7. I Get in Over my Head
I read the Sunday New York Times, in which there’s an article about how the mad economic growth in China is creating massive environmental pollution. It strikes me, after reading Worster, that the north of China is going through the same story as the American West; there isn’t enough water for all the people there, and the Yellow River is China’s Colorado. It’s overstressed, the aquifers are depleting, water quality is deplorable, and the government has undertaken a colossal project to divert water, through a series of lakes and canals, from the Yangtze to the Yellow River to try to make up the shortfall (a rough analogy to the Central Valley Project in California, or the Central Arizona Project). It sounds to me as though all the American mistakes are being made over again. Utilitarian rationalism is totally in the saddle, no surprise, what else would the Communist Party believe in? An interesting application of Worster’s thesis: China already has a profoundly undemocratic political system. It’s the classic irrigation society in which an elite class of autocrats and experts call the shots. If Worster is right about the connection between ecology and the political order, one should not assume that the rise of a Chinese middle class will necessarily lead to democratization. Maybe just a different form of highly centralized government? But pursuing that thought is a job for someone else; I’m no political scientist.
Back in the land of high-speed internet, I am unable to resist the siren song of Google. Though I seriously think about rationing myself, like maybe one day of Google a week. But not this week.
My friend Jane sent me a link to a site about a visionary project for the Chicago of the future, in which “eco-boulevards” (in essence, longitudinal wetlands) will process Chicago’s wastewater to a state where it can be returned to Lake Michigan, while at the same time creating a wonderful new amenity for the city’s inhabitants. On this site I see a design credit to something called Ocean Arks, which turns out to be some people in Falmouth, Mass., who are involved in ecological design and specifically biological wastewater treatment.
On the Ocean Arks site I find twelve principles for the design of such a biological system, which includes the fascinating statement that “The future lies in the miniaturization of nature,” i.e., in the creation of living microcosms.
I find an article by the founder of Ocean Arks, John Todd, about how he first discovered the potential of biological wastewater purification, which is an example of collaboration with nature to the max (making me feel I’m on a good track). Then another by David W. Orr, the head of environmental studies at Oberlin, about the pernicious effects of the speed-up which is a basic fact about our way of life. I love feeling confirmed in my resentment of being rushed. This article links the velocity with which water flows over land, with which money flows through a community, with which information flows around the world and into the individual. A brilliant synthesis I’m especially happy to find because I’ve been trying to find a way to link water and time. But speaking of speed, I devour the article as if it might disappear before I can finish it, and keep searching the web.
My friend David e-mails me the title of a book about rethinking the human place in nature, by one William Cronon. It looks terrific. Immediately I order it from Amazon.
This causes me to keep searching Amazon and to find another book, about nature in literary and cultural studies. I make a note to myself to get it by interlibrary loan. I’m suffering from the very speedup disease David Orr was writing about, but I don’t realize it.
Another e-mail: my friend Jane sends me the name of Isabelle Hayeur, a Quebecois photographer (yet another admirable Canadian!) interested in man’s creation of an artificial world, whose website I look up and explore and show to Vaughn.
Vaughn sends me a link to the website of another photographer working on environmental issues, Edward Burtynsky. He is (you guessed it) Canadian.
I read over my work so far and find the part about checking up on what has happened to water use in Tucson. I find various compendia of water data, link leads to link, page within page, eventually I locate some relevant numbers. Worster said that in 1975, the average “direct personal use” of water in Tucson was 140 gallons a day, and in Sacramento it was 280. [p. 312] A graph on the Tucson Water website shows that per capita use of all water (including non-drinkable, I’m guessing) in Tucson was the same in 2002 as it was in 1970 – around 160 gallons per day. It peaked in 1974 at slightly over 200 gallons, and was at its lowest in 1977, at around 150. The single-family daily use of drinkable water (presumably what Worster meant by “direct personal use”) for Tucson in 2003 was 120 gallons, which was lower than for many Western cities – Phoenix 165, Las Vegas 230, Sacramento 242, Fresno 261. So consumption went down only 14% after years of intense effort to get the people of Tucson to conserve water. That seems worth knowing somehow. Anyway, it’s a data point and I’ve collected it.
Maybe I should stick to stuff I can count and get a handle on. But I don’t know when I’m well off and I keep following links, right off the deep end. Somehow I end up at the site of something called CALRESCO (Complexity and Artificial Life Research Concept for Self-Organizing Systems). Foreign territory to say the least. Self-organizing systems sounds like something I’m interested in, but what I know about “modern systems thinking” amounts to a vague memory of a presentation about chaos theory some time in the 80’s.
This, in turn, somehow leads me to ecosophy (ecology + philosophy), which leads me to a magazine called The Trumpeter whose archives are all online, which leads to an article called “Mindscapes, Creativity and Ecosophy,” which leads to the epistemological thinking of Magoroh Maruyama, which leads to the website of a Virginia professor named Don Mikulecky, which leads to an article about the thinker Robert Rosen, titled “The Well-Posed Question and its Answer – Why Are Organisms Different from Machines?” This article is about nothing less than the refutation of the entire Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm, i.e., what we take for granted as the scientific method, and its replacement by a paradigm that can deal satisfactorily with the phenomenon of life. It contains passages like this:
This idea of self-replication of functional components (not parts) of the system is the key to the resolution of the problem. It is important to fully understand this distinction. Function is distinct from structure. In complex systems function is “spread” over the parts of the system in a manner which does not map 1:1 onto those parts. To capture this essential property, Rosen utilized the functional component to represent this newly recognized reality within the system. The functional components are the ontological embodiment of the non-fragmentable aspects of the system’s organization. They are defined by their context and have no necessary meaning outside that context. Thus, they capture what is lost by reductionism. The idea that functional components have the same reality as the parts, if not more, is very profound.
