A Systems Approach to Dysfunction

capitalism

One of the things that resonates the most about systems theory, is that it focuses on how different pieces of large puzzles interrelate and interlock. For, it is the inter aspect that gives phenomena movement, gusto, dynamism, spark. Speaking of things, essences, stuff, or problems, tends to slump description into the corner of inexorability, and worse, resignation.

When we look at climate change, war mongering, oil interests, urban design, transport diversity, and factory farming in concert, then suddenly, the intractable problems of each become much more tractable. The haze lifts, and the easy solutions abound. Instead of the Sisyphusian task of unravelling Gordian Knots (to mix my Greek metaphors), like Alexander the Great, we simply cut through it. With systems thinking, we cut through the lies, the bad habits, the greed, excuses, and story. We take care of what calls for attending, without the oppositionality, the rage, hate, or anger. We don’t even resent the system of destruction that has killed millions, and will likely kill billions more (not to mention the thousands of species extinct, priceless waterways despoiled, mountains detonated, etc.).

No, instead, a systems view asks: what is the most opportune point of intervention? Where can I (and we, because it is always a we, this I) most skillfully intervene now? What is the first step? And then: what is the next step after that?

Having a goal is important. We don’t want to make great time in the wrong direction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra. But, planning without action does little good to soothe our own anxieties, nor to shine as an examples. Nor does it form good habits, to think without acting, for we shall too soon grow content with such a pattern, forgetting the thrill of satisfaction when we follow through with a dedicated plan.

Paul Hawkins’ new book and ground-restoring Project Drawdown has made this plan, indicating the best points for intervention in our anthropo-patriarchal-colonialist-scene. This blueprint shows the problem, in its glorious complexity, and details what interventions will produce what results. México, the first developing country to take the lead in reducing emissions through a carbon trading plan, is working on an important component of drawing down CO2 from industrial producers. Of course, a carbon tax is much smarter policy than a cap-and-trade system, as most climate policy scientists agree. Nonetheless, such leadership as México’s will no doubt have a cascading effect on other developing and BRIC countries, as the rest of the world gains more power as climate leaders in the vacuum left by the Trump presidency. Brazil and China are already stepping up, in various ways, and the US may soon be an island, exceptional only because no other country wants to trade with it until it institutes strong sustainability policies.

Understanding the changing dynamics of international politics through US abdication of responsibility despite its role as the world’s largest economy, and 2nd largest polluter (likely first largest, when we include Chinese imports), helps contextualize the contemporary situation. While from a media-saturated point-of-view, Trump and co. are dead-set on bringing about the apocalypse, from an international perspective, the long-overdue transfer of power to Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America is simply being accomplished as these areas reduce trade with the US and stop looking to the US for guidance. What emerges from this transition will be exciting to watch. Perhaps an improved UN? Perhaps planetary citizenship, doing away with the need for climate refugees, instead implementing climate justice? Perhaps a new healthy form of regionalism? Perhaps reduced consumption? These exciting times promise nothing, but offer many exciting paths.

 

Owning Life versus Thwarting the Hygiene Hypothesis

 

With such a provocative title as “Pet Ownership Protects Us Against Allergies,” UCSF’s Dr. Homer Boushey makes the claim that children brought up with pets inherit some of their protective microbes that mitigate against developing allergies.

 

 

 

 

While certainly the science on exposing human children and adult humans to other forms of life soundly concludes that microorganism transfer is on the whole necessary for healthy (mind and body) development, owning life for the instrumental good of health is quite a quixotic mission. Destroying the planet and then importing charismatic genetically-altered (through breeding now, later through genetic engineering) cute critters that bypass our evolutionary instincts for fear by mirroring the oversized eyes of babies and other exaggerated features, is like getting silicon peck implants instead of actually doing manual labor to help society. It puts a natural symbiotic process into the realm of money–the financialization of nature. This devalues nature as such, and sees pets in terms of their use value for boosting infant immune systems. Such a logic is hopelessly backwards. Instead, we should be concentrating our energies on rewilding our cities, returning our suburbs to parks where humans can go, and letting our wild areas get a breather from human interference for at least a few generations. Then, living everyday with healthy dirt, animals and plants, we will receive the bounty of beneficial microbes we need to stay healthy and avoid sickness. Proper farming and permaculture principles, and creating new definitions of hygiene which are integrated with healthy ecosystems, achieves to a much greater degree the goods Dr. Boushey might wish to confer on our ailing feeble-minded culture, while also solving most of our other problems along with it.

Furthermore, it’s high time humans question ownership. Ownership of other bodies for our own benefit–bringing these bodies out to use and cuddle or parade, is just another misbegotten form of biopower. Where are those Foucaultians who apply biopower to pets? How do we think humans got the beneficial microbes we needed before there was even possible ownership of pets? Perhaps we need to rethink our antiseptic western civilization, our throwaway economy, and slavery of life to realize that continuous contact with the more-than-human word is the only way we will regenerate ourselves and nature.

Bioneers 2016

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This is the first time since I moved back to California last November that I’ve been able to engage a world-class group of scholars and change-makers gathered together with the sole purpose of harmonizing human systems with natural ones.

Last weekend at the 27th annual Bioneers Conference, I had the pleasure to converse with an array of people implementing the ideas of ecology and symbiotic biology so crucial to this current phase of our planetary development.

In moving out of linear, industrial factory-based models of the world and the self, the cyclical, spiral, redundant, diverse, resilient, and networked models of living organisms and ecosystems emerge as the tenable schemas best suited to life–human and otherwise.

