terraced rice paddies of Bali are a thousand years old. So are the democratic subaks (irrigation cooperatives) that manage them, and so is the water temple system that links the subaks in a nested hierarchy.

When the Green Revolution came to Bali in 1971, suddenly everything went wrong. Along with the higher-yield rice came "technology packets" of fertilizers and pesticides and the requirement, stated in patriotic terms, to "plant as often as possible." The result: year after year millions of tons of rice harvest were lost, mostly to voracious pests. The level of pesticide use kept being increased, to ever decreasing effect.

Meanwhile Lansing and his colleagues were teasing apart what made the old water temple system work so well....

The universal problem in irrigation systems is that upstream users have all the power and no incentive to be generous to downstream users. What could account for their apparent generosity in Bali? Lansing discovered that the downstream users also had power, because pests can only controlled if everybody in the whole system plants rice at the same time (which overloads the pests with opportunity in one brief season and starves them the rest of the time). If the upstreamers didn't let enough water through, the downstreamers could refuse to synchronize their planting, and the pests would devour the upstreamers' rice crops.

Discussion within the subaks (which dispenses with otherwise powerful caste distinctions) and among neighboring subaks takes account of balancing the incentives, and the exquisite public rituals of the water temple system keep everyone mindful of the whole system.

The traditional synchronized planting is far more effective against the pests than pesticides. "Plant as often as possible" was a formula for disaster.

It seems clear how such "perfect order" can maintain itself, but how did it get started? Was there some enlightened rajah who set down the rules centuries ago? Working with complexity scientists at Santa Fe Institute, Lansing built an agent-based computer model of 172 subaks planting at random times, seeking to maximize their yields and paying attention to the success of their neighbors. The system self-organized! In just ten years within the model the balanced system seen in Bali emerged on its own. No enlightened rajah was needed. (Interestingly, the very highest yields came when the model subaks paid attention not just to their immediate neighbors but to the neighbors' neighbors as well. If they paid attention primarily to distant subaks, however, the whole system went chaotic.)

There's a lot more in the talk. It's a great little introduction to complex adaptive systems. It's a deeply thought-provoking look at the role of religious and other stable cultural systems in maintaining social norms over time. It's an extraordinary look at ecological interconnections and the disastrous unintended consequences that can result when Western development models are jammed down people's throats. And much more besides.

The thing I wanted to emphasize, though, is this. The planners and development "experts" thought they knew better than the knowledge and wisdom that was stored in systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum. Much of that thousand-year-old knowledge was unconscious knowledge in the sense that it was woven into the very fabric of systems and social arrangements. It's likely that no one participating in it had a conscious, analytical grasp of how it all worked. No experts could articulate it. And yet it was very real and very profound. It was the kind of knowledge that is stored in the fabric of any healthy ecosystem.

But the development "experts" were so sure of the superiority of their own brand of knowledge that they didn't hesitate to upset the whole apple cart, all at once, with disastrous effect.

Wendell Berry has a wonderful essay, "The Way of Ignorance," in which he writes:

The experience of many people over a long time is traditional knowledge. This is the common knowledge of a culture, which it seems that few of us any longer have. To have a culture, mostly the same people have to live mostly in the same place for a long time. Traditional knowledge is knowledge that has been remembered or recorded, handed down, pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined over a long time.

To think you know better than people who have "pondered, corrected, practiced, and refined" their knowledge over many, many generations, that you know so much better that you can just uproot a way of life, all at once, with scarcely so much as a pilot project, you really have to be ignorant, arrogantly ignorant. As Berry says:

We identify arrogant ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk. It fails to foresee bad consequences not only because some of the consequences of all acts are inherently unforeseeable, but also because the arrogantly ignorant often are blinded by money invested; they cannot afford to see bad consequences.

In this century, humanity is faced with global-scale challenges that will require global-scale action. The people at WorldChanging, for example, whose work I mostly admire, and who are determined to maintain an optimistic view of humanity's chances (which is a good thing), go so far as to talk a lot about "terraforming" and "mega-engineering", i.e., humans needing to engineer planetary systems on a planetary scale, literally re-forming the Earth.

It may come to that. That is, it may turn out that our only hope is to take the reins of Earth's systems and risk it all on a few rolls of the dice. But I have to confess that it all strikes me as crazy hubris, the very epitome of the "willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much at risk," the last wild perturbations in a system that's growing increasingly chaotic. If we can't interfere with a thousand-year-old system of rice paddies without ruining it, what makes us think we can manage the planet?

