All That Is Solid Melts into Air

All That Is Solid Melts into Air

The last two columns (April and May) have discussed the need for ontological pluralism if we are to understand, and thus intelligently intervene in, complex adaptive systems (CASs). The closing observation was that we needed to develop the difficult ability to both remain centered in our own particular and defining personal and cultural contexts, including the supporting ontology, while at the same time being accepting of the value of other, perhaps mutually exclusive, ontologies. Alas, this is only the beginning.

Returning to the biodiversity example, we noted that it is a very challenging leap to go from the virtually unquestioned assumption that "biodiversity is in crisis," to the question of whether we are in fact simply in a transition from life as structured by evolutionary processes, to life as structured by human design. Thus, some would argue, what is in crisis is not "biodiversity," but the constructed worldview we have all been taught, and have accepted uncritically (this is not pejorative; given the complexity of the world, it makes sense for sentient beings to accept prevailing mental models and ontological assumptions, perceiving and changing only that which must be changed to adapt). Most people would nonetheless regard such a shift in the meaning of biodiversity as “bad.” To look at such alternatives is not, however, to argue that they are “good,” but rather to investigate what can be learned from the scenario.

One thing jumps out immediately. The argument that “biodiversity is in crisis” in turn relies on a series of measurements, data and extrapolations which assume that a certain structure is definitional of “biodiversity,” one defined in terms of the Linnaean taxonomic structure based on phyla, genera, species, and the like. But if biodiversity is increasingly a product of human design it obsoletes that structure, in that the species boundary is an irrelevant way to measure designed life. Rather, one must choose another metric -- such as, for example, the overall information content of life systems (how that would be measured is unclear). In other words, the biodiversity argument is not just about species extinction rates, but rather about a fundamental change in the way life itself is conceptualized. Is life in some meaningful sense information systems reified in wetware rather than silicon? When a wireless electrode is inserted in the brain so that a completely paralyzed person can think their thoughts onto a computer screen, where does “life” begin and end? The boundaries that have defined biology since the Enlightenment are not only contingent, but increasingly shaky.

More precisely, the cultural constructs that have structured our current mental models of biology have shifted. This is not surprising, for cultural constructs are historically contingent and continually evolve. But, with the rapidly accelerating pace of technological, economic and social change, they are evolving more rapidly, with significant implications for environmentalism.

For environmentalism, like any discourse, has language that embeds contingent perspectives in powerful cultural constructs. Thus, the older image of a patch of permanently wet land as a pestilent “swamp” has been replaced by the construct of a productive, green and highly valued “wetland;” and the dangerous and alien “jungle” has become instead the Edenic “rain forest” of today. 200 years ago when Europeans reached the New World they saw a Satanic and fallen “wilderness” in front of them, and their mission from God was to tame it. Now, of course, “wilderness” is not only a good thing, but for many it is Sacred, the last residence of the Holy.

Reliance on cultural constructs is both useful and necessary. But their rate of change appears to be accelerating, with interesting implications. A shorter cycle time means that the changes in cultural constructs now overlap with the extension of environmental policy initiatives, such as those responding to global climate change and biodiversity issues. But while short term policy initiatives can assume that for practical purposes cultural constructs are fixed in meaning, longer term initiatives cannot: values and underlying cultural constructs are contingent, not fixed, over the relevant time periods. This means that managing interactions with such integrated human/natural earth systems responsibly requires not just dialoging with the systems, but with the foundational values that one is using to guide the relationship with the system, for both are in fundamental flux. This can perhaps be done, but the failure to realize the underlying contingency of value systems and ontologies has meant that in most cases the existence of the challenge is scarcely recognized.

Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.