Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Ecosystem Myth

#AWOBMOLG #systemsthinking Adam Curtis outlined the thesis of his second programme in an Observer article yesterday How the 'ecosystem' myth has been used for sinister means (Observer 29 May 2011).

Curtis makes an association between ecology and empire, which was first mooted by the Norwegian historian of science Peder Anker in a book called Imperial Ecology (Harvard University Press 2001).

The story starts with the origin of the words "ecosystem" and "holistic", which were coined by Arthur Tansley and Jan Christiaan Smuts respectively. Tansley was a Fabian socialist, while Smuts was a Field Marshall during the First World War, and later became the Prime Minister of South Africa. These two men, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, are identified as co-founders of the idea of self-regulating systems.

But in 1935, Tansley wrote an academic paper called "The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms", attacking the presumption of an ecology as a self-regulating closed system possessing homeostasis. He alludes in the paper to the notion that the ideal society can be based on ecological theory, and suggests that Smuts and his followers are motivated not by science but by an attachment to a view of society involving "less exalted wholes". This may have been a coded reference to the racial doctrines that dominated the British Empire, and were later to be institutionalized as Apartheid (although Smuts's own position on apartheid was complicated, as his Wikipedia entry indicates).

Anker sees the rapid expansion of the science of ecology within the British Empire as evidence that ecology was "objectively" in the service of the imperial powers, thus lumping Smuts and Tansley together notwithstanding the strong disagreements between them. Curtis performs a similar rhetorical trick when he talks about the adoption by left-wing communes of an idea of self-regulating systems.
"Thousands of young Americans who were disenchanted with politics went off instead to set up their own experimental communities – the commune movement. And they turned to Arthur Tansley's idea of the ecosystem as a model for how to create a human system of order within the communes."
Tansley may have coined the word "ecosystem", but he explicitly repudiated the idea of using ecological thinking to design human society. So in what sense is it fair to describe this as Arthur Tansley's idea?
"Although Tansley and Smuts and their argument about power would be forgotten, hybrid combinations of their ideas were going to re-emerge later in the century."

As an extreme example of faith in self-organizing systems, Curtis cites an interview with Lucy Annson of UK Uncut, conducted by the BBC Newsnight journalist Emily Maitlis. Maitlis invited Annson to condemn the more extreme incidents that had occurred during the UK Uncut protest, and Annson was determined to evade any notion of collective responsibility.
Lucy Annson insisted again and again to Emily Maitlis that she was only a spokesperson for herself, and under the rules of the network no one could stand back and judge the system. Emily said: "You're not a completely peaceful organisation." Lucy came back with the killer line: "I don't think anyone can make an assessment of that, other than the people involved in the actions themselves."

Both Smuts and Tansley would have regarded Annson's statement as absurd, and certainly not supported by any reasonable notion of ecosystem or holism. Given that the purpose of the protest is largely defined in terms of its journalistic coverage, we can surely regard the protest and the coverage as a connected system, involving Maitlis as well as Annson. That's the same holistic sense of the word "involved" as when Donne says "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind".

Annson's denial of collective responsibility is also not a reflection of the actual behaviour of many communes, which as Curtis points out can sometimes be just as dysfunctional and oppressive as hierarchical organizations, if not worse. So although Curtis can mock the moral confusion displayed by Ms Annson, does this really illustrate a more general phenomenon?


I'll probably blog some more when I've watched the programme. For my review of the first programme, see All Chewed Over By Machines.

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