Biological Pioneers are those who despite resistance from business-as-usual forge ahead to dream up, pilot, and implement technologies and policies that nudge our consciousness and practices towards a more equitable, sustainable, diverse, and fruitful organization.

In coordination with the Biomimicry Institute, the Conference brought researchers and activists from the frontlines of science and society to discuss inter-kingdom signaling, decoding of sea mammal communication via sonogram mapping and computer-aided filtering, growing the future of food with sea vegetables through zero-input seaweed farming, and developing methods to help all people reconnect with their indigenous roots and knowledge to bring forth sustainable and stewarding practices of land cultivation based on place, season, and community.

As this work has profound resonance with my own projects, I was delighted to share company with Paul Hawken, Janine Benyus, Joanna Macy, Starhawk,  Bill McKibben, James Nestor, Mark Plotkin, Bren Smith, and Vien Truong, not to mention the numerous activist artists and performers. There were many other talks and conversations I would have loved to engage in, were it not for the limitations of time.

As filmmaker René Scheltema identifies in Normal is Over, just as there are keystone species for an ecosystem, so too are their keystone individuals for movements; and in the movement towards regenerating harms from planetary anthropogenic disruptions, Bioneers is definitely a hub for bringing together the keystone individuals and groups working for an ecologically just and beautiful future.

One of the takeaway messages from Bioneers that warrants further reflection is the connection between the Beautiful, the True, and the Good–Socrates’ classic koan that repeatedly becomes the foundation for further dialogs about the metaphysical nature of the universe as well as the practical question of how ought we to live. That ecological aesthetics, a certain harmony between species, however carnivorous, dangerous, agonistic, and harsh that harmony might be, can be a guiding thread for understanding nature at a deeper level, remains with me. Bioaesthetics, or the beauty of life, the harmony of composition, is not something that permits judgment from anthropocentric–or, let’s be frank, culturally-specific and often manipulatively propagandized–aesthetic standards. Rather, bioaesthetics knits with complex systems theory as a pattern we can recognize to intuit ecological milieus inhabiting a state of resilience. The slack (buffer room), diversity, flexibility, and redundancy of complex resilient systems, proffers poigniant lessons for a planet in crisis (Gallopín 2002, 390). These patterns lead us organize and compost existing material into pathways that enable rather than undermine the development and evolution of complexity, synergy, and symbiosis.

 

 


Gallopín, G., 2002. Planning for Resiliance: Scenarions, Surprises, and Branch Points, in: Gunderson, L.H., Holling, C.S. (Eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press.

 

Agroecology Now

This is my response to Frances Moore Lappé’s recent essay Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now  on the Great Transitions Network’s website.

Yogi Hendlin, “Commentary on ‘Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now,'” Great Transition Initiative (April 2016),http://www.greattransition.org/commentary/yogi-hendlin-farming-small-planet-frances-moore-lappe.

Commentary on Farming for a Small Planet: Agroecology Now 

Lappé’s essay packs lucid argumentation citing exciting research. Perhaps most important, however, she elegantly frames the issues surrounding agroecology and its structural impediments as political negligence rather than inevitability.

Her convincing counterexamples melt deflationary perspectives of predetermined outcomes and the supremacy of industrial agribusiness’s overwhelming power, exposing the rich and varied minor histories and subaltern resistance of farmers and governments the world over (but especially in the Global South) simply following the engaged relational interface with the land traditional farming practices entail.

In essence, the 2013 report of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and many other such reports in the last several years agree on the necessity for a sort of devolution of farming practices.1 Decentralization means less monocropping, which, because of synergistic nutrient cycles, requires fewer nutrient inputs and more vitamin-rich soil (and hence more nutritious vegetables). Rather than increasing monopolization and chemical inputs, regionalism, agroecological and relational food practices contextualizing fulfillment of human needs with the fortification of a resilient local ecology, is quickly gaining foothold.

The one word conspicuous by its absence from Lappé’s essay that warrants appending is permaculture. In the tradition of restoration ecology, permaculture is the scientific study and practice of planting and land cultivation which meticulously composes agroecological settings so as to provide the maximum amount of food, biodiversity, and vegetal flourishing for the minimum amount of exogenous inputs.2 The contours of agroecology and permaculture overlap significantly, and each has much to add to the conceptualization and practices of the other. A major difference is that while agroecology tends to emphasize the human dimensions of ecologically astute agriculture, permaculture tends to focus on the nutrient systems of agroecology and the compositional science of these sorts of farming practices.

Insofar as the “feeding the world” question is concerned, Lappé is on point in her critique of industrial, chemically-driven agriculture that requires ever-increasing inputs. An exhaustive study comparing organic agricultural practices to conventional, chemical-driven ones found that in the North, going organic is just shy of comparable with conventional in terms of efficiency, while in Southern countries, agroecological practices produced greater quantities of food with the same work as conventional means.3 The net energy and resource savings of going agroecological&mash;not to mention the second-order benefits for birds, animals, insects, groundwater, and soil quality—give added impulse for agroecology as the only viable paradigm for farming practices. By historically contextualizing the rise of the poison, chemical, and fertilizer industries as a recent aberration of farming’s 10,000-year varied past, it makes much more sense to return to agroecological practices that support all links in the production process.


1. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security and Changing Climate (Geneva: UNCTAD, 2013).
2. Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual (Sisters Creek, Australia: Tigari Publications, 1988).
3. Catherine Badgley et al., “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply,” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22, no. 2 (2007): 86-108.