As Lansing said at the very end of his talk: with the challenges that face us, "We have to get smart fast."

Part of getting smart is knowing the limits of one's knowledge. Part of getting smart is working on an appropriate scale. And part of getting smart is to realize that there's enormous knowledge and wisdom woven into living systems, including traditional human societies, that have had millenia and more to arrive at solutions whose surface we have only barely begun to scratch. They have to much to teach us. We have much to learn.

(Note: Lansing's got a book coming out in a few weeks. I've already ordered my copy.)

Posted by Jonathan at February 22, 2006 09:55 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

Comments

“...development "experts" thought they knew better than the knowledge and wisdom that was stored in systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum.”

It seems to be the rule rather than the exception that systems such as this arise all at once, intact and fully functional in the archeological record.

“...It's likely that no one participating in it had a conscious, analytical grasp of how it all worked. No experts could articulate it.”

Is it possible that the ancients were entirely aware of what they were doing and that is why it has worked for a thousand years?

“...It was the kind of knowledge that is stored in the fabric of any healthy ecosystem.”

Remembered.

Posted by: throwaway at February 23, 2006 12:07 PM

"It seems to be the rule rather than the exception that systems such as this arise all at once, intact and fully functional in the archeological record."

- Point taken. In Lansing's talk, he describes computer simulations that have demonstrated how the basic Balinese system could have arisen in relatively short order, and he mentions corroborating archeaological finds. My guess is the cultural and ritual elements that support the system and provide long-term continuity may have evolved and been perfected over time, but instead of saying "systems that had had a thousand years to reach a stable optimum," perhaps I should have said something like "systems that had had a thousand years to refine and perfect a stable optimum and demonstrate its long-term viability and sustainability."

"Is it possible that the ancients were entirely aware of what they were doing and that is why it has worked for a thousand years?"

- Certainly possible, but an interesting thing about complex adaptive systems is how large-scale emergent phenomena can arise out of the actions of an ensemble of agents who are responding only to relatively local stimuli. So termites build complex colonies without any one termite understanding the architecture. People aren't termites, but a city, for example, functions more or less stably with each resident going about his/her own business, fulfilling his/her particular role.

People notice what works, "ponder, correct, practice, and refine" it, copy it and pass it down, but usually they're not working on the whole thing, just their particular craft, their particular role.

Similarly, the organsims participating in a healthy ecosystem are unaware of the big picture, but the big picture is one of awe-inspiring harmony and complexity that contains an enormous amount of information and "knowledge" and is most unlikely to be improved upon by human tinkering.

People -- traditional people, in particular -- can also arrive at harmonious and beautiful social arrangements by responding on a deeper, more grounded, more spiritually-rounded level to what I'll have to just call the Goodness of a way of living, a way of living that is deserving of reverence and worthy of being preserved across the generations -- without necessarily taking an analytical approach to it. I.e., there are many roads to the truth, and ones that have spiritual, moral, and ethical resonance may well lead to a more stable, sustainable, and ultimately healthy endpoint than a purely analytical approach would be likely to do.

So the point I was trying to make, however inadequately, is that there is a kind of group knowledge and wisdom that is woven into the fabric of culture, social norms, beliefs, etc. of traditional peoples (and analogously in the fabric of interactions of organisms in an ecosystem) that MUST be valued and approached with humility and respect. People who have proven over many generations their superior ability to live in harmony with their environment have incorporated into their way of living, in a very deep way, a rich and subtle understanding of their world. The web of relationships IS the solution to the problem of living in that environment, a solution that one would be very hard-pressed to improve upon. The World Bank teams armed with their spreadsheets need to stop what they're doing and LEARN before they even begin to presume to instruct.

Another way of saying it: much wisdom is distributed, resident in the community as a whole, in the pattern of relationships and so on, rather than just in the minds of individuals. We need to realize that when we disrupt the community, we disrupt that wisdom and may cause it to be lost, perhaps forever.

Posted by: Jonathan at February 23, 2006 06:08 PM

"So the point I was trying to make, however inadequately..."

I beg your pardon of any perceived slight in my critique. Your insights are appreciated highly.

Posted by: throwaway at February 24, 2006 03:59 PM

No slight perceived, throwaway, none at all. I always appreciate your comments, they're always insightful and stimulating. Please keep 'em coming. :-)

Posted by: Jonathan at February 24, 2006 05:01 PM