This is, as they say in the military, well above my pay grade. If I were really following the argument, 18 pages and some higher mathematics into it, I might be certain that Rosen has indeed opened the door to a new kind of science (which Mikulecky is sure of), but I’d really have to go back to college, and grad school, to follow it all. The best I can do is read slowly and underline, as if the article were going to be on an exam. I read another, somewhat less difficult article called “The Ecosystemic Life Hypothesis” by Daniel Fiscus, which cites Rosen and Mikulecky. There are a few things I think I can understand, for instance, the notion of “compound transformers.” A plant species, plus an animal that feeds on it. The two together have huge advantages over either one alone. By itself, the animal couldn’t live off the inorganic compounds that the plant can make use of; it wouldn’t even exist without the plant life. The plant by itself wouldn’t thrive and multiply nearly as well without the animal, because when the animal eats it, digests it, and excretes it, that vastly speeds up the cycle by which the plant matter is decomposed and turned into nutrients. Which in turn feeds further plants.
Or, to say it in a whole different way, in the midst of life we are in the midst of death. From this point of view, I think I see, the process of life itself is the protagonist. Plants turn CO2 into oxygen and animals do the reverse; living together, they form an ecosystem, and the argument of this article is that we should view ecosystems, not organisms, as the fundamental unit of life. Ecosystems as a whole evolve, and maybe it’s even more important to perceive that than to perceive that organisms within them do. The growing, thriving organism and what we might disparagingly call its “waste products” or “remains” are equally essential. “Among the products of metabolism are the materials necessary to keep the system maintained due to turnover of its components. . . . The system is in a constant turnover. Part of the turnover is the causal basis for the system’s self repair.” And later: “One of the first and most crucial aspects of the evolving living system was its failure to last! It was in a condition of being torn down as fast as it was being built up and this is what allowed it to evolve.” (Mikulecky)
No life without death; life lasts because it evolves, and it evolves because of its failure to last. Plus it would be useless to think of us as apart from nature, outside the ecosystem. We may be messing it up, but we’re not standing somewhere else, because nothing on earth is.
I really wish these guys would use a few more examples once in a while. I’m a novelist, for God’s sake! I need concrete stuff, sensory experience, to keep all these abstractions from turning my brain to cotton batting. If I could just bring one piece of this down to my level . . . What could be one of these “functional components which do not map to the material parts in any one to one manner”? Okay, they aren’t things you can point to, they aren’t things you can explain mechanistically, but they’re real. Like . . . what? Consciousness? Maybe; you can’t say where it happens exactly, and the notion of consciousness seems to annoy the hell out of people who want to use a machine analogy for the brain and say it’s an incredibly complicated meat computer. Which seems to suggest that it is one of those things that won’t fit into the Newtonian paradigm. So yes, maybe consciousness is a functional component. Or how about desire? (I would come up with this, given the novels I write.) Sexual desire has a powerful function in human life. Can we point to where it is? It’s “spread over parts of the system.” Can we explain it mechanistically? One of my characters, a doctor, wrestled with this very question in the novel I’m on the verge of finishing:
Desire leaves too much unaccounted for. It doesn’t explain why men do not desire all women equally and vice versa. If this were only about reproduction, then most individuals of the opposite sex and of reproductive age should be equally desired. Why not the vast majority, leaving out only those in whom one detects some sort of unfitness? Some probability of producing a child that will not thrive?
One could go on adducing explanations: hormones, pheromones, psychology. Mother and father, projection, neurosis, needs rooted in one’s history, attaching themselves to an available object with the right, let’s call them, receptors.
Is that an accurate picture?
If it is, then most of what’s said about love is an elaborate con job, and a great deal too much has been said. For this to be the case, human beings must have been systematically hoodwinking themselves on this subject over a period of centuries. If so, did they do it knowingly? No. It’s impossible to imagine that while Shakespeare was writing Romeo and Juliet he was thinking “I’m really putting one over on those suckers.” He meant what he was saying. If done unknowingly, how could the same lies have been told so consistently over so much time? That requires positing some sort of invisible controlling force, which seems to be a popular point of view right now. Nonetheless, it is muddy thinking and won’t bear careful examination. The hypothesis collapses under its own weight.
That, in turn, suggests there is such a thing as love, over and above, or different from, all other facts which may be true about human psychology and physiology.
And why not go there? Love is a functional component, isn’t it? Undeniably it plays a role in determining what happens, when human beings are involved. Okay, so love is part of the ecosystem (“defined by the context,” oh baby, is it ever). And if that’s so, then we definitely aren’t in the land of Newton anymore . . . I have some heavy thinking to do. Let’s hope I’m up